"Pretty well," said George; "but I have been with Ashton, Dixon, and Hardy since."
"Then you have not had supper?"
"Yes, we had supper with Ashton." George got red as he said this. It was the first time he ever remembered wilfully deceiving his mother.
"Oh! that has made you late, then," said Mrs. Weston. "I am afraid Ashton has so many attractions in those apartments of his—what with friends, books, and curiosities—that you find it difficult to break up your social gatherings."
"It is too bad of me to leave you so often, my dear mother; but I don't mean to go to Ashton's again for some time, unless he comes to see us; and so I shall return straight home from the institution for a long while."
When George retired to his room, he felt so distracted with all that had taken place, that his old custom of reading a chapter from God's Word, and kneeling down to pray before getting into bed, was abandoned for that night. He tried to sleep, but could not. The strains of music were yet ringing in his ears, and the dazzling light was still flashing before his eyes. Then the plays came again before him; and he followed the plots throughout, smiling again over some of the jokes, and feeling depressed at the sad parts. Then he thought of Williams and Lawson, and reproached himself for having acted that evening very, very foolishly. Alas! this was not the right term; it was more than foolishness to tamper with the voice of conscience, to violate principles which had been inculcated from childhood, to plot wilful deceit, and act a lie. Instead of saying he had acted foolishly, he should have said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight Have mercy upon me, O God! Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquities, and cleanse me from my sin; for against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil." But George only said, "I am so very vexed I went with Ashton to-night; it was very foolish!—very foolish!"
"You look seedy this morning, Mr. Weston," said Williams, as George entered the office on the following day. "The effect of last night's dissipation, I suppose. How did you like the play?"
"Not at all," answered George, mortified and angry at having the question put to him before all the clerks, who were now informed of the fact of his having been there.
"No; I suppose one Abinadab Sleek does not like to hear another one of the same gang spoken ill of, eh?"
"I do not understand you," said George.
"Then, to put it plainer, you and Hardy, who are of the 'Serious Family' style, don't like to see yourselves taken off quite so true to life as you were last night at the Adelphi. You saw that old canting Abinadab Sleek was up to every dodge and vice, although he did seem such a sanctified individual in public; and our young Solomons, who condemn wicked theatres and disgusting taverns, can go to both on the sly, and be as sanctimonious as ever Abinadab was in office."
George felt his hands clench, and his eyes flash fire. He could bear taunts from Williams, when he had right on his side, and felt the consciousness of innocence; but he could not bear it now.
"You lie," said George passionately, "in drawing that comparison."
"And you lie continually," said Williams, "in acting a perpetual edition of that part of the 'Serious Family' represented by Abinadab Sleek."
"Fight it out I fight it out!" said Lawson. "The Governor won't be here for half an hour; bolt the door and have it out."
"Nothing of the kind," said Hardy, stepping forward. "Williams is the aggressor in this instance; it is nothing to him if Weston and I went to the theatre every night in our lives; he has no right to interfere; if he fights it must be with Weston and me, for he insults me as much as my friend."
"Then come on," said Williams, taking off his coat, "and I'll take you both: one man is worth two canting hypocrites, any day."
But no one had bolted the door, and, to the surprise of all, Mr. Compton stood before them.
"What is this?" he said; "young men in my office talking of fighting, as if it were the tap-room of a public house? George Weston! I did not think this of you."
"Do not judge hastily, sir," said Hardy. "My friend Weston has been grossly insulted by Mr. Williams, and the little disturbance has only been got up through jealousy, to get him into trouble."
"Step into my room a moment, Mr. Hardy," said Mr. Compton; "and you, too, Weston and Williams."
George was flushed with excitement; but his proud, manly bearing, in contrast to the crest-fallen Williams, won for him the admiration of the whole staff of clerks.
Mr. Compton patiently heard from Hardy a recital of the causes leading to the fray, and was made acquainted with the course of opposition George had to contend with, from Williams and Lawson, ever since he had been in the office.
"I regret this circumstance," said Mr. Compton, "for several reasons. I have always held you, Weston, in the highest estimation, nor do I see sufficient cause, from this event, to alter my estimate; but I have always found my best clerks those who have been in the habit of spending their evenings elsewhere than in theatres and taverns. I am not surprised at the part you have taken, Mr. Williams; and it now rests with you, whether you remain in this office or leave. I will not have the junior clerks in this establishment held in subjection to those who have been with me a few years longer; nor will I have a system of insult and opposition continued, which must eventually lead to unpleasant results. If I hear any more of this matter, or find that you persist in your unwarranted insults on Mr. Weston, I shall at once dismiss you from my service. You did well, Mr. Hardy, in interfering to prevent a disgraceful fight; and, much as I dislike tale-bearing, I request you to inform me, for the future, of any unpleasantness arising to Mr. Weston from this affair."
Williams was terribly crest-fallen, and the tide of office opinion turned from him in favour of George and Hardy, who, without crowing over the victory they had gained, yet showed a manly determination not to allow an insult which reflected upon their characters.
"I tell you what it is," whispered Lawson to Williams; "Old Compton takes a fancy to those two sneaking fellows, and, after this affair, the office will get too hot for us if we do not draw it milder to them. If I were you, I should waylay them outside the office and say something civil, by way of soft soap, so as to nip this matter off, for you've got the worst of it so far."
Williams determined to accept the hint Lawson had given him, and when the office closed, remained in the court until George came out.
"Mr. Weston," he said, stretching out his hand, which George felt would be mean-spirited not to take, "that was an unpleasant affair this morning, but I didn't think you would fire up as you did; and when I let fly at you, it was only in joke."
"I must deny that it was a joke," George replied; "it was an intended insult. Probably you might not have thought it would have produced indignation in me, because you, evidently, do not understand my feelings in the matter. However, let the thing drop now. I will not retract what I said to you this morning, that you lied in forming that estimate of my character, nor do I ask you to retract your words, unless your conscience tells you that you wronged me."
"What I said was hasty, and I don't mind eating all my words," said Williams; "so, as the song says, 'Come, let us be happy together.' Will you come into the King's Head, and take a glass of wine on the strength of it?"
"No, thank you," said George; "but as it is no wish of mine to live at loggerheads with any one, here is my hand upon it."
And then they shook hands, and so the matter ended. But it ended only so far as Williams was concerned. A day or two afterwards Mr. Brunton was passing the office, and he called in to say "How d'ye do?" to Mr. Compton. In the course of conversation he asked how George was getting on, and whether he continued to give satisfaction.
"Yes," said Mr. Compton, "I have no fault to find with him; on the contrary, he is the best junior clerk I ever had, and I trust him with matters I never placed in the hands of a junior clerk before. But there was an unfortunate occurrence the other day, which I think it right to mention to you confidentially." And then Mr. Brunton heard the whole history of the theatre adventure, and its consequences in the office on the following morning. He was grieved, deeply grieved. At first he could not credit the account; but when he heard that George had himself confessed to the truth of the circumstances before Mr. Compton, and there was no longer room to doubt, a tear stood in his eye as he thought of his nephew—that noble, manly boy, whom he loved with all the affection of a father—stooping to temptation, and acting the part of a deceiver; for Mr. Brunton had spent an evening with Mrs. Weston and George, and had heard nothing of his having been to a theatre, nor did he believe Mrs. Weston was aware of it.
"What I have told you is strictly confidential," said Mr. Compton; "but as you are, as it were, the father of George Weston, I thought it only right that you should know this, in order that you may warn him, if he has got into the hands of bad companions."
George was absent from the office during the interview, and did not know until some days afterwards of his uncle's visit.
Mr. Brunton went from Falcon-court a sadder man. He was perplexed and harassed; he could not conscientiously tell Mrs. Weston, as he had received the information in confidence; he could not speak directly to George upon the subject, because he would at once have known that Mr. Compton must have given the statement to his uncle. He was obliged, therefore, to remain passive in the matter for a day or two, and resolved to spend an evening that week at Islington.
In the meantime the affair became known to Mrs. Weston, and in rather a curious manner. George had worn his best coat on the evening he went to the theatre; and one day as Mrs. Weston, according to custom, was brushing it, before putting it away in his drawers, she turned out the pockets, and, amongst other things, drew forth a well-used play-bill.
"George has never been to the theatre, surely?" she asked herself. "Impossible! he would have told me had he done so, for he is far too high-principled to deceive me."
But the sight of that play-bill worried Mrs. Weston. She thought over it all day, and longed for the evening to come, when she might ask George about it.
That evening Mr. Brunton had determined to spend at Islington; and as he was passing Falcon-court, he called for George on his way, and they walked home together.
The play-bill happened to be on the table when they entered, and it caught the eye of both George and Mr. Brunton at once.
"Where did you get that from?" asked George, colouring, not with the honest flush of self-respect, but with the burning sense of deceit detected.
"I found it in your pocket, George; and as I have never found one there before, I thought I would leave it out, to ask you how you came by it."
"I came by it the other night, when I went to the theatre," said George; for he could not tell a direct falsehood. "I did not tell you of it at the time, but led you to suppose that I had been at the institution."
Mrs. Weston was indeed sorry to hear George's account of what had passed; but Mr. Brunton felt all his old confidence in George restored by the open, genuine statement he made.
"George," said Mr. Brunton, "I know you are old enough to manage your affairs for yourself, without an uncle's interference, but do take from me one word of caution. I fear you may be led unwittingly into error by your associates. Do be on your guard—'if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.' If you feel it right, and can conscientiously go with them and adopt their habits, I have no right, nor should I wish to advise you; but if you feel that you are wrong in what you do, listen to the voice of your better self, and pause to consider. Do not turn a deaf ear to its entreaties, but be admonished by its counsel, and rather sacrifice friends and pleasure than that best of all enjoyments—the satisfaction of acting a part of duty to God and yourself."
George did not argue the point with his uncle; he felt himself in the wrong, but could not see his way clear to get right again.
"I have made so many resolves in my short life," he said, "and have broken them so often, that I will not pledge myself to making fresh ones My error, in this instance, has not been the fault of my companionships, but entirely my own; and, as far as I can see, the chief blame lies in having concealed the matter from my mother, which I did principally out of kindness to her. But I will endeavour to take your counsel, uncle."
Weeks passed away, and with them the vivid memories of that time. George had at length reasoned himself into the idea that a great deal of unnecessary fuss had been made about nothing, and instead of weaning himself from the society of Ashton, they became more than ever thrown into each other's company. George was a constant attendant at the institution, where he was surrounded by a large circle of intimate acquaintances, with whom much of his time was spent. In the office he had risen in the estimation of the clerks. Williams and Lawson, finding that opposition was unavailing, altered their conduct towards him, and became as civil and obliging as they had before been insulting and disagreeable. George began to think he had belied their characters from not having known sufficient of them; and instead of shunning them, as he had hitherto done, sometimes took a stroll with them in the evening after office hours, and once or twice had dined with them at the King's Head.
Imperceptibly, George began to alter. Sooner or later, evil communications must corrupt good manners; and from continually beholding the lives of his companions, without possessing that one thing needful to have kept him free from the entanglement of their devices, he became changed into the same image, by the dangerous power of their influence and example.
A month or two after the theatre adventure, Mrs. Weston received an invitation to spend a week or two in the country with some relatives, whom she had not seen for several years. Mr. Brunton persuaded her to accept it, as the change would be beneficial; and George, knowing how seldom his mother had an opportunity for recreation, added all his powers of argument to induce her to go. The only obstacle presenting itself was the management of the house during her absence. Mr. Brunton invited George to stay with him while Mrs. Weston would be away; and she did not like to leave her servant alone in the house with the boarders. It was at last arranged that George should decline Mr. Brunton's invitation, and have the oversight of the house during his mother's absence.
The first night after her departure, George brought Hardy home with him to spend the evening, and a pleasant, quiet time they had together.
"It will be rather dull for you, George," said Hardy, "if Mrs. Weston is going to remain away for a few weeks. What shall you do on Sunday? You had better come and spend the day with us."
"No, I cannot do that, because I promised I would be here, to let the servant have an opportunity of going to church. But I mean to ask Ashton to come and spend the day here, and you will come too; and there's Dixon, he is a nice fellow, I'll ask him to come as well."
"What is to be the programme for the day?" said Hardy. "Of course it will be a quiet one."
"We will all go to church or chapel in the morning, spend the afternoon together at home, and take a stroll in the evening after the service. Are you agreed?"
"I think we shall have a very nice day of it. Let the other chaps know of it early, and we will meet here in good time in the morning."
Sunday came, and George's friends arrived as he expected. They were early, and had time for a chat before starting out.
"Where shall we go this morning?" asked George. "There is a very good minister close by at the church, and another equally good at the chapel. My principles are unsectarian, and I do not mind where it is we go."
"Don't you think," said Dixon, "we might do ourselves more good by taking a stroll a few miles out of town, and talking out a sermon for ourselves?"
"I am inclined to the belief that nature is the best preacher," Ashton remarked. "We hear good sermons from the pulpit, it is true; but words are poor things to teach us of the Creator, in comparison with creation."
"I do not agree with you in your religious sentiments, Ashton, as you know," said George. "Creation tells us nothing about our Saviour, and, as I read the Scriptures, no man can know God, the Father and Great Creator, but through Him."
"And yet, if I remember rightly, the Saviour said that He made the world, and without Him was not anything made that was made—so that He was the Creator; and when we look from nature up to nature's God we see Him, and connecting His history with the world around us, we have in creation, as I said before, the best sermon; aye, and what the parsons call a 'gospel' sermon, too."
"I agree with you," said Dixon; "preaching is all very well in its way, and I like a good sermon; but the words of man can never excel the works of God."
"A proper sermon," replied George, "is not uttered in the words of man; they are God's words applied and expounded. Nature may speak to the senses, but the Scriptures alone speak to the heart; and that is the object of preaching. But you are my visitors, and you shall decide the point."
"Then I say a stroll," said Ashton.
"And so do I," chimed in Dixon.
"I am for going to a place of worship," said Hardy.
"And so am I," Ashton replied; "is not all God's universe a place of worship?"
"Perhaps so," answered Hardy; "but I mean the appointed and proper place, where those who try to keep holy the Sabbath day are accustomed to meet—a church or chapel."
"I side with Hardy," said George. "But I am willing to meet you halfway. If I go with you this morning, you must all promise to go with me in the evening. But bear in mind I am making a concession, and I go for a stroll under protest, because it is contrary to my custom."
"All right, old chap," said Ashton. "I never knew anybody's conscience fit them so uneasily as yours does. But it always did; at school, you were a martyr to it, and I believe the blame lies at the door of dear old Dr. Seaward, who persisted in training us up in the way we should go, just as if we were all designed to be parsons."
"Poor old Dr. Seaward!" said George. "If he only knew two of his old scholars were going out for a stroll on Sunday morning to hear nature preach, I believe his body would hardly contain his troubled spirit."
"And he would appear before us to stop us on our way—"
"Like the spirit before Balaam and his ass, seems the most appropriate simile," said Dixon, "for, if I recollect rightly, Balaam was going where he should not have gone, and his conscience gave him as much trouble as Weston's does."
George did not think and say, as Balaam did, "I have sinned;" but he felt the sting of ridicule, and determined he would allow no conscientious scruple to bring it upon him again during that day.
"After all," he argued with himself, "what is the use of my being conscientious, for I am so wretchedly inconsistent? I had better go all one way, or all the other, instead of wavering between the two, and perpetually showing my weakness."
It would have puzzled any one to have told what sermon nature preached to that merry party, as they wandered through green fields and quiet lanes, talking upon a hundred different subjects, and making the calm Sabbath morn ring with the strains of their laughter.
"Your idea of creation's voice is better in theory than in practice," George said, when they returned home. "Can any of you tell me what the text was which nature took to preach from, for I have no distinct remembrance of it?"
"The text seemed to me to be this," said Dixon, "that 'to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens—a time to weep and a time to laugh—a time to keep silence and a time to speak;' and the application was, that we had chosen the right time for enjoying much speaking and much laughing."
The afternoon was not spent as George had been accustomed to spend it. Light, frivolous conversation, and still more dangerous debate upon religious subjects, without religious feeling, occupied the time, and George felt glad when the evening came, and they started off together to hear a popular preacher, whose merits they had been discussing during the afternoon.
On their way thither they passed a large building, into which several people were entering, and as the outside of the place was ornamented with handbills, they paused to read them. They ran thus:—
"HALL OF SCIENCE.—A Lecture will be delivered in this Hall on Sunday evening, at half past six, by Professor Martin, on 'The Uses of Reason.' Young men are cordially invited to attend.
"What is truth? Search and see."
"Do you know anything of this Professor Martin?" asked Dixon. "Is he worth hearing?"
"A friend of mine told me he had heard him, a little while ago, and was never better pleased with any lecture," Ashton answered. "Shall we put up here for the evening?"
"Is he a preacher, or a mere lecturer?" asked George. The question attracted the attention of a person entering the Hall; and, turning to George, he answered:—
"Professor Martin is one of those best of all preachers. He can interest without sending you to sleep, and his discourses are full of sound wisdom. He is a lover of truth, and advocates the only way to arrive at it, which is by unfettered thought. In his lectures he puts his theory into practice by freely expressing his unfettered thoughts. I have seats in the front of the lecture-room; if you will favour me by accepting them, they are at your service."
The plausible and polite manner of the stranger was effectual with George.
"I don't think we can do better than go in and hear what the lecturer has to say," he said to the others. And, assent being given, they followed the stranger, and were conducted to the proffered seats.
The audience consisted principally of men, the majority of whom were young and of an inferior class, such as shopmen and mechanics. There was a large platform, with chairs upon it, but no pulpit or reading-desk. When the lecturer, accompanied by a chairman and some friends, entered, George and his companions were surprised to hear a clapping of hands and stamping of feet, similar to the plan adopted at public amusements.
"This does not seem much like a Sunday evening service," said George. "We have time to leave, if you like; or shall we stay and see it out?"
"Oh! let us stay," replied the others.
No hymn was sung, no prayer was offered at the commencement, but the lecturer, with a pocket Bible in his hands, quoted a few passages of Scripture, as follows:—
"Come now, and let us reason together,"—Isa. i. 18; "I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and to know the reason of things,"—Eccles. vii. 25; "And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures,"—Acts xvii. 2; "Be ready alway to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you,"—1 Peter iii. 15.
The object of the lecturer was to show that no intelligent being could receive truth unless that truth commended itself to reason, because the two were never in opposition one with the other. Conscience, he said, was the soul's safeguard, and reason the safeguard of the heart and intellect. It was irrational to condemn any course of conduct which conscience approved, and it was equally irrational to believe anything that could not be understood. The Word of God might be useful in its way, but only as studied with unfettered thought. If that Word exalted reason and then taught inconsistencies and absurdities, reason must discriminate between the right and the wrong. "For example," he continued, "if that book tells me that there are three Gods, and yet those three are one, I reason by analogy and say, here are three fingers; each one has its particular office; but I cannot make these three fingers one finger, neither can I make three Gods one God."
So the lecturer continued, but he did not put his case in so many plain words as these; every argument he clothed with doubtful words, so as to make falsehood look like truth, and blasphemy like worship. He was an educated and intelligent man, gifted with that dangerous power of preaching the doctrine of devils in the guise of an angel of light, and handling deadly sophistry with as firm a grasp as if it were the sword of the Spirit.
At the conclusion of the lecture he announced his intention to speak from that platform again on the following Sunday, and invited all who were inquiring the way of truth to be present, and judge what he said, "whether it be right, or whether it be wrong."
As George and his friends were leaving the hall, the stranger, who had accosted them before, came up, and bowing politely said—
"Will you allow me to offer you the same seats, for next Sunday evening? If you will say yes, I will reserve them for you; otherwise you may have difficulty in obtaining admission, for the room will, in all probability, be more crowded than to-night, as Professor Martin was not announced to lecture until late in the week, and the friends who frequent the Hall had no notice of his being here."
"I will certainly come," said Ashton. "I never heard a speaker I liked better. What say you?" he asked, turning to the others.
"I am anxious to hear the conclusion of the argument," said George; "so we will accept your invitation," he added to the stranger, "and thank you for your kindness and courtesy."
It was a long conversation the friends had as they strolled along that evening. To George every argument the lecturer had brought forward was new; and bearing, as they did, the apparent stamp of truth, he was utterly confounded. Although he was a good biblical scholar, as regarded the historical and narrative parts of the Scriptures, he was but ill informed on those more subtle points which the lecturer handled. He had never heard the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, disputed, and had always implicitly believed it; now, when the lecturer quoted Scripture to prove that truth was to be analysed by reason, and reason rejected the idea of a Trinity, he was as unable to reconcile the two as if he had never received any religious instruction at all.
"If what he advances be true," said George, "how irrational many things in the Christian religion are! And how singular that men like him, who 'search into the reason of things' for wisdom, and hold opinions contrary to the orthodox notions of those whom we call Christians, should be looked upon with suspicion and distrust."
"No," replied Ashton; "he met that idea by saying that it was not more than singular, in the early stages of science, for people to be burnt as witches and magicians, because they made discoveries which are now developed and brought into daily use, than it is now for men to be scouted as infidel and profane, because they teach opinions which only require investigation to make them universally admitted."
An unhappy day was that Sunday for George Weston. He had violated principle, made concessions against the dictates of conscience (how poor a safeguard for him!) and had learnt lessons which taught him to despise those instructions which had hitherto been as a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path.
"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful." George little thought how rapidly he was passing through those different stages on the downward road. Had he never listened to the council of the ungodly, he would not have walked in the way of evil, but would have avoided even its very appearance; he would not have stood in the way of sinners, parleying with temptations, as he had done on so many occasions; nor would he have occupied that most dangerous of all positions, the fatal ease of sitting in the seat of the scornful.
GETTING ON IN THE WORLD.
"Mr. Compton wishes to speak with you, Weston," said Mr. Sanders, the manager, to George one morning, during the visit of Mrs. Weston in the country.
"Good morning, Weston," said Mr. Compton; "I want to have a few minutes' conversation with you: sit down. You have been in my office now more than a twelvemonth, and I promised that you should have an increased salary at the expiration of that time. Your services have been very valuable to me during the past year, and I am in every way satisfied with you. As a tangible proof of this, I beg your acceptance of this little present," (handing him a ten-pound note,) "and during this year on which you have entered, I shall have much pleasure in giving you a salary of two guineas a week."
"I am exceedingly obliged to you sir," George stammered out, for he was flabbergasted at the kindness of his employer; "I hope I may always continue to do my duty in your office, and deserve your approbation."
"I hope so, too;" said Mr. Compton, "both for your sake and for my own. If you continue as you have begun, there is a fair field before you, and I will advance you as opportunity occurs. Now, apart from business, I want one word with you. I kept you purposely last year upon a low salary, because I have found that sometimes it is beneficial to young men to have only a small income. With your increased salary, you will have increased means for entering that style of life which is, unfortunately, too universal with young men—I mean the gaieties and dissipations of a London life are now more open to you than they were before. But what is termed a 'fast' young man never makes a good clerk, and I do hope you will not allow yourself to fail into habits which will be obstacles to your future promotion."
"I will endeavour, sir, always to maintain my position in your office," said George; "and I feel very grateful to you for the interest you take in my personal welfare."
George was in high spirits with his good fortune. He had not expected more than a guinea, or at the utmost thirty shillings a week increase for his second year, and had never dreamt of receiving so handsome a present as L10. By that night's post he sent off a long letter to his mother, giving her an account of the interview, and of his future prospects.
But George had different ideas about his future now, to those he cherished a twelvemonth back. Then he thought only of himself and his mother; how happy they would be together, and how much he would endeavour to contribute to her enjoyment. Now he congratulated himself that he would be upon a footing with his friends, that he could do as they did, and that he had the means to follow up those recreations which were becoming habitual to him. For since Mrs. Weston had been away, George had gone step by step further on unhallowed ground. Even Ashton said, "Weston, you are coming it pretty strong, old fellow!" and Hardy had declared that he could not keep pace with him. Night after night, as he had no one at home to claim his presence there, he had been to theatres and other places of amusement. Sunday after Sunday he had attended the lectures at the Hall of Science, and abandoning himself to the tide which was hurrying him along, he floated down the dangerous stream.
The principles of infidelity which had been inculcated, appealed to him with a voice so loud as to drown the appeals from a higher source. The one approved his conduct, the other condemned it—the one pointed to the world as a scene of enjoyment, the other as at enmity with God. George felt that if he would hold one he must resign the other. He had not that moral courage, or rather he had not the deep-rooted conviction of sin, or the earnest love and fear of God, to enable him to burst through the entanglements of the world and the world's god, and choosing whom he would serve: he loved darkness rather than light.
When Mrs. Weston returned, after a month's absence, she could not but observe an alteration in George. Although he never told her of his attendance at the lectures on Sunday, or the arguments he had had with friends who held infidel opinions, she soon perceived that George's feelings were undergoing a rapid and dangerous change. Those subjects on which he was once in the habit of conversing with her, he now carefully shunned. He was affectionate and kind to his mother still, and loved her with all his old intense love, but that ingenuous confidence which he had always reposed in her was gone. Things that were dear to him now he could not discuss with her; instead of telling her how he spent his time, and what were his amusements, he avoided any mention of them. The deception which he first practised on that night when he yielded to Ashton's persuasion, was now a system. He reasoned the matter over with himself: there could be no good in telling her; their opinions were different; he would take his course, independently of hers.
Uncle Brunton noticed the change; for to those who saw him seldom the change was sudden. But to George, every day there seemed an epoch, and he was unconscious of the rapidity with which old associations and ideas cherished from childhood were thrown down and trampled upon by the new feelings which had taken possession of him.
"George," said Mr. Brunton to him one day, "I am growing uneasy about you. I feel that I am not the same to you, nor you to me, we used to be, only a few months back. I cannot tell the reason—cannot tell when the difference commenced or how—but for some months past—ever since your mother's visit to the country—there has been a want of that old confidential, affectionate intercourse between us there used to be."
"I was younger then," said George, "and the freshness of youthful feeling and attachment may die away as we advance in years; but I am not aware that I have ever given you occasion to say I do not love you sincerely still, uncle. Your kindness to me never can, and never will be forgotten."
"Well, George, I cannot explain what I mean. I have a kind of feeling about you that something is wrong which I cannot put into words. I fancy that if I offer you a word of counsel, you do not receive it as you once did; if I talk seriously with you, it does not make the same impression, or touch the spring of the same feelings. You do not talk to me with the old frankness and candour which made my heart leap, when I thanked God I had got some one in the world to love, and who loved me. But perhaps I wrong you, and expect too much from you."
"No, not that, uncle. Frankness, candour, and love are due to you, and while I have them they shall always be yours; and to prove it, I will tell what I have never told any one before, what I have hardly spoken to my own heart. I think of the George Weston you brought away from Dr. Seaward's, who stood with you beside a father's deathbed, and who, eighteen months ago, went into Mr. Compton's office; then I think of George Weston of to-day, and I feel amazed at the change a few years has made. I have asked myself a hundred times, am I really the same? Oh, uncle! you do not know what I would give to be that boy again—to live once more in that old world of sunshine."
Tears started to George's eyes as he spoke, and Mr. Brunton could only squeeze his hand, and say, "God bless you, my boy! God bless you!"
A few days later Mr. Brunton and Mrs. Weston were one whole evening together talking about George. Both hearts were heavy, but Mr. Brunton's was the lighter of the two.
"I tell you what I think will be the very best thing for you and for George," he said, "It is now the early spring, and the country is beginning to look fresh and green. Leave this house and take one in the country. I think George can easily be made to accede to this proposition—he was always fond of country life and recreations. He can have a season ticket on the railway, and come down every night. This will wean him from his associates, and induce him to keep earlier hours, and give us, too, a better opportunity to lure him back to his old habits of life."
The arrangements were made. Mrs. Weston, with that loving self-denial which only a mother can exercise, gave up the house, and her circle of friends, and took up her residence in the country, about twenty miles from London. George was pleased with the change, and acquiesced in all the plans which were made.
About this time, an event happened of considerable importance in the family history. An old relative of Mrs. Weston's, from whom she had monetary expectations, died; and upon examination of the will, it was found that a legacy had been left her of about three thousand pounds, which was safely invested, and would bring to her an income of nearly a hundred and fifty pounds a year.
This was a cause of fear and rejoicing to Mrs. Weston—fear, lest it should be a snare to George, as he would now have the whole of his salary at his own disposal, there being no longer any necessity for her to share it; rejoicing, that she should be able to give him that start in life which had always been the desire and ambition of Mr. Weston.
A few months' trial of Mr. Brunton's plan for weaning George from the allurements of society in London, by taking a house in the country, proved it to be a failure. For the first month, George went down almost immediately after leaving business, but it was only for the first month. Gradually it became later and later, until the last train was generally the one by which he travelled. Then it sometimes occurred that he lost the last train, and was obliged to stay at an hotel in town for the night. At length, this occurred so frequently, that sometimes for three nights out of the week he never went home at all. On one of these occasions, a party of gentlemen in the commercial room of the hotel where he was staying proposed a game of cards, and asked George to make one at a rubber of whist. George had often played with his own friends, but never before with total strangers. However, without any hesitation, he accepted the invitation, and yielded to the proposition that they should play sixpenny points. The game proceeded, rubber after rubber was lost and won, and when George rose from the card-table at a late hour he was loser to the amount of thirty shillings.
"There is no playing against good cards," said George; "and the run of luck has been in your favour to-night; but I will challenge you to another game to-morrow evening, if you will be here?"
The next night George played again, and won back a pound of the money he had lost on the preceding evening. This was encouraging. "One more trial," said George to himself, "and nobody will catch me card-playing for money again with strangers." But that one more trial was the worst of all. George lost three pounds! He could ill afford it; as it was he was living at the very extent of his income, and three pounds was a large sum. He was obliged to give an I O U for the amount, and in the meantime borrow the sum from one of his friends.
"Hardy, have you got three pounds to lend me?" he asked, next morning; "you shall have it again to-morrow."
"I have not got that sum with me," said Hardy, "but I can get it for you. Is it pressing?"
"Yes; I had a hand at cards last night, and lost."
"What! with Ashton?"
"No; with some strangers at the hotel where I have hung out for the last night or two."
"You shall have that sum early this evening, George; and twice that amount, if you will make me one promise. I ask it as an old friend, who has a right to beg a favour. Give up card-playing, don't try to win back what you have lost; no good can possibly come of it"
"Is Saul among the prophets?" asked George, with something like a sneer.
"No, George Weston: but a looker-on at chess sees more of the game than the player; and I have been looking at your last few moves in the game of life, without taking part with you, and I see you will be checkmated soon, if you do not alter your tactics. I can't blame you, nor do I wish to, if I could; but when I first heard you had taken to card playing, I did feel myself among the prophets then, and prophesied no good would come of it."
"When you first heard of my card playing?" asked George. "When did you hear of it?"
"A few days since. My father came up from the country by a late train one night, and stayed at the hotel you patronize. There he saw you, and told me about it."
"Confound it! a fellow can't do a thing, even in this great city, without somebody ferretting it out. But I don't mean to play again. I have made a fool of myself too many times already; and it serves me right that I have lost money."
That evening, while George was making his way to the hotel, a lady was journeying towards the railway station. An hour later, she was at the house of Mrs. Weston, and was shown into the drawing-room.
"I must apologise," said Mrs. Hardy, for it was she, "in calling upon you at this hour: but I am very anxious to have some conversation with you."
"It is strange," said Mrs. Weston, "that as our sons have been intimate so long, we should have continued strangers; but I am very delighted to see you, Mrs. Hardy, for I have heard much of you."
"It is with regard to the intercourse between your son and mine that I have called. I do not wish to alarm you; but I feel it right that you should be in possession of information I have of your son."
Mrs. Hardy then narrated the circumstances connected with her husband's visit to the hotel on the evening when he found George there card playing.
"This evening," she continued, "my son returned home earlier than usual, and went to his drawer, where I saw him take out some money—two or three sovereigns. I asked him what he was going to do with it, and after some difficulty I ascertained he intended lending it to your son. It occurred to me at once that George Weston was in trouble with those men; and I thought it only right that you should know."
It was kind of Mrs. Hardy to shew this interest, and Mrs. Weston esteemed her for it. But had they stood beside the table at which George was seated while they were talking, or could they have seen the flush of excitement as he threw down the cards, exclaiming, "By Jove! I've lost again!" and have watched the flashing eye and heaving breast, they would have felt, even more keenly than they did, how futile were words or sympathies to check the evil.
A TEST OF FRIENDSHIP.
We pass over two years of George Weston's life—years full of strange experiences—and look into the office in Falcon-court one morning in the summer of 18—.
Mr. Compton is away on the Continent for a holiday tour, Mr. Sanders is still the manager, and nearly all the same old faces are in the office. George, who is now verging on the legal age of manhood, has risen to a good position in the establishment, and is regarded as second only to Mr. Sanders. He is wonderfully altered from when we saw him first in that office. He is still handsome; but the old sparkling lustre of his eye has gone, and no trace of boyishness is left.
Hardy is still there. Two years have not made so much difference in him as George. He looks older than he really is; but there is no mistaking him for the quiet, gentlemanly Charles Hardy of former days. Lawson and Williams are there, coarse and bloated young men, whose faces tell the history of their lives. Hardy rarely exchanges a word with them. George does more frequently, but not with the air of superiority he once did.
A close observer would have noticed in George that morning a careworn anxious look; would have heard an occasional sigh, and have seen him at one time turning pale, and again flushing with a crimson red.
"You are not well," said Hardy. "You have not done a stroke of work all this morning; quite an unusual thing for you, George."
"I am not well," he replied; "but it is nothing of importance. I shall get Mr. Sanders to let me off for an hour's stroll when he comes in from the Bank."
Mr. Sanders came in from the Bank, but he was later than usual. His round generally occupied an hour; this morning he had been gone between two and three. George watched him anxiously as he took off his hat, rubbed his nose violently with his pocket handkerchief, and stood gazing into the fire, ejaculating every now and then, as was his custom if anything extraordinary or disagreeable had happened, "Ah! umph!"
"The old boy has found out that the wind has veered to the northeast, or has stepped upon some orange peel," whispered Lawson to Williams, who saw that something had gone wrong with the manager.
"Your proposed stroll will be knocked on the head," said Hardy to George. "Mr. Sanders is evidently in an ill humour."
"I shall not trouble him about it," said George; "shirking work always worries him, and he seems to be worried enough as it is."
When Mr. Sanders had gazed in the fire for half an hour, and had walked once or twice up and down the office, as his manner was on such occasions, he turned to George and said, "I want to speak with you in the next room."
"I wish you a benefit, Weston," said Williams as he passed. "Recommend him a day or two in the country, for the good of his health and our happiness."
"Mr. Weston," said the manager, when George had shut the door and seated himself, "I am in great difficulties. This event has happened at a most unfortunate time, Mr. Compton is away, and I don't know how to act for the best. Will you give me your assistance in the matter?"
"Cannot you make the accounts right, sir?" asked George. "I thought you had satisfactorily arranged them last night."
"No, Weston; I have been through them over and over again, but I cannot get any nearer to a balance. I have been round to the Bank this morning again, and have seen Mr. Smith about it, but he cannot assist me. However, inquiries will be made this afternoon, and all our accounts carefully checked and examined; in the meantime, I wish you would have out the books and go through them for me. Hardy can assist you, if you like."
"I will do all I can for you, to make this matter right," said George; "but I can do it better alone. If you will give Hardy the job I was about, I will check the books here by myself."
All that afternoon George sat alone in Mr. Compton's room surrounded with books and papers. But he did not examine them. Resting his head upon his hands, he looked upon them and sighed. Now the perspiration stood in big drops upon his forehead and his hands trembled. Then he would walk up and down the room, halting to take deep draughts of water from a bottle on the table.
Mr. Sanders occasionally looked in to ask how he was going on, and if he had discovered the error.
"No," said George; "the accounts seem right; but I cannot make them agree with the cash-book. There is still a hundred pounds short; but I will go through them again if you like."
"Perhaps you had better. I expect Mr. Smith here by six o'clock; will you remain with me and see him? He may assist us."
"Certainly," said George; "I feel as anxious as you do about the matter, for all the bills and cheques have passed through my hands as well as yours; and I shall not rest easy until the missing amount is discovered."
Mr. Smith arrived just as the clerks were leaving the office, and Mr. Sanders and George were alone with him.
"Well," said Mr. Smith, "we have gone carefully over every item to-day, and at last the defalcation is seen. This cheque," he continued, producing the document, "is forged. The signature is unquestionably Mr. Compton's, but the rest of the writing is counterfeit."
"A forged cheque!" exclaimed Mr. Sanders, aghast; "impossible!"
"There must be some mistake here," said George, "the accounts in our books, if I recollect rightly, correspond with the cheques; but—"
"It is a clumsily arranged affair, although the forgery is a masterpiece of penmanship," said Mr. Smith; "and if it passes first through your office, and is entered in your books with the false amount, it is clear that some one in your employ has committed the offence. I leave the matter now with you for the present," he added, to Mr. Sanders; "of course you will put the case at once into the proper medium and find out the offender."
When Mr. Smith had gone, George sat down again in the seat he had occupied during that long afternoon, pale and exhausted.
"This is a lamentable business," said Mr. Sanders, pacing the room, "a lamentable business, indeed! I confess I am completely baffled. Mr. Weston, I look to you for assistance. Can you form any idea how this matter has come about? Have you suspicion of any of the clerks?"
"I am equally at a loss with you how to manage in this case. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of any one in this office. Except one," said George, as if a sudden idea had come to his mind. "Yes, I have a suspicion of one; but I cannot tell even you who it is, until I have made inquiries sufficient to warrant the suspicion. Can you let the affair rest over to-night, and in the meantime I will do what I can, and confer with you in the morning."
"That seems the only plan," answered Mr. Sanders. "If I can render any assistance in making these inquiries, I will."
"No, thank you, you will have trouble enough in the matter as it is; and I can do what I have to do better alone."
Half an hour after this conversation, a cab was travelling at the utmost speed along the Clapham road. It stopped at the house of Harry Ashton, and George alighted.
"Ashton," said he, "I want to speak to you for two minutes. I have got into trouble; don't ask me how, or in what way. Unless I can borrow a hundred pounds to-night, I am ruined. Can you get it for me?"
"My dear George, sit down and calm yourself, and we will talk the matter over," said Ashton. "It strikes me you are up to some joke, or you would never suppose that I, an assistant surveyor with a present limited income, could fork out a hundred pounds down as a hammer.
"I am not joking. I dare not explain more. I require your confidence for what I have already said; but I know you have money, and moneyed friends. Can you get it for me anyhow, from anywhere?"
"No, I cannot, and that's plump," answered Ashton; "it is the end of the quarter, and I have not more than ten pounds in my pocket You are welcome to that, if it is any good; but I cannot go into the country to my father's to-night, that is very certain; and if I could, he would not advance so much without knowing exactly what it was for; nor should I care to lend that sum, even to you, George, unless I knew what you were going to do with it, and when I should see it back. If it is so pressing, you might have my ten, ten more from Dixon, and I could get a pound or two from other sources."
"No, that would take too long, and I have but an hour or two to make the arrangements." As he spoke, George fell into a chair, and buried his face in his hands.
"What, George, my old pippin, what is the matter?" said Ashton, going to him. "You have lost at cards again, I suppose: but take heart, man, never get out of pluck for such a thing as that. But you are ill, I know you are, you are as white as a sheet. Here, take tins glass of brandy."
"I only feel faint." said George, rising. "I shall be all right when I get out into the open air. Good-bye, Ashton, my old school-chum, we shall never meet again after to-night; but I shan't forget our happy days together—I mean the days at Dr. Seaward's—they were the happy ones, after all."
"George, you are ill, and your brain is touched. Not meet again after to-night? Nonsense, we don't part so easily, if that is the case;" and Ashton locked the door, and put the key in his pocket.
"Unfasten that door!" almost shouted George; "you do not know my strength at this moment, and I might do you some harm; but I should not like to part with my oldest friend like that. Open the door!"
"Not a bit of it," answered Ashton. "Tell me more particulars, and I will try what I can do in getting the money."
"No; you have told me you cannot. I have one more chance elsewhere; let me try that. Ashton, do not be a fool; open that door, and let me go."
"Then I will go with you," answered Ashton; and he unlocked the door. But while he turned to get his hat, George rushed from the room, opened the hall-door, and, closing it again upon Ashton, jumped into the cab awaiting him, and giving the word, "Islington, quick!" drove off, leaving his friend in the road, running after the vehicle, and calling upon the driver to stop.
"Don't mind him," George called to the man; "an extra five shillings for driving quickly."
Ashton was at his wit's end. He ran on, till he could run no longer. Just then, an empty cab passing, he hailed the driver.
"Drive after that cab in front," said Ashton, as he got in; "follow it wherever it goes. Sharp's the word, man!"
It was a long time before the traffic in the roads allowed Ashton's cab to overtake the one ahead; but both came up nearly abreast in the Waterloo road, and then the one he was pursuing turned abruptly towards the railway station.
"Ah! George, my old fellow," said Ashton to himself, "you little think I have been so closely on your scent; but I knew I had not seen the last of you."
Both cabs drew up at the station steps together. Ashton jumped out, and ran to meet George; but blank was his astonishment to see an oldish lady and her attendant alight from the vehicle, which he had imagined contained his friend!
We will leave Ashton at the Waterloo station in a mortified and disconsolate state, quarrelling with the driver for having pursued the wrong cab, and follow George Weston to Islington.
"Hardy," he said, as soon as he found himself alone with his friend, "are you willing to help me, to save me, perhaps, from ruin? I want to raise a hundred pounds to-night. I must have it. Do you think you can get it for me?"
"Me get a hundred pounds? Why, George, my friend, you know the thing is a clear impossibility. I could not get it, if it were to save my own life. But why is it so urgent?" he asked.
"You will know in a day or two. I have now one resource left, and only one. Will you go to-night to my uncle, Mr. Brunton. Tell him that I want to save a friend from ruin, and want to borrow a hundred and fifty pounds, which shall be faithfully repaid. Do not give him to understand I want it for myself, but that it is for a friend dear to him and to me. Use every argument you can, and above everything persuade him not to make any inquiries about it at present. Say I shall have to take part of it into the country to-morrow morning, and I will see him or write to him in the evening. Say anything you like, so that you can get the money for me, and prevent him coming to the office to-morrow morning."
"George, I am afraid you have got into some bad business again," said Hardy. "You know I am willing to help you; but I cannot do so, if it is to encourage you in getting yourself into still greater trouble."
"This is the last time, Hardy, I shall ever ask a favour of you. Do assist me; you cannot guess the consequences if you do not."
"Then tell me, George, what it is that is upsetting you. I never saw you look so wild and excited before. You can confide in me, old fellow; we have always kept each other's counsel."
"To-morrow you shall know all. Now, do start off at once, and see what you can do. If you cannot bring all the money, bring what you can. Put the case urgently to my uncle; he cannot refuse me. I will be here again in about three hours' time; it will not take you longer than that."
Hardy took a cab, and drove off at once. George remained in the street; he paced up and down, and took no rest—he was far too excited and nervous for that. He had got a dangerous game to play, and his plans were vague and shadowy. He had promised Mr. Sanders he would make inquiries about the person he suspected had forged the cheque, and let him know in the morning. His plan was to try and raise the money, pay it to Mr. Sanders on account of the transgressor, and induce him to take no further steps until Mr. Compton returned home. On no other ground would he refund the money on behalf of the forger; and unless Mr. Sanders would agree to these terms, George was determined the matter might take its own way, and be placed in the hands of the magistrates or police.
The hours seemed like days to George while Hardy was on his mission. At length he returned.
"What success?" asked George running to meet him as soon as he came in view.
"Your uncle is in a terrible state of alarm on your account," replied Hardy, "and I fear he will be at the office some time to-morrow, although I tried to persuade him not to do so, because it was no matter in which you were so deeply interested as he supposed. But he cannot lend you the money, nor can he get the amount you want until to-morrow afternoon. However he had fifty pounds with him, and he has sent that."
George took it eagerly. "My plan must fail," he said to Hardy; "but it would only have been a question of time after all. Hardy, you will hear strange reports of me after to-morrow; do not believe them all; remember your old friend as you once knew him, not as report speaks of him. Good-night, old fellow, you have been a good friend to me. I wish we could have parted differently."
"Parted!" ejaculated Hardy; "what do you mean? where are you going?"
"I cannot tell, but I shall see you at the office to-morrow morning as usual; I will tell you more then. Do not say a word to anybody about what has occurred to-night. I know I may trust you; may I not?"
"Yes, always," answered Hardy; "but I wish you would trust me a little more, and let me share this trouble with you. We have been old friends now for years, George; shared ups and downs, and joys and sorrows together; been brothers in everything which concerned each other's welfare: and now you are distressed, why not relieve yourself by letting me bear part of it with you? Recollect our old and earliest days of friendship, and show that they are still dear to you, as they are to me, by telling me what has gone wrong with you, and how I can serve or soothe you in the emergency."
George could not bear this last touch of kindness. Had Hardy reproached him for having acted foolishly, or warned him from getting into future trouble; had he even accused him of having sought to lead others astray, besides wandering in downward paths himself, George could have listened calmly and unmoved! but this out-going of his friend's heart overcame him, and he burst into tears.
"Good night, Hardy," he said, wringing his friend's hand. "If a prayer may come from my lips, so long unused to prayer, I say God bless you, and preserve you from such a lot as mine." George could not utter another word; he could only shake hands again, and then hurried away to the hotel where he sometimes slept.
It was past midnight when he arrived there. Calling for some spirits and water, and writing materials, he seated himself dejectedly at a table and wrote. The first letter ran as follows:—
"MY DEAREST MOTHER,
"I have some painful news to tell you—so painful that I would rather you should have received intelligence of my death, than that which this letter contains. I know you will not judge me harshly, dear mother; I know you will stretch out to me your forgiveness, and still pray for me that I may receive pardon from your heavenly Father—would I could say mine.
"Step by step I have been going wrong, as you know—as I might have known—and now I have sunk to the lowest depths, from which I shall never rise again. Mother, I know the sorrow you will feel when you hear what has happened. I grieve more for you than I do for myself; I would give all the world, if I had it, to save your heart the misery which awaits it, from the conduct of a worthless, rebellious son.
"I cannot bear to see that sorrow. My heart seems nearly broken as it is, and it would quite break if I were to see you suffering as you will suffer.
"I could not bear to see again any whom I have known under other circumstances. I could not bear to be taunted with all the remembrances of the past. Dear mother, I have resolved to leave you—leave London—perhaps leave England. I may never see you again; it is better for you that I never should.
"My tears blind me as I write; if tears could cleanse the past, my guilt would be soon removed. God bless you, dearest mother! I will write to you again; and some day, after I have been into new scenes, started anew in life, and won back again the character I have lost—then, perhaps, I may once more see you again.
"Uncle Brunton will tell you more. He will comfort you; he must be husband, brother, and son to you now.
"God bless you, my dearest mother! I have so wronged you, have been such a continual trouble to you, instead of the comfort poor father thought I should have been, and so unworthy of your love, that I hardly dare hope you will forgive and forget the past, and still pray for
"Your erring Son—
George then wrote two letters to Mr. Brunton. In one of them he thanked him for all his care and kindness, passionately regretted the causes of anxiety he had given him, and the disgrace which now attached to his name. In the other, he begged the loan of the L50 sent to him through Hardy, which, he said, he hoped to pay back in a few years. He also requested that Mr. Brunton would arrange all his accounts, and pay them either from his mother's income, or by advancing the money as a loan.
When the morning dawned, it found George still writing. As the clock struck seven, he packed up what few things he had with him, paid his hotel bill, and drove off to Falcon-court. He was there by eight o'clock, before any of the clerks had arrived.
"Have the letters come?" he asked the housekeeper.
"Yes, sir, they are in Mr. Compton's room," was the answer.
George hastened into the room, looked through the packet, and alighting upon a letter with a foreign post-mark addressed to Mr. Sanders in Mr. Compton's handwriting, he broke the seal. The note was short, merely saying that he had arrived in Paris, on his way home, and expected to be back in a day or two; therefore any communications must be forwarded at once, or he would have left Paris.
George went direct to the Electric Telegraph Office. A form was handed to him, on which the message he desired to send must be written, and he filled it up thus:—
"From Mr. Sanders to Mr. Compton.
"Come back at once. A cheque has been forged in your name for L100. George Weston is the forger. It is a clear and aggravated case. Shall he be arrested? Will you prosecute? Answer at once."
In an incredibly short space of time an answer was returned. George was at the Telegraph Office to receive it.
"From Mr. Compton to Mr. Sanders.
"I will return to-morrow. Take no steps in the matter; let it be kept silent, I am deeply grieved, but I will not prosecute under any circumstances."
"Well, Mr. Weston," said Mr. Sanders, when George entered the office," I expected you would have been here before; but I suppose you have had some difficulty in your investigations?"
"I have had difficulty," George answered. "I have been endeavouring to borrow a hundred pounds to pay the deficiency, and then I would have screened the forger; but my plan has failed, and it is better that it should, because the innocent would have been sure to have suffered for the guilty. I am now bound to tell you the name of the criminal upon his own confession."
"Who is it? who is it?" asked Mr. Sanders, eagerly.
"I—George Weston," he answered. "No matter how I did it, or why; I alone am guilty."
Mr. Sanders caught hold of the back of a chair for support. His hands trembled, and his voice failed him.
"It is a shock to you, sir," said George; "and it will be a shock to Mr. Compton. Give him this letter when he comes home, it will explain the circumstances to him. I deeply regret that I should have caused you so much anxiety as I have during the past week, while this inquiry has been pending. I knew the truth must come out sooner or later—but I would rather you should know it from me; crushed and ruined as I am, I have no hope that you will look with any other feelings than those of abhorrence on me, but you do not know the heavy punishment I have already suffered, or you would feel for me."
"Are you aware, George Weston, that there is a yet heavier punishment, and that, as Mr. Compton's representative, I shall feel it my painful duty to—"
"No, sir; here is Mr. Compton's opinion upon the case," said George, handing the telegraphic message to Mr. Sanders, who listened with astonishment as he explained the circumstances. "But should Mr. Compton, upon a careful examination into the case, wish to prosecute," he continued, "I will appear whenever and wherever he pleases. And now, Mr. Sanders, I leave this office, ruined and disgraced, the result of my own folly and sin."
George spoke hoarsely, and his face was pale as Death. Mr. Sanders was moved; and put out his hand to shake hands with him, and say good-bye, but George held his back.
"Remember, sir, you are an honest man; you cannot shake hands with me," said George.
"Weston, I am not your judge; there is One who will judge not only this act, but all the acts that have led to it," said Mr. Sanders, solemnly. "I have had more interest and greater hopes in you than in any young man who ever came into this office; and I feel more sorrow now, on your account, than I can put into words. Do not let this great and disastrous fall sink you into lower depths of sin. If you have forfeited man's respect and esteem, there is a God with whom there is mercy and forgiveness. Seek Him, and may He bless you! Good-bye, George Weston," and the manager, with tears in his eyes, wrung the cold, trembling hand that was stretched out to his.
George took up his carpet-bag, which he had brought from the hotel, and was about to leave, but he paused a moment.
"Will you send Hardy in here?" he asked Mr. Sanders. "I must have a word with him before I go."
Hardy had been expecting all the morning to have some explanation from George, and had been uneasy at his absence. When he went into Mr. Compton's room he was surprised to see George, with his bag in his hand, ready to make a departure.
"Hardy," said George, "I told you last night I should soon have to bid you good-bye, and now the time has arrived. I am going away from the office, and perhaps from England, but I cannot tell you where I am going. I leave in disgrace; my once good name is now blighted and withered; my old friends will look upon me with abhorrence."
"No, George, I am one of your old friends; I never shall," interrupted Hardy. "I do not know what you have done, nor do I wish to know, but I cannot believe your heart and disposition are changed, or will ever change so much as to make me regard you in any other light than that of a dear and valued friend. But where are you going, George? Do tell me that."
"No, Hardy, I cannot. I am going away, God only knows where; it may be abroad, it may not. I am going somewhere where I shall not be known, and where I can try to work back for myself a character and a good name, which I can never redeem in London. Some day I may let you know where I am."
"But, George, does your mother know where you are going?"
"No," said George, and his voice was tremulous as he spoke. "No; I have no mother now. I am too fallen to claim relationship with one so good and noble and holy as my mother is."
"Oh, George, give up this wild scheme! Have you thought that you are going the most direct way to break your mother's heart, and to make her life, as well as your own, blank, solitary, and miserable? Whatever wrong you have done, do not add to it by breaking that commandment which bids us honour our parents. Your mother has claims upon you which you have no right to disregard in this way."
"I have thought it all well over, Hardy. I believe it is for her good as well as for mine that our paths should run differently, but I cannot explain all now. I am in dread lest my uncle should call here before I get away. Hardy, good-bye, old fellow."
"No, I cannot say good-bye yet. George, give me your address; promise to let me see you again, and I will promise to keep your secret sacredly."
"I do not know where I am going; I have no fixed plan; but I do promise to write to you, Hardy."
"And now, George, make me one other promise. If you are in difficulties, and I can assist you, or do anything for you in any way, at any time, you will let me know—remember I shall always be Charles Hardy to you, and you will always be George Weston to me. Do you agree?"
"Yes, Hardy, I agree. I cannot thank you. I cannot say what I would, or tell you what I feel. May you be blessed and be happy, and never know what it is to have a heavy, broken heart like mine. And now one promise from you. Go and see my mother; try and comfort her; tell her how I grieve to part from her."
George could not continue; the nervous twitching of his face showed the struggle within, and it was a relief when the hot tears broke through and coursed down his cheek. Hardy was greatly affected. He loved George with an intensity of love like that which knit together the soul of Jonathan and David; he had been to him more than a brother ever since they had been acquainted; in hours of business and recreation, in joys and sorrows, in plans and aims, they had been one; and now the tie was to be severed, and severed under such sad circumstances.
There is a solemnity about sorrow which speech desecrates. Not another word was spoken by either—both hearts were too full for that; but as the tears ran thickly down their cheeks, they grasped each other's hand, and then, fairly sobbing, George hurried from the office.
George went direct from the office to the railway station, and took a ticket to Plymouth. He had but a short time to wait before the train left, and bore him away. The green fields and smiling country were nothing to him; he felt no pleasure in seeing the merry, happy children playing in the lanes, as the train whizzed past. The greetings of friends on the platforms at the different stations only made him sigh. Who would greet him on his journeys? Tired and worn out with sleepless nights and anxious days, he tried to doze, but the attempt was vain. He feared lest some one might have tracked his steps to the station, and have telegraphed for him to be stopped at the terminus. Then, when he had thought and pondered over such probabilities as these, and endeavoured to dismiss them, he tried to form some plans for the future; but all the future was dark—no ray of light, however faint or distant, could be seen, and every plan he would make must be left to circumstances. When the passengers alighted at one of the stations to take refreshments, George got out too, for the purpose of breaking his long fast. He tried to eat a biscuit, but he could not get it down,—all appetite was gone; so, drinking a glass of ale, he wandered to the book stall, and purchased a newspaper to read during the remainder of the journey. The train started off again, and George settled himself to read. The first thing that met his eye was an account of the assizes, and the first case was headed, "Forgery by a Banker's Clerk." This brought back to remembrance, more vividly than ever, the sad scenes of the past few days; he threw the paper out of the window, and abandoned himself to thought.
At last the train arrived at Plymouth. George hastened on to the platform, and walked rapidly into the town, fearing lest any one should recognize him, or lest any official should wish to detain him. With his bag in hand, he wandered through the streets, uncertain what to do or where to go. Presently he came to a small house, in an obscure street, with a placard in the window stating that apartments were to let. He knocked, and was answered by the landlady, a respectable looking woman, who told him that she had a bedroom and sitting-room to let, and would accommodate him on reasonable terms. George said he should not require the room more than a few days, or a week, as he was about to leave by one of the vessels in the port. The terms were arranged, and he at once took possession. As it was very late, he thought he would go to bed without delay.
"Will you not have some supper first?" asked the landlady.
"No, thank you," said George: "I am tired with my journey, and shall be glad to get to sleep as soon as I can."
"But, sir, you really look ill," persisted the landlady, who was a kind, motherly woman; "will you let me make you a little spirits and water?"
"I will not refuse that," said George, "for I do feel ill. Parting with friends and relatives is at all times a disagreeable matter, and I have bidden good-bye to them in London to-day, rather than bring them down here."
"Ah, sir! parting is a sad thing," answered the woman. "It is two years since my son went to sea; he was much about your age, sir, and he went away against my wish, and I have never seen or heard from him since. He has nearly broken my heart, poor boy, and left me all alone in this wide, hard world."
George was glad to have some one to talk to, but he was distressed by this narration of his landlady. If she mourned for her son, who had been absent for two years, how would his mother mourn?
George passed a restless, anxious night; when he dozed off to sleep, it was only to be tormented with harrowing dreams, in which he fancied himself at one time standing before a judge in a court of justice, answering to the crime of forgery. At another, gazing upon a funeral procession moving slowly and solemnly along, with his Uncle Brunton following as sole mourner. Then he would start up, half with joy and half with sorrow, as he fancied he heard voices like those of his mother and uncle calling to him from the street. His head ached, and his heart was heavy. He felt thankful when the morning dawned, and it was time to rise. He bathed his hot, feverish head in water, and dressed; but as he passed by the looking-glass and caught a glance at his pale, haggard countenance, so changed within a few short hours, he started.
"Oh, God! give me strength! give me strength!" he said. "If I should be ill, if anything should happen to me, what should I do? I am all alone; there is no one to care for me now!" And he sank down in a chair, burying his face in his hands as if to hide the picture his mind had drawn.
After breakfast, he strolled to the docks, looked over some of the vessels, and made inquiries about the shipping offices. He learned that a ship was about to sail immediately to Port Natal, and that all information could be obtained of the agents. Thither George repaired; the agent gave him an exaggerated account of the signal prosperity which all enterprising young men met with in Natal, praised Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the colony, and offered to give him letters of introduction to residents there, who would advise him as to the best ways of making a comfortable living. The agent then took him down to the vessel, told him that he must take a passage at once, if he wished to leave by her, as she would sail in two or three days at the latest. It was a matter of comparative indifference to George where he went—the large, lonely world was before him, and Port Natal might make him as good a home as anywhere else. George went back with the agent to the office, and paid a deposit of fifteen pounds on the passage money.
"What is your name, sir?" asked the agent, with pen in hand, ready to make the entry.
George coloured as he answered, "Frederick Vincent."
"Then, Mr. Vincent, you will be on board not later than nine o'clock on Tuesday morning; the vessel will go out of harbour by twelve. You can come on board as much earlier as you like, but I have named the latest time. You had better send your luggage down on Monday."
"Luggage?" said George. "Oh, yes! that shall be sent in time."
As George returned to his lodgings, he felt even more wretched than when he started out It was Wednesday morning, and the vessel would not leave till the following Tuesday. The excitement of choosing a vessel was over; there was now only the anxiety and suspense of waiting its departure. True, he had his outfit to purchase, but this would have to be done furtively; he could not bear to be walking in the streets in broad daylight, noticed by passers-by, every one of whom he fancied knew his whole history, and was plotting either to prevent his departure, or to reveal his secret.
Mrs. Murdoch (that was the name of his landlady) endeavoured to make him as comfortable as possible in his apartments; but external comfort was nothing to George—he wanted some word of love, some one to talk to, as in days of old. He avoided conversation as much as possible with Mrs. Murdoch, for she would talk of her absent son, and every word went as an arrow to George's heart.
That first day seemed a week. Hour after hour dragged wearily along, and when six o'clock in the evening came, George thought all time must have received some disarrangement, for it seemed as if days had elapsed since the morning. He went out after dark to a neighbouring shop and made some purchases of outfit; but he was thankful when he had completed his task, for he had noticed a man walking backwards and forwards in front of the shop, and he felt a nervous dread lest it should be some spy upon him. He resolved that he would remain in his rooms, and not go out again until he left for the voyage on Tuesday, but would ask Mrs. Murdoch to make the remainder of the necessary purchases for him.
How lonely and desolate George felt that night! More than once he half determined rather to bear shame and reproach, and have the society of those he loved, than continue in that dreadful isolation. He was thoroughly unmanned. "Oh, that Hardy or Ashton were here, or any friend, just to say, 'George Weston, old fellow,' once more; what a weight of dreariness it would remove!" Then he would wonder what was going on at home, whether his mother was plunged in grief, or whether she was saying, "He has brought it all on himself, let him bear it." But George could not reconcile this last thought; he tried hard to cherish it; he felt he would infinitely rather know his mother was filled with anger and abhorrence at his crime, than that she mourned for him, and longed to press him to her bosom and bind up the wounded heart. But he could not shake off this last idea. It haunted him every moment, and added to the weight of sorrow which seemed crushing him.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday passed, and George was still the victim to anxiety and corroding care. He had paced his room each day, and tossed restlessly in his bed each night; had tried reading and writing, to while away the time, and had found every attempt futile.
Mrs. Murdoch was anxious on his account.
"Mr. Vincent," she said to him, "you eat nothing, you take no exercise; you don't sleep at night, for I can hear you, from my room, tossing about; and I am doctor enough to know that you are ill, and will be worse, if you do not make some alteration. Do be persuaded by me, and take some little recreation, or else you will not be in a fit state to go on board on Tuesday."
"You are very kind, Mrs. Murdoch," replied George, "but I have no bodily ailment. If I could get a change of thought, that is the best physic for a mind diseased."
"It is, sir," replied the landlady; "and now will you think me rude if I tell you how you may have that change of thought? You are about to start on a very dangerous voyage; for long months you will have the sky above and the sea below, and only a few planks between you and death. Have you, sir, committed your way to the Lord, and placed your life in His hands? I know it is a strange thing to ask you, but I hope you will not be offended. You have seemed so sad for the past day or two, that I could not help feeling you wanted comfort, and none can give it but the Heavenly Friend."
"I do want comfort and support, Mrs. Murdoch, but—"
"No, sir, there is no but in the case. 'Come onto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest'—is said to all; and we only have to go to Him to find all we want."
"Well, Mrs. Murdoch, I will see if I cannot combine both your suggestions; and as to-morrow will be Sunday, it will be a recreation to go to some church or chapel. Can you recommend me a good preacher?"
"Yes, sir, that I can. If you will go to my pew at chapel to-morrow morning, I am sure you will like the gentleman who preaches there."
"Then I will go," said George.
When he went up to his room again, those few words of Mrs. Murdoch were still speaking to him.
"'Weary and heavy laden!' he thought; surely that is my lot. I so young, once so happy, to feel weary and heavy laden; how strange! But no, it is not strange—it is natural. Sin brings its punishment, and it is hard work, bearing its burden! oh! that I could find some spot where I could rest."
There was a spot, not far from George, where he could have rested, but he did not know it. He was oppressed with his weariness, and he longed for peace and ease of mind to come to him. He did not consider the words, "Come unto ME."