NEW YORK E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY 31 WEST TWENTY-THIRD STREET 1888
Mr. Ruskin has it that we are all kings and queens, possessing realms and treasuries. However this may be, it is certain that there are souls born to reign over the hearts of their fellows, kings walking about the world in broad-cloth and fustian, shooting-jackets, ulsters, and what not—swaying hearts at will, though it may be all unconscious of their power; and only the existence of some such psychological fact as this will account for the incident which I am about to relate.
Lawrence Granby was, beyond all doubt, one of these royal ones, his kingdom being co-extensive with the circle of his acquaintance—not that he was in the least aware of the power he exercised over all who came in contact with him, as he usually attributed the fact that he "got on" with people "like a house on fire" to the good qualities possessed by "other fellows." Even the comforts by which he was surrounded in his lodging by his landlady and former nurse, Mrs. Evans, he considered as the result of the dame's innate geniality, though the opinion entertained of her by underlings and by those who met her in the way of business was scarcely as favorable. He was a handsome fellow too, this Lawrence, six feet three, with a curly brown head and the frankest blue eyes that ever looked pityingly, almost wonderingly, on the small and weak things of the earth.
And the boy, Wikkey Whiston, was a crossing-sweeper. I am sorry for this, for I fancy people are becoming a little tired of the race, in story-books at least, but as he was a crossing-sweeper it cannot be helped. It would not mend matters much to invest him with some other profession, especially as it was while sitting broom in hand, under the lamp-post at one end of his crossing that he first saw Lawrence Granby, and if he had never seen Lawrence Granby I should not be writing about him at all.
It was a winter's morning in 1869, bright as it is possible for such a morning to be in London, but piercingly cold, and Wikkey had brushed and re-brushed the pathway—which scarcely needed it, the east wind having already done half the work—just to put some feeling of warmth into his thin frame before seating himself in his usual place beneath the lamp-post. There were a good many passers-by, for it was the time of day at which clerks and business men are on their way to their early occupation, and the boy scanned each face in the fashion that had become habitual to him in his life-long look out for coppers. Presently he saw approaching a peculiarly tall figure, and looked at it curiously, tracing its height upward from his own stunted point of view till he encountered the cheery glance of Lawrence Granby. Wikkey was strangely fascinated by the blue eyes looking down from so far above him, and scarcely knowing what he did, he rose and went shambling on alongside of the young man, his eyes riveted on his face. Lawrence, however, being almost unconscious of the boy's presence till his attention was drawn to him by the friend with whom he was walking, who said, laughing and pointing to Wikkey, "Friend of yours, eh? Seems to know you." Then he looked down again and met the curious, intent stare fixed upon him.
"Well, small boy! I hope you'll know me again," he said.
To which Wikkey promptly returned in the shrill, aggressively aggrieved voice of the London Arab: "I reckon it don't do you no harm, guvner; a cat may look at a king."
Lawrence laughed, and threw him a copper, saying, "You are a cheeky little fellow," and went on his way.
Wikkey stood looking after him, and then picked up the penny, holding it between his cold hands, as though it possessed some warming properties, and muttering: "It seems fur to warm a chap to look at him;" and then he sat down once more, still pondering over the apparition that had so fascinated him. Oddly enough the imputation of cheekiness rankled in his mind in a most unusual fashion—not that Wikkey entertained the faintest objection to "cheek" in the abstract, and there were occasions on which any backwardness in its use would betray a certain meanness of spirit: for instance to the natural enemy of the race—the Bobby—it was only right to exhibit as much of the article as was compatible with safety. Indeed, the inventor of a fresh sarcasm, biting in its nature yet artfully shrouded in language which might be safely addressed to an arm of the law was considered by his fellows in the light of a public benefactor. The errand-boy also, who, because he carried a parcel or basket and happened to wear shoes, thought himself at liberty to cast obloquy on those whose profession was of a more desultory nature, and whose clothing was scantier—he must be held in check and his pride lowered by sarcasms yet more biting and far less veiled. These things were right and proper, but Wikkey felt uncomfortable under an imputation of "cheekiness" from the "big chap" who had so taken his fancy, and wondered at his own feeling. That evening, as Lawrence walked briskly homeward, after his day's work, he became aware of the pale, wizen face again looking up into his through the dusk, and of a shrill voice at his side.
"I say, guvner, you hadn't no call fur to call me cheeky; I didn't mean no cheek, only I likes the look of yer; it seems fur to warm a chap."
Lawrence stopped this time and looked curiously at the boy, at the odd, keen eyes gazing at him so hungrily.
"You are a strange lad if you are not a cheeky one," he said. "Why do you like the look of me?"
"I dunno," said Wikkey, and then he repeated his formula, "it seems to warm a chap."
"You must be precious cold if that will do it, poor little lad. What's your name?"
"Wikkey? Is that all?"
"No, I've another name about me somewheres, but I can't just mind of it. They allus calls me Wikkey."
"Poor lad!" Lawrence said again, looking at the thin skeleton frame, sadly visible through the tattered clothing. "Poor little chap! it's sharp weather for such a mite as you. There! get something to warm you." And feeling in his pocket he drew out half-a-crown, which he slipped into Wikkey's hand, and then turned and walked away. Wikkey stood looking after him with two big tears rolling down his dirty face; it was so long since any one had called him a poor little chap, and he repeated the words over and over as he threaded his way in the darkness to the dreary lodging usually called "Skimmidges," and kept by a grim woman of that name.
"It seems fur to warm a chap," he said again, as he crept under the wretched blanket which Mrs. Skimmidge designated and charged for as a bed.
From that day forward Wikkey was possessed by one idea—that of watching for the approach of the "big chap," following his steps along the crossing, and then, if possible, getting a word or look on which to live until the next blissful moment should arrive. Nor was he often disappointed, for Lawrence, having recently obtained employment in a certain government office, and Wikkey's crossing happening to lie on the shortest way from his own abode to the scene of his daily labor, he seldom varied his route, and truth to say, the strange little figure, always watching so eagerly for his appearance, began to have an attraction for him. He wondered what the boy meant by it, and at first, naturally connected the idea of coppers with Wikkey's devotion; but he soon came to see that it went deeper than that, for with a curious instinct of delicacy which the lad would probably have been quite unable to explain to himself, he would sometimes hang back as Lawrence reached the pavement, and nod his funny "Good night, guvner," from midway on his crossing, in a way that precluded any suspicion of mercenary motives.
But at last there came a season of desolation very nearly verging on despair. Day after day for a week—ten days—a fortnight—did Wikkey watch in vain for his hero. Poor lad, he could not know that Lawrence had been suddenly summoned to the country, and had arranged for a substitute to take his duty for a fortnight; and the terrible thought haunted the child that the big chap had changed his route, perhaps even out of dislike to his—Wikkey's—attentions, and he should never see his face again. The idea was horrible—so horrible that as it became strengthened by each day's disappointment, and at last took possession of the boy's whole soul, it sapped away what little vitality there was in the small, fragile frame, leaving it an easy prey to the biting wind which caught his breath away as he crept shivering around the street corners, and to the frost which clutched the thinly-clad body. The cough, which Wikkey scarcely remembered ever being without, increased to such violence as to shake him from head to foot, and his breathing became hard and painful; yet still he clung to his crossing with the pertinacity of despair, scanning each figure that approached with eager, hungry eyes. He had laid out part of Lawrence's half-crown on a woolen muffler, which at first had seemed a marvel of comfort, but the keen north-easter soon found its way even through that, and the hot pies on which he expended the rest did not warm him for very long; there came a day, too, when he could only hold his pie between his frozen hands, dreamily wondering why he felt no wish to eat it, why the sight of it made him feel so sick. A dreadful day that was. Mechanically, Wikkey from time to time, swept his way slowly over the crossing, but the greater part of the time he spent sitting at the foot of the lamp-post at either end, coughing and shivering, and now and then dozing and starting up in terror lest the "big chap" should have passed by during his brief unconsciousness. Dusk came on, and then lamp-light, and still Wikkey sat there. A policeman passing on his beat saw the haggard face and heard the choking cough. "You'd best be off home, my lad," he said, pausing a moment; "you don't look fit to be out on a night like this;" and Wikkey, taking the remark to be only another form of the oft-heard injunction to "move on," seized his broom and began sweeping as in an evil dream—then sank down exhausted on the other side. It was getting late, later than he usually stayed, but something seemed to warn him that this might be his last chance, and he remained crouching there, almost too far-gone to be conscious of the cold; till on a sudden there came, piercing through the dull mist of returning consciousness, a voice saying:
"Hullo, Wikkey! you are late to-night."
And starting upward with wild startled eyes the boy saw Lawrence Granby. He staggered to his feet and gasped out:
"You've come, have you? I've been a watching and a waiting of you, and I thought as you'd never come again."
Then the cough seized him, shaking him till he could only cling to the lamp-post for support till it was over, and then slip down in a helpless heap on the pavement.
"Wikkey, poor little chap, how bad you are," said Lawrence, looking sadly down on the huddled-up figure; "you oughtn't to be out. You—you haven't been watching for me like this?"
"I've been a watching and a watching," Wikkey answered, in faint hoarse tones, "and I thought you'd taken to another crossing and I'd never see you again."
"Poor little chap! poor little lad!" was all the young man could find to say, while there rose up in his heart an impulse which his common sense tried hard to suppress, but in vain. "Wikkey," he said, at last, "you must come home with me;" and he took one of the claw-like hands in his warmly gloved one, and walked on slowly, out of compassion for the child's feeble limbs: even then, however, they soon gave way, and Wikkey once more slid down crying on the pavement. There was nothing for it but for Lawrence to gather up the child in his strong arms, and stride on, wondering whether after all it were not too late to revive the frozen-out life. For one blissful moment Wikkey felt himself held close and warm, and his head nestled against the woolly ulster, and then all was blank.
To say that Lawrence enjoyed his position would be going too far. Whatever might be Wikkey's mental peculiarities, his exterior differed in no way from that of the ordinary street Arab, and such close contact could not fail to be trying to a young man more than usually sensitive in matters of cleanliness; but Lawrence strode manfully on with his strange burden, choosing out the least frequented streets, and earnestly hoping he might meet none of his acquaintances, till at last he reached his lodgings and admitted himself into a small well-lighted hall, where, after calling "Mrs. Evans," he stood under the lamp awaiting her arrival, not without considerable trepidation, and becoming each moment more painfully conscious how extraordinary his behavior must appear in her eyes.
"Mrs. Evans," he began, as the good lady emerged from her own domain on the ground floor. "Mrs. Evans, I have brought this boy"—then he paused, not knowing how to enter upon the needful explanation under the chilling influence of Mrs. Evans' severe and respectful silence.
"I dare say you are surprised," he went on at last in desperation; "but the poor child is terribly ill, dying, I think, and if you could do anything."
"Of course, Mr. Lawrence, you do as you think proper," Mrs. Evans returned, preserving her severest manner, though she eyed Wikkey with some curiosity; "only if you had mentioned when you engaged my rooms that you intended turning them into a refuge for vagabonds, it would have been more satisfactory to all parties."
"I know all that. I know its very inconsiderate of me, and I am very sorry; but you see the little fellow is so bad—he looks just like little Robin, nurse."
Mrs. Evans sniffed at the comparison, but the allusion to the child she had so fondly tended, as he sank into an early grave, had its effect; together with the seldom revived appellation of "nurse," and her mollified manner encouraged Lawrence to continue.
"If you wouldn't mind getting a hot bath ready in the kitchen, I will manage without troubling you."
"I hope, Mr. Lawrence, that I know my place better than that," was the reply, and forthwith Mrs. Evans, who, beneath a somewhat stern exterior, possessed a really good heart, took Wikkey under her wing, administered warmth and restoratives, washed the grimy little form, cropped and scrubbed the matted locks, and soon the boy, dreamily conscious and wondrously happy, was lying before a blazing fire, clean and fair to look on, enveloped in one of Mrs. Evans' own night-dresses. Then the question arose, where was Wikkey to pass the night, followed by a whispered dialogue and emphatic "Nothing will be safe" from the lady of the house. All of which the boy perfectly understanding, he remarked:
"I aint a prig; I'll not take nothink."
There was a touch of injured innocence in the tone; it was simply the statement of a fact which might easily have been otherwise, and the entire matter-of-factness of the assertion inspired Lawrence with a good deal of confidence, together with the cough which returned on the slightest movement, and would effectually prevent a noiseless evasion on the part of poor Wikkey. So once more he was lifted up in the strong arms and carried to a sofa in Lawrence's own room, where snugly tucked up in blankets, he soon fell asleep. His benefactor, after prolonged meditation in his arm-chair, likewise betook himself to rest, having decided that a doctor must be the first consideration on the following morning, and that the next step would be to consult Reg—Reg would be able to advise him: it was his business to understand about such matters.
A terrible fit of coughing proceeding from the sofa awoke Lawrence next morning, startling him into sudden recollection of the evening's adventure; and when the shutters were opened Wikkey looked so fearfully wan and exhausted in the pale gray light, that he made all speed to summon Mrs. Evans, and to go himself for the doctor. The examination of the patient did not last long, and at its conclusion the doctor muttered something about the "workhouse—as of course, Mr. Granby, you are not prepared——" The look of imploring agony which flashed from the large, wide-open eyes made Lawrence sign to the doctor to follow him into another room; but before leaving Wikkey he gave him an encouraging nod, saying:
"All right, Wikkey. I'll come back. Well," he said, as they entered the sitting-room, "what do you think of him?"
"Think? There's not much thinking in the matter; the boy is dying, Mr. Granby, and if you wish to remove him you had better do so at once."
"How long will it be?"
"A week or so, I should say, or it might be sooner, though these cases sometimes linger longer than one expects. The mischief is of long standing, and this is the end."
Lawrence remained for some time lost in thought.
"Poor little chap!" he said at last, sadly.
"Well, thank you, doctor. Good-morning."
"Do you wish any steps taken with regard to the workhouse, Mr. Granby?" asked the doctor, preparing to depart.
Wikkey's beseeching eyes rose up before Lawrence, and he stammered out hastily:
"No—no thank you; not just at present. I'll think about it;" and the doctor took his leave, wondering whether it could be possible that Mr. Granby intended to keep the boy; he was not much used to such Quixotic proceedings.
Lawrence stood debating with himself.
"Should he send Wikkey to the workhouse? What should he do with a boy dying in the house? How should he decide?" Certainly not by going back to meet those wistful eyes.
The decision must be made before seeing the boy again, or, as the soft-hearted fellow well knew, it would be all up with his common sense. Calling Mrs. Evans, therefore, he bade her tell Wikkey that he would come back presently; and then he said, timidly:
"Should you mind it very much, nurse, if I were to keep the boy here? The doctor says he is dying, so that it would not be for long, and I would take all the trouble I could off your hands. I have not made up my mind about it yet, but of course I could not decide upon anything without first consulting you."
The answer, though a little stiff, was more encouraging than might have been expected from the icy severity of Mrs. Evans' manner. (Was she also making her protest on the side of common sense against a lurking desire to keep Wikkey?)
"If it's your wish, Mr. Lawrence, I'm not the one to turn out a homeless boy. It's not quite what I'm accustomed to, but he seems a quiet lad enough—poor child!" the words came out in a softer tone; "and as you say, sir, it can't be for long."
Much relieved, Lawrence sped away; it was still early, and there would be time to get this matter settled before he went down to the office if he looked sharp; and so sharp did he look that in a little more than ten minutes he had cleared the mile which lay between his lodgings and that of his cousin Reginald Trevor, senior curate of S. Bridget's East, and had burst in just as the latter was sitting down to his breakfast after morning service. And then Lawrence told his story, his voice shaking a little as he spoke of Wikkey's strange devotion to himself, and of the weary watch which had no doubt helped on the disease which was killing him, and he wound up with—
"And now, Reg, what is a fellow to do? I suppose I'm a fool, but I can't send the little chap away!"
The curate's voice was a little husky too.
"If that is folly, commend me to a fool," he said: and then, after some moments of silent thought—"I don't see why you should not keep the boy, Lawrence; you have no one to think of except yourself, unless, indeed, Mrs. Evans—"
"Oh, she's all right!" broke in his cousin; "I believe she has taken a fancy to Wikkey."
"Then I do not see why you should not take your own way in the matter, provided always that the boy's belongings do not stand in the way. You must consider that, Lawrence; you may be bringing a swarm about you, and Wikkey's relations may not prove as disinterested as himself."
"But that is just the beauty of it; he hasn't any belongings, for I asked him; beyond paying a shilling for a bed to some hag he calls Skimmidge, he seems to have no tie to any living creature."
"That being so," said Reginald, slowly; "and if you do not feel alarmed about your spoons, I don't see why you should not make the little soul happy, and"—he added with a smile—"get a blessing too, old fellow, though I doubt you will bring a sad time on yourself, Lawrence."
Lawrence gave a sort of self-pitying little shrug, but did not look daunted, and his cousin went on—
"Meanwhile, I think the hag ought to be made aware of your intentions; she will be looking out for her rent."
"Bother! I forgot all about that," exclaimed Lawrence, "and I haven't a minute to spare; I must race back to set the boy's mind at rest, and its close upon nine now. What's to be done?"
"Look here, I'll come back with you now, and if you can get me Mrs. Skimmidge's address I'll go and settle matters with her and glean any information I can about the boy: she may possibly be more communicative to me than to you. I know the sort, you see."
As Lawrence encountered Wikkey's penetrating gaze, he felt glad that his mind was made up; and when the question came in a low, gasping voice, "I say, guvner, are you going to send me away?" he sat down on the end of the sofa and answered:
"No, Wikkey, you are going to stay with me."
Lawrence hesitated, not knowing quite what to say.
"Always is a long time off; we needn't think about that; you are going to stay with me now;" and then feeling some compensation necessary for the weakness of his conduct, he added very gravely, "that is, Wikkey, if you promise to be a good boy and to mind what I and Mrs. Evans say to you, and always to speak the truth."
"I'll be as good as ever I know how," said Wikkey, meekly; "and I reckon I sha'n't have much call to tell lies. Yes, I'll be good, guvner, if you let me stop;" and again the black eyes were raised to his in dog-like appeal, and fixed on his face with such intensity that Lawrence felt almost embarrassed, and glad to escape after eliciting the "hag's" address, and promising to return in the evening.
"I will look in this evening and tell you what I have done," Reginald said, as they went out together; "and also to get a peep at Wikkey, about whom I am not a little curious."
"Yes, do, Reg; I shall want some help, you know, for I suppose I've got a young heathen to deal with, and if he's going to die and all that, one must teach him something, and I'm sure I can't do it."
"He has got the first element of religion in him, at any rate. He has learned to look up."
Lawrence reddened, and gave a short laugh, saying—
"I'm not so sure of that;" and the two men went on their respective ways.
The "hag" began by taking up the offensive line, uttering dark threats as to "police" and "rascals as made off without paying what they owed." Then she assumed the defensive, "lone widows as has to get their living and must look sharp after their honest earnings;" and finally became pathetic over the "motherless boy" on whom she had seemingly lavished an almost parental affection; but she could give no account of Wikkey's antecedents beyond the fact that his mother had died there some years since, the only trace remaining of her being an old Bible, which Mrs. Skimmidge made a great merit of not having sold when she had been forced to take what "bits of things" were left by the dead woman in payment of back rent, omitting to mention that no one had been anxious to purchase it. Yes, she would part with it to his reverence for the sum of two shillings; and Mr. Trevor, after settling with Mrs. Skimmidge, pocketed the Book, on the fly-leaf of which was the inscription—
"SARAH WILKINS, From her Sunday-school Teacher. Cranbury, 18—."
Wilkins! might that not account for Wikkey's odd name? Wilkins, Wilky, Wikkey; it did not seem unlikely.
That evening, Reginald, entering his cousin's sitting-room, found Lawrence leaning back in his arm-chair on one side of the fire, and on the other his strange little guest lying propped up on the sofa, which had been drawn up within reach of the glow.
"Well," he said, "so this is Wikkey; how are you getting on, Wikkey?"
The black eyes scanned his face narrowly for a moment, and then a high weak voice said in a tone of great disapprobation:
"It wouldn't warm a chap much fur to look at him; he ain't much to look at, anyhow;" and Wikkey turned away his head and studied the cretonne pattern on his sofa, as if there were nothing more to be said on the subject.
Evidently, the fair, almost fragile face which possessed such attraction for Lawrence in his strength had none for the weakly boy; possibly he had seen too many pale, delicate faces to care much about them.
But Lawrence, unreasonably nettled, broke out hotly—
"Wikkey, you mustn't talk like that!" while the curate laughed and said:
"All right, Wikkey, stick to Mr. Granby; but I hope you and I will be good friends yet;" then drawing another chair up to the fire he began to talk to his cousin.
Presently the high voice spoke again—
"Why mustn't I, guvner?"
"Why mustn't you what?"
"Talk like that of him?" pointing to Reginald.
"Because it's not civil. Mr. Trevor is my friend, and I am very fond of him."
"Must I like everythink as you like?"
"Yes, of course," said Lawrence, rather amused.
"Then I will, guvner—but it's a rum start."
He lay still after that, while the two men talked, but Reginald noted how the boy's eyes were scarcely ever moved from Lawrence's face. As he took leave of his cousin in the hall, he said—
"You will do more for him just now than I could, Lawrence; you will have to take him in hand."
"But I haven't the faintest notion what to do, Reg. I shall have to come to you and get my lesson up. What am I to begin with?"
"Time will show; let it come naturally. Of course I will give you any help I can, but you will tackle him far better than I could. You have plenty to work upon, for if ever a boy loved with his whole heart and soul, that boy loves you."
"Loves me—yes; but that won't do, you know."
"It will do a great deal; a soul that loves something better than itself is not far off loving the Best. Good night, old fellow."
Lawrence went back to Wikkey, and leant his back against the mantelpiece, looking thoughtfully down at the boy.
"What did the other chap call you?" inquired Wikkey.
"Granby, do you mean?"
"Lawrence Granby,—that is my name. But, Wikkey, you must not call him 'chap'; you must call him Mr. Trevor."
"Oh, my eye! he's a swell, is he? I never call you nothink only guvner; I shall call you Lawrence; it's a big name like you, and a deal nicer nor guvner."
Lawrence gave a little laugh. Was it his duty to inculcate a proper respect for his betters into this boy? If he were going to live it might be; but when he thought how soon all earthly distinctions would be over for Wikkey, it seemed hardly worth while.
"Very well," he said. "By-the-by, Wikkey, have you recollected your own other name?"
"Yes, I've minded it. It's Whiston."
"Do you remember your father and mother?"
"I don't remember no father. Mother, she died after I took to the crossing."
"Do you know what her name was before she was married?"
Wikkey shook his head. "Don't know nothink," he said. Lawrence showed him the old Bible, but it awoke no recollections in the boy's mind; he only repeated, "I don't know nothink."
"Wikkey," said Lawrence again, after a silence, "what made you take a fancy to me?"
"I dunno. I liked the looks of yer the very first time as ever you came over, and after that I thought a deal of yer. I thought that if you was King of England, I'd have 'listed and gone for a soldier. I don't think much of queens myself, but I'd have fought for you, and welcome. And I thought as I wouldn't have had you see me cheat Jim of his coppers. I dunno why;" and a look of real perplexity came into Wikkey's face as the problem presented itself to his mind.
"Did you often cheat Jim?"
"Scores o' times," answered the boy composedly. "We'd play pitch-and-toss, and then I'd palm a ha' penny, and Jim he'd never twig." A quick turn of the bony wrist showed how dexterously the trick had been done, and Wikkey went off into a shrill cackle at the recollection of his triumphs. "He's the biggest flat as ever I came across. Why, I've seen him look up and down the gutter for them browns till I thought I'd have killed myself with trying not to laugh out."
The puckers in the thin face were so irresistibly comical that Lawrence found it hard to preserve his own gravity: however, he contrived to compose his features, and to say, with a touch of severity—
"I can tell why you wouldn't have liked me to see you; it was because you knew you were doing wrong." Wikkey's face expressed no comprehension. "It was wicked to cheat Jim, and you were a bad boy when you did it."
"My stars! why, he could have got 'em from me in a juffy; he was twice my size. I only boned 'em cos he was such a soft."
The explanation appeared perfectly satisfactory to Wikkey, but Lawrence, feeling that this was an opportunity that should not be lost, made a desperate effort and began again—
"It was wicked all the same; and though I did not see you do it, there was Someone Who did—Someone Who sees everything you do. Have you ever heard of God, Wikkey?"
"Yes, I've heard on Him. I've heard the Name times about. ('How used?' wondered Lawrence.) Where is he?"
"He is everywhere, though you cannot see Him, and He sees everything you do."
"Is he good?"
"As good as you?"
"A great deal better." Poor Lawrence felt very uncomfortable, not quite knowing how to place his instructions on a less familiar footing.
"I don't want no one better nor you; you're good enough for me," said Wikkey, very decidedly; and then Lawrence gave it up in despair, and mentally resolving that Reg must help him, he carried Wikkey off to bed.
The following evening Lawrence found a letter from his cousin on his table.
"From what you tell me," Reginald wrote, "I should say that Wikkey must be taught through his affections: that he is capable of a strong and generous affection he has fully proved, so that I advise you not to attempt for the present much doctrinal instruction. ('Doctrinal instruction!' mentally ejaculated Lawrence; 'what does he mean? as if I could do that;' then he read on.) What I mean is this: the boy's intellect has probably, from the circumstances of his life, been too strongly developed to have left much room for the simple faith which one has to work on in ordinary childhood; and having been used chiefly as a weapon, offensive and defensive, in the battle with life, it is not likely to prove a very helpful instrument just now, as it would probably make him quicker to discern difficulties than to accept truths upon trust. I should, therefore, be inclined to place religion before him in a way that would appeal more to his affections than to his reason, and try to interest him in our Lord from, so to speak, a human point of view, without going into the mysteries connected with the Incarnation, and if possible without, at first, telling the end of the Gospel narrative. Speak of a Person—One Whom you love—Who might have lived for ever in perfect happiness, but Who, from love to us, preferred to come and live on earth in poverty and suffering (the poor lad will appreciate the meaning of those words only too well)—Who was all-powerful, though living as a Man, and full of tenderness. Then tell of the miracles and works of love, of his continued existence—though for the present invisible to us—of His love and watchfulness; and when Wikkey's interest is aroused, as I believe it will be, I should read from the Bible itself the story of the sufferings and death. Can you gather any meaning from this rough outline? It seems to me that it is intended that Wikkey should be led upwards from the human to the Divine. For others a different plan of teaching might be better, but I think this is the right key to his development; and, moreover, I firmly believe that you will be shown how to use it."
Lawrence remained for some time after reading his letter with his elbows on the table, and his head resting on his hands, which were buried in his thick brown hair; a look of great perplexity was on his face.
"Of course, I must try," he thought; "one couldn't have it on one's conscience; but it's a serious business to have started." Looking up, he met Wikkey's rather anxious glance.
"Is anythink amiss, Lawrence?"
"No, Wikkey—I was only thinking;" then, plunging on desperately, he continued: "I was thinking how I could best make you understand what I said last night about Someone Who sees everything you do—Someone Who is very good."
"Cut on, I'm minding. Is it Someone as you love?"
Lawrence reddened. What was his feeling towards the Christ? Reverence certainly, and some loyalty, but could he call it love, in the presence of the passionate devotion to himself which showed in every look of those wistful eyes?
"Yes, I love him," he said slowly, "but not as much as I should." Then as a sudden thought struck him. "Look here, Wikkey, you said you would like to have me for a king; well, He that I am telling you of is my King, and He must be yours, too, and we will both try to love and obey Him."
"Where is He?" asked Wikkey.
"You can't see him now, because He lives up in Heaven. He is the Son of God, and He might always have stayed in Heaven, quite happy, only, instead of that, he came down upon earth, and became a man like one of us, so that He might know what it is. And though He was really a King, He chose to live like a poor man, and was often cold and hungry as you used to be; and He went about helping people, and curing those who were ill, because, you know, Wikkey, He was God, and could do anything. There are beautiful stories about Him that I can tell you."
"How do you know all about the King, Lawrence?"
"It is written in a book called the Bible. Have you ever seen a Bible?"
"That was the big book as blind Tim used to sit and feel over with his fingers by the area rails. I asked him what it was, and he said as it was the Bible. But bless you; he weren't blind no more nor you are: he lodged at Skimmidge's for a bit, and I saw him a reading of the paper in his room; he kicked me when he saw as I'd twigged him;" and Wikkey's laugh broke out at the recollection. Poor child, his whole knowledge of sacred things seemed to be derived from—
"Holiest things profaned and cursed."
"Tim was a bad man to pretend to be blind when he wasn't," said Lawrence, severely. "But now, Wikkey, shall I read you a story about the King?"
"Did He live in London?" Wikkey asked, as Lawrence took up the old Book with the feeling that the boy should hear these things for the first time out of his mother's Bible.
"No, He lived in a country a long way off; but that makes no difference, because He is God, and can see us everywhere, and He wants us to be good."
Then Lawrence opened the Bible, and after some thought, half read, half told, about the feeding of the hungry multitude.
Each succeeding evening, a fresh story about the King was related, eagerly listened to, and commented on by Wikkey with such familiar realism as often startled Lawrence, and made him wonder whether he were allowing irreverence; but which at the same time, threw a wondrously vivid light on the histories which, known since childhood, had lost so much of their interest for himself: and certainly, as far awakening first the boy's curiosity, and then his love, went, the method of instruction answered perfectly. For Wikkey did not die at the end of the week, or of many succeeding weeks: warmth and food, and Mrs. Evans' nursing powers combined, caused one of those curious rallies not uncommon in cases of consumption, though no one who saw the boy's thin, flushed cheeks, and brilliant eyes, could think the reprieve would be a long one. Still for the present there was improvement, and Lawrence could not help feeling glad that he might keep for a little while longer the child whose love had strangely brightened his lonely lodgings.
And while Wikkey's development was being carried on in the highest direction, his education in minor matters was progressing under Mrs. Evans' tuition—tuition of much the same kind as she had bestowed years before on Master Lawrence and her sweet Master Robin. By degrees Wikkey became thoroughly initiated in the mysteries of the toilette, and other amenities of civilized life, and being a sharp child, with a natural turn for imitation, he was, at the end of a week or two, not entirely unlike those young gentlemen in his ways, especially when his conversation became shorn of the expletives which had at first adorned it, but which, under Mrs. Evans' sharp rebukes, and Lawrence's graver admonitions that they were displeasing to the King, fast disappeared. Wikkey's remorse on being betrayed into the utterance of some comparatively harmless expression, quite as deep as when one slipped that gave even Lawrence a shock, showed how little their meaning had to do with their use.
One evening Lawrence, returning home to find Wikkey established as usual on the sofa near the fire, was greeted by the eager question—
"Lawrence, what was the King like? I've been a thinking of it all day, and I should like to know. Do you think He was a bit like you?"
"Not at all," Lawrence answered. "We don't know exactly what He was like; but—let me see," he went on, considering, "I think I have a picture somewhere—I had one;" and he crossed the room to a corner where, between the book-case and the wall, were put away a number of old pictures, brought from the "boys' room" at home, and never yet re-hung; among them was a little Oxford frame containing a photograph of the Thorn-crowned Head by Guido. How well he remembered its being given to him on his birthday by his mother! This he showed to Wikkey, explaining that though no one knows certainly what the King is like, it is thought that He may have resembled that picture. The boy looked at it for some time in silence, and then said—
"I've seen pictures like that in shops, but I never knew as it was the King. He looks very sorrowful—a deal sorrowfuller nor you—and what is that He has on His Head?"
"That has to do with a very sad story, which I have not told you yet. You know, Wikkey, though he was so good and kind, the men of that country hated Him, and would not have him for their King, and at last they took Him prisoner, and treated Him very badly, and they put that crown of sharp, pricking thorns on His Head, because He said He was a King."
"Was it to make game of Him?" asked Wikkey, in a tone of mingled awe and distress.
Lawrence nodded gravely, and feeling that this was perhaps as good a moment as any for completing the history, he took the Book, and in low, reverent tones, began the sad story of the betrayal, captivity, and Death. Wikkey listened in absorbed attention, every now and then commenting on the narrative in a way which showed its intense reality to himself, and gave a marvellous vividness to the details of which Lawrence had before scarcely realized the terrible force. As he read on, his voice became husky, and the child's eyes were fixed on him with devouring eagerness, till the awful end came, and Wikkey broke into an agony of weeping. Lawrence hastily put down the Book, and taking the little worn frame into his arms tried to soothe the shaking sobs, feeling the while as though he had been guilty of cruelty to the tender, sensitive heart.
"I thought some one would have saved Him," Wikkey gasped. "I didn't know as He was killed; you never told me He was killed."
"Wikkey, little lad—hush—look here! it was all right at the end. Listen while I read the end; it is beautiful." And as the sobs subsided he began to read again, still holding the boy close, and inwardly wondering whether something like this might have been the despair of the disciples on that Friday evening—read of the sadness of that waiting time, of the angel's visit to the silent tomb, of the loving women at the sepulchre, and the joyful message, "He is not here, He is risen;" and lastly, of the parting blessing, the separating cloud and the tidings of the coming again. A look of great relief was on Wikkey's face as Lawrence ceased reading, and he lay for some time with closed eyes, resting after his outburst. At last he opened them with sudden wonder.
"Lawrence, why did He let them do it? If He could do anything, why didn't He save Himself from the enemies?"
The old wonder—the old question—which must be answered; and Lawrence, after thinking a moment, said—
"It had to be, Wikkey. He had to die—to die for us. It was like this:—People were very wicked, always doing bad things, and nobody that was bad could go to Heaven, but they must be punished instead. But God was very sorry that none of the people He had made could come and be happy with Him, so His Son, Jesus Christ, our King, became a Man, and came down on earth that He might be punished instead of us, so that we might be forgiven and allowed to come into Heaven. He bore all that for each of us, so that now, if we believe in Him and try to please Him, we shall go to be with Him in Heaven when we die."
Lawrence was very far from guessing that his teaching had become "doctrinal." He had spoken out of the fulness of his own conviction, quickened into fresh life by the intensity of Wikkey's realization of the facts he had heard.
"It was good of Him—it was good," the child repeated again and again, with a world of love shining in his eyes, till, worn out with his emotion, he fell asleep, and was gently laid by Lawrence in his bed. But in the middle of the night sounds of stifled weeping aroused Lawrence.
"What is it, Wikkey boy?" he asked, groping his way to him. "Are you worse?"
"I didn't mean for to wake you; but I wish—I wish I hadn't boned them coppers off Jim; it makes me feel so bad when I think as the King saw me;" and Wikkey buried his face in the kind arm which encircled him, in uncontrollable grief. It needed all Lawrence's assurances that the King saw his repentance, and had certainly forgiven—yes, and the prayer for pardon which the young man, blushing red-hot in the darkness at the unwonted effort, uttered in husky tones, with the child's thin hands clasped in his own—before Wikkey was sufficiently quieted to sleep again. Before going down to the office Lawrence wrote to his cousin:
"I can do no more; he has got beyond me. He loves Him more than ever I have done. Come and help us both."
So Reginald came on such evenings as he could spare, and Wikkey, no longer averse, listened as he told him of the Fatherhood of God, of the love of the Son, and of the ever-present Comforter; of creation, redemption, and sanctification, and all the deep truths of the faith, receiving them with the belief that is born rather of love than of reason; for though the acuteness of the boy's questions and remarks often obliged Reginald to bring his own strong intellect to bear on them, they arose from no spirit of antagonism, but were the natural outcome of a thoughtful, inquiring mind. Sometimes, however, Wikkey was too tired for talking, and could only lie still and listen while Lawrence and the curate conversed, the expression of his eyes, as they passed from one to another, showing that he understood far more than might have been expected. One evening, in the middle of March, after he had been carried up-stairs, the cousins sat talking over their charge.
"I have been considering about his baptism," Reginald said.
"His baptism! Do you think he hasn't been christened?"
"No, I don't think so," returned the other, thoughtfully. "I cannot bring myself to believe that we have been working on unconsecrated soil; but still we do not know. Of course I could baptize him hypothetically, but I should like to know the truth."
"Baptize him how?" Lawrence asked, with a frown of perplexity.
"Hypothetically. Don't be alarmed, it isn't a new fad of mine: it means baptizing on the supposition that there has been no previous baptism; for, you know, our Church does not allow it to be done twice. I wonder if anything could be learnt by going down to the place named in the book?"
"Cranbury! I looked in Bradshaw for it, and it seems to be a small place about an hour and a half from Euston Station; I might find a day to run down, though I don't quite see when; and how if I were to find a heap of relations wanting the boy? I could not spare him now, you know."
"Scarcely likely. Wikkey has evidently never seen a relation for, say, ten years, or he would recollect it, and it is hardly probable that any one will be anxious to take a boy in his state whom they have not seen for ten years. Besides, he couldn't well be moved now."
"No, he couldn't; and I sincerely hope that no affectionate relatives will want to come and see him here; that would be a most awful nuisance. What do you think of a tearful grandmother haunting the place?"
"The idea is oppressive, certainly, but I do not think you need fear it much, and you have established a pretty fair right to do as you like about the boy. Look here, Lawrence; supposing I were to run down on this place; I believe I could spare a day better than you, and a breath of fresh air would do me no harm."
"I shouldn't think it would," said Lawrence, looking at his cousin's pale face—all the paler for the stress of his winter's work. "Do, Reg; and for pity's sake, bring a root of some flower if you can find one; it is sickening to think of a child dying without ever having had such a thing in his hands."
"All right, then, I will go to-morrow; for—for," Reginald added gravely, "there is no time to be lost."
"I know there is not; I know it must come soon. Reg, I couldn't have believed I should have grown to care for the boy as I do."
"No, you have prepared a wrench for yourself, old fellow, but you will never be the worse for it, Lawrence. You know all about that better than I can preach it to you."
There was a silence, and then Lawrence said—
"Ought he to be told?"
"Well, that puzzles me; I feel as if he ought, and yet there can be no need to frighten the child. If it came naturally, it might be better for you to tell him gently."
"I?" exclaimed Lawrence, aghast.
"Yes, it must be you; he will take it better from you than from anyone else; but wait and see; you will be shown what to do."
The result of the curate's mission to Cranbury was very satisfactory. On being directed to the solitary remaining inhabitant of the name of Wilkins, Reginald learnt that Sarah Wilkins had been the only daughter of his brother, that she had married a ne'er-do-weel of the name of Whiston, who had deserted her shortly before the birth of her child, that she had followed her husband to London as soon as she was able to travel, and after a while had been lost sight of by her family. The old man seemed but slightly interested in the matter, and Reginald saw that no interference need be feared from him. On further consulting the parish register, he found recorded the marriage of Thomas Whiston and Sarah Wilkins, and a year later, the baptism of Wilkins, son of Thomas and Sarah Whiston, in 1856.
"So it is as I hoped, the child is one of the Flock," the curate said to himself. "And that mite of a boy is thirteen years old!" and he returned to London triumphant, bringing with him besides the information he went to seek, a root of primroses with yellow-tipped spikes ready to burst, and an early thrush's nest containing five delicate blue eggs. This last treasure Reginald displayed with intense pride.
"I found a boy carrying it on the road, and rated the young rascal soundly for taking it, but I'm afraid the shilling I gave him made more impression than the lecture. Isn't it a beauty? I wonder when I last saw a nest?" he went on, touching the eggs with loving fingers. "Hardly since our old bird's-nesting days, eh, Lawrence! Do you remember the missel-thrush in the apple-tree?"
"Ay, and the licking you got for splitting your Sunday jacket up the back;" and the two "working-men" laughed at the recollection, as they carried the prize to display to Wikkey, with a comical anxiety, almost amounting to dread, lest it should not produce the effect they intended. No fear of that! Wikkey's eyes dilated as he gazed into the nest, and, after some persuasion, took one of the smooth eggs into his hand; and from that moment he could not endure it out of his sight, but had it placed morning and evening beside his sofa or bed, near his other treasure, the Picture of the King, on the other side of which stood the primrose, planted in one of Mrs. Evans' tea-cups.
As the spring advanced, Wikkey became visibly worse, and all saw that the end could not be far off. Reginald, coming in one evening, found him asleep in Lawrence's arms, and was startled to see how great a change had taken place in him during the last four and twenty hours. In answer to his inquiring look, his cousin said, speaking very low—
"Since this morning, he is much worse; but better now than he was."
Sitting down, on the opposite side of the fire, Reginald thoughtfully contemplated the two. What a contrast! Lawrence, all health and strength, with the warm light glancing on the thick waves of his hair, and deepening the ruddy brown of his complexion, while the glow scarcely served to tint the pale face lying on his breast—deadly white, save for the two red spots on the sunken checks—or the hair hanging in loose lank threads. For some time no one spoke, but as the boy's sleep continued sound and unbroken, the cousins fell into talk, low and subdued, and many things were touched on in that quiet hour, which neither could have put into words at another time. At length Reginald rose to go, and at the same moment, Wikkey opened his eyes and smiled, as he saw his visitor, and tried to lift himself up.
"I'm awake now," he said; "I didn't know as you were here."
"Never mind, Wikkey, lie still," said Reginald, "you are too tired for any reading to-night. I will tell you one verse—a beautiful one—for you and Lawrence to talk about some day," and laying his hand on the boy's head he repeated, in low, gentle tones—"Thine eye shall see the King in His beauty."
After he was gone, Wikkey lay very still, with his eyes fixed intently on the fire. Lawrence dreaded what his next question might be, and at last it came.
"What does it mean—See the King?"
"It means that we shall all see Him some day, Wikkey, when—when—we die. It will be beautiful to see the King, won't it?"
"Yes," said the child, dreamily. "I'd like to see Him. I know as I'm going to die; but will it be soon? Oh, Lawrence! must it be directly?" and as he clung convulsively to him, the young man felt the little heart beating wildly.
"Wikkey—little lad—dear little lad—don't be frightened," he said, stroking the boy's head; "don't be frightened;" but still the eyes questioned him with agonized eagerness, and he knew he must answer, but his voice was very husky, and he felt the task a hard one.
"I'll tell you, Wikkey. I think the King loves you so much that He wants you to come to Him, and not to be ill any more, nor have any more bad pain or coughing. That would be nice, wouldn't it?—never to feel ill any more, and to see the King."
"Yes," Wikkey said, with a long sigh, "it would be ever so nice; but, oh! I don't want for to leave you, Lawrence—won't you come, too?"
"Some day, please God; but that must be as the King likes—perhaps He will not want me to come yet. I must try to do anything He wants me to do here first."
"Should you like to come now, Lawrence?"
The question was rather a relief, for a sense of being unreal had come over Lawrence while he spoke, and he answered quickly—
"No, I had rather not go yet, Wikkey: but you see I am well and strong. I think if I were ill like you I should like it; and you need not feel frightened, for the King will not leave you. He will be taking care of you all the time, and you will go to Him."
"Are you quite certain?"
No room for doubt here—and the answer came unhesitatingly—"Quite certain, Wikkey."
"And you are sure that you'll come too?"
"I wish I were half as certain," the young man thought, with a sigh, then said aloud—"If I try to obey the King I hope I shall."
"But you will try—you will, Lawrence!" cried Wikkey, passionately.
Very quietly and low Lawrence answered—"By God's help—Yes!" and he bent and kissed the child's forehead, as if to seal the vow.
Wikkey seemed satisfied, and in a few minutes was dozing again. He slept for an hour after being put to bed, but then grew restless, and the night passed wearily between intervals of heavy oppression—half-unconscious wakefulness and rambling, incoherent talk, sometimes of his street-life, of his broom, for which he felt about with weak, aimless hands, of cold and hunger; and then he would break out into murmuring complaints of Mrs. Skimmidge, when forbidden words would slip out, and even then the child's look of distress went to Lawrence's heart. But oftenest the wandering talk was of the incidents of the last few weeks, and over and over came the words—"See the King in his beauty."
In the morning Wikkey was quieter and perfectly sensible: but the pinched look on his face, and the heavy labored breathing, told plainly that he was sinking.
Hard as it had been for Lawrence to leave his "little lad," up to this time he had been scrupulous in never allowing Wikkey to interfere with his office duties; but now it seemed impossible to leave the child, who clung feebly to him with a frightened whisper—
"Oh, don't go, Lawrence! p'raps the King will want me, and maybe I shouldn't be so frightened if I kept looking at you."
No, he could not go; so writing a hurried line—"Cannot come to-day—the boy I told you of is dying—the work shall be ready in time," he dispatched it to the head clerk of his department. "Granby's Craze" had at first excited a good deal of astonishment when it became known at the office; but Lawrence had quietly discouraged any attempts at "chaff" on the subject, and as time went on he used to be greeted by really warm inquiries after "the little chap."
The hours passed slowly by. Reginald came and went as he could spare time; sometimes he prayed in such short and simple language as Wikkey could join in—and the expression of his face showed that he did so—sometimes he knelt in silence, praying earnestly for the departing soul, and for Lawrence in his mournful watch. As the day began to wane, Reginald entering, saw that the end was near, and knelt to say the last prayers; as he finished the pale March sun, struggling through the clouds, sent a shaft of soft light into the room and touched Wikkey's closed eyes. They opened with a smile, and raising himself in Lawrence's arms, he leant forward with a look so eager and expectant, that with a thrill of awe, almost amounting to terror, the young man whispered—
"What is it, Wikkey? Do you see anything?"
"Not yet—soon—it's coming," the boy murmured, without altering his fixed gaze; and then for an instant a wondrous light seemed to break over the wan face—only for an instant—for suddenly as it had dawned, it faded out, and with it fled the little spirit, leaving only the frail worn-out form to fall back gently on Lawrence's breast.
Was he gone? Almost incredulously Lawrence looked down, and then, with pale, set features, he rose, and laying Wikkey on the bed, sank on his knees beside it, and buried his face in the pillow, with the sound of a great sob. Reginald approached the bed, and laying his hand for a moment on the bowed head, spoke low and solemnly—
"The blessing of a soul that was ready to perish come upon you, Lawrence."
Then he quitted the room, and closing the door softly, left Lawrence alone with his "little lad."
* * * * *
So Wikkey passed away, and Lawrence went back to his work, ever retaining deep down in his heart the memory of the child whose life had become so strangely interwoven with his own, and more precious still, the lesson bequeathed to him by his "little lad," of how a soul that looks persistently upwards finds its full satisfaction at last in the Vision of "The King in His Beauty."
- Transcriber's note: Typographical errors corrected in text: Page 8: changed unusal to unusual Page 11: changed "Skimmedges" to "Skimmidges" changed "Skimmedge to Skimmidge Page 13: changed Wikky to Wikkey Page 34: changed guvnor to guvner Page 46: changed Wikkie to Wikkey Page 65: changed Evans's to Evans' Page 70: changed to to too -