THE ALCHEMIST'S SECRET BY ISABEL CECILIA WILLIAMS
P. J. KENEDY & SONS 44 BARCLAY STREET, NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY P. J. KENEDY & SONS.
THE PASSING OF TONY 11 THE TRAMP 27 "HE HATH PUT DOWN THE MIGHTY" 42 A MEMORABLE CHRISTMAS MORNING 58 NANCY'S TALE 72 PATSY 88 THREE EVENINGS IN A LIFE 103 THE ELEVENTH HOUR 116 THE STORY OF JULIE BENOIT 130 PETER 150 GOD'S WAY 165
THE PASSING OF TONY.
"Last mail in, Mis' Bascomb?"
"Last mail's in, Tony."
"Be there anything for me to-night?"
Widow Bascomb knew perfectly well there was not, but she reached for a small pile of letters in a pigeonhole on her right and glanced over them rapidly. Her sour visage and rasping voice softened perceptibly as she smiled on the little old man before her.
"Sorry, Tony, there's nothing for you to-night."
"Thank you, Mis' Bascomb, p'raps it'll come to-morrow," and Tony turned away with a sigh and moved towards the door.
A group of men were gathered around the stove, smoking and exchanging the gossip of the town. These greeted him kindly as he passed and he returned the greetings half absently. Before opening the door, the old man stopped to give his woolen muffler one more turn around his neck.
"Purty cold snap, this," he remarked to the company in general. "Looks as if we'd have snow 'fore mornin' and a white Christmas after all. Good-night, Mis' Bascomb; good-night boys. A merry Christmas to you all!" and Tony stepped out into the frosty air of the December evening.
He sighed again as he turned up over the hill to the left and started for home. It had been a long, cold walk down to the village, and it would be equally long and even colder on the way back, for a sharp wind was blowing directly in his face. It was a bad night for an old man like Tony to be abroad and he was almost sorry that he had ventured out. But there was his promise to Martha; it would never do to break that. Martha had always been of a more hopeful turn of mind than he, anyway. While she was still alive she had imparted to him the same spirit of trust and hopefulness which shone in her steady gray eyes, but since God had taken Martha and left him all alone in the world of care and trouble, life had been hard indeed.
He had promised Martha never to omit the daily visit to the post-office to inquire for the letter which, thus far, had failed to arrive. Martha had been so sure that Sallie would write to them some day; Sallie, their handsome, wilful daughter, who had passed out of their lives nearly fifteen years before. He never blamed Sallie for wanting to leave them; what could a tiny village like this offer to one as clever, as pretty, as ambitious as Sallie had been? The neighbors had said many unkind things of Sallie but he heeded them not. They had called her vain, idle and silly; they said the folks at the big house had spoiled her and put notions into her head. They told him he did a foolish thing when he allowed her to go as maid to the lady of the big house over on the shores of the lake, and to go down to the city with the family when they moved home in the autumn. To tell the truth, poor Tony had little voice in the matter. Sallie, as usual, had taken affairs into her own hands and decided for herself.
Nearly fifteen years! It was a long, long time; and never a word from the truant since the day she had left the village. Martha had waited, at first impatiently, then anxiously, and finally with a pathetic hopefulness that was more than half assumed. It was she who had insisted that Tony must go to the office every day, and during those long years, every evening, rain or shine, the same little scene was enacted in the village post-office. Every evening he had the same story of failure to report.
"No letter to-night, mother."
"Never mind, father; it'll sure come to-morrow," and Martha would sigh and clasp her hands in her lap.
Presently, by the movement of her lips he would know she was praying for the absent one. He would lay aside his pipe, fetch his beads, and together they would say the Rosary, begging the blessed Mother of God to keep special watch over their child. She was the only one they had left, four little white stones marking the resting-place of the four little angels who had been permitted to remain with them for only such a very short space of time.
Martha was sleeping now beside her babies and he was alone in the world; for who could tell what had become of Sallie? She, too, might be at rest in God's Acre. Sometimes he felt that she must be, or surely, surely, some word would have come from her. She must have known how anxiously they would watch for news of her, and certainly she would not be so heartless as to keep silence all this long time.
Perhaps she had written and the letter failed to reach them. Well, whatever the trouble was, Tony had long since given up all hope of hearing from her, but, because of his promise to Martha, he still made his nightly visit to the post-office in the village. Had it not been for that promise he would certainly not take that long walk day after day, in summer heat and winter storms, for hope had long since died in Tony's heart. At least, so he told himself, but somehow the walk home always seemed twice as long as the walk down, after hearing those depressing words "No letter to-night, Tony."
Of late, the daily visit to the village had been almost more than the old man's failing strength had been able to support. How often he wished he had not been obliged to sell Lassie. She was the last of his horses to go; the last, in fact, of all his possessions. There was nothing left to him now but the old house, and that was in such a state of dilapidation as to be really unfit for habitation. In the old days, his dogs and his horses were better housed than he was now; in the old days, when his farm was one of the most prosperous in that section of the country. It was lonely indeed since Martha went away, but he was glad she had not lived to see him brought to this pass. He was glad he had been able to surround her with comforts up to the very end, though to do so he had been obliged to sell timber-land, horses, cows, everything he owned, one after another.
But Martha never knew; patient, suffering Martha, confined to her room by illness for many years before God had sent her release from pain. Thank God, Martha never knew; she had trouble enough without worrying over their poverty. Her room was always bright, always cheerful; her favorite flowers blossomed in the window, a fire of logs burned cosily upon the hearth. The neighbors were kind in helping him to care for her, in bringing her little delicacies to tempt an invalid's appetite; fresh eggs, chickens, new lettuce, which Martha supposed had come from their own farm.
It would never do to let her know that all their land was gone, all save that upon which the house stood and Martha's flower garden which stretched from her windows to the road. How he had worked in that garden, cultivating the flowers she loved to see growing there. Sometimes he would lift her from the bed and place her in the large chair by the window, where she could watch him at his work; where she could watch, too, the road that led from the village. Often, he would glance up from his spading to meet her brave, cheery smile that sweetened all his labor; oftener still, it would be to find her eyes fixed upon that long, dusty line that wound over hill and valley, in and out through orchards and corn fields, the road that led to the village and thence to the city beyond. He knew her mind had gone out into the wide, busy world, of which an occasional echo would reach them, gone out in a vain effort to guess at the whereabouts of the girl who had passed down that country road so many years ago never to return. To the very end, Martha had never ceased hoping, never ceased praying for the return of the wanderer, or at least for some word of assurance that all was well with her.
By the time Tony reached the dismantled farmhouse the snow was falling thickly, silently, on all around.
"Twill be a bad storm," thought Tony. "God pity any who are abroad this night."
Pushing open the kitchen door he entered quickly, divesting himself of cap, muffler, and ragged overcoat, and hanging them near the stove to dry. He lighted the lamp and threw some wood upon the fire which had burned low. Then, turning, he spied for the first time, a basket upon the table. A pleased smile overspread his face. So they had not forgotten, after all! How he and Martha had always watched for that Christmas basket from Cousin John's folks over at the market town! It was not so much the value of the gift, for John was not over-plentifully blessed with the goods of this world and had a large family dependent upon him. It was more the fact of being remembered kindly, the knowledge that there was still some one who thought of them occasionally.
He commenced unpacking the basket and arranging the contents upon the table: home-baked bread, pies, cakes; a package of tea, another of tobacco; oranges, nuts, candy; warm mittens and socks that John's wife had knit for him. She was a good woman, John's wife, kind-hearted and thoughtful; she must have guessed how badly he needed socks and mittens now that Martha was no longer there to make them for him. He started for the cupboard, a pie in one hand, a loaf of bread in the other, then stopped in the middle of the room and eyed them meditatively. What was it Martha used to say?
"Never, never let Christmas pass without doing something for some one. No matter how poor one may be, Tony, they're always others poorer still. If it be no more'n a loaf of bread, give something to the poor at Christmas time in the name of the little Babe that had none but the shepherds to do a hand's turn for Him."
Each year he and Martha had found some one to whom they gave in the Christ-Child's name, for the sake of the girl who was never absent from their thoughts by day or by night. Even last year, as poor as he was, he had met with one more needy still and sent him on his way rejoicing—a poor lad, out of work, out of money, tramping from city to city in search of employment. They had taken him in for Sallie's sake, given him food and shelter, and when the boy left the farm a silver dollar, nearly the last of Tony's small store, was pressed into his hand. The dollar had been returned, for at the next town the object of Tony's charity had found steady work. That was last year. This Christmas he was not doing a thing for any one; he had forgotten completely, probably because Martha was not there to remind him.
He placed the bread and the pie back upon the table and stood looking at them long and earnestly. He knew of one who needed them far more than he did, a poor widow over in "the hollow," whose five small children, sickly, starved little creatures, were more than half the time crying with cold and hunger. He opened the package of tobacco, filled his pipe and sat down in his chair by the stove to smoke and think.
How those poor children would enjoy the bread and pies and cakes which John's wife had sent him! Poor little things, they seldom, if ever, tasted fare like that. He really did not need them; he managed to get along pretty well and the neighbors were all good to him; especially since Martha died. He would really be glad to give those children something, but he was so tired, so tired, and it was quite a walk over to the hollow.
Then, the storm! How the wind shrieked and tore around the house, and how steadily the snow beat against the window panes! It was warm and comfortable there by the fire, but outside——. And he was unusually tired to-night; that walk to the village had been almost too much for him. Besides, he must be up in time for first Mass in the morning; he had never missed first Mass and Holy Communion on Christmas since the day he and Martha were married. Year after year, they had knelt side by side at God's altar; for many years Sallie had knelt there with him; now he was all alone but he meant to continue the custom for Martha's sake.
How the storm did rage, to be sure; but those poor children, those poor little children! Perhaps somewhere in the wide world his Sallie was in need of help and comfort this night and those who might give it to her were too tired or too lazy. He guessed that was the trouble, he was growing lazy in his old age. Well, he would do this for Sallie; it would be one more little sacrifice added to the many which he and Martha had offered for their wandering child, that God might keep guard over her wherever she might be. Yes, he would do it for Sallie's sake and to please Martha. From Heaven she was watching him and would know that to please her and for the sake of their child he was going to brave the storm once more and carry a little Christmas happiness to those poor children over in the hollow. The walk over and back again would not hurt him; he was growing old and lazy, that was all.
But first he must light the lamp. Dear, dear, he was growing forgetful as well as lazy. He had nearly forgotten to light Sallie's lamp. What would Martha say to that? Every night as soon as dusk had fallen, Martha had insisted upon placing a lamp in the window of what had once been Sallie's room. If the child came back unexpectedly, she would see the light shining from her window and know they were waiting and watching for her. The room itself was as she had left it years ago, her clothes still hanging in the closet, her slippers laid ready for the tired feet to slip into them, the fire on the hearth all prepared against the day of her home-coming, and by night the lamp in the window shining a welcome that could be seen afar down the road that led from the village. He must light Sallie's lamp, then off once more into the storm and darkness to carry a bit of Christmas cheer to the little home in the hollow.
Nearly an hour later, a thoroughly worn-out but very happy old man sat by the stove in the farmhouse kitchen. He was too tired even to light his pipe; he simply sat there and tried to rest. It had been a hard fight against the storm, but how pleased those poor little children were! Well, he had done it for Sallie, just one more little sacrifice for Sallie who was somewhere out there in the cold, weary world, far from the home of her childhood, far from the ones who loved her best.
Sallie gone? Sallie far away in the storm and darkness? Why no, of course not. Sallie was only a little child sleeping quietly in her own little room. See, the door was ajar and a ray of light from the lamp in Sallie's room was streaming across the kitchen floor. He must go in and extinguish the light before it awakened the sleeping child. Why had Martha left the lamp burning? Surely she must know it would disturb the child. Well, as soon as he was rested he would go and put it out.
How tired, how tired he did feel! He'd worked pretty hard to-day, and the sun had been hot, so hot. Well, never mind, the hay was all cut now, a few more days like this and his barn would be filled with the finest hay in the country. A few more years like this one and he would be the richest farmer hereabouts. For himself, he did not care, and Martha had simple tastes like his own. But there was Sallie. She was only a wee tot now but she would be a woman some day. They must give Sallie all the advantages they had missed; they must lay by money against the time when Sallie would be a grown up woman and want things like other girls of her age.
What ailed him, anyway, that a day's work in the hay field should make him feel like this, so tired, so very tired?
He felt a little better now; he would rest a few moments more, then be off home to supper and to Martha and Sallie. But who was that calling to him? Why, Martha, to be sure, standing there by the five-barred gate. She had come to meet him with their baby in her arms. That was strange; it was not Sallie, it was their first-born, the boy with his mother's eyes who had blessed their home for only a few short months and then been laid to rest in the churchyard on the hill. The other little tots were with her, three of them, clinging closely to her skirts. They were all smiling and holding out their hands to him in invitation. But Sallie, where was Sallie? Once more Martha called his name. At the sound of her voice all the wonder, all the worriment, fled from Tony's heart.
"Coming, Mother, coming," he called happily, and the smile upon Martha's face was reflected on his own.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear; the storm had passed in the night. Something else had passed, too—the soul of an aged farmer. It was not until the next day they found him, still sitting in the lounging chair by the stove in which only a small heap of charred ashes remained. They looked upon that serenely smiling face, then from one to another, and sadly shook their heads. One of their number stepped forward and with trembling fingers placed in the stiff, cold hand of old Tony, the letter for which he had watched through long and weary years, the letter that had come too late.
Too late? Nay, not so. Those standing by could not see, as Tony saw, the woman who lay dying in the great hospital down in the city. They could not see, as Tony saw, the last rites of the Church administered, the Sisters of Charity bending near praying, praying for that soul about to depart upon its last long journey. They could not hear, as Tony heard, the pale lips speaking their final words:
"You wrote the letter, Sister?"
"I wrote the letter, dear. It must have reached them by now."
"You told them I was dying? You asked them to forgive?"
"I told them all and I'm sure they have forgiven already."
"Dear father and mother! God bless them both! God have mercy upon me!"
They could not know, but Tony knew. Perhaps that explained the smile on Tony's face, the smile they could not comprehend.
"A pretty tough looking character, that! But I suppose you see a great many just such specimens in this quaint little town of yours."
Father Antony's back was turned to the speaker and for several moments he remained standing at the top of the veranda steps, following with his eyes the slouching figure that had just passed through the gate and was tramping slowly along the county road. Then, with a sigh he returned to his seat and, running his fingers through his hair, remarked half absently:
"Poor fellow, he looked almost exhausted. I tried to persuade him to remain here a little longer and rest for a spell. What a life theirs is! Some of them, of course, really enjoy it, but others——. Ah, me! those poor others. And somehow that tramp who has just left us seems to me to belong to the latter class rather than to the former. But pardon me, Father, what was it you were just saying? I was so interested in my tramp that I failed to catch your words."
"I merely remarked," returned the younger priest, smiling, "that you must see a great many of these nomadic individuals in this quaint little town of yours. I have been here but a week and that is the sixth villainous looking rascal who has presented himself and demanded something to eat."
"Yes, a large number of tramps pass through here in the course of a year, for we are on the direct road between the two largest cities of the State. Many of them are, as you say, villainous looking, but I do not think they are half as bad as they look. In fact, in some cases, I have found them to be pretty good fellows once you had passed the rough exterior and reached the real man underneath."
"You must have had some very interesting experiences with these tramps of yours; have you not, Father?" asked the younger man curiously. "I wish you would tell me some of them."
Father Anthony shifted his chair so as to command a better view of the road. He watched in meditative silence until the tramp had become a mere blot upon the whiteness of the dusty road and had finally disappeared over the brow of a distant hill. Then he spoke in tones of reminiscence:
"It was on just such a May evening as this, clear and beautiful only much cooler, that I sat in this very chair and watched the road as I am doing now. But on that evening I watched anxiously, divided between hopes and fears, for the figure that was so long in coming; I was watching for Jim, the tramp. Jim had promised faithfully, but with some men promises are made only to be broken. I began to fear that Jim was one of these. Still I prayed fervently and continued to hope, though the twilight deepened and brought no sign of my vagrant.
"My meeting with Jim had come about in this way. For some time I had been playing a game of hide and seek with a certain backsliding member of my congregation. The hiding was all on his side, the seeking on mine. Try as I would I could not seem to obtain an interview with him. He was never at home when I called; so I decided that my only chance of coming to close quarters with the enemy was to surprise him at his work. That afternoon I had gone to the quarries and found my man superintending the gang in charge of the stone-crusher. He certainly was surprised and not very pleased to see me, and all I could obtain from him after more than an hour of argument and pleading was a promise that 'he would think about it.' The 'it' referred to the making of his Easter duty, the time for which had nearly expired. Bitterly disappointed, and with a feeling of utter defeat, I was turning away when my steps were arrested by a not unpleasant voice:
"'Why don't you try your hand on me, Father? I'm a black enough sheep to keep you busy for a few moments anyway.'
"I wheeled around and found myself confronted by a short, thick-set man of most unattractive appearance, a man whom you would scarce choose as a companion along a lonely road at night. At a glance I sized up my new acquaintance: a typical tramp who had taken a job at stoking the engine to vary the monotony of the road. He was no professional 'hobo,' but belonged to that class who take to tramping from necessity rather than from choice—a too great love for the bottle being the necessity. They find an odd job here and there, hold it until pay day, squander the month's earnings in the nearest saloon, then on again in search of a job somewhere else.
"I am well acquainted with these men, but there was something about the rough looking specimen before me, a certain something in his manner, in his speech, in the twinkle of his eyes, which set him apart from the rest of his class. A grizzled beard of iron grey concealed the lower half of his face, and the right temple and cheek were disfigured by a scar which gave the countenance a decidedly sinister appearance. In spite of that I felt that the man before me had at one time been accustomed to a very different life from the one he was leading now.
"'Why don't you try your hand on me, Father?' he repeated, and the smile accompanying the words made the ugly face almost pleasing.
"There was not time for a lengthy conversation, the engine requiring constant attention, but the tramp volunteered the information that he answered to the name of Jim, and promised to report at the rectory in the evening and give me a chance to try my hand on him.
"In the evening, then, I sat and waited, half fearing that he had changed his mind and would not come. But just as the first pale stars began to twinkle in the sky Jim pushed open the gate and I went to meet him with both hands extended in warmest welcome. He gave me his left hand, and for the first time I noticed that the right was gone—amputated at the wrist. Jim saw my glance of shocked pity and smiled as he said calmly:
"'It was the drink did it, Father—the hand and this scar on my face. I'd been hitting it up pretty lively and didn't realize where I was walking. The track wasn't wide enough for me and the train. One of us had to get off, and as the engine was the stronger of the two—well, you see the result before you.'
"'How long have you been tramping, Jim?' I asked.
"'More years than I care to think of now, Father. The drink again. In fact, it's been the drink at every turn; it's ruined my life, made a complete fool of me. But let's get down to business; only, you'll have to help me out, it's so long since I went to confession I've almost forgotten how.'
"'Come into the house or the confessional in the church,' I suggested.
"'The house or the confessional in the church? No, thank you, Father. My little friends up yonder, those pretty, sparkling stars, my only companions on many a lonely night, have been the witnesses of my degradation. Let them now behold my restoration to the favor of the God whom I've offended.'
"Strange words, those, from a tramp, and I marveled at them. Without more ado we 'got down to business,' and it was nearly two hours later when we parted at the gate. In answer to a question of mine, Jim replied whimsically:
"'Where do I live while I'm working on this job? Well, you see, Father, I am rather particular with regard to my lodgings, and as there is nothing around here that quite suits me, I just crawl under the engine and sleep there.'
"'But when it rains, Jim?'
"'Well, it just rains, that's all.'
"The next morning Jim attended my Mass and received Holy Communion, and every morning after that when I entered the church to offer up the Holy Sacrifice the first person I would see would be my one-armed tramp kneeling in a far corner, his rosary slipping through his fingers. The rosary had belonged to his mother, and during all his years of tramping he had guarded it as his most precious treasure. He had worn it in a little chamois bag suspended from a string around his neck, but had not used it in many, many years. He came regularly one evening in each week to make his confession and to have a little chat with me. As the summer progressed I wondered more and more at this strange new acquaintance of mine; this rough looking tramp with the manners of a gentleman and the speech, except for a few lapses in the vernacular of the road, of a man of considerable education. The oddest thing of all was the feeling I had that somewhere, at some time, Jim and I had met before. Little tricks of voice and expression would seem strangely familiar.
"The summer gradually faded into autumn, and one evening in late September when I stood at the gate to say good-night to my tramp, he remarked sadly:
"'This is good-by as well as good-night, Father. I have given up my work here and am off early in the morning.'
"'Not the road again!' I cried, and the next second would have given anything to recall the thoughtless words. A pained look crossed Jim's face, but he answered quietly:
"'No, Father, not the road. Never again shall I return to that life. I have saved my wages this summer and am going back into the world to begin life all over again. This time, with God's help, I shall not make such a muddle of it as I did before.'
"The next day he was gone, and many a night as I sat over my study-fire reading or trying to work up my sermon for Sunday, my thoughts would stray from the subject in hand and wander out into the world in search of my friend the tramp. I would listen to the wintry blasts whistling down my chimney and wonder where Jim was, and wonder still more at his complete silence. Surely he might let me know if all were well with him. Had he persevered? Or had he, perhaps, lapsed into his former ways, and was he, even now, tramping the highways and byways?
"Winter passed and spring came; still no news of Jim. Another summer, another fall, another winter. Silence, absolute silence on the part of my tramp. Then, one evening in May, exactly two years from the day when I first met him, Jim stood before me once again. I recognized him by the missing right hand and the scar on the temple. Aside from those two points and the old merry twinkle in his eye he bore absolutely no resemblance to my tramp of two years ago. The face was smooth shaven, the bloat, caused by years of drinking, had all disappeared, and he looked at least ten years younger than my former friend. His ragged tramp's garb had been replaced by neat garments such as a fairly prosperous business man might wear. His whole appearance seemed to indicate that Jim had done well in the world to which he had returned. Sitting in the garden, he told me all about it.
"Yes, he had done well. It had been hard at first, oh! very hard. There had been a time when, his savings all gone and no employment in sight, he had faced actual starvation. But the darkest hour comes before dawn, and that had been Jim's darkest hour. From then on things began to mend. He had obtained a good situation and was happy in it. He had not written because for long, for so very long, he had no news but bad news to send. There was nothing but ill-luck and misfortune to report, and he waited from day to day hoping things would brighten. Then, when the unexpected stroke of good luck came, he decided to wait yet a little longer until he could bring me the good news in person.
"All the time he was talking I watched his face carefully. That puzzling, baffling resemblance to some one whom I had known was stronger than ever since the beard which concealed so much of his face had been removed. I became more and more convinced that we had met before, but when and where? I racked my memory, but the name, the personality I wanted, eluded my grasp. Something of my thoughts must have shown in my face, for when Jim finished his narrative he threw back his head, laughing merrily at my very evident perplexity.
"'It is really too bad to keep you guessing any longer, Father,' he said. 'Let me help you to remember when and where we met before. Listen and I will tell you a little story.
"'It is Commencement day at a certain large college in a certain city which we need not name. The graduating class have met together for the last time in their own particular class-room. The saintly, white-haired priest who has watched their progress step by step from the day they first entered college stands before them. He speaks words to them which brings tears to those young eyes, accustomed, as a rule, to looking only on the merry side of life. He speaks words of true affection, of gentle admonition and fatherly advice. He gives to each youth a tiny silver medal of our Blessed Mother, and exacts from each one a promise that he will faithfully carry that little medal until the day of his death.'
"As Jim spoke he took from an inner pocket a small medal of our Lady and laid it on the palm of his hand. I drew forth my rosary, and there, beside the crucifix, hung a medal the counterpart of Jim's. He smiled as he continued:
"'I see you remember now, Father, but listen just a little longer for my story is not finished. From that class-room those lads went forth into the busy world of men and of affairs. They went their separate ways, each one to fill that position in life to which he felt himself called, most of them fired by ambition and confident of success.
"'One of those young men left the college that night with his heart as buoyant and hopeful as any of his companions. Almost from the first, however, things seemed to go wrong with him. He was an orphan, father and mother having died a few years before. Perhaps if either parent had been at hand to warn him of the dangers into which he was drifting, his life might have been different. Perhaps, even if some one had warned him, the warning would have passed unheeded. He tried law for a time and did not like it; tried business and gave that up; drifted from one thing to another, always drifting lower, lower, until at last he found himself an outcast and a wanderer. For some years he lived the life of a vagrant. If at times a longing to return to better ways, a longing for all that might have been, stirred faintly within him, the feeling was quickly drowned by recourse to the one thing to which he remained faithful, the enemy that had brought about his ruin, drink.
"'During his wanderings he picked up odd jobs here and there, and one day he is taken on by the boss of the stone-crusher over there in those quarries of yours. They were badly in need of some one to stoke the engine, and even a rough looking tramp was welcome. That same day there comes to the place a certain priest who is searching for one of the stray sheep from his own fold. The tramp recognizes the priest at once, and the sight of that familiar face brings back the old, happy days of his innocent boyhood. The priest commences to speak; he pleads, he reasons with the boss of the stone-crusher. In spirit the tramp is once more back in the college chapel listening to the saintly old man who had been his guide and confidant in youth, and who had long since passed to his reward. The vague, discontented longing for better things rises up in full strength. After all, why not? The look on the priest's face as he turns away decides him. That look of bitter disappointment, of real grief, on the face of his old college friend is more than the tramp can stand. He speaks, the priest turns to him, and—well, the rest of the story you know for yourself, Father. That is, the rest as far as any mortal can relate it. The end is not yet, but I trust that end will be one which will satisfy even you.'"
Silence reigned for several moments, the fragrant silence of a warm May night. And then:
"I am sure it will, I am sure it will," mused Father Anthony, smiling confidently. "I have no fear as to what the end will be for Jim, my one-armed tramp."
"But the other man, Father, the boss of the stone-crusher? What has become of him?"
"Oh! that little game of hide and seek is still going on, but I have not lost hope even yet. God's mills grind slowly and we must abide His own good time, His own good time."
"HE HATH PUT DOWN THE MIGHTY."
"Magnificat anima mea Dominum." The exquisite voice rose and fell daintily on the incense-laden air.
"Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo," responded the chorus in triumphant harmony.
It was a Sunday evening in early June and the hour for Vesper service at Saint Zita's convent. Reverend Mother mounted the staircase leading to the chapel, then paused, with her hand upon the door, to listen as the wonderful soprano again took up the refrain:
"Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae."
"Poor child, poor child," whispered Reverend Mother, opening the door and gliding noiselessly to her stall, where she knelt with bowed head and prayed as she had never prayed before; prayed in fear and trembling for the future of the girl whose voice had earned for her the title of "the nightingale of Saint Zita's."
Reverend Mother had always dreaded the day when she must part with this dearly loved child who had been entrusted to her care some ten years before. A gentleman had come to Saint Zita's bringing with him his little daughter of six. A man of grave, even stern aspect, there was yet a look in his eyes which filled the nun's heart with a great pity; it was the look of one who had suffered deeply and in silence. He was a man of few words and his errand was quickly explained. He was obliged to be absent from home the greater part of the time and could not attend to the education of his little girl as he would like to do. His wife was not of our faith and was also too busily occupied to look after the child. He did not mention that her occupation was that of society butterfly, who sacrificed homelife, husband and child in the pursuit of pleasure. Would Reverend Mother kindly undertake the charge of his little Nita's education, spiritual as well as intellectual? Would she be to the child what father and mother ought to be and could not?
Reverend Mother had gladly undertaken the task, and since then Nita had never been separated from her even for a day. During the vacations, when other pupils scattered far and wide to their various homes, Nita had remained at the convent, roaming at will through the deserted class-room and beautiful grounds. She was the pet and darling of the entire community. In the long summer afternoons when the nuns carried their sewing out to the orchard behind the house, or to the pine grove on the hill, where one could obtain such a lovely view of the river, Nita would flit about amongst them like a veritable woodland fairy. Her snatches of song and merry laughter made sylvan echoes ring and brought smiles to the faces of the simple women who watched her with loving sympathetic glances.
Many a time, especially of late, had Reverend Mother looked at her with anxious foreboding in her eyes. What would the future hold for this child of hers, endowed as she was with singular beauty and a wonderful voice? She was a docile child, sunny and sweet-tempered, and that very pliancy of nature was what caused the nun many a moment of uneasiness. What would become of her once she had left the shelter of her convent home and was exposed to the influence of the light-hearted, merry, soulless mother from whom she had inherited her beauty; the mother whose only god was pleasure, whose one ambition was to be the best dressed, the most popular, the most envied woman in her set. The only hope lay in keeping Nita at the convent as long as possible, or at least until her character had developed sufficiently to enable her to enter her mother's world and hold her own against it. Still, Reverend Mother dreaded the day when she must part with her child, and now that the parting had come so unexpectedly, so much sooner than she had anticipated, it was doubly hard to bear.
The nun knelt in the chapel that June evening and prayed with all her heart, not only for the future of the girl whose voice filled the air with such exquisite melody, but also for help to break to that girl as gently as possible the sad news awaiting her. Word had just arrived that her father lay dangerously ill and Nita must hasten to his bedside if she wished to see him once more in this world. The carriage was waiting and Nita must go at once.
The Benediction over and the lights extinguished, all save the tiny radiance of the Sanctuary lamp, with a final appealing glance towards the Tabernacle door, Reverend Mother left the chapel, descended to her office, where she was accustomed to interview the pupils each in turn, and summoned Nita to her presence.
A little later she stood at the foot of the convent steps and watched the carriage drive away with a weeping, forlorn little figure huddled in one corner, while the good lay-sister who accompanied her vainly essayed words of cheer and consolation. She watched with tear-dimmed eyes as the carriage rolled rapidly down the avenue and out through the gate, then entered the house and repaired at once to her refuge in all trials and afflictions that might beset her way, the convent chapel. There, with her eyes on the little golden door behind which the dearest and best of Comforters is always waiting for the sorrowful, the sin-laden, the weary-hearted, to come to Him, she found consolation and peace. Her child was in the Lord's hands and surely in those hands she would be safe.
Many times have the June roses blossomed and fallen since the night on which Reverend Mother stood in the convent doorway and watched the departure of the carriage which was bearing her child away from her out into the world of suffering and sin. Once more, the June sunshine is flooding the land and the air is heavy with the odor of June blossoms. In a small town in the south of France, a young woman, gowned in deepest mourning, sits by her own casement and gazes gloomily, despairingly, out into the gathering twilight. On a table at her side is a small pile of money which she has counted over and over again in the vain hope that she may have made a mistake and that, perhaps, after all, the amount is not quite so small as she has made it out to be. That little pile of money represents her entire worldly wealth, and when it is gone what is to become of her? Work? She glances at the soft, delicate hands resting idly in her lap. Their whiteness is dazzling as compared with the black of her gown, and she smiles rather bitterly. What work could hands like those perform? They are beautiful certainly, but useless, absolutely useless, just as she herself is useless. There is not one thing by which she can earn her daily bread, and earn it she must or starve. To what a pass has she come; she, who at one time had wealth at her command and the world at her feet.
As she sits there, broken in spirit, broken in health, a middle-aged woman in appearance, while in years not much beyond her first youth, she recalls those triumphs of her past. Her success had been marvelous though short-lived. Her mind wanders back to the days when she was the pet and idol of musical Europe. The mere announcement that she was to sing would pack the largest opera house to the very doors. Ah! those days of triumph, when she had passed from one success to another, when the mighty ones of the earth were pleased to do her honor, when the incense of praise and flattery was burned day and night upon the shrine of her greatness. Her mother was with her then, the beautiful, fairylike little mother for whom her love had been almost worship. Her voice had been with her, too, that voice at which two continents had marveled. Both are gone now, the beautiful mother, the wonderful voice; gone, gone forever, and she is alone in the world, alone and poor and friendless.
She recalls the first and only time when she appeared in public in America, her native land. She did not want to sing that night, for her mother, who had been slightly ailing for some time, seemed very much worse. She had decided not to appear at all, but had finally yielded to the mother's entreaties and driven to the opera house. What an ovation she had received that night! She could see it all again: the lights, the flowers, the music, the vast audience simply frantic with delight at her performance. At the close she had been recalled again and again, and those enthusiastic plaudits still rang in her ears. How little she had dreamed as she smiled and bowed her thanks, and how little those who watched her had dreamed that never again was that wonderful voice to be heard by mortal ears, that voice which had stirred millions of hearts and made its owner one of the foremost singers of her day.
She had driven home from that scene of triumph to find that her mother's condition had become alarmingly worse in the few hours of her absence, and before morning she had stood beside a deathbed the recollection of which makes her shudder even now. The poor, pretty butterfly, her short summer over, fought frantically but vainly against the annihilation which was coming upon her. The memory of her early training at Saint Zita's, the memory too of that other death-scene she had witnessed when her father had passed away so calmly, so peacefully, with his eyes upon the crucifix and the words of God's minister ringing in his ears, came to the girl and she had begged to be allowed to send for a priest. Her mother had never professed any belief, but it seemed terrible to Nita to have her die without even a prayer to help her in that last awful moment. Entreaties were of no avail. The idea of a priest, of religion, of even a final prayer, was laughed to scorn. Besides, she was not dying. She was young yet and was going to have many more years of sunshine and pleasure before sinking into the oblivion of the cold, dark grave. No, no, let them not speak of death, that fearsome, awful spectre. She was going to live. Take it away, take it away, that dreadful thing standing there beside her, laying its icy hand upon her forehead. Its touch was turning her to stone. She was cold, and it was growing so dark she could see nothing. Why did they not bring lights; why did they not take away the dreadful thing beside her bed?
The final struggle was fearful to behold, and even now Nita is haunted day and night by the scene. Even now, there are times when she springs from her sleep with a cry of terror, thinking she is again assisting at the departure of that poor soul who fought so frantically against the power of death.
With her mother, a large part of their income died also, but she still had sufficient money to supply her wants. Her voice, too, was a fortune in itself; managers all over the country were eager and anxious to sign a contract on any terms she chose to dictate. The shock of her mother's death so unnerved her that she decided to spend a year in rest and travel before returning to the stage. She had come abroad again, but had scarcely reached London when she was attacked by a severe throat trouble. The most eminent physicians were consulted, various treatments tried, but the disease would not yield. The south of France was recommended, and hither she had come in a last vain effort to save the voice which had charmed all Europe. At first she was incredulous. Then, she hoped against hope that time would prove them wrong and that the lost voice would return some day even better and richer than it was before. Now, all her hopes are gone, all her delusions swept away. She knows she will never sing again, and here in her hand she holds the cable message which forms the last in this series of dire misfortunes which have come upon her within the last two years. It is the message which tells her that her investments have failed and that she is penniless.
She sits by her window in the June twilight, the numbness of despair taking possession of her. On the table lies all the money she owns in the world. It is sufficient to cover the few bills she owes, the salary of the woman who has traveled with her as maid and companion, and pay her passage back to her native land. But what then? America once reached, where can she go, to whom can she turn? The distant relatives, the friends who crowded around her in her days of success, anxiously seeking a smile, a word, a token of her favor, how will they receive her if she goes to them a pauper, a dependent upon their charity? There is no one to whom she can turn, no place to which she can go, and as the twilight deepens a heavier blackness settles upon the soul of the girl.
Presently the sound of music breaks in on the evening stillness, the sound of an organ responding to the touch of skilled fingers and blended with it the tones of women's voices. The nuns in a neighboring convent are chanting the evening office. The sound recalls the chapel at Saint Zita's, the orchard, the nuns, dear kind Reverend Mother. What peaceful, happy hours those were? Has she ever known real happiness since she quitted the quiet convent home of her childhood? Even in the days of her greatest triumphs, was there not always something she could not attain, the little bit more which was always wanting? But at Saint Zita's, how different, oh! how different! Happiness such as the world could not dream of ruled within its walls. She wonders what they are doing now, the dear nuns and Reverend Mother. They, too, are probably in the chapel reciting the office; some of them thinking of her perhaps. What would they say if they knew how false she has proven to all their teachings, how careless she has grown in the practice of that religion which is dearer to them than life itself?
A sentence in the last letter she received from Reverend Mother comes now to her mind. The letter reached her years before and has never been answered. The words are these:
"Dear child, you are successful and happy now, with the world at your feet, but if the day ever comes when all these things fall away from you and you stand in need of a true friend or of any assistance we can render, remember Saint Zita's is still your home and your old mother's heart is sick with longing for a sight of her child. Worldly joys must vanish, worldly hopes decay, but Saint Zita's and Reverend Mother will be here waiting for you."
How she longs for the peace and quiet of the old home and the comforting touch of Reverend Mother's kind arms about her! What is it that the nuns are singing! The "Magnificat." She listens in silence for a few moments, then, a strange smile curving her lips, she recites in unison with the choir:
"Deposuit potentes de sede. Yea, Lord, Thou hast indeed put down the mighty."
It is not until after the voices are stilled, long after the world is wrapped in slumber, that the girl turns from her open window and gathers together the small store of money on the table beside her, repeating to herself the while, slowly, half absently:
"I wonder; I wonder."
* * * * *
Another year has rolled around and again the June roses in the garden at Saint Zita's fill the summer air with their heavy fragrance. The convent door opens and Reverend Mother steps out into the portico accompanied by a caller, one of the "old girls" come back to pay a fleeting visit to the home of her childhood. The nun has changed but little with the passing of the years, but those who love her best note with anxious eyes the slight stoop of the shoulders and feebleness of gait.
The visitor glances idly at a lay-sister who is busily engaged sweeping the long flight of stone steps leading from the portico to the driveway below. Her glance passes over the insignificant figure of the lay-sister, and, looking across to the pine grove on the hill, she speaks to Reverend Mother.
"Do you know, Mother, every time I stand here and look at those trees I am reminded of Nita, 'the nightingale of Saint Zita's,' as we used to call her. That grove was ever her favorite resort and even the odor of pines makes me think of her. I wish I knew what had become of her. I witnessed her performance the only time she sang here in America, and truly, it was wonderful. Then she disappeared completely from the face of the earth, as completely as if the ground had opened and swallowed her. Rumors came of her travels in England and the south of France and after that no news of her could be obtained. Occasionally, my dear Mother," and the visitor smiled knowingly; "occasionally I have fancied that you knew her whereabouts and could tell us of her."
"You are right, dear child, I could tell you, but I may not."
"At least, Mother, tell me this: She is well and happy?"
"She is well, indeed, and I think I may safely say happier than she has ever been before."
"Thank you, Mother," and the visitor descends the steps and is gone.
"Sister Gabrielle," calls Reverend Mother gently.
The lay-sister approaches, her broom still in her hand.
"You heard our conversation, Sister?"
"Yes, my Mother."
"I spoke truly, did I not, dearest child?" and the old eyes peer anxiously into the depths of the younger and smiling eyes raised to meet her gaze.
"You spoke truly, my Mother. Never before have I known what real peace and real happiness were. Never, did I dream that life on earth could be as mine is, so happy that it seems to me a little foretaste of the joy the angels must know in heaven. Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles."
A MEMORABLE CHRISTMAS MORNING.
On the outskirts of one of our large mill towns, at the very end of a narrow street lined on each side by a row of dwelling houses of the poorer class, stood a tiny cottage. It was a humble, unpretentious abode of only four rooms, but it was home to the weary girl struggling up the hillside. The tired eyes brightened and lagging steps quickened involuntarily as she turned the corner and saw the welcoming light streaming from the kitchen window.
It was very late on the eve of Christmas day and the street was deserted save for the solitary figure hastening towards that beacon light of home. Darkness and silence reigned in most of the houses she passed, and she sighed as she said to herself:
"Poor mother! Still up and still at work. I wish she would not work so hard; there is no need for it now."
Reaching the kitchen window, she stood for a moment to take note of the little scene within. By the table her mother sat sewing, her head bent over her work and fingers flying as she plied the needle in and out. As the girl watched, the mother looked up at the clock on the shelf above the stove, shook her head sadly, and hastily brushing away the tears which spring to her eyes, resumed her sewing.
"Poor mother!" again sighed the girl. "Worrying about Tim, as usual, I suppose." Then opening the kitchen door, she stepped into the welcome warmth and light of home.
"Well, little mother," she cried cheerily; "here I am at last, and I suppose you thought I was never coming. You see, dear, we had to work very late to-night to finish a large order. Then there was confession and I was delayed there quite a while. I was almost the last to be heard and it was considerably after ten by the time I left the church. Everyone in town seemed to be going to confession to-night."
"Not everyone," said her mother sadly. "There is one who has not been in spite of his promise to us and to the Father."
The girl glanced quickly at the table on which plates for two were laid, then at the supper keeping hot upon the stove, and exclaimed rather bitterly:
"So Tim is away again, as usual, is he? And he promised faithfully to come home early to-night and go to confession for Christmas. But then, he promised the same last Easter and every First Friday since, and has broken his word every time. Mother, how long is it now since Tim has been to Mass or to confession?"
"I do not like to think, child; it's a pretty long time. I can't understand what has come over him. He used to be such a good boy, such a help and comfort to me, and now he is slowly breaking my heart. I've had trials enough, trials enough, as you know, but I never complained. I never murmured till now. I was always ready to say: 'God's will be done.' But this, this is different. Long ago, when you and Tim were children, and the twins upstairs were but a few weeks old, and your father met with that accident that crippled him for life, I only said: 'God's will be done.' All through the years he lingered in sickness and suffering and I had to work day and night, day and night to support you all, I still said only: 'God's will be done.' All through that long, hard fight to keep starvation from the door, when I saw my little children crying at times with cold and hunger, and watched my husband slowly dying and was unable to give him any of those little comforts and luxuries which the sick require, my only words were: 'His holy will be done.' But in this, the worst of all the trials that have come to me, when I see my boy drifting away from us all, turning his back on God and his religion and wandering away night after night with careless, jovial companions, intent only on the pursuits of pleasure and folly; God help me, I simply cannot bow my head and say: 'God's will be done'"; and tears streamed unheeded from the mother's eyes.
The girl stepped quickly to her mother's side and drew the gray head gently to her shoulder, whispering comfortingly: "There, there, little mother, don't cry so. You are fretting yourself to death over Tim, and surely, surely, things will come right in the end. Tim is not a bad boy, mother dear, only a little wild just now. Remember how good he used to be, how kind, how helpful, in that hard time you were just speaking about. Remember how good he was when father died, and how young he was when he first went to work to help you support us all. Tim's a good boy at heart, mother, and he's bound to come back before long."
"Yes, dearie, that's what the Father says," returned her mother, slowly drying her eyes and rising to lay the girl's supper upon the table.
"He says not to worry but just pray, pray, pray, and Tim will surely come back before long. But there, dear, sit down and eat your supper; then we'll fill the children's stockings for I can guess what is in all those parcels you brought home. Poor little things, it would not be Christmas for them unless they hung their stockings. Thank God, I've always managed to find something to put into them if it was only an orange or an apple and a little candy. Indeed, that's about all it was when you and Tim were younger, but life is so much easier now that you are helping me."
"And it is going to be easier still, mother dear, and you will be the happiest little woman in the world one of these days. This wild spell of Tim's is bound to pass and then he will settle down and be his own old self again. There, dear," the girl continued, a few moments later; "my supper is finished and now I'll clear away these dishes and fill the children's stockings. Just see all the pretty things I've brought for them. Won't their little eyes dance when they see them! Then, mother dear, before we go to sleep, you and I will say the rosary for Tim. It is too late for him to go to confession to-night, but wherever he is, and God alone knows where he may be, he needs our prayers and he will have them. As the good Father said, we will pray, pray, pray. If we only pray hard enough and trust hard enough, things are bound to come right in the end."
The afternoon and evening had been unusually busy ones for Father Xavier. Hour after hour he had sat in the confessional listening to the tales of sin and sorrow that were poured into his ears. Hour after hour he had spent bestowing the priestly absolution on the repentant sinner, giving fatherly advice and consolation to the sorrowful, sending all those troubled souls away lighter and happier for his ministrations. Hour after hour he had waited, hoping against hope, for the sound of the one voice above all others which he most desired to hear.
In a town like that which formed Father Xavier's parish, the pastor is indeed the father of his flock. Every man, woman and child is known to him personally, and he takes a direct interest in each one's welfare. As Father Xavier sat that Christmas eve and listened to the confessions of his people, his heart grew sad and hope gradually died away as he waited in vain for the voice of one whom he was striving to bring back to God and to his duty.
The crowd of penitents melted away one by one, the few last stragglers had been heard, and still the priest waited in his confessional. The boy might possibly come even yet, his boy whom he had loved with a special affection ever since he was a tiny little chap first learning his prayers in the baby class of the Sunday-school. Why was it he had not been able to hold the boy? Why had he not been able to prevent his wandering away with bad companions, this absolute neglect of all religious duties on the part of his boy? Why could he not succeed in bringing him back again even though the boy had wandered far afield?
Father Xavier had hoped much from this Christmas eve, for Tim had promised faithfully to make his confession and to start anew in the path from which his feet had strayed. Tim had promised it as his Christmas gift to the Father. Yes, Tim had promised, but Tim had broken his promise.
With a sigh of utter weariness, weariness of body, weariness of mind, Father Xavier rose and left the confessional. He glanced over the church; it was empty. He glanced towards the altar and his eyes rested on the sanctuary lamp which appeared to be burning with unwonted brightness.
The hour was late, much later than he was accustomed to keep the church open, still he lingered, unwilling to give up a last forlorn hope that his boy might yet keep his promise. With eyes fixed on the Tabernacle door, the priest knelt and commenced to recite the rosary, pleading, pleading for his boy. The joyful mysteries were finished and no one came; the sorrowful, still no one; finally, the glorious mysteries, and still the priest was alone.
With one last appeal for the welfare of that wandering soul, Father Xavier rose from his knees and walked to the door of the church to close it for the night. He passed out on the steps and stood for a moment listening to a band of roisterers that were coming up the street disturbing the peaceful quiet of the night with their noisy songs and laughter. Where was his boy at that moment? He might possibly be with this very band of half-drunken revellers who were even now passing by and would soon be swallowed up in the darkness of the street. If not with this band, he was probably wandering somewhere with another just like it. Where was his boy at that moment? The priest turned, re-entered the church, and locking the door, passed up the aisle extinguishing the lights as he went along. He stood before the altar and once more looked at the sanctuary lamp. It was certainly burning with unusual brightness to-night. It set weird, fantastic shadows dancing along the walls and peopled the dim recesses of the church with goblin shapes. It seemed beckoning to him, calling to him, drawing him gradually to the steps of the altar, where he sank upon his knees to pray once more for his wandering boy.
For yet an hour the priest lingered before the Tabernacle. Then, utterly worn out in mind and body, he passed through the sacristy, locked the door, and mounted the steps of his own house to seek a few hours of rest before commencing the arduous duties of Christmas day.
The church and rectory were situated on a hill and the priest stood in his doorway and looked down upon the town below. It was now after midnight, but many lights were still burning and the faint sound of distant merry-making reached the priest's ears. Was his boy down there among the revellers?
Beyond the town lay the river, frozen, dark and still; and beyond that again shone the lights of the neighboring city. Was his boy over there beyond that dark, silent river? Was he over there in the city in some one of those dens of iniquity which had lured so many young men to their ruin?
Well, wherever the boy was he must be left now to the care of God and his angel for Father Xavier had done all he could that night; and the priest went in and closed the door.
At that same moment, in a little cottage at the other end of the town, a sleepless mother rose from her knees beside the kitchen table and passed slowly up the stairs to her own room. The children and the eldest girl were long since asleep, but the mother could not rest for thinking of her wayward boy. Where was he to-night; where at this very moment? And he had promised, promised faithfully to turn over a new leaf with this Christmas eve. Christmas eve was here, nay, it was come and gone for midnight had sounded and it was now Christmas morning. Still, this night must be for her as all those other nights when she had lain awake hour after hour listening in silent anguish for the footstep that did not come. She had hoped much from that promise of his to Father Xavier and to her, and her disappointment was proportionately bitter.
The mother walked to the window and looked out upon the silent, frosty night. Low down upon the horizon myriads of stars were twinkling merrily, but high up in the heavens the moon shone with a brilliant radiance that totally eclipsed all lesser lights. The night was very still, very beautiful, but the silence and the beauty failed to bring peace to the mother's heart. She looked up into the heavens. How placidly cold the moon looked back at her, the same moon that was probably shedding its beams upon her boy at that moment and could tell her where he was if it could but speak. Why, oh why, could those beams not speak and tell her what they saw; why could they not bring her some message from the absent one! She had never felt like this before, she had never felt so restless, so uneasy. It was impossible to think of sleep; she would pray still longer. Perhaps the boy needed her prayers; perhaps he was in danger, danger of body, danger of soul, and needed her help. Her rosary in her fingers, she knelt by the window praying, praying, while the moonbeams danced and played around the kneeling figure. Perhaps it was just as well they could not speak and tell her what they saw out there upon the river. Perhaps they were trying to tell her and could not; trying to tell her of the three men, one of whom was scarce more than a boy, struggling out there in the icy water, struggling for life as the current sought to drag them down beneath the frozen surface. Their fingers clutched desperately at the ragged edges of the ice that had broken through with them and cracked and crumbled away at their touch.
Now but two figures were visible to the watching moonbeams; one had been dragged down into the black waters, down to his death in the freezing depths below.
For a moment a cloud covered the moon's face obscuring its view of things terrestrial. When it passed and that scene upon the river was once more visible, only one figure remained still struggling bravely; still clutching at the slippery, crackling ice; still fighting, not for life alone, but for his soul's salvation. What thoughts must have passed through his mind in those dreadful, despairing moments! Thoughts of sins committed, of graces neglected; thoughts of all that might have been and of all that was. Who can know of the sorrow and remorse that filled his heart, of the wild cry for help and pardon that went up from the river that night?
Meanwhile, the moon shone calmly, steadily, on the boy still fighting for his life, on the mother praying at her chamber window, and on good Father Xavier sleeping the sleep of the exhausted.
Somewhat later, but still before the dawn, he was summoned from that sleep to answer a sick call from the hospital just across the river, to which he was chaplain. Three young men coming home from the city shortly after midnight had attempted to cross the frozen river, though warned of the danger of doing so. The ice had broken through, two were drowned, one saved, and the doctors thought he would live though unconscious at present.
No, the names of the young men were not known as yet. The sisters at the hospital sent for the priest because the boy brought there wore a scapular and they knew he must be a Catholic. Aside from that nothing was known about him.
Father Xavier's heart stood still. Something told him that his boy had been one of those three. Two drowned, one saved! Which, oh, which was the one saved?
The hospital reached, it was with rapidly beating heart he followed the nurse through the ward and stood beside the bed at the farther end. The night light burned low and the features of the boy upon the bed were scarcely visible. Stooping low, a fervent "Thank God" broke from the priest's lips as he recognized in the silent figure, the boy for whom his heart had been yearning. His boy had been the one that was saved. Yes, saved from death, saved from worse than death, saved to carry out the resolutions he had made while struggling in the icy river that Christmas morning.
"Dear, dear! but God's ways are wonderful, there's no denyin' that. Many a time we poor mortals think if we only had the handlin' of things, the world would be a pleasanter place for some of us, but I reckon the Lord knows His own business best. He usually manages to bring things out right in the end, so He does."
Nancy sat before the kitchen stove, rocking to and fro, and gazing abstractedly before her. Her mood was a reminiscent one and I knew if I gave her time enough she would launch forth into one of the interesting narratives of which she possessed a goodly store. To have interrupted her train of thought by even a whisper would have been fatal; silence and patience must be my watch-words. Presently she turned to me with the query:
"'Member Mona, the old apple-woman you met here about a year ago?"
Remember the apple-woman? Indeed I did; once having met Mona it was impossible to forget her. Besides, she was, one might say, one of the landmarks of the town, the frail, shadowy little woman who sold her apples and peanuts and candy from her stand on the street-corner. Nancy's words reminded me that I had not seen Mona lately at her usual place of business.
"Well," resumed Nancy, "Mona's gone, gone forever. Poor Mona! It's the hard life she's had, and I'm after thinkin' she's not sorry that it's over and she's found peace an' happiness at last. Want to know her story? Well, I'll tell it to you, for it's me that can, havin' known her since we was wee scraps of babies playin' on the floor together back there in the old country. Yes, indeed, we were babies together, we grew up together, an' we come out here to America on the same ship. Dear, dear, how long ago that was, an' it don't seem much more than yesterday.
"Well, as I was sayin', times was mighty hard in Ireland that year, specially in the little town where me an' Mona was born an' reared. Crops failed, work was slack; finally, famine an' pestilence took possession of the land. Ah! child, child, you cannot dream what them words mean, famine an' pestilence. To see the rich growin' poor, the poor starvin' an' dyin' on every hand; the little children cryin' with cold an' hunger, an' the fathers an' mothers with ne'er a scrap of food to give 'em. That was the state of things in Ireland the year we left it.
"The plague had carried off my father an' mother, my brothers was all married an' moved away, an' my only sister was at service in London, so when Mona begged me to come to America with her an' Michael an' the little ones, I just jumped at the chance. Michael was a good fellow, sober an' industrious, but there was no work to be had at home and he had heard such wonders of the land across the sea. There, a man that was a man had no trouble in findin' work an' making a comfortable livin' for himself an' family. He wanted to leave Mona with his sister in Dublin, who offered to care for her an' the children until he'd made a home for 'em in the country he was goin' to. But no, Mona wouldn't hear to that. She'd promised at God's altar to take him for better or worse an' to cling to him till death. Because the worse had come, she wasn't goin' to desert him an' let him go out alone to the cold land of the stranger to fight his battle all by himself. She'd go with him an' stand by him and help an' comfort him in his struggles. She knew she could help him. She'd been taught by the nuns an' could do all sorts of fine sewin'. In America, as in Dublin, there must be rich ladies who would pay well for a bit of fine embroidery or hand-made lace. No, no, Mona wouldn't be left behind; he must take her an' the little ones, no matter what was before them. It was settled at last that we was all to go together, an' so, one bright mornin' we stood on the deck of the ship that was carryin' us far away from home an' all we loved, far away to the strange land across the sea. With the tears runnin' down our faces, we waved farewell to the shores of Ireland, an' Mona, though she didn't know it, was wavin' farewell to happiness in this world. Poor girl, it's little she knew from that day on but grief an' trouble an' sufferin'.
"Well, child, as I was sayin', it was the fine, bright mornin' that we left Ireland, but the good weather held for only a few days after. Then, there blew up such a storm as I never see before an' hope never to see again. It was fearful, fearful. I couldn't describe it to you if I tried. We just lay in our berths, every one of us, our backs agin the wall, our knees braced agin the board in front, an' we holdin' on for dear life expectin' every moment to be dashed out on to the floor an' have all our bones broken. We was too frightened to say a word, but we prayed, oh, my! how we did pray, every mother's son of us. For nigh onto three days that poor boat struggled on bravely agin the ragin' storm, but the ship wasn't built that could live in that sea, an' the end was bound to come sooner or later. Come, it did, at last. An officer stood on the stairs orderin' us all up onto the deck; the ship had sprung a leak, the water was pourin' in faster than they could pump it out, an' we must take to the boats at once.
"I never can remember rightly what happened then. It seems now such a confusin' jumble of men, women and childer, all screamin' an' rushin' for the stairs, and all the time the wind was a howlin' an' the vessel was groanin' an' pitchin' so you had to cling to whatever was nearest to keep on your feet at all. I don't know how we got there, but the next thing I remember was standin' on the deck an' hangin' on to something to keep from bein' washed overboard by the great waves that broke over the ship an' flooded her from stem to stern. Mona stood near me with the baby on her arm an' holdin' tight to the hand of little Gerald who hid his face in her skirt an' sobbed in terror. Michael was beside her, one arm holdin' her close while with the other he hung onto the railin' just as I was doin'. Pretty soon, the boats was lowered an' everyone made a rush for 'em. There was a shout of:
"'Stand back, there, stand back! Women an' children first; only the women an' children.'
"The ship's officers an' sailors beat back the men an' commenced puttin' the women into the boats as fast as they could. One of 'em caught Mona by the arm an' tried to hurry her away. She struggled with him an' begged to be left with Michael. The sailor swore at her an' then I heard Michael's voice, calm an' steady, above the din of the storm:
"'Go at once, asthore,' say he; 'for the sake of the childer, go at once. Sure, dearie,' says he, 'we're in the Lord's hands anyway! can't ye trust Him on the water just the same as on the land?'
"The sailor lifted Mona an' the baby in his arm (it's the wee bit of a thing she was always) an' passed her on to another to be lowered into the boat. Michael caught up little Gerald an' cried out to me: 'Take the boy with you, Nancy; take him quick, girl.' But before I could lay my hand on the child I was seized and put into the boat beside Mona. The poor girl screamed and held out her arms for the little lad, but the boat was shoved off an' the last thing I can remember, as a mountain of water rolled up between us an' the ship, was seein' Michael still clingin' to the rail an' holdin' little Gerald on his arm. Then Mona fainted agin my shoulder and I had my hands full tendin' her an' the baby.
"It was nearly dusk when we took to the boat, an' pretty soon it was so dark you could scarce see your hand before you. I'll never forget the horrors of that night, indeed then I won't, tossin' on top of waves as big as mountains an' the next minute goin' down, down, down, till I thought sure we'd strike bottom before ever we come up again. But even the longest night must wear away, an' when day broke we seen a big vessel comin' towards us an' in the course of an hour or so we was all transferred to her decks. She cruised around for a time, hopin' to pick up some of the other boats, but couldn't find none of 'em. There was no tellin' how far away from the wreck an' the boats we'd drifted in the night. The vessel that picked us up was bound for America an' so we continued our voyage to this country.
"I've often heard people complain of the coldness an' hardness of the world; by 'the world,' always meanin' the folks that live in it, I suppose. To my way of thinkin' there's a deal more kindness in the world than there is selfishness an' badness, an' the people on that steamer proved me right in one case anyway. They made up a purse among 'em an' give a share to each of us that had been picked out of the sea, as you might say. So, when we landed, we each had a little money to start in with. I soon found work in a mill, an' my poor Mona managed to keep herself an' the baby by doin' fine sewin'. For a long time we kep' house together, me an' Mona, then I married an' moved away to another town. My own troubles come on me thick an' fast after that an' what with one thing an' another, an' movin' here an' there, it was years before I set eyes on her again. Then we met quite by accident an' I found she was livin' not far from here with an old woman who peddled shoestrings an' pencils on the street. Mona herself kep' a stand on a corner where she sold apples an' peanuts an' such stuff.
"That night she come to see me here an' we talked over old times an' all that had happened since last we met. She'd done well at her sewin', she said, and brought up the baby in tolerable comfort. Then, just as the child was growin' into a woman that could be of help to her mother an' pay her back for her years of workin' an' strugglin', she was took down with consumption. All the little poor Mona had managed to save went in carin' for her sick daughter an' buryin' her when she died. By that time, Mona's health was pretty well broke up, her eyes was not as good as they used to be, an' she had to give up the sewin'. She fell in with the old woman who peddled shoestrings, and, by her advice, started in with her apple-stand. They'd been together ever since an' managed to earn a livin' between 'em. We talked an' we talked that night, an' when Mona was goin' she turned to me an' says:
"'Nancy,' says she, 'I can't tell you how thankful I am to have seen you again. An' I can't tell you how much good you've done me. Nancy,' says she, 'I've been a wicked woman, a wicked, rebellious woman,' says she. 'I've said dreadful things in my heart an' felt hard an' bitter at times against Almighty God for all the trials an' sufferin' He sent me. When I look at you, I'm ashamed of myself. I've lost a husband, so have you; I lost a daughter, you lost two; my son sleeps at the bottom of the sea, but your son—.Nancy, Nancy, when I go home to-night, I'll get down on my knees an' thank God that my boy is sleepin' at the bottom of the sea instead of wanderin' the earth a shame an' a disgrace to me.'
"You see, child, that was before my Danny come back to me to be reconciled to His God. It was while he was still wanderin' I didn't know where, an' goin' from one piece of villainy to the next.
"Poor Mona, I don't believe she was half as bad as she made herself out to be, an' certainly from that day to this I've never heard a complaint or a murmur cross her lips. She's been sick, too, most all the time, an' there's been many a day when she'd ought to be home in bed but off she'd go an' stand on her corner an' peddle her apples because the old woman that lived with her was sicker than she an' they wouldn't have no money, come rent day, unless Mona went out an' earned it for 'em. Talk about the heroes that done such wonderful things that folks has to write whole books about 'em! I tell you what, child, there's many a hero hid away in the dirty little side-streets and alley-ways of every big city; only folks don't know about 'em. To my mind, Mona was one of them heroes; so sweet an' patient, pretty well on in years herself, an' all crippled with the rheumatism, but goin' out day after day to sell her apples; a slavin' an' a killin' herself for a woman a little older an' a little sicker than she was. An' all this because the old woman had been kind to her in her hour of greatest need.
"Well, after findin' her again, I seen Mona every day; she used to come here in the evenin' an' we'd sit an' talk of them that was gone. She was with me when my Danny died, an' she thanked God with me for havin' brought him back to me in the end. Then, one night, Mona didn't come, but they brought me a message sayin' she was in the hospital, dyin' from an accident, an' wanted to see me right away. I didn't let the grass grow under my feet you may be sure, an' before long I stood beside the bed where she was lyin', her poor, pale face all drawn with sufferin'. I've called her a hero for the life she'd led, an' her end was sure enough a hero's end. That afternoon a child had started to run across the street at the corner where Mona's apple-stand was. He didn't see the horse an' team that come tearin' up the street, an' the driver was too busy lashin' the horse to see the child. In spite of her rheumatism, Mona dashed in front of the team, and with a quick shove, sent the child flyin' out of harm's away. He rolled over an' over on the street, but beyond a scratch or two wasn't hurt. But Mona fell an' the team passed over her ankles crushin' both of 'em badly. Her age an' the shock, together with her injury, made 'em sure she couldn't live long. The chaplain had been sent for, they told me, an' would come at any moment now.
"She was sleepin' when I reached her, so I sat down beside the bed an' waited. The priest come an' stood lookin' down at her, an' the kindness an' pity on his face was wonderful to see. He looked at me an' I fair jumped out of my chair with the shock his eyes sent through me.
"'Glory be to God!' I says, blessin' myself, for I was all a tremble with the fright of it. 'Sure it's Michael Conners himself come back from the dead.'
"That very minute Mona's eyes opened slowly an' fixed themselves on the priest's face. A smile that brought the tears to my eyes, it was that beautiful, crossed her face an' she held out her thin, white hand to him, whisperin', 'Michael.' Then she closed her eyes again an' was off unconscious once more.
"The priest looked first at her, then at me, an' his face was all puzzled an' amazed like.
"'How do you know that my name is Michael Conners?' says he.
"'How do you know it yourself, Father?' says I, for I had my suspicions by that time.
"'Because of this,' says he, showin' me a strangely carved little black wooden crucifix attached to his beads. 'This was on my neck when I was saved from the wreck in which my father an' mother perished.'
"'Well,' says I, 'you're wrong. 'Tain't Michael, but Gerald, is your name, an' praise be the Lord but this'll be the happy day for my poor Mona when she finds out the truth. That crucifix with the name of Michael Conners on it was given to your father on his marriage day by the priest that married him. Here's the mate to it that he give your mother on the same day,' an' I picked up Mona's rosary lyin' on the bed an' showed him the cross on it. They was as like as two peas, only on the back of hers was carved the name of Mona Conners.
"Well, we had to break the news to her gently, an' it's the happy woman she was for the next few days in spite of all the pain she suffered. She'd just lie there holdin' Gerald's hand an' gazin' at him an' makin' him tell over an' over again of how he'd been saved from the wreck. He was only a wee lad of three at the time, but he could still remember of his father standin' there on the deck of the sinkin' ship an' holdin' him in his arms. He could still hear the words his father spoke to him an' feel the father's hand slippin' the rosary over his head an' claspin' the little fingers around the cross as it lay on his breast. Michael had passed him to a sailor an' he was lowered into one of the boats, where a kind-hearted woman took compassion on his loneliness an' cared for him. They'd been picked up by a sailin' vessel bound for France, an' the woman who first cared for him, took him with her from France to America an' finally adopted him. She brought him up, educated him, an' at last he became a priest of God.
"He was with his mother to the very end, an' it was his hand that give her the last blessin' of the Church an' his voice recited the prayers that send the departin' soul safe on its journey to the throne of God. It's the happy woman my Mona was in them last few days upon earth, an' it's the happy woman she is this day, all her troubles over, all her sufferin's gone, an' she in Paradise for ever an' ever."
During Nancy's recital, the shadows of twilight had gathered and deepened, and now her little kitchen was wrapped in darkness. Still, she sat for several moments buried in thought which I cared not to interrupt. Then, with a sigh, she rose to light the lamp and I noticed that tears filled her eyes though the brave lips were smiling.
"Yes, yes," she repeated. "God's ways are wonderful, they are that. Even if we don't understand things in this world, we're sure to in the next, for the Lord knows His own business best every time."
Patsy was wide awake in a second. What was it those men were talking about; what was it they were planning to do? That name, and "the brown house on the hill"! By a strong effort, he kept his eyes closed and breathed regularly and deeply as though still sleeping. He must not let them suspect that he was listening, but he must catch every word they said, every word. How he hated them, this band of rascals that had gotten his David into their clutches and were slowly but surely making him as bad as they! His David bad? No, no! David was kind and good and gentle to him always. David was not bad, he would not listen to their dreadful scheme. He would refuse to help them; surely he would. His David a thief? It was impossible. But that dreadful plan they were discussing! "The brown house on the hill"; "to-morrow night"; and David was promising to go with them.
Patsy shivered beneath the bedclothes and bitter tears gathered in his eyes and trickled down the pale, sunken cheeks. The men were leaving and David was renewing his promise to accompany the expedition to the brown house on the hill to-morrow night. In fact, he was to act as guide to the man appointed to commit the deed, for who, so well as David, could show them the way to the library in which was the safe that they were going to rob?
They had gone now and Patsy felt that David was standing beside the bed and looking down at him. He opened his eyes and two more tears escaped, which he hastily brushed away. Immediately David was on his knees, the little cripple's hand clasped tenderly in his.
"What's the trouble, kid?" he questioned anxiously. "Is it the pain that's bad to-night?"
"'Tain't the pain, Davy, 'tain't the pain at all," sobbed the child.
"What is it then, youngster? Come now, tell your own Davy what's troubling you, there's a good boy."
"David, how long is it since mother was taken away from us? It seems so long. I was thinkin' of mother, Davy, and wishing she was here with us this night."
"You poor kid, poor little crippled kid," muttered David, patting the small, thin hand. "It's natural, I suppose, for you to pine for your mother, but ain't Davy been almost like a mother to you, Patsy? He's tried hard, that he has, to be father and mother and big brother all in one." And the man smiled somewhat wistfully.
"You've been all that and more too, Davy. 'Twasn't on my account I was wishin' for mother, 'twas on yours. If she was here, she'd know how to keep you from going with them men to-morrow night. She'd know how to keep you to home, and I don't know what to say or to do to stop you from going."
David's face darkened slightly and there was a note of sternness in his voice as he said:
"So you was listening, was you, and heard what we was talkin' about?"
"I didn't listen a purpose, David; at least, not at first. I happened to wake and heard 'em speak of the brown house on the hill. Then I wanted to hear everything and I listened a purpose after that. Oh, Davy! Davy!" the child cried imploringly, sitting up in the bed and clasping his hands in petition; "don't do it, Davy; don't be a thief to please those wicked men; don't go robbing the brown house on the hill."
A fearful fit of coughing racked the little form and David held him gently in his arms until the paroxysm had passed. Then, laying the boy back upon the pillows, he said quietly:
"You mustn't get excited, Patsy, it's bad for you. We'll not talk no more to-night. In the morning I'll tell you the story of the house on the hill and you'll see I'm not tacklin' this job to please anyone but myself. Go to sleep now, kid, for I'll not say another word to-night, not another word."
When David spoke in that tone of voice Patsy knew there was nothing for him to do but to obey. Turning his face to the wall, he closed his eyes, but sleep did not visit him that night. He lay listening for the stroke of the town clock as it sounded, one after another, the slowly dragging hours; he lay listening to David's regular breathing and wondered how a man could sleep so calmly with such a deed in prospect; he lay anxiously turning over in his mind various schemes by which he could frustrate the plan in case he failed in persuading David to abandon it altogether. Several times fits of coughing shook him nearly to pieces, and at those times the pain in his poor little chest was well-nigh unbearable. He smothered the cough as well as he could beneath the bedclothes for fear of disturbing David. As for the pain—well, pain and Patsy had been companions so long now that he had grown quite accustomed to it.
The next day was cold and dismal, with a leaden sky threatening snow, and a bitter wind blowing that searched the very marrow of one's bones. The few neighbors who chanced to glance out of their windows at an early hour in the afternoon were surprised to see Patsy making his way along the street, slowly and painfully, with the aid of his crutches. They had never known him to be abroad on a day like this; indeed, it was many a day since he had attempted going upon the street at all. Poor little Patsy, his crutches were once a familiar sight going up and down the pavements on pleasant days in the summer time, but they had thought never to see him leave his room again. Did David know? Some one should stop the child; he was too weak to wander out alone like that. But then, it was no affair of theirs; David could probably be trusted to look after the boy.
As no one was willing to make it his business to interfere, Patsy went on his way unmolested. A strange look of determination battled with the pain on the sickly, childish face as he made his way bravely against the biting wind that sought to drive him back. He had learned the mystery of the house on the hill; he knew now why David hated so bitterly that house and all connected with it; he knew why David was willing and eager to help the men in the plan they were to carry out that night. David had told him all about it, and for the first time in his life he had felt afraid of this dearly loved brother of his. It had been a revelation to Pasty. Surely, this bitter, unforgiving, revengeful man could not be the same who had been father, mother and big brother to the little cripple for whom he had cared so tenderly since their mother had been taken from them.
It had sounded like a fairy tale to Patsy; he could scarcely believe his own ears. Just to think of it; that brown house on the hill had once been their mother's home, and the man who lived there, the man whom David hated with undying hatred, was their mother's brother and their uncle. On the day she married, she had left her home forever, her brother vowing that never as long as he lived would he set eyes upon her face again; to him she would be as though dead. Once, when father lay dying (Patsy could not remember it, but David had told him of it), mother had written to their uncle imploring a little help in their misery. It was not for herself she had asked but for the dying husband and sickly baby. Her letter had been returned to her with these harsh words written on the back: "Some mistake here. No woman has the right to call me brother. My only sister died years ago." David had kept the letter ever since; he had been old enough at the time to understand. He had vowed then to have revenge some day and he kept the letter to remind him of the vow should he ever be in danger of forgetting it.
Patsy knew now why his brother so hated the house on the hill, and why David had been so cross on that day last summer when he, Patsy, had come home and told of the young lady who had been so kind to him, the lady who lived in the house on the hill. As a rule, every one was good to Patsy. Even the children on the street, who quarrelled among themselves, striking, reviling, pelting one another with stones, had, nothing but kind words and smiles for Patsy. But that day last summer he had wandered farther from home than usual and a crowd of rough boys had stopped and commenced tormenting him, laughing at him, calling him names, jeering at his deformity, and even pulling his hair and pinching his ears. The child had tried to push past them, but they closed in on him and it might have fared ill with Patsy but for the timely arrival on the scene of the young lady from the house on the hill.
She quickly scattered the band of hoodlums and then walked with Patsy until he was well on his way home and safe from further attack. She had been kind to him, and made him promise to come and see her. That was how he knew her name and where she lived. He had wanted to see her again and had thought of her so often but David would not let him go.
Many a night, when the pain kept him from sleeping, he would while away the long hours by thinking of the gentle, beautiful girl, and he never said his prayers at night and morning, as mother had taught him, that he did not add a petition for his "lovely lady." And to think that she was his own cousin, his uncle's daughter; she lived in the house on the hill and it was her house that David and those men were planning to rob. For her sake as well as David's the deed must be prevented; her father must not be robbed; David must not become a thief. Patsy had determined that last night when he first heard them mention the scheme. If no one else would stop them, he would, though he could not imagine how he was going to do it. He had thought and thought until his head ached so that he could hardly see, but no plan suggested itself to his mind. He prayed, too, long and earnestly, for the priest at the Sunday-school told them God would always answer little boys' prayers if what they asked for was good for them. And was it not a good thing for which he was pleading? Simply that he might find a way to keep his lady from being robbed and save David from becoming a thief?
At last, the idea he wanted had come to him; he knew just what he must do to secure his end. There was danger in the plan, to himself, but he must risk that. It mattered little what happened to him if he could only save his David, his dear, kind big brother, who would never have thought of doing wrong had it not been for those wicked men who had led him astray. Patsy feared those men mightily. He knew their anger would be terrible should they discover how their plan had been frustrated. They might even kill him if they found him out, but he hoped they need not know. He would confess to David alone at supper time that evening; no matter how angry, David would not hurt his little brother. Of that Patsy was certain. Anyway, whatever the risk, he must take it to save David and to save the lady.
The early winter twilight was closing in when Patsy reached his home again and dragged himself up the stairs to the one room which he and David occupied. He was almost exhausted and his breath came in short, sharp gasps which cut him like knives. He would have liked to crawl into his bed, close his eyes and never open them again, he was so tired. But he must not give in yet; his task was but half accomplished. David must be told of what he had done, and at that thought a spasm of fear contracted his heart. Shivering, he drew a chair near the stove and waited with closed eyes and pain-drawn face for the sound of David's foot upon the stairs.
Twilight passed and darkness filled the little room, still David did not come. Patsy lighted the lamp upon the table, wondering anxiously why his brother was so late. He put more coals upon the fire, which was burning low, and made the tea for David's supper. He set out the loaf of bread, the cold meat, the cheese, upon the table, then resumed his chair and his eager listening for footsteps that were so long in coming. It seemed to Patsy he had waited for hours and hours, and suddenly his heart stopped beating and his eyes distended in terror as a thought occurred to him. Suppose David did not come at all! What, what would happen then? But there, that was David's step and all would be well now. The child looked up eagerly as his brother entered the room, then, nearly cried aloud in his bitter disappointment. David was not alone. One of the gang was with him, and this was a contingency for which Patsy had made no allowance. What was he to do now? How could he tell his brother, how warn him, in the presence of that dreadful man?
For the first time in his life David was so preoccupied that he paid no heed to the little cripple who had now withdrawn to the darkest corner of the room and crouched there in abject terror. The two men made a hasty meal and then sat by the table talking in tones so low that Patsy heard scarcely a word of what was said. Anyway, he cared nothing for their plans now; he had spoiled everything for them. But how was he to tell David, how was he to tell David?
By and by, a third man joined them and there was more whispering with heads close together. At last, the three arose and made preparations for going out. They moved towards the door and were astonished to find themselves confronted by a small, crippled figure, that stood swaying on his crutches, directly in their way. A bright red spot burned on either cheek, the eyes were brilliant with fever, and the child was panting for breath. But he said very quietly, his eyes fixed steadily on his brother's face:
"You mustn't go out to-night, David."
The men gasped and looked at one another in amazement.
"You mustn't go out to-night, David," the child repeated. "You mustn't none of you go to the house on the hill to-night."
"We mustn't go out, mustn't we," exclaimed one of the men roughly. "Who's to stop us going, I'd like to know? Stand aside, kid, before harm comes to you."
"Who's to stop you? I am. I have stopped you."
A laugh of derision greeted this statement.
"Yes," Patsy repeated; "I've stopped you. I peached on you; I warned 'em you was comin'."
David's face was terrible to see.
"What's that you're saying, Patsy? You what?"
"I warned 'em this afternoon. I went to the house on the hill and told 'em you was comin'. You mustn't go, David, you mustn't go. The police'll be there waitin' for you, 'cos I told 'em you was comin'. I didn't want you to be a thief, David; I done it for your sake. Oh, David, David!"