CHAPTER I. UPTON RECTORY
CHAPTER II. ANN HOLLAND
CHAPTER III. WHAT WAS HER DUTY?
CHAPTER IV. A BABY'S GRAVE
CHAPTER V. TOWN'S TALK
CHAPTER VI. THE RECTOR'S RETURN
CHAPTER VII. WORSE THAN DEAD
CHAPTER VIII. HUSBAND AND WIFE
CHAPTER IX. SAD DAYS
CHAPTER X. A SIN AND A SHAME
CHAPTER XI. LOST
CHAPTER XII. A COLONIAL CURACY
CHAPTER XIII. SELF-SACRIFICE
CHAPTER XIV. FAREWELLS
CHAPTER XV. IN DESPAIR
CHAPTER XVI. A LONG VOYAGE
CHAPTER XVII. ALMOST SHIPWRECKED
CHAPTER XVIII. SAVED
So quiet is the small market town of Upton, that it is difficult to believe in the stir and din of London, which is little more than an hour's journey from it. It is the terminus of the single line of rails branching off from the main line eight miles away, and along it three trains only travel each way daily. The sleepy streets have old-fashioned houses straggling along each side, with trees growing amongst them; and here and there, down the roads leading into the the country, which are half street, half lane, green plots of daisied grass are still to be found, where there were once open fields that have left a little legacy to the birds and children of coming generations. Half the houses are still largely built of wood from the forest of olden times that has now disappeared; and ancient bow-windows jut out over the side causeways. Some of the old exclusive mansions continue to boast in a breastwork of stone pillars linked together by chains of iron, intended as a defence against impertinent intruders, but more often serving as safe swinging-places for the young children sent to play in the streets. Perhaps of all times of the year the little town looks its best on a sunny autumn morning, with its fine film of mist, when the chestnut leaves are golden, and slender threads of gossamer are floating in the air, and heavy dews, white as the hoar-frost, glisten in the sunshine. But at any season Upton seems a tranquil, peaceful, out-of-the-world spot, having no connection with busier and more wretched places.
There were not many real gentry, as the townsfolk called them, living near. A few retired Londoners, weary of the great city, and finding rents and living cheaper at Upton, had settled in trim villas, built beyond the boundaries of the town. But for the most part the population consisted of substantial trades-people and professional men, whose families had been represented there for several generations. As usual the society was broken up into very small cliques; no one household feeling itself exactly on the same social equality as another; even as far down as the laundresses and charwomen, who could tell whose husband or son had been before the justices, and which families had escaped that disgrace. The nearest approach to that equality and fraternity of which we all hear so much and see so little, was unfortunately to be found in the bar-parlor and billiard-room of the Upton Arms; but even this was lost as soon as the threshold was recrossed, and the boon-companions of the interior breathed the air of the outer world. There were several religious sects of considerable strength, and of very decided antagonistic views; any one of whose members was always ready to give the reason of the special creed that was in him. So, what with a variety of domestic circumstances, and a diversity of religious opinions, it is not to be wondered at that the society of Upton was broken up into very small circles indeed.
There was one point, however, on which all the townspeople were united. There could be no doubt whatever as to the beauty of the old Norman church, lying just beyond the eastern boundary of the town; not mingling with its business, but standing in a solemn quiet of its own, as if to guard the repose of the sleepers under its shadow. The churchyard too, was beautiful, with its grand and dusky old yew-trees, spreading their broad sweeping branches like cedars, and with many a bright colored flower-bed lying amongst the dark green of the graves. The townspeople loved to stroll down to it in the twilight, with half-stirred idle thoughts of better things soothing away the worries and cares of the day. A narrow meadow of glebe-land separated the churchyard from the Rectory garden, a bank of flowers and turf sloping up to the house. Nowhere could a more pleasant, home-like dwelling be found, lightly covered with sweet-scented creeping plants, which climbed up to the highest gable, and flung down long sprays of blossom-laden branches to toss to and fro in the air. Many a weary, bedinned Londoner had felt heart-sick at the sight of its tranquillity and peace.
The people of Upton, great and small, conformist or nonconformist, were proud of their rector. It was no unusual sight for a dozen or more carriages from a distance to be seen waiting at the church door for the close of the service, not only on a Sunday morning, when custom demands the observance, but even in the afternoon, when public worship is usually left to servant-maids. There was not a seat to be had for love or money, either by gentle or simple, after the reading of the Psalms had begun. The Dissenters themselves were accustomed to attend church occasionally, with a half-guilty sense, not altogether unpleasant, of acting against their principles. But then the rector was always on friendly terms with them: and made no distinction, in distributing Christmas charities, between the poor old folks who went to church or to chapel, Or, as it was said regretfully, to no place at all. He had his failings; but the one point on which all Upton agreed was, that their church and rector were the best between that town and London.
It was a hard struggle with David Chantrey, this beloved rector of Upton, to resolve upon leaving his parish, though only for a time, when his physicians strenuously urged him to spend two winters, and the intervening summer, in Madeira. Very definitely they assured him that such an absence was his only chance of assuring a fair share of the ordinary term of human life. But it was a difficult thing to do, apart from the hardness of the struggle; and the difficulty just verged upon an impossibility. The living was not a rich one, its whole income being a little under L400 a year. Now, when he had provided a salary for the curate who must take his duty, and decided upon the smallest sum necessary for his own expenses, the remainder, in whatever way the sum was worked, was clearly quite insufficient for the maintenance of his young wife and child. They could not go with him; that was impossible. But how were they to live whilst he was away? No doubt, if his difficulty had been known, there were many wealthy people among his friends who would gladly have removed it; but not one of them even guessed at it. Was not Mrs. Bolton, the widow of the late archdeacon, and the richest woman in Upton, own aunt to the rector, David Chantrey?
Next to Mr. Chantrey himself, Mrs. Bolton was the most eminent personage in Upton. She had settled there upon the archdeacon's death, which happened immediately after he had obtained the living for his wife's favorite nephew. For some years she had been the only lady connected with the rector, and had acted as his female representative. There was neither mansion nor cottage which she had not visited. The high were her associates; the low her proteges, for whose souls she labored. She was at the head of all charitable agencies and benevolent societies. Nothing could be set on foot in Upton under any other patronage. She was active, untiring, and not very susceptible. So early and so completely had she obtained the little sovereignty she had assumed, that when the rightful queen came there was no room for her. The rector's wife was only known as a pretty and pleasant-spoken young lady, who left all the parish affairs in Mrs. Bolton's hands.
It is not to be wondered at, then, that no one guessed at David Chantrey's difficulty, though everybody knew the exact amount of his income. Neither he nor his wife hinted at it. Sophy Chantrey would have freely given the world, had it been hers, to accompany her husband; but there was no chance of that. A friend was going out on the same doleful search for health; and the two were to take charge of each other. But how to live at all while David was away? She urged that she could manage very well on seventy or eighty pounds a year, if she and her boy went to some cheap lodgings in a strange neighborhood, where nobody knew them; but her husband would not listen to such a plan. The worry and fret of his brain had grown almost to fever-height, when his aunt made a proposal, which he accepted in impatient haste. This was that Sophy should make her home at Bolton Villa for the full time of his absence; on condition that Charlie, a boy of seven years old, full of life and spirits, should be sent to school for the same term.
Sophy rebelled for a little while, but in vain. In thinking of the eighteen long and dreary months her husband would be away, she had counted upon having the consolation of her child's companionship. But no other scheme presented itself; and she felt the sacrifice must be made for David's sake. A suitable school was found for Charlie; and he was placed in it a day or two before she had to journey down to Southampton with her husband. No soul on deck that day was more sorrowful than hers. David's hollow cheeks, and thin, stooping frame, and the feeble hand that clasped hers till the last moment, made the hope of ever seeing him again seem a mad folly. Her sick heart refused to be comforted. He was sanguine, and spoke almost gayly of his return; but she was filled with anguish. A strong persuasion seized upon her that she should see his face no more; and when the bitter moment of parting was over, she travelled back alone, heart-stricken and crushed in spirit, to her new home under Mrs. Bolton's roof.
Bolton Villa was not more than a stone's throw from the rectory and the church. Sophy could hear the same shrieks of the martins wheeling about the tower, and the same wintry chant of the robins amid the ivy creeping up it. The familiar striking of the church clock and the chime of the bells rang alike through the windows of both houses. But there was no sound of her husband's voice and no merry shout of Charlie's, and the difference was appalling to her. She could not endure it.
Mrs. Bolton was exceedingly proud of her villa. It had been bought expressly to please her by the late archdeacon, and altered under her own superintendence. Her tastes and wishes had been studied throughout. The interior was something like a diary of her life. The broad oak staircase was decorated with flags and banners from all the countries she had travelled through; souvenirs labelled with the names of every town she had visited, and the date of that event, lay scattered about. The entrance-hall, darkened by the heavy banners on the staircase, was a museum of curiosities collected by herself. The corners and niches were filled with plaster casts of famous statuary, which were supposed to look as fine as their marble originals in the gloom surrounding them. Every room was crowded with ornaments and knick-knacks, all of which had some association with herself. Even those apartments not seen by guests were no less encumbered with mementoes that had been discarded from time to time in favor of newer treasures. Mrs. Bolton never dared to change her servants, and it cannot be wondered at, that while offering a home to her nephew's wife, she could not extend her invitation to a mischievous boy of seven.
But however interesting Bolton Villa might be to its mistress, it was not altogether a home favorable for the recovery of a bowed-down spirit, though Mrs. Bolton could not understand why Sophy, surrounded with so many blessings and with so much to be thankful for, should fall into a low, nervous fever shortly after she had parted with her husband and child. The house was quiet, fearfully quiet to Sophy. There was a depressing hush about it altogether different from the cheerful tranquillity of her own home. Very few visitors broke through its monotony, for Mrs. Bolton's social pinnacle was too high above her immediate neighbors for them to climb up to it; whilst those whose station was somewhat on a level with hers lived too faraway, or were too young and frivolous for friendly intercourse. There were formal dinner-parties at stated intervals, and occasionally a neighboring clergyman to be entertained. But these came few and far between, and Sophy Chantrey found herself very much alone amid the banners and souvenirs that banished her boy from the house.
Mrs. Bolton herself was very often away. There was always something to be done in the parish which should by right have been Sophy's work, but her aunt had always discouraged any interference and David had been quite content to keep her to himself, as there was so able a substitute for her in the ordinary duties of a clergyman's wife. She had made but few acquaintances, and it was generally understood that Mrs. Chantrey was quite a cipher. No one ever expected her to become prominent in Upton.
About half-way down the High street of Upton stood a small old-fashioned saddler's shop, the door of which was divided across the middle, so as to form two parts, the upper one always thrown open. Above the doorway, under a low-gabled roof, hung a cracked and mouldering sign-board, bearing the words "Ann Holland, Saddler." All the letters were faded, yet a keen eye might detect that the name "Ann" was more distinct than the others, as if painted at a later date. Within the shop an old journeyman was always to be seen, busy at his trade, and taking no heed of any customer coming in, unless the ringing of a bell on the lower half of the door remained unnoticed, when he would shamble away to call his mistress. In an evening after the twilight had set in, and it was too dark for her own ornamental stitching of the saddlery. Ann Holland was often to be found leaning over the half-door of her shop, and ready to exchange a friendly good-night, or a more lengthy conversation, with her townsfolk as they passed to and fro. She was a rosy, cheery-looking woman, still under fifty, with a pleasant voice and a friendly word for every one, and it was well known that she had refused several offers of marriage, some of them very eligible for a person of her station. There was not one of the townspeople she had not known from their earliest appearance in Upton, and she had the pedigree of all the families, high and low, at her finger-ends. New-comers she could only tolerate until they had lived respectably and paid their debts punctually for a good number of years. She had a kindly love of gossip, a simple real interest in the fortunes of all about her. There was little else for her to think of, for books and newspapers came seldom in her way, and were often far above her comprehension when they did, Upton news that would bring tears to her eyes or a laugh to her lips was the food her mind lived upon. Ann Holland was almost as general a favorite as the rector himself.
It was some months after David Chantrey had gone to Madeira that Ann Holland was lingering late one evening over her door, watching the little street subside into the quietness of night. The wife of one of her best customers was passing by, and stopped to speak to her.
"Have you happened to hear any talk of Mrs. Chantrey?" she asked. Her voice fell into a low and mysterious tone, and she glanced up and down the street lest any one should chance to be within hearing. Ann Holland quickly guessed there was something important to be told, and she opened the half door to her neighbor.
"Come in, Mrs. Brown," she said; "Richard's not at home yet."
She led the way into the room behind the shop, as pleasant a place as any in all Upton, except for the scent of the leather, which she had grown so used to that its absence would have seemed a loss. It was a kitchen spotlessly clean, with an old-fashioned polished dresser and shelves above it filled with pewter plates and dishes, upon which every gleam of firelight twinkled. A tall mahogany clock, with its head against the ceiling, and the round, good-humored face of a full moon beaming above its dial-plate, stood in one corner; while in the opposite one there was a corner cupboard with glass doors, filled with antique china cups and tea-pots, and a Chinese mandarin that never ceased to roll its head to and fro helplessly. Bean-pots of flowers, as Ann Holland called them, covered the broad window-sill; and a screen, adorned with fragments of old ballads, and with newspaper announcements of births, deaths, and marriages among Upton people, was drawn across the outer door, which opened into a little garden at the back of the house. There was a miniature parlor behind the kitchen, filled with furniture worked in tent stitch by Ann Holland's mother, and carefully covered with white dimity; but it was only entered on most important occasions. Even Mr. Chantrey had never yet been invited into it; for any event short of a solemn crisis the kitchen was considered good enough.
"You haven't heard anything of Mrs, Chantrey, then?" repeated Mrs. Brown, still in low and important tones, as she seated herself in a three-cornered chair, a seat of honor rather than of ease, as one could not get a comfortable position without sitting sideways.
"No, nothing," answered. Ann Holland; "nothing bad about Mr. Chantrey, I hope. Have they had any bad news of him?"
Mrs. Brown was first cousin to Mrs. Bolton's butler, and was naturally regarded as an oracle with regard to all that went on at Bolton Villa.
"Oh no, he's all right: not him, but her," she answered, almost in a whisper; "I can't say for certain it's true, for Cousin James purses up his mouth ever so when it's spoken, of; but cook swears to it, and he doesn't deny it, you know. I shouldn't like it to go any farther; but I can depend on yon, Miss Holland. A trusted woman like you must be choked up with secrets, I'm sure. I often and often say, Ann Holland knows some things, and could tell them, too, if she'd only open her lips."
"You're right, Mrs. Brown," said Ann Holland, with a gratified smile; "you may trust me with any secret."
"Well, then, they say," continued Mrs, Brown, "that Mrs. Chantrey takes more than is good for her. She's getting fond of it, you know; anything that'll excite her; and ladies, can get all sorts of things, worse for them a dozen times than what poor folks take. They say she doesn't know what she's saying often."
"Dear, dear!" cried Ann Holland, in a sorrowful voice; "it can't be true, and Mr. Chantrey away! She's such a sweet pleasant-spoken young lady; I could never think it of her. He brought her here the very first week after they came to Upton, and she sat in that very chair you're set on, Mrs. Brown, and I thought her the prettiest picture I'd seen for many a year; and so did he, I'm sure. It can't be true, and him such a good man, and such a preacher as he is, with all the gentry round coming in their carnages to church."
"Well, it mayn't be true," answered Mrs. Brown, slowly, as if the arguments used by Ann Holland were almost weighty enough to outbalance the cook's evidence; "I hope it isn't true, I'm sure. But they say at Bolton Villa it's a awful lonely life she do lead without Master Charlie, and Mrs. Bolton away so much. It 'ud give me the horrors, I know, to live in that house with all those white plaster men and women as big as life, standing everywhere about staring at you with blind eyes. I should want something to keep up my spirits. But I'm sure nobody could be sorrier than me if it turned out to be true."
"Sorry!" exclaimed Ann Holland, "why, I'd cut my right hand off to prevent it being true. No words can tell how good Mr. Chantrey's been to me. Everybody knows what my poor brother is, and how he'll drink and drink for weeks together. Well, Mr. Chantrey's turned in here of an evening, and if Richard was away at the Upton Arms, he's gone after him into the very bar-room itself, and brought him home, just guiding him and handling him like a baby, poor fellow! Often and often he's promised to take the pledge with Richard, but he never could get him to say Yes. No, no! I'd go through fire and water before that should be true."
"Nobody could be sorrier than me," persisted Mrs. Brown, somewhat offended at Ann Holland's vehemence; "I've only told you hearsay, but it comes direct from the cook, and Cousin James only pursed up his mouth. I don't say it's true or it's not true, but nobody in Upton could be sorrier than me if my words come correct. It can't be hidden under a bushel very long, Miss Holland; but I hope as much as you do that it isn't true."
Yet there was an undertone of conviction in Mrs. Brown's manner of speaking that grieved Ann Holland sorely. She accompanied her departing guest to the door, and long after she was out of sight stood looking vacantly down the darkened street. There was little light or sound there now, except in the Upton Arms, where the windows glistened brightly, and the merry tinkling of a violin sounded through the open door. Her brother was there, she knew, and would not be home before midnight. He had been less manageable since Mr. Chantrey went away.
She could not bear to think of Mrs. Chantrey falling into the same sin. The delicate, pretty, refined young lady degrading herself to the level of the poor drunken wretch she called her brother! Ann Holland could not and would not believe it; it seemed too monstrous a scandal to deserve a moment's anxiety. Yet when she went back into her lonely kitchen, her eyes were dim with tears, partly for her brother and partly for Sophy Chantrey.
WHAT WAS HER DUTY?
Ann Holland was a great favorite with Mrs, Bolton. The elderly, old-fashioned woman held firmly to all old-fashioned ways; knew her duty to God and her duty to her neighbor, as taught by the Church Catechism, and faithfully fulfilled them to the best of her power. She ordered herself lowly and reverently to all her betters, especially to the widow of an archdeacon. No new-fangled, radical notions, such as her drunken brother picked up, could find any encouragement from her. Mrs. Bolton always enjoyed an interview with her, so marked was her deference. She had occasionally condescended to visit Ann Holland in her kitchen, and sit on the projecting angle of the three-cornered chair, a favor duly appreciated by her delighted hostess. Mr. Chantrey ran in often, as he was passing by, partly because he felt a real friendship, for the true-hearted, struggling old maid, and partly to see after her good-for-nothing brother. As Ann Holland had said herself, she was ready to go through fire and water for the sake of these friends and patrons of hers, whose kindness was the brightest element in her life.
After much tearful deliberation, she received upon the daring step of going to Bolton Villa, on an errand to Mrs. Bolton, with a vague hope that she might discover how false this cruel scandal was. There was a bridle of Mrs. Bolton's in the shop, which had been sent for a new curb, and she would take it home herself. Early the next afternoon, therefore. she clad herself in her best Sunday clothes, and made her way slowly along the streets toward the church. It was but slowly for she rarely went out on a week day, when her neighbors' shops were open; and there were too many attractions in the windows for even her anxiety and consciousness of a solemn mission to resist altogether.
The church and the rectory looked so peaceful amid the trees, just tinged with the hues of autumn, that Ann Holland's spirits insensibly revived. There was little sign of life about the rectory, for no one was living in it at present but Mr. Warden, the clergyman who had taken Mr. Chantrey's duty. Ann Holland opened the church-yard gate and strolled pensively up among the graves to the porch, that she might rest a little and ponder over what she should say to Mrs. Bolton. There was not a grave there that she did not know; those lying under many of the grassy sods were as familiar to her as the men and women now in full life in the neighboring town. Just within sight, near the vestry window was a little mound covered with flowers, where she had seen a little child of David and Sophy Chantrey's laid to rest. A narrow path was worn up to it; more bare and trodden than before Mr. Chantrey had gone away. Ann Holland knew as well as if she had seen her, that the poor solitary mother had worn the grass away.
The church door was open; for Mr. Warden had chosen to make the vestry his study, and had intimated to all the parish that there he might generally be found if any one among them wished to see him in any difficulty or sorrow. Though this was well known, no one of Mr. Chantrey's parishioners had gone to him for counsel; for he was a grave, stern, silent man, whose opinion it was difficult to guess at and impossible to fathom. He was unmarried, and kept no servant, except the housekeeper who had been left in charge of the rectory. All society he avoided, especially that of women. His abruptness and shyness in their presence was painful both to himself and them. To Mrs. Bolton, however, he was studiously civil, and to Sophy, his friend's wife, he would gladly have shown kindness and sympathy, if he had only known how. He often watched her tracing the narrow footworn track to her baby's grave, and he longed to speak some friendly words of comfort to her, but none came to his mind when they encountered each other. No one in Upton, except Ann Holland, had seen, as he had, how thin and wan her face grew; nor had any one noticed as soon as he had done the strangeness of her manner at times, the unsteadiness of her step, and the flush upon her face, as she now and then passed to and fro under the yew-trees. But he had never had the courage to speak to her at such moments; and there was only a mournful suspicion and dread in his heart, which he did his best to hide from himself.
This afternoon Mrs. Bolton had sought him in the vestry, where he had been silently brooding over his parish and its sins and sorrows, in the dim, green light shining through the lattice window, which was thickly overgrown with ivy. Mrs. Bolton was a handsome woman still, always handsomely dressed, as became a wealthy archdeacon's widow. Her presence seemed to fill up the little vestry; and as she occupied his old, high-backed chair, Mr. Warden stood opposite to her, looking down painfully and shyly at the floor on which he stood, rather than at the distinguished personage who was visiting him.
"I come to you," she said, in a decisive, emphatic voice, "as a clergyman, as well as my nephew's confidential friend. What I say to you must go no farther than ourselves. We have no confessional in our church, thank Heaven! but that which is confided to a clergyman, even to a curate, ought to be as sacred as a confession."
"Certainly," answered Mr. Warden, with painful abruptness.
"Sacred as a confession!" repeated Mrs. Bolton. "I must tell you, then, that I am in the greatest trouble about my nephew's wife. You know how ill she was last winter, after he went away. A low, nervous fever, which hung over her for months. She would not listen to my telling David about it, and, indeed, I was reluctant to distress and disturb him about a matter that he could not help. But she is very strange now; very strange and flighty. Possibly you may have observed some change in her?"
"Yes," he replied, still looking down on the floor, but seeing a vision of Sophy pacing the beaten track to the little grave under the vestry window.
"When she was at the worst," pursued Mrs. Bolton, "and I had the best advice in London for her, she was ordered to take the best wine we could get. I told Brown to bring out for her use some very choice port, purchased by the archdeacon years ago. She must have perished without it; but unfortunately—I speak to you as her pastor, in confidence—she has grown fond of it."
"Fond of it?" repeated Mr. Warden.
"Yes," she answered, emphatically; "I leave the cellar entirely in Brown's charge; a very trusty servant; and I find that Mrs. Chantrey has lately been in the habit of getting a great deal too much from him. But she will take anything she can get that will either stupefy or excite her. She never writes to David until her spirits are raised by stimulants of one kind or another. It is a temptation I cannot understand. I take a proper quantity, just as when the archdeacon was alive, and I never think of exceeding that. I need no more, and I desire no more. But Mrs. Chantrey grows quite excited, almost violent at times. It makes me more anxious than words can express."
There was a long pause, Mr. Warden neither lifting his head nor opening his mouth. His pale face flushed a little, and his lips quivered. David Chantrey was his dearest friend, and an almost intolerable sense of shame and dread kept him silent. His wife, of whom he always spoke so tenderly in all his letters to him! The very spot where he was listening to this charge against her, David's vestry, seemed to deepen the shame of it, and the unutterable sorrow, if it should be true.
"What would you counsel me to do?" asked Mrs. Bolton, after a time. "Must I write to my nephew and tell him?"
"Do!" he cried, with sudden eagerness and emphasis; "do! Take the temptation out of her way at once. Let everything of the kind be removed from the house. Let no one touch it, or mention it in her presence. Guard her as you would guard a child from taking deadly poison."
"Impossible!" exclaimed Mrs. Bolton. "Have no wine in my house? You forget my station and its duties, Mr. Warden, I must give dinner parties occasionally; I must allow beer to my servants. It is absurd. Nobody could expect me to take such a step as that."
"Listen to me," he said, earnestly, and with an authority quite at variance with his ordinary shyness. "I do not venture to hope for any other remedy. I have known men, ay, and women, who have not dared to pass close by the doors of a tavern for fear lest they should catch but the smell of it, and become brutes again in spite of themselves. Others have not dared even to think of it. If Mrs. Chantrey be falling into this sin, there is no other course for you to pursue than to banish it from your table, and, if possible, from your house. It is better for her to die, if needs be, than to live a drunkard."
"A drunkard!" echoed Mrs. Bolton. "I am sure I never used such a word about Sophy. I cannot believe it possible that my nephew's wife, a clergyman's wife, could become a drunkard, like a woman of the lowest classes! And I cannot understand how you, a clergyman, could seriously propose so extraordinary a step. Why, there is no danger to me; nobody could ever suspect me of being fond of wine. I have taken it in moderation all my life, and I cannot believe it is my duty to give it up altogether at my age."
"Very possibly it has never been your duty before," answered Mr. Warden, "and now I urge it, not for your own sake, but for hers. She has fallen into the snare blindfolded, and you can extricate her, though at some cost to yourself. I feel persuaded you can induce her to abstain, if you will do so yourself. You call yourself a Christian—"
"I should think there can be no doubt about that," she interrupted, indignantly; "the archdeacon never expressed any doubt about it, and surely I may depend upon his judgment."
"Forgive me," said Mr. Warden. "I ought to have said you are a Christian, and a Christian is one who follows his Lord's example."
"Who drank wine himself, and blessed it," interposed Mrs. Bolton, in a tone of triumph.
"The great law of whose life was self-sacrifice," he pursued. "If one of his brethren or sisters had been a drunkard, can you think of him filling up his own cup with wine and drinking it, as they sat side by side at the same table?"
"I should be shocked at imagining anything so presumptuous, not to call it blasphemous," she said. "We can only go by the plain words of Scripture, which tell us that He turned water into wine, and that He drank wine Himself. I am not afraid of going by the plain words of Scripture."
"But we have only fragments of His history," replied Mr. Warden, "and only a few verses of His teachings. Would you say that Paul had more of the spirit of self-sacrifice than Christ? Yet he said, 'It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth.' And again, 'If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.' If the servant spoke so, what do you think the Master would have answered if any one had asked Him, 'Lord, what shall I do to save my brother from drunkenness?' It will be a self-denial to you; people will wonder at it, and talk about you; yet I say, if you would truly follow your Lord and Saviour, there is no choice for you. You can save a soul for whom Christ died; and is it possible that you can refuse to do it?"
"I thought," said Mrs. Bolton, "that you would expostulate with her, and warn her as her pastor; and I cannot but believe that, now I have made it known to you, you are responsible for her—at least more responsible than I am. You must use your influence with her; and if she is deaf to reason, we have done all we could."
"I cannot accept the responsibility," he answered, in a tone of pain. "If she were dwelling under my roof, it would be mine; but I cannot take your share of it. As your pastor, I place your duty before you, and you cannot neglect it without peril. As a snare to her soul it has become an accursed thing in your household; and I warn you of it most earnestly, beseeching you to hear in time to save yourself, and her, and David from misery!"
"Mr. Warden," exclaimed Mrs. Bolton, "I am astonished at your fanaticism!"
She had risen from her chair, and was about to sail out of the vestry with an air of outraged dignity, when Mr. Warden said, in a low tone, and with a heavy sigh, "See, there she is!"
Mrs. Bolton paused and turned toward the window, which overlooked the little grave of her nephew's child, who had been very dear to herself. Sophy had just sunk down beside it. There was a slight strangeness and disorder about her appearance, which no stranger might have noticed, but which could not fail to strike both of them. She looked dejected and unhappy, and hid her face in her hands, as though she felt their gaze upon her. The clergyman laid his hand upon Mrs. Bolton's arm with an unconscious pressure, and looked earnestly into her clouded face.
"Look!" he said. "In Christ's name, I implore you to save her."
"I will do what I can," she answered impatiently, "but I cannot take your way to do it; it is irrational."
"There is no other way," he said mournfully, "and I warn you of it."
A BABY'S GRAVE
Sophy Chantrey had strayed absently down to the churchyard in one of those fits of restlessness and nervous despondency which made it impossible to her to remain in the overcrowded rooms of Bolton Villa or in the trim flower-garden surrounding it. There was a continual vague sense of misery in her lot, which she had not strength enough to cast off; but at this moment she was not consciously mourning either for her lost little one or for the absence of her husband and boy. The sharpness and bitterness of her trouble were dulled, and her brain was confused. Even this was a relief from the heavy-heartedness that oppressed her at other times, and she felt a comparative comfort in sitting half-asleep by her child's grave, dreaming confusedly of happier days. She started almost fretfully when Ann Holland's voice broke in upon her drowsy languor.
"Begging your pardon, Mrs. Chantrey," she said, "but I thought I might make bold to ask what news you've had from Mr. Chantrey in Madeira?"
"David!" she answered absently; "David! Oh yes, I see. You are Miss Holland, and he was always fond of you. Do you remember him bringing me to see you just after our marriage? He is getting quite well very fast, thank you. It is only eight months now till he comes home; but that is a long time."
The tears had gathered in her blue eyes, and fell one after another down her cheeks as she looked up pitifully into Ann Holland's kindly face.
"Ah! it is a long time, my dear," she replied, sitting down beside her, though she had some dread of the damp grass; "but we must all of us have patience, you know, and hope on, hope ever. Dear, dear! to think how overjoyed he'll be, and how happy all the folks in Upton will be, when he comes back! It was hard to part with him; but when we see him again, strong and hearty, all that'll be forgot."
"Oh, I've missed him so!" cried Sophy, with a burst of tears; "I've been so solitary without him or Charlie. You cannot think what it is. Sometimes I feel as if they were both dead, and I was doomed to live here without them for ever and ever. Everything seems ended. It is a dreadful feeling."
"And then, dear love," said Ann Holland, in her quietest tones, "I know you just fall down on your knees, and tell God all about it. That's how I do when my poor brother behaves so bad, taking every penny, and pawning or selling all he can lay hands on, to spend in drink. But you know better than me, with all your learning, and music, and painting, and pretty manners, let alone being a clergyman's wife; and when you are that lonesome and sorrowful, you kneel down and tell God all about it."
"No, no," sobbed Sophy, hiding her face again in her hands; "I am so miserable—too miserable to be good, as I used to be when David was at home."
The almost pleasant drowsiness was over now, and a swift tide of thought and memory swept through her brain. The gulf on whose verge she stood seemed to open before her, and she looked down into it shudderingly. She could recollect the temptation assailing her once before, when her baby died; but then her husband was beside her, and his presence had saved her, though not even he had guessed at her danger. What could save her now, alone, with a perpetual weariness of spirit, and a feeling of physical weakness amounting to positive pain? Yet if she went but a few steps forward, she would sink into the gloomy depths, which for the moment her quickened conscience could so clearly perceive. If David could but be at home now! If she could but have her little son to occupy her time and thoughts!
"Dear, dear!" said Ann Holland's low and tender voice; "nobody's too miserable for God not to love them. Why, a poor thing like me can love my brother when he's as bad as bad can be with drink. I could do anything for him out of pity; and it's hard to think less of Him that made us. Sure He knows how difficult it is to be good when we are miserable; and we can't tire Him out. He'll help us out of our misery if we keep stretching out our hands to Him. Nobody knows but Him what we've all got to go through. It's because you're lonesome, and fretting after old days. But they'll come back again, dear love and we'll all be as happy as happy can be. I know how you miss Mr. Chantrey, for I miss him badly, and what must it be for you?"
Sophy lifted up her face, wet with tears, yet with a smile breaking through them. Ann Holland's simple words of comfort and hope had gone direct to her heart, and it seemed possible for her to wait patiently now until David came home.
"You've done me good," she said, "and I shall tell David next time I write to him."
"Dear, dear!" said Ann Holland, with a tone of surprise and pleasure in her voice, "couldn't I do something better for you? Couldn't I just go over to Master Charlie's school, and take him a cake and a little whip out of the shop? It would do me good, worlds of good; and he'd be glad, poor little fellow! Mr. Chantrey's so good to my poor brother; he'd save him from drink if he'd be saved, I know. I'd do anything for your sake or Mr. Chantrey's. But there's Mrs. Bolton coming out of the church, and I've a little business with her; so I'll say good-day to you now, Mrs. Chantrey."
If at this point of her life Sophy Chantrey could have been removed from the daily temptations which beset her, most probably she would not have fallen lower into the degrading sin, which was quickly becoming a habit. Until her husband's enforced absence, she had been so carefully hedged in by the numberless small barriers of a girl's sphere, so guided and managed for by those about her, that it had been hardly possible for any sore temptation to come near her. But now suddenly cut adrift from her quiet moorings, she found herself powerless to keep out of the rapid current which must plunge her into deep misery and vice. There had not been a doubt in her mind that she was not a real Christian, for she had freely given a sentimental faith to the Christian dogmas propounded to her by persons whom she held to be wiser and better than herself. In the same manner she had taken the customs and usages of modern life, always feeling satisfied to do what others of her own class and rank did. Even now, though she was conscious that there was some danger for herself, she could not realize the half of the peril in which she stood. After Ann Holland left her she lingered still beside the little grave in a tranquil but somewhat purposeless reverie. There could be no harm, she thought, in taking just enough to deliver her from her very worst moments of depression, or when she had to write cheerfully to her husband. That was a duty, and she must keep a stricter guard over herself than she had done lately. She would take exactly what her aunt Bolton drank, and then she could not go wrong. With this resolution she gathered a flower from the little grave beside her, and, turning away, hastened out of the churchyard.
Mr. Warden had scarcely glanced through the vestry window since Mrs. Bolton had gone away in anger, but he was well aware of Sophy's lingering beside the grave. He felt crushed and unhappy. His friend Chantrey had solemnly committed the parish to his care, and he to the utmost of his power had strenuously fulfilled his duties. But what was he to do with this new case? Except under strong excitement his constitutional shyness kept him dumb, and how was he to venture to expostulate with his friend's wife upon such a subject? It seemed to be his duty to do something to prevent this lonely and sorrowful girl from drifting into a commonplace and degrading phase of sin. But how was he to begin? How could he even hint at such a suspicion? Besides, he could do nothing to remove her out of temptation. So long as Mrs. Bolton persisted in her angry refusal to follow his advice, she must be exposed daily to indulge an appetite which she had not the firmness to resist.
Perhaps no two persons, outside that nearest circle of kinship which surrounds us all, ever suffered more grief and anxiety in witnessing the slow but sure downfall of a fellow-being, than did Mr. Warden and Ann Holland while watching the gradual working of the curse that was destroying David Chantrey's wife.
It was a miserable time for Mr. Warden. Now and then he accepted Mrs. Bolton's formal invitations to dine with her, and those few acquaintances who were considered worthy to visit at Bolton Villa. On the first occasion he had gone with a faint hope that she had thought over his advice, and resolved to act upon it. But there had been no such result of his solemn warning, which had been so painful to him to deliver. He abstained from taking wine himself, as he believed Christ would have done for the sake of any one so tempted to sin; but his example had no weight. There was a pleasant jest or two at his asceticism, and that was all, Sophy Chantrey took wine as the others did; and, in spite of her resolution, more than the others did; whilst Mrs. Bolton raised her eyebrows, and drew down the corners of her lips, with an air of rebuke. No one knew the meaning of that look except Mr. Warden. The other guests were only entertained by Mrs. Chantrey's fine flow of merry humor, and remarked how well she bore her husband's absence.
"You saw her, Mr. Warden?" said Mrs. Bolton to him, in a low voice, when they reassembled in the drawing-room.
"Yes," he answered, sorrowfully.
"You saw how I looked at her as much as to warn her," pursued Mrs. Bolton. "I am sure she understood me, yet she allowed Brown to fill her glass again and again. What could I do more? I have spoken to her in private; I could not speak to her before our friends."
"I have told you before," he answered, "there is only one thing you can do, and you refuse to do it."
"It would be ridiculous to do it," she said, sharply. "I am not going to make myself a laughing-stock to all the world; and I cannot shut her up in her room, and send her meals to her like a naughty child. You ought to remonstrate with her."
"I will," he replied, "but it will be of little use, so long as the temptation is there. Have you seriously and prayerfully thought of your own duty as a Christian, in this case? Are you quite sure you are acting as Christ himself would have done?"
"None of us can act as He would have, done," she answered, moving from away him. Yet her conscience was uneasy. There was, of a truth, no doubt in her mind as to what the Lord would have done. Yet she could not break through the habits of a lifetime; no, not even to save the wife of her favorite nephew. She did not like to give up the hospitable custom. Her wines were good, bought from the archdeacon's own wine-merchant, and she enjoyed them herself, and liked to hear her guests praise them. No question as to the lawfulness of such an enjoyment had ever arisen before now; but now it troubled her secretly, though she was resolved not to give way. If Sophy Chantrey could not keep within proper limits, it was no fault of hers, and no one could blame her for preserving a harmless custom.
It was not long before Mr. Warden found an opportunity of speaking to Sophy, though it was an agony to him to do it. A few words only were spoken before she knew what he meant to say, and she interrupted him passionately.
"Oh! if David was but here!" she cried, "I could keep right then. But I cannot bear it; indeed, I cannot bear it. The house is so dreary, and there is nothing for me to think of; and then I begin to go down, down into such a misery you do not know anything of. I think I should go mad without it; and after I have taken it, I feel mad with shame. Aunt Bolton has told me what she said to you; and I can hardly bear to look either of you in the face. What shall I do?"
"You must break yourself of the habit," he said pitifully; "God will help you, if you only keep Him in your thoughts. Promise me you will neither taste it, nor look at it again, and I will take the same solemn pledge with you now, before God."
"It would be of no use," she answered, in a hopeless tone, "the instant I see it, I long for it; and I cannot resist the longing. I've vowed on my knees not to take any for a day only; and the moment I have sat down to dinner, I could hardly bear to wait till Brown comes around. If I wake in the night—and I wake so often!—I think of it the first thing. If I could get right away from it, perhaps there might be a chance; but how can I get away?"
"Have you ever thought of what it must lead to?" he asked, wondering at the power the terrible sin had already gained over her.
"Thought!" she cried, "I think of it constantly. David will hate me when he comes home, if I cannot conquer it before then. But what am I to do? I cannot write to him unless I take it. No; I cannot even pray to God, when I am so utterly miserable. It would be better for me to be some poor man's wife, and drudge for my husband and children, than to have nothing to do, and be so much alone. There must be some way of escaping from it; but I cannot find it."
This way of escape—how could he find it for her? It was a question that occupied his thoughts day and night. There was one way, but Mrs. Bolton firmly persisted in closing it, and no other seemed open to her. He could not make known this difficulty to his friend, David Chantrey; for it would be a death-blow to him literally. He would hasten home from Madeira, at the very worst season of the year, as it was now late in October, The risk for him would be too great. There was no other home open to Sophy; and it did not seem possible to make any change in the conditions of that home. She must still be lonely and miserable, and still be exposed to daily temptations. All he could do was so little, that he did it without hope in the results.
If possible, Ann Holland was yet more troubled than he was. By and by it became common town's-talk, and many a neighbor visited her with the purpose of gossiping about poor Mrs, Chantrey. But they found her averse to dwell upon the subject, as if gossip had suddenly grown distasteful to her. Many an hour when she was waiting for her drunken brother to come in from the Upton Arms, she pondered over what she could do to save the wife of her beloved Mr. Chantrey. She knew better than Mr. Warden, who had never been in close domestic contact with the sin, how terrible and repulsive was the degradation of it; and she was heart-sick for Sophy and her husband.
"There's one thing I've done," she said one day to Mrs. Bolton, speaking to her of her brother's drunkenness; "he's never seen me drink a drop of it since he came home drunk the first time. I hate the very sight of it, or to hear people talk of the good it's done them! Why, if it did me worlds of good, and made my poor Richard the miserable wretch he is, I couldn't touch it. And he knows it; he knows I do it for his sake, and maybe he'll turn some day. But if he doesn't turn, I couldn't touch what is ruining him."
"That's very well in your station, Ann," answered Mrs. Bolton, "but it is quite different with us. We owe a duty to society, which must be discharged."
"Very likely, ma'am," she replied meekly; "it's my feelings I was speaking of, not exactly my duty. I hate the name of it; and to think of the thousands and thousands of folks it ruins! When you've seen anybody belonging to you ruined by it you'll hate it, I know. But pray God that may never be!"
"Ann," said Mrs. Bolton, cautiously, "do you suppose any one belonging to me could ever drink more than is right?"
"It's the town's-talk," answered Ann Holland, bursting into tears; "everybody knows it. Oh! Mrs. Bolton, if you can do anything to help her, now is the time to do it. It will get too hard to be rooted up by and by. I know that by my poor brother. He'll never leave it off till he's on his deathbed and can't get it. James Brown, your butler, ma'am, is always talking to him, and exciting him about what he's got charge of in your cellars; and they sit here talking about it for an hour at a time, till they go off to the Upton Arms. I hate the very sound of it."
"But I must have cellars, and I must have a butler," said Mrs. Bolton, somewhat angrily. She was fond of Ann Holland, and liked the reverence she had always paid to her. But this ridiculous notion of Mr. Warden's seemed to have taken possession of the poor, uneducated woman's brain, and threatened to undermine her influence over her. She cut short her visit to her at this point, and returned home uncomfortable and disturbed, wishing she had never offered the shelter of her roof to her nephew's unhappy and weak-minded wife.
Presently, as the dreary winter wore away, Mr. Warden began to shun the sight of Sophy Chantrey. All his efforts to save her, or even to check her rapid downfall, had proved vain; and he turned from her sin with a resentment tinged with disgust. But Ann Holland could feel no resentment or disgust. If it had been in her power she would have watched over her and cared for her night and day with unwearied tenderness. As far as she could she sought to keep alive within her all kinds of softening and pleasant influences. She went often to see Charlie at school, sometimes persuading Sophy to go with her, though more often the unhappy mother shrank from meeting her little son's innocent greetings and caresses. The terrible fits of depression which followed every indulgence of her craving frequently unfitted her for any exertion. She clung to Ann Holland's faithful friendship; but it was not near enough or strong enough to keep her from yielding when she was tempted.
But Sophy Chantrey had not yet fallen to the lowest depths—perhaps never would fall. Her husband's return would save her. Ann Holland looked forward to it as the only hope.
THE RECTOR'S RETURN
David Chantrey's term of exile was over, and the spring had brought release to him. He was returning to England in stronger health and vigor than he had enjoyed for some years before his absence. It seemed to himself that he had completely regained the strength that had been his as a young man. He was a young man yet, he told himself—not six and thirty, with long years of happy work lying before him. The last eighteen months had been weary ones, though he could not count them as lost time, since they had restored him to health. The voyage home was a succession of almost perfectly happy days, as he dwelt beforehand upon the joy that awaited him. He had a packet of letters, those which had reached him from home during his absence; and he read them through once more in the long leisure hours of the voyage. Those from his friend Warden and his aunt which bore a recent date had certainly a rather unsatisfactory tone; but all of Sophy's had been brighter and more cheerful than he had anticipated. Every one of them longed for his return, that was evident. Even Warden, who did not know where his fate would take him to next, expressed an almost extravagant anxiety for his speedy presence in his own parish.
He loved his parish and his people with a peculiar pride and affection. It was twelve years since he had gone to Upton—a young man just in orders, and in the full glow of a fresh enthusiasm as to his duties. He believed no office to be equal to that of a minister of Christ. And though this glow had somewhat passed away, the enthusiasm had deepened rather than faded with the lapse of years, His long illness and exclusion from his office had imparted to it a graver tone. In former days, perhaps, he had been too much set upon the outer ceremonials of religion. He had been proud of his church and the overflowing congregation which assembled in it week after week testifying to his popularity. To pass along the streets of his little town, and receive everywhere the tokens of respect that greeted him, had been exceedingly pleasant. He had bent himself to win golden opinions, after quoting the words of Paul, "I am made all things to all men, that by all means I might save some." And he had succeeded in gaining the esteem of almost every class of his parishioners.
But during the long and lonely months of absence he had learned to love his people after a different fashion. There were some pleasant vices in his parish to which he had shut his eyes; some respectable delinquents with whom he had been on friendly terms, without using his privilege as a friend to point out their misdeeds. There was not a high tone of morality in his parish. Possibly he had been too anxious to please his people. He was going back to them with a deeper and stronger glow of enthusiasm concerning his duties and work among them; but with a graver sense of his own weakness, and a more humble knowledge of the Divine Father for whom he was an ambassador.
His vessel reached Southampton the day before its arrival could have been expected, and neither Sophy nor his friend Warden was there to welcome him. But this was an additional pleasure; he would take them all by surprise in the midst of their preparations for his return. Warden had warned him that there would be quite a public reception of him, with a great concourse of his parishioners, and every demonstration of rejoicing. It was in his nature to enjoy this; but still he would like a few quiet hours with Sophy first, and these he could secure by hastening home by the first train. He would reach Upton early in the evening.
It was an hour of intense happiness, and he felt it to his inmost soul. All the route was familiar to him after he had started from London; the streets and suburbs rushing past him swiftly, and the meadows, in the bright green and gold of spring, which followed them. He knew the populous villages, with their churches, where he was himself well known. Every station seemed almost like a home to him. As he drew nearer to Upton he leaned through, the window to catch the first glimpse of his own church, and the blue smoke rising from his own house; and a minute or two afterward, with a gladness that was half a pain, he found himself once more on the platform at Upton station.
"I am back again," he said, shaking hands with the station-master with a hearty grasp that spoke something of his gladness. "Is all going on well among you?"
"Yes, Mr. Chantrey; yes, sir," he answered. "You're welcome home, sir. God bless you! You've been missed more than any of us thought of when you went away. You're needed here, sir, more than you think of."
"Nothing has gone very wrong, I hope," said the rector, smiling. He had faithfully done his best to provide a good substitute in "Warden, but it was not in human nature not to feel pleased that no one could manage his parish as well as himself.
"No, no, sir," replied the station-master, "nothing but what you'll put right again at once by being at home yourself. No, there's nothing very wrong, I may say. Upton meant to give you a welcome home to-morrow, with arches of flowers and music. They'll be disappointed you arrived to-day, I know."
David Chantrey laughed, thinking of the welcome they had given him when he brought Sophy home as his young wife. His heart felt a new tenderness for her, and a throb of impatience to find her. He bade a hasty good-evening to the station-master, and walked off buoyantly toward the High street, along which his path lay. The station-master and the ticket-clerk watched him, and shook their heads significantly; but he was quite unconscious of their scrutiny. Never had the quiet little town seemed so lovely to him. The quaint irregular houses stood one-half of them in shadow, and the rest in the level rays of the May sunset; the chestnut-trees, with their young green leaves and their white blossoms lighting up each branch to the very summit of them; the hawthorn bushes here and there covered with snowy bloom; the children playing, and the swallows darting to and fro overhead; the distant shout of the cuckoo, and the deep low tone of the church clock just striking the hour—this was the threshold of home to him; the outer court, which was dearer to him and more completely his own than any other place in the wide world could ever be.
No one was quick to recognize him in his somewhat foreign aspect; the children at their play took no notice of him. All the tradespeople were busy getting their shops a little in order before the shutters were put up. He might perhaps pass through the street as far as Bolton Villa without being observed, and so be sure of a perfectly quiet evening. But as he thought so his heart gave a great bound, for there before him was Sophy herself hurrying along the uneven causeway, now lost behind some jutting building, and then seen once more, still hastening with quick, unsteady steps, as if bent on some pressing errand. He did not try to overtake her, though he could have done so easily. He felt that their first meeting must not be in the street, for the tears that smarted under his eyelids and dimmed his sight, and the quicker throbbing of his pulses, warned him that such a meeting would be no common incident in their lives. She had been his wife for nine years, and she was far dearer to him now than she had been when he married her. Eighteen months of their life together had been lost—a great price to pay for his restored health. But now a long, happy union lay before them.
He had not followed her for more than a minute or two when she suddenly turned and entered Ann Holland's little shop. Well, he could not take her by surprise better in any other house in Upton. Perhaps it might even be better than at Bolton Villa, amid its cumbrous surroundings; he always thought of his aunt's house with a sort of shudder. If Sophy had fortunately fixed upon this quiet house for paying the good old maid a kindly visit, there was not another place except their own home where he would rather receive her first greeting—that is if the drunken old saddler did not happen to be in. He paused to inquire from the journeyman, still at work in the shop; learning that Richard Holland was not at home, he passed impatiently to the kitchen beyond. Ann Holland was just closing the door of her little parlor, and David Chantrey approached her, hardly able to control the agitation he felt.
"I saw my wife step in here," he said, holding out his hand to her, but attempting to pass her and to open the door before which she still stood. She could not speak for a moment, but she kept her post firmly in opposition to him.
"My wife is here?" he asked, in a sharp impetuous tone.
"Yes; oh yes!" cried Ann Holland; "but wait a moment, Mr. Chantrey. Oh, wait a little while. Don't go in and see her yet."
"Why not?" he asked again, a sudden terror taking hold of him.
"Sit down a minute or two, sir," she answered. "Mrs. Chantrey's ill, just ailing a little. She is not prepared to meet you just yet. You were not expected before to-morrow, and she's excited; she hardly knows what she's saying or doing. You'd better not speak to her or see her till she's recovered herself a little."
"Poor Sophy!" cried David Chantrey, with a tremor in his voice; "did she see me coming, then? Go back to her, Miss Holland; she will want you. Is there nothing I can do for her? It has been a hard time for her, poor girl!"
Ann Holland went back into the parlor, and he smiled as he heard her take the precaution of turning the key in the lock. He threw himself into the three-cornered chair, and sat listening to the murmur of voices on the other side of the door. It seemed a very peaceful home. The quaintness and antiqueness of the homely kitchen chimed in with his present feeling; he wanted no display or grandeur. This was no common every-day world he was in; there was a strange flavor about every circumstance. Impatient as he was to see Sophy, and hold her once more in his arms, he could not but feel a sense of comfort and tranquillity mingling with his more unquiet happiness. There was a fire burning cheerily on the hearth, though it was a May evening. Coming from a warmer climate, he felt chilly, and he bent over the fire, stretching over it his long thin hands, which told plainly their story of mere scholarly work and of health never very vigorous, Smiling all the time, with the glow of the flame on his face, with its expression of tranquil gladness, as of one who had long been buffeted about, but had reached home at last, he sat listening till the voices ceased. A profound silence followed, which lasted some time, before Ann Holland returned to him saying softly, "She is asleep."
WORSE THAN DEAD
Ann Holland sat down on the other side of the hearth, opposite her rector; but she could not lift up her eyes to his face. There was no on in the world whom she loved so well. His forbearance and kindness toward her unfortunate brother, who was the plague and shame of her life, had completely won for him an affection that would have astonished him if he could have known its devotion. This moment would have been one of unalloyed delight to her had there been no trouble lurking for him, of which he was altogether unaware. So rejoiced she was at his return that it seemed as if no event in her monotonous life hitherto had been so happy; yet she was terrified at the very thought of his coming wretchedness. When Sophy had fled to her with the cry that her husband was come, and she dared not meet him as she was, she had seen in an instant that she must prevent it by some means or other. The hope that Mr. Chantrey's return would bring about a reformation in his wife had grown faint in her heart, for during the last few months the sin had taken deeper and deeper root; and now, the day only before she expected him, she had not had strength to resist the temptation to it. Sophy had been crying hysterically, and trembling at the thought of meeting him as she was; and she had made Ann promise to break to him gently the confession she would otherwise be compelled to make herself. Ann Holland sat opposite to him, with downcast eyes, and a face almost heart-broken by the shame and sorrow she foresaw for him.
"She is asleep," he said, repeating her words in a lowered voice, as if he was afraid of disturbing her.
"Yes," she answered.
"It is strange," he said, after a short pause; "strange she can sleep now. Has she been ill? Sophy always assured me she was quite well and strong. It is strange she can sleep when she knows I am here."
"She was very ill and low after you went, sir," she replied; "it was like as if her heart was broken, parting with you and Master Charlie both together. Dear, dear! it might have been better for her if you'd been poor folks, and she'd had to work hard for you both. She'd just nothing to do, and nobody to turn to for comfort, poor thing. Mrs. Bolton meant to be kind, and was kind in her way: but she fell into a low fever, and the doctors all ordered her as much wine and support as ever she could take."
"I never heard of it," said Mr. Chantrey; "they never told me."
"No; they were fearful of your coming back too soon," she went, on; "and, thank God, you are looking quite yourself again, sir. All Upton will be as glad as glad can be, and the old church'll be crammed again. Mr. Warden's done all a man could do; but everybody said he wasn't you and we longed for you back again, but not too soon—no, no, not too soon."
"But my wife," he said; "has she been ill all the time?"
For a minute or two she could not find words to answer his question. She knew that it could not be long before he learned the truth, if not from her or his wife, then from Mrs. Bolton or his friend Mr. Warden. It was too much the common talk of the neighborhood for him to escape hearing of it, even if she could hope that Mrs. Chantrey would have strength of mind enough to cast off the sin at once. Now was the time to break it to him gently, with quiet and friendly hints rather than with hard words. But how was she to do it? How could she best soften the sorrow and disgrace?
"Is my wife ill yet?" he demanded again, in a more agitated voice.
"Not ill now," she answered, "but she's not quite herself yet. You'll help her, sir. You'll know how to treat her kindly and softly, and bring her round again. There's a deal in being mild and patient with folks. You know my poor brother, as fierce as a tiger, and that obstinate, tortures would not move him; but he's like a lamb with you, Mr. Chantrey. I think sometimes if he could live in the same house with you, if he'd been your brother, poor fellow you'd save him; for he'll do anything for you, short of keeping away from drink. You'll bring Mrs. Chantrey round, I'm sure."
Mr. Chantrey smiled again, as the comparison between the drunken old saddler and his own fair, sweet young wife, flitted across his brain. Ann Holland, in her voluble flow of words, hit upon curious combinations. Still she had not removed his anxiety about his wife. "Was Sophy suffering from the effects of the low, nervous fever yet?
"Yes; I'll take care of my wife," he said, glancing toward the parlor door; "it has been a sore trial, this long separation of ours. But it's over now; and she is dearer to me than ever she was."
"Ay! love will do almost everything," she answered, sadly, "and I know you will never get tired or worn out, if it's for years and years. A thing like this doesn't come right all at once; but if it comes right at last, we have cause to be thankful. Mr. Warden has not had full patience; and Mrs. Bolton lost hers too soon. Neither of them knows it as I know it. You can't storm it away; and it's no use raving at it. Only love and patience can do it; and not that always. But we are bound to bear with them, poor things! even to death. We cannot measure God's patience with our measure."
Ann Holland's voice trembled, and her eyes filled with tears, which glistened in the firelight. She could not bear to speak more plainly to her rector, whom she loved and reverenced so greatly. She could not think of him as being brought down on a level with herself, the sister of a known drunkard. It seemed a horrible thing to her; this sorrow hanging over him, of which he was so utterly unconscious. Mr. Chantrey had fastened his eyes upon her as if he would read her inmost thoughts. His voice trembled a little too, when he spoke.
"What has this to do with my wife?" he asked, "for what reason have my aunt and Mr. Warden lost patience with her?"
"Oh! it's best for me to tell you, not them," she said, the tears streaming down her cheeks; "it will be very hard for you to hear, whoever says it. Everybody knows it; and it could never be kept from you. But you can save her, Mr. Chantrey, if anybody can. It's best for me to tell you at once. She was so ill, and low, and miserable; and the doctors kept on ordering her wine, and things like that; and it was the only thing that comforted her, and kept her up; and she got to depend upon it to save her from loneliness and wretchedness, and now she can't break herself of taking it—of taking too much."
"Oh! my God!" cried Mr. Chantrey. It was a cry from the very depths of his spirit, as by a sudden flash he saw the full meaning of Ann Holland's faltered words. Sophy had fled from him, conscious that she was in no fit state to meet him after their long separation. She was sleeping now the heavy sleep of excess. Was it possible that this was true? Could it be anything but a feverish dream that he was sitting there, and Ann Holland was telling him such an utterly incredible story? Sophy, his wife, the mother of his child!
But Ann Holland's tearful face, with its expression of profound grief and pity, was too real for her story to be a dream. He, David Chantrey, the rector of Upton, whom all men looked up to and esteemed, had a wife, who was whispered about among them all as a victim to a vile and degrading sin. A strong shock of revulsion ran through his veins, which had been thrilling with an unquiet happiness all the day. There was an inexplicable, mysterious misery in it. If he had come home to find her dead, he could have borne to look upon her lying in her coffin, knowing that life could never be bright again for him; but he would have held up his head among his fellow-men. It would have been no shame or degradation either for him or her to have laid her in the tranquil churchyard, beside their little child, where he could have seen her grave through his vestry window, and gone from it to his pulpit, facing his congregation, sorrowful but not disgraced. He was just coming back to his people with higher aims, and greater resolves, determined to fight more strenuously against every form of evil among them; and this was the first gigantic sin, which met him on his own threshold and his own hearth.
"She's so young," pleaded Ann Holland, frightened at the ashy hue that had spread over his face, "and she's been so lonesome. Then it was always easy to get it, when she felt low; for Mrs. Bolton's servants rule the house, and there's the best of everything in her cellars. James Brown says he could never refuse Mrs. Chantrey, she was so miserable, poor thing! But now you will take her home; and she'll have you, and Master Charlie. You'll save her, sir, sooner or later; never fear."
"Let me go and see her," he said, in a choking voice.
Ann Holland opened the door so carefully that the latch did not click or the hinges creak; and, shading the light with her hand, she stood beside him for a minute or two, as he looked down upon his sleeping wife. She did not dare to lift her eyes to his face; but she knew that all the light and glow of gladness had fled from it, and a gray look of terror had crept across it. He was a very different man from the one who had been seated on her hearth a short half-hour ago. He bade her leave him alone, and without a light, and she obeyed him, though reluctantly, and with an undefined fear of him in his wretchedness.
It seemed to Mr. Chantrey as if an age had passed over him. As persons who are drowning see in one brief moment all the course of their past lives, with its most trivial circumstances, so he seemed to have looked into his own future, stretching before him in gloom and darkness, and foreseen a thousand miserable results springing from this fatal source. She was his wife, dearer to him than any other object in the world; but after she had repented and reformed, as surely she would repent and reform, she could never be to him again what she had been. There Was a faint gleam of moonlight stealing into the familiar room, and he could just distinguish her form lying on the white-covered sofa. With an overwhelming sense of wretchedness and bewilderment he fell upon his knees beside her, and burying his face in his hands, cried again, "Oh! my God!"
HUSBAND AND WIFE
How long he knelt there, Mr. Chantrey did not know. He felt cramped and stiff, for he did not stir from his first position; and he had uttered no other word of prayer. But at last Sophy moved and turned her head; and he lifted up his face at the sound. The moon was shining full into the room, and they could see one another, but not distinctly, as in daylight. She looked at him in dreamy silence for a few moments, and then she timidly stretched out her hand, and whispered, "David!"
"My wife!" he answered, laying his own cold hand upon hers.
For some few minutes neither of them spoke again. They gazed at one another as though some great gulf had opened between them, and neither of them could cross it. In the dim light they could only see the pallid, outline of each other's face, as though they had met in some strange, sad world. But presently he leaned over her, and kissed her.
"Oh!" she cried, with a sudden loudness that rang through the quiet room, "you know all! You know how wicked I am. But you don't know how lonely and wretched I have been. I tried to break myself of it I did try to keep from it; but it was always there on the table when I sat down to my meals with Aunt Bolton; and I could always find comfort in it. Oh! help me! Don't cast me off; don't hate me. Help me."
"I will help you," he answered, earnestly; but he could say no more. The mere sound of the words she spoke unnerved him.
"And I have made you miserable just as you are coming home!" she went on. "I never meant to do that. But I was so restless, looking forward to to-morrow; and aunt's maid advised me to take a little, for fear I should be quite ill when you came. I should have been all right to-morrow; and I was so resolved never to touch it again, after you had come home. You are come back quite strong, are you? There is no more fear for you? Oh! I will conquer myself; I must conquer myself. If it had not always been in my sight, and the doctors had not ordered it, I should never have been so wicked. Do you forgive me? Do you think God will forgive me?"
"Can you give it up?" he asked.
"Oh! I must, I will give it up," she sobbed; "but if I do, and if you forgive me, it can never be the same again. You will not think the same of me—and people have seen me—they all talk about it—and I shall always be ashamed before them. I am a disgrace to you; Aunt Bolton has said so again and again. Then there's Charlie; I'm not fit to be his mother. That is quite true. However long I live, people in Upton will remember it, and gossip about, it. If they had let me die it would have been better for us all. You could have loved me then."
"But I love you still," he answered, in a voice of tenderness and pity; "you are very dear to me. How can I ever cease to love you?"
Yet as he spoke a terrible thought flashed through his mind that his wife might some day become to him an object of unutterable disgust. An image of a besotted, drunken woman always in his house, and bearing his name, stood out for a moment sharply and distinctly before his imagination. He shuddered, and paused; but almost before she could notice it, he went on in low and solemn tones.
"Your sin does not separate you from me; you are my wife. I must help you and save you at whatever cost. Your soul is nearer to mine than any other; and what one human being can do for the soul of another, it is my lot to do. Do not be afraid of me, Sophy. You cannot estrange yourself from me; and yon cannot wear out the patience of God. He is ever waiting to receive back those who have wandered farthest from him. Can I refuse love and pity, when He freely gives them in full measure to you? Will Christ forsake you—He who saved Mary Magdalen? He will cast out this demon that has possession of you."
He was replying to some of the questions which had troubled him, while he was kneeling at her side, before she was awake. There was no separation possible of their lives. If she broke away from him, or if he sent her away from his home, they would still be bound together by ties that could never be broken. Whatever depth she sank to, she was his wife, and he must tread step by step with her the path that ran through all the future. But if any one could help her, and lead her back out of her present bondage, it was he; and he must not fail her in any extremity for lack of pity and tenderness.
He was about to speak again, when a loud, rough noise broke in upon the quiet of the house. It was nearly midnight; and Ann Holland's drunken brother was stumbling and staggering through his shop into the peaceful little kitchen, Sophy sat up and listened. They could hear his thick, coarse voice shouting out snatches of vulgar songs, mingled with oaths at his sister, who was doing her utmost to persuade him to go quietly to bed. His shambling step, dragging across the floor, seemed about to enter the darkened room where they were sitting; and Sophy caught her husband's arm, clinging to it with fright. It was a more bitter moment for Mr. Chantrey than even for her. The comparison thrust upon him was too terrible. His delicate, tender, beloved wife, and this coarse, brutal, degraded man! Was it possible that both were bound by the chains of the same sin?
But Ann Holland succeeded before long in getting her brother out of the way, and releasing them from their painful imprisonment. The streets of Upton were hushed in utter solitude and silence as they walked through them, speechless and heavy-hearted; those streets which, on the morrow, were to have been crowded with groups of his people, eager to welcome him home. They passed the church, lit up with the moonlight, clear enough to make every grave visible; a lovely light, in which all the dead seemed to be sleeping restfully. He sighed heavily as he passed by. Sophy was clinging to him, sobbing now and then; for her agitation had subsided into a weak dejection, which found no relief but in tears. Every step they trod along the too familiar road brought a fresh pang to him. For thousands of memories of happy days haunted him; and a thousand vague fears dogged him. He dared not open his heart either to the memories or the fears. Nothing was possible to him, except a silent, continuous cry to God for help.
"It is a melancholy coming home," Sophy murmured, as they stood together on the threshold of their aunt's house. He had not time to answer, for the door was opened quickly, and Mrs. Bolton hurried forward to welcome him. She had been expecting him for some time, for Ann Holland had sent word that both he and Mrs. Chantrey were at her house. One glance at his anxious and sorrowful face revealed to her the anguish of the last few hours. Sophy crept away guiltily up stairs; and she put her arm through his, and led him into the dining-room, where a luxurious supper was spread for him.
"You know all about it, then?" said Mrs. Bolton, as he threw himself into a chair by the fireside, looking utterly bowed down and wretched.
"Yes," he answered. "Oh! aunt, could you do nothing for her? Could you not prevent it? It is a miserable thing for a man to come back to."
"I have done all I could," she replied, hesitatingly. "I have been quite wretched about it myself; but what could I do? I told your friend Mr. Warden there was nothing in reason I would refuse to do; but his ideas were so impracticable they could not be carried out."
"What were they?" he asked.
"Positively that I should abstain altogether myself," she said; "and not only that, but I must refuse it to my guests, and have nothing of the kind in my house; not even those choice wines your uncle bought, Neither wine for myself nor ale for my servants! It was quite out of the question, you know. Mr. Warden was meddlesome to the very verge of impertinence about it, until I was compelled to give up inviting him to my house. He went so far as to doubt my being a Christian! And it was of no use telling him I followed our Lord's example more strictly by drinking wine than he did by abstaining from it. He used his influence with Sophy to persuade her to suggest the same thing, that I would keep it altogether out of her sight at all times; but she soon saw how impossible it was for a person of my station and responsibility to do such a thing. I told her it was putting total abstinence above religion."
"Did Sophy think that would save her?" asked Mr. Chantrey.
"She had a fancy it would," answered Mrs. Bolton, "but only because Mr. Warden put it into her head. She was quite reasonable about it, poor girl! I proved to her that our Lord did not do it, nor some of the best Christians that ever lived; and she was quite convinced. Even Ann Holland was troublesome about it, begging me to do all kinds of extraordinary things—to have Charlie here was one of them, as if that could cure her—but I soon made her understand her position and mine. I am sure nobody can be more anxious than I am to do what is right. I am afraid it is the development of an hereditary taste in your wife, David, and nothing will cure it; for I have made many inquiries about her family, and I hear several of her relations were given to excess; so you may depend upon it, it is hereditary and incurable."
There was little comfort for him in this speech, which was delivered in a satisfied and judicial tone. Sophy's sin had been present to Mrs. Bolton for so many months, and she had grown so accustomed to analyze it, and argue about it, that she could not enter into the sudden and direful shock the discovery had been to her nephew. An antagonism had risen in her mind about it, not only against Mr. Warden, but against some faint, suppressed reproaches of conscience, which made her secretly cleave to the idea that this vice was hereditary, and consequently incurable. She was afraid also of David reproaching her. But he did not. He was too crushed to reason yet about his wife's fall, or what measures might have been taken to prevent it. Long after his aunt had left him, and not a sound was to be heard in the house, he sat alone, scarcely thinking, but with one deep, poignant, bitter sense of anguish weighing upon his soul. Now and then he cried to God inarticulately; that dumb, incoherent cry of the stricken spirit to the only Saviour.
There was no doubt in Upton, when the people saw their rector again, that he knew full well the calamity that had befallen him. No one ventured to speak to him of it; but their very silence was a measure of the gravity of his trouble. His friend Warden told him more accurately than any one else could have done, how it had gradually come about, and what remonstrances he had made both to Mrs. Bolton and Sophy. Mr. Chantrey was impatient to get into his own house, where he could do what his aunt had refused to do, and where he could shield his wife from all temptation to yield to the craving for stimulants in any form. When they were at home once more, with their little son with them, filling up her time and thoughts, all would be well again.
But he did not know the force of the habit she had fallen into. At first there were a few gleams of hope and thankfulness during the pleasant days of summer, while it was a new thing for Sophy to have her husband and child with her. But he could not keep her altogether from temptation, while they visited constantly at Bolton Villa, and the houses of other friends. It was in vain that he abstained himself; that he made himself a fanatic on the question, as all his acquaintances said; Sophy could not go out without being exposed to temptation, and she was not strong enough to resist it. Before the next spring came, the people of Upton spoke of her as confirmed in her miserable failing. There was no one but herself who could now break off this fatal habit; and her will had grown wretchedly feeble. The sin domineered over her, and she felt herself a helpless slave to it. There had been no want of firmness or tenderness on the part of her husband; but it had taken too strong a hold upon her before he came to her aid. The intolerable sense of humiliation which she suffered only drove her to seek to forget it by sinking lower into the depth of her degradation and his.