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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Trial, Or, More Links of the Daisy Chain By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 19290

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


Quanto si fende

La rocca per dar via a chi va suso

N'andai 'nfino ove'l cerchiar si prende

Com'io nel quinto giro fui dischiuso

Vidi gente per esso che piangea

Glacendo a terra tutta volta in giuso

Adhaesit pavimento anima mia

Sentia dir loro con si alti sospiri

Che la parola appena s'intendea.

'O eletti di Deo, i cui soffriri

E giustizia e speranza fan men duri-'

DANTE. Purgatorio

Ah, sir, we have learnt the way to get your company,' said Hector Ernescliffe, as he welcomed his father-in-law at Maplewood; 'we have only to get under sentence.'

'Sick or sorry, Hector; that's the attraction to an old doctor.'

'And,' added Hector, with the importance of his youthful magisterial dignity, 'I hope I have arranged matters for you to see him. I wrote about it; but I am afraid you will not be able to see him alone.'

Great was the satisfaction with which Hector took the conduct of the expedition to Portland Island; though he was inclined to encumber it with more lionizing than the good Doctor's full heart was ready for. Few words could he obtain, as in the bright August sunshine they steamed out from the pier at Weymouth, and beheld the gray sides of the island, scarred with stone quarries, stretching its lengthening breakwater out on one side, and on the other connected with the land by the pale dim outline of the Chesill Bank. The water was dancing in golden light; white-sailed or red-sailed craft plied across it; a ship of the line lay under the lee of the island, practising gunnery, the three bounds of her balls marked by white columns of spray each time of touching the water, pleasure parties crowded the steamer; but to Dr. May the cheerfulness of the scene made a depressing contrast to the purpose of his visit, as he fixed his eyes on the squared outline of the crest of the island, and the precipitous slope from thence to the breakwater, where trains of loaded trucks rushed forth to the end, discharged themselves, and hurried back.

Landing at the quay, in the midst of confusion, Hector smiled at the Doctor's innocent proposal of walking, and bestowed him in a little carriage, with a horse whose hard-worked patience was soon called out, as up and up they went, through the narrow, but lively street, past the old-fashioned inn, made memorable by a dinner of George III.; past the fossil tree, clamped against a house like a vine; past heaps of slabs ready for transport, a church perched up high on the slope, and a parsonage in a place that looked only accessible to goats. Lines of fortification began to reveal themselves, and the Doctor thought himself arrived, but he was to wind further on, and be more struck with the dreariness and inhospitality of the rugged rock, almost bare of vegetation, the very trees of stone, and older than our creation; the melancholy late ripening harvest within stone walls, the whole surface furrowed by stern rents and crevices riven by nature, or cut into greater harshness by the quarries hewn by man. The grave strangeness of the region almost marked it out for a place of expiation, like the mountain rising desolate from the sea, where Dante placed his prisoners of hope.

The walls of a vast enclosure became visible; and over them might be seen the tops of great cranes, looking like the denuded ribs of umbrellas. Buildings rose beyond, with deep arched gateways; and a small town was to be seen further off. Mr. Ernescliffe sent in his card at the governor's house, and found that the facilities he had asked for had been granted. They were told that the prisoner they wished to see was at work at some distance; and while he was summoned, they were to see the buildings. Dr. May had little heart for making a sight of them, except so far as to judge of Leonard's situation; and he was passively conducted across a gravelled court, turfed in the centre, and containing a few flower-beds, fenced in by Portland's most natural productions, zamias and ammonites, together with a few stone coffins, which had once inclosed corpses of soldiers of the Roman garrison. Large piles of building inclosed the quadrangle; and passing into the first of these, the Doctor began to realize something of Leonard's present existence. There lay before him the broad airy passage, and either side the empty cells of this strange hive, as closely packed, and as chary of space, as the compartments of the workers of the honeycomb.

'Just twice as wide as a coffin,' said Hector, doing the honours of one, where there was exactly width to stand up between the bed and the wall of corrugated iron; 'though, happily, there is more liberality of height.'

There was a ground glass window opposite to the door, and a shelf, holding a Bible, Prayer and hymn book, and two others, one religious, and one secular, from the library. A rust-coloured jacket, with a black patch marked with white numbers, and a tarpaulin hat, crossed with two lines of red paint on the crown, hung on the wall. The Doctor asked for Leonard's cell, but it was in a distant gallery, and he was told that when he had seen one, he had seen all. He asked if these were like those that Leonard had previously inhabited at Milbank and Pentonville, and hearing that they were on the same model, he almost gasped at the thought of the young enterprising spirit thus caged for nine weary months, and to whom this bare confined space was still the only resting-place. He could not look by any means delighted with the excellence of the arrangements, grant it though he might; and he was hurried on to the vast kitchens, their ranges of coppers full of savoury steaming contents, and their racks of loaves looking all that was substantial and wholesome; but his eyes were wandering after the figures engaged in cooking, to whom he was told such work was a reward; he was trying to judge how far they could still enjoy life; but he turned from their stolid low stamp of face with a sigh, thinking how little their condition could tell him of that of a cultivated nature.

He was shown the chapel, unfortunately serving likewise for a schoolroom; the centre space fitted for the officials and their families, the rest with plain wooden benches. But it was not an hour for schooling, and he went restlessly on to the library, to gather all the consolation he could from seeing that the privation did not extend to that of sound and interesting literature. He had yet to see the court, where the prisoners were mustered at half-past five in the morning, thence to be marched off in their various companies to work. He stood on the terrace from which the officials marshalled them, and he was called on to look at the wide and magnificent view of sea and land; but all he would observe to Hector was, 'That boy's throat has always been tender since the fever.' He was next conducted to the great court, the quarry of the stones of the present St. Paul's, and where the depression of the surface since work began there, was marked by the present height of what had become a steep conical edifice, surmounted by a sort of watch-tower. There he grew quite restive, and hearing a proposal of taking him to the Verne Hill works half a mile off, he declared that Hector was welcome to go; he should wait for his boy.

Just then the guide pointed out at some distance a convict approaching under charge of a warder; and in a few seconds more, the Doctor had stepped back to a small room, where, by special favour, he was allowed to be with the prisoner, instead of seeing him through a grating, but only in the presence of a warder, who was within hearing, though not obtrusively so. Looking, to recognize, not to examine, he drew the young man into his fatherly embrace.

'You have hurt your hands,' was his first word, at the touch of the bruised fingers and broken skin.

'They are getting hardened,' was the answer, in an alert tone, that gave the Doctor courage to look up and meet an unquenched glance; though there was the hollow look round the eyes that Tom had noticed, the face had grown older, the expression more concentrated, the shoulders had rounded; the coarse blue shirt and heavy boots were dusty with the morning's toil, and the heat and labour of the day had left their tokens, but the brow was as open, the mouth as ingenuous as ever, the complexion had regained a hue of health, and the air of alacrity and exhilaration surprised as much as it gratified the visitor.

'What is your work?' he asked.

'Filling barrows with stones, and wheeling them to the trucks for the breakwater,' answered Leonard, in a tone like satisfaction. 'But pray, if you are so kind, tell me,' he continued, with anxiety that he could not suppress, 'what is this about war in America?'

'Not near Indiana; no fear of that, I trust. But how did you know, Leonard?'

'I saw, for one moment at a time, in great letters on a placard of the contents of newspapers, at the stations as we came down here, the words, 'Civil War in America;' and it has seemed to be in the air here ever since. But Averil has said nothing in her letters. Will it affect them?'

The Doctor gave a brief sketch of what was passing, up to the battle of Bull Run; and his words were listened to with such exceeding avidity, that he was obliged to spend more minutes than he desired on the chances of the war, and the Massissauga tidings, which he wished to make sound more favourable than he could in conscience feel that they were; but when at last he had detailed all he knew from Averil's letters, and it had been drunk in with glistening eyes, and manner growing constantly less constrained,

he led back to Leonard himself: 'Ethel will write at once to your sister when I get home; and I think I may tell her the work agrees with you.'

'Yes; and this is man's work; and it is for the defences,' he added, with a sparkle of the eye.

'Very hard and rough,' returned the Doctor, looking again at the wounded hands and hard-worked air.

'Oh, but to put out one's strength again, and have room!' cried the boy, eagerly.

'Was it not rather a trying change at first?'

'To be sure I was stiff, and didn't know how to move in the morning, but that went off fast enough; and I fill as many barrows a day as any one in our gang.'

'Then I may tell your sister you rejoice in the change?'

'Why, it's work one does not get deadly sick of, as if there was no making one's self do it,' said Leonard, eagerly; 'it is work! and besides, here is sunshine and sea. I can get a sight of that every day; and now and then I can get a look into the bay, and Weymouth-looking like the old time.' That was his first sorrowful intonation; but the next had the freshness of his age, 'And there are thistles!'

'Thistles?'

'I thought you cared for thistles; for Miss May showed me one at Coombe; but it was not like what they are here-the spikes pointing out and pointing in along the edges of the leaves, and the scales lapping over so wonderfully in the bud.'

'Picciola!' said the Doctor to himself; and aloud, 'Then you have time to enjoy them?'

'When we are at work at a distance, dinner is brought out, and there is an hour and a half of rest; and on Sunday we may walk about the yards. You should have seen one of our gang, when I got him to look at the chevaux de frise round a bud, how he owned it was a regular patent invention; it just answered to Paley's illustration.'

'What, the watch?' said the Doctor, seeing that the argument had been far from trite to his young friend. 'So you read Paley?'

'I read all such books as I could get up there,' he answered; 'they gave one something to think about.'

'Have you no time for reading here?'

'Oh, no! I am too sleepy to read except on school days and Sundays,' he said, as if this were a great achievement.

'And your acquaintance-is he a reader of Paley too?'

'I believe the chaplain set him on it. He is a clerk, like me, and not much older. He is a regular Londoner, and can hardly stand the work; but he won't give in if he can help it, or we might not be together.'

Much the Doctor longed to ask what sort of a friend this might be, but the warder's presence forbade him; and he could only ask what they saw of each other.

'We were near one another in school at Pentonville, and knew each other's faces quite well, so that we were right glad to be put into the same gang. We may walk about the yard together on Sunday evening too.'

The Doctor had other questions on his lips that he again restrained, and only asked whether the Sundays were comfortable days.

'Oh, yes,' said Leonard, eagerly; but then he too recollected the official, and merely said something commonplace about excellent sermons, adding, 'And the singing is admirable. Poor Averil would envy such a choir as we have! We sing so many of the old Bankside hymns.'

'To make your resemblance to Dante's hill of penitence complete, as Ethel says,' returned the Doctor.

'I should like it to be a hill of purification!' said Leonard, understanding him better than he had expected.

'It will, I think,' said the Doctor, 'to one at least. I am comforted to see you so brave. I longed to come sooner, but-'

'I am glad you did not.'

'How?' But he did not pursue the question, catching from look and gesture, that Leonard could hardly have then met him with self-possession; and as the first bulletin of recovery is often the first disclosure of the severity of an illness, so the Doctor was more impressed by the prisoner's evident satisfaction in his change of circumstances, than he would have been by mere patient resignation; and he let the conversation be led away to Aubrey's prospects, in which Leonard took full and eager interest.

'Tell Aubrey I am working at fortifications too,' he said, smiling.

'He could not go to Cambridge without you.'

'I don't like to believe that,' said Leonard, gravely; 'it is carrying the damage I have done further: but it can't be. He always was fond of mathematics, and of soldiering. How is it at the old mill?' he added, suddenly.

'It is sold.'

'Sold?' and his eyes were intently fixed on the Doctor.

'Yes, he is said to have been much in debt long before; but it was managed quietly-not advertised in the county papers. He went to London, and arranged it all. I saw great renovations going on at the mill, when I went to see old Hardy.'

'Good old Hardy! how is he?'

'Much broken. He never got over the shock; and as long as that fellow stayed at the mill, he would not let me attend him.'

'Ha!' exclaimed Leonard, but caught himself up.

A message came that Mr. Ernescliffe feared to miss the boat; and the Doctor could only give one tender grasp and murmured blessing, and hurry away, so much agitated that he could hardly join in Hector's civilities to the officials, and all the evening seemed quite struck down and overwhelmed by the sight of the bright brave boy, and his patience in his dreary lot.

After this, at all the three months' intervals at which Leonard might be seen, a visit was contrived to him, either by Dr. May or Mr. Wilmot; and Aubrey devoted his first leave of absence to staying at Maplewood, that Hector might take him to his friend; but he came home expatiating so much on the red hair of the infant hope of Maplewood, and the fuss that Blanche made about this new possession, that Ethel detected an unavowed shade of disappointment. Light and whitewash, abundant fare, garments sufficient, but eminently unbecoming, were less impressive than dungeons, rags, and bread and water; when, moreover, the prisoner claimed no pity, but rather congratulation on his badge of merit, improved Sunday dinner, and promotion to the carpenter's shop, so as absolutely to excite a sense of wasted commiseration and uninteresting prosperity. Conversation constrained both by the grating and the presence of the warder, and Aubrey, more tenderly sensitive than his brother, and devoid of his father's experienced tact, was too much embarrassed to take the initiative, was afraid of giving pain by dwelling on his present occupations and future hopes, and confused Leonard by his embarrassment. Hector Ernescliffe discoursed about Charleston Harbour and New Orleans; and Aubrey stood with downcast eyes, afraid to seem to be scanning the convict garb, and thus rendering Leonard unusually conscious of wearing it. Then when in parting, Aubrey, a little less embarrassed, began eagerly and in much emotion to beg Leonard to say if there was anything he could get for him, anything he could do for him, anything he would like to have sent him, and began to promise a photograph of his father, Leonard checked him, by answering that it would be an irregularity-nothing of personal property was allowed to be retained by a prisoner.

Aubrey forgot all but the hardship, and began an outburst about the tyranny.

'It is quite right,' said Leonard, gravely; 'there is nothing that might not be used for mischief if one chose.'

And the warder here interfered, and said he was quite right, and it always turned out best in the end for a prisoner to conform himself, and his friends did him no good by any other attempt, as Mr. Ernescliffe could tell the young gentleman. The man's tone, though neither insolent nor tyrannical, but rather commendatory of his charge, contrasting with his natural deference to the two gentlemen, irritated poor Aubrey beyond measure, so that Hector was really glad to have him safe away, without his having said anything treasonable to the authorities. The meeting, so constrained and uncomfortable, had but made the friends more vividly conscious of the interval between the cadet and the convict, and, moreover, tended to remove the aureole of romance with which the unseen captive had been invested by youthful fancy.

To make the best of a prolonged misfortune does absolutely lessen sympathy, by diminishing the interest of the situation; and even the good Doctor himself was the less concerned at any hindrance to his visits to Portland, as he uniformly found his prisoner cheerful, approved by officials, and always making some small advance in the scale of his own world, and not, as his friends without expected of him, showing that he felt himself injured instead of elated by such rewards as improved diet, or increased gratuities to be set to his account against the time when, after eight years, he might hope for exportation with a ticket of leave to Western Australia.

The halo of approaching death no longer lighted him up, and after the effusion of the first meeting, his inner self had closed up, he was more ready to talk of American news than of his own feelings, and seemed to look little beyond the petty encouragements devised to suit the animal natures of ordinary prisoners, and his visitors sometimes feared lest his character were not resisting the deadening, hardening influence of the unvaried round of manual labour among such associates. He had been soon advanced from the quarry to the carpenter's shop, and was in favour there from his activity and skill; but his very promotions were sad-and it was more sad, as some thought, for him to be gratified by them. But, as Dr. May always ended, what did they know about him?

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