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One of the 28th - a Tale of Waterloo

CHAPTER VII.

A COMMISSION.

Colonel Bryant was just rising from dinner at the mess when Major Barlow and Ralph arrived at the barracks, and after congratulating the lad on his return he willingly agreed to accompany them to Mrs. Conway. A quarter of an hour's walk took them to her house. Ralph remained outside when the two officers entered. Colonel Bryant lost no time in opening the subject.

"I have brought my friend Major Barlow to introduce to you, Mrs. Conway, because he has happened to hear some news that may, I think, bear upon the subject that you have most at heart."

"Ralph!" Mrs. Conway exclaimed, clasping her hands.

"We think it may refer to your son, Mrs. Conway," Major Barlow said. "I have just returned from town, and happened to hear that a vessel had been spoken with that reported having picked up a lad from a smack run down in the channel some five months ago, which corresponds pretty well, I think, with the time your son was missing."

"Just the time," Mrs. Conway said. "Did they not say the name?"

"Well, yes. The name, as far as I heard it, for as I had not the pleasure of knowing you I was not of course so interested in the matter, was the same as yours."

"I think that there is no doubt about it, Mrs. Conway," Colonel Bryant said kindly. "I consider you may quite set your mind at ease, for I have no doubt whatever it is your son who has been picked up." Mrs. Conway was so much overcome that she sank into a chair and sat for a short time with her face in her hand, crying happy tears and thanking God for his mercy. Then with a great effort she aroused herself.

"You will excuse my emotion, gentlemen, and I am sure you can understand my feelings. I am thankful indeed for the news you have brought me. I have never ceased for a moment to hope that my boy would be restored to me; but the knowledge that it is so, and that God has spared him to me, is for the moment overpowering. And where was the ship met with, Major Barlow, and where was she bound for? How long do you think it is likely to be before Ralph comes home?"

"Well, Mrs. Conway," Major Barlow said, hesitating a little, "the ship was bound for India; but I understood from what was said that the vessel, that is the vessel that brought the news, had also brought home the lad who had been carried away."

"Then, in that case," Mrs. Conway cried, "he may be home in a day or two. Perhaps—perhaps—and she paused and looked from one to the other.

"Perhaps he is here already," Colonel Bryant said gently. "Yes, Mrs. Conway, if you feel equal to it you may see him at once." No word was needed. Major Barlow opened the door, went through the hall, and called Ralph, and in another moment the lad was clasped in his mother's arms, and the two officers without another word went quietly out and left them to themselves. It was some time before a coherent word could be spoken by mother or son, and it was not until they had knelt down together and returned thanks to God for Ralph's restoration that they were able to talk quietly of what had passed. Then Mrs. Conway poured out question after question, but Ralph refused to enter upon a narrative of his adventures.

"It's a long story, mother, and will keep very well till to-morrow. It is past nine o'clock now, and I am sure that you want a night's rest after this excitement; and after fourteen hours on a coach, I sha'n't be sorry to be in bed myself. Beside, I want you to tell me first how you have been getting on while I have been away, and all the news about everyone; but even that will keep. I think, mother, a cup of tea first and then bed will be best for us both."

The next morning Ralph related all his adventures to his mother, who was surprised indeed at his story.

"I suppose poor old Joe was never heard of, mother?"

"No, Ralph. His son has been up here a good many times to inquire if we had any news of you. He has gone into another fishing boat now, and his sister has gone out to service. Their mother died years ago, you know."

"I was afraid that he had gone straight down, mother. Nobody on board the brig heard any cry or shout for help. He must have been injured in the collision."

"I must write to-day to Mr. Penfold. He has written to me several times, and has been most kind. He has all along said that he believed you would turn up one of these days, for as the weather was fine and the sea fairly calm when you were run down, the probabilities in favor of your being picked up were great, especially as you were such a good swimmer. I am sure he will be delighted to hear of your return."

"I hope he will not be wanting me to go straight off down there again," Ralph said ruefully. "I was only back with you one day, mother, after my visit to them, and now I have been five months away it will be very hard if I am to be dragged off again."

"I am sure Mr. Penfold will not be so unreasonable as to want to take you away from me," Mrs. Conway said.

"And am I to go back to school again, mother?"

"Not now, certainly, Ralph. The holidays will be beginning in a fortnight again; beside, you know, we were talking anyhow of your leaving at the end of this half year."

"That's right, mother. It's high time I was doing something for myself. Beside, after doing a man's work for the last five months I shouldn't like to settle down to lessons again."

"Well, we must think about it, Ralph, You know I consented greatly against my will to your choosing the army for your profession, and I am not going to draw back from that. You are just sixteen now, and although that is rather young I believe that a good many lads do get their commissions somewhere about that age. In one of his letters Mr. Penfold said that as soon as you came back he would take the matter in hand, and though I have good interest in other quarters and could probably manage it, Mr. Penfold has a great deal more than I have, and as he has expressed his willingness to arrange it I shall be grateful to him for doing so."

"That will be first rate, mother," Ralph said in delight. "I thought in another year I might get my commission; but of course it would be ever so much better to get it a year earlier."

For the next few days Ralph was a hero among his boy friends, and had to tell his story so often that at last he told his mother that if it wasn't for leaving her so soon he should be quite ready to go off again for another visit to Mr. Penfold.

"You won't be called upon to do that," she said smiling; "for this letter that I have just opened is from him, and he tells me he is coming here at once to see you, for he thinks it would be too hard to ask me to spare you again so soon."

"You don't mean to say that he is coming all that way?" Ralph said in surprise. "Well, I am very glad."

"He asks me in his letter," Mrs. Conway said with a passing smile of amusement, "if I can take in a young friend of his, Miss Mabel Withers. He says she has never been from home before, and that it would be a treat for her to get away and see a little of the world. He is going to stop a few days in London, and show her the sights on his way back."

"That will be very jolly, mother. You know I told you what a nice sort of girl she was, and how well we got on together. I don't know how I should have got through my visit there if it hadn't been for her. Her father and mother were very kind too, and I was often over at their house."

Mr. Penfold had not succeeded in inducing Mr. and Mrs. Withers to allow Mabel to accompany him without much argument. "You know what I have set my mind on, Mrs. Withers," he said. "But of course such an idea doesn't enter the young people's heads, it would be very undesirable that it should do. But now Ralph has returned he will be wanting to get his commission at once, and then he may be away on foreign service for years, and I do think it would be a good thing for the young people to see as much of each other as possible before he goes. If anything happens to me before he comes back, and you know how probable it is that this will be the case, they would meet almost as strangers, and I do want to see my pet scheme at least on the way to be carried out before I go. It would be a treat for Mabel, and I am sure that Mrs. Conway will look after her well."

"How long are you thinking of stopping there, Mr. Penfold?"

"Oh, ten days or a fortnight. I shall be a day or two in town as I go through, for I want to arrange about Ralph's commission. Then, perhaps, I shall persuade Mrs. Conway to come up with Ralph to town with us, and to go about with the young people to see the sights. Now, if you and Mrs. Withers would join us there, that would complete my happiness."

The clergyman and his wife both said that this was impossible. But Mr. Penfold urged his request with so much earnestness, that at last they agreed to come up to town and stay with him at a hotel. And, indeed, when they recovered from the first surprise at the proposal, both of them thought that the trip would be an extremely pleasant one; for in those days it was quite an event in the lives of people residing at a distance from a town to pay a visit to the metropolis.

"Then everything is arranged delightfully," Mr. Penfold said. "This will be a holiday indeed for me; and however much you may all enjoy yourselves I shall enjoy myself a great deal more. Now, I suppose I may tell Mabel of our arrangement?"

"But you don't know that Mrs. Conway will take her in yet. Surely you are going to wait to hear from her?"

"Indeed I am not, Mrs. Withers. I am as impatient as a schoolboy to be off. And I am perfectly certain that Mrs. Conway will be very glad to receive her. She knows Mabel, for I have given her an idea of my fancy about that matter; and of course she will be glad to learn something of your girl."

"But she may not have a spare room," Mrs. Withers urged feebly.

"It is not likely," Mr. Penfold said decisively; "and if there should be any difficulty on that score it will be very easily managed, as Ralph can give up his room to Mabel, and come and stay at the hotel with me."

Mr. Withers laughed. "I see that it is of no use raising objections, Penfold; you are armed at all points. I scarcely know you, and have certainly never seen you possessed of such a spirit of determination."

Mr. Penfold smiled. "It would have been better for me, perhaps, if I had always been so determined, Withers. At any rate I mean to have my own way in this matter. I have not had a real holiday for years."

So Mr. Penfold had his own way, and carried off Mabel wild with delight and excitement upon the day after he had received Mrs. Conway's letter. There was no shade of embarrassment in the meeting between Mrs. Conway and the man who had once been her lover. It was like two old and dear friends who had long been separated and now come together again. Mr. Penfold's first words after introducing Mabel had reference to Ralph.

"Your boy has grown quite a man, Mary, in the last six months. I scarcely recognized the bronzed young fellow who met vis at the coach office as the lad who was down with me in the summer. Don't you see the change, Mabel?"

"Yes, he is quite different," the girl said. "Why, the first time I saw him he was as shy as shy could be. It was quite hard work getting on with him. Now he seems quite a man."

"Nothing like that yet, Mabel," Ralph protested.

"Not a man!" Mr. Penfold exclaimed. "What! after wandering about as a pirate, capturing ships, and cutting men's throats for anything I know, and taking part in all sorts of atrocities? I think he's entitled to think himself very much a man."

Ralph laughed.

"Not as bad as that, Mr. Penfold. They did take one ship, but I had nothing to do with it; and there were no throats cut. I simply made a voyage out and back as a boy before the mast; and, as far as I hare been concerned, the ship might have been a peaceful trader instead of a French privateer."

"Well, Mary, you have not changed much all these years," Mr. Penfold said turning to Mrs. Conway, while the two young people began to talk to each other. "I had thought you would be much more changed; but time has treated you much more kindly than it has me. You are thirty-seven, if I remember right, and you don't look thirty. I am forty, and look at the very least ten years older."

Mrs. Conway did not contradict him, for she could not have done so with truth.

"You are changed, Herbert; a great deal changed," she said sadly, "although I should have know you anywhere. You are so much thinner than when I saw you last; but your eyes have not changed, nor your smile. Of course your hair having got gray makes a difference, and—and—" and she stopped.

"I am changed altogether, Mary. I was a headstrong, impetuous young fellow then. I am a fragile and broken man now. But I am happy to meet you again. Very happy in the thought that I can benefit your son. I have an interest in life now that I wanted before; and in spite of my being anxious about Ralph while he was away, have been happier for the last six months than I have been for seventeen years past." Mrs. Conway turned away to conceal the tears that stood in her eyes, and a moment later said:

"I am a most forgetful hostess, Mabel. I have not even asked you to take off your things. Please come along and let me show you your room. Supper will be ready in a minute or two, and here are we stopping and forgetting that you and Mr. Penfold must be almost famished."

As soon as they had sat down to supper, Mr. Penfold said. "By the way, Ralph, I have a piece of news for you. We stopped a couple of days, you know, in town, and I saw my friend at the Horse Guards, and had a chat about you. He seemed to think that you would be better if you were a few months older; but as he acknowledged that many commissions had been given to lads under sixteen, and as you had just arrived at that age, and as I told him you have had no end of experience with pirates and buccaneers, and all that sort of thing, he was silenced, and your commission will appear in the next Gazette."

"Oh, Mr. Penfold!" Ralph exclaimed as he leaped from his seat in delight. "I am obliged to you. That is glorious. I hardly even hoped I could get a commission for some months to come. Don't look sad, mother," he said, running round and kissing her. "I shan't be going out of England yet, you know; and now the war is over you need have no fear of my getting killed, and a few months sooner or later cannot make much difference."

"I shall bear it in time, Ralph," his mother said, trying to smile through her tears. "But it comes as a shock just at first."

The sight of his mother's tears sobered Ralph for a time, and during supper the conversation was chiefly supported by Mr. Penfold, who joked Ralph about his coming back in a few years a general without arms or legs; and was, indeed, so cheerful and lively that Mabel could scarcely believe her ears, so wholly unlike was he to the quiet friend she had known as long as she could remember. The next fortnight was a delightful one to Mabel, and indeed to all the party. Every day they went driving-excursions through the country round. Ramsgate and Deal and Folkestone were visited, and they drove over to Canterbury and spent a night there visiting the grand cathedral and the old walls.

The weather was too cold for the water, for Christmas was close at hand; but everything that could be done was done to make the time pass happily. Mrs. Conway exerted herself to lay aside her regrets at Ralph's approaching departure, and to enter into the happiness which Mr. Penfold so evidently felt. The day before their departure for town an official letter arrived for Ralph, announcing that he was gazetted into his majesty's 28th Regiment of foot, and that he was in one month's date from that of his appointment to join his regiment at Cork.

"Now, Miss Mabel," Mr. Penfold said gayly, after the first talk over the commission was concluded, "you will have for the future to treat Mr. Ralph Conway with the respect due to an officer in his majesty's service."

"I don't see any change in him at present," the girl said, examining Ralph gravely.

The boy burst into a laugh.

"Wait till you see him in uniform, Mabel," Mr. Penfold went on. "I am afraid that respect is one of the moral qualities in which you are deficient. Still I think that when you see Ralph in his uniform, you will be struck with awe."

"I don't think so," Mabel said, shaking her head. "I don't think he will frighten me, and I feel almost sure that he won't frighten the Frenchmen."

"My dear child," Mr. Penfold said gravely, "you don't know what Ralph is going to turn out yet. When you see him come back from the wars seven or eight inches taller than he is now, with great whiskers, and perhaps three or four ornamental scars on his face, you will be quite shocked when you reflect that you once treated this warrior as a playfellow."

Upon the following day the party went up to London, and were joined next morning by Mr. and Mrs. Withers. Mabel declared that she did not think any people ever could have enjoyed themselves so much as they all did. They went to Exeter 'Change to see the animals and to the theater at Drury Lane, to the Tower and Ranelagh Gardens, to Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, and they went down by coach to Hampton Court and to Greenwich, and they saw his majesty the king review the Guards in Hyde Park. Altogether it was a glorious fortnight. Mr. Penfold was the life and soul of the party, and had he had his way they would have seen far more than they did. But Mr. and Mrs. Withers and Mrs. Conway all said that they wanted to enjoy themselves and not to be worn out, and several times they stayed at home when Mr. Penfold and the two young people went to see sights, or to wander about the streets and look at the shops, which was as great a treat as any thing. Mr. Penfold went with Ralph to a military tailor and ordered his outfit, and to other shops, where he purchased such a stock of other garments that Mrs. Conway declared Ralph would require nothing for years. On the last day of the fortnight the uniforms and trunks and clothes all arrived at the hotel, and of course Ralph had to dress up and buckle on his sword for the first time. Mrs. Conway shed a few tears, and would have shed more had not Mr. Penfold made every one laugh so; and Mabel was seized with a fit of shyness for the first time in her life when Mr. Penfold insisted that the ladies should all kiss the young officer in honor of the occasion. And the next morning the whole party went down to the wharf below London Bridge to see Ralph on board the packet for Cork. Before leaving the hotel Mr. Penfold slipped an envelope with ten crisp five pound notes in it into Ralph's hand.

"I have paid in, my boy, two hundred pounds to the regimental agents, and in future shall make you an allowance of the same amount every year. You will see what other officers spend. My advice to you is: do not spend more than others, and do not spend less. Money will keep very well, you know, and a little reserve may always come in useful. When you once go on foreign service you will not find much occasion for money. I want you just to hold your own with others. I consider that it is quite as unfortunate for a young man to spend more than those around him as it is for him to be unable to spend as much. No, I don't want any thanks at all. I told your mother I should look after you, and I am going to, and it has given a vast pleasure to me to have such an interest. Write to me occasionally, my boy; your letters will give me great pleasure. And should you get into any scrape, tell me frankly all about it."

The evening before Mrs. Conway had had a long talk with Ralph. "I do not think I need to give you much advice, my boy. You have already been out in the world on your own account, and have shown that you can make your way. You are going into a life, Ralph, that has many temptations. Do not give way to them, my boy. Above all, set your face against what is the curse of our times: over-indulgence in wine. It is the ruin of thousands. Do not think it is manly to be vicious because you see others are. Always live, if you can, so that if you kept a true diary you could hand it to me to read without a blush on your cheek; and always bear in mind, that though I shall not be there to see you, a higher and purer eye will be upon you. You will try; won't you, Ralph?"

"I will indeed, mother."

Mr. Penfold did his best to keep up the spirits of all of the party when they parted on board the packet; but Mrs. Conway quite broke down at last. Mabel cried unrestrainedly, and his own eyes had a suspicious moisture in them as he shook hands with Ralph. Fortunately they had arrived a little late at the wharf, and the partings were consequently cut short. The bell rang, and all the visitors were hurried ashore; then the hawsers were thrown off and the sails hoisted. As long as the party remained in sight Ralph stood on the stern waving his handkerchief to them; then, having removed the traces of tears from his cheeks, he turned to look at what was going on around him.

The packet was a brig of about two hundred tons, and she carried about twenty passengers, of whom fully half Ralph judged by their appearance to be military men. Before they had reached the mouth of the river he found that one among them Captain O'Connor, belonged to his own regiment, as did another young fellow about his own age named Stapleton, who had been gazetted on the same day as himself. Captain O'Connor, who was a cheery Irishman, full of life and spirits, at once took Ralph in hand, and was not long in drawing from him the story of his adventures with the privateers.

"You will do, my lad. I can see you have got the roughness rubbed off you already, and will get on capitally with the regiment. I can't say as much for that young fellow Stapleton. He seems to be completely puffed up with the sense of his own importance, and to be an unlicked sort of cub altogether. However, I have known more unlikely subjects than he is turn out decent fellows after a course of instruction from the boys; but he will have rather a rough time of it at first I expect. You will be doing him a kindness if you take an opportunity to tell him that a newly-joined ensign is not regarded in the same light as a commander-in-chief. It is like a new boy going to school, you know. If fellows find out he is a decent sort of boy, they soon let him alone; but if he is an ass, especially a conceited ass, he has rather a rough time of it. As you are in the same cabin with him, and have had the advantage of having knocked about the world a bit, you might gently hint this to him."

"I have been chatting with him a bit," Ralph said. "He has never been to school, but has been brought up at home, and I think from what he said he is the heir to an estate. He seemed rather to look down upon schools."

"So much the worse for him," Captain O'Connor said. "There is nothing like a school for bringing a fellow to his level, unless it is a regiment; and the earlier in life the process takes place the less painful it is."

"I don't think he will turn out a bad sort of fellow," Ralph said. "He is, as you say, rather an ass at present. I will do what I can to give him a hint; but as I should say he is at least a year older than I am, I do not suppose it will be of much use."

The voyage was a pleasant one, and Ralph was quite sorry when they entered the Cove of Cork and dropped anchor. The next morning the ship sailed up the river, and the following day the party disembarked. Captain O'Connor's servant came on board as soon as the vessel reached the quay, and his master charged him to pick out his luggage and that of the two young officers; he then at once proceeded with them to the barracks. Ralph felt extremely pleased that Captain O'Connor was with them, as he felt none of the shyness and unpleasantness he would otherwise have experienced in joining a set of entire strangers.

Captain O'Connor was evidently a favorite in the regiment, for his arrival was heartily greeted. He at once introduced the two lads to their future comrades, took them to the colonel, looked after their quarters, and made them at home. In their absence he spoke warmly in favor of Ralph. "You will find Conway a first-rate young fellow. He has seen something of the world, has been carried out to the West Indies by a French privateersman, and has gone through a lot of adventures. He is a bright, pleasant, good-tempered fellow. The other is as green as grass, and has never been away from his mother's apron-string. However, I do not think you will find him a bad sort of fellow when he has got rid of his rawness. Don't be too hard upon him, you boys. Remember easy does it, and don't be pushing your jokes too far. He is not a fool and will come round in time."

 


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