A DOZEN WAYS OF LOVE
Author of 'Beggars All,' 'The Zeitgeist,' 'The Madonna of a Day,' Etc.
London Adam And Charles Black 1897
M. S. E.
WITHOUT WHOSE AID, I THINK, MY BOOKS WOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN WRITTEN
PAGE I. YOUNG LOVE 1
II. A MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN 29
III. THRIFT 57
IV. A TAINT IN THE BLOOD 77
V. 'HATH NOT A JEW EYES?' 127
VI. A COMMERCIAL TRAVELLER 141
VII. THE SYNDICATE BABY 169
VIII. WITCHCRAFT 195
IX. THE GIRL WHO BELIEVED IN THE SAINTS 219
X. THE PAUPER'S GOLDEN DAY 237
XI. THE SOUL OF A MAN 251
XII. A FREAK OF CUPID 293
It was after dark on a November evening. A young woman came down the main street of a small town in the south of Scotland. She was a maid-servant, about thirty years old; she had a pretty, though rather strong-featured, face, and yellow silken hair. When she came toward the end of the street she turned into a small draper's shop. A middle-aged woman stood behind the counter folding her wares.
'Can ye tell me the way to Mistress Macdonald's?' asked the maid.
'Ye'll be a stranger.' It was evident that every one in those parts knew the house inquired for.
The maid had a somewhat forward, familiar manner; she sat down to rest. 'What like is she?'
The shopkeeper bridled. 'Is it Mistress Macdonald?' There was reproof in the voice. 'She is much respectet—none more so. It would be before you were born that every one about here knew Mistress Macdonald.'
'Well, what family is there?' The maid had a sweet smile; her voice fell into a cheerful coaxing tone, which had its effect.
'Ye'll be the new servant they'll be looking for. Is it walking ye are from the station? Well, she had six children, had Mistress Macdonald.'
'What ages will they be?'
The woman knit her brows; the problem set her was too difficult. 'I couldna tell ye just exactly. There's Miss Macdonald—she that's at home yet; she'll be over fifty.'
'Oh!' The maid gave a cheerful note of interested understanding. 'It'll be her perhaps that wrote to me; the mistress'll be an old lady.'
'She'll be nearer ninety than eighty, I'm thinking.' There was a moment's pause, which the shop-woman filled with sighs. 'Ye'll be aware that it's a sad house ye're going to. She's verra ill is Mistress Macdonald. It's sorrow for us all, for she's been hale and had her faculties. She'll no' be lasting long now, I'm thinking.'
'No,' said the maid, with good-hearted pensiveness; 'it's not in the course of nature that she should.' She rose as she spoke, as if it behoved her to begin her new duties with alacrity, as there might not long be occasion for them. She put another question before she went. 'And who will there be living in the house now?'
'There's just Miss Macdonald that lives with her mother; and there's Mistress Brown—she'll be coming up most of the days now, but she dinna live there; and there's Ann Johnston, that's helping Miss Macdonald with the nursing—she's been staying at the house for a year back. That's all that there'll be of them besides the servants, except that there's Dr. Robert. His name is Macdonald, too, ye know; he's a nephew, and he's the minister o' the kirk here. He goes up every day to see how his aunt's getting on. I'm thinking he'll be up there now; it's about his time for going.'
The maid took the way pointed out to her. Soon she was walking up a gravel path, between trim, old-fashioned laurel hedges. She stood at the door of a detached house. It was an ordinary middle-class dwelling—comfortable, commodious, ugly enough, except that stolidity and age did much to soften its ugliness. It had, above all, the air of being a home—a hospitable open-armed look, as if children had run in and out of it for years, as if young men had gone out from it to see the world and come back again to rest, as if young girls had fluttered about it, confiding their sports and their loves to its ivy-clad walls. Now there hung about it a silence and sobriety that were like the shadows of coming oblivion. The gas was turned low in the hall. The old-fashioned omnibus that came lumbering from the railway with a box for the new maid seemed to startle the place with its noise.
In the large dining-room four people were sitting in dreary discussion. The gas-light flared upon heavy mahogany furniture, upon red moreen curtains and big silver trays and dishes. By the fire sat the two daughters of the aged woman. They both had grey hair and wrinkled faces. The married daughter was stout and energetic; the spinster was thin, careworn and nervous. Two middle-aged men were listening to a complaint she made; the one was Robert Macdonald the minister, the other was the family doctor.
'It's no use Robina's telling me that I must coax my mother to eat, as if I hadn't tried that'—the voice became shrill—'I've begged her, and prayed her, and reasoned with her.'
'No, no, Miss Macdonald—no, no,' said the doctor soothingly. 'You've done your best, we all understand that; it's Mistress Brown that's thinking of the situation in a wrong light; it's needful to be plain and to say that Mistress Macdonald's mind is affected.'
Robina Brown interposed with indignation and authority.
'My mother has always had her right mind; she's been losing her memory. All aged people lose their memories.'
The minister spoke with a meditative interest in a psychological phenomenon. 'Ay, she's been losing it backwards; she forgot who we were first, and remembered us all as little children; then she forgot us and your father altogether. Latterly she's been living back in the days when her father and mother were living at Kelsey Farm. It's strange to hear her talk. There's not, as far as I know, another being on this wide earth of all those that came and went to Kelsey Farm that is alive now.'
Miss Macdonald wiped her eyes; her voice shook as she spoke; the nervousness of fatigue and anxiety accentuated her grief. 'She was asking me how much butter we made in the dairy to-day, and asking if the curly cow had her calf, and what Jeanie Trim was doing.'
'Who was Jeanie Trim?' asked the minister.
'How should I know? I suppose she was one of the Kelsey servants.'
'Curious,' ejaculated the minister. 'This Jeanie will have grown old and died, perhaps, forty years ago, and my aunt's speaking of her as if she was a young thing at work in the next room!'
'And what did you say to Mistress Macdonald?' the doctor asked, with a cheerful purpose in his tone.
'I explained to her that her poor head was wandering.'
'Nay, now, but, Miss Macdonald, I'm thinking if I were you I would tell her that the curly cow had her calf.'
'I never'—tearfully—'told my mother a falsehood in my life, except when I was a very little girl, and then'—Miss Macdonald paused to wipe her eyes—'she spoke to me so beautifully out of the Bible about it.'
The married sister chimed in mournfully, 'How often have I heard my mother say that not one of her children had ever told her a lie!'
'Yes, yes, but——' There was a tone in the doctor's voice as if he would like to have used a strong word, but he schooled himself.
'It's curious the notion she has got of not eating,' broke in the minister. 'I held the broth myself, but she would have none of it.'
In the next room the flames of a large fire were sending reflections over the polished surfaces of massive bedroom furniture. The wind blew against this side of the house and rattled the windows, as if angry to see the picture of luxury and warmth within. It was a handsome stately room, and all that was in it dated back many a year. In a chintz arm-chair by the fireside its mistress sat—a very old lady, but there was still dignity in her pose. Her hair, perfectly white, was still plentiful; her eye had still something of brightness, and there was upon the aged features the cast of thought and the habitual look of intelligence. Beside her upon a small table were such accompaniments of age as daughter and nurse deemed suitable—the large print Bible, the big spectacles and caudle cup. The lady sat looking about her with a quick restless expression, like a prisoner alert to escape; she was tied to her chair—not by cords—by the failure of muscular strength; but perhaps she did not know that. She eyed her attendant with bright furtive glances, as if the meek sombre woman who sat sewing beside her were her jailer.
The party in the dining-room broke up their vain discussion, and came for another visit of personal inspection.
'Mother, this is the doctor come to see you. Do you not remember the doctor?'
The old lady looked at all four of them brightly enough. 'I haena the pleasure of remembering who ye are, but perhaps it will return to me.' There was restrained politeness in her manner.
The doctor spoke. 'It's a very bad tale I'm hearing about you to-day, that you've begun to refuse your meat. A person of your experience, Mistress Macdonald, ought to know that we must eat to live.' He had a basin of food in his hand. 'Now just to please me, Mistress Macdonald.'
The old dame answered with the air that a naughty child or a pouting maiden might have had. 'I'll no eat it—tak' it away! I'll no eat it. Not for you, no—nor for my mither there'—she looked defiantly at her grey-haired daughter—'no, nor for my father himself!'
'Not a mouthful has passed her lips to-day,' moaned Miss Macdonald. She wrung excited hands and stepped back a pace into the shadow; she felt too modest to pose as her mother's mother before the curious eyes of the two men.
The old lady appeared relieved when the spinster was out of her sight. 'I don't know ye, gentlemen, but perhaps now my mither's not here, ye'll tell me who it was that rang the door-bell a while since.'
The men hesitated. They were neither of them ready with inventions.
She leaned towards the doctor, strangely excited. 'Was it Mr. Kinnaird?' she whispered.
The doctor supposed her to be frightened. 'No, no,' he said in cheerful tones; 'you're mistaken—it wasn't Kinnaird.'
She leaned back pettishly. 'Tak' away the broth; I'll no' tak' it!'
The discomfited four passed out of the room again. The women were weeping; the men were shaking their heads.
It was just then that the new servant passed into the sick-room, bearing candles in her hands.
'Jeanie, Jeanie Trim,' whispered the old lady. The whisper had a sprightly yet mysterious tone in it; the withered fingers were put out as if to twitch the passing skirt as the housemaid went by.
The girl turned and bent a look—strong, helpful, and kindly—upon this fine ruin of womanhood. The girl had wit 'Yes, ma'am?' she answered blithely.
'I'll speak with ye, Jeanie, when this woman goes away; it's her that my mither's put to spy on me.'
The nurse retired into the shadow of the wardrobe.
'She's away now,' said the maid.
'Jeanie, is it Mr. Kinnaird?'
'Well, now, would you like it to be Mr. Kinnaird?' The maid spoke as we speak to a familiar friend when we have joyful news.
'Oh, Jeanie Trim, ye know well that I've longed sair for him to come again!'
The maid set down her candles, and knelt down by the old dame's knee, looking up with playful face.
'Well, now, I'll tell ye something. He came to see ye this afternoon.'
'Did he, Jeanie?' The withered face became all wreathed with smiles; the old eyes danced with joy. 'What did ye say to him?'
'Oh, well, I just said'—hesitation—'I said he was to come back again to-morrow.'
'My father doesn't know that he's been here?' There was apprehension in the whisper.
'Not a soul knows but meself.'
'Ye didna tell him I'd been looking for him, Jeanie Trim?'
'Na, na, I made out that ye didna care whether he came or not.'
'But he wouldna be hurt in his mind, would he? I'd no like him to be affronted.'
'It's no likely he was affronted when he said he'd come back to-morrow.'
The smile of satisfaction came again.
'Did he carry his silver-knobbed cane and wear his green coat, Jeanie?'
'Ay, he wore his green coat, and he looked as handsome a man as ever I saw in my life.'
The coals in the grate shot up a sudden brilliant flame that eclipsed the soft light of the candles and set strange shadows quivering about the huge bed and wardrobe and the dark rosewood tables. The winsome young woman at her play, and the old dame living back in a tale that was long since told, exchanged nods and smiles at the thought of the handsome visitor in his green coat. The whisper of the aged voice came blithely—
'Ay, he is that, Jeanie Trim; as handsome a man as ever trod!'
The maid rose, and passing out observed the discarded basin of broth.
'What's this?' she said. 'Ye'll no be able to see Mr. Kinnaird to-morrow if ye don't take yer soup the night.'
'Gie it to me, Jeanie Trim; I thought he wasna coming again when I said I wouldna.'
The nurse slipped out of the shadow of the wardrobe and went out to tell that the soup was being eaten.
'Kinnaird,' repeated the minister meditatively. 'I never heard my aunt speak the name.'
'Kinnaird,' repeated the daughters; and they too searched in their memories.
'I can remember my grandfather and my grandmother—the married daughter spoke incredulously—'there was never a gentleman called Kinnaird that any of the family had to do with. I'm sure of that, or I'd have as much as heard the name.'
The minister shook his head, discounting the certainty.
'Maybe John will remember the name; your father, and your grandfather too, had great talks with him when he was a lad. I'll write a line and ask him. Poor William or Thomas might have known, if they had lived.'
William and Thomas, grey-haired men, respected fathers of families, had already been laid by the side of their father in the burying-ground. John lived in a distant country, counting himself too feeble now to cross the seas. The daughters, the younger members of this flock, were passing into advanced years. The mother sat by her fireside, and smiled softly to herself as she watched the dancing flame, and thought that her young lover would return on the morrow.
The days went on.
'I cannot think it right to tamper with my mother in this false way.' The spinster daughter spoke tearfully.
'Would you rather see Mistress Macdonald die of starvation?' The doctor spoke sharply; he was tired of the protest. The doctor approved of the new maid. 'She's a wise-like body,' he said; 'let her have her way.'
'Don't you know us, mother?' the daughters would ask patiently, sadly, day by day. But she never knew them; she only mistook one or the other of them at times for her own mother, of whom she stood in some awe.
'Surely ye've not forgotten Ann Johnston, ma'am?' the nurse would ask, carefully tending her old mistress.
The force of long habit had made the old lady patient and courteous, but no answering gleam came in her face.
'Ye know who I am?' the new maid would cry in kindly triumph.
'Oh, ay, I know you, Jeanie Trim.'
'And now, look, I brought you a fine cup of milk, warm from the byre.'
'Oh, I canna tak' it; I'm no thinking that I care about eating the day.'
'Well, but I want to tell ye'—with an air of mystery. 'Who d'ye think's downstairs? It's Mr. Kinnaird himself.'
'Did he come round by the yard to the dairy door?'
'That he did; and all to ask how ye were the day.'
The sparkle of the eye returned, and the smile that almost seemed to dimple the wrinkled cheek.
'And I hope ye offered him something to eat, Jeanie; it's a long ride he takes.'
'Bread and cheese, and a cup of milk just like this.'
'What did he say? Did he like what ye gave him?'
'He said a sup of milk sudna cross his lips till you'd had a cupful the like of his; so I brought it in to ye. You'd better make haste and take it up.'
'Did he send ye wi' the cup, Jeanie Trim?'
'Ay, he did that; and not a bit nor sup will he tak till ye've drunk it all, every drop.'
With evident delight the cup was drained.
'Ye told him I was ailing and couldna see him the day, Jeanie?'
'Maybe ye'll see him to-morrow.' The maid stooped and folded the white shawl more carefully over the dame's breast, and smiled in protective kindly fashion. She had a good heart and a womanly, motherly touch, although many a mistress had called her wilful and pert.
There were times when the minister came and sat himself behind his aunt's chair to watch and to listen. He was a meditative man, and wrote many an essay upon modern theology, but here he found food for meditation of another sort.
There was no being in the world that he reverenced as he had reverenced this aged lady. In his childhood she had taught him to lisp the measures of psalm and paraphrase; in his youth she had advised him with shrewdest wisdom; in his ministerial life she had been to him a friend, always holding before him a greater spiritual height to be attained, and now—— He thought upon his uncle as he had known him, a very reverent elder of the kirk, a man who had led a long and useful life, and to whom this woman had rendered wifely devotion. He thought upon his cousins, in whose lives their mother's life had seemed unalterably bound up. He would at times emerge from his corner, and, sitting down beside the lady, would take her well-worn Bible and read to her such passages as he knew were graven deep upon her heart by scenes of joy or sorrow, parting or meeting, or the very hours of birth or death, in the lives that had been dearer to her than her own. He was not an emotional man, but yet there was a ringing pathos in his voice as he read the rhythmic words. At such times she would sit as if voice and rhythm soothed her, or she would bow her head solemnly at certain pauses, as if accustomed to agree to the sentiment expressed. Heart and thought were not awake to him, nor to the book he read, nor to the memories he tried to arouse. The fire of the lady's heart sprang up only for one word, that word a name, the name of a man of whose very existence, it seemed, no trace was left in all that country-side.
The minister would retreat out of the lady's range of vision; and so great did his curiosity grow that he instigated the maid to ask certain questions as she played at the game of the old love-story in her sprightly, pitying way.
'Now I'll tell ye a thing that I want to know,' said the maid, pouring tea in a cup. 'What's his given name? Will ye tell me that?'
'Is it Mr. Kinnaird ye mean?'
'It's Mr. Kinnaird's christened name that I'm speering for.'
'An' I canna tell ye that, for he never told it to me. It'd be no place of mine to ask him before he chose to speak o' it himsel'.'
'Did ye never see a piece of paper that had his name on it, or a card, maybe?'
'I dinna mind that I have, Jeanie. He's a verra fine gentleman; it's just Mr. Kinnaird that he's called.'
'What for will ye no let me tell the master that he comes every day?'
'Ye must no tell my father, Jeanie Trim'—querulously. 'No, no; nor my mither. They'll maybe be telling him to bide away.'
'Why would they be telling him to bide away?'
'Tuts! How can I tell ye why, when I dinna ken mysel'? Why will ye fret me? I'll tak' no more tea. Tak' it away!'
'I tell ye he'll ask me if ye took it up. He's waiting now to hear that ye took a great big piece of bread tae it. He'll no eat the bread and cheese I've set before him till ye've eaten this every crumb.'
'Is that sae? Well, I maun eat it, for I wouldna have him wanting his meat.'
The meal finished, the maid put on her most winsome smile.
'Now and I'll tell ye what I'll do; I'll go back to Mr. Kinnaird, and I'll tell him ye sent yer love tae him.'
'Ye'll no do sic a thing as that, Jeanie Trim!' All the dignity and authority of her long womanhood returned in the impressive air with which she spoke. 'Ye'll no do sic a thing as that, Jeanie Trim! It's no for young ladies to be sending sic messages to a gentleman, when he hasna so much as said the word "love."'
Had he ever said the word 'love,' this Kinnaird, whose memory was a living presence in the chamber of slow death? The minister believed that he had not. There was no annal in the family letters of his name, although other rejected suitors were mentioned freely. Had he told his love by look or gesture, and left it unspoken, or had look and gesture been misunderstood, and the whole slight love-story been born where it had died, in the heart of the maiden? 'Where it had died!'—it had not died. Seventy years had passed, and the love-story was presently enacting itself, as all past and all future must for ever be enacting to beings for whom time is not. Then, too, where was he who, by some means, whether of his own volition or not, had become so much a part of the pulsing life of a young girl that, when all else of life passed from her with the weight of years, her heart still remained obedient to him? Where was he? Had his life gone out like the flame of a candle when it is blown? Or, if he was anywhere in the universe of living spirits, was he conscious of the power which he was wielding? Was it a triumph to him to know that he had come, gay and debonair, in the bloom of his youth, into this long-existing sanctuary of home, and set aside, with a wave of his hand, husband, children, and friends, dead and living?
Whatever might be the psychical aspects of the case, one thing was certain, that the influence of Kinnaird—Kinnaird alone of all those who had entered into relations with the lady—was useful at this time to come between her and the distressing symptoms that would have resulted from the mania of self-starvation. For some months longer she lived in comfort and good cheer. This clear memory of her youth was oddly interwoven with the forgetful dulness of old age, like a golden thread in a black web, like a tiny flame on the hearth that shoots with intermittent brilliancy into darkness. She was always to see her lover upon the morrow; she never woke to the fact that 'to-day' lasted too long, that a winter of morrows had slipped fruitless by.
The interviews between Jeanie Trim and Kinnaird were not monotonous. All else was monotonous. December, January, February passed away. The mornings and the evenings brought no change outwardly in the sick-room, no change to the appearance of the fine old face and still stately figure, suggested no variety of thought or emotion to the lady's decaying faculties; but at the hours when she sat and contentedly ate the food that the maid brought her, her mental vision cleared as it focused upon the thought of her heart's darling. It was she whose questions suggested nearly all the variations in the game of imagination which the young woman so aptly played.
'Was he riding his black mare, Jeanie Trim?'
'I didna see the beast. He stood on his feet when he was tapping at the door.'
'Whisht! Ye could tell if he wore his boots and spurs, an' his drab waistcoat, buttoned high?'
'Now that ye speak of it, those were the very things he wore.'
'It'd be the black mare he was riding, nae doubt; he'll have tied her to the gate in the lane.' Or again: 'Was it in the best parlour that ye saw him the day? He'd be drinking tea wi' my mither.'
'That he was; and she smiling tae him over the dish of tea.'
'Ay, he looks fine and handsome, bowing to my mither in the best parlour, Jeanie Trim. Did ye notice if he wore silk stockings?'
'Fine silk stockings he wore.'
'And his green coat?'
'As green and smart as a bottle when ye polish, it with a cloth.'
'Did ye notice the fine frills that he has to his shirt? I've tried to make my father's shirts look as fine, but they never have the same look.' The hands of the old dame would work nervously, as if eager to get at the goffering-irons and try once more. 'An' he'd lay his hat on the floor beside him; it's a way he has. Did my mither tell him that I was ailing? His eyes would be shining the while. Do ye notice how his eyes shine, Jeanie?'
'Ay, do I; his eyes shine and his hair curls.'
'Ye're mistaken there, his hair doesna curl, Jeanie Trim—ye've no' obsairved rightly; his hair is brown and straight; it's his beard and whiskers that curl. Eh! but they're bonny! There's a colour and shine in the curl that minds me of the lights I can see in the old copper kettle when my mither has it scoured and hung up on the nail; but his hair is plain brown.'
'He's a graun' figure of a man!' cried the blithe maid, ever sympathetic.
'Tuts! What are ye saying, Jeanie! He's no' a great size at all; the shortest of my brithers is bigger than him! Ye might even ca' him a wee man; it's the spirit that he has wi' it that I like.'
Thus, by degrees, touch upon touch, the portrait of Kinnaird was painted, and whatever misconceptions they might form of him were corrected one by one. There was little incident depicted, yet the figure of Kinnaird was never drawn passive, but always in action.
'Did my father no' offer to send him home in the spring-cart? It's sair wet for him to be walking in the wind and the rain the day.' Or: 'He had a fine bloom on his cheeks, I'll warrant, when he came in through this morning's bluster of wind.' Or again: 'He'll be riding to the hunt with my father to-day; have they put their pink coats on, Jeanie Trim?'
The relations between Kinnaird and the father and mother appeared to be indefinite rather than unfriendly. There were times, it is true, when he came round by the dairy and gave private messages to Jeanie Trim, but at other times he figured as one of the ordinary guests of a large and hospitable household. No special honour seemed to be paid him; there was always the apprehension in the love-sick girl's heart that such timely attentions as the offer of proper refreshment or of the use of the spring-cart might be lacking. The parents were never in the daughter's confidence. She always feared their interference. There was no beginning to the story, no crisis, no culmination.
'Now tell me when ye first saw Mr. Kinnaird?' asked the maid.
But to this there was no answer. It had not been love at first sight, its small beginnings had left no impression; nor was there ever any mention of a change in the relation, or of a parting, only that suggestion of a long and weary waiting, given in the beginning of this phase of memory, when she refused to touch her food, and said she was 'sair longing' to see him again.
The household at Kelsey Farm had flourished in the palmy days of agriculture. Hunters had been kept and pink coats worn, and the mother, of kin with the neighbouring gentry, had kept her carriage to ride in. There had been many pleasures, no doubt, for the daughter of such a house, but only one pleasure remained fixed on her memory, the pleasure of seeing Kinnaird's eyes shining upon her. These days of the lady's youth had happened at a time when religion, if strong, was a sombre thing; and to those who held the pleasures of life in both hands, it was little more than a name and a rite. So it came to pass that no religious sentiment was stirred with the thought of this old joy and succeeding sorrow.
The minister never failed to read some sacred texts when he sat beside her; and when he found himself alone with the old dame, he would kneel and pray aloud in such simple words as he thought she might understand. He did it more to ease his own heart because of the love he bore her than because he supposed that it made any difference in the sight of God whether she heard him or not. He was past the prime of life, and had fallen into pompous and ministerial habits of manner, but in his heart he was always pondering to find what the realities of life might be; he seldom drew false conclusions, although to many a question he was content to find no answer. He wore a serious look—people seldom knew what was passing in his mind; the doctor began to think that he was anxious for the safety of the old dame's soul.
'I am not without hope of a lucid interval at the end,' he said; 'there is wonderful vitality yet, and it's little more than the power of memory that is impaired.'
At this hope the daughters caught eagerly. They were plain women, narrow and dull, but their mother had been no ordinary woman; her power of love had created in them an affection for her which transcended ordinary filial affection. They had inherited from her such strong domestic feelings that they felt her defection from all family ties for the sake of the absent father and brothers, felt it with a poignancy which the use and wont of those winter months did not seem to blunt.
No sudden shock or fit came to bring about the end. Gradually the old dame's strength failed. There came an hour in the spring time—it was the midnight hour of an April night—when she lay upon her bed, sitting up high against white pillows, gasping for the last breaths that she would ever draw. They had drawn aside the old-fashioned bed-curtains, so that they hung like high dark pillars at the four posts. They had opened wide the windows, and the light spring wind blew through the room fresh with the dews of night. Outside, the moon was riding among her clouds; the night was white. The budding trees shook their twigs together in the garden. Inside the room, firelight and lamplight, each flickering much because of the wind, mingled with the moonlight, but did not wholly obscure its misty presence. They all stood there—the minister, the doctor, the grey-haired daughters sobbing, looking and longing for one glance of recognition, the nurse, and the new maid.
They all knelt, while the minister said a prayer.
'She's looking differently now,' whispered the home-keeping daughter. She had drawn her handkerchief from her eyes, and was looking with awed solicitude at her mother's face.
'Yes, there's a change coming,' said the married daughter; her large bosom heaved out the words with excited emotion.
'Speak to her of my father—it will bring her mind back again,' they appealed to the minister, pushing him forward to do what they asked.
The minister took the lady's hands in his, and spoke out clearly and strongly in her ear; but he spoke not, at first, of husband or children, but of the Son of God.
Memories that had lain asleep so long seemed slowly to awaken for one last moment.
'You know what I am saying, auntie?' The minister spoke strongly, as to one who was deaf.
There was a smile on the handsome old face.
'Ay, I know weel: "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shallna want ... though I walk through the valley o' the shadow of death."'
'My uncle, and Thomas, and William have gone before you, auntie.'
'Ay'—with a satisfied smile—'they've gone before.'
'You know who I am?' he said again.
She knew him, and took leave of him. She took leave of each of her daughters, but in a calm, weak way, as one who had waded too far into the river of death to be much concerned with the things of earth.
The doctor pressed her hand, and the faithful nurse. The minister, feeling that justice should be done to one whose wit had brought great relief, bid the maid go forward.
She was weeping, but she spoke in the free, caressing way that she had used so long.
'Ye know who I am, ma'am?'
The dying eyes looked her full in the face, but gave no recognition.
'It's Jeanie Trim.'
'Na, na, I remember a Jeanie Trim long syne, but you're not Jeanie Trim!'
The maid drew back discomfited.
The minister began to repeat a psalm that she loved. The daughters sat on the bedside, holding her hands. So they waited, and she seemed to follow the meaning of the psalm as it went on, until suddenly——
She turned her head feebly towards a space by the bed where no one stood. She drew her aged hands from her daughters', and made as if to stretch them out to a new-comer. She smiled.
'Mr. Kinnaird!' she murmured; then she died.
'You might have thought that he was there himself,' said the daughters, awestruck.
And the minister said within himself, 'Who knows but that he was there?'
A MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN
In the backwoods of Canada, about eighty miles north of Lake Ontario, there is a chain of three lakes, linked by the stream of a rapid river, which leads southward from the heart of a great forest. The last of the three lakes is broad, and has but a slow current because of a huge dam which the early Scottish settlers built across its mouth in order to form a basin to receive the lumber floated down from the lakes above. Hence this last lake is called Haven, which is also the name of the settlement at the side of the dam. The worthy Scotsmen, having set up a sawmill, built a church beside it, and by degrees a town and a schoolhouse. The wealth of the town came from the forest. The half-breed Indian lumber-men, toiling anxiously to bring their huge tree-trunks through the twisting rapids, connected all thoughts of rest and plenty with the peaceful Haven Lake and the town where they received their wages; and, perhaps because they received their first ideas of religion at the same place, their tripping tongues to this day call it, not 'Haven,' but 'Heaven.'
The town throve apace in its early days, and no one in it throve better than Mr. Reid, who kept the general shop. He was a cheerful soul; and it was owing more to his wife's efforts than his own that his fortune was made, for she kept more closely to the shop and had a sharper eye for the pence.
Mrs. Reid was not cheerful; she was rather of an acrid disposition. People said that there was only one subject on which the shopkeeper and his wife agreed, that was as to the superiority of their daughter in beauty, talent, and amiability, over all other young women far or near. In their broad Scotch fashion they called this daughter Eelan, and the town knew her as 'Bonnie Eelan Reid'; everyone acknowledged her charms, although there might be some who would not acknowledge her preeminence.
Mr. and Mrs. Reid carried their pride in their daughter to a great extent, for they sent her to a boarding-school in the town of Coburgh, which was quite two days' journey to the south. When she came back from this educating process well grown, healthy, handsome, and, in their eyes, highly accomplished, the parents felt that there was no rank in the Canadian world beyond their daughter's reach, if it should be her pleasure to attain it.
'It wouldn't be anything out of the way even,' chuckled the happy Mr. Reid, 'if our Eelan should marry the Governor-General.'
'Tuts, father, Governors!' said his wife scornfully, not because she had any inherent objection to Governors as sons-in-law, but because she usually cried down what her husband said.
'The chief difficulty would be that they are usually married before they come to this country—aren't they, father?' Eelan spoke with a twinkling smile. She did not choose to explain to any one what she really thought; she had fancies of her own, this pretty backwoods maiden.
'Well, well, there are lads enough in town, and I'll warrant she'll pick and choose,' said the jolly father in a resigned tone. He was not particular as to a Governor, after all.
That conversation happened when Eelan first came home; but a year or two after, the family conferences took a more serious tone. She had learnt to keep her father's books in the shop, and had become deft at housework; but there was no prospect of her settling in a house of her own; many of the best young men in the place had offered themselves as lovers and been refused.
'Oh! what's the use o' talking, father,' cried Mrs. Reid; 'if the girl won't, she won't, and that's all.—But I can tell you, Eelan Reid, that all your looks and your manners won't save you from being an old maid, if you turn your back on the men.'
'I wasn't talking,' said Mr. Reid humbly; 'I was only saying to the lassie that I didn't want her to hurry; but I'd be right sorry when I'm getting old not to have some notion where I was going to leave my money—it'll more than last out Eelan's day, if it's rightly taken care of.'
'But I can't marry unless I should fall in love,' said Eelan wistfully. Her parents had a vague notion that this manner of expressing herself was in some way a proof of her high accomplishments.
Life was by no means dull in the little town. There were picnics in summer, sleigh-drives in winter, dances, and what not; and Eelan was no recluse. Still, she loved the place better than the people, and there was not a spot of ground in the neighbourhood that she did not know by heart.
In summer, the sparkling water of the lake rippled under a burning sun, and the thousand tree-trunks left floating in it, held near to the edge by the floating boom of logs, became hot and dry on the upper side, while the green water-moss caught them from beneath. It was great fun for the school children to scamper out daringly on these floating fields of lumber; and Eelan liked to go with them, and sometimes walk far out alone along the edge of the boom. She would listen to the birds singing, the children shouting, to the whir of the saws in the mill, and the plash of the river falling over the dam; and she would feel that it was enough delight simply to live without distressing herself about marriage yet awhile.
When winter came, Eelan was happier still. All the roughness and darkness of the earth was lost in a downy ocean of snow. Where the waterfall had been there was a fairy palace of icicles glancing in the sun, and smooth white roads were made across the frozen lake. Eelan never drew back dazzled from the glittering landscape; she was a child of the winter, and she loved its light. She would often harness her father's horse to the old family sleigh and drive alone across the lake. She took her snow-shoes with her, and, leaving the horse at some friendly farmhouse, she would tramp into the woods over the trackless snow. The girl would stand still and look up at the solemn pines and listen, awed by their majestic movement and the desolate loveliness all around. At such time, if the thought of marriage came, she did not put it aside with the light fancy that she wished still to remain free; she longed, in the drear solitude, for some one to sympathise with her, some one who could explain the meaning of the wordless thoughts that welled up within her, the vague response of her heart to the mystery of external beauty. Alas! among all her suitors there was not such a friend.
There was no one else in the town who cared for country walks as Eelan did—at least, no one but the schoolmaster. She met him occasionally, walking far from home; he was a quaint, old-looking man, and she thought he had a face like an angel's. She might have wished sometimes to stop and speak to him, but when they met he always appeared to have his eyes resting on the distant horizon, and his mind seemed wrapped in some learned reverie, to the oblivion of outward things. The schoolmaster lived in the schoolhouse on the bank of the curving river, a bit below the waterfall. He took up his abode there a few months before Eelan Reid came home from school. He had come from somewhere nearer the centres of education—had been imported, so to speak, for the special use of Haven Settlement, for the leading men of the place were a canny set and knew the worth of books. His testimonials had told of a higher standard of scholarship than was usual in such schools, and the keen Scots had snapped at the chance and engaged him without an interview; but when he arrived they had been grievously disappointed. He was a gentle, unsophisticated man, shy as a girl, and absent-minded withal.
'Aweel, I'll not say but he'll do to put sums and writing into the youngsters' heads and teach them to spout their poems; but he's not just what I call a man.' This was the opinion which Macpherson, the portly owner of the mill, had delivered to his friends.
'There's something lacking, I'm thinking,' said one; 'he's thirty-six years old, and to see him driving his cow afield, you'd say he was sixty, and him not sickly either.'
'I doubt he's getting far too high a salary,' said Macpherson solemnly. 'To pass examinations is all very well; but he's not got the grit in him that I'd like to see.'
So they had called a school committee meeting, and suggested to the new schoolmaster, as delicately as they could, that they were much disappointed with his general manner and appearance, but that, as he had come so far, they were graciously willing to keep him if he would consent to take a lower salary than that first agreed on. At this the schoolmaster grew very red, and, with much stammering, he managed to make a speech. He said that he liked the wildness and extreme beauty of the country, and the children appeared to him attractive; he did not wish to go away; and as to salary, he would take what they thought him worth.
In this way they closed the bargain with him on terms quite satisfactory to themselves.
'But hoots,' said the stout Macpherson as he ambled home from the meeting, 'I've only half a respect for a man that can't stand up for himself;' and this sentiment was more or less echoed by them all.
Happily, the schoolmaster did not desire society. The minister's wife asked him to tea occasionally; and he confided to her that, up to that time, he had always lived with his mother, and that it was because of her death that he had left his old home, where sad memories were too great a strain upon him, and come farther west. No one else took much notice of him, partly because he took no notice of them. At the ladies' sewing meeting the doctor's wife looked round the room with an injured air and asked: 'How is it possible to ask a gentleman to tea when you know that he'll meet you in the street next morning and won't remember who you are?'
'A lady who respected herself couldn't do it,' replied Mrs. Reid positively; and then in an undertone she remarked to herself, 'The gaby!'
Miss Ann Blakely pursed her lips and craned her thin neck over her work. 'As to that I don't know, Mrs. Reid; no one could visit the school, as I have done, and fail to observe that the youth of the town are more obedient than formerly. In my opinion, a gentleman who can command the respect of the growing masculine mind——' She finished the sentence only by an expressive wave of her head.
'There is much truth in Miss Blakely's remark,' said a timid little mother of six sons.
People married early, as a general thing, in Haven Settlement, and Miss Blakely, having been accidentally overlooked, had, before he came, indulged in some soft imaginations of her own with regard to the new schoolmaster; like others, she was disappointed in him; but she had not yet decided 'whether,' to use her own phrase, 'he would not, after all, be better than none.' She poised this question in her mind with a nice balancing of reasons for and against for about three years, and the man who was thus the object of her interest continued to live peacefully, ignorant alike of hostile criticism and tender speculation.
It was a terrible day for the schoolmaster when the honest widow who lived with him as housekeeper was called by the death of a daughter-in-law to go and keep the house of her son in another town. She could only tell of her intention two weeks before it was necessary to leave; and very earnestly did the schoolmaster consult with her in the interval as to what he could possibly do to supply her place, for servants in Haven Settlement were rare luxuries.
'I don't know, I'm sure, sir, what you can do,' said Mrs. Sims hopelessly. 'The girls in these parts are far too proud to be hired to work in a house. Why, the best folks in town mostly does their own work; there's Mrs. Reid, so rich, just has a woman to do the charing; and Eelan—that's the beauty, you know—makes the pies and keeps the house spick-and-span. But you couldn't keep your own house clean, could you, sir?—let alone the meals; and you wouldn't live long if you hadn't them.'
As the days wore on, the schoolmaster became more urgent in his appeals for advice, but he did not get encouragement to expect to find a servant of any sort, for the widow was too sincere to suggest hope when she felt none, and the difficulty was not an easy one to solve. She made various inquiries among her friends. It was suggested that the master should go to 'the boarding-house,' which was a large barn-like structure, in which business men who did not happen to have families slept in uncomfortable rooms and dined at a noisy table. Mrs. Sims reported this suggestion faithfully, and added: 'But it's my belief it would kill you outright.'
The schoolmaster looked at his books and the trim arrangements of his neat house, and negatived the proposition with more decision than he had ever shown before.
After a while, Mrs. Sims received another idea of quite a different nature; but she did not report this so hastily—it required more finesse. It was entrusted to her care with many injunctions to be 'tactful,' and it was suggested that if there was a mess made of it, it would be her fault. The idea was nothing less than that it would be necessary for the master to marry; and it was the gaunt Miss Ann Blakely herself who confided to his present housekeeper that she should have no objections to become his bride, provided he wrote her a pretty enough, humble sort of letter that she could show to her friends.
'For, mind you, I'd not go cheap to the like of him,' she said, raising an admonishing finger, as she took leave of her friend: 'I'd rather remain single, far.'
'I think he could write the letter,' replied Mrs. Sims; 'leastways, if he can't do that, I don't know what he can do, poor man.'
Having been solemnly enjoined to be careful, Mrs. Sims thought so long over what she was to say before she said it, that she made herself quite nervous, and when she began, she forgot the half. Over her sewing in the sitting-room one evening she commenced the subject with a flustered little run of words. 'I'm sure such an amiable man as you are, sir, almost three years I've been in this house and never had a word from you, not one word'—it is to be remarked that the widow did not intend to assert that the schoolmaster had been mute—'and you are nice in all your ways, too; if I do say it, quite the gentleman.'
'Oh!' said the schoolmaster, in a tone of surprise, not because he had heard what she said, but because he was surprised that she should begin to talk to him when he was correcting his books.
'And not a servant to be had far or near,' she went on with agitated volubility; 'and as for another like myself, of course that's too much to be hoped for.' She did not say this out of conceit, but merely as representing the actual state of affairs.
The schoolmaster began to look frightened. He was not a matter-of-fact person, but, as long as a man is a man, the prospect of being left altogether without his meals must be appalling.
'So, why you shouldn't get married, I don't know.' She added this in tremulous excitement, speaking in an argumentative way, as if she had led him by an ordered process of thought to an inevitable conclusion.
'Oh!' exclaimed the schoolmaster in surprise again, this time because he had heard what was said.
The worst was over now; and Mrs. Sims, having once suggested the desperate idea of the necessity of marriage, could proceed more calmly. She found, however, that she had to explain the notion at length before he could at all grasp it, and then she was obliged to urge its necessity for some time before he was willing to consider it. He became agitated in his turn, and, rising, walked up and down the room, his arms folded and an absent look in his eyes, as though he were thinking of things farther off.
'I do not mind telling you, for I believe you are a motherly woman, Mrs. Sims, that it is not the first time that the thought of marriage has crossed my mind' (with solemn hesitation). 'I have thought of it before; but I have always been hindered from giving it serious consideration from the belief that no woman would be willing to—ah—to marry me.'
'Well, of course there's some truth in that, sir,' said his faithful friend, reluctantly obliged by her conscience to say what she thought.
'Just so, Mrs. Sims,' said the schoolmaster with a patient sigh; 'and therefore, perhaps it will be unnecessary to discuss the subject further.'
'Still, there's no accounting for tastes; there might be some found that would.'
'It would not be necessary to find more than one,' said he, with a quiet smile.
'No, that's true, sir, which makes the matter rather easier. It's always been my belief that while there is life there is hope.'
'True, true,' he replied; and then he indulged in a long fit of musing, which she more than suspected had little to do with the immediate bearing of the subject on his present case. It was necessary to rouse him, for there was no time to be lost.
'Of course I don't say that there's many that would have you; there's girls enough—but laws! they'd all make game of you if you were to go a-courting to them, and, I take it, courting's not the sort of thing you're cleverest at.'
'True,' said the schoolmaster again, and again he sighed.
'But now, a good sensible woman, like Miss Blakely, as would keep you and your house clean and tidy, not to speak of cooking—I make bold to say you couldn't do better than to get such a one, if she might be so minded.'
'Who is Miss Blakely?' he asked wonderingly.
'It's her that visits the school so often; you've seen her time and again.'
'I recollect,' he said; 'but I have not spoken much with her.'
'That's just what I said,' she observed triumphantly. 'You'd be no more up to courting than cows are up to running races. Now, as to Miss Blakely, not being as young as some, nor to say good-looking, she might not stand on the ceremony of much courting; if you just wrote her one letter, asking her quite modest, and putting in a few remarks about flowers and that sort of thing, as you could do so well, being clever at writing, I give it as my opinion it's not unlikely she'd take you out of hand; not every one would, of course, but she has a kind heart, has Miss Blakely.'
'Kind is she?' said he, with a tone of interest; 'and sweet-tempered?'
Mrs. Sims said more in favour of the scheme; it required that she should say much, for the schoolmaster was not to be easily persuaded. She had, however, three strong arguments in its favour, which she reiterated again and again, with more and more assurance of certitude as she warmed to the subject. The first point was, that if he did not marry, he must either starve at home or go to the boarding-house, and at the latter place she assured him again, as she had done at first, he would probably soon die. Her second point was, that no one else would be willing to marry him except Miss Blakely; and her third—although in this matter she expressed herself with some mysterious caution—that Miss Blakely would marry him if asked. Mrs. Sims bridled her head, spoke in lower tones than was her wont, and said that she had the secret of Miss Blakely's partiality from good authority. She sighed; and he heard her murmur over her sewing that the heart was always young. In fact, without saying it in so many words, she gave her listener to understand clearly that Miss Blakely had conceived a very lively affection for him. And this last, if she had but known it, was the only argument that carried weight, for the schoolmaster could have faced either the prospect of starvation or a lingering death in the rude noise of a boarding-house; but he was tender-hearted, and, moreover, he had a beautiful soul, and supposed all women to be like his mother, whom he had loved with all his strength.
'You'd better make haste, sir,' said Mrs. Sims, 'for I must leave on Thursday, and now it's Saturday night. There's not overmuch time for everything—although, indeed, Mrs. Graham, that goes out charing, might come in and make you your meals for a week, though it will cost you half a quarter's salary, charing is that expensive in these parts.'
The schoolmaster proceeded to think over the matter—that is to say, he proceeded to muse over it; by which process he did not face the facts as they were—did not become better acquainted with the real Miss Blakely, but made some sort of progress in another way, for he conjured up an ideal Miss Blakely, gentle and good, cheerful, with intellectual tastes like his own, a person who, like himself, had not fared very happily in the world until now, and for whom his love and protection would make a paradise. It did occur to him, occasionally, that the picture he was drawing might not be quite correct, and at those times he would seek Mrs. Sims, and ask a few questions of this oracle by way of adjusting his own ideas to the truth. Poor Mrs. Sims, between her extreme honesty and her desire to see the schoolmaster, whom she really loved, assured of future comfort, had much ado to be 'tactful' and say the right thing. She naturally regarded comfort as pertaining solely to the outer man, and fully believed that this marriage was the best step he could take; so her answers, when they could not be satisfactory, were vague.
'How can you doubt, sir, that you'll be much happier with a wife to cook your meals regular, and no more bother about changements all your life? I'm sure if I were you, sir, I wouldn't hesitate between the joys of matrimony and single life.'
'Perhaps not, Mrs. Sims; but I, being I, do hesitate. It is a very important step to take, just because, as you say, there will be no more change.'
'And it's just you that have been telling me that the very thing you dislike most in this world is change. And there are other advantages, too, in having kith and kin, for it's lonesome without when you're old; and just think how beautiful for a wife to weep over you when you're a-dying—and she'll do all that, Miss Blakely will, sir; I'm sure, as her friend, I can answer for it.'
'The wills above be done,' murmured the schoolmaster, 'but I would fain die a dry death.'
Time pressed; the schoolmaster procrastinated; the very evening before the widow's departure had arrived, and yet nothing was done. Then it happened, as is frequently the case when the mind is balancing between two opinions, that a very small circumstance determined him to write the all-important note. The circumstance was none other than his having a convenient opportunity of sending it; for to him, as to many other unpractical minds, the small difficulties in the way of any action had as great a deterring power as more important considerations. Miss Blakely happened to live on the other side of the town, and though the master walked much farther than that himself every day, he felt that in this case it would hardly be dignified to be his own messenger.
It was early in the evening, and the master's window was open to the soft spring air that came in full of the freshness of young leaves and the joyous splash of the flooded river. Two of his schoolboys were loitering under the window, wishing to speak to him, yet too bashful; he got up and sat on the window-sill, smiled at them, and they smiled back. They had a tale to tell; but, as it was of a somewhat delicate nature and hard to explain, he had to listen very patiently. They had a dollar—a brown and green paper dollar—which they gave him with an air of solemn importance. They said that they and some of their comrades had been a long way from home gathering saxifrage, and that they had met one of the young ladies of the town. She had her arms full of flowers, and her pocket quite full of moss, so full that she had had to take her purse and handkerchief out and hold them in her hand with the flowers because the moss was wet. When she came upon them, they were trying to get some saxifrage that was on a ledge of rock; they could only climb half-way up the rock, and were none of them tall enough to reach it; so she put down all her flowers and things and climbed up and got it for them; but in the meantime one of them opened the purse and took out the dollar. She never found it out, and went away.
'Not either of you?' said the schoolmaster.
'No, sir; one of the other fellows did it. But he's sorry, and wants to give it back; so we said that we would tell you, and perhaps you would give it to her.'
'Why couldn't you go and give it to her, just as you have given it to me?'
'Because we knew you'd b'lieve us that it was just the way we said; and her folks, you know, might think we'd done it when we said we hadn't. Or, mother said, if you didn't want to be troubled, perhaps you'd just write a line to say how it was, and we'll go and leave it at the house after dark and come away quick.'
The master had no objection to this; so he brought the boys in and got out his best note-paper—he was fastidious about some things—and wrote a note beginning 'Dear Madam,' telling in a few lines that the money had been stolen and restored.
'What is the lady's name?' he asked, taking up the envelope.
'It was Eelan Reid, sir; Mr. Reid's daughter that keeps the shop.'
So the schoolmaster wrote 'Miss Eelan Reid' in a fair round hand, and then he paused for a moment. He was making up his mind to the all-decisive action.
'Perhaps you can wait for another note and take that for me at the same time,' he said. He gave them some picture papers to look at. Then he wrote the note of such moment to himself, beginning, as before, 'Dear Madam,' and doing his best to follow the many instructions which the faithful Mrs. Sims had given him. It was a curious specimen of literature, in which a truly elegant mind and warm heart were veiled, but not hidden, by an embarrassed attempt at conventional phrases—a letter that most women would laugh at, and that the best women would reverence. He addressed that envelope too, and sealed the notes and sent away the boys.
There was no sleep for the schoolmaster that night. With folded arms he paced his room in restless misery. Now that the die was cast, the ideal Miss Blakely faded from his mind; he felt instinctively that she was mythical. He saw clearly that he had forfeited the best possibilities of life for the sake of temporary convenience, that he had sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.
The long night passed at length, as all nights pass. The sun rose over purple hills to glow upon the spring-stirred forest and to send golden shafts deep down into the clear heart of lake and stream. The fallen beauty of past woodland summers had tinged the water till it glowed like nut-brown wine; so brown it was that the pools of the river, where it swirled and rushed past the schoolhouse bend, seemed to greet the sun with the soft dark glances of fawn-eyed water-sprites. The glorious sky, the tender colours of the budding wood, the very dandelions on the untrimmed bank, contrived their hues to accord and rejoice with the laughing water, and the birds swelled out its song. In the rapture of spring and of morning there was no echo of grief; for the unswerving law of nature, moving through the years, had set each thing in its right home. It is only the perplexed soul that is forced to choose its own way and suffer from the choice, and the song of our life is but set to the accompaniment of a sad creed if we may not trust that, above our human wills, there is a Power able to overrule the mistakes of true hearts, to lead the blind by unseen paths, and save the simple from their own simplicity.
Very early in the morning the schoolmaster, haggard and worn, slipped out of his own door to refresh himself in the sunlight that gleamed down upon his bit of green through the budding willow trees that grew by the river-side. He stood awhile under the bending boughs, watching the full stream as it tossed its spray into the lap of the flower-fringed shore. He looked, as he stood there, like a ghost of the preceding night, caught against his will and embraced by the joyous morning. Just then he had a vision.
A girl came towards him across the grass and stood a few paces distant. The slender willow twigs, with their hanging catkins and tiny golden leaves, made a sort of veil between them. She was very beautiful, at least so the schoolmaster thought; perhaps she was the personification of the morning, perhaps she was a wood-nymph—it did not matter much; he felt, in his excitement and exhaustion, that her beauty and grace were not real, but only an hallucination of moving sun and shade. She took the swaying willow-twigs in her pretty hands and looked through them at him and stroked the downy flowers.
'Why did you send me that letter?' she said at last, with a touch of severity in her voice.
'The letter,' he stammered, wondering what she could mean.
He remembered, with a sort of dull return of consciousness, that he was guilty of having sent a letter—terribly guilty in his own estimation—but it was sent to Miss Blakely, and this was not Miss Blakely. That one letter had so completely absorbed all his mind that he had quite forgotten any others that he might have written in the course of his whole life.
'Do not be angry with me,' he said imploringly. He had but one idea, that was, to keep this radiant dream of beauty with him as long as possible.
'I'm not angry; I am not angry at all—indeed'—and here she looked down at the twigs in her hand and began pulling the young leaves rather roughly—'I am not sure but that I am rather pleased. I have so often met you in the woods, you know; only I didn't know that you had ever noticed me.'
'I never did,' said the schoolmaster; but happily his nervous lips gave but indistinct utterance to the words, and his tone was pathetic. She thought he had only made some further pleading.
'I—I—I like you very much,' she said. 'I suppose, of course, everybody will be very much surprised, and mother may not be pleased, you know, just at first; but she's good and dear, mother is, in spite of what she says; and father will be glad about anything that pleases me.'
He did not understand what she said; but he felt distressed at the moment to notice that she was twisting the tender willow leaves, albeit he saw that she only did so because, in her embarrassment, her fingers worked unconsciously. He came forward and took her hands gently, to disentangle them from the twigs. She let them lie in his, and looked up in his face and smiled.
'I will try to be a good wife, and manage all the common things, and not tease you to be like other men, if you will sometimes read your books to me and explain to me what life means, and why it is so beautiful, and why things are as they are.'
'I'm afraid I don't understand these matters myself very well,' he said; 'but we can talk about them together.'
While he held her hands, she drooped her head till it touched his shoulder.
He had kissed no one since his mother died, and the great joy that took possession of his heart brought, by its stimulus, a sudden knowledge of what had really happened to his mind. In a marvellously tender way, for a man who could not go a-courting, he put his hand under the pretty chin and looked down wonderingly, reverently, at the serious upturned face. 'And this is bonnie Eelan Reid?'
Then Eelan, thinking that he was teasing her gently for being so easily won when she had gained the reputation of being so proud, cast down her eyes and blushed.
So they were married, and lived happily, very happily, although they had their sorrows, as others have. The schoolmaster was man enough to keep the knowledge of his blunder a secret between himself and God.
As for Miss Blakely, she never quite understood who had stolen the dollar, or when, or where; but she was glad to get it back. She never forgave Mrs. Sims for having managed her trust so ill, although the widow declared, with tears in her eyes, that she had done her best.
'He would have taken in the knowingest person, he would indeed, Ann Blakely; and, to my notion, a straightforward woman like you is well quit of a man who, while he looked so innocent, could act so deep.'
The end of March had come. The firm Canadian snow roads had suddenly changed their surface and become a chain of miniature rivers, lakes interspersed by islands of ice, and half-frozen bogs.
A young priest had started out of the city of Montreal to walk to the suburb of Point St. Charles. He was in great haste, so he kilted up his long black petticoats and hopped and skipped at a good pace. The hard problems of life had not as yet assailed him; he had that set of the shoulders that belongs to a good conscience and an easy mind; his face was rosy-cheeked and serene.
Behind him lay the hill-side city, with its grey towers and spires and snow-clad mountain. All along his way budding maple trees swayed their branches overhead; on the twigs of some there was the scarlet moss of opening flowers, some were tipped with red buds and some were grey. The March wind was surging through them; the March clouds were flying above them,—light grey clouds with no rain in them,—veil above veil of mist, and each filmy web travelling at a different pace. The road began as a street, crossed railway tracks and a canal, ran between fields, and again entered between houses. The houses were of brick or stone, poor and ugly; the snow in the fields was sodden with water; the road——
'I wish that the holy prophet Elijah would come to this Jordan with his mantle,' thought the priest to himself.
This was a pious thought, and he splashed and waded along conscientiously. He had been sent on an errand, and had to return to discharge a more important duty in the same afternoon.
The suburb consisted chiefly of workmen's houses and factories, but there were some ambitious-looking terraces. The priest stopped at a brick dwelling of fair size. It had an aspect of flaunting respectability; lintel and casements were shining with varnish; cheap starched curtains decked every window. When the priest had rung a bell which jingled inside, the door was opened by a young woman. She was not a servant, her dress was fur-belowed and her hair was most elaborately arranged. She was, moreover, evidently Protestant; she held the door and surveyed the visitor with an air that was meant to show easy independence of manner, but was, in fact, insolent.
The priest had a slip of paper in his hand and referred to it. 'Mrs. O'Brien?' he asked.
'I'm not Mrs. O'Brien,' said the young woman, looking at something which interested her in the street.
A shrill voice belonging, as it seemed, to a middle-aged woman, made itself heard. 'Louisy, if it's a Cath'lic priest, take him right in to your gran'ma; it's him she's expecting.'
A moment's stare of surprise and contempt, and the young woman led the way through a gay and cheaply furnished parlour, past the door of a best bedroom which stood open to shew the frills on the pillows, into a room in the back wing. She opened the door with a jerk and stared again as the priest passed her. She was a handsome girl; the young priest did not like to be despised; within his heart he sighed and said a short prayer for patience.
He entered a room that did not share the attempt at elegance of the front part of the house; plain as a cottage kitchen, it was warm and comfortable withal. The large bed with patchwork quilt stood in a corner; in the middle was an iron stove in which logs crackled and sparkled. The air was hot and dry, but the priest, being accustomed to the atmosphere of stoves, took no notice, in fact, he noticed nothing but the room's one inmate, who from the first moment compelled his whole attention.
In a wooden arm-chair, dressed in a black petticoat and a scarlet bedgown, sat a strong old woman. Weakness was there as well as strength, certainly, for she could not leave her chair, and the palsy of excitement was shaking her head, but the one idea conveyed by every wrinkle of the aged face and hands, by every line of the bowed figure, was strength. One brown toil-worn hand held the head of a thick walking-stick which she rested on the floor well in front of her, as if she were about to rise and walk forward. Her brown face—nose and chin strongly defined—was stretched forward as the visitor entered; her eyes, black and commanding, carried with them something of that authoritative spell that is commonly attributed to a commanding mind. Great physical size or power this woman apparently had never had, but she looked the very embodiment of a superior strength.
'Shut the door! shut the door behind ye!' These were the first words that the youthful confessor heard, and then, as he advanced, 'You're young,' she said, peering into his face. Without a moment's intermission further orders were given him: 'Be seated; be seated! Take a chair by the fire and put up your wet feet. It is from Father M'Leod of St. Patrick's Church that ye've come?'
The young man, whose boots were well soaked with ice-water, was not loth to put them up on the edge of the stove. It was not at all his idea of a priestly visit to a woman who had represented herself as dying, but it is a large part of wisdom to take things as they come until it is necessary to interfere.
'You wrote, I think, to Father M'Leod, saying that as the priests of this parish are French and you speak English——'
Some current of excitement hustled her soul into the midst of what she had to say.
''Twas Father Maloney, him that had St. Patrick's before Father M'Leod, who married me; so I just thought before I died I'd let one of ye know a thing concerning that marriage that I've never told to mortal soul. Sit ye still and keep your feet to the fire; there's no need for a young man like you to be taking your death with the wet because I've a thing to say to ye.'
'You are not a Catholic now,' said he, raising his eyebrows with intelligence as he glanced at a Bible and hymn-book that lay on the floor beside her.
He was not unaccustomed to meeting perverts; it was impossible to have any strong emotion about so frequent an occurrence. He had had a long walk and the hot air of the room made him somewhat sleepy; if it had not been for the fever and excitement of her mind he might not have picked up more than the main facts of all she said. As it was, his attention wandered for some minutes from the words that came from her palsied lips. It did not wander from her; he was thinking who she might be, and whether she was really about to die or not, and whether he had not better ask Father M'Leod to come and see her himself. This last thought indicated that she impressed him as a person of more importance and interest than had been supposed when he had been sent to hear her confession.
All this time, fired by a resolution to tell a tale for the first and last time, the old woman, steadying as much as she might her shaking head, and leaning forward to look at the priest with bleared yet flashing eyes, was pouring out words whose articulation was often indistinct. Her hand upon her staff was constantly moving, as if she were about to rise and walk; her body seemed about to spring forward with the impulse of her thoughts, the very folds of the scarlet bedgown were instinct with excitement.
The priest's attention returned to her words.
'Yes, marry and marry and marry—that's what you priests in my young days were for ever preaching to us poor folk. It was our duty to multiply and fill the new land with good Cath'lics. Father Maloney, that was his doctrine, and me a young girl just come out from the old country with my parents, and six children younger than me. Hadn't I had enough of young children to nurse, and me wanting to begin life in a new place respectable, and get up a bit in the world? Oh, yes! but Father Maloney he was on the look-out for a wife for Terry O'Brien. He was a widow man with five little helpless things, and drunk most of the time was Terry, and with no spirit in him to do better. Oh! but what did that matter to Father Maloney when it was the good of the Church he was looking for, wanting O'Brien's family looked after? O'Brien was a good, kind fellow, so Father Maloney said, and you'll never hear me say a word against that. So Father Maloney got round my mother and my father and me, and married me to O'Brien, and the first year I had a baby, and the second year I had another, so on and so on, and there's not a soul in this world can say but that I did well by the five that were in the house when I came to it.
'Oh! "house"!—— d'ye think it was one house he kept over our heads? No, but we moved from one room to another, not paying the rent. Well, and what sort of a training could the children get? Father Maloney he talked fine about bringing them up for the Church. Did he come in and wash them when I was a-bed? Did he put clothes on their backs? No, and fine and angry he was when I told him that that was what he ought to have done! Oh! but Father Maloney and I went at it up and down many a day, for when I was wore out with the anger inside me, I'd go and tell him what I thought of the marriage he'd made, and in a passion he'd get at a poor thing like me teaching him duty.
'Not that I ever was more than half sorry for the marriage myself, because of O'Brien's children, poor things, that he had before I came to them. Likely young ones they were too, and handsome, what would they have done if I hadn't been there to put them out of the way when O'Brien was drunk, and knocking them round, or to put a bit of stuff together to keep them from nakedness?
'"Well," said Father Maloney to me, "why isn't it to O'Brien that you speak with your scolding tongue?" Faix! and what good was it to spake to O'Brien, I'd like to know? Did you ever try to cut water with a knife, or to hurt a feather-bed by striking at it with your fist? A nice good-natured man was Terry O'Brien—I'll never say that he wasn't that,—except when he was drunk, which was most of the time—but he'd no more backbone to him than a worm. That was the sort of husband Father Maloney married me to.
'The children kept a-coming till we'd nine of them, that's with the five I found ready to hand; and the elder ones getting up and needing to be set out in the world, and what prospect was there for them? What could I do for them? Me always with an infant in my arms! Yet 'twas me and no other that gave them the bit and sup they had, for I went out to work; but how could I save anything to fit decent clothes on them, and it wasn't much work I could do, what with the babies always coming, and sick and ailing they were half the time. The Sisters would come from the convent to give me charity. 'Twas precious little they gave, and lectured me too for not being more submiss'! And I didn't want their charity; I wanted to get up in the world. I'd wanted that before I was married, and now I wanted it for the children. Likely girls the two eldest were, and the boy just beginning to go the way of his father.'
She came to a sudden stop and breathed hard; the strong old face was still stretched out to the priest in her eagerness; the staff was swaying to and fro beneath the tremulous hand. She had poured out her words so quickly that there was in his chest a feeling of answering breathlessness, yet he still sat regarding her placidly with the serenity of healthy youth.
She did not give him long rest. 'What did I see around me?' she demanded. 'I saw people that had begun life no better than myself getting up and getting up, having a shop maybe, or sending their children to the "Model" School to learn to be teachers, or getting them into this business or that, and mine with never so much as knowing how to read, for they hadn't the shoes to put on——
'And I had it in me to better them and myself. I knew I'd be strong if it wasn't for the babies, and I knew, too, that I'd do a kinder thing for each child I had, to strangle it at it's birth than to bring it on to know nothing and be nothing but a poor wretched thing like Terry O'Brien himself——'
At the word 'strangle' the young priest took his feet from the ledge in front of the fire and changed his easy attitude, sitting up straight and looking more serious.
'It's not that I blamed O'Brien over much, he'd just had the same sort of bringing up himself and his father before him, and when he was sober a very nice man he was; it was spiritiness he lacked; but if he'd had more spiritiness he'd have been a wickeder man, for what is there to give a man sense in a rearing like that? If he'd been a wickeder man I'd have had more fear to do with him the thing I did. But he was just a good sort of creature without sense enough to keep steady, or to know what the children were wanting; not a notion he hadn't but that they'd got all they needed, and I had it in me to better them. Will ye dare to say that I hadn't?
'After Terry O'Brien went I had them all set out in the world, married or put to work with the best, and they've got ahead. All but O'Brien's eldest son, every one of them have got ahead of things. I couldn't put the spirit into him as I could into the littler ones and into the girls. Well, but he's the only black sheep of the seven, for two of them died. All that's living but him are doing well, doing well' (she nodded her head in triumph), 'and their children doing better than them, as ought to be. Some of them ladies and gentlemen, real quality. Oh! ye needn't think I don't know the difference' (some thought expressed in his face had evidently made its way with speed to her brain)—'my daughter that lives here is all well enough, and her girl handsome and able to make her way, but I tell you there's some of my grandchildren that's as much above her in the world as she is above poor Terry O'Brien—young people that speak soft when they come to see their poor old grannie and read books, oh! I know the difference; oh! I know very well—not but what my daughter here is well-to-do, and there's not one of them all but has a respect for me.' She nodded again triumphantly, and her eyes flashed. 'They know, they know very well how I set them out in the world. And they come back for advice to me, old as I am, and see that I want for nothing. I've been a good mother to them, and a good mother makes good children and grandchildren too.'
There was another pause in which she breathed hard; the priest grasped the point of the story; he asked—
'What became of O'Brien?'
'I drowned him.'
The priest stood up in a rigid and clerical attitude.
'I tell ye I drowned him.' She had changed her attitude to suit his; and with the supreme excitement of telling what she had never told, there seemed to come to her the power to sit erect. Her eagerness was not that of self-vindication; it was the feverish exaltation with which old age glories over bygone achievement.
'I'd never have thought of it if it hadn't been O'Brien himself that put it into my head. But the children had a dog, 'twas little enough they had to play with, and the beast was useful in his way too, for he could mind the baby at times; but he took to ailing—like enough it was from want of food, and I was for nursing him up a bit and bringing him round, but O'Brien said that he'd put him into the canal. 'Twas one Sunday that he was at home sober—for when he was drunk I could handle him so that he couldn't do much harm. So says I, "And why is he to be put in the canal?"
'Says he, "Because he's doing no good here."
'So says I, "Let the poor beast live, for he does no harm."
'Then says he, "But it's harm he does taking the children's meat and their place by the fire."
'And says I, "Are ye not afraid to hurry an innocent creature into the next world?" for the dog had that sense he was like one of the children to me.
'Then said Terry O'Brien, for he had a wit of his own, "And if he's an innocent creature he'll fare well where he goes."
'Then said I, "He's done his sins, like the rest of us, no doubt."
'Then says he, "The sooner he's put where he can do no more the better."
'So with that he put a string round the poor thing's neck and took him away to where there was holes in the ice of the canal, just as there is to-day, for it was the same season of the year, and the children all cried; and thinks I to myself, "If it was the dog that was going to put their father into the water they would cry less." For he had a peevish temper in drink, which was most of the time.
'So then, I knew what I would do. 'Twas for the sake of the children that were crying about me that I did it, and I looked up to the sky and I said to God and the holy saints that for Terry O'Brien and his children 'twas the best deed I could do; and the words that we said about the poor beast rang in my head, for they fitted to O'Brien himself, every one of them.
'So you see it was just the time when the ice was still thick on the water, six inches thick maybe, but where anything had happened to break it the edges were melting into large holes. And the next night when it was late and dark I went and waited outside the tavern, the way O'Brien would be coming home.
'He was just in that state that he could walk, but he hadn't the sense of a child, and we came by the canal, for there's a road along it all winter long, but there were places where if you went off the road you fell in, and there were placards up saying to take care. But Terry O'Brien hadn't the sense to remember them. I led him to the edge of a hole, and then I came on without him. He was too drunk to feel the pain of the gasping. So I went home.
'There wasn't a creature lived near for a mile then, and in the morning I gave out that I was afraid he'd got drowned, so they broke the ice and took him up. And there was just one person that grieved for Terry O'Brien. Many's the day I grieved for him, for I was accustomed to have him about me, and I missed him like, and I said in my heart, "Terry, wherever ye may be, I have done the best deed for you and your children, for if you were innocent you have gone to a better place, and if it were sin to live as you did, the less of it you have on your soul the better for you; and as for the children, poor lambs, I can give them a start in the world now I am rid of you!" That's what I said in my heart to O'Brien at first—when I grieved for him; and then the years passed, and I worked too hard to be thinking of him.
'And now, when I sit here facing the death for myself, I can look out of my windows there back and see the canal, and I say to Terry again, as if I was coming face to face with him, that I did the best deed I could do for him and his. I broke with the Cath'lic Church long ago, for I couldn't go to confess; and many's the year that I never thought of religion. But now that I am going to die I try to read the books my daughter's minister gives me, and I look to God and say that I've sins on my soul, but the drowning of O'Brien, as far as I know right from wrong, isn't one of them.'
The young priest had an idea that the occasion demanded some strong form of speech. 'Woman,' he said, 'what have you told me this for?'
The strength of her excitement was subsiding. In its wane the afflictions of her age seemed to be let loose upon her again. Her words came more thickly, her gaunt frame trembled the more, but not for one moment did her eye flinch before his youthful severity.
'I hear that you priests are at it yet. "Marry and marry and marry," that's what ye teach the poor folks that will do your bidding, "in order that the new country may be filled with Cath'lics," and I thought before I died I'd just let ye know how one such marriage turned; and as he didn't come himself you may go home and tell Father M'Leod that, God helping me, I have told you the truth.'
The next day an elderly priest approached the door of the same house. His hair was grey, his shoulders bent, his face was furrowed with those benign lines which tell that the pain which has graven them is that sympathy which accepts as its own the sorrows of others. Father M'Leod had come far because he had a word to say, a word of pity and of sympathy, which he hoped might yet touch an impenitent heart, a word that he felt was due from the Church he represented to this wandering soul, whether repentance should be the result or not.
When he rang the bell it was not the young girl but her mother who answered the door; her face, which spoke of ordinary comfort and good cheer, bore marks of recent tears.
'Do you know,' asked the Father curiously, 'what statement it was that your mother communicated to my friend who was here yesterday?'
'No, sir, I do not.'
'Your mother was yesterday in her usual health and sound mind?' he interrogated gently.
'She was indeed, sir,' and she wiped a tear.
'I would like to see your mother,' persisted he.
'She had a stroke in the night, sir; she's lying easy now, but she knows no one, and the doctor says she'll never hear or see or speak again.'
The old man sighed deeply.
'If I may make so bold, sir, will you tell me what business it was my mother had with the young man yesterday or with yourself?'
'It is not well that I should tell you,' he replied, and he went away.
A TAINT IN THE BLOOD
The curate was walking on the cliffs with his lady-love. All the sky was grey, and all the sea was grey. The soft March wind blew over the rocky shore; it could not rustle the bright green weed that hung wet from the boulders, but it set all the tufts of grass upon the cliffs nodding to the song of the ebbing tide. The lady was the vicar's daughter; her name was Violetta.
'Let us stand still here,' said the curate, 'for there is something I must say to you to-day.' So they stood still and looked at the sea.
'Violetta,' said the curate, 'you cannot be ignorant that I have long loved you. Last night I took courage and told your father of my hope and desire that you should become my wife. He told me what I did not know, that you have already tasted the joy of love and the sorrow of its disappointment. I can only ask you now if this former love has made it impossible that you should love again.'
'No,' she answered; 'for although I loved and sorrowed then with all the strength of a child's heart, still it was only as a child, and that is past.'
'Will you be my wife?' said the curate.
'I cannot choose but say "yes," I love you so much.'
Then they turned and went back along the cliffs, and the curate was very happy. 'But tell me,' he said, 'about this other man that loved you.'
'His name was Herbert. He was the squire's son. He loved me and I loved him, but afterwards we found that his mother had been mad——' Violetta paused and turned her sweet blue eyes upon the sea.
'So you could not marry?' said the curate.
'No,' said Violetta, casting her eyes downward, 'because the taint of madness is a terrible thing.' She shuddered and blushed.
'And you loved him?'
'Dearly, dearly,' said Violetta, clasping her hands. 'But madness in the blood is too terrible; it is like the inheritance of a curse.'
'He went away?' said the curate.
'Yes, Herbert went away; and he died. He loved me so much that he died.'
'I do not wonder at that,' said the curate, 'for you are very lovely, Violetta.'
They walked home hand in hand, and when they had said good-bye under the beech trees that grew by the vicarage gate, the curate went down the street of the little town. The shop-keepers were at their doors breathing the mild spring air. The fishermen had hung their nets to dry in the market-place near the quay. The western cloud was turning crimson, and the steep roofs and grey church-tower absorbed in sombre colours the tender light. The curate was going home to his lodgings, but he bethought him of his tea, and turned into the pastry-cook's by the way.
'Have you any muffins, Mrs. Yeander?' he asked.
'No, sir,' said the portly wife of the baker, in a sad tone, 'they're all over.'
'Crumpets?' said he.
'Past and gone, sir,' said the woman with a sigh. She had a coarsely poetical cast of mind, and commonly spoke of the sale of her goods as one might speak of the passing of summer flowers. The curate was turning away.
'I would make bold, sir,' said the woman, 'to ask if you've heard that we've let our second-floor front for a while. It's a great thing for us, sir, as you know, to 'ave it let, not that you'll approve the person as 'as took it.'
'Oh!' said the curate, 'how is that?'
'He's the new Jewish rabbi, sir, being as they've opened the place of their heathenish worship again. It's been shut this two year, for want of a Hebrew to read the language.'
'Oh, no, Mrs. Yeander; you're quite mistaken in calling the Jews heathens.'
'The meeting-place is down by the end of the street, sir—a squarish sort of house. It's not been open in your time; likely you'll not know it. The new rabbi's been reading a couple of weeks to them. They do say it's awful queer.'
'Oh, indeed!' said the curate; 'what are their hours of service?'
'Well, to say the truth, sir, they'll soon be at it now, for it's Friday at sunset they've some antics or other in the place. The rabbi's just gone with his book.'
'I think I'll look them up, and see what they're at,' said he, going out.
He was a thin, hard-working man. His whole soul was possessed by his great love for Violetta, but even the gladness of its success could not turn him from his work. When the day was over he would indulge in brooding on his joy; until then the need of the world pressed. He stepped out again into the evening glow. The wind had grown stronger, and he bent his head forward and walked against it towards the west. He felt a sudden sympathy for this stranger who had come to minister in his own way to the few scattered children of the Jews who were in the town. He knew the unjust sentiment with which he would be surrounded as by an atmosphere. The curate was broad in his views. 'All nations and all people,' thought he, 'lust for an excuse to deem their neighbour less worthy than themselves, that they may oppress him. This is the selfishness which is the cause of all sin and is the devil.' When he got to this point in his thoughts he came to a sudden stand and looked up. 'But, thank God,' he said to himself, 'the True Life is still in the world, and as we resist the evil we not only triumph ourselves, but make the triumph of our children sure.' So reasoned the curate; he was a rather fanatical fellow.
The people near gave him 'good-day' when they saw him stop. All up and down the street the children played with shrill noises and pattering feet. The sunset cloud was brighter, and the dark peaked roofs of tile and thatch and slate, as if compelled to take some notice of the fire, threw back the red where, here and there, some glint of moisture gave reflection to the coloured light. He had come near the end of the town, and, where the houses opened, the red sky was fretted with dark twigs and branches of elm trees which grew on the grassy slope of the cliff. The elm trees were in the squire's park, and the curate looked at them sadly and thought of Herbert who had died.