CHAPTER XXV--A LITTLE CHILD SHALL LEAD
After dinner Harold went back to his cabin; locking himself in, he lay down on the sofa. The gloom of his great sorrow was heavy on him; the reaction from the excitement of the morning had come.
He was recalled to himself by a gentle tapping. Unlocking and opening the door he saw Mr. Stonehouse, who said with trouble in his voice:
'I came to you on account of my little child.' There he stopped with a break in his voice. Harold, with intent to set his mind at ease and to stave off further expressions of gratitude, replied:
'Oh, pray don't say anything. I am only too glad that I was privileged to be of service. I only trust that the dear little girl is no worse for her--her adventure!'
'That is why I am here,' said the father quickly. 'My wife and I are loth to trouble you. But the poor little thing has worked herself into a paroxysm of fright and is calling for you. We have tried in vain to comfort or reassure her. She will not be satisfied without you. She keeps calling on "The Man" to come and help her. I am loth to put you to further strain after all you have gone through to-day; but if you would come--' Harold was already in the passage as he spoke:
'Of course I'm coming. If I can in any way help it is both a pleasure and a duty to be with her.' Turning to the father he added:
'She is indeed a very sweet and good child. I shall never forget how she bore herself whilst we waited for aid to come.'
'You must tell her mother and me all about it,' said the father; much moved.
When they came close to the Stonehouses' suite of rooms they heard Pearl's voice rising with a pitiful note of fear:
'Where is The Man? Oh! where is The Man? Why doesn't he come to me? He can save me! I want to be with The Man!' When the door opened and she saw him she gave shriek of delight, and springing from the arms of her mother fairly leaped into Harold's arms which were outstretched to receive her. She clung to him and kissed him again and again, rubbing her little hands all over his face as though to prove to herself that he was real and not a dream. Then with a sigh she laid her head on his breast, the reaction of sleep coming all at once to her. With a gesture of silence Harold sat down, holding the child in his arms. Her mother laid a thick shawl over and sat down close to Harold. Mr. Stonehouse stood quiet in the doorway with the child's nurse peering anxiously over his shoulder.
After a little while, when he thought she was asleep, Harold rose and began to place her gently in the bunk. But the moment he did so she waked with a scream. The fright in her eyes was terrible. She clung to him, moaning and crying out between her sobs:
'Don't leave me! Don't leave me! Don't leave me!' Harold was much moved and held the little thing tight in his strong arms, saying to her:
'No darling! I shan't leave you! Look in my eyes, dear, and I will promise you, and then you will be happy. Won't you?'
She looked quickly up in his face. Then she kissed him lovingly, and rested her head, but not sleepily this time, on his breast said:
'Yes! I'm not afraid now! I'm going to stay with The Man!' Presently Mrs. Stonehouse, who had been thinking of ways and means, and of the comfort of the strange man who had been so good to her child, said:
'You will sleep with mother to-night, darling. Mr. . . . The Man,' she said this with an appealing look of apology to Harold, 'The Man will stay by you till you are asleep . . . ' But she interrupted, not fretfully or argumentatively, but with a settled air of content:
'No! I'm going to sleep with The Man!'
'But, dear one,' the mother expostulated, 'The Man will want sleep too.'
'All right, mother. He can sleep too. I'll be very good and lie quite quiet; but oh! mother, I can't sleep unless his arms are round me. I'm afraid if they're not the sea will get me!' and she clung closer to Harold, tightening her arms round his neck.
'You will not mind?' asked Mrs. Stonehouse timidly to Harold; and, seeing acquiescence in his face, added in a burst of tearful gratitude:
'Oh! you are good to her to us all!'
'Hush!' Harold said quietly. Then he said to Pearl, in a cheerful matter-of-fact way which carried conviction to the child's mind:
'Now, darling, it is time for all good little girls to be asleep, especially when they have had an--an interesting day. You wait here till I put my pyjamas on, and then I'll come back for you. And mother and father shall come and see you nicely tucked in!'
'Don't be long!' the child anxiously called after him as he hurried away. Even trust can have its doubts.
In a few minutes Harold was back, in pyjamas and slipper and a dressing-gown. Pearl, already wrapped in a warm shawl by her mother, held out her arms to Harold, who lifted her.
The Stonehouses' suite of rooms was close to the top of the companion-way, and as Harold's stateroom was on the saloon deck, the little procession had, much to the man's concern, run the gauntlet of the thong of passengers whom the bad weather had kept indoors. When he came out of the day cabin carrying the child there was a rush of all the women to make much of the little girl. They were all very kind and no troublesome; their interest was natural enough, and Harold stopped whilst they petted the little thing.
The little procession followed. Mr. and Mrs. Stonehouse coming next, and last the nurse, who manifested a phase of the anxiety of a hen who sees her foster ducklings waddling toward a pond.
When Harold was in his bunk the little maid was brought in.
When they had all gone and the cabin was dark, save for the gleam from the nightlight which the careful mother had placed out of sight in the basin at the foot of the bunk, Harold lay a long time in a negative state, if such be possible, in so far as thought was concerned.
Presently he became conscious of a movement of the child his arms; a shuddering movement, and a sort of smothered groan. The little thing was living over again in sleep the perils and fears of the day. Instinctively she put up her hands and felt the a round her. Then with a sigh clasped her arms round his neck, and with a peaceful look laid her head upon his breast. Even through the gates of sleep her instinct had recognised and realised protection.
And then this trust of a little child brought back the man to his nobler self. Once again came back to him that love which he had had, and which he knew now that he had never lost, for the little child that he had seen grow into full womanhood; whose image must dwell in his heart of hearts for evermore.
The long night's sleep quite restored Pearl. She woke fairly early and without any recurrence of fear. At first she lay still, fearing she would wake The Man, but finding that he was awake--he had not slept a wink all night--she kissed him and then scrambled out of bed.
It was still early morning, but early hours rule on shipland. Harold rang for the steward, and when the man came he told him to tell Mr. Stonehouse that the child was awake. His delight when he found the child unfrightened looking out of the port was unbounded.