The Troubles Of A Dawdler by Talbot Baines Reed
Story type: Literature
I was born a dawdler. As an infant, if report speaks truly, I dawdled over my food, over my toilet, and over my slumbers. Nothing (so I am told) could prevail on me to stick steadily to my bottle till it was done; but I must needs break off a dozen times in the course of a single meal to stare about me, to play with the strings of my nurse’s cap, to speculate on the sunbeams that came in at the window; and even when I did bring myself to make the effort, I took such an unconscionable time to consume a spoonful that the next meal was wellnigh due before I had made an end of a first.
As to dressing me in the morning, it took a good two hours. Not that I rebelled and went on strike over the business, but it was really too much of an effort to commit first one foot and then the other for the reception of my socks, and when that operation was accomplished a long interval always elapsed before I could devote my energy to the steering of my arms into sleeves, and the disposal of my waist to the adjustment of a sash. Indeed, I believe I am doing myself more than justice when I put forward two hours as the time spent in personal decoration during those tender years.
But of all my infant duties the one I dawdled over most was going to sleep. The act of laying me in my little cot seemed to be the signal for waking me to a most unwonted energy. Instead of burying my nose in the pillows, as most babies do, I must needs struggle into a sitting posture, and make night vocal with crows and calls. I must needs chew the head of my indiarubber doll, or perform a solo on my rattle– anything, in fact, but go to sleep like a respectable, well-conducted child.
If my mother came and rocked my cradle, I got alarmingly lively and entered into the sport with spirit. If she, with weary eyes and faltering voice, attempted to sing me to sleep, I lent my shrill treble to aid my own lullaby; or else I lay quiet with my eyes wide open, and defied every effort to coax them into shutting.
Not that I was wilfully perverse or bad–I am proud to say no one can lay that to my charge; but I was a dawdler, one who from my earliest years could not find it in me to settle down promptly to anything–nay, who, knowing a certain thing was to be done, therefore deferred the doing of it as long as possible.
Need I say that as I grew older and bequeathed my long clothes and cot to another baby, I dawdled still?
My twin brother’s brick house was roofed in before my foundations were laid. Not that I could not build as quickly and as well as he, if I chose. I could, but I never chose. While he, with serious face and rapt attention, piled layer upon layer, and pinnacle upon pinnacle, absorbed in his architectural ambition, I sat by watching him, or wondering who drew the beautiful picture on the lid of my box, or speculating on the quantity of bricks I should use in my building, but always neglecting to set myself to work till Jim’s shout of triumph declared his task accomplished. Then I took a fit of industry till my tower was half built, and by that time the bricks had to be put away.
When we walked abroad with nurse I was sure to lag behind to look at other children, or gaze into shops. Many a time I narrowly escaped being lost as the result. Indeed, one of my earliest recollections is of being conducted home in state by a policeman, who had found me aimlessly strolling about a churchyard, round which I had been accompanying the nurse and the perambulator, until I missed them both, a short time before.
My parents, who had hitherto been inclined to regard my besetting sin (for even youngsters of four may have besetting sins) as only a childish peculiarity, at last began to take note of my dawdling propensities, and did their best to cure me of them. My father would watch me at my play, and, when he saw me flagging, encourage me to persevere in whatever I was about, striving to rouse my emulation by pitting me against my playmates. For a time this had a good effect; but my father had something better to do than always preside at our nursery sports, and I soon relapsed into my old habits.
My mother would talk and tell stories to us; and always, whenever my attention began to fail, would recall me to order by questions or direct appeals. This, too, as long as it was fresh, acted well; but I soon got used to it, and was as bad as ever. Indeed, I was a confirmed dawdler almost before I was able to think or act for myself.
When I was eight, it was decided to send me and Jim to school–a day school, near home, presided over by a good lady, and attended by some dozen other boys. Well, the novelty of the thing pleased me at first, and I took an interest in my spelling and arithmetic, so that very soon I was at the top of my class. Of course my father and mother were delighted. My father patted me on the head, and said, “I knew he could be diligent, if he chose.”
And my mother kissed me, and called me her brave boy; so altogether I felt very virtuous, and rather pitied Jim, who was six from the top, though he spent longer over his sums than I did.
But, alas! after the first fortnight, the novelty of Mrs Sparrow’s school wore off. Instead of pegging along briskly to be in time, I pulled up once or twice on the road to investigate the wonders of a confectioner’s window, or watch the men harness the horses for the omnibus, till suddenly I would discover I had only five minutes to get to school in time, and so had to run for my life the rest of the way, only overtaking Jim on the very doorstep. Gradually my dawdling became more prolonged, until one day I found myself actually late. Mrs Sparrow frowned, Jim looked frightened, my own heart beat for terror, and I heard the awful sentence pronounced, “You must go to the bottom of the class.”
I made up my mind this should be the last occasion on which such a penalty should be mine. But, alas! the very next day the confectioner had a wonderful negro figure in his window made all of sweets, his face of liquorice and his shirt of sugar, his lips of candy and his eyes of brandy-balls. I was spellbound, and could not tear myself away. And when I did, to add to my misfortunes, there was a crowd outside the omnibus stables to watch the harnessing of a new and very frisky horse. Of course I had to witness this spectacle, and the consequence was I got to school half an hour late, and was again reprimanded and stood in the corner.
This went on from bad to worse. Not only did I become unpunctual, but I neglected my lessons till the last moment, and then it was too late to get them off, though I could learn as much in a short time as any of the boys. All this grieved poor Mrs Sparrow, who talked to my parents about it, who talked very seriously to me. My father looked unhappy, my mother cried; Mrs Sparrow (who was present at the interview) was silent, and I wept loudly and promised to reform–honestly resolving I would do so.
Well, for a week I was a model of punctuality and industry; but then the confectioner changed his sugar negro for an elephant made all of toffee, and I was once more beguiled. Once more from top of my class I sank to the bottom; and though after that I took fits and starts of regularity and study, I never was able for long together to recover my place, and Mrs Sparrow fairly gave me up as a bad job.
What was to be done? I was growing up. In time my twelfth birthday arrived, and it was time I went to boarding school.
I could see with what anxiety my parents looked forward to the time, and I inwardly reproached myself for being the cause of their trouble. “Perhaps,” thought I, “I shall get all right at Welford,” and having consoled myself with that possibility I thought no more about it. My father talked very earnestly to me before I left home for the first time in my life. He had no fears, he said, for my honesty or my good principles; but he had fears for my perseverance and diligence. “Either you must conquer your habit of dawdling,” he said, “or it will conquer you.” I was ready to promise any sacrifice to be cured of this enemy; but he said, “No, lad, don’t promise, but remember and do!” And then he corded up my trunk and carried it downstairs. I cannot to this day recall my farewell with my mother without tears. It is enough to say that I quitted the parental home determined as I never was before to do my duty and fight against my besetting sin, and occupied that doleful day’s journey with picturing to myself the happiness which my altered habits would bring to the dear parents whom I was leaving behind.
I pass over my first week at Welford. It was a new and wonderful world to me; very desolate at first, but by degrees more attractive, till at last I went the way of all schoolboys, and found myself settled down to my new life as if I had never known another.
All this time I had faithfully kept my resolution. I was as punctual as clockwork, and as diligent as an ant. Nothing would tempt me to abate my attention in the preparation of my lessons; no seductions of cricket or fishing would keep me late for “call over.” I had already gained the approval of my masters, I had made my mark in my class, and I had written glowing letters home, telling of my kept resolutions, and wondering why they should ever before have seemed difficult to adhere to.
But as I got better acquainted with some of my new schoolfellows it became less easy to stick steadily to work. I happened to find myself in hall one evening, where we were preparing our tasks for next day, seated next to a lively young scapegrace, whose tongue rattled incessantly, and who, not content to be idle himself, must needs make every one idle too.
“What a muff you are, Charlie,” he said to me once, as I was poring over my Caesar and struggling desperately to make out the meaning of a phrase–“what a muff you are, to be grinding away like that! Why don’t you use a crib?”
“What’s a crib?” I inquired.
“What, don’t you know what a crib is? It’s a translation. I’ve got one. I’ll lend it to you, and you will be able to do your Caesar with it like winking.”
I didn’t like the notion at first, and went on hunting up the words in the dictionary till my head ached. But next evening he pulled the “crib” out of his pocket and showed it to me. I could not resist the temptation of looking at it, and no sooner had I done so than I found it gave at a glance the translation it used to take me an hour to get at with the dictionary. So I began to use the “crib” regularly; and thus, getting my lessons quickly done, I gradually began to relapse into my habits of dawdling.
Instead of preparing my lessons steadily, I now began to put off preparation till the last moment, and then galloped them off as best I could. Instead of writing my exercises carefully, I drew skeletons on the blotting-paper; instead of learning off my tenses, I read Robinson Crusoe under the desk, and trusted to my next-door neighbour to prompt me when my turn came.
For a time my broken resolutions did not effect any apparent change in my position in the classes or in the eyes of my masters. I was what Evans (the boy who lent me the “crib”) called lucky. I was called on to translate just the passages I happened to have got off, or was catechised on the declensions of my pet verb, and so kept up appearances.
But that sort of thing could not go on for ever, and one day my exposure took place.
I had dawdled away my time the evening previously with one thing and another, always intending to set to work, but never doing so. My books had lain open before me untouched, except when I took a fancy to inscribing my name some scores of times on the title-page of each; my dictionary remained shot and unheeded, except when I rounded the corners of the binding with my penknife. I had played draughts clandestinely with Evans part of the time, and part of the time I had lolled with my elbows on the desk, staring at the head of the fellow in front of me.
Bedtime came, and I had not looked at my work.
“I’ll wake early and cram it up,” thought I, as I turned in.
I did wake up, but though the book was under my pillow I let the half- hour before getting up slip away unused. At breakfast I made an effort to glance at the lesson, but the boy opposite was performing such wonderful tricks of balancing with his teaspoon and saucer and three bread-crusts, that I could not devote attention to anything else. The bell for classes rang ominously. I rushed to my place with Caesar in one hand and the “crib” in the other. I got flurried; I could not find the place, or, when I found the place in the Caesar, I lost it in the “crib.”
The master, to add to my misery, was cross, and began proceedings by ordering Evans to learn twenty lines for laughing in school-time. I glanced at the fellows round me. Some were taking a last peep at their books. Others, with bright and confident faces, waited quietly for the lesson to begin. No one that I could see was as badly off as I. Every one knew something. I knew nothing. Just at the last moment I found the place in the “crib” and in the Caesar at the same time, but scarcely had I done so when the awful voice of the master spoke:
“Stand up!” All dictionaries and notes had now to be put away; all except the Latin books.
I had contrived to get off the first two lines, and only hoped the master might pitch on me to begin. And he did pitch on me.
“Charles Smith,” I heard him say, and my heart jumped to my mouth, “stand forward and begin at `jamque Caesar.’”
“Please, sir, we begin at `His et aliis,’” I faltered.
“You begin where I tell you, sir,” sternly replied he.
A dead silence fell over the class, waiting for me to begin. I was in despair. Oh, if only I had not dawdled! I would give all my pocket- money for this term to know a line of that horrid Caesar.
“Come, sir, be quick,” said the master.
Then I fetched a sigh very like a sob, and began–
“Que, and–” I heard the master’s foot scrape ominously on the floor.
“Que, and–” I repeated.
“And what, sir?” thundered the master, rising in his seat and leaning across his desk towards me. It was awful. I was never more miserable in my life.
“Caesar, Caesar,” I stammered. Here at least was a word I could translate, so I repeated it–“Que, and–Caesar, Caesar.”
A dead silence, scarcely broken by a titter from the back desks.
“Jam,” I chokingly articulated, and there stuck.
“Well, sir, and what does jam mean?” inquired the voice, in a tone of suppressed wrath.
“Jam”–again I stuck.
Another dead silence.
“Que, and–Caesar, Caesar; jam”–It was no use; the only jam I knew of I was certain would not do in this case, so I began again in despair; “Que, and–Caesar, Caesar; jam—jam—jam.”
The master shut his book, and I knew the storm had burst.
“Smith, have you prepared this lesson?”
“No, sir,” I replied, relieved to be able to answer any questions, however awful.
“Why not, sir?”
Ah! that I could not answer–not to myself, still less to him. So I was silent.
“Come to me after school,” he said. “The next boy come forward.”
After school I went to him, and he escorted me to the doctor. No criminal at the Old Bailey trembled as I did at that interview. I can’t remember what was said to me. I know I wildly confessed my sins–my “cribbing,” my wasting of time–and promised to abjure them one and all.
The doctor was solemn and grave, and said a great deal to me that I was too overawed to understand or remember; after which I was sent back to my class–a punished, disgraced, and marked boy.
Need I describe my penitence: what a humble letter I wrote home, making a clean breast of all my delinquencies, and even exaggerating them in my contrition? With what grim ceremony I burned my “crib” in my study fire, and resolved (a resolution, by the way, which I succeeded in keeping) that, come what might, I would do my lessons honestly, if I did them at all!
I gave Evans to understand his company at lesson times was not desirable, and was in a rage with him when he laughed. I took to rising early, to filling every spare moment with some occupation, and altogether started afresh, like a reformed character, as I felt myself to be, and determined this time, at any rate, my progress should know no backsliding. How soon I again fell a victim to dawdling the sequel will show.
I had a long and painful struggle to recover my lost ground at Welford.
When a boy has once lost his name at school, when his masters have put him on the black book, when his schoolfellows have got to consider him as a “fellow in a row,” when he himself has learnt to doubt his own honesty and steadiness–then, I say, it is uphill work for him to get back to the position from which he has fallen. He gets little sympathy, and still less encouragement. In addition to the natural difficulty of conquering bad habits, he has to contend against prejudices and obstacles raised by his own former conduct; no one gives him credit for his efforts, and no one recognises his reform till all of a sudden, perhaps long after its completion, it makes itself manifest.
And my reform, alas! consequently never arrived at completion at Welford.
For a few weeks all went well enough. My lessons were carefully prepared; my exercises were well written, and my master had no more attentive pupil than I. But, alas! I too soon again grew confident and self-satisfied. Little by little I relaxed; little by little I dawdled, till presently, almost without knowing it, I again began to slip down the hill. And this was in other matters besides my studies.
Instead of keeping up my practice at cricket and field sports, I took to hulking about the playground with my hands in my pockets. If I started on an expedition to find moths or hunt squirrels, I never got half a mile beyond the school boundaries, and never, of course, caught the ghost of anything. If I entered for a race in our school sports, I let the time go without training, and so was beaten easily by fellows whom I had always thought my inferiors. The books I read for my amusement out of school hours were all abandoned after a chapter or two; my very letters home became irregular and stupid, and often were altogether shelved.
And all this time (such is the blindness of some people) I was imagining I had quite retrieved my lost reputation! I shall never forget, however, how at last I discovered that my time at Welford had been wasted, and that, so far from having got the better of my enemy, I had become a more confirmed dawdler than ever.
I had come to my last half-year at school, being now seventeen. My great desire was to go to Cambridge, which my father had promised I should do if I succeeded in obtaining a scholarship, which would in part defray the cost of my residence there. On this scholarship, therefore, my heart was bent (as much as a dawdler’s heart can be bent on anything) and I made up my mind to secure it.
The three fellows who were also going in for it were all my juniors, and considerably below me in the doctor’s class; so I had little anxiety as to the result.
Need I say that this very confidence was fatal to me? While they were working night and day, early and late, I was amusing myself with boxing- gloves and fishing-rods. While they, with wet towels round their heads, burnt the midnight oil, I sprawled over a novel in my study. Of course, now and then I took a turn at my books, and each inspection tended to satisfy me with myself better than ever. “Those duffers will never be able to get up all that Greek in the time,” I said to myself, “and not one of them knows an atom of mechanics.”
Well, the time drew near. My father had written rejoicing to hear of my good prospects, and saying how he and mother were constantly thinking of me in my hard work, and so on.
“Yes,” thought I, “they’ll be pleased, I know.” About a week before the examination I looked at my books rather more frequently, and, now and then (though I would not acknowledge it even to myself), felt my confidence a trifle wavering. There were a few things I had not noticed before, that must be got up with the rest of the subjects, “However, a day’s work will polish them off,” said I; “let’s see, I’ve promised to fish with Wilkins to-morrow–I’ll have a go in at them on Thursday.”
But Thursday found me fishing too, and on Friday there was a cricket- match. However, the examination was not till Tuesday, so there was half a week yet.
Saturday, of course, was a half-holiday, and though I took another look at some of my books, and noted one or two other little things that would have to be got up, I determined that the grand “go in” at, and “polishing off” of, these subjects should take place on Monday.
On Monday accordingly I set to work.
Glancing from my window–as I frequently did while I was at work–whom should I see, with a fly-net over his shoulder, but Wilton, one of the three fellows in against me for the scholarship! And not long after him who should appear arm-in-arm in cricket costume, but Johnson and Walker, the other two!
“Ho! ho!” said I to myself, “nice boys these to be going in for an exam.! How can they expect to do anything if they dawdle away their time in this way! I declare I quite feel as if I were taking an unfair advantage of them to be grinding away up here!”
Had I realised that these three fellows had been working incessantly for the last month, and were now taking a breath of fresh air in anticipation of the ordeal of the following day, I should have been less astonished at what I saw, and more inclined to work, at any rate this day, like mad.
But I allowed my benevolent desire not to take an unfair advantage to prevail, and was soon far up the stream with my fishing-rod.
So Monday passed. In the evening I had another turn at my books, but an unsatisfactory one.
“What’s the use of muddling my brain? I had better take it easy, and be fresh for to-morrow,” thought I, as I shut them up and pushed my chair back from the table.
Next morning brought me a letter from my father:
“This will reach you on the eventful day. You know who will be thinking of their boy every moment. We are happy to know your success is so sure; but don’t be too confident till it’s all well over. Then we shall be ready to rejoice with you. I have already heard of rooms at Cambridge for you; so you see mother and I are counting our chickens before they are hatched! But I have no fears, after what you have told me.”
This letter made me unhappy; the sight of my books made me unhappy; the sight of Wilton, Johnson, and Walker, fresh and composed, made me unhappy; the sight of the doctor wishing me good morning made me unhappy. I was, in fact, thoroughly uncomfortable. The list of those one or two little matters that I had intended to polish off grew every time I thought of them, till they wellnigh seemed to eclipse the other subjects about which I felt sure. What an ass I had been!
“The candidates for the Calton Scholarship are to go to the doctor’s class-room!”
To the doctor’s class-room we four accordingly proceeded.
On the way, not to appear nervous, I casually inquired of Wilton if he had caught any specimens yesterday.
“Yes,” he said gaily. “I got one splendid fellow, a green-winged moth. I’ll show him to you in my study after the exam, is over.”
Here was a fellow who could calmly contemplate the end of this day’s ordeal. I dared not do as much as that!
The doctor affably welcomed us to his room, and bade us be seated. Several quires of blank paper, one or two pens, a ruler, and ink, were provided at each of our four desks.
Then a printed paper of questions was handed to each, and the examination began.
I glanced hurriedly down my paper. Question 1 was on one of those subjects which had escaped my observation. Question 2 was a piece of translation I did not recognise as occurring in the Greek book I had got up, and yet I thought I had been thoroughly through it. Question 3– well, no one would be able to answer that. Question 4–oh, horrors! another of those little points I had meant to polish off. Thus I glanced from top to bottom of the paper. Here and there I fancied I might be able to give some sort of answer, but as for the rest, I was in despair. I dashed my pen into the ink, and wrote my name at the head of a sheet of paper, and ruled a line underneath it. Then I dug my fingers in my hair, and waited for an inspiration. It was a long time coming. In the meantime I glanced round at the other three. They were all writing hard, and Wilton already had one sheet filled. Somehow the sight of Wilton reminded me of the moth he had spoken of. I wondered if it was a finer specimen than I had got at home–mine had blue wings and a horn. Funny insects moths were! I wondered if the doctor used to collect them when he was a boy. The doctor must be nearly sixty now. Jolly to be a doctor, and have nothing to do but examine fellows! I wondered if Walker’s father had written him a letter, and what sort of nib he (Walker) must be writing with, with such a peculiar squeak– rather like a frog’s squeak. I wouldn’t mind being a frog for some things; must be jolly to be equally at home on dry ground or in water! Fancy eating frogs! Our French master was getting more short-tempered than ever.
And so I rambled on, while the paper in front of me remained empty.
The inspirations never came. The hours whizzed past, and my penholder was nibbled half away. In vain I searched the ceilings, and my thumb- nails; they gave me no help. In vain I read over the examination paper a score of times. It was all question and no answer there. In vain I stared at the doctor as he sat quietly writing; he had no ideas for me. In vain I tried to count, from where I sat, how many sheets Johnson had filled; that did not help to fill mine. Then I read my questions over again, very closely, and was in the act of wondering who first decided that p’s should turn one way in print and q’s another, when the doctor said, “Half an hour more!”
I was electrified. I madly began answering questions at random. Anything to get my paper filled. But, fast as I wrote, I could not keep pace with Wilton, whose pen flew along the paper; and he, I knew, was writing what would get him marks while I was writing rubbish. Presently my attention was diverted by watching Walker gather up and pin together his papers. I looked at my watch. Five minutes more. At the same time the doctor took out his. I could not help wondering if it was a Geneva or an English watch, and whether it had belonged to his father before him, as mine had. Ah! my father, my poor father and mother!
“Cease work, please, and hand in your papers.”
I declined Wilton’s invitation to come and see his moth, and slunk to my room miserable and disgusted.
Even now I do not like to recall the interval which elapsed between the examination and the declaration of the result. To Johnson, Wilton and Walker it was an interval of feverish suspense; to me it was one of stolid despair. I was ashamed to show my face among my schoolfellows; ashamed to write home; ashamed to look at a book. The nearer the day came the more wretched I grew; I positively became ill with misery, and begged to be allowed to go home without waiting for the result.
I had a long interview with the doctor before I quitted Welford; but no good advice of his, no exhortations, could alter my despair.
“My boyhood has been a failure,” I said to him, “and I know my manhood will be one too.”
He only looked very sorrowful, and wrung my hand.
The meeting with my parents was worst of all; but over that I draw a veil.
For months nothing could rouse me from my unhappiness, and in indulging it I dawdled more than ever. My prospects of a college life were blighted, and I had not the energy to face business. But, as was always the case, I could not for long together stick to anything; and in due time I emerged from my wretchedness, an idle, dawdling youth, with no object in life, no talents to recommend me, nothing to do.
It was deplorable, and my father was nearly heart-broken. Heroically he strove to rouse me to activity, to interest me in some pursuit. He did for me what I should have done for myself–sought occupation for me, and spent days and days in his efforts to get me settled in life. At last he succeeded in procuring a nomination to a somewhat lucrative government clerkship; and, for the first time since I left Welford, my father and mother and I were happy together. Despite all my demerits, I was now within reach of a position which many a youth of greater ability and steadier character might well have envied; and I believe I was really thankful at my good fortune.
“I will go with you to-morrow,” said my father, “when you have to appear before the head of the department.”
“All right,” said I; “what time is it?”
“Well, I must meet you at the place, then, for I promised to see Evans early in the morning.”
“Better go to him to-day,” said my mother; “it would be a thousand pities to be late to-morrow.”
“Oh, no fear of that,” said I, laughing; “I’ve too good an eye to my own interests.”
Next morning I went to see Evans, and left him in good time to meet my father at the stated hour. But an evil spirit of dawdling seized me as I went. I stopped to gaze into shops, to chat with a passing acquaintance, and to have my boots blacked. Forgetting the passage of time altogether, I strolled leisurely along, stopping at the slightest temptation, and prolonging my halts as if reluctant to advance, when suddenly I heard the deep bell of Westminster clock chime a quarter. “A quarter past eleven,” thought I; “I must look sharp.” And I did look sharp, and reached the place of appointment out of breath. My father was at the door. His face was clouded, and his hand trembled as he laid it on my shoulder, and said, “Charlie, will nothing save you from ruin?”
“Ruin!” said I, in amazement; “what do you mean? What makes you so late?”
“Late! it’s not half-past yet; didn’t you tell me half-past eleven was the time?”
“I did; and it is now just half-past twelve! The post you were to have had was filled half an hour ago by one of the other applicants.”
I staggered back in astonishment and horror. Then it flashed on me that I had dawdled away an hour without knowing it, and with it the finest opening I ever had in my life.
I must pass over the next two years, and come to the conclusion of my story. During those two years I entered upon and left no less than three employments–each less advantageous than the former. The end of that time found me a clerk in a bank in a country town. In this capacity my besetting sin was still haunting me. I had several times been called into the manager’s room, and reprimanded for unpunctuality, or cautioned for wasting my time. The few friends who on my first coming to the town had taken an interest in me had dropped away, disgusted at my unreliable conduct, or because I myself had neglected their acquaintance. My employers had ceased to entrust me with any commissions requiring promptitude or care; and I was nothing more than an office drudge–and a very unprofitable drudge too. Such was my condition when, one morning, a telegram reached me from my mother to say–“Father is very ill. Come at once.”
I was shocked at this bad news, and determined to start for London by the next train.
I obtained leave of absence, and hastened to my lodgings to pack up my few necessaries for the journey. By the time I arrived there, the shock of the telegram had in some way abated, and I was able to contemplate my journey more calmly. I consulted a time-table, and found that there was one train which, by hurrying, I could just catch in a quarter of an hour, and that the next went in the afternoon.
By the time I had made up my mind which to take, and inquired where a lad could be found who would carry down my portmanteau to the station, it was too late to catch the first train, and I therefore had three hours to spare before I could leave. This delay, in my anxious condition, worried me, and I was at a loss how to occupy the interval. If I had been wise, I should never have quitted that station till I did so in the train. But, alas! I decided to take a stroll instead. It was a sad walk, for my father’s image was constantly before my eyes, and I could hardly bear to think of his being ill. I thought of all his goodness and forbearance to me, and wondered what would become of us if he were not to recover. I wandered on, broken-hearted, and repenting deeply of all my ingratitude, and the ill return I had made him for his love to me, and I looked forward eagerly to being able to throw myself in his arms once more, and beg his forgiveness.
Thus I mused far into the morning, when it occurred to me to look at my watch. Was it possible? It wanted not half an hour of the time for the train, and I was more than two miles from the place. I started to walk rapidly, and soon came in sight of the town. What fatal madness impelled me at that moment to stand and look at a ploughing match that was taking place in a field by the roadside? For a minute or two my anxiety, my father, the train, all were forgotten in the excitement of that contest. Then I recovered myself and dashed on like the wind. Once more (as I thought but for an instant) I paused to examine a gipsy encampment on the border of the wood, and then, reminded by a distant whistle, hurried forward. Alas! as I dashed into the station the train was slowly turning the corner and I sunk down in an agony of despair and humiliation.
When I reached home at midnight, my mother met me at the door.
“Well, you are come at last,” she said quietly.
“Yes, mother; but father, how is he?”
“Come and see him.”
I sprang up the stairs beside her. She opened the door softly, and bade me enter.
My father lay there dead.
“He waited for you all day,” said my mother, “and died not an hour ago. His last words were, `Charlie is late.’ Oh, Charlie, why did you not come sooner?”
Then she knelt with me beside my dead father. And, in that dark lonely chamber, that night, the turning-point of my life was reached.
Boys, I am an old man now; but, believe me, since that awful moment I have never, to my knowledge, dawdled again!