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Eric Or, Little by Little

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CHILDHOOD "Ah dear delights, that o'er my soulOn memory's wing like shadows fly!Ah flowers that Joy from Eden stole,While Innocence stood laughing by."--COLERIDGE.

"Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!" cried a young boy, as he capered vigorously about, and clapped his hands. "Papa and mamma will be home in a week now, and then we shall stay here a little time, and then, and then, I shall go to school."

The last words were enunciated with immense importance, as he stopped his impromptu dance before the chair where his sober cousin Fanny was patiently working at her crochet; but she did not look so much affected by the announcement as the boy seemed to demand, so he again exclaimed, "And then, Miss Fanny, I shall go to school."

"Well, Eric," said Fanny, raising her matter-of-fact quiet face from her endless work, "I doubt, dear, whether you will talk of it with quite as much joy a year hence."

"O ay, Fanny, that's just like you to say so; you're always talking and prophesying; but never mind, I'm going to school, so hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!" and he again began his capering,--jumping over the chairs, trying to vault the tables, singing and dancing with an exuberance of delight, till, catching a sudden sight of his little spaniel Flo, he sprang through the open window into the garden, and disappeared behind the trees of the shrubbery; but Fanny still heard his clear, ringing, silvery laughter, as he continued his games in the summer air.

She looked up from her work after he had gone, and sighed. In spite of the sunshine and balm of the bright weather, a sense of heaviness and foreboding oppressed her. Everything looked smiling and beautiful, and there was an almost irresistible contagion in the mirth of her young cousin, but still she could not help feeling sad. It was not merely that she would have to part with Eric, "but that bright boy," thought Fanny, "what will become of him? I have heard strange things of schools; oh, if he should be spoilt and ruined, what misery it would be. Those baby lips, that pure young heart, a year may work sad change in their words and thoughts!" She sighed again, and her eyes glistened as she raised them upwards, and breathed a silent prayer.

She loved the boy dearly, and had taught him from his earliest years. In most things she found him an apt pupil. Truthful, ingenuous, quick, he would acquire almost without effort any subject that interested him, and a word was often enough to bring the impetuous blood to his cheeks, in a flush, of pride or indignation. He required the gentlest teaching, and had received it, while his mind seemed cast in such a mould of stainless honor that he avoided most of the faults to which children are prone. But he was far from blameless. He was proud to a fault; he well knew that few of his fellows had gifts like his, either of mind or person, and his fair face often showed a clear impression of his own superiority. His passion, too, was imperious, and though it always met with prompt correction, his cousin had latterly found it difficult to subdue. She felt, in a word, that he was outgrowing her rule. Beyond a certain age no boy of spirit can be safely guided by a woman's hand alone.

Eric Williams was now twelve years old. His father was a civilian in India, and was returning on furlough to England after a long absence. Eric had been born in India, but had been sent to England by his parents at an early age, in charge of a lady friend of his mother. The parting, which had been agony to his father and mother, he was too young to feel; indeed the moment itself passed by without his being conscious of it. They took him on board the ship, and, after a time, gave him a hammer and some nails to play with. These had always been to him a supreme delight, and while he hammered away, Mr. and Mrs. Williams, denying themselves, for the child's sake, even one more tearful embrace, went ashore in the boat and left him. It was not till the ship sailed that he was told he would not see them again for a long, long time. Poor child, his tears and cries were wild when he first understood it; but the sorrows of four years old are very transient, and before a week was over, little Eric felt almost reconciled to his position, and had become the universal pet and plaything of every one on board, from Captain Broadland down to the cabin boy, with whom he very soon struck up an acquaintance. Yet twice a day at least, he would shed a tear, as he lisped his little prayer, kneeling at Mrs. Munro's knee, and asked God "to bless his dear dear father and mother, and make him a good boy."

When Eric arrived in England, he was intrusted to the care of a widowed aunt, whose daughter, Fanny, had the main charge of his early teaching. At first, the wayward little Indian seemed likely to form no accession to the quiet household, but he soon became its brightest ornament and pride. Everything was in his favor at the pleasant home of Mrs. Trevor. He was treated with motherly kindness and tenderness, yet firmly checked when he went wrong. From the first he had a well-spring of strength, against temptation, in the long letters which every mail brought from his parents; and all his childish affections were entwined round the fancied image of a brother born since he had left India. In his bed-room there hung a cherub's head, drawn in pencil by his mother, and this picture was inextricably identified in his imagination with his "little brother Vernon." He loved it dearly, and whenever he went astray, nothing weighed on his mind so strongly as the thought, that if he were naughty he would teach little Vernon to be naughty too when he came home.

And Nature also--wisest, gentlest, holiest of teachers-was with him in his childhood. Fairholm Cottage, where his aunt lived, was situated in the beautiful Vale of Ayrton, and a clear stream ran through the valley at the bottom of Mrs. Trevor's orchard. Eric loved this stream, and was always happy as he roamed by its side, or over the low green hills and scattered dingles, which lent unusual loveliness to every winding of its waters. He was allowed to go about a good deal by himself, and it did him good. He grew up fearless and self-dependent, and never felt the want of amusement. The garden and orchard supplied him a theatre for endless games and romps, sometimes with no other companion than his cousin and his dog, and sometimes with the few children of his own age whom he knew in the hamlet. Very soon he forgot all about India; it only hung like a distant golden haze on the horizon of his memory. When asked if he remembered it, he would say thoughtfully, that in dreams and at some other times, he saw a little child, with long curly hair, running about in a little garden, near a great river, in a place where the air was very bright. But whether the little boy was himself or his brother Vernon, whom he had never seen, he couldn't quite tell.

But above all, it was happy for Eric that his training was religious and enlightened. With Mrs. Trevor and her daughter, religion was not a system but a habit--not a theory, but a continued act of life. All was simple, sweet, and unaffected about their charity and their devotions. They loved God, and they did all the good they could to those around them. The floating gossip and ill-nature of the little village never affected them; it melted away insensibly in the presence of their cultivated minds; and so friendship with them was a bond of union among all, and from the vicar to the dairyman every one loved and respected them, asked their counsel, and sought their sympathy.

They called themselves by no sectarian name, nor could they have told to what "party" they belonged. They troubled themselves with no theories of education, but mingled gentle nurture with "wholesome neglect." There was nothing exotic or constrained in the growth of Eric's character. He was not one of your angelically good children at all, and knew none of the phrases of which infant prodigies are supposed to be so fond. He had not been taught any distinction between "Sunday books" and "week-day" books, but no book had been put in his way that was not healthy and genuine in tone. He had not been told that he might use his Noah's ark on Sunday, because it was "a Sunday plaything," while all other toys were on that day forbidden. Of these things the Trevors thought little; they only saw that no child could be happy in enforced idleness or constrained employment; and so Eric grew up to love Sunday quite as well as any other day in the week, though, unlike your angelic children, he never professed to like it better. But to be truthful, to be honest, to be kind, to be brave, these had been taught him, and he never quite forgot the lesson; nor amid the sorrows of after life did he ever quite lose the sense--learnt at dear quiet Fairholm--of a present loving God, of a tender and long-suffering Father.

As yet he could be hardly said to know what school was. He had been sent indeed to Mr. Lawley's grammar-school for the last half-year, and had learned a few declensions in his Latin grammar. But as Mr. Lawley allowed his upper class to hear the little boys their lessons, Eric had managed to get on pretty much as he liked. Only once in the entire half-year had he said a lesson to the dreadful master himself, and of course it was a ruinous failure, involving some tremendous pulls of Eric's hair, and making him tremble like a leaf. Several things combined to make Mr. Lawley dreadful to his imagination. Ever since he was quite little, he remembered hearing the howls which proceeded from the "Latin school" as he passed by, whi1st some luckless youngster was getting caned; and the reverend pedagogue was notoriously passionate. Then, again, he spoke so indistinctly with his deep, gruff voice, that Eric never could and never did syllable a word he said, and this kept him in a perpetual terror. Once Mr. Lawley had told him to go out, and see what time it was by the church clock. Only hearing that he was to do something, too frightened to ask what it was, and feeling sure that even if he did, he should not understand what the master said, Eric ran out, went straight to Mr. Lawley's house, and after having managed by strenuous jumps to touch the knocker, informed the servant "that Mr. Lawley wanted his man."

"What man?" said the maid-servant, "the young man? or the butler? or is it the clerk?"

Here was a puzzler! all Eric knew was that he was in the habit of sending sometimes for one or the other of these functionaries; but he was in for it, so with a faltering voice he said "the young man" at hazard, and went back to the Latin school.

"Why have you been so long?" roared Mr. Lawley, as he timidly entered. Fear entirely prevented Eric from hearing what was said, so he answered at random, "He's coming, sir." The master, seeing by his scared look that something was wrong, waited to see what would turn up.

Soon after, in walked "the young man," and coming to the astonished Mr. Lawley, bowed, scraped, and said, "Master Williams said you sent for me, sir."

"A mistake," growled the schoolmaster, turning on Eric a look which nearly petrified him; he quite expected a book at his head, or at best a great whack of the cane; but Mr. Lawley had naturally a kind heart, soured as it was, and pitying perhaps the child's white face, he contented himself with the effects of his look.

The simple truth was, that poor Mr. Lawley was a little wrong in the head. A scholar and a gentleman, early misfortunes and an imprudent marriage had driven him to the mastership of the little country grammar-school; and here the perpetual annoyance caused to his refined mind by the coarseness of clumsy or spiteful boys, had gradually unhinged his intellect. Often did he tell the boys "that it was an easier life by far to break stones by the roadside than to teach them;" and at last his eccentricities became too obvious to be any longer overlooked.

The dénouement of his history was a tragic one, and had come a few days before the time when, our narrative opens. It was a common practice among the Latin school boys, as I suppose among all boys, to amuse themselves by putting a heavy book on the top of a door left partially ajar, and to cry out "Crown him" as the first luckless youngster who happened to come in received the book thundering on his head. One day, just as the trap had been adroitly laid, Mr. Lawley walked in unexpectedly. The moment he entered the school-room, down came an Ainsworth's Dictionary on the top of his hat, and the boy, concealed behind the door, unconscious of who the victim was, enunciated with mock gravity, "Crown him! three cheers."

It took Mr. Lawley a second to raise from his eyebrows the battered hat, and recover from his confusion; the next instant he was springing after the boy who had caused the mishap, and who, knowing the effects of the master's fury, fled with precipitation. In one minute the offender was caught, and Mr. Lawley's heavy hand fell recklessly on his ears and back, until he screamed with terror. At last by a tremendous writhe, wrenching himself free, he darted towards the door, and Mr. Lawley, too exhausted to pursue, snatched his large gold watch out of his fob, and hurled it at the boy's retreating figure. The watch flew through the air;--crash! it had missed its aim, and, striking the wall above the lintel, fell smashed into a thousand shivers.

The sound, the violence of the action, the sight of the broken watch, which was the gift of a cherished friend, instantly woke the master to his senses. The whole school had seen it; they sate there pale and breathless with excitement and awe. The poor man could bear it no longer. He flung himself into his chair, hid his face with his hands, and burst into hysterical tears. It was the outbreak of feelings long pent up. In that instant all his life passed before him--its hopes, its failures, its miseries, its madness. "Yes!" he thought, "I am mad."

Raising his head, he cried wildly, "Boys, go, I am mad!" and sank again into his former position, rocking himself to and fro. One by one the boys stole out, and he was left alone. The end is soon told. Forced to leave Ayrton, he had no means of earning his daily bread; and the weight of this new anxiety hastening the crisis, the handsome proud scholar became an inmate of the Brerely Lunatic Asylum. A few years afterwards, Eric heard that he was dead. Poor broken human heart! may he rest in peace.

Such was Eric's first school and schoolmaster. But although he learnt little there, and gained no experience of the character of others or of his own, yet there was one point about Ayrton Latin School, which he never regretted. It was the mixture there of all classes. On those benches gentlemen's sons sat side by side with plebeians, and no harm, but only good, seemed to come from the intercourse. The neighboring gentry, most of whom had begun their education there, were drawn into closer and kindlier union with their neighbors and dependents, from the fact of having been their associates in the days of their boyhood. Many a time afterwards, when Eric, as he passed down the streets, interchanged friendly greetings with some young glazier or tradesman whom he remembered at school, he felt glad that thus early he had learnt practically to despise the accidental and nominal differences which separate man from man.


A NEW HOME "Life hath its May, and all is joyous then;The woods are vocal and the flowers breathe odour,The very breeze hath, mirth in't."--OLD PLAY.

At last the longed-for yet dreaded day approached, and a letter informed the Trevors that Mr. and Mrs. Williams would arrive at Southampton on July 5th, and would probably reach Ayrton the evening after. They particularly requested that no one should come to meet them on their landing. "We shall reach Southampton," wrote Mrs. Trevor, "tired, pale, and travel-stained, and had much rather see you first at dear Fairholm, where we shall be spared the painful constraint of a meeting in public. So please expect our arrival at about seven in the evening."

Poor Eric! although he had been longing for the time ever since the news came, yet now he was too agitated to enjoy. Exertion and expectation made him restless, and he could settle down to nothing all day, every hour of which hung most heavily on his hands.

At last the afternoon wore away, and a soft summer evening filled the sky with its gorgeous calm. Far off they caught the sound of wheels; a carriage dashed up to the door, and the next moment Eric sprang into his mother's arms.

"O mother, mother!"

"My own darling, darling boy!"

And as the pale sweet face of the mother met the bright and rosy child-face, each of them was wet with a rush of ineffable tears. In another moment Eric had been folded to his father's heart, and locked in the arms of "little brother Vernon." Who shall describe the emotions of those few moments? they did not seem like earthly moments; they seemed to belong not to time, but to eternity.

The first evening of such a scene is too excited to be happy. The little party at Fairholm retired early, and Eric was soon fast asleep with his arm round his newfound brother's neck.

Quiet steps entered the little room, and noiselessly the father and mother sat down by the bedside of their children. Earth could have shown no scene more perfect in its beauty than that which met their eyes. The pure moonlight flooded the little room, and showed distinctly the forms and countenances of the sleepers, whose soft regular breathing was the only sound that broke the stillness of the July night. The small shining flower-like faces, with their fair hair--the trustful loving arms folded round each brother's neck--the closed lids and parted lips made an exquisite picture, and one never to be forgotten. Side by side, without a word, the parents knelt down, and with eyes wet with tears of joyfulness, poured out their hearts in passionate prayer for their young and beloved boys.

Very happily the next month glided away; a new life seemed opened to Eric in the world of rich affections which had unfolded itself before him. His parents--above all, his mother--were everything that he had longed for; and Vernon more than fulfilled to his loving heart the ideal of his childish fancy. He was never tired of playing with and patronising his little brother, and their rambles by stream and hill made those days appear the happiest he had ever spent....