LIFE IN LONDON
OR, THE PITFALLS OF A GREAT CITY
BY EDWIN HODDER, ESQ.
I. THE INTRODUCTION
II. SCHOOL-BOY DAYS
III. STARTING WELL
IV. MEETING A SCHOOL-FELLOW
V. A FARCE
VI. THE LECTURE
VII. GETTING ON IN THE WORLD
VIII. A TEST OF FRIENDSHIP
IX. IN EXILE
X. MAKING DISCOVERIES
XI. THE SICK CHAMBER
Breathless and excited, George Weston came running down a street in Islington. He knocked at the door of No. 16, and in his impatience, until it was opened, commenced a tattoo with his knuckles upon the panels.
"Oh, mother, mother, I have got such splendid news!" he cried, as he hurried down stairs into the room where Mrs. Weston, with her apron on and sleeves tucked up, was busy in her domestic affairs. "Such splendid news!" repeated George. "I have been down to Mr. Compton's with the letter Uncle Henry gave me, in which he said I wanted a situation, and should be glad if Mr. Compton could help me; and, sure enough, I was able to see him, and he is such a kind, fatherly old gentlemen, mother. I am sure I shall like him."
"Well, George, and what did he say!"
"Oh! I've got ever so much to tell you, before I come to that part. The office, you know, is in Falcon Court, Fleet Street; such a dismal place, with the houses all crammed together, and a little space in front, not more than large enough to turn a baker's bread-truck in. All the windows are of ground glass, as if the people inside were too busy to see out, or to be seen; and on every door there are lots of names of people who have their offices there, and some of them are actually right up at the top storeys of the houses. Well, I found out the name of Mr. Compton, and I tapped at a door where 'Clerk's Office' was written. I think I ought not to have tapped, but to have gone in, for somebody said rather sharply, 'Come in,' and in I went. An old gentleman was standing beside a sort of counter, with a lot of heavy books on it, and he asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to see Mr. Compton, and had got a letter for him. He told me to sit down until Mr. Compton was disengaged, and then he would see me."
"And what sort of an office was it, George? And who was the old gentleman? The manager, I suppose!"
"I think he was, because he seemed to do as he liked, and all the clerks talked in a whisper while he was there. I had to wait more than half-an-hour, and I was able to look round and see all that was going on. It is a large office, and there were ten clerks seated on uncomfortable high stools, without backs, poring over books and papers. I don't think I shall like those clerks, they stared at me so rudely, and I felt so ashamed, because one looked hard at me, and then whispered to another: and I believe they were saying something about my boots, which you know, mother, are terribly down at heel, and so I put one foot over the other, to try and hide them."
"There was no need of that, George. It did not alter the fact that they were down at heel; and there is no disgrace in being clothed only as respectable as we can afford, is there?"
"Not a bit, mother: and I feel so vexed with myself because I knew I turned red, which made the two clerks smile. But I must go on telling you what else I saw. The old gentleman seems quite a character—he is nearly bald, has got no whiskers, wears a big white neckcloth and a tail coat, and takes snuff every five minutes out of a silver box. Whether he knows it or not, the clerks are very rude to him: for when he took snuff, one of them sneezed, or pretended to sneeze, every time, and another snuffled, as if he were taking snuff too."
"That certainly does not speak well for the clerks," said Mrs. Weston. "Old gentlemen do have peculiar ways sometimes, but it is not right for young people to ridicule them."
"No, it is not; and I don't like to see people do a thing behind another one's back they are afraid to do before his face. When the clerks had to speak to the old gentleman, they were as civil as possible, and said, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir,' to him so meekly, as if they were quite afraid of him; but after a little while, when he took up his hat and went out, they all began talking and laughing out loud, although when he was there, they had only occasionally spoken in low whispers. There was only one young man, out of the whole lot, who did not join with them, but kept at his work; and I thought if I got a situation in that office, I should try and make friends with him."
"That's right, George. I would rather you should not have a situation at all, than get mixed up with bad companions. But go on, I am so anxious to hear what Mr. Compton said."
"Well, after half-an-hour, I heard a door in the next room close, and a table-bell touched, and then the old gentleman, who had by this time returned, went in Presently he came out again, and said Mr. Compton would see me. Oh, mother! I felt so funny, you don't know. My mouth got quite dry, my face flushed, and I couldn't think whatever I should say, I felt just as I did that day at the school examination, when I had to make one of the prize speeches. But I got all to rights directly I saw Mr. Compton. He said, 'Good morning to you—be seated,' in such a nice way, that I felt at home with him at once."
"And what did you say to him, George?"
"I had learnt by heart what I was going to say, but in the hurry I had forgotten every word. So I said, 'My name is—' (it's a wonder I did not say Norval, for I felt a bit bewildered at the sound of my own voice) '—my name is George Weston, sir, and I have brought you a letter from my uncle, Mr. Henry Brunton, who knows you, I think.' 'Oh! yes," he said, 'he knows me very well; and, if I mistake not, this letter is about you, for he was talking to me about a nephew the other day.' Isn't that just like Uncle Henry?—he never said anything about that to us, but he is so good and kind, we are always finding out some of his generous actions, about which he never speaks. While Mr. Compton was reading the letter, I had leisure to look at him, and at his room. He is such a fine-looking old man, just like that picture we saw in the Academy, last year, of the village squire. He looks as if he were very benevolent and kind-hearted, and he dresses just like some of the country gentlemen, with a dark green coat and velvet collar, a frill shirt, and a little bit of buf. waistcoat seen under his coat, which he keeps buttoned. He had got lots of books, and papers, and files about, and sat hi an arm-chair so cosily—in fact, I should not have thought that nice carpeted room was really an office, if it had not been for the ground-glass windows. Just as I was thinking why it was the glorious sunshine is not admitted into offices, Mr. Compton said—"
"What did he say, George? I have waited so patiently to hear."
"He said, 'Well, Mr. Weston,'—(he did really call me Mr. Weston, mother; I suppose he took me for a young man: it is evident he did not know I was wearing a stick-up shirt collar for the first time in my life)—'I have read this letter, and am inclined to think I may be able to do something for you.' That put my 'spirits up,' as poor father used to say; and I said, 'I'm very glad to hear it, Sir.' So then he told me that he wanted a junior clerk in his office, who could write quickly, be brisk at accounts, and make himself generally useful, as the advertisements in the Times say. I told him I could do all these things; and he passed me a sheet of paper, to give him a specimen of my handwriting. I hardly knew what to write, but I fixed upon a passage of Scripture, 'Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.' My hand was so shaky, that all the letters with tails to them had the queerest flourishes you ever saw. Mr. Compton smiled when I handed him the sheet of paper—I don't know whether it was at the writing, or at the quotation, and I wished I had written a passage from Seneca instead!"
"You did not feel ashamed at having written a part of God's word, did you, George?"
"No, not ashamed, mother; but I thought it was not business-like, and seemed too much like a schoolboy."
"I think it was very business-like. It would convey the idea that you would seek to do your business from the best and highest motives. But what did Mr. Compton say?"
"He only said he thought the handwriting was good. Then he told me that he would take me as his clerk, and should expect me to be at my post next Monday morning, at nine o'clock. 'And now,' he said, 'we must fix upon a salary; and as your uncle has told me that you are anxious to maintain yourself, I will give you a weekly sum sufficient for that purpose; and if you give me satisfaction, I will raise it yearly.' And what do you think he offered me, mother?"
"I really do not know; perhaps, as you are young, and have never been in a situation before, he said five shillings a week, although I did not think you would get any salary at all for the first six months."
"No, mother, more than five shillings; guess again," said George, his face shining with excited delight.
"Then I will guess seven and sixpence a week," said his mother, doubtfully, for she thought she had gone too high.
"More than that, mother; guess only once more, for I cannot keep it in if you are not very quick."
"Then I shall say ten shillings a week, George; but I am afraid I have guessed too much."
"No, mother, under the mark again. I am to have ten shillings and sixpence—half a guinea a week! Isn't that splendid? Only fancy, Mr. George Weston, Junior Clerk to Mr. Compton, at half-a-guinea a week! My fortune is made; and, depend upon it, mother, we shall get on in the world now, first-rate. Why, I shall only want—say, half-a-crown a week for myself, and then there will be all the rest for you. Now don't you think blind-eyed Fortune must have dropped her bandage this morning, and have spied me out?"
"No, George; but I think that kind Providence; which has always smiled upon us when we have been in the greatest difficulties, has once more shown us that all our ways are in the hands of One who doeth all things well."
"So do I, mother; and I do hope that this success, which has attended my journey this morning, may turn out to our real good. I feel it will—we shall be able to go on now so swimmingly, and I shall be getting a footing in the world, so that by-and-bye we shan't have a single debt, or a single care, and you will be growing younger as fast as I grow older: and then, after a time, we will get a little house in the country, and finish up our days the happiest couple in the British dominions."
For the remainder of that day, poor George was in a regular whirl of excitement. A thousand schemes were afloat in his mind about the future, of the most improbable kind. His income of half-a-guinea a week was to do wonders, which were never accomplished by half a score of guineas. He speculated about the rise in his salary at the end of the year, which he was determined, if it rested upon his own industry, should not be less than a pound a week; and then he forgot the first year, and commenced calculating what he could do, with his increased salary, till, at last, worn out with scheming, he said,—
"Money is a great bother, after all, mother. I've been calculating all this day how we can spend my salary; and I am really more perplexed than if Mr. Compton had said I should not have anything for the first six months. I can't make ends meet if I attempt to do what I have planned, that's very certain; so I shall quietly wait till the first Saturday night comes, and I feel the half-guinea in my hand, and then I shall better realize what it is worth."
That was a pleasant evening Mrs. Weston and George spent together in discussing the events of the day, and when it became time to separate for the night, she said—
"This is one of the happiest days we have spent for a long time, George. How your poor father would have enjoyed sharing it with us!" and the widow sighed.
"Mother," said George, "I have thought of poor father so many times to-day, and I have formed a resolution which I mean to try and keep. He was a good man. I don't think he ever did anything really wrong—and I recollect so well what he used to tell me, when I was a boy"—(George had jumped into manhood in a day, he fancied)—"I mean to take him for a model; and if I find myself placed in dangers and difficulties, I shall always ask myself, 'What would father have done if he had been in this case?' and then I should try and do as he would."
"May you have strength given to you, my deal boy, to carry out every good resolution! But remember, there is a model which must be taken even before that of your father. I mean the pure, sinless example of our Lord; follow this, and adhere to the plain directions of God's word, and you cannot go wrong. And now, good night; God bless you, my son!"
It was a long time before George went to sleep; again and again the events of the day came to his memory, and he travelled in thought far into the future, peering through the mist which hung over unborn time, and weighing circumstances which might never have a being.
"I shall be quite accustomed to my duties by next Monday," he said to his mother in the morning; "for I was all night long busy in the office, counting money, posting books, and when I awoke I was just signing a deed of partnership in the name of Compton and Weston."
George Weston was an only son, and, at the time our story commences, was nearly seventeen years of age. His early years had been spent at home, under the watchful care of kind and good parents. When he was ten years old he was sent to a boarding school at Folkestone, and placed in the charge of Dr. Seaward, a good man, who superintended his education, and, besides imparting secular instruction, endeavoured to train his character and make him good as well as clever. George was a sharp, shrewd boy, a keen observer, who would know the why and the wherefore of everything, and his lessons always came to him more as an amusement than a task. He had a horror of being low down in his class, and if he did not retain his place at the top, it was rarely through inattention or want of study on his part.
George was a great favourite with the whole school; he was a merry, joyous fellow, who always had sunshine in his face and a kind word on his lips; a ringleader in any harmless fun, and a champion on the side of all the younger boys who met with oppression or injustice from the elder classes. At cricket or football, swimming or boating, George had few superiors; and as he was one of those boys who seem determined, whatever they do, to do it with all their might, he went heart and soul into all the spoils with such a zest and earnestness that he acquired the name of the "Indefatigable." Nor did this name merely apply to his zeal in sports. There was not in the whole school a more diligent student than George: there was for him "a time to work and a time to play," and he never allowed one to trespass upon the other. He would rather go without a game at cricket for a fortnight than be behindhand in one of his lessons. The boys would laugh at him for this, but George could bear to be laughed at on such points, because he knew he was in the right. "I came to school to learn," he would say, "and I don't see any fun in making my parents pay heavy fees for me every year to play cricket at the expense of study." Every boy knew there was wisdom in this, and they secretly admired George for it, although it condemned their own conduct, more especially when they had to go to him not unfrequently, and say, "Weston, I shall get in a scrape with these lessons to-morrow, unless you can help me a bit with them. Do give me a leg up, that's a good fellow!" and though George never said "No," he did sometimes take an opportunity to say, "If you did not waste so much time in play, you might be independent of any help that I can give."
It was a source of great pleasure to his parents to hear from time to time, through Dr. Seaward, some good account of his conduct; and when he returned home at the holiday seasons, generally laden with prizes which he had victoriously borne off, they did not feel a little proud of their only son.
George remained at the school at Folkestone for five years, during which time he rose from the lowest to the highest form. It was the intention of his parents then to place him in a college for a year or two, in order to give him in opportunity to complete his education, and have the means to make a good start in life. But this purpose was frustrated by an event which happened only a month before George was to have been removed.
One day, when all the boys were out in the playfield, busily engaged in marking out boundaries for a game at hockey, Dr. Seaward was seen coming from the house towards the field. This was an unusual event, as he rarely interfered with them during play hours. "Something's up," said the boys; and waited expectantly until the Doctor came up to them.
"Call George Weston," said he; "I want to speak to him."
"Weston! George Weston!" shouted one or two at once; and George came running up, nothing abashed, for he knew he had done nothing wrong.
"George," said the Doctor, laying a hand on his shoulder, "I want you to come with me; I have something to tell you;" and they walked together away from the field.
"What is it, sir? You look pained: I hope I have done nothing to offend you?"
"No, George," replied the Doctor; "few lads have ever given me so little cause of offence at any time as you have. But I am pained. I have some sad news to tell you."
"Sad news for me, sir? Oh, do tell me at once. Is anything the matter at home?"
"Yes, George; a messenger has just arrived to say that your father has met with a serious accident; he has been thrown from his chaise, and is much hurt. The messenger is your uncle, Mr. Brunton; and he desires you to return at once to London with him."
George waited to hear no more; he bounded away from the Doctor, cleared the fence which enclosed the garden at a leap, and rushed into the room where Mr. Brunton was anxiously awaiting him. No tear stood in his eye; but he was dreadfully pale, and his hands trembled like aspen leaves. "Oh, uncle!" was all he could say; and, throwing himself into a chair, he covered his face with his hands.
"Come, George, my boy," said Mr. Brunton, tenderly; "do not give way to distress. Your poor father is seriously hurt, but he is yet alive. We have just half an hour to catch the train."
That was enough for George; in a moment he was calm and collected, ran up to his room to make a few hasty arrangements, and in five minutes was again with his uncle prepared for the journey.
"Good-bye, Dr. Seaward," he said as he left the house.
"God bless you, my young friend," said the kind-hearted Doctor; "and grant that you may find His providence better than your fears."
George thought he had never known the train go so slowly as it did during that long, wearisome journey to London. At last it arrived at the terminus, and then, jumping into a cab, they were hurried away towards Stamford Hill as quickly as the horse could travel.
"Now, George," said Mr. Brunton, as they came near their journey's end, "we know not what may have happened while we have been coming here. Be a man, and recollect there is one who suffers more than you."
"Do not fear, uncle. I will not add to my mother's grief," was all he could reply.
We will not pry into that interview between mother and son when they first met; there is a grief too solemn for a stranger's eye.
Mr. Weston was still alive, and that was all that could be said. The doctors had pronounced his case beyond human skill, and had intimated that there were but a few hours for him on earth.
As George stood beside the bed of his dying father, the tears which had been long pent up came pouring thick and fast down his cheek.
"Don't give way to sorrow, George," said his father, in a low voice, for he had difficulty in speaking; "it will be only a little while before we meet again; for what is life but a vapour, which soon vanisheth away?"
"Oh, father, it is so sudden, so sudden!" sobbed George.
"Therefore, my boy, remember that at all times there is but a step between us and death; and if for us to live is Christ, then to die is gain. Make that your motto through life, my dear boy, 'For me to live is Christ.'"
That night the silver cord was loosed, the golden bowl was broken, and the spirit of Mr. Weston returned to God who gave it. "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints."
Never did a mother more realize the joy of possessing the unbounded love of an affectionate son, than did Mrs. Weston during those melancholy days between the death and the funeral of her husband, "Cheer up, dear mother," he would say; "God is the father of the fatherless, and the husband of the widow, and did not He say 'to die is gain'?"
George and Mr. Brunton followed the remains of the good man to their last resting-place; and then the body was lowered to the grave "in the sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection."
Mr. Weston had not been a rich man, nor had he been a far-seeing, provident man. He had moved in comfortable circumstances, with an income only sufficient to pay his way in the world, and had made but scanty provision for the future. At the time of his sudden death, his affairs were in anything but a satisfactory state; and it was found that it would be impossible for his widow to live in the same comfortable style she had formerly done.
After all his accounts were wound up, it was seen that she would only have a sufficient sum of money, even if invested in the best possible manner, to keep her in humble circumstances. She determined therefore to leave her house at Stamford Hill, and take a smaller one in Islington, and let some of the rooms to boarders.
Mr. Brunton acted the part of a kind brother in all her difficulties; he was never wearied in advising her, and on him principally devolved all the necessary arrangements for her removal. Everything he did was with such delicacy and refinement that, although his hand was daily and hourly felt, it was never seen.
One evening, shortly before leaving the locality in which they had lived so many years, George and his mother walked together to the cemetery where Mr. Weston had been buried, to pay a farewell visit to that hallowed spot. They had been too much reduced in circumstances to have a stone placed over the grave where he lay, and they were talking about it as they journeyed along, saying, how the very first money they could afford should be expended for that purpose. What was their surprise to find a handsome stone raised above the spot, bearing these words:—
Sacred to the Memory of MR. GEORGE WESTON, Who departed this life, Feb. 18th, 18—, aged 46 years.
* * * * *
"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
Tears of grateful joy stood in their eyes as they recognized another token of the kind, tender love of Mr. Brunton.
The bereavement and change of fortune were borne by the widow with that fortitude which is only shown by the true Christian. It was hard, very hard, to begin the world again; to be denied the pleasure of allowing George to go to college and complete his studies; and to bear the struggles and inconveniences of poverty. But Mrs. Weston knew that vain regrets would never alter the case; the Lord had given, the Lord had taken away, and from her heart she could say cheerfully, "Blessed be the name of the Lord."
George had not been idle. Every hour in which he was not occupied for or with his mother, he was diligently engaged in prosecuting his studies, and preparing himself for the time when he should be able to procure a situation. Mr. Brunton had not been anxious for him to enter upon one at once; he knew how lonely the widow would be without her son, and therefore he did not take any steps to obtain for George a situation. But when a twelvemonth had passed, and the keenness of sorrow had worn off, he mentioned the matter to his friend Mr. Compton; with what success we have seen in the first chapter.
Never did days drag along more heavily than those which elapsed between the interview with Mr. Compton, and the morning when George was to enter upon his new duties. Every day the office was a subject of much conversation; and neither George nor his mother ever seemed to weary in talking over his plans and purposes. George wrote a long letter to Mr. Brunton, telling him of the successful issue of his application to Mr. Compton, and thanking him in the most hearty way for all his kindness. The next day Mr. Brunton replied to George's letter as follows:—
"MY DEAR NEPHEW,
"I am delighted to hear that you have obtained an appointment, and that you seem so well satisfied with your prospects. May you find it to be for your good in every way. Remember, you are going into new scenes, and will be surrounded with many dangers and temptations to which you have hitherto been a stranger. Seek to be strong against everything that is evil; aim at the highest mark, and press towards it. Much of your future depends upon how you begin—therefore begin well; hold yourself aloof from everything with which your conscience tells you you should not be associated, and then all your bright dreams may, I hope, be fully realized.
"I shall hope to be with you for an hour or two on Sunday evening.
"You will have some unavoidable expenses to incur before entering upon your duties, and will require a little pocket-money. Accept the enclosed cheque, with the love of
"Your affectionate Uncle,
George's eyes sparkled with delight as he read the letter; and found the enclosure to be a cheque for five pounds. This was a great treasure and relief to him, for he had thought many times about his boots, which were down at heel, and his best coat, which shone a good deal about the elbows, and showed symptoms of decay in the neighbourhood of the button-holes.
A new suit of clothes and a pair of boots were therefore purchased at once, and when Sunday morning came, and George dressed himself in them, and stood ready to accompany his mother to the house of God, she thought (although, of course, she did not say so) that she had never seen a more handsome and gentlemanly-looking youth than her son.
"Mother," said George, as they walked along, "what a treat the Sunday will always be now, after being pent up in the office all the week. I shall look forward to it with such pleasure, not only for the sake of its rest, but because I shall have a whole day with you."
"The Sabbath is, indeed, a boon," replied Mrs. Weston, "when it is made a rest-day for the soul, as well as for the body. You remember those lines I taught you, when you were quite another fellow, before you went to school, do you not?—
"'A Sunday well spent brings a week of content And health for the toils of the morrow; But a Sabbath profaned, whatsoe'er may be gained, Is a certain forerunner of sorrow.'"
"Yes, mother, I remember them; and capital lines they are. Dr. Seaward once said, 'Strike the key-note of your tune incorrectly, and the whole song will be inharmonious;' so, if the Sabbath is improperly spent, the week will generally be like it."
That morning the preacher took for his text the beautiful words in Isaiah xli. 10, "Fear thou not, for I am with thee: be not dismayed, for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee—yea, I will help thee yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness." These words came like the sound of heavenly music into the soul of the widow; and she prayed, with the fervency a mother alone can pray for a beloved and only son, that the time might speedily come when he would be able to appropriate these words, and realize, in the true sense of the term, God as his Father. For George, although he had from early infancy been brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and had learnt to love holiness from so constantly seeing its beauty exemplified by his parents, had not yet undergone that one great change which creates the soul anew in Christ Jesus.
Mr. Brunton arrived in the evening, just as Mrs. Weston and George were starting out to the second service, and so they all went together to the same place. The minister, an excellent man, who felt the responsibility of his office, and took every opportunity of doing good, was in the habit of giving four sermons a year especially to young men, and it so happened that on this evening one of these discourses was to be delivered. Nothing could have been more appropriate to a young man just starting out in life than his address. The text was taken from those solemn, striking words of the wise man, "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not."
He spoke of the powerful influences continually at work to allure young travellers along life's journey into the snares and pitfalls of sin, and pointed to God's armoury, and the refuge from all the wiles of the adversary.
As the trio sat round the supper-table that evening, discussing the events of the day, George said—
"I feel very glad that this Sunday has come before I go to Mr. Compton's. I thought, when the text was given out this evening, that the minister had prepared his sermon especially for me. I have no doubt all he said was quite true; and so, being prepared, I shall be able to be on my guard against the evils which he says are common to those who make their first start in life."
When Mr. Brunton rose to leave that night, he took George aside; and, laying his hand on his shoulder, said—
"George, I am glad you have got your appointment, my boy; but I am sorry, for some reasons, that it is in Mr. Compton's office, for I have made inquiries about the clerks there, and I regret to find that they are not the set of young men I should have liked you to be with. Now, I want you to make me a promise. If ever you are placed in critical circumstances, or dangers, or difficulties (I say if, because I do not know why you should, but if you are), be sure and come to me. Tell me, as you always have done, honestly and openly, your difficulty, and you will always find in me one willing to advise and assist you. Will you promise?"
"With all my heart I will, uncle; and thank you, too, for this, and all your interests on my account."
"Good-bye, then, George. Go on and prosper; and God bless you."
Punctually at nine o'clock on Monday morning, George was at the office. Mr. Sanders, the manager (the old gentleman whom George had seen on his first visit), introduced him to the clerks by saying—
"This is Mr. George Weston, our new junior;" and George, with his face all aglow, made a general bow in return to the salutations which were given him.
"This is to be your seat," said Mr. Sanders; "and that peg is for your hat. And now, as you would, no doubt, like to begin at once, here is a document I want copied."
George was glad to have something to do; he felt all eyes were upon him, and the whispered voices of the clerks rather grated upon his ears. He took up his pen, and began to write; but he found his hand shaky, and he was so confused that, after he had written half a page, and found he had made two or three blunders, he was obliged to take a fresh sheet, and begin again.
"Take your time," said Mr. Sanders, who noticed his dilemma; "you will get on right enough by-and-bye, when you are more accustomed to the place and the work."
George felt relieved by this; and making up his mind to try and forget all around him, he set to work busily again, and in an hour or two had finished the job.
"I have done this, sir," he said, taking it to Mr. Sanders. "What shall I do next?"
"We will just examine it, and then you may take it into Mr. Compton's room. After that you can go and get your dinner, and be back again in an hour."
The document was examined, and, to the surprise of George and Mr. Sanders, not one mistake was found. "Come, this is beginning well," said the manager; "we shall soon make a clerk of you, I see."
When George went into Mr. Compton's room, and presented the papers, he was again rewarded with an encouraging commendation. "This is very well written—very well written indeed, and shows great painstaking," he said.
George felt he could have shaken hands with both principal and manager for those few words. "How cheap a kind word is," he thought, "to those who give it; but it is more precious than gold to the receiver. I like these two men; and, if I can manage it, they shall like me too."
George had not as yet exchanged a word with any of the clerks; but as he was leaving the office to go to dinner, one of them was going out at the same time, on the same errand.
"Well, Mr. Weston, you find it precious dull, don't you, cooped up in your den?"
"Do you mean the office?" said George.
"Yes; what else should I mean?"
"It seems a comfortable office enough," said George, "and not particularly dull; but I have not had sufficient experience in it to judge."
"You see, that old ogre (I beg his pardon, I mean old Sanders) takes jolly good care there shall be no flinching from work while he's there, and it makes a fellow deuced tired, pegging away all day long."
"If this is a specimen of the clerks," thought George, "Uncle Brunton was not far wrong when he said they were not a very good set."
"From what I have seen of Mr. Sanders," he said, "I think him a very nice man! and as for work, I always thought that was what clerks were engaged to do, and therefore it is their duty to do it, whether under the eye of the manager or not."
George got this sentence out with some difficulty. He felt it was an aggressive step, and did not doubt it would go the round of the office as a tale against him.
"Ugh!" said the clerk; "you've got a thing or two to learn yet, I see. You must surely be fresh and green from the country; but such notions soon die out. I don't like to be personal though, so we'll change the subject. Where are you going to dine? Most of our chaps patronize the King's Head—first-rate place; get anything you like in two twinklings of a lamb's tail. I'm going there now; will you go? By the way, I should have told you before this that my name is Williams."
"I suppose, Mr. Williams,' the King's Head is a tavern? If so, I prefer a coffee-house; but thank you, notwithstanding, for your offer."
"By George! that's a rum start. Our chaps all hate coffee-shops, with the exception of young Hardy, and he's coming round to our tastes now. You can get a good feed at the King's Head—stunning tackle in the shape of beer, and meet a decent set of fellows who know how to crack a joke at table; whereas, if you go to a coffee-shop, you have an ugly slice of meat set before you, a jorum of tea leaves and water, or some other mess, and a disagreeable set of people around. Now, which is best?"
"Your description is certainly unfavourable in the latter case; but I do not suppose all coffeehouses are alike, and therefore I shall try one to-day. Good morning."
George soon found a nice-looking quiet place where he could dine, and felt sure he had no need to go to taverns for better accommodation.
When he returned to the office, at two o'clock, Mr. Sanders was absent, and the clerks were busily engaged, not at work, but in conversation. Mr. Williams was the principal speaker, and seemed to have something very choice to communicate. George made no doubt that he was the subject of conversation, for he had caught one or two words as he entered, which warranted the supposition. He had nothing to do until Mr. Sanders returned; this was an opportunity, therefore, for Mr. Williams to make himself officious.
"Mr. Weston," he said, "allow me to do the honours of the office by introducing you, in a more definite manner than that old ——, I mean than Mr. Sanders did this morning. This gentleman is Mr. Lawson, this is Mr. Allwood, this is Mr. Malcolm, and this my young friend, Mr. Charles Hardy, who is of a serious turn of mind, and is meditating entering the ministry, or the undertaking line."
A laugh at Hardy's expense was the result of this attempt at jocularity on the part of Mr. Williams. George hardly knew how to acknowledge these introductions; but, turning to Charles Hardy, he said,—
"As Mr. Williams has so candidly mentioned your qualities, Mr. Hardy, perhaps you will favour me with a description of his."
Hardy rose from his seat, for up to this time he had been engaged in writing, and, in a tone of mock gravity, replied,
"This is Mr. Williams, who lives at the antipodes of everything that is quiet or serious, whose mission to the earth seems expressly to turn everything he touches into a laugh. He is not a 'youth to fortune and to fame unknown,' for in the archives of the King's Head his name is emblazoned in imperishable characters."
"Well said, Hardy!" said one or two at once. "Now, Williams, you are on your mettle, old boy; stand true to your colours, and transmute the sentence into a joke in self-defence."
Williams was on the point of replying when Mr. Sanders entered. In an instant all the clerks pretended to be up to their eyes in business; each had his book or papers to hand as if by magic; whether upside down or not was immaterial.
But George Weston stood where he was; he could not condescend to so mean an imposition, and he felt pleased to see that Charles Hardy, unlike the others, made no attempt to hide the fact that he had been engaged in conversation, instead of continuing at his work.
At six o'clock the day's duties were over; and George felt not a little pleased when the hour struck, and Mr. Sanders told him he could go. Hardy was leaving just at the same time, and so they went out together.
"Are you going anywhere in my direction?" said Hardy; "I live at Canonbury."
"Indeed!" replied George; "I'm glad to hear that, for I live at Islington, close by you. If you are willing, we will bear one another company, for I want to ask you one or two questions;" and taking Hardy's arm, the two strolled homewards together.
Now George would never have thought of walking arm in-arm with Mr. Williams, or any of the other clerks; but, from the first time he saw Hardy, and noticed his quiet, gentlemanly manners, he felt sure he should like him. Hardy, too, had evidently taken a fancy to George; and therefore both felt pleased that accident had brought them together. Accident? No, that is a wrong word; whenever a heart feels that there is another heart beating like its own, and those two hearts go out one towards the other, until they become knit together in the bonds of friendship, there is something more than accident in that.
"How long have you been in Mr. Compton's office?" said George, as they walked along,
"Nearly two years," he replied; "I went there as soon as I left school. I was then about seventeen years old; and there I have been ever since."
"Then you are my senior by two years," said George. "I left school a year ago, and this is my first situation. How do you like the office?"
"Do you mean my particular seat, the clerks, or the duties, or all combined?"
"I should like to know how you like the whole combined."
"I prefer my desk to yours, because I sit next to Mr. Malcolm, who is one of the steadiest and most respectable clerks in the office; and therefore I am not subject to so much annoyance as you will be, seated next to that empty-headed Williams, and coarse low-minded Lawson. I do not really like any of the clerks; there are none of them the sort of young men I should choose as companions. As to the duties, they are agreeable enough, and I have nothing to find fault with on that score."
"I tell you candidly," said George, "I am not prepossessed in favour of the clerks; they are far too 'fast' a set to please me; but I am very glad, for my own sake, that you are in the office, Mr. Hardy."
"Because, although we are almost strangers at present, I know I shall find in you some one who will be companionable. You don't seem very thick with the others; you don't join with them in that mean practice of shirking work directly Mr. Sanders's back is turned; and you don't, from what I have heard, approve of the society at the King's Head, in which the others seem to take so much delight. Now, in these points, I think, our tastes are similar."
"Ah! Mr. Weston," said Hardy, "you will find, as I have done, that amongst such a set we are obliged to allow a great many things we do not approve. But I'm very glad you have come amongst us; unity is strength, you know, and two can make a better opposition than one. Now, will you let me give you a hint?"
"Certainly," said George.
"Be on your guard with Lawson and Williams; they are two dangerous young men, and can do no end of mischief, because they are double-faced—sneaking sometimes, and bullying at others. I don't know whether you have heard that you are filling a vacancy caused by one of our clerks leaving the office in disgrace. It is not worth while my telling you the story now, but that poor chap would never have left in the way he did, had it not been for Lawson and Williams."
"Many thanks, Mr. Hardy, for your information and advice, upon which I will endeavour to act. And now, as our roads lay differently, we must say good evening."
"Adieu, then, till to-morrow," said Hardy. "By-the-bye, I pass this road in the morning, at half-past eight; if you are here we will walk to the office together."
It took George the whole of the evening to give his mother a full account of the day's proceedings; there were so many questions to ask on her part, and so many descriptions to give on his, and such a number of events occurred during the day, that it seemed as if he had at least a week's experience to narrate.
"I like Hardy, mother," said George, once or twice during the evening; "he is such a thorough open-hearted fellow, and I know we shall get along together capitally."
"I hope so, my boy," said his mother; "but be very careful how you form any other friendships."
When Mrs. Western retired to her room for the night, it was not to sleep. She felt anxious and uneasy about George; she thought of him as the loving, gentle child, the merry, light-hearted boy, and the manly, conscientious youth. Then she thought of the future. How would he stand against the evil influences surrounding him? Would his frank, ingenuous manner change, and the confidence he always reposed in her cease? Would he be led away by the gay and thoughtless young men with whom he would be associated?
Tears gathered in the widow's eyes, and many a sigh sounded in that quiet room; but Mrs. Weston had a Friend at hand, to whom she could go and pour out all her anxieties. She would cast her burden on Him, for she knew He cared for her. As she knelt before the mercy-seat, these were her prayers:—
"Lord, create in him a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within him. May he remember Thee in the days of his youth. Heavenly Father, lead him not into temptation, but deliver him from evil Guide him by Thy counsel, and lead him in the paths of righteousness, for Thy Name's sake."
MEETING A SCHOOL-FELLOW.
Six months passed rapidly away. George continued to give satisfaction to Mr. Compton, soon learnt the office routine, and earned the warmest expressions of approbation from Mr. Sanders, who said he was the best junior clerk he ever remembered to have entered that office.
George had carefully guarded against forming any kind of intimacy with the other clerks; he had declined to have more to say to them during office hours than possible, and when business was over he purposely shunned them. But a strong friendship had sprung up between him and Charles Hardy; every morning they came to the city together, and returned in company in the evening. Sometimes George would spend an evening at the house of Hardy's parents, and Hardy, in like manner, would occasionally spend an evening with George.
Williams and Lawson had, as Hardy predicted, been a source of great annoyance to George. He was constantly obliged to bear their ridicule because he would not conform to their habits, and sometimes the insults he received were almost beyond his power of endurance. He and Hardy received the name of the "Siamese youths," and were generally greeted with such salutations as "How d'ye do? Is mamma pretty well?"—or something equally galling. But George bore it all with exemplary patience, and he did not doubt that after a while they would grow tired of annoying him. At all events, he felt certain some new policy would be adopted by them; for he had so risen in the estimation of his employer, who began to repose confidence in him, and entrust him with more important matters than he allowed the others to interfere with, that George anticipated the time when the clerks would either be glad to curry favour with him, or at least have to acknowledge that he was regarded more highly than they were.
So matters went on. Mrs. Weston was full of joy as she saw how well George had kept his resolutions, and full of hope that he would continue as he had begun.
Mr. Brunton had given him many kind encouragements during this time, and had felt himself well rewarded for all his trouble on George's behalf by hearing from Mr. Compton of the satisfaction his services had given.
And now an event occurred, simple and unimportant in itself, and yet it was one that affected the whole of George's after-life.
One evening, as he was leaving the office, and had just turned into Fleet-street, a nice-looking, fashionably-dressed young man came running up, and, clapping him on the shoulder, exclaimed,
"What! George Weston, my old pippin, who ever thought of turning you up in London!"
"Harry Ashton! my old school-chum, how are you?" and the two friends shook hands with a heartiness that surprised the passers-by.
"Where ever have you been to, all these long years, George?" said Aston; "only fancy, we have never seen each other since that day we were playing hockey at dear old Dr. Seaward's, and you were hastily called away to London. The Doctor told us the sad news, and we all felt for you deeply, old fellow; in fact I never recollect the place having been so gloomy before or since."
"It was a sad time for me," said George; "and after that I lived at home for a twelvemonth. Then I got an appointment in an office in Falcon-court, and have held it just six months. Now, tell me where you have sprung from, and where you have been since I last saw you?"
"I stayed only six months longer at Dr. Seaward's and was then articled to a surveyor in the Strand, with whom I have been nearly a year, and now I am bound for my lodgings, and you must come with me."
"You had better come with me," said George; "my mother will be so pleased to welcome an old school-fellow of mine, and she is not altogether a stranger to you."
"Thank you, old fellow," replied Ashton; "I shall be very glad to accept your invitation some other night; but, after our long separation, we want to have a quiet, confidential chat over old times together, and I must introduce you to my crib. I am a bachelor—all alone in my glory. The old folks still live in the country, and I boarded at first in a family; but that that was terribly slow work, and since that time I have hung out on my own hook. So come along, George; I really can't hear any excuse."
George hesitated only a moment; he had never spent an evening from home without first acquainting his mother; but this was an unusual event, and he was so anxious to hear about Dr. Seaward, and talk over old school days, the temptation was irresistible.
Harry Ashton called a cab, much to George's surprise, into which they jumped; and were not very long in getting into the Clapham road, where they alighted before a large, nice looking house.
"This is the crib," said Ashton, as he ushered George into a large parlour, handsomely furnished with everything contributing to comfort and amusement. "Now, make yourself at home. Here are some cigars (producing a box of Havannahs), and here (opening a cellaret) is bottled beer and wine; which shall it be?"
"As to smoking, that is a bad habit, or an art (which you like) I have never yet practised," said George; "but I will join you in a glass of wine just to toast 'Dr. Seaward and our absent friends in the school.'"
Then the two school friends fell into conversation. Many and many a happy recollection came into their minds, and one long yarn was but the preface to another.
"Come, George, fill up your glass," said Ashton repeatedly; but George declined.
Two or three hours slipped rapidly away, and then George rose to leave. "Not a bit of it, George," said Ashton; "we must have some supper and discuss present times yet. I have not heard particulars of what you are doing, or how you are getting on, and you only know I'm here, without any of the history about it."
So George yielded: how could he help it? Harry Ashton had become his bosom-chum during the five years he had been at school, and all the old happy memories of those days were again fresh upon him.
"Now, George, tell your story first, and then mine shall follow." Then George narrated all the leading circumstances which had attended his life, from the time he left school up to that very evening, and a long story it was.
"Now," said Ashton, "for mine. When you left Folkestone I got up to your place at the head of the school, and there I held on till I left. Six months after you left, the holidays came, and I came up to town. I spent a few days with Mr. Ralston, an old friend of the family, and one of the first engineers and surveyors in London. He took a liking to me, offered to take me into his office, wrote to the governor (I know you don't like that term, though—I mean my father), proposed a sum as premium, arrangements were made; and, instead of returning to school, I came to London and commenced learning the arts and mysteries of a profession. I had only been with Mr. Ralston two or three months, when one morning my father came into the office, out of wind with excitement, and said, 'Harry, I have got sad and joyful, and wonderful news for you! Poor old Mr. Cornish is dead; the will has been opened, and—make up your mind for a surprise—the bulk of his property is left to you.' I was thunderstruck. I knew the old gentleman would leave me something, but I did not know that he had quarrelled with his relatives, and therefore appropriated to me the share originally intended for them. So, you see, I have stepped into luck's way. I am allowed an income now which amounts to something like two hundred a year, as I shall not come into my rights till I am twenty-one, and how I am not nineteen; so I have a long time to wait, you see, which is rather annoying. I took this crib, and have managed to enjoy my existence pretty well, I can assure you. Sometimes I run down into the country to spend a week or two with the old folks, and sometimes they come up and see me."
"Don't you find it rather dull, living here alone, though?" said George.
"Dull? far from it. I have a good large circle of friends, who like to come round here and spend a quiet evening; and there are no end of amusements in this great city, so that no one need never be dull. Besides, if I am alone, I am not without friends, you see,"—pointing to a well-stocked book case.
"I have been running my eye over them, Harry. There are some very nice books; but your tastes are changed since I knew you last, or you would never waste your time over all this lot here which seem to have been best used. I mean the 'Wandering Jew,' 'Ernest Maltravers,' and the like."
"I won't attempt to defend myself, George; but when I was at school, I did as school-boys did: now I have come to London, I do as the Londoners do. I know there is an absence of anything like reason in this, but I am not much thrown amongst reasoners. But, to change the subject; now you have found me out, George, I do hope you will very often chum with me. I shall enjoy going about with you better than with anybody else; and as we know one another so well, we shall soon have tastes and habits in common again, as we used to have."
Presently the clock struck. George started up in surprise. "What! twelve o'clock! impossible. It never can be so late as that?"
"It is, though," said Ashton, "but what of that? you don't surely call twelve o'clock bad hours for once in a way?"
"No, not for once in a way," replied George; "but I have never kept my mother up so late before. Good-bye, old fellow. Promise to come and see me some night this week. There is my address." And so saying, George ran out into the street and made his way towards Islington.
That was an anxious night for Mrs. Weston. "What can have happened?" she asked herself a hundred times. Fortunately, Mr. Brunton called, and he assisted to while away the time.
"George does not often stay out of an evening, does he?" he asked.
"No, never," replied Mrs. Weston; "unless it is with his friend, Charles Hardy, and then I always know where they are, and what they are doing. But something extraordinary must have happened to-night, and I feel very anxious to know what it is. Not that I think he is anywhere he ought not to be. I feel sure he is not," continued Mrs. Weston confidently; "but what it is that has detained him, I am altogether at a loss to guess."
"Well, I will not leave you till he comes home," said Mr. Brunton.
It was one o'clock before George arrived; it was too late to get an omnibus, and a cab, he thought, was altogether out of the question; therefore he had to walk the whole distance—or rather run, for he was as anxious now to get home as they were to see him.
He was very much surprised, and, if it must be confessed, rather vexed on some accounts, to find Mr. Brunton waiting up for him with his mother.
His explanation of what had happened, told in his merry, ingenuous way, at once dissipated any anxiety they had felt.
"I recollect Harry Ashton well," said Mrs. Weston. "Dr. Seaward pointed him out to me, the first time I went to see you at Folkestone, as being one of his best scholars; and he came home once with you in the holidays to spend a day or two with us, did he not?"
"That is the same, mother, and a better-hearted fellow it would be hard to find."
"There is only one disadvantage that I see in your having him as an intimate friend," said Uncle Brunton, "and that is, he is now very differently situated in position to you as regards wealth, and you might find him a companion more liable to lead you into expense than any of your other friends, because I know what a proud fellow you are, George," he said, laughingly, "you like to do as your friends do, and would not let them incur expense on your account unless you could return their compliment. But I will not commence a moral discourse to-night—it is time all good folks should be in bed."
All the next day George was thinking over the events of the previous evening; he was pleased to have found out Harry Ashton, and thought he would be just the young man he wanted for a companion. Then he compared their different modes of life—Ashton living in luxuriant circumstances, without anybody or anything to interfere with his enjoyment, and he, obliged to live very humbly and carefully in order to make both ends meet; and then came a new feeling, that of restraint.
"There is Ashton," he thought, "can go out when he likes and where he likes, without its being necessary to say where he is going or what he is going to do, and he can come in at night without being obliged to account for all his actions like a child. If I happen to stay out, there is Uncle Brunton and my mother in a great state of excitement about me, which I don't think is right. I really do not wonder that the clerks have made me a laughing-stock. All this while I have lived in London I have seen nothing; have not been to any of the places of amusement; and have not been a bit like the young men with whom I get thrown into contact. I think Ashton is right, after all, in saying that when he was at school he did as school-boys did, and when he came to London he did as the Londoners do. Far be it from me to be undutiful to those who care for me; but I think, as a young man, I do owe a duty to myself, different altogether from that which belonged to me as a schoolboy."
These were all new thoughts to George: he had never felt or even thought of restraint before; he had never even expressed a wish to do as other young men did, in wasting precious time on useless amusements; he had always looked forward to an evening at home with pleasure, and had never felt the least inclination to wander forth in search of recreation elsewhere. Nay, he had always condemned it; and when Lawson or Williams, or any of the other clerks, had proposed such a thing to him, he never minded bearing their ridicule in declining.
And here was George's danger. He was upon his guard with his fellow-clerks, and was able to keep his resolution not to adopt their ideas, nor fall into their ways and habits; but when those very evils he condemned in them were presented to him in a different form by Harry Ashton, his old friend and school-fellow—leaving the principle the same, and only the practice a little altered—he was off his guard; and the habits he regarded with dislike in Williams and Lawson, he was beginning secretly to admire in Ashton.
As he walked home that evening with Hardy he gave him a long description of his meeting with Ashton, and all that happened during his interview and upon his return home.
"Now, Hardy," said George, "which do you think is really preferable—Harry Ashton's life or ours? We never go out anywhere; and, for the matter of that, might as well be living in monasteries, as far as knowing what is going on in the world is concerned."
"For my own part, Weston," said Hardy, "I would rather be as I am. Your friend is surrounded with infinitely greater temptations than we are, from the fact of his living as he does without any control. He is evidently free from his parents, and although he is old enough to take care of himself, still there is a certain restraint felt under a parent's roof which is very desirable."
"Quite true," said George; "but that involves a point which has been perplexing me all day. Should we, after we have arrived at a certain age, acknowledge a parent's control as we did when we were mere school-boys? I do not mean are we to cease to honour them, because that we cannot do while God's commandment lasts; but are we, as Williams says, always to go in leading-strings, or are we at liberty to think and act for ourselves?"
"That depends a good deal on the way in which we wish to think and act. For instance, my parents object to Sunday travelling and Sunday visiting. Now, while I am living with them, I feel it would not be right for me to do either of these things—even though as a matter of principle I might not see any positive wrong in them—because it would bring me into opposition with my parents. So, in spending evenings away from home, I know it would be contrary to their wish, and it is right to try and prevent our opinions clashing."
"I agree with you, partly, Hardy; but only partly. We must study our parents' opinions in the main, but not in points of detail. Suppose I want to attend a course of lectures, for example, which would take me from home sometimes in the evening; and my mother objects to my spending evenings from home, although the study might be advantageous to me—then I think I should be at liberty to adhere to my own opinion; if not, I should be under the same restraint I was as a child. It is right and natural that parents should feel desirous to know what associations their sons are forming, and what are their habits, and all that sort of thing; but I am inclined to think it is not right for a parent to exercise so strong a control as to say, 'So-and-so shall be your companion;' and, 'You may go to this place, but you may not go to that.'"
"Well, Weston, your digestion must be out of order, or you are a little bilious, or something; for I never heard you talk like this before. I have told you, confidentially sometimes, that I have wanted to rebel against the wishes of my parents on some points, and you have always counselled me, like a sage, grey-headed father, to give up my desire. But now you turn right round, and place me in the position of the parent, and you the rebellious son. I recommend, therefore, that you take two pills, for I am sure bile is at the bottom of this; and then I will feel your pulse upon this point again."
Mrs. Weston noticed a difference in George that evening. He seemed as if he had got something upon his mind which was perplexing him. He was not so cheerful and merry as usual, but his mother attributed it partly to his late hours, followed by a hard day's work, and therefore she said nothing to him about it.
A day or two elapsed, and George was still brooding upon the same subject. He did not know that the great tempter was weaving a subtle net around him, to lure him into the broad road which leadeth to destruction. He tried a hundred times to fight against the strange influence he felt upon him; but he did not fight with the right weapons, and therefore he failed. Had the tempter suggested to him that, as he was a young man, he should do as his fellow-clerks, or even Ashton did, and have his way in all things, he would have seen the temptation; but it came altogether in a different way. The evil voice said, "You are under restraint. Ask any young man of your own age, and he will tell you so. It is high time you should unloose yourself from apron-strings." And this idea of restraint was preying upon him, and he could not throw it off. George was anxious to do the right, but did not know how to fight against the wrong. Conscience whispered to him, "Do you remember that motto your dying father gave you, 'For me to live is Christ?'" George replied, "Yes, I remember it; and it is still my desire to follow it." Conscience said again, "Do you recollect that sermon you heard, and the resolutions you made, 'My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not?'" And he answered, "I remember it well; but I am not aware that any are endeavouring to entice me."
This was the effect of the unconscious influence of Harry Ashton. He had unknowingly fanned a latent spark into a flame, which, unless checked, would consume all those high and praiseworthy resolutions which George had formed, and carefully kept for years. He had cast a shadow over the landscape of his friend's well-being, which made the sign-posts pointing "upward and onward" almost indistinct. He had breathed into the atmosphere a subtle malaria, and George had caught the disease. The little leaven was now mixed with his life, which would leaven the whole. The genus of that moral consumption, which, unless cured by the Great Physician, ends in death, had been sown, and were now taking root.
George was unconscious of any foreign influence working upon him—he could not see that Ashton had in any way exerted a power over him; nor in the new and undefined feelings which had taken possession of him could he recognise the presence of evil. He had consulted conscience, and, he fancied, had satisfactorily met the warnings of its voice.
But he had not gone to that high and sure source of strength which can alone make a way of escape from all temptations; he had not obtained that armour of righteousness which is the only defence against the fiery darts of the wicked one; he had not that faith, in the power of which alone Satan can be resisted; and therefore his eyes were holden so that he could not see the snares which the subtle foe was laying around him, nor could he, in his own strength, bear up against the strong tide which was threatening to overwhelm him.
Harry Ashton kept his promise, and went one evening that week to see George at Islington. Hardy had been invited to meet him; and the three friends, as they kept up a perfect rattle of conversation, interspersed with many crossfired jokes, made the merriest and happiest little party that could be imagined.
Mrs. Weston was very much pleased with Ashton—his refined thought and gentlemanly address, joined with an open-hearted candour and a fund of humour which sparkled in every sentence, made it impossible for any one not to like him. Charles Hardy thought he had never met a more entertaining companion than Ashton; Ashton thought Hardy was an intelligent, agreeable fellow; and George declared to his mother that, if he had had the pick of all the young men in London, he could not have found two nicer fellows.
A hundred topics were discoursed upon during the evening, in which Ashton generally took the lead, and showed himself to be very well informed on all ordinary subjects. Incidentally the theatre was mentioned.
"Have you seen that new piece at the Lyceum?" said Ashton. "It is really a very capital thing."
"No," said George. "I have never been to a theatre."
"Nor I," said Hardy.
"Nor I," said Mrs. Weston.
"Well, that is really very extraordinary," said Ashton; "I thought almost everybody went to a theatre at some time or other. But perhaps you have some objection?"
"I have," said Mrs. Weston. "I think there is a great deal of evil learnt there, and very little good, if any. It is expensive; and it leads into other bad habits."
"Those last objections cannot be gainsaid," said Ashton; "but they equally apply to all amusements, and therefore, by that rule, all amusements are bad."
"But not in an equal degree with that of the theatre," George remarked; "because other amusements do not possess such an infatuation. For my own part, I should not mind going to a concert; but I very much disapprove of the theatre, and should never hesitate to decline going there."
"Yours is not a good argument, George. You have never been to the theatre, you say, and yet you disapprove of it. Are you right in pronouncing such an opinion, which cannot be the result of your own investigation?"
"I think I am," replied George; "I can adopt the opinions of those whom experience has instructed in the matter, and in whom I can rely with implicit confidence. If a man goes through a dangerous track, and falls into a bog, I should be willing to admit the track was dangerous, and avoid the bog, without going in to prove the former traveller was right; and this applies to going to theatres."
"No, George; there is your error. There would be no two opinions about the bog; but suppose you go for a tour to the Pyrenees, and, from prejudice or some other cause, come back disgusted. You warn me not to go, telling me I shall be wasting my time, and find nothing interesting to reward my trouble in the journey. But Hardy goes the same tour, comes home delighted, and says, 'Go to the Pyrenees by all means; it is a glorious place, the most pleasant in the whole world for a tour.' To decide the question, I read two books; one agrees with you, and the other with Hardy. How can I arrive at an opinion unless I go myself, and see what it is like? So it is with the theatre: some say it is the great teacher of morals, others that it is the most wicked and hurtful place. Therefore I think every one should form his own opinion from his own experience."
"You may be right," said George, waveringly. "I am not clear upon the subject; but I do not think, even if I were to form an opinion in the way you prescribe, that I should ever choose the theatre as a place of amusement."
"Then what is your favourite amusement?" asked Ashton.
"To come home and read, or spend a social evening with a friend," George answered.
"Then I know what will suit you all to pieces," said Ashton; "and your friend Hardy too. I am a member of a literary institution. It is a first-rate place—the best in London. There are lectures and classes, and soirees, a debating society, a good library, and rooms for chess-playing and that sort of thing. Now, you really must join it; it will be so very nice for us to have a regular place of meeting; and, besides that, we can combine study with amusement. What do you say, Mrs. Weston?"
"I cannot see any objection to literary institutions," said Mrs. Weston; "but I have always considered them better suited to young men who are away from home, than for those who have comfortable homes in which to spend their evenings. You speak about having a regular place of meeting. I shall always be very pleased to see you and Mr. Hardy here, as often as ever you can manage to spend an evening with us."
"Many thanks for your kindness, Mrs. Weston," returned Ashton; "but it would not be right for us to trespass on your good nature. Now I will give you and your friend a challenge, George," he continued. "Next Monday, the first debate of the season comes off; will you allow me to introduce you to the institution on that evening?—it is a member's privilege."
"I shall be very pleased to join you, then," said George. "What say you, Hardy?"
"I accept the invitation, with thanks," replied Hardy.
On Monday night, as George and Hardy journeyed towards the place of meeting, they discussed the question of joining the institution.
"If you will, I will," said Hardy. "My parents do not much like the idea; but, as you said the other evening, 'we must not allow ourselves to be controlled like mere children.'"
"I do think we really require a little recreation after business hours; and we can obtain none better than that of an intellectual kind, such as is found at literary institutions. The new term has only just commenced; so we may as well be enrolled as members at once."
"I wish the institution was a little nearer home," said Hardy, "for it will be so late of an evening for us to be out. However, we need not always attend, nor is it necessary we should very often be late. Have you had any difficulty in obtaining Mrs. Weston's consent to your joining?"
"None at all; she prefers my attending an institution of this kind to any other, although probably she would be better pleased if I did not join one at all. But, as Ashton says, we really must live up to the times, and know something of what is going on in the world around us. Did you not notice, the other evening, how Ashton could speak upon every subject brought on the carpet? My mother said, 'What a remarkably agreeable young man he is! he has evidently seen a good deal of society;' and I think the two things are inseparable—to be agreeable in society, one must mix more with it."
Ashton was punctual to his appointment; and all were at the institution just as the members were assembling for the debate. George was surprised to find how many of the young men knew Ashton, and he admired the ease and elegance of his friend in acknowledging the greetings which met him on every hand.
"I won't bore you with introductions to-night," he said, "except to just half-a-dozen fellows in particular, who, I am sure, you will like to know; and we can all sit together and compare opinions during the debate."
The friends were accordingly introduced; and as the proceedings of the evening went on, and all waxed warm upon the subject under discussion, the party which Ashton had drawn together soon became known to one another, and were on terms of conversational acquaintance.
The meeting separated at ten o'clock, and then George and Hardy essayed to bid good-night to their friends, and make their way at once towards Islington.
"Nonsense," said Ashton; "I want you to come with me to a nice quiet place I know, close by, and have a bit of supper and a chat over all that has been said, and then I will walk part of the way home with you."
"No, not to-night, Ashton; it is quite late enough already; and it will be past eleven o'clock before we get home as it is."
"What say you, Hardy? Can you persuade our sage old friend to abandon his ten o'clock habits for one night?" asked Ashton.
"I do not like to establish a bad precedent," said Hardy; "and as we have to-night joined the institution, I think we should make a rule to start off home as soon as we leave the meetings, because we have some distance to go, and bad hours, you know, interfere with business."
"I did not expect you to make a rule to keep bad hours," said Ashton;" but every rule has an exception—"
"And therefore it will not do to commence with the exception; so good-bye, till we meet again on Wednesday."
Three nights a-week there was something going on at the institution sufficiently attractive to draw George and Hardy there. One evening a lecture, another the discussion class, and the third an elocution class, or more frequently that was resigned in favour of chess. From meeting the same young men, night after night, a great number of new acquaintanceships were formed, and George would never have spent an evening at home, had he accepted the invitations which were frequently being given him; but he had made a compact with himself, that he would never be out more than three evenings a week, and would devote the remainder to the society of his mother. A certain little voice did sometimes say to him, "Is it quite right and kind of you, George, to leave your mother so often? Do you not think it must be rather lonely for her, sometimes, without you?" And George would answer to the voice, "Mother would never wish to stand between me and my improvement. Besides, she has many friends who visit her, and with whom she visits; and few young men of my age give their mothers more than three evenings of their society a week."
One evening, as George and Hardy were entering the institution, Harry Ashton came up to them, and said,—
"I have just had some tickets sent me for the Adelphi. There is nothing going on here worth staying for, so I shall go. Dixon will make one, and you and Hardy must make up the quartette."
"Dixon going?" asked George; "why, I thought he was such a sedate fellow, and never went to anything of the sort!"
"Neither does he, as a rule; but he has never been to the Adelphi, and he wants to go. Will you accompany us?"
"No, thank you," said George; "I told you once I did not like theatres; perhaps you recollect we discussed the point one evening?"
"We did, and you said you had never been to a theatre: you disapproved of them, without ever having had an opportunity of judging whether they were good or bad places. Now, take the opportunity."
"I am not anxious to form a judgment; and I so dislike all the associations of a theatre that it would be no pleasure for me to go."
"Complimentary, certainly!" laughed Ashton. "But I will grant you this much—there are bad associations connected with the theatres, and this is the stronghold of objectors; but we are four staid sober fellows, we shall go to our box without any bother, sit and see the play without exchanging a word with anybody beyond our own party, and then leave as soon as the performance is over. You had better say you will go, eh?"
"No, it would be very late before I got home," said George: "and I do not like keeping my mother up, more particularly as I was so very late the other evening. But what do you say, Hardy?"
"I don't know what to say," said Hardy. "I did once say to myself I would never go to a theatre; but I am not sure that there is any moral obligation why I should keep my word, when the compact rests only with myself. I have not time to consult Paley, and so I put the question to you—Can I go, seeing I have said to myself I will not?"
"Arrange it in this way," said Ashton; "both of you go, and when you get there, if you decide you have done wrong, then leave at once; or if you find that your consciences are in durance vile, and you have not patience or sufficient interest to stay and see the play out, go, and I will excuse you then with all my heart; but I won't excuse your not going. Now is your time to decide; for here comes Dixon, true to his appointment."
"I suppose you have got your party complete, Ashton?" he said; "and if so, we had better start at once, or the play will have begun before we get there."
George pondered no longer. "Suppose we try it, Hardy, on Ashton's plan," said he; "I don't see any harm in that, do you?"
"No, I think that is the best way in which the case can be put," he replied; "and I don't see that any harm can possibly come of it."
Away went the party, full of high spirits, bent upon amusement. But George felt a certain uneasy something, which tried to make him feel less pleased with himself than usual, and his laugh was at first forced and unnatural; there was not the same joyousness there would have been had he been starting on some recreation which he knew would be approved by parent and friends, and his own conscience. Ashton noticed he did not seem to be quite at ease; and therefore he brought all his humour into play to provoke hilarity. By the time they arrived at the theatre, that love of novelty and excitement which is so natural to young people completely overcame all other feelings, and the sight of the crowds flocking into all parts of the house was now an irresistible temptation to follow in too.
They were shown into a very comfortable box, commanding a good view of the whole of the theatre. The thrilling strains of music issuing from the orchestra, the dazzling lights, and the large assembly of elegantly dressed ladies in the boxes, a mass of people in the pit, and tiers of heads in the galleries, filled George with excitement. He who a little while before had been the dullest of the party, was now the gayest of the gay; he was lost in astonishment at all he saw and heard, dazzled with the brilliancy of the scene, and abandoned to all the enjoyments of the hour.
The performances that evening consisted of a farce, the comedy of the "Serious Family," and a ballet. When the curtain rose, and the farce commenced, George entered heart and soul into the spirit of the performance; laughed till the tears rolled down his cheeks at the dilemmas of an unlucky wight who acted a prominent part, and stamped applause in favour of a young lady who tried in every way to defend this unfortunate individual from his persecutors.
When it was over, Ashton turned to George, and said—
"Well, Weston, so much for the farce; now, if you think it is objectionable, off you go, old fellow, and we will forgive you."
"No," said George; "I think that farce was capital, and I shall stay now and see the end. I am not surprised people like the theatre—I never enjoyed a laugh more in my life. But there is one thing I have not liked. That hero of the piece did not scruple to use language for which he would have been kicked out of any respectable private house—and yet there are respectable people here, old and young, all listening and seeming to enjoy it. That shows there is insincerity somewhere; either these people hush their sensitive feelings in the playhouse, or they are hypocrites at home, and profess to be much more refined than they really are."
"You evidently don't understand plays yet," said Ashton; "that man depicts a certain style of life, and he must be true to it. If he enacts the part of a costermonger, he must swear and talk slang, and commit crimes, if need be, or anything suiting the character he assumes; or else the thing would be absurd, and the gentleman and costermonger would be both alike."
"The theatre must be a 'great teacher of morals,' then, if we come here to be initiated into the vices of costermongers," said George, rather sarcastically.
"George," whispered Hardy, "we've got into a mess; look down in the pit—Williams and Lawson are there. They have recognized us, and are nodding—shall we nod?"
"Yes," said George, and he nodded; but his face was red as crimson. "I would not have had Lawson and Williams see us here for the world," he whispered to Hardy; "but it's too late now—as you say, we've got into a mess."
Just then the curtain rose again, and the play of the "Serious Family," commenced.
The plot of the piece is this:—
Mr. Abinadab Sleek and Lady Creamly are two hypocrites, introduced as ordinary specimens of Christians. They are living in the house of their daughter and son-in-law (Mr. and Mrs. Charles Torrens), over whom they exercise a stern and despotic control. Mr. Charles Torrens, "for the sake of peace and quietness," agrees to all the solemnities opposed upon him; and is willing to pass himself off in Christian circles as a co-worker with Mr. Abinadab Sleek. In his heart he detests everything like seriousness; and whenever an opportunity occurs, on the pretext of going into the country, indulges in the gaieties and vices of London fashionable life. He is visited by an old friend, Captain Murphy Maguire, who persuades him to renounce boldly the sanctimonious customs of the "Serious Family," and enjoy with unshackled freedom the pleasures of the world. To this he consents; but he has not courage to alter the family customs. Captain Maguire aids his plans by convincing Mrs. C. Torrens that unless she provides in her home those amusements which are found in the world, her husband will prefer the world to his home. A conspiracy is laid to oppose the religious tyranny of Mr. Abinadab Sleek, the result of which is, that a ball is given by Mr. Torrens, assisted by his wife, who, throwing off her former profession of Christianity, becomes a woman of the world. On all this their future happiness as man and wife is made to hinge; and when, through the flimsy plot of the piece, the tableau arrives, the curtain drops, leaving the younger members of the "Serious Family" whirling in the giddy dance, commencing the new era of domestic happiness.
Throughout the play, Scripture is quoted and ridiculed, religion is made contemptible, and vice under the name of "geniality, openheartedness, and merriment," is made to appear the one thing necessary to constitute real happiness.
George followed the play through all its shifting scenes; now laughed, now sighed, now felt the hot blush of shame as he listened to the atrocious mockery of everything which, from the time he had been an infant on his mother's knee, he had been taught to regard as good and pure. He was heated to indignation when the audience applauded the base character of Maguire, and shuddered when as he thought that a masked hypocrite was brought before the world as the type of a Christian, and that a "Serious Family" was only another name for an unhappy, canting set of ignorant people.
And yet George did not leave the theatre. He was hurt, wounded to the heart by what he saw and heard, felt he would have given the world to have stood up in the box, and have told the audience that the play was a libel upon everything sacred and solemn; but he stayed and saw it out, rivetted by that strange, unholy infatuation which has been the bane of so many.
"Let us go now, Hardy," he said, as the curtain dropped; "you do not care to see the ballet, do you?"
"Oh, in for a penny, in for a pound. While we are here, we may as well see all that is to be seen. I won't ask you how you liked the comedy. I want to see something lively now, to remove the disagreeable impressions it has left upon me."
And so they stayed, delighted with the music, fascinated with the graceful dancing, and dazzled with the scenery. At length the curtain fell, and the evening's performance was over.
"It is only half-past eleven," said Ashton, when they got outside; "now we must just turn in somewhere, and get a bit of supper, and then, I suppose we must separate. There is a first-rate hotel close handy, where I sometimes dine. What do you say?"
"Just the place for us," said Dixon; "because we must limit ourselves to half an hour, and we shall get what we want quickly there."
As they went into the supper-room, George saw, to his vexation, Lawson and Williams, with a party of boon companions, seated round a table at the further end. He instantly drew back; but it was too late, they had recognised him.
"Confound it!" he said to Ashton, "there are some chaps from our office, at the end there. I do not wish to meet them; cannot we go into a private room?"
"Certainly," said Ashton; and the party retreated. "But why do you not wish to meet your fellow clerks?"
"Because they are a low set of fellows with whom I have nothing in common."
When supper was over and the clock had struck twelve, the party separated.
"Good night, old fellow," said Ashton to George. "I am sorry we have not seen quite the sort of play you would have liked; but now you have seen the worst side of the theatre, and next time we go together we will try and see the best; so that between the two extremes you will be able to discriminate and determine what sort of place the theatre is as an amusement."
"Thank you, Ashton, for your share in the entertainment to-night. I will talk to you about the play some other time; but I must say, candidly, I never felt so distressed in my life as I did while that gross insult to all good feeling, 'The Serious Family,' was being performed. If you had said to me what that wretch, Captain Maguire, said in my hearing to-night, I would not have shaken hands with you again as I do now."
An omnibus happened to be passing for the Angel at Islington that moment, and George and Hardy got up.
"What shall we do with regard to Williams and Lawson?" said Hardy. "They have got a victory to-night. I fear our protest against theatres and taverns is over with them for ever now, seeing they have caught us at both places."
"I cannot but regret the circumstance," said George, "but it is nothing to them; they are not our father-confessors, and we are not bound to enter into any particulars with them. The greatest difficulty with me is how to manage when I get home. I don't like deceiving my mother; but I should not like to pain her by saying I have been to the theatre. She knew I started for the institution, and that I might possibly be late; so, unless she asks me where I have been, I don't see that there will be any good in unnecessarily distressing her."
"The disagreeable thing in such a case is," replied Hardy, "if the fact comes out afterwards, it looks as if a deception had been practised."
George and Hardy had never talked together like this before; and they spoke hesitatingly, as if they hardly liked to hear their own voices joining to discuss a mean, unworthy, dishonourable trick.
O temptation! what an inclined path is thine! How slippery for the feet, and how rapidly the unwary traveller slides along, lower and lower—each step making the attempt to ascend again to high ground more difficult! George had made many dangerous slips that night—would he ever regain his position?
Mrs. Weston was sitting up for George, and pleased was she to hear, at last, his knock at the door.
"Mother, this is too bad of me, keeping you up so late," said George. "I really did not mean to keep bad hours to-night; but I will turn over a new leaf for the future."
"I do not mind sitting up, George, if it is for your good," she answered; "but I fear you will not improve your health by being so late as this. Have you enjoyed your meeting to-night?"