There was an old Family Bible on the book-case in his room, and George took it down. It was a long time since he had read the Word of God: and when he had it was only to compare it with the dangerous opinions he had received, and find out what he imagined to be its discrepancies and contradictions. A feeling of remorse came over him as he put the book on the table.
"What right have I to open this book, or attempt to find anything here for encouragement?" he asked himself. "I have mocked and ridiculed it in days of prosperity, and yet I am willing to take it up in trouble, as if it were an old friend. Ah! it was an old friend once, but that has all gone by now."
He sat a long time looking at the book. Perhaps there is nothing that brings back the memories of the past more vividly than the sight of a Family Bible to one who has long ceased to read and love it. There are old scenes of childhood associated with it which time can never erase. Who cannot remember sitting on his mother's knee, or with chair drawn up beside his father, hearing its sweet music sounded in the home circle on the Sabbath night? Who can forget the last evening of the holidays before going back to school, when the old book was brought out, and some useful text was selected as a monitor and remembrancer? Who can forget the time when some loved one was ill, and as friends and relatives sat round the bed of the invalid, the Book was laid upon the table, and words of comfort were proclaimed to all.
Many and many a scene moved past George in the mental panorama which the sight of Mrs. Murdoch's book created. He seemed not to be remembering, but to be living in the former days. There was his father seated in the old arm-chair, with Carlo, the faithful dog at his feet, and his elbows rented upon the table, and his head upon his hand—a favourite attitude—as he read the Sacred Word. There was dear old Dr. Seaward, with his spectacles stuck up on his forehead, in his study at Folkestone, and a party of boys round him, listening eagerly to the words of instruction and advice which fell from his lips.
And then the past merged into the present, and George started to find himself alone in a strange room, in a strange town, with a strange Bible before him.
He opened the Book and read. The fifty-first Psalm was the portion of Scripture to which he inadvertently turned, commencing, "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions."
He read the Psalm through in amazement. Again he read it, with increased wonder and astonishment, that any one should have made a prayer so exactly like that which he felt in his heart he wanted to pray; and at last he went to the door and locked it, for fear of interruption, took the Bible from the table and placed it on a chair, and kneeling down read the prayer again; and repeating it aloud, sentence by sentence, offered it up as his petition to the throne of Mercy.
* * * * *
On Sunday morning, when the bells were ringing their glad peals, and the people were already in the streets, on their way to the different places of worship, George started off, directed by Mrs. Murdoch, to the chapel of which she had spoken to him.
He felt very sad as he walked along; it was the last Sunday, perhaps, he should ever spend in England, and he must spend it alone, an alien from all whom he loved. The temporary calm which he had experienced on the previous evening had gone; no prayer for assistance through the day had issued from his lips that morning, but there was the old feeling of shame, and chagrin, and disgrace, which had haunted him for the past week, and with it the dogged determination to bear up against it until it should be lost in forgetfulness. But George had resolved to go to chapel that morning, because he felt he wanted a change of some sort, and there was a melancholy pleasure in spending a part of his last Sunday in England after his once customary manner.
The preacher was an old gentleman, of a mild, benevolent countenance, and with a winning, persuasive manner. When he gave out the first hymn, reading it solemnly and impressively, George felt he should have pleasure in listening to the sermon. The congregation joined in the hymn of praise, with heart and voice lifted up to the God of the Sabbath in thanksgiving. The singing was rich and good, and George, who was a passionate lover of music, was touched by its sweet harmony. He did not join in the hymn, his heart was too full for that; but the strains were soothing, and produced a natural, reverential emotion which he had been long unaccustomed to feel.
The minister took for his text the words, "'Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.' And Jesus put forth His hand, and touched him, saying, 'I will, be thou clean.'"
A rush of joy thrilled through George as he heard the words. His attention was rivetted as he listened to the simple story of the leper being restored to health; and when the preacher drew the comparison between leprosy and sin, and revealed Jesus as the Great Physician to the sick soul, who, in reply to the heartfelt wish, could say, "Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee," George felt the whole strength of his soul concentrated in that one desire, "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." He looked into his own heart—he was almost afraid to look—and saw the ravages of disease there. He thought of his past life; there was not one thing to recommend him to God. NEVER before had he seen his sin in the light in which it was now revealed by God's Word. He had viewed it in relation to man's opinion, and his own consciousness; but now the Holy Spirit was striving within him, and showing him his position in the sight of God.
The preacher went on to unfold the sweet story of the Cross, to tell of the simple plan of salvation, and to point to Jesus, the Lamb of God, "who taketh away the sins of the world." It seemed to George as if he had never heard the glad tidings before; it had never made the hot tear run down his cheek, as he thought of the Saviour suffering for sins not His own, until now; it had never before torn the agonised sigh from his heart, as the truth flashed before him that it was he who had helped to nail the Holy One to the accursed tree; he had never realised before that earth was but the portal to the heavenly mansions—that time was but the herald of eternity. Now, all these things came crowding upon his mind, and when the sermon concluded he was in a bewilderment of joy and sorrow.
A parting hymn was sung—that glorious old hymn—
"There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Emmanuel's veins."
When it came to those lines—
"The dying thief rejoiced to see That fountain in his day; And there may I, though vile as he, Wash all my sins away:"
he could bear it no longer: he could not restrain the torrent of tears which was struggling to get free; he could not stay in that assembly of people; he must be alone, alone with God, alone with his own heart.
When he reached his apartments, he went immediately to his room, and there, beside his bed, he knelt and poured out his soul to God. Words could not tell his wants, words could not express his contrition; but there he knelt, a silent pleader, presenting himself with all the dark catalogue of a life's sin before his dishonoured God.
George thought he had experienced the extremity of sorrow during the few days he had been in Plymouth, but it was as nothing compared with that he now felt. He had grieved over name and reputation lost, prospects blighted, and self-respect forfeited, but now he mourned over a God dishonoured, a Saviour slighted, a life mis-spent. Is there any sorrow like unto that sorrow which is felt by a soul crushed beneath the sense of sin?
How that day passed, George hardly knew. He felt his whole life epitomised in those few hours spent in solemn confession. Oh, how he longed to realise a sense of pardon—to know and feel, as the leper knew and felt, that he was made clean. But he could not do so: he only felt himself lost and ruined, and found expression but in one cry, "Unclean! unclean!"
He was aroused in the evening by the ringing of church bells again; and, taking a hasty cup of tea, at Mrs. Murdoch's solicitation, he once more bent his steps to the place of worship he had visited in the morning, with the earnest desire and prayer that he might hear such truths taught as would enable him to see Jesus.
How often does God "devise means that His banished be not expelled from Him," and in His providential mercy order those events and circumstances to occur, which are instrumental in preparing the mind for the reception of His truth! It was no chance, no mere coincidence, that the preacher took for his text those words which were associated with so many recollections of George, "for me to live is Christ."
Simply, but earnestly, he drew pictures of life, in its many phases, and contrasted them with the one object worth living for. Upon all else was written, vanity of vanities—living for pleasure was but another name for living for future woe: living for wealth was losing all; living for honour was but heaping condemnation for the last day: while living for Christ gave not only pleasure, and riches, and honour here, but hereafter. Then he spoke of the preciousness of Jesus to those who believe, as the sympathising Friend, and the loving Brother; of the honour and joy of living for Him who had died to bring life and immortality to light; and of that "peace which passeth understanding."
That night there was joy in the presence of the angels of God over a new-born soul. As George listened to the voice of the preacher, there fell from his eyes as it had been scales, and he saw the Father running to embrace the returning prodigal, and felt the kiss of His forgiving love. The words which his earthly father had last spoken to him, were those chosen by his heavenly Father to show him his new blissful relationship as a son. And at what a gracious time! George was a wanderer, an outcast, without father or friend, without object or aim in life, and the doors of heaven were thrown open to him; the sympathy of Divine love was poured into that aching heart, and the words of rejoicing were uttered, "This, MY SON, was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found."
The weary one was at rest, the heart of stone palpitated with a living breath, "The dead one heard the voice of the Son of God, and lived."
Who can sympathise with George as he sat in his room that night, overwhelmed with joy unspeakable? He was a new creature in a new world; old things had passed away, behold all things had become new. He looked up to heaven as his home, to God as his Father, to Jesus as his great elder Brother; and he realised his life as hidden with Christ in God, redeemed and reconciled, henceforth not his own, but given to Him who had washed him, and made him clean in His own blood.
* * * * *
Great joy is harder to bear than great sorrow. George had suddenly gone from one to the other extreme, and at a time when he was suffering from physical prostration, the result of such strong mental struggles.
"Mr. Vincent, it is nine o'clock," Mrs. Murdoch called out, as she knocked at his door next morning. No answer was returned.
"Mr. Vincent, will you come down to breakfast, sir?" she repeated more loudly, but with no greater success.
Again she knocked, wondering that George should sleep so soundly, and be so difficult to arouse, as he was accustomed to answer at the first call.
"Mr. Vincent, breakfast is waiting!"
No answer coming, Mrs. Murdoch was anxious; she knew George had been really ill for several days past, and had noticed his strange manner on the previous evening. Without further hesitation, she opened the door, and there on the floor lay George Weston, insensible, having apparently fallen while in the act of dressing.
Calling for assistance, she at once laid him upon the bed, applied all the restoratives at hand, and without a moment's delay despatched a messenger to the chemist in the next street, with instructions for him to attend immediately.
"Will you grant me leave of absence for to-day?" Charles Hardy asked Mr. Sanders, a few minutes after George had left the office, on the gloomy and eventful morning when he disclosed the secret of his guilt.
"I hardly know what to say—what to do," answered Mr. Sanders, puffing and blowing; "business will come to a stand-still—the shutters had better go up at once. But if you want particularly to be off to-day, I suppose I must manage to spare you."
"I may want several days, sir; but if that should be the case, I will return to the office to-morrow in time to see Mr. Compton immediately he comes back"
It was but the work of five minutes for Charles to write a short note, change his office coat, and prepare to start The note was addressed to Mr. Brunton, care of Mr. Sanders till called for, and ran as follows:—
"MY DEAR SIR,
"Do not be more uneasy than necessary about George. I think I have a clue by which his address may be ascertained. If so, I will report progress to you to-night; but I leave this note for you, in order to allay the distress you will feel in learning he is not here. Rest assured of my earnest desire to serve my dear friend, and to relieve him if possible. My time and services you may command in this cause. In haste,
"Yours very faithfully,
Hardy had a clue, it is true; but it was a very faint one. He had noticed, upon the table of Mr. Compton's room, a "Bradshaw's Railway Guide;" and as he had not seen one there previously, he imagined it must have been brought in by George, with his carpet-bag and other things, and there left. One page of the book was turned down; Hardy had eagerly opened it, and found it referred to the departures from the Great Western Station.
"I'll go on at once to that station," he thought. "He told me he might be leaving England; perhaps he has gone to Liverpool, Plymouth, or Cork, or some shipping place that can be reached by this line. At all events, I have no other chance but this."
With all speed Charles drove off to Paddington. Diligently he conned over the intricate mysteries of "Bradshaw" as he journeyed along, endeavouring to ascertain when trains would be leaving for any of the places to which he had imagined his friend might be going. It is hardly necessary to say he could not find what he wanted; but his anxiety and suspense were relieved by the search.
Before alighting at the station, Hardy carefully glanced all around to ascertain that George was not in sight; for it was not his intention to speak to him or endeavour to turn him from his purpose, knowing that, in his present excited state he would stand no chance whatever of frustrating his friend's plans, but would rather be adopting the most certain means of destroying his own. Hardy's present object was only to try and find out to what part George would travel, and then communicate with Mr. Brunton and get his advice how to proceed.
Cautiously he walked along the platform, looking into every waiting-room, and making inquiries of the porters it they had seen any one answering to the description he gave of George. This course proving futile, he went to the ticket-office, and consulted a time-table, to find whether any train had recently left for any of the places which, he felt convinced, were the most probable for George to choose. An hour or two had elapsed since the last train left, and George had not had more than twenty minutes' start ahead of him. He took down in his pocket-book the time for the departure of the next train; and then choosing a secluded spot in the office, where he would be out of observation, and yet able to see all who came up for tickets, he waited patiently until the slow, dawdling hand of the clock neared the hour.
Hardy felt the chances were fifty to one that while he was waiting there George might be at some other station, leaving London without a trace to his whereabouts; he thought whether, after all, George might not have purposely, instead of accidentally, left the "Bradshaw" with that particular page turned down, in order that, should he be sought, a wrong scent might be given; and even if he intended to travel by this line and to one of these particular places, might he not choose nighttime as the most desirable for his object? But Hardy had purpose in him; he would not throw away the strongest clue he had, although that was faint, and he resolved to stay there until midnight, it need be, rather than abandon his design,
His patience was not put to such a test as this. While he was standing, with palpitating heart, behind that door in the booking office, George was in the porters' room, not a hundred yards off, waiting with deeper anxiety for the clock to point to the hour when the train should start. Presently, the first bell rang. A number of people, with bags and packages in hand, came crowding up to the ticket office, but George was not there. Hardy could scarcely refrain from rushing out to look around. What if he should get into a train without a ticket, or send a guard to procure one for him? A hundred doubts and fears were pressing upon him, and—the second bell rang. Two or three minutes more, and the train would be off. At the moment he was consulting his pocket-book to see how long a time must elapse before the next train would leave, he started with joyful surprise to see George walk hurriedly up to the office and obtain a ticket. As hurriedly he disappeared. "Now is my chance," thought Hardy.
"Where did that young man take his ticket for?" he asked the clerk, as soon as he had elbowed his way past the few remaining persons who were before the window.
"Which one?" said he; "two or three young men have just taken tickets."
"I mean the last ticket but one you issued?"
"Hurrah!" cried Hardy, to the astonishment of the clerk, who probably would not have given the information, had he not thought the inquirer wanted a ticket for the same place.
Hardy was too cautious, even in the moment of his surprise, to let his object be lost by over-haste; he knew it would not be wise to let himself be seen, and though he longed to rush after George and say, "Good-bye, cheer up, old chap!" he only allowed himself the painful pleasure of looking through the window of a waiting-room, and seeing his old friend and chum, sad and solitary, get into the carriage. Shriek went the whistle, and away went the train. Whether it whizzed along so rapidly, or the smoke and steam enveloped it, or from whatever cause it was, Charles Hardy found his sight growing dimmer, until a mist shut out the scene.
From the station Hardy went home. He wanted to tell his parents some of the occurrences of the day, and let them know of his expected absence. He knew that he had difficulties to meet. George had always been kindly received by Mr. and Mrs. Hardy; they both liked him, and were glad when he came to spend an evening at their house. But latterly they had been rather anxious about the growing intimacy between him and their son, and often had a word of caution been given that Charles should be very careful how far he allowed his friend to influence him.
Now Hardy could only tell his parents that George had got into worse trouble than ever—such trouble that he was obliged to leave his situation, and had decamped, no one except himself knew where. Of course Mr. and Mrs. Hardy would not put a good construction upon the affair. He anticipated they would say, "Well, I always feared he would come to this;" and would try to dissuade Charles from having anything more to do with him. It was not to be expected they would look with such leniency upon the matter as he would. Therefore, it was with no small difficulty he proceeded, immediately upon reaching home, to tell them of what had occurred. It was a short story, and soon told.
"Now, father," said Hardy, before allowing him time to bring objections to the part he had performed that day, "I have promised Mr. Brunton to assist in finding George, and I have told Mr. Sanders I may be away some days from the office. I know Mr. Compton will not object to this; if that is all, I can have this leave of absence instead of the holiday he promised me next mouth. George must be found; if I can help it, he shall not leave England—at all events, not in this way. I know it will kill Mrs. Weston, if he does."
"Well, Charles, I know your kindheartedness, and I appreciate it; but I cannot give my consent to the plan. Recollect, by associating yourself with your former friend now, you do injury to yourself; he has got himself into disgrace—he must bear the burden of it. What will Mr. Compton think, when he hears that you—you who have always maintained such strict integrity—have gone off after a dishonest, runaway clerk?"
"I never wish to run counter to your opinions, father, if I can help it; but I must do so now, George Weston is my friend—not was my friend, as you said just now—and I would not act such a cowardly part as to desert him. Don't be vexed at what I say; I know you advise for my good; but you do not know how I feel in this matter. Suppose our positions were changed, and I had done as George has done—there is no impossibility in such a case—I am too weak against temptation to doubt that had I been placed in the circumstances similar to his, I might have done the same, Suppose I had, what would you have thought of me? Should I have been your dishonest, runaway son, to whom all friendship must be denied, and who might be left to bear any burden alone, because I had brought it upon myself? No, father; you would be the first to seek and comfort me, and the first to cry 'Shame!' upon any of my friends who turned and kicked me the moment I had fallen."
Mr. Hardy could not resist the force of his son's argument, nor could he refrain from admiring the genuineness of his friendship for George, and the manly determination he had formed to assist him.
"Well, Charles," he said, "I do not blame you for taking this course. I hope it may be serviceable to your friend, and without any injury to yourself."
"Do not fear, father. And now I must pack up a few necessaries in my bag, and be off to Mr. Brunton's. If I do not return home to-morrow, do not be uneasy about me, and I will write to you every day to say how things are going on."
When Hardy arrived at the house of Mr. Brunton, he found him, as he anticipated, in a high state of nervous anxiety.
"I am so thankful you have arrived, Mr. Hardy," he said, shaking him warmly by the hand: "and I need not tell you Mrs. Weston has been waiting with great impatience to see you."
"Mrs. Weston! is she here?"
"Yes; not many minutes after you had left the office I called there, and received the sad news about—about George. I at once telegraphed to Mrs. Weston to come up to town, and it needed no urging to hasten her, for she had only a short time before received a letter from him, which had filled her with alarm. But let us go to her at once," said Mr. Brunton, leading the way to the drawing-room; "she entreated I would bring you to her the moment you arrived."
As Hardy entered, Mrs. Weston sprang to meet him.
"Have you found George?—where is he?" she asked, and the look of struggling hope and despair was touching to witness.
"I have not found him, Mrs. Weston, but I know the place of his present destination. He has gone to Plymouth;" and then Hardy briefly explained the incidents of the morning.
"I cannot tell you how thankful I am to you, Mr. Hardy," said Mrs. Weston, as he concluded. "May God bless you for your kindness to my pool George!"
"George would have done more for me, Mrs. Weston," Hardy replied; "but, at present, little or nothing has been done. Have you any plans, and can I help you in them?"
"We must go on as soon as possible to Plymouth, and find out where he is. He may perhaps be on the eve of starting away by some of the vessels in the port. Not a minute should be lost."
"Then, sir, I will go down to Plymouth by the mail train which leaves in about a couple of hours, if you will let me; and I promise you that I will do my best to find him," said Hardy.
This unexpected proposition removed an infinite burden from Mr. Brunton's mind. He felt that it was his duty to see Mr. Compton at once, and he had other engagements which made it impossible for him to leave that night. He did not like Mrs. Weston travelling alone, in her present anxious and desponding state, and had been at his wit's end all day to know how to manage.
"But, Mr. Hardy, can you go? Have you consulted your friends at home? Can you manage to get leave of absence from the office?—remember they will be short of hands there," asked Mr. Brunton.
"I have made all arrangements at home, sir and my only difficulty is about Mr. Compton. But if you will please see him as soon as he returns, and explain why I have left, I am sure he will not be displeased. He was so fond of George, I know he would have said 'Go, by all means,' had he been at home."
"I will undertake to set the matter right with him about you," said Mr. Brunton; "but I doubt whether he will ever allow me to mention poor George's name. Oh! Hardy, this is a sad, sad business!"
"It is, sir; but it is sadder for George than for his friends," replied Hardy. "I cannot bear to think of the trouble he is passing through at this moment. It has cost him much to take the step he has taken, and everything must be done to get him back from his voluntary banishment"
"And everything shall be done that can," said Mr. Brunton. "God grant he is still in England! I feel sure the sight of his mother and his friends sorrowing for him, instead of turning against him as he supposes, will alter his determination."
"Mr. Hardy, may I place myself under your protection until my brother joins us at Plymouth?" said Mrs. Weston, abruptly. "I will go down by the mail train to-night; I cannot rest until he is found."
Arrangements were speedily made, and that night the train bore off Mrs. Western and Charles Hardy to Plymouth.
On the following morning Mr. Brunton called at Falcon-court. Mr. Compton had not yet arrived, but was expected hourly. Not wishing to lose time, which that morning was particularly precious to him, he asked for some writing materials, and seating himself in Mr. Compton's room, intended to occupy himself until his arrival. After he had been there about half-an-hour, his attention was arrested by hearing the door of the clerk's office open, and an inquiry made.
"Is Mr. George Weston here?"
"Mr. Weston has left the office," answered Williams, who came forward to answer the inquiry. "Left yesterday morning."
"Indeed! Where has he gone to? why did he leave?"
"I don't think anyone knows where he has gone to," answered Williams; "and I am not disposed to say why he left."
Williams did not know why he had left, nor were the circumstances of the case known to any of the clerks; but many surmises had been made which were unfavourable to him, and it was with the exultant pleasure a mean spirit feels in a mean triumph, that Williams had at last an opportunity of speaking lightly of the once good name of George Weston, to whom he had ever cherished feelings of animosity.
"Is Mr. Compton in, or the manager?" asked the visitor. "I am exceedingly anxious to know what has become of my friend."
"Between ourselves," said Williams, "the less you say about your friend the better. It strikes me—mind, I merely give you this confidentially as my impression—that, when Weston turns up again, his friends will not be over-anxious to renew their acquaintance."
"What do you mean? I do not understand you."
"What I mean is this. When a clerk is dismissed from an office during the absence of the principal, leaves suddenly and has to hide himself—more particularly when accounts at the banker's do not quite balance—one cannot help thinking there is a screw loose somewhere."
Mr. Brunton overheard all this; he who had never before heard an unfavourable sentence spoken against his nephew. He had not fully realised until that moment the painful position in which George's crime had placed him, nor the depth of his nephew's fall in position and character. He longed to have been able to stand up in vindication of George against the terrible insinuations of Williams; he would have been intensely thankful if he could have accosted the stranger, and said, "That man is guilty of falsehood who dares to speak against the good name of my nephew." But there he stood, with blood boiling and lips quivering, unable to contradict one sentence that had been uttered.
"If Weston does turn up," continued Williams, "will you leave any message or letter, or your name, and it shall be forwarded?"
"My name is Ashton," said the stranger; "but it is unnecessary to say that I called. It does not do to be mixed up with matters like these. I half feared something of the sort was brewing, but I had no idea tilings would have taken so sudden a turn."
Mr. Brunton could restrain his impatience no longer.
"Mr. Ashton," he said, coming suddenly upon the speakers, "will you favour me by stepping inside a minute or two? I shall be glad to speak to you."
Ashton was taken by surprise at seeing Mr. Brunton where he least expected to see him.
"I have been placed in the uncomfortable position of a listener to your conversation in the next room," said Mr. Brunton, closing the door; "and I cannot allow those remarks made by the clerk with whom you were talking to pass unqualified."
"They need little explanation, sir," said Ashton. "George Weston has been on the verge of a catastrophe for some months, and I believe I can fill in the outline of information which you heard given me."
"I am in ignorance of the causes which have led to my nephew's disgrace," answered Mr. Brunton; "nor am I desirous to hear them from any lips but his. You were one of his most intimate friends, I believe, Mr. Ashton?"
"Yes; I think I may say his most intimate friend."
"And you knew he was on the 'verge of a catastrophe.' I have no doubt you acted the part of a friend, and sought to turn his steps from the fatal brink?"
"Well, as to that, he was fully competent to manage his own affairs without my interference. I did tell him he would come to grief, if he did not give up playing."
"And did you add to that advice that he should quit those associates who had assisted to bring him to such a pass?"
"Certainly not; why should I meddle with him in his companionships? You speak, Mr. Brunton, as if I were your nephew's keeper. If George Weston liked to live beyond his means, he was at liberty to do it for me. I am sorry he made such a smash at last, but it is all that could be expected. If ever you see George again, sir, you will oblige me by conveying one message. I did not think when he came to me, two nights ago, to try and borrow a hundred pounds, that he intended to mix me up in any disgraceful business like that of this morning. Had I known it, instead of fretting myself about his welfare, he should have—"
"Made the discovery," interrupted Mr. Brunton, "that he never had a friend in you. My idea of a friend is one who seeks the well-being of another; speaks to him as a second conscience in temptation; loves with a strength of attachment which cannot be broken; and, though sorrowing over error, can still hope and pray for and seek to restore the erring. Mr. Ashton, I do not wish to say more upon this matter; it is painful for me to think how my nephew has been led downward, step after step, by those whom he thought friends, and how sinfully he has yielded. When you think of him, recollect him as the boy you knew at school, and try to trace his course down to this day. You know his history, his companionships, his whole life. Think whether you have influenced it, and how; and if your conscience should say, 'I have not been his friend,' may you be led by the remembrance to consider that no man liveth to himself: and that for those talents and attractions with which you are endowed, you will have hereafter to give account, together with the good or evil which has resulted from them."
To Ashton's relief the door opened, and Mr. Compton entered. Hastily taking up his hat, he bade adieu to Mr. Brunton, glad of this opportunity to beat a retreat.
"Confound those Methodists!" he uttered to himself, as he walked up Fleet-street; "speak to them, they talk sermons; strike them, and they defend themselves with sermons; cut them to the quick, and I believe they would bleed sermons. But why should he pounce upon me? What have I done? A pretty life George would have led if it hadn't been for me, and this is all the thanks I get. I wish to goodness he had not made such a fool of himself; I shall have to answer all inquiries about him, and it is no honour to be linked in such associations."
The meeting between Mr. Compton and Mr. Brunton was one of mingled feelings of pain and mortification. One had lost a valuable clerk, for whom he cherished more than ordinary feelings of regard, and upon whom he had hoped some day the whole management of the business would devolve; the other had lost almost all that was dear to him on earth, one whom he had watched, and loved, and worked for, and to whose bright future he had looked forward with increasing pleasure, until it had become a dream of life. Both were aggrieved, both were injured; but both felt, in their degree, such strong feelings in favour of George, despite his disgrace and crime, that they could look with more sorrow than anger on the offender, and deal more in kindness than in wrath.
Mr. Compton could not but agree with Mr. Brunton that he must be discovered, if possible; and although he could never receive him under any circumstances into his office again, nor could ever have for him the feelings he once entertained, still he felt free to adhere to his first determination not to prosecute or take any steps in the case, nor allow it to have more publicity than could be helped.
"He is still young," said he; "let him try to redeem the past. But it is right he should feel the consequences of his actions, and no doubt he will, as he has to encounter the difficulties which will meet him in seeking to retrieve the position he has lost. You know me too well, Brunton, to imagine that I do not estimate aright the extent of his guilt; and you will give me credit for possessing a desire to do as I would be done by in this case. I believe many a young man has been ruined through time and eternity, by having been dealt with too harshly—though in a legal sense quite justly; at the same time it has been the only course to check a growing habit of crime in others. I know well that in some instances it would be a duty to prosecute, if only as a protection from suspicion of upright persons. But there are exceptional cases, and I consider this to be one of them, although perhaps many of our leading citizens might think me culpable in my clemency; but I think I know your nephew sufficiently well to be warranted in the belief that he feels his criminality, and will take a lasting warning from this circumstance. And now, what do you intend to do, since you know my determination?"
Mr. Brunton explained the plans he had formed, and the valuable assistance which Hardy had rendered him. He was pleased to hear from his injured friend the heartily expressed wish that the end in view might be accomplished. Mr. Brunton had surmounted one great difficulty, and he could not feel sufficiently thankful at the issue. Although he had known Mr. Compton for many years, and had seen innumerable evidences of his benevolence and good nature, he knew, too, that he was the very personification of honesty and uprightness; and he dreaded lest, incensed against George for his ingratitude, and fearing the influence of his conduct might spread in the office, he would take measures against him which, although perfectly just, would, by their severity, prove deeply injurious in such a case, and reduce George, who was naturally sensitive of shame, to a position from which he might never be restored.
At the very earliest opportunity Mr. Brunton went down to Plymouth. Business of the greatest importance, which he could not set aside, had detained him in London until Friday, and his uneasiness had been increased during that time by two notes he had received—one from Mrs. Weston, and the other from Hardy—telling him of the unsuccessful issue of their search. With an anxious heart he alighted at the station at Plymouth, and walked to the hotel, where his sister and Hardy were staying. The look of despair he read in Mrs. Weston's countenance, as they met, told him that no favourable result had been obtained.
"We have been everywhere, and tried every possible plan to find poor George," she said, when Mr. Brunton sat down beside her and Hardy to hear the recital of their efforts. "I should have broken down long ago, had it not been for our dear friend here, who has been night and day at work, plotting schemes and working them out, and buoying me up with hopes in their result. But I feel sure George cannot be in Plymouth, and our search is vain."
"So Mrs. Weston has said all along," said Hardy; "but I cannot agree with her; at all events, I will not believe it until we find out where he has gone. He has not taken a passage in any of the vessels, as far as we can ascertain; he is not in any of the inns in the town, I think, for we have made the most searching inquiries at all of them; but in this large place it is difficult to find any one without some positive clue."
"Have you been able to find out whether he really arrived here?" asked Mr. Brunton.
"I think I have. One of the porters rather singularly recollected a person, answering to the description, arriving by the train in which George left London. It seems he was hastening away from the station without giving up his ticket No doubt he was nervous and absent in mind; and when the porter called to him, he started and seemed as if he were alarmed: but in a minute he produced his ticket and went out The porter looked suspiciously, I suppose, at the ticket, and evidently so at George, for he was able to give a full description of him."
"That is so far satisfactory," said Mr. Brunton; "but have you made any more discoveries to render you tolerably sure he is still in Plymouth."
"Yes, I have been to every shop where they fit out passengers for a sea voyage, and have found out one where he purchased some articles of clothing. But the clearest trace I have of him is from the shipping agents. He was certainly looking over vessels on the morning after his arrival here, for one or two captains have described him to me. I have been a great many times down among the shipping, but have not made more discoveries, and I cannot get any information from the shipping offices; but in this you will probably meet with more success, sir, than I have, for a young man is not of sufficient importance to command attention from business men."
Mr. Brunton was fully conscious of the difficulties which were in the way of finding George, even supposing he was still in Plymouth: but he was not without hope. He could not find words enough to express his strong approbation of all that Hardy had done, and he felt sure that he could have no better assistant in the undertaking than he. A series of plans were soon formed: Hardy was to keep watch upon those vessels which he thought it probable George might choose, and offer rewards to sailors and others for information. Mr. Brunton was to try and discover the names and descriptions of passengers booked at the shipping offices; and Mrs. Weston was to keep a general lookout on outfitters' warehouses, and other places where it might be probable George would visit.
But every plan failed. Saturday night came, and, worn out with fatigue, the anxious trio sat together to discuss the incidents of the day, and propose fresh arrangements for the morrow. Sunday was not a day of rest to them; from early morning they were all engaged in different directions in prosecuting their search, and not until the curtain of night was spread over the town, and the hum of traffic and din of bustle had ceased, did they return to the hotel.
After supper, Mr. Brunton took out his pocket Bible, and read aloud some favourite passages. They seemed to speak with a voice of hope and comfort, and inspired fresh faith in the unerring providence of Him who doeth all things well.
Very earnest were the prayers offered by that little party, as they knelt together and commended the wanderer, wherever he might be, to the care and guidance of the good providence of God. They felt how useless were all plans and purposes unless directed by a higher source than their own; and while they prayed for success upon the efforts put forth, if in accordance with His will, they asked for strength and resignation to bear disappointment Nor were their prayers merely that he whom they were seeking might be found, but that he might find pardon and acceptance with God, and that the evil which they lamented might, in the infinitely wise purposes of Providence, be controlled for good.
With fresh zeal and renewed hope the three set forth on the following morning to prosecute their several plans. Hardy had learned that one or two vessels would sail that day, and he was full of expectation that he might meet with some tidings.
Mr. Brunton felt rather unwell that morning—the press of business which had detained him in London, the excitement of the journey, and the fatigue of the previous days, had told upon his health. As he was passing through a quiet part of the town, he called in at an apothecary's to get a draught, which he hoped might ward off any serious attack of sickness. While the draught was being prepared, Mr. Brunton, who was intent upon his object and never left a stone unturned, interrogated the apothecary, a gentlemanly and agreeable man, upon the neighbourhood, the number of visitors in that locality, and other subjects, ending by saying he was trying to discover the residence of a relative, but without any knowledge of his address.
In the midst of the conversation, a servant-girl, without bonnet or shawl, came hurriedly into the shop, out of breath with running.
"Oh, sir, if you please, sir, missus says, will you come at once to see the young gentleman as stays at our house?—he's taken bad."
"Who is your mistress, my girl?" asked the chemist.
"Oh, sir, it's Mrs. Murdoch, of —— Street; and the young gentleman is a lodger from London, and he's going away to-morrow to the Indies or somewheres; but do come, sir, please—missus'll be frightened to death, all by herself, and him so dreadful bad."
Mr. Brunton had been an anxious listener. Was it possible that the young gentleman from London could be George?
"How long has your lodger been with you?" he asked the girl.
"A week come Wednesday—leastways, come Tuesday night,"—was the accurate answer.
Mr. Brunton, with eyes flashing with excitement, turned to the medical man. "Will you allow me to accompany you on this visit?" he asked; "I have reason to believe that your patient may be the relative for whom I am searching."
"Then come, by all means," answered the doctor; and, preceded by the girl, who was all impatience to get home, and kept up a pace which made Mr. Brunton puff lustily, they reached the house of Mrs. Murdoch.
THE SICK CHAMBER.
The sun had gone down, and the twilight was fast losing itself in night. The pale moon was struggling to look out upon the world through the dark, heavy clouds which had collected around, as if expressly to prevent this purpose. The hum of traffic in the street had ceased, and the only sounds that came in at the open window were strains of music, and the confused clamour of voices from a neighbouring tavern. The room was a picture of neatness. The bed was draped in snowy furniture, and the coverlid bore evidence of good taste and the ingenuity of industrious hands. The mantlepiece was adorned with a few photographs and a vase of fresh-gathered flowers.
Upon a table in the corner of the room stood a lamp, with a green shade over it to screen the light from the bed. Beside it were bottles, phials, and other appliances of a sick chamber.
A group stood round the bed, watching, with thrilling anxiety, the face of the doctor as he held the inanimate hand of George Weston.
You might have heard the ticking of his watch as he stood there and gazed in the face of the patient, while Mrs. Weston and Mr. Brunton and Charles Hardy waited motionless, almost breathless, to hear his verdict.
"It is a more serious case than I imagined at first," said the doctor; "I do not wish unnecessarily to alarm you, but it is my duty to say that the condition of the patient is one of great danger, but I trust not past recovery."
"What is the nature of the illness—tell me candidly?" asked Mr. Brunton, when he could command speech.
"Brain fever," was the laconic answer.
For a long time George Weston lay in that awful state which is neither death nor life—when the spirit seems to be hovering round the body, uncertain whether to wing its flight for ever from the tenement of earth, or return to sojourn still longer in its old familiar dwelling-house. Sometimes he would rave in the frenzy of madness, and then sink in exhaustion with scarcely the power to draw a breath.
Never was a sick-bed tended with greater care than his. Night after night Mrs. Weston sat beside him, bathing the fevered head and cooling the parched lips. Nor would she leave that post for a moment, until Mr. Brunton was obliged to insist upon her taking rest.
"Reserve your strength," he said; "we know not what is before us; it may be—but we have nothing to do with the future," he added, interrupting himself; "that must be left in His hands."
Hardy was not able to remain in Plymouth longer than Wednesday. Mr. Compton had written to him to say that, being short of hands, he was very much pressed in business, and now that the main object of his journey had been attained—for Mr. Brunton communicated with him almost immediately—he should be glad if he would return as soon as possible.
As he stood beside the bed of George Weston on the morning of his departure, and gazed into those pale and haggard features, which had always beamed with a friendly smile for him, but which he might never see again, he could not restrain the impulse of clasping his hand, and uttering solemnly the prayerful wish, "God preserve and bless you, George!"
The words were not heard by George—his ears were closed in dull insensibility—but they were caught by Mr. Brunton and Mrs. Weston, who that moment entered the room, and Hardy was startled to hear the earnest response to his prayer in their united "Amen!"
"And that prayer shall ever be offered for you, Charles," said Mrs. Weston; "I owe you a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. I shudder to think of what would have happened, had it not been for your kind, noble, manly friendship. Poor George would have suffered in this lonely place, away from all who loved him, and without proper care, perhaps have died—died afoot."
"You do not know how thankful I feel, Mrs. Weston, that our efforts have not been in vain. Pray write to me every day, to say how he is going on—if it is only just one line; and should there be any change for the—for the better, do let me know at once, that I may come down again, if only for a day, just to congratulate him."
"And if there is another change—a change for the worse?" asked Mrs. Weston, tearfully.
"Write, telegraph—pray let me know somehow," answered Hardy. "I could not bear to part with him without telling and showing him there was one of his old friends who loved him to the last. Good-bye, dear Mrs. Weston; do not over-tax your strength, and keep up a good heart; depend upon it, there are yet happy days for you and for George."
Mrs. Weston sadly missed her young friend after his departure. His hopeful spirits had helped to buoy up her expectations and assuage the sorrows of the present. It seemed as if the sun had hidden itself and the stars had refused their light during those long days when the mother sat watching at the bedside of her son. Mr. Brunton tried in every way to relieve her, but his own heart was heavy, and the two felt more at home in talking dolefully over the bad symptoms of the patient than in looking forward to the future.
But a day came when the strength of the fever abated, and reason returned to her long vacant throne.
It was toward evening: Mrs. Weston was sitting beside the bed, busily stitching away at her work, and Mr. Brunton was resting his head upon his hands as he turned over the pages of a book which he was trying to deceive himself into the belief he was reading, when a deep sigh caused them both to suspend their occupation.
George raised himself up in bed, and gazed round the room. The furniture screened the two watchers, and he fancied himself alone. He raised a pillow at his back, and reclining upon it in the placid calm of exhaustion, with his face turned toward the open window, watched the clouds as they crossed the blue expanse, and indulged in a half conscious reverie. Where had he been? Where was he? Had he passed the dark valley of the shadow of death, and were there angel forms in those snow-white clouds beckoning him away? What was that confused sound which rang in his ears? Was it the murmuring of the dark stream as it washed upon the untrodden shore?
No: there was the little room where he had taken his lodgings; there was the green paper on the wall with the large grape clusters; there was the sound of human voices in the street And the consciousness that he was alive, restored, flashed upon him with something of the bewildering astonishment and joy which Lazarus must have felt when he heard the words, "Come forth."
Too weak to rise, he was not too weak to pray. Clasping his hands together, and gazing up into the clear blue sky, from whence all clouds were now dispersing, he poured out his overflowing heart in thanksgiving.
He spoke with God. The tremulous voice gained strength, the power of faith and hope grew intensified, and he prayed with that love and fervour which the grateful child of a heavenly Parent can only feel.
Mrs. Weston and Mr. Brunton were paralyzed with astonishment; instinctively they shrank from disturbing that solemn time by coming forward to speak with George and letting him recognise them; but with a united impulse, both quietly and solemnly knelt down and joined in the song of thanksgiving.
Theirs was joy unspeakable; tears poured down both faces, and hushed sobs of rejoicing burst from their hearts. All their prayers and earnest longings had been answered; all their sorrow was turned into joy; and that Friend of friends, whose delights are with the children of men, had ordered, according to the tender mercy of His loving heart, all the evil into overwhelming good.
Presently the voice ceased; and, exhausted with the effort, George lay down in calm and blissful tranquillity to sleep.
As Mrs. Weston rose from her knees, her dress touched a book on the table, which fell to the ground. George was roused by the sound, and, trying to draw aside the curtain, said,—
"Is that you, Mrs. Murdoch?"
Mrs. Weston, although dreading the consequences of excitement, could restrain no longer the yearning of her motherly heart to embrace her son.
"No, George, my dearest boy, it is your mother."
"Mother! mother!" cried George, with the old former-day voice of love and joy, passionately kissing the face of beaming happiness bent over him, "Thank God you are here!"
From that day George began rapidly to improve. The excitement produced by the discovery that he had been sought and found, instead of doing him injury, relieved his already-oppressed mind from a weight of care. Every day brought fresh strength, and as he sat up in bed, carefully propped up by pillows, with his uncle on one hand and his mother on the other, he told them all the sorrowful and joyful details of his strange experiences until the eventful morning when his strength gave way.
"This is beginning life afresh, in every sense," he said; "here am I, a poor mortal, almost helpless, just strong enough to know how weak I am; and before me—if my life is spared—lies an untrodden path. But I begin my restored life, through God's infinite mercy, with a new inner life; and He who has given me that, will, I know, freely give me all things that shall be for my good."
Mrs. Weston never knew the fulness of joy before those days. Her only son, in whom all her brightest earthly hopes were centred, had ever been a source of deep anxiety to her. Her never-ceasing prayer had been that he might be what he now was—a child of her Father; and in the realization of her heart's desire she found such joy unspeakable, that all the cares and troubles of long, weary years seemed as though they had not been.
George was soon sufficiently restored to be able to leave his bed and sit up for a few hours on the sofa. The day for this trial of strength having been definitely fixed by the doctor, Mrs. Weston wrote at once to Hardy, inviting him, if he could manage to get away, to come down and celebrate the event.
The meeting between the two friends was as joyful as their parting had been sorrowful.
"George, my dear old boy," said Hardy, as he shook him by the hand, "it does my eyesight good to see you again."
"And it does my heart good to see you, old fellow," replied George, as he returned the pressure. "You don't know how I have longed for your coming, that I might tell you how deeply grateful I am to you for all your brotherly love—"
"Good-bye, George," said Hardy, taking up his hat and buttoning his coat; "I won't stay another minute unless you give over talking such stuff What I've done! Why, if my pup, Gip, were to run away, I should do for him what I have done for you—no more, no less. So let us drop the subject, that's a good fellow, and then I'll sit down and chat with you."
Never was there a pleasanter chat by any little party than by that which assembled in Mrs. Murdoch's best parlour that evening. All hearts were full of thankfulness, and though there were some painful subjects discussed, yet the joyful ones far more than counterbalanced them.
Mr. Brunton found out, in the course of the evening, that he had something very important to do, and probably Mrs. Weston discovered her assistance was needed as well, for the friends found themselves, after a while, alone, which was what they both wanted.
"You have heard, Hardy, of all the strange things that have happened to me?" George began, hesitatingly. "I should like to be able to tell you all about them; but, somehow, I don't know how to put such matters into words."
"You mean, George, that one great, solemn, joyful event which has made your life now something worth living for," said Hardy, relieving him of a difficulty. "I cannot tell you how glad I am to know it. The past two years have been funny ones to both of us. Religion has been ground on which we have not been able to tread together, as you know: but, thank goodness, that has all gone by. Now, I must tell you my mind, George," he continued, in that frank, manly way which was so natural to him; "I never gave you credit for sincerity when you took up with those strange notions which were so dangerous to you. I believed then that they were convenient principles, which might be stretched and made to agree with the dictates of your inclination. I do not say you did not believe what you professed, but I always thought that you forced yourself into that belief by self-deception. Now, wait, don't interrupt me. I know what you are going to say; but whatever harm you did to others—God only knows that—I do not think your change in sentiment did any harm to me! For this reason—I saw you were not straightforward with your own heart, and I felt sure you slighted that pure and holy religion in which we had been instructed from childhood, not because in your heart of hearts you disbelieved it, but because it condemned that course of conduct which you were pursuing. Now, was it not so?"
"Yes, Hardy, you are right. I can trace out now the processes of thought through which I passed, to lead me to think and act as I did; and I never knew before what a wretchedly poor thing a morally endowed, intelligent human being is in his own strength. I did not know how weak I was. I did feel sometimes oppressed with the idea that I was willingly blindfolding myself—but, somehow, an argument was always at hand to weigh down this feeling. But tell me why you think my endeavours to make you believe as I did never did you injury? God grant they may not to others."
"Why, when I observed you, as I tell you I did, it was impossible for me not to be on my guard. Nay, more, this question tormented me daily, 'You believe George disregards religion, because it condemns him; if you regard that religion, but do not practise it, does it not condemn you?' Now this was a home-thrust, George, which I could not parry off. I tried to determine not to be such a cowardly, mean-spirited creature as to try and cheat God by pretending to believe Him, and yet fight under false colours against Him; and so I gave up many of my old habits, and tried to start afresh. And now, George, you don't know how thankful I am that you are different to what you were. We have studied many things together, joined in many plans and purposes; and now I hope we shall be able to study the highest and best thing in earth or heaven—what God's will is, and how to do it."
* * * * *
That desire became the watchword of their lives.