The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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"I took you in my arms, my boy," the old Colonel continued in a softer tone; "and as you were left all alone in the bungalow there, with no living soul to love or care for you, I carried you away in my arms myself, to my own quarters. All through the rest of that terrible campaign I kept you with me, and while I was fighting at Futteypoor, a native ayah was in charge of you for me. Your poor father had owed me a trifling debt, and I took you as payment in full, and have kept you with me as my nephew ever since. That is all your history, Harry."
The young man drew a deep breath, and looked across curiously to the bronzed face of the simple old officer. Then he asked, a little huskily, "And why didn't my father's or mother's relations reclaim me, sir? Do they know that I am still living?"
Sir Thomas coughed, and twirled his watch-chain more nervously and uneasily than ever. "Well, you see, my boy," he answered at last, after a long pause, "your mother – I must tell you the whole truth now, Harry – your mother was a Eurasian, a half-caste lady – very light, almost white, but still a half-caste, you know, and – and – well, your father's family – didn't exactly acknowledge the relationship, Harry."
Harry's face burnt crimson once more, and the hot blood rushed madly to his cheeks, for he felt in a moment the full force of the meaning that the Colonel wrapped up so awkwardly in that one short embarrassed sentence.
There was another long pause, during which Harry kept his burning eyes fixed fast upon Sir Thomas, and Sir Thomas looked down uncomfortably at his boots and said nothing. Then the young man found voice again feebly to ask, almost in a whisper, one final question.
"Had you … had you any particular reason for telling me this story about my birth and my parents at this exact time … just now, uncle?"
"I had, Harry. I – I have rather suspected of late … that … that you are falling somehow into … into your poor father's unhappy vice of gambling. My boy, my boy, if you inherit his failings in that direction, I hope his end will be some warning to you to desist immediately."
"And had you … any reason to suspect me of … of any other fault … of … of any graver fault … of anything really very serious, uncle?"
The Colonel held his head between his hands, and answered very slowly, as if the words were wrung from him by torture: "If you hadn't yourself asked me the question point-blank, Harry, I would never have told you anything about it. Yes, my boy, my dear boy, my poor boy; I know it all … all … all … absolutely."
Harry lifted up his voice in one loud cry and wail of horror, and darted out of the room without another syllable.
"I know that cry," the Colonel said in his own heart, trembling. "I have heard it before! It's the very cry poor Walpole gave that night at Boolundshahr, just before he went out and shot himself!"
Harry had rushed out into the garden; of that, Sir Thomas felt certain.He followed him hastily, and saw him by the seat under the lime-trees in the far corner; he had something heavy in his right hand. Sir Thomas came closer and saw to his alarm and horror that it was indeed the small revolver from the old pistol-stand on the wall of the vestibule.
Even as the poor old soldier gazed, half petrified, the lad pushed a cartridge home feverishly into one of the chambers, and raised the weapon, with a stern resolution, up to his temple. Sir Thomas recognized in that very moment of awe and terror that it was the exact attitude and action of Harry's dead father. The entire character and tragedy seemed to have handed itself down directly from father to son without a single change of detail or circumstance.
The old man darted forward with surprising haste, and caught Harry's hand just as the finger rested upon the trigger.
"My boy! my boy!" he cried, wrenching the revolver easily from his trembling grasp, and flinging it, with a great curve, to the other end of the garden. "Not that way! Not that way! I haven't reproached you with one word, Harry; but this is a bad return, indeed, for a life devoted to you. Oh, Harry! Harry! not by shuffling off your responsibilities and running away from them like a coward, not by that can you ever mend matters in the state you have got them into, but by living on, and fighting against your evil impulses and conquering them like a man – that's the way, the right way, to get the better of them. Promise me, Harry, promise me, my boy, that whatever comes you won't make away with yourself, as your father did; for my sake, live on and do better. I'm an old man, an old man, Harry, and I have but you in the world to care for or think about. Don't let me be shamed in my old age by seeing the boy I have brought up and loved as a son dying in disgrace, a poltroon and a coward. Stand by your guns, my boy; stand by your guns, and fight it out to the last minute."
Harry's arm fell powerless to his side, and he broke down utterly, in his shame and self-abasement flinging himself wildly upon the seat beneath the lime-trees and covering his face with his hands to hide the hot tears that were bursting forth in a feverish torrent.
"I will go," he said at last, in a choking voice, "I will go, uncle, and talk to Milly."
"Do," the Colonel said, soothing his arm tenderly. "Do, my boy. She's a good girl, and she'll advise you rightly. Go and speak to her; but before you go, promise me, promise me."
Harry rose, and tried to shake off Sir Thomas's heavy hand, laid with a fatherly pressure upon his struggling shoulder. But he couldn't; the old soldier was still too strong for him. "Promise me," he said once more caressingly, "promise me; promise me!"
Harry hesitated for a second, in his troubled mind; then, with an effort, he answered slowly, "I promise, uncle."
Sir Thomas released him, and he rushed wildly away. "Remember," the Colonel cried aloud, as he went in at the open folding windows, "remember, Harry, you are on your honour. If you break parole I shall think very badly, very badly indeed, of you."
But as the old man turned back sadly into his lonely library, he thought to himself, "I wonder whether I oughtn't to have dealt more harshly with him! I wonder whether I was right in letting him off so easily for two such extremely – such extremely grave breaches of military discipline!"
"Then you think, Milly, that's what I ought to do? You think I'd better go and never come back again till I feel quite sure of myself?"
"I think so, Harry, I think so… I think so… And yet … it's very hard not to see you for so long, Harry."
"But I shall write to you every day, Milly, however long it may be; and if I conquer myself, why, then, Milly, I shall feel I can come back fit to marry you. I'm not fit now, and unless I feel that I've put myself straight with you and my uncle, I'll never come back again – never, never, never!"
Milly's lip trembled, but she only answered bravely, "That's well, Harry; for then you'll make all the more effort, and for my sake I'm sure you'll conquer. But, Harry, I wish before you go you'd tell me plainly what else it is that you've been doing besides playing and losing your uncle's money."
"Oh, Milly, Milly, I can't – I mustn't. If I were to tell you that you could never again respect me – you could never love me."
Milly was a wise girl, and pressed him no further. After all, there are some things it is better for none of us to know about one another, and this thing was just one of them.
So Harry Walpole went away from Cheltenham, nobody knew whither, except Milly; not daring to confide the secret of his whereabouts even to his uncle, nor seeing that sole friend once more before he went, but going away that very night, on his own resources, to seek his own fortune as best he might in the great world of London. "Tell my uncle why I have gone," he said to Milly; "that it is in order to conquer myself; and tell him that I'll write to you constantly, and that you will let him know from time to time whether I am well and making progress."
It was a hard time for poor old Sir Thomas, no doubt, those four years that Harry was away from him, he knew not where, and he was left alone by himself in his dreary home; but he felt it was best so; he knew Harry was trying to conquer himself. How Harry lived or what he was doing he never heard; but once or twice Milly hinted to him that Harry seemed sorely in want of money, and Sir Thomas gave her some to send him, and every time it was at once returned, with a very firm but gentle message from Harry to say that he was able, happily, to do without it, and would not further trouble his uncle. It was only from Milly that Sir Thomas could learn anything about his dear boy, and he saw her and asked her about him so often that he learned at last to love her like a daughter.
Four years rolled slowly away, and at the end of them Sir Thomas was one day sitting in his little library, somewhat disconsolate, and reflecting to himself that he ought to have somebody living with him at his time of life, when suddenly there came a ring and a knock that made him start with surprise and pleasure, for he recognized them at once as being Harry's. Next moment, the servant brought him a card, on which was engraved in small letters, "Dr. H. Walpole," and down in the left-hand corner, "Surrey Hospital."
Sir Thomas turned the card over and over with a momentary feeling of disappointment, for he had somehow fancied to himself that Harry had gone off covering himself with glory among Zulus or Afghans, and he couldn't help feeling that beside that romantic dream of soldierly rehabilitation a plain doctor's life was absurdly prosaic. Next moment, Harry himself was grasping his hand warmly, and prose and poetry were alike forgotten in that one vivid all-absorbing delight of his boy recovered.
As soon as the first flush of excitement was fairly over, and Harry had cried regretfully, "Why, uncle, how much older you're looking!" and Sir Thomas had exclaimed in his fatherly joy, "Why, Harry, my boy, what a fine fellow you've turned out, God bless me!" Harry took a little bank bag of sovereigns from his coat pocket and laid it down, very red, upon the corner of the table. "These are yours, uncle," he said simply.
Sir Thomas's first impulse was to say, "No, no, my boy; keep them, keep them, and let us forget all about it," but he checked himself just in time, for he saw that the best thing all round was to take them quietly and trouble poor Harry no more with the recollection. "Thank you, my boy," the old soldier answered, taking them up and pocketing them as though it were merely the repayment of an ordinary debt. ("The School for the Orphan Children of Officers in the Army will be all the richer for it," he thought to himself) "And now tell me, Harry, how have you been living, and what have you been doing ever since I last saw you?"
"Uncle," Harry cried – he hadn't unlearnt to think of him and call him by that fond old name, then – "uncle, I've been conquering myself. From the day I left you I've never touched a card once – not once, uncle."
"Except, I suppose, for a quiet rubber?" the old Colonel put in softly.
"Not even for a rubber, uncle," Harry answered, half smiling; "nor a cue nor a dice-box either, nor anything like them. I've determined to steer clear of all the dangers that surround me by inheritance, and I'm not going to begin again as long as I live, uncle."
"That's well, Harry, that's well. And you didn't go in for a direct commission, then? I was in hopes, my boy, that you would still, in spite of everything, go into the Queen's service."
Harry's face fell a little. "Uncle," he said, "I'm sorry to have disappointed you; sorry to have been compelled to run counter to any little ambitions you might have had for me in that respect; but I felt, after all you told me that day, that the army would be a very dangerous profession for me; and though I didn't want to be a coward and run away from danger, I didn't want to be foolhardy and heedlessly expose myself to it. So I thought on the whole it would be wiser for me to give up the direct commission business altogether, and go in at once for being a doctor. It was safer, and therefore better in the end both for me and for you, uncle."
Sir Thomas took the young man's hand once more, and pressed it gently with a fatherly pressure. "My boy," he said, "you are right, quite right – a great deal more right, indeed, than I was. But how on earth have you found money to keep yourself alive and pay for your education all these years – tell me Harry?"
Harry's face flushed up again, this time with honest pride, as he answered bravely, "I've earned enough by teaching and drawing to pay my way the whole time, till I got qualified. I've been qualified now for nine months, and got a post as house-surgeon at our hospital; but I've waited to come and tell you till I'd saved up that money, you know, out of my salary, and now I'm coming back to settle down in practice here, uncle."
Sir Thomas said nothing, but he rose from his chair and took both Harry's hands in his with tears. For a few minutes, he looked at him tenderly and admiringly, then he said in his simple way, "God bless you! God bless you! I couldn't have done it myself, my boy. I couldn't have done it myself, Harry."
There was a minute's pause, and then Sir Thomas began again, "What a secretive little girl that dear little Miss Milly must be, never to have told me a word of all this, Harry. She kept as quiet about all details as if she was sworn to the utmost secrecy."
Harry rose and opened the library door. "Milly!" he called out, and a light little figure glided in from the drawing-room opposite.
"We expect to be married in three weeks, uncle – as soon as the banns can be published," Harry went on, presenting his future wife as it were to the Colonel. "Milly's money will just be enough for us to live upon until I can scrape together a practice, and she has confidence enough in me to believe that in the end I shall manage to get one."
Sir Thomas drew her down to his chair and kissed her forehead. "Milly," he said, softly, "you have chosen well. Harry, you have done wisely. I shall have two children now instead of one. If you are to live near me I shall be very happy. But, Harry, you have proved yourself well. Now you must let me buy you a practice."
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