Would the child suffer?

Humphrey passed the night partly in heavy sleep and partly in feverish
restlessness.

His first inquiry in the morning was for Miles, and the next for the
gentlemen who were to help him to get well so quick.

The latter he was told could not arrive till eleven o’clock, but Sir
Everard went to fetch little Miles, and whispering to him not to talk
much or to stay long, he put the child down and stayed by the door to
watch the meeting between the two little brothers.

Miles advanced rather timidly, the room was so dark and everything
looked so strange. But as soon as he distinguished his brother he ran
forward.

“Humphie! get up, get up. Why do you ‘ie there, and look so white?”

“I’m ill, Miles!”–in a tone half plaintive, half triumphant.

“_Musn’t_ be ill, Humphie–oh, don’t be ill!”

“_You’re_ often ill, Miles; why shouldn’t I be ill sometimes?”

“Don’t like it,” said the child, his eyes filling with tears. “Oh,
Humphie, I wish we hadn’t _tummelled_ into the pond!”

At this moment Sir Everard was called away, and informed that the
physicians had arrived from London.

He found them in the dining-room, talking over the case with the village
doctor and, after ordering them some breakfast, he returned to prepare
the little invalid for their arrival.

As he approached the room he was alarmed to hear Humphrey’s voice
raised, and still more, when little Miles, with a face of terror came
running out.

“Oh, Fardie, Fardie! will you come to Humphie? He’s crying so, and he
wants you to come directly!”

“Crying so! What is the matter with him?”

“Oh, I don’t know? He began to cry and scream so when I said it!”

“Said what–said what?”

“Oh, Fardie, I was telling him that I heard Virginie tell some one he
would be ‘boiteux’ all his life, and I _only_ asked him what it meant!”

* * * * *

Vainly all night long had Sir Everard tried to frame a sentence in which
to convey the fatal news.

Phrase after phrase had he rejected, because nothing seemed to him to
express half the love and tenderness in which so terrible an
announcement should be clothed. Words were so hard, so cold! They were
so weak to express what he wanted–so utterly inadequate to contain all
the pity, all the yearning sympathy with which his heart was
overflowing!

And now without any preparation, without any softening, the cruel blow
had fallen!

For one moment the father’s heart failed him, and he felt he _could_ not
face the boy, _could_ not meet his questioning gaze, _could_ not with
his own lips confirm the fatal truth. But there was no time for
reflection. Humphrey’s feeble voice calling him to come quickly, caught
his ear, and as in a dream he advanced, and stood by the bedside.

“Father!” exclaimed the child (and how shall we express the tones of his
voice, or convey an idea of the pitiful entreaty and nameless horror
with which they rang?) “it isn’t true–is it? Oh, say it isn’t true!”

All the words of consolation and soothing died upon the father’s lips,
and his tongue seemed tied.

“She’s always saying unkind things,” sobbed the child, clinging to him;
“she oughtn’t to–_ought_ she? You don’t answer me, father! Father, why
don’t you tell me? Why don’t you say quick, it’s not true?” And as his
fear grew, his voice faltered, and his grasp on his father tightened.
“Answer me–father–why–don’t you–speak?”

“My poor child, my poor little fellow!” One more struggle for the truth,
in spite of the failing voice, and the sense of deadly sickness.

“Lift up your face, father. Let–me–see–your–face!”

What was there in the face that struck terror to his heart, and brought
conviction thumping up in great throbs, even before the faltering words
came.

“Supposing it should be true–what then!”

Ah! what then? His dizzy brain refused to attach any meaning to the
words, or to help him to understand how much was contained in them.

The loud beating of his heart echoed them, his parched lips strove to
repeat them, and wildly he fought with his failing senses, straining
every nerve to find an answer to the question. In vain! Every pulse in
his throbbing head seemed to take up the words and beat them into his
brain; the air was live with voices around him, and voices and pulses
alike cried, “What then?–what then?” But the question went unanswered,
for Humphrey fainted away.

* * * * *

Sir Everard hastily summoned the doctors, and they did all they could to
restore him.

In a little while he showed signs of coming to himself, and to prevent
his thoughts returning to the subject which had agitated him, they
requested Sir Everard to remain out of sight, and stationed themselves
close to the bedside, so that theirs should be the first figures that
should attract his attention.




As Humphrey slowly recovered consciousness, he did not indeed clearly
remember on what his thoughts had been dwelling, but that there was
something in his mind from which he shrank, he was quite aware.

Waking in the morning to a sense of some sorrow which possessed us ere
we slept, we intuitively feel there is something amiss, though we are
too confused to remember what it is; and even while we wish to recall
it, we dread to turn our thoughts that way, lest we should lose the
temporary peace into which forgetfulness has plunged us.

In such a passive state would Humphrey have remained, had not the
doctors, to distract his thoughts, touched his brow, and caused him to
open his eyes.

Alas! they little knew the all-powerful association of the place where
he lay.

He closed his eyes again directly, and took no notice of the doctors’
attempts to lead him into conversation; but in that one moment, his
glance had rested on his mother’s picture, and at once his mind wandered
back–not indeed to the memory they dreaded, but to one which was
scarcely less painful.

We will follow his thoughts for a moment.

He is alone; all alone in the desolate apartment, in the closed
uninhabited room! The twilight is creeping slowly on, and the silence
and emptiness within and without him, can almost be felt. Up-stairs in
the nursery, Miles is dying–perhaps already dead. No one will help him,
or be sorry for him. And as the sense of neglect and isolation steals
over him once more, his breast heaves, and his lips move:

“Mother, I want you back so much, every one is angry with me and I am so
very miserable!”

No answer, no sound.

“Mother! put your arms round me! put my head on your shoulder!”

Not a word.

It is only a picture after all.

* * * * *

Never to play with Miles any more! No more games on the stairs, or in
the passages! No, never more! For Miles is dying, perhaps already dead.
How happy the baby in the picture looks! Can it really be him? Oh, happy
baby, always close to mother! always with her arms round him, and her
shoulder against his head. Oh, if he could climb up into the baby’s
place, and stay there for ever and ever! How _could_ he get up to her?
She is in Heaven. She got there by being ill and dying. Why should he
not get ill, and die too. Miles is dying, mother is dead–he would so
like to die too. But it’s no use. He never is ill–not even a cold.
Miles caught cold going to the pond–the pond where the water-lilies
are. How quiet it was! how cool! How gently they dance upon the water,
those lovely water-lilies. How the bird sang, and the rat splashed….
Come up, Miles–it’s as safe as safe can be!… Stop!… Miles is
dying–how could he come up? Miles came into the room, and talked about
the–jackdaw … wasn’t it?–the poor lame jackdaw…. Miles is
dying…. How did he come in?… Hop! hop! comes the jackdaw, poor old
fellow! But what did Miles say about the jackdaw? Boiteux! But _that’s_
not his name; we always call him Jack. Boiteux means…. The jackdaw
again! Hop, hop, he comes…. He will never fly again–never! Poor old
jackdaw!… Is it ready true that he will never fly again? It is not
true. But supposing it should be true, what then?… Boiteux!… Who is
it keeps on asking me what ‘boiteux’ means?… Boiteux! “What then?”
Boiteux means jackdaw–no, it means lame–no it means crip—-

The temporary oblivion is over, the unknown dread is taking a tangible
shape, and recollection rushes over him, bringing conviction with it.

But Hope, ever the last gift in the casket, faintly holds out against
certainty.

“No! no!–not that! it _can’t_ be that!”

But something beating in his heart, beats Hope down. Mighty throbs, like
the strokes of a hammer, beat it down, down, crush it to nothing; and a
terrible sinking comes in its place. _It is true_–and in an instant he
realizes what _It_ being true will entail.

As lightning, flashing upon the path of the benighted traveller, reveals
to him for a moment the country lying before him, illumining all its
minutest details; so thought, flashing upon the future of the child,
showed him for a moment all too vividly the life of crippled
helplessness stretching out before him–the daily, hourly cross, which
must be his for ever!

Let each one try to conceive for himself the intensity of such a moment,
to such a nature!

Let each one try to realise the thoughts which followed each other in
hot haste through his brain, the confused phantasmagoria which swam
before him, fading away at last, and leaving only two distinct
pictures–the jackdaw hopping about in his cage, and little lame Tom in
the village, sitting in his cripple’s chair.

He shrinks back in horror, his soul rises in loathing: he pants, and
wildly throws himself about, with a half-smothered cry.

“Oh, gently, my darling! you will hurt yourself.”

It is his father’s voice, and he turns to him and clings tightly.

“I don’t care–I don’t care. I want to hurt myself. I want to die. I
don’t want to live like that!” At the sight of the physicians, his
excitement redoubled, and he clung more tightly to his father. “No! No!
Send them away! They shan’t look at me, they shan’t touch me. They are
going to try and make me well, and I don’t want to get well. I _won’t_
get well!”

The doctors retired, as their presence excited him so much, and Sir
Everard tried to loosen the boy’s convulsive grasp round his neck.

Humphrey was too exhausted to retain the position long: his hands
relaxed their hold, and Sir Everard laid him back on the pillow.

Once more the soft face in the picture exercises its old influence over
him, and charms away, as of old, the fit of passionate rebellion.

“Father,” he entreated, in a whisper, “let me die! Promise not to let
them try and make me well again.”

Between surprise and emotion Sir Everard could not answer. He thought
the idea of death would be both strange and repugnant to so thoughtless
a creature; and he marvelled to hear him speak of it.

“You’ll promise, won’t you, father? You know I _couldn’t_ live like
that! Let me go and live with mother in Heaven. See,” pointing to the
picture, “how happy I was in her arms when I was a baby, and I want to
lie there again so much! Just now, when I thought it was still the night
Miles was ill, before I knew I should never walk or run any more, even
then I wanted so to get ill and die, that I might go to her, and I want
it more than ever now. I thought then I never could get ill, because I
am so strong; but now I _am_ ill, and so you’ll let me die! Promise not
to try and make me well?”

Three times Sir Everard strove to answer, and three times his voice
failed him. He managed, however, to murmur something which sounded like
an affirmative, which satisfied and quieted the child.

But much of the boy’s speech had been wholly unintelligible to him, and
his allusions to his mother’s picture especially puzzled him. Looking
upon the drawing-room as a closed room, he had no idea that the children
ever penetrated into it, or that they knew of the existence of the
picture. And laying his hand on the child’s head, he said: “How did you
know that was your mother, Humphrey?”

The boy shot at him a glance of such astonishment that Sir Everard felt
rebuked, and did not like to continue the conversation; and the doctors,
returning at that moment, it was not resumed.

This time, Humphrey made no resistance, and the physicians were able to
make their examination.

Leaving the village doctor by the bedside, Sir Everard led the way to
the library, to hear their opinion.

He hardly knew what he wished. Humphrey’s horror at his impending fate
had made such an impression on Sir Everard that he almost shrank from
hearing the child would recover to such a life as that. And yet when the
doctors told him his boy must die, a revulsion of feeling swept over
him, and his rebellious heart cried, “Anything but that!”

“Would it be soon?” he tried to ask.

“It could not be far off,” they said.

“Would the child suffer?”

“They hoped not–they believed not;” and they wrung his hand and
departed.

He followed them to the hall door, and waited with them till their
carriage came up.

It was a still summer’s morning when they came out upon the steps, as if
all nature were silently and breathlessly awaiting the verdict. But as
the doctors got into their carriage, a light breeze sprang up, causing
the trees to sway and rustle with a mournful sound, as if they knew the
sentence, and were conveying it to the fields around. Sir Everard stood
watching them as they drove away–those great court physicians, who,
with all their fame and all their learning could do nothing for his
boy–nothing!

He listened to the sighing of the wind, and watched the trees bowing
mournfully before it; and he wondered vaguely what was the language of
the winds and breezes, and in what words nature was learning his boy’s
fate. It seemed to him that the breezes pursued the retreating doctors,
and flung clouds of dust around them, as if taunting them with their
inability to help; and then, returning once more to the oaks and
beeches, resumed their melancholy wail. Dreamily there recurred to his
mind that ancient fable the children loved to hear: that story of the
olden time which tells how the wind wafted through the trees to the
passers-by, the secret which had been whispered into the bosom of the
earth:

“List! Mother Earth; while no man hears,
King Midas has got asses’ ears.”

And, as he cast one more look at the carriage in the distance, before
re-entering the house, the messages of the breezes seemed to come into
his head in the form of the baby rhymes he had so often heard the
children sing.

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