Chapter XXIII--Quicksands
 
   'Whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?'

TENNYSON.

It was in the May of the ensuing year, 1832, that Clarence was sent down to Bristol for a few weeks to take the place of one of the clerks in the office where the cargoes of the incoming vessels of the firm were received and overhauled.

This was a good-natured arrangement of Mr. Castleford's in order to give him change of work and a sight of home, where, by the help of the coach, he could spend his Sundays. That first spring day on his way down was a great delight and even surprise to him, who had never seen our profusion of primroses, cowslips, and bluebells, nor our splendid blossom of trees--apple, lilac, laburnum--all vieing in beauty with one another. Emily conducted him about in great delight, taking him over to Hillside to see Mrs. Fordyce's American garden, blazing with azaleas, and glowing with rhododendrons. He came back with a great bouquet given to him by Ellen, who had been unusually friendly with him, and he was more animated and full of life than for years before.

Next time he came he looked less happy. There was plenty of room in our house, but he used, by preference, the little chamber within mine, and there at night he asked me to lend him a few pounds, since Griffith had written one of his off-hand letters asking him to discharge a little bill or two at Bristol, giving the addresses, but not sending the accounts. This was no wonder, since any enclosure doubled the already heavy postage. One of these bills was for some sporting equipments from the gunsmith's; another, much heavier, from a tavern for breakfasts, or rather luncheons, to parties of gentlemen, mostly bearing date in the summer and autumn of 1830, before the friendship with the Fordyces had begun. On Clarence's defraying the first and applying for the second, two more had come in, one from a jeweller for a pair of drop-earrings, the other from a nurseryman for a bouquet of exotics. Doubting of these two last, Clarence had written to Griff, but had not yet received an answer. The whole amount was so much beyond what he had been led to expect that he had not brought enough money to meet it, and wanted an advance from me, promising repayment, to which latter point I could not assent, as both of us knew, but did not say, we should never see the sum again, and to me it only meant stinting in new books and curiosities. We were anxious to get the matter settled at once, as Griffith spoke of being dunned; and it might be serious, if the tradesmen applied to my father when he was still groaning over revelations of college expenses.

On the ensuing Saturday, Clarence showed me Griff's answer--'I had forgotten these items. The earrings were a wedding present to the pretty little barmaid, who had been very civil. The bouquet was for Lady Peacock; I felt bound to do something to atone for mamma's severe virtue. It is all right, you best of brothers.'

It was consolatory that all the dates were prior to the Hillside fire, except that of the bouquet. As to the earrings, we all knew that Griff could not see a pretty girl without talking nonsense to her. Anyway, if they were a wedding present, there was an end of it; and we were only glad to prevent any hint of them from reaching the ears of the authorities.

Clarence had another trouble to confide to me. He had strong reason to believe that Tooke, the managing clerk at Bristol, was carrying on a course of peculation, and feathering his nest at the expense of the firm. What a grand discovery, thought I, for such a youth to have made. The firm would be infinitely obliged to him, and his fortune would be secured. He shook his head, and said that was all my ignorance; the man, Tooke, was greatly trusted, especially by Mr. Frith the senior partner, and was so clever and experienced that it would be almost impossible to establish anything against him. Indeed he had browbeaten Clarence, and convinced him at the moment that his suspicions and perplexities were only due to the ignorance of a foolish, scrupulous youth, who did not understand the customs and perquisites of an agency. It was only when Clarence was alone, and reflected on the matter by the light of experience gained on a similar expedition to Liverpool, that he had perceived that Mr. Tooke had been throwing dust in his eyes.

'I shall only get into a scrape myself,' said Clarence despondently. 'I have felt it coming ever since I have been at Bristol;' and he pushed his hair back with a weary hopeless gesture.

'But you don't mean to let it alone?' I cried indignantly.

He hesitated in a manner that painfully recalled his failing, and said at last, 'I don't know; I suppose I ought not.'

'Suppose?' I cried.

'It is not so easy as you think,' he answered, 'especially for one who has forfeited the right to be believed. I must wait till I have an opportunity of speaking to Mr. Castleford, and then I can hardly do more than privately give him a hint to be watchful. You don't know how things are in such houses as ours. One may only ruin oneself without doing any good.'

'You cannot write to him?'

'Certainly not. He has taken his family to Mrs. Castleford's home in the north of Ireland for a month or six weeks. I don't know the address, and I cannot run the risk of the letter being opened at the office.'

'Can't you speak to my father?'

'Impossible! it would be a betrayal. He would do things for which I should never be forgiven. And, after all, remember, it is no business of mine. I know of agents at the docks who do such things as a matter of course. It is only that I happen to know that Harris at Liverpool does not. Very possibly old Frith knows all about it. I should only get scored down as a meddlesome prig, worse hypocrite than they think me already.'

He said a good deal more to this effect, and I remember exclaiming, 'Oh, Clarence, the old story!' and then being frightened at the whiteness that came over his face.

Little did I know the suffering to which those words of mine condemned him. For not only had he to make up his mind to resistance, which to his nature was infinitely worse than it was to Griffith to face a raging mob, but he knew very well that it would almost inevitably produce his own ruin, and renew the disgrace out of which he was beginning to emerge. I did not--even while I prayed that he might do the right--guess at his own agony of supplication, carried on incessantly, day and night, sleeping and waking, that the Holy Spirit of might should brace his will and govern his tongue, and make him say the right thing at the right time, be the consequences what they might. No one, not constituted as he was, can guess at the anguish he endured. I knew no more. Clarence did not come home the next Saturday, to my mother's great vexation; but on Tuesday a small parcel was given to me, brought from our point of contact with the Bristol coach. It contained some pencils I had asked him to get, and a note marked Private. Here it is -

'DEAR EDWARD--I am summoned to town. Tooke has no doubt forestalled me. We have had some curious interviews, in which he first, as I told you, persuaded me out of my senses that it was all right, and then, finding me still dissatisfied, tried in a delicate fashion to apprise me that I had a claim to a share of the plunder. When I refused to appropriate anything without sanction from headquarters, he threatened me with the consequences of presumptuous interference. It came to bullying at last. I hardly know what I answered, but I don't think I gave in. Now, a sharp letter from old Frith recalls me. Say nothing at home; and whatever you do, do not betray Griff. He has more to lose than I. Help me in the true way, as you know how.--Ever yours, W. C. W.

I need not dwell on the misery of those days. It was well that my father had ruled that our letters should not be family property. Here were all the others discussing a proposed tour in the north of Devon, to be taken conjointly with the Fordyces, as soon as Griff should come home. My mother said it would do me good; she saw I was flagging, but she little guessed at the continual torment of anxiety, and my wonder at the warning about Griff.

At the end of the week came another letter.

'You need not speak yet. Papa and mamma will know soon enough. I brought down 150 pounds in specie, to be paid over to Tooke. He avers that only 130 pounds was received. What is my word worth against his? I am told that if I am not prosecuted it will only be out of respect to my father. I am not dismissed yet, but shall get notice as soon as letters come from Ireland. I have written, but it is not in the nature of things that Mr. Castleford should not accept such proofs as have been sent him. I have no hope, and shall be glad when it is over. The part of black sheep is not a pleasant one. Say not a word, and do not let my father come up. He could do no good, and to see him believing it all would be the last drop in the bucket.

N.B.--In this pass, nothing would be saved by bringing Griff into it, so be silent on your life. Innocence does not seem to be much comfort at present. Maybe it will come in time. I know you will not drop me, dear Ted, wherever I may be.'

Need I tell the distress of those days of suspense and silence, when my only solace was in being left alone, and in writing letters to Clarence which were mostly torn up again.

My horror was lest he should be driven to go off to the sea, which he loved so well, knowing, as nobody else did, the longing that sometimes seized him for it, a hereditary craving that curiously conflicted with the rest of his disposition; and, indeed, his lack was more of moral than of physical courage. It haunted me constantly that his entreaty that my father should not come to London was a bad sign, and that he would never face such another return home. And was I justified in keeping all this to myself, when my father's presence might save him from the flight that would indeed be the surrender of his character, and to the life of a common sailor? Never have I known such leaden days as these, yet the misery was not a tithe of what Clarence was undergoing.

I was right in my forebodings. Prosecution and a second return home in shame and disgrace were alike hideous to Clarence, and the present was almost equally terrible, for nobody at the office had any doubt of his guilt, and the young men who had sneered at his strictness and religious habits regarded him as an unmasked hypocrite, only waiting on sufferance till his greatly deceived patron should write to decide on the steps to be taken with him, while he knew he was thought to be brazening it out in hopes of again deceiving Mr. Castleford.

The sea began to exert its power over him, and he thought with longing of its freedom, as if the sails of the vessels were the wings of a dove to flee away and be at rest. He had no illusions as to the roughness of the life and companionship; but in his present mood, the frank rudeness and profanity of the sailors seemed preferable to his cramped life, and the scowls of his fellows; and he knew himself to have seamanship enough to rise quickly, even if he could not secure a mate's berth at first.

Mr. Castleford could not be heard from till the end of the week. Friday, Saturday came and not a word. That was the climax! When the consignment of cash, hitherto carried by Clarence to the Bank of England, was committed to another clerk, the very office boy sniggered, and the manager demonstratively waited to see him depart.

Unable to bear it any longer, he walked towards Wapping, bought a Southwester, examined the lists of shipping, and entered into conversation with one or two sailors about the vessels making up their crews; intending to go down after dark, to meet the skipper of a craft bound for Lisbon, who, he heard, was so much in want of a mate as perhaps to overlook the lack of testimonials, and at any rate take him on board on Sunday.

Going home to pick up a few necessaries, a book lent to him by Miss Newton came in his way, and he felt drawn to carry it home, and see her face for the last time.

All unconscious of his trouble and of his intentions, the good lady told him of her strong desire to hear a celebrated preacher at a neighbouring church on the Sunday evening, but said that in her partial blindness and weakness, she was afraid to venture, unless he would have the extreme goodness, as she said, to take care of her. He saw that she wished it so much that he had not the heart to refuse, and he recollected likewise that very early on Monday morning would answer his purpose equally well.

It was the 7th of June. The Psalm was the 37th--the supreme lesson of patience. 'Hold thee still in the Lord; and abide patiently on Him; and He shall bring it to pass. He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light, and thy just dealing as the noonday.'

The awful sense of desolation seemed to pass away under those words, with that gentle woman beside him. And the sermon was on 'Oh tarry thou the Lord's leisure; be strong, and He shall comfort thine heart; and put thou thy trust in the Lord.'

Clarence remembered nothing but the text. But it was borne in upon him that his purpose of flight was 'the old story,'--cowardice and virtual distrust of the Lord, as well as absolute cruelty to us who loved him.

When he had deposited Miss Newton at her own door, he whispered thanks, and an entreaty for her prayers.

And then he went home, and fought the battle of his life, with his own horrible dread of Mr. Castleford's disappointment; of possible prosecution; of the shame at home; the misery of a life a second time blighted. He fought it out on his knees, many a time persuading himself that flight would not be a sin, then returning to the sense that it was a temptation of his worse self to be overcome. And by morning he knew that it would be a surrender of himself to his lower nature, and the evil spirit behind it; while, by facing the worst that could befall him, he would be falling into the hand of the Lord.