It was early in a July afternoon when the carriage set me down at Peekwood, where I had gone to spend the holidays. I walked quickly up the old lane of roses and sweetbriar, thinking all the way of Jenny and Robert, and of the delightful days we would pass together. It was such a long time since we had parted last — or, at least, it seemed so. I was somewhat disappointed when, instead of Jenny's pretty, laughing face appearing at the door, I beheld the two prim forms of her step-aunts.
Miss Lucretia and Miss Penelope welcomed me, but not cordially — that they never did.
"Where's Jenny?" said I, giving a half-pressure to the cold fingers which received me.
"Jenny is with Robert, at present," replied Miss Lucretia, stiffly.
"And Robert is in disgrace," subjoined Miss Penelope, austerely.
A cloud, dark and lowering, overshadowed the promised sunshine of the delightful holidays. I stood irresolute — half wishing, half fearing to ask if I might go to them. Miss Lucretia anticipated me.
"You will find your companions in the south room. I will send up your trunk immediately."
I scarcely waited to hear the second announcement. I was already at the foot of the stairs. Up I flew, two steps at a time, all red, and dusty, and full of love. I found them together in the south room. Robert, sitting silently by the window, and Jenny, upon her knees beside him. Oh! what a glad shout he gave when he saw me, and how Jenny cried and laughed alternately! For a time, disgrace was forgotten, and it seemed just as if old times on the sea-beach had returned again. But gradually the settled sorrow stole back over Robert's face.
"What is it all about?" asked I, as we three sat together; and they told me from beginning to end. In a moment of great temptation, Robert had taken that which was not his own. He had stolen — he was a thief! Never shall I forget the world of anguish that passed over his countenance as he said these words — such a bitter, regretful anguish.
"And have you told all the circumstances to your aunts?" I again inquired.
"No," replied Robert, proudly; "they would neither understand nor believe me if I did."
"Perhaps they might forgive you."
"Never! They have sent up this morning for godfather Virgil. I don't know what will be done with me."
I had heard of godfather Virgil before, but none of us three had ever seen him. He had lived abroad until during the last year, and, though he had sometimes made short visits to Peekwood, it always happened that he came when Jenny and Robert were absent from home. This announcement of his coming silenced us momentarily. We were all thinking of him.
"I know," said Robert, mournfully, after a pause, "I know that he is hard-hearted and unfeeling, or else they never would have sent for him. I expect to have no mercy shown me."
"I am afraid you're right, Robert," said I, sadly, and with tears in my eyes.
"I can foresee everything," exclaimed Jenny, passionately, while she held her brother's hand. "I can see him before me just as if I had known him all my life. Tall, grim, hard, unfeeling, stern, implacable, and unforgiving. That's godfather Virgil."
It was a faithful picture to us, and we took it home. We decided that he was a very ogre, and that Robert was to prepare for the worst and most speedy of punishments.
Two hours passed away. We sat sorrowful and without hope. Suddenly, Jenny, who had been watching the window intently, sprang back, clasping her hands, and crying out,
"He's coming! he's coming! The carriage is just coming up the avenue. Oh! Robert! Robert!"
She threw herself upon the floor, and hid her face upon Robert's knee.
He sank back in his chair, his brave handsome face looking white and ghostly, with the black curls clinging around it. I gained the window, and looked hastily out. A plain, brown traveling carriage was winding slowly up to the portico. Yes; godfather Virgil had come. Poor Robert! it was all over with him.
Minutes passed away — they seemed hours to us — and then there was a noise at our chamber door. It opened, and admitted the two step-aunts — Miss Lucretia and Miss Penelope. They looked rigid, austere, and boding ill.
They beckoned solemnly to Robert. He arose, and walked between them. There was no fear expressed in his face, but he looked worn and wretched. Jenny and I followed; and thus, in awful state, we proceeded to the tribunal.
The door of the old library stood open, as if awaiting our entrance. As we passed in, Robert's head sank lower upon his chest, while Jenny and I walked with downcast eyes. We felt that we were in the dreaded presence, and we did not wish to behold it.
There was a breathless pause. Then a round, mellow, beautiful voice, full of sweetness, broke the silence.
"How's this? Robert, my boy, what's the matter?"
I thought that, all at once, a tide of blossoms, and fragrance, and sunshine, had burst into the grim old library. Robert lifted his head and downcast eyes. So did Jenny, and so did I. In the center of the room, on the old-fashioned chair, sat godfather Virgil. No tall, grim, unfeeling guardian. No stern, implacable, unforgiving ogre. But a hale, healthy personage, in the prime of life, with a beautiful, kind countenance, and tender, peaceful, blue eyes.
A single streak of sunlight, which was playing on the wall, glanced now and then across his grayish-brown hair, and white, unwrinkled brow.
Robert stood before him, his hair tossed aside from his face, which now wore a reassured, grateful look. The step-aunts seated themselves, upright and gloomy, one on either side.
"Mr. Virgil," said Miss Lucretia, by way of preface, "a circumstance like this has never happened in my family. I consider my sister's memory disgraced by this unpardonable action which her stepson has committed."
"Mr. Virgil," concluded Miss Penelope, "a Marchmont never would have perpetrated an act so unworthy of his ancestors."
"Go on, Robert," said the mellow voice, mildly. "Tell me all — tell everything."
"Yes, yes, go on," repeated Miss Lucretia, with acrimony. "Be explicit, and don't lie."
Robert's face flushed, his dark eyes glanced passionately, and he bit his lips as if to suppress his just anger. Then he became subdued again and sorrowful.
"Godfather Virgil," he began, but broke down at these words. Then he rallied, and went on, remorsefully, but bravely.
"For sometime past, in going to my place of employment, I have been in the habit of dropping in to visit a poor family, who live in that vicinity. The family consist of a drunken father, a mother, and a crippled child. While I had a little money to spare, besides what I invested, and what I spent in pastime — I gave it to the poor woman for the sake of her child.
"For a week past, the child has lain very ill — almost at the point of death. During her sufferings, her constant desire has been for fruit — for oranges, which delicacy her mother was unable to buy with her scanty means. Yesterday, while I stood at the bedside, her pleadings were heart-rending, and I almost cried because I could not give them to her. I had spent foolishly the little pocket-money I had, and there was no more to be procured until the next month.
"All the way to my employer's I thought about it, and half the day it haunted me. In the afternoon I entered the counting-room for some article. The room was empty, no one was near, and upon the desk lay a few bright silver pieces. Temptation was before me. I thought of the sick-bed of the little child, with its parched lips and piteous cry. I forgot what I had come for, and yet lingered in the room. If I took the money, I could easily replace it again. Only one month, and then I would replace it all, perhaps more than I took. Then something whispered to me, 'Oh! Robert, don't steal,' and I startled at my own thoughts. I tried to say my prayers, but I had forgotten them. I glanced involuntarily at the money, and said 'Our Father,' but it wouldn't do."
Here Robert broke down again, and covered his face with his hands. Somebody sobbed. It wasn't Robert, nor Miss Lucretia, nor her sister. It wasn't Jenny, either, although she was weeping silently. It was godfather Virgil. His face was covered with his white handkerchief, and his bosom heaved with emotion.
Robert continued, shading his eyes with his hand.
"I left the counting-room, not as I had entered it a few moments before. There was a great weight on my heart, and I felt no longer fearless and honest, but trembled at a sound. I hurried away from thought, and the place of my temptation. I bought the oranges, and carried them to the sick-bedside. The mother gave me a blessing, but it sounded more like a curse. I never, never could be upright and honest again: I was so sunk in my own esteem. Oh! sir, I have suffered just here," placing his hand upon his bosom, "more than words can tell. It seems as if I had passed through years of punishment and horror. The money has been replaced by my aunts, and God knows that my torture has been severe."
Robert ceased speaking, and stood with bowed head, the perfect picture of youthful despair. He asked for no clemency, and he need not have asked for it.
Godfather Virgil removed the handkerchief from his face.
"Mr. Virgil," said Miss Lucretia, leaning forward, "he deserves all and everything. Let him not escape."
"Mr. Virgil, be severe," said Miss Penelope, eyeing him closely.
Godfather Virgil arose from his seat, calmly and with mild dignity. He spoke clearly and distinctly — "Judge not, lest you be judged also."
The step-aunts exchanged glances. He continued. He spoke eloquently and long. He made an appeal to the stony hearts before him, and they melted at his touch. He asked them if for one offence, he should crush forever the hopes and springtime of youth. If he should trample upon repentance, and toss lightly away a soul, noble and brave, but erring.
There was pathos in his tones — a great depth and tenderness. Oh! how great and good he looked, standing there, with love and pity and tears in his eyes! He finished his appeal — he turned — he held out his arms. "Robert, my boy, cheer up! There's a long life before you. Be honest, be strong, be hopeful. Never despair, and never throw away life because of a single false step."
Miss Lucretia and Miss Penelope sat with downcast eyes, struggling to regain their ancient pride. I buried my head in the window-curtain, and cried heartily.
When I looked up, Robert was in godfather Virgil's arms, and sobbing upon his brave, broad bosom. Jenny was there, too, with her hands clasped about his neck, and her bright hair waving down around him.
And the tide of blossoms, and fragrance, and sunshine kept swelling and gliding into the grim library, keeping pace with the kind, murmuring, mellow voice. Noble, generous, brave-hearted godfather Virgil!