"Bosh!" said Wilton; "who frightened him?"
"Silence, Wilton," said Whalley. "Well, Charlie, will you question him now for us?"
"That I will," said Charlie, advancing and putting his hand kindly round Elgood's shoulder, as he seated himself on the desk by which Elgood was standing. "Will you tell us, as I ask you, all you told me this morning?"
"Yes," said Elgood eagerly, while his whole manner changed from nervous tremor to perfect simplicity and quiet new that he had a friend to stand by him.
"Well, now, about the money you've been spending lately?" questioned Charlie, with a smile. "You usen't to be so flush of cash, you know, a month ago."
"I can tell you," answered Elgood; "I had a very large present—large for me, I mean—three weeks ago. My father sent me a pound, because it was my birthday, and my big brother and aunt sent me each a pound too."
"I can answer for that being perfectly true," said Charlie, "for I went with my brother to the post-office this afternoon and asked, and found that Elgood had had three money-orders changed there. And now, Elgood, can you trust me with your purse?"
"Of course I can, Charlie," said Elgood, readily producing it, and almost forgetting that the others were present.
"Ah, well, now you see I'm going to rifle it. Ah! what have we here? why, here's a whole sovereign, and eight shillings; that looks suspicious, doesn't it?" said Charlie archly.
"No," said Elgood, laughing; "you went with me yourself when I bought my desk for eighteen shillings, and the rest—"
"All right," said Charlie. "Look, you fellows: Elgood and I put down this morning the other things he's bought, and they come to fourteen shillings. I know they're right, for I didn't like Elgood to be wrongly suspected, so Walter want with me to the shops; indeed it was chiefly spent at Coles's"—at which remark they all laughed, for Coles's was the favourite "tuck shop" of the boys. "Well, now, 1 pound, 8 shillings plus 18 shillings plus 14 shillings makes 3 pounds, the sum which Elgood received from home. Is that plain?"
"As plain as a pike-staff," said Bliss; "and you're a little brick, Evson; and it's a chouse if any one suspects Elgood any more."
Wilton suggested something about Elgood being Whalley's fag.
"Shame, Raven," said Kenrick; "why, what a suspicious fellow you must be; there's no ground whatever to suspect Elgood now."
"I only want the fellow found out for the honour of the house," said Wilton, with a sheepish look at this third rebuff.
"Oh, I forgot about that for the moment," said Charlie; "Whalley, please, you know the time, don't you, when the money was taken from your desk?"
"Yes; it must have been between four and six, for I saw it safe at four, and it was gone when I came back after tea."
"Then all right," said Charlie joyfully, "for at that very time, all of it, Elgood was in my brother's study with me, learning some lessons. Now then, is Elgood clear?"
"As clear as noonday," shouted several of them, patting the poor child on the head.
"And really, Charlie, we're all very much obliged to you," said Whalley, "for setting this matter straight. But now, as it isn't Elgood, who is the thief? We must all set ourselves to discover."
"And we shall discover," said Bliss; "he's probably here now. Who is it?" he asked, glancing round. "Well, whoever it is, I don't envy him his sensations at this minute."
The meeting broke up, and Kenrick accompanied Whalley to his study to concert further measures.
"Have you any suspicion at all about it, Whalley?"
"Not the least. Have you? No. Well, then, what shall we do?"
"Why the thief isn't likely to visit your study again, Whalley; very likely he'll come to mine. Suppose we put a little marked money in the secret drawer. It's rather a joke to call it the secret drawer, for there's no secret about it; anyhow, it's an open secret."
"Very good; and then?"
"Why, you know the money generally goes at one particular time on half-holidays. I'm afraid the rogue, whoever he is, has got a taste for it by this time, and will come to money like a fly to a jam-pot. Now, outside my room, a few yards off, is the shoe-cupboard; what if you and I, and a few others, agree to shut ourselves up there in turns, now and then, on half-holidays between roll-call and tea-time?"
"I see," said Whalley; "well, it's horribly unpleasant, but I'll take my turn first. Isn't the door usually locked, though?"
"Yes, but so much the better; we can easily get it left open, and the thief won't suspect an ambuscade. He must be found out, for the sake of all the boys who are innocent and to wipe out the blot against the house."
"All right; I'll ensconce myself there to-morrow. I say, Ken, isn't young Evson a capital fellow? how well he managed to clear Elgood, didn't he? I declare he taught us all a lesson."
"Yes," said Kenrick; "he's his brother all over; just what Walter was when he came."
"What, you say that?" said Whalley, smiling and arching his eyebrows.
"Indeed I do," said Kenrick, with some sadness; "I haven't always thought so, the more's the pity;" and he left the room with a sigh.
After his turn for incarceration in the shoe-cupboard, Bliss complained loudly that it wasn't large enough to accommodate him, and that it cramped his long arms and legs, to say nothing of the unpleasant vicinity of spiders and earwigs. But the others, laughing at him, told him that, if the experiment was to be of any use whatever, they must persevere in it, and Bliss allowed himself to be made a victim. For a time nothing happened, but they had not to wait very long.
One day, Kenrick had been mounting guard for about half an hour, and was getting very tired, when a light and hasty step passed along the passage, and into his room. The boy found the study empty, and proceeded noiselessly to open Kenrick's desk, and examine the contents. At length he pulled open the secret drawer; it opened with a little click, and there lay before him two half-sovereigns and some silver. He was a wary fellow, for he scrutinised these all over most carefully to see if they were marked, and finding no mark of any kind on them—for it almost required a microscope to see the tiny scratch between the w.w. on the smooth edge of the neck—he took out his purse, and was proceeding to drop them into it, when a heavy hand was laid upon his shoulder, and Kenrick and Wilton—the detected thief—stood face to face. The purse dropped on the floor.
For a moment they stood silent, staring at each other, and drawing quick breaths. Wilton stood there pale as death, and looked up at Kenrick trembling, and with a frightened stare. It was too awful to be so suddenly surprised; to have had an unknown eye-witness standing by him all the while that, fancying himself unseen, he was in the very act of committing that secret deed of sin; to be arrested, detected, exposed, as the boy whose hidden misdoings had been, for so long, a source of discomfort, anxiety, and shame.
"You, Wilton—you, you, you, the disturber of the house, you, who have so long been treated by me as a friend, and allowed at all times to use my study; you, the foremost to throw the suspicion on others!" He stopped, breathless, for his indignation was rushing in too deep and strong a torrent to find vent in words.
"O Kenrick, don't tell of me."
"Don't tell of you! Good heavens! is that all you can find to say? Not one word of sorrow—not one word of shame. Abandoned, heartless, graceless fellow!"
"I was driven to it, Kenrick, indeed I was. I owed money to Dan, and to—to other places, and they threatened to tell of me if I didn't pay. Then Harpour and those fellows quite cleared me out at cards; I believe they did it by cheating. O, don't tell of me."
"I cannot screen a thief," was the freezing reply; and the change from flame to ice showed into what commotion his feelings had been thrown.
"Well, then, if it comes to that," said Wilton, turning sullen, "I'll tell of you. It'll all come out; remember it was you who first took me to Dan's, and that's not the only thing I could tell of you. O Kenrick, don't tell, or it will get us all into trouble."
"This, then, is the creature whom I have suffered to call me friend!" said Kenrick; "for whom I have given up some of the best friends in the school! And this is your gratitude! Why, you worm, Wilton, what do you take me for? Do you think that fear of your disclosures will make me hush up twenty thefts? You enlist the whole strength of my conscience against you, lest I should seem to screen you for my own sake. Faugh! your very touch sickens me!—go!"
"O Kenrick, don't be so angry; I didn't mean to say it; I didn't know what I was saying; I am driven into a corner by shame and misery. I know I have been a mean dog; but even if you tell of me, don't crush me so with your anger, for indeed, indeed, I have been grateful, and have loved you, Kenrick. But oh, don't tell, I implore, I entreat you, Ken. How little I thought that I should have to speak to you like this!"
But Kenrick could only say—"You the thief; you, the last fellow of all I should have suspected; you whom I have called friend, O heavens! Yes, I know that I've done you harm by bad example, I know that I've much to answer for but at any rate I never taught you to be a thief."
"But one thing comes of another, Ken; it all came of my being so much with those brutes, and going to Dan's; it all came of that. I shouldn't have thought myself that I could do it or do half the bad things I have done, two months ago. It all came of that; and you used to go with those fellows, Ken, and you went with me to Dan's;" and the boy wrung his hands, and wept, and flung himself on his knees. "I must tell all, if you tell of me."
"Say that again," said Kenrick, spurning him scornfully away, "say it once again, and I go straight to Dr Lane. Poor worm, you don't understand me, you don't seem to have the capability of a high thought in you. I tell you that nothing you can say of me shall shake my purpose. I am going now."
But before he could get his straw hat Wilton had clasped him by the knees, and in a voice of agony was beseeching him to relent.
"It's all true, Kenrick; I am base, I know it; I have quenched all honour in me. I won't say that again, but do, for God's sake, forgive me this once, and not tell of me. O Kenrick, have you never had to say forgive? Do, do, pity me, as you hope to be forgiven; don't ruin me, and give me a bad name; I am so young, so young, and have fallen into bad hands from the first."
He still knelt on the floor, exhausted with the violence of his passion, hanging his head upon his breast, sobbing as if his heart would break. It was sad to see him, a mere child still, who might have been so different, long a little reprobate, and now a convicted thief. His face bathed in tears, his voice choked with sobs, the memory of the past, consciousness that much which he said was only too true, touched Kenrick with compassion; the tears rolled down his own face fast, and he felt that, though personal fear could not influence him, pity would perhaps force him to relent, and wring from him in his weakness a reluctant promise not to disclose Wilton's discovered guilt.
"What can I say to you, Wilton? you know that I have liked you, but I never thought that you could act like this."
"Nor I, Kenrick, a short time ago; but the devil tempted me, and I have never learned to resist."
"From my very heart I do pity you; but I fear I must tell; I fear it's my duty, and I have neglected so many that I dare neglect no more; though indeed, I'd rather have had any duty but this."
Wilton was again clasping his knees and harrowing his soul by his wild anguish, imploring to be saved from the horror of open shame, and, accustomed as Kenrick was to grant anything to this boy, he was reduced to great distress. Already his whole manner had relented from the loathing and anger he first displayed. He could stand no more at present.
"O Wilton," he said, "you will make me ill if you go on like this. I cannot, must not, will not make you any promise now; but I will think what to do."
"I will go," said Wilton, deeply abashed; "but before I go, promise me one thing, Ken, and that is, even if you tell of me, don't quite cast me off. I shouldn't like to leave and think that I hadn't left one behind me to give me a kind thought sometimes."
"O Ra, Ra, to think that it was you all the while who were committing all these thefts!"
"You will cast me off then?" said Wilton, in a voice broken by penitence; "O! what a bitter bitter thing it is to feel shame like this."
"I have felt it too in my time, Raven. Poor, poor fellow! who am I that I should cast you off? No, you unhappy child, I may tell of you, but I will not cease to be fond of you. Go, Wilton; I will decide between this and tea-time—you may come and hear about it after tea."
He was already outside the door when Kenrick called out "Wilton, stop!"
"What is it?" asked Wilton, returning alarmed, for conscience had made him a coward.
"There!" Kenrick only pointed to the purse lying on the floor.
"Oh, don't ask me to touch it again, the money is in it," said Wilton, hastily leaving the room. There was no acting here; it was plain that he was penitent—plain that he would have given worlds not to have been guilty of the sin.
Very sadly, and with pain and doubt, Kenrick thought the matter over, and thus much at least was clear to him: first, that the house must be informed, though not necessarily the masters or the other boys; secondly, that Wilton must make full and immediate restitution to all from whom he had stolen; thirdly, there could be no doubt about it, that Wilton must get himself removed at once. On these conditions he thought it possible that the matter might be hushed up; but his conscience was uneasy on this point. That unlucky threat or hint of Wilton's, that he could and would tell some of his wrong-doings, was his great stumbling-block; whenever extreme pity influenced him to screen the poor boy from full exposure, he began to ask himself whether this was a mere cowardly alternative suggested by his own fears. But for this, he would have determined at once on the more lenient and merciful course; but he had to face this question of self-interest very earnestly, nor could he come to any conclusion about it until he had determined to take a step in all respects worthy of the highest side of his character, by going, in any case, spontaneously to Dr Lane and laying before him a frank confession of past delinquencies, leaving him to act as he thought fit.
Having thus disentangled the question from all its personal bearings he was able to review it on its merits, and went to ask the counsel of Whalley, to whom he related, in confidence, the whole scene exactly as it had occurred. Whalley, too, on hearing the alternative conditions which Kenrick had planned, was fully inclined to spare Wilton as much as possible, but, as neither of them felt satisfied to do this on their own authority, they sought Power's advice and, as he too felt very doubtful on the matter, he suggested that they should put it to Dr Lane, without mentioning any names, as a hypothetical case, and be finally guided by his directions.
Accordingly Kenrick sought Dr Lane's study, and laid the entire difficulty before him. He listened attentively, and said, "If the boy is so young, and has been, as you say, misled, and accepts the very sensible conditions which you have proposed, I am inclined to think that the course you have suggested will be the wisest and the kindest one. You have my full authority, Kenrick, to arrange it so, and I am happy to tell you that you have behaved throughout this matter in an honourable and straightforward way."
"I fear, sir, I very little deserve your approval," said Kenrick, with downcast eyes. "In coming to ask your advice in this case, I wanted also to say that I have gone so far wrong that I think you ought to be told how badly I have behaved. It may be that after what I say, you may not think right to allow me to stay here, sir; but at any rate I shall have disburdened my own conscience by telling you, and shall perhaps feel less wretched."
"My dear Kenrick," said Dr Lane, "it was a right and a brave thing of you to come here for this purpose. Confession is often the first, as it is one of the most trying parts of repentance; and I hail this as a new proof of your strong and steady desire to amend. But tell me nothing, my dear boy. It may be that I know more than you suppose; at any rate, I accept the will for the deed, and wish to hear no more, unless, indeed, you desire to consult me as a clergyman, and as your spiritual adviser, rather than as your master. I do not seek this confidence; only if there is anything on your conscience of which my advice may help to relieve you, I do not forbid you to proceed, and I will give you what help I can."
"I think it would relieve me, sir," said Kenrick; "I have no father; I have, I am sorry to say, no friend in the school to whom I could speak."
"Then sit down, Kenrick, and be assured beforehand of my real sympathy."
He sat down, and, twitching nervously at the ribbon of his straw hat, told Dr Lane much of the history of the last two years, confessing, above all, how badly he had behaved as head of the house, and how much harm he feared his example had done.
Dr Lane did not attempt to extenuate the heinousness of his offence, but he pointed out to him what were the fruits and the means of repentance. He exhorted him to let the sense of his past errors stimulate him to double future exertions. He told him of many ways in which, by kindness, by moral courage, by Christian principle, he might be a help and a blessing to other boys. He earnestly warned him to look to God for strength, and to watch and pray lest he should enter into temptation. And then promising him a full and free oblivion of the past, he knelt down with him and offered up from an overflowing heart a few words of earnest prayer.
"There is nothing like prayer to relieve the heart, Kenrick," said Dr Lane; "and now, good-night, and God bless you!"
With a far lighter heart, with far brighter hopes, Kenrick left him, feeling as if a great burden had been rolled away, and inwardly blessing the doctor for his comforting kindness. He found Wilton anxiously awaiting his arrival in his study; and thinking that their cases in some respects resembled each other, he strove not to be like the unforgiving debtor of the parable, and spoke to Wilton with great gentleness.
"Come here, my poor child; first of all, let me tell you that you shall not be reported." Wilton repaid him by a look of grateful joy.
"But you must restore all the stolen money, Wilton; the house must be told privately; and you must leave at once."
"Well, Kenrick, I ask only one favour," said Wilton, after a short pause.
"What is that?"
"That the house may not be told who stole the money until it is nearly time for me to go."
"No; it shall be kept close till then, otherwise the next fortnight would be too hard for you to bear."
"But must I leave?" asked Wilton, appealingly.
"It must be so, Wilton; I shall be sorry for you, but it must be settled so. Can you manage it?"
"O yes," said Wilton, crying quietly; "I'll write home and tell my poor mother all about it, and then of course she'll send me some money and take me away at once, to save me from being expelled. My poor mother, how wretched it will make her!"
"Sin makes us all wretched, Raven boy. I'm sure it makes me wretched enough. And that you mayn't think that fear has had anything to do with our letting you off, I must tell you, Wilton, that I've been to Dr Lane himself and told him all the many sins I've been guilty of."
"Have you? Oh! I'm so sorry; it was all through me."
"Yes; but I'm not sorry; I'm all the happier for it, Raven. There's nothing so miserable as undiscovered sin—is there?"
"Oh, indeed, there isn't. I'm sure I feel happier now in spite of all. No one knows, Ken, how I've suffered this last fortnight. I've been in a perpetual fright; I've had fearful dreams; I've felt ready to sink for shame; and I've always been fancying that fellows suspected me. Do you know, I am almost glad you caught me, Ken. I'm very glad it was you and no one else, though it was a horrid, horrid moment when you laid your hand on my shoulder. Yet even this isn't so bad as to have gone on nursing the guilt secretly, and not to have been detected."
Kenrick was musing; the boy who could talk like that was clearly one who might have beer, very unlike what Wilton then was.
"Wilton," he said, "come here and draw your chair by mine while I read you a little story."
"O Ken, I'm so grateful that you don't hate and despise me though I am a—"; he murmured the word "thief" with a shudder, and under his breath, as he drew up his chair, and Kenrick read to him in a low voice the story of Achan, till he came to the verses—
"And Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken.
"And Joshua said, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done, hide it not from me.
"And Achan answered Joshua and said, Indeed I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done."
And there Kenrick stopped, while Wilton said, "My son! You see Joshua still called him 'my son' in spite of all his sin and mischief."
"Yes, Raven boy, but that wasn't why I read you the story which has often struck me. What I wanted you to see was this: The man was detected—the thing had been coming, creeping horribly near to him; first his tribe marked by the fatal lot, then his family, then his house, then himself; and while he's standing there, guilty and detected, in the very midst of that crowd who had been defeated because of his baseness, and when all their eyes were scowling on him, and when he knows that he, and his sons, and his daughters, are going to be burned and stoned—at this very moment Joshua says to him, 'My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the God of Israel.' You see he's to thank God for detecting him—thank God even at that frightful moment, and with that frightful death before him as a consequence. One would have thought that it wasn't a matter for much gratitude or jubilation; but you see it was, and so both Joshua and Achan seem to have admitted."
"Ah, Kenrick!" said Wilton, sadly, "if you'd always talked to me like that, I shouldn't be like Achan now."
Kenrick said nothing, but as he had received infinite comfort from Dr Lane's treatment of himself, he took Wilton by the hand, and, without saying a word, knelt down. Wilton knelt down beside him, and he prayed for forgiveness for them both. A few broken, confused, uncertain words only, but they were earnest, and they came fresh and burning from the heart. They were words of true prayer, and the poor, erring, hardened little boy rose from his knees too overcome to speak.
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.
THE RECONCILIATION AND THE LOSS.
The few remain, the many change and pass, Heaven's light alone remains, earth's shadows flee; Life, like a dome of many coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity, Until death shiver it to atoms.
The termination of Wilton's sojourn at Saint Winifred's soon arrived. As yet none but the two head boys in the house knew of his detection. The thefts indeed had ceased; but the name of the offender was still a matter of constant surmise, and it was no easy task for Wilton— conscious how soon they would be informed—to listen to the strong terms of disgust which were applied to the yet unknown delinquent. The barriers of his conceit, his coolness, his audacity, were all broken down; he was a changed boy; his manner was grave and silent, and he almost hid himself during those days in Kenrick's study, where Kenrick, with true kindness, still permitted him to sit.
Meanwhile it became generally known that he was going to leave almost immediately; and as boys often left in this way at the division of the quarter, his departure, though rather sudden, created no astonishment, nor had any one as yet the most distant conjecture as to the reasons which led to it. It is not too much to say, that Wilton was one of the last boys whom the rest would have suspected; they knew indeed that he never professed to be guided by any strong moral principles; but they thought him an unlikely fellow to be guilty of acts which sinned so completely against the schoolboy's artificial code, and which branded him who committed them with the charge of acknowledged meanness.
On the very evening of his departure, the house was again summoned by a notice from Whalley and Kenrick to meet in the classroom after Preparation. They came, not knowing for what they were summoned. Whalley opened the proceedings by requesting that any boy who had of late had money stolen from him would stand up. Four or five of them rose, and on stating the sums, mostly small, which they had lost, immediately received the amount from Whalley, much to their surprise, and no less to their content.
The duty which still remained was far less pleasing and more delicate, and it was by Wilton's express and earnest request that it was undertaken by Kenrick and not by Whalley. It was a painful moment for both of them when Kenrick rose, and very briefly, with all the forbearance and gentleness he could command, informed the house that there was every reason to hope that, from that time forward, these thefts which had caused them all so much distress, would cease. The offender had been discovered, and he begged them all, having confidence that they would grant the request, not to deal harshly with him, or think harshly of him. The guilty boy had done all that could be done by making full and immediate restitution, so that none of them now need remember any injury received at his hands, except Elgood, on whom suspicion had been unjustly thrown, and whose forgiveness the boy earnestly begged.
At this part of his remarks there arose in the deep silence a general murmur of "Who is it? who is it?"
Wilton, trembling all over with agitation and excitement? was seated beside Kenrick, and had almost cowered behind him for very shame, but now Kenrick stood aside, and laying his hand on Wilton's head, continued, "He is one of ourselves, and he is sitting here," while Wilton covered his face with both hands, and did not stir.
An expression of surprise and emotion thrilled over all the boys present; not a word was spoken; and immediately after Kenrick said to them, "He is punished enough; you can understand that this is a terrible thing for him. He has made reparation as far as he can, and besides this, he is on this account going to leave us to-day. I may tell you all, too, that he is very, very, very sorry for what he has done, and has learned a lesson that he will carry with him to his grave. May I assure him that we all forgive him freely? May I tell him that we are grieved to part with him, and most of all grieved for this which has caused it? May I tell him that, in spite of all, he carries with him our warmest wishes and best hopes, and that he leaves no enemy behind him here?"
"Yes, yes!" was murmured on all sides, and while the sound of Wilton's crying sounded through the room, many of the others were also in tears. For this boy was popular; bad as he had been—and the name of his sins was legion—there was something about him which had endeared him to most of them. Barring this last fault, they were generally proud of him; there had been a certain generosity about him, a gay thoughtlessness, a boyish daring, which won their admiration. He was a promising cricketer, active, merry, full of spirits: before he had been so spoiled by the notice of bigger fellows, there was no one who did not like him and expect that he would turn out well.
"Then my unpleasant task is over," said Kenrick, "and I have no more to say. Oh, yes; I had forgotten, there was one very important thing I had to say, as Whalley reminds me. It is this: You know that the Noelites have kept other secrets before now, not always good secrets, I am sorry to say. But will you all now keep this an honourable secret? Will you not mention (for there is no occasion for it) to any others in the school, who it was that took the money? The matter will very soon be forgotten; do not let Wilton's sin be bruited through the whole school, so as to give him a bad name for life."
"Indeed we won't, not one of us will tell," said the boys, and they kept the promise admirably afterwards.
"Then we may all separate. You may bid Wilton good-bye now if you wish to do so, for he starts to-night, almost at once; the carriage is waiting for him now, and you will have no opportunity of seeing him again."
They flocked round him and said "good-bye" without one word of reproach, or one word calculated to wound his feelings; many of them added some sincere expressions of their good wishes for the future. As for Wilton himself, he was far too much moved to say much to them, but he pressed their hands in silence, only speaking to beg Elgood to pardon his unkindness, which the little fellow begged him not to think of at all.
Charlie Evson lingered among the last, and spoke to him with frank and genial warmth.
"How you must hate me, Charlie, for annoying you so, and trying to lead you wrong!" said Wilton, penitently.
"Indeed I don't, Wilton," said Charlie; "I wish you weren't going to leave. I'm sure we should all get on better now."
"Don't think me as bad as I have seemed, Charlie. I was ashamed at heart all the time I was trying to persuade you to crib and tell lies, and do like other fellows. I felt all the while that you were better than me."
"Well, good-bye, Wilton. Perhaps we shall meet again some day, and be good friends; and I wish you happiness with all my heart."
Charlie was the last of them, and Kenrick and Wilton were left alone. For Wilton's sake Kenrick tried to show all the cheerfulness he could, as he went with him through the now silent and deserted court to the gate where the carriage was waiting.
"Have you got all your luggage, and everything all right, Raven?"
"Yes, everything," he said, taking one last long look at the familiar scene. It was dim moonlight; the lights twinkled in the studies where the upper boys were working, and in the dormitories where the rest were now going to bed. The tall trees round the building stood quite black against the faintly-lighted sky, waving their thinned remnant of yellow leaves in the November air. In the stillness you heard every slight sound; and the murmur of boys' voices came mingled with the plashing of the mountain stream, and the moaning of the low waves as they broke upon the shore. A merry laugh rang from one of the dormitories, jarring painfully on Wilton's feelings, as he stood gazing round in silence.
He got into the carriage, sighing heavily and grasping Kenrick's hand.
"Well, good-bye, Ken; it must be said at last. May I write to you?"
"I wish you would. I shall be so glad to hear of you."
"And you will answer me, Ken?"
"Of course I will, my poor child. Good-bye. God bless you!" They still lingered for a moment, and Kenrick saw in the moonlight that Wilton's face was bathed in tears.
"All right, sir?" said the driver.
"Yes," said Wilton; "but it's all wrong, Ken, I think. Good-bye." He waved his hand, the carriage drove off into the darkening night with the little boy alone, and Kenrick with a sinking heart strolled back to his study. Do not pry into his feelings, for they were very terrible ones, as he sat down to his books with the strong conviction that there is nothing so good as the steady: fulfilment of duty for the driving away of heavy thoughts.
All his time was taken up with working for the scholarship. It was a scholarship of ninety pounds a year for four years, founded by a princely benefactor of the school, but only falling vacant biennially. There were other scholarships besides this, but this was by far the most valuable one at Saint Winifred's; the tenure of it was circumscribed by no conditions, and it was therefore proportionably desirable that Kenrick, who was poor, should obtain it. He had, indeed, hardly a chance, as he well knew; for even if he succeeded in beating Walter, he could not expect to beat Power. But Power, though a most graceful and finished scholar, was not strong in mathematics, and as they counted something in the examination, Kenrick's chief chance lay in this, for as a scholar he was by no means to be despised; and with a just reliance on his own abilities, he hoped, if fortunate, to make up for being defeated in classics, by being considerably ahead in the other branches of the examination. How he longed now to have at his command the time he had so largely wasted! Had he but used that aright he might have easily disputed the palm in any competition with Power himself. Few boys had been gifted with stronger intellects or clearer heads than he. But though fresh time may be carefully and wisely used, the past time that has once been wasted can never be recovered or redeemed.
And as he worked hard day by day the time quickly flew by, the scholarship examination took place, and the Christmas holidays came on. The result of the competition could not be known until the boys returned to school.
Mrs Kenrick thought that this Christmas was the happiest she had known. They spent it, of course, very quietly. There were for them none of those happy family gatherings and innocent gaieties that made the time so bright for others, yet still there was something peaceful and something brighter than usual about them. Harry's manner, she thought, was more affectionate, more tenderly respectful, than it often was. There seemed to be something softer and more lovable about his ways. He bore himself with less haughty indifference towards the Fuzbeians; he entered with more zest into such simple amusements as he could invent or procure; he condescended to play quite simply with the curate's little boys, and seemed to be more humble and more contented. She counted the days he spent with her as a miser counts his gold; and he, when he left her, seemed more sorry to leave, and tried to cheer her spirits, and did not make so light, as his wont had been, of the grief which the separation caused.
The first event of importance on the return of the boys to school, was the announcement of the scholarship. The list was read from the last name upwards; Henderson stood sixth, Kenrick third, Evson second, Power first. "But," said Dr Lane, "Power has communicated to me privately that he does not wish to receive the emoluments of the scholarship, he will therefore be honorary scholar, while the scholarship itself will be held by Evson."
Disappointed at the result, as he undoubtedly was, yet Kenrick would have been glad at that moment to be able to congratulate Walter. He took it very quietly and well. Sorrow and failure had come on him so often lately, that he hardly looked for anything else; so, when he had heard the result announced, he tried to repress every melancholy thought and walking back to his study, resumed his day's work as though nothing had happened.
And as he sat there, making believe to work, but with thoughts which, in spite of himself, sadly wandered, there was a knock at the door, and to his great joy, no less than to his intense surprise, Walter Evson entered.
"O Evson," he said, blushing with awkwardness, as he remembered how long a time had passed since they had exchanged a word; "I'm glad you've come. Sit down. Let me congratulate you."
"Thanks, Kenrick," said Walter, holding out his hand; "I thought we had gone on in this way long enough. I have never had any ill-feeling for you, and I feel sure now from your manner that you have none towards me."
"None, Walter, none; I had at one time, but it has long ceased; my error has long been explained to me. I have done you wrong, Walter, for two years and more; it has been one of my many faults, and the chief cause of them all. Can you forgive me?"
"Heartily, Ken, if I have anything to forgive. We have both been punished enough, I think, in losing the happiness which we should have been enjoying if we had continued friends."
"Ah, Walter, it pains me to think of that irrevocable past."
"But, Ken, I have come now for a definite purpose," said Walter. "You'll promise me not to take offence?"
"Never again, Walter, with you."
"Well, then, tell me honestly, was it of any consequence to you to gain this scholarship, in which, so unexpectedly to myself, some accident has placed me above you?"
Kenrick reddened slightly, and made no answer, while Walter quickly continued—"You know, Ken, that I am going to stay here another year; are you?"
"I'm afraid not; my guardian does not think that we can afford it."
"Well, then, Ken, I think I may say, without much presumption, that, as I stay here for certain, I may safely reckon on getting a scholarship next year. At any rate, even if I don't, my father is quite rich enough to bear my university expenses unaided without any inconvenience. It would be mere selfishness in me, therefore, to retain this scholarship, and I mean to resign it at once; so that let me now congratulate you heartily on being Marsden scholar."
"Nay, Walter, I can't have you make this sacrifice for my sake."
"You can't help it, Ken; for this is a free country," said Walter, smiling, "and I may waive a scholarship if I like. But it's no sacrifice whatever, my dear fellow; don't say anything more about it. It gives me ten times the pleasure that you should hold it rather than I. So again I congratulate you; and now, as you must have had enough of me, I'll say good morning."
He rose with a smile to leave the room, but Kenrick, seizing him by the hand, exclaimed—
"O Walter, you heap coals of fire on my head. Am I never to receive anything from you but benefits which I can never return?"
"Pooh, Ken, there are no benefits between friends; only let us not be silent and distant friends any longer. Power is coming into my study to tea to-night; won't you join us as in old days?"
"I will, Walter; but can the ghost of old days be called to life?"
"Perhaps not; but the young present, which is no ghost, shall replace the old past, Ken. At six o'clock, mind. Good-bye."
"Don't go yet: do stay a little. It is a greater pleasure than I can tell you to see you here again, Walter. I want to have a talk with you."
"To make up for two years' arrears, eh, Ken? Why, what a pretty little study you've got! Isn't it odd that I should never have been in it before? It seems quite natural to me to be here, somehow. You must come and see mine this evening; I flatter myself it equals even Power's, and beats Flip's in beauty, and looks out on the sea: such a jolly view. But you mustn't see it till this evening. I shall make Charlie put it to rights in honour of your visit. Charlie beats any fag for neatness; why did you turn him off, eh? I've made him my fag now, to keep his hand in."
"Let him come back to me now, Walter; I'm sadder and wiser since those days."
"That I will, gladly. I know, too, that he'll be delighted to come. Ah, Wilton's photograph, I see," said Walter, still looking about him, "I thought him greatly improved before he left."
Kenrick was pleased to see that Walter had no suspicion why he left, so that the secret had been kept. They talked on very, very pleasantly, for they had much to say to each other, and Walter had, by his simple, easy manner, completely broken the ice, and made Kenrick feel at home with him again. Kenrick was quite loth to let him go, and kept detaining him so eagerly that more than half an hour, which seemed like ten minutes, had slipped away before he left. Kenrick looked forward eagerly to meet him again in the evening, with Power, and Henderson, and Eden; their meeting would fitly inaugurate his return to the better feelings of past days; but it was not destined that the meeting should take place; nor was it till many evenings afterwards that Kenrick sat once more in the pleasant society of his old friends.
When Walter had at last made good his escape, playfully refusing to be imprisoned any longer, Kenrick rose and paced the room. He could hardly believe his own happiness; it was the most delightful moment he had experienced for many a long day; the scholarship, so long the object of his hope and ambition, was now attained; impossible as it had seemed, it was actually his, and, at the same moment, the truest friend of his boyhood—the friend for whose returning respect and affection he so long had yearned—was at last restored to him.
With an overflowing heart he sat down to write to his mother, and communicate the good news that he was reconciled to Walter, and that Power and Walter had resigned the scholarship in his favour. He had never felt in happier spirits than just then; and then, even at the same moment, the cup of sincere and innocent joy, so long untasted, was, with one blow, dashed away from his lip.
For at that moment the post came in, and one of his fags, humming a lively tune, came running with a letter to his door.
"A letter for you, Kenrick," the boy said, throwing it carelessly on the table, and taking up his merry song as he left the room. But Kenrick's eyes were riveted on the letter: it was edged with the deepest black, and bore the Fuzby post-mark. For a time he sat stupidly staring at it: he dared not open it.
At length he made an effort, and tore it open. It was a rude, blurred scrawl from their old servant, telling him that his mother had died the day before. A brief note enclosed in this, from the curate of the place, said, "It is quite true, my poor boy. Your mother died very suddenly of spasms in the heart. God's ways are not as our ways. I have written to tell your guardian, and he will no doubt meet you here."
Kenrick remained stupefied, unable to think, almost unable to comprehend. He was roused to his senses by the entrance of his fag to remove his breakfast things, which still lay on the table; and with a vague longing for some comfort and sympathy, he sent the boy to Walter with the message that Kenrick wanted him.
Walter came at once, and Kenrick, not trusting his voice to speak, pushed over to him the letter which contained the fatal news. In such a case human consolation cannot reach the sorrow. It passes like the idle wind over the wounded heart. All that could be done by words, and looks, and acts of sympathy Walter did; and then went to arrange for Kenrick's immediate journey, not returning till he came to tell him that a carriage was waiting to take him to the train.
That evening Kenrick reached the house of death, which was still as death itself. The old faithful servant opened the door to his knock, and using her apron to wipe her eyes, which were red with long weeping, she exclaimed—
"O Master Harry, Master Harry, she's gone. She had been reading and praying in her room, and then she came down to me quite bright and cheerful, when the spasms took her, and I helped her to bed, and she died."
Harry flung down his hat in the hall, and rushed up stairs to his mother's room, but when he had opened the door, he stood awe-struck and motionless—for he was alone in the presence of the dead.
The light of winter sunset was streaming over her, whose life had been a winter day. Never even in life had he seen her so lovely, so beautiful with the beauty of an angel, as now with the smiling never-broken calm of death upon her. Over the pure pale face, from which every wrinkle made by care and sorrow had vanished, streamed the last cold radiance of evening, Illuminating the peaceful smile, and seeming to linger lovingly as it lit up strange glories in the golden hair, smoothed in soft bands over her brow. There she lay with her hands folded, as though in prayer, upon her quiet breast; and the fitful fever of life had passed away. Dead—with the smile of heaven upon her lips, which should never leave them more!
Hers had been a hard, mysterious life. In all the sweet bloom of her youthful beauty she had left her rich home, not, indeed, without the sanction, but against the wishes of her relatives, to brave trial and poverty with the man she loved. How bitter that poverty, how severe, how unexpected those trials had proved to be, we have seen already; and then, still young, as though she were meant to tread with her tender feet the whole thorny round of human sorrow, she had been left a widow with an only son. And during the eight years of her widowed loneliness, her relatives had neglected with cold pride both her and her orphan boy; even that orphan boy, in the midst of all his love for her, had by his pride and waywardness caused her many an anxious hour and many an aching heart, yet she clung to him with an affection whose yearning depth no tongue can utter. And now, still young, she had died suddenly, and left him on the threshold of dangerous youth almost without a friend in the wide world; had passed, with a silence which could never more be broken, into the eternal world; had left him, whom she loved with such intensity of unspeakable affection, without a word, without a look, without a sign of farewell. She had passed away in a moment to the far-off untroubled shore, whence waving hands cannot be seen, and no sounds of farewell voices heard. How must that life expand in the unconceived glory of that new dawn—the life which on earth so little sunshine visited!
She was one of the most sweet, the most pure, the most unselfish, the most beautifully blameless of all God's children; and she had lived in hardship, in neglect, in anxiety, in calumny; she had lived among those mean and wretched villagers: an angel was among them, and they knew it not; she had tasted no other drink but the bitter waters of affliction; no hope had brightened, no love sustained, her earthly course. And now her young orphan son, his heart dead within him for anguish, his conscience tortured by remorse, was kneeling in that agony which no weak words can paint, was kneeling for the last time, too late, beside her corpse.
Truly life is a mystery, which the mind of man cannot fathom till the glory of eternal truth enlighten it!
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
THE STUPOR BROKEN.
The white stone, unfractured, ranks as most precious; The blue lily, unblemished, emits the finest fragrance; The heart, when it is harassed, finds no place of rest; The mind, in the midst of bitterness, thinks only of grief.
The Sorrows of Han, a Chinese Tragedy.
After these days Kenrick returned to Saint Winifred's, as he supposed, for the last time. His guardian, a stiff, unsympathising man, had informed him, that as his mother's annuity ceased with her life, there was very little left to support him. The sale, however, of the house at Fuzby, and the scholarship which he had just won, would serve to maintain him for a few years, and meanwhile his guardian would endeavour to secure for him a place in some merchant's office, where gradually he would be able to earn a livelihood.
It was a very different life from that which this fine, clever high-spirited boy had imagined for himself, and he looked forward to the prospect with settled despair. But he seemed now to regard himself as a victim of destiny, regretting nothing, and opposing nothing, and caring for nothing. He told Walter with bitter exaggeration "that he must indeed thank him for giving up the scholarship, as he supposed that it had saved him from starvation. His guardian, who had a family of his own, didn't seem to care a straw for him; and he had no friend in the world besides."
And as, for days and weeks, he brooded over these gloomy thoughts and sad memories, he fell into a weary, broken, aimless kind of life. Many tried to comfort him, but they could not reach his sorrow; in their several ways his school friends did all they could to cheer him up, but they all failed. He grew moody, solitary, silent. Walter often sought him out, and talked in his lively, cheerful, happy strain; but even his society Kenrick seemed to shun. He was in that morbid, unhealthy state when to meet others inspires a positive shrinking of mind. He seemed to have no pleasure except in shutting himself up in his study, and in taking long lonely walks. He performed his house duties mechanically, and by routine; when he read the lessons in chapel, his voice sounded as though it came from afar, like the voice of one who dreamed; he sat with his books before him for long hours, and made no progress, hardly knowing the page on which he was employed. In school, he sat listlessly playing with his pen, taking no notes, seeming as though he heard nothing, and was scarcely aware of what was going on. His friends could not guess what would come of it, but they grew afraid for him when they saw him mope thus inconsolably, and pine away without respite, till his eyes grew heavy, and his face pale and thin. He had changed all his ways; he seemed to have altered his very nature; he played no games, took no interest in anything, and dropped all his old pursuits. His work was quite spiritless, and he grew so absent that he forgot the commonest occupations of every day—living as in a waking sleep.
Power and Walter, in talking of him, often wondered whether it was the uncertainty of his future prospects which had thus affected him; and in the full belief that this must have something to do with his morbid melancholy, Power mentioned the matter to Dr Lane as soon as he had the opportunity.
Dr Lane had observed, with much pity, the depression which had fastened on Kenrick like a disease. He was not surprised to see him come back deeply affected; but if "the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts," its sorrows are usually short and transient, and he looked upon it as unnatural that Kenrick's grief should seem thus incurable, and that a young boy like him should thus refuse to be comforted. It was not long before he introduced the subject, while talking to Power after looking over his composition.
"Kenrick has just been here, Power," he said; "it pains me to see him so sadly altered. I can hardly get him to speak a word; all things seem equally indifferent to him, and his eyes look to me as though they were always ready to overflow with tears. What can we manage to do for him? Would not a little cheerful society brighten him up? We had him here the other day, but he did not speak once the whole evening. Can't even Henderson get him to smile somehow?"
"I'm afraid not, sir," said Power. "Henderson and Evson and I have all tried, but he seems to avoid seeing any one. It makes him ill at ease apparently. I am afraid, for one thing, that he is vexing himself about not being allowed to return, and about being sent into a merchant's office, which he detests."
"If that is all, there can be no difficulty about it," said the Doctor; "we have often kept deserving boys here, when funds failed, and I can easily assure his guardian, without his knowing of it, that the expense need not for a moment stand in the way of his return."
These generous acts are common at Saint Winifred's, for she is indeed an alma mater to all her children; and since Kenrick had confided this particular sorrow to Walter, Walter undertook to remove it by telling him that Dr Lane would persuade his guardian to let him return. Kenrick appeared glad of the news, as though it brought him a little relief, but it made no long change in his present ways.
Nor even did a still further piece of good fortune, when his guardian wrote and told him that, on condition of his being sent to the University, an unknown and anonymous friend had placed at his disposal 100 pounds a year, to be continued until such time as he was able to maintain himself; and that this generous gift would of course permit of his receiving the advantage of an Oxford training, and obviate the necessity of his entering an office, by clearing for him the way to one of the learned professions. This news stirred him up a little, and for a time—but not for long. He looked upon it all as destiny: he could not guess, he hardly tried to surmise, who the unknown friend could be. Nor did he know till years afterwards that the aid was given by the good and wealthy Sir Lawrence Power, at his son's earnest and generous request. For Power did this kind deed by stealth, and mentioned it to no one, not even to Walter; and Kenrick little thought when he told the good news to Power, and received his kind congratulations, that Power had known of it before he did himself. But still, in spite of all, Kenrick seemed sick at heart, and his life crept on in a sluggish course, like a river that loses its bright stream in the desert, and all whose silver runnels are choked up with dust and sand.
The fact was, that the blows of punishment had fallen on him so fast and so heavily that he felt crushed to the very earth. The expulsion of the reprobates with whom he had consorted, his degradation and censure, Wilton's theft and removal, the violent tension and revulsion of feeling caused by his awakened conscience, his confession, and the gnawing sense of shame, the failure of his ambition, and then his mother's death coming as the awful climax of the calamities he had undergone, and followed by the cold unfeeling harshness of his guardian, and the damping of his hopes—all these things had broken the boy's spirit utterly. Disgrace, and sorrow, and bereavement, and the stings of remorse, and the suffering of punishment—the forfeiture of a guilty past, and the gloom of a lonely future—these things unmanned him, bowed him down, poisoned his tranquillity of mind, unhinged every energy of his soul, seemed to dry up the very springs of life. The hand of man could not rouse him from the stupor caused by the chastisements of God.
But the rousing came at last, and in due time; and it all came from a very little matter—so slight a matter as a little puff of seaward air. A trivial accident, you will say; yes, one of those very trivial accidents that so often affect the destinies of a lifetime, and:
"Shape our ends, Rough-hew them how we will."
Kenrick, as usual, was walking along the top of the cliffs alone— restless, aimless, and miserable—"mooning," as the boys would have called it—unable even to analyse his own thoughts, conscious only that it was folly in him to nurse this long-continued and hopeless melancholy, yet quite incapable of making the one strong effort which would have enabled him to throw it off. And in this mood he sat down near the cliff, thinking of nothing, but watching, with idle guesses as to their destination and history, the few vessels that passed by on the horizon. The evening was drawing-in, cold and windy; and suddenly remembering that he must be back by tea-time, he rose up to return. The motion displaced his straw hat, and the next moment the breeze had carried it a little way over the edge of the cliff, where it was caught in a low bush of tamarisk. It rested but a few feet below him, and the chalky front of the cliff was sufficiently rough to admit of his descent. He climbed to it, and had just succeeded in disengaging it with his foot, when before he had time to seize it, it again fell, and rolled down some thirty feet. Kenrick, finding that he had been able to get down with tolerable ease, determined to continue his descent in order to secure it. It never occurred to him that the hat was of no great importance, and that it would have been infinitely less trouble to walk home without it, and buy a new one, than to run the risk and encounter the trouble of his climb. However, he did manage to reach it, and put it on with some satisfaction, when, as he was beginning to remount, a considerable mass of chalk crumbled away under his feet, and made him cling on with both hands to avoid being precipitated. He had been able to get down well enough, because, if the chalk slipped, he glided on safely with it, but in climbing up he was obliged to press his feet strongly downwards in order to gain his spring; and every time he did this, he found that the chalk kept giving way, exhausting him with futile efforts, filling his shoes with dust and pebbles, slipping into his clothes, and blinding his eyes. Every person who has climbed at all, whether in the Alps or elsewhere, knows that it is easy enough to get down places which it is almost impossible to mount again; and Kenrick, after many attempts, found that he had been most imprudent, and becoming seriously alarmed, was forced, when he had quite tired himself with fruitless exertions and had once or twice nearly fallen, to give up the attempt altogether, and do his best to secure another way of escape.
This was to climb down quite to the bottom of the cliff, and make his way, as best he could, over rocks and shingle round the bluff which shut in one side of the little bay on which he stood, and along the narrow line of beach, to Saint Winifred's head. This was possible sometimes, and he fancied that the tide was sufficiently far out to enable him to do it now. At any rate herein lay, so far as he saw, his only chance of safety.
Down the cliff then he climbed once more, and though it was some ninety feet high he found no difficulty in doing this, with care, till he came to a place where its surface was precipitous for a height of some ten feet, worn smooth by the beating of the waves. Holding with his hands to the edge, he let himself fall down this height, and found himself standing, a little shaken though unhurt, in a small pebbly bay or indentation of the shore formed by a curve in the line of cliffs, with a series of headlands and precipices trending away on one side far to his right, and with the Ness of Saint Winifred's reaching out to his left. Once round that headland he would be safe, and indeed if he once got beyond the little pebbly inlet where he stood, he hoped to find some place where he might scale the rocks, and so cross the promontory and get home.
There was no time to be lost, and he ran with all his speed over the loose stones towards the bluff, letting the unlucky straw hat drop on the shore, as it had no string, and it impeded him to be obliged to hold it on with one hand. Reaching the end of the shingle, he stumbled with difficulty over some scattered rocks slimy with ooze and seagrass, hoping with intense hope that when he rounded the projection of cliff, he would see a line of beach, narrow indeed, but still wide enough to allow of his running along it before the tide had come in, and reaching some part of Saint Winifred's Head which he might be able to scale by means of a sheep-path, or with the help of hands and knees. Very quickly he reached the corner, and hardly dared to look; but when he did look, a glance showed him that but slender hope was left. At one spot the tide had already reached the foot of the cliffs; but if he could get to that spot while the water was yet sufficiently shallow to allow him to run through it, he trusted that he might yet be saved. The place was far-off, but he ran and ran; and ever as he ran the place seemed to get farther and farther, and his knees failed him for fatigue, as he sank at every step in the noisy and yielding mixture of sand and pebbles.
Reader, have you ever run a race with the sea? If not, accept the testimony of one who has had to do it more than once, that it is a very painful and exciting race. I ran it once successfully with one who, though we then escaped, has since been overtaken and swallowed up by the great dark waves of that other sea, whose tides are ever advancing upon us, and must sooner or later absorb us all—the great dark waves of Death. But to take your life in your hand, and run and to know that the sea is gaining upon you, and that, however great the speed with which fear wings your feet, your subtle hundred-handed enemy is intercepting you with its many deep inlets, and does not bate an instant's speed, or withhold itself a hair's-breadth for all your danger—is an awful thing to feel. And then to see that it has intercepted you is worst of all; it is a moment not to be forgotten. And all this was what Kenrick had to undergo. He ran until he panted for breath, and stumbled for very weariness—but he was too late. A broad sheet of water now bathed the bases of the cliff, and the waves, as though angry with the opposing breeze, were leaping up with a frantic hiss, and deluging the rocks with sheets of spray and foam.
Experience had taught him with what speed and fury on that dangerous coast the treacherous tide came in. There was not a moment to spare, and as he flew back to the small shelter of the pebbly cove, the water was already gliding close to him, and stretching its arms like a hungry medusa round the seaweed-matted lumps of scattered rock over which he strode.
His face wetted with the salt dew, his brown hair scattered on the rising wind, he flew rather than ran once more to the place where he had descended, to renew the wild attempt to scale the cliff which seemed to afford him the only shadow of a hope. Yet a mere glance might have been enough to show him that this hope was vain. Both at that spot, and as far as he could see, the sheer base of the cliff offered him no place where it was possible to rest a foot, no place where he could mount three feet above the shingle. But his scrutiny brought home to him another appalling fact—namely, that the sea-mark, where the highest tide fringed its barriers with a triumphal wreath of hanging seaweed, and below which no foliage grew, was high up upon the cliff, far above his head.
It was too late to curse his rashness and folly, nor would he even try to face his frightful situation till he had thought of every conceivable means by which to escape. A friend of mine had, and I suppose still has, a pen-and-ink sketch which made one shudder to look at it. All that you see is a long sea-wall, apparently the side of some stone pier, so drawn as to give the impression of great height, and the top of it not visible in the picture; by the side of this ripples and plashes a long dark reach of sea water, lazily waving the weeds which it has planted in the crevices of stone, and extending, like the wall itself, farther than you can guess. The only living thing in the picture is a single spent, shaggy dog, its paws rested for a moment on a sort of hollow in the wall, and half its dripping body emergent from the dark water. It is staring up with a look of despondent exhaustion, yet mute appeal. The sketch powerfully recalls and typifies the exact position in which poor Kenrick: now found himself placed—before him the hungry, angry darkening sea, behind him the inaccessible bastions of forbidding cliff. It is a horrible predicament, and those can most thrillingly appreciate it who, like the author, have been in it themselves.
There was yet one thing, and one thing only, to be tried, and it was truly the refuge of desperation. Kenrick was an excellent swimmer; many a time in bathing at Saint Winifred's, even when he was a little boy, he had struck out boldly far into the bay, even as far as the huge tumbling red buoy, that spent its restless life in "ever climbing with the climbing wave." If he could swim for pleasure, could he not swim for life? It was true that the swim before him was, beyond all comparison, farther and more hazardous than he had ever dreamt of. But swimming is an art which inspires extraordinary confidence; it makes us fancy that drowning is impossible to us, because we cannot imagine ourselves so fatigued as to fail in keeping above water. Kenrick knew that the attempt was only one to be undertaken at dire extremity; but that extremity had now arrived, and it was literally the last chance that lay between him and—what he would not think of yet.
So, in the wintry air, with the strong wind blowing keenly and the red gleam of sunset already beginning to fail, he flung off his clothes on the damp beach, and as one who rushes on a forlorn hope in the teeth of an enemy, he ran down the rough uneven shore, hardly noticing how much it hurt his feet, and plunged boldly into the hideous yeast of seething waves. The cold made him shiver and shiver in every limb; his teeth chattered; he was afraid of cramp; the slimy seaweeds that his feet touched, the tangled and rotting string of sea-twine that waved about his legs, sent a strong shudder through him; and there was a sick clammy feeling about the frothy spume through which he had to plunge. But when he had once ploughed his way through all this, and was fairly out of his depth, the exercise warmed him, and he rose with a swimmer's triumphant motion over the yielding waves. On and on he swam, thinking only of that, not looking before him; but when he began to feel quite tired, and did look, he saw that he was not nearly halfway to the headland. He saw, too, how the breakers were lashing and fighting with the iron shore which he was madly striving to reach. Even if he could swim so far—and he now felt that he could not—how could he ever land at such a spot? Would not one of those billows toss him up in its playful spray, and dash him as it dashed its own unpitied offspring, dead upon the rocks? And as this conviction dawned on him, withering all his energy of heart, the wind wailed over him, the water bubbled in his ears, and the sea-mew, napping as it flew past him, uttered above his head its plaintive scream. His heart sank within him. With a quick motion he turned in the water, and with arms wearied-out he swam back again, as for dear life, towards the little landing-place which alone divided him from instant death; struggling on heavily, with limbs so weary that he could barely move them through the waves, whose increasing swell often broke around his head. Already the tide had reached the spot where he had let his straw hat drop on the beach; the sea was scornfully playing with it, tossing it up and down, whirling it round and round like a feather; the wind blew it to the sea, and the sea, receiving no gifts from an enemy, flung it back again; but the wind carried the day, and while Kenrick was wringing the brine out of his dripping hair, and huddling his clothes again over his wet, benumbed, and aching limbs, he saw the straw hat fairly launched, and floating away over the waves.
And then it was that, as the vision of sudden death glared out before his eyes, and the horror of it leapt upon him, that a scream—a loud, wild, echoing scream, which sounded strange in that lonely place, and rose above the rude song that the wind was now singing,—broke from his blanched lips. And another, and another, and then silence; for Kenrick was now crouching at the cliff's foot furthest off from the swelling flood, with his eyes fixed motionless in a wild stare on its advancing line of foam. He was conjuring up before his imagination the time when those waves should have reached him; should have swept him away from the shelter of the shore, or risen above his lips; should have forced him again to struggle and swim, until his strength, already impaired by hunger, and thirst, and cold, and fatigue, should have failed him altogether, and he would sink, and the water gurgle wildly in his ears, and stop his breath—and all would be still. And when he had pictured this scene to himself with a vividness which made him experience all its agony, for a time his mind flew back through all the faultful past up to that very day; memory lighted her lantern, and threw its blaze on every dark corner, on every hidden recess, every forgotten nook—left no spot unsearched, unilluminated with sudden flash; all his past sins were before him, words, looks, thoughts, everything. As when a man descends with a light in his diving-bell into the heaving sea, the strange monsters of the deep, attracted by the unknown glimmer, throng and wallow terribly around him, so did uncouth thoughts and forgotten sins welter in fearful multitudes round this light of memory in the deep sea of that poor human soul. And finally, as though in demon voices, came this message whispered to him, touted to him tauntingly, rising and falling with maddening alternation on the rising and falling of the wind—"You have been wasting your life, moodily abandoning yourself to idle misery, neglecting your duties, letting your talents rust—God will take from you the life you know not how to use." And then, as though in answer to this, another voice, low, soft, sweet, that his heart knew well—another voice filling the interspaces of the others with unseen music, whispered to him soothingly—"It shall be given you again, use it better; awake, use it better, it shall be given you again."
Those three wild shrieks of his had been heard; he did not know it, but they had been heard. The whole coast was in general so lonely that you could usually pace it for miles without meeting a single human being, and it never even occurred to him that some one might pass that way. But it so happened that the boisterous weather of the last few days had cast away a schooner at a place some five miles from Saint Winifred's, and Walter Evson had walked with Charlie to see the wreck, and was returning along the cliff. As they passed the spot where Kenrick was, they had been first startled and then horrified by those shrieks, and while they stood listening another came to their ears, more piercing, more heart-rending than the rest.
"Good heavens! there must be some one down there!" exclaimed Walter.
"Why, how could any one have got there?" asked Charlie.
"Well, but didn't you hear some one scream?"
"Yes, several times. O Walter, do look here!" Charlie pointed to the traces on the cliff showing that some one had descended there.
"Who could have wanted to get down there, I wonder; and for what possible purpose?"
"Do you see any one, Walter?"
"No, I don't; there's nothing but the sea"—for Kenrick, crouching under the cliff, was hidden from sight, and now the tide had come up so far that, from the summit, none of the shingle was visible—"but what's that?"
"Why, Walter, it's a straw hat; it must be one of our fellows down there; I see the ribbon distinctly, dark blue and white, twisted together."
"Dark blue and white! why, then, it must be some one in the football eleven: Charlie, it must be Kenrick! Heavens, what can have happened?"
"Kenrick!" they both shouted at the top of their voices.
But the cliff was high, and the wind, momently rising to a blast, swept away their shouts, and although Kenrick might have heard them distinctly under ordinary circumstances, they now only mingled with, and gave new form and body to, the wild madness which terror was beginning to kindle in his brain. So they shouted, and no answer came.
"No answer comes, Charlie; but there's someone down there as sure as we are here," said Walter. Charlie had already begun to try and descend the face of the cliff. "Stop, stop, Charlie," said Walter, seizing him and dragging him up again, "you mustn't try that—nay, Charlie, you really must not. If it's possible I will." He tried, but three minutes showed him that, however practicable a descent might be, an ascent afterwards would be wholly beyond his power. Besides, if he did descend, what could he do? Clearly nothing; and with another plan in view, he with difficulty reached his former position.
"Nothing to be done that way, Charlie." At that moment another cry came, for Kenrick, in a momentary lull of the wind, had fancied that he had heard sounds and voices other than those of his perturbed and agitated fancy. "Ha! you heard that?" said Walter, and he shouted again, but no sound was returned.
"We must fly to Saint Winifred's, Charlie; there's a boy down on the shore beyond a doubt. You stay behind, if you like, for you can't run as fast as me. I'm afraid, though, it's not the least good. Saint Winifred's is three miles from here, and long before I've got help and come three miles back, it's clear that no one can be alive down there; still we must try," and he was starting when Charlie seized his arm.
"Don't you remember, Walter, the hut at Bryce's cove? There's an old boat there, and it's a mile and a half nearer than Saint Win's."
"Capital boy, Charlie," said Walter; "how good of you to think of it; it's the very thing. Come."
They flew along at full speed, Walter taking Charlie's hand, and saying, "Never mind stretching your legs for once, even if you are tired. How well you run! we shall be there in no time."
They gained the cove, flew down the steep narrow path, and reached the hut door. Their summons was answered only by the furious barking of a dog. No one was in.
"Never mind: there's the boat; we must take French leave;" and Walter, springing down, hastily unmoored it.
"Wah! what a horrid old tub, and it wants baling, Walter."
"We can't stay for that, Charlie boy; it's a good thing that Semlyn Lake has taught us both to row, isn't it?"
"O yes; don't you wish we had the little Pearl here now, Walter? Wouldn't we make it fly, instead of this cranky old wretch."
"Well, we must fancy that this is the Pearl and this Semlyn Lake," said Walter, wading up to the knees to launch the boat, and springing in when he had given it the final shove.
They were excellent rowers, but Charlie had never tried his skill in a sea like that, and was timid, for which there was every excuse.
"How very rough it is, Walter," he said, as the boat tossed up and down like an egg-shell on the high waves.
"Keep up your heart, Charlie, and row steadily; don't be afraid."
"No, Walter, I won't, as you're with me; but—Walter?"
"It'll be dark in half an hour."
"Not quite, and we shall be there by that time; we needn't go far out, and the tide's with us." So the two brave brothers rowed steadily on, with only one more remark from Charlie, ushered in by the word—
"Anything more to frighten me with, Charlie?" he answered cheerily; "you shan't succeed."
"Well, Walter," he answered, with a little touch of shame, "I was only going to say that, if you look, you'll see that your oar's been broken, and is only spliced together."
"I've seen it all along, Charlie, and will use the oar gingerly; and now, Charlie, I see you're a little frightened, my boy. I'm going to brace you up. Rest on your oar a minute."
He did so. "Now turn round and look."
He pointed with his finger to a dark figure, now distinctly seen, cowering low at the white cliff's foot.
"O Walter, I'm ready; I won't say a word more;" and he leant to his oar, and plied it like a man.
It is a pretty, a delightful thing, in idle summer-time to lie at full length upon the beach on some ambrosial summer evening, when a glow floats over the water, whose calm surface is tenderly rippled with gold and blue. And while the children play beside you, dabbling and paddling in the wavelets, and digging up the ridges of yellow sand, which take the print of their pattering footsteps, nothing is more pleasant than to let the transparent stream of the quiet tide plash musically with its light and motion to your very feet; nothing more pleasant than to listen to its silken murmurs, and to watch it flow upwards with its beneficent coolness, and take possession of the shore. But it is a very different thing when there rises behind you a wall of frowning cliff, precipitous, inaccessible, affording no hope of refuge; and when, for the golden calm of summer eventide, you have the cheerless drawing-in of a loud and stormy February night; and when you have the furious hissing violence of rock-and-wind-struck breakers for the violet-coloured margin of rippling waves—knowing that the wind is wailing forth your requiem, and that, with the fall of every breaker, unseen hands are ringing your knell of death.
The boy crouched there, his face white as the cliffs above him, his undried limbs almost powerless for cold, and his clothes wetted through and through with spray—pushing aside every moment the dripping locks of hair which the wind scattered over his forehead, that he might look with hollow, staring eyes on the Death which was advancing towards him, wrapping him already in its huge mantle-folds, calling aloud to him, beckoning him, freezing him to the very bone with the touch of its icy hands.
And the brutal tide coming on, according to the pitiless irreversible certainty of the fixed laws that governed it—coming on like a huge wallowing monster, dumb and blind—knew not, and recked not, of the young life that quivered on the verge of its advance—that it was about to devour remorselessly, with no wrath to satiate, with no hunger to appease. None the less for the boy's presence, unregardful of his growing horror and wild suspense, it continued its uncouth play—leaping about the rocks, springing upwards and stretching high hands to pluck down the cliffs, seeming to laugh as it fell back shattered and exhausted, but unsubdued; charging up sometimes like a herd of white horses, bounding one over the other, shaking their foaming manes— hissing sometimes like a brood of huge sea-serpents, as it insinuated it winding streams among the boulders of the shore.
It might have seemed to be in sport with him as it ran first up to his feet, and playfully splashed him, as a bather might splash a person on the shore from head to heel, and then ran back again for a moment, and then up again a little farther, till, as he sat on the extreme line of the shore and with his back huddled up close against the cliff, it first wetted the soles of his feet, and then was over his shoes, then ankle-deep, then knee deep, then to the waist. Already it seemed to buoy him up; he knew that in a few moments more he would be forced to swim, and the last struggle would commence.
His brain was dull, his senses blunted, his mind half-idiotic, when first (for his eyes had been fixed downwards on the growing, encroaching waters) he caught a glimpse, in the failing daylight, of the black outline of a boat, not twenty yards from him, and caught the sound of its plashing oars. He stared eagerly at it, and just as it came beside him he lost all his strength, uttered a faint cry, and slipped down fainting into the waves.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
ON THE DARK SEA.
Boys Leaning upon their oars, with splash and strain, Made white with foam the green and purple sea.
In a moment Walter's strong arms had caught him, and lifted him tenderly into the boat. While the waves tossed them up and down they placed him at full length as comfortably as they could,—which was not very comfortably—and though his clothes were streaming with salt water, and his fainting fit still continued, they began at once to row home. For, by this time, it was dim twilight; the wind was blowing great guns, the clouds were full of dark wrath, and the stormy billows rose higher and higher. There was no time to spare, and it would be as much as they could do to provide for their own safety. The tide was already bumping them against the cliff at the place where, just in time, they had rescued Kenrick, and, in order to get themselves fairly off, Walter, forgetting for a moment, pushed out his oar and pressed against the cliff. The damaged oar was weak enough already, and instantly Walter saw that his vigorous shove had weakened and displaced the old splicing of the blade. Charlie too observed it, but neither of them spoke a word; on the contrary, the little boy was at his place, oar in rowlock, and immediately smote lightly and in good time the surface of the water, splashed it into white foam, and pulled with gallant strokes.
They made but little way; the waves pitched them so high and dropped them with such a heavy fall between their rolling troughs, that rowing became almost impossible, and the miserable old boat shipped quantities of water. At last, after a stronger pull than usual, Walter's oar creaked, snapped, and gave way, flinging him on his back. The loosened twine with which it had been spliced was half rotten with age; it broke in several places, the oar blade fell off and floated away, and Walter was left holding in both hands a broken and futile stump.
"My God, it is all over with us!" was the wild cry that the sudden and awful misfortune wrung from his lips; while Charlie, shipping his now useless oar, clung round his brother's neck and cried aloud. The three boys—one of them faint, exhausted, and speechless—were in an unsafe and oarless boat on the open tempestuous sea, weltering hopelessly at the cruel mercy of winds and waves; a current was sweeping them they knew not whither, and the wind, howling like a hurricane, was driving them farther and farther away from land.
"O Walter, I can't die, I can't die yet; and not out on this black sea, away from every one."
"From every one but God, Charlie; and I am with you. Cheer up, little brother, God will not desert us."
"O Walter, pray to God for you and me and Kenrick pray to Him for life."
"We will both pray, Charlie;" and folding his arms round him, for now that the rowing was over and there was nothing left to do, the little boy was frightened at the increasing gloom, Walter, calm even at that wild moment, with the calm of a clear conscience and a noble heart, poured forth his soul in words of supplication, while Charlie, his voice half stifled with tears, sobbed out a terrified response and echo to his prayer.
And after the prayer Walter's heart was lightened and his spirit strengthened, till he felt ready in himself to meet anything and brave any fate; but his soul ached with pity for his little brother and for his friend. It was his duty to cheer them both and do what could be done. Kenrick had so far recovered as to move and say a few words, and the brothers were by his side in a moment.
"You have saved my life, Walter, when I had given it up; saved it, I hope, to some purpose this time," he whispered, unconscious as yet of his position; and he dragged up his feet out of the pool of water in which they were lying at the bottom of the boat. But gradually the situation dawned upon him. "How is it you're not rowing?" he asked; "are you tired? let me try, I think I could manage."
"It would be of no use, Ken," said Walter; "I mean that we can't row," and he pointed to the broken oar.
"Then you have saved me at the risk, perhaps at the cost, of your own lives. O you noble, noble Walter!" said Kenrick, the tears gushing from his eyes. "How awfully terrible this is! I seem to be snatched from death to death. Life and death are battling for me to-night; yes, eternal life and death too," he whispered in Walter's ear, catching him by the wrist. "All this danger is for me, Walter, and for my sin. I am like Jonah in the ship; I have been buffeting death away for hours, but he has been sent for me, he must do his mission. I see that I cannot escape, but, O God, I hope that you will escape, Walter. Your life and Charlie's must not be spilt for mine."
It was barely light enough to see his face, but it looked wild and haggard in the ragged gleams of moonlight which the black flitting clouds suffered to break forth at intervals; and his words, after this, were too incoherent to understand. Walter saw that the long intensity of fear had rendered him half delirious and not master of himself. Soon after he sank into a stupor, half sleep, half exhaustion, and even the lurching of the boat did not rouse him any more.