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Under the shroud
Of His thunder-cloud
Lie we still when His voice is loud,
And our hearts shall feel
The love notes steal,
As a bird sings after the thunder peal--C. F. A.
Not till dusk could Dr. May get back to Stoneborough, and then, in an evening gleam of that stormy day, he was met at the gate of Bankside by Richard and Ethel.
'You need not come in, papa,' said Ethel. 'She is asleep. She knows.'
Dr. May sighed with unspeakable relief.
'Mr. Bramshaw telegraphed, and his clerk came down. It was not so very bad! She saw it in our faces, and she was so worn out with talking and watching, that--that the very turning her face to the wall with hope over, became sleep almost directly.'
'That is well,' murmured the Doctor. 'And can you be spared, my dear? If you could come I should be glad, for poor Aubrey is quite done up.'
'I can come. Mary is with her, and Richard will stay to meet Henry, if he is coming home, or to send up if they want you; but I think she will not wake for many hours; and then--oh! what can any one do!'
So Richard turned back to the sorrowful house; and Dr. May, tenderly drawing Ethel's arm into his own, told her, as they walked back, the few incidents that she most wanted to hear, as best he could narrate them. 'You have had a heart-rending day, my dear,' he said; 'you and Mary, as well as the rest of us.'
'There was one comfort!' said Ethel, 'and that was his own notes. Ave has all that he has written to her from Whitford under her pillow, and she kept spreading them out, and making us read them, and--oh! their braveness and cheeriness--they did quite seem to hold one up! And then poor little Minna's constant little robin-chirp of faith, "God will not let them hurt him." One could not bear to tell the child, that though indeed they cannot hurt him, it may not be in her sense! Look here! These are her slippers. She has worked on all day to finish them, that they might be done and out of sight when he came home this evening. The last stitch was done as Richard came in; and now I thought I could only take them out of every one's sight.'
'Poor things! poor things! And how was it with the child when she heard?'
'The old sweet note,' said Ethel, less steadily than she had yet spoken, '"nothing could hurt him for what he had not done." I don't know whether she knows what--what is in store. At least she is not shaken yet, dear child.'
'And Ave--how did you manage with her through all the day?'
'Oh! we did as we could. We tried reading the things Mr. Wilmot had marked, but she was too restless; her hands would wander off to the letters, caressing them, and she would go back to talk of him--all his ways from a baby upwards. I hope there was no harm in letting her do it, for if there is anything to do one good, it is his noble spirit.'
'If you had only seen his face to-day,' exclaimed the Doctor, half angrily, 'you would not feel much comfort in the cutting off such a fellow. No, no, it won't be. We'll petition--petition--petition-- and save him, we will! Minna will be right yet! They shall not hurt him!'
'Is there really hope in that way?' said Ethel, and a quiver of relief agitated her whole frame.
'Every hope! Every one I have seen, or Tom either, says so. We have only to draw up a strong enough representation of the facts, his character, and all that; and there's his whole conduct before and since to speak for itself. Why, when it was all over, George heard every one saying, either he was a consummate hypocrite, or he must be innocent. Harvey Anderson declares the press will take it up. We shall certainly get him off.'
'You don't mean pardoned!'
'Commutation of the penalty. Come on,' said the Doctor, hurrying at his headlong pace, 'there's no time to be lost in getting it drawn up.'
Ethel was dragged on so fast, that she could not speak; but it was with willing haste, for this was the sort of suspense in which motion and purpose were a great relief after the day's weary waiting. Gertrude, quite spent with excitement and tears, had wisely betaken herself to bed; and it would have been well had Aubrey followed her example, instead of wandering up and down the room in his misery, flushed though wan, impetuously talking treason against trial by jury, and abusing dignitaries. They let him have it out, in all its fury and violence, till he had tired out his first vehemence, and could be persuaded to lie on the sofa while the rough draught of the petition was drawn up, Tom writing, and every one suggesting or discussing, till the Doctor, getting thorough mastery over the subject, dictated so fluently and admirably, that even Tom had not a word to gainsay, but observed to Ethel, when his father had gone up to bed, and carried Aubrey off, 'What an exceedingly able man my father is!'
'Is this the first time you have found that out?' said Ethel.
'Why, you know it is not his nature to make the most of himself! But studying under him brings it out more; and there's a readiness about him that I wish was catching. But I say, Ethel, what's this? I no more doubt who did the deed, than I do who killed Abel; but I had once seen Cain's face, and I knew it again. Is it true that the boy was aware, and told my father?'
'Did he tell you so?'
'Only asked if he had betrayed the secret. If they both know it-- why, if it be Leonard's taste, I suppose I must say nothing to the contrary, but he might as well consider his sister.'
'What do you know, Tom?' said she, perplexed.
'Only that there's some secret; and if it be as I am given to understand, then it is a frenzy that no lucid person should permit.'
'No, Tom,' said Ethel, feeling that the whole must be told, 'it is no certainty--only unsupported suspicion, which he could not help telling papa after binding him on honour to make no use of it. Putting things together, he was sure who the man in the yard was; but it was not recognition, and he could not have proved it.'
'What Quixotry moved my father not to put the lawyers on the scent?'
Ethel explained; and for her pains Tom fell upon her for her folly in not having told him all, when he could have gone to Blewer and gathered information as no professional person could do; then lamented that he had let Aubrey keep him from the inquest, when the fellow's hang-dog look would have been sure to suggest to him to set Anderson to get him searched. Even now he would go to the mill, and try to hunt up something.
'Tom, remember papa's promise!'
'Do you think a man can do nothing without committing himself, like poor Aubrey? No, Ethel, the Doctor may be clever, but that's no use if a man is soft, and he is uncommonly soft; and you should not encourage him in it.'
Ethel was prevented from expressing useless indignation by the arrival of Mary, asking where papa was.
'Gone to bed. He said he must go off at six to-morrow, there are so many patients to see. Ave does not want him, I hope?'
No, she is still asleep; I was only waiting for Richard, and he had dreadful work with that poor Henry.'
'What kind of work?'
'Oh, I believe it has all come on him now that it was his fault-- driving Leonard to that place; and he was in such misery, that Richard could not leave him.'
'I am glad he has the grace to feel it at last,' said Tom.
'It must be very terrible!' said Mary. 'He says he cannot stay in that house, for every room reproaches him; and he groaned as if he was in tremendous bodily pain.'
'What, you assisted at this scene?' said Tom, looking at her rather sharply.
'No; but Richard told me; and I heard the groans as I sat on the stairs.'
'Sat on the stairs?'
'Yes. I could not go back to Ave's room for fear of waking her.'
'And how long?'
'Towards an hour, I believe. I did all that piece,' said Mary, displaying a couple of inches of a stocking leg, 'and I think it was pretty well in the dark.'
'Sitting on the stairs for an hour in the dark,' said Tom, as he gave Mary the candle he had been lighting for her. 'That may be called unappreciated devotion.'
'I never can tell what Tom means,' said Mary, as she went up-stairs with Ethel. 'It was a very comfortable rest. I wish you had had the same, dear Ethel, you look so tired and worn out. Let me stay and help you. It has been such a sad long day; and oh! how terrible this is! And you know him better than any of us, except Aubrey.'
Mary stopped almost in dismay, for her sister, usually so firm, broke down entirely, and sitting down on a low chair, threw an arm round her, and resting her weary brow against her, gave way to long tearless sobs, or rather catches of breath. 'Oh! Mary! Mary!' she said, between her gasps, 'to think of last year--and Coombe--and the two bright boys--and the visions--and the light in those glorious eyes--and that this should be the end!'
'Dear, dear Ethel,' said Mary, with fast-flowing tears and tender caresses, 'you have kept us all up; you have always shown us it was for the best.'
'It is! it is!' cried Ethel. 'I do, I will believe it! If I had only seen his face as papa tells of it, I could keep hold of the glory of it and the martyr spirit. Now I only see his earnest, shy, confiding look--and--and I don't know how to bear it.' And Ethel's grasp of Mary in both arms was tightened, as if to support herself under her deep labouring sobs of anguish. Ah! he was very fond of you.'
'There never was any one beyond our own selves that loved me so well. I always knew it would not last--that it ought not; but oh! it was endearing; and I did think to have seen him a shining light!'
'And don't you tell us he is a shining light now?' said Mary, among the tears that really almost seemed to be a relief, as if her sister herself had shed them; and as she knelt down, Ethel laid her head on her shoulder, and spoke more calmly.
'He is,' she said, 'and I ought to be thankful for it! I think I am generally--but now--it makes it the more piteous--the hopes--the spirit--the determination--all to be quenched, and so quenched--and to have nothing--nothing to do for him.
'But, Ethel, papa says your messages do him more good than anything; and papa will let you go and see him, and that will comfort him.'
Ethel's lips gave a strange sort of smile; she thought it was at simple Mary's trust in her power, but it would hardly have been there but for the species of hope thus excited, and the sense of sympathy. Mary was not one to place any misconstruction on what had passed; she well knew that Leonard had almost taken a brother's place in Ethel's heart, and she prized him at the rate of her sister's esteem. Perhaps her prominent thought was how cruel were those who fancied that Ethel's lofty faith was unfeeling, and how very good Leonard must be to be thus mourned. At any rate, she was an excellent comforter, in the sympathy that was neither too acute nor too obtuse; and purely to oblige her, Ethel for the first time submitted to her favourite panacea of hair brushing, and found that in very truth those soft and steady manipulations were almost mesmeric in soothing away the hard oppressive excitement, and bringing on a gentle and slumberous resignation.
The sisters were early astir next morning, to inflict on their father a cup of cocoa, which he rebelled against, but swallowed, and to receive his last orders, chiefly consisting of messages to Tom about taking the petition to be approved of by Dr. Spencer and others, and then having it properly drawn out. Mary asked if women might sign it, and was answered with an impatient 'Pshaw!'
'But ladies do have petitions of their own,' said Mary, with some diffidence. 'Could not we have one?'
His lips were compressed for another 'Pshaw,' when he bethought himself. 'Well, I don't know--the more the better. Only it won't do for you to set it going. Flora must be the woman for that.'
'Oh, then,' cried Mary, eagerly, 'might not I walk over to breakfast at the Grange, and talk to Flora? Ethel, you would not mind going to Ave instead? Or will you go to Flora?'
'You had better,' said Ethel. 'I must stay on Aubrey's account; and this is your doing, Mary,' she added, looking at her warmly.
'Then put on your hat, Mary, and take a biscuit,' said the Doctor, 'and you shall have a lift as far as the cross roads.'
Thus the morning began with action and with hope. Mary found herself very welcome at the Grange, where there was much anxiety to hear of Aubrey, as well as the more immediate sufferers. The Riverses had dined at Drydale, and had met the judges, as well as a good many of the county gentlemen who had been on the grand jury and attended on the trial. They had found every one most deeply touched by the conduct of the prisoner. The judge had talked to Flora about her young brother, and the friendship so bravely avouched; had asked the particulars of the action to which Leonard had alluded, and shown himself much interested in all that she related.
She said that the universal impression was that the evidence was dead against Leonard, and taken apart, led to such conviction of his guilt, that no one could wonder at the verdict; but that his appearance and manner were such, that it was almost impossible, under their influence, not to credit his innocence. She had reason to believe that petitions were already in hand both from the county and the assize town, and she eagerly caught at Mary's proposal of one from the ladies of Stoneborough.
'I'll drive in at once before luncheon, and take you home, Mary,' she said. 'And, first of all, we will begin with the two widows, and half the battle will be won.'
Nay, more than half the battle proved to be already gained in that quarter. The writing-table was covered with sheets of foolscap, and Mrs. Pugh was hard at work copying the petition which Mr. Harvey Anderson had kindly assisted in composing, and which the aunt and niece had intended to have brought to the Grange for Mrs. Rivers's approval that very day. Harvey Anderson had spent the evening at Mrs. Ledwich's in drawing it up, and giving his advice; and Flora, going over it word for word with Mrs. Pugh, felt that it could hardly have been better worded.
'He is a very clever, a very rising young man, and so feeling, said Mrs. Ledwich to Mary while this was going on. 'In fact, he is a perfect knight-errant on this subject. He is gone to London this morning to see what can be done by means of the press. I tell Matilda it is quite a romance of modern life; and indeed, the sweet girl is very romantic still--very young, even after all she has gone through.'
Not understanding this, Mary let it pass in calculations on the number of possible signatures, which the two ladies undertook to collect.
'That is well,' said Flora, as they went away. 'It could not be in better hands. It will thrive the better for our doing nothing but writing our names.'
They met Tom on the like errand, but not very sanguine, for he said there had of late been an outcry against the number of reprieves granted, and the public had begun to think itself not sufficiently protected. He thought the best chance was the discovery of some additional fact that might tell in favour of Leonard, and confident in his own sagacity, was going to make perquisitions at the mill. Every one had been visiting of late, and now that he knew more, if he and his microscope could detect one drop of human blood in an unexpected place, they would do better service to the prisoner than all the petitions that could be signed.
Averil was somewhat better; the feverishness had been removed by her long sleep of despair, and her energy revived under the bodily relief, and the fixed purpose of recovering in time to see her brother again; but the improvement was not yet trusted by Henry, who feared her doing too much unless he was himself watching over her, and therefore only paid Leonard a short visit in the forenoon, going and returning by early trains.
He reported that Leonard was very pale, and owned to want of sleep, adding, however, 'It does not matter. Why should I wish to lose any time?' Calm and brave as ever, he had conversed as cheerfully as Henry's misery would permit, inquiring into the plans of the family, which he knew were to depend on his fate, and acquiescing in his brother's intention of quitting the country; nay, even suggesting that it might be better for his sisters to be taken away before all was over, though he, as well as Henry, knew that to this Averil would never have consented. He had always been a great reader of travels, and he became absolutely eager in planning their life in the wild, as if where they were he must be, till the casual mention of the word 'rifle' brought him to sudden silence, and the consciousness of the condemned cell; but even then it was only to be urgent in consoling his brother, and crowding message on message for his sisters; begging Henry not to stay, not to consider him for a moment, but only whatever might be best for Ave.
In this frame Henry had left him, and late in the afternoon, Dr. May had contrived to despatch his work and make his way to the jail, where, as he entered, he encountered the chaplain, Mr. Reeve, a very worthy, but not a very acute man. Pausing to inquire for the prisoner, he was met by a look of oppression and perplexity. The chaplain had been with young Ward yesterday evening, and was only just leaving him; but then, instead of the admiring words the Doctor expected, there only came a complaint of the difficulty of dealing with him; so well instructed, so respectful in manner, and yet there was a coldness, a hardness about him, amounting to sullenness, rejecting all attempts to gain his confidence, or bring him to confession.
Dr. May had almost been angry, but he bethought himself in time that the chaplain was bound to believe the verdict of the court; and besides, the good man looked so grieved and pitiful, that it was impossible to be displeased with him, especially when he began to hope that the poor youth might be less reserved with a person who knew him better, and to consult Dr. May which of the Stoneborough clergy had better be written to as likely to be influential with him. Dr. May recommended Mr. Wilmot, as having visited the boy in his illness, as well as prepared him for Confirmation; and then, with a heavier load of sadness on his heart, followed the turnkey on his melancholy way.
When the door was opened, he saw Leonard sitting listlessly on the side of his bed, resting his head on his hand, entirely unoccupied; but at the first perception who his visitor was, he sprang to his feet, and coming within the arms held out to him, rested his head on the kind shoulder.
'My dear boy--my brave fellow,' said Dr. May, 'you got through yesterday nobly.'
There was none either of the calmness or the reserve of which Dr. May had been told, in the hot hands that were wringing his own, nor in the choking struggling voice that tried to make the words clear-- 'Thank you for what you said--And dear Aubrey--how is he?'
'I came away at six, before he was awake,' said the Doctor; 'but he will not be the worse for it, never fear! I hope his evidence was less trying than you and he expected.'
Leonard half smiled. 'I had forgotten that,' he said, 'it was so long ago! No, indeed--the dear fellow was--like a bright spot in that day--only--only it brought back all we were--all that is gone for ever.'
The tenderness of one whom he did not feel bound to uphold like his brother had produced the outbreak that could not fail to come to so warm, open, and sensitive a nature, and at such an age. He was bold and full of fortitude in the front of the ordeal, and solitude pent up his feelings, but the fatherly sympathy and perfect confidence drew forth expression, and a vent once opened, the rush of emotion and anguish long repressed was utterly overpowering. His youthful manhood struggled hard, but the strangled sobs only shook his frame the more convulsively, and the tears burnt like drops of fire, as they fell among the fingers that he spread over his face in the agony of weeping for his young vigorous life, his blasted hopes, the wretchedness he caused, the disgrace of his name.
'Don't, don't fight against it,' said Dr. May, affectionately drawing him to his seat on the bed, as, indeed, the violence of the paroxysm made him scarcely able to stand. 'Let it have its way; you will be all the better for it. It ought to be so--it must.'
And in tears himself, the Doctor turned his back, and went as far away as the cell would permit, turning towards the books that lay on a narrow ledge that served for a table. 'How long, O Lord, how long?' were the words that caught his eye in the open Psalms; and, startled as if at unauthorized prying, he looked up at the dull screened and spiked window above his head, till he knew by the sounds that the worst of the uncontrollable passion had spent itself, and then he came back with the towel dipped in water, and cooled the flushed heated face as a sister might have done.
'Oh--thank you--I am ashamed,' gasped the still sobbing boy.
'Ashamed! No; I like you the better for it,' said the Doctor, earnestly. 'There is no need that we should not grieve together in this great affliction, and say out all that is in our hearts.'
'All!' exclaimed Leonard. 'No--no words can say that! Oh! was it for such as this that my poor mother made so much of me--and I got through the fever--and I hoped--and I strove--Why--why should I be cut off--for a disgrace and a misery to all! and again came the heart-broken sobs, though less violently.
'Not to those who look within, and honour you, Leonard.'
'Within! Why, how bad I have been, since this is the reckoning! I deserve it, I know--but--' and his voice again sank in tears.
'Ethel says that your so feeling comforts her the most; to know that you have not the terrible struggle of faith disturbed by injustice.'
'If--I have not,' said Leonard, 'it is her doing. In those happy days when we read Marmion, and could not believe that God would not always show the right, she showed me how we only see bits and scraps of His Justice here, and it works round in the end! Nay, if I had not done that thing to Henry, I should not be here now! It is right! It is right!' he exclaimed between the heaving sobs that still recurred. 'I do try to keep before me what she said about Job--when it comes burning before me, why should that man be at large, and I here? or when I think how his serpent-eye fell under mine when I tried that one word about the receipt, that would save my life. Oh! that receipt!'
'Better to be here than in his place, after all!'
'I'd rather be a street-sweeper!' bitterly began Leonard.--'Oh, Dr. May, do let me have that!' he cried, suddenly changing his tone, and holding out his hand, as he perceived in the Doctor's button-hole a dove-pink, presented at a cottage door by a grateful patient. For a space he was entirely occupied with gazing into its crimson depths, inhaling the fragrance, and caressingly spreading the cool damask petals against his hot cheeks and eyelids. 'It is so long since I saw anything but walls!' he said.
'Three weeks,' sadly replied the Doctor.
'There was a gleam of sunshine when I got out of the van yesterday. I never knew before what sunshine was. I hope it will be a sunny day when I go out for the last time!'
'My dear boy, I have good hopes of saving you. There's not a creature in Stoneborough, or round it, that is not going to petition for you--and at your age--'
Leonard shook his head in dejection. 'It has all gone against me,' he said. 'They all say there's no chance. The chaplain says it is of no use unsettling my mind.'
'The chaplain is an old--' began Dr. May, catching himself up only just in time, and asking, 'How do you get on with him!'
'I can hear him read,' said Leonard, with the look that had been thought sullen.
'But you cannot talk to him?'
'Not while he thinks me guilty.' Then, at a sound of warm sympathy from his friend, he added, 'I suppose it is his duty; but I wish he would keep away. I can't stand his aiming at making me confess, and I don't want to be disrespectful.'
'I see, I see. It cannot be otherwise. But how would it be if Wilmot came to you?'
'Would Mr. May?' said Leonard, with a beseeching look.
'Richard? He would with all his heart; but I think you would find more support and comfort in a man of Mr. Wilmot's age and experience, and that Mr. Reeve would have more trust in him; but it shall be exactly as will be most comforting to you.'
'If Mr. Wilmot would be so good, then' said Leonard, meekly. 'Indeed, I want help to bear it patiently! I don't know how to die; and yet it seemed not near so hard a year ago, when they thought I did not notice, and I heard Ave go away crying, and my mother murmuring, again and again, "Thy will be done!"--the last time I heard her voice. Oh, well that she has not to say it now!'
'Well that her son can say it!'
'I want to be able to say it,' said the boy, fervently; 'but this seems so hard--life is so sweet.' Then, after a minute's thought: 'Dr. May, that morning, when I awoke, and asked you for them--papa and mamma--you knelt down and said the Lord's Prayer. Won't you now?'
And when those words had been said, and they both stood up again, Leonard added: 'It always seems to mean more and more! But oh, Dr. May! that forgiving--I can't ask any one but you if--' and he paused.
'If you forgive, my poor boy! Nay, are not your very silence and forbearance signs of practical forgiveness? Besides, I have always observed that you have never used one of the epithets that I can't think of him without.'
'Some feelings are too strong for common words of abuse,' said Leonard, almost smiling; 'but I hope I may be helped to put away what is wrong.--Oh, must you go?'
'I fear I must, my dear; I have a patient to see again, on my way back, and one that will be the worse for waiting.'
'Henry has not been able to practise. I want to ask one thing, Dr. May, before you go. Could not you persuade them, since home is poisoned to them, at any rate to go at once? It would be better for my sisters than being here--when--and they would only remember that last Sunday at home.'
'Do you shrink from another meeting with Averil?'
His face was forced into calmness. 'I will do without it, if it would hurt her.'
'It may for the time, but to be withheld would give her a worse heart-ache through life.'
'Oh, thank you!' cried Leonard, his face lighting up; 'it is something still to hope for.'
'Nay, I've not given you up yet,' said the Doctor, trying for a cheerful smile. 'I've got a prescription that will bring you through yet--London advice, you know. I've great faith in the consulting surgeon at the Home Office.'
By the help of that smile and augury, the Doctor got away, terribly beaten down, but living on his fragment of hope; though obliged to perceive that every one who merely saw the newspaper report in black and white, without coming into personal contact with the prisoner, could not understand how the slightest question of the justice of the verdict could arise. Even Mr. Wilmot was so convinced by the papers, that the Doctor almost repented of the mission to which he had invited him, and would, if he could, have revoked what had been said. But the vicar of Stoneborough, painful as was the duty, felt his post to be by the side of his unhappy young parishioner, equally whether the gaol chaplain or Dr. May were right, and if he had to bring him to confession, or to strengthen him to 'endure grief, suffering wrongfully.'
And after the first interview, no more doubts on that score were expressed; but the vicar's tone of pitying reverence in speaking of the prisoner was like that of his friends in the High Street.
Tom May spared neither time nor pains in beating up for signatures for the petition, but he had a more defined hope, namely, that of detecting something that might throw the suspicion into the right quarter. The least contradiction of the evidence might raise a doubt that would save Leonard's life, and bring the true criminal in peril of the fate he so richly deserved. The Vintry Mill was the lion of the neighbourhood, and the crowds of visitors had been a reason for its new master's vacating it, and going into lodgings in Whitford; so that Tom, when he found it convenient to forget his contempt of the gazers and curiosity hunters who thronged there, and to march off on a secret expedition of investigation, found no obstacle in his way, and at the cost of a fee to Mrs. Giles, who was making a fortune, was free to roam and search wherever he pleased. Even his careful examination of the cotton blind, and his scraping of the window-sill with a knife, were not remarked; for had not the great chair been hacked into fragmentary relics, and the loose paper of the walls of Leonard's room been made mincemeat of, as memorials of 'the murderer, Ward'?
One long white hair picked out of a mat below the window, and these scrapings of the window-sill, Tom carried off, and also the scrapings of the top bar of a stile between the mill and the Three Goblets. That evening, all were submitted to the microscope. Dr. May was waked from a doze by a very deferential 'I beg your pardon, sir,' and a sudden tweak, which abstracted a silver thread from his head; and Mab showed somewhat greater displeasure at a similar act of plunder upon her white chemisette. But the spying was followed by a sigh; and, in dumb show, Ethel was made to perceive that the Vintry hair had more affinity with the canine than the human. As to the scrapings of the window, nothing but vegetable fibre could there be detected; but on the stile, there was undoubtedly a mark containing human blood-disks; Tom proved that both by comparison with his books, and by pricking his own finger, and kept Ethel to see it after every one else was gone up to bed. But as one person's blood was like another's, who could tell whether some one with a cut finger had not been through the stile? Tom shook his head, there was not yet enough on which to commit himself. 'But I'll have him!--I'll have him yet!' said he. 'I'll never rest while that villain walks the earth unpunished!'
Meantime, Harvey Anderson did yeoman's service by a really powerful article in a leading paper, written from the very heart of an able man, who had been strongly affected himself, and was well practised in feeling in pen and ink. Every word rang home to the soul, and all the more because there was no defence nor declamation against the justice of the verdict, which was acknowledged to be unavoidable; it was merely a pathetic delineation of a terrible mystery, with a little meditative philosophy upon it, the moral of which was, that nothing is more delusive than fact, more untrue than truth. However, it was copied everywhere, and had the great effect of making it the cue of more than half the press to mourn over, rather than condemn, 'the unfortunate young gentleman.'
Mrs. Pugh showed every one the article, and confided to most that she had absolutely ventured to suggest two or three of the sentences. But a great deal might be borne from Mrs. Pugh, in consideration of her indefatigable exertions with the ladies' petition, and it was a decided success. The last census had rated Market Stoneborough at 7561 inhabitants, and Mrs. Pugh's petition bore no less than 3024 female names, in which she fairly beat that of the mayor; but then she had been less scrupulous as to the age at which people should be asked to sign; as long as the name could be written at all, she was not particular whose it was.
Dr. May made his patients agree to accept as his substitute Dr. Spencer or Mr. Wright, to whom Henry Ward intended to resign practice and house. He himself was to go to London for a couple of nights with George Rivers, who was exceedingly gratified at having the charge of him all to himself, and considered that the united influence of member and mayor must prevail. Dr. Spencer, on the contrary, probably by way of warning, represented Mr. Mayor as ruining everything by his headlong way of setting about it, declaring that he would abuse everybody all round, and assure the Home Secretary, that, as sure as his name was Dick May, it was quite impossible the boy could have hurt a fly; though a strict sense of truth would lead him to add the next moment, that he was terribly passionate, and had nearly demolished his brother.
Dr. May talked of his caution and good behaviour, which, maybe, were somewhat increased by this caricature, but he ended by very hearty wishes that these were the times of Jeanie Deans; if the pardon depended on our own good Queen, he should not doubt of it a moment. Why, was not the boy just the age of her own son?
And verily there was no one in the whole world whom poor Averil envied like Jeanie Deans.
So member and mayor went to London together, and intense were the prayers that speeded them and followed them. The case was laid before the Home Secretary, the petitions presented, and Dr. May said all that man might say on ground where he felt as if over- partisanship might be perilous. The matter was to have due consideration: nothing more definite or hopeful could be obtained; but there could be no doubt that this meant a real and calm re- weighing of the evidence, with a consideration of all the circumstances. It was something for the Doctor that a second dispassionate study should be given to the case, but his heart sank as he thought of that cold, hard statement of evidence, without the counter testimony of the honest, tearless eyes and simple good faith of the voice and tone.
And when he entered the railway carriage on his road home, the newspaper that George Rivers attentively pressed upon him bore the information that Wednesday, the 21st, would be the day, according to usage, for the execution of the condemned criminal, Leonard Axworthy Ward. If it had been for the execution of Richard May, the Doctor could hardly have given a deeper groan.
He left the train at the county town. He had so arranged, that he might see the prisoner on his way home; but he had hardly the heart to go, except that he knew he was expected, and no disappointment that he could help must add to the pangs of these last days.
Leonard was alone, but was not, as before, sitting unemployed; he carefully laid down his etching work ere he came forward to meet his fnend; and there was not the bowed and broken look about him, but a fixed calmness and resolution, as he claimed the fatherly embrace and blessing with which the Doctor now always met him.
'I bring you no certainty, Leonard. It is under consideration.'
'Thank you. You have done everything,' returned Leonard, quietly; 'and--' then pausing, he added, 'I know the day now--the day after my birthday.'
'Let us--let us hope,' said the Doctor, greatly agitated.
'Thank you,' again said Leonard; and there was a pause, during which Dr. May anxiously studied the face, which had become as pale and almost as thin as when the lad had been sent off to Coombe, and infinitely older in the calm steadfastness of every feature.
'You do not look well, Leonard.'
'No; I am not quite well; but it matters very little,' he said, with a smile. 'I am well enough to make it hard to believe how soon all sense and motion will be gone out of these fingers!' and he held up his hand, and studied the minutiae of its movements with a strange grave sort of curiosity.
'Don't--don't, Leonard!' exclaimed the Doctor. 'You may be able to bear it, but I cannot.'
'I thought you would not mind, you have so often watched death.'
'Yes; but--' and he covered his face with his hands.
'I wish it did not pain you all so much,' said Leonard, quietly. 'But for that, I can feel it to be better than if I had gone in the fever, when I had no sense to think or repent; or if I had--I hardly knew my own faults.'
'You seem much happier now, my boy.'
'Yes,' said Leonard. 'I am more used to the notion, and Mr. Wilmot has been so kind. Then I am to see Ave to-morrow, if she is well enough. Henry has promised to bring her, and leave her alone with me; and I do hope--that I shall be able to convince her that it is not so very bad for me--and then she may be able to take comfort. You know she would, if she were nursing me now in my bed at Bankside; so why should she not when she sees that I don't think this any worse, but rather better?'
The Doctor was in no mood to think any comfort possible in thus losing one like Leonard, and he did not commit himself to an untruth. There was a silence again, and Leonard opened his book, and took out his etchings, one which he had already promised the Doctor, another for Aubrey, and at the third the Doctor exclaimed inarticulately with surprise and admiration.
It was a copy of the well-known Cross-bearing Form in the Magdalen College Chapel Altar-piece, drawn in pen and ink on a half-sheet of thick note-paper; but somehow, into the entire Face and Figure there was infused such an expression as now and then comes direct from the soul of the draughtsman--an inspiration entirely independent of manual dexterity, and that copies, however exact, fail to render, nay, which the artist himself fails to renew. The beauty, the meekness, the hidden Majesty of the Countenance, were conveyed in a marvellous manner, and were such as would bring a tear to the eye of the gazer, even had the drawing been there alone to speak for itself.
'This is your doing, Leonard?'
'I have just finished it. It has been one of my greatest comforts--'
'Doing those lines;' and he pointed to the thorny Crown, 'I seem to get ashamed of thinking this hardness. Only think, Dr. May, from the very first moment the policeman took me in charge, nobody has said a rough word to me. I have never felt otherwise than that they meant justice to have its way as far as they knew, but they were all consideration for me. To think of that, and then go over the scoffs and scourgings!'--there was a bright glistening tear in Leonard's eye now--'it seems like child's play to go through such a trial as mine.'
'Yes! you have found the secret of willingness.'
'And,' added the boy, hesitating between the words, but feeling that he must speak them, as the best balm for the sorrow he was causing, 'even my little touch of the shame and scorn of this does make me know better what it must have been, and yet--so thankful when I remember why it was--that I think I could gladly bear a great deal more than this is likely to be.'
'Oh! my boy, I have no fears for you now.'
'Yes, yes--have fears,' cried Leonard, hastily. 'Pray for me! You don't know what it is to wake up at night, and know something is coming nearer and nearer--and then this--before one can remember all that blesses it--or the Night of that Agony--and that He knows what it is--'
'Do we not pray for you?' said Dr. May, fervently, 'in church and at home? and is not this an answer? Am I to take this drawing, Leonard, that speaks so much?'
'If--if you think Miss May--would let me send it to her? Thank you, it will be very kind of her. And please tell her, if it had not been for that time at Coombe, I don't know how I could ever have felt the ground under my feet. If I have one wish that never can be--'
'What wish, my dear, dear boy? Don't be afraid to say. Is it to see her?'
'It was,' said Leonard, 'but I did not mean to say it. I know it cannot be.'
'But, Leonard, she has said that if you wished it, she would come as if you were lying on your bed at home, and with more reverence.'
Large tears of gratitude were swelling in Leonard's eyes, and he pressed the Doctor's hand, but still said, almost inarticulately, 'Ought she?'
'I will bring her, my boy. It will do her good to see how--how her pupil, as they have always called you in joke, Leonard, can be willing to bear the Cross after his Master. She has never let go for a moment the trust that it was well with you.'
'Oh! Dr. May, it was the one thing--and when I had gone against all her wishes. It is so good of her! It is the one thing--' and there was no doubt from his face that he was indeed happy.
And Dr. May went home that day softened and almost cheered, well-nigh as though he had had a promise of Leonard's life, and convinced that in the region to which the spirits of Ethel and her pupil could mount, resignation would silence the wailings of grief and sorrow; the things invisible were more than a remedy for the things visible.
That Ethel should see Leonard before the last, he was quite resolved; and Ethel, finding that so it was, left the when in his hands, knowing the concession to be so great, that it must be met by grateful patience on her own side, treasuring the drawing meanwhile with feelings beyond speech. Dr. May did not wish the meeting to take place till he was really sure that all hope was at an end; he knew it would be a strong measure, and though he did not greatly care for the world in general, he did not want to offend Flora unnecessarily; in matters of propriety she was a little bit of a conscience to him, and though he would brave her or any one else when a thing was right, especially if it were to give one last moment of joy to Leonard, she was not to be set at naught till the utmost extremity.
And for one day, the sight of Averil would be enough. She had struggled into something sufficiently like recovery to be able to maintain her fitness for the exertion; and Henry had recognized that the unsatisfied pining was so preying on her as to hurt her more than the meeting and parting could do, since, little as he could understand how it was, he perceived that Leonard could be depended on for support and comfort. With him, indeed, Leonard had ever shown himself cheerful and resolute, speaking of anything rather than of himself and never grieving him with the sight of those failings of flesh and heart that would break forth where there was more congenial sympathy, yet where they were not a reproach.
So Averil, with many a promise to be 'good,' and strongly impressed with warnings that the chance of another meeting depended on the effects of this one, was laid back in the carriage, leaving poor little Minna to Mary's consolation. Minna was longing to go too, but Henry had forbidden it, and not even an appeal to Dr. May had prevailed; so she was taken home by Mary, and with a child's touching patience, was helped through the weary hours, giving wandering though gentle attention to Ella's eager display of the cariosities of the place, and explanations of the curious games and puzzles taught by 'Mr. Tom.' Ethel, watching the sweet wistful face, and hearing the subdued voice, felt a reverence towards the child, as though somewhat of the shadow of her brother's cross had fallen on her.
The elder brother and sister meanwhile arrived at the building now only too familiar to one of them, and, under her thick veil, unconscious of the pitying looks of the officials, Averil was led, leaning on Henry's arm, along the whitewashed passages, with their slate floors, and up the iron stairs, the clear, hard, light coldness chilling her heart with a sense of the stern, relentless, inevitable grasp in which the victim was held. The narrow iron door flew open at the touch of the turnkey; a hand was on her arm, but all swam round with her, and she only knew it was the well-known voice; she did not follow the words between her brothers and the turnkey about the time she was to be left there, but she gave a start and shudder when the door sprung fast again behind her, and at the same instant she felt herself upheld by an arm round her waist.
'Take off your bonnet, Ave; let me see you,' he said, himself undoing the strings, and removing it, then bending his face to hers for a long, almost insatiable kiss, as they stood strained in one intense embrace, all in perfect silence on the sister's part.
'I have been making ready for you,' he said at length, partly releasing her; 'you are to sit here;' and he deposited her, still perfectly passive in his hands, upon his bed, her back against the wall. 'Put up your feet! There!' And having settled her to his satisfaction, he knelt down on the floor, one arm round her waist, one hand in hers, looking earnestly up into her face, with his soul in his eyes, her other hand resting on his shoulder.
'How are the little ones, Ave?'
'Very well. Minna so longed to come.'
'Better not,' said Leonard; 'she is so little, and these white walls might distress her fancy. They will remember our singing on the last Sunday evening instead. Do you remember, Ave, how they begged to stay on and on till it grew so dark that we could not see a word or a note, and went on from memory?' and he very softly hummed the restful cadence, dying away into
'Till in the ocean of Thy love We lose ourselves in Heaven above.'
'How can you bear to think of those dear happy days!'
'Because you will be glad of them by and by, said Leonard; 'and I am very glad of them now, though they might have been so much better, if only we had known.'
'They were the only happy days of all my life!'
'I hope not--I trust not, dearest. You may and ought to have much better and happier days to come.'
She shook her head, with a look of inexpressible anguish, almost of reproach.
'Indeed I mean it, Ave,' he said; 'I have thought it over many times, and I see that the discomfort and evil of our home was in the spirit of pride and rebellion that I helped you to nurse. It was like a wedge, driving us farther and farther apart; and now that it is gone, and you will close up again, when you are kind and yielding to Henry --what a happy peaceful home you may make out in the prairie land!'
'As if we could ever--'
'Nay, Averil, could not you recover it if I were dying now of sickness? I know you would, though you might not think so at the time. Believe me, then, when I say that I am quite willing to have it as it is--to be my own man to the last--to meet with such precious inestimable kindness from so many. Of course I should like to live longer, and do something worth doing; but if I am to die young, there is so much blessing even in this way, that nothing really grieves me but the thought of you and Henry; and if it makes you one together, even that is made up.'
Awe-struck, and as if dreaming, she did not answer, only smoothing caressingly the long waves of bright brown hair on his forehead. She was surprised by his next question.
'Ave! how has Mrs. Pugh behaved?'
'Oh! the woman! I have hardly thought of her! She has been very active about the petition, somebody said; but I don't believe Henry can bear to hear of her any more than I can. What made you think of her?'
'Because I wanted to know how it was with Henry, and I could not ask him. Poor fellow! Well, Ave, you see he will depend on you entirely for comfort, and you must promise me that shall be your great business and care.'
'How you do think of Henry!' she said, half jealously.
'Of course, Ave. You and I have no past to grieve over together, but poor Henry will never feel free of having left me to my self-willed obstinacy, and let me go to that place. Besides, the disgrace in the sight of the world touches him more, and you can tread that down more easily than he.' Then, in answer to a wondering look, 'Yes, you can, when you recollect that it is crime, not the appearance of it, that is shame. I do not mean that I do not deserve all this--but--but--' and his eye glistened, 'Ave, dear, if I could only bring out the words to tell you how much peace and joy there is in knowing that-- with that vast difference--it is like in some degree what was borne to save us, I really don't think you could go on grieving over me any more; at least not more than for the loss,' he added, tenderly; 'and you'll not miss me so much in a new country, you know, with Henry and the children to take care of. Only promise me to be kind to Henry.'
And having drawn forth a faint promise, that he knew would have more force by and by, Leonard went on, in his low quiet voice, into reminiscences that sounded like random, of the happy days of childhood and early youth, sometimes almost laughing over them, sometimes linking his memory as it were to tune or flower, sport or study, but always for joy, and never for pain; and thus passed the time, with long intervals of silent thought and recollection on his part, and of a sort of dreamy stupor on his sister's, during which the strange peaceful hush seemed to have taken away her power of recalling the bitter complaints of cruel injustice, and the broken- hearted lamentations she had imagined herself pouring out in sympathy with her victim brother. Instead of being wrung with anguish, her heart was lulled and quelled by wondering reverence; and she seemed to herself scarcely awake, and only dimly conscious of the pale- cheeked bright-eyed face upturned to her, so calm and undaunted, yet so full of awe and love, the low steady tender voice, and the warm upholding arm.
A great clock struck, and Leonard said, 'There! they were to come at four, and then the chaplain is coming. He is grown so very kind now! Ave, if they would let you be with me at my last Communion! Will you? Could you bear it? I think then you would know all the peace of it!'
'Oh, yes! make them let me come.'
'Then it is not good-bye,' he said, as he fetched her bonnet and cloak, and put them on with tender hands, as if she were a child, in readiness as steps approached, and her escort reappeared.
'Here she is, Henry,' he said, with a smile. 'She has been very good; she may come again.' And then, holding her in his arms once more, he resigned her to Henry, saying, 'Not good-bye, Ave; we will keep my birthday together.'
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