This is an incident of our school life; one that I never care to look back upon. All of us have sad remembrances of some kind living in the mind; and we are apt in our painful regret to say, “If I had but done this, or had but done the other, things might have turned out differently.”
The school was a large square house, built of rough stone, gardens and playgrounds and fields extending around it. It was called Worcester House: a title of the fancy, I suppose, since it was some miles away from Worcester. The master was Dr. Frost, a tall, stout man, in white frilled shirt, knee-breeches and buckles; stern on occasion, but a gentleman to the back-bone. He had several under-masters. Forty boys were received; we wore the college cap and Eton jacket. Mrs. Frost was delicate: and Hall, a sour old woman of fifty, was manager of the eatables.
Tod and I must have been in the school two years, I think, when Archie Hearn entered. He was eleven years old. We had seen him at the house sometimes before, and liked him. A regular good little fellow was Archie.
Hearn’s father was dead. His mother had been a Miss Stockhausen, sister to Mrs. Frost. The Stockhausens had a name in Worcestershire: chiefly, I think, for dying off. There had been six sisters; and the only two now left were Mrs. Frost and Mrs. Hearn: the other four quietly faded away one after another, not living to see thirty. Mr. Hearn died, from an accident, when Archie was only a year old. He left no will, and there ensued a sharp dispute about his property. The Stockhausens said it all belonged to the little son; the Hearn family considered that a portion of it ought to go back to them. The poor widow was the only quiet spirit amongst them, willing to be led either way. What the disputants did was to put it into Chancery: and I don’t much think it ever came out again.
It was the worst move they could have made for Mrs. Hearn. For it reduced her to a very slender income indeed, and the world wondered how she got on at all. She lived in a cottage about three miles from the Frosts, with one servant and the little child Archibald. In the course of years people seemed to forget all about the property in Chancery, and to ignore her as quite a poor woman.
Well, we — I and Tod — had been at Dr. Frost’s two years or so, when Archibald Hearn entered the school. He was a slender little lad with bright brown eyes, a delicate face and pink cheeks, very sweet-tempered and pleasant in manner. At first he used to go home at night, but when the winter weather set in he caught a cough, and then came into the house altogether. Some of the big ones felt sure that old Frost took him for nothing: but as little Hearn was Mrs. Frost’s nephew and we liked her, no talk was made about it. The lad did not much like coming into the house: we could see that. He seemed always to be hankering after his mother and old Betty the servant. Not in words: but he’d stand with his arms on the play-yard gate, his eyes gazing out towards the quarter where the cottage was; as if he would like his sight to penetrate the wood and the two or three miles beyond, and take a look at it. When any of us said to him as a bit of chaff, “You are staring after old Betty,” he would say Yes, he wished he could see her and his mother; and then tell no end of tales about what Betty had done for him in his illnesses. Any way, Hearn was a straightforward little chap, and a favourite in the school.
He had been with us about a year when Wolfe Barrington came. Quite another sort of pupil. A big, strong fellow who had never had a mother: rich and overbearing, and cruel. He was in mourning for his father, who had just died: a rich Irishman, given to company and fast living. Wolfe came in for all the money; so that he had a fine career before him and might be expected to set the world on fire. Little Hearn’s stories had been of home; of his mother and old Betty. Wolfe’s were different. He had had the run of his father’s stables and knew more about horses and dogs than the animals knew about themselves. Curious things, too, he’d tell of men and women, who had stayed at old Barrington’s place: and what he said of the public school he had been at might have made old Frost’s hair stand on end. Why he left the public school we did not find out: some said he had run away from it, and that his father, who’d indulged him awfully, would not send him back to be punished; others said the head-master would not receive him back again. In the nick of time the father died; and Wolfe’s guardians put him to Dr. Frost’s.
“I shall make you my fag,” said Barrington, the day he entered, catching hold of little Hearn in the playground, and twisting him round by the arm.
“What’s that?” asked Hearn, rubbing his arm — for Wolfe’s grasp had not been a light one.
“What’s that!” repeated Barrington, scornfully. “What a precious young fool you must be, not to know. Who’s your mother?”
“She lives over there,” answered Hearn, taking the question literally, and nodding beyond the wood.
“Oh!” said Barrington, screwing up his mouth. “What’s her name? And what’s yours?”
“Mrs. Hearn. Mine’s Archibald.”
“Good, Mr. Archibald. You shall be my fag. That is, my servant. And you’ll do every earthly thing that I order you to do. And mind you do it smartly, or may be that girl’s face of yours will show out rather blue sometimes.”
“I shall not be anybody’s servant,” returned Archie, in his mild, inoffensive way.
“Won’t you! You’ll tell me another tale before this time tomorrow. Did you ever get licked into next week?”
The child made no answer. He began to think the new fellow might be in earnest, and gazed up at him in doubt.
“When you can’t see out of your two eyes for the swelling round them, and your back’s stiff with smarting and aching —that’s the kind of licking I mean,” went on Barrington. “Did you ever taste it?”
“Good again. It will be all the sweeter when you do. Now look you here, Mr. Archibald Hearn. I appoint you my fag in ordinary. You’ll fetch and carry for me: you’ll black my boots and brush my clothes; you’ll sit up to wait on me when I go to bed, and read me to sleep; you’ll be dressed before I am in the morning, and be ready with my clothes and hot water. Never mind whether the rules of the house are against hot water, you’ll have to provide it, though you boil it in the bedroom grate, or out in the nearest field. You’ll attend me at my lessons; look out words for me; copy my exercises in a fair hand — and if you were old enough to do them, you’d have to. That’s a few of the items; but there are a hundred other things, that I’ve not time to detail. If I can get a horse for my use, you’ll have to groom him. And if you don’t put out your mettle to serve me in all these ways, and don’t hold yourself in readiness to fly and obey me at any minute or hour of the day, you’ll get daily one of the lickings I’ve told you of, until you are licked into shape.”
Barrington meant what he said. Voice and countenance alike wore a determined look, as if his words were law. Lots of the fellows, attracted by the talking, had gathered round. Hearn, honest and straightforward himself, did not altogether understand what evil might be in store for him, and grew seriously frightened.
The captain of the school walked up — John Whitney. “What is that you say Hearn has to do?” he asked.
“He knows now,” answered Barrington. “That’s enough. They don’t allow servants here: I must have a fag in place of one.”
In turning his fascinated eyes from Barrington, Hearn saw Blair standing by, our mathematical master — of whom you will hear more later. Blair must have caught what passed: and little Hearn appealed to him.
“Am I obliged to be his fag, sir?”
Mr. Blair put us leisurely aside with his hands, and confronted the new fellow. “Your name is Barrington, I think,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” said Barrington, staring at him defiantly.
“Allow me to tell you that ‘fags’ are not permitted here. The system would not be tolerated by Dr. Frost for a moment. Each boy must wait on himself, and be responsible for himself: seniors and juniors alike. You are not at a public-school now, Barrington. In a day or two, when you shall have learnt the customs and rules here, I dare say you will find yourself quite sufficiently comfortable, and see that a fag would be an unnecessary appendage.”
“Who is that man?” cried Barrington, as Blair turned away.
“Mathematical master. Sees to us out of hours,” answered Bill Whitney.
“And what the devil did you mean by making a sneaking appeal to him?” continued Barrington, seizing Hearn roughly.
“I did not mean it for sneaking; but I could not do what you wanted,” said Hearn. “He had been listening to us.”
“I wish to goodness that confounded fool, Taptal, had been sunk in his horse-pond before he put me to such a place as this,” cried Barrington, passionately. “As to you, you sneaking little devil, it seems I can’t make you do what I wanted, fags being forbidden fruit here, but it shan’t serve you much. There’s to begin with.”
Hearn got a shake and a kick that sent him flying. Blair was back on the instant.
“Are you a coward, Mr. Barrington?”
“A coward!” retorted Barrington, his eyes flashing. “You had better try whether I am or not.”
“It seems to me that you act like one, in attacking a lad so much younger and weaker than yourself. Don’t let me have to report you to Dr. Frost the first day of your arrival. Another thing — I must request you to be a little more careful in your language. You have come amidst gentlemen here, not blackguards.”
The matter ended here; but Barrington looked in a frightful rage. It was unfortunate that it should have occurred the day he entered; but it did so, word for word, as I have written it. It set some of us rather against Barrington, and it set him against Hearn. He didn’t “lick him into next week,” but he gave him many a blow that the boy did nothing to deserve.
Barrington won his way, though, as the time went on. He had a liberal supply of money, and was open-handed with it; and he would often do a generous turn for one and another. The worst of him was his roughness. At play he was always rough; and, when put out, savage as well. His strength and activity were something remarkable; he would not have minded hard blows himself, and he showered them out on others with no more care than if we had been made of pumice-stone.
It was Barrington who introduced the new system at football. We had played it before in a rather mild way, speaking comparatively, but he soon changed that. Dr. Frost got to know of it in time, and he appeared amongst us one day when we were in the thick of it, and stopped the game with a sweep of his hand. They play it at Rugby now very much as Barrington made us play it then. The Doctor — standing with his face unusually red, and his shirt and necktie unusually white, and his knee-buckles gleaming — asked whether we were a pack of cannibals, that we should kick at one another in that dangerous manner. If we ever attempted it again, he said, football should be stopped.
So we went back to the old way. But we had tried the new, you see: and the consequence was that a great deal of rough play would creep into it now and again. Barrington led it on. No cannibal (as old Frost put it) could have been more carelessly furious at it than he. To see him with his sallow face in a heat, his keen black eyes flashing, his hat off, and his straight hair flung back, was not the pleasantest sight to my mind. Snepp said one day that he looked just like the devil at these times. Wolfe Barrington overheard him, and kicked him right over the hillock. I don’t think he was ill-intentioned; but his strong frame had been untamed; it required a vent for its superfluous strength: his animal spirits led him away, and he had never been taught to put a curb on himself or his inclinations. One thing was certain — that the name, Wolfe, for such a nature as his, was singularly appropriate. Some of us told him so. He laughed in answer; never saying that it was only shortened from Wolfrey, his real name, as we learnt later. He could be as good a fellow and comrade as any of them when he chose, and on the whole we liked him a great deal better than we had thought we should at first.
As to his animosity against little Hearn, it was wearing off. The lad was too young to retaliate, and Barrington grew tired of knocking him about: perhaps a little ashamed of it when there was no return. In a twelvemonth’s time it had quite subsided, and, to the surprise of many of us, Barrington, coming back from a visit to old Taptal, his guardian, brought Hearn a handsome knife with three blades as a present.
And so it would have gone on but for an unfortunate occurrence. I shall always say and think so. But for that, it might have been peace between them to the end. Barrington, who was defiantly independent, had betaken himself to Evesham, one half-holiday, without leave. He walked straight into some mischief there, and broke a street boy’s head. Dr. Frost was appealed to by the boy’s father, and of course there was a row. The Doctor forbade Barrington ever to stir beyond bounds again without first obtaining permission; and Blair had orders that for a fortnight to come Barrington was to be confined to the playground in after-hours.
Very good. A day or two after that — on the next Saturday afternoon — the school went to a cricket-match; Doctor, masters, boys, and all; Barrington only being left behind.
Was he one to stand this? No. He coolly walked away to the high-road, saw a public conveyance passing, hailed it, mounted it, and was carried to Evesham. There he disported himself for an hour or so, visited the chief fruit and tart shops; and then chartered a gig to bring him back to within half-a-mile of the school.
The cricket-match was not over when he got in, for it lasted up to the twilight of the summer evening, and no one would have known of the escapade but for one miserable misfortune — Archie Hearn happened to have gone that afternoon to Evesham with his mother. They were passing along the street, and he saw Barrington amidst the sweets.
“There’s Wolfe Barrington!” said Archie, in the surprise of the moment, and would have halted at the tart-shop; but Mrs. Hearn, who was in a hurry, did not stop. On the Monday, she brought Archie back to school: he had been at home, sick, for more than a week, and knew nothing of Barrington’s punishment. Archie came amongst us at once, but Mrs. Hearn stayed to take tea with her sister and Dr. Frost. Without the slightest intention of making mischief, quite unaware that she was doing so, Mrs. Hearn mentioned incidentally that they had seen one of the boys — Barrington — at Evesham on the Saturday. Dr. Frost pricked up his ears at the news; not believing it, however: but Mrs. Hearn said yes, for Archie had seen him eating tarts at the confectioner’s. The Doctor finished his tea, went to his study, and sent for Barrington. Barrington denied it. He was not in the habit of telling lies, was too fearless of consequences to do anything of the sort; but he denied it now to the Doctor’s face; perhaps he began to think he might have gone a little too far. Dr. Frost rang the bell and ordered Archie Hearn in.
“Which shop was Barrington in when you saw him on Saturday?” questioned the Doctor.
“The pastrycook’s,” said Archie, innocently.
“What was he doing?” blandly went on the Doctor.
“Oh! no harm, sir; only eating tarts,” Archie hastened to say.
Well — it all came out then, and though Archie was quite innocent of wilfully telling tales; would have cut out his tongue rather than have said a word to injure Barrington, he received the credit of it now. Barrington took his punishment without a word; the hardest caning old Frost had given for many a long day, and heaps of work besides, and a promise of certain expulsion if he ever again went off surreptitiously in coaches and gigs. But Barrington thrashed Hearn worse when it was over, and branded him with the name of Sneak.
“He will never believe otherwise,” said Archie, the tears of pain and mortification running down his cheeks, fresh and delicate as a girl’s. “But I’d give the world not to have gone that afternoon to Evesham.”
A week or two later we went in for a turn at “Hare and Hounds.” Barrington’s term of punishment was over then. Snepp was the hare; a fleet, wiry fellow who could outrun most of us. But the hare this time came to grief. After doubling and turning, as Snepp used to like to do, thinking to throw us off the scent, he sprained his foot, trying to leap a hedge and dry ditch beyond it. We were on his trail, whooping and halloaing like mad; he kept quiet, and we passed on and never saw him. But there was no more scent to be seen, and we found we had lost it, and went back. Snepp showed up then, and the sport was over for the day. Some went home one way, and some another; all of us were as hot as fire, and thirsting for water.
“If you’ll turn down here by the great oak-tree, we shall come to my mother’s house, and you can have as much water as you like,” said little Hearn, in his good-nature.
So we turned down. There were only six or seven of us, for Snepp and his damaged foot made one, and most of them had gone on at a quicker pace. Tod helped Snepp on one side, Barrington on the other, and he limped along between them.
It was a narrow red-brick house, a parlour window on each side the door, and three windows above; small altogether, but very pretty, with jessamine and clematis climbing up the walls. Archie Hearn opened the door, and we trooped in, without regard to ceremony. Mrs. Hearn — she had the same delicate face as Archie, the same pink colour and bright brown eyes — came out of the kitchen to stare at us. As well she might. Her cotton sleeves were turned up to the elbows, her fingers were stained red, and she had a coarse kitchen cloth pinned round her. She was pressing black currants for jelly.
We had plenty of water, and Mrs. Hearn made Snepp sit down, and looked at his foot, and put a wet bandage round it, kneeling before him to do it. I thought I had never seen so nice a face as hers; very placid, with a sort of sad look in it. Old Betty, that Hearn used to talk about, appeared in a short blue petticoat and a kind of brown print jacket. I have seen the homely servants in France, since, dressed very similarly. Snepp thanked Mrs. Hearn for giving his foot relief, and we took off our hats to her as we went away.
The same night, before Blair called us in for prayers, Archie Hearn heard Barrington giving a sneering account of the visit to some of the fellows in the playground.
“Just like a cook, you know. Might be taken for one. Some coarse bunting tied round her waist, and hands steeped in red kitchen stuff.”
“My mother could never be taken for anything but a lady,” spoke up Archie bravely. “A lady may make jelly. A great many ladies prefer to do it themselves.”
“Now you be off,” cried Barrington, turning sharply on him. “Keep at a distance from your betters.”
“There’s nobody in the world better than my mother,” returned the boy, standing his ground, and flushing painfully: for, in truth, the small way they were obliged to live in, through Chancery retaining the property, made a sore place in a corner of Archie’s heart. “Ask Joseph Todhetley what he thinks of her. Ask John Whitney. They recognize her for a lady.”
“But then they are gentlemen themselves.”
It was I who put that in. I couldn’t help having a fling at Barrington. A bit of applause followed, and stung him.
“If you shove in your oar, Johnny Ludlow, or presume to interfere with me, I’ll pummel you to powder. There.”
Barrington kicked out on all sides, sending us backward. The bell rang for prayers then, and we had to go in.
The game the next evening was football. We went out to it as soon as tea was over, to the field by the river towards Vale Farm. I can’t tell much about its progress, except that the play seemed rougher and louder than usual. Once there was a regular skirmish: scores of feet kicking out at once; great struggling, pushing and shouting: and when the ball got off, and the tail after it in full hue and cry, one was left behind lying on the ground.
I don’t know why I turned my head back; it was the merest chance that I did so: and I saw Tod kneeling on the grass, raising the boy’s head.
“Holloa!” said I, running back. “Anything wrong? Who is it?”
It was little Hearn. He had his eyes shut. Tod did not speak.
“What’s the matter, Tod? Is he hurt?”
“Well, I think he’s hurt a little,” was Tod’s answer. “He has had a kick here.”
Tod touched the left temple with his finger, drawing it down as far as the back of the ear. It must have been a good wide kick, I thought.
“It has stunned him, poor little fellow. Can you get some water from the river, Johnny?”
“I could if I had anything to bring it in. It would leak out of my straw hat long before I got here.”
But little Hearn made a move then, and opened his eyes. Presently he sat up, putting his hands to his head. Tod was as tender with him as a mother.
“How do you feel, Archie?”
“Oh, I’m all right, I think. A bit giddy.”
Getting on to his feet, he looked from me to Tod in a bewildered manner. I thought it odd. He said he wouldn’t join the game again, but go in and rest. Tod went with him, ordering me to keep with the players. Hearn walked all right, and did not seem to be much the worse for it.
“What’s the matter now?” asked Mrs. Hall, in her cranky way; for she happened to be in the yard when they entered, Tod marshalling little Hearn by the arm.
“He has had a blow at football,” answered Tod. “Here”— indicating the place he had shown me.
“A kick, I suppose you mean,” said Mother Hall.
“Yes, if you like to call it so. It was a blow with a foot.”
“Did you do it, Master Todhetley?”
“No, I did not,” retorted Tod.
“I wonder the Doctor allows that football to be played!” she went on, grumbling. “I wouldn’t, if I kept a school; I know that. It is a barbarous game, only fit for bears.”
“I am all right,” put in Hearn. “I needn’t have come in, but for feeling giddy.”
But he was not quite right yet. For without the slightest warning, before he had time to stir from where he stood, he became frightfully sick. Hall ran for a basin and some warm water. Tod held his head.
“This is through having gobbled down your tea in such a mortal hurry, to be off to that precious football,” decided Hall, resentfully. “The wonder is, that the whole crew of you are not sick, swallowing your food at the rate you do.”
“I think I’ll lie on the bed for a bit,” said Archie, when the sickness had passed. “I shall be up again by supper-time.”
They went with him to his room. Neither of them had the slightest notion that he was seriously hurt, or that there could be any danger. Archie took off his jacket, and lay down in his clothes. Mrs. Hall offered to bring him up a cup of tea; but he said it might make him sick again, and he’d rather be quiet. She went down, and Tod sat on the edge of the bed. Archie shut his eyes, and kept still. Tod thought he was dropping off to sleep, and began to creep out of the room. The eyes opened then, and Archie called to him.
“I am here, old fellow. What is it?”
“You’ll tell him I forgive him,” said Archie, speaking in an earnest whisper. “Tell him I know he didn’t think to hurt me.”
“Oh, I’ll tell him,” answered Tod, lightly.
“And be sure give my dear love to mamma.”
“So I will.”
“And now I’ll go to sleep, or I shan’t be down to supper. You will come and call me if I am not, won’t you?”
“All right,” said Tod, tucking the counterpane about him. “Are you comfortable, Archie?”
“Quite. Thank you.”
Tod came on to the field again, and joined the game. It was a little less rough, and there were no more mishaps. We got home later than usual, and supper stood on the table.
The suppers at Worcester House were always the same — bread and cheese. And not too much of it. Half a round off the loaf, with a piece of cheese, for each fellow; and a drop of beer or water. Our other meals were good and abundant; but the Doctor waged war with heavy suppers. If old Hall had had her way, we should have had none at all. Little Hearn did not appear; and Tod went up to look after him. I followed.
Opening the door without noise, we stood listening and looking. Not that there was much good in looking, for the room was in darkness.
“Archie,” whispered Tod.
No answer. No sound.
“Are you asleep, old fellow?”
Not a word still. The dead might be there; for all the sound there was.
“He’s asleep, for certain,” said Tod, groping his way towards the bed. “So much the better, poor little chap. I won’t wake him.”
It was a small room, two beds in it; Archie’s was the one at the end by the wall. Tod groped his way to it: and, in thinking of it afterwards, I wondered that Tod did go up to him. The most natural thing would have been to come away, and shut the door. Instinct must have guided him — as it guides us all. Tod bent over him, touching his face, I think. I stood close behind. Now that our eyes were accustomed to the darkness, it seemed a bit lighter.
Something like a cry from Tod made me start. In the dark, and holding the breath, one is easily startled.
“Get a light, Johnny. A light!-quick! for the love of Heaven.”
I believe I leaped the stairs at a bound. I believe I knocked over Mother Hall at the foot. I know I snatched the candle that was in her hand, and she screamed after me as if I had murdered her.
“Here it is, Tod.”
He was at the door waiting for it, every atom of colour gone clean out of his face. Carrying it to the bed, he let its light fall full on Archie Hearn. The face was white and cold; the mouth covered with froth.
“Oh, Tod! What is it that’s the matter with him?”
“Hush’, Johnny! I fear he’s dying. Good Lord! to think we should have been such ignorant fools as to leave him by himself! — as not have sent for Featherstone!”
We were down again in a moment. Hall stood scolding still, demanding her candle. Tod said a word that silenced her. She backed against the wall.
“Don’t play your tricks on me, Mr. Todhetley.”
“Go and see,” said Tod.
She took the light from his hand quietly, and went up. Just then, the Doctor and Mrs. Frost, who had been walking all the way home from Sir John Whitney’s, where they had spent the evening, came in, and learnt what had happened.
Featherstone was there in no time, so to say, and shut himself into the bedroom with the Doctor and Mrs. Frost and Hall, and I don’t know how many more. Nothing could be done for Archibald Hearn: he was not quite dead, but close upon it. He was dead before any one thought of sending to Mrs. Hearn. It came to the same. Could she have come upon telegraph wires, she would still have come too late.
When I look back upon that evening — and a good many years have gone by since then — nothing arises in my mind but a picture of confusion, tinged with a feeling of terrible sorrow; ay, and of horror. If a death happens in a school, it is generally kept from the pupils, as far as possible; at any rate they are not allowed to see any of its attendant stir and details. But this was different. Upon masters and boys, upon mistress and household, it came with the same startling shock. Dr. Frost said feebly that the boys ought to go up to bed, and then Blair told us to go; but the boys stayed on where they were. Hanging about the passages, stealing upstairs and peeping into the room, questioning Featherstone (when we could get the chance of coming upon him), as to whether Hearn would get well or not. No one checked us.
I went in once. Mrs. Frost was alone, kneeling by the bed; I thought she must have been saying a prayer. Just then she lifted her head to look at him. As I backed away again, she began to speak aloud — and oh! what a sad tone she said it in!
“The only son of his mother, and she was a widow!”
There had to be an inquest. It did not come to much. The most that could be said was that he died from a kick at football. “A most unfortunate but an accidental kick,” quoth the coroner. Tod had said that he saw the kick given: that is, had seen some foot come flat down with a bang on the side of little Hearn’s head; and when Tod was asked if he recognized the foot, he replied No: boots looked very much alike, and a great many were thrust out in the skirmish, all kicking together.
Not one would own to having given it. For the matter of that, the fellow might not have been conscious of what he did. No end of thoughts glanced towards Barrington: both because he was so ferocious at the game, and that he had a spite against Hearn.
“I never touched him,” said Barrington, when this leaked out; and his face and voice were boldly defiant. “It wasn’t me. I never so much as saw that Hearn was down.”
And as there were others quite as brutal at football as Barrington, he was believed.
We could not get over it any way. It seemed so dreadful that he should have been left alone to die. Hall was chiefly to blame for that; and it cowed her.
“Look here,” said Tod to us, “I have a message for one of you. Whichever the cap fits may take it to himself. When Hearn was dying he told me to say that he forgave the fellow who kicked him.”
This was the evening of the inquest-day. We had all gathered in the porch by the stone bench, and Tod took the opportunity to relate what he had not related before. He repeated every word that Hearn had said.
“Did Hearn know who it was, then?” asked John Whitney.
“I think so.”
“Then why didn’t you ask him to name him!”
“Why didn’t I ask him to name him,” repeated Tod, in a fume. “Do you suppose I thought he was going to die, Whitney? — or that the kick was to turn out a serious one? Hearn was growing big enough to fight his own battles: and I never thought but he would be up again at supper-time.”
John Whitney pushed his hair back, in his quiet, thoughtful way, and said no more. He was to die, himself, the following year — but that has nothing to do with the present matter.
I was standing away at the gate after this, looking at the sunset, when Tod came up and put his arms on the top bar.
“What are you gazing at, Johnny?”
“At the sunset. How red it is! I was thinking that if Hearn’s up there now he is better off. It is very beautiful.”
“I should not like to have been the one to send him there, though,” was Tod’s answer. “Johnny, I am certain Hearn knew who it was,” he went on in a low tone. “I am certain he thought the fellow, himself, knew, and that it had been done for the purpose. I think I know also.”
“Tell us,” I said. And Tod glanced over his shoulders, to make sure no one was within hearing before he replied.
“Why don’t you accuse him, Tod?”
“It wouldn’t do. And I am not absolutely sure. What I saw, was this. In the rush, one of them fell: I saw his head lying on the ground. Before I could shout out to the fellows to take care, a boot with a grey trouser over it came stamping down (not kicking) on the side of the head. If ever anything was done deliberately, that stamp seemed to be; it could hardly have been chance. I know no more than that: it all passed in a moment. I didn’t see that it was Barrington. But — what other fellow is there among us who would have wilfully harmed little Hearn? It is that thought that brings conviction to me.”
I looked round to where a lot of them stood at a distance. “Wolfe has got on grey trousers, too.”
“That does not tell much,” returned Tod. “Half of us wear the same. Yours are grey; mine are grey. It’s just this: While I am convinced in my own mind that it was Barrington, there’s no sort of proof that it was so, and he denies it. So it must rest, and die away. Keep counsel, Johnny.”
The funeral took place from the school. All of us went to it. In the evening, Mrs. Hearn, who had been staying at the house, surprised us by coming into the tea-room. She looked very small in her black gown. Her thin cheeks were more flushed than usual, and her eyes had a great sadness in them.
“I wished to say good-bye to you; and to shake hands with you before I go home,” she began, in a kind tone, and we all got up from the table to face her.
“I thought you would like me to tell you that I feel sure it must have been an accident; that no harm was intended. My dear little son said this to Joseph Todhetley when he was dying — and I fancy that some prevision of death must have lain then upon his spirit and caused him to say it, though he himself might not have been quite conscious of it. He died in love and peace with all; and, if he had anything to forgive — he forgave freely. I wish to let you know that I do the same. Only try to be a little less rough at play — and God bless you all. Will you shake hands with me?”
John Whitney, a true gentleman always, went up to her first, meeting her offered hand.
“If it had been anything but an accident, Mrs. Hearn,” he began in tones of deep feeling: “if any one of us had done it wilfully, I think, standing to hear you now, we should shrink to the earth in our shame and contrition. You cannot regret Archibald much more than we do.”
“In the midst of my grief, I know one thing: that God has taken him from a world of care to peace and happiness; I try to rest in that. Thank you all. Good-bye.”
Catching her breath, she shook hands with us one by one, giving each a smile; but did not say more.
And the only one of us who did not feel her visit as it was intended, was Barrington. But he had no feeling: his body was too strong for it, his temper too fierce. He would have thrown a sneer of ridicule after her, but Whitney hissed it down.
Before another day had gone over, Barrington and Tod had a row. It was about a crib. Tod could be as overbearing as Barrington when he pleased, and he was cherishing ill-feeling towards him. They went and had it out in private — but it did not come to a fight. Tod was not one to keep in matters till they rankled, and he openly told Barrington that he believed it was he who had caused Hearn’s death. Barrington denied it out-and-out; first of all swearing passionately that he had not, and then calming down to talk about it quietly. Tod felt less sure of it after that: as he confided to me in the bedroom.
Dr. Frost forbid football. And the time went on.
What I have further to relate may be thought a made-up story, such as we find in fiction. It is so very like a case of retribution. But it is all true, and happened as I shall put it. And somehow I never care to dwell long upon the calamity.
It was as nearly as possible a year after Hearn died. Jessup was captain of the school, for John Whitney was too ill to come. Jessup was almost as rebellious as Wolfe; and the two would ridicule Blair, and call him “Baked pie” to his face. One morning, when they had given no end of trouble to old Frost over their Greek, and laid the blame upon the hot weather, the Doctor said he had a great mind to keep them in until dinner-time. However, they ate humble-pie, and were allowed to escape. Blair was taking us for a walk. Instead of keeping with the ranks, Barrington and Jessup fell out, and sat down on the gate of a field where the wheat was being carried. Blair said they might sit there if they pleased, but forbid them to cross the gate. Indeed, there was a standing interdiction against our entering any field whilst the crops were being gathered. We went on and left them.
Half-an-hour afterwards, before we got back, Barrington had been carried home, dying.
Dying, as was supposed. He and Jessup had disobeyed Blair, disregarded orders, and rushed into the field, shouting and leaping like a couple of mad fellows — as the labourers afterwards said. Making for the waggon, laden high with wheat, they mounted it, and started on the horses. In some way, Barrington lost his balance, slipped over the side and the hind wheel went over him.
I shall never forget the house when we got back. Jessup, in his terror, had made off for his home, running most of the way — seven miles. He was in the same boat as Wolfe, except that he escaped injury — had gone over the stile in defiance of orders, and got on the waggon. Barrington was lying in the blue-room; and Mrs. Frost, frightened out of bed, stood on the landing in her night-cap, a shawl wrapped round her loose white dressing-gown. She was ill at the time. Featherstone came striding up the road wiping his hot face.
“Lord bless me!” cried Featherstone when he had looked at Wolfe and touched him. “I can’t deal with this single-handed, Dr. Frost.”
The doctor had guessed that. And Roger was already away on a galloping horse, flying for another. He brought little Pink: a shrimp of a man, with a fair reputation in his profession. But the two were more accustomed to treating rustic ailments than grave cases, and Dr. Frost knew that. Evening drew on, and the dusk was gathering, when a carriage with post-horses came thundering in at the front gates, bringing Mr. Carden.
They did not give to us boys the particulars of the injuries; and I don’t know them to this day. The spine was hurt; the right ankle smashed: we heard that much. Taptal, Barrington’s guardian, came over, and an uncle from London. Altogether it was a miserable time. The masters seized upon it to be doubly stern, and read us lectures upon disobedience and rebellion — as though we had been the offenders! As to Jessup, his father handed him back again to Dr. Frost, saying that in his opinion a taste of birch would much conduce to his benefit.
Barrington did not seem to suffer as keenly as some might have done; perhaps his spirits kept him up, for they were untamed. On the very day after the accident, he asked for some of the fellows to go in and sit with him, because he was dull. “By-and-by,” the doctors said. And the next day but one, Dr. Frost sent me in. The paid nurse sat at the end of the room.
“Oh, it’s you, is it, Ludlow! Where’s Jessup?”
“Jessup’s under punishment.”
His face looked the same as ever, and that was all that could be seen of him. He lay on his back, covered over. As to the low bed, it might have been a board, to judge by its flatness. And perhaps was so.
“I am very sorry about it, Barrington. We all are. Are you in much pain?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” was his impatient answer. “One has to grin and bear it. The cursed idiots had stacked the wheat sloping to the sides, or it would never have happened. What do you hear about me?”
“Nothing but regret that it ——”
“I don’t mean that stuff. Regret, indeed! regret won’t undo it. I mean as to my getting about again. Will it be ages first?”
“We don’t hear a word.”
“If they were to keep me here a month, Ludlow, I should go mad. Rampant. You shut up, old woman.”
For the nurse had interfered, telling him he must not excite himself.
“My ankle’s hurt; but I believe it is not half as bad as a regular fracture: and my back’s bruised. Well, what’s a bruise? Nothing. Of course there’s pain and stiffness, and all that; but so there is after a bad fight, or a thrashing. And they talk about my lying here for three or four weeks! Catch me.”
One thing was evident: they had not allowed Wolfe to suspect the gravity of the case. Downstairs we had an inkling, I don’t remember whence gathered, that it might possibly end in death. There was a suspicion of some internal injury that we could not get to know of; and it is said that even Mr. Carden, with all his surgical skill, could not get at it, either. Any way, the prospect of recovery for Barrington was supposed to be of the scantiest; and it threw a gloom over us.
A sad mishap was to occur. Of course no one in their senses would have let Barrington learn the danger he was in; especially while there was just a chance that the peril would be surmounted. I read a book lately — I, Johnny Ludlow — where a little child met with an accident; and the first thing the people around him did, father, doctors, nurses, was to inform him that he would be a cripple for the rest of his days. That was common sense with a vengeance: and about as likely to occur in real life as that I could turn myself into a Dutchman. However, something of the kind did happen in Barrington’s case, but through inadvertence. Another uncle came over from Ireland; an old man; and in talking with Featherstone he spoke out too freely. They were outside Barrington’s door, and besides that, supposed that he was asleep. But he had awakened then; and heard more than he ought. The blue-room always seemed to have an echo in it.
“So it’s all up with me, Ludlow?”
I was by his bedside when he suddenly said this, in the twilight of the summer evening. He had been lying quite silent since I entered, and his face had a white, still look on it, never before noticed there.
“What do you mean, Barrington?”
“None of your shamming here. I know; and so do you, Johnny Ludlow. I say, though it makes one feel queer to find the world’s slipping away. I had looked for so much jolly life in it.”
“Barrington, you may get well yet; you may, indeed. Ask Pink and Featherstone, else, when they next come; ask Mr. Carden. I can’t think what idea you have been getting hold of.”
“There, that’s enough,” he answered. “Don’t bother. I want to be quiet.”
He shut his eyes; and the darkness grew as the minutes passed. Presently some one came into the room with a gentle step: a lady in a black-and-white gown that didn’t rustle. It was Mrs. Hearn. Barrington looked up at her.
“I am going to stay with you for a day or two,” she said in a low sweet voice, bending over him and touching his forehead with her cool fingers. “I hear you have taken a dislike to the nurse: and Mrs. Frost is really too weakly just now to get about.”
“She’s a sly cat,” said Barrington, alluding to the nurse, “and watches me out of the tail of her eye. Hall’s as bad. They are in league together.”
“Well, they shall not come in more than I can help. I will nurse you myself.”
“No; not you,” said Barrington, his face looking red and uneasy. “I’ll not trouble you.”
She sat down in my chair, just pressing my hand in token of greeting. And I left them.
In the ensuing days his life trembled in the balance; and even when part of the more immediate danger was surmounted, part of the worst of the pain, it was still a toss-up. Barrington had no hope whatever: I don’t think Mrs. Hearn had, either.
She hardly left him. At first he seemed to resent her presence; to wish her away; to receive unwillingly what she did for him; but, in spite of himself he grew to look round for her, and to let his hand lie in hers whenever she chose to take it.
Who can tell what she said to him? Who can know how she softly and gradually awoke the better feelings within him, and won his heart from its hardness? She did do it, and that’s enough. The way was paved for her. What the accident had not done, the fear of death had. Tamed him.
One evening when the sun had sunk, leaving only a fading light in the western sky, and Barrington had been watching it from his bed, he suddenly burst into tears. Mrs. Hearn busy amongst the physic bottles, was by his side in a moment.
“It’s very hard to have to die.”
“Hush, my dear, you are not worse: a little better. I think you may be spared; I do indeed. And — in any case — you know what I read to you this evening: that to die is gain.”
“Yes, for some. I’ve never had my thoughts turned that way.”
“They are turned now. That is quite enough.”
“It is such a little while to have lived,” went on Barrington, after a pause. “Such a little while to have enjoyed earth. What are my few years compared with the ages that have gone by, with the ages and ages that are to come. Nothing. Not as much as a drop of water to the ocean.”
“Wolfe, dear, if you live out the allotted years of man, three score and ten, what would even that be in comparison? As you say — nothing. It seems to me that our well-being or ill-being here need not much concern us: the days, whether short or long, will pass as a dream. Eternal life lasts for ever; soon we must all be departing for it.”
Wolfe made no answer. The clear sky was assuming its pale tints, shading off one into another, and his eyes were looking at them. But it was as if he saw nothing.
“Listen, my dear. When Archibald died, I thought I should have died; died of grief and pain. I grieved to think how short had been his span of life on this fair earth; how cruel his fate in being taken from it so early. But, oh, Wolfe, God has shown me my mistake. I would not have him back again if I could.”
Wolfe put up his hand to cover his face. Not a word spoke he.
“I wish you could see things as I see them, now that they have been cleared for me,” she resumed. “It is so much better to be in heaven than on earth. We, who are here, have to battle with cares and crosses; and shall have to do so to the end. Archie has thrown-off all care. He is in happiness amidst the redeemed.”
The room was growing dark. Wolfe’s face was one of intense pain.
“Wolfe, dear, do not mistake me; do not think me hard if I say that you would be happier there than here. There is nothing to dread, dying in Christ. Believe me, I would not for the world have Archie back again: how could I then make sure what the eventual ending would be? You and he will know each other up there.”
“Don’t,” said Wolfe.
Wolfe drew her hand close to his face, and she knelt down to catch his whisper.
“I killed him.”
A pause: and a sort of sob in her throat. Then, drawing away her hand, she laid her cheek to his.
“My dear, I think I have known it.”
“You — have — known — it?” stammered Wolfe in disbelief.
“Yes. I thought it was likely. I felt nearly sure of it. Don’t let it trouble you now. Archie forgave, you know, and I forgave; and God will forgive.”
“How could you come here to nurse me — knowing that?”
“It made me the more anxious to come. You have no mother.”
“No.” Wolfe was sobbing bitterly. “She died when I was born. I’ve never had anybody. I’ve never had a chapter read to me, or a prayer prayed.”
“No, no, dear. And Archie — oh, Archie had all that. From the time he could speak, I tried to train him for heaven. It has seemed to me, since, just as though I had foreseen he would go early, and was preparing him for it.”
“I never meant to kill him,” sobbed Wolfe. “I saw his head down, and I put my foot upon it without a moment’s thought. If I had taken thought, or known it would hurt him seriously, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“He is better off, dear,” was all she said. “You have that comfort.”
“Any way, I am paid out for it. At the best, I suppose I shall go upon crutches for life. That’s bad enough: but dying’s worse. Mrs. Hearn, I am not ready to die.”
“Be you very sure God will not take you until you are ready, if you only wish and hope to be made so from your very heart,” she whispered. “I pray to Him often for you, Wolfe.”
“I think you must be one of heaven’s angels,” said Wolfe, with a burst of emotion.
“No, dear; only a weak woman. I have had so much sorrow and care, trial upon trial, one disappointment after another, that it has left me nothing but Heaven to lean upon. Wolfe, I am trying to show you a little bit of the way there; and I think — I do indeed — that this accident, which seems, and is, so dreadful, may have been sent by God in mercy. Perhaps, else, you might never have found Him: and where would you have been in all that long, long eternity? A few years here; never-ending ages hereafter! — Oh, Wolfe! bear up bravely for the little span, even though the cross may be heavy. Fight on manfully for the real life to come.”
“If you will help me.”
“To be sure I will.”
Wolfe got about again, and came out upon crutches. After a while they were discarded, first one, then the other, and he took permanently to a stick. He would never go without that. He would never run or leap again, or kick much either. The doctors looked upon it as a wonderful cure — and old Featherstone was apt to talk to us boys as if it were he who had pulled him through. But not in Henry Carden’s hearing.
The uncles and Taptal said he would be better now at a private tutor’s. But Wolfe would not leave Dr. Frost’s. A low pony-carriage was bought for him, and all his spare time he would go driving over to Mrs. Hearn’s. He was as a son to her. His great animal spirits had been taken out of him, you see; and he had to find his happiness in quieter grooves. One Saturday afternoon he drove me over. Mrs. Hearn had asked me to stay with her until the Monday morning. Barrington generally stayed.
It was in November. Considerably more than a year after the accident. The guns of the sportsmen were heard in the wood; a pack of hounds and their huntsmen rode past the cottage at a gallop, in full chase after a late find. Barrington looked and listened, a sigh escaping him.
“These pleasures are barred to me now.”
“But a better one has been opened to you,” said Mrs. Hearn, with a meaning smile, as she took his hand in hers.
And on Wolfe’s face, when he glanced at her in answer, there sat a look of satisfied rest that I am sure had never been seen on it before he fell off the waggon.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55