Working in the Shade; or, Lowly Sowing Brings Glorious Reaping
by the Reverend Theodore P Wilson ___________ When he wrote "Frank Oldfield" some ten years before this book, and won a literary prize with it, Wilson showed that he was an author who could write a good story round a moral theme, and hold his readers' attention.
This is just such a book. You could look at it as no more than a very hard-hitting sermon on the theme of Selfishness, but it is well-written enough, with various episodes of selfishness leading to disaster, and unselfishness leading heavenwards.
It is not a long book, and it will not take you long to read this book, or listen to it. It is well-written, and it will surely make a good impression upon you, and give you food for thought. NH ___________
WORKING IN THE SHADE; OR, LOWLY SOWING BRINGS GLORIOUS REAPING
BY THE REVEREND THEODORE P WILSON
Curiosity was on tiptoe in the small country-town of Franchope and the neighbourhood when it was settled without a doubt that Riverton Park was to be occupied once more.
Park House, which was the name of the mansion belonging to the Riverton estate, was a fine, old, substantial structure, which stood upon a rising ground, and looked out upon a richly undulating country, a considerable portion of which belonged to the property.
The house was situated in the centre of an extensive park, whose groups and avenues of venerable trees made it plain that persons of consideration had long been holders of the estate. But for the last twenty years Riverton Park had been a mystery and a desolation. No one had occupied the house during that time, except an old man and his wife, who pottered about the place, and just contrived to keep the buildings from tumbling into ruin. The shutters were always closed, as though the mansion were in a state of chronic mourning for a race of proprietors now become extinct, except that now and then, in summer-time, a niggardly amount of fresh air and sunshine was allowed to find its way into the interior of the dwelling.
As for the grounds and the park, they were overlooked in more senses than one by a labourer and his sons, who lived in a hamlet called Bridgepath, which was situated on the estate, about a mile from the house, in the rear, and contained some five hundred people. John Willis and his sons were paid by somebody to look after the gardens and drives; and as they got their money regularly, and no one ever came to inspect their work, they just gave a turn at the old place now and then at odd times, and neither asked questions nor answered any, and allowed the grass and weeds to have their own way, till the whole domain became little better than an unsightly wilderness. Everybody said it was a shame, but as no one had a right to interfere, the broad, white front of Park House continued to look across the public road to Franchope through its surroundings of noble trees, with a sort of pensive dignity, its walls being more or less discoloured and scarred, while creepers straggled across the windows, looking like so many wrinkles indicative of decrepitude and decay.
But why did no one purchase it? Simply because its present owner, who was abroad somewhere, had no intention of selling it. At last, however, a change had come. Riverton Park was to be tenanted again. But by whom? Not by its former occupier; that was ascertained beyond doubt by those who had sufficient leisure and benevolence to find out other people's business for the gratification of the general public. It was not so clear who was to be the new-comer. Some said a retired tradesman; others, a foreign princess; others, the proprietor of a private lunatic asylum. These and other rumours were afloat, but none of them came to an anchor.
It was on a quiet summer's evening in July that Mary Stansfield was walking leisurely homeward along the highroad which passed through the Riverton estate and skirted the park. Miss Stansfield was the orphan child of an officer who had perished, with his wife and other children, in the Indian Mutiny. She had been left behind in England, in the family of a maiden aunt, her father's sister, who lived on her own property, which was situated between the Riverton estate and the town of Franchope. She had inherited from her father a small independence, and from both parents the priceless legacy of a truly Christian example, and the grace that rests on the child in answer to the prayers of faith and love.
The world considered her position a highly-favoured one, for her aunt would no doubt leave her her fortune and estate when she died; for she had already as good as adopted her niece, from whom she received all the attention and watchful tenderness which she needed continually, by reason of age and manifold infirmities. But while our life has its outer convex side, which magnifies its advantages before the world, it has its inner concave side also, which reduces the outer circumstances of prosperity into littleness, when "the heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with its joy." So it was with Mary Stansfield. She had a refined and luxurious home, and all her wants supplied. She was practically mistress of the household, and had many friends and acquaintances in the families of the neighbouring gentry, several of whom had country seats within easy walk or drive of her home. Yet there was a heavy cross in her lot, and its edges were very sharp. In her aged aunt, with whom she lived, there were a harshness of character, and an inability to appreciate or sympathise with her niece, which would have made Mary Stansfield's life a burden to her had it not been for her high sense of duty, her patient charity, and God's abiding-grace in her heart. Misunderstood, thwarted at every turn, her attentions misinterpreted, her gentle forbearance made the object of keen and relentless sarcasm or lofty reproof, her supposed failings and shortcomings exposed and commented upon with ruthless bitterness, while yet the tongue which wounded never transgressed the bounds imposed by politeness, but rather chose the blandest terms wherewith to stab the deepest,—hers was indeed a life whose daily strain taxed the unostentatious grace of patience to the utmost, and made her heart often waver, while yet the settled will never lost its foothold.
How gladly, had she consulted self, would she have left her gilded prison and joined some congenial sister, as her own means would have permitted her to do, in work for God, where, after toiling abroad, she could come back to a humble home, in which her heart would be free, and generous love would answer love. But duty said "No," as she believed. The cold, hard woman who so cruelly repulsed her was her beloved father's only sister, and she had resolved that while her aunt claimed or desired her services no personal considerations should withdraw her from that house of restraint and humiliation.
Pondering the difficulties of her trying position, yet in no murmuring spirit, Mary Stansfield, on this quiet summer's evening, was just passing the boundary wall which separated Riverton Park from the adjoining property, when, to her surprise and partly amusement also, she noticed a venerable-looking old gentleman seated school-boy fashion on the top rail of a five-barred gate. The contrast between his patriarchal appearance and his attitude and position made her find it difficult to keep her countenance; so, turning her head away lest he should see the smile on her face, she was quickening her pace, when she became aware that he had jumped down from his elevated seat and was advancing towards her.
"Miss Stansfield, I suppose?" he asked, as she hesitated for a moment in her walk, at the same time raising his hat respectfully.
Surprised at this salutation, but pleased with the voice and manner of the stranger, she stopped, and replied to his question in the affirmative, and was moving on, when he added,—
"I am a stranger to you at present, my dear young lady; but I hope not to be so long. I daresay you will guess that I am the new occupier of Riverton Park. I suppose I ought properly to wait for a formal introduction before making your acquaintance; but I have lived abroad in the colonies for some years past, and colonial life makes one disposed at times to set aside or disregard some of those social barriers which are, I know, necessary in the old country; so you must excuse an old man for introducing himself, and will permit him, I am sure, to accompany you as far as your aunt's lodge."
There was something so frank, and at the same time so thoroughly courteous, about the old gentleman's address that Miss Stansfield could not be offended with him; while his age and bearing prevented her feeling that there was any impropriety in her permitting him to be her companion on the public road till she should reach the drive-gate leading up to her home. She therefore bowed her assent, and the two walked slowly forward.
"You must know, Miss Stansfield," proceeded the stranger, "that I have both seen you before and have also heard a good deal about you, though we have never met till to-day.—Ah, I know what you would say," he added, with a smile, as he noticed her look of extreme surprise and her blush of bewilderment. "You are thinking, What can I have heard about one who is leading such a commonplace, retired life as yours? I will tell you. I have been rather anxious to know what sort of neighbours I shall have round me here, so I have been getting a little reliable information on the subject—where from it matters not; and my informant has told me about an old lady whose estate adjoins Riverton Park, and who has a niece living with her who belongs to a class for which I have a special respect, and which I may call 'workers in the shade.' Do you understand me?"
"Perfectly," replied his companion; "only I feel utterly unworthy of being included in such a class."
"Of course you do. And just for this reason, because you're in the habit of burning candles instead of letting off fireworks; and so you think your humble candles aren't of much service because they don't go off with a rush and a fizz. Is that it?"
"Perhaps it may be so," said the other, laughing.
"Well, do you remember what Shakespeare says?" asked the old man.
"'How far that little candle throws its beams, So shines a good deed in a naughty world.'
"Now, I want you kindly to answer me a question. It is this, Are there any unselfish people in Franchope or the neighbourhood?"
The question was put so abruptly, and was so odd in itself, that Mary Stansfield looked in her companion's face with a half misgiving. He noticed it instantly. "You're a little doubtful as to the old gentleman's vanity?" he said, laughing; "but I'm quite sane and quite in earnest; and I repeat my question."
"Really," said the other, much amused, "it is a very difficult question to answer. I hope and believe that there are many unselfish persons in our neighbourhood, or it would be sad indeed."
"Ah! True," was his reply, "but hoping is one thing, and believing is another. Now, I've been half over the world, and have come back to my own country with the settled conviction that selfishness is the great crying sin of our day; and it seems to me to have increased tenfold in my own native land since I last left it. So I should very much like to meet with a specimen or two of genuine unselfish people; for I have some important work to do here, and I shall stand in need of truly unselfish helpers. Can you name me one or two?"
"Well, sir, if you mean by unselfish persons those who really work for God's glory and not their own, I freely admit that they are, and I suppose always must be, comparatively rare."
"That is exactly what I do mean, my dear young lady; can you help me to find a few such unselfish workers in your own rank of life, and of your own sex?"
His companion was silent for a few moments, then she said slowly and timidly, "I judge, dear sir, from the tone of your questions that you are a follower of that Saviour who has set us the only perfect example of unselfishness."
"I trust so, my young friend," was the other's reply; "I wish at least to be so. Well, I see we have only a few more steps to bring us to your aunt's lodge. We shall meet again, I have no doubt, before long; and perhaps when we do I shall have more to say to you on the same subject. Farewell, and thank you." And with a courteous salutation he parted from her.
Restoration and improvement went on vigorously at Riverton Park. The front of the house soon lost its careworn appearance; the walks laid aside their weeds, and shone with a lively surface of fresh gravel; the shutters ceased to exclude the daylight; while painters and paperers, masons and carpenters, decorators and upholsterers soon brought the interior of the dwelling into a becoming state of beauty, order, and comfort.
And now the new proprietor was looked for with anxious expectation. His name had already got abroad, and all the gentry round were prepared to welcome Colonel Dawson when he should take possession of his newly acquired property. The colonel was an old retired officer, who had spent many years since leaving the army in one or more of the colonies. And now he was come home again, and intended to pass the rest of his days at Riverton. This was all that report could confidently affirm at present.
Was he an old bachelor or married? And if the latter, was his wife still living, and was there any family? Very conflicting rumours got abroad on this subject, but very little satisfaction came of them. All that could conclusively be gathered was that Park House was to have a lady inhabitant as well as the colonel; but that only a portion of the house was to be fully furnished. The appearance of a coachman daily exercising two noble carriage-horses was also hailed as a sign that the colonel did not mean to lead an unsociable life.
So Franchope and its neighbourhood were content, and watched the arrivals at the station day by day with patient interest. At length, in the first week in August, it was observed that the colonel's carriage drew up at the railway office to meet the evening train from London. From a first-class carriage there emerged three persons—the colonel, an elderly lady, and a young man who might be some twenty years of age; a footman and a lady's-maid also made their appearance; and all drove off for Riverton Park. Who could count the pairs of eyes that looked out from various windows in Franchope as the carriage drove rapidly through the town? A glance, a flash, and the new-comers were gone.
And now, in a few days, the whole household having twice occupied the family pews in the old parish church on the Lord's day, the neighbouring gentry began to make their calls.
The first to do so were Lady Willerly and her daughter. Her ladyship had discovered that she was distantly connected with the colonel, and hastened to show her interest in him as speedily as possible. Having cordially shaken hands with her and her daughter. Colonel Dawson turned to the lady and young man by his side and introduced them as, "My sister Miss Dawson; my nephew Mr Horace Jackson." So the relationships were settled, and public curiosity set at rest.
Numerous other callers followed, and by all it was agreed that the family was a decided acquisition; a pity perhaps that there was not a Mrs Dawson and a few more young people to fill the roomy old house and add liveliness to the various parties and social gatherings among the gentry. A younger man than the colonel would undoubtedly have been more to the general taste, especially as it was soon found that the family at Park House neither accepted nor gave dinner invitations, nor indeed invitations to any gatherings except quiet afternoon friendly meetings, where intercourse with a few neighbours could be enjoyed without mixing with the gaieties of the fashionable world.
So good society shrugged its shoulders, and raised its eyebrows, and regretted that the colonel, who doubtless was a good man, should have taken up such strict and strange notions. However, people must please themselves; and so it came to pass that the family at Riverton Park was soon left pretty much to itself, just exchanging civil calls now and then with the principal neighbours, and being left out of the circle of fashionable intimacy.
Three families, however, kept up a closer acquaintance, which ripened, more or less, into friendship. About a mile and a half from the Park, on the side that was farthest from Franchope, lived Mr Arthur Wilder, a gentleman of independent means, with a wife, a grown-up son, and three daughters. Horace Jackson was soon on the most intimate terms with young Wilder, and with his sisters, who had the reputation of being the most earnest workers in all good and benevolent schemes, so that in them the clergyman of their parish had the benefit of three additional right hands; while their parents and brother gave time, money, and influence to many a good cause and useful institution.
Adjoining the Riverton estate, in the direction of Franchope, was, as has been already stated, the property of the elderly Miss Stansfield, whose niece, Mary, has been introduced to our readers. The old lady was an early caller on the colonel's family, having made a special effort to rouse herself to pay the call, as she rarely left her own grounds. She at once took to Colonel Dawson; and, whether or no the liking was returned on his part, he frequently visited his infirm neighbour, and would spend many a quiet hour with her, to her great satisfaction. The old lady was one who wished to do good, and did it, but not graciously. So she had won respect and a good name among her dependants, but not love. The world called her selfish, but the world was wrong. She was self-absorbed, but not selfish in the ordinary sense of the term. She acted upon principle of the highest kind; her religion was a reality, but she had been used ever to have her own way, and could not brook thwarting or contradiction; while her ailments and infirmities had clustered her thoughts too much round herself, and had generated a bitterness in her manner and speech, which made the lot of her niece, who was her constant companion, a very trying one.
To the north of Riverton Park was the estate of Lady Willerly. Her ladyship was one of those impetuous characters who are never content unless they are taking castles by storm; she must use a hatchet where a penknife would answer equally well or better. She was a widow, and dwelt with her only child Grace, a grown-up daughter, in her fine old family mansion, in the midst of her tenants and the poor, who lived in a state of chronic alarm lest she should be coming down upon them with some new and vigorous alteration or improvement. Her daughter was in some respects like her mother, as full of energy, but with a little more discretion; bright as a sunbeam, and honest as the day; abounding also in good works. Such were the three families who maintained an intimacy with Colonel Dawson, when the rest of the neighbouring gentry dropped off into ordinary acquaintances.
"THE NEW SCHOOL."
When the family had occupied Park House about four months, a great deal of curiosity and excitement was felt by the inhabitants of Bridgepath, the little hamlet of five hundred persons in the rear of Riverton Park, in consequence of sundry cart-loads of bricks, stone, and lime being deposited on a field which was situated a few yards from the principal beer-shop. The colonel was going to build, it seemed,—but what? Possibly a full-grown public-house. Well, that would be a very questionable improvement. Was it to be a school, or a reading-room?
There was a school already, held in the parlour of the blacksmith's cottage, where a master attended on week-days, weather permitting, and imparted as much of the three R's as the children, whose parents thought it worth while to send them, could be induced to acquire under the pressure of a moderate amount of persuasion and an immoderate amount of castigation.
The master came in a pony-cart from Franchope, and returned in the same the moment the afternoon school broke up, so that his scholars had ample opportunity, when he was fairly gone, to settle any little disputes which might have arisen during school hours by vigorous fights on the open green, the combatants being usually encouraged to prolong their encounters to the utmost by the cheers of the men who gathered round them out of the neighbouring beer-shops.
As for religious instruction, the master, it is true, made his scholars read a portion of the Scriptures twice a week, and learn a few verses. But they would have been almost better without this; for the hard, matter-of-fact way in which he dealt with the Holy Book and its teachings would make the children rather hate than love their Bible lesson.
And what was done for the improvement, mental or spiritual, of the grown-up people? Nothing. Neither church nor chapel existed in the place. A few old and middle-aged people walked occasionally to the nearest place of worship, some two miles off; but nine-tenths of the villagers went nowhere on a Sunday—that is to say, nowhere where they could hear anything to do them good, though they were ready enough to leave their homes on the Sabbath to congregate where they could drink and game together, and sing profane and immoral songs.
So Bridgepath was rightly called "a lost place;" and indeed it had been "lost" for so many years, that there seemed scarcely the remotest prospect of its being "found" by any one disposed to do it good. However, even in this dark spot there was a corner from which there shone a little flickering light. John Price and his family tenanted a tolerably roomy cottage at the entrance to the village, close to the horse-pond. The poor man had seen better days, having acted as steward to the young squire from the time he came into the property till he disappeared with his infant son and an old nurse who had lived for nearly two generations on the Riverton estate. Poor John had served the squire's father also as steward, and loved the young master as if he had been his own child; and it was known that, when ruin fell on the young man, the poor steward was dragged down also to poverty, having been somehow or other involved in his employer's ruin. But never did John Price utter a word that would throw light on this subject to anyone outside his own family. All he would let people know was, that the squire had left him his cottage rent-free for his life,—which was, indeed, all that the master had to leave his faithful servant.
The worthy man had struggled hard to keep himself and his family; but now he was bed-ridden, and had been so for some five or six years past. However, he had a patient wife, who made the most and best of a very little, and loving children, some of them in service, who helped him through. And he found a measure of peace in studying his old, well-worn Bible, though he read it as yet but ignorantly. Still, what light he had he strove to impart to those of the villagers who came to sit and condole with him; while his wife, and an unmarried daughter who lived at home, both deploring the wickedness of Bridgepath, tried to throw in a word of scriptural truth now and then, for the sake of instructing and improving their heathenish neighbours.
It may be well imagined, then, with what interest all the villagers, but especially the Prices, including John himself, as he was propped up in bed and gazed through the casement, marked the numerous carts bringing building materials of all kinds to the village. All doubts on the subject, however, were soon brought to an end by a call from the colonel at John's house in the early part of November. After a few kind inquiries about his health and family, Colonel Dawson informed him that he was going to build at once a school and master's house in Bridgepath, with a reading-room attached to it, and to place there a married man of thorough Christian principles; one who would not only look after the ordinary teaching of the children, but would also, under the superintendence of the vicar, conduct a simple religious service on Sundays for the instruction of the villagers.
Bridgepath had from time immemorial been under the special supervision of the proprietors of Riverton Park, the whole hamlet being a portion of the property. The parish to which it belonged was extensive, and the parish church some five miles distant, Bridgepath being just on the borders of the next parish, in which parish the Park itself was situated. So, in former days, the chaplain at the house used to look after the people of the hamlet in a good-natured sort of way, by taking food and clothing to the sick and destitute, and saying a kind word, and giving a little wholesome advice, where he thought they were needed. But being himself unhappily possessed of but little light, he was unable to impart much to others, and the spiritual destitution of poor Bridgepath never seemed to occur to his mind at all. But now, for the last twenty years, neither squire nor chaplain had resided at Riverton; so that a very occasional visit from the vicar—who had more on his hands nearer home than he could well accomplish, and who, with others, was living in constant expectation of some one coming to the property and bringing about a change—was all that had been done directly for the scriptural instruction and eternal welfare of the benighted inhabitants of Bridgepath.
Now, however, a mighty change was coming, and the dwellers in the hamlet were supposed to be highly delighted, as a matter of course, with the prospect. And, certainly, the hearts of old John Price and his wife and daughter did rejoice; but not so the hearts of most of the inhabitants, for they were thoroughly conscious that much of the goings on in their village would not bear looking into by those who feared God and respected human law. Bridgepath had been now for a good many years a privileged place in the eyes of poachers, gamblers, and Sabbath- breakers, where the devil's active servants could hold their festivals, especially on the Lord's day, without fear of interruption from policeman or preacher. And the women were as bad as the men; they "loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." So the new school and reading-room arose amidst the sneers and loudly- expressed disgust of the majority of the population; the proprietors of the beer-shops being specially bitter in their denunciations of this uncalled-for innovation on the good old times and habits, so long the favoured lot of a primitive and unsophisticated people, who had been quite content when left to their own devices, and could do perfectly well without these new-fashioned schemes, if only good people would just let them alone. The good people, however, saw the matter in a different light; and so, spite of all the grumbling and outspoken dissatisfaction, the buildings were completed in the spring, and the new schoolmaster and his wife took up their abode in Bridgepath.
Colonel Dawson had chosen his man carefully, and duly warned him that he would find his post at first no bed of roses. To which the master replied that he was not afraid of encountering his share of thorns; and that he doubted not but that with prayer, patience, and perseverance, there would be both flowers and fruit in Bridgepath in due time. As for opposition, he rather enjoyed a little of it, and trusted to be enabled to live it down. The colonel was satisfied, for he knew that he had chosen a man who had already proved himself to be no mere talker. So Bridgepath looked on in sulky wonder; but soon was constrained to acknowledge that, in their new schoolmaster, the right man had been put into the right place.
And now the colonel was very anxious to get the help of some earnest- hearted Christian lady, who would visit the sick and needy in the neglected hamlet, carrying with her Christ in her heart and on her lips; for his sister was too old to undertake such a work. His thoughts turned to Mary Stansfield. He would go and have a talk with the old lady her aunt about it.
WHAT IS UNSELFISHNESS?
Colonel Dawson took a deep interest both in Miss Stansfield and her niece. He understood them both, and pitied them both, but for very different reasons. He pitied the old lady because she was throwing away her own happiness and crippling her own usefulness. He pitied her because she was not what she might so easily have been; because she was storing up vinegar where she might have gathered honey; and was one of those of whom Dr South says that "they tell the truth, but tell it with the tongue of a viper." He pitied Mary Stansfield, but with a pity mingled with profound respect and admiration. He pitied her that she should have to bear those daily raspings of the spirit which her aunt, half unconsciously, perpetually inflicted on her. And yet he could not altogether regret the discipline, when he marked how the trial was daily burnishing the fine gold of her character. Still, he pitied both, and was a frequent visitor at Morewood Court, partly because he marked how few were the friends who cared to stay at the house, and, more still, because he hoped to be of use in lightening the burden of both aunt and niece.
Colonel Dawson was one of those who love "working in the shade." Not that he was ashamed or afraid of working in the light, but he was content to pursue the less attractive and less ornamental paths of usefulness, which few comparatively cared to follow. And so he had set himself resolutely and prayerfully to the task of rearranging the character of one who, he was persuaded, was capable and desirous of doing good and great things, could she only be got to hold herself at arm's-length from herself for a little while, and see herself in the glass of God's Word, and as others saw her. He felt sure that there was good, practical sense enough in her mind, and grace enough in her heart, to make her yield to conviction when he should draw her on to see and acknowledge a better way; and then he knew that, when she should have been drawn out of the old self into a better self, she would duly appreciate and love her long-suffering niece. But he was well aware that the old self would not surrender its throne without a severe struggle, and he was therefore not surprised to find the old lady's bitterness rather increase than diminish as through their conversations she was learning to become more and more dissatisfied with herself.
Her poor niece had to bear in consequence the burden of an increased irritability in her aunt's addresses to her. But she was greatly cheered when the colonel took an opportunity of seeing her alone, and assuring her that, spite of appearances to the contrary, the clouds were beginning to break, and that light and peace would shortly follow.
It was now the month of June; the school and reading-room at Bridgepath had got fairly established; the growlers and grumblers had nearly all of them subsided; and many long-benighted souls were receiving light with gladness.
"Pray excuse my calling so early," said the colonel, as he took his seat beside the elder Miss Stansfield, on a bright sunny morning. The drawing-room window was open, and the ladies were seated on either side of it—the aunt half reclining on an easy-chair, the other occupying a low stool, with the open Bible from which she had been reading aloud on her lap.
Miss Stansfield received her visitor very cordially, but it was plain that the reading of the Holy Book had not imparted any sunshine to her spirit, and there were traces of recent tears in her niece's eyes.
The colonel saw this, but made no remark on it. For a few moments he gazed on the lovely garden, visible through the open window, without speaking; then he said abruptly, "I was thinking how selfish we naturally are; those beautiful flowers reminded me of it, and seemed to reproach me. God gives us such a profusion of colour, and harmonises it so marvellously to delight us; and yet how ready we are to pick out, as it were, the sombrest tints in his dealings with us, and to keep our eyes fixed on them."
Miss Stansfield coloured slightly, and then said, after a pause, during which her niece did not look up, but nervously moved the leaves of her Bible, "Yes, I quite agree with you, Colonel Dawson; there is abundance of selfishness in our days, especially among young people. They seem to think of nothing but having their own way, and seldom condescend to admit that those who have been brought up in less enlightened days can have gained any wisdom by experience."
"Ah! I dare say," replied the other; "I've no doubt that young people, many of them at least, have a large share of this very unlovable quality. Perhaps we have all of us more of it than we should like to admit to ourselves. But now, to tell the truth, I am on the look-out for one or two unselfish people;—can either of you, my dear friends, help me to find them?"
"I think you will search in vain in this neighbourhood," said the old lady dryly.
"Nay, my dear Miss Stansfield, are you not a little uncharitable? Surely you can point me to some who love doing good, and forget themselves in doing it."
"I can say 'Yes' to the first but not to the last part of your question," was the reply. "There are plenty who love doing good, according to the popular estimate of goodness; but they love still more to be known and praised as the doer of it."
"Well," rejoined her visitor, "granting this in a measure, I should still like to know of some of these popular good-doers. We must make considerable allowance for human frailty. Perhaps I shall be able to pick out a real jewel, where you have believed them to be only coloured glass and tinsel."
"I fear not, Colonel Dawson. However, I will mention a few of what I believe to be but counterfeit gems. There are the Wilders, for instance. Those girls are always doing good, and their brother too. You have only to look into the local papers to see what a broad stream of good works is perpetually flowing from that family. What with ecclesiastical decorations, Sunday-school and day-school fetes, dancing at charity balls, managing coal and clothing clubs, and a hundred other things in which the world and the Church get their alternate share pretty evenly, that family is a perfect pattern of good deeds for everybody to look at,—like the children's samplers, which their mothers point to with so much pride, as they hang up framed in their cottages."
The colonel looked grave, and said, "Then you do not consider that there are likely to be any unselfish workers in the Wilder family?"
"You had better ask my niece, colonel. She will give you an unprejudiced opinion."
The other looked towards the younger lady, and said, "I am asking now in confidence, and with an object, not from mere idle curiosity, far less from any wish to pick holes in the characters and conduct of any of my neighbours. So, Miss Mary, kindly give me your opinion."
Thus appealed to, the younger lady replied, but evidently with much reluctance, "I fear that my aunt is right in her judgment of the Wilders. I dare not recommend them to you as likely to prove, in the truest sense, unselfish workers. They are very kind and good-natured, and no one can help liking them; but—" and she hesitated.
"I understand you," said the colonel; "they would not come up to my standard, you think?"
"I fear not; but then I should be sorry to judge them harshly, only you asked my honest opinion."
"Oh, speak out, my dear, speak out," said her aunt; "they are but afflicted with the epidemic which has attacked all ranks in our day. Thus, where will you find a really unselfish servant nowadays? The old- fashioned domestics who would live a generation in a family, mourn over an accidental breakage committed once in a quarter of a century, and count their employer's interest as their own, are creatures entirely of the past. And as with maid and man, so with mistress and master, old or young. 'What am I to get as an equivalent if I do this or that?' seems the prevailing thought now with workers of every kind."
"Ah yes," said the colonel thoughtfully, "there is too much truth in what you say; only, in the darkest night we may detect a few stars, and some very bright ones too, if we will only look for them. And I am looking for stars now, but I shall be quite content to get one or two of the second or third magnitude."
"I'm afraid you'll hardly be able to find any in this neighbourhood, for the clouds," said the old lady, with a smile, in which the bitter prevailed over the sweet.
"Nay, nay, my dear friend," cried the colonel cheerily, "don't let us talk about clouds this lovely June morning. I fear, however, that I must not look for what I want among the Wilders. I can readily understand that they might be unwilling to work in the shade, where there would be nothing to repay them except the smile of Him who will not let even the cup of cold water rightly given go unrewarded. What do you say to Lady Willerly's daughter? I have heard great things of her. They tell me she is one of the most unselfish creatures under the sun."
"Ay," said the old lady dryly, "when the sun shines on her; but you want workers in the shade. Grace Willerly will not do for that."
"You think not? Well, let me tell you what I have heard of her. Those who know her well say that she never seems so happy as when she is doing good and making others happy. Her mother calls her 'my sunbeam.' She seems to take a pleasure in thwarting herself in order to gratify others. If she wants to go out for a walk, and some tiresome visitor comes in, she will laugh, and say, 'I was just wanting some one to come and keep me in, for I dare say I should have caught cold if I had gone out just now.' Or it may be quite the other way. She is just sitting down to draw or play, and some one calls and asks her to take a walk, and she at once leaves her occupation, jumps up, and says, 'Ah, how nice this is! I ought to take exercise, but felt disinclined; and you've come at the very right time, to entice me out.' In fact, her greatest pleasure seems to be to cross her own will and inclinations, that she may do what will give pleasure to others. Such is the picture that intimate friends have drawn of her; and certainly it is a very charming one. What say you to it, Miss Mary?"
"It is very beautiful, Colonel Dawson—" and she hesitated.
"Ah, then, too highly coloured, I suppose you would say. Give me your candid opinion."
"It is very difficult to say what I feel," replied Mary Stansfield, "without seeming to lay myself open to the charge of censoriousness or captiousness; and yet I cannot help seeing a shade of unreality, and even insincerity, on that bright and beautiful character,—that it wants, in fact, one essential element of genuine unselfishness."
"Of course it does," broke in the elder lady; "you mean that it is not free from self-consciousness and, more or less, of parade."
"I fear so, dear aunt. I cannot help thinking that, as some one has said of faith, so it may be said of true unselfishness, that 'it is colourless like water,'—it makes no show nor assertion of itself. But dear Grace Willerly is a sterling character for all that."
"So then," said the colonel, after a pause, "I must give up in despair, must I? No, that will never do. Now, I am wanting a quiet worker in the shade for poor Bridgepath,—some young lady friend who has a little leisure time, and will go now and then and read in the cottages there the Word of God, and give some loving counsel to those who need it so much. I have the good vicar's full consent and approbation; he will gladly welcome any such helper as I may find for the post. It will be a true labour of love; and, without any more words I am come to ask Miss Stansfield if she will spare her niece for the good work, and Miss Mary if she will be willing to undertake it."
The reply of the two ladies, who were equally taken by surprise, was in each case made in a single word, and that word very characteristic. "Impossible!" cried the old lady. "Me!" exclaimed the younger one.
"Nay, not impossible, dear friend," said the colonel gently. "I want this service of love only once a week for an hour or two, and I am sure you can spare my young friend for that time.—And as for yourself, Miss Mary, I believe, from what I have seen of you, that you are just fitted for the work; and I am sure that you are too sincere to excuse yourself on the ground of an unfitness which you do not really feel."
"And what am I to do?" asked the old lady bitterly.
"Exercise a little of this true unselfishness, dear friend. You see there are many ways in which you too can show true unselfishness in the cause of that Master whom I know you truly love, though he has laid you aside from much active work for him."
Miss Stansfield did not answer for a time; she looked pained, but the bitterness had passed away from her countenance. Evading an immediate reply, she said, "I don't understand these many ways in which I can show unselfishness, Colonel Dawson."
"Do you not? May I mention some?"
"Yes, do," she replied earnestly.
"Well, bear with me then, while I make one or two suggestions which our late conversations have been leading up to. I will imagine myself in your place, and looking out to see where I may best put the stamp of the Cross on my life. I am wishing to do good, I am trying to do good: but may it not be that my benevolence is sometimes rendered so ungraciously that it gives more pain than pleasure to those who receive it? Ah, then, I will put the stamp of the Cross here. I will try, not only to do good, but to do it graciously. Perhaps, again, I am looking upon suffering and natural infirmity of temper as an excuse for harshness and hard judgment, and not as a call to exercise charity, patience, and forbearance. Then let me put the stamp of the Cross here also. Or, once more, perhaps I am in the habit of looking for the weeds rather than the flowers, for the shadows rather than the sunshine, in my lot. Well, then, here again I may place the stamp of the Cross, by exercising quiet, unostentatious self-denial and unselfishness before the loving eyes of him who has made us for himself, and redeemed us that we might in all things glorify him. Might I not thus, dear friend, exhibit true unselfishness, and at the same time brighten my own heart, and also the hearts of others?"
No one spoke for a few moments, but the old lady bowed her head upon her hands and wept silently. Then she stretched out a hand to the colonel, without raising her head, and said in a half-stifled whisper, "Thank you, thank you, faithful friend. Mary shall undertake the post if she will."
Ah yes! Light had shone into that clouded spirit; the shadows were passing away. Mary Stansfield knelt her down by the old lady's side, and in one loving, tearful embrace, such as they had never known before, the icy barrier that had so long chilled that young and loving heart was melted, and there was peace.
The colonel was more than satisfied. He knew, as he quietly stole out of the room without a further word, that he had been privileged to gain that morning two like-minded workers in the shade, instead of one.
THE STAMP OF THE CROSS.
A few days after Colonel Dawson's happy interview with Miss Stansfield and her niece, a fete was given by the Wilders at their residence, Holly House, partly for the entertainment of the children who belonged to the Sunday-school classes taught by the Misses Wilder, and partly also as a means of gathering together as many neighbouring friends and acquaintances as might be at leisure to come.
Colonel Dawson and his nephew had received a pressing invitation; and also Lady Willerly and her daughter, though the latter was hardly expected, as it was known how many engagements she had to tie her at home. The invitation, however, decided Grace Willerly to write at once and say that, although she had a very pressing engagement, she would arrange to put it off, as she felt that a good game of play with the dear children on the lawn at Holly House would be just the very thing she wanted to do her good and freshen her up.
So a large party assembled on the day appointed, and among them the colonel and his nephew—the former because he wished to keep on friendly terms with his neighbours, though he anticipated but little pleasure from this particular gathering. Besides this, he was a little anxious to see to what extent the intimacy between the young Wilders and his nephew had gone; for he had something of a misgiving that the young man might be getting entangled in the attractions of one of the young ladies, and this was the last thing he would have desired for him. As for Horace Jackson himself, his impression concerning the younger members of the Wilder family was that they were decidedly "jolly." He had not yet consciously arrived at a warmer stage of feeling in regard to any one of them, and his estimate was tolerably correct. Somebody had characterised the young ladies of Holly House as "dashing girls," and such they certainly were.
The eldest was now about one and twenty, a fine manly young woman, with a loud voice, and very demonstrative manners, who seemed inclined to do good in the spirit of a prize-fighter, by attacking the evils which she sought to remedy with a masculine vigour, such as would drive them in terror off the field. The second daughter, Clara, was of a rather less commanding appearance than her elder sister, but dressed and talked pretty much in the same fashion. The third, Millicent, would naturally have been quiet and retiring, but had constrained herself to imitate her sisters. She had, however, only so far succeeded as to acquire an abrupt and off-hand style of speaking, which was calculated to shut up old-fashioned people, who had been brought up under the impression that young ladies should belong to the feminine gender. Indeed, when the three Misses Wilder were met on the public road in their walking attire, with natty little hats on their heads, ulsters down to their feet, turn-down collars round their necks, and riding- whips or walking-sticks in their hands, it would have been very difficult for an unpractised observer to determine to what particular sex they belonged.
Their brother was proud of his sisters, and matched them admirably. He was a kind-hearted, outspoken, generous young man, up to anything, from a midnight spree to a special religious service; hating everything like cant as decidedly "low," and going in for sincerity, truth, and free- thought. Moreover, he spent his money, or, more strictly speaking, his father's money as well as his own, on horses, dogs, and guns, and left sundry little bills to stand over till the poor creditors had lost both hope and patience.
It was now four o'clock, and the children were assembling for tea, after a series of games, in which they had been joined by Grace Willerly with an unflagging energy, and been occasionally encouraged by a kind word from Mr and Mrs Wilder and their daughters.
"What a charming sight, isn't it?" said Mrs Wilder to Colonel Dawson, as they strolled up to the tea-tables, which had been set out under the shade of some huge elms. "How happy the dear children seem!"
"Yes," replied her guest; "it is indeed a pleasant sight, and I am sure we may well learn a lesson of contentment with simple pleasures from the hearty enjoyment of these young ones. What a pity that the world and its attractions should ever get a place in the hearts of these or of any of us, since God has made us for purer and higher things!"
"Ah! Very true, colonel;—but won't you come into the house? I see our friends are gathering in the drawing-room. We shall find tea there; and Clara and Millicent, with Grace Willerly, will see that their little friends want for nothing. Oh! Here is your nephew.—Pray, Mr Jackson, come in with us; I am sure you will be glad of a little refreshment."
So the elder guests assembled in the drawing-room, and got through an hour of miscellaneous gossip very creditably; at the end of which all adjourned to the garden again, and strolled about in twos and threes till the school children were dismissed and it was time for the visitors to take their leave.
"What a relief!" exclaimed the colonel to his nephew, as they trotted on side by side on their ride homewards.
"Well, it was dull work, uncle, I allow," said the young man, laughing. "But these gatherings are, I suppose, useful and necessary, if people are to keep up friendly acquaintance with one another, and do what is civil and neighbourly."
"Yes, perhaps so," replied his uncle; "but such an afternoon is little better than bondage and lost time—at any rate to a man of my colonial habits. However, it has given me an opportunity of seeing more of the young ladies at Holly House."
"And I am afraid, uncle, that you do not find them improve upon acquaintance."
"Just so, Horace; they don't suit my taste at all."
"And yet, dear uncle, with all their dash, and brusquerie, and fastness, they really are most kind-hearted and unselfish girls."
"Kind-hearted, I allow, but I doubt their unselfishness."
"But why, uncle? What would you have more? They certainly don't spare themselves. They are here, there, and everywhere, when any good is to be done, and think nothing of spending any amount of time and money in making other people happy."
"True, Horace, but there is a pleasurable excitement in all this which more than overbalances any trouble it may cost, especially when the world's applause for their good deeds is thrown into the same scale."
"But," remonstrated the young man, in rather a disturbed and anxious tone, "is not this dealing them a little hard measure? Where shall we find anything that will deserve the name of unselfishness, if we weigh people's actions too rigorously?"
"Ah! You think me severe and uncharitable, Horace. But now, it just comes to this. What do the Misses Wilder and their brother (for I suppose we must take him into consideration too), really forsake or give up in order to do good? I don't pretend to know the private affairs of the family generally, but certainly there are strong rumours afloat that the maxim, 'Be just before you are generous,' is not acted upon by the young people in their money concerns. I allowed just now that they are good-natured, but good-nature is a very different thing from unselfishness. What personal gratification do they surrender in order to do good? What worldly pleasure or amusement do they deny themselves? What extravagance do they curtail?"
"I can't say much for them in that respect, certainly," replied the young man thoughtfully; "indeed, I must frankly confess that I have heard more than once from the eldest Miss Wilder the expression of her hope and conviction that the united good deeds of the family would be accepted, by the world at any rate, as a sort of atonement for follies and excesses which clearly could not be justified in themselves."
"I can well believe it, my dear nephew: but I have something much weightier to say on the subject, and it is this. There is manifestly one great want in all the doings of these kind-hearted people at Holly House, which would make me at once deny the character of unselfishness to their best deeds."
"And what is that, dear uncle?"
"The stamp of the Cross, Horace. I know that there are plenty of crosses about them,—crosses on their prayer-books, crosses round their necks, crosses on their writing-cases and on their furniture; but the Cross is wanting. In a word, they are not denying self, and seeking to do good to others from love to that Saviour who gave up so much for them. I know that they are not without religion in the eyes of the world; but I cannot, I dare not believe that they are really actuated by love to the great Master in what they may do to make others happy. Am I wrong, Horace?"
"No, uncle, I cannot say that you are. Much as I like the girls on many accounts, I should not be speaking my honest sentiments were I to say that I believed them to be doing good to others from real Christian motives. And yet—"
"Ah, my dear nephew, I know what you would say. I know that the world would embrace such as these within its elastic band as among genuine unselfish workers, though avowedly on a lower level than that adopted by the true Christian. But, after all, can God, the searcher of hearts, approve of anything as being truly unselfish which does not bear the stamp of the Cross? And can anything of which he does not approve be a reality?"
"I suppose not," said the other reluctantly. "Still, it is difficult not to be dazzled by what looks like a reflection from the true Light; and difficult, too, to detect a sham where we are willing to see a reality."
"Very difficult," replied Colonel Dawson: "and yet the world abounds in shams, and cant, and hypocrisy. The world commonly lays these things at the door of religious professors; but the truth all the while is that the sham, and the cant, and the hypocrisy are really in those who take or gain credit for a character—unselfishness, for example—which is only to be found in true Christians, and hold themselves back from that genuine devotion, and self-sacrifice, and coming out to Christ, without which their boasted and lauded excellences are nothing better than a delusion and an empty name."
The young man did not reply, and the subject was dropped for the remainder of the ride home.
Mary Stansfield and Grace Willerly were sitting together, about three weeks after the above conversation, in an arbour in the garden attached to Lady Willerly's house. Miss Stansfield had come to spend a day or two by special invitation, by way of getting a little change, which she much needed; her aunt having spared her without a murmur, and having accepted the services of a former domestic in her place.
"How very kind of your aunt to spare you!" said Grace to her friend; "I hardly expected it, knowing how much she depends upon you."
"Oh yes!" was the reply: "you cannot tell, dear Grace, what a wonderful change has come over my dear aunt. And it is all owing, under God, to the loving faithfulness of our kind friend Colonel Dawson. I scarcely ever get a harsh word or a hard look now; and when I do, my aunt at once calls me to her, and asks me to forgive her. Oh, is it not wonderful? I am sure I blush with shame to think how little I deserve it."
"Yes, it is very wonderful, dear Mary. Certainly our new neighbour is a most earnest and useful man; and he has shown his discernment, too, in getting hold of yourself to work for him in Bridgepath. But I am afraid you will find it very up-hill work; you'll want the strength of a horse, the patience of Job, and the zeal of an apostle in such a place as that."
"Certainly, I shall want the grace of an apostle," said the other quietly; "but the work is very delightful, and is more than repaying me already for any little trouble or self-denial it may cost me."
"It is very good of you to say so, Mary; I am afraid the work wouldn't suit me. I don't mind making sacrifices—indeed, I think I can truly say it is one of my chief pleasures to make them; but there must be something very depressing in the jog-trot sort of work you are called on to do. I don't mind anything, so long as it has a little bit of dash in it; but I am afraid I should soon grow weary of a regular grind like yours."
"Oh, but you are quite mistaken about my work at Bridgepath," said the other, laughing. "There is nothing dull or monotonous about it; and it is such a happiness to see the light of God's truth beginning to dawn on dark and troubled hearts. And there is one particularly interesting family—I mean John Price's. You have heard, I dare say, that he was steward to the squire, and that he lost almost everything by his poor master's extravagance. Poor man, he is bed-ridden now, and I fear had little comfort even from his Bible, for he seemed to have learned little from it but patience. But, oh! How he has brightened up, and his wife and daughter, too, now that they have been led to see that it is their privilege to work and suffer from salvation instead of for salvation."
"I don't understand you," interrupted Miss Willerly.
"Don't you? Oh, it makes all the difference. Poor John Price has been reading his Bible, and bearing his troubles patiently, in the hope that at the end he may be accepted and saved through his Saviour's merits. That is what I mean by working for salvation."
"And what else, dear Mary, would you have him do?"
"O Grace! This is poor work indeed, working in view of a merely possible salvation. No! What he has learned now is to see that his Saviour, in whom he humbly and truly believes, has given him a present salvation; so that he, and his wife and daughter too, can now say, 'We love him, because he first loved us.' And so they work and suffer cheerfully, and even thankfully, from love to that Saviour who has already received them as his own. This is what I mean by working from salvation. Surely we shall work more heartily for one of whom we know that he has saved us, than for one of whom we know only that he has saved others, and may perhaps save us also in the end."
"I see what you mean, dear Mary, but I never saw it so before. Such a view of God's love to us personally must take the selfishness out of our good works, because what we do will be done just simply from love to Christ. It is a beautiful way of looking at God's dealings with us."
"Yes, Grace; and as true and scriptural as it is beautiful. It is just what God sees that we need, and furnishes us with the most constraining motive to serve him, and to deny self in his service."
"I see it," said Miss Willerly sadly and thoughtfully, after a pause. "I very much fear, dear Mary, that I have been greatly deceiving myself. I have been just simply building up a monument to my own honour and glory out of my heap of little daily crosses."
"Nay, dear Grace, you are dealing too severely with yourself."
"No, I think not. At any rate, I am sadly aware that not the love of Christ, but the love of human applause, has been the constraining motive in my acts of self-denial. I have made such a parade of my willingness to thwart my own will that I might please others, so that while I should have been startled to see a full-grown trumpeter at my side proclaiming my unselfishness, I have all the while been keeping in my service a little dwarf page, who has been sounding out my praises on his shrill whistle."
"You judge yourself hardly, dear Grace; and yet, no doubt, self does enter largely even into our unselfishness. I am sure I have felt it, oh, how deeply! And specially just lately, since I have undertaken this work at Bridgepath."
"You, dear Mary!"
"Yes, indeed. And I see now how wisely our heavenly Father ordered his discipline in my case. There was indeed a 'needs-be' in my dear aunt's former harshness and irritability to me; but for that, and for her disparaging remarks on my conduct, I might have been more self-seeking than I am. But the discipline has been changed now, and I trust that the chastisement has not been wholly in vain. What we all want, I am sure, if we are to be true workers for God, is to lift our eyes from self, and keep them steadily fixed on Him who has done so much for us."
"I am sure you are right," said the other. "I know I wish to do right, and I feel a pleasure in crossing my own inclination when it will gratify others; but then my inmost look has been to the world and its approbation. 'What will people say? What will people think?' or, at any rate, 'What will good people say and think?' this has been the prominent thought in my heart, I fear."
"Well, dear Grace, I suppose this is so, more or less, with us all. What we want, I think, and comparatively seldom find in these showy and surface days, is a high sense of duty, so that we just act as duty calls, let the world, or good people even, judge of us or speak of us as they please."
"And yet, dear Mary, I think I see a little crevice through which self may creep in even there. I have met some of your 'duty' people who have flung themselves so violently against the prejudices of society, or, at any rate, of good people, crying out all the time, 'Duty, duty! It don't matter to us what the world thinks,' that they have given great offence where they might have avoided giving any, and have set up people's backs against what is good and true."
"I dare say you have met such, dear Grace, and I think you may be talking to one of the class now," said Miss Stansfield, laughing; "at least, my character and principles would naturally lead me in that direction, for, of course, we are all disposed to carry out our own views to an extreme, if we do not let common sense, enlightened by grace, preserve a proper balance. But, spite of this, I still feel that a high sense of duty in those who love our Saviour is the surest preservative against being carried away by a subtle selfishness, and is the making of the finest and most truly self-denying characters. If I am manifestly in the path of duty, what matters it what is said of me, or who says it? I may then go forward, not, indeed, arrogantly or defiantly—that would be unlike the great Master—but yet firmly and confidently, and God will set me right with the world and with his people in his own good time."
"Ah! I believe you are right," said her friend, with a sigh. "I wish there were more of such true unselfishness amongst us; I wish I were such a character myself."
"And so you are, dear Grace, in the main. No one can possibly doubt your genuineness and sincerity. You have only just to step up on to the higher platform, and, as your heart's gaze becomes more fixed on a Saviour known and loved, you will cease to think about how your self- denial looks in the eyes of others, and will feel the cross which you carry after Christ in the path of duty to be easy and his burden light."
"I shall not forget our conversation on this subject," said Miss Willerly with tears in her eyes. "I always thought that I hated selfishness, but now I see that I have been blinded to my own. I suppose it is very difficult for us to see it in ourselves as it really is, especially in these days when there are so many attractive forms of self-denial. It occurred to me the other day what an odd thing it would be to see how a number of utterly selfish people would get on if thrown together for some weeks, with not a single unselfish person amongst them, and unable to get rid of one another's company. I feel sure the result would teach an admirable lesson on the misery of a thoroughly selfish disposition."
"I think so too, Grace," said her companion, much amused. "What do you say to putting a story or allegory together on the subject."
"Capital!" cried Miss Willerly; "it will be something quite in my line I will set about it at once. I shall be able to give myself some very seasonable raps on the knuckles as I go on, and perhaps I may be of use to some of my acquaintance, who might be induced to look through my performance in a friendly way."
"You must let me be the first to see it," said her friend.
"Oh, certainly; and you must give me your free and candid criticisms."
"Yes, I will do so; and I don't doubt I shall find profit in the reading of it, and a little bit of myself in more than one of your characters."
A fortnight after this conversation Miss Stansfield received from her friend the promised story, which we give in the following chapter.
THE SELFISH ISLANDS.
A certain Eastern despot, whose attention had been painfully drawn to the odious character of selfishness, by finding it exhibited in a very marked manner towards himself by some who had, in looking after their own interests, ventured to thwart the royal will, was resolved to get rid of all the most selfish people out of his capital. To that end he made proclamation that on a certain day he would give a grand banquet to all the unselfish people in the metropolis, nothing being needed for admittance to the feast but the personal application of any one laying claim to unselfishness to the lord chancellor for a ticket.
The king took this course under the firm conviction that all the most selfish people, being utterly blinded by self-esteem to their own failing, would be the very persons most ready to claim admittance to the banquet; and in this expectation he was not disappointed. But he was a little staggered to find that about a thousand persons, of both sexes and of nearly all ages, applied at the office for tickets of admission and many of them such as had not made their appearance in public for many long years past. Thus, when the feast-day came, bed-ridden men and women arrived at the palace dressed out in silks and satins; gouty men hobbled in without their crutches; and multitudes who had long been incapacitated from doing anything but try the patience of their friends and indulge their own whims, made no difficulty of appearing among the guests. And it was strange, too, to see at the king's table delicate ladies and chronic invalids, who were never met with at places of worship or benevolent meetings, because the cold or the heat, or their nerves or their lungs made it a duty for them to be keepers at home. There were also present about two hundred spoilt children, whose mothers considered them to be "dear unselfish little darlings," and about an equal number of young ladies and young gentlemen, whose chief delight had consisted in spending their fathers' money, and studying their own sweet persons in the looking-glass.
Of course, the company behaved with due decorum at the banquet, especially as the king did them the honour of sitting down to table with them, the only exception being on the part of the spoilt children, whom not even the presence of royalty itself could restrain from personal encounters over the more attractive-looking dishes.
The banquet over, the king rose and thus addressed his astonished guests:—
"I have ascertained from my lord chancellor, whose secretary took down the names and addresses of you all when you applied for your tickets, that he has made careful inquiry into your several characters, and finds that you all belong to a class of persons who greatly trouble our city. You have accepted my invitation professedly as unselfish people, but your estimate of yourselves is the very reverse of that which is held by those who know you best. I have therefore resolved, for the good of the community generally, to transport the whole of you, for a period of six months, to the uninhabited island of Comoro, situate in the midst of the great lake, where you will find ample means for living in health, peace, and comfort, provided you are all and each willing to lay aside your selfishness, and to find your happiness in living for the good of others. And I trust that at the end of the six months, when steamers shall call for you at Comoro, you may all be spared to return to your homes improved in character, more useful members of society, and more fitted to contribute to the real prosperity of this kingdom."
Without waiting for a reply, which was not indeed attempted by any of the guests—for they remained for some moments speechless with amazement—the king retired from the banqueting hall; and the lord chancellor, motioning with his hand for attention, proceeded to state that each of the guests would be expected to be at the station on a day and at an hour specified on a ticket which each would receive; and that every one would be allowed to take with him or her a reasonable but limited amount of personal luggage, but no furniture or heavy and bulky articles. Steamers would be in readiness, at the Lakeside Terminus, to convey the passengers and their goods to the island; and, as no one would be permitted to decline the journey—for all knew that the king's will was law—the guests would best consult their own interests and comfort by preparing for the removal with as little delay as possible.
Having made this statement, the lord chancellor withdrew, leaving the company staring one at another in blank dismay. What was to be done? Nothing but to make the best of it; as for resistance, all knew that it would be useless, and remonstrance equally so. Even the infirm and sickly could hope for no exemption; for as their maladies had not hindered their attendance at the banquet, these could not be now admitted as a plea for excusing them from the removal. Many, indeed, of the young people were highly delighted with the prospect before them, especially the children, who were anxious to be off for Comoro there and then. As for their elders, they retired from the palace with varied feelings; some indignant, some conscience-stricken, and most prepared to lay the blame on some one or more of their neighbours. Indeed, two old gentlemen, who had been lodgers on different floors in the same house for years, but, in consequence of an old quarrel, had never spoken to one another for the greater part of that time, now blocked up one of the exits from the palace, as they stood face to face, furiously charging each other with being the guilty cause of the terrible calamity which had now fallen on themselves and on so many of their fellow-citizens.
And now the day of departure had arrived, and the trains for the lake were duly filled with passengers; not, however, till many heartrending scenes had occurred in connection with the luggage. Two young ladies, bosom friends, having hired a van to convey their joint wardrobe and other ornamental effects to the station, were informed, to their tearful despair, that only about one-tenth of the goods could be conveyed to the island. Similarly, three or four fast young men entered the train in a state of desperation bordering on collapse, because the officials had peremptorily turned back a stud of hunters and half-a-dozen sporting dogs. But the most exciting scene of all occurred in the case of an old maiden lady, who, having brought a cart-load of personal necessaries and comforts, which were positively essential to her continued existence, and having been firmly refused the transmission of the greater part of them, declared with the utmost positiveness that the lord chancellor had himself expressly informed all the guests at the banquet that each was at liberty to take an unlimited quantity of goods; nor could any explanation convince her of her mistake. Let them say what they pleased, she had heard the word unlimited with her own ears: and hearing was believing. The last case which caused any serious difficulty, and which really excited the pity of the porters, was that of an elderly gentleman unfortunate enough to be troubled with a liver, who changed various colours when informed that he must leave behind him an iron-bound box containing some four or five hundredweight of patent and other medicines.
At length, all the trains having reached the Lakeside Terminus, the entire party of temporary exiles were duly and speedily conveyed in steamers to the island of Comoro, where they were put on shore with their goods.
The climate of the island was delightful, and subject to but few variations, so that nothing was to be feared by the new-comers from inclemency of weather. Care had been also taken by the lord chancellor, to whom the carrying out of the details had been committed, that a sufficient number of tents should be ready for the use of those who chose to avail themselves of them, while building materials and tools had been duly provided, as well as an ample store of provisions.
When the last steamer had discharged its passengers and cargo, proclamation was made by a herald that a commissioner from the king would visit Comoro once a month, to hear any complaints and record any misconduct; and that those who should be found guilty of any grave offence would receive condign punishment at the close of the term of banishment.
The community was then left to follow its own devices. And what would these be? Of course the obvious thing was for each to look after "number one;" but he soon became painfully conscious that he could not do this without the help of "number two," and that to obtain this help he must be willing to do his own part. One gentleman, indeed, apparently entirely unconscious of any other duty than that of taking care of himself, set to work at once to make himself as comfortable as circumstances would permit. Having selected the most roomy and convenient tent he could find, he removed his most easily portable possessions into it, and proceeded to regale himself on some cold provisions which he had brought with him. After these were finished, he rang violently several times a hand-bell which he had brought with him, expecting that his valet would at once answer the summons; but he soon found that he could not calculate on his servant's attendance in Comoro. It was true that the man had come on the same steamer as his master, having been one of the guests at the royal banquet; but he had no thought now of looking after any one but himself, and was, when his master rang for him, busily engaged in a drinking-bout with a few like- minded companions.
And what could the females do? The spoilt children had, of course, their mothers with them—for none but selfish mothers would spoil their children—and these mothers with their little ones were preparing to form themselves into a distinct community; but such a frightful contention and uproar arose amongst the children themselves, that before nightfall their parents had to abandon their original idea and seek separate homes among their neighbours. As for the young ladies, they soon managed to enlist the services of the female domestics who had come to the island, and then placed themselves under the protection of two elderly maiden sisters, on the express understanding that their guardians were to be handsomely remunerated for looking after them.
The young gentlemen, having no intention to exert themselves unnecessarily, lounged about with cigars in their mouths, and voted the whole thing "a bore;" while several of the elders of both sexes, suppressing for the time the exhibition of their specialities of selfishness, indulged in a prolonged chorus of grumbling and mutual condolence. But, in one way or other, all had been fed and housed before midnight, and sleep buried for a while in forgetfulness the troubles of the bewildered settlers on Comoro.
We pass over the first month, and how does the commissioner, on his arrival at the island, find the exiles bearing their lot? Proclamation was at once made that those who had anything to complain of should meet him in a spacious marquee which he had caused to be set up on a large open piece of ground near the shore, immediately on his arrival. He was rather dismayed, however, when he found the place of hearing crowded without a moment's delay by nine-tenths of the islanders, while many were clamouring outside because unable to obtain admission. After a few moments' consideration, he ordered his officers to clear the marquee, and then to admit a hundred of the more elderly of each sex. This was done with some considerable difficulty, and the commissioner then addressed himself to a crabbed-looking old gentleman, who had elbowed his way to the front with a vigour hardly to have been looked for in one of his years and apparent infirmities.
"May I request, sir, to be informed what it is you have to complain of?" asked the commissioner.
"I complain of everything and everybody," was the reply.
"Is that all you have to complain of?" the commissioner then asked. Before the old gentleman could frame an answer to this second question, the judge, having paused to give a few moments for reply, exclaimed, "Officer, dismiss this complainant;" and the old man was forthwith removed from the tent in a state of boiling indignation.
"And now, madam," continued the commissioner, addressing a middle-aged lady of dignified mien and commanding stature, "may I ask what is your complaint?"
"I complain, sir," replied the lady sternly, "of general neglect and ill-treatment."
"Excuse me, madam," was the judge's reply, "but I can see no evidence of this in your personal appearance. So far from it, that, having met you not unfrequently in the streets of our city, I am constrained to congratulate you on the manifest improvement in health which you have gained from a month's residence in this delightful climate.—Officer, conduct this lady with all due ceremony to the outside of our court."
"And you, sir," speaking to a gentleman of very severe countenance, who had been used at home to "show his slaves how choleric he was, and make his bondmen tremble,"—"let me hear what charge you have to allege."
"Charge, Mr Commissioner! Charge enough, I'm sure! Why, I can't get any one to mind a word that I say."
"Then, I am sure, sir, the fault must be wholly or for the most part your own.—Officer, remove him."
"Has no one anything more definite to complain of?" he again asked, looking round the assembly, which by this time had begun to thin, as it became obvious to all present that no attention would be given to mere vague grumblings.
"I'm sure it's very hard," sighed a knot of young ladies, who had listened from the outside to what had been going on, and were afraid to speak out more plainly. "We shall be moped to death if we're kept here any longer," muttered one or two fast young men, shrugging their shoulders. But to these remarks the commissioner turned a deaf ear; and no one coming forward to lodge any distinct charge against another, the court broke up, and the commissioner proceeded to make a tour of inspection among the islanders.
He found, as he had indeed expected to find, that the necessity for exertion, and the peculiarity of the circumstances in which they were now placed, had already got rid of a good deal of the selfishness which had only formed a sort of crust over the characters of many who, in the main, were not without kind and generous feelings; so that the looking after the due supply of provisions, and the cooking of them and serving them to the different families, had been cheerfully undertaken by a duly organised body of young and middle-aged workers of both sexes,—the result of which was, not only an improvement in character in the workers themselves, but also a drawing forth of expressions of gratitude from some who formerly took all attentions as a right, but now had been made to feel their dependence on their fellows. And it was pleasant to see how cordially working men and women were united in striving for the good of the community in conjunction with those who had hitherto occupied a higher social position than themselves.
Some, indeed, of the lower orders, whose tastes had been of an utterly low and degraded cast, had been summarily ejected from the island after they had more than once endangered the lives and stores of the islanders in their brutal drunken sprees. They had talked big, indeed, and made at first a show of resistance; but the general body of the exiles had authorised a powerful force of young and middle-aged men to take them into custody, and convey them on a raft, constructed for the purpose, to an island some ten miles distant. Here the rioters were left with a sufficient supply of provisions; a warning being given them that, should they attempt to return to Comoro, they would be put in irons, and kept in custody till they could be brought up before the commissioner. The island being thus happily rid of this disturbing element, there was, at any rate, outward peace among the inhabitants of Comoro, though, of course, there was yet abundance of discontent and bitterness beneath the surface in the hearts of many.
As the commissioner was making his way to the shore preparatory to his return to the mainland, he passed a tent from which there issued such deep-fetched sighs that, having obtained permission to enter, he inquired of the inmate the cause of so much trouble.
"Ah, sir!" replied the poor sufferer, who was a man some sixty years of age, with grey hair, and a countenance whose expression was one of mingled shrewdness, discontent, and ill-temper, "our sovereign little knows the cruelty he has been guilty of in sending me all alone to a place like this."
"How alone, my friend?" asked the other; "you have plenty of companions within reach."
"Why, sir," was the poor man's reply, "I have been torn from the best and most loving of wives—I who am so entirely dependent on her for my happiness—I who love her so tenderly;—alas! Wretched man that I am, what shall I do?"
"Do you know this gentleman?" said the commissioner, turning to his secretary, who had accompanied him into the tent.
"I know him well, your excellency," was the reply; "and a more selfish man does not exist. He tells the truth, however, when he says that he is entirely dependent on his wife for his happiness; but it was impossible for her to accompany him hither, as she is the most unselfish of women. On her he has ever made it a practice to vent his chief spleen and bitterness, exacting from her at the same time perpetual service, and rarely repaying her with anything but sneers and insults, holding her up even to the scorn and ridicule of his acquaintance."