The down had come on Tom's lip, yet his thoughts and expectations had been hitherto only the reproduction, in changed forms, of the boyish dreams in which he had lived three years ago. He was awakened now with a violent shock.
Maggie was frightened at Tom's pale, trembling silence. There was something else to tell him, — something worse. She threw her arms round him at last, and said, with a half sob:
"Oh, Tom — dear, dear Tom, don't fret too much; try and bear it well."
Tom turned his cheek passively to meet her entreating kisses, and there gathered a moisture in his eyes, which he just rubbed away with his hand. The action seemed to rouse him, for he shook himself and said: "I shall go home, with you, Maggie. Didn't my father say I was to go?"
"No, Tom, father didn't wish it," said Maggie, her anxiety about his feeling helping her to master her agitation. What would he do when she told him all? "But mother wants you to come, — poor mother! — she cries so. Oh, Tom, it's very dreadful at home."
Maggie's lips grew whiter, and she began to tremble almost as Tom had done. The two poor things clung closer to each other, both trembling, — the one at an unshapen fear, the other at the image of a terrible certainty. When Maggie spoke, it was hardly above a whisper.
"And — and — poor father — — "
Maggie could not utter it. But the suspense was intolerable to Tom. A vague idea of going to prison, as a consequence of debt, was the shape his fears had begun to take.
"Where's my father?" he said impatiently. Tell me, Maggie."
"He's at home," said Maggie, finding it easier to reply to that question. "But," she added, after a pause, "not himself — he fell off his horse. He has known nobody but me ever since — he seems to have lost his senses. O father, father — — "
With these last words, Maggie's sobs burst forth with the more violence for the previous struggle against them. Tom felt that pressure of the heart which forbids tears; he had no distinct vision of their troubles as Maggie had, who had been at home; he only felt the crushing weight of what seemed unmitigated misfortune. He tightened his arm almost convulsively round Maggie as she sobbed, but his face looked rigid and tearless, his eyes blank, — as if a black curtain of cloud had suddenly fallen on his path.
But Maggie soon checked herself abruptly; a single thought had acted on her like a startling sound.
"We must set out, Tom, we must not stay. Father will miss me; we must be at the turnpike at ten to meet the coach." She said this with hasty decision, rubbing her eyes, and rising to seize her bonnet.
Tom at once felt the same impulse, and rose too. "Wait a minute, Maggie," he said. "I must speak to Mr. Stelling, and then we'll go."
He thought he must go to the study where the pupils were; but on his way he met Mr. Stelling, who had heard from his wife that Maggie appeared to be in trouble when she asked for her brother, and now that he thought the brother and sister had been alone long enough, was coming to inquire and offer his sympathy.
"Please, sir, I must go home," Tom said abruptly, as he met Mr. Stelling in the passage. "I must go back with my sister directly. My father's lost his lawsuit — he's lost all his property — and he's very ill."
Mr. Stelling felt like a kind-hearted man; he foresaw a probable money loss for himself, but this had no appreciable share in his feeling, while he looked with grave pity at the brother and sister for whom youth and sorrow had begun together. When he knew how Maggie had come, and how eager she was to get home again, he hurried their departure, only whispering something to Mrs. Stelling, who had followed him, and who immediately left the room.
Tom and Maggie were standing on the door-step, ready to set out, when Mrs. Stelling came with a little basket, which she hung on Maggie's arm, saying: "Do remember to eat something on the way, dear." Maggie's heart went out toward this woman whom she had never liked, and she kissed her silently. It was the first sign within the poor child of that new sense which is the gift of sorrow, — that susceptibility to the bare offices of humanity which raises them into a bond of loving fellowship, as to haggard men among the ice-bergs the mere presence of an ordinary comrade stirs the deep fountains of affection.
Mr. Stelling put his hand on Tom's shoulder and said: "God bless you, my boy; let me know how you get on." Then he pressed Maggie's hand; but there were no audible good-byes. Tom had so often thought how joyful he should be the day he left school "for good"! And now his school years seemed like a holiday that had come to an end.
The two slight youthful figures soon grew indistinct on the distant road, — were soon lost behind the projecting hedgerow.
They had gone forth together into their life of sorrow, and they would never more see the sunshine undimmed by remembered cares. They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had forever closed behind them.