Chapter VIII. The Break-up.
Man's a king, his throne is duty,
Since his work on earth began.--J. STIRLING.
THE break-up at Birkfarm came at last. The old man grew more and more feeble, and in the winter he had another stroke from which he never rallied.
Of course there ensued a time of confusion and difficulty such as every one knew was inevitable, and on which there is no need to dwell. A lawyer, Mr. Twistleden, came to attend to matters. He had been a friend of Edward's father, and had been appointed trustee for the boy. It is enough to say that there were claims which made it impossible to retain the farm, even till Edward should be of age to decide about it; and, when everything was wound up, Mrs. Bryant only possessed the fifty pounds per annum that had been settled upon her by her uncle, and a few investments of her husband's, which brought in about [88/89] thirty pounds a year more, while Edward, as heir-at-law, obtained, when the mortgages were settled, the stock sold, and the debts paid, nearly two thousand pounds.
This world not be at his own disposal till he was of age, and, in the meantime, the interest would go to assist the little income that they would have to depend upon. To Mrs. Bryant the change would be a relief. She had not been brought up to a farm or to country habits, and it would all have been against the grain to her even under happier circumstances; and the grandfather had not, even in his better days, made the home of her widowhood cheerful or pleasant to her, or helped her inexperience. She had been his housekeeper, so to speak, by compulsion and necessity, and knew that she had never been a good one, though she had done her best, and he had never been substantially unkind; but her lot had not been a happy one, and though she would be poor and pinched she felt a sense of freedom, as if--she said to her son--she was beginning life again.
It was more sad to Edward. There certainly had been a kind of relief in having the world [89/90] open to a sense of enterprise, and in not being bound down to an unprosperous piece of land; but then he could not fail to be attached to it, or to dislike to think of his favorite old haunts belonging to strangers. Nor was he insensible to the honor and glory of being the heir to a "landed property" come down to him from his forefathers. He had enjoyed a certain respect in consequence, dilapidated as his inheritance was, and after his out-of-door life, with horses, such as they were, to drive; a fowling piece, now his own, and rabbits to shoot, it was distasteful to sink down into life in a town upon a high stool, as his mother planned for him. Nor could he see any better opening, and he had promised to do his best for her, so he set his determination manfully to work, and spared his mother most of the objections and grumbles which he poured out to poor Aline. The two Millar girls were going to boarding-school, so he would lose his chief companions, even if he stayed at home, and that was one consolation.
He was sixteen now, and failed to win the scholarship. His fit of idleness had thrown him back, and, the quantity of needful occupation [90/91] that had come upon him had prevented him from working up. Perhaps his mother was only sorry for his failure and disappointment--she did not like her boy to be beaten; bat his success would have meant privation and perplexity to her; and if it prevented him from becoming a clergyman and a gentleman, it certainly disposed of all chance of that horror of hers, his recurring to the missionary scheme.
Her original home had been at Awmouth, a small seaport, where her father had traded in corn, and though her nearest relations had passed away, there were still some connections with whom there was an occasional exchange of letters, whenever there was an event in either family.
On her inquiry whether any employment could be found for her son, she was answered that, if he were a fair French scholar, there was a vacancy in a merchant's office for which he might apply, with a chance of success, and his mother's friend knew a lady whose health obliged her to give up a small boarding-house which she would transfer to Mrs. Bryant, with the arrangement that a certain amount should be paid over to her regularly for the rent and furniture.
 Fortunately for Edward, there was a good French master at Cokeham Grammar School, able to hold his own with the boys, and thus Edward was equal to writing a respectable French letter in which to make his application. He had a turn for languages, and had even helped Aline by the knowledge of Latin that had once given hopes of the scholarship. At any rate, the letter gained him the appointment, with the understanding that he was to improve himself in French and German, and, if he did so, and gave satisfaction, might look forward to an advance.
It was not a very promising prospect at the best; but it was a great relief to Mrs. Bryant to have something definite to look forward to, and Edward was glad it was a seaside place, for he had listened to her stories of the sailing and boating adventures of her brothers. She was chary of them now, because, as she told Mrs. Millar, that was what she dreaded in the matter, for her brothers had all had a fit of wanting to be sailors. One of them had been drowned, one of them was a merchant captain in the American service, and one had settled in Canada, had made a visit home, and had since died.
 "My Eddy is an adventurous spirit," she said, and is sure to be after the same, now he has dropped all that missionary talk."
"Oh, never trouble yourself about that," said Mrs. Millar, "it is the way of all boys to talk and plan; but they settle down safe enough as they get older and see more of life. He would be just the same anywhere else; and seeing the life close may work it off."
"My Eddy has a high spirit," sighed Mrs. Bryant; but more as if she were proud than regretful of it.
Whether it were his high spirit or not, Edward made up his mind beforehand that the boarders would be hateful, despicable people, who would leave him no comfort at his meals or in his evenings. One of them, Mr. Cobbold, turned out to be the senior clerk in his own firm, and the other, Miss Grant, who lived on the higher floor, a daily governess, not very young nor very pretty; but, if Mrs. Bryant was satisfied with both, her impertinent young son decided within himself that they were an old fogey and an old frump; though, happily, he had no one to whom to say so.
 The furniture--well, it was handsomer, in Mrs. Bryant's view, than the old oak which had been bought up at such good prices from Birkfarm; but, to Edward, it seemed half shabby, half grimy, and he could not feel at home till he had hung up his great-grandfather's gun over the kitchen fire, where his mother did not like it at all, till Mr. Cobbold declared it was a curiosity, and very valuable.
Mr. Cobbold was a formal man, whom Edward viewed as nearly as old as his grandfather; but Mrs. Bryant said he was highly respectable, silent and very critical at meals, and never speaking but about food and the money market. Probably he was as sorry that Mrs. Bryant should import a young man, as the young man could be that his mother should succeed to such a solemn old lodger, and one in authority, too, in his firm! But the governess, Miss Grant, was a lively person, though wizen and worn looking, and she had a great deal to say.
Edward was at first inclined to be affronted when he found that she had offered to help him with his French and German in the evenings, and he gave a gruff kind of consent; but after the [94/95] first, when he had forgiven her endeavor to correct his pronunciation, and she had recognized that she must not tease him too much about sound, but stick to sense, they got on pretty well, and she found it refreshing to deal with an older mind, able to learn, after the little ones to whom she was used.
She had a great deal to say about the various churches of the town, and, except for her help with the French, Edward hardly knew which he disliked most--Mr. Cobbold's silence, or her incessant talk about the music and the chants and the sermons, and the clergy and whom they were supposed to be courting.
His mother had got quite out of the habit of church-going; but the good lady took her in the evening, and Edward tried all round in the mornings, and chiefly haunted St. Faith's, because he liked the music and had heard a sermon there that had touched him; but he often bicycled to village churches.
But his life, on the whole, depended mostly upon the youths his contemporaries, and happily they were not an undesirable set. They were not given to betting, in fact, their club had regulations [95/96] against it, even at the regatta; and that first summer, rowing, being perfectly new to Edward, was a passion and a fever with him. His mother, of course, was afraid he would be run down by a steamer, or some other boat; but Mr. Cobbold actually growled out an assurance that the boys were steady fellows--decent chaps enough, as lads went--and if she hindered him, he might do worse. So he soon qualified himself to be a member of the "Triton Club," and spent most of his spare time and thoughts upon it in the summer, forming, too, a warm friendship with a lad named Andrews, who suited him better than any of his Cokeham school-fellows, and, moreover, introduced him to a Shakespeare Club in the autumn, which became so delightful to him that he had little reason to regret Birkfarm.
Indeed, as Mrs. Bryant had not had time or opportunity to make friends there, she had no correspondent, and Edward had not so cared for any of his schoolmates that either side should write to the other. Only, at Christmas, he chose three cards for the Millar girls, and received some in return the first year, but no more afterward; [96/97] and everything at Langbridge seemed, as it were, to have drifted out of his life.
Indeed, he only knew from chance mention in a business letter that there had been a severe epidemic at Langbridge, and that the two youngest of the Millar children had died of it; and, later, there was a report that the doctor himself was dead, but this was not at once confirmed; and, after sighing over it, and wondering what would become of Mrs. Millar and the girls, it passed from both Edward and his mother in the interests of the present.