In spite of his wretchedness, Alick was, however, fully determined to go bird-hunting on the morrow in Brattlesby Woods with Jerry Blunt. Equally determined was the boy also that he would never beg his tutor's pardon—if he could possibly help it, that was. Alick knew that if his continued insubordination came to his father's ears the certain result would be a thrashing, similar to one of which he still had a most vivid recollection. It occurred on the only occasion that the captain had been roused to administer punishment to both Geoff and Alick. That was when the brothers had strangled several of Widow Dempster's hens by lassoing them, on the pretext that the unfortunate fowls were prairie-horses, the boys being prairie-hunters. This was a heinous misdemeanour in the upright old sailor's eyes. Alick winced still at the remembrance of the captain's wrath, and also of the captain's whip, which he by no means spared on his boys' backs.
'I certainly hope that father won't get to know about this row!' he muttered uneasily, as he finished screwing on Miss Muffet's leg, and set her up as proud as the best. Then looking round for more surgical needs to operate upon, and finding a hapless horse minus a tail, Alick ingeniously supplied the unbecoming deficiency with bristles out of the hearth-brush. He was a remarkably handy boy; his fingers were skilful, and he possessed a certain amount of invention. As he prowled about the shelves, setting a good many of Queenie's infirm toys on their feet, and making all things taut, the morning wore on apace. He was glad enough of any occupation to pass the time, which seemed strangely lagging, as he glanced impatiently at his silver watch.
'I suppose Price and old Geoff are as thick as thieves, palavering away over that awful Latin,' he soliloquised between the tunes he was whistling. 'Price will be buttering up Geoff at my expense, no doubt. Well, I don't care; why should I? I've made up my mind not to give in, and nobody—not Price, at least—shall make me. Hilloa!' Lifting up his eyes to the light, to see if he had glued on the wooden canary's head quite straight on its neck, Alick caught sight, through the window, of a couple of fishing-smacks making steadily for the bay.
'That one to the left is Fletcher's boat, or I'm blind, and Ned's on board, I know. I'd better just run down to the beach, and have a private word in his ears, as soon as he lands, about to-morrow. What a day we shall have in Brattlesby Woods! Oh my, shan't we just!'
In a short time Alick, his morning's misery all forgotten, was down on the shore, vigourously helping to haul in the heavy nets, and sharing in the tumultuous excitement never failing to greet any and every boat that put in to Northbourne beach.
'Can you come along with me, Ned?' he took the opportunity of whispering in Ned's ear. 'I've got something to tell you about to-morrow. You know what I mean.'
Yes, Ned could give Muster Alick five minutes before he sped home to Goody's for a warm meal, and likewise a bit of sleep; for the boy was stiff, as well as starving, after his long, chill night on the water.
'I only wanted to say,' Alick hastily announced, 'that I'm game to go with Jerry Blunt to-morrow morning, if you will let me know the hour you mean to set off.'
'We thought of going pretty early,' said Ned slowly, after a pause of hesitation. 'We wants to make a good long day of it. But—but, Muster Alick, have ye told them up at the Bunk that ye're set on going with us? I thought as ye said the tootor wouldn't 'low ye, and that Miss Theedory backed him up. Didn't ye?' Ned eyed his companion with a certain amount of stern suspicion as he put the questions.
One of Theo's class-boys himself, he had a genuine reverence for his gentle teacher. There was nothing, the poor fisher-lad was wont to tell himself, that he would not have dared or done for the sweet young lady's sake. Her very gentleness and soft speech seemed to attract and also subdue his rough nature, by force of contrast possibly.
'What on earth is that to you?' loftily demanded Alick, resenting both the questions and the mention of his sister's name, as brothers will.
'Why, 'tis this to me!' rejoined Ned grimly, and standing square. 'I ain't a-goin' to have Miss Theedory lookin' at me through an' through, an' a-sayin', "Ned," she'll say, "why ever did'ee lead away my brother to do wrong?" I couldn't stand that, muster!'
'What a born idiot you are, to talk in that way!' said Alick grandly. 'It's quite enough for you that I tell you I'm coming to-morrow; that's all you've got to do with it. Oh, I say, Ned!'—he descended from his pinnacle of dignity all in a hurry—'it has been such a lark! I told you what a row we have had with old Price, and that I bowled him over. But Geoff has actually given in. Theo—I mean my sister—talked him into an apology—begging pardon, you know. But I stuck out, and held my own. So old Price bowed me off the premises. You should have really seen him do it!' ended Alick, with a laugh that had no merriment whatever in it. Ned nodded. He readily comprehended that 'Muster Alick' had held his own.
'And did he, did Muster Geoff reely ask parding?' he inquired wonderingly, presently.
'Yes, he did!' Alick spoke shortly, for he resented strongly his brother's disaffection from a bad cause. 'But what's more to the purpose, I didn't knock under. So I'm coming with you; for old Price won't, he says firmly, give me another lesson until I apologise too. You may guess, old chap, that I'll have a fine long holiday at that rate, if—if the governor don't get to hear about it, of course!' ended Alick rather lamely.
'Oh!' Ned gasped understandingly. He could readily enough picture the result of the captain's taking up the matter. Fireworks would be nothing to the general flare-up, in that case, the fisher-lad privately told himself.
Alick next proceeded to plan out the morrow's campaign, and by the time the Dempsters' cottage was reached, it was agreed that Alick should make his escape as early as possible from the Bunk, in order that he might start with Jerry Blunt and Ned before anybody was astir to prevent him. Then, with mutual promises of secrecy, the two parted.
A TANGLED WEB
When the Carnegys sat down to dinner that day there was that subtle air of constraint which is the result of family jars—an electric disturbance in the home atmosphere which each and all feel. Theo, at the head of the table, looked grave and pained. Geoff was uncomfortable also, and, in his awkwardness, overtalked himself, in a frantic desire to smooth matters. Queenie and the captain himself were the only members of the family at their ease; while as for Alick, he sat sullen and dumb, brooding over his self-made wrongs.
'Well,' said the master of the house towards the end of the meal, 'have you boys come to your senses yet, hey? Has order been restored on the decks? I strongly advised Price to read the Riot Act; I hope he did so, hey?' The captain began dimly to be aware of the prevailing constraint, and then suddenly he recollected the tutor's complaining report, which had dropped out of his mind two minutes after it was spoken.
Nobody spoke in answer. The captain glared, over the top of his glasses, round the party; but Theo and Geoff would not for worlds have told tales. Each felt that silence was the best policy under the circumstances.
Queenie at last, observing, with some surprise, the unusual hush, took it upon her small self to reply.
'Alick's been so good! He has mended all my doll-ladies' broken legs, and the canary's head, too; and he has made such a bewful new tail for the old horse—the grey horse, you remember, father, what lost his tail when he was quite young. And Alick's tidied all the toy-shelves. He has got such a long holiday, Alick has! Did you know, father?' she said importantly.
'Ah!' the captain observed gravely, looking his youngest calmly over, and losing her last words. 'The toy-shelves are your decks, I suppose, my little woman; the play-room your ship, hey? Well, well, history repeats itself. Oh, by the way, what a wretched memory I've got! Dear, dear! why, it has only just come into my mind! Theo, my dear, I had occasion to go across the bay the other day, last week I think it was, about some references I wanted from the Vicarage library, and I just looked in to have a chat with Mrs. Vesey in her morning-room. What a sweet woman that is! If ever there were a saint permitted to remain on earth, it is herself. But what I had to say was about a special message she gave me for you. To-morrow will be her birthday, and she wants all you young folk to go over early, to have tea and strawberries and cream. You will like that, my dear, and so will Queenie. As for you boys, there's to be a special treat for you, in honour of the occasion. I was to be sure and tell you so, I remember now. You are to have the key of the museum for yourselves, and spend the evening there. But mind, no tricks with the specimens, which are a valuable collection. Remember you are on honour, and being gentlemen, I presume that will suffice to prevent any mischief. Stupid of me to forget the message! However, it's not too late, fortunately; to-morrow has not yet come.'
There was an involuntary shout of delight from the boys when the captain finished. A treat indeed, and a rare one, it was to be permitted to pass an evening in the curiosity-room of the Vicarage. From their childhood this museum had been the most interesting spot to the young Carnegys. It was packed from floor to ceiling with a collection of foreign monsters, weapons, and rarities, gathered together, during a long life on foreign stations in different quarters of the globe, by the venerable vicar, who, in his heyday, had been an army chaplain. A more entrancing treat for Alick and Geoff could not possibly have been devised. Suddenly, however, Alick's face gloomed over. He remembered that the morrow, the birthday, was Wednesday, and it was on that day he had bound himself to go to Brattlesby Woods with Jerry Blunt, the bird-trainer, defying his tutor in the teeth to do so. Even Alick felt a spasm of regret. If he had not been so perversely obstinate in refusing to yield to Mr. Price, here would have been his reward—a whole evening among the wonders of the Vicarage museum. It was maddening! But the misguided boy felt that he had gone too far to retrace his steps. It was too late, he ignorantly told himself; for Alick knew not that it is never, it can be never, too late to confess and make amends for a fault—so long as there is breath to bravely speak out the remorseful confession.
'We know, father, about it,' Theo's quiet voice was saying. 'Mrs. Vesey guessed you might just possibly forget the message, so she sent me a note, next day. It's all arranged, and we are all going. Father, dear, wouldn't it be possible for you to come with us too?' The girl had left her seat at the head of the table, and came round to lean on the back of her father's chair. It seemed to Theo that if the captain could be induced to join his family's life-pleasures, he would come, in time, to be a refuge and a help in their life-troubles also; so she pleaded.
'Tut! tut! tut! Don't be absurd, my dear Theo. It's quite unlike you. I thought you, at least, understood what a life full of urgent importance mine is, until the magnum opus is achieved. After that—well, well, we'll see!'
'Yes, but, dear, just one little holiday! I know the book is a great labour, but you might take one afternoon from your work, and come with us—just for once!'
'No, no, child! When a man has put his hand to the plough he has no right to turn back. And you ought to know better than tempt me, I say. But with regard to you young people it is very different; you haven't a care, so you can't do better than be happy, that is, at the appointed time. There's a time for everything, the Book says, doesn't it? Now then, my dear, let me get away back to my work, if you please.'
The fiery old sailor held a firm conviction that he had an imperative duty to perform in this world, in the shape of his proposed literary work. Duty had been, hitherto, the sailor's god through thick and thin. To do him justice, the captain had not the faintest notion of the gusts of rebellious discontent that often enough swept over the little household he imagined to be so well ordered. Deeply attached to his boys and girls, one and all, though he was, he took no heed of the fact that the minds of the mere children, as he considered them to be, were fast awaking up—growing apace with their youthful bodies. The truth was, the young folk were utter strangers and foreigners to the man who had married late in life. So long as his gentle, tender wife—a woman eminently fitted for her niche in life by her sweet nature and her heart filled with Christian grace—lived, the captain's children were well cared for indeed. Their needs both of body and soul were alike looked after. But the mother who was so qualified by her rare sweetness to bring up the children God had given her 'in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,' was called away to a higher, fuller life 'beyond these voices'; and the sailor, taking the reins of the household in his unaccustomed fingers, held them over-slackly.
IN THE FAR NORTH
It was June, the 'leafy month': Nature was dressed out in her newest and freshest of robes, and the homes of her feathered children were peopled with tiny birdlings, all agape with hunger and curiosity.
Through the shady Brattlesby Woods, and along the hedgerows, stealing softly, stepping cautiously, crept Jerry Blunt, with his empty sleeve flapping against his right side, and as he went he peered here and there where leaves grew thickest. In his wake followed, on tip-toe, Alick Carnegy and Ned Dempster, all three intent on seeking for young bullfinches.
When Jerry Blunt ran away to sea from his native village, Northbourne, with his soul athirst for adventure, his body was furnished with as many limbs as other folk. Little did he dream that the golden future he panted to grasp would make of him a cripple. As time went by, and he became a full-grown man, Jerry had his fill of hairbreadth escapes, his last exploit of all being to join an enterprising American expedition got up in the name of science to find the North Pole. This venture, one of many, proved the most unfortunate of all for Jerry Blunt. Through his own heedless carelessness in refusing to listen to the advice of his experienced betters, he neglected a severe frost-bite; in consequence, he lost his arm, which had to be amputated by the ship's surgeon. After this catastrophe, Jerry as a man on that expedition was worth little or nothing. So he returned, in course of time, to his native place, 'like a bad shilling,' said Northbourne—and with an empty coat-sleeve.
'The right arm, too, worse luck!' was all the sympathy he got, and Jerry, therefore, began to look round for himself. He knew it was imperative on him to do something for a living to help out his good old mother's feeble efforts, and to keep a roof over their two heads. He set his wits to work to puzzle out a way. Without a right arm he was of little or no use in the fishing-boats, which constituted the sole trade of Northbourne. So fishing was out of the question.
Now people don't go the length of Franz Josef Land without picking up a few odds and ends of information. Therefore it was not long before Jerry did hit upon a trade, and it was one thoroughly to his mind. From his boyhood he had been a passionate lover of the open, and Mother Nature had shared her secrets with him in no niggard fashion.
He was tolerably well acquainted with the ways and the haunts of his winged neighbours, and could, perhaps, have 'given points' to many a scientifically educated naturalist. And it came to pass that he bethought himself of certain valuable hints he had got anent the artificial training of the inhabitants of the air from an astute old Frenchman, one of those curiosities to be met with but rarely, whose minds are human museums—treasure-houses in which are stored scraps of varied knowledge.
'You may keep school, my lad,' dryly commented his mother when she had carefully digested Jerry's plan, 'but you won't find it easy to keep scholars.'
'Well, you'll see!' was the quietly spoken prediction; for Jerry Blunt had fully determined to be a bird-trainer, and the pupils he was in search of were young bullfinches.
Of course when this remarkable intention became known among the fisher-folk it was derisively condemned by the elders. On the other hand, Jerry's younger neighbours, particularly Ned Dempster, were immediately fired with an eager desire to assist him in the novel enterprise. Ned's enthusiasm naturally infected both the Carnegy boys; they also would fain become bird-trainers on the spot, lacking all knowledge of the matter though they, naturally, did. With the frenzy that possesses boys in regard to every absolutely new amusement, the two Carnegys slept, ate, drank, and, as it were, breathed to the tune of one thought—the determination that they also would be bird-teachers.
This all-powerful, novel freak was at the bottom of the furious meeting at the Bunk. Philip Price, the tutor, sympathising fully with the ardent pursuits of boyhood, had been over-indulgent in the matter of granting whole Wednesdays, instead of half-holidays. Any excuse sufficed. Skating on inland ponds in the winter; fishing in the bay, as the year wore on; and, latterly, digging for primrose or fern roots in Brattlesby Woods. But Philip Price was beginning to find out by results that too much play and not enough work was making dull scholars of his pupils, and he had determined to stand out firmly against any more indulgences in the future. It was high time that Alick and Geoff should realise that 'life is real, life is earnest'; put their shoulders to the wheel they must and should. The boys knew this, and in their hearts admitted the determination to be a just one enough. But the entrancing novelty of Jerry Blunt's proposed trade carried them away; they were extravagantly crazed to join in it, by fair means or by foul. Hence the outburst of rebellion, and Alick's stubborn refusal to sue for pardon.
When Wednesday morning arrived, he set off in company with Jerry and Ned before the early sun had dried the dew on the grass.
As they trudged at Jerry's heels he had explained to them, before entering the woods, the mode of operation to be carried out. In order to pipe tunes as bullfinches so marvellously do, they have to go through a period of training, and downright severe training the hapless mites find it. But, as Jerry tersely put it to his hearers, one of whom winced secretly, what is training but 'keeping the body under subjection'—a period of toilsome effort that any degree of perfection necessitates?
Taken from the nest at the age, say, of ten days or so—the most suitable to begin operations—the callow young things are carefully tended by one person solely, who accustoms the birds to himself, the sound of his voice and his cautiously tender touch, before he attempts anything approaching to training.
This treatment Jerry Blunt intended to carry out with his timid pupils, of which he gathered a goodly number, with the assistance of Ned and Alick, long before sunset came round again. The trainer explained his proposed code of education still more fully as he and the hungry boys sat enjoying the picnic repast they had brought with them. Alick, whose spirits were at their highest, thought it a delightful experience to be eating cold chunks of pork and dry bread, which each guest carved for himself with a clasp-knife. Infinitely superior was this delightfully natural, manly style of feeding, than all the rubbishy artificial formality of the decently appointed meals served at the Bunk, thought he scornfully. The only drawback to his sense of exhilarating pride was the fact that Geoff was not a witness of his emancipation from society rules.
'Do you actually mean to tell us, Jerry, that in time you will be able to teach those wretched young shavers to whistle real, proper tunes?' Alick asked presently, pointing with his knife, in careful imitation of the manners and customs of his company, to the shivery mites, each wrapped in a wisp of cotton-wool, which thoughtful Jerry had not forgotten to bring for the purpose of protecting the birdlings on their debut into the world out of their warm nest-homes.
'Yes; you bide a wee, Muster Alick!' rejoined Jerry confidently, if indistinctly, seeing his mouth was full at the moment. 'Before the summer's out I'll engage that my scholards will sing "The Blue Bells of Scotland" without a single false note! And when they do, I'll get a good price for each on 'em from a chap I knows of in London, who trades in singin' birds, and is always ready to buy 'em. But I was a-goin' to say, Muster Alick, that I'll want some help from you boys. I can't do the whole thing single-handed. I shall have to board out the birds, after a bit; so there will be plenty of work for each of you, if so be you're agreeable.'
Of course the boys were more than ready with their promises of help in the labour of teaching, as soon as they understood how it was to be set about.
'You will have to put us up to the trick first; how it's to be done, you know, Jerry,' said Alick.
'All right, muster! But there's no trick in the matter, and no secret, 'cept it be kindness and firmness. Them's the two great rulin' powers with dumb animals, same's with we humans. 'Tain't no good tryin' to train a child by lettin' him do jes' whatever he pleases. You wouldn't call that training, now, would you? Say!' Jerry looked up from the pipe he was filling to put the question, with some little earnestness.
A strange flush stole up into Alick Carnegy's cheeks; for the life of him he could not help applying Jerry's excellent logic to himself. The stern, high-minded face of the tutor he had insulted floated before the boy's eyes, and he winced, for the second time that day, at Jerry's words, as he remembered how he had fought with and rebelled against the authority set over him. Alick's conscience was by no means altogether deadened, and his triumph was dashed.
'Yes,' continued Jerry reflectively, as he watched the smoke curling upward in the air, 'and 'tis the very same wi' ourselves, after we're growed up to manhood. That's how the Almighty deals with us. He's firm—none firmer; and He's kinder to us than we knows on—none kinder—if so be as we would but trust ourselves to His way.'
Jerry Blunt, exposed to temptations many and varied, had always been a right-thinking, honest kind of lad. In spite of his wanderings to and fro over the earth, he retained his early faith intact.
'Many's the time in my life,' he went on, speaking in a gravely reverent tone, 'I've fought to get my will in some things—struck out blindly, as you might say; but there was always the firm Hand guiding me in His way, not my own. Even when this mishap befell me'—Jerry touched his empty sleeve—'though I couldn't see it at the time, bein' so ignorant-like, it was all a-purpose for my good.'
'How, Jerry? What on earth do you mean? To lose your right arm must have been a frightful bit of bad luck!' Alick spoke in astonishment, but with a certain amount of respect for one who had had such a large experience as the bird-trainer.
'There ain't no such thing as luck, either good or bad,' Jerry took out his pipe to say. ''Tis God's will; that's the properest word for't—not luck. As for my own misfortin', as everybody called it, why, after all it didn't turn out so bad, when you come to think it out.'
'Why? Do tell us all about it, Jerry, will you?' urged Alick, to whom the topic of the North Pole expedition was always attractive; and he threw himself back on the mossy ground to listen in rapt attention.
'Well, muster, I make no doubt that you've heard tell fifty times over how I got a frost-bite when I was in Franz Josef Land with the expedition. It all came about with me bein' in such a hurry like to finish a job I'd to do, that I put off rubbin' my hands with snow, as is the right thing to do, remember, if so be as you boys ever get frostbit. Well, the long and the short of that neglect was, they was forced to take off my arm—there wasn't no chice in the matter—above the elbow too. We happened at the moment to be at a fixed camping depot—not one of them nasty movin' floes, but on a good sound spot—and the expedition was under orders to march norrards when the thing happened to me. Well, in course, they nat'rally said as they didn't want to be saddled with a one-handed man, and I was turned back—me and old Pierre Lacroix, the Frenchman who taught me how to train them little customers.' Jerry pointed with his pipe to the infant finches under his handkerchief. 'Old Pierre was too rheumatic, they soon found out, to be any use, in spite of his long head, which was as full of wisdom as an egg's full of meat. None but sound, able-bodied men will do for that work, I tell you. He was a queer old fish, Pierre was. Poor chap, he was a Roming, you know; but for all that he was, in his mistaken way, a pious, God-fearing man. It was kind o' queer to see him, when we two were on our way back through all them ice-plains; if we so much as heard the howl of a hungry wolf, Pierre would pull out his beads and rattle off a prayer. But I didn't so much wonder at his fright, for the cries of them wolves certainly did freeze one's marrow through and through. And we once came to pretty close quarters with the brutes. It was one night, a starless, cloudy night, with a storm brewing, and we heard behind us a faint sound that struck us dumb with horror. The wolves had scented us from afar, and were giving chase. We took to our heels, as the sayin' is; but you don't make much way on that there ground. The awful baying voices gained on us, minute by minute. On, on, we breathlessly fought our way, desperate to escape. At last, so close was the pack behind us, that I could count 'em, half a dozen or so, and by the light of the torches we carried I could plainly see their red tongues lolling out of their hungry jaws. So did Pierre, and out came his beads. But reely, boys, there are more wonderful escapes in real life than ever folks read of in books. Now, what do you suppose saved us that night? Under Providence, of course, I means. We might have turned at bay and shot one or two, and there was a knife apiece. But we should have been doomed men had we done so. However, help was close, just as hope was dying out in our hearts. Running for our lives we had reached the land,—before that, you understand, we'd been traversing an ice-floe,—we knew 'twas land by the low bank sheering down. As we set foot on it a mighty roaring crack sounded, breaking up into a thousand echoes in the white silence. It was the ice parting from the shore, through the wind-storm that had risen. Between us and our savage hunters the cold black waves boiled up instantly, released from their prison, and the baffled wolves howled furiously at the fissure growing wider each second. We were saved; and, boys, never did I see the finger of God more plainly than at that moment! I am glad I wasn't ashamed to throw myself on my knees and thank Him aloud, and Frenchy joined me with all his heart.'
'But,' began Alick wonderingly, after a long pause, 'how on earth did you find your way back, you two, through all that frozen white country with no landmarks?'
'How? Why, I s'pose you don't know the watchword of all Arctic expeditions, young master? 'Tain't likely as you should, so I'll tell you. The law out yonder is: keep your line of retreat open; and a better rule couldn't be. It so be as you take heed to it keerful, you can't be cut off from the world. So Pierre an' me, in due time, found our way back to the ship, which was stationed in the Spitzbergen Sea.'
'And what about t'others, the rest of the expedition? They pushed on, didn't they?' asked Ned eagerly.
'Ah! that's the queer thing that I be a-comin' to,' said Jerry, speaking solemnly. 'In course they pushed on. But never a man of the lot came back to tell the story of what they'd seen. They was too venturesome; they went too far ahead, and must have perished of sheer cold; leastways that's what I've heard. If you don't see a meanin' under that, well, I do! And real grateful I feel to the Almighty. I lost an arm, but them poor lads they lost their lives.'
There was another silence. Jerry industriously puffed away; Alick stared up unblinkingly into a chink of blue between the tree-tops; and Ned gravely whittled away at a tiny boat of wood, one of a fleet with which he kept Miss Queenie so numerously supplied that it bade fair to develop into a Lilliputian navy in time.
'Did you ever use any dogs on the expedition, Jerry?' asked Alick, whose thoughts had been travelling along the silent white expanse of the far-away North.
'Dogs? No, muster, we didn't in them days. But Frenchy used to talk away, I remember, o' nights round the camp-fires, about the proper use dogs would be on an expedition. There was one breed in pertikler he spoke well off—the West Siberian, I think he called 'em.'
'Yes,' eagerly put in Alick, 'they're the ones, the West Siberian. Father was speaking about them. They're considered to be awfully useful.'
'I dessay!' assented Jerry, knocking the ashes out of his pipe before carefully stowing it away in one of his many pockets. 'But 'pears to me we've got to be thinking of going home. The trunks o' the trees are reddening, which tells us the sun's slantin'; and these little shavers must be fed and bedded before sundown. Come, musters, rouse yourselves; we must be steppin' Northbourne way!'
Picking up the shivering, quaking mites in their cotton-wool wrappings, Jerry lodged them in his several pockets and even in his cap. But he firmly refused to suffer the two boys to share his burdens.
'We can't be too keerful for the first day or so after takin' of 'em out of the nest; so you leave 'em to me,' he persisted; and presently the trio were trudging on their way back to Northbourne village.
IN PERIL ON THE SEA
While Alick Carnegy was absent, enjoying his forbidden pleasure in Brattlesby Woods with Jerry Blunt, the bird-trainer, and Ned Dempster, strange things were happening in the quiet little bay at home—things that will be talked of for years to come in the long winter nights, when the fisher-wives sit mending their husband's nets round the peat-fires, and the children crowd close to listen with all their ears to the story.
'The Theodora,' the boat belonging to the Bunk, had been getting out of repair for some time back. At first the young folk—even Theo herself—being a happy-go-lucky, reckless set in most things, disregarded the leak, never dreaming it to be a serious one, and laughed at their wet feet; for who ever heard of salt water hurting anybody? It is just, however, those neglected little things, evils that are suffered to go on, which increase sometimes, with a sudden rush, into big mischiefs. That week Theodora, who had not been in the boat for a few days, was struck afresh with the damage; she saw that it was high time something should be done to mend matters, if only for the sake of keeping dry feet. She therefore gave Ned Dempster a few directions how to remedy the leak. Of course Ned, being a born fisher-lad, was quite capable of doing the piece of work in his spare moments. This Theo knew. But, unfortunately, her orders, and everything else as well, went clean out of Ned's head, owing to the excitement he had imbibed from Alick about the expedition to Brattlesby Woods after the finches.
When Theo and Queenie, consequently, got into the boat in the afternoon to pull across to the little birthday festival at the Vicarage, they speedily found, to their discomfort, but by no means to their dismay, that the leak was considerably worse than usual.
'Oh,' screamed Queenie, 'my bestest new shoes is quite wetted, Theo! Look!'
Queenie certainly was right; the shiny little toes that, dangling, did not reach the bottom of the boat even, were already wet. Theo's fresh blue print also was fringed round with sea-water when she looked down at it.
'I think we might manage to get across, though,' said Theo hopefully. 'It's a pity to turn back. We shouldn't get much wetter than we are already, should we?'
'Not much wetterer,' acquiesced Queenie equably, as she dipped first the tip of one shoe, then the other, into the water. Of course, if Theo didn't mind, it was nothing to Queenie.
The afternoon was a glorious one, with a faint touch of north in the wind, just enough to bring out colour intensely. The blue of the sea and the blue of the sky were alike sapphire in hue, against which the gulls that darted and skimmed hither and thither showed white. It was, in truth, an afternoon when the world seemed so passing fair, so secure, that the mind was lured into believing that it was all-sufficient.
Thus it is with ourselves. When we are getting on too smoothly at school, or at our work, it all begins to feel such easy plain-sailing, that we rest on our oars and grow over-confident. We are, in a sense, off guard. And so it was with the occupants of 'The Theodora,' as it gradually made its way to the middle of the bay. Of course they would get across in safety, as Theo declared; they had done it a hundred times already, since the leak was first sprung.
Nothing had ever happened in the girl's eighteen years of life in the shape of any serious accident either by land or by sea. It was difficult to realise that mishaps could possibly occur, and, with her eyes fixed on the wondrous blue above and below, Theo rowed on, calling herself lazy because she did not seem, somehow, able to get so fast through the water as usual.
'Theo! oh, Theo!'
Two affrighted shrieks rang out simultaneously; for, suddenly, the sisters each became aware that 'The Theodora' had shipped a quantity of water. The boat was so heavy that Theo's oars could hardly move it.
'Oh, what have I done?' cried the elder girl, ashy pale, and stunned with the shock. 'Oh, my darling Queenie!'
It was for the beloved little sister that the thrill of anxious terror rushed over Theo. She herself could swim, in a fashion, if the worst came to the worst; but Queenie, the baby-sister, how was the helpless little one to be saved? Wildly Theo gazed over the blue, rippling water.
There, yonder, on the stretch of sands in front of the fisher-folk's dwellings, her long sight could distinguish the women at their usual monotonous employment, mending their nets in the doorways, all unaware of her peril and that of the child in the sunlit bay.
'Help! help!' she shrieked in the agony of fear that encompassed her, and in her own ears her voice sounded thin and feebly small, as when in some horrid nightmare we, all in vain, try to scream aloud, and fail. Would they sit there, those fisher-women, and never so much as raise their eyes to glance at the distinctly sinking boat?
It was maddening to the distraught girl, simply maddening.
'What is it, Theo?' quavered the frightened child opposite her in the boat. 'Is we going to be drowned in the water, Theo?'
'Oh, my darling Queenie! what shall we do?' cried out Theo in a frenzy of helpless terror. The oars were lying helpless in the bottom of the rapidly filling boat. 'What are we to do?' She fairly shrieked out the question again.
'Say "Our Father,"' said Queenie promptly; and she clasped her tiny hands together in Theodora's. The child was too ignorant to realise their danger. It was only the terror in Theo's face that frightened her—Theo, the sister who was so strong, so tall, so all-wise, in the trustful little one's innocent eyes. But though unconscious of all their peril, the child's unerring instinct pointed to the true, unfailing Refuge for all human trouble.
'Our Father in heaven, help me to save Queenie!'
The cry, strong and vibrating, floated over the solitary water. Theo, in the sudden and unexpected approach of great danger, had forgotten that God's ears are listening always to catch our prayers, even when belated and half despairing.
But when the little sister's simple words brought back to her mind the remembrance of the one great Shelter for us all in the 'day of trouble,' Theo threw her whole soul into the imploring, impassioned cry for help.
Then, knowing that God is most ready to aid those who aid themselves, she rapidly collected her scattered wits to plan out what she had best do in the extremity she found herself. Untying the long, soft, red sash Queenie wore round her waist, she hastily, but firmly, fastened the child to herself, never ceasing, meanwhile, to cry her loudest for help, though her voice grew hoarse and weak under the terrible strain. Then Theo proceeded to free her own skirts from her feet, lest, being entangled, she might be sucked down under, when the boat settled down, as she knew, now, it undoubtedly must.
And overhead, flecking with white the blue glitter of the sky, the busy gulls skimmed hither and thither, wheeling round in circles. On the shore the fisher-wives, with bent heads, were still too intent on their mending to raise their eyes for one moment, and the chatter of their own high-pitched voices dulled their ears to the despairing cries floating across the waters. So the tragedy went on.
It was cool and shady in the Vicarage old-fashioned drawing-room. Mrs. Vesey, the invalid mistress, frail and sweet, was lying, as usual, on her couch, her dim, patient eyes watching the bay for the boat bringing over her expected guests from the Bunk.
In the next room tea was spread out: piles of sweet cakes and brown bread-and-butter; strawberries gleamed ripe and red in large, heaped-up dishes, and jugs of rich yellow cream stood about. Mrs. Vesey knew what a feast should be like for hungry boys and girls, and ordered a lavish repast to be prepared. Nor had she forgotten to provide for other guests who were bidden to celebrate her birthday. Down in the village schoolroom, tea and plum-cake, with piles of fruit, were all in readiness to be laid out the moment that the little scholars departed from afternoon school—a feast which they would return in due time to demolish.
Mrs. Vesey was a great sufferer; she had been house-ridden for years of her life, but she bore her cross of bodily ailments bravely and with soldierly courage. It was never thrust forward as an excuse to shelter its bearer from what she felt to be her duty. Although she was totally unable to preside in person at the treat for the fisher-children, she had arranged to be represented by Theo Carnegy, when the Vicarage tea was over. That young lady, after helping the little ones to make merry over their feast, was finally to marshal a procession up to the Vicarage, where the children intended to present to Mrs. Vesey such posies as their busy little fingers had managed to gather in the woods behind the village.
As Mrs. Vesey lay watching the bay from her open windows, Binks, the old handy-man, moved about on the lawn outside, now and again exchanging remarks with his mistress as he passed and repassed.
'Muster Geoff, he've come, ma'am!' said he presently, peering in the room.
'Oh, has he? Where is he, Binks?'
'He've stepped round to the stable for Splutters and Shutters, ma'am, that's where he be. B'ys is never content without the dogs arter them. I dunno where t'other young muster is, but the ladies is on their way across in their boat,' added Binks, shading his eyes to gaze out over the water.
'I know they are,' said Mrs. Vesey; 'I've been watching them. I saw them start from the Bunk pier. The boat's pretty well into the middle of the bay, now. Can't you see them, Binks?'
There was no answer.
Perhaps Binks resented the question, or perhaps he objected to admit that his eyesight was not so good as that of his mistress. Anyhow, he continued perfectly silent as he gazed, with a fixed stare, at some distant object.
'Hi, Splutters! Heel, Shutters! Come back, sir! Oh, Binks, really I couldn't prevent them coming round on the lawn; they were too much for me when I opened the stable door. Oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Vesey! I didn't know you were at the window.' Polite Geoff, heated and flushed with his chase after the excitable terriers, stood hat in hand under the window while Splutters and Shutters tore madly up and down and across the lawn. Strangely enough, Binks took no notice of their capers, which, for once, were allowed to go unrebuked. His eyes, shaded by his wrinkled hand, were still intent on the distant boat.
'Theo and Queenie are on their way, Mrs. Vesey,' continued Geoff. 'I see the Bunk boat creeping over; they seem in no particular hurry. Don't you see them, Binks?' demanded the boy, rather astonished at the old man's stillness. 'Why, I can see them waving something—a long red thing. They certainly don't get on very fast, though, do they? Why—why, Binks! Oh, what on earth's the matter? Something's wrong with the boat; they're so still and—— Binks, what is it?' Geoff ended with a shout that was almost a scream, as he clutched the old man's arm wildly.
'Come along, Muster Geoff!' Binks roughly shook off the boy's hand. 'Run for your life; you're fleeter than me. Shove down our boat into the water, and I'll folly ye quick's ever I can!' roared the old man. 'They're sinkin' out there fast as fast. God help us all!'
Faster than ever he ran in his life tore Geoff, with a face blanched and drawn, to seize the Vicarage boat, and push her to the water's edge, putting forth all the strength of his young body to do so single-handed. To jump on board and take up an oar was the work of half a minute, and Geoff was pushing off without a thought of anybody else when a hoarse shout stayed him.
'Stay, muster!' panted Binks, hurrying to the edge. 'Two's better than one; two oars will reach 'em quicker!' and in scrambled the breathless old man, drops of perspiration rolling unheeded down his wrinkled cheeks.
Not another word was spoken by either as the man and boy tore through the water, with all the strength they possessed. Geoff silently watched Binks's face, trying to read, in its strained lines, the fate of those behind his back. But the boy's white, dry lips refused to utter the terrible question, 'Are they still above water?' Geoff's brain seemed too paralysed to think. Every sense was merged in the mad race of trying to cut still faster through the water to the rescue. The hard, brown visage of Binks was a dead wall as he pulled and puffed and panted. From it Geoff could gain no information, and, somehow, for his life, the boy dare not turn his head to see over his shoulder for himself.
On the shore the women-workers had at last awoke to the fact of the tragedy being enacted on the blue waters, and in the full blaze of the summer sunshine, almost within their reach. Wild cries of affright arose; the brown nets were flung aside this way and that. Bewildered groups stood close down to the water's edge tremblingly wringing their hands in miserable helplessness, and their eyes starting out of their heads as their gaze clung, glued, to the little craft slowly, slowly settling down.
A DOOR OF ESCAPE
It was a spell of long-drawn-out anguish for the watchers on shore, the while that Theo Carnegy and little Queenie sank helplessly in their rapidly filling boat. From one to another of the cottages round the bay the news had flown like wild-fire that the captain's boat, with the captain's daughters, was going down within sight, and not a man nor a boy in Northbourne village but was out at sea since daybreak, for the 'mackerrow' were proving a little gold-mine to the community, and the fishermen grudged to sleep or eat, so eager were they to make hay while the sun was shining.
The women would not have thought twice of taking to the boats themselves and attempting a rescue, but all the decent crafts were at sea; the few that were beached were useless, being out of repair. There was, accordingly, nothing to do but stand in huddled groups wringing the hands that, perforce, were helpless. Some—the timid ones—covered their eyes from the sight. Others, fascinated, found it impossible to turn their gaze for a single second from the hapless boat which their practised sight noted was now perceptibly lower in the water. One or two among them, old Goody Dempster conspicuously, stood with white lips that moved silently as they prayed God to have pity, to stretch out His mighty hand and save those in dire danger.
And while the women watched breathlessly, or prayed, Geoff, with old Binks, struggled on, a nightmare feeling weighing them down all the time, that they were standing still, instead of making way.
At last, when the watchers on the shore could no longer see aught but the rim of the top of the boat, and only the two clinging figures in it, for 'The Theodora' had settled down almost under water, the Vicarage boat pulled up alongside, with a final long sweep, into which Geoff, half fainting, put his sole remaining strength.
How the rescue was achieved, then, none of the four could ever afterwards tell or picture with any clearness. It was as if other hands than those of Geoff and Binks did the work, while Queenie and then Theo were half lifted, half dragged in by the two.
More dead than alive, the rescued sisters were, with considerable difficulty, laid at the bottom of the boat. Theo had swooned away the moment she realised that they were saved, and the women watchers on the shore sobbed loudly in hysterical relief.
'Shall we take 'em over to the Vicarage?' hoarsely asked Binks, handling his oar for the return.
'No, no! Home—home to father!' whispered back Geoff, whose voice seemed to have died away into a feeble sort of whistle.
Then the two, exhausted as they were already, pulled their hardest over the blue waters to the tiny pier under the Bunk.
The catastrophe, next door to a terrible tragedy, had happened in the space of about fifteen minutes, and it seemed strangely impossible that the sun should be still shining, and the light wind curling the rippling waves as if nothing had happened.
The captain, who had been, as usual, absorbed in his manuscript, sitting with his back to the window, knew nothing of it until he was hastily called to carry up the senseless Theo. It was a considerable time before his efforts to restore the unconscious girl were successful; and it would not be easy to tell how the father, whom Theo Carnegy had allowed herself to think and pronounce indifferent to his children's welfare, suffered as he hung over the senseless form of his best-beloved child. Her peril stirred up all the love that, though undoubtedly existing, had been dormant. From that fateful hour, however, the old sea-captain was an altered man. His heart awoke to the fact that the chief place in it should be filled by his motherless children, instead of, as it had been, by a mere hobby.
All through the hours of the anxious night that followed he went from one bed to the other, tending the occupants with that gentleness, almost womanly, which a sailor possesses in no ordinary degree. For Queenie there were no apprehensions, save dread of a chill from the wetting she received; the child was tranquil, and appeared to have sustained no shock.
'We said "Our Father," me and Theo,' she whispered innocently to the captain, as he sat by her little bed holding her hands, 'and He sent Geoff and Binks directly to pick us out of the water; and then Theo went off to sleep in the boat, and my new shoes is spoilt most dreadful!'
With Theo it was otherwise. She had sustained a severe mental shock, as well as the bodily strain, in her fruitless efforts to pull the heavy boat through the water. And it had been a terrible spasm of terror to sink slowly, helplessly, in the yawning waves, trying all the time to hold up the precious little sister. When the doctor from Brattlesby arrived, he looked grave enough over his elder patient; and next day he was even more serious.
'She is in for brain fever!' he said briefly. He was a man of few words, leaving the burden of conversation, as a rule, to his patients. Hence, perhaps, it was that little Dr. Cobbe was the most popular being, man or doctor, for miles round Northbourne.
And with regard to Theo it was as he said. For many weeks Theo Carnegy lay battling for her life in the cruel clutches of the fever, unconscious that her most devoted and tenderest nurse was the father whom she had bitterly imagined thought more of his hobby than of his boys and girls. All Northbourne, as with one heart, sorrowed aloud for their favourite Miss Theedory; her grave condition was the sole theme of talk in the cottages round the bay.
'Happen she was too good to live!' croaked Jerry Blunt's mother, with an appropriate melancholy in her voice; and the gossips nodded approvingly at a sentiment which fitted in with their own views of life.
'Nothin' o' the sort!' struck in a dissentient voice, which belonged to Goody Dempster herself. 'There's none too good to live, seein' as life is a great gift that can only come from the Lord Himself. He gives, and He takes away, that's how we've got to look at things. And, please God, He will see fit to raise up Miss Theedory among us again, hale and sound. She's one as could be ill spared.'
'Amen!' assented more than one voice among the listeners, in ready response.
But there was one heart that felt heavier than all others—too heavy to hold a ray of hope—and that belonged to Alick Carnegy. When he returned home from his stolen holiday, and found what had happened during his absence, the remorse of the boy was uncontrollable. He could not but feel it to be true, what others did not scruple to tell him bluntly, for plain-speaking was a distinguishing feature of the fishing village, that had he and Ned Dempster been at home, they could have reached his sisters in far less time than Geoff, younger and weaker of muscle, and Binks, long past his heyday of strength and stiffened with rheumatism, had done.
With cold shivers of dread, he heard how Theo, though delivered from one perilous strait, lay in jeopardy of her life in the new peril of fever.
She would die, he was convinced, and voices seemed to be incessantly crying in his ears: 'It will be your fault, all your fault! You fought to have your own way, in spite of her pleadings, and now she will die because you were not here to help her in such sore peril. She was deserted, so she will die, our Theo!'
Alick, a boy of strong feelings, became maddened by despair, and exaggerated the calamity. As time went on—and brain fever rarely hurries itself—Theo grew no better, but rather weaker, and Alick secretly called himself her murderer. He was distraught.
'Oh, Ned, if we had been at home, you and I, we could have reached them in half the time Geoff and old Binks took! We could have rescued them before "The Theodora" began to settle down!' he blurted out when he found Ned sobbing helplessly in a corner of the tea-house, The latter, though not possessed of Alick's torturing powers of imagination, was overcome with remorse for his own share in the transaction.
Oh, Muster Alick, it ain't "we" it's me, only me, as is to blame!' he hoarsely said, in a voice choked with sobs.
'What do you mean?' asked Alick heavily; and he stared down at the crouching speaker.
'Miss Theedory telled I to mend the leak,' moaned Ned. 'And she thought I'd done it, I expec', for she showed how 'twas to be mended; but I knowed how as well as she did, for I've seed a-many done. But I put off the doin' of it to go to Brattlesby Woods along with you, Muster Alick, and Jerry Blunt, an' I deceived her; an' now she's drowned, Miss Theedory is! Leastways, 'tis the same thing; for all Northbourne's a-sayin' as she's bound to die of it all!' The boy, burying his head, broke down into a loud, irrepressible fit of crying.
Ned too! Alick's lips quivered as he turned abruptly away. He himself it was who tempted Ned away, and caused the boy to neglect his duty, bringing down all this misfortune. He had been thinking himself the only person in fault for being wilfully absent, but it was worse and worse! He had lured away, and placed another in the same position, so wide-spreading can a single evil step be in its results. Even through his sinking fears about Theo, Alick could not but feel pathetically sorry for poor Ned, whose grief grew wilder in its abandon after his confession was out.
'Have you told any one about not mending the leak, Ned? Does my father know?' he came back to Ned's side to ask anxiously.
'I dussn't!' was the choking reply. 'But I feels bound, somehow, to tell you,' he added. 'If Miss Theedory dies, 'twill be me as did it; an' you can tell 'em all so, if you like! They'll put me in gaol, o' course; p'raps they'll hang me. They may bring it in manslaughter. I dunno what they haven't the power to do!' ended Ned desperately.
Alick stared through the window out to sea, with an equally woebegone face with that of his companion in misery. Two more unhappy boys one could not have well beheld. And this grievous state of affairs had revengefully trodden on the heels of the delightfully fascinating expedition to the woods, which had been forbidden to the one boy, and which the other boy had shirked his duty to join in!
'What would be the end of it all?' Alick dully asked himself.
'Ned,' he said aloud, and there was a passionate ring of regret in his voice, 'it wasn't worth it!'
'No, muster, it warn't!' assented Ned, fully understanding that Alick would have given his right hand to have put back the clock of time, that he might again have the chance of apologising as Geoff had done, and returning to his duty in the schoolroom. Both boys felt positively assured that had they been on the spot the catastrophe could not possibly have occurred.
There was a spell of silence in the tea-house. Now and again the echo of a sob shook Ned from head to foot. Alick leaned his forehead against the window jamb, and stared sullenly at the leaping waves below. As he gazed, a strange resolve came into the boy's mind, born of the deepening despair consuming him.
In the black gloom that environed him, came Satan's opportunity.
'You will never be forgiven if Theo dies,' whispered the tempting voice. 'Perhaps you also will be put in prison, who knows, with Ned as an accomplice!' Alick Carnegy, it will be seen, had but confused notions as to what manslaughter meant. He shivered and cowered at the terrifying notions of being shut up for life, perhaps, in some gloomy gaol. Better-informed boys may jeer at Alick's ignorance of things in general, but Northbourne was an out-of-the-way, stand-still spot, with few or no opportunities of smartening the wits, of keeping up with the times.
'The best way out of the difficulty would be to run away, wouldn't it?' as he brooded, somebody seemed to suddenly and swiftly whisper in his ear. And Alick, when the sense of the suggestion penetrated his mind, abruptly lifted his hanging head. He gasped aloud in relief. A door of escape opened in the black, impenetrable wall that was closing in round him.
'Ned,' he said softly, nudging the other boy, 'listen to me! Be done with that cry-baby business! We two, you and I, have got ourselves into an awful scrape, and there's only one thing for us. Can't you guess what that is? Rouse up! Can't you guess?' he repeated impatiently.
'Me guess? No! I can't make Miss Theedory get well; and what else matters?' Ned lifted a tear-stained face to say brokenly.
'You've often said you'd be game to run away to sea, if I made up my mind to do it, haven't you? Well, all the blame of whatever happens comes on us—you and me. We are bound to suffer the penalty.' Alick spoke slowly, and with the air of weighing his words, while Ned listened in awe. 'Now, then, it seems to me, is our chance to do it. Let's set out this very night; they'd never miss us in all the—the worry about Theo, until it would be too late to overtake us. We could walk to London in about three days, I expect; and once at the Docks it would be queer if you and I couldn't slip quietly on board some North-bound vessel, as we've often planned to do. Speak up! Will you come?'
And Alick breathlessly waited for Ned's long-of-coming answer.
Meantime, while all Northbourne, in its genuine affection for Miss Theedory, hung expectantly on the issues of life or death—for who could say which it might be?—Jerry Blunt was quietly making his preparations for pursuing his new calling of bird-trainer.
Although he had said nothing about it, one of the new pupils had been specially set apart to be given to Theo, if it pleased God to spare her young life. Theo, gentle and sweet-spoken to all, had won the reverence and loyal regard of the disabled sailor, when he returned home a cripple, by her friendly welcome to him.
Jerry Blunt was not one to forget a kind word. He had not come across so many, in his up-and-down life, that they had become cheapened.
It was not, however, until the young finches were about two months old, and showed symptoms of whistling powers, that Jerry could really begin the labour of educating them in real earnest. His first step was to systematically separate his pupils into small classes, so to say, or groups of birds, lodging them in wicker cages. The next proceeding was to shut them up in a darkened room and keep them without food for a given time.
The skilful teacher then began the singing-lessons by slowly playing over and over the special tune he had selected—'The Blue Bells of Scotland'—for the finches to learn. He performed the melody upon a small instrument given him by Pierre Lacroix, his comrade on the expedition, the notes of which were curiously like the birds' own. Jerry truly had marvellous need of patience. But he knew—none better—that it is only by slow means that perfect trust is gained. His pupils sat for a considerable time sulking, perhaps with deeply injured feelings, being dinnerless; and they were, doubtless, bewildered by the darkness of the room. They were not deceived into thinking that the night had fallen, not they! As a proof, they made no attempt to sleep. They simply sat puzzling out, with suspicion, the mystery that surrounded them.
By and by, some sharper, brighter wit among his fellows began to listen to the music, so curiously familiar, with his tiny head on one side; and he was won over! Presently he tried, timidly and cautiously, to pipe a few faint notes in imitation—just a few. Then he halted.
'Not so bad for a beginning!' delightedly murmured Jerry, under his breath.
Bully, on his part, rather seemed to like the sound of his own voice. With a vain perk and a flutter, he tried again, his note more assured. Lo! there was a duet. A neighbour finch had joined in; another bully was won over, and Jerry chuckled softly. Old Pierre had been perfectly correct, then! The thing was possible. It was Jerry's own first attempt, and he had been careful to follow out the Frenchman's directions, though, until he heard with his own ears the result, he had been secretly somewhat sceptical.
In a few moments more there was a feeble chorus piping in unison with the tiny bird-organ which Jerry continued to softly play. The other finches had summoned up courage to join their brethren.
As an instantaneous reward the teacher let a flood of light into the dark room, in accordance with Pierre's code. More, he proceeded to give his hungry pupils a little—only a little—food, enough, in fact, to make them ravenous for more. Then he plunged the little room in sudden darkness again by shutting out the light. Thus Jerry gradually educated the birds into connecting the idea of food and light with the sound of his little instrument's melody.
After two or three repetitions of this performance, it followed that the finches, kept on short commons, no sooner heard the notes of the bird-organ always playing the one unvarying tune, than they, too, attempted to sing it, in the sheer hope of being fed, and of seeing the hated darkness disappear. Jerry being ever careful not to disappoint their expectations, the result came to pass that the particular melody was committed to memory—the tune was learned, more or less correctly; for the feathered pupils were like human scholars, in that the few, not the many, arrive at perfection.
After this reward for his enormous patience, Jerry Blunt's next move was to board out his pupils in the village with trustworthy boys who were selected for the posts of pupil-teachers. One boy was appointed to each bird, in order to carry out the business of teaching the tune by whistling it incessantly until the air was firmly fixed in those tiny memories, which, if they had not been exactly 'wax to receive,' proved 'marble to retain.' As the finches grew perfect in their one life-lesson, the Scottish ditty resounded sweetly all over the village of Northbourne. After that, the pupils being pronounced 'finished,' Jerry Blunt set forth, with his batch of performers, to London, where he got a fairly good price for his well-trained songsters. His birds sold off rapidly, each of them going off to be the pride and joy of some girl or boy's heart with the tuneful old melody—
'O where and O where has my Hieland laddie gane?'
and Jerry returned home with orders for many more bullfinches as he could procure.
These orders, however, he was doubtful of executing; the finches were getting too advanced in age to prove docile pupils. Still, Jerry would do his best, and he set off to trap some young birds that had already left the parent-nests. The work of training these advanced birds was quite as difficult. However, Jerry was a persevering individual, gifted with wondrous patience, an untiring teacher. He succeeded beyond his hopes, and as time went on was enabled to earn what he called a 'tidy' sum.
''Tis wonderful strange, Jerry, my son, that ye can train the morsels o' critters to sing what we may call human tunes! Nobody, of course, could do it but yer own self, I'm sure,' grudgingly admitted his mother, when success became sure.
'The idea! That's so like you, mother!' laughed Jerry, as he softly tickled the head of the bullfinch he had retained as a gift for Miss Theedory out of the first and best batch. 'You're that conceited, you think that your own son can do all things better than other folk. But I could tell you a true story, now, of what others have done.'
And in his own words Jerry related, while his mother knitted in the firelight, how a great musician had, as a youth, trained a young bullfinch to pipe 'God save the King.' The musician was much attached to the bird, and the bird to him. Love begets love, with the animal creation at least, which is, undoubtedly, the simple secret of the strange power possessed by some human beings over birds and beasts. If you desire to be their masters, you must, first of all, love the dumb creatures. Where love is, all things are possible. Bull-finches, in particular, have a strongly developed faculty for attaching themselves. And the simple logic is easy to follow out. In the training already described, music and pleasure—that is, the food and sunlight, which constitute Bully's pleasure—are inseparably connected. Hence it follows soon, that the bird, to show his joy at the sight of his owner, learns to greet him with the one tune his little life has been spent in learning.
The musician, having cause to go abroad, left his petted bird in charge of his sister. On his return to this country, his first visit was to that lady, who told him, sorrowfully, that Bully had pined himself into a serious illness, evidently in the grief he felt at his master's absence. The grieved owner went hastily into the room where the cage was, and spoke gently to the ailing bird, which stood huddled up into what looked like a ball of feathers on his perch. Instantly, at the sound of the loved master's voice, the dim, closed eyes were opened wide. There was a feeble flutter of the faded plumage; the drooping head was raised. Half creeping, half staggering, the little creature attained the outstretched finger, on which he had barely strength to steady himself. With a supreme effort, as it seemed, he piped out feebly, in low, half-muffled notes, 'God save the King.' And then—Bully fell dead!
Jerry's voice had a slight choke in it as he finished his pathetic little story. As for his old mother, she had thrown her apron over her head, and was quietly sobbing under its shelter.
'Well, my lad,' she said, by and by, when her tears were dried, 'I've aye said that you were the best son mother ever had, and for the same a blessing will, no doubt, rest upon your head. And as for the bits o' birds an' beasts well, I've heard the old passon—Mr. Vesey himself—say, an' I never forget the words, as—
'"He prayeth best who loveth best All men and bird and beast;"
so, to my thinkin', that's how 'tis wi' you. Ye love the mites, and ye can do all things wi' them. That's yer secret!'
And undoubtedly Jerry's old mother was right.
THE SEAMY SIDE OF LIFE
It was a still, dark night when two short figures, each carrying a bundle, stole away from Northbourne, skirting Brattlesby Woods, and making for the old London road.
The fugitives were Alick Carnegy and Ned Dempster, and each was trying his hardest to prevent his companion from hearing the choking sobs that could not be kept down.
All boys, of course, secretly believe that it is a fine, manly thing to run away to sea. From time immemorial it has sounded so well—in fiction. Is there a boy breathing who has not pictured himself, free as a bird on the wing, shaking off the trammels of home in this fashion? But the grim reality was an altogether different matter to the couple of friends who were setting forth under cover of darkness. For one thing, Alick, who hated anything underhand, was thoroughly ashamed of sneaking away in the night. That in itself distinctly took away from the dash and glory of the affair.
In addition, he felt himself groping in a fog of misery. Nevermore, he felt convinced, would he see his gentle, loving sister in this life; and he shivered uncontrollably as he thought that, but for his absence in her hour of peril, Theo would be as well and strong as anybody—as, for instance, little Queenie, upon whom the accident had left no evil effects.
Before and behind, life was grim and stripped of hope for both the boy-adventurers as they plunged along the high road. They were too intensely miserable to look forward to the future. All they were intent on was to escape from the dreaded consequences of their misdoings.
It is hard work travelling with a heart of lead in one's bosom—
'A merry heart goes all the day, Your sad tires in a mile-a.'
Still, the two trudged on, mile after mile, until when the dawn stole up the sky they found themselves on the outskirts of a country town at a considerable distance from Northbourne. Having but a few shillings, belonging to Alick, they had decided to walk every step of the road to London Docks. In the dim grey light from the east they saw, to their astonishment, large looming vans and many blurred forms, all in busy motion. There seemed to be, as it were, a commotion of shadows.
'What on earth is it, Ned? They look like ghosts flitting about!' Alick said, half fearfully.
'No! They ain't ghosts!' slowly rejoined Ned, after a prolonged stare. 'I'll tell you what it means. Tis a circus, or mayhap a wild-beast show, or somethin' of that sort. They're carryvans, leastways, and they're makin' an early start. Depend on it, that's what 'tis, Muster Alick!'
'I shouldn't wonder, Ned. You've just hit it. It's a circus! Let's go closer. Who knows but they might give us a lift on the road to London!'
Ned shook his head; he was extremely doubtful as to that. Such civility was not by any means the rule of the road.
As the boys drew nearer, they felt sure it must be a wild-beast show, from the rumble of subdued roars, as if from pent-up animals, and the chatter of birds that resounded from the depths of the caravans in which the inmates were, evidently, disturbed from their slumbers by the early move. Horses were being put to, and men were running to and fro, but Alick and Ned felt shy of accosting any one of them.
They hung back and watched eagerly.
'Hilloa, you two shavers! Whatever do you want loafing round here at this time o' morning? Say, can't yer?'
The shrill, loud voice came from the window of a house-caravan, and a woman's head, stuck all over with curl-papers, was thrust out to stare intently at the new-comers.
'We are going up to London—on business,' said Alick, mustering up courage, and speaking as manfully as he could. 'And,' he moved up closer to say, 'we thought that, perhaps, you would give us a lift as far as you could. I'll give you a shilling!'
The boy spoke with the air as though shillings were plentiful enough. But, in truth, he had only two half-crowns of his own in the world; they were the entire amount of his savings, which he had brought on setting forth in life.
The woman with the curl-papers stared hard down at the two young strangers before she answered, not so ill-naturedly—
'Well, I don't much mind, if so be as one of you gits on these yer steps, and has a ride along of us. The t'other can git on to one of the beasteses' vans at the back. 'Twon't break no bones if you do, as I can see.' With a reassuring nod, she then withdrew her curl-papers into the interior of her moving home.
'You'd best go aside her, I suppose, Muster Alick,' whispered Ned. 'I'll hang on to that van yonder;' and he took himself off in the direction to which the woman had seemed to point.
'The missus said as I might have a ride on the back of this van,' said he, meekly enough, to a man in his shirt-sleeves, who was too busy with the bars of the van to look up at the speaker.
'All right! If so be as she says so, it's got to be, I reckon!' he growled; and Ned swung himself up behind, trying hard to make out, as the procession moved off slowly and ponderously at last, what sort of beasts were on the other side of the boards he was leaning against. Suppose they were lions, or suppose the boards got loose? The fisher-lad, whom storm and tempest on the deep could not dismay, felt a bit creepy. Setting his ear close to the wood, he could distinctly hear hideous growls, as if some savage creature, maddened by hunger, were ready to break out and leap upon him. What would granny say if she could dream of his situation? But dashing his hand across his sleepy eyes, Ned hastily told himself there must be no harking back, no thinking of what granny or anybody else at Northbourne would say or do. It must be good-bye, for ever, to the old life. The motion of the van, the rest after the long tramp, alike caused the country-bred boy to nod sleepily as he clung to his perch.
Presently, he was back again in Northbourne. It was Sunday afternoon, and, dressed in his best, the fisher-boy stood up straight in class to repeat his hymn to his earnest-eyed, sweet-faced teacher, 'Miss Theedory.' And the words he fought sleepily to remember must have been born of his nearness to the growling monsters within the caravan—
'Christian, dost thou see them On the holy ground, How the troops of Midian Prowl and prowl around?'
IN THE MIRE
It was still darkish as the array of vans filed along the London road, and, in the confusion, Ned lost sight of the van in which Alick had got a lift beside the lady in curl-papers. And no wonder! for the fact was, the show had parted in two divisions—one going to be stationed in the East End, somewhere about Whitechapel, the other portion to traverse the suburbs south of the Thames.
It thus happened that the two Northbourne boys were separated, as they each discovered when the day wore on. Worse still: they found, to their dismay, that they had been entrapped artfully. A couple of useful boys were desperately needed, as a fever had been hanging about the show, breaking out at fitful intervals, and the chief victims had been the boy-helpers, who, one after another, dropped off, some to hospitals, others to die, like rats in the holes that were all the homes they knew.
The welcome accorded to Alick and Ned was thus explained. The showwoman was secretly overjoyed to give the strangers a lift on their journey. But before the first day closed in the pair of adventurers found out what real hard work meant. Even Ned Dempster, accustomed to the dilatory, easy-going life of sea-fishing, knew nothing indeed of the drudgery and hustling and flurry of such everyday work as he had stepped into, unawares, among the rough caravan folk.
Alick, of course, was thunderstruck and stupefied to find himself at everybody's rude beck and call. And to have his awkward, bewildered movements hurried on by hard cuffs and violent language was an unpleasantly new experience for a Carnegy to endure. His indignant attempts at rebelling were treated with loud jeers, and by savage threats of a horse-whipping. The latter menace was carried out before the week was over, on the unhappy boy obstinately refusing to clean out the animals' cages, to fetch and carry the food for birds and beasts, and to perform a hundred other distasteful offices.
'I'll teach ye; I'll conduct your education, young sir!' shouted the ring-master. 'And here's the lesson-book!' he sneered, flourishing a cruel-looking whip.
Stunned and crushed, Alick had asked repeatedly to see Ned, and also entreated to be permitted to leave the show at once. His requests were, of course, harshly refused. In addition, he was sternly warned that if he attempted to escape he would be horse-whipped again, and next-door to death.
'They're a catch for us, them two!' the brutal ring-master remarked to his wife, as he and she sat at their supper after the performance was over one evening. 'That tallest youngster's a swell as has run away from 'ome, judging from his looks and clothes. He's just what we've bin wantin' for a long time back. The fust thing to do is to break that 'igh speerit of his, and then we'll set to work to train him to show off with the leopards. That would draw famous with the public.'
'Not with the leopards! Not with them beasts! They're the worst and the fiercest in the show. 'Tis next-door to impossible to tame a leopard. I won't 'ave it, I tell you, so there!' the woman broke in, with a high-pitched voice.
'Well, well, we're not going to 'ave words about it!' The first speaker yielded; for his wife, the widow of the former proprietor, was the real owner of the circus. 'We needn't say no more about the leopards—for a bit. But I'll tell you what. 'Ee can do tricks with little Mike, the new pony, and the monkeys. We'll make up a sort of little performance a-purpose for 'im and them. I must invent a little somethink that would be taking.'
'I 'ope 'ee won't catch the fever, like the rest on 'em, that's all!' muttered the mistress, shaking her head doubtfully.
That, however, was just what Alick Carnegy managed to do. After some weeks' slaving and knocking about at the hands of the ring-master, such as fairly stunned him, he fell sick. At once the poor, gaunt, dirty lad, whom Northbourne would have refused to recognise as the smart Alick Carnegy, always trig and trim, was hustled off to the squalid room of an old Whitechapel crone who, for the five shillings in the pocket of his torn coat, agreed to nurse him through his trouble. If he had the luck to live through it, the show-folk intended to have him back. If he died—well, there was the parish ready to bury him.
Ned, on the other hand, was by no means in such evil plight. He was still in the division of the show moving from one suburb to another, so he had, at least, fresh air to breathe. True, he had brought on himself one brutal thrashing by running away from the show on the first opportunity. He was easily enough traced to the Docks, where he had sped, hoping against hope to find Alick loitering there. Instead, he was captured by the ring-master himself, who had been informed of the boy's flight, and who thought it quite worth his while to look up such an intelligent, hard-working little chap as Ned. The truth was, Ned had made himself far too useful among the animals to be thus let slip. All this time the dejected lad had been purposely kept in ignorance of the whereabouts of his companion. It was only by pure accident that he at last heard of Alick's collapse and speedy removal from the show—to die, for what anyone cared. One of the showmen had been despatched from the head-quarters of the establishment on an errand, and, knocking up against Ned, exclaimed—
'Hilloa! You ain't got the fever yet, then? Your chum has distanced you; for he's down with it.' Then the man told Ned that Alick was lying 'as ill as ill' in the house of an old crone who once belonged to the show herself.
It was a relief to hear even that much of his companion; it was better than the mystery of silence. But Ned's panic was pretty severe when he thought of Alick's perilous and deserted condition. A rush of mingled feelings came over the Northbourne lad. He felt as the prodigal son must have felt in the far country.
Yes, it was exactly like the Bible story which 'Miss Theedory' seemed to like best. At least, she told it to her class-boys more often than any other, and Ned, listening to her, had grown to realise the unhappy youth's condition in that far-off land where he had 'wasted his substance in riotous living,' and to sympathise cordially with him when he 'came to himself.'
But Ned, hustled, driven, sworn at, from morning to night, could now, in those scanty moments allowed him to swallow his rough food, or before his tired eyes closed in sleep, still more vividly picture the prodigal's desolation and despair.
Then he remembered the outcome of that despair: the unhappy youth in the parable suddenly determined to arise and go to his father, to confess, with bitter remorse, his own mad wrong-doings. Would it not be well for himself to arise and return to Northbourne, and to confess the terrible folly of which he and Alick had been guilty? Again and again Ned imagined himself so doing. But the cruel whip which he had already tasted was another side to the question. No, he dare not again attempt to escape! He writhed still when he recollected the stinging lashes of the long, serpent-like whip. At last came an inspiration. He could, and he would, write to the captain at the Bunk, entreating him to come and rescue his son, and also Ned himself. This resolve, however, was a work of no small difficulty. To procure an envelope and a postage-stamp were next door to impossible for the lad who was watched so keenly. Fortunately, some body coming out of the performance one evening, in pity for his unhappy looks, threw Ned a penny. A day or so after, when sweeping out the ring, he found in the sawdust an envelope unwritten upon, and tolerably clean. It was a prize: and that evening, when the public were shrieking with laughter over the capers of a clown arm-in-arm with a tame bear, followed by a couple of monkeys skilfully mimicking their very strut, Ned was behind one of the vans scribbling with pencil a few frantic, ill-spelt words that, when the crumpled envelope arrived at the Bunk, were wept over and laughed over in tumultuous joy. The penny thrown him went for a stamp; the letter was pushed, with trembling haste, into a letter-box, and Ned had returned to his post among the squalid back-scenes of the gay performance before anybody had time to miss him.
His heart beat in mad throbs, so that the boy was scarce able to sleep a wink that night. Hopes and fears jostled themselves in his excited brain. If the postman, old 'Uncle Dan,' who trudged from Brattlesby town every day at noon with the Northbourne post-bag, only safely delivered the letter Ned had posted, all would be well. With the captain himself to the fore, every difficulty must, and would, be swept away. Then—— But with a sobbing catch in his breath Ned put aside the after. He was too weak from misery and ill-usage to finish the blissful result. So, over and over, he murmured, 'I have sinned against heaven and before thee!' until that refrain of all true penitence lulled him to sleep.
'Alick is found! My boy is alive!' The captain had been able to utter no more as he pushed the crumpled wisp of a letter into a thin hand eagerly outstretched to receive it. The tears were running unheeded down the old man's cheeks.
'Oh, father!' There was a glad cry. 'God is good indeed! He has heard our prayers.'
It was Theo—or was it Theo's ghost?—who sat by the open window drinking in the sea breezes she was still too weak to go out of doors and meet. Yes, Theo was, day by day, coming back to her old sweet self, after a long spell of illness. There was only weakness left to fight—weakness and anxiety about Alick. As long as possible the fact of Alick having run away from home was kept from the prostrate girl. But in the end it abruptly leaked out, and nearly pushed her back through the gates of death.
Every means that the captain knew of had been set in motion to find the pair of runaways. But the searchers were checkmated at the outset by failing to find the boys at the Docks. The police in the end convinced themselves and the captain that the pair had stolen on board some foreign vessel on the eve of its departure, and, as stowaways, were already far off on the deep.
But which of the many hundreds of ships that had set sail since might the boys possibly be aboard? Again and again had the half-distracted father asked himself the maddening question as he paced the busy Docks. He would return then to Northbourne, where his other beloved child lay in jeopardy of her young life. Through the anxious night-watches by her bed, the old sailor pictured his boy on board some barque ploughing the seas, the stormy winds roaring through the rigging, the decks wet and slippery, the rough sailors cuffing and jostling the unwelcome intruders who had stolen their passages.
None knew better than the captain what the boys who had hidden themselves in some dark corner of an outward-bound vessel would be called upon to endure, when discovered; none knew better than he the hourly dangers to which they would be exposed in the perils of the deep—the risks of foundering, of collision, of tempests.
As the days wore on, and no word came of the runaways, the old sailor's heart sank to the lowest depths.
'Father, we must trust him to God; it's all we can do,' a low, weak voice whispered; and the old man took heart again. He would trust his boy to that—
'Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.'
Perhaps of all mankind a sailor has experienced most signal proofs of the omnipotence of God. Throughout the daily dangers they are exposed to is the underlying, as well as the overruling, sense of the Almighty Power that holds the heavens in the hollow of His hand.
The captain knew that his girl was right. What he and she had to do was simply trust Alick to his Father in heaven.
Then came Ned's missive with its startling news.
'You will go, father, and fetch him home?'
'Yes, yes! If I can find him. Please God I may!'
That same day the captain started for London, and with him went Philip Price, who insisted on joining in the search for the hapless Alick. The young tutor had proved himself a very friend in need in 'the day of trouble' that had befallen the Bunk. What more natural then that he should persist in helping the captain in what would be a ticklish piece of work, as both men knew?
Before the two set out, Philip Price brought his mother over from Brattlesby to establish her in Theo's sick-room. It was not the widow's first visit to the Bunk. The woman who never had a daughter of her own found in the serious, gentle Theo a realisation of those dream-daughters who had never been in real life.
And Theo, on her part, welcomed the quiet, soft-spoken widow—another bit of Philip Price, so similar were mother and son. It was a relief to the overwrought girl to restfully watch the household reins gathered up in other and abler hands than her own. As for the widow, she grew alert and brisk; so good is a little wholesome activity for others.
'We must have no fretting, no repining, dear Miss Carnegy,' she persisted cheerfully. 'Your young brother is sure to be found. The captain can't fail, now he has got my Philip to aid him in the search!'
The widow's text for every sermon was 'my Philip'; and it was one of which Theo Carnegy never tired, to judge by her intent listening to the subject-matter it produced.
IN MULLINER'S RENTS
It was a hot, stifling summer day, and perhaps Whitechapel never looked more grimy, more squalid, more sorrowful, perforce from its pathetic contrast to the summer beauty of the skies.
The pavement was so hot that the heat seemed to rise up, flouting itself in your very face.
In one particular alley, known as Mulliner's Rents, the heat seemed almost tropical. Possibly the dense overcrowding of this quarter with human life enhanced the burning sensation of the thick air breathed out and breathed in again, unrefreshed, by multitudes of lungs. Here, there, and everywhere human beings stood about idly. Groups of untidy women, in twos and threes, gossiped; lazy men lolled against the houses, smoking in sullen silence; and for every grown-up person there were fully a dozen of squalid children playing, shouting, staring, and squabbling with a vigour no heat could abate.
There was little traffic, so to say, in Mulliner's Rents; it was quite select in that one single respect. Nothing on wheels penetrated the unlovely quarter save a coster's barrow of fruit; unwholesome little yellow pears and cruelly green apples of the lowest type of apple-kind being the wares of the moment. It was truly a sad and sorrowful haunt, this of the man-made town; and so it seemed to the two travellers fresh from the God-made country—from the wholesome breezes of the caller salt air of Northbourne—when they plunged into its midst.
'Courage, captain!' said Philip Price, when he noticed the blanching of the elder man's brown face and the unutterable loathing of horror that spoke out of every feature. 'We've got to put our shoulder to the wheel, and leave no stone unturned to find Alick, and carry him out of this pestilent hole.'
Philip Price, before his health broke down, had been for a few months doing duty as curate in a still more squalid colony of human nests than even this. When the sailor flinched, and hung back, Philip strode forward, determined to conquer, unheeding the battery of stares turned upon himself and his companion by the inhabitants, and the free-and-easy comments, of which they were by no means chary.
Already the captain and Philip had that day spent many fruitless hours in the search, when they hit on a fresh clue and an address in Mulliner's Rents. But here, even, difficulties bristled, and the tide of hopelessness was setting in upon both men when a wretched old crone was dragged out of a public-house to confront them, with dazed eyes and with a hateful odour of gin oozing from her whole person.
'Yes—well, yes,' she grudgingly admitted, in answer to the eager questions of the searchers; 'I does know a boy down with fever. What o' that? I ain't done no harm to him! He's 'ad the best I could offer; and five shillin's don't go far when there's sickness,' she ended, with a whimper, for she was maudlin with drink.
'Take us to that boy at once!' commanded Philip Price; for the captain's agitation unmanned him for the moment.
The wretched woman, awed by Philip's tone, complied. Perhaps, also, she obeyed, half in fear of the policeman, who had stepped up to join the gentlemen, and half in hope of getting more silver to spend on more drink.
Before half an hour was over Alick Carnegy was found. It was a terrible shock to the captain to recognise his boy in the squalid, dirty, delirious sufferer tossing wearily on a heap of sacks, on the grimy floor of an attic at the top of an evil-smelling, dilapidated house, to which the crone stumblingly conducted them.
'Merciful powers!' he groaned in dismayed horror.
'Hush!' enjoined Philip. 'Be as calm as you can. I believe the poor little chap is off his head; but, if there's a gleam of consciousness, it would send him over the precipice again to witness your agitation.'
There was small fear of the captain doing any further mischief; he was stunned into helplessness, and stood mute, trying to force himself to believe that the huddled heap of squalid misery was his very own son—smart, manly-looking Alick Carnegy. Though the captain was thus helpless, Philip Price seemed to know exactly what to do, and how to do it.
Getting the address of a doctor, he rushed off, in the first place, to fetch him. Then a bedstead and clean bedding were hired in. In an hour or two more the grimy room was swept and tidied as far as possible; the window propped up to stay open; the hapless, dirty sufferer cleansed and made straight; and beside his bed sat a gentle-faced, trained nurse, whose wholesome presence seemed to transform the room.
'Now, captain,' cheerily said Philip, who looked another man in the excitement, 'you are going to take a bit of advice from me, I hope. You will go straight back to Brattlesby by the night train. Your invalid at home must not be forgotten; anxiety is not the best sort of tonic for her. And I mean to remain here with your boy.'
'God bless you, Price!' The old sailor's voice trembled as he wrung Philip's hand. 'I never knew it was in you! Man, how one can be deceived! I thought your head was in the clouds, and that you didn't know your right hand from your left, practically speaking. Yes, yes! I'll run down to-night, and to-morrow I can return. I can trust my boy to you. Let nothing be spared; there's my purse. The doctor seemed a downright good sort of chap and she is worth a gold-mine!' He pointed to the nurse, who was deftly bathing Alick's burning brow.
'What a splendid lad that Price is! He's the very salt of the earth!' murmured the old captain, as he threaded his way later through the unsavoury streets, now ablaze with lights that enticed and beckoned forth misery to stalk out from every dark corner. 'He is a true Christian—that's what it is! To think how my boys have ill-treated him, and here he is caring for Alick so tenderly that the poor boy's mother couldn't have done more, had she been spared! That's what you call returning good for evil, with a vengeance! Well, well, please God, I'll mend my own ways too! If I have my girl and my boy both restored to me, I'll be a different father to them from what I have been.'
It had been borne in upon the captain's mind, during the cloud of sorrow overshadowing his home, that he had, somehow, failed in his duty. And, with the courage that belongs only to the brave heart, he admitted his shortcomings.
There was tremendous excitement in Northbourne when it was known that Alick had actually been found. The Bunk was besieged by an ever-growing crowd, anxious to have the news verified. And where was Ned Dempster? The captain himself had to assure them his next step would be to discover the hapless Ned. Yes, yes; Ned also should be found and brought back. Not a stone should be left unturned until he rescued Ned likewise.
And the old sailor kept his word. On his return to London he and Philip Price took it in turn, between their spells of watching beside Alick's sick-bed, to seek out the wandering half of the show-circus. Time went on, but they were still unsuccessful, however. Not until the fever died out, and Alick, weak and exhausted, almost beyond building up, began to show faint signs of interest in his surroundings, could any questions be put to him. It was Philip Price who managed, without agitating the sufferer, to win from his feeble lips the name of the show. After that it was a tolerably easy matter to unearth its whereabouts.
On demanding Ned's release, a series of denials met them as to the boy being with the establishment at all. A storm of furious resistance which followed had to be quelled by the stern detective who accompanied the captain in his raid upon the show. Back in triumph to the Whitechapel attic they carried the trembling Ned, who had to be scoured and fed and clothed into his 'right mind' once again.
And this was running away secretly! thought each humiliated adventurer as they gazed, stony-eyed, at one another.
Shortly after, when Alick had crept sufficiently far out of the fever, looking a white shadow of his former self, the two boys were conveyed back to Northbourne, where a genuinely hearty welcome awaited them from the fisher-folk. Jerry Blunt, indeed, had suggested a triumphal arch with WELCOME in letters tall and wide. But that notion was instantly quashed by wiser heads.
'We be thankful to see 'em back,' judicially said Northbourne; 'but we ain't a-goin' to make "conquerin' heroes" of such young limbs!'
So it came to pass that the boys who thought it such a fine, manly thing to run away to sea, as boys will think, returned meekly, with shamed eyes, and hearts bounding joyfully at sight of the homes they had not dreamed were so dear until they had forfeited them, as they thought, for ever.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
After the first cries of greeting there was a silence. Theo's arms were tight round her restored brother's neck, and Alick rested his tear-stained cheek against his sister's. They were alone in the room, but, in truth, the boy would not have cared if all Northbourne had been looking on.
'Theo,' he sobbed out presently, 'it was awful!'
'Yes, dear, it must have been,' whispered Theo sympathetically, tightening her arms. 'It was not what you expected?'
'It was awful!' repeated Alick. As yet he could find no words to picture his experience of life out in the hard world. 'And,' he went on, lifting up his tear-stained face, 'I am more sorry than I can ever tell that I did it, Theo—sorry and ashamed.'
'Have you told God that, Alick?' asked Theo softly, in his ear.
'Yes, I have,' was the grave, equally low reply. 'I've put it on to the end of my prayers, night and morning. And—perhaps He will forgive me some day, if I—if I can do something, work out something, you know, to show that I am really and truly sorry. Don't you think I could manage something of the sort, Theo?' asked Alick earnestly, if awkwardly.
'No, Alick, I don't!' said Theo abruptly; and the boy's face fell. Of late the boy had been full of this new desire to efface his wrong-doing by some means or other himself. 'Most certainly, dear old boy,' went on his sister, more gently, 'you cannot "blot out" your transgression by your own efforts. Don't you know that we have, each and every one of us, in the heavens, that great High Priest who is interceding for us always, always? He, our dear Lord, has already done that "something" which you are groping to do in your weak, small way. He has worked out your redemption—yours and mine. What you have to do is to carry your sins to the foot of the cross, where the great "something" was accomplished for us. You remember the hymn—
'"I lay my sins on Jesus, The spotless Lamb of God."
Oh, Alick! I'm only a girl, and I can't say the words right; but you must lay your sin on Jesus, who has promised to bear it. Tell Him of your sorrowing repentance. That's all you have got to do; He does the rest!'
'And, Theo, there's Price,' Alick lifted his head to say presently. 'Oh, I can't tell you what he has done for me! He nursed me all through in that slum of a Whitechapel—me, of all people! And when I begged his pardon for all my bad conduct you should have seen his face! Theo, if you'll give me your word never to tell it to any one, I cried like a baby; for Price looked for all the world like Stephen looked when they were stoning him. But you'll never tell I said so? I was a cowardly wretch to insult him as I did; and to think how he has paid me back—"coals of fire" are nothing to it!'
'Well, I always told you, Alick, that he was a true Christian gentleman; I was sure of it.'
'I know you did. I've found it out for myself, now. Theo!' energetically added Alick, 'I shall never be the same again, I hate my old self! I mean to be so different. I shall work, and study, and——'
'And try "to do your duty in that state of life unto which it has pleased God to call you," I hope,' put in Theo quietly. 'But, Alick, you must ask His help to hold you up, and to prevent your footsteps from sliding,' she added reverently. 'You can't do it in your own strength, dear!' As Theo ceased there were tears on her face, and Alick's also. For a long time no other words were spoken—none were needed.
The sun was setting over the bay, and the fisher-folk, busy with their preparations for the coming night's work, were cheerily shouting from one boat to another. It was good indeed, Alick felt, his heart throbbing with gratitude, to be once again in the dear old home, in the clean, wholesome country.
By and by the rest of the family crowded in, and, bit by bit, Alick's tale was told to his wondering hearers.
'Well, well, boy,' said the captain, putting his arms round the neck of his prodigal son, 'your precious escapade has taught you one stern lesson among others, and that is, there's no place like home as yet.'
Alick hung his head to hide his shamed face. How good everybody was to him! The kindness seemed to stab him through and through. Father's arm round his neck; one hand clasped by Theo's, and the other hugged up in both of Queenie's fat, warm little hands; and Geoff devouring him with eyes dilated with joyful pride over his brother's safe return. And never a harsh word had passed any one's lips! Such treatment to a character of Alick's type was the keenest of punishment.