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Chapter VI--The Merry Orchard

Where was Harold?

Still the evening went on, and he did not come. Alfred had worn himself out with his fit of crying, and lay quite still, either asleep, or looking so like it, that when Betsey had finished her tea, and again began asking to see him, Ellen could honestly declare that he was asleep.

Betsey had bidden them good-bye, more than half affronted at not being able to report to her mother all about his looks, though she carried with her a basket of gooseberries and French beans, and Mrs. King walked all the way down the lane with her, and tried to shew an interest in all she said, to make up for the disappointment.

Maybe likewise Mrs. King felt it a relief to her uneasiness to look up and down the road, and along the river, and into the farm-yard, in the hope that Harold might be in sight; but nothing was to be seen on the road, but Master Norland, his wife, and baby, soberly taking their Sunday walk; nor by the river, except the ducks, who seemed to be enjoying their evening bath, and almost asleep on the water; nor in the yard, except Paul Blackthorn, who had come down from his perch to drive the horses in from the home-field, and shut the stable up for the night.

She could not help stopping a moment at the gate, and calling out to Paul to ask whether he had seen anything of Harold. He seemed to have a great mind not to hear, and turned very slowly with his shoulder towards her, making a sound like 'Eh?' as if to ask what she said.

'Have you seen my boy Harold?'

'I saw him in the morning.'

'Have you not seen him since? Didn't he go to church with you?'

'No; I don't go to Sunday school.'

'Was he there?'

She did not receive any answer.

'Do you know if many of the boys are gone to the merry orchard?'

'Ay.'

'Well, you are a good lad not to be one of them.'

'Hadn't got any money,' said Paul gruffly; but Mrs. King thought he said so chiefly from dislike to be praised, and that there had been some principle as well as poverty to keep him away.

'It might be better if no one had it on a Sunday,' she could not help sighing out as she looked anxiously along the lane ere turning in, and then said, 'My good lad, I don't want to get you to be telling tales, but it would set my heart at rest, and his poor brother's up there, if you could tell me he is not gone to Briar Alley.'

Paul turned up his face from the gate upon which he was leaning his elbows, and gazed for a moment at her sad, meek, anxious face, then exclaimed, 'I can't think how he could!'

Poor Paul! was it not crossing him how impossible it would seem to do anything to vex one who so cared for him?

'Then he is gone,' she said mournfully.

'They were all at him,' said Paul; 'and he said he'd never seen what it was like. Please don't take on, Missus; he's right kind and good- hearted, and wanted to treat me.'

'I had rather he had hearkened to you, my boy,' said Mrs. King.

'I don't know why he should do that,' said Paul, perhaps meaning that a boy who heeded not such a mother would certainly heed no one else. 'But please, Missus,' he added, 'don't beat him, for you made me tell on him.'

'Beat him! no,' said Mrs. King, with a sad smile; 'he's too big a boy for me to manage that way. I can't do more than grieve if he lets himself be led away.'

'Then I'd like to beat him myself if he grieves you!' burst out Paul, doubling up his brown fist with indignation.

'But you won't,' said Mrs. King gently; 'I don't want to make a quarrel among you, and I hope you'll help to keep him out of bad ways, Paul. I look to you for it. Good-night.'

Perhaps the darkness and her own warm feeling made her forget the condition of that hand; at any rate, as she said Good-night she took it in her own and shook it heartily, and then she went in.

Paul did not say Good-night in answer; but when she had turned away, his head went down between his two crossed arms upon the top of the gate, and he did not move for many many minutes, except that his shoulders shook and shook again, for he was sobbing as he had never sobbed since Granny Moll died. If home and home love were not matters of course to you, you might guess what strange new fountains of feeling were stirred in the wild but not untaught boy, by that face, that voice, that touch.

And Mrs. King, as she walked to her own door in the twilight, with bitter pain in her heart, could not help thinking of those from the highways and hedges who flocked to the feast set at naught by such as were bidden.

A sad and mournful Sunday evening was that to the mother and daughter, as each sat over her Bible. Mrs. King would not talk to Ellen, for fear of awakening Alfred; not that low voices would have done so, but Ellen was already much upset by what she had heard and seen, and to talk it over would have brought on a fit of violent crying; so her mother thought it safest to say nothing. They would have read their Bible to one another, but each had her voice so choked with tears, that it would not do.

That Alfred was sinking away into the grave, was no news to Mrs. King; but perhaps it had never been so plainly spoken to her before, and his own knowledge of it seemed to make it more sure; but broken- hearted as she felt, she had been learning to submit to this, and it might be better and safer for him, she thought, to be aware of his state, and more ready to do his best with the time left to him. That was not the freshest sorrow, or more truly a darker cloud had come over, namely, the feeling, so terrible to a good careful mother, that her son is breaking out of the courses to which she has endeavoured and prayed to bring him up--that he is casting off restraint, and running into evil that may be the beginning of ruin, and with no father's hand to hold him in.

O Harold, had you but seen the thick tears dropping on the walnut table behind the arm that hid her face from Ellen, you would not have thought your fun worth them!

That merry orchard was about three miles from Friarswood. It belonged to a man who kept a small public-house, and had a little farm, and a large garden, with several cherry trees, which in May were perfect gardens of blossoms, white as snow, and in August with small black fruit of the sort known as merries; and unhappily the fertile produce of these trees became a great temptation to the owner and to all the villagers around.

As Sunday was the only day when people could be at leisure, he chose three Sundays when the cherries were ripe for throwing open his orchard to all who chose to come and buy and eat the fruit, and of course cakes and drink of various kinds were also sold. It was a solitary spot, out of the way of the police, or the selling in church-time would have been stopped; but as there may be cases of real distress, the law does not shut up all houses for selling food and drink on a Sunday, so others, where there is no necessity, take advantage of it; and so for miles round all the idle young people and children would call it a holiday to go away from their churches to eat cherries at Briar Alley, buying and selling on a Sunday, noisy and clamorous, and forgetting utterly that it was the Lord's Day, not their day of idle pleasure.

It was a sad pity that an innocent feast of fruit should be almost out of reach, unless enjoyed in this manner. To be sure, merries might be bought any day of the week at Briar Alley, and were hawked up and down Friarswood so cheaply that any one might get a mouth as purple as the black spaniel's any day in the season; but that was nothing to the fun of going with numbers, and numbers never could go except on a Sunday. But if people wish to serve God truly, why, they must make up their minds to miss pleasures for His sake, and this was one to begin with; and I am much mistaken if the happiness of the week would not have turned out greater in the end with him. Ay, and as to the owner of the trees, who said he was a poor man, and could not afford to lose the profit, I believe that if he would have trusted God and kept His commandment, his profit in the long run would have been greater here, to say nothing of the peril to his own soul of doing wrong, and leading so many into temptation.

The Kings had been bred up to think a Sunday going to the merry orchard a thing never to be done; and in his most idle days Alfred would never have dreamt of such a thing. Indeed, their good mother always managed to have some treat to make up for it when they were little; and they certainly never wanted for merries, nay, a merry pudding had been their dinner this very day, with savage-looking purple juice and scalding hot stones. If Harold went it was for the frolic, not for want of the dainty; and wrong as it was, his mother was grieving more at the thought of his casting away the restraint of his old habits than for the one action. One son going away into the unseen world, the other being led away from the paths of right--no wonder she wept as she tried to read!

At last voices were coming, and very loud ones. The summer night was so still, they could be heard a great way--those rude coarse voices of village boys boasting and jeering one another.

'I say, wouldn't you like to be one of they chaps at Ragglesford School?'

'What lots they bought there on Saturday, to be sure!'

'Well they may: they've lots of tin!'

'Have they? How d'ye know?'

'Why, the money-letters! Don't I know the feel of them--directed to master this and master that, and with a seal and a card, and half a sovereign, or maybe a whole one, under it; and such lots as they gets before the holidays--that's to go home, you see.'

'Well, it's a shame such little impudent rogues should get so much without ever doing a stroke of work for it.'

'I say, Harold, don't ye never put one of they letters in your pocket?'

'For shame, Dick!'

'Ha! I shall know where to come when I wants half a sovereign or so!'

'No, you won't.'

It was only these last two or three speeches that reached the cottage at all clearly; and they were followed by a sound as if Harold had fallen upon one of the others, and they were holding him off, with halloos and shouts of hoarse laughing, which broke Alfred's sleep, and his voice came down-stairs with a startled cry of 'Mother! Mother! what is that?' She ran up-stairs in haste, and Ellen threw the door open. The sudden display of the light silenced the noisy boys; and Harold came slowly up the garden-path, pretty certain of a scolding, and prepared to feel it as little as he could help.

'Well, Master, a nice sort of a way of spending a Sunday evening this!' began Ellen; 'and coming hollaing up the lane, just on purpose to wake poor Alfred, when he's so ill!'

'I'm sure I never meant to wake him.'

'Then what did you bring all that good-for-nothing set roaring and shouting up the road for? And just this evening, too, when one would have thought you would we have cared for poor Mother and Alfred,' said she, crying.

'Why, what's the matter now?' said Harold.

'Oh, they've been saying he can't live out the winter,' said Ellen, shedding the tears that had been kept back all this time, and broke out now with double force, in her grief for one brother and vexation with the other.

But next winter seemed a great way off to Harold, and he was put out besides, so he did not seem shocked, especially as he was reproached with not feeling what he did not know; so all he did was to say angrily, 'And how was I to know that?'

'Of course you don't know anything, going scampering over the country with the worst lot you can find, away from church and all, not caring for anything! Poor Mother! she never thought one of her lads would come to that!'

'Plenty does so, without never such a fuss,' said Harold. 'Why, what harm is there in eating a few cherries?'

There would be very little pleasure or use in knowing what a wrangling went on all the time Mrs. King was up-stairs putting Alfred to bed. Ellen had all the right on her side, but she did not use it wisely; she was very unhappy, and much displeased with Harold, and so she had it all out in a fretful manner that made him more cross and less feeling than was his nature.

There was something he did feel, however--and that was his mother's pale, worn, sorrowful face, when she came down-stairs and hushed Ellen, but did not speak to him. They took down the books, read their chapter, and she read prayers very low, and not quite steadily. He would have liked very much to have told her he felt sorry, but he was too proud to do so after having shewn Ellen he was above caring for such nonsense.

So they all went to bed, Harold on a little landing at the top of the stairs; but--whether it was from the pounds of merry-stones he had swallowed, or the talk he had had with his sister--he could not go to sleep, and lay tossing and tumbling about, thinking it very odd he had not heeded more what Ellen had said when he first came in, and the notion dawning on him more and more, that day after day would come and make Alfred worse, and that by the time summer came again he should be alone. Who could have said it? Why had not he asked? What could he have been thinking about? It should not be true! A sort of frenzy to speak to some one, and hear the real meaning of those words, so as to make sure they were only Ellen's nonsense, came over him in the silent darkness. Presently he heard Alfred moving on his pillow, for the door was open for the heat; and that long long sigh made him call in a whisper, 'Alf, are you awake?'

In another moment Harold was by his brother's side. 'Alf! Alf! are you worse?' he asked, whispering.

'No.'

'Then what's all this? What did they say? It's all stuff; I'm sure it is, and you're getting better. But what did Ellen mean?'

'No, Harold,' said Alfred, getting his brother's hand in his, 'it's not stuff; I shan't get well; I'm going after poor Charlie; and don't you be a bad lad, Harold, and run away from your church, for you don't know--how bad it feels to--' and Alfred turned his face down, for the tears were coming thick.

'But you aren't going to die, Alf. Charlie never was like you, I know he wasn't; he was always coughing. It is all Ellen. Who said it? I won't let them.'

'The doctor said it to Betsey Hardman,' said Alfred; and his cough was only too like his brother's.

Harold would have said a great deal in contempt of Betsey Hardman, but Alfred did not let him.

'You'll wake Mother,' he said. 'Hush, Harold, don't go stamping about; I can't bear it! No, I don't want any one to tell me now; I've been getting worse ever since I was taken, and--oh! be quiet, Harold.'

'I can't be quiet,' sobbed Harold, coming nearer to him. 'O Alf! I can't spare you! There hasn't been no proper downright fun without you, and--'

Harold had lain down by him and clung to his hand, trying not to sob aloud.

'O Harold!' sighed Alfred, 'I don't think I should mind--at least not so much--if I hadn't been such a bad boy.'

'You, Alfy! Who was ever a good boy if you was not?'

'Hush! You forget all about when I was up at my Lady's, and all that. Oh! and how bad I behaved at church, and when I was so saucy to Master about the marbles; and so often I've not minded Mother. O Harold! and God judges one for everything!'

What a sad terrified voice it was!

'Oh! don't go on so, Alf! I can't bear it! Why, we are but boys; and those things were so long ago! God will not be hard on little boys. He is merciful, don't you know?'

'But when I knew it was wrong, I did the worst I could!' said Alfred. 'Oh, if I could only begin all over again, now I do care! Only, Harold, Harold, you are well; you can be good now when there's time.'

'I'll be ever so good if you'll only get well,' said Harold. 'I wouldn't have gone to that there place to-night; but 'tis so terribly dull, and one must do something.'

'But in church-time, and on Sunday!'

'Well, I'll never do it again; but it was so sunshiny, and they were all making such fun, you see, and it did seem so stuffy, and so long and tiresome, I couldn't help it, you see.'

Alfred did not think of asking how, if Harold could not help it this time, he could be sure of never doing so again. He was more inclined to dwell on himself, and went back to that one sentence, 'God judges us for everything.' Harold thought he meant it for him, and exclaimed,

'Yes, yes, I know, but--oh, Alf, you shouldn't frighten one so; I never meant no harm.'

'I wasn't thinking about that,' sighed Alfred. 'I was wishing I'd been a better lad; but I've been worse, and crosser, and more unkind, ever since I was ill. O Harold! what shall I do?'

'Don't go on that way,' said Harold, crying bitterly. 'Say your prayers, and maybe you will get well; and then in the morning I'll ask Mr. Cope to come down, and he'll tell you not to mind.'

'I wouldn't listen to Mr. Cope when he told me to be sorry for my sins; and oh, Harold, if we are not sorry, you know they will not be taken away.'

'Well, but you are sorry now.'

'I have heard tell that there are two ways of being sorry, and I don't know if mine is the right.'

'I tell you I'll fetch Mr. Cope in the morning; and when the doctor comes he'll be sure to say it is all a pack of stuff, and you need not be fretting yourself.'

When Harold awoke in the morning, he found himself lying wrapped in his coverlet on Alfred's bed, and then he remembered all about it, and looked in haste, as though he expected to see some sudden and terrible change in his brother.

But Alfred was looking cheerful, he had awakened without discomfort; and with some amusement, was watching the starts and movements, the grunts and groans, of Harold's waking. The morning air and the ordinary look of things, had driven away the gloomy thoughts of evening, and he chiefly thought of them as something strange and dreadful, and yet not quite a dream.

'Don't tell Mother,' whispered Harold, recollecting himself, and starting up quietly.

'But you'll fetch Mr. Cope,' said Alfred earnestly.

Harold had begun not to like the notion of meeting Mr. Cope, lest he should hear something of yesterday's doings, and he did not like Alfred or himself to think of last night's alarm, so he said, 'Oh, very well, I'll see about it.'

He had not made up his mind. Very likely, if chance had brought him face to face with Mr. Cope, he would have spoken about Alfred as the best way to hinder the Curate from reproving himself; but he had not that right sort of boldness which would have made him go to meet the reproof he so richly deserved, and he was trying to persuade himself either that when Alfred was amused and cheery, he would forget all about 'that there Betsey's nonsense,' or else that Mr. Cope might come that way of himself.

But Alfred was not likely to forget. What he had heard hung on him through all the little occupations of the morning, and made him meek and gentle under them, and he was reckoning constantly upon Mr. Cope's coming, fastening on the notion as if he were able to save him.

Still the Curate came not, and Alfred became grieved, feeling as if he was neglected.

Mr. Blunt, however, came, and at any rate he would have it out with him; so he asked at once very straightforwardly, 'Am I going to die, Sir?'

'Why, what's put that in your head?' said the doctor.

'There was a person here talking last night, Sir,' said Mrs. King.

'Well, but am I?' said Alfred impatiently.

'Not just yet, I hope,' said Mr. Blunt cheerfully. 'You are weak, but you'll pick up again.'

'But of this?' persisted Alfred, who was not to be trifled with.

Mr. Blunt saw he must be in earnest.

'My boy,' he said, 'I'm afraid it is not a thing to be got over. I'll do the best I can for you, by God's blessing; and if you get through the winter, and it is a mild spring, you might do; but you'd better settle your mind that you can't be many years for this world.'

Many years! that sounded like a reprieve, and sent gladness into Ellen's heart; but somehow it did not seem in the same light to Alfred; he felt that if he were slowly going down hill and wasting away, so as to have no more health or strength in which to live differently from ever before, the length of time was not much to him, and in his sickly impatience he would almost have preferred that it should not be what Betsey kindly called 'a lingering job.'

There he lay after Mr. Blunt was gone, not giving Ellen any trouble, except by the sad thoughtfulness of his face, as he lay dwelling on all that he wanted to say to Mr. Cope, and the terror of his sin and of judgment sweeping over him every now and then.

Still Mr. Cope came not. Alfred at last began to wonder aloud, and asked if Harold had said anything about it when he came in to dinner; but he heard that Harold had only rushed in for a moment, snatched up a lump of bread and cheese, and made off to the river with some of the lads who meant to spend the noon-tide rest in bathing.

When he came for the evening letters he was caught, and Mr. Cope was asked for; and then it came out that Harold had never given the message at all.

Alfred, greatly hurt, and sadly worn by his day of expectation, had no self-restraint left, and flew out into a regular passion, calling his brother angry names. Harold, just as passionate, went into a rage too, and scolded his brother for his fancies. Mrs. King, in great displeasure, turned him out, and he rushed off to ride like one mad to Elbury; and poor Alfred remained so much shocked at his own outbreak, just when he meant to have been good ever after, and sobbing so miserably, that no one could calm him at all; and Ellen, as the only hope, put on her bonnet to fetch Mr. Cope.

At that moment Paul was come for his bit of bread. She found him looking dismayed at the sounds of violent weeping from above, and he asked what it was.

'Oh, Alfred is so low and so bad, and he wants Mr. Cope! Here's your bread, don't keep me!'

'Let me go! I'll be quicker!' cried Paul; and before she could thank him, he was down the garden and right across the first field.

Alfred had had time to cry himself exhausted, and to be lying very still, almost faint, before Mr. Cope came in in the summer twilight. Good Paul! He had found that Mr. Cope was dining at Ragglesford and had run all the way thither; and here was the kind young Curate, quite breathless with his haste, and never regretting the cheerful party whence he had been called away. All Alfred could say was, 'O Sir, I shall die; and I'm a bad boy, and wouldn't heed you when you said so.'

'And God has made you see your sins, my poor boy,' said Mr. Cope. 'That is a great blessing.'

'But if I can't do anything to make up for them, what's the use? And I never shall be well again.'

'You can't make up for them; but there is One Who has made up for them, if you will only truly repent.'

'I wasn't sorry till I knew I should die,' said Alfred.

'No, your sins did not come home to you! Now, do you know what they are?'

'Oh yes; I've been a bad boy to Mother, and at church; and I've been cross to Ellen, and quarrelled with Harold; and I was so audacious at my Lady's, they couldn't keep me. I never did want really to be good. Oh! I know I shall go to the bad place!'

'No, Alfred, not if you so repent, that you can hold to our Blessed Saviour's promise. There is a fountain open for sin and all uncleanness.'

'It is very good of Him,' said Alfred, a little more tranquilly, not in the half-sob in which he had before spoken.

'Most merciful!' said Mr. Cope.

'But does it mean me?' continued Alfred.

'You were baptized, Alfred, you have a right to all His promises of pardon.' And he repeated the blessed sentences:

'Come unto Me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.'

'God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'

'But how ought I to believe, Sir?'

'You say you feel what your sins are; think of them all as you lie, each one as you remember it; say it out in your heart to our Saviour, and pray God to forgive it for His sake, and then think that it cost some of the pain He bore on the Cross, some of the drops of His agony in the Garden. Each sin of ours was indeed of that burden!'

'Oh, that will make them seem so bad!'

'Indeed it does; but how it will make you love Him, and feel thankful to Him, and anxious not to waste the sufferings borne for your sake, and glad, perhaps, that you are bearing some small thing yourself. But you are spent, and I had better not talk more now. Let me read you a few prayers to help you, and then I will leave you, and come again to-morrow.'

How differently those Prayers and Psalms sounded to Alfred now that he had really a heart grieved and wearied with the burthen of sin! The point was to make his not a frightened heart, but a contrite heart.

Charlotte M. Yonge