There was an unusual stir in the quiet household of Wareham Abbey that
evening; for at nearly eight o’clock the two little boys had not
Virginie had not been very much concerned at their absence during the
first few hours, as they very often ran on before her, and then betook
themselves to some of their favorite haunts.
But when tea-time came and passed, she got uneasy, and went to look for
them. Her uneasiness changed to alarm when she had visited in vain the
dairy, laundry, swing, gardens, and dog-kennel. Then, when it came on to
rain, her anxiety increased; and when from drizzling it changed to a
steady down-pour her “nerves” gave way completely, and she returned
home to consult with the other servants as to what steps had best be
She went into the housekeeper’s room, wringing her hands, and
prognosticating all sorts of evils to Miles. “Never, never, would he
recover from the effects of such a wetting!”
The gardener was dispatched one way and the coachman another, bearing
umbrellas and galoshes.
The two little culprits were soon discovered sitting in a damp ditch,
sheltering themselves under a hedge.
Humphrey took great credit to himself for having hit upon this plan.
“The fact was,” he said, “the pond and the water-lilies had been so
engrossing, that he had forgotten all about the time till he saw the sun
beginning to sink; then starting off in a great hurry, they had taken
the wrong turning out of the field, and lost their way in the wood.”
They were wandering on in the wrong direction, when they met a boy, who
had pointed out their mistake, and brought them back to the high road.
Here Humphrey had suddenly recollected that rain was apt to give his
little brother cold, and with great pride in his own forethought had
established him, dripping wet as he already was, under the hedge where
they had been sitting for about half an hour before the coachman found
It was no use Virginie venting her wrath upon Humphrey. All that could
be done now, was to get Miles into bed as quickly as could be, and ward
off ill effects if possible.
But the mischief was done. Miles tossed about all night, and woke next
morning with an oppression on his chest, which was always with him the
forerunner of an attack on the lungs.
The doctor came to see him, and ordered him to be kept in bed.
Humphrey spent the morning with his little brother, but was dismissed at
last, as talking only made Miles cough.
In the afternoon Miles got worse, and Virginie sent off again for the
Humphrey kept out of her way, feeling that he was in disgrace, and went
out into the garden. He felt dull and solitary without his little
brother, but, childlike, he had not begun to be anxious, for Miles had
often been ill before, and had always got well again. Still there was no
fun in anything without him, no exploit any satisfaction without his
applause. Humphrey betook himself at last to the little gardens, where
he had a friend in the person of Dolly, the laundry-maid. The gardens
were close to the laundry, and often, when she was ironing at the
window, Dolly had watched the children at their play, and overheard
their long conversations. She was perhaps the only person who had seen
Humphrey in his serious moods. Unknown to him, she had witnessed one of
his rare bursts of feeling at the time of his mother’s death, and after
that, had ever been one of his staunchest supporters. She could never
forget how the little fellow had sobbed over the mustard and cress he
had sown for his mother and which had come up too late!
The weather had been dry for some time previously, and it had shown no
sign of coming up. Every day he had visited it, that he might cut it for
her to eat with her afternoon tea; but every visit had been in vain.
Then, on that sad day, when the funeral train had borne away all that
remained of her, he had come to his garden in his restless longing to
escape from his sorrow, and the first thing that had met his eye was the
green A. D. mocking him with its freshness and luxuriance.
“It’s no use now,” Dolly had heard him sob; “I wish it had never come
This was the very day he had been chasing the young lambs in the meadow,
while his father watched him from the window and this was how it had
Humphrey found a good deal to do in his garden, and worked away busily
for some time; he then assisted Dolly to turn the mangle, and bottled
some soap-suds for future bubble blowing. He also informed her of the
honor in store for her at the Harvest Home, and anxiously asked her what
gown she meant to wear on the occasion. She must be very smart, he said,
_awfully_ smart! Dolly confided her intention of investing in a new
print dress, and consulted him as to the color.
Casting his thoughts back to the smartest thing he had lately seen, they
reverted to the cigar-case, and he suggested crimson and gold.
Dolly looked rather scared, and expressed her doubts as to the
probability of those colors being found in any print sold in the
“Yellow would _do_, you know,” said Humphrey, “and it would be like the
So Dolly promised to try and procure a yellow print, with a red stripe
or spot; and, if that were impossible, a plain yellow one could no doubt
Time slipped by very quickly, but still Humphrey rather wondered at
last that no one should call him in to his tea; and after a while he put
his tools away, and wished Dolly good-bye.
He gathered a few young radishes for a treat for Miles, and then ran
He was surprised to find the nursery door locked, and began to kick it.
“Miles!” he called out, “I’ve brought you some radishes. Ouvrez,
Virginie, c’est moi!”
The door was opened with an angry jerk, and Virginie flounced into the
Humphrey saw at a glance that she was in one of what he and Miles called
“her states,” but whether it was of anger or alarm, he could not at
first make out. It was always a bad sign when her face was enveloped in
flannel, as was now the case. Virginie always tied up her face on the
smallest provocation, though to what end the children had never
discovered. But anyhow, she was sure to be out of temper when she did
so, and Humphrey waited rather anxiously to hear what she had to say.
She burst into a voluble flow of talk, which, owing to her excitement,
the boy found it difficult to follow. He managed however, to gather that
Miles was very, very ill, that the doctor was very much alarmed about
him; that it was all his (Humphrey’s) fault; that he had woke Miles by
kicking at the door just as she had hoped he was going to get some
sleep; that he was to go away and keep away, and that everybody,
including the doctor, was very angry with him.
Then she retreated into the room, and shut the door, leaving him
standing in the passage, with his bunch of radishes in his hand.
All the light faded out of Humphrey’s face, as he tried to think over
what he had just heard.
“Miles so ill that the doctor was frightened.”
That was the most prominent idea at first, and in his dread and
apprehension, Humphrey hardly dared move.
Sometimes he put his eye to the keyhole, to see if he could discover
what was going on in the room, and then, lying down on the door-mat, he
listened with all his might.
The silence within, only broken by whispering voices, frightened him,
and his heart began to beat loudly.
If only the child could have looked into the room and seen his little
brother lying in bed half asleep, and Virginie putting a linseed
poultice on his chest, or whispering to Jane to bring her his
cooling-draught, his fears would have vanished.
But it is ever so with sudden illness. Those who are kept in the dark
always have the worst of it; for mystery and suspense are, like
anticipation, always worse than reality. Imagination runs riot, and
brings great suffering to the outsiders. How much are children to be
pitied on these occasions! Everyone’s thoughts are necessarily with the
invalid, and no one has time to bestow a word on the poor little
trembling things standing outside the sick-room. They feel they are
useless, and considered in the way; and do not dare make inquiries of
the maids who run in and out of the room–with important faces, who
probably could not stop to answer even if they did; and so are left to
magnify every sound into some terrible significance, which probably has
no foundation but in their own disordered fancies.
There is terror in whispering voices, agony in the sharp ringing of a
bell, mystery even in the calling for spoons and glasses, and their
jingling as they are handed in.
All this, and more, was experienced by little Humphrey Duncombe. I say
_more_, because his fears were not those of ordinary children. The dread
I have been describing is for the most part a nameless dread; the
children know not why they fear, nor what; it is all vague and
undefined, because they have no experience of sorrow.
But remember that this child was no stranger to sickness and death;
that into his little life they had already entered; that the grim
visitor had swept through the walls of his home, and left it very empty.
What had happened once, might happen again. So he gave it all up at
once, “Miles was dying! perhaps already dead!”
A child of Humphrey’s disposition suffers intensely when face to face
with sorrow. Granted that the power of being easily distracted is a
mitigation, it does not alter the feeling _for the time_. Life, past and
future, is grafted into the misery of the present, and existence itself
is a blank.
He was so tender-hearted, too, poor little fellow! so remorseful for his
errors, so sensitive to an unkind word. Yet, as we have seen, with all
this, he was so heedless, thoughtless, and volatile, that no one could
give him credit for any depth of feeling; and even his father (though he
would not have had it otherwise, though he rejoiced that he should have
the capability of turning into enjoyment, both for himself and Miles
every event of their lonely child-life) had marvelled at him, and had
more than once said to himself, “The boy has no heart!”
No heart! why, as we see him there in the passage, his poor little heart
is filled to bursting.
Stung by Virginie’s harsh words, wrung with fear for his little brother,
alarmed as much for his father’s grief as his father’s anger, and
remorseful at the thought of his own broken promise, Humphrey sank down
on the ground, and cried as if his heart would break.
In addition to the grief, it was such a dreadful feeling, that, in a
trouble like this, no one cared to help him; that he was looked upon as
the cause of it all; that his hand seemed against every man, and every
man’s hand against him.
His sorrow must be greater than theirs, he reflected. Was not Miles more
to him than to Virginie? And yet they left him–sobbing and
Lying there, crouched up by the door such an awful sense of loneliness
came down upon the boy’s soul. In the hour of his trouble he needed pity
so much, and no one gave it to him.
Then there arose in his heart such a terrible longing for his mother;
such a yearning, that would not be quieted, for all that he had had, and
all that he had lost; such an overwhelming sense of the void in his
life, that he could not bear it, and he started to his feet with a sob
which was almost a cry.
This feeling _must_ go, he could not bear it, and he fought with it with
desperation; for it was an old enemy, one with whom he had often
wrestled in desperate conflict before, and upon whose attacks he always
looked back with horror. Deep down in his heart it had its being, but it
was only every now and then that it rose up to trouble him.
Of late it had assailed him much less, its attacks had been weaker, and
occurring at much longer intervals. Why has it risen with such
relentless force now? How is he to resist it? How is he to fight with
it? This blank, empty feeling, how is he to drive it away?
He tried to think of his garden, of his games, and of all the things
which constituted the joy of his young existence.
Children of a larger growth, but children in understanding still, do not
many of us wrestle with this undefined feeling in the same way? This
mysterious thing, which we, with our maturer experience, call sorrow, is
not our first thought when it assails us, “How shall we drive it away?”
Call it grief, despair, disappointment, anxiety, care–call it what you
will, do we not try to drown it in change of thought of some kind? Does
it not drive the rich to society, traveling, or excitement, and the poor
to the public-house?
Here were the passages where he had romped with Miles; here were the
stairs down which he had jumped that very morning, and the balustrades
down which he had slid; why did they look so different?
God help him! the emptiness in his heart was so great, that it was
repeating itself on all around. There was no help to be got from the
feeling of his recent happiness in the old house. Never had it seemed so
dreary; never had he realized before what an empty house it was,
occupied only in one corner by a nurse and two little boys.
There was no sound, no life anywhere; the twilight was creeping over the
silent hall and staircase, and he knew it was deepening in the
uninhabited rooms below. And then, as if to mock him with the contrast,
came before him so vivid a recollection of life with his mother in the
house; of her voice and her laugh upon that staircase; of her presence
in those rooms; so clear and distinct a vision of her soft eyes and
gentle smile, that the motherless child could bear it no longer, and
covering his face with his hands to shut out the sight of the emptiness,
he fled away down the passage, as if he thought to leave the desolation
But the emptiness was with him as he went; all down the stairs and
through the hall it pursued him; it gained upon him as he stood with his
hand upon the drawing-room door; it preceded him into the darkened room,
and was waiting for him when he entered.
The light that came in through the chinks of the shutters was very
faint, but his longing eye sought the picture, and he could just
distinguish the sweet face and the smiling babe in her arms.
He ran forward, and threw himself on the sofa beneath it.
“Mother!” he sobbed, “I want you back so much! Every one is angry with
me, and I am so very miserable!”
Cold, blank silence all around; mother and child smiled on, unconscious
of his words; even as he gazed the light faded away from the picture,
and he was left alone in the gathering darkness!
In vain he tried to fancy himself once more the child in the picture;
in vain he tried to fancy he felt her arms around him, and her shoulder
against his head. It would not do! In fits of passion or disobedience he
had come here, and the memory of his mother had soothed him, and sent
him away penitent; but in this dreadful sense of loneliness he wanted
comfort, and of comfort he found none.
* * * * *
Yet was there comfort near, if he would but ask for it, and of the very
kind he wanted: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort
you.” He knew it not; he cried not for it. He was not ignorant of God’s
omnipresence; in ordinary times the boy believed with a child’s simple
faith that God was always near him, but in the hour of his trouble he
was incapable of deriving any comfort from the knowledge, incapable of
any thought but his own sorrow.
Children of a larger growth, but children in understanding still, do not
many of us, in spite of our maturer experience, do likewise? “There is
no help,” we say; “our trouble is greater than we can bear.” We lie like
the child, crushed and despairing, and God, who at other times we feel
to be so near, seems hidden from us altogether.
But thank God it is only _seems_, not _is_. He is unchangeable, and
unaffected by our changeability. Hidden, it may be, by the cloud we have
ourselves raised, the dark cloud of hopelessness, He is still there, the
Same whose presence we realise so fully in happier moments. “He,” says a
writer of the present century, “is immutable, unchangeable, while we are
different every hour. What He is in Himself, the great unalterable I Am,
not what we in this or that moment feel Him to be, _that_ is our hope.”
The comfort, then, for us and for the stricken child is, that though we
may not at such times do our part, He is ever ready to do His; and it
would almost seem as if He were providing for this state of feeling
when he says, “_Before_ they call, I will answer.” But what _could_ be
done for the child in the terrible hour of his trouble? _We_ know not,
but God knew. The little heart was open before Him, and He knew that his
sorrow would flee at morning light, and that he only wanted comfort for
the present moment. So, looking pityingly down upon the lonely child, He
sent him the only thing that could help him–laid gently upon his heavy
eyelids the only gift that could do him any good–giving him the peace
of unconsciousness till the hour of sorrow and sighing should pass away!
There one of the maids found him an hour or so later, and carried him up
to bed without waking him.