Open main menu
 

CHAPTER XXI
The Atonement of Rupert


'I do wonder what has happened,' Charlotte whispered. 'I suppose the Murdstone man was coming to tell Rupert he had been spell-changed into being nice now. And he must have met Rupert on the way.'

'But he could have said that in the road and then gone home. There must be some reason for his coming home with Rupert. He can't,' said Charles hopefully, 'be going to tell us that he's changed? That would be ripping.'

'I expect he's telling the Uncle,' said Caroline. 'When the wicked Magician takes off his spell and the wicked Prince turns good, he always tells everybody at once.'

'Then he'll come and tell us,' said Charles. 'We're part of everybody, the same as grown- up people are.'

The three C.'s had come slowly back to the house, and, seeing no sign of Rupert and the changed Murdstone man, had, with great tact—chiefly Caroline's—refrained from going in search of Rupert or of information.

They had just shut themselves into the dining-room and waited. For it was plain that something more must happen. For it was quite plain that something more must happen. The once-hated Murdstone man could not just come to the house and go away again and the matter end there. But waiting is tiresome work, however proud you may be feeling of your tact and delicacy, and you are so interested and anxious that it is idle even to pretend to read. The three C.'s were very glad indeed when at last they heard footsteps in the hall, and voices.

'Now!' said Caroline. 'Now they're coming. We'll be most awfully nice to him, wont we. Now he's sorry and he's owned up.'

'Of course,' said Charles. 'Do you think I could ask him to let me have the wax image to keep in memorio?'

'No,' said Caroline, 'of course you couldn't. Hush! for goodness' sake, hush!'

But there seemed to be no urgent need for hushing. the footsteps and the voices went past the dining-room towards the front door which was at the said, as you know. No one listened, yet no one could help hearing, through the open window, the parting words of Rupert and the Murdstone man:

'I'll do it now. That'll be the last. Thank you, sir. Good-bye!'

Then came the sound of retreating boots on gravel. The front door banged, and next moment Rupert came in. His eyes were very bright and his face very pale. He came in, shut the door, leaned against it, and seemed to swallow nothing, twice. Then he said, looking straight in front of him, and Charlotte noticed that his hands were clenched:

'Look here, I've got something to tell you. I don't suppose you'll want to speak to me again after it.'

'Yes, we shall,' said Charles, 'whatever it is.'

Rupert took no notice. He went on, after a moment's silence:

'I told a lie about Mr. Macpherson, a beastly lie! He didn't hit me like I said he did. I didn't mean to say it; I just said it, and then I couldn't take it back. I've been most awfully wretched. That's all.'

'But you've owned up now,' was the only comforting thing even Caroline could think of in that terrible moment. Charles, as pale as Rupert, with his eyes quite round, said:

'You couldn't have!'

Charlotte said nothing.

'I'd like you to understand,' said Rupert, miserably, 'before I go away.'

'Go away?' said Charlotte, quite as miserably. 'Where?'

'Back to Mr. Macpherson, of course. Your uncle won't keep me after this.'

'Did he say so?'

'No; he said I was to come back to him when I'd taken Mr. Macpherson to the door. But I feel I must tell you first, in case he sends me off right away.'

'Oh, Rupert!' said Caroline. 'I am so sorry.' And then she did something rather heroic. She saw that Rupert wanted to say more, wanted it desperately, and that he could not possibly say it to all three of them together, though he could have told it to one of them, either to her or to Charlotte, if they had been alone. So Caroline got up and said:

'Charles, come outside. I want to say something'; and when she got him outside the door, 'come out,' she said, earnestly. 'Yes, you shall. Rupert doesn't want the lot of us. Let him talk to Charlotte. He can't stand a crowd.'

'Isn't it dreadful,' said Charles, in very shocked tones, 'Rupert turning out a liar like this?'

'Oh, don't,' said Caroline, hotly. 'It must have been awful for him, all this time. And now he's sorry, and he's owned up. We've got to try and forget about it. Let's talk about something else.'

But it was very difficult to talk about something else.

Rupert, left with Charlotte, saw the others go past the window.

'I wanted to tell you before,' he said; 'that day when you talked about being disagreeable. Only I couldn't.'

'Dear old Rupert!' said Charlotte. 'I'm so jolly glad you've got rid of it. That was the black dog. I knew there was something. Do tell me, old chap, unless you'd rather not. The others are off down the avenue.'

Rupert left the door and came to the table, and, half-sitting on it, with his face turned away and twisting the tablecloth into pleats, he said:

'You know, I always thought I was going to be an extra honourable sort of chap. Father used to say things. I never did anything like it before. You see, I was awfully sick at having to go with Mr. Macpherson at all. He treated me as if I was a baby. At least, that's what I thought. He says now he meant to be kind, and he thought I was younger than I am. And the bread and milk. Everything else I told you was true except hitting me. And he did say there were ways of dealing with sulky boys. And I decided I would run away. And I hurt my hand on a gate. And I was so angry, it seemed the only thing to do.'

'I know,' said Charlotte.

'And then, when I was explaining to you, somehow I couldn't find the proper words to explain how hateful it was, and I thought you'd think I'd run away just for nothing. And then my hand hurt, and I thought you thought something more ought to have happened. And then I said that. Mean beast!'

'I do wish you hadn't,' said Charlotte.

'It didn't seem to matter just at first. I can't think why. I thought he meant to hit me next day, and, anyhow, you didn't know him. And then I got ill and nothing mattered. But when I got better it kept on, getting worse and worse and worse, like a corkscrew worming into you harder and harder and harder, all the time.

'But why didn't you own up before?' Charlotte asked.

'I couldn't. I never should have if it hadn't been for this.'

Something was wrapped in it

He pulled his handkerchief with some difficulty from his pocket. Something was wrapped in it. Rupert unfolded and held out the waxen man.

'I came back through the woods yesterday, and then I saw you'd been trying that beastly spell I told you with the pins.'

'Oh!' said Charlotte.

'And I knew it was because I'd told that beastly lie.'

'Oh! it wasn't,' said Charlotte. 'We did everything nice for him, to make him sorry he was hateful and to make him friends with you. And, oh, Rupert! the spell did work. We did it to make him friends with you. And he is.'

'He's been jolly decent about it, anyhow,' said Rupert. 'I found the wax thing as I came home from Mr. Penfold's last night, and I took it away and put it at the back of my collar-drawer. And this morning I took it down to Mr. Penfold's. It made it easier to tell, somehow. And he was jolly decent too. He took me over to Tonbridge to tell Mr. Macpherson. And he said a lot of things. He said he'd known all along I'd got something I wanted to get off my chest. And he talked about repentance and things. I do like him.'

'I'm glad we made the image,' said Charlotte, because it seemed unkind to say nothing, and she could think of nothing else to say.

'And I'm going to stick it, whatever it is. Mr. Macpherson is all right; but it will be hateful leaving here. Only I suppose you'll all be glad I'm going.'

'Rupert!'

'Well, then, I know you won't really. I say, Charlotte, you might tell the others. And tell them I know I've been a grumpy brute, but it was that going on all the time inside me, like a beastly Spartan fox. It's been like waiting at the dentist's all the time, and this is like having all your teeth out at once, twenty times over.'

He tried to laugh, but he did not succeed. Charlotte also tried, and burst into tears.

'Don't!' said Rupert, awkwardly. Charlotte came close to him and rubbed her wet face against his coat-sleeve.

'You're sorry,' she said; 'and you've owned up, and you'll never do it again.'

'You bet I won't,' said Rupert. 'I say, don't! It makes it ever so much worse. Now I've got to go back to your uncle and get the kick-out. And I jolly well deserve it.'

'Just wait a minute,' said Charlotte. 'I'm going to get something I want to give you before you go. Wait here, won't you?'

'Don't be long, then,' said Rupert, in calm wretchedness.

Charlotte dried her eyes and went out; went to her own room and got her favourite Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers. She wrote Rupert's name in it and then marched straight to her uncle's room, opened the door, and went in.

Uncle Charles, for once, was not reading or writing. He was sitting by his table drumming on it with his fingers and looking both sad and angry.

'Uncle!' said Charlotte.

'Where is Rupert?' said the Uncle, frowning.

'He doesn't know I'm here,' said Charlotte, answering her uncle's thoughts rather than his words. 'I asked him to wait while I got something to give him. Uncle, you aren't going to send him away, are you?'

'I feel it only due to Mr. Macpherson to send Rupert back,' said the Uncle, 'to show that we regret the aspersions'—the uncle spoke as to a grown-up equal—'the aspersions cast on him by my abetting Rupert in his flight and removing him from Mr. Macpherson's care. If it is a punishment to Rupert, it is not an undeserved one.'

'Yes,' said Charlotte, who hadn't thought of this; 'but Rupert's been punished—all the time he has. No one else knows but me.' He's been perfectly miserable. Only he just couldn't tell. And now he has, has told everybody, honourably everybody. Oh, dear uncle, don't; I am so mizzy!'

'Come here,' said the Uncle, and Charlotte found a thin, black-coated shoulder a very good place to cry on.


The Wonderful Garden -p365.jpg

Charlotte found a thin black-coated shoulder a very good place to cry on.


'But you see,' he said, 'it's only fair to Mr. Macpherson to send Rupert back. I am willing to believe that he has been punished enough.'

'You don't know,' said Charlotte. 'He's been simply as unbearable as a bear, he's been so unhappy.'

'I didn't know that,' said the Uncle, slowly. 'But, no; it's not fair to that man. Rupert must go.'

Then Charlotte had one of her bright ideas, and its brightness dried her tears.

'Look here, uncle,' she said; 'I've got it—I really have. Wouldn't it make up to Mr. Macpherson and show your confidence just the same if you asked him to come here on a visit?'

'I couldn't,' said the Uncle, and it was plain he spoke from the heart; 'my work would all go—to pieces. I simply can't have visitors—grown-up ones, I mean. The books you've found, they've revolutionised the whole scheme of my work. Yet,' he added, thoughtfully, 'I owe you something for that.'

'Then pay us with Rupert,' said Charlotte, eagerly. 'Couldn't you bear Mr. Macpherson just for one week-end? Then everybody would know you were friends with him. Oh, uncle, poor Rupert, he is so sorry. And he did own up.'

'What was this about a waxen image?' asked the Uncle. Charlotte told him, and he nodded now and then, and said 'Yes, yes!' and 'Exactly!' And at the end he said:

'Well, you have attained your end. You have reconciled them. The charm seems to have worked.'

'They've all worked,' said Charlotte; 'every single charm we've tried. Have yours, Uncle?'

'I wish they had,' he answered, sighing. 'Charlotte, I wish I could do what you wish. Don't try spells to make me, because I can't. Rupert must go back tomorrow, for a fortnight at least. But he shall come back then till the end of the holidays. Will that do? And I'll explain to him that it's not punishment, but just the consequences of what he did. If he hadn't told that lie he wouldn't have had to go back.'

'But would you have kept him at first, if he hadn't told it?' Charlotte asked.

'He was unhappy there. That would have been enough,' said the Uncle—'that and your spells.'

'It's all right,' said Rupert to Charlotte, later. 'Your uncle's forgiven me and I'm to come back. And he explained why I must go. And I see it. And I can stick it all right. And I'd rather suffer it up and start fair. I'd rather pay something. I shall have to write and tell my father. That's worse than anything.'

'And when you come back,' said Charlotte, 'we shall think it was all a bad dream.'

He went next day. The three C.'s saw him off at the station, all wearing arbor vitæ in their buttonholes to signify 'unchanging friendship,' and Charlotte at the last moment put the Scottish Cavaliers into his hand.

'I say, though, wasn't it dreadful, him telling that lie,' said Charles as they turned away from the platform. It was a public place, but one of his sisters shook him, then and there, and the other said, 'Look here, Charles, if you ever say another word about it, we'll never speak to you again. See?'

And Charles saw. 'I don't mean I don't like him and all that,' he tried to explain, 'but you wouldn't like me not to think lying was wrong, would you?'

Then the girls saw.

'You needn't think we think anything,' said Caroline. 'You just shut up, Charles. We're two to one.'