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A HELPING HAND
'Though hawks can prey through storms and winds, The poor bee in her hive must dwell.'--HENRY VAUGHAN.
In imagination the piteous dejection of our family seems to have lasted for ages, but on comparison of dates it is plain that the first lightening of the burthen came in about a fortnight's time.
The firm of Frith and Castleford was coming to the front in the Chinese trade. The junior partner was an old companion of my father's boyhood; his London abode was near at hand, and he was a kind of semi-godfather to both Clarence and me, having stood proxy for our nominal sponsors. He was as good and open-hearted a man as ever lived, and had always been very kind to us; but he was scarcely welcome when my father, finding that he had come up alone to London to see about some repairs to his house, while his family were still in the country, asked him to dine and sleep--our first guest since our misfortune.
My mother could hardly endure to receive any one, but she seemed glad to see my father become animated and like himself while Roman Catholic Emancipation was vehemently discussed, and the ruin of England hotly predicted. Clarence moped about silently as usual, and tried to avoid notice, and it was not till the next morning-- after breakfast, when the two gentlemen were in the dining-room, nearly ready to go their several ways, and I was in the window awaiting my classical tutor--that Mr. Castleford said,
'May I ask, Winslow, if you have any plans for that poor boy?'
'Edward?' said my father, almost wilfully misunderstanding. 'His ambition is to be curator of something in the British Museum, isn't it?'
Mr. Castleford explained that he meant the other, and my father sadly answered that he hardly knew; he supposed the only thing was to send him to a private tutor, but where to find a fit one he did not know and besides, what could be his aim? Sir John Griffith had said he was only fit for the Church, 'But one does not wish to dispose of a tarnished article there.'
'Certainly not,' said Mr. Castleford; and then he spoke words that rejoiced my heart, though they only made my father groan, bidding him remember that it was not so much actual guilt as the accident of Clarence's being in the Navy that had given so serious a character to his delinquencies. If he had been at school, perhaps no one would ever have heard of them, 'Though I don't say,' added the good man, casting a new light on the subject, 'that it would have been better for him in the end.' Then, quite humbly, for he knew my mother especially had a disdain for trade, he asked what my father would think of letting him give Clarence work in the office for the present. 'I know,' he said, 'it is not the line your family might prefer, but it is present occupation; and I do not think you could well send a youth who has seen so much of the world back to schooling. Besides, this would keep him under your own eye.'
My father was greatly touched by the kindness, but he thought it right to set before Mr. Castleford the very worst side of poor Clarence; declaring that he durst not answer for a boy who had never, in spite of pains and punishments, learnt to speak truth at home or abroad, repeating Captain Brydone's dreadful report, and even adding that, what was most grievous of all, there was an affectation of piety about him that could scarcely be anything but self-deceit and hypocrisy. 'Now,' he said, 'my eldest son, Griffith, is just a boy, makes no profession, is not--as I am afraid you have seen--exemplary at church, when Clarence sits as meek as a mouse, but then he is always above-board, frank and straightforward. You know where to have a high-spirited fellow, who will tame down, but you never know what will come next with the other. I sometimes wonder for what error of mine Providence has seen fit to give me such a son.'
Just then an important message came for Mr. Winslow, and he had to hurry away, but Mr. Castleford still remained, and presently said,
'Edward, I should like to know what your eyes have been trying to say all this time.'
'Oh, sir,' I burst out, 'do give him a chance. Indeed he never means to do wrong. The harm is not in him. He would have been the best of us all if he had only been let alone.'
Those were exactly my own foolish words, for which I could have beaten myself afterwards; but Mr. Castleford only gave a slight grave smile, and said, 'You mean that your brother's real defect is in courage, moral and physical.'
'Yes,' I said, with a great effort at expressing myself. 'When he is frightened, or bullied, or browbeaten, he does not know what he is doing or saying. He is quite different when he is his own self; only nobody can understand.'
Strange that though the favoured home son and nearly sixteen years old, it would have been impossible to utter so much to one of our parents. Indeed the last sentence felt so disloyal that the colour burnt in my cheeks as the door opened; but it only admitted Clarence, who, having heard the front door shut, thought the coast was clear, and came in with a load of my books and dictionaries.
'Clarence,' said Mr. Castleford, and the direct address made him start and flush, 'supposing your father consents, should you be willing to turn your mind to a desk in my counting-house?'
He flushed deeper red, and his fingers quivered as he held by the table. 'Thank you, sir. Anything--anything,' he said hesitatingly.
'Well,' said Mr. Castleford, with the kindest of voices, 'let us have it out. What is in your mind? You know, I'm a sort of godfather to you.'
'Sir, if you would only let me have a berth on board one of your vessels, and go right away.'
'Aye, my poor boy, that's what you would like best, I've no doubt; but look at Edward's face there, and think what that would come to at the best!'
'Yes, I know I have no right to choose,' said Clarence, drooping his head as before.
''Tis not that, my dear lad,' said the good man, 'but that packing you off like that, among your inferiors in breeding and everything else, would put an end to all hope of your redeeming the past-- outwardly I mean, of course--and lodge you in a position of inequality to your brothers and sister, and all--'
'That's done already,' said Clarence.
'If you were a man grown it might be so,' returned Mr. Castleford, 'but bless me, how old are you?'
'Seventeen next 1st of November,' said Clarence.
'Not a bit too old for a fresh beginning,' said Mr. Castleford cheerily. 'God helping you, you will be a brave and good man yet, my boy--' then as my master rang at the door--'Come with me and look at the old shop.'
Poor Clarence muttered something unintelligible, and I had to own for him that he never went out without accounting for himself. Whereupon our friend caused my mother to be hunted up, and explained to her that he wanted to take Clarence out with him--making some excuse about something they were to see together.
That walk enabled him to say something which came nearer to cheering Clarence than anything that had passed since that sad return, and made him think that to be connected with Mr. Castleford was the best thing that could befall him. Mr. Castleford on his side told my father that he was sure that the boy was good-hearted all the time, and thoroughly repentant; but this had the less effect because plausibility, as my father called it, was one of the qualities that specially annoyed him in Clarence, and made him fear that his friend might be taken in. However, the matter was discussed between the elders, and it was determined that this most friendly offer should be accepted experimentally. It was impressed on Clarence, with unnecessary care, that the line of life was inferior; but that it was his only chance of regaining anything like a position, and that everything depended on his industry and integrity.
'Integrity!' commented Clarence, with a burning spot on his cheek after one of these lectures; 'I believe they think me capable of robbing the office!'
We found out, too, that the senior partner, Mr. Frith, a very crusty old bachelor, did not like the appointment, and that it was made quite against his will. 'You'll be getting your clerks next from Newgate!' was what some amiable friend reported him to have said. However, Mr. Castleford had his way, and Clarence was to begin his work with the New Year, being in the meantime cautioned and lectured on the crime and danger of his evil propensities more than he could well bear. 'Oh!' he groaned, 'it serves me right, I know that very well, but if my father only knew how I hate and abhor all those things--and how I loathed them at the very time I was dragged into them!'
'Why don't you tell him so?' I asked.
'That would make it no better.'
'It is not so bad as if you had gone into it willingly, and for your own pleasure.'
'He would only think that another lie.'
No more could be said, for the idea of Clarence's untruthfulness and depravity had become so deeply rooted in our father's mind that there was little hope of displacing it, and even at the best his manner was full of grave constrained pity. Those few words were Clarence's first approach to confidence with me, but they led to more, and he knew there was one person who did not believe the defect was in the bent of his will so much as in its strength.
All the time the prospect of the counting-house in comparison with the sea was so distasteful to him that I was anxious whenever he went out alone, or even with Griffith, who despised the notion of, as he said, sitting on a high stool, dealing in tea, so much that he was quite capable of aiding and abetting in an escape from it. Two considerations, however, held Clarence back; one, the timidity of nature which shrank from so violent a step, and the other, the strong affections that bound him to his home, though his sojourn there was so painful. He knew the misery his flight would have been to me; indeed I took care to let him see it.
And Griffith's return was like a fresh spring wind dispersing vapours. He had gained an excellent scholarship at Brazenose, and came home radiant with triumph, cheering us all up, and making a generous use of his success. He was no letter-writer, and after learning that the disaster and disgrace were all too certain, he ignored the whole, and hailed Clarence on his return as if nothing had happened. As eldest son, and almost a University man, he could argue with our parents in a manner we never presumed on. At least I cannot aver what he actually uttered, but probably it was a revised version of what he thundered forth to me. 'Such nonsense! such a shame to keep the poor beggar going about with that hang dog look, as if he had done for himself for life! Why, I've known fellows do ever so much worse of their own accord, and nothing come of it. If it was found out, there might be a row and a flogging, and there was an end of it. As to going about mourning, and keeping the whole house in doleful dumps, as if there was never to be any good again, it was utter folly, and so I've told Bill, and papa and mamma, both of them!'
How this was administered, or how they took it, there is no knowing, but Griff would neither skate nor go to the theatre, nor to any other diversion, without his brother; and used much kindly force and banter to unearth him from his dismal den in the back drawing-room. He was only let alone when there were engagements with friends, and indeed, when meetings in the streets took place, by tacit agreement, Clarence would shrink off in the crowd as if not belonging to his companion; and these were the moments that stung him into longing to flee to the river, and lose the sense of shame among common sailors: but there was always some good angel to hold him back from desperate measures--chiefly just then, the love between us three brothers, a love that never cooled throughout our lives, and which dear old Griff made much more apparent at this critical time than in the old Win and Slow days of school. That return of his enlivened us all, and removed the terrible constraint from our meals, bringing us back, as it were, to ordinary life and natural intercourse among ourselves and with our neighbours.
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