Chapter XXIV--After the Tempest
 
'Nor deem the irrevocable past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If rising on its wrecks at last
To something nobler we attain.'

LONGFELLOW.

All the rest of the family were out, and I was relieved by being alone with my distress, not forced to hide it, when the door opened and 'Mr. Castleford' was announced. After one moment's look at me, one touch of my hand, he must have seen that I was faint with anxiety, and said, 'It is all right, Edward; I see you know all. I am come from Bristol to tell your father that he may be proud of his son Clarence.'

I don't know what I did. Perhaps I sobbed and cried, but the first words I could get out were, 'Does he know? Oh! it may be too late. He may be gone off to sea!' I cried, breaking out with my chief fear. Mr. Castleford looked astounded, then said, 'I trust not. I sent off a special messenger last night, as soon as I saw my way--'

Then I breathed a little more freely, and could understand what he was telling me, namely, that Tooke had accused Clarence of abstracting 20 pounds from the sum in his charge. The fellow accounted for it by explaining that young Winslow had been paying extravagant bills at a tavern, where the barmaid showed his presents, and boasted of her conquest. All this had been written to Mr. Castleford by his partner, and he was told that it was out of deference to himself that his protege was not in custody, nor had received notice of dismissal; but, no doubt, he would give his sanction to immediate measures, and communicate with the family.

The effect had been to make the good man hurry at once from the Giant's Causeway to Bristol, where he had arrived on Sunday, to investigate the books and examine the underlings. In the midst Tooke attempted to abscond, but he was brought back as he was embarking in an American vessel; and he then confessed the whole,-- how speculation had led to dishonesty, and following evil customs not uncommon in other firms. Then, when the fugitive found that young Winslow was too acute to be blinded, and that it had been a still greater mistake to try to overcome his integrity, self-defence required his ruin, or at any rate his expulsion, before he could gain Mr. Castleford's ear.

Tooke really believed that the discreditable bills were the young man's own, and proofs of concealed habits of dissipation; but this excellent man had gone into the matter, repaired to the tradesfolk, learnt the date, and whose the accounts really were, and had even hunted up the barmaid, who was not married after all, and had no hesitation in avowing that her beau had been the handsome young Yeomanry lieutenant. Mr. Castleford had spent the greater part of Monday in this painful task, but had not been clear enough till quite late in the evening to despatch an express to his partner, and to Clarence, whom he desired to meet him here.

'He has acted nobly,' said our kind friend. 'His only error seems to have been in being too good a brother.'

This made me implore that nothing should be said about Griffith's bills, showing those injunctions of Clarence's which had so puzzled me, and explaining the circumstances.

Mr. Castleford hummed and hawed, and perhaps wished he had seen my father before me; but I prevailed at last, and when the others came in from their drive, there was nothing to alloy the intelligence that Clarence had shown rare discernment, as well as great uprightness, steadfastness, and moral courage.

My mother, when she had taken in the fact, actually shed tears of joy. Emily stood by me, holding my hand. My father said, 'It is all owing to you, Castleford, and the helping hand you gave the poor boy.'

'Nay,' was the answer, 'it seems to me that it was owing to his having the root of the matter in him to overcome his natural failings.'

Still, in all the rejoicing, my heart failed me lest the express should have come too late, and Clarence should be already on the high seas, for there had been no letter from him on Sunday morning. It was doubtful whether Mr. Castleford's messenger could reach London in time for tidings to come down by the coach--far less did we expect Clarence--and we had nearly finished the first course at dinner, when we heard the front door open, and a voice speaking to the butler. Emily screamed 'It's he! Oh mamma, may I?' and flew out into the hall, dragging in a pale, worn and weary wight, all dust and heat, having travelled down outside the coach on a broiling day, and walked the rest of the way. He looked quite bewildered at the rush at him; my father's 'Well done, Clarence,' and strong clasp; and my mother's fervent kiss, and muttered something about washing his hands.

Formal folks, such as we were, had to sit in our chairs; and when he came back apologising for not dressing, as he had left his portmanteau for the carrier, he looked so white and ill that we were quite shocked, and began to realise what he had suffered. He could not eat the food that was brought back for him, and allowed that his head was aching dreadfully; but, after a glass of wine had been administered, it was extracted that he had met Mr. Frith at the office door, and been gruffly told that Mr. Castleford was satisfied, and he might consider himself acquitted.

'And then I had your letter, sir, thank you,' said Clarence, scarcely restraining his tears.

'The thanks are on our side, my dear boy,' said Mr. Castleford. 'I must talk it over with you, but not till you have had a night's rest. You look as if you had not known one for a good while.'

Clarence gave a sort of trembling smile, not trusting himself to speak. Approbation at home was so new and strange to him that he could scarcely bear it, worn out as he was by nearly a month of doubt, distress, apprehension, and self-debate.

My mother went herself to hasten the preparation of his room, and after she had sent him to bed went again to satisfy herself that he was comfortable and not feverish. She came back wiping away a tear, and saying he had looked up at her just as when she had the three of us in our nursery cribs. In truth these two had seldom been so happy together since those days, though the dear mother, while thankful that he had not failed, was little aware of the conflict his resolution had cost him, and the hot journey and long walk came in for more blame for his exhaustion than they entirely deserved.

My father perhaps understood more of the trial; for when she came back, declaring that all that was needed was sleep, and forbidding me to go to my room before bedtime, he said he must bid the boy good-night.

And he spoke as his reserve would have never let him speak at any other time, telling Clarence how deeply thankful he felt for the manifestation of such truthfulness and moral courage as he said showed that the man had conquered the failings of the boy.

Nevertheless, when I retired for the night, it was to find Clarence asleep indeed, but most uneasily, tossing, moaning, and muttering broken sentences about 'disgracing his pennant,' 'never bearing to see mamma's face'--and the like. I thought it a kindness to wake him, and he started up. 'Ted, is it you? I thought I should never hear your dear old crutch again! Is it really all right'--then, sitting up and passing his hand over his face, 'I always mix it up with the old affair, and think the court-martial is coming again.'

'There's all the difference now.'

'Thank God! yes--He has dragged me through! But it did not seem so in one's sleep, nor waking neither--though sleep is worst, and happily there was not much of that! Sit down, Ted; I want to look at you. I can't believe it is not three weeks since I saw you last.'

We talked it all out, and I came to some perception of the fearful ordeal it had been--first, in the decision neither to shut his eyes, nor to conceal that they were open; and then in the lack of presence of mind and the sense of confusion that always beset him when browbeaten and talked down, so that, in the critical contest with Tooke, he felt as if his feet were slipping from under him, and what had once been clear to him was becoming dim, so that he had only been assured that he had held his ground by Tooke's redoubled persuasions and increased anger. And for a clerk, whose years were only twenty-one, to oppose a manager, who had been in the service more than the whole of that space, was preposterous insolence, and likely to result in the utter ruin of his own prospects, and the character he had begun to retrieve. It was just after this, the real crisis, that he had the only dream which had not been misery and distress. In it she--she yonder--yes, the lady with the lamp, came and stood by him, and said, 'Be steadfast.'

'It was a dream,' said Clarence. 'She was not as she is in the mullion room, not crying, but with a sweet, sad look, almost like Miss Fordyce--if Miss Fordyce ever looked sad. It was only a dream.'

Yet it had so refreshed and comforted him that we have often since discussed whether the spirit really visited him, or whether this was the manner in which conscience and imagination acted on his brain. Indeed, he always believed that the dream had been either heaven- sent or heaven-permitted.

The die had been cast in that interview when he had let it be seen that he was dangerous, and could not be bought over. The after consequences had been the terrible distress and temptation I have before described, only most inadequately. 'But that,' said Clarence, half smiling, 'only came of my being such a wretched creature as I am. There, dear old Miss Newton saved me--yes, she did--most unconsciously, dear old soul. Don't you remember how Griff used to say she maundered over the text. Well, she did it all the way home in my ear, as she clung to my arm--"Be strong, and He shall comfort thine heart." And then I knew my despair and determination to leave it all behind were a temptation--"the old story," as you told me, and I prayed God to help me, and just managed to fight it out. Thank God for her!'

If it had not been for that good woman, he would have been out of reach--already out in the river--before Mr. Castleford's messenger had reached London! He might call himself a poor creature--and certainly a man of harder, bolder stuff would not have fared so badly in the strife; but it always seemed to me in after years that much of what he called the poor creature--the old, nervous, timid, diffident self--had been shaken off in that desperate struggle, perhaps because it had really given him more self-reliance, and certainly inspired others with confidence in him.

We talked late enough to have horrified my mother, but I did not leave him till he was sleeping like a child, nor did he wake till I was leaving the room at the sound of the bell. It was alleged that it was the first time in his life that he had been late for prayers. Mr. Castleford said he was very glad, and my mother, looking severely at me, said she knew we had been talking all night, and then went off to satisfy herself whether he ought to be getting up.

There was no doubt on that score, for he was quite himself again, though he was, in looks and in weariness, just as if he had recovered from a bad illness, or, as he put it himself, he felt as tired and bruised as if he had been in a stiff gale. Mr. Castleford was sorry to be obliged to ask him to go through the whole matter with him in the study, and the result was that he was pronounced to have an admirable head for business, as well as the higher qualities that had been put to the test. After that his good friend insisted that he should have a long and complete holiday, at first proposing to take him to Ireland, but giving the notion up on hearing of our projected excursion to the north of Devon. Pending this, Clarence was, for nearly a week, fit for nothing but lying on the grass in the shade, playing with the cats and dogs, or with little Anne, looking over our drawings, listening to Wordsworth, our reigning idol,--and enjoying, with almost touching gratitude, the first approach to petting that had ever fallen to his share.

The only trouble on his mind was the Quarter-Session. Mr. Castleford would hardly have prosecuted an old employe, but Mr. Frith was furious, and resolved to make an example. Tooke had, however, so carefully entrenched himself that nothing could be actually made a subject of prosecution but the abstraction of the 20 pounds of which he had accused Clarence, who had to prove the having received and delivered it.

It was a very painful affair, and Tooke was sentenced to seven years' transportation. I believe he became a very rich and prosperous man in New South Wales, and founded a family. My father received warm compliments upon his sons, and Clarence had the new sensation of being honourably coupled with Griffith, though he laughed at the idea of mere honesty with fierce struggles being placed beside heroism with no struggle at all.