David Fleming's Forgiveness, by Margaret Murray Robertson.
A CANADIAN SETTLEMENT.
The first tree felled in the wilderness that lay to the south and west of the range of hills of which Hawk's Head is the highest, was felled by the two brothers Holt. These men left the thickly-settled New England valley where they were born, passed many a thriving town and village, and crossed over miles and miles of mountain and forest to seek a home in a strange country. Not that they thought of it as a strange country, for it was a long time ago, and little was known by them of limits or boundary lines, when they took possession of the fertile Canadian valley which had till then been the resort only of trappers and Indians. They were only squatters, that is, they cut down the great trees, and built log-houses, and set about making farms in the wilderness, with no better right to the soil than that which their labour gave. They needed no better right, they thought; at least, there was no one to interfere with them, and soon a thriving settlement was made in the valley. It turned out well for the Holts and for those who followed them, for after a good many years their titles to their farms were secured to them on easy terms by the Canadian Government, but they had held them as their own from the first.
Within ten years of the coming of the brothers, the cluster of dwellings rising around the saw-mill which Gershom Holt had built on the Beaver River—the store, the school-house, the blacksmith's shop—began to be spoken of by the farmers as "the village." Every year of the ten that followed was marked by tokens of the slow but sure prosperity which, when the settlers have been men of moral lives and industrious habits, has uniformly attended the planting of the later Canadian settlements.
Gradually the clearings widened around the first log-houses, and the unsightly "stumps" grew smaller and blacker under the frequent touch of fire. The rough "slash fences" made of brushwood and fallen trees, gave place to the no less ugly, but more substantial "zigzag" of cedar rails. The low, log farm-houses began to be dwarfed by the great framed barns which the increasing harvest rendered necessary, until a succession of such harvests rendered possible and prudent the building of framed dwellings as well.
As the clearings widened and the farms became more productive, the prosperity of the village advanced. A "grist-mill" was added to the saw-mill, and as every year brought move people to the place, new arts and industries were established. The great square house of Gershom Holt, handsome and substantial, was built. Other houses were made neat and pretty with paint, and green window-blinds, and door-yard fences, as time went on.
Primitive fashions and modes of life which had done for the early days of the settlement, gave place by degrees to the more artificial requirements of village society. The usual homespun suit, which even the richest had considered sufficient for the year's wear, was supplemented now by stuffs from other looms than those in the farm-house garrets. Housewives began to think of beauty as well as use in their interior arrangements. "Boughten" carpets took the place of the yellow paint and the braided mats once thought the proper thing for the "spare room" set apart for company, and articles of luxury, in the shape of high chests of drawers and hard hair-cloth sofas, found their way into the houses of the ambitious and "well-to-do" among them. The changes which increasing means bring to a community were visible in the village and beyond it before the first twenty years were over. They were not all changes for the better, the old people declared; but they still went on with the years, till Gershom, as the village came to be called, began to be looked upon by the neighbouring settlements as the centre of business and fashion to all that part of the country.
The Holts were both rather indifferent as regarded religious matters, but they had the hereditary respect of their countrymen for "school and meeting privileges," and they were strong in the belief that the ultimate prosperity of their community, even in material things, depended mainly on the growing intelligence and morality of the people; so it happened that much earlier than is usual in new settlements, measures were taken to secure the means of secular and religious instruction for the people. But it was not merely in material wealth and prosperity that was evident the progress of which the inhabitants of Gershom were becoming so justly proud.
As the Holts were the first comers to Gershom, so for a long time they kept the first place in the town, both in social and in business matters. "The Holts had made Gershom," the Holts said, and other people said it too, only sometimes it was added, that "they had also made themselves, and that all the pains they had taken had been to that end." But this was saying too much, for all the Holts had great pride in the place and its prosperity, and almost all the industries that contributed to its growth, as time went on, had been commenced by one or other of them.
Gershom Holt was the more successful of the two brothers, partly because of his greater energy and capacity for business, and partly because he had "located" at that point on the Beaver River where the water-power could be made easily available for manufacturing purposes. No time was lost by him in doing what skill and will could do with only limited capital to make a beginning in that direction, and every new artisan who came to the town, and did well for himself in it, did something to increase the wealth of Gershom Holt also. So in course of time he became the rich man of the place. He dealt closely in business matters, he liked the best of a bargain, and, as a rule, got it; but he was of a kindly nature, and was never hard to the poor, and many a man in Gershom was helped to a first start in business through his means, so that he was better liked and more entirely trusted than the one rich man in a rising country place is apt to be.
His brother Reuben was not so fortunate, either in making money or in winning favours. His farm bordered on the river, but the meadows were narrow, and the land rose abruptly into round rocky hills, fit only for pasture. Beyond the hills, on the higher level, the land was fairly good, but the cultivation of it was difficult, and he had never done much with it. He was neither strong nor courageous. Some of his children died, and others "went wrong," and he fell into misanthropic ways, and for several years before his death he was seldom seen in the village.
For more than twenty years the Beaver River settlement, as it was at first called, was occupied by people of American origin who had come in with the Holts, or had followed after them. But about the time when the land of which they had taken possession was secured to them by the Government, a number of Scotch families came to settle in that part of the town called North Gore, lying just under the morning shadows of Hawk's Range. To these people, for whose land and ancestry they had a traditional admiration and respect, the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers extended a warm welcome, and it was called a good day for the town when they settled down in it.
With the best intentions on the part of all concerned, affairs will go wrong in the history of towns as well as of individuals. Unhappily the new settlers were not at first brought into contact with the best and kindest of the people. Some of them suffered in purse, not from "bad men," but from men whose easy consciences did not refuse to take advantage of their necessities, and of their ignorance of the country and its ways; and some of them suffered in their feelings from what they believed to be curiosity and "meddlesomeness" on the part of neighbours, who in reality meant to be helpful and friendly.
So the North Gore folk "kept themselves to themselves" as they expressed it, and struggled on through some hard years, which more friendliness with their neighbour; might have made easier. The old settlers watched with an interest, on the whole kindly, the patient labour, the untiring energy which did not always take the shortest way to success, but which made its ultimate attainment sure. But to them the firm adherence of the Scotchmen to their own opinions and plans and modes of life, looked like obstinacy and ignorance, and they spoke of them as narrow and bigoted, and altogether behind the times, and the last charge was the most serious in their estimation.
The new-comers refused to see anything admirable in the ease and readiness with which most of the old settlers, disciplined by necessity, could turn from one occupation to another, as circumstances required. The farmer who made himself a carpenter to-day and a shoemaker to-morrow was, in their estimation, a "Jack-of-all-trades," certainly not a farmer in the dignified sense which they had been accustomed to attach to the name.
The strong and thrifty Scotchwomen, who thought little of walking and carrying great baskets of butter and eggs the three or four miles that lay between North Gore and the village, found matter for contemptuous animadversion in the glimpses they got of their neighbours' way of life, and spoke scornfully to each other of the useless "Yankee" wives, who were content to bide within doors while their husbands did not only the legitimate field-work, but the work of the garden, and even the milking of the cows as well. The "Yankee" wives in their turn shrugged their shoulders at the thought of what the housekeeping must be that was left to children, or left altogether, while the women were in the hay or harvest-field as regularly and almost as constantly as their husbands and brothers. Of course they did not speak their minds to one another about all this, but they knew enough about one another's opinions to make them suspicious and shy when they met.
And they did not meet often. The mistress of a new farm found little time for visiting. Winter had its own work, and the snow and the bitter cold kept them within doors. When winter was over they could only think how best to turn to account the long days of the short Canadian summer for the subduing of the soil, out of which must come food for their hungry little ones. Every foot reclaimed from the swamp or the forest, every unsightly thing burned out of the rough, new land, meant store of golden grain and wholesome bread for the future. So, with brave hearts and willing hands, the North Gore women laboured out of doors as well as within, content to wait for the days when only the legitimate woman's work should fall to their share. There were some exceptions, of course, and friendly relations were established between individuals, and between families, in the North Gore and the village; but a friendly feeling was for a good many years by no means general, and two distinct communities lived side by side in the town of Gershom.
Even the good people among them—God's own people—who have so much in common that all lesser matters may well be made nothing of between them—even they did not come together across the wall which ignorance and prejudice and circumstances had raised. At least they did not for a time. The Grants and the Scotts and the Sangsters travelled Sabbath by Sabbath the four miles between the North Gore and the village, and, passing the house where a good man preached the Gospel in the name of the Lord Jesus, travelled four miles further still for the sake of hearing one of their own kirk and country preach the same Gospel in the name of the same Lord. And so the Reverend Mr Hollister, and Deacon Moses Turner, and other good men among them, thought themselves justified in setting them down as narrow-minded and bigoted, and incapable of appreciating the privileges which had fallen to their lot.
There was really no good reason why they should not all have worshipped together as one community, for in the doctrines which they held, the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers differed little from those who had been taught in Scottish kirks the truth for which their fathers had fought and died. The little band who kept together, and held to the form of church government which they had learned to revere in their native land, were by reason of their isolation, practically as independent in regard to the matters of their kirk as were their Puritan neighbours who claimed this independence as their right.
In point of numbers, and in point of means, the older settlers were the stronger of the two parties; in point of character and piety, even they themselves were not sure that the superiority was on their side. However that might be, all felt that the coming in among them of the North Gore men and their families was much to be desired, and after a time measures were taken to bring the subject of union before them in the most favourable manner.
So, accompanied and encouraged by Deacon Turner, Mr Hollister, the minister, visited the North Gore folk family by family, and was respectfully and kindly received by them all, but he did not make much progress in the good work he had undertaken. His remarks about brotherly love and the healing of breaches were for the most part listened to in silence, and so were Deacon Turner's cautious allusions to the subscription-list for the dealing with current expenses. Nowhere did they meet with much encouragement to hope that their efforts to bring the two communities together would be successful. For several years after this the North Gore folk continued to make their "Sabbath-day's journey" past the village church. Then for a while they had the monthly ministrations of a preacher of their own order in their own neighbourhood, and on other days kept up meetings among themselves, and did what they could in various ways to keep themselves to themselves as of old.
But time wrought changes. The children who had come to the North Gore grew up, and they did not grow up to be just such men and women as their fathers and mothers had been. It is not necessary to say whether they were worse men or better. They were different. There was not much change in the manner of life in many of the homes. The Sabbath was as strictly kept, and the young people were as strictly taught and catechised and looked after in Scottish fashion as of old, and they bade fair to grow up as cautious and as "douce," and as much attached to old ways and customs as if they had been brought up on the other side of the sea, quite beyond the reach of Yankee innovations and free-and-easy colonial ways. But even the most "douce" and cautious amongst them were without the stiffness and strength of the old-time prejudice, and the young people of the different sections of the township, brought together in the many pleasant ways that are open to young people in country places, no longer kept apart as their fathers had done.
There were troubles in Gershom still of various kinds, misunderstandings and quarrels, and violations of the golden rule between individuals and between families, and some of them took colour, and some of them took strength, from national feeling and national prejudice; but there were no longer two distinct communities living side by side in the town, as there once had been. And by and by, when old Mr Grant and Deacon Turner, and some others of the good men who had held with one or other of them on earth, were gone to sit down to eat bread together in the kingdom of heaven, the good men they had left behind them drew closer together by slow degrees. And when Mr Hollister grew old and feeble, and unable to do duty as pastor of the village church, all agreed that the chief consideration, in the appointment of a successor, must be the getting of such a man as might be able to unite the people of all sections into one congregation at last.
This was the state of things in Gershom when it began to be whispered that there was serious trouble arising between Jacob Holt and old Mr Fleming.
There were already a good many openings in the North Gore woods when the Flemings took possession of the partially cleared farm lying half-way between it and the village, at a little distance from the road. They built on it a house of grey, unhewn stone, long and low like the home they had "left on the other side of the sea." They called the place Ythan Brae, and the clear shallow brook that ran down from their rocky pastures, through the swamp to Beaver River, they called the Ythan Burn because the familiar names were pleasant on their lips and in their ears in a strange land; but it was a long time before it seemed like home to them.
For a while the neighbours knew about them only what could be learned from the fields visible from the North Gore road. That Mr Fleming had experience, tireless industry, and some money, three things to insure success in his calling, the canny Scotch farmers were not slow to perceive in the change that gradually came over the once-neglected land. Mr Fleming seemed a grave, silent man, with the traces of some severe trouble showing in his face. And this trouble his wife had shared, for, though she was still a young woman when she came to Gershom, there were streaks of white in her brown hair, and on her fair, serene face there was the look which "tells of sorrow meekly borne." The gloom and sternness which sometimes made people shrink from coming in contact with her husband was never seen in her.
The eldest of their two sons was almost a man when they came to live at Ythan Brae. He was a quiet, well-doing lad, reserved like his father, but pleasant-spoken and friendly like his mother. His brother Hugh had inherited his mother's good looks and sunny temper, and he had, besides, the power which does not always accompany the possession of personal beauty or cleverness—the power of winning love.
Long afterward, when the mention of Hugh's name was a sorrowful matter, the people of the North Gore who knew him best used to speak of him with a kind of wonder. He was such "a bonny laddie," with eyes like stars, and even at sixteen a head above his elder brother. He was so blithe and kindly, and clever too. According to these people there was nothing he could not do, and nothing that he would not trouble himself to do to give pleasure to his friends. He was "the apple of his father's eye," the delight of his life; and that his mother's heart did not break when she lost him, was only because, even at the worst of times, God's grace is sufficient for help and healing to those who stay themselves on Him.
For Hugh "went wrong." Oh, sorrowful words! seeming so little and meaning so much: care and fear, watching and waiting, sleepless nights and days of dread to those who looked on with no power to bring him back again. How he went wrong may be easily guessed. He had been led astray by evil companions his mother always said. Not that to her knowledge, or to the knowledge of any one, he had gone so very far astray till the end came. There had been doubts and fears for him, and earnest expostulations from those who loved him, but it was a great shock and surprise to all the countryside when it came to be known that he had gone away never to return.
What he had done was certainly known only to two or three. There were whispers of forgery, and even robbery, and some said it was only debt, which his father refused to pay. There were others involved in the matter, and it was kept quiet. Some of the young Holts were among the number. Jacob, Gershom's eldest son, went away for a while. It was not known whether they had gone together, but Jacob soon came home again, and as far as he was concerned, everything was as before.
But after a time there came heavy tidings to Ythan Brae. Hugh Fleming was dead—in the very flower of his youth—"with all his sins on his head;" his father cried out in the agony of the knowledge. There was only a word or two in a strange handwriting to say that, after sharp and sudden illness, he had died among strangers.
The father and mother lived through the time that followed. How they lived none knew, for they were alone at the Brae. They never passed the bounds of their own farm through all that terrible winter, and the neighbours, who sometimes went to see them, as a general thing only saw Mrs Fleming. She stood between her husband and the sorrowful curiosity, the real but painful sympathy which he could not have borne— which even she found it so hard to bear. Neither then, nor in all the years that followed, did any one but his boy's mother hear him utter his boy's name. They lived through it, but that winter was like the "valley of the shadow of death" to them both.
When spring came, the worst was over, the neighbours said, and in one way so it was. Their son James brought his wife home to live with them, and they settled down to their changed life, making the best of it. Mrs Fleming's cheerfulness came back in the midst of many cares, for her son's wife was a delicate woman, and the little children came fast to their home. Mrs Fleming governed the household still, and in a sense began life anew in their midst.
But after his son came to live with them, Mr Fleming gave up to him all that part of their affairs that would have taken him away from home. He was a born farmer; his forefathers had been farmers for as many generations as he could trace, and he had a hereditary reverence for mother earth as the giver of bread to man. He took pleasure in the work of the farm, labouring patiently and cheerfully to bring it to the highest productiveness which the soil and the variable Canadian climate would permit. Hollows were filled and heights were levelled, and the wide stretch of lowland on either side of the Burn near its mouth, was year by year made to yield. A road or two to be cleared and drained and tilled, and one might have travelled a summer day through the fine farming country without seeing a finer farm than he made it at last.
And all this time the farm, with his interest in it and his labour on it, was doing a good work for him, and he grew to love the place as his home, and the home of the little children who were growing up about him.
But just as a tranquil gloaming seemed to be closing over their changeful day of life, a new and heavy sorrow fell upon them. Their son James died, and the two old people found themselves left alone to care for his delicate widow and her fatherless children. Other troubles followed closely on this. James Fleming had never been a worldly-wise man, and he died in debt. Some of the claims were just, some of them were doubtful, none of them could have held against his father. But the old man gave not a moment's hearing to those who made this suggestion. The honour of his son's name and memory was at stake, and in his haste and eagerness to settle all, and because he had so fallen out of business ways, the best and wisest plans were not taken in the arrangement of his affairs.
When the time of settlement came, it was found that most of the claims against James Fleming had passed into the hands of the Holts. It was Jacob alone who was to be dealt with, for his father was an old man, and his connection with the business had long been merely nominal. Jacob Holt had changed since the days when he had been, as Hugh Fleming's father firmly believed, the ruin of his son. He had changed from an ill-doing, idle lad, into a man, noted even in that busy community for his attention to business, a man who took pains to seek a fair reputation for honesty and generosity among his fellow-townsmen. But Mr Fleming liked the man as little as he had liked the lad, and it added much to the misery of his indebtedness that his obligation was to him. He was growing an old man, conscious of his increasing weakness and inability to cope with difficulties, and he believed his "enemy," as he called him, to be capable of taking advantage of these. His faith failed him sometimes, and in his anxiety and unhappiness, he uttered harder words than he knew.
Everybody in Gershom knew of his debt, but no one knew what made the bitterness of his indebtedness to the old man. The part which Jacob Holt had had in the trouble, that had come on him through his son, had never been clearly understood, and was now well-nigh forgotten in the place. But the father had not forgotten it. He would gladly have mortgaged his farm, or even have given up half of it altogether, to any friend who could have advanced him the money to pay his debt, but no such friend was at hand, and it ended, as all knew it must end, in a seven years' mortgage being taken by Jacob Holt, and the only thing the old man could do now was to keep silence and hope for better days.
The little Flemings were growing up healthy and happy, a great comfort and a great care to their grandparents. They were bright and pretty children, and good children on the whole, the neighbours said, and they said also, that there seemed to be no reason why the last days of the old people should not be contented and comfortable, notwithstanding their burden of debt. For the Holts would never be hard on such old neighbours, and as the boys grew up, to take the weight of the farm-work on them, the debt might be paid, and all would go well. This was the hopeful view of the matter taken by Mrs Fleming also, but the old man always listened in silence to such words.
When five years had past, no part of the debt had yet been paid. Even the interest had been in part paid with borrowed money, and there were other signs and tokens that the Flemings were going back in the world. It was not to be wondered at; for Mr Fleming was an old man, and the greater part of the farm-work had to be done by hired help, at a cost which the farm could ill bear. And the chances were, that for a while at least the state of affairs would be worse rather than better.
Then there came to Mr Fleming this proposal from Jacob Holt. If twenty-five acres of the swampy land that bordered the Beaver River just where the brook fell into it were given up to him the mortgage should be cancelled, and the debt should be considered paid. He declared that the proposal was made solely in the interest of the Fleming family, and there were a good many people in Gershom who believed him.
To this proposal, however, Mr Fleming returned a prompt and brief refusal. He said little about it, but it was known that he believed evil of Jacob Holt with regard to the matter, and though he kept silence, others spoke. The North Gore people took the matter up, and so did the people of the village. Mr Fleming had friends in both sections of the town, and some of them did not spare hard words in the discussion.
Jacob Holt was now the rich man of Gershom, one of the chief supporters of the church and of every good cause encouraged in the town, and all this did not promise well for the union in church matters so earnestly desired by many good people in Gershom.
Gershom Holt was to all appearance a hale old man, but for a long time before this he had had little to do with the management of the business of Holt and Son. He still lived in the great square house which had succeeded the log-house built by him in the early days of the settlement. Two of his children lived with him—Elizabeth, the youngest child of his first wife, and Clifton, the only child of his second wife, who had died in giving him birth.
Elizabeth was good, pretty, and clever, and still single at twenty-four. The persons she loved best in the world were her father and her younger brother. Her father loved and trusted her entirely, and every passing day made him more dependent on her for comfort and for counsel; for he was a very old man, and in many ways needed the care which it was his daughter's first duty and pleasure to give. Her brother loved and trusted her too in his way, but he was only a lad, and too well contented with himself and his life to know the value of her love as yet, and she was not without anxious thoughts about him. He was supposed to be distinguishing himself in a New England College as he had before distinguished himself in the High-School of the village, and only spent his vacations at home.
There was a difference of nearly twenty years in the ages of Gershom Holt's two sons, and they had little in common except their father's name. Elizabeth loved them both, and respected the youngest most. Jacob was a little afraid of his sister, and took pains to be on the best of terms with her, and he could not forget sometimes in her presence that he had done some things in his life which he was glad she did not know.
He had married, early in life, a pretty, commonplace woman, who had grown thin and querulous in the years that had passed since then, and who was not at all fitted to be the great lady of Gershom, as the rich man's wife might have been. That place was filled by Elizabeth, who filled it well and enjoyed it.
With its large garden and orchard, and its sloping lawn, shaded by trees beginning to look old and venerable beside those of more recent growth in the village street, the old square house looked far more like the great house of the village than the finer mansion lately built by Jacob further up the hill. Under Elizabeth's direction it had been modernised and beautified by the throwing out of a bow-window and the addition of a wide veranda on two sides. Everything about it, without and within, indicated wealth moderately used, for comfort and not for display. It was the pleasantest house in the village to visit at, everybody said; for the squire—so old Mr Holt was generally called—was very hospitable, and all sorts of people were made welcome there.
There were by this time people in Gershom who had outlived the remembrance of the days when all the settlers, rich and poor alike, were socially on a level, and who spoke smoothly and loftily about "station" and "position" and "the working classes," but the young Holts were not among them. Elizabeth and Clifton deserved less credit than was given them on account of their unassuming and agreeable manners with the village people, for they did not need to assert themselves as some others did. Miss Elizabeth, for all her unpretending ways, was the great lady of the village, and liked it, and very likely would have resented it had a rival appeared to call her right in question.
The Holts of the Hill were, in most respects, very different from the Holts of the village. They lived and worked and dressed and conducted themselves generally very much as they had been used to do in the early days of the settlement. The old man had been long dead, and his widow and her two daughters lived on the farm. One of the daughters was a childless widow, Betsey, the other had never married. "A good woman with an uncertain temper," was the character which many of her friends would have given her, and some of them might have added that she had had a hard life and many cares, and no wonder that she was a little hard and sour after all she had passed through. But this was by no means all that could be said of Miss Betsey.
There was little intercourse between the Holts of the Hill and the village Holts, and it was not the fault of Elizabeth. It was Betsey who decidedly withdrew from any intimacy with her cousins. She was too old-fashioned, too "set" in her way to fall in with all their new notions, she said, and from the time that Elizabeth came home from school to be the mistress of her father's house, and the most popular person in Gershom, she had had but little to do with her. It hurt Elizabeth that it should be so, for she respected her cousin and would have loved her, and would doubtless have profited—by their intercourse if it had been permitted. But she never got beyond a certain point in the intimacy with her, at least she did not for a time.
The Hill Holts were much respected in the neighbourhood, and Miss Betsey exerted an influence in its way almost as great as did Miss Elizabeth. One or two persons who knew them both well, said they were very much alike, though to people generally they seemed in temper, in tastes, and in manner of life as different as well could be. They were alike and they were different, and the chief difference lay in this, that Miss Betsey was growing old and had passed through troubles in her time, and Miss Elizabeth was young and had most of her troubles before her.
The village of Gershom Centre, as it was called, at this time lay chiefly on the north bank of the Beaver River. Its principal street ran north and south at right angles to the river, and the village houses clustered closest at the end of the bridge that crossed it. At the south end of the bridge another street turned west down the river, and at a little distance became a pleasant country road which led to the hill-farm of the Holts, and past it to the neighbouring township of Fosbrooke. Another street went east, on the north side of the river a few hundred yards, and then turned north to the Scotch settlement at the Gore.
On this street, before it turned north, the new church stood. There was a wide green common before it, shaded by young trees, and only the inclosing fence and the road lay between this and the river, which was broad and shallow, and flowed softly in this part of its course. The church was a very pretty one of its kind—white as snow, with large-paned windows, and green Venetian blinds. It had a tall slender spire, in which hung the first bell that had ever wakened the echoes in that part of the country for miles around, and of the church and the bell, and the pretty tree-shaded common before it, the Gershom people were not a little proud.
Behind the church lay the graveyard, already a populous place, as the few tall monuments and the many less pretentious slabs of grey or white stone showed. It was inclosed by a white fence tipped with black, and shaded by many young trees, and it was a quiet and pleasant place. Between the church and the graveyard was a long row of wooden sheds. They were not ornamental, quite the contrary; but they were very useful as a shelter for the horses of the church-goers who came from a distance, and they had been added by way of conciliating the North Gore people when one and another of them began to come to the village church.
Toward the church one fair Sabbath morning in June, many Gershom people were hastening. Already there were vehicles of great variety in the sheds, and horses were tied here and there along the fences under the trees. There were groups of people lingering in Gershom fashion on the church steps and on the grass, and the numbers, and the air of expectation over all, indicated that the occasion was one of more than usual interest. All Gershom had turned out hoping to see and hear the new minister, whose coming was to bean assurance of peace to the church and to the congregation. They were to be disappointed for that day, however, for the minister had not come. Squire Holt and his son and daughter came with the rest. The old man lingered at the gate exchanging greetings with his neighbours, and the young people went on toward the door.
"Gershom is the place after all, Lizzie," said her brother. "It is pleasant to see all the folks again. But I don't believe I'm going to stay to see Jacob through this business. Well! never mind, Lizzie," he added, as his sister looked grave. "I'll see you through, if you say so. And here come Ben and Cousin Betsey; let us wait and speak to them."
"Clifton," said his sister, earnestly, "Ben is Cousin Betsey's best hand this summer. It won't do to beguile him from his work, dear. You must not try it."
"Nonsense, Elizabeth. It is rather soon to come down on a fellow like that, before I have even spoken to him. I never made Ben idle, quite the contrary."
Coming slowly up the green slope between the gate and the church were the two persons recognised by Clifton as Ben and Cousin Betsey. They moved along in a leisurely way, nodding to one and speaking to another, so that there was time to discuss them as they approached.
"Lizzie," said her brother, "do you suppose you'll ever come to look like Cousin Betsey?"
"I am quite sure I shall never wear such a bonnet," said Elizabeth, pettishly. "Why will she make a fright of herself?"
"It is as an offset to you—so fine as you are," said Clifton, laughing. "She had that gown before Ben was born; I remember it perfectly."
Miss Betsey Holt was a striking-looking person, notwithstanding the oddness and shabbiness of her dress. Scantiness is a better word for it than shabbiness, for her dress was of good material, neat and well preserved, but it was without a superfluous fold or gather, and in those days, when, even in country places, crinoline was beginning to assert itself, she did look ludicrously straight and stiff. Miss Elizabeth's dress was neither in material nor make of the fashion that had its origin in the current year, and city people, wise in such matters, might have set them both down as old-fashioned. But in appearance, as they drew near one another, there was a great contrast between them, though in feature there was a strong resemblance.
There was more than fifteen years' difference in their ages, and Betsey looked older than her forty years. She was above the middle height, thin and dark and wrinkled, and there were white streaks in the brown hair brought down low and flat upon the cheek, but in every feature the bright youthful beauty of the girl had once been hers. Some of the neighbours, who were regarding them as they met, would have said that once Miss Betsey had been much handsomer than ever Miss Elizabeth would be. For Miss Betsey had been young at a time when there was little danger that indolence or self-indulgence could injure the full development of healthful beauty, and as yet Miss Elizabeth had fallen on easy days, and was languid at times, and delicate, and if the truth must be told, a little discontented with what life had as yet brought her, and a little afraid of what might lie before her, and there was a shadow of this on her fair face to-day.
They had not much to say to each other, and they stood in silence watching the two lads. Clifton was considered in Gershom to have learned very fine manners, since he went to college, but he had forgotten them for the moment, and was as boyish and natural as his less sophisticated cousin. They were only second cousins, Ben being the only child of Reuben Holt's eldest son, who had died early. His Aunt Betsey had brought the boy up, and "had not had the best of luck in doing it," she sometimes told him; but he was the dearest person in the world to her, for all her pretended discontent with her success. She watched the two lads as they went into the eager discussion of something that pleased them, and so did Elizabeth, for it was a pleasant sight to see.
"Cousin," said Elizabeth, gently, "I do not think you need fear that my boy will harm yours."
"I am not afraid—not much. Ben is the stronger of the two, morally, if he isn't so bright. My boy is to be trusted," and she looked as though she would have added, "that is more than you can say for yours."
Elizabeth looked grave.
"Cousin Betsey, you were always hard on my brother Clifton."
Betsey shrugged her shoulders.
"You are harder on him this minute than I am. I don't suppose he has done anything very bad this time—worse than usual, I mean."
"Have you heard anything? Did you know he was sent home?" asked Elizabeth in dismay.
"He sent a letter to Ben a spell ago, and I saw it lying round. You needn't tell him so. If it is as he says, there aint much wrong this time. Here is Hepsey Bean."
Miss Bean had come to inquire if anything had been heard of the minister, but the cousins were too much occupied in watching the two lads to answer her, and Hepsey's eyes followed theirs.
"Are not they alike as two peas?" said she. "Not their fixings exactly, I don't mean—"
Miss Elizabeth laughed, even Miss Betsey smiled, touched with a grim sense of humour as she regarded the lads. Their "fixings" were certainly different. Everything, from the tips of Clifton's shining boots to the crown of his shining hat, declared him to be a dandy. His collar, necktie, coat, and all the rest, were in the latest fashion—a fashion a sight of which, but for his coming home, the Gershom people might not have been favoured with for a year to come. His compulsory departure from the seat of learning had been delayed while the tailor completed his summer outfit, so that there could be no mistake about his "fixings."
As for Ben, he was fine also, in a new suit of homespun, which, since it came from the loom, and, indeed, before it went to the loom, had passed through no hands but those of his Aunt Betsey. It was not handsome. The home-made thick grey cloth of the country, which the farmers' wives of those days took pride in preparing for the winter-wear of their "men folks," was an article of superior wearing qualities, and handsome in its way. But it was the half-cotton fabric, dingy and napless, considered good enough for summer wear, in which Ben was arrayed. Made as a loose frock and overall to be worn in the hay-field, or following the plough, it was well enough; but made into a tight-fitting Sunday-suit, it was not handsome, certainly. As far as "fixings" were concerned, the cousins were a contrast. Betsey looked and laughed again, but Elizabeth did not laugh. She knew that Cousin Betsey was sensitive where Ben was concerned.
"Clothes don't amount to much anyway," said Betsey. "Hepsey's right. They are alike as two peas, but Ben is the strongest morally, because he hasn't been spoiled by property, as Clifton has. Not that he is altogether spoiled yet."
"But about the minister?" interrupted Miss Bean.
"He has not come, it seems," said Elizabeth. "There is to be a sermon read to-day," but she did not say that her brother Jacob was to read it.
The bell which had been delayed beyond the usual time pealed out, and all faces were turned to the church door. Clifton and Ben lingered till the last.
"There is old Mr Fleming going off home," said Ben as he caught sight of a figure on horseback turning the corner toward North Gore. "I expect he don't care about your brother Jacob's preaching," he added, gravely.
"Isn't it his practice he don't care about?" said Clifton, laughing.
"I shouldn't wonder," said Ben.
"Well, I can't say I care much about his preaching either. Come, Ben, let us go down to the big elm and talk things over."
Ben shook his head, but followed.
"It is not just the same as if the minister was there," said he, doubtfully.
"But then what will Aunt Betsey say?"
"Oh, she won't care since it's only Jacob. And she needn't know it."
"Oh, she's got to know it. But it is not any worse for us than for old Mr Fleming. It's pleasant down here."
It was pleasant. The largest elm tree in Gershom grew on the river bank, and its great branches stretched far over to the other side, making cool shadows on the rippling water. The place was green and still, "a great deal more like Sunday than the inside of the meeting-house," Clifton declared. But Ben shook his head.
"That's one of the loose notions you've learned at college. Your sister believes in going to meetings, and so does Aunt Betsey."
So did Clifton it seemed, for there was a good deal more said after that, and they quite agreed that whether it was altogether agreeable or not, it was quite right that people generally should go to church, rather than to the river, as they had done. How it happened, Ben hardly knew, but in a little while they found themselves in Seth Fairweather's boat, and were paddling up the river, out and in among the shadows, past the open fields and the cedar swamp to the point where the Ythan Burn fell into the Beaver. They paddled about a while upon the Pool, as a sudden widening of the channel of the river was called, till the heat of the sun sent them in among the shadows again. Then Clifton leaned back at his ease, while Ben waved about a branch of odorous cedar to keep the little black flies away.
"Now tell me all about it, Cliff," said he.
Clifton winced, but put a bold face on the matter, and told in as few words as possible the story of his having been sent home. It was not a pleasant story to tell, though he had been less to blame than some others who had escaped punishment altogether. But sitting there in the shadow of the cedars, with Ben's great eyes upon him, he felt more sorry and ashamed, and more angry at himself, and those who had been concerned with him in his folly, than ever he had felt before.
"The fun didn't pay that time, did it, Cliff?" said Ben. "I don't believe it ever does—that kind of fun."
"That's what Aunt Betsey says, eh?" said Clifton. "Well, she's about right."
"And you'll never do so, any more; will you, Cliff?"
"But, Cliff, you are almost a man now, you are a man, and it don't pay in the long run to drink and have a good time. It didn't pay in my father's case, and Aunt Betsey says—"
"There, that will do. I would rather hear Aunt Betsey's sermons from her own lips, and I am going up to the Hill some time soon."
There was silence between them for a little while, then Ben said:
"There's a meeting up in the Scott school-house 'most every Sunday afternoon, Cliff; suppose we go up there, and then I can tell Aunt Betsey all about it."
Clifton had no objections to this plan; so pushing the boat in among the bushes that hung low over the water, they left it there and took their way by the side of Ythan Burn. But he would not be hurried. As a boy he had liked more than anything else in the world, loitering through the fields and woods with Ben, and it gave him great satisfaction to discover that he had not outgrown this liking. He forgot his fine manners and fine clothes, his college friends and pleasures and troubles; and Ben forgot Aunt Betsey, and that he was doing wrong, and they wandered on as they had done hundreds of times before.
For though no one, not even his Aunt Betsey, thought Ben very bright, Clifton would have taken his word about beast and bird and creeping thing, and about all the growing life in the woods, rather than the word of any other ten in Gershom. They made no haste, there fore, in the direction of the Scott school-house, but wound in and out among the wood paths, using eyes and ears in the midst of the rejoicing life of which the forest was so full at that June season.
They kept along the side of the brook, and by and by came out of the woods on the edge of the fine strip of land which old Mr Fleming had made foot by foot from the swamp. There was no finer land in the township, none that had been more faithfully dealt with than this. Ben uttered an exclamation of admiration as he looked over it to the hill beyond. Even Clifton, who knew less and cared less about land than he did, sympathised with his admiration.
"He might mow it now, and have a second crop before fall," said Ben, with enthusiasm. "It would be a shame to spoil so fine a meadow by building a factory on it, wouldn't it?"
"It would spoil it for hay, but factories are not bad in a place, I tell you. It might be a good thing to put one here."
"Not for Mr Fleming. He don't care for factories. He made the meadow out of the swamp, and nobody else has any business with it, whatever they may say about mortgages and things."
"But who is talking about mortgages and things?" asked Clifton, laughing.
"Oh, most everybody in Gershom is talking. I don't know much about it myself. And Jacob's one of your folks, and you'd be mad if I told you all that folks say."
"Jacob isn't any more one of my folks than you are—nor so much. Do you suppose I would stay away from meeting to come out here with Jacob? Not if I know it."
"He wouldn't want you to, I don't suppose."
"Not he. He doesn't care half so much about me as you do."
"No, he don't. I think everything of you. And that's why Aunt Betsey says you ought to be careful to set me a good example."
"That's so," said Clifton, laughing. "Now tell me about old Fleming."
Ben never had the power of refusing to do what his cousin asked him, but he had little to tell that Clifton had not heard before. There was talk of forming a great manufacturing company in Gershom; but there had been talk of that since ever Clifton could remember. The only difference now was that a new dam was to be built further up the river at a place better suited for it, and with more room for the raising of large buildings than was the point where Mr Holt had built his first saw-mill in earlier times. It was supposed to be for this purpose that Jacob Holt was desirous to obtain possession of that part of the Fleming farm that lay on the Beaver River; for, though a company was to be formed, everybody knew that he would have the most to say and do about it. But Mr Fleming had refused to sell, "and folks had talked round considerable," Ben said, and he went on to repeat a good deal that was anything but complimentary to Jacob.
"But I told our folks that you and Uncle Gershom would see Mr Fleming through, and Aunt Betsey, she said if you were worth your salt you'd stay at home and see to things for your father, and not let Jacob disgrace the name. But I said you'd put it all straight, and Aunt Betsey she said—"
"Well, what did Aunt Betsey say?" for Ben stopped suddenly.
"She told me to shut up," said Ben, hanging his head.
Clifton laughed heartily.
"And she doesn't think me worth my salt. Well, never mind. It is an even chance that she is right. But I think she is hard on Jacob."
There was time for no more talk. They had skirted the little brook till they came to a grove of birch and wild cherry-trees that had been left to grow on a rocky knoll where the water fell over a low ledge on its way from the pasture above. The sound of voices made them pause before they set foot on the path that led upwards.
"It's the Fleming children, I suppose," said Ben. "They'll be telling us, mayhap, that we're breaking the Sabbath, and I expect so we be."
David Fleming's Forgiveness—by Margaret Murray Robertson
THE FLEMING CHILDREN.
Instead of following the path, Clifton went round the knoll to the brook, and paused again at the sight of a pair or two of little bare feet in the water, and thus began his acquaintance with the Fleming children. There were several of them, but Clifton saw first a beautiful brown boyish face, and a pair of laughing eyes half hidden by a mass of tangled curls, and recognised Davie. Close beside the face was another so like it, and yet so different, that Clifton looked in wonder. The features were alike, and the eyes were the same bonny blue, and the wind was making free with the same dark curls about it. But it was a more delicate face, not so rosy and brown, though the sun had touched it too. There was an expression of sweet gravity about the mouth, and the eyes that were looking up through the leaves into the sky had no laughter in them. It was a fair and gentle face, but there was something in it that made Clifton think of stern old Mr Fleming sitting on the Sabbath-day among his neighbours in the church.
"That must be sister Lizzie's wee Katie," said Clifton to himself.
The slender girlish figure leaned against the rock on which the boy was lying so that the two faces were nearly on a level, and a pretty picture they made together. Clifton had been making facetious remarks to his sister about the old-fashioned finery of the dressed-up village girls on their way to church, but he saw nothing to criticise in the straight, scant dress, of one dim colour, unrelieved by frill or collar, which Katie Fleming wore. He did not think of her dress at all, but of the slim, graceful figure and the bonny girlish face turned so gravely up to the sky. He was not sure whether it was best to go forward and speak or not. Ben stood still, looking also.
"I say, Katie," said the boy, lifting his head, "what is the seven-and-twentieth?"
"Oh fie, Davie! to be thinking of propositions and such-like worldly things, and this the Sabbath-day," said Katie, reprovingly.
"Just as if you werena thinking of them yourself, Katie."
"No, I'm no' thinking of them. They come into my head whiles. But I'm no' fighting with them, or taking pleasure in them, as I do other days. I'm just resting myself in this bonny quiet place, looking at the sky and the bonny green grass. Eh, Davie, it's a grand thing to have the rest and the quietness of the Sabbath-day."
The girl shook her head at the answer which Clifton did not hear, and went on.
"It gives us time to come to ourselves, and to mind that there is something else in the world besides just cheese and butter-making, and these weary propositions. Of course it's right to go to the kirk, and I promised grannie I would go this afternoon to the Scott school-house with the bairns. But I like to bide quiet here a while, too."
"I would far rather bide here," said Davie.
"Yes, but, Davie, we mustna think light of the Sabbath-day. Think what it is to grandfather. He would like it better if we were better bairns. I'm just glad of the rest."
"You're tired of your books," said Davie, with a little brotherly contempt in his voice. "You're but a lassie, however, and it canna be helped."
"I canna do two things at once. I'm tired of making cheese and keeping up with girls at the school too. And I'm glad it's the Sabbath-day for the rest. And, Davie," she added, after a pause, "I'm not going to the school after you stop. Grannie needs me at home, and I'm no' going."
"Catch me staying at home if I could go," said Davie.
"But, Davie, it is my duty to help grannie to make all the money we can to pay the debt, and get grandfather out of the hands of those avaricious Holts. What noise was yon, Davie?"
Listeners seldom hear good of themselves, and the mention of the "avaricious Holts" startled Clifton into the consciousness that he was listening to that which was not intended for his ears, and he drew to Ben's side.
"It's the little Flemings," said Ben; "aint they Scotchy? That is the way they always speak to one another at home."
They went round the knoll through the trees among the broken pieces of rock scattered over the little eminence. Before they reached the brook the other way a voice hailed them.
"Hallo, Ben! Does your Aunt Betsey know that you're going about in such company on Sunday?"
"If meeting's out she knows, or she mistrusts," said Ben, taking the matter seriously. "We're going over to the Scott school-house to meeting. Aunt Betsey'll like that, anyhow."
They all laughed, for Ben and the Fleming children had long been friends.
"Here's Clif got home sooner than he expected to, and Jacob, he's reading a sermon by himself because the minister didn't come, and so—we came away. This is Clif."
The smile which had greeted Ben went out of Katie's eyes, and surprise and a little offence took its place, as she met Clifton's look. But she laughed merrily when the lad, stepping back, took off his hat and bowed low, as he might have done to any of the fine ladies of B—, where he had been living of late.
But in a little while she grew shy and uncomfortable, and conscious of her bare feet, and moved away. Clifton noticed the change, and said to himself that she was thinking of the mortgage, and of "those avaricious Holts."
"Your grandfather did not go to meeting, either," said Ben, anxious to set himself right in Katie's eyes. "We saw him turning the corner as we went down to the river."
"Grandfather!" repeated Katie. "I wonder why?"
"I suppose it was because Jacob was going to read the sermon," said Ben, reddening, and looking at his cousin.
Katie reddened too and turned to go.
"Grandfather must be home, then, Davie; it's time to go in," and Kate looked grave and troubled.
"Davie," repeated she, "it's time to come home."
Davie followed her a step or two, and they heard him saying:
"There's no hurry, Katie; if my grandfather didna go to the kirk, he'll be holding a meeting all by himself in Pine-tree Hollow, and he'll not be at the house this while, and I want to speak to Ben."
"Davie," said his sister, "mind it's the Sabbath-day."
The chances were against his minding it very long. It was a good while before he followed his sister to the house, and he brought the Holts with him to share their dinners of bread and milk.
"We're all going to the meeting together, grannie," said he, "and Kate," he added in a whisper, "Clif Holt has promised to lend me the book that the master gave you a sight of the other day, and I am to keep it as long as I like; and he's not so proud as you would think from his fine clothes and his fine manners; but he couldna tell me the seven-and-twentieth, more shame to him, and him at the college."
"He thinks much of himself," said Katie, "for all that."
The little Flemings and their mother and the two Holts went to the Scott school-house, as had been proposed, and the house was left to Mrs Fleming as a general thing. This "remarkable old lady," as the Gershom people had got into the way of calling her to strangers, greatly enjoyed the rare hours of rest and quiet that came at long intervals in her busy life, but she did not enjoy them to-day. Her Bible lay open upon the table, and "Fourfold State" and her "Solitude Sweetened" were within reach of her hand, but she could not settle to read either of them. She wandered from the door to the gate and back again in a restless, anxious way, that made her indignant with herself at last.
"As gin he wasna to be trusted out of my sight an hour past the set time," said she, going into the house and sitting resolutely down with her book in her hand. "And it is not only to him, but to his master, that my anxious thoughts are doing dishonour, as though I had really anything to fear. But he was unco' downhearted when he went away."
She looked a very remarkable old lady as she sat there, still and firm. She was straight as an arrow, small and slender, wrinkled indeed, but with nothing of the weazened, sunken look which is apt to fall on small women when they grow old. She was a beautiful old woman, with clear bright eyes, and a broad forehead, over which the bands of hair lay white as snow.
She had known a deal of trouble in her life, and, for the sake of those she loved, had striven hard to keep her strength and courage through it all, and the straight lines of her firmly-closed lips told of courage and patience still. But a quiver of weakness passed over her face, and over all her frame, as at last a slow, heavy footstep came up to the door. She listened a moment, and then rising up, she said cheerfully:
"Is this you, gudeman? You're late, arena you? Well, you're dinner is waiting you."
She did not wait for an answer, nor did she look at him closely till she had put food before him. Then she sat down beside him. He, too, was remarkable-looking. He had no remains of the pleasant comeliness of youth as she had, but there were the same lines of patience and courage in his face. He was closely shaven, with large, marked features and dark, piercing eyes. It was a strong face, good and true, but still it was a hard face, and it was a true index of his character. He was firm and just always, and almost always he was kind, slow to take offence, and slow to give it; but being offended, he could not forgive. He looked tired and troubled to-night—a bowed old man.
"Where are the bairns?" were the first words he uttered, and his face changed and softened as he spoke. She told him where they had gone, and that their mother had gone with them. Then she made some talk about the bonny day and the people he had seen at church, speaking quietly and cheerfully till he had finished his meal, and then, having set aside the dishes, she came close to him, and, laying her hand on his arm, said gently: "David, we are o'er lane in the house. Tell me what it is that's troubling you."
He did not answer her immediately.
"Is it anything new?" she asked.
"No, no. Nothing new," said he, turning toward her. At the sight of her fond wet eyes he broke down.
"Oh, Katie! my woman," he groaned, "it's ill with me this day. I hae come to a strait bit o' the way and I canna win through. 'Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven,' the Book says, and this day I feel that I havena forgiven."
Instead of answering, she bent over him till his grey head lay on her shoulder and rested there. He was silent for a little.
"When I saw him younder to-day, smooth and smiling, standing so well with his fellow-men, my heart rose up against him; I daredna bide, lest I should cry out in the kirk before them all and call God's justice in question—God that lets Jacob Holt go about in His sunshine, with all men's good word on him, when our lad's light went out in darkness so long ago. Is it just, Katie? Call ye it right and just?"
She did not answer a word, but soothed him with hand and voice as she might have soothed a child. She had done it many times before during the forty years that she had been his wife, but she had never, even in the time of their sorest troubles, seen him so moved. She sat down quietly beside him and patiently waited.
"Has anything happened, or is anything threatening that I dinna ken of?" asked she after a little.
"No, nothing new has happened. But I am growing an old failed man, Katie, and no' able to stand up against my ain fears."
"Ay, we are growing old and failed; our day is near over, and so are our fears. Why should we fear? Jacob Holt canna move the foundations of the earth. And even though he could, we needna fear, for 'God is our refuge and strength.'"
He was leaning back with closed eyes, tired and fainthearted, and he did not answer.
"There's no fear for the bairns," she went on, cheerfully. "They are good bairns. There are few that hae the sense and discretion of our Katie, and her mother's no' without judgment, though she is but a feckless body as to health, and has been a heavy handful to us. They'll be taken care of. The Lord is ay kind."
And so she went on, gentle soothing alternating with more gentle chiding, all the time keeping away from the sore place in his heart, not daring for his sake and for her own to touch it till this rare moment of weakness should be past.
"You are wearied, and no wonder, with the heat and your long fast; lie down on your bed and rest till it be time to catechise the bairns— though I'm no' for Sabbath sleeping as an ordinary thing. Will you no' lie down? Well, you might step over as far as the pasture-bars and see if all is right with old Kelso and her foal, for here come the bairns and their mother, and there will be no peace with them till they get their supper, and your head will be none the better for their noise."
And so she got him away, going with him a few steps up the field. She turned in time to meet the troop of children who, in a state of subdued mirthfulness suitable to the day and their proximity to their grandfather, were drawing near. She had a gentle word of caution or chiding to each, and then she said softly to Katie:
"You'll go up the brae with your grandfather and help him if there is anything wrong with old Kelso. And cheer him up, my lassie. Tell him about the meeting, and the Sunday-school; say anything you think of to hearten him. You ken well how to do it."
"But, grannie," said Katie, startled, "there is nothing wrong, is there?"
"Wrong," repeated her grandmother. "Ken you anything wrong, lassie, that you go white like that?"
The brave old woman grew white herself as she asked, but she stood between Katie and the rest, that none might see.
"I ken nothing, grannie, only grandfather didna bide to the meeting to-day, Ben told me."
"Didna bide to the meeting? Where went he, then? He has only just come home."
"It was because of Jacob Holt," Ben said.
"But Katie, my woman, you had no call surely to speak about the like of that to Ben Holt?"
"I didna, grannie. I just heard him and came away. And, grannie, I think maybe grandfather was at Pine-tree Hollow. It would be for a while's peace, you ken, as the bairns were at home."
"Pine-tree Hollow! Well, and why not?" said grannie, too loyal to the old man to let Katie see that she was startled by her words. "It has been for a while's peace, as you say. And now you'll run up the brae after him, and take no heed, but wile him from his vexing thoughts, like a good bairn as you are."
"And there's nothing wrong, grannie?" said Katie, wistfully.
"Nothing more than usual; nothing the Lord doesna ken o', my bairn. Run away and speak to him, and be blithe and douce, and he'll forget his trouble with your hand in his."
Katie's voice was like a bird's as she called: "Grandfather, grandfather, bide for me."
The old man turned and waited for her.
"Doesna your grandmother need you, nor your mother, and can you come up the brae with that braw gown on?"
Katie smiled and took his hand.
"My gown will wash, and I'll take care, and grannie gave me leave to come."
And so the two went slowly up the hill, saying little, but content with the silence. When they came back again Mrs Fleming, who was waiting for them at the door, felt her burden lightened, for her first glance at her husband's face told her he was comforted.
"My bonny Katie, gentle and wise, a bairn with the sense of a woman," said she to herself, but she did not let her tenderness overflow. "We have gotten the milking over without you, Katie, my woman. And now haste you and take your supper, for it is time for the bairns' catechism and we mustna keep your grandfather waiting."
That night when Ben Holt went home he found the house dark and apparently forsaken. Miss Betsey sat rocking in her chair in solitude and darkness, and she rocked on, taking no notice when Ben came in.
"Have you got a sick headache, Aunt Betsey?" said Ben after a little; he did not ask for information, but for the sake of saying something to break the ominous silence. He knew well Aunt Betsey always had a sick headache and was troubled when he had been doing wrong.
"I shall get over it, I expect, as I have before; talking won't help it."
Ben considered the matter a little. "I don't know that," said he, "it depends some on what there is to say, and you don't need to have sick headache this time, for I haven't been doing anything that you would think bad."
Miss Betsey laughed unpleasantly.
"What has that to do with it?"
"Well, I haven't been doing anything bad, anyhow."
"Only just breaking Sunday in the face and eyes of all Gershom. You are not a child to be punished now. Go to bed."
"I don't know about breaking Sunday; I didn't any more than old Mr Fleming. He didn't care about going to Jacob's meeting, and no more did Clif and me. We went along a piece, and then we went to the Scott school-house to meeting. It was a first-rate meeting."
"What about Mr Fleming; has he and Jacob been having trouble?" asked Miss Betsey, forgetting in her curiosity her controversy with Ben.
"Nothing new, I don't suppose. And Clif, he says that he don't believe but what Jacob'll do the right thing, and he says he'll see to it himself."
"There, that'll do," interrupted Miss Betsey. "If Clifton Holt was to tell you that white was black you'd believe him."
"I'd consider it," said Ben, gravely.
"If you want any supper it's in the cupboard," said Miss Betsey, rising, "I've had supper and dinner too, up to Mr Fleming's, and we went to meeting at the Scott school-house. It wasn't Clif's fault this time, Aunt Betsey, and we haven't done anything very bad either. And Clif, he's going to be awful steady, I expect, and stick to his books more than a little, and he sent his respects to you, Aunt Betsey, and he says—"
"There, that'll do. Go to bed if you don't want to drive me crazy."
"I'll go to bed right off if you'll come and take away my candle, Aunt Betsey. No, I don't want a candle; but if you'll come in and tuck me up as you used to, for I haven't been doing anything this time, nor Clif either. Will you, Aunt Betsey?"
"Well, hurry up, then," said Aunt Betsey, with a break in her voice, "for this day has been long enough for two, and I'm thankful it's done," and then she added to herself:
"I sha'n't worry about him if I can help it. But it is so much more natural for boys to go wrong than to go right, that I can't help it by spells. After all I've seen, it isn't strange either."
"Ben," said she, when she took his candle in a little while, "you mustn't think you haven't done wrong because the day turned out better than it might have done. It only happened so. It was Sabbath-breaking all the same to leave meeting and go up the river. There, I aint going to begin again. But wrong is wrong, and sin is sin whichever way it ends."
"That's so," said Ben, penitently.
"And there is only one way for sin to end, however it may look at the beginning, and it won't help you to have Clif fall into the same condemnation. There, good-night."
"I don't know about that last," said Ben to himself. "It would seem kind o' good to have Clif round 'most anywhere. But he's going to work straight this time, I expect, and I guess he'll have all the better chance to walk straight too."
The event of the summer to the people of Gershom was the coming of the new minister. It is not to be supposed that with a population of a good many hundreds there was uniformity of opinion in religious matters in the town. To say nothing of the North Gore people, the people of Gershom generally believed in the right of private judgment, and exercised it to such purpose that, within the limits of the township, at least a half dozen denominations were represented. The greater number of these, however, had not had much success in establishing their own peculiar form of worship, except for a little while at a time, and the greater part of the people were at this time more or less closely identified with the village corporation. So that it is scarcely an exaggeration to say, that all Gershom was moved to welcome the Reverend William Maxwell among them.
Never, except perhaps in their most confidential whispers among themselves, did the wise men of Gershom confess that they were disappointed in their minister. They had not expected perfection, or they said they had not, but each and every one of them had expected some one very different from the silent, sallow, heavy-eyed young man whom Jacob Holt, at whose home he was for the present to live, introduced to them.
Something had been said of the getting up of a monster tea-meeting to welcome him, but uncertainty in the time of his coming, because of illness, had prevented this, and as soon as he was seen there was a silent, but general decision among those in authority that this would not have been a successful measure. So he was conducted from house to house by Jacob Holt, or some other of the responsible people, and he was praised to his flock, and his flock were praised to him, but there was not much progress made toward acquaintance for a while, and even the least observing of them could see that there were times when contact with strangers, to say nothing of the necessity of making himself agreeable to them, was almost more than the poor young man could bear.
Still, nobody confessed to disappointment. On the contrary, Jacob Holt and the rest of the leaders of public opinion declared constantly that he was "the right man in the right place." Of Scottish parentage, brought up from his boyhood in Canada, and having received his theological education in the United States, if he were not the man to unite the various contending national elements in Gershom society, where was such a man to be found?
No man could have every gift, it was said, and whatever Mr Maxwell might seem to lack as to social qualities, he was a preacher. All agreed that his sermons were wonderful. It was the elaborately prepared discourses of his seminary days, that the young man moved by a vague, but awful dread of breaking down, gave to his people first. It was well that the learned professor's opinion of them and of their author had come to Gershom before him. There could be no doubt as to the sermons after that testimony, so it was no uncertain sound that went forth about his first pulpit efforts.
They were clear, they were logical, they were profound. Above all, they were pronounced by the orthodox North Gore people to be "sound." It is true he read them, but even that did not spoil them; and it was a decided proof that these people were sincere in their admiration, and in earnest in their desire for union and "the healing of breaches" that this was the case. In old times, that is, in the time of old Mr Grant, and old Mr Sangster, to be a "proper minister" was in their opinion to be a "dumb dog that could not bark," and such a one had ever been an object of compassion, not to say of contempt among them. But Mr Maxwell's sermons were worth reading, they said, and they waited. And so the first months were got safely over.
Safely, but, alas! not happily, for the young minister; scarcely recovered from severe illness, weak in body and desponding in mind, he had no power to accommodate himself to the circumstances toward which all the preparation and discipline of his life had been tending. Over a time of sickness and suffering he looked back to days of congenial occupation and companionship, with a regret so painful that the future seemed to grow aimless and hopeless in its presence. As men struggle in dreams with unseen enemies, so he struggled with the sense of unfitness for the work he had so joyfully chosen, and for which he had so earnestly prepared, with the fear that he had mistaken his calling, and that he might dishonour, by the imperfect fulfillment of his duty, the Master that he loved.
He despised himself for the weakness which made it a positive pain for him to come in contact with strangers with whom he had no power to make friends. He began to regard the hopes that had sustained him during the time of preparation, the pleasure he had taken in such remnants of other people's work in the way of preaching as had fallen to him as a student; and the encouragement which had been given to him as to his gifts and talents, as so many temptations of Satan. It was this sense of unfitness for his work that made him fall back at first on the sermons of his student days, and which made the pulpit services, praised by his hearers, seem to him like a mockery. It was a miserable time to him. He distrusted himself utterly, and at all points; which would not have been so bad a thing if he had not also distrusted his Master.
But such a state of things could not continue long. It must become either worse or better, and better it was to be. As Mr Maxwell's health improved, he became less despondent, and more capable of enjoying society. Clifton Holt was at home again, but no one, not even Miss Elizabeth, could have anticipated that he would be almost the first one in Gershom to put the minister for the moment at his ease.
Clifton had gone back to his college examinations at the appointed time; and had so far retrieved his character for steadiness and scholarship, that he was permitted to start fair another year, the last in his college course. He was now at home for the regular vacation, and was proving the sincerity and strength of his good resolutions to his sister's satisfaction, by remaining in Gershom, and contenting himself with the moderate enjoyments of such pleasures as village society, and the neighbouring woods and streams afforded.
Miss Elizabeth had seconded Jacob's rather awkward attempts to bring her brother and the young minister together, taking a vague comfort in the idea that the intercourse must do Clifton good. But as a general thing Clifton kept aloof a little more decidedly than she thought either kind or polite, so that it was a surprise to her, as well as a pleasure, when one night they came in together; and they had not been long in the house, before she saw that whether the minister was to do her brother good or not, her brother had already done good to the minister. They were dripping wet from a summer shower, that had overtaken them; but Mr Maxwell looked a good deal more like other people, Miss Elizabeth thought, than ever she had seen him look before.
"Mr Maxwell was in despair at the thought of venturing with muddy boots into Mrs Jacob's 'spick and span' house, so I brought him here," said Clifton. "We have been down at the Black Pool, and I have been taking a lesson in fly-fishing. We have earned our tea, and we are ready for it."
"And you shall have it. But I thought we were to—well, never mind. Go up-stairs and make yourselves comfortable, and tea will be ready when you come down."
"No one knows how to do things quite so well as Lizzie," said Clifton to himself, when they came down to find the tea-table laid, not in the great chilly dining-room, but in the smaller sitting-room, on the hearth of which a bright wood-fire was burning. The old squire had been examining their fish, and listened with almost boyish interest to his son's description of their sport. In the effort he made to entertain the old gentleman Mr Maxwell looked still more like other people, and Clifton's coat, which he wore, helped to the same effect.
"I stumbled over him lying on his face in Finlay's grove," said Clifton to his sister. "He would have run away, if I had not been too much for him. We borrowed Joe Finlay's rod, and he went fishing with me. It is a great deal better for him than being stunned by women's talk at Mrs Jacob's."
"Yes, the sewing-circle!" said Elizabeth, "What will Mrs Jacob say? Did he forget it? Of course he was expected home."
"He said nothing about it, nor did I. Jacob asked me to go over in the evening. Why are you not there?"
"I have been there all the afternoon. I came home to make father's tea. I told Mrs Jacob I would go back. I am afraid Mr Maxwell's coming here to-night will offend her."
"Of course, but what if it does?"
"And do you like him? Does he improve on acquaintance?"
"He turns out to be flesh and blood, not a skin stuffed with logic, and the odds and ends of other people's theological opinions. He is a dyspeptic being, homesick and desponding, but he is a man. And look here, Lizzie; if you really want to do a good work, you must take him in hand, and not let Mrs Jacob, and the deacons, and all the rest of them sit on him."
"How am I to help it, if such be their pleasure?"
"I have helped it to-night. Don't say a word about the sewing-circle, lest his conscience should take alarm. I hope I shall see Mrs Jacob's face when she hears that he has spent the evening here."
"I don't care for Mrs Jacob, but I am afraid the people may be disappointed." For in Gershom the ladies met week by week in each other's houses to sew for the benefit of some good cause, and their husbands and brothers came to tea in the evening, and there was to be a more than usually large gathering on this occasion, Elizabeth knew. "However, I am not responsible," thought she.
So she said nothing, and her father in a little while said rather querulously, that he hoped she was not going out again.
"Not if you want me, father. It will not matter much, I suppose."
"You will not be missed," said her brother.
Mr Maxwell did not seem to think it was a matter with which he had anything to do. He made no movement to go away when tea was over, and Elizabeth put away all thought of the disappointment of the people assembled, and of her sister-in-law's displeasure, and enjoyed the evening. Mr Maxwell seemed to enjoy it too, though he did not say much. Clifton kept himself within bounds, and was amusing without being severe or disagreeable in his descriptions of some of the village customs and characters, and though he said some things to the minister that made his sister a little anxious and uncomfortable for the moment, she could see that their interest in each other increased as the evening wore on.
It came out in the course of the conversation that Mr Maxwell had made the acquaintance of Ben Holt in his rambles, but he had never been at the Hill-farm, and had very vague ideas as to the Hill Holts or their circumstances, or as to their relationship to the Holts of the village. Clifton professed to be very much surprised.
"Has not Mrs Jacob introduced you to Cousin Betsey? Has she not told you how many excellent qualities Cousin Betsey has? Only just a little set in her ways," said Clifton, imitating so exactly Mrs Jacob's voice and manner, that no one could help laughing.
"Cousin Betsey is rather set in her ways, and not always agreeable in her manners to Mrs Jacob," said Elizabeth. "But you are not to make Mr Maxwell suppose that there is any disagreement between them."
"By no means. They are the best of friends when they keep apart, and they don't meet often. Mrs Jacob has company when the sewing-circle is to meet at the Hill, and when it meets at Mrs Jacob's, Betsey has a great soap-making to keep her at home, or a sick headache, or something. To tell the truth, Cousin Betsey does not care a great deal about any of her village relations, except the squire. But she is a good soul, and a pillar in the church, though she says less about it than some people. I'll drive you over to the farm some day. Cousin Betsey will put you through your catechism, I can tell you, if she happens to be in a good humour."
Mr Maxwell laughed. "I have had some experience of that sort of thing already," said he. "But I fear it has not been a satisfactory affair to any one concerned."
"Cousin Betsey will manage better," said Clifton.
They went to the Hill at the time appointed, and the visit, and some others that they made, were so far successful that the minister took real pleasure in them, and that was more than could be said of any visit he had made before. Miss Betsey did not put him through his catechism in Clifton's presence; that ceremony was reserved for a future occasion. She was rather stiff and formal in her reception of them, but she thawed out and consented to be pleased and interested before the after noon was over. She smiled and assented with sufficient graciousness when Clifton not only bespoke Ben's company, on an expedition with gun and rod, which he and Mr Maxwell were going to make further down the river, but he invited himself and the minister to tea on their way home.
"For you know, Cousin Betsey, that Ben and I won't be very likely to get into mischief in the minister's company, and you can't object to our going this time."
"If anybody doesn't object to the minister's going in your company. That is the thing to be considered, I should say," said Cousin Betsey, smiling grimly.
"Oh, cousin! do you mean that going fishing with me will compromise the minister? No wonder that you are afraid to trust me with Ben. But I say that a day in the woods with Ben and me will do Mr Maxwell more good than two or three tea-meetings or sewing-circles. Only you have a good supper ready for us, and I will bring him home hungry as a hunter."
"Which hasn't happened very often to him of late, if one may judge from his looks," said Miss Betsey.
"No, he ought to be living here at the Hill. It would suit him better than Jacob's. And when are you coming to see us? Lizzie wanted to come with us to-day, but she was afraid you wouldn't be glad to see her. You never come to our house, and she mustn't do all the visiting. And, besides, you don't ask her."
"It aint likely that she'll be so hard up for something to amuse her, that she'll want to fall back on a visit to the Hill. But if she should be, she can come along over, and try how it would seem to visit with mother and Cynthy and me. She'll always find some of us here."
"All right. I'll tell her you asked her, and she'll be sure to come."
The success of this visit encouraged Clifton to try more in the minister's company. For a reason that it was not difficult to understand, Jacob in his rounds had not taken him to visit at Mr Fleming's, nor had any one else, and Clifton, remembering his own visit there, took the introduction of Mr Maxwell at Ythan Brae into his own hands, and Elizabeth went with him. They sailed up the river, and went through the woods as he and Ben had done. It was a lovely autumn day, but there were few tokens of decay in the woods and fields through which they took their way, and they lingered in the sweet air with a pleasure that made them unconscious of the flight of time, and the afternoon was far spent before they sat down to rest on the rocky knoll where Clifton in Ben's company had renewed his acquaintance with the Fleming children. The remembrance of the time and the scene came back so vividly, that he could not help telling his companions about it. Elizabeth's face clouded as he repeated Katie's words about "those avaricious Holts" which had brought him to a sense of the indiscretion he was committing in listening.
"The Flemings are hard upon Jacob. Mr Maxwell might have been more fortunate in his escort," said she.
"Nonsense, Lizzie! Mrs Fleming is far too sensible to confound us with Jacob; and, Lizzie, you used to be a pet of hers."
"Yes," said Elizabeth, "long ago."
And as they lingered, she went on to tell them about the Flemings, and their opinions and manner of life, and about the troubles which had fallen on them. She grew earnest as she went on, telling about poor Hugh whom everybody had loved so well, whom she herself remembered as the handsomest, gentlest, and best of all those who had frequented their house, when her brothel Jacob was young and she was a child; and in her earnestness she said some things that surprised her brother as he listened.
"My father and Mr Fleming were always friendly, and sometimes I went with my father to their house. I did not often see Mr Fleming, but I remember his coming into the room one day, when I was sitting on a low stool, holding the first baby of his son's family in my lap. She was a lovely little creature, little Katie, just beginning to coo, and murmur, and smile at me with her bonny blue eyes, and I suppose the child, and my pride and delight in her, must have been a pretty sight to see, for the grandfather sat down beside us, and smiled as he looked and listened, and made some happy, foolish talk with us both. My father was very much surprised, he told me afterward; and in a little while, when I went into another room, I found Mrs Fleming crying, with her apron over her face. But they were happy tears, for she smiled when she saw us, and clasped and kissed baby and me, with many sweet Scottish words of endearment to us both. It was the first time she had seen her husband smile since their troubles, she said. The dark cloud was lifting, and wee Katie's smile would bring sunshine again. I was a favourite with her a long time after that, but we have fallen out of acquaintance of late."