Melchior's Dream by Juliana Horatia Ewing
"Thou that hast given so much to me, Give one thing more--a grateful heart."
"Well, father, I don't believe the Browns are a bit better off than we are; and yet when I spent the day with young Brown, we cooked all sorts of messes in the afternoon; and he wasted twice as much rum and brandy and lemons in his trash, as I should want to make good punch of. He was quite surprised, too, when I told him that our mince-pies were kept shut up in the larder, and only brought out at meal-times, and then just one apiece; he said they had mince-pies always going, and he got one whenever he liked. Old Brown never blows up about that sort of thing; he likes Adolphus to enjoy himself in the holidays, particularly at Christmas."
The speaker was a boy--if I may be allowed to use the word in speaking of an individual whose jackets had for some time past been resigned to a younger member of his family, and who daily, in the privacy of his own apartment, examined his soft cheeks by the aid of his sisters' "back-hair glass." He was a handsome boy too; tall, and like David--"ruddy, and of a fair countenance;" and his face, though clouded then, bore the expression of general amiability. He was the eldest son in a large young family, and was being educated at one of the best public schools. He did not, it must be confessed, think either small beer or small beans of himself; and as to the beer and beans that his family thought of him, I think it was pale ale and kidney-beans at least.
Young Hopeful had, however, his weak points like the rest of us; and perhaps one of the weakest was the difficulty he found in amusing himself without bothering other people. He had quite a monomania for proposing the most troublesome "larks" at the most inconvenient moments; and if his plans were thwarted, an AEolian harp is cheerful compared to the tone in which, arguing and lamenting, he
"Fought his battles o'er again,"
to the distraction of every occupied member of the household.
When the lords of the creation of all ages can find nothing else to do, they generally take to eating and drinking; and so it came to pass that our hero had set his mind upon brewing a jorum of punch, and sipping it with an accompaniment of mince-pies; and Paterfamilias had not been quietly settled to his writing for half-an-hour, when he was disturbed by an application for the necessary ingredients. These he had refused, quietly explaining that he could not afford to waste his French brandy, etc., in school-boy cookery, and ending with, "You see the reason, my dear boy?"
To which the dear boy replied as above, and concluded with the disrespectful (not to say ungrateful) hint, "Old Brown never blows up about that sort of thing; he likes Adolphus to enjoy himself in the holidays."
Whereupon Paterfamilias made answer, in the mildly deprecating tone in which the elder sometimes do answer the younger in these topsy-turvy days:--
"That's quite a different case. Don't you see, my boy, that Adolphus Brown is an only son, and you have nine brothers and sisters? If you have punch and mince-meat to play with, there is no reason why Tom should not have it, and James, and Edward, and William, and Benjamin, and Jack. And then there are your sisters. Twice the amount of the Browns' mince-meat would not serve you. I like you to enjoy yourself in the holidays as much as young Brown or anybody; but you must remember that I send you boys to good schools, and give you all the substantial comforts and advantages in my power; and the Christmas bills are very heavy, and I have a great many calls on my purse; and you must be reasonable. Don't you see?"
"Well, father--" began the boy; but his father interrupted him. He knew the unvarying beginning of a long grumble, and dreading the argument, cut it short.
"I have decided. You must amuse yourself some other way. And just remember that young Brown's is quite another case. He is an only son."
Whereupon Paterfamilias went off to his study and his sermon; and his son, like the Princess in Andersen's story of the Swineherd, was left outside to sing,
"O dearest Augustine, All's clean gone away!"
Not that he did say that--that was the princess' song--what he said was,
"I wish I were an only son!"
This was rather a vain wish, for round the dining-room fire (where he soon joined them) were gathered his nine brothers and sisters, who, to say the truth, were not looking much more lively and cheerful than he. And yet (of all days in the year on which to be doleful and dissatisfied!) this was Christmas Eve.
Now I know that the idea of dulness or discomfort at Christmas is a very improper one, particularly in a story. We all know how every little boy in a story-book spends the Christmas holidays.
First, there is the large hamper of good things sent by grandpapa, which is as inexhaustible as Fortunatus's purse, and contains everything, from a Norfolk turkey to grapes from the grandpaternal vinery.
There is the friend who gives a guinea to each member of the family, and sees who will spend it best.
There are the godpapas and godmammas, who might almost be fairy sponsors from the number of expensive gifts that they bring upon the scene. The uncles and aunts are also liberal.
One night is devoted to a magic-lantern (which has a perfect focus), another to the pantomime, a third to a celebrated conjuror, a fourth to a Christmas tree and juvenile ball.
The happy youth makes himself sufficiently ill with plum-pudding, to testify to the reader how good it was, and how much there was of it; but recovers in time to fall a victim to the negus and trifle at supper for the same reason. He is neither fatigued with late hours nor surfeited with sweets; or if he is, we do not hear of it.
But as this is a strictly candid history, I will at once confess the truth, on behalf of my hero and his brothers and sisters. They had spent the morning in decorating the old church, in pricking holly about the house, and in making a mistletoe bush. Then in the afternoon they had tasted the Christmas soup and seen it given out; they had put a finishing touch to the snow man by crowning him with holly, and had dragged the yule-logs home from the carpenter's. And now, the early tea being over, Paterfamilias had gone to finish his sermon for to-morrow; his friend was shut up in his room; and Materfamilias was in hers, with one of those painful headaches which even Christmas will not always keep away. So the ten children were left to amuse themselves, and they found it rather a difficult matter.
"Here's a nice Christmas!" said our hero. He had turned his youngest brother out of the arm-chair, and was now lying in it with his legs over the side. "Here's a nice Christmas! A fellow might just as well be at school. I wonder what Adolphus Brown would think of being cooped up with a lot of children like this! It's his party to-night, and he's to have champagne and ices. I wish I were an only son."
"Thank you," said a chorus of voices from the floor. They were all sprawling about on the hearth-rug, pushing and struggling like so many kittens in a sack, and every now and then with a grumbled remonstrance:--
"Don't, Jack! you're treading on me."
"You needn't take all the fire, Tom."
"Keep your legs to yourself, Benjamin."
"It wasn't I," etc., with occasionally the feebler cry of a small sister--
"Oh! you boys are so rough."
"And what are you girls, I wonder?" inquired the proprietor of the arm-chair with cutting irony. "Whiney piney, whiney piney. I wish there were no such things as brothers and sisters!"
"You wish WHAT?" said a voice from the shadow by the door, as deep and impressive as that of the ghost in Hamlet.
The ten sprang up; but when the figure came into the fire-light, they saw that it was no ghost, but Paterfamilias's old college friend, who spent most of his time abroad, and who, having no home or relatives of his own, had come to spend Christmas at his friend's vicarage. "You wish what?" he repeated.
"Well, brothers and sisters are a bore," was the reply. "One or two would be all very well; but just look, here are ten of us; and it just spoils everything. If a fellow wants to go anywhere, it's somebody else's turn. If old Brown sends a basket of grapes, it's share and share alike; all the ten must taste, and then there's about a grape and a half for each. If anybody calls or comes to luncheon, there are a whole lot of brats swarming about, looking as if we kept a school. Whatever one does, the rest must do; whatever there is, the rest must share; whereas, if a fellow was an only son, he would have the whole--and by all the rules of arithmetic, one is better than a tenth."
"And by the same rules ten is better than one," said the friend.
"Sold again," sang out Master Jack from the floor, and went head over heels against the fender.
His brother boxed his ears with great promptitude, and went on, "Well, I don't care; confess, sir, isn't it rather a nuisance?"
Paterfamilias's friend looked very grave, and said, quietly, "I don't think I am able to judge. I never had brother or sister but one, and he was drowned at sea. Whatever I have had, I have had the whole of, and would have given it away willingly for some one to give it to. If any one sent me grapes, I ate them alone. If I made anything, there was no one to show it to. If I wanted to act, I must act all the characters, and be my own audience. I remember that I got a lot of sticks at last, and cut heads and faces to all of them, and carved names on their sides, and called them my brothers and sisters. If you want to know what I thought a nice number for a fellow to have, I can only say that I remember carving twenty-five. I used to stick them in the ground and talk to them. I have been only, and lonely, and alone, all my life, and have never felt the nuisance you speak of."
This was a funny account; but the speaker looked so far from funny that one of the sisters, who was very tender-hearted, crept up to him, and said, gently--
"Richard is only joking; he doesn't really want to get rid of us. The other day the curate said he wished he had a sister, and Richard offered to sell us all for ninepence; but he is only in fun. Only it is rather slow just now, and the boys get rather cross; at least, we all of us do."
"It's a dreadful state of things," said the friend, smiling through his black beard and moustachios. "What is to be done?"
"I know what would be very nice," insinuated the young lady.
"If you wouldn't mind telling us a very short story till supper-time. The boys like stories."
"That's a good idea," said Benjamin. "As if the girls didn't!"
But the friend proclaimed order, and seated himself with the girl in question on his knee. "Well, what sort of a story is it to be?"
"Any sort," said Richard; "only not too true, if you please. I don't like stories like tracts. There was an usher at a school I was at, and he used to read tracts about good boys and bad boys to the fellows on Sunday afternoon. He always took out the real names, and put in the names of the fellows instead. Those who had done well in the week he put in as good ones, and those who hadn't as the bad. He didn't like me, and I was always put in as a bad boy, and I came to so many untimely ends I got sick of it. I was hanged twice, and transported once for sheep-stealing; I committed suicide one week, and broke into the bank the next; I ruined three families, became a hopeless drunkard, and broke the hearts of my twelve distinct parents. I used to beg him to let me be reformed next week; but he said he never would till I did my Caesar better. So, if you please, we'll have a story that can't be true."
"Very well," said the friend, laughing; "but if it isn't true, may I put you in? All the best writers, you know, draw their characters from their friends now-a-days. May I put you in?"
"Oh, certainly!" said Richard, placing himself in front of the fire, putting his feet on the hob, and stroking his curls with an air which seemed to imply that whatever he was put into would be highly favoured.
The rest struggled, and pushed, and squeezed themselves into more modest but equally comfortable quarters; and after a few moments of thought, Paterfamilias's friend commenced the story of
"Melchior is my hero. He was--well, he considered himself a young man, so we will consider him so too. He was not perfect; but in these days the taste in heroes is for a good deal of imperfection, not to say wickedness. He was not an only son. On the contrary, he had a great many brothers and sisters, and found them quite as objectionable as my friend Richard does."
"I smell a moral," murmured the said Richard.
"Your scent must be keen," said the story-teller, "for it is a long way off. Well, he had never felt them so objectionable as on one particular night, when, the house being full of company, it was decided that the boys should sleep in 'barracks,' as they called it; that is, all in one large room."
"Thank goodness, we have not come to that!" said the incorrigible Richard; but he was reduced to order by threats of being turned out, and contented himself with burning the soles of his boots against the bars of the grate in silence: and the friend continued:--
"But this was not the worst. Not only was he, Melchior, to sleep in the same room with his brothers, but his bed being the longest and largest, his youngest brother was to sleep at the other end of it--foot to foot. True, by this means he got another pillow, for, of course, that little Hop-o'-my-Thumb could do without one, and so he took his; but, in spite of this, he determined that, sooner than submit to such an indignity, he would sit up all night. Accordingly, when all the rest were fast asleep, Melchior, with his boots off and his waistcoat easily unbuttoned, sat over the fire in the long lumber-room which served that night as 'barracks'. He had refused to eat any supper downstairs to mark his displeasure, and now repaid himself by a stolen meal according to his own taste. He had got a pork-pie, a little bread and cheese, some large onions to roast, a couple of raw apples, an orange, and papers of soda and tartaric acid to compound effervescing draughts. When these dainties were finished, he proceeded to warm some beer in a pan, with ginger, spice, and sugar, and then lay back in his chair and sipped it slowly, gazing before him, and thinking over his misfortunes.
"The night wore on, the fire got lower and lower, and still Melchior sat, with his eyes fixed on a dirty old print that had hung above the mantelpiece for years, sipping his 'brew', which was fast getting cold. The print represented an old man in a light costume, with a scythe in one hand and an hour-glass in the other; and underneath the picture in flourishing capitals was the word TIME.
"'You're a nice old beggar,' said Melchior, dreamily. 'You look like an old hay-maker who has come to work in his shirt-sleeves, and forgotten the rest of his clothes. Time! time you went to the tailor's, I think.'
"This was very irreverent; but Melchior was not in a respectful mood; and as for the old man, he was as calm as any philosopher.
"The night wore on, and the fire got lower and lower, and at last went out altogether.
"'How stupid of me not to have mended it!' said Melchior; but he had not mended it, and so there was nothing for it but to go to bed; and to bed he went accordingly.
"'But I won't go to sleep,' he said; 'no, no; I shall keep awake, and to-morrow they shall know that I have had a bad night.'
"So he lay in bed with his eyes wide open, and staring still at the old print, which he could see from his bed by the light of the candle, which he had left alight on the mantelpiece to keep him awake. The flame waved up and down, for the room was draughty; and as the lights and shadows passed over the old man's face, Melchior almost fancied that it nodded to him, so he nodded back again; and as that tired him he shut his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them again, there was no longer any doubt--the old man's head was moving; and not only his head, but his legs, and his whole body. Finally, he put his feet out of the frame, and prepared to step right over the mantelpiece, candle, and all.
"'Take care,' Melchior tried to say, 'you'll set fire to your shirt.' But he could not utter a sound; and the old man arrived safely on the floor, where he seemed to grow larger and larger, till he was fully the size of a man, but still with the same scythe and hour-glass, and the same airy costume. Then he came across the room, and sat down by Melchior's bedside.
"'Who are you?' said Melchior, feeling rather creepy.
"'TIME,' said his visitor in a deep voice, which sounded as if it came from a distance.
"'Oh, to be sure, yes! In copper-plate capitals.'
"'What's in copper-plate capitals?' inquired Time.
"'Your name, under the print.'
"'Very likely,' said Time.
"Melchior felt more and more uneasy. 'You must be very cold,' he said. 'Perhaps you would feel warmer if you went back into the picture.'
"'Not at all,' said Time; 'I have come on purpose to see you.'
"'I have not the pleasure of knowing you,' said Melchior, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.
"'There are not many people who have a personal acquaintance with me,' said his visitor. 'You have an advantage--I am your godfather.'
"'Indeed,' said Melchior; 'I never heard of it.'
"'Yes,' said his visitor; 'and you will find it a great advantage.'
"'Would you like to put on my coat?' said Melchior, trying to be civil.
"'No, thank you,' was the answer. 'You will want it yourself. We must be driving soon.'
"'Driving!' said Melchior.
"'Yes,' was the answer; 'all the world is driving; and you must drive; and here come your brothers and sisters.'
"Melchior sat up; and there they were, sure enough, all dressed, and climbing one after the other on to the bed--his bed!
"There was that little minx of a sister with her curls (he always called them carrot shavings), who was so conceited (girls always are!) and always trying to attract notice, in spite of Melchior's incessant snubbings. There was that clever brother, with his untidy hair and bent shoulders, who was just as bad the other way; who always ran out of the back door when visitors called, and was for ever moping and reading: and this, in spite of Melchior's hiding his books, and continually telling him that he was a disgrace to the family, a perfect bear, not fit to be seen, etc.--all with the laudable desire of his improvement. There was that little Hop-o'-my-Thumb, as lively as any of them, a young monkey, the worst of all; who was always in mischief, and consorting with the low boys in the village; though Melchior did not fail to tell him that he was not fit company for gentlemen's sons, that he was certain to be cut when he went to school, and that he would probably end his days by being transported, if not hanged. There was the second brother, who was Melchior's chief companion, and against whom he had no particular quarrel. And there was the little pale lame sister, whom he dearly loved; but whom, odd to say, he never tried to improve at all; his remedy for her failings was generally, 'Let her do as she likes, will you?' There were others who were all tiresome in their respective ways; and one after the other they climbed up.
"'What are you doing, getting on to my bed!' inquired the indignant brother, as soon as he could speak.
"'Don't you know the difference between a bed and a coach, godson?' said Time, sharply.
"Melchior was about to retort, but on looking round, he saw that they were really in a large sort of coach with very wide windows. 'I thought I was in bed,' he muttered. 'What can I have been dreaming of?'
"'What, indeed!' said the godfather. 'But, be quick, and sit close, for you have all to get in; you are all brothers and sisters.'
"'Must families be together?' inquired Melchior, dolefully.
"'Yes, at first,' was the answer; 'they get separated in time. In fact, everyone has to cease driving sooner or later. I drop them on the road at different stages, according to my orders,' and he showed a bundle of papers in his hands; 'but, as I favour you, I will tell you in confidence that I have to drop all your brothers and sisters before you. There, you four oldest sit on this side, you five others there, and the little one must stand or be nursed.'
"'Ugh!' said Melchior, 'the coach would be well enough if one was alone; but what a squeeze with all these brats! I say, go pretty quick, will you?'
"'I will,' said Time, 'if you wish it. But, beware that you cannot change your mind. If I go quicker for your sake, I shall never go slow again; if slower, I shall not again go quick; and I only favour you so far, because you are my godson. Here, take the check-string; when you want me, pull it, and speak through the tube. Now we're off.'
"Whereupon the old man mounted the box, and took the reins. He had no whip; but when he wanted to start, he shook the hour-glass, and off they went. Then Melchior saw that the road where they were driving was very broad, and so filled with vehicles of all kinds that he could not see the hedges. The noise and crowd and dust were very great; and to Melchior all seemed delightfully exciting. There was every sort of conveyance, from the grandest coach to the humblest donkey-cart; and they seemed to have enough to do to escape being run over. Among all the gay people there were many whom he knew; and a very nice thing it seemed to be to drive among all the grandees, and to show his handsome face at the window, and bow and smile to his acquaintance. Then it appeared to be the fashion to wrap oneself in a tiger-skin rug, and to look at life through an opera-glass, and old Time had kindly put one of each into the coach.
"But here again Melchior was much troubled by his brothers and sisters. Just at the moment when he was wishing to look most fashionable and elegant, one or other of them would pull away the rug, or drop the glass, or quarrel, or romp, or do something that spoilt the effect. In fact, one and all, they 'just spoilt everything;' and the more he scolded, the worse they became. The 'minx' shook her curls, and flirted through the window with a handsome but ill-tempered looking man on a fine horse, who praised her 'golden locks,' as he called them; and, oddly enough, when Melchior said the man was a lout, and that the locks in question were corkscrewy carrot shavings, she only seemed to like the man and his compliments the more. Meanwhile, the untidy brother pored over his book, or if he came to the window, it was only to ridicule the fine ladies and gentlemen, so Melchior sent him to Coventry. Then Hop-o'-my-Thumb had taken to make signs and exchange jokes with some disreputable-looking youths in a dog-cart; and when his brother would have put him to 'sit still like a gentleman' at the bottom of the coach, he seemed positively to prefer his low companions; and the rest were little better.
"Poor Melchior! Surely there never was a clearer case of a young gentleman's comfort destroyed, solely by other people's perverse determination to be happy in their own way instead of in his. Surely, no young gentleman ever knew better that if his brothers and sisters would yield to his wishes, they would not quarrel; or ever more completely overlooked the fact, that if he had yielded more to theirs the same happy result might have been attained. At last he lost patience, and pulling the check-string, bade Godfather Time drive as fast as he could.
"'For,' said he, 'there will never be any peace while there are so many of us in the coach; if a fellow had the rug and glass, and, indeed, the coach to himself, he might drive and bow and talk with the best of them; but as it is, one might as well go about in a wild-beast caravan.'
"Godfather Time frowned, but shook his glass all the same, and away they went at a famous pace. All at once they came to a stop.
"'Now for it,' says Melchior; 'here goes one at any rate.'
"Time called out the name of the second brother over his shoulder; and the boy stood up, and bade his brothers and sisters good-bye.
"'It is time that I began to push my way in the world,' said he, and passed out of the coach, and in among the crowd.
"'You have taken the only quiet boy,' said Melchior to the godfather angrily. 'Drive fast now, for pity's sake; and let us get rid of the tiresome ones.'
"And fast enough they drove, and dropped first one and then the other; but the sisters, and the reading boy, and the youngest still remained.
"'What are you looking at?' said Melchior to the lame sister.
"'At a strange figure in the crowd,' she answered.
"'I see nothing,' said Melchior. But on looking again after a while, he did see a figure wrapped in a cloak, gliding in and out among the people, unnoticed, if not unseen.
"'Who is it?' Melchior asked of the godfather.
"'A friend of mine,' Time answered. 'His name is Death.'
"Melchior shuddered, more especially as the figure had now come up to the coach, and put its hand in through the window, on which, to his horror, the lame sister laid hers and smiled. At this moment the coach stopped.
"'What are you doing?' shrieked Melchior, 'Drive on! drive on!'
"But even while he sprang up to seize the check-string the door had opened, the pale sister's face (a little paler now) had dropped upon the shoulder of the figure in the cloak, and he had carried her away; and Melchior stormed and raved in vain.
"'To take her, and to leave the rest! Cruel! cruel!'
"In his rage and grief, he hardly knew it when the untidy brother was called, and putting his book under his arm, slipped out of the coach without looking to the right or left. Presently the coach stopped again; and when Melchior looked up the door was open, and at it was the fine man on the fine horse, who was lifting the sister on to the saddle before him. 'What fool's game are you playing?' said Melchior, angrily. 'I know that man. He is both ill-tempered and a bad character.'
"'You never told her so before,' muttered young Hop-o'-my-Thumb.
"'Hold your tongue,' said Melchior. 'I forbade her to talk to him, which was enough.'
"'I don't want to leave you; but he cares for me, and you don't,' sobbed the sister; and she was carried away.
"When she had gone, the youngest brother slid down from his corner and came up to Melchior.
"'We are alone now, Brother,' he said; 'let us be good friends. May I sit on the front seat with you, and have half the rug? I will be very good and polite, and will have nothing more to do with those fellows, if you will talk to me.'
"Now Melchior really rather liked the idea, but as his brother seemed to be in a submissive mood, he thought he would take the opportunity of giving him a good lecture, and would then graciously relent and forgive. So he began by asking him if he thought that he was fit company for him (Melchior), what he thought that gentlefolks would say to a boy who had been playing with such youths as young Hop-o'-my-Thumb had, and whether the said youths were not scoundrels? And when the boy refused to say that they were (for they had been kind to him), Melchior said that his tastes were evidently as bad as ever, and even hinted at the old transportation threat. This was too much; the boy went angrily back to his window corner, and Melchior--like too many of us!--lost the opportunity of making peace for the sake of wagging his own tongue.
"'But he will come round in a few minutes,' he thought A few minutes passed, however, and there was no sign. A few minutes more, and there was a noise, a shout; Melchior looked up, and saw that the boy had jumped through the open window into the road, and had been picked up by the men in the dog-cart, and was gone.
"And so at last my hero was alone. At first he enjoyed it very much. He shook out his hair, wrapped himself in the rug, stared through the opera-glass, and did the fine gentleman very well indeed. But though everyone allowed him to be the finest young fellow on the road, yet nobody seemed to care for the fact as much as he did; they talked, and complimented, and stared at him, but he got tired of it. For he could not arrange his hair any better; he could not dispose the rug more gracefully, or stare more perseveringly through the glass; and if he could, his friends could do nothing more than they had done. In fact, he got tired of the crowd, and found himself gazing through the window, not to see his fine friends, but to try and catch sight of his brothers and sisters. Sometimes he saw the youngest brother, looking each time more wild and reckless; and sometimes the sister, looking more and more miserable; but he saw no one else.
"At last there was a stir among the people, and all heads were turned towards the distance, as if looking for something. Melchior asked what it was, and was told that the people were looking for a man, the hero of many battles, who had won honour for himself and for his country in foreign lands, and who was coming home. Everybody stood up and gazed, Melchior with them. Then the crowd parted, and the hero came on. No one asked whether he were handsome or genteel, whether he kept good company, or wore a tiger-skin rug, or looked through an opera-glass? They knew what he had done, and it was enough.
"He was a bronzed hairy man, with one sleeve empty, and a breast covered with stars; but in his face, brown with sun and wind, overgrown with hair and scarred with wounds, Melchior saw his second brother! There was no doubt of it. And the brother himself, though he bowed kindly in answer to the greetings showered on him, was gazing anxiously for the old coach, where he used to ride and be so uncomfortable, in that time to which he now looked back as the happiest of his life.
"'I thank you, gentlemen. I am indebted to you, gentlemen. I have been away long. I am going home.'
"'Of course he is!' shouted Melchior, waving his arms widely with pride and joy. 'He is coming home; to this coach, where he was--oh, it seems but an hour ago! Time goes so fast. We were great friends when we were young together. My brother and I, ladies and gentlemen, the hero and I--my brother--the hero with the stars upon his breast--he is coming home!'
"Alas! what avail stars and ribbons on a breast where the life-blood is trickling slowly from a little wound? The crowd looked anxious; the hero came on, but more slowly, with his dim eyes straining for the old coach; and Melchior stood with his arms held out in silent agony. But just when he was beginning to hope, and the brothers seemed about to meet, a figure passed between--a figure in a cloak.
"'I have seen you many times, Friend, face to face,' said the hero; 'but now I would fain have waited for a little while.'
"'To enjoy his well-earned honours,' murmured the crowd.
"'Nay,' he said, 'not that; but to see my home, and my brothers and sisters. But if it may not be, friend Death, I am ready, and tired too.' With that he held out his hand, and Death lifted up the hero of many battles like a child, and carried him away, stars and ribbons and all.
"'Cruel Death!' cried Melchior; 'was there no one else in all this crowd, that you must take him?'
"His friends condoled with him; but they soon went on their own ways; and the hero seemed to be forgotten; and Melchior, who had lost all pleasure in the old bowings and chattings, sat sadly gazing out of the window, to see if he could see any one for whom he cared. At last, in a grave dark man, who was sitting on a horse, and making a speech to the crowd, he recognized his clever untidy brother.
"'What is that man talking about?' he asked of some one near him.
"'That man!' was the answer. 'Don't you know? He is the man of the time. He is a philosopher. Everybody goes to hear him. He has found out that--well--that everything is a mistake.'
"'Has he corrected it?' said Melchior.
"'You had better hear for yourself,' said the man. 'Listen.'
"Melchior listened, and a cold clear voice rang upon his ear, saying:--
"'The world of fools will go on as they have ever done; but to the wise few, to whom I address myself, I would say--Shake off at once and for ever the fancies and feelings, the creeds and customs that shackle you, and be true. We have come to a time when wise men will not be led blindfold in the footsteps of their predecessors, but will tear away the bandage and see for themselves. I have torn away mine, and looked. There is no Faith--it is shaken to its rotten foundation; there is no Hope--it is disappointed every day; there is no Love at all. There is nothing for any man or for each, but his fate; and he is happiest and wisest who can meet it most unmoved.'
"'It is a lie!' shouted Melchior. 'I feel it to be so in my heart. A wicked foolish lie! Oh! was it to teach such evil folly as this that you left home and us, my brother? Oh, come back! come back!'
"The philosopher turned his head coldly, and smiled. 'I thank the gentleman who spoke,' he said, still in the same cold voice, 'for his bad opinion, and for his good wishes. I think the gentleman spoke of home and kindred. My experience of life has led me to find that home is most valued when it is left, and kindred most dear when they are parted. I have happily freed myself from such inconsistencies. I am glad to know that fate can tear me from no place that I care for more than the next where it shall deposit me, nor take away any friends that I value more than those it leaves. I recommend a similar self-emancipation to the gentleman who did me the honour of speaking.'
"With this the philosopher went his way, and the crowd followed him.
"'There is a separation more bitter than death,' said Melchior.
"At last he pulled the check-string, and called to Godfather Time in an humble entreating voice.
"'It is not your fault,' he began; 'it is not your fault, Godfather; but this drive has been altogether wrong. Let us turn back and begin again. Let us all get in afresh and begin again.'
"'But what a squeeze with all the brats!' said Godfather Time, ironically.
"'We should be so happy,' murmured Melchior, humbly; 'and it is very cold and chilly; we should keep each other warm.'
"'You have the tiger-skin rug and the opera-glass, you know,' said Time.
"'Ah, do not speak of me!' cried Melchior, earnestly. 'I am thinking of them. There is plenty of room; the little one can sit on my knee; and we shall be so happy. The truth is, Godfather, that I have been wrong. I have gone the wrong way to work. A little more love, and kindness, and forbearance, might have kept my sisters with us, might have led the little one to better tastes and pleasures, and have taught the other by experience the truth of the faith and hope and love which he now reviles. Oh, I have sinned! I have sinned! Let us turn back, Godfather Time, and begin again. And oh! drive very slowly, for partings come only too soon.'
"'I am sorry,' said the old man in the same bitter tone as before, 'to disappoint your rather unreasonable wishes. What you say is admirably true, with this misfortune, that your good intentions are too late. Like the rest of the world you are ready to seize the opportunity when it is past. You should have been kind then. You should have advised then. You should have yielded then. You should have loved your brothers and sisters while you had them. It is too late now.'
"With this he drove on, and spoke no more, and poor Melchior stared sadly out of the window. As he was gazing at the crowd, he suddenly saw the dog-cart, in which were his brother and his wretched companions. Oh, how old and worn he looked! and how ragged his clothes were! The men seemed to be trying to persuade him to do something that he did not like, and they began to quarrel; but in the midst of the dispute he turned his head and caught sight of the old coach; and Melchior seeing this, waved his hands, and beckoned with all his might. The brother seemed doubtful; but Melchior waved harder, and (was it fancy?) Time seemed to go slower. The brother made up his mind; he turned and jumped from the dog-cart as he had jumped from the old coach long ago, and ducking in and out among the horses and carriages, ran for his life. The men came after him; but he ran like the wind--pant, pant, nearer, nearer; at last the coach was reached, and Melchior seized the prodigal by his rags and dragged him in.
"'Oh, thank GOD, I have got you safe, my brother!'
"But what a brother! with wasted body and sunken eyes; with the old curly hair turned to matted locks, that clung faster to his face than the rags did to his trembling limbs; what a sight for the opera-glasses of the crowd! What a subject for the tongues that were ever wagging, and complimenting, and backbiting, and lying, all in a breath, and without sense or scruple! What a sight and a subject for the fine friends, for whose good opinion Melchior had been so anxious? Do you think he was as anxious now? Do you think he was troubled by what they either saw or said; or was ashamed of the wretched prodigal lying among the cushions? I think not. I think that for the most foolish of us there are moments in life (of real joy or real sorrow) when we judge things by a higher standard, and care vastly little for what 'people say'. The only shame that Melchior felt was that his brother should have fared so hardly in the trials and temptations of the world outside, while he had sat at ease among the cushions of the old coach, that had been the home of both alike. Thank GOD, it was the home of both now! And poor Hop-o'-my-Thumb was on the front seat at last, with Melchior kneeling at his feet, and fondly stroking the head that rested against him.
"'Has powder come into fashion, brother?' he said. 'Your hair is streaked with white.'
"'If it has,' said the other, laughing, 'your barber is better than mine, Melchior, for your head is as white as snow.'
"'Is it possible? are we so old? has Time gone so very fast? But what are you staring at through the window? I shall be jealous of that crowd, brother.'
"'I am not looking at the crowd,' said the prodigal in a low voice; 'but I see--'
"'You see what?' said Melchior.
"'A figure in a cloak, gliding in and out--'
"Melchior sprang up in horror. 'No! no!' he cried, hoarsely. 'No! surely no!'
"Surely yes! Too surely the well-known figure came on; and the prodigal's sunken eyes looked more sunken still as he gazed. As for Melchior, he neither spoke nor moved, but stood in a silent agony, terrible to see. All at once a thought seemed to strike him; he seized his brother, and pushed him to the furthest corner of the seat, and then planted himself firmly at the door just as Death came up and put his hand into the coach. Then he spoke in a low steady voice, more piteous than cries or tears.
"'I humbly beseech you, good Death, if you must take one of us, to take me. I have had a long drive, and many comforts and blessings, and am willing if unworthy to go. He has suffered much, and had no pleasure; leave him for a little to enjoy the drive in peace, just for a very little; he has suffered so much, and I have been so much to blame; let me go instead of him.'
"Alas for Melchior! It is decreed in the Providence of GOD, that, although the opportunities for doing good, which are in the power of every man, are beyond count or knowledge, yet, the opportunity once neglected, no man by any self-sacrifice can atone for those who have fallen or suffered by his negligence. Poor Melchior! An unalterable law made him the powerless spectator of the consequences of his neglected opportunities. 'No man may deliver his brother, or make agreement unto GOD for him, for it cost more to redeem their souls, so that he must let that alone for ever.' And is it ever so bitter to 'let alone,' as in a case where we might have acted and did not?
"Poor Melchior! In vain he laid both his hands in Death's outstretched palm; they fell to him again as if they had passed through air; he was pushed aside--Death passed into the coach--'one was taken and the other left.'
"As the cloaked figure glided in and out among the crowd, many turned to look at his sad burden, though few heeded him. Much was said; but the general voice of the crowd was this: 'Ah! he is gone, is he? Well! a born rascal! It must be a great relief to his brother!' A conclusion which was about as wise, and about as near the truth, as the world's conclusions generally are. As for Melchior, he neither saw the figure nor heard the crowd, for he had fallen senseless among the cushions.
"When he came to his senses, he found himself lying still upon his face; and so bitter was his loneliness and grief, that he lay still and did not move. He was astonished, however, by the (as it seemed to him) unusual silence. The noise of the carriages had been deafening, and now there was not a sound. Was he deaf? or had the crowd gone? He opened his eyes. Was he blind? or had the night come? He sat right up, and shook himself, and looked again. The crowd was gone; so, for matter of that, was the coach; and so was Godfather Time. He had not been lying among cushions, but among pillows; he was not in any vehicle of any kind, but in bed. The room was dark, and very still; but through the 'barracks' window, which had no blind, he saw the winter sun pushing through the mist, like a red hot cannon-ball hanging in the frosty trees; and in the yard outside, the cocks were crowing.
"There was no longer any doubt that he was safe in his old home; but where were his brothers and sisters? With a beating heart he crept to the other end of the bed; and there lay the prodigal, but with no haggard cheeks or sunken eyes, no grey locks or miserable rags, but a rosy yellow-haired urchin fast asleep, with his head upon his arm. 'I took his pillow,' muttered Melchior, self-reproachfully.
"A few minutes later, young Hop-o'-my-Thumb (whom Melchior dared not lose sight of for fear he should melt away) seated comfortably on his brother's back, and wrapped up in a blanket, was making a tour of the 'barracks.'
"'It's an awful lark,' said he, shivering with a mixture of cold and delight.
"If not exactly a lark, it was a very happy tour to Melchior, as, hope gradually changing into certainty, he recognized his brothers in one shapeless lump after the other in the little beds. There they all were, sleeping peacefully in a happy home, from the embryo hero to the embryo philosopher, who lay with the invariable book upon his pillow, and his hair looking (as it always did) as if he lived in a high wind.
"'I say,' whispered Melchior, pointing to him, 'what did he say the other day about being a parson?'
"'He said he should like to be one,' returned Hop-o'-my-Thumb; 'but you said he would frighten away the congregation with his looks. And then, you know, he got very angry, and said he didn't know priests need be dandies, and that everybody was humbuggy alike, and thought of nothing but looks; but that he would be a philosopher like Diogenes, who cared for nobody, and was as ugly as an ape, and lived in a tub.'
"'He will make a capital parson,' said Melchior, hastily, 'and I shall tell him so to-morrow. And when I'm squire here, he shall be vicar, and I'll subscribe to all his dodges without a grumble. I'm the eldest son. And, I say, don't you think we could brush his hair for him in a morning, till he learns to do it himself?'
"'Oh, I will!' was the lively answer; 'I'm an awful dab at brushing. Look how I brush your best hat!'
"'True,' said Melchior. 'Where are the girls to-night?'
"'In the little room at the end of the long passage,' said Hop-o'-my-Thumb, trembling with increased chilliness and enjoyment. 'But you're never going there! we shall wake the company, and they will all come out to see what's the matter.'
"'I shouldn't care if they did,' said Melchior, 'it would make it feel more real.'
"As he did not understand this sentiment, Hop-o'-my-Thumb said nothing, but held on very tightly; and they crept softly down the cold grey passage in the dawn. The girls' door was open; for the girls were afraid of robbers, and left their bed-room door wide open at night, as a natural and obvious means of self-defence. The girls slept together; and the frill of the pale sister's prim little night-cap was buried in the other one's uncovered curls.
"'How you do tremble!' whispered Hop-o'-my-Thumb; 'are you cold?' This inquiry received no answer; and after some minutes he spoke again. 'I say, how very pretty they look! don't they?'
"But for some reason or other, Melchior seemed to have lost his voice; but he stooped down and kissed both the girls very gently, and then the two brothers crept back along the passage to the 'barracks.'
"'One thing more,' said Melchior; and they went up to the mantelpiece. 'I will lend you my bow and arrows to-morrow, on one condition--'
"'Anything!' was the reply, in an enthusiastic whisper.
"'That you take that old picture for a target, and never let me see it again.'
"It was very ungrateful! but perfection is not in man; and there was something in Melchior's muttered excuse--
"'I couldn't stand another night of it.'
"Hop-o'-my-Thumb was speedily put to bed again, to get warm, this time with both the pillows; but Melchior was too restless to sleep, so he resolved to have a shower-bath, and to dress. After which, he knelt down by the window, and covered his face with his hands.
"'He's saying very long prayers,' thought Hop-o'-my-Thumb, glancing at him from his warm nest; 'and what a jolly humour he is in this morning!'
"Still the young head was bent, and the handsome face hidden; and Melchior was finding his life every moment more real and more happy. For there was hardly a thing, from the well-filled 'barracks' to the brother bedfellow, that had been a hardship last night, which this morning did not seem a blessing. He rose at last, and stood in the sunshine, which was now pouring in; a smile was on his lips, and on his face were two drops, which, if they were water, had not come from the shower-bath, or from any bath at all."
* * * * *
"Is that the end?" inquired the young lady on his knee, as the story teller paused here.
"Yes, that is the end."
"It's a beautiful story," she murmured, thoughtfully; "but what an extraordinary one! I don't think I could have dreamt such a wonderful dream."
"Do you think you could have eaten such a wonderful supper?" said the friend, twisting his moustachios.
After this point, the evening's amusements were thoroughly successful. Richard took his smoking boots from the fire-place, and was called upon for various entertainments for which he was famous: such as the accurate imitation of a train just starting, in which two pieces of bone were used with considerable effect; as also of a bumble-bee, who (very much out of season) went buzzing about, and was always being caught with a heavy bang on the heads and shoulders of those who least expected it; all which specimens of his talents were received with due applause by his admiring brothers and sisters.
The bumble-bee had just been caught (for the twenty-first time) with a loud smack on brother Benjamin's ear, when the door opened, and Paterfamilias entered with Materfamilias (whose headache was better), and followed by the candles. A fresh log was then thrown upon the fire, the yule cakes and furmety were put upon the table, and everybody drew round to supper; and Paterfamilias announced that although he could not give the materials to play with, he had no objection now to a bowl of moderate punch for all, and that Richard might compound it. This was delightful; and as he sat by his father, ladling away to the rest, Adolphus Brown could hardly have felt more jovial, even with the champagne and ices.
The rest sat with radiant faces and shining heads in goodly order; and at the bottom of the table, by Materfamilias, was the friend, as happy in his unselfish sympathy as if his twenty-five sticks had come to life, and were supping with him. As happy--nearly--as if a certain woman's grave had never been dug under the southern sun that could not save her, and as if the children gathered round him were those of whose faces he had often dreamt, but might never see.
His health had been drunk, and everybody else's too, when, just as supper was coming to a close, Richard (who had been sitting in thoughtful silence for some minutes) got up with sudden resolution, and said,
"I want to propose Mr. What's-his-name's health on my own account. I want to thank him for his story, which had only one mistake in it. Melchior should have kept the effervescing papers to put into beer; it's a splendid drink! Otherwise it was first-rate; though it hit me rather hard. I want to say that though I didn't mean all I said about being an only son (when a fellow gets put out he doesn't know what he means), yet I know I was quite wrong, and the story is quite right. I want particularly to say that I'm very glad there are so many of us, for the more, you know, the merrier. I wouldn't change father or mother, brothers or sisters, with any one in the world. It couldn't be better, we couldn't be happier. We are all together, and to-morrow is Christmas Day. Thank GOD."
It was very well said. It was a very good speech. It was very well and very good that while the blessings were with him, he could feel it to be so, and be grateful.
It was very well, and good also, that the friend, who had neither home nor kindred to be grateful for, had something else for which he could thank GOD as heartily. The thought of that something came to him then as he sat at his friend's table, filling his eyes with tears. It came to him next day as he knelt before GOD's altar, remembering in blessed fellowship that deed of love which is the foundation of all our hope and joy. It came to him when he went back to his lonely wandering life, and thought with tender interest of that boyish speech. It came--a whisper of consolation to silence envy and regret for ever.
"There is something far better. There is something far happier. There is a better Home than any earthly one, and a Family that shall never be divided."