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wretched fellow living," he said; "there must be some fiend that hates
me, and drives me to ruin. But let it all come; I care nothing, nothing,
what happens to me now. Only, dear, dear Monty, forgive me, and love
me still."

"O Eric, it is not for one like me to talk of forgiveness; you were
sorely tempted. Yet God will forgive you if you ask him. Won't you pray
to him to-night? I love you, Eric, still, with all my heart, and do you
think God can be less kind than man? And _I_, too, will pray for you,
Eric. Good night, and God bless you" He gently disengaged himself - for
Eric clung to him, and seemed unwilling to lose sight of him - and a
moment after he was gone.

Eric felt terribly alone. He knelt down and tried to pray, but somehow
it didn't seem as if the prayer came from his heart, and his thoughts
began instantly to wander far away. Still he knelt - knelt even until his
candle had gone out, and he had nearly fallen asleep, thought-wearied,
on his knees. And then he got into bed still dressed. He had been making
up his mind that he could bear it no longer, and would run away to sea
that night.

He waited till eleven, when Dr. Rowlands took his rounds. The Doctor
had been told all the circumstances of suspicion, and they amounted in
his mind to certainty. It made him very sad, and he stopped to look at
the boy from whom he had parted on such friendly terms so short a time
before. Eric did not pretend to be asleep, but opened his eyes, and
looked at the head-master. Very sorrowfully Dr. Rowlands shook his head,
and went away. Eric never saw him again.

The moment he was gone Eric got up. He meant to go to his study, collect
the few presents, which were his dearest mementos of Russell, Wildney,
and his other friends - above all, Vernon's likeness - and then make his
escape from the building, using for the last time the broken pane and
loosened bar in the corridor, with which past temptations had made him
so familiar.

He turned the handle of the door and pushed, but it did not yield. Half
contemplating the possibility of such an intention on Eric's part, Dr.
Rowlands had locked it behind him when he went out.

"Ha!" thought the boy, "then he, too, knows and suspects. Never mind. I
must give up my treasures - yes, even poor Verny's picture; perhaps it is
best I should, for I'm only disgracing his noble memory. But they shan't
prevent me from running away."

Once more he deliberated. Yes, there could be no doubt about the
decision. He _could_, not endure another public expulsion, or even
another birching; he _could_ not endure the cold faces of even his best
friends. No, no! he _could_ not face the horrible phantom of detection,
and exposure, and shame. Escape he must.

After using all his strength in long-continued efforts, he succeeded in
loosening the bar of his bed-room window. He then took his two sheets,
tied them together in a firm knot, wound one end tightly round the
remaining bar, and let the other fall down the side of the building. He
took one more glance round his little room, and then let himself down by
the sheet, hand under hand, until he could drop to the ground. Once
safe, he ran towards Starhaven as fast as he could, and felt as if he
were flying for his life. But when he got to the end of the playground
he could not help stopping to take one more longing, lingering look at
the scenes he was leaving for ever. It was a chilly and overclouded
night, and by the gleams of struggling moonlight, he saw the whole
buildings standing out black in the night air. The past lay behind him
like a painting. Many and many unhappy or guilty hours had he spent in
that home, and yet those last four years had not gone by without their
own wealth of life and joy. He remembered how he had first walked across
that playground, hand in hand with his father, a little boy of twelve.
He remembered his first troubles with Barker, and how his father had at
last delivered him from the annoyances of his old enemy. He remembered
how often he and Russell had sat there, looking at the sea, in pleasant
talk, especially the evening when he had got his first prize and head
remove in the lower fourth; and how, in the night of Russell's death, he
had gazed over that playground from the sick-room window. He remembered
how often he had got cheered there for his feats at cricket and
football, and how often he and Upton in old days, and he and Wildney
afterwards, had walked there on Sundays, arm in arm. Then the stroll to
Port Island, and Barker's plot against him, and the evening at the Stack
passed through his mind; and the dinner at the Jolly Herring, and, above
all, Vernon's death. Oh! how awful it seemed to him now, as he looked
through the darkness at the very road along which they had brought
Verny's dead body. Then his thoughts turned to the theft of the pigeons,
his own drunkenness, and then his last cruel, cruel experiences, and
this dreadful end of the day which, for an hour or two, had seemed _so_
bright on that very spot where he stood. Could it be that this (oh, how
little he had ever dreamed of it) - that this was to be the conclusion of
his school days?

Yes, in those rooms, of which the windows fronted him, there they lay,
all his schoolfellows - Montagu, and Wildney, and Duncan, and all whom he
cared for best. And there was Mr. Rose's light still burning in the
library window; and he was leaving the school and those who had been
with him there so long, in the dark night, by stealth, penniless and
broken-hearted, with the shameful character of a thief.

Suddenly Mr. Rose's light moved, and, fearing discovery or interception,
he roused himself from the bitter reverie and fled to Starhaven through
the darkness. There was still a light in the little sailors' tavern;
and, entering, he asked the woman who kept it, "if she knew of any ship
which was going to sail next morning?"

"Why, your'n is, bean't it, Maister Davey!" she asked, turning to a
rough-looking sailor, who sat smoking in the bar.

"Ees," grunted the man.

"Will you take me on board?" said Eric.

"You be a runaway, I'm thinking?"

"Never mind. I'll come as cabin-boy - anything."

The sailor glanced at his striking appearance and neat dress. "Hardly in
the cabun-buoy line I should say."

"Will you take me?" said Eric. "You'll find me strong and willing
enough."

"Well - if the skipper don't say no. Come along."

They went down to a boat, and "Maister Davey" rowed to a schooner in the
harbor, and took Eric on board.

"There," he said, "you may sleep there for to-night," and he pointed to
a great heap of sailcloth beside the mast.

Weary to death, Eric flung himself down, and slept deep and sound till
the morning, on board the "Stormy Petrel."



CHAPTER XII

THE STORMY PETREL

"They hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league, but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind grew high,
And gurly grew the sea."

SIR PATRICK SPENS.

"Hilloa!" exclaimed the skipper with a sudden start, next morning, as he
saw Eric's recumbent figure on the ratlin-stuff, "Who be this
young varmint!"

"Oh, I brought him aboord last night," said Davey; "he wanted to be
cabun-buoy."

"Precious like un _he_ looks. Never mind, we've got him and we'll use
him."

The vessel was under way when Eric woke, and collected his scattered
thoughts to a remembrance of his new position. At first, as the Stormy
Petrel dashed its way gallantly through the blue sea, he felt one
absorbing sense of joy to have escaped from Roslyn. But before he had
been three hours on board, his eyes were opened to the trying nature of
his circumstances, which were, indeed, _so_ trying that _anything_ in
the world seemed preferable to enduring them. He had not been three
hours on board when he would have given everything in his power to be
back again; but such regrets were useless, for the vessel was now
fairly on her way for Corunna, where she was to take in a cargo
of cattle.

There were eight men belonging to the crew; and as the ship was only a
little trading schooner, these were sailors of the lowest and meanest
grade. They all seemed to take their cue from the captain, who was a
drunken, blaspheming, and cruel vagabond.

This man from the first took a savage hatred to Eric, partly because he
was annoyed with Davey for bringing him on board. The first words he
addressed to him were -

"I say, you young lubber, you must pay your footing."

"I've got nothing to pay with. I brought no money with me."

"Well, then, you shall give us your gran' clothes. Them things isn't fit
for a cabin-boy."

Eric saw no remedy, and making a virtue of necessity, exchanged his good
cloth suit for a rough sailor's shirt and trowsers, not over clean,
which the captain gave him. His own clothes were at once appropriated by
that functionary, who carried them into his cabin. But it was lucky for
Eric that, seeing how matters were likely to go, he had succeeded in
secreting his watch.

The day grew misty and comfortless, and towards evening the wind rose to
a storm. Eric soon began to feel very sick, and, to make his case worse,
could not endure either the taste, smell, or sight of such coarse food
as was contemptuously flung to him.

"Where am I to sleep?" he asked, "I feel very sick."

"Babby," said one of the sailors, "what's your name?"

"Williams."

"Well, Bill, you'll have to get over your sickness pretty soon, _I_ can
tell ye. Here," he added, relenting a little, "Davey's slung ye a
hammock in the forecastle."

He showed the way, but poor Eric in the dark, and amid the lurches of
the vessel, could hardly steady himself down the companion-ladder, much
less get into his hammock. The man saw his condition, and, sulkily
enough, hove him into his place.

And there, in that swinging bed, where sleep seemed impossible, and out
of which, he was often thrown, when the ship rolled and pitched through
the dark, heaving, discolored waves, and with dirty men sleeping round
him at night, until the atmosphere of the forecastle became like poison,
hopelessly and helplessly sick, and half-starved, the boy lay for two
days. The crew neglected him shamefully. It was nobody's business to
wait on him, and he could procure neither sufficient food, nor any
water; they only brought him some grog to drink, which in his weakness
and sickness was nauseous to him as medicine.

"I say, you young cub down there," shouted the skipper to him from the
hatchway, "come up and swab this deck."

He got up, and after bruising himself severely, as he stumbled about to
find the ladder, made an effort to obey the command. But he staggered
from feebleness when he reached the deck, and had to grasp for some
fresh support at every step.

"None of that 'ere slobbering and shamming, Bill. Why, d - - you, what
d'ye think you're here for, eh? You swab the deck, and in five minutes,
or I'll teach you, and be d - - d."

Sick as death, Eric slowly obeyed, but did not get through his task
without many blows and curses. He felt very ill - he had no means of
washing or cleaning himself; no brush, or comb, or soap, or clean linen;
and even his sleep seemed unrefreshful when the waking brought no change
in his condition. And then the whole life of the ship was odious to him.
His sense of refinement was exquisitely keen, and now to be called Bill,
and kicked and cuffed about by these gross-minded men, and to hear their
rough, coarse, drunken talk, and sometimes endure their still, more
intolerable familiarities, filled him with deeply-seated loathing.

His whole soul rebelled and revolted from them all, and, seeing his
fastidious pride, not one of them showed him the least glimpse of open
kindness, though he observed that one of them did seem to pity him
in heart.

Things grew worse and worse. The perils which he had to endure at first,
when ordered about the rigging, were what affected him least; he longed
for death, and often contemplated flinging himself into those cold deep
waves which he gazed on daily over the vessel's side. Hope was the only
thing which supported him. He had heard from one of the crew that the
vessel would be back in not more than six weeks, and he made a deeply
seated resolve to escape the very first day that they again anchored in
an English harbor.

The homeward voyage was even more intolerable, for the cattle on board
greatly increased the amount of necessary menial and disgusting work
which fell to his snare, as well as made the atmosphere of the close
little schooner twice as poisonous as before. And to add to his
miseries, his relations with the crew got more and more unfavorable, and
began to reach their climax.

One night the sailor who occupied the hammock next to his heard him
winding up his watch. This he always did in the dark, as secretly and
silently as he could, and never looked at it, except when no one could
observe him; while, during the day, he kept both watch and chain
concealed in his trousers.

Next morning the man made proposals to him to sell the watch, and tried
by every species of threat and promise to extort it from him. But the
watch had been his mother's gift, and he was resolute never to part with
it into such hands.

"Very well, you young shaver, I shall tell the skipper and he'll soon
get it out of you as your footing, depend on it."

The fellow was as good as his word, and the skipper demanded the watch
as pay for Eric's feed, for he maintained that he'd done no work, and
was perfectly useless. Eric, grown desperate, still refused, and the man
struck him brutally on the face, and at the same time aimed a kick at
him, which he vainly tried to avoid. It caught him on the knee-cap, and
put it out, causing him the most excruciating agony.

He now could do no work whatever, not even swab the deck. It was only
with difficulty that he could limp along, and every move caused him
violent pain. He grew listless and dejected, and sat all day on the
vessel's side, eagerly straining his eyes to catch any sight of land, or
gazing vacantly into the weary sameness of sea and sky.

Once, when it was rather gusty weather, all hands were wanted, and the
skipper ordered him to furl a sail.

"I can't," said Eric, in an accent of despair, barely stirring, and not
lifting his eyes to the man's unfeeling face.

"Can't, d - - you. Can't. We'll soon see whether you can or no! You do
it, or _I_ shall have to mend your leg for you;" and he showered down a
storm of oaths.

Eric rose, and resolutely tried to mount the rigging, determined at
least to give no ground he could help to their wilful cruelty. But the
effort was vain, and with a sharp cry of suffering he dropped once
more on deck.

"Cursed young brat! I suppose you think we're going to bother ourselves
with you, and yer impudence, and get victuals for nothing. It's all
sham. Here, Jim, tie him up."

A stout sailor seized the unresisting boy, tied his hands together, and
then drew them up above his head, and strung them to the rigging.

"Why didn't ye strip him first, d - - you?" roared the skipper.

"He's only got that blue shirt on, and that's soon mended," said the
man, taking hold of the collar of the shirt on both sides, and tearing
it open with a great rip.

Eric's white back was bare, his hands tied up, his head hanging, and his
injured leg slightly lifted from the ground. "And now for some rope-pie
for the stubborn young lubber," said the skipper, lifting a bit of rope
as he spoke.

Eric, with a shudder, heard it whistle through the air, and the next
instant it had descended on his back with a dull thump, rasping away a
red line of flesh. Now Eric knew for the first time the awful reality of
intense pain; he had determined to utter no sound, to give no sign; but
when the horrible rope fell on him, griding across his back, and making
his body literally creak under the blow, he quivered like an aspen-leaf
in every limb, and could not suppress the harrowing murmur, "Oh God,
help me, help me."

Again the rope whistled in the air, again it grided across the boy's
naked back, and once more the crimson furrow bore witness to the violent
laceration. A sharp shriek of inexpressible agony rang from his lips, so
shrill, so heart-rending, that it sounded long in the memory of all who
heard it. But the brute who administered the torture was untouched. Once
more, and again, the rope rose and fell, and under its marks the blood
first dribbled, and then streamed from the white and tender skin.

But Eric felt no more; that scream had been the last effort of nature;
his head had dropped on his bosom, and though his limbs still seemed to
creep at the unnatural infliction, he had fainted away.

"Stop, master, stop, if you don't want to kill the boy outright," said
Roberts, one of the crew, stepping forward, while the hot flush of
indignation burned through his tanned and weather-beaten cheek. The
sailors called him "Softy Bob," from that half-gentleness of disposition
which had made him, alone of all the men, speak one kind or consoling
word for the proud and lonely cabin-boy.

"Undo him then, and be - ," growled the skipper and rolled off to drink
himself drunk.

"I doubt he's well-nigh done for him already," said Roberts, quickly
untying Eric's hands, round which the cords had been pulled so tight as
to leave two blue rings round his wrists. "Poor fellow, poor fellow!
it's all over now," he murmured soothingly, as the boy's body fell
motionless into his arms, which he hastily stretched to prevent him from
tumbling on the deck.

But Eric heard not; and the man, touched with the deepest pity, carried
him down tenderly into his hammock, and wrapped him up in a clean
blanket, and sat by him till the swoon should be over.

It lasted very long, and the sailor began to fear that his words had
been prophetic.

"How is the young varmint?" shouted the skipper, looking into the
forecastle.

"You've killed him, I think."

The only answer was a volley of oaths; but the fellow was sufficiently
frightened to order Roberts to do all he could for his patient.

At last Eric woke with a moan. To think was too painful, but the raw
state of his back, ulcerated with the cruelty he had undergone, reminded
him too bitterly of his situation. Roberts did for him all that could be
done, but for a week Eric lay in that dark and fetid place, in the
languishing of absolute despair. Often and often the unbidden tears
flowed from very weakness from his eyes, and in the sickness of his
heart, and the torment of his wounded body, he thought that he
should die.

But youth is very strong, and it wrestled with despair, and agony, and
death, and, after a time, Eric could rise from his comfortless hammock.
The news that land was in sight first roused him, and with the help of
Roberts, he was carried on deck, thankful, with childlike gratitude,
that God suffered him to breathe once more the pure air of heaven, and
sit under the canopy of its gold-pervaded blue. The breeze and the
sunlight refreshed him, as they might a broken flower; and, with eyes
upraised, he poured from his heart a prayer of deep unspeakable
thankfulness to a Father in Heaven.

Yes! at last he had remembered his Father's home. There, in the dark
berth, where every move caused irritation, and the unclean atmosphere
brooded over his senses like lead; when his forehead burned, and his
heart melted within him, and he had felt almost inclined to curse his
life, or even to end it by crawling up and committing himself to the
deep cold water which, he heard rippling on the vessel's side; then,
even then, in that valley of the shadow of death, a Voice had come to
him - a still small Voice - at whose holy and healing utterance Eric had
bowed his head, and listened to the messages of God, and learnt his
will; and now, in humble resignation, in touching penitence with solemn
self-devotion, he had cast himself at the feet of Jesus, and prayed to
be helped, and guided, and forgiven. One little star of hope rose in the
darkness of his solitude, and its rays grew brighter and brighter, till
they were glorious now. Yes, for Jesus' sake he was washed, he was
cleansed, he was sanctified, he was justified; he would fear no evil,
for God was with him and underneath were the everlasting arms.

And while he sat there, undisturbed at last, and unmolested by harsh
word or savage blow, recovering health with every breath of the sea
wind, the skipper came up to him, and muttered something half-like
an apology.

The sight of him, and the sound of his voice, made Eric shudder again,
but he listened meekly, and, with no flash of scorn or horror, put out
his hand to the man to shake. There was something touching and noble in
the gesture, and, thoroughly ashamed of himself for once, the fellow
shook the proffered hand, and slunk away.

They entered the broad river at Southpool.

"I must leave the ship when we get to port, Roberts," said Eric.

"I doubt whether you'll let you," answered Roberts, jerking his finger
towards the skipper's cabin.

"Why?"

"He'll be afeard you might take the law on him."

"He needn't fear."

Roberts only shook his head.

"Then I must run away somehow. Will you help me?"

"Yes, that I will."

That very evening Eric escaped from the Stormy Petrel, unknown to all
but Roberts. They were in the dock, and he dropped into the water in the
evening, and swam to the pier, which was only a yard or two distant; but
the effort almost exhausted his strength, for his knee was still
painful, and he was very weak.

Wet and penniless, he knew not where to go, but spent the sleepless
night under an arch. Early the next morning he went to a pawnbroker's,
and raised £2:10s. on his watch, with which money he walked straight to
the railway station.

It was July, and the Roslyn summer holidays had commenced. As Eric
dragged his slow way to the station, he suddenly saw Wildney on the
other side of the street. His first impulse was to spring to meet him,
as he would have done in old times. His whole heart yearned towards him.
It was six weeks now since Eric had seen one loving face, and during all
that time he had hardly heard one kindly word. And now he saw before him
the boy whom he loved so fondly, with whom he had spent so many happy
hours of school-boy friendship, with whom he had gone through so many
schoolboy adventures, and who, he believed, loved him fondly still.

Forgetful for the moment of his condition, Eric moved across the street.
Wildney was walking with his cousin, a beautiful girl, some four years
older than himself, whom he was evidently patronising immensely. They
were talking very merrily, and Eric overheard the word Roslyn. Like a
lightning-flash the memory of the theft, the memory of his ruin came
upon him; he looked down at his dress - it was a coarse blue shirt, which
Roberts had given him in place of his old one, and the back of it was
stained and saturated with blood from his unhealed wounds; his trousers
were dirty, tarred, and ragged, and his shoes, full of holes, barely
covered his feet. He remembered too that for weeks he had not been able
to wash, and that very morning, as he saw himself in a looking-glass at
a shop-window, he had been deeply shocked at his own appearance. His
face was white as a sheet, the fair hair matted and tangled, the eyes
sunken and surrounded with a dark color, and dead and lustreless. No! he
could not meet Wildney as a sick and ragged sailor-boy; perhaps even he
might not be recognised if he did. He drew back, and hid himself till
the merry-hearted pair had passed, and it was almost with a pang of
jealousy that he saw how happy Wildney could be, while _he_ was thus;
but he cast aside the unworthy thought at once. "After all, how is poor
Charlie to know what has happened to me?"



CHAPTER XIII

HOME AT LAST

"I will arise and go to my father."

"Ach! ein Schicksal droht,
Und es droht nicht lange!
Auf der holden Wange
Brennt ein böses Roth!" - TIEDGE.

Eric Williams pursued his disconsolate way to the station, and found
that his money only just sufficed to get him something to eat during the
day, and carry him third class by the parliamentary train to
Charlesbury, the little station where he had to take the branch line
to Ayrton.

He got into the carriage, and sat in the far corner, hiding himself from
notice as well as he could. The weary train - (it carried poor people for
the most part, so, of course it could matter but little how tedious or
slow it was!) - the weary train, stopping at every station, and often
waiting on the rail until it had been passed by trains that started four


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Online LibraryFrederic William FarrarEric → online text (page 20 of 22)