The Great Salterns
By Sarah Doudney, 1875
It was a March afternoon; a fresh breeze was blowing off the sea, sweeping across the grassy flats and marshes, and fluttering Kate Bradley's coarse dress, as she stood looking out over the water. The tide was high; one or two crazy old blunt-headed boats were rocking on the ripples; and the spring sunshine rested peacefully on the slopes of Portsdown Hill, showing the great white chasms of the chalk-pits. Still farther off, lay the fair heights of Sussex, faint and blue in the distance; nearer, and on the right hand, were the coasts of Havant and Hayling. The white wings of a gull gleamed like silver as the light touched them in its graceful flight. Kate watched the bird with an earnest gaze, and then her eyes suddenly filled with tears. "I wonder where it's going," she said, speaking her thoughts aloud. "I suppose it can't get any nearer to Lizzie than I can. But it seems as if wings could take me up to the gates of the holy city!"
She was standing on the edge of the road, which was raised above high-water mark. The water came gurgling round the piles and sea-stained stones that had resisted its advances for many a year. A wilder or more desolate spot could scarcely be found; yet at one time it had been the scene of busy occupation. Years ago, when the great salterns were in working order, the place teemed with life and industry, for the works had given employment to a large number of hands. But they had long been abandoned; fragments of ruined boiling-houses and sheds were still standing among the coarse grass and reeds, and adding to the dreary aspect of the waste land.
The road, strongly built on piles, crossed a bridge, under which the water flowed into the creeks. Then, slightly winding, it led on to the iron gate of the large, lonely house that stood with its back to the sea, while its front windows commanded a view of the level country. It was a square white mansion, almost encircled by its lawn and shrubberies. The road swept completely round it, but the evergreens inside its ivied fence had grown thick and strong, and it was so well guarded by trees, that few glimpses of its lower storys could be obtained.
This house was still known as the Great Salterns. It might have been built by the master of the salt-works, long ago; certain it is that it had been standing for many a year, and was substantial enough to brave the assaults of time and weather. But although it was sheltered by rich verdure in front, and clusters of primroses were growing within the fence, the north-eastern side of its grounds had a far different aspect. Here was a small plantation of firs, standing up gaunt and bare, with scarcely a tuft of green to be found upon the blasted brown twigs. Nothing lovely seemed to flourish there; nor was there anything to be seen but a great level waste of slate-colored mud, with the hills lying far beyond it. This spot had a haunted look and an evil reputation.
Yet it could never be ascertained that any crime had been committed in that place. The muddy flats on the one side of the road, and the naked poles of the firs on the other, made it ugly and melancholy to the last degree. But no singing birds built there, and was it only the fierce sea wind that had blasted the trees? Thus did timid maid-servants in the great house whisper to each other when dusk was creeping on; and few of them would have ventured out on that side of the mansion after nightfall.
Kate Bradley was on her way to the house with a basket of fish. Only a month ago she would have tripped lightly along the road, without pausing to gaze across the water and watch the gull in its flight. But now that the shadow of death had darkened her young life, she had fallen into the habit of musing unawares. Lizzie, the elder sister, who had filled the place of the mother she had never known, was gone. She was constantly repeating the words over and over, as if to convince herself of a truth that was too hard to be realized. Often she sat up in her bed at night, and called softly to Lizzie in the blank darkness, feeling a vague disappointment when no answer came, and yet knowing that it could not come.
This was why the flashing of those white wings filled her with longing, and brought tears into her eyes. A bystander (if there had been one) might have wondered what there was in the sight of a common sea bird to make her weep. We are such poor judges of each other that we marvel when people are moved by trifles. But there was no one looking on to see Kate's tears, and they were quickly wiped away.
"Lizzie told me to be patient," thought the girl. "I must wait until it pleases God to give me wings. She said that there was a great deal of work for me to do in this world, and that I ought to be glad to do it for Christ's sake. Little things may be made grand things, if they are done for Him. Ay, and if I were to follow Lizzie, what would become of father and uncle? Maybe they'd get into bad ways if there was no one to look after them. Uncle said this morning that I was a handy girl, and that's a deal of praise to come from him."
The gull had passed out of sight. She gave a sigh, and one swift glance went upward to a pure white cloud that was like one of those "twelve gates, which are twelve pearls." Then taking up her basket of fish, she turned into the road again with a resolute look on her face. . It would have been a poor proof of her love to Lizzie if she had wasted time in dreaming. Perhaps the truest mourners are those who allow themselves the least leisure for grieving.
A new family had come to live at the Great Salterns. Kate wondered that three people should care to inhabit such a large house. She thought that Mrs. Roscoe and her two granddaughters might have been more comfortable in one of the cozy little villas that were to be found in Southsea. Moreover there was no man to take care of them, except the grey haired butler, who must have been older than Mrs. Roscoe herself. It seemed hardly possible that two young girls would like to pass their days in such a desolate place. Perhaps, however, they had no voice in the matter.
Just as she reached the iron gate, it was pushed open, and the young ladies came forth. They were both dressed in deep mourning, but the crape veils were thrown back over their hats, and she could have a full view of their faces. The elder, past seventeen, was fair and tall, with a haughty look and carriage; the younger resembled her in form and feature, but had a readier smile and softer eyes.
"Are you bringing us some fish?" asked the younger girl, glancing at Kate's basket. "How bright and fresh they look! Is your father a fisherman?"
"Not exactly, miss. But he goes out fishing sometimes."
"Do you live near us?" continued the questioner, pleasantly.
"I live yonder, miss, on the waste land outside the gate."
"Is your home that little cottage that stands all alone, with the furze bushes round it?"
"Yes, miss; it's very lonesome."
"I am going to make a sketch of it some day. And I should like you to stand at the door, with your basket on your arm!"
"Come, Hilda," cried the elder sister. It was just the voice that might have been expected from her, clear, and imperious. Her companion followed her at once, but not without bestowing a parting smile on Kate.
"You should not talk too familiarly to common people," added Miss Roscoe, not considering that the young fish seller was scarcely out of earshot. "Hush, Grace; she may hear you." "Don't be silly, Hilda; it would not matter if she did. When Madame Arnaud comes, you won't be allowed to gossip with fisher girls."
Kate went up to the house, looking all the brighter for Hilda's notice; the sweet voice and refined accent charmed her, and gave a new direction to her thoughts. A little incident is a great event in a monotonous life; a very slight touch may help to lighten a heavy burden. A lonely heart seizes eagerly upon a kind word and hoards it as a treasure; and Kate's small world had been empty indeed since Lizzie had left it. A young maidservant appeared at the back entrance in answer to her summons, and carried her fish into the kitchen.
"It's a pleasure to get a glimpse of a human being," she said, in a disconsolate tone, as she paid for the fish. "We've just come from London, and it seems to me that this place will drive us all mad! We may as well be on a desert island"
"You'll feel used to it by-and-by," replied Kate; "it's pleasant enough in summer."
"I daresay it's very well for those who've never lived in a town," returned the maid, a little scornfully. "But it won't do for Londoners. If missus stays here too long, I shall be looking out for another situation."
"Do you think she will soon go away?" asked Kate, with some anxiety. She did not want to lose sight of the younger Miss Roscoe.
The girl shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't believe the young ladies will bear it." she rejoined. "Miss Roscoe likes company, and Miss Hilda's growing up. We are to have a French governess here soon."
Here a voice from the kitchen called out sharply; and the under-housemaid withdrew. Kate walked away with her empty basket, and the money in her pocket.
The breeze was still blowing in sudden puffs, and the tall reeds and coarse grass bent before it. The Great Salterns were accessible by land only by the narrow road before mentioned, and except on the beach were naturally engirt by mud and marsh. Through the salt-marshes ran a stream of brackish water, fringed by thick rushes, where two swans had made their home. The intense green of the swamps, the gleam of the shining stream, deep pools here and there, and the distant trees and human habitations bounding the lonely flats, made the inland view pleasant in fair weather. Kate pursued her way along the road, and saw the two slender black figures of the young ladies far before her.
They did not extend their walk beyond the white gate which indicated that the road was private. When Kate again encountered them, Miss Hilda gave her a nod and smile which brought a flush of pleasure into her face. It might be a dull home for these fair girls; but their coming had given light and color to one sad life already.
"My young lady must be Hilda, that's what the maid called her," thought Kate. "What a pretty name it is!"
Outside the white gate was the long tract of furzegrown shore where the Bradleys' cottage stood; a hut rather than a cottage, with wooden walls and a thatched roof. It consisted of three rooms, the general living room being in the middle, and the bedchambers on the right and left. One of these sleeping apartments held two beds, separated from each other by a thin partition, and occupied respectively by the brothers Bradley. The other room was now used by Kate alone, but had once been shared by her sister. No other dwelling was near, and only the sound of the sea, or the voice of the wind, broke the stillness of the spot.
Here the ground was perfectly dry, and covered with short grass, and the furze bushes made it like a wild garden. Their bright golden blossoms met the eye at every turn, and their faint, sweet perfume filled the air. Yellow butterflies flew hither and thither, in such numbers that it seemed as if the March primroses had taken unto themselves wings, and forsaken their shady beds under the hedges. On all sides, nature was repeating the old story of "the Resurrection and the Life." Nor did Kate's heart fail to receive the lesson. God has subtle and silent ways of comforting His sorrowful children, and it is often His plan to speak to them through His works. Sometimes He leaves it to the violets to breathe out His message, "Your brother shall rise again." Sometimes the birds of the air tell the glad tidings; or His promise is found written in the young leaf, unfurling its wrinkled folds to the sunlight. He will not leave us desolate if our souls are watchful and trustful. It is only the unbelieving who sorrow as those that have no hope.
Three shaggy ponies were grazing near the cottage, but they did not move at Kate's approach. A sheepdog, lying on the threshold, rose and wagged his tail as she drew near, lifting his head and giving her a welcome from eyes that never lied.
"Dear old Sharp!" she said, and her sun burnt hand stroked him gently. The tail was swayed to and fro in an ecstasy of gratitude, for Sharp loved a kind word and a caress.
The girl drew a key from her pocket, and unlocked the cottage door. The living room was as neat as careful housewifing could make it; the crockery ware on the shelves was bright and clean, and the simple furniture was in perfect order. Kate set down her empty basket, laid aside her hat, and the old jacket of rusty cloth that she always wore out-of-doors on working days, and proceeded at once to kindle the fire. When this was done, and the kettle was put on the cheery blaze, she carried the fish basket into a little scullery, and then having washed her hands began to spread the tea table.
It has been said, that wherever a true woman comes, she makes a home; and although Kate was only sixteen, this faculty was hers. There was a steady light in her brown eyes that told of honesty and patience. Her face, without being beautiful, had a grave sweetness and trustworthiness that beauty sometimes lacks. Her movements were swift and quiet; she made no undue clatter with cups and saucers, her hands set things quickly and gently in their places. Many an older and more experienced housewife might have profited by her example. Kate had a good teacher in Lizzie, and the elder sister's influence lingered with her still.
Presently the door opened again, and a dark, strongly built man entered, shutting it sharply behind him.
"There's a keen wind today, Kate," he said, taking off his old fur cap, and hanging it on a nail in the wall . "Isn't your father come in yet?"
"No, uncle." she replied, "I've sold all my fish at the great house, and the cook was glad to take them."
"Ah, that's well. Did they give the price you asked?"
"Yes; sixpence apiece for the three big ones, and four pence and three pence for the others."
The man drew a chair to the fireside, and pulled off his heavy boots. He had a bronzed beardless face, and somewhat handsome features; but the small dark eyes were too near together, and there was a certain grimness and hardness about the mouth. His hair, cut close to his head, was black and sleek, nor was there a streak of grey to be seen in it, although he was nearly forty eight years of age.
"Who are these new people at the Great Salterns?" he inquired, after a pause. "What sort of folks are they, Kate?"
"Londoners, uncle. The under-housemaid told me so today. Their name is Roscoe, an old lady and two young ones."
"No. They keep three maids and a grey old butler."
"Well, it's a lonesome place for 'em to live in, Kate. Have they got plenty of money, I wonder?"
"I daresay they have, uncle. The girl said that a French governess was coming soon."
"Oh, then they can't be badly off. Frenchwomen get good pay over here in England; and English people are such fools that they can't fancy anything that comes out of their own country. When you see people humoring whims, Kate, you may be pretty sure that they're rich. Riches and whims seem to go together."
"Poor folks have their whims sometimes," said Kate, smiling.
"Yes, but they keep 'em out of sight, and don't indulge 'em. It's a sin and a shame, though, that there should be any poor folks. Why, the pay of that trumpery French governess 'd keep two or three families comfortable."
It was not the first time that Kate had listened to such remarks as these, and it was her habit to hear them in silence. Lizzie had taught her that there are many things hard to be understood in the world, but nothing harder than the inequality of the conditions of men. Lizzie could find no way of solving this difficulty, but she was content to leave it in God's hands. There was a verse that she had learned in the days when she had been in service, and Kate had also got it by heart:
"All that He blesses is our good,
And unblest good is ill;
And all is right that seems most wrong,
If it be His sweet will!"
These lines came into the young girl's mind while her uncle was speaking, and she wished that he too could realize the fullness of their meaning. But Luke Bradley cared nothing at all about the will of God, and was always chafing because he had never been able to get his own way. It had ever been the aim of Luke's life to become rich, and he had thought to obtain it by grasping and overreaching. These plans failed; the only thing that he got by them was a bad name, and yet he could never see that they had been bad plans.
If one might have believed Luke's own account of himself, he was the most blameless person in existence. Everything had gone wrong with him, he was accustomed to say, but not through any fault of his. When he had been found out in cheating, he always blamed the people who detected his tricks. Never for a moment would he admit that the tricks themselves were reprehensible in the least degree. He was a great grumbler as dishonest men generally are. Not a day passed without his reviling those who were better off than himself.
While his niece cut several thick slices of bread and salt butter, he sat growling by the fire. It was a relief to her when the door opened once more, and her father came in.
Simeon Bradley was shorter and slighter than his brother, and he had a franker, but less resolute face. He was two years older than Luke; yet Luke had always been the ruling spirit. The elder had served the younger, and had relied upon him and believed in him from childhood.
"Here are a few periwinkles, Kate," said he, handing his basket to her. "I sold them nearly all; trade's pretty brisk. And what's been your luck, Luke?"
"Bad, Simeon. That rascally old skinflint, Boxall, won't give our price for the pony."
"Then, Luke, we'd better come down a bit."
"Oh yes, it's come down and come down for us always! As if we aren't down low enough already!"
"He who's down need fear no fall," said Kate, cheerily. "Here's your cup of tea, uncle."
Kate had very clear recollections of the days when she had lived in a street in Portsmouth, and had worn a smart frock and a coral necklace on Sundays. In those days the brothers Bradley had been general dealers; that is, they had bought and sold articles of all descriptions, and had attended every sale in the town. Their shop was crowded with secondhand furniture, pictures, books, ornaments, musical instruments, iron, china, glass, bedding, and old curiosities. At that time Mrs. Luke Bradley was the mistress of the house, for Simeon's wife had died when Kate was only three years old.
There was no reason why Lizzie should have left home; for her father could afford to keep her, and she was on good terms with her uncle and aunt. Mrs. Luke had no children of her own, and was willing to give a mother's care to little Kate. If it had been otherwise, Lizzie would not have deserted her sister, but she did not wish to live an idle life; and, moreover, she was greatly attached to the lady who wanted her for a nursery maid.
This lady was Mrs. Elvin, the wife of the clergyman of the parish. A large, crowded parish it was; and Mr. Elvin found the work almost too hard for his curate and himself. But they did their best, and labored earnestly among the people for several years. It was at the Sunday school that Mrs. Elvin first made Lizzie's acquaintance.
The lady noticed the modest, intelligent girl, who was always in her place, and whose answers showed how much she had profited by her teaching. It was a good beginning to a friendship which was destined to last throughout eternity. Perhaps Lizzie valued her talks with her teacher all the more because her own people were not on the Lord's side.
Her aunt was one of those quiet, amiable women who glide through life like shadows, leaving no trace behind them; little missed when they depart. She stood greatly in awe of her husband, and obeyed him with the servility of a slave. In her kind, feeble way, she loved her nieces; but she never taught them to look above and beyond their daily lives. She felt no need of anything better than the bodily food and clothing with which she was content. But if Lizzie had no sympathy from her relatives, she was not called upon to suffer persecution. They did not oppose her church going and attendance at the Sunday school. They let her go her own way unchecked, but they left her to walk in it alone.
Even in those days Luke's dishonest practices pained and grieved the young girl. She saw that he defrauded his customers by every means in his power, and was utterly regardless of truth. Once, and once only, she ventured on a gentle remonstrance, but it awoke such a storm that she shrank away in terror. Simeon himself sternly charged her to mind her own affairs, and not to meddle with matters of which she knew nothing.
She was nearly seventeen when she became under nurse and needlewoman in Mr. Elvin's house. There she lived for eight happy years, paying frequent visits to her home, and exerting a steady influence over her little sister. At the end of that time there came a change and a great sorrow.
Mr. Elvin accepted a colonial appointment, and prepared to say farewell to his old parish. His reasons for this step need not be detailed here; it is enough to say that they were good and weighty reasons, approved by his wife. Mrs. Elvin would gladly have taken Lizzie with her, but it could not be. Lizzie knew that duty called upon her to remain at home, and her mistress forbore to urge her. For it was plain that Luke Bradley's wife could no longer continue to perform her household duties. Her quiet, colorless existence was nearly ended, and Lizzie must take her place. And then came the agony of parting with her master and mistress, and with the children whom she had helped to rear. It was the greatest grief that Lizzie ever knew, but she bore it patiently and well.
So a good ship sailed away from Southampton, bearing the clergyman and his family to their new home in a foreign land; and Lizzie went back to her father's house. It was well for her that she found there a great deal of work to do, and had no time to indulge her sorrow. Household matters had been much neglected, and a clear head and willing hands were needed to set things in order. Only at night, when little Kate was lying asleep by her side, did she find leisure to muse about that outward bound ship. Then, indeed, those dear faces seemed to smile upon her out of the darkness, and those familiar voices would ring sweetly in her ears. They always spoke to her of meeting again; but when? Ay; when, and where?
Soon after Lizzie's return her aunt died; and Kate was thus left entirely to her care. The child's warm love, and eager desire to learn all that her elder sister could teach, made the young woman's life a happy and busy one. Yet there were many things in that life which gave her bitter pain.
Luke Bradley had not grown more scrupulous as time wore on; and his misdeeds had given the brothers an ill name, which one of them did not wholly deserve. Simeon had a conscience, and it sometimes made itself heard. He had dealt with it as one deals with a bell that rings too loudly, and had succeeded in deadening its voice. Yet the muffled tongue would not be entirely silenced, and ever and anon its warnings broke his peace. But his was a timid nature, and Luke's strong will had gained the mastery over him.
It was Luke's doing that brought them into poverty at last. It was Luke who bought stolen property, and involved his partner and himself in a lawsuit. Their downfall came quickly; the stock was sold, and the house given up. And then it was that Simeon took the lead for the first time in his life.
He obtained leave to build the wooden cottage on the waste ground near the Great Salterns. He was what is termed "a handy man," one who would have prospered in the backwoods. He had always had a liking for a fisherman's calling, and had been used to mingle with fisher folk in his boyish days. He was also a good shot; and there were plenty of wild birds about the Great Salterns. So that with fishing and shooting he managed to earn a livelihood; and Luke showed no reluctance to put his shoulder to the wheel. They kept poultry, and in course of time contrived to do a little in the horse dealing line. Nor did Simeon dislike his condition; he was fond of an out-of-doors life; and if he fared more sparingly and worked harder than he had ever done before, he was certainly none the worse for it.
To Lizzie the change was a relief. She loved the free sweep of the wind across the open land, and the murmur of the sea. She preferred a ramble among the furze bushes to a walk in the crowded streets, and was altogether happier than she had been since the Elvins went away. The humble wooden cottage was more like a home to her than the broker's shop had ever been.
It seemed as if she could draw nearer to God in this lonely spot, and hear His voice more plainly. In her former home in the noisy street she had frequently seen sights and listened to sounds that were painful to the eye and ear. There, the sin of the world was continually brought before her notice. Here, it was put far away from her; and there was little to break the peace of the soul.
When the daily labors were done, she would take Kate's hand in hers, and walk with her by the seaside, or among the furze bushes in the fair May evenings. At such times there was often a Sabbath calm resting on the earth; and the voice of the sea was a sweet whispering undertone blending with the murmur of insect wings and the low call of the lapwing. Far above them, the pearly clouds were touched with sunset gold, or with soft flushes of pale crimson; and they would look upward and speak of that holy city that "has no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it." In these moments Lizzie talked to her sister of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. She told her that the service Christ most frequently asks of His children is the service of patience. He does not so often say, "Do this mighty work for Me," as He says, "Be patient for My sake." It is not the high enterprise that He desires, so much as the quiet continuance in well doing. Many of us would rather climb a mountainside than plod steadily along miles of level road. But the thing that our Lord chiefly requires of us is to have no will but His.
"Many are willing enough to serve Him, Kate," she said, "if they might only serve Him in their own way. They despise His yoke for being easy, and His burden for being light. They think it such a poor service that He asks of them, that, like Naaman, they turn, and go away in a rage. They will not understand that the path of Christ's people is the simplest, straightest, lowliest path that ever was made."
Thus would Lizzie talk when they had had an especially trying day with Uncle Luke. For there were times when Luke vented his bad humor on all those around him, and even reviled his brother Simeon for the ills which his own dishonesty had caused. It was hard to sit still and listen to his complaints and unjust reproaches, and sometimes Kate would grow hot with indignation. But Lizzie knew that silence was the best course to adopt; for no power on earth could convince Luke Bradley that he had been in the wrong. Most of the evils of life are brought upon us by ourselves. The burdens that we bear are chiefly those which our own hands have made; and such are far heavier to carry than the cross which Christ would lay upon us in love. "Let us be patient," said Madame de Genlis, "for we must ask God to forgive us almost all our misfortunes."
It might have been the vague expectation of a future parting which led Lizzie to talk thus earnestly to her sister. Those whom the Master calls early to their rest often feel His cords of love drawing them away from earth and nearer to Him. They are conscious of certain signs that warn them to make the most of their opportunities of doing good. They speak and act as those who know that "the time is short."
In looking back upon this fellowship, Kate felt certain that Lizzie had tried to train her for the days when she must walk alone. Three years did the sisters spend together in the little wooden cottage; and then came the separation.
Lizzie's illness was not long. Every day she grew a little weaker, and duty after duty had to be given up. But she contrived to creep out of bed, and sit by the fire, with a piece of needlework in the thin hands that would soon cease from their labors. Then there was a day when she could not rise at all, and a doctor came to see her. There was nothing to be done; Lizzie knew the truth, and heard it spoken with perfect calmness; but Simeon was cut to the heart, and Kate was inconsolable.
"Kate," said she, tenderly, "won't you try to be a little glad for my sake?"
And the girl's unselfish heart responded to the appeal. From that hour she strove to fix her thoughts on the joy that was waiting for Lizzie, and to forget the anguish that was in store for herself.
In the darkness of a February morning, Kate awoke from a deep sleep, to hear her sister speaking in a faint tone. She rose at once, and bent over her with all the keen anxiety of love. Lizzie was very calm, and her voice, weak as it was, had a great sweetness in it.
"Will you open the window, dear?" she pleaded. "There's wonderful music out-of-doors."
"Oh, Lizzie, the cold will hurt you!"
"No, it will not . Do open it, Kate; I want to hear clearly."
Kate complied. A rush of chill air came in through the little casement, but no sound entered with it, save the soft murmur of the sea.
"Do you hear the music now, Lizzie?" she asked.
"Yes, it seems coming nearer."
"Darling!" and Kate bent her face close to the pillow "can you say what it's like?"
"No, it's quite new to me; and yet there are old voices mixed with it, and old tunes. Let me listen."
And listening, her spirit passed away.
The cottage was very desolate without her. Even Luke wiped away a tear or two, and refrained from grumbling for a whole week. Simeon's grief was deep and quiet; it seemed to draw him closer to the daughter who was left, and whose sorrow was more bitter than his own. Kate loved her father, but the great wealth of her affection had been lavished on Lizzie. The guide and companion was gone; the teacher through whom she had learned to realize the love of Christ was taken away.
But the chief aim of her life was to "walk circumspectly, redeeming the time," as Lizzie had done. Perhaps it was "expedient for her" that her sister should depart; her absence made the presence of another and greater Friend more distinctly felt; and Kate began to understand what a Comforter Jesus can be.
She went quietly and steadily about her daily business, carrying out all Lizzie's old plans, and making the home as pleasant as possible. The rooms were always kept clean and bright; the meals were well cooked, and the clothes carefully washed and mended. In the evenings, when the men smoked their pipes, and read newspapers, which were generally three or four days old, she studied the books that had been Lizzie's treasures. They were gifts from the clergyman and his wife - presents given at Christmas and on birthdays. The name on each flyleaf was written in a clear hand, which Kate strove patiently to imitate. There were sixteen goodly volumes, besides sundry small reward books, tracts, and hymns, which were relics of Sunday school days.
While the stormy March wind blustered without, and while Luke Bradley too often grumbled within, Kate was at peace, busy, and even happy with these beloved books. No one knew what comfort she drew from her silent companions. Sometimes the two men directed glances of curiosity at her thoughtful young face, but they never disturbed her. They had their plans to discuss, and were perfectly willing that Kate should live her own life.
SHELTER IN A SHOWER
Fall passed by, and Kate's acquaintance with Miss Hilda Roscoe had made little progress. In her loneliness, the girl yearned to know more of the young lady whose look and voice were so singularly sweet. But Hilda was never to be met alone. Her sister was sometimes her sole companion; still oftener they might both be seen walking with the newly arrived French governess. This lady was a pretty little woman, sharp and lively, and full of sparkling jests and anecdotes, which seemed to delight her elder pupil. But the younger appeared rather weary of Madame's constant vivacity, and would look away across the sea, or over the green flats, while Grace was laughing at the Frenchwoman's sallies.
Kate could not help surmising that Miss Hilda was even lonelier than herself. She saw, or imagined she saw, that Miss Roscoe was not such an elder sister as Lizzie had been. Her voice never softened when she spoke to Hilda; there was often a slight frown on her brow as she looked at the younger girl. It was clear also that Grace was Madame's favorite. The governess frequently rallied Hilda on her gloomy air, and mimicked her in a way which brought a flush into the girl's pale cheeks. It was not good natured raillery; there was a spice of malice in it, which made it hard to bear.
On Sunday mornings a hired carriage came to take the young ladies to Milton Church. Madame Arnaud professed herself a member of the Church of Rome, and did not accompany them. Mrs. Roscoe sometimes went, but not often; and the grey haired butler always took his seat beside the driver. Neither Luke nor Simeon had ever been churchgoers in their more prosperous days, and were not disposed to begin the custom. Therefore Kate plodded to Milton alone.
In those days the church at Milton was newly erected, and it was nearer to the Great Salterns than any other. That Sunday morning walk was always a sad one to Kate, for Lizzie was no longer by her side. They had "taken sweet counsel together" as they trod that pleasant road, and the way teemed with sacred memories. Leaves and wayside flowers seemed to whisper of the past, and Kate often went along weeping. But she was accustomed to come from God's house strengthened and comforted; and the homeward path would be more cheerful.
One morning in May, when the hedges were white with hawthorn, and the wheat fields were green and bright, Kate set off as usual, carrying the books that Lizzie had always used, and thinking of other May days gone by. On her left hand was the blue water, divided from the road by the furzy land that lay waste; on the right were the hedgerows, full of scented, snowy blossoms, and wreaths of honeysuckle. Then a turn in the path hid the sea from her eyes; and the way ran on through sunny lanes, while the sound of the church bells came drifting towards her on the balmy wind. "The Lord is loving unto every man; and His mercy is over all His works," thought the girl, as the sweet breeze kissed her face, and the bees hummed their old summer tune. A noise of wheels drowned the music of the bells and a carriage swept by, containing Mrs. Roscoe and the young ladies. Hilda sat fronting her grandmother and sister, and Kate met her glance as they passed her.
Why was that young face pale and sad on this bright morning? Kate thought that Hilda's grey eyes gave her a wistful look, and her warm heart longed to comfort this fair girl, whose outward condition needed no pity. At that moment Kate felt that she would not have changed places with Hilda for all the world.
She felt that one need not know what people's troubles are in order to pray for them. In her simple way she asked God to brighten that sad face, and to give Miss Hilda "a happy issue" out of the dark path of affliction. Her own seat was just within the church door, and she could not obtain a glimpse of the Roscoes in their pew. The carriage again passed her on her way home; but then Hilda was looking in another direction, and their eyes did not meet again.
Sunday afternoon was a peaceful time for Kate. In summer the two men did not care to remain indoors, but strolled off along the beach to smoke and talk with any fishermen or coastguardsmen they might chance to meet. Kate set the room in order, put the kettle on the fire, and then sat down on the step of the open door, with her Bible in her lap, and Sharp lying at her feet.
Presently a light shower began to fall, although the skies were scarcely less bright than they had been in the early morning. She raised her eyes from her book, and looked out through the soft veil of falling rain at the wet gold of the furze blossoms and the fresh green of the sod. It was sweet to hear the whispering of that summer shower; the cool air was full of odors from the moist flowers and herbs. The butterflies had flitted away to sheltered nooks, lest their mirthful wings should be drenched, and the hum of bees was hushed for a while.
Suddenly Sharp pricked his ears and lifted his head, as he was accustomed to do at the approach of a stranger. There was a light footstep on the turf, and then Hilda Roscoe stood before the door.
"Can you give me shelter?" she asked, glancing half timidly at the dog.
"Please walk in, miss," said Kate, rising; "Sharp won't hurt you. He's very good tempered."
Sharp confirmed this account of himself by wagging his tail. Seeing him so amicably disposed, Hilda ventured to step past him and enter the cottage.
"You are alone today," she remarked, looking round.
"Father and uncle are out on the beach. Let me brush the rain off your dress, miss; it's quite wet."
Hilda shook the drops from her black skirt, and declined Kate's assistance with a smile. She sighed as she sat down in a chair near the door, and looked out as Kate had done a few minutes ago. Her eyes wandered away from the furze blossoms to the blue sea, and then came back to the little room again.
"I daresay you are very happy here?" she said, inquiringly.
"Yes, miss, I am happy now, thank God. But it seemed hard at first to lose my sister."
"Have you lost a sister? That must have been a great sorrow."
"It was a very great sorrow. No one knows how good Lizzie was to me; I loved her better than any one else in the world."
"Was she older than you are?" Hilda asked the question quickly, and with tears in her eyes.
"Much older. She was like a mother to me, and taught me all that I know. And I try not to grieve too bitterly, because God has taken her to rest in Him. We shall meet again some day, and be at peace together."
"What things did she teach you?" inquired the young lady, earnestly.
Kate smiled. "It would take a long time to answer you, miss," she said; "but I can tell you some of the things she taught me, if you'd like to hear them.''
"Yes, indeed I should."
"She taught me never to do anything until I had asked Jesus to help me, so that my whole life might be one prayer. She taught me to be patient when I heard sharp words, and to be humble in my own sight. 'It's better to bear a cross than to carry a load of sin,' she would say, when she saw that my hot temper wanted to break out. There are hundreds of other things, miss; but these happen to come first into my head."
Hilda shielded her face with her hand, and for a few minutes no sound could be heard but the soft whispering of the rain, and the washing of the tide on the beach.
"It must have been easy for you to be good," she said at last. "But if you were surrounded by people who mocked at you for not liking their ways; and if you had never had any one to guide you aright, how would it have been with you then?"
"I don't know, miss," answered Kate, thoughtfully; "but Lizzie always said that if we wished to do right Christ would help us, even if we were quite alone in the world."
"But it is very hard," continued Hilda. "Supposing Lizzie had been a hindrance instead of a help! Supposing that she had tried to drag you into a wrong way, instead of leading you into a right one!"
"I can't suppose such a thing," replied the other, in a troubled tone; "but if it had been so, miss, there's a Friend that sticks closer than a brother. Maybe if I'd been in such a bad case as that, Jesus Christ would just have taught me all Himself. Anyhow, He would not let me be lost, if I wanted Him to save me."
Hilda's tears were flowing fast, and she no longer attempted to conceal them. Kate's last words had been spoken in a clear, firm voice; her face, which had worn a perplexed look when she began to speak, was now bright and glowing with confidence.
"It is very strange," said the young lady, after a long pause, " that I should be moved to open my heart to you. I want to tell you everything about myself; and yet I do not even know your name."
Kate quietly told it, and waited for her to go on.
"I am not a happy girl," continued Hilda, mournfully: "nobody seems to understand me or to love me much; and they all Grandmother, Grace, and Madame scold me for being gloomy and dull. Madame says that I have taken up some absurd notions about religion, and that I shall end by becoming a Methodist if I am left to my own ways. And so they consider it their duty to harass me from morning until night."
"But religion should not make people sad; it can't be the right kind of religion if it does that," said Kate. "It ought to make you so happy that you can bear unpleasant things without minding them much."
"Mine is not the right kind, I am afraid; and that helps to make me miserable. I am always finding out new faults in myself and seeing how wrong I am; and yet I don't grow any better."
''Perhaps that's because you are thinking too much about yourself, and too little about Jesus Christ," rejoined Kate, eagerly. "He says, 'Look unto Me;' and He means us to take comfort in knowing all that He has done for us. He wants you to feel that His grace is sufficient for you, Miss Hilda, and that all your faults don't make Him love you less."
Hilda was silent for a while, for Kate's words had let in a gleam of light upon her darkness. She sat watching the lengthening shadows of the furze bushes, and the twinkling of bright drops on their yellow blossoms. The rain had ceased to fall; but the grass glittered as if it had been powdered with tiny diamonds. The butterflies were venturing forth again; delicate blue wings opened in the mellow sunshine. A lark's song came thrilling downwards from the clear skies.
"I believe you are right," said Hilda, rising; "I shall think about all that you have said. If I can, I will come here again; but they seldom let me go out alone."
As she spoke, her eyes fell upon Kate's Bible.
"I read mine sometimes," she added; "but if Grace sees me she says that I am moping; and if Madame finds it in my hand she gives me a lesson to study at once. It has been much harder for me since Madame has come."
"Hard times don't last forever," said Kate, cheerfully. "Lizzie used to say that when we were passing over a very rugged bit of ground, we might be sure there was a smooth piece just beyond it."
She stood at the door and watched Hilda's departing figure, tripping away through the slanting sunbeams. Sharp stood watching also, as if he too were taking a deep interest in their late visitor, and would readily have guarded her to her own home if his mistress had desired it.
The eight day clock struck five; and Kate turned back into the room to get the tea ready for Simeon and Luke. As she moved to and fro her thoughts were busy with Miss Hilda. That unexpected visit had made her happy and sad happy to feel that the young lady had chosen to make a friend of her; sad, because Hilda's path seemed to be a thorny way, and her own powers of helping her were small. She almost wondered at the boldness with which she had spoken to one who was far above her in station; and yet strong feeling had leveled all distinctions, as it often does.
She was more thankful than ever for her sister's old teaching. Lizzie's sayings were destined to live after the lips that uttered them were silent; for do not words and deeds often have longer lives than the speakers and doers of them?
The men's voices were heard coming nearer and nearer. Kate resolved to say nothing of her interview with Miss Hilda either to her father or uncle. Luke was inquisitive about the family at the Great Salterns, and would have plied her with questions that were difficult to answer. He liked to know all that was to be known concerning his neighbors, and always found more to blame in them than to praise. As he drew close to the door, Kate heard him saying something about "that old fool at Allen's Farm," and guessed that someone had offended him.
"Well, well, Luke," said Simeon, as they entered, "if you want to get anything out of the old man, you must do it by fair means. Speaking harshly to him will make him turn as stubborn as a mule. But I don't believe in his crazy tales not I!"
"He's no more crazy than you are," responded his brother, sullenly. "He's as cunning as a fox, and his head's as clear as yours or mine."
"I can't agree with you," said Simeon, peacefully, "so we'll let the matter drop. Well, Kate," he added, turning towards her, "Mrs. Steene has some needlework for you to do, so that's good news. She saw me rambling round the farm this afternoon, and stepped up to me. 'My daughter's going to be married,' said she, 'and maybe that handy little girl of yours will like to do some sewing for her.' So I thanked her kindly, and you're to go for it tomorrow."
"It aren't much to be thankful for," growled Luke. "Mother Steene's a tightfisted one."
"Oh no!" said Kate, "she's a kind woman, Uncle. She was very good when Lizzie was lying ill, and sent her milk puddings of her own making."
"Sickly messes!" muttered Luke, in a tone of disgust.
Allen's Farm was still known by that name, although Allen had slumbered in Kingston churchyard for many and many a year, and his land had been ploughed and sown by five or six successors. In front of the house was a large sheet of water, always called Allen's Pond. It was a fine place for skaters in winter, and in cold weather its icy surface was often crowded with ladies and gentlemen from Southsea.
The house itself was one of those low, white farmhouses so common in Hampshire. Its situation was lonely. To reach it one must enter a white gate and walk along a road which skirted the pond. There was another way, however, that was quite as often used by those who knew the place, and worked on the farm. On the other side of the pond was a narrow path, raised above the level of the water and the swampy ground near it. This path was bordered by a thick growth of rushes, and shaded by rows of willows. It was altogether not unlike a bit of the scenery one sees in the Isle of Ely and other marshy districts.
The high road ran along the margin of the pond. There were few other dwellings near, but one little cluster of cottages stood nearly opposite to the farm. The place was tranquil and pleasant in summer, when the sleek cattle came to drink from the great pond, and the smooth water was alive with downy ducklings and their parents. The splashing of the ducks, the sigh of the light wind through the rushes and alders, or the lowing of the cows, were the only sounds to be heard.
It was one of these still, sunny days when Kate took her way to the farm. Sunday's shower had freshened the hedges and watered the dusty road. It was afternoon, and everything about the farm seemed to be asleep; even the poultry were too lazy to make their usual sounds. The cows were lying down in the meadows, chewing the cud in languid content, with the golden buttercups and cowslips around them. Bees and mayflies kept up a drowsy murmur, and the warm air was heavy with the rich scent of hawthorn. Kate approached the farm by the narrow path between the rushes, and heard a sedge warbler piping a sweet, clear song among the alder boughs.
Mrs. Steene, who was a bustling, motherly body, with a lovely face and a kind heart, made her sit down to rest, and gave her a slice of cake and a glass of homemade currant wine. When Kate retraced her steps along the narrow path, she carried a large parcel of calico under her arm. The sedge warbler had not ended his song; a little yellowhammers, with a breast like that of a canary, chirped at her from a willow twig, and a magnificent dragonfly flashed like a living jewel in the sunshine. Looking across the road to the cottages, she saw an old man standing at an open door, and shading his eyes with his hand while he watched her.
"That's old Hodge," thought she. "I daresay he'd like to say a word to me for Lizzie's sake."
Old Hodge had worked on the farm until he was too feeble to labor any longer, and was now supported by his son. When his wife lay dying, Lizzie had visited the paralyzed old woman, and had read and talked with the aged couple in such a pleasant fashion that their hearts were won.
"Be that Lizzie Bradley?" asked Hodge, in his broad Hampshire dialect, as the young girl came up to him.
"No, Mr. Hodge," Kate answered, with a slight tremor in her voice. "No; Lizzie is laid to rest in the churchyard. I am her sister Kate."
"Ah, to be sure," said the old man, after a pause. "I gets a bit dazed at times. Lizzie was took after my old 'woman, wasn't she? The Almighty might ha' spared her a little longer, for she was a good girl."
"His way is always best, Mr. Hodge. He saw that she was ready to go."
"So she was, so she was! And here be a cumberer of the ground, as one might say! Come in, my dear, and sit down; my daughter-in-law's gone out, and I be dull without company."
Kate willingly followed him into the empty cottage kitchen. Shutting the door, he seated himself in an elbow chair which stood on the hearth, with its back to the window; and she took a place by his side. The kitchen was small and close; a fire burned in the grate, the kettle was singing its sleepy tune. The little casement was thrown wide open, and sometimes a soft puff of air wandered in. The old man passed his hand across his forehead, and ran his fingers through his white hair in a bewildered way. It seemed that something had slipped out of his memory, and he was trying to call it back.
"I've got it," he cried at last; "yes, I've got it! 'It were your uncle and your father I seen yesterday, and your uncle be the black eyed one, isn't he?"
"Yes, Uncle Luke has black eyes," replied Kate, recalling the fragment of conversation she had heard between the two men.
"He be a sour spoken man," continued old Hodge, bitterly. "My son was a-tellin' him something about old Durrant's granddaughter. She come here, a day or so ago, saying she was a widow, and a crying fit to break her heart. She'd got three children, poor creature! And my son, he says to Luke Bradley, 'Father will have it, that old Durrant buried his money near the Great Salterns.'"
Kate understood Luke's sullen mood well enough now. But she sat silently, and waited for Hodge to go on.
"Luke Bradley turned sharp on me; ay, that he did. 'Come,' he says, 'let's hear all you knows.' But I wasn't going to speak out to him. No, I aren't the old fool he takes me for!"
He rubbed his withered palms upon his knees, and nodded exultingly at his companion. Then his face grew suddenly grave, and one hand went up to his forehead again. "Poor creature," he said, thoughtfully; "poor young widow, with them little children! For! if old Durrant's money was dug up and give to her, it would do her a sight of good."
Kate was of Simeon's opinion. She had little doubt that Hodge was slightly crazed, and that old Durrant's buried money existed only in his imagination.
"God has pity on the fatherless children and the widows," she said, in her gentle voice. "We must pray for her, Mr. Hodge, and help her as well as we can. I've got an old frock at home, that'll fit one of her children, perhaps. Does your daughter-in-law know where she lives?"
"Oh yes; Ann knows. You be a good one, I see, pretty near as good as Lizzie was."
"No," answered Kate, with a sigh; "I'm not so good as Lizzie; but I'm trying to walk in her footsteps, for they are Christ's footsteps too."
"I knows where that money's buried," said Hodge, sitting upright in his chair, and fixing his dim blue eyes upon her face. "I does, my girl; and I don't mind tellin' you. My son and daughter laughs at daddy, and daddy will say nothing' to them. But I'll tell you all about it; come now, you sit quiet there, and listen."
He looked so bright and eager, that Kate was moved to humor his whim. She saw that it would give him great satisfaction to tell his story, and refrained from checking one whose pleasures were so few. The weather, unusually sultry for May, had made her tired and languid. There was no need to hurry homewards; and she settled herself in her chair, saying, with a smile,
"Yes, I'll listen. Go on, Mr. Hodge, if you please."
He seemed to grow younger all at once. This gratification was one which he rarely enjoyed. To have a respectful and attentive listener gave him importance in his own eyes, and he told his tale with a clearness and animation that surprised his hearer.
"Many and many a year ago," he began, "John Durrant and me was boys together in Petersfield. But he was never a contented man, and nothing' would do for one but going' to work at the Great Salterns. They was in full workin' order in them days. Well, he had plenty o' work, and might ha' done well, if he hadn't married a flighty gal, and got no peace with her. He had one boy, that he was mighty fond of; but, all at once he turns crusty like, John Durrant, and off he goes to sea."
Here Hodge paused, to make sure that he had won Kate's attention, and having satisfied himself on that point, he proceeded.
"While he was at sea, I left Petersfield, and came down to these parts, to work on Allen's Farm. My old woman was a dairymaid there when I married her. Well, after a year or two, who should look in upon me but John Durrant! He'd been a-tradin' about in a merchantman, and was dressed quite fine. Mighty surprised he was to find the Great Salterns all gone to rack and ruin; and he was vexed about his wife. She was a vexin' woman, as one might say. She'd made his own child turn dead against him; and there was no comfort at home for John. So he makes up his mind to go to sea again; but afore he goes he takes it into his head to bury his money."
"Did he tell you that he meant to bury it, Mr. Hodge?"
"For, no, child! I knowed nothing' about it until many a year afterwards! And now I'm a-going' to tell you how it come to my knowledge."
The open casement gave a slight creak at that moment, and in the next, a breath of wind stole into the room, stirring the old man's white locks. He resumed his story, and Kate, now really interested, did not move her eyes from his face.
"John Durrant never come back from sea. Never no more did he see his wife and son; and never no more did I hear about him or his doing's until old Peggy Rooker lay a-dyin'."
"Who was Peggy Rooker, Mr. Hodge?"
"Afore your time, child, there were a queer sort o' wooden hut standin' on some waste land, near Allen's Farm, and Peggy Rooker lived in it. Everybody were afraid o' that woman, for many did say she were a witch wife. But when my missus found her sick and lonesome, she took to sittin' with her; and Peggy were that grateful, that she up and told her everything afore she died. And she did say to my missus, on her Bible oath, that she were with Durrant when he buried his money, and that he give her ten shillings to bewitch the place, so that nobody might find it. She might ha' dug it up herself, if she'd ha' been so minded, but she were an honest woman, with all her faults."
"But why did he bury it, Mr. Hodge?"
"For to keep it safe while he was at sea. And he never came back to claim it!"
"But why did you not go and look for it yourself?" asked Kate. "If you'd found it, you know, you might have given it to John Durrant's children."
"We knowed nothing' about his wife and son; they'd gone clean off somewheres. And me and my missus didn't want no man's curse on us; so we just held our tongues. But when that poor creature came wailin' here, I up and told my son about the money; and he splits with laughter a-saying' as I dreamt it."
Kate did not say that the same idea had occurred to her; nor did she speak her doubts with respect to the story. She was almost certain that it had no foundation at all; but she held her peace.
"Now, listen," said Hodge, eagerly. "I'll tell you what I never told a living' soul afore, for you're a good Christian. My son laughed at daddy, and daddy stopped short, and told him no more. That money is buried somewhere under them withered firs, close against the northeast wall of the great house!"
When the old man had made this communication, he seemed to have no more to say. He leaned back in his chair like one exhausted. The excitement of telling the tale had been too much for his feeble frame.
Kate glanced at an old silver watch hanging from a nail on the dresser, and saw that the hands pointed to half past four. It was time for her to depart, and she rose to take her leave.
"Goodbye, Mr. Hodge," she said, softly laying her hand on his wrinkled fingers. "Don't forget the things that Lizzie used to say to your wife."
"What things, child?" he asked, faintly.
"About Christ's love for sinners," Kate answered. "About the beautiful home that He has prepared for them that love Him a home where there's no more pain, nor sorrow, nor death."
"No," he replied, brightening a little; "no, I won't forget that. Maybe the Lord will make old folks young again when they gets there."
"To be sure He will," said Kate, confidently. "The Bible says, 'They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.'"
"It's strength that I wants, child. I am terribly weak."
"Ay, but while the outward man decays, the inner man may be strengthened in Jesus! I hope you think about Him, and pray to him, Mr. Hodge."
"Well, I tries to, in my poor way," he answered. "I'd be glad if you'd look in and read a chapter, sometime, my dear. Ann will read at times, but she's most always in a hurry to get it done, and the words don't sound plain."
Kate readily promised that she would, and then bade him goodbye again.
Shutting the door behind her, she went forth into the quiet road, carrying her large parcel. It was pleasant to breathe the sweet air, and her sojourn in the cottage had rested her. Old Hodge's story seemed still more improbable as she thought about it in the open sunshine.
"It is either a dream," she mused, "or he has remembered some old tale he heard long ago, and thinks it has really happened. It's very certain that his mind isn't quite clear; but God can make him 'wise unto salvation.'"
Looking straight before her, she perceived a familiar figure walking slowly ahead. She quickened her steps, and hastened to overtake it.
"I was afraid I should find you and father waiting for tea, Uncle Luke," she said, as she came up with him.
"Ah, I suppose Mrs. Steene kept you gossiping at the farm," he answered, carelessly. "That's just her way."
"No, I didn't stay long at the farm. I've been sitting a while with old Hodge."
"Crazy old man, aren't he?" said Luke.
Kate remembered that on the preceding day he had declared Hodge to be as sane as Simeon or himself. But she only replied, "Not exactly crazy, I think. But he's getting very old and fanciful."
And then they walked home, almost in silence.
Once or twice during that silent homeward walk Luke looked sharply into his niece's face, and opened his lips as if he were about to speak. But he checked himself, and went tramping on, with his black brows knitted, and his mouth working at the corners. Not a word of old Hodge's story did Kate say to her uncle. She was thoroughly convinced that the old man was, according to his own confession, "a bit dazed at times." To have retold the narrative to Luke would have exposed Hodge to a cross examination conducted in no gentle spirit. Luke's greed of gain was such an overmastering passion that it often conquered the dictates of his common sense.
For the rest of that day he was moody and silent, taking little interest in Simeon's talk, and watching Kate with a furtive glance that somewhat puzzled her. When she sat down to begin her needlework in the evening she was still conscious of his scrutiny.
"Your hands are full enough now, my girl," remarked Simeon, as she sewed on busily.
"Yes, father; and I have to get the work finished as soon as I can."
"Did you happen to see Will Hodge about the farm, Kate?"
"No; I went into the cottage and stayed a little with the old man."
"Ay, he gets very feeble, doesn't he? I don't think he'll last much longer."
"I believe you're right about his craziness, Simeon," said Luke, suddenly. "If he hadn't been cracked, he wouldn't have been so touchy with me on Sunday."
"Of course he's crazed," replied Simeon. "He turned crusty with Will for laughing at him, and then with you for putting questions. But it isn't to be wondered at. He's nearly eighty eight, and that's a great age."
Two days passed by; and still Kate could not help having the notion that her uncle was keeping a stealthy watch on her movements.
What motive could make him thus vigilant? His manner was pleasanter than usual; he was less disposed to be quarrelsome, and less given to grumbling. He took an unwonted interest in his niece's proceedings, asked questions about small matters, rendered her little services, and made himself so helpful and agreeable that even Simeon, unobservant as he was, noticed the change.
"Your uncle's a good deal sweeter tempered lately," he said one day to his daughter, when they were alone together.
"Yes, father; perhaps he's getting more contented."
"There's nothing to be discontented with, that I can see," replied Simeon. "We get enough to eat, and it's as pleasant a life as anybody can wish to lead, plenty of fresh air, and room to roam about; and now we've a tight little boat of our own too!"
Simeon's existence was suited to his nature. He had always hated the broker's shop and the close house in the bustling street. He had ever pined for a wide range, and now his desire was granted. But he had not been without a lurking fear that Luke would insist upon going back into the town, and beginning the old business again. It was with great satisfaction, therefore, that he found his brother growing less morbid.
Kate had not forgotten her promise of going to read to old Hodge. But Mrs. Steene's sewing could not be put aside, and she stitched away with unflagging diligence. The weather was so calm and sweet, that she could take her work to the cottage door, and sit down in her old place on the step. When her eyes were weary of the white seam she let them rest on the green sod, or lifted them to the far blue sky. Bees came buzzing past, as if they commended her industry, and birds lightened her toil by their warbling. Sharp always lay behind her, snapping at the flies now and then, and sometimes looking up to beg for a kind word from his mistress.
Occasionally she would lay aside her work, and run down to the sea. The waters talked to her in their soft familiar tones as she dipped her hot hands into the cool green water, and then watched the bright drops dripping from her fingers. She had ceased to envy the white wings of the seabirds, knowing that thought has a wider range and a higher flight. It was sweet to realize the eternal companionship of One who had more than filled her sister's place, and whose voice daily whispered to the lonely spirit, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."
When Saturday afternoon came some of the work was ready to take to Mrs. Steene. She made it up into a parcel, and set off for Allen's Farm, leaving the cottage door locked, and Sharp to guard it.
She walked slowly, treading on the white blossoms that strewed the road; for the short lived bloom of the hawthorn was nearly over. Her little Bible was in her pocket, and she intended to sit with old Hodge after taking her parcel to the farm.
The place was as quiet as usual. The little path between the willows and alders was pleasant and cool, and two or three broods of ducks were swimming in the great pond. Kate took the narrow way to the house, and inquired for the mistress, but was told she was not at home.
Leaving her parcel, she retraced her steps along the path, and then crossed the road to Will Hodge's cottage. She noticed that the white blind was down, as she entered the gate of the little garden; but the door was standing open, and she went in without ceremony. Mrs. Hodge was sitting in the kitchen, alone.
"Good day," said Kate. "I've just looked in to read to the old man. He asked me to come."
"And he'd have been glad enough to see you," Mrs. Hodge replied. "But he'll want nothing more in this world, poor old soul! He died last night."
Kate sat down. The news had come upon her unawares, and it struck upon a spirit already bowed by sorrow. Old Hodge had reached a great age, and his death could scarcely have been a surprise to those around him. But Kate had known very few people in the course of her life, and when the circle is small a gap is felt.
Mrs. Hodge had turned out an old black dress, and was engaged in remodeling it. She was a quiet, matter-of-fact woman, and an excellent housewife. She sewed away, calm in the consciousness that she had done her duty to her husband's father, and not wholly sorry to be relieved from the daily calls that had been made upon her time and patience.
"Have you heard any more of Mrs. Durrant, the widow?" asked Kate, after a pause.
"Yes," answered Mrs. Hodge, looking up with unusual animation. "A nice tidy lady she is. They wanted a cook at the farm yonder, so Will spoke a word for her, and she's got the place. And I'm going to take charge of her three children."
"You'll find them troublesome, perhaps?"
"Not a bit of it. It's always been a sore trouble that I've had none of my own," rejoined the woman, with a sigh. "One must expect them to be a bit trying, of course; but the old man upstairs was like a baby sometimes. Rachel Durrant won't find them in bad hands; and she'll see them every day. They'll brighten up the old cottage, won't they?"
"Indeed they will," returned Kate, seeing that Mrs. Hodge was delighted at the prospect of having the little ones with her.
She walked homewards with a slow step, too sad to rejoice in the flowers and sunshine. It was impossible to not help feeling that her young life was a very lonely one, and for a minute or two she was half disposed to envy Mrs. Hodge. Perhaps Simeon would have allowed her to take charge of one of Mrs. Durrant's children. He was too good natured to have refused such a request if it had been made to him. But Luke could never have been brought to consent to such a thing.
There were times when Kate whispered to herself, "Father and I could be happier without Uncle Luke;" but she would not cherish the thought. Moreover, it was manifest that Simeon had a strong affection for his brother, and would not have liked to lose him, surly as he was. Nothing is more astonishing than the tolerance which un-amiable people meet with.
For years Luke had been in the habit of ruling the household. Mother, wife, and nieces had always yielded to his will; but it was a worse thing for him than for them. He had developed into a selfish despot; restless, unsatisfied, as all such tyrants are. It was no excuse for him that those around him were so accustomed to his tyranny as to be scarcely conscious of it. A fetter is no less a fetter because the prisoner becomes inured to its chafing weight.
The slight feeling of discontent soon passed away from Kate's mind. She remembered that God had given her certain duties to perform, and that it was not wise to go out of her way to pick up other tasks. "We know not what we do when we strive to break the sameness of our lives;" this had been one of Lizzie's sayings. "Those who seek change," she would remark, "often find trouble."
When one is in a dejected mood, there is no better plan than to turn the thoughts away from self. Kate left off thinking of her own affairs, and began to wonder how it fared with Miss Hilda Roscoe.
She had not seen nor spoken to her since that showery Sunday afternoon. Luke had gone once or twice to the great house with fish, taking this office upon himself instead of leaving it to his niece. Being much occupied with her sewing, Kate had no leisure to watch for the young ladies when they took their walks; and those walks were not always in the direction of the wooden cottage. Sometimes they chose the way to Capnor; and often they did not care to roam beyond their own road, with the green swamps and flat fields on the one side and the sea on the other.
As Kate drew near home, she cast a lingering look towards the Great Salterns, wishing that she could catch a glimpse of Miss Hilda's figure. But no Hilda was to be seen; only the stalwart form of Luke Bradley appeared. He was returning from Mrs. Roscoe's house, carrying an empty fish basket.
"Did you see either of the young ladies, uncle?" asked Kate, as she came up to him.
"No," he answered, gruffly. "I don't trouble my head with looking after dressed up dolls, such as they!"
His niece did not pursue the subject. She walked quietly by his side to the cottage.
"Do you know that old Hodge is dead?" she said, at last.
"No," replied Luke, in an altered tone. "When did you hear of it?"
"This afternoon. I went to Allen's Farm with my work, and then stepped into Hodge's house. Mrs. Hodge says that the old man died last night. She told me, too, that she is going to take charge of Mrs. Durrant's children, and their mother is to be cook at the farm."
They had reached the cottage door, and Sharp welcomed them with a joyous bark. Chancing to glance at her uncle, Kate saw that his face had flushed suddenly and deeply.
"Ann Hodge is a fool to hamper herself with other folks' children," he said, savagely, kicking away a stray pebble. "She ought to thank goodness that she's got none of her own."
"Let her go her own ways, Luke," cried Simeon's cheery voice from within. "We've nothing to do with her affairs."
"I shall speak when I've a mind to, Simeon," retorted his brother. "You're ready enough to put in your word when it aren't wanted. It's hard if a man must look on at all the follies of the world without so much as saying he's disgusted at 'em!"
"Being disgusted don't mend matters," said the elder, in a tone that was meant to be soothing.
"Who said it did?" cried Luke, in great wrath. "But I tell you, I won't have my mouth shut. The wisest man that ever lived was always a-saying that people were fools, and so they are. Who's right, if Solomon's wrong?"
Simeon felt this to be unanswerable, and prudently remained silent.
Accustomed as she was to Luke's strange moods, Kate could not help wondering why he should take umbrage at the news she had brought. If Ann Hodge undertook the care of a dozen fatherless children, how could the matter affect him? She seated herself at the table and poured out tea, while her thoughts were busy with other things. Somehow, it seemed as if they were destined not to have any peace that evening. Simeon had not emptied his first cup of tea before another chance speech irritated Luke.
"Poor old Hodge!" said the elder Bradley; "I wonder what put that queer notion into his head about old Durrant burying his money."
Luke set down his cup and saucer with a clatter that made his niece start.
"Where's the sense of wonderin' at anything that a crazy man says?" he cried, angrily. "Ever since I've come into the house, you've been pestering me with the Hodges. Who wants to hear about 'em? I don't!"
There were no more outbursts after that. Simeon scarcely ventured to open his lips again; and Kate sat sewing in perfect silence until it was time to go to bed.
The repose of Sunday was very sweet to Kate. A little tired after the weekday labors and the long walk to church, she repaired to her old seat on the step, and enjoyed the stillness of the summer afternoon. Sharp lay by her side as usual; and the sea murmured softly in her ears. A small book of sacred poems was lying in her lap. It was opened at one of Lizzie's favorite pieces; and as Kate read, it almost seemed that her sister's sweet voice were repeating the verses.
"A quiet, dreamy shade,
A peaceful spot at noontide, calm and cool,
Where the five porches rest and shelter made
About Bethesda's Pool.
Under the arches there
How wearily they lay! A mournful throng
Of stricken ones, bowed down by pain and care,
When Jesus passed along.
The Man of Sorrows sees
The sightless eyes, the features wan and thin;
And mourns for bitter human miseries,
The fruit of human sin.
With tender, pitying look
The Savior's eye among that number seeks;
To Him each heart is as an open book,
And unto one He speaks.
Like precious balm outpoured
Fell that sweet voice upon the listening soul;
Hope wakened at the words, for lo! the Lord
Said, 'Will you be made whole?'
And the man answered, 'I
Have none to help me when yon waters clear
Are troubled by the Angel. I must lie
Weak and desponding here.
'For eight and thirty years
Have I my sore infirmities endured,
I weary Heaven with my prayers and tears,
And yet I am not cured.'
'Others, whose need is less,
From yonder pool new health and strength may gain;
Before my slow and halting steps they press.
While I unhealed remain.'
Then says the Christ, 'Arise,
Take up your bed and walk;' and godly might
Come with the words: for, filled with much surprise,
The sick man stood upright.
And through his wasted frame
Coursed the blood freely as in days gone past;
Back to his pallid cheek the color came;
He was made whole at last.
Bethesda's Pool is dry,
No trace of porch or ornament remains;
Around that scene of holy memory
Sad desolation reigns.
Yet surely, as of yore,
In the world's crowded places, day by day,
Filled with Divine compassion, evermore
The Healer goes His way.
And still, with patient feet
He comes to the sinful, weary soul;
And in that blessed voice, divinely sweet,
Says, 'Will you be made whole?'
Oh you who watch and wait
Year after year, for blessings still delayed,
Be comforted; the Lord may tarry late,
But He will bring you aid!
The time is drawing nigh
When all the sorrow of the flesh shall cease;
A day will come when Jesus, passing by,
Shall give you strength and peace."
The murmur of the sea seemed to chime in with the measure of the poem. As Kate came to the last verse, she closed her eyes and strove to imagine that scene. She pictured the deep tank full of limpid water, and the colonnade where the infirm people lay waiting for the troubling of the pool. How eagerly they must have watched for the first ripple on its glassy surface, how intently they must have listened, longing perhaps to hear the sweep of angel wings through the languid air! Then came the Lord, walking among them, and speaking to that one helpless sufferer whose heart had grown sick with hope deferred. Did the man read more than human compassion in those eyes, as he poured forth his sad story? Had he no inward consciousness that it was a Divine voice which said to him, "Will you be made whole?"
She scarcely knew whether she were awake or dreaming, as she sat, resting her head against the doorpost. That bygone scene had been wonderfully real and clear; and the washing of the tide was no longer heard. She believed afterwards that she must have been asleep, for at the sound of her own name she started, and looked up, half bewildered.
It was Hilda Roscoe who spoke. She was very pale; her face looked all the whiter from its contrast to her black dress. She wore no hat, and a stray tress of her golden hair fluttered in the soft wind; it was evident that she had left the house in haste, for not even a shawl was wrapped round her.
"Pray come in, Miss Hilda," said Kate, in much surprise. "I'm quite alone. Father and uncle won't return yet."
Hilda entered the cottage, and sat down in the chair which Kate placed for her. Her breath came quickly, her grey eyes looked large and wild, like the eyes of a hunted animal.
"Kate," she began, striving to speak quietly, "I have come to you, because I think you are the only friend I have in the world. I have been unhappy for some time, as you know; but now all is darkness."
"I am your friend, indeed, dear Miss Hilda; and you have a far stronger and wiser Friend than I am."
"I fear He has forsaken me, Kate."
"That can never be, unless you forsake Him. He will not break His promises, Miss Hilda; and He says, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'"
"Then why does He not help me in my need?" asked Hilda, with some impatience in her tone.
"Because His hour is not yet come. There was once a poor paralyzed man who waited for Him eight and thirty years, and He came at last. He does not always appear at the very moment when we are expecting Him; indeed, I think that He often delays His coming until we have learned to be patient."
"Ah, I have not learned patience yet," said Hilda. "Perhaps that is why He keeps away."
She had grown calmer. A faint color had returned to her cheeks; her eyes were soft and quiet again. Kate's soothing influence had done its work already.
"I have a long story to tell you," she said, after a pause; "but it will be a relief to tell it. Are you sure we shall not be interrupted?"
"Quite sure, Miss Hilda. Father and uncle have strolled away along the shore, and won't come indoors again until five o'clock or past. And if Sharp hears a strange footstep, he'll let us know by barking."
"Then I will begin," said the young girl, leaning back in her chair. "Sit down in your old place on the doorstep, Kate, I like to see you there, with the light upon your kind, honest face. When I came here just now, in my sore distress, you were asleep; but the very sight of you seemed to comfort me."
Kate obeyed, placing herself on the doorstep; while Sharp, resting his nose on his forepaws, couched quietly by her side.
"Before we came to the Great Salterns," began Hilda, "we lived in the west end of London. Our house was in a long street, where all the houses were built exactly alike; and although it was not a bustling or crowded thoroughfare, we could hear the roar of the great city by night and day. I cannot distinctly remember my mother, for she died when I was very young; my first recollections are of a large room at the top of the house, which was called our nursery. Here Grace and I played with our dolls, and learned our lessons when we grew older. Here, too, my father would sometimes come and play with us, or tell us stories before bedtime.
"I wish you had seen my father, Kate. He was a grand, handsome gentleman; and yet he could be as loving and tender as a woman. Grandmother was mistress of the house, and always managed us, taking our mother's place; but it was our father who comforted us in any childish troubles. Grace loved him almost as well as I did; if he had lived, I think he would have taught her to be gentler and kindhearted.
"He sometimes talked to us of a certain Edward Collis, who had been the friend of his youth. When he told us tales of his schooldays, he never failed to speak of his chosen companion, whose love for him must have been very great. The boys used to call them David and Jonathan, for they were always together, and no strife ever arose between them. Nor did their friendship die out when they left school. Mr. Collis was present at my father's wedding; after that came changes, and the old intimacy ceased.
"Yet my father invariably spoke of Edward Collis as his best friend, and constantly expressed an earnest desire to meet him again.
"One evening, when my father was away from home, Grace and I were sitting in the drawing room with grandmother. It was dusk, and we were just about to ring for lights, when a servant entered, saying that a gentleman had come to see Mr. Roscoe. Grandmother desired her to show him into the room. Nearly dark as it was, I could not see his face distinctly, but I liked his voice; it was wonderfully frank and pleasant.
"I knew that grandmother's sharp eyes strove to pierce the gloom, and find out what manner of man he was; and somehow she did not seem startled at the announcement he made. He told us at once that he was Edward Collis, the son of our father's old friend.
"Mr. Collis had died in Australia, leaving a wife and two children. All his wealth was gone; there had been a disease among his cattle; a bank in which large savings were deposited had stopped payment; 'God's hand had been heavy upon him,' as his son said. Before his death, he had advised his family to return to England; and he had charged Edward to seek aid from his old friend George Roscoe. 'If Roscoe is living, he will help you for my sake.' Such were the words that he uttered again and again.
"Edward remembered the name of the street in which Mr. Collis had said that my father lived; but he had small hope of finding him there. He believed that Mr. Roscoe would probably have changed his residence, and was happy to have discovered him with so little trouble.
"'But how are we to know that you are really Mr. Collis's son?' inquired my grandmother, very stiffly.
"The young man's voice trembled. He said quickly that proofs were not lacking; he had his father's will in his possession. 'Besides,' he added, with a touch of haughtiness, 'my mother can come forward, if it is necessary.'
"Grandmother closed the interview by desiring him to call on the following day, when Mr. Roscoe would be at home. He bowed to us as he was leaving the room, and moved forward as if he would have liked to have shaken hands with us. I saw that gesture, and offered him my hand without a moment's hesitation.
"'Hilda,' said my grandmother, when the door was shut, 'I am shocked at your forwardness!' I assured her that I had not meant to be forward; but she would not accept my excuses, and seemed strangely vexed and troubled. It was evident that Edward Collis's visit had disturbed her mind. I did not then understand the cause of her discomposure; but I know it now.
"When my father returned that evening, we saw at a glance that he was far from well. He declared that his illness was nothing but over fatigue, and would try no remedies. We told him of Edward Collis's visit, and he at once became interestedalmost excited. I have since thought that this excitement might have hastened his end.
"'I shall see him tomorrow,' he said, as he went upstairs to his own chamber; and I imagined that he added something about 'discharging the old debt.' The morrow came; but my father never saw its light. He had passed away in his sleep."
Hilda paused to weep quietly for a few moments. Kate's tears fell fast; these two girls, nearly of the same age, had each lost the dearest friend that she possessed. There is no stronger bond of union than sorrow; and their grief drew their hearts very near together.
"After his death," continued Hilda, "we thought little more of Edward Collis. He called, I believe, was told what had occurred, and went away at once. Then we left London, and came here to live in the utmost retirement, until we are old enough to go out into society. Grandmother does not mean to take us to London again until Grace is nineteen. She says that while we are here we can save a great deal of money. I am afraid she is too fond of money, Kate; but the worst part of my story is to come.
"Last night, when I had finished my studies, and was putting away my books, Grace asked me to get a copy of verses which my father had written on my birthday. She wished to show the lines to Madame; and I unlocked my desk to search for them.
"You must know, Kate, that this desk was one which my father had always used, and had been given to me after his death. Grace has one, far more elegant, which belonged to mamma.
"I sought for the verses, but could not find them; and then, growing impatient, I seized the desk, turned it upside down, and emptied it of its contents. To my surprise, a sealed letter came out among the other things; a letter addressed in my father's handwriting to Grace and Hilda Roscoe.
"'What have you there?' asked grandmother, hearing my cry of surprise. Grace came and stood by my side. 'Open the letter,' she said; and I did so. Perhaps you will not be astonished, Kate, to hear that this letter related to Mr. Collis, and to his old friendship with my father.
"It informed us that in their early days these two young men fell in love with the same lady, Mary Atherton. She was beautiful and wellborn, but not rich, and her father refused to give her to a poor man. Mary loved George Roscoe, but his means were small; while Edward Collis was wealthy. It was then that Edward showed the sincerity of his affection for my father. On the day that Mr. Roscoe was twenty five years of age, he sent him an anonymous gift of three thousand pounds, and thus enabled him to marry Miss Atherton.
"Afterwards, when my father discovered who the donor was, he begged Mr. Collis to let him pay back the sum by installments. But Edward would not hear of that. 'If,' he said, 'I should ever form new ties and have children of my own, who stand in need of aid, you shall give them this money.' And thus the compact was made between them. They parted: Edward went abroad; it might have been that letters miscarried, for certain it is that the correspondence ceased. But my father never forgot his friend; and perhaps it was some sort of presentiment which led him to write this letter to Grace and myself. He enjoins us most solemnly to make over the sum of three thousand pounds to Edward Collis's children, if ever they stand in need thereof."
"And you will do it, dear Miss Hilda!" cried Kate, with sparkling eyes. "Ay, I know you will!"
"It is my determination to do it, Kate, which has brought me into this trouble. We each have a small fortune of six thousand pounds; and as Grace declares she will not part with a shilling of her money, I am willing to resign half of mine. Grandmother says that if I do this I shall have none of hers. This morning: the conflict waxed so hot that nobody went to church. Our father's will gives us full possession of our property when we are eighteen. In less than two years, therefore, I shall be able to discharge the old obligation."
"You are right, Miss Hilda, quite right! Let nothing turn you from your purpose."
"Nothing shall turn me, Kate, if God will help me. But it troubles me to feel that Mrs. Collis and her children may at this moment be in sore need. I have no means of helping them yet; I do not even know where they are to be found."
"Dear Miss Hilda, you must pray with all your heart that God will take care of them. This may be one of His ways of teaching you patience. You want to find them and help them at once; but He says, 'Wait awhile.'"
"They will give me no peace, Kate, at home. Madame's sneers are hard to bear: she says I am trying to make a heroine of myself but this is no heroism, only common justice. If my father had lived but a few hours longer, I should have been spared this contest. Will strength be given me to hold out until the end?"
"Never doubt it. To doubt is to put strength from us."
"Then I will try not to doubt. Goodbye, dear Kate, for I must hasten back to the house."
They clasped each other's hands, looked earnestly into each other's eyes, and then Hilda turned, and sped away over the green. Kate watched the light figure pass beyond the furze bushes, saw it reach the white gate, and take the road that led to the Great Salterns.
While Hilda was telling her story to Kate in the little wooden cottage, Mrs. Roscoe, with Grace and Madame, discussed the girl's conduct. The old lady, erect and stately, with a hard, handsome face, sat upright in her chair. "It is a most unfortunate thing," she said, fretfully, "that this letter should have been found by Hilda. If I had discovered it, I should have destroyed it without a moment's hesitation. Your poor father, Grace, had very romantic notions. If Edward Collis chose to give away three thousand pounds, he could not expect to have it back again."
"No, indeed," replied Grace; "but I am sorry that papa did not insist on paying back the money long ago. I did not know that he had ever been a poor man."
"When I was left a widow, Grace, I must admit that I was in straitened circumstances. It was hard work to get your father well educated, I can assure you. Then came his attachment to your mother, which seemed to me a very absurd affair. Without Edward Collis's aid they never could have been married at all. That three thousand pounds laid the foundation of his fortunes. It was not until some years after George's marriage that my uncle died, leaving me all his property. I have learned the value of money, Grace, and I don't like to see it lightly parted with."
"I don't intend to part with any of mine, grandma," said Grace, laughing. "If Hilda likes to perform a romantic act of self sacrifice, she must do it alone. It is rather a high price to pay for being a heroine!"
"The child is absurdly obstinate," remarked Mrs. Roscoe, uneasily. "When I was young, girls of sixteen were never allowed to have opinions of their own."
"Hilda may change her mind before she reaches her eighteenth birthday," said Madame Arnaud.
"I don't believe she will, Madame," rejoined Grace. "She is, as grandma says, absurdly obstinate. And she mixes up her obstinacy with her religion."
"Ah, her religion," repeated Madame, bitterly. "That is at the bottom of it all! She must think for herself, forsooth; and have the care of her own soul!"
"It is ridiculous," said the old lady. "If she goes to church once a week, and does as she is told, that is all that can be required of her."
"Well, at any rate, she is not an entertaining companion," observed Grace. "I wish you could be persuaded to shorten our term of exile, grandma, and let us go back to London before I am nineteen."
"No, Grace, it cannot be. I am saving money here; and there will be no saving in town."
Grace left the room with a quick step, and went upstairs to her own chamber. Its windows overlooked the sea, which lay blue and smiling under the summer sky. At that moment she almost hated the scene, and longed passionately to be far away from this desolate house on the shore. To be courted, flattered, admired; to mingle in the world's crowd, and scarcely know what it was to have an hour unoccupied by pleasure this was the life she pined to lead. It would be hers by-and-by. Her grandmother had promised that she should take her fill of those things in which her soul delighted.
Mrs. Roscoe loved money for its own sake; the chink of coins, the glitter of red gold, the crisp rustle of banknotes, had an irresistible charm for her. Grace loved it for that which it could purchase; valuing it as the means by which she could attain her ends. She was violently angry with her sister for proposing that each should give up fifteen hundred pounds to discharge that old debt if debt it could be called.
What need was there to trouble themselves at all about the Collis family? If that letter had lain undiscovered in the desk no one would have known anything of the agreement once made between George Roscoe and Edward Collis. Her grandmother might have been (and probably was) aware of it; but that knowledge would have been kept to herself. It was Hilda who had disturbed them all.
If Hilda persisted in giving up the half of her own fortune, what would the world say of the sister who had allowed her to do this? How would public opinion regard Grace's refusal to take her share in the sacrifice?
Here lay the secret of Grace's resentment. Hilda's conduct would inevitably cast her into the shade. In her heart of hearts, she knew that the younger girl was far from desiring to make a parade of heroism; that charge is one of the many arrows which Apollyon's archers shoot at the King's pilgrims. Let a man dare to do what is right, and malice cries out against his ostentation of being better than his fellows. The Evil One has no keener shaft than this in his quiver; many a Christian has been so sorely wounded by it, that he has turned back in dismay, doubting even the purity of his own motive. Grace had seen Hilda wince under the imputation; and for an instant her half stifled conscience had made itself heard. But only for an instant.
"Why should she desire to be better than we are?" asked Grace, indignantly. "Are we not quite as good as most people? We don't pretend to be saints, it is true; but we are no worse than our neighbors."
Ay, it was the old quarrel against those who are striving to keep their garments white; the old grudge of the foolish virgins against the wise. And never shall the strife be ended, until the cry rings through the midnight, "Behold, the Bridegroom comes; go you forth to meet Him!"
The pleasant salt air came in through the open window; the washing of the tide could be distinctly heard in the stillness; a seagull flashed its snowy wings in the sunshine; the distant coasts were bathed in the calm light of the summer afternoon. But Grace could see no beauty in earth, or sea, or sky. A disturbed mind seldom feels the soothing influence of nature, unless the voice of God, speaking through His works, says unto it, "Peace, be still."
The sound of an opening door told her that Hilda had gone into the chamber that was next to her own. She was curious to see how her sister would carry herself after the storm that she had drawn down upon her head. Hilda was not patient by nature; she was impetuous and high spirited. Once or twice that day her temper had flashed out, and she had rendered railing for railing. Mrs. Roscoe had sternly ordered her out of her sight; and she had gone they knew not where. Was she now in a milder mood, more ready to listen to reason? Grace would know. Very quietly she went to the door of her sister's room, and gently turning the handle looked in.
Hilda was on her knees by the bedside; her eyes were closed, her lips moved silently. For a few seconds her sister stood confused, and almost ashamed of the intrusion. She remembered how they had once learned to say their prayers at their mother's side; but that was long ago, and Grace never thought of praying in these days. While she hesitated whether to advance or retire, Hilda rose; and meeting her glance, flushed, and grew pale again.
"Well, Hilda," said Grace, trying to speak in an easy, matter-of-fact tone, "I hope your solitary meditation has made you a little more reasonable. Grandmother is still very angry; but she will accept an apology."
"I am very sorry if I said anything disrespectful," Hilda answered, quietly. "I am quite ready to apologize."
"And you will drop this foolish notion of giving up the money, will you not? Indeed, Hilda, you have made us all very uncomfortable. We want to be at peace again."
"No, Grace, I must keep to my resolution. But until I am eighteen we will say no more about it."
"But we must talk about it!" cried Grace, impatiently. "Do you understand that if you give up three thousand pounds, you will have an income of only one hundred and fifty a year?"
"Yes, I know it," replied the younger girl, steadily.
"And grandmother won't leave you anything. She can't bear to see money going out of the family. She says that if you are so ready to part with your own, it is not to be expected that you will take care of hers. Do you realize all this, Hilda?"
"Yes, I have thought about it all."
"You can't have realized it thoroughly, or you would not speak in that indifferent way. You will not have money enough to buy luxuries; you will have to live cheaply and quietly, not giving any parties nor being asked to any. The world will not know you, Hilda."
"You are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." The south wind might have murmured these words in Hilda's ears, or the tide might have whispered them in its soft rush upon the beach. They were spoken by no human voice; and yet she heard them clearly.
"Grace," she said, very gently, "you know I don't set the same value on these things that you do."
"But they are the only things that make life endurable," argued the other, tapping the floor with her restless foot. "Say what you please, Hilda; but every girl looks forward to being queen of her circle to being feted and caressed, and making a brilliant match to crown it all!"
"And when all her desires are attained, what then?"
"Why then, of course, she grows old. But she can never lose the sense of satisfaction; everything that she wished for has been gained, and she is content."
"Do you remember reading about Madame de Maintenon, Grace? Nothing that she desired was withheld from her; you recollect that she rose from being governess to Madame de Montespan's children, to supersede her in the king's favor? And then Louis the Fourteenth, fascinated even more by her intellect than by her beauty, made her his wife. After that, as you know, she gained such influence that she helped to sway the destinies of nations."
"Yes, I recollect her history; it was a brilliant life."
"It was. Now listen to what she says when that life was drawing near its close, and she was sustaining herself with the consolations of a false religion. Here are her own words, written to one of her favorites, a nun of the convent of St. Cyr, which had been founded by her munificence. They are copied into my diary."
Hilda opened a little pocketbook, and read:
"'I have been young and beautiful; have tasted pleasure; have been beloved by all; have passed my matured years in intellectual commerce; have arrived at the highest pinnacle of fortune. My child, all these conditions leave a frightful void!'
"Now, Grace, where is the sense of satisfaction and content which ought to have been her comfort in old age?"
There was a silence. The gentle noise of the tide filled up the pause, making a soft accompaniment to the song of a thrush, perched on the boughs of a tall tree near the window.
"I am willing to give up this money," Hilda went on, "because it is a sacrifice that duty calls on me to make. Duty is only another word for the voice of God. And I don't shrink from the quiet life that you have pictured, for I think it may be in the end a more satisfying life than that which you would have me lead."
"You don't know what has become of this Collis family," said Grace, uneasily. "Perhaps they have gone back to Australia."
"They will be found," answered Hilda, in her quiet tone. "When the time comes, I shall advertise for them."
It seemed to Grace that her sister's whole nature had undergone a marvelous change. The impetuous girl, morbid and mirthful by turns, had vanished; and in her stead had come a new and calmer Hilda; gentle, but very steadfast. Vexed and irritated as Grace was, she could not help admiring her in this character. But she determined to stifle the inward voice which told her that Hilda was right.
"Very well," she said, stiffly; "you must take the consequences of your resolution. Of course, as you act in direct opposition to grandmother and me, you can't be surprised at a change in our manner towards you."
With this, the elder girl rose and walked out of the room, not waiting for any reply.
Hilda sighed as the door closed behind her. How could she face the dreary months that lay before her, like a wide stretch of barren land? And yet if she yielded to their view, if she consented to ignore the command of her dead father, what should she gain by it? Certainly not peace of mind. They could offer nothing in exchange for the repose "of a conscience void of offence toward God and man."
The scene of worldly delight which Grace had been picturing was not for a soul who has tasted of the heavenly gift. Hilda bethought her of a little allegory, read in her childhood, and loved in her nursery days. It told of a band of children, each of whom was clad in a white robe, and carried a cross in his hand. They were sent forth to roam for a season through a vast wilderness of trees and flowers; beautiful indeed, but full of many and great dangers. How were they to choose the right path from the wrong, the poisoned berry from the wholesome fruit? The cross directed them; they had but to uplift it, and mark where its shadow fell. Never did that shadow rest upon any way that led to peril, or on fruit or blossom that could harm.
"I will take no road," thought Hilda, "where the cross of Christ does not cast its shadow. No matter if it leads me over rough and thorny ground; it is a safe guide."
She left her room resolved to be patient with Grace, and to bear her grandmother's angry words without complaint. On her way downstairs she paused before a window that opened towards the northeast, and stood there a while to look out upon the view. She gazed straight across the tops of the blasted firs, to that wide waste of mud which had so desolate an aspect. No verdure was there; no golden gorse blossoms flourished on that soil. A few birds flapped their wings over the pale slate-colored earth; but no lowing of cows or bleat of sheep ever drifted across this dreary flat. Even the warm June sunshine could not make it less melancholy. But beyond it rose Portsdown Hill, smooth and brightly green, with light cloud shadows flitting athwart its broad slopes, and rich fields and homesteads lying at its base.
"My path lies now across the gloomy level where no flowers grow," mused Hilda; "but the pleasant upland is beyond it. Some day I shall stand upon the sunny height, and praise God in that clearer air. The shadow of the cross does not always fall on the sad road."
Autumn came; the bushes round the ruined salt-works were laden with blackberries; on the waste ground about the wooden cottage the branches yielded a plentiful supply. Kate picked baskets full of fruit, and Luke and Simeon sold it to inhabitants of Southsea. The men prophesied a severe winter; for the hedges were full of hips and haws. November days were grey and sad; the tide came rolling in with a sullen roar. Kate abandoned her old seat on the doorstep, for the air was damp and chill; pale mist sometimes hung upon the bushes; often a sea fog would creep over the land, and blot out all the familiar objects from her sight. The nights were long and dark; rain splashed heavily against the little casements, or fierce winds shook the cottage to its very foundations. At such times Kate would pray silently for those who "did their business in great waters." There were tidings of wrecks at sea; outbound ships lingered under the shelter of the Mother bank; more than one vessel went to pieces on the terrible rocks of the Isle of Wight.
The servants at the Great Salterns grumbled more and more as the days shortened. The place was dreary and bleak; there were no neighbors to help them pass the winter away. The grey haired butler succumbed to rheumatism, and was obliged to resign his situation. He went back to London, to spend the remainder of his days in the home of a married daughter; and the maids envied him. His post was not filled up; Mrs. Roscoe was bent upon saving money.
Towards the end of November, rumors of a ghostly nature began to be circulated through the house. The whisper reached the ears of the mistress who asked impatiently what was meant? Nobody could give a definite reply. On being hard pressed, cook admitted that "something" was said to walk under the blasted fir trees; but, for her part, she did not believe in any such nonsense.
What was the "something?" Had any one seen it? No. Who was the first to hear of it? After much pro and con, Harriet was fixed upon as the guilty person. Harriet was the under-housemaid, the youngest of the three maids, and the one most given to grumbling.
She was subjected to a vigorous cross examination. What was it that "walked?" She did not know. Who had spoken of it to her? She could not distinctly remember, but thought it must have been one of the men who sold fish. What had he said? She had not given much heed to his words, but recollected his saying it was odd that the fir trees were blasted. Well, and what then? She had asked him what he believed to be the reason of it? And he had replied that folks said that piece of ground was under a curse. Why was it under a curse? He could not tell; but had heard a hint of "something" walking there at nightfall, years ago.
"So that is all!" said Mrs. Roscoe, in her sternest manner. "Now you are to understand that I won't have such folly talked about. There never have been such things as ghosts, and there never will be," added the old lady, settling a vexed question off hand.
Cook afterwards confessed to Jane and Harriet that she thought "missus" was a little too certain on that point. Not that she believed in ghosts herself; she neither believed nor disbelieved. Many lies had been set about, of course; for there were some people who would tell lies about everything. Yet she had heard very curious stories in times gone by stories that were told by good Christians and regular churchgoers. She declined to repeat them.
This was quite enough to set the others raging with curiosity. The fact that the subject was forbidden invested it with a new charm. Cook was eventually persuaded to tell the tales she had heard from Christians and churchgoers. The conversation was carried on in whispers and with doors fast closed. Mrs. Roscoe, hearing no more of the matter, regarded it as quashed; but in reality a superstitious terror was rapidly spreading over the minds of the three maids.
They knew not what they dreaded. None of them attempted to give a definite shape to fear. It may be said that they rather enjoyed being frightened, and did their utmost to encourage this nameless terror in themselves and in each other. If a board creaked or a window rattled, they started from their chairs in dismay. One evening a dish cover fell down with a clash, and Harriet had a half suppressed fit of hysterics. On another occasion a mouse ran across the kitchen floor, and Jane nearly fainted. At night they all three huddled into one bedchamber, taking good care that their mistress should be kept in ignorance of this fact.
On the second of December, the cold became intense. Full, dark clouds hung low over the earth, and seemed to rest upon the summits of the hills. The chill grey sea had not even a touch of silver to relieve its gloom. Landward and seaward the scene was equally dreary and sad.
Great flocks of ducks now congregated in the neighborhood of the Great Salterns; their shrill whistle, piercing the air, was heard at dusk, and sounded weird and melancholy in the ears of Mrs. Roscoe's maids. Beautiful birds they were, with their plumage of jet black and pure white, diversified with orange brown and dusky purple and red. Long streams of mallards came flying towards the shore. Gulls, in their sober grey mantles, skimmed across the leaden waves. It was evident that severe weather was at hand.
In the chill gloom of that winter afternoon, Grace and Hilda wrapped themselves up, and walked rapidly along the road. Very little conversation passed between them; the elder girl treated her sister with marked coldness and reserve, and the younger, finding it impossible to break down the barrier, quietly submitted to her lot. Her heart was very downcast; the winter desolation around was not more dreary than the sadness which had fallen upon her young life.
The noise of the surf sounded deep and thunderous; and with it at intervals came hoarse cries and shrill whistles, breaking the winter stillness. The whole coast was alive with water birds, rising and falling in masses with the swell near the shore. As the girls walked on they met Luke Bradley coming towards the house, carrying a basket of dried fish.
He put his hand to his fur cap; Hilda returned his salutation, but Grace took no notice of it.
"I don't like that man's face," she said, suddenly. "I suppose he is the father of that girl we meet sometimes."
"No, he is her uncle, I believe," replied Hilda.
"I think they are a bad set. Oh, how I wish that grandmother would go back to London at once! There never was such an ugly, desolate place as this!"
Hilda sighed. She was wishing that it were possible to steal away to the wooden cottage; it seemed to her, just then, that Kate was the only friend she had in the world. A glance from those true and kindly eyes, a few words simply spoken about that Savior who calls the weary and heavy-laden to Himself, would have given her unspeakable comfort. Grace relapsed into moody silence; and they stood still for some moments, watching the flight of a flock of wild geese. Other and smaller birds seemed to follow their lead; the gloomy sky was dotted with dark, swiftly moving bodies.
As the girls stood there, gazing up at the wildfowl, snow began to fall; large heavy flakes descended thick and fast, looking intensely white against the dull clouds. They turned, without speaking, and hurried homewards.
Meanwhile, Luke had taken his fish to the backdoor of the great house, and was lingering to chat with Harriet.
"I shall have some wild bird for you tomorrow," said he. "We're going to have a deal of snow, and the coast swarms with birds."
"Ugh!" muttered Harriet, with a shiver; "this place is dreary enough in summer; it'll be downright unbearable in winter!"
"Well, well," responded Luke, soothingly, "you haven't much to complain of. Plenty of victuals and good fires make winter an easy time for you."
"But it's as dull as a tomb here," said Harriet, pettishly. "There's nothing to be seen out of doors."
"Except at night," replied Luke, sinking his voice to a whisper; "and then maybe folks might see more than they liked."
"Don't, for goodness sake, say anything more about that Spirit!" said Harriet, flinging up her hands. "Missus was regular wild with us for talking of it among ourselves. But now, upon your honor, do you really believe in it?"
"I don't like to say," rejoined the man, shaking his head. "I'm a poor, honest fellow, getting my own living; and I don't want to make enemies. It's natural enough for the missus to be angry at such talk, I s'pose."
"Oh, you needn't be afraid of speaking your mind to me. We shan't let anything reach her ears again, you may be sure. So do tell all you know."
"Well, I hope I may trust you," said Luke. "The saying is that the bit of ground where the firs stand is under a curse. 'Twas first there, they say, that two brothers had a quarrel, and one murdered the other. The dying man cursed the spot where the deed was done, and nothing has ever grown or flourished there since. As the curse came out of his mouth, the fir trees were all blasted and ever will be."
"Oh dear me!" whispered Harriet, "I wish I were safe in London. What caused the quarrel?"
"Something about money," answered Luke. "It pretty nearly always is."
"And the Spirit walks still, doesn't it?" persisted the girl.
"Well, I believe it does," admitted Luke, taking up his basket. "And in a friendly way, between ourselves, I'd advise you to keep indoors at nights."
With this parting admonition, he turned from the door, and tramped away through the fast falling snow.
Harriet stood still for some seconds, staring after him, her eyes and mouth open. Then, as the snowflakes came drifting into her face, she shut the door, and went back shivering to the kitchen fire.
Five minutes later, cook and Jane were made acquainted with the tale that she had just heard. It was a pure fiction, and owed its origin solely to Luke's fertile brain; but Mrs. Roscoe's servants gave it ready credence.
The snow fell faster and faster as the dusk came on. The young ladies returned from their walk in haste, and having laid aside their out-of-doors garments went down into the drawing room.
Mrs. Roscoe dozed in her armchair; Madame nodded on the sofa. The sisters seated themselves one on either side of the fire, and fell to musing. It was the lazy hour before the lamps are lighted; too dark to see to read or work. Gloomy shadows lurked in the corners, and red gleams of firelight hunted them out, then sank low, and let them gather again. Grace, with her eyes fixed on the glowing coals, saw pictures there which pleased her right well . She beheld herself decked in jewels and laces the belle of a London ballroom. She listened to the buzz of admiration which attended her steps, and enjoyed her imaginary triumph to the uttermost. Her cheek flushed, an unconscious smile parted her lips; these moments of delightful dreaming almost compensated for the dullness of her actual life.
Hilda, too, was gazing at the fire; but she saw no mirthful pictures there. Yet her face, if pale, was no longer sad; a quiet light shone in her eyes, and the words of an ancient hymn went whispering sweetly through her brain:
"Brief life is here our portion,
Brief sorrow, short lived care;
The life that has no ending,
The tearless life is there!"
THE WHITE CAT
The next morning there was a white world indeed. The level land was a waste of snow; Portsdown Hill stood up coldly white against the dark grey sky, which threatened another fall. Hilda was the first to enter the dining room, where a large fire burned brightly, and the table was spread for breakfast. The cheerful blaze was reflected in the silver and china; and the dreary aspect of things out of doors made the home comfort more manifest. Hilda, as she stood warming her hands, and looking round her, thought of the contrast between her home and Kate Bradley's. The wooden cottage, pleasant and picturesque enough in summer, was hardly a desirable abode in this bitter weather. Streams of snow water were apt to make their way through the chinks in its walls, when the tardy sun shone forth; keen blasts penetrated it at all points; and Hilda had seen Simeon vainly attempting to keep them out.
Once she had spoken of these discomforts to Kate, and the girl had answered, cheerfully, that they were not very hard to bear. "If I am ever disposed to crumble," she had said, "I think of 'the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;' and then I wonder at my Lord's goodness in preparing such a house for so lowly an inmate. As the little hymn says, Miss Hilda:
"'I'm but a stranger here,
Heaven is my home.'"
Nevertheless, Hilda would gladly have made Kate's present dwelling more comfortable. Upstairs there were some old damask curtains, lying folded up in the lumber room; they were still strong and whole, although dingy and faded. Would Mrs. Roscoe consent to transfer them to the wooden cottage? Hilda feared not. Her grandmother's maxim was, " Never give away anything, unless it is quite useless to yourself."
"Surely those old curtains are useless to grandmother," thought Hilda. "They will get moth eaten if they stay in the lumber room. If I took them away, and carried them to the cottage, she would never miss them; but that would be wrong. I cannot hope to benefit anybody by underhand kindness."
Two letters were laid in Mrs. Roscoe's plate, one in Madame's, and one in Grace's. For Hilda there was none. She stood looking at a bunch of glossy holly which Harriet had placed on the table in a vase, and considering how she should prefer her request about the curtains. The cups and saucers, all white and gold, the delicate blue vase, the dark polished leaves, and rich scarlet berries, all made a pleasant picture for her eye to rest upon. "It is delightful to have pretty things around one," she thought; "but I think I hope I could be content to have things less pretty, if by that means I could give others a few more comforts. Well, I suppose I shall not have this beautiful silver on my table by-and-by. Grandmother will give it all to Grace, and I shan't be rich enough to buy any more."
She had become so accustomed to their alienation from her, that she had acquired the habit of thinking of her future life as quite apart from theirs.
Just then Grace entered the room, knitting her brows, and looking far from amiable. She hated cold weather, or rather, she hated the Great Salterns. Winter would not have disconcerted her if it had found her in a livelier place.
Hilda thought her sister was very pretty, in her thick morning wrapper of dark blue flannel, with her fair hair coiled up tightly round her head. Grace was conscious of her beauty; she went over to the fire, placed one little slippered foot on the fender, and surveyed herself in the pier glass with no small satisfaction. A white Persian cat, which was her pet and plaything, rose from the hearthrug, and rubbed itself fondly against the skirt of her dress.
"My pretty Snowflake," she said, taking the soft purring thing up into her arms; "what mirthful times we'll have when we get away from this dismal house, won't we? We are almost as entirely shut out from the world here as if we were the prisoners of Chillon. Why pussy, I could almost think
"'Our voices took a dreary tone,
An echo of the dungeon stone,
A grating sound not full and free
As they of yore were "accustomed to be.'"
Hilda laughed outright. "Ah, Grace," she ventured to say, "it would be well for you to remember the words of another poet, who said,
"'Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.'"
"The only kind of existence worth having," continued Grace, still addressing the cat, "is perfect freedom to do as one chooses, and to enjoy oneself in one's own way."
"If that way be not the right way," said Hilda, "the existence is a very unsatisfactory one, after all. Self pleasing becomes irksome after a time; but,
"'A life of self renouncing love
Is a life of liberty.'"
"So Hilda is preaching again!" cried Madame's shrill voice. "She likes to hear the sound of her own tongue; but it is a pity that she has so small an audience. Only Grace, my humble self, and la petite chatte! And pray, mademoiselle, is yours 'a life of self renouncing love?"'
Hilda colored, but did not reply. Madame understood the evil of saying malicious things with a smile, and frequently exercised it on her younger pupil.
Happily, the sight of the letter in her plate diverted her attention from Hilda; almost at the same moment Grace perceived hers, and fastened upon it eagerly.
"From Marion Neville!" she exclaimed, tearing it open. "Now I shall have tidings from the great world indeed! Oh, Madame, this is charming! She invites me to spend Christmas with her."
Miss Neville was one of Grace's London friends, and was some years older than herself. She was a fashionable, wealthy girl, a belle in her circle, and holding just such a position as Grace craved to occupy.
Mrs. Roscoe was the last to come downstairs. She appeared wrapped up in a knitted woolen shawl; and having received Grace's kiss pleasantly, and merely nodded to Hilda, she seated herself in the armchair that was drawn up to the table, and began to open her letters. The others took their places, Madame presiding.
"Grandmother, I have had an invitation," Grace began; but, before she could finish her sentence, a cry from the old lady startled them all. Something in one of those letters had well near driven her out of her senses.
"Dear Mrs. Roscoe, speak! Tell us all!" shrilled Madame, in her highest key.
"Palmer's Bank has stopped payment!" gasped Mrs. Roscoe. "Palmer's Bank, which was supposed to be as safe as the Bank of England!"
"Oh, grandmother, have you any money in it?" asked Grace.
"Money? Yes, child, three thousand pounds! Lord have mercy upon me!" ejaculated the old lady, who never appealed to her Maker when things were going smoothly.
A dead silence fell upon the trio when they heard this announcement. Mrs. Roscoe stared at her letter, and rocked herself to and fro, moaning now and again. Hilda was the first to speak.
"Don't fret, dear grandmother," she said, softly. "This money is not your all."
"The girl is an idiot!" shrieked her grandmother, in sudden wrath. "Does she consider three thousand pounds a mere bagatelle? No, Miss Hilda Roscoe, it is not my all; but it makes my income one hundred and fifty pounds less! And this is but the beginning of rack and ruin!" she added, clasping her hands. "Troubles never come singly I shall hear of more losses!"
"To anticipate evil is to distrust the goodness of God," thought Hilda; but she kept her lips shut.
"Three thousand pounds!" repeated Mrs. Roscoe in an inconsolable tone.
"The very sum," remarked Madame Arnaud, "that Hilda intends to bestow upon the Collis family."
"She shall not do it!" cried the old lady, wrought up to frenzy by the malicious reminder. "I will make her listen to reason. Do you hear me, you obstinate, ridiculous girl? Isn't it enough to lose my own money, without seeing you throw yours away before my very eyes? Oh, what an absurd will your poor father made! A girl of eighteen doesn't in the least understand the value of money."
"I am eighteen, grandmother; and I flatter myself that I do," said Grace, complacently.
"Yes, child, I admit you have good sense," replied Mrs. Roscoe, more softly. "But Hilda is as stubborn as she is silly."
"There is no obstinacy like that of weak minded persons," said Madame, with her bland smile. "Poor Hilda does not possess her sister's strength of character."
The subject of these unflattering remarks continued to eat her breakfast in silence. She tried not to hear them; but that was impossible. It helped her, however, to repeat over and over to herself the words that Lizzie Bradley had spoken to Kate:
"The service that Christ most frequently asks of His children is the service of patience."
"If I am not willing to be silent for His sake, I must indeed be an unprofitable servant," thought she, while her grandmother's angry reproaches continued to fall as thick as hail. At length the miserable breakfast came to an end; Grace went off to practice on the piano in the drawing room; and the German waltz that she played haunted Hilda as she sat at her lessons. It was Weber's last waltz a dreamy, pathetic melody which her sister could never hear afterwards without recalling the events of that memorable day. She was accustomed to say in later years that she could not listen to it without a vague feeling of sorrow and pain.
The day wore on; Mrs. Roscoe fretted and fumed, and Grace wisely said nothing to her of Marion Neville's invitation. But she talked it over with Madame, who assured her that the old lady would certainly let her accept it, if she relayed her request in a day or two. Together they decided on the dresses that she should purchase on her arrival in town; on the colors that became her best, and even on the very wreaths which should be worn on her golden hair. Evening came; Mrs. Roscoe retired earlier than usual, and as the clock struck ten Madame and her pupils prepared to go upstairs.
"Where is Snowflake?" asked Grace, pausing with her candlestick in her hand. "I remember, now, that I haven't seen her since this morning."
"I saw her this afternoon, Miss Roscoe," replied Jane, the upper housemaid. "I went to Copnor; and as I came back I caught sight of her prowling near the fir trees."
"She was hunting birds," said Grace. "But I hope she has come in: I cannot let her stay out of doors all night."
So saying, Grace set down her candlestick, and went into the kitchen to see if her pet were safe in its wool lined basket under the dresser. But the warm nest was empty: Snowflake was nowhere to be seen.
UNDER THE STARS
Puss, puss!" cried Grace, searching in every nook and corner of the kitchen. "She is not here," she said at last; "she must be out of doors still. Pray, Harriet, put on a shawl, and go to search for her."
If the under-housemaid had been bidden to march up to the mouth of a loaded cannon, she could scarcely have looked more aghast. Nor were cook and Jane less confused.
"Why do you stand staring at me in that stupid way?" said Grace, who had Mrs. Roscoe's imperious way of dealing with the servants. "Didn't you hear what I said?"
"Oh, miss," gasped the unlucky Harriet, "I wouldn't go out there after dark for a thousand pounds!"
"You ridiculous girl! There are no robbers about; come, make haste, and do as I tell you."
"I can't, miss!" cried Harriet, wringing her hands. "I shouldn't come back in my right senses if I did."
"It's very clear you are not in your right senses now!" retorted Grace, sharply. "What does this folly mean?"
Instead of replying, Harriet put her apron to her eyes, and gave way to sobs. Grace stood looking at her impatiently, and beating her foot on the floor, as she always did when irritated. Just then Hilda's face appeared in the kitchen doorway. Madame had already retired to her room.
"What does this mean?" reiterated the young lady. "Do you intend to disobey me, Harriet?"
"Indeed, miss, I'd do anything else for you; but oh!"
"Jane," said Grace, turning contemptuously away from the sobbing girl, "go at once and search for the cat."
It was now Jane's turn to have recourse to tears. "Oh, don't ask me, miss!" she wailed.
"Do you dare to say that you won't go?"
"I'm very sorry to displease you, Miss Roscoe, but I wouldn't do it for the world," replied the upper housemaid, still weeping.
"You shall both repent this!" said Grace, angrily. "Now, cook, you are a sensible woman, and you will go?"
"Not if you was to tear me limb from limb for saying no, miss!" answered cook, with considerable spirit. "Begging your pardon, it's flying in the face of Providence to go out there at night."
"This is beyond endurance!" cried Grace, with a stamp. "Perhaps you will condescend some of you to explain why you refuse to obey a very simple order?"
"Yes, miss, I will," responded cook, who felt that the hour for speaking out was come. "There's no manner of doubt, miss, that the piece of ground by the blasted firs is no fit place for a Christian man or woman to walk at night. A wicked deed was done there many years ago, and them that did it can't rest in their graves."
Cook's voice was deep and solemn, as befitted the occasion; the other maids shuddered at her words, while they looked at her with unspeakable gratitude.
"Well," said Grace, after a pause, "I thought that this was an enlightened age! Pray, shall we send for the parson from Milton to lay the Spirit? Oh, you idiots," she added, changing her tone, "your mistress shall know of this tomorrow!"
Then, stepping across the kitchen, she took a thick woolen shawl from its peg, and wrapping it round her moved towards the back door.
"Miss Roscoe," pleaded cook, "for goodness sake don't go out, dear young lady! As to the cat, she'll do well enough; they've got nine lives, as everybody knows."
The two housemaids added their entreaties to hers; and then Hilda ventured to come forward.
"Grace, don't go," she said; "the ground is covered with snow; it is a bitter night."
"What, have you turned coward too?" asked her sister, mockingly. "I thought religious persons, like you, were never afraid of evil things!"
"I am not afraid," answered Hilda, quietly. And then, seeing that the other was flushed and excited, she added, "I will go with you, Grace; two are better than one."
"No you will not!" exclaimed Grace, angrily. "I'll show these stupid servants that I have no fear. It takes a great deal to frighten me; grandmother says my nerves are made of iron. You may go to bed, Hilda, and remember me in your prayers if you like."
The last words were uttered with a scornful laugh which thrilled her listeners with a kind of horror. Even Hilda, wholly unmoved as she was by the Spirit story, felt that Grace was going out on her quest in a wrong spirit. There was a recklessness in her manner, a haughty self sufficiency, which often precedes a fall. She wanted to show her courage and her superiority to those around her; but she was not doing it in a right way. She did not attempt to reason with them on the nature of their foolish fears; she acted in scorn and bravado.
With the shawl wrapped over her head, so that only her face was exposed, Grace unbolted the door. That fair, proud face, the cheeks bright with the carmine glow of anger and excitement, haunted those around for many a year afterwards.
The night was still, but intensely cold. The sound of the breakers could be heard distinctly through the clear, frosty air; and now and again the shrill cry of a water bird came ringing along the lonely shore. The dark purple sky almost black glittered with its countless hosts of stars; and the shining trail of the Milky Way, now plainly visible, looked as if it were a path tracked out for angel feet. Hilda stood at the open door, and watched the slender figure speeding over the white ground, until it vanished behind the angle of the stable wall.
The three servants, huddling close to each other, drew nearer to the kitchen fire; but Hilda did not seem to feel the keen air. She was thinking of that last request, made in mockery, and granted in earnest love. Little, perhaps, did Grace know how many blessings were won for her by the prayers she despised. The voice of one loving soul,
"Rose like a fountain for her, night and day."
But there are some of us who walk a long way on the path of life without recognizing our best friends. They do not always greet us with their hands full of flowers; they have sometimes, perhaps, few honeyed words for us. They are not of the number of those who "prophesy smooth things;" nor do they cry "peace" when there is no peace. But they do us the truest service that ever can be done for man or woman they carry us in their hearts to the throne of grace, and often obtain for us "those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask."
It is Christ Himself who sets us the example of praying for our friends. Satan has desired to have Peter, that he may sift him as wheat; but the Lord's intercession prevails, and the feeble faith "fails not." Surely there is no love token so pure or so precious as a prayer; and yet how seldom is it asked or given! But if those who love each other would not be satisfied to love without praying, there would be fewer misunderstandings, fewer jealousies, fewer heartbreaks. Is it too much to say that the storehouses of Heaven are full of unclaimed mercies? I think not. God only knows the sweetness that we miss, because we are too careless to ask for it.
Such thoughts as these passed through Hilda's mind, as she stood at the open door, looking up at the star sown sky, and waiting for her sister's return. The three maids were silent; the candles flared upon the table; not a sound was to be heard in the house. Suddenly something small and white whisked into the kitchen, making the servants start. It was the truant Snowflake.
"Grace must have missed her," said Hilda.
As the words left her lips, a wild scream came thrilling through the clear air; a cry as of one in deadly peril and fear. The three women heard it, and turned to each other with scared, white faces. Hilda never paused to cast even a glance upon them; with a single light bound she cleared the doorstep, and darted out at full speed into the night.
Over the snow she went, in quick, flying leaps, hardly feeling the ground under her tread. It was like the wild race that one sometimes runs in a feverish dream; it was unlike any experience in her actual life. In a few moments she had gained the road, coming out opposite to the great mudflat; and then, turning sharply to the left, she flew towards the blasted firs.
Suddenly she stopped. A dark figure lay stretched on the white snow, almost at her feet; a figure that was strangely still, and had its pallid face turned upward. She stooped down, folded it in her arms, and spoke to it; but no answer came. All around was perfectly tranquil; the bare poles of the firs stood up straight and black, but nothing stirred among them. The sad, monotonous rush of the surge sounded through the quiet of the night; but that was all. In that awful moment a great strength came upon Hilda, making her calm and brave. She moved away a few steps nearer the house, and raised her voice to the utmost. Clear and loud rang out that cry for help, and was thrice repeated.
A few seconds more and the three servants came hurrying towards her. Great as their terror was, they had started forth to her aid as fast as their bewildered senses and trembling limbs would allow. Very few words were spoken; their arms were strong, and that still figure was a light weight. Hilda gave them all the assistance in her power; and the four carried their helpless burden back to the house with slow and careful steps, not knowing whether they were bearing the living or the dead.
When they reached the kitchen Madame met them, wrapped in her dressing gown. Hilda's call for help had penetrated even through the closed doors and windows of her chamber; she had hastened downstairs with her heart full of evil forebodings. She was not a tenderhearted woman, but she cherished some sort of affection for her elder pupil, and bent over that unconscious face in real anguish.
With considerable presence of mind, Hilda ran into the drawing room, and, having pulled the mattress off an old fashioned sofa, carried it into the kitchen. It was placed on the kitchen floor, and Grace was gently laid upon it. As they knelt beside her, in their terrible grief and fear, they discovered for the first time that the back of her head was bruised and bleeding.
"She's had a blow!" cried Harriet, wringing her hands; "somebody must have struck her down!"
"Hush, Harriet!" said Hilda, calmly; "when I found her she was lying on her back; there is no doubt that she hurt her head in the fall."
"And you don't think anything attacked her, miss?" asked cook.
"No. I believe she has had a fright. She has seen, or imagined she has seen, something that terrified her. You must recollect that she was highly excited when she left the house."
"But she boasted of her courage," said Jane.
"I am afraid it was not real courage," replied Hilda, chafing the cold hand that she held. "If it had been, she would have been calmer. She was wind up into an unnatural state, and it is more than likely that her heated fancy played her a trick."
Madame looked at the speaker, as if she had not expected to hear such reasonable words from her lips. She slowly nodded her head at Hilda, intimating that she took her view of the case.
While they were still endeavoring to bring back consciousness, poor Grace gave a deep sigh, and slowly opened her eyes.
SORROW IN THE HOUSE
You are safe, quite safe, darling," said Hilda, speaking cheerfully. "We are all here around you."
The words were well chosen.
Hilda knew by instinct that Grace's return to her senses would bring back the shock of terror to her mind. A brief silence followed. Grace fixed her eyes on the familiar face near hers, as if she found strength and comfort in seeing it. When at last she spoke, her voice was weak and low.
"How did I get indoors?" she asked. "We carried you in," Hilda replied. "Where did you find me, Hilda?" "You were lying on the snow, quite insensible, dear Grace."
"Did you, did you see anything else?" whispered Grace, with a shudder.
"Nothing, darling. I was standing at the open door when I heard your scream, and ran to find you. It was quite still out of doors."
"I remember it all now," said Grace. "But oh, Hilda, cook was right. There is something, something horrible out there! I saw it moving among the blasted firs, and then I screamed. It seemed to be coming towards me; I turned to run away, but my foot slipped, and I fell backwards. Then I suppose I lost my senses, for I don't recollect any more."
"You were excited, my dear," said Madame, soothingly. "If there had been anything there, your sister must have seen it too, and she declares there was nothing. But don't talk more of this until you are stronger. Are you much hurt by your fall?"
"I am in great pain," Grace answered.
"Your head is cut and bruised, but not seriously, I hope. Can you raise yourself with our help?"
Grace took Madame's arm on one side and cook's on the other. But the effort drew from her such a sharp cry of agony that they laid her gently down again in dismay.
"My back!" she moaned. "Oh, Madame, I can't get up! What shall I do?"
"You must be calm, dear," replied the Frenchwoman, turning pale. "I daresay you are stiff with bruises, but they will soon be healed."
But the others read in Madame's face that a new and terrible fear had taken hold of her. There was a dead silence, broken only by the moans of the sufferer and the falling of ashes in the kitchen grate. Mrs. Roscoe, undisturbed by all the commotion downstairs, was still soundly asleep in her bed.
The clock struck eleven. What terrible events had been crowded into one brief hour! Sixty little minutes ago, that pale, prostrate girl had been in perfect health and high spirits; but before the clock's hand had traveled round the dial plate all was changed. Grace started as she heard the strokes.
"Is it only eleven?" she said. "I seem to have been lying here like a log for hours! What is to be done with me?"
"I think," replied Hilda, "that we shall have to fetch a doctor, Grace. I will go as fast as I can to Bradley's cottage, and send one of the men to Milton for Dr. Landon."
She strove to speak in her usual tone, but her voice trembled a little. Grace looked from her to Madame; the servants had retired into the background, and were wiping their eyes.
"No, Hilda," she said, in a gentle and grateful tone; "you can't walk there tonight. If I cannot rise, I must lie here until morning, I suppose."
But Hilda was determined.
"I shall not be happy if I don't go," she answered. "I know grandmother will say I have done right."
Grace's eyes met hers, and then suddenly filled with tears. Hilda stooped and kissed her tenderly.
"Dearest," she said, "you need not fear for me; I do not mind the cold, and the cottage is not far off."
"I am going with you, miss," said cook, sturdily. Not all the bogies in the world would have kept the good woman from Hilda's side now.
They started off together, well muffled up; but this time they left the house by the hall door and passed out of the iron gate, which brought them at once into the road where Kate Bradley had first seen the sisters. The crisp snow crackled under their tread; not a breeze came sweeping through the bare trees in the garden, but they could hear the sea washing the stones, and the water bird uttering their discordant cries at intervals. The stars shone gloriously over the cold white fields and dreary sea. Hilda looked up at the spangled skies with a yearning spirit, full of silent prayer.
"Visit her, O Lord, with Your salvation; deliver her in Your good appointed time from her bodily pain, and save her soul, for Your mercy's sake."
Again and again the pleading cry ascended from the depths of the young girl's heart. That fear which had been so plainly written in Madame Arnaud's face had cast its black shadow upon her also.
Hilda was little experienced in sickness of any kind; but a certain instinct, or presentiment, warned her that it might be long, very long, before Grace rose from her couch. If this night's terrible adventure were indeed the beginning of a tedious illness, how would the sufferer bear her trial? There are many ways of carrying a cross: some shoulder it bravely, looking upward for strength to sustain its weight; others let it trail along the ground; and to these it becomes a sore hindrance. Alas! Grace had never yet learned how to submit herself to God's will in little things. Of her it might be said, "If in the land of peace wherein you trust they wearied you, then how will you do in the swelling of Jordan?"
The wooden cottage was dark and silent as the grave. Cook knocked vigorously, and was answered by Sharp's bark from within. The bolts were hastily withdrawn, and the door was cautiously opened a little way.
"Who's there?" said a man's voice, so husky and tremulous that Hilda did not recognize it as that of Luke Bradley.
"We come from the Great Salterns," she replied. "Miss Roscoe has had an accident: we want the doctor from Milton."
She paused to take breath; Luke instantly set the door wide open and begged her to enter.
"Come in, miss; come in," he said, civilly. "I'll strike a light, and wake my brother. Don't stand there in the cold."
Matches and a candle were near at hand, and in another moment the kitchen was no longer in darkness. Then the door of Kate's little room opened, and her startled face looked out.
"Is it Miss Hilda?" she asked, anxiously. "Is anything wrong? What has happened?"
"Don't question me now, Kate; I want someone to go for the doctor at once. My sister is very much hurt."
"Father will go," said Kate, confidently.
Simeon confirmed her words by calling out from his sleeping closet that he would be ready in a few minutes. Hilda, well near exhausted, sank down into a chair; and cook proceeded to give a brief account of what had occurred.
"Miss," said Luke, addressing the young lady in an eager tone, " I should like, with your leave, to go back to the house with you, and watch about the place until morning. I'm a strong man, I am; not afraid of much. And if there's any thief prowling round, I'll not fail to get hold of him!"
"I don't think there's any thief," Hilda replied.
"My poor sister had no real cause for alarm, I believe. But if you are willing to go and watch, it may be well to do so."
"To be sure, miss, to be sure," responded Luke, with such alacrity that Kate felt persuaded he hoped to gain a liberal remuneration for his trouble.
Meanwhile Simeon had put on his pilot coat, seized his thick stick, and was gone. Luke enveloped himself in an old horseman's cloak a relic of the broker's shop, took a dark lantern in his hand, and prepared to lead the way to the Great Salterns.
"Kate," he said, turning sharply to his niece, "you needn't be watching and waking all night. Nobody will break in here, and you may go to sleep in peace."
It was seldom that he showed himself solicitous about her welfare. The girl really began to wonder if the better part of his nature was revealing itself at last.
The walk back to the house seemed painfully long to Hilda, whose strength was beginning to give way. She leaned on cook's arm, while Luke preceded them along the road, through the garden, and even up to the hall door.
"You may be certain, miss," he said to Hilda, "that if there is any rascal out there, he shan't escape!"
Grace still lay on the mattress before the kitchen fire. Madame and the maids had undressed her very carefully and tenderly, yet they could not avoid giving her pain. She seemed to be little bruised by her fall, but complained piteously of the anguish in her back, and of her inability to rise. They had wrapped her in a dressing gown, and were anxiously awaiting the doctor's arrival.
"When he comes, he will help us to carry her upstairs," said Madame. "I do not like to venture on moving her without his aid."
Hilda sat down quietly by her sister's side, and bore the long period of listening and waiting as patiently as she could. Grace was silent, and lay with her eyes half closed; very few words were spoken by the watchers, the clock ticked loudly in the stillness, and the innocent cause of the disaster purred drowsily in her warm bed. At last the welcome sound of wheels was heard in the carriage drive, and Madame herself hastened to the hall door.
Dr. Landon followed her into the kitchen; but his coming did not bring the comfort they had hoped for. He assisted them to raise the mattress from the ground, with Grace still lying on it, and in this way to carry her slowly up to her own room. Before they reached the chamber, she had fainted from excessive pain; it was a sorrowful little group that gathered round her bed, and watched the white face resting on the pillow. What was to be done? Dr. Landon declared himself unwilling to act without an assistant. The case was an important one. He proposed that they should send to London for an eminent surgeon.
Early in the chill light of the winter morning, Hilda wrapped herself in a cloak, and went out of doors. She made straight towards the scene of last night's terrible adventure, following the track of her own footprints in the snow. Here too were the marks of other feet those of the servants all tending to the same spot. On reaching the place where she had found her sister lying, she carefully examined the ground. Half buried under the snow was a log of wood; it was upon this, doubtless, that Grace had fallen with fearful force, and had thus received a spinal injury which might render her a helpless cripple for the rest of her life.
A low cry of anguish broke from Hilda's lips, as she raised her eyes to the sky, still red with the flush of morning. This burden that was laid upon them all seemed greater than they could bear.
Before returning to the house, she walked up to the blasted fir trees. Here the snow was trampled by the prints of Luke Bradley's heavy feet. It was evident that he had been pacing about the spot like a sentry all night.
DESOLATE, AND IN MISERY
In the presence of this great sorrow, Mrs. Roscoe forgot her smaller calamity. She loved her elder grandchild as deeply as it was possible for her to love, and was looking forward with pride to a brilliant future for her. But when the great London doctor came out of Grace's chamber, his first words struck like a chill upon her heart.
"She may recover," he said, in answer to the old lady's eager questions; "she may, perhaps, eventually recover." She was experienced enough to know that those words contained only the shadow of a hope. Grace would be helpless, crippled for months, for years, perhaps for life. It was the heaviest blow that had ever fallen upon Mrs. Roscoe, not even excepting her son's death. That son had displeased her, first by his marriage, and secondly by what she termed his lavish expenditure. Grace was more entirely her own than he had ever been. She was growing up like her grandmother, haughty, prudent, calculating.
The three servants expected their dismissal; but nothing of the kind occurred. Their mistress was more gentle with them than usual; she moved about the house quietly and sadly, looking old and worn and grey. Their hearts ached for her, as well as for the young lady upstairs.
"Hilda," said Grace, when the London doctor was gone, and her sister was left alone with her, "Hilda, come here. I want to know what that man has been saying about me."
There was a touch of the old imperiousness in her tone. Poor Hilda, heart stricken by the surgeon's opinion, spoken more openly to Madame and herself than to Mrs. Roscoe, had seated herself in the shadow of the window curtain. She wanted to hide her face from those keen eyes.
"Come here," reiterated Grace, fretfully. "It fidgets me to see you sitting there in the shade."
With a silent prayer for help, Hilda crossed the room, and took a chair by the bedside.
"Well, what does he say? How long am I to lie here before I am cured?"
"Dear Grace, he cannot tell."
"Cannot tell? Does he not know when I shall be able to get up and walk as usual?"
"No. He says, darling, that you must try to be patient."
"Then he thinks it will be a long while before my back is well! Surely he does not think it can't be that that I shall never walk again?"
Hilda's lips moved; but she could not speak at that moment.
"I have heard of such cases," Grace went on, rapidly; "but of course it is not my case. Those great doctors seem unwilling to let one have too much hope. Shall I be up before Christmas, Hilda? You know I want to go to Marion Neville's."
Was it not better, with all possible gentleness, to tell her the truth, than to let her lie there fretting her heart out with vain expectations? Hilda spent some seconds in anxious consideration.
"Why don't you speak?" asked the other, almost angrily.
"Grace, I would not wish to be deceived if I were as you are. Will you not try, darling, to bear this cross patiently, until God sees fit to take it away? No; the doctor does not think you will be up before Christmas."
"I understand it all now," said Grace, after a pause. "He considers my cure uncertain; I may have to lie here always always!"
She repeated the last word slowly, as if she were striving to grasp its meaning.
Hilda sat watching her in unspeakable anxiety. She was expecting a stormy outburst of passionate grief; but it did not come. Grace's fair face flushed and paled several times before she spoke again.
"I can blame no one but myself for this," she said at last; "but I don't think that makes it any easier to bear. I almost wish it had been somebody else's doing. Well, Hilda, life is not worth having now; it's nothing but a dreary blank; I care not how soon it comes to an end."
This mood was more difficult to deal with than any frantic lamentation could have been. It seemed to be the beginning of despair.
"'I am desolate, and in misery.' Isn't that a verse from the Psalms, Hilda? Yes, 'desolate, and in misery.'"
"Dear Grace, you have only quoted half the verse. It begins, 'Turn You unto me, and have mercy upon me.' Can you not say that too?"
"No," answered Grace, bitterly. "I'm not a religious girl, and God would not hear me. He would know that I should never have prayed to Him if I had continued to be well and strong. Don't let us have any pious talk, Hilda; for I can't bear it."
She turned her face upon the pillow, and closed her eyes. Never, perhaps, in the whole course of Hilda's life would she know again such anguish as filled her soul at that moment. She was like one who stands upon a rock, and sees the friend he loves best perishing in the waves, yet refusing to touch the rope that is held out to him. Our Savior's mournful testimony, "You will not come to Me, that you might have life," was ringing in her ears. She could say nothing do nothing, but pray. Only the grace of God can turn sickness into easiness; and until that grace was sought and granted, the sufferer must bear the full weight of her affliction alone.
Leaving her sister to sleep, and Madame to watch by her side, Hilda dressed herself and went out of doors. The winter day was waning; the sun, looking like a huge crimson ball in the slate covered clouds, cast a faint red flush over the snowy shore. As the young girl walked along the well known road, leaving the impress of every step on the white ground, her thoughts wandered back into those old days when the Lord was on this earth of ours, doing the work of His Father in Heaven. She scarcely saw the dreary fields and the grey sea, nor heard the ceaseless plash of the chill surf. In fancy she beheld the old city of Jerusalem, and hearkened to the murmurs of unbelief that ever rose around the Nazarene. At the Feast of Dedication, when "it was winter," she saw Him walking "in the temple, in Solomon's porch," and listened with full heart to those wonderful words, spoken to the doubting Jews, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me."
Ah, that voice! It speaks as never man spoke; its tone can reach where human tone has never penetrated. No matter where the sheep may be; no matter how far it may have wandered from the field, the call of the Good Shepherd rings high above the voice of the water flood, and pierces the silence of the " dark mountains" where the weary feet are stumbling painfully. Would Grace ever hear that call? Some never hear it while they walk erect; not until their heads are bowed to the ground does that voice travel to their ears.
"My Savior," pleaded Hilda, "I have spoken in vain. But speak You to the poor restless soul and draw it home to Yourself. The entrance of Your word gives light."
Lifting up her eyes, she saw Luke Bradley coming towards her, carrying a stick across his shoulder. Suspended from the stick hung two or three couples of dead wild birds, victims of his gun; beautiful birds, with plumage of velvety black and delicate grey and white. He saluted the young lady with profound respect.
"Beg pardon, miss," he said, halting before her; "my niece is wanting to know what the doctor thinks of Miss Roscoe?"
"He is not very hopeful about her," Hilda replied, sadly. "The injury done to the spine is greater than we thought at first. She fell backwards over a log of wood which lay under the snow; and the shock to the nervous system is terrible."
"Was it the fright, miss, that made her fall?"
"Yes; she has not yet told us what it was that she imagined she saw. But her terror was very great; it will be long before she recovers from its effects."
"There couldn't have been anybody out there, miss," said Luke, digging up the snow with one foot in a restless way. "There wasn't even a footmark to be seen near the firs."
"I don't think she saw anybody," Hilda responded. "The servants had told her that the place was haunted, and she was very much excited. By the way, Luke, I wish you had said nothing about that foolish ghost story to our maids. If they had not been afraid to go out of doors, my sister would not have gone in search of the cat herself; and all this trouble might have been spared us."
Luke took off his fur cap, looked fixedly into the crown for a moment, and then replaced it on his head. He was evidently so much agitated that he did not know what he was doing; the dead birds on the stick swung violently to and fro with the motion of his body.
"Miss," he said, earnestly, "if I'd known what was to come out of my silly talking, I'd have put a padlock on my mouth rather than have done such mischief!"
"I am sure, Luke, that you meant no harm. But there can be no truth in the tale, and such idle gossip never does any good."
The man drew out an old colored handkerchief, and wiped his face as he might have done on the hottest of summer days. It was plain that he was deeply moved by what had occurred; his sorrow for Grace's calamity was perfectly genuine. Hilda was surprised and touched by the feeling he displayed.
"We must hope that God may restore my sister's strength," she said, kindly. "Are you going to our home with those birds? I suppose you have shot a great many."
"Yes, miss; Simeon is a better shot than I am. This cold weather has driven them to the shelter of the coast; there's hundreds and hundreds of them. We've sold a large number, for they're very good eating."
He went his way, and Hilda turned her steps towards the white gate that opened out upon the waste land. Looking across the common, she saw Kate speeding towards her, and went to meet her.
"Miss Hilda," said the girl, "how does it fare with the poor young lady? She has been in my thoughts day and night."
"Oh, Kate, she has need of your prayers! At present all is darkness, nor will she listen to any word of consolation from me. This is the saddest day that I have ever known."
Hilda's voice faltered, and her tears flowed fast. But they were tears that did her good and lightened her heart. She had kept them back too long.
"Take comfort, dear Miss Hilda," Kate said, tenderly. "Remember that Christ must have His own way, ay, and His own appointed time."
"The soul, by the help of sickness," says Jeremy Taylor, "knocks off the fetters of pride and vainer complacencies. Then she draws the curtains, and stops the light from coming in, and takes the pictures down, those fantastic images of self love, and mirthful remembrances of vain opinion and popular noises."
As day after day went by, and Grace still lay helpless on her bed, she had no choice but to listen to that inward monitor whose warnings had been stifled too long.
Instead of the "fantastic images of self love," the scenes of early childhood were clearly presented to her mind. She saw her old self kneeling at her mother's knee, reading out of the same Bible with Hilda, repeating the same simple hymns. Then came that mother's death, and the grandmother had taken her place. The system of training was changed; Grace was taught the world's lessons, and proved herself an apt scholar. The old simplicity was put aside; texts and hymns were regarded as a useless kind of knowledge, only fit to be stowed away in the lumber room of memory. The "life which is to come" was a long way off, shadowy and vague. Her glimpses of it were few and far between; it was hidden from her sight by the mists that rose from earth, and encompassed her night and day. Very rarely did the fog clear away and afford a dim vision of fair hill ranges standing in pure, golden light. She was content to live on, in the thick, unwholesome atmosphere of the enchanted ground.
But now all was changed. The mists were gone and she found herself dwelling in a bleak and barren land. The future that she had loved to picture could never be hers. Even if she gathered strength enough to rise from her couch, she must be resigned to lead a quiet life, unexciting and devoid of all the gaieties for which she longed. No late hours, no dancing, her enfeebled frame would never be fit for these things. The world would never know her as a ballroom belle; that dream was gone forever.
More days went and came; Christmas passed by a melancholy Christmas to the household of the Great Salterns. And in January, when the first snowdrops were piercing through the damp brown clods, and the robin was singing loud and clear among the bare branches, Grace was carried downstairs.
Two rooms on the ground floor were to be devoted to her use. A couch had been constructed which could be wheeled easily from one to the other; every appliance for her comfort had been obtained; every want was anticipated. Yet all the arrangements spoke mutely of a long life of suffering; the rooms were those of a confirmed invalid. This was what Grace felt when they laid her gently down near the window where she could see the naked boughs and hear the robin's song.
She watched the bird, and envied its powers of motion. How quickly it hopped from twig to twig, how lightly it spread its wings and soared away into the pale winter sunshine! What a free, joyous existence God had given to this little feathered creature; and yet He suffered another being "made in His own likeness" to lie in weary helplessness and sad inaction! Why was this? Could He be indeed that loving Lord of whom Christian men and women spoke one to another?
She had yet to learn that "whom the Lord loves, He chasteneth;" that God's rod and His staff always go together, and that he who would lean upon the one must first feel the gentle strokes of the other.
Madame Arnaud made a few feeble attempts to amuse her pupil in the old way; but she soon relinquished them. Grace could scarcely be made to smile at her sallies; and, to do the Frenchwoman justice, she was too sad at heart to enter into her own jests. News had come to Mrs. Roscoe that Palmer's Bank had righted itself, and that none of her money would be lost; but she received the tidings almost with indifference. All the money in the world could not purchase new strength and health for her grandchild. She was no cheerful companion for the invalid, poor old woman! She would sit and gaze so steadfastly and mournfully at the still figure on the couch, that Grace could not bear it, and would restlessly turn her head to avoid meeting her grandmother's eyes.
If there was any sunshine in Grace's life now, it came to her through Hilda. The girl proved herself to be the wisest and kindest of nurses; always at hand when she was wanted; always cheerful, yet never oppressively lively. It soon became Grace's habit to turn to her more than to any other member of the household. But suffering had already taught the elder sister some useful lessons. While she desired Hilda's company, she was not unmindful of her hours of study and relaxation.
"Go out and walk, Hilda," she would say. "I can amuse myself while you are taking a stroll."
And she would even put on a bright look until Hilda was out of sight. Then, too often, her tears would flow, and her heart would pine passionately for the lost freedom of movement which was so little prized while it was her own.
On a certain sunshiny afternoon when January was drawing towards its end, Grace lay as usual on her couch near the window. Out of doors there were faint hints of coming spring; gnats were dancing in the sunbeams; a speckled thrush, perched on the leafless branches of the great horse chestnut tree, was warbling his ancient roundelay, going over all the trills and clear notes that his ancestors had practiced before him. Clusters of snowdrops drooped their graceful heads over the mold, looking a little sad at finding themselves in such a wintry world, with no gayer flowers to bear them company. By and by, when the leaves were dancing overhead, and the early roses were beginning to bloom, they would be in their graves. Grace thought mournfully of all the simple joys that seemed wonderfully precious now that they were unattainable; of hunting for the first primroses in the shady walks of the shrubbery; of rambling along the lanes round Copnor to gather hawthorn boughs; of running down to meet the cool green waves as they came splashing on the warm beach, and feeling the soft spray on her face. Alas! like the little fir tree in the beautiful nursery tale, she had neglected to rejoice in her happy youth, and in the fresh life within her, and had not recognized the blessings with which God had surrounded her. Now, she was destined to know their sweetness by their absence.
With a long sigh she turned away her glance from the speckled singer in the chestnut tree. His song was too blithe for a sad heart.
Her eyes chanced to fall on the vacant chair where Hilda had been sitting close beside her couch. Upon it lay a book which she now noticed for the first time. It was a small volume, and its aspect was unfamiliar to her; by stretching out her arm she could reach it with ease. She took it up, not sorry to divert her thoughts from herself and her sorrow, and began, half listlessly, to turn over its pages.
It was the very same book of sacred poems which Lizzie Bradley had loved in days gone by; and it had been lent by Kate to Hilda. The pieces were by various authors; but that on which Grace's eye first rested was called, "The Pool of Bethesda."
She liked poetry; if the narrative had been told in prose, she might have cast it aside. But the rhythm soothed her, and she read on.
It was impossible to read without being reminded of her own case. But the man who lay waiting under the arches had been a sufferer for eight and thirty years; and she had been lying on her couch little more than eight and thirty days. Nevertheless there was this similarity between them both were waiting to be cured; both were looking forward to a time, however far distant, when health and strength should be restored.
Could it be possible that both were also destined to know the same Good Physician? Grace read the last verses again with a strange heartthrob:
"Yet surely, as of yore,
In the world's crowded places, day by day,
Filled with Divine compassion, evermore
The Healer goes His way.
And still, with patient feet
He comes to the sinful, weary soul;
And in that blessed voice, divinely sweet,
Says, 'Will you be made whole?"'
Was it not a fact, after all, that the soul was in a worse case than the body? Did not the spirit stand in greater need of cure than the flesh? If the heart be at peace with God, any physical condition may be made endurable by the sweetness of the Divine calm within.
Hitherto poor Grace had been blinded with her own tears; now for the first time she began to see a glimmer of the true light.
Could it be that Christ was indeed standing beside her, and saying, "Will you be made whole?" If so, He was truly found by one who had sought Him not. No heart had been more utterly hardened against Him than hers; she began to remember with shame that she had sometimes almost hated Hilda for being His follower. Of all the kinds of enmity that are ripe in this world, there is none more cruel than the bitterness of the children of darkness against the children of light.
The tears that now flowed were no longer those of hopelessness or rebellion. They were contrite tears, such as slow repentance always sheds; the love and infinite compassion of the Savior had been suddenly revealed to her, and the sight thereof had melted her heart. The consciousness of His mercy and of her own unworthiness overwhelmed her. She read the little poem again and again, each time with a deepening conviction that He who came to the sufferer by the Pool of Bethesda had come to her also.
When Hilda returned from her walk, she saw that a change had passed over her sister. There was a look on her face that was new and unfamiliar; it was the look of one who has been with Jesus. Grace's eyes met hers brightly; her words were only commonplace words, but the tone was more tuneful than it had ever been before.
"Surely this afternoon is a herald of spring?" she said.
It was so to her; a herald indeed of that summer in the soul which is followed by no winter. Hilda's glance, love quickened, read its signs, and her heart throbbed with a new hope.
A NEW RESOLUTION
"Hilda," said Grace one day, when they were alone together, "I have never yet told you what it was that frightened me on that terrible night."
"Your nerves were overwrought, dear," answered her sister; "nothing was really there."
"It was no mere fancy, Hilda. As I ran towards the firs, I did indeed see something. It was very tall and white; so white that I could hardly distinguish it from the snow. It waved a long arm, as if warning me away, and then advanced. After that, you know what happened. As I was turning to fly, I struck my foot against a stone, and fell backwards."
"But, Grace, there are numberless instances of illusions of this kind; your eyes were dazzled by the snow and the starlight. The maids had been talking about the Spirit, and that idea was uppermost in your mind."
"Well, you may be right," replied the other, after a pause. "But I have a very distinct recollection of the figure."
"That proves nothing, darling. Think how the recollection of a dream sometimes lingers in the memory. It is often clearer than a scene we have witnessed with our bodily eyes."
"All that you say is so sensible, Hilda, that I have no arguments to bring against it. Yet I am not quite convinced that my fancy played me a trick."
"I am, Grace; and I wish I could make you believe it too."
"Then I'll try to believe it," answered the elder girl, smiling.
"But, Hilda, I have something of greater importance to say to you, something that has been working in my mind for a week."
There was a pause. Hilda waited for Grace to speak again.
"I have been thinking a great deal about that letter of papa's, Hilda, that letter about the Collis family; and I want to carry out his desire."
Hilda's lips quivered, and her hands were suddenly pressed together; but she could find no voice, and Grace continued,
"I was wrong, very wrong; I see it all now. I want to pay the three thousand pounds at once; who knows how much they may be needing it? When you are eighteen, Hilda, you can pay back your share of it to me."
"It was the very thing I wished, and dared not propose," said the younger, with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Grace, how happy you have made me!"
"It is a tardy compensation for all the unhappiness I have caused you, dear. Now tell me, what steps shall we take?"
"I think we must advertise in the Times," replied Hilda, thoughtfully. "But, Grace, Mr. Harrington is coming to see you this afternoon; shall we ask his advice?"
Mr. Harrington was a young clergyman, who had recently been appointed to the living of Milton, and had come to live there with his wife and child. He had heard of Miss Roscoe's affliction, and had called to see her more than once.
"Yes," returned Grace, "we will tell him our story. There will be no harm in doing so, I am sure."
"What will grandmother say to your resolution, Grace?"
"I don't think she will oppose me in anything. I must take the invalid's license of having my own way."
"You pay a heavy price for that license," said Hilda, her eyes filling with tears.
It was seldom that she suffered Grace to see her weep; but at that moment the elder sister's condition made itself deeply felt. This new sweetness led Hilda back in thought to the old days of willfulness and haughtiness that now seemed very far away; and yet this was only February! In December Grace had been well and strong; but then they had not been one in heart. The discipline of sorrow had drawn them closer to each other.
"When the weather is milder," said Grace, cheerfully, "I can be wheeled out of doors on this couch of mine; it can be pushed along quite easily. Don't despair of me, Hilda; I have yet a good hope of getting well. And if not, God's will be done."
"You have learned the great lesson of life, darling."
"I am beginning to learn it," Grace replied, humbly. "Christ has marvelous patience with a slow pupil, Hilda."
True to his promise, Mr. Harrington called on the next day. He was a new friend, but one whom the sisters felt instinctively that they could trust. Without any hesitation, Grace showed him her father's letter, and frankly admitted her former blameworthiness in neglecting it. She had resolved to advertise in the Times; would Mr. Harrington tell her how to word such an advertisement? And in what other paper should the notice to Edward Collis be inserted?
The listener's eyes had been intently fixed on the speaker while she told her tale; and Hilda, who was watching him, saw him smile once or twice, as if some pleasant thoughts were awakened by the recital. Probably he was pleased with Grace's frankness, and liked her none the less for her confession of error.
"I do not advise you to advertise, Miss Roscoe," he said, when she paused; "because I think such a course will be quite unnecessary."
"Quite unnecessary!" she repeated. "Then how are we to find Edward Collis, Mr. Harrington? We have not the least clue to his whereabouts."
"I have a friend who is acquainted with Edward Collis," he replied; "a friend who is now staying in my house."
"Oh, how fortunate!" cried Grace, her face flushing with pleasure. "Can I see this friend of yours, Mr. Harrington? Will you bring him here?"
"Yes, I will do so; he shall call on you as soon as you please."
"What is your friend's name? Where is Edward Collis now? Is the family still in need of help?"
"My dear Miss Roscoe, you overwhelm me with questions! I will leave my friend to answer the two last, and reply only to the first. His name is Stanley Perth, and he is my wife's brother."
"How curious!" said Grace.
"Not very," returned Mr. Harrington, "the world is not so wide as we are apt to imagine it, and there really is nothing singular in people coming across each other. Besides," he added, in a graver tone, "there is One who orders all our goings."
He went his way, leaving the two sisters happy and excited. At last their dead father's behest would be carried out, and the minds of both would be set at rest.
"We must tell grandmother," said Hilda at last, when they had talked the matter over again and again.
And Mrs. Roscoe was told, but she made a very feeble show of resistance. If it would console Grace to part with three thousand pounds, the girl must have her way. Anything was better than seeing her sunk in gloom and despondency. This whim about Edward Collis had brightened her, and made her look more like her old self. The old lady little guessed what higher influence had been at work upon her grandchild.
Madame Arnaud had nothing to say. She saw plainly enough that her elder pupil was striking out into a new path, and shrugged her shoulders in silence.
Madame never said sharp things to Hilda now. She respected the girl for the good sense and firmness which she had shown on the night of Grace's disaster. She did not love her younger pupil; their natures would always remain apart, unless God brought them nearer to each other. They could not assimilate, although they were now on very good terms.
"Circles only touch when met, Never mingle;" and Hilda and her governess were, not destined to know any closer union than this.
In the wooden cottage, Kate Bradley was living her busy, quiet life; but her way was somewhat smoother than it had been. Luke was even more gloomy than of yore, but he was far less irritable, and seldom disturbed his brother and niece by any outbreak of temper.
This change in him dated from that eventful night when Hilda had come to the cottage for aid. After watching round the Great Salterns until day began to break, he had come home in the dim light of the winter morning. Kate, who had gone back to her bed, was awakened by his entrance, and had called out to know if he had discovered the cause of Miss Roscoe's fright.
"No," he answered; "there was nothing to be seen."
Simeon, who had returned from Milton in the doctor's carriage, was soundly asleep. But Kate could rest no longer, and rising she began to dress herself. It was still almost dark; only a faint grey light was spreading over the east as she looked out of her little window. As she stood there she heard her uncle going out again.
He passed beneath her casement, carrying something under his arm. He went round to the little woodshed that was at the side of the house. By and by he reentered the cottage, and found Kate up, and the kitchen fire beginning to burn merrily.
"You might ha' slept a bit longer, my girl," he said.
As he spoke he glanced at her sharply out of the corners of his dark eyes. He stood warming himself at the cheerful blaze, and his hands trembled visibly as he spread them out.
"You are cold, uncle," she remarked, "and no wonder, for it's a bitter morning."
"Ay, so it is," he responded, going to the corner cupboard and taking out a certain black bottle. Kate hated the sight of that bottle; Luke's temper was generally worse after he had had recourse to it. She was troubled to see that he took a larger quantity of its contents than usual.
But no outbreak of ill humor ensued. She prepared breakfast, while he stood silently by the fire with his eyes fixed upon the flames. When the meal was ended, he went out with Simeon to shoot wild birds.
Again the thrush was singing his ancient carol on the chestnut tree; but Grace did not hear a note of the song. The garden beds showed spots of soft color here and there; bright amber, and delicate lilac, where the crocuses were in bloom; and the rich velvet polyanthus had opened its golden eye to the sun. Overhead, a blue sky smiled through the lacelike network of bare twigs, and feathery white clouds sailed far aloft. A company of rooks came cawing over the garden; the thrush sang louder, as one who would not be outdone. When they had vanished he ceased warbling, left his perch, and alighted upon the ground. There he seized upon a luckless snail, and was breaking its shell upon the gravel, when the tramp of footsteps disturbed his work of destruction, and he flew away with his prize.
Grace watched the newcomer from her window, while Hilda sat by her side. He might have been about three and twenty years of age, but another hand than that of time had been at work upon his face, furrowing the brow, saddening the bright eyes, and drawing grave lines round the mouth. The general expression of that face might have befitted a man of thirty. But its gravity did not make it one whit less pleasing, and Grace was favorably impressed at once. "He has a good face," she said to her sister. "I fancy Edward Collis is fortunate in his friend."
A few moments more, and Mr. Perth was shown into the room. Mrs. Roscoe was not present; Madame Arnaud, busy with a piece of embroidery, gave him one of her sharp glances as he entered. His color rose a little, but he appeared perfectly frank and unembarrassed.
"Mr. Harrington has told you our reason for wishing to see you," said Grace, when the first greetings had passed. "I thank you very much for coming to us, Mr. Perth."
"I need no thanks, Miss Roscoe; yes, my brother-in-law tells me that you intend, through me, to communicate with Edward Collis."
"Is he still in England?"
"He is; but his circumstances have changed. He is no longer a poor man, and his mother and sister are well provided for."
While Mr. Perth spoke he did not remove his eyes from Grace's face. He saw there a slight shade of disappointment. It had made her happy to think that the money would be of use to those to whom it was given.
"Mr. Harrington has told me the whole story," continued Stanley Perth, still watching her earnestly. "Do you think, Miss Roscoe, that it is necessary to make this sacrifice?"
Grace's eyes took counsel of Hilda, and there was a brief pause.
"I think," she said, at length, "and my sister agrees with me, that Mr. Collis should have the offer made to him. Right is right. You are his friend, Mr. Perth, and you shall read my father's letter."
She opened a little blotting book lying on the table beside her, and drew the letter forth. Mr. Perth received it in silence.
"If my father had lived one day longer," she added "he would have made over the sum of three thousand pounds to Edward Collis; there can be no doubt of that."
Still in silence, Stanley Perth unfolded the letter. As he read, he turned his face away from the sisters, but Hilda saw his firm lips quiver once or twice. She could not help wondering what it was that moved him in those lines, written by one whom he had never seen.
"Miss Roscoe," he said, gravely, folding up the letter, "you are right. Let your offer be made to Edward Collis."
"Then will you give me his address?" asked Grace, eagerly. "There has already been too long a delay."
Mr. Perth hesitated.
"Can you send your letter to him by my hands?" he asked. "He has left his old lodgings in London, but I am going to town tomorrow, and shall be sure to be in his company."
"Willingly," she replied. "He shall read my father's letter, Mr. Perth. It will show him that Mr. Collis was not forgotten by his old friend."
Stanley Perth waited while Grace wrote her brief note, and submitted it to Hilda. Then it was enclosed in an envelope with Mr. Roscoe's letter, addressed to Edward Collis, and entrusted to his care.
When this was done, he rose to take his leave; but Mrs. Roscoe's entrance detained him.
"Stay to lunch with us, Mr. Perth," she said, graciously; and the invitation was accepted. That was the brightest day that the invalid had known for a long time, and it was a kind of brightness that left a glow behind it. Stanley Perth amused the elders by his pleasant talk; even Madame regarded him with evident favor. But afterwards, when lunch was over, and he sat near Grace's couch, he spoke to her in another strain. An undertone of deep feeling ran through his conversation, and told her that his sympathy was warm and true. Unconsciously, she was drawn on to tell him the events of that sad night which had wrought so great a change in her young life. Half timidly, and yet with a frankness that she afterwards remembered with surprise, she talked of the blessed influence of sorrow the sable cloud had already unfolded in its silver lining.
"The sweetest lilies grow in the Valley of Humiliation," he said; "but while you walk there in content, Miss Roscoe, do not forget to pray for those who are treading a smooth path in the full light of noontide."
She looked at him in surprise.
"Our friends too seldom pray for us in our prosperity," he went on earnestly; "yet then it is that we stand in greatest need of God's watchful care. I have even heard it said that great ease is a sign of His disfavor; but I cannot believe that it is so. His blessing may rest upon the smooth way as well as on the rugged road if we press onward, looking unto Jesus."
"I don't think one need fear to walk in the easy path, if He sets one there," said Grace, thoughtfully. "And while we are afraid of not going right, we are not very likely to go wrong."
"I have known some persons," continued Stanley, "who are quite as proud of their troubles as others are of their good things. They shake their heads at the prosperous ones, and say that there must be something wrong with them, or they would not escape affliction."
"I am afraid that is envy in disguise," suggested Grace.
"Perhaps it is. Yet, Miss Roscoe, those who love their Lord must ever tremble while they are on the 'plain called ease.'"
"Then the trembling lessens the danger."
"I think so, I hope so."
He did not leave the Great Salterns until it was growing late in the afternoon. Then he departed, promising to come again on his return from London, and bring Edward Collis's reply.
It was past five o'clock; the sun was going down, and low lights were shining calmly across the sea. The old boats at their moorings rocked to and fro; the waves came lapping against the piles, and washing the grey stones that were draped with silky green sea weed. As he stood still, and gazed over that gleaming flood, his face grew graver and graver, until the sea looked dim through the mist that came before his sight.
"O Lord," he murmured, half aloud, "must it be always so? Must the bright young life be ever tied and bound with these chains of sorrow? The heart newly awakened to a knowledge of Your love, longs to serve You, not only by waiting, but by working. Will You not raise her up again, and restore to her the blessings of health and strength? Is there no hope of her recovery?"
There was no sound to be heard save the murmur of the sea, heaving and dimpling under the sunset light. It was a very quiet wind that came blowing across the green flats and wandering away over the water. Yet to Stanley Perth's ears another kind of music was audible the music of a grand hymn that went echoing through his memory:
"Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own Interpreter,
And He will make it plain!"
It was as majestic as the march of angels' feet across the shore.
With the remembrance of the lines came thoughts of him who wrote them. He recalled the strange, sad story of Cowper's life, the brilliant intellect and the darkened brain. He recollected how that clouded mind had taken a perverted view of its Maker; and the poet, believing in his madness, that he was about to do God's will, determined to drown himself in a river. A seeming accident saved him from committing suicide; on his return to his home, reason resumed her sway, and the hymn was written in the ecstasy of thanksgiving.
How light was Grace Roscoe's affliction when compared with that of Cowper! Stanley reproached himself for having even momentarily murmured at God's decree.
Turning away from the shore, he walked homeward through the fast darkening lanes, and reached Milton in the grey twilight. A stream of ruddy light welcomed him from one of the parsonage windows, and his sister's voice greeted him cheerily as he entered the house.
"You are a truant, Stanley," she said; "but I have saved a cup of tea for you."
She was sitting by the bright fire with her baby boy on her lap. It was the hour before his bedtime where there was a little bit of leisure his mother always gave to him. A young mother she was, hardly more than one and twenty, and fair and girlish looking for her age. As her brother stood for a moment in the doorway, watching her while she played with her child, the tide of sad thought returned to his mind, and almost overwhelmed him.
"Are you tired?" she asked, quickly noticing that sad look.
"No, Annie, but, I was thinking about Grace Roscoe."
"Ah," she said, gravely; "hers is a melancholy case. I have promised that Ralph shall take me to see her some day. I was forgetting that you had been there, Stanley."
"I am entrusted with a letter for Edward Collis."
She looked up and smiled.
"Ralph was telling me that these girls are very anxious to pay that old debt. But the money is not needed now, brother."
"No; but their minds will be relieved when the offer is made."
"But, Stanley, why did you not?"
"I know what you are going to say, Annie. Well, I can scarcely answer you at present. But I think it is Ralph's fault for putting me in the position."
"Lay the burden on Ralph, if you choose," she said, laughingly; "his shoulders are broad enough to bear it. Do you know," she added, in a graver tone, "I have a sort of presentiment that Miss Roscoe will recover?"
"Why do you think so? Is not the case considered hopeless?"
"Not absolutely hopeless. Sir Francis Wyatt told Dr. Landon that it was impossible to give a definite opinion on it. But I have a hopeful nature, Stanley; and I know that, with God's blessing, youth and a good constitution may triumph over a spinal injury."
"You are a pleasant little prophetess, dear Annie," he answered, brightening visibly as he sat down to the tea table.
"Stanley Perth came here on purpose to talk about Edward Collis," said Hilda; "yet very little was said about him, after all. I should like to know something more of the son of our father's old friend."
"Perhaps we shall see him some day," replied Grace. "And we shall be sure to have other visits from Mr. Perth, although he lives away somewhere over Portsdown Hill. Of course he will come often to Milton Parsonage."
"We have never yet seen Mrs. Harrington, Grace."
"No. She has promised to call here. I wish she would come; we seem to be getting intimate with a very pleasant set of people, Hilda."
Hilda thought within herself that Grace would not have considered them so pleasant in bygone days.
A little later in the day, she took her way to Bradley's cottage. Nobody would have hindered her from going there now, if her visits had been known. She was no longer jealously watched and guarded. But her liking for her humble friend did not wither in this new atmosphere of freedom. Attachments that take root in sorrow are apt to be of an enduring kind; to Hilda, the very sight of those lowly wooden walls was always suggestive of comfort and rest .
Sharp did not bark at her approach. He was far too sensible a dog not to know a friend at the first glance, and he greeted her after his own fashion, flapping his tail on the ground as she drew near, but never troubling himself to rise from his comfortable position. He had chosen a spot before the door which was well warmed by the sun's rays, and liked to take his ease when duty made no demands upon him. But he was grateful for the passing touch of Hilda's hand and for the pleasant tone of her voice.
Kate was standing at the kitchen table with a heap of baby linen, laces, and cambric handkerchiefs before her. Lizzie had taught her the useful art of getting up fine things of this kind, and she was turning it to good account. When the clothes baskets were filled, Simeon would take them to Milton in a hand barrow, and leave the clothes at the houses of the respective owners.
Kate liked her work; the fire was clear and bright, the irons were hot, and the kettle was singing a cheery tune. The kitchen was a picture of comfort and neatness, and Kate herself, with her lovely face and tidy dress, was very pleasant to look upon.
"Please take a seat, Miss Hilda," said she, "and do throw off your thick shawl. It's very warm in here; you won't need it until you go out of doors again."
Hilda did as she desired, and then drawing a rush bottomed chair near the table, sat down and watched Kate at her occupation.
"You're looking a deal brighter lately, dear Miss Hilda," remarked Kate, sparing time to glance at her. "There's peace on your face now, and there used to be trouble sore trouble."
"Yes, Kate; peace has come; but it came through a great trial. I little thought, when I so earnestly desired a change in my sister, that such a change would be brought about by a terrible affliction."
"God has His own way of answering prayer," said the other, gravely. "Our greatest blessings often come to us through sorrows, just as all His mercies must come through Christ's cross. Lizzie used to say that grief was the gate of bliss."
"I think Grace has found it so," rejoined Hilda. "She said one day that there were a great many joys to be had on very easy terms that is, apparently easy terms but they were not of the kind that was worth having."
"When the Lord wants to make us fair and white, He lays a heavy hand upon us, Miss Hilda. It takes a great deal of pressing to get out the creases, and make the garment smooth and beautiful," said Kate, smiling at her own homely illustration.
Hilda smiled too, and watched the busy hands at their toil. Very skillfully they did their work; many a crumpled robe came out of the ordeal pure and unruffled as a sheet of new fallen snow. Many a yard of lace, rolled up into a flimsy little ball, was straightened out and passed under the iron, until its delicate pattern was seen, clean and fine as the silver tracery of frost upon a windowpane. The lesson was very easy to learn, and Hilda did not despise it for being conveyed in such humble and common guise.
"Are things going pleasantly with you, Kate?" she asked, after a pause. "When I come here I am always talking about my own affairs, and you seldom speak of yours."
"I've very little to grumble at, Miss Hilda. Father's so easy to please, that he gives no trouble at all; and there's a great change for the better in Uncle Luke a change which puzzles me sometimes."
"Do you think it is a change of heart, Kate?"
"No, I fear not. Lizzie's old master often said that there might be a change of life without a change of heart. Sometimes a sorrow will humble a proud spirit, and bring it nearer to the ground, but no nearer to Heaven. Sometimes a great calamity, falling on someone else, will make an ungodly man tremble, and cause him to turn over a new leaf. But a change of heart is something quite different from that."
Kate had paused for a second or two to rest her hands. She stood quietly by the table, with her face turned towards the window. The low sun, striking through the panes, made a bright mist about her head and reminded Hilda of the halo which the old painters used to place round the brow of a saint. Such sun crowned heads, some very fair, others grey and sorrow worn, are found often in dim church aisles, where the full light of day seldom finds them out. Men go there to gaze on them, and come away, carrying with them perhaps a faint impression of these saints stamped upon the memory. But there are other saints moving and toiling in the working day world, with all its briars clinging to their garments. Their hands are rough with common work, their faces are furrowed by common cares; no painter would deem them fit subjects for his pencil. Yet God honors them, as men and women after His own heart; and for such as these is laid up the saint's true coronal, the crown of glory that fades not away."
For many a year afterwards, this recollection of Kate remained fixed on Hilda's heart. We all know what it is to see our friends in certain moments and under certain aspects, and to think of them forever as we saw them then. And thus, in aftertime, Hilda's clearest vision of Kate was this the figure of a simple girl with a quiet, patient face, surrounded by the signs of homely labor, and wearing an aureola of sunshine.
The thoughts of both had quite wandered away from the subject on which they had been speaking. They did not return to it; and Hilda rose to take her leave.
Grace was watching for her from the window, and greeted her with a smiling face. Hilda saw at a glance that she had something to tell, even before she held out a letter towards her, saying:
"Here is Edward Collis's reply. I don't know whether to call it satisfactory or unsatisfactory."
"Has Mr. Perth been here?" asked her sister.
"No. This has come by post."
It was a very brief letter, written in a clear, easy hand a hand that gave one a favorable idea of the writer. It took Hilda only a few minutes to read, and ran as follows:
"Dear Miss Roscoe,
"The offer which you and your sister have made to me is a very generous one. But of that generosity I cannot take advantage, as prosperity has come to me and mine, and we are no longer in any need of aid.
"Yet the day may come when I shall ask you to do something for me, and shall perhaps remind you of the old tie that existed between your father and mine. Until then, farewell, and may God bless you!
"Yours very faithfully,
That was all: the note was not even dated.
"It is a little abrupt," said Hilda, "and I don't think he wants to renew our acquaintance at present. One cannot wonder at that, for grandmother was almost rude to him when he called to see papa."
"She was," replied Grace, thoughtfully. "I had well nigh forgotten that. She has told me several times that she hated the very name of Collis."
"Do you know the reason of this dislike, Grace?"
"She could not forgive Mr. Collis for enabling papa to marry our mother. You are too young to remember the way in which she treated poor mamma; but I can recollect hearing the servants talk of it."
"But what had mamma done to offend her?"
"Nothing at all. Grandmother is a woman of very strong prejudices, and she is, moreover, exceedingly fond of money. There was a certain wealthy lady she had fixed on as a wife for her son, and she was greatly incensed when his choice fell upon Miss Atherton. She had even gone so far as to begin negotiating with the rich lady's parents."
"How foolish and wrong! Did she tell you all this herself, Grace?"
"Every word of it. She said that if it had not been for Edward Collis, the match between our father and mother would never have come about. If he had been forced to resign Mary Atherton, he might have turned to the heiress, and his children would have profited by her wealth. Now you know why she hates the name of Collis."
"I am surprised that she was civil to Mr. Perth; we had told her that he was Edward Collis's friend."
"I almost dreaded to see them meet. The civility must have cost her a great effort, Hilda. And yet Mr. Perth was not the objectionable Edward himself, so that she could not reasonably be very angry with him."
"And I really believe, Grace, she was pleased that you had an entertaining visitor."
"Yes; this affliction of mine has softened her very much. She is not half so hard as she was poor granny!"
"I am sure of that. Her manner to me has been so kind lately that I am beginning to love her dearly," said Hilda.
"Poor Hilda! I am afraid I helped to make her bitter against you. But you have forgiven me, dear, for all my unkindness?"
"Forgiven you, darling? Yes, a thousand times."
Hilda knelt down beside the couch, and put her arms around her sister, touching her golden head with a gentle hand. Suddenly a tear fell on Grace's cheek, and she looked up anxiously into the other's face.
"What is the matter, dear Hilda?"
"Nothing, nothing! But when I see you lying there, looking lovelier than you ever did before, my heart aches terribly! It seems to me that God is losing much sweet service while He lets you stay here helpless!"
"Oh, Hilda, that isn't like you!"
"No, dearest; a rebellious spirit had got possession of me. I am ashamed of my hasty words. And I am forgetting what Kate Bradley said that the service Christ most frequently asks of His servants is a service of patience."
GRACE AT WORK
It was April, and the swallows had come back again. Their steely blue wings shone like satin in the sunshine, as they darted and circled through the clear air. Soft puffs of wind laden with the breath of hyacinths came stealing in at Grace's open window. Sunbeams slanted through the quivering foliage of the great chestnut, and touched its young fans with gold; then the wallflowers were in their glory, standing in ranks, clad in rich brown velvet and bright amber. Fruit trees blossomed out; a cherry tree became a mass of silvery bloom fragrant and dew bespangled, wooed all day long by myriads of bees. Little finches began to sing among the tender green leaves. And the voice of the sea, no longer angry and loud, chimed in with gentle murmurs and whisperings that were sweet to hear.
One morning, when the balmy air and warm light could be withstood no longer, Grace was wheeled out of doors. Luke Bradley had agreed to come and push her couch along the road, and he performed his task with good will.
She enjoyed that spring day more keenly than words could tell. Fishing boats were out upon the sunny sea, some with brown sails the color of autumn leaves, others with a spread of canvas white as the wing of a silver gull. The distant coasts were clear and fair; the high blue sky was flecked all over with soft little clouds like snowflakes. Hilda walked beside her couch; but she had no heart to rejoice. It was not thus last April. Then Grace had trodden the same road with a firm step, erect and strong as a young poplar. Now she lay flat upon the mattress, more helpless than a babe in its cradle.
Poor Hilda forgot the gain in thinking of the loss. She turned away to hide her tears, and looked across the level green fields through which the sluggish stream wound its glittering way. The swans showed their pure white plumage among the rushes; the ruined walls of the old outbuildings were beginning to be veiled by the blackberry and elder bushes; and the grass grew long and rank between the crumbling bricks. Hilda's first liking for the Great Salterns was dying out; the place would ever be connected with a terrible sorrow, and she could cling to it no more. It was Hilda, not Grace, who would have rejoiced to leave it now.
Just then, her eye chanced to light on the figure of Kate Bradley, coming towards the house with a basket of clean linen.
"Here is Kate," she said to her sister. "Shall I tell her that you wish to speak to her?"
"Yes," answered Grace, eagerly.
On the bridge the couch had been brought to a stop. Luke was desired to rest himself, while Grace enjoyed the cessation from motion, and lay quietly looking up at the blue sky. The man left the sisters to themselves, and withdrew to a fragment of broken wall, sitting there with folded arms to wait until he should be recalled.
At a word from Hilda, Kate set down her basket, and approached the couch. At the first glance she was struck with the alteration in the young lady before her, and had much ado to keep back her tears. Grace had always been beautiful a haughty, high bred beauty which repelled love, while it attracted admiration. Now, it seemed that every charm was heightened, every feature refined.
There is an old nursery tale which tells of a magic gift bestowed by a kind fairy on a favored princess a veil, so fairly wrought as to be invisible to mortal eyes. It might have been woven by fairy fingers, of the mountain mist and the first rosy beams of dawn. When it was thrown over the face, it lent to the wearer an angelic loveliness, the spell whereof no gazer could resist. Such a veil had the angels of Patience and Faith wrought for Grace. The eyes were softened, the smile had an indescribable sweetness: the whole countenance was singularly peaceful and fair.
Grace, on her side, was attracted by Kate's steadfast brown eyes and truthful expression. The young girl was dressed in her usual simple fashion a coarse linen dress, a white apron, and a straw hat which shaded her face, and was tied under her chin.
"Kate," said Grace, "do you know anything of the little children at the Great Salterns Farm?"
"Yes, miss; they are nice little things, although they're let run about wild a good deal, as laborers' children mostly are."
"I think there are two or three families living in the farmhouse?"
"There are," Kate answered. "After Mr. Woodman went away from the house, it stood vacant for some time. Then, as it was going to decay, it was let to the laborers who worked on the farm."
"I have a plan in my mind," said Grace, "and I want to have your opinion on it. How would it do to set up a little Sunday school for those children? The class would assemble on Sunday afternoons in my room, and the teachers would be Hilda and myself."
The glad smile on Kate's face was sufficient answer.
"Miss Roscoe," she said, joyfully, "it's a good plan indeed, and I'm sure God's blessing will rest upon it. The farm children can't get to Sunday school at Milton as they are too far off. The fathers and mothers are decent people, and they'd like their young ones to be noticed and cared for."
"We thought," continued Grace, "that if you were to join our class, Kate, it would encourage the children to see a familiar face."
"And that I'll be proud to do, Miss Roscoe."
"We have not yet asked grandmother's consent to the plan; but I think she will not refuse it. If we get her sanction, my sister will go to the farm tomorrow and talk to the parents."
"The parents will be easy enough to deal with," said Kate, confidently.
Here the conversation came to an end, for Kate remembered her basket of clothes, and taking it up again wished the sisters good morning. Hilda called Luke to set the couch again in motion.
"Your niece is a very good girl, Luke," said Grace, as she was wheeled along.
"Yes, miss; remarkably good, as one may say."
He spoke with genuine earnestness. Hilda looked at him, and saw a flush on his dark face. Kate's unobtrusive charity and patience had found a way to his heart at last.
Mrs. Roscoe did not look well pleased when the scheme was proposed to her. She argued that Grace was not strong enough for such an undertaking; and when that objection was overruled, another was ready.
"Poor people's children are never clean; they will bring dirt into the house, and they are sure to be ill mannered little things," she said, discontentedly.
"Well, dear grandmother, if you are really opposed to our class, we will say no more about it. But it would have been a great pleasure to me," added Grace, with a patient little sigh.
The old lady's closely shut lips began to tremble. She remembered how few were Grace's pleasures now, and how quietly she bore the loss of all the common joys of youth.
"You may take your own way, child," she said, at last, not quite graciously perhaps, but very heartily. And then she left the room, going away to her own chamber to shed tears in secret. She had not been accustomed to shed such tears in former days. There had been a great deal of bitterness and anger in her life, but very little grief. When things had not turned out according to her will, she had fumed mightily, and had made every one around her tremble; but she had never known what it was to have a sorrow that softens while it pierces the heart; never, until now.
The next day was balmy and bright; but a fresh breeze was blowing off the sea, and light showers fell at intervals. Grace's couch remained stationary in the sitting room; it would have been unwise to brave the April rain. Yet it was pleasant to lie listening to the patter of drops upon the chestnut leaves, and watching the twinkling diamonds on the trees and grass.
After lunch, Hilda set out on her errand. Those who know the neighborhood of the Great Salterns will remember that, looking across the flat tracts of marshy green, the eye is arrested by a mass of tall trees standing up boldly and darkly with no other timber near them. It is not until you leave the mansion on your right, and take the Copnor road, that you come up to these trees, and find that there is a farmhouse hidden behind them.
The road is a bad one for horses, and unpleasant for pedestrians in muddy weather. It is very little frequented in these days, and a stranger can scarcely believe that the vast seaport and garrison town is not far away from this rugged, rural spot, which looks like a forgotten corner of the world. The way is bordered by a fence on either side; on the left are the level fields, where horses are often grazing; on the right is a wide stretch of wild land, marshy and desolate; grass grows here in scanty patches, and the brackish pools are full of tall rushes, so high that the cattle standing there are almost hidden from sight. Then comes a gateway; the road narrows and gets rougher, and on the left hand is the wall that shuts in the Great Salterns Farm.
The velvet mass on its tiles has thickened year after year; in Hilda's early days it looked much the same as it does now, for it is one of those spots which has been let alone. Builders and improvers have passed it by unnoticed; its fine trees are left untouched by the axe. Sun burnt women and children may sometimes be seen in the lane under the old walls; ploughboys sit whistling on the rotting gateposts; birds sing on undisturbed. Yet the stillness of the place is often broken by the thunder of guns from the men-of-war in Portsmouth Harbor, or the sharp rattle of musketry on Southsea Common.
Between cloud and sunshine, Hilda took her way to the farm on that April day. The green flats glittered with the bright spring rain, and now and again a hasty shower fell, sprinkling her dress with small crystals.
She wondered, as she walked along, if she were destined to spend her whole life in this quiet, neglected little bit of England. Would years come and go, and find her still here; with Grace still an invalid? "Take no thought for the morrow," said a still, small voice, which she knew right well; and she took heed to the injunction. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might," said the voice again. She bethought her of her mission, and quickened her pace.
She succeeded beyond her expectations. The parents were respectful and grateful; the children shy, but willing to come to the class. Six little pupils were promised at once, and she went back homewards with joyful haste, to carry the good news to Grace.
On Sunday afternoon the work began in right earnest, and proved a great blessing to teachers and scholars. Madame Arnaud carefully kept out of the way of the class; but Mrs. Roscoe sometimes sat in a corner of the room and listened. The teaching was very simple and very earnest. At its close, a hymn was sung and a short prayer was offered. Grace did not seem overtired when the little ones were gone; she often looked all the brighter and fresher for the effort she had made.
So the summer wore away; and when winter was creeping on again, Dr. Landon admitted that there was a decided improvement in his patient.
Meanwhile the intimacy between the Harringtons and the Roscoes strengthened. The parson's little pony carriage might be seen at the Great Salterns once a week; for Annie Harrington looked on a visit to Grace as a duty as well as a pleasure.
Her brother Stanley frequently accompanied her, and sometimes he came alone. They knew all about him now. He told them how, but a short time before he made their acquaintance, a handsome property in Hampshire had been bequeathed to him by a bachelor uncle. How he lived happily in a beautiful old farmhouse once a manor house and did his best to improve the condition of his tenants and laborers. How his mother's failing health was the cloud that darkened his life, and made him often anxious and restless.
This mother they never saw. When the November winds were stripping the trees, and the lawn in front of Grace's window was strewn with yellow and crimson leaves, a letter came from Annie Harrington. It was dated from Cloverdean, and told them that she had been summoned from Milton to take a last farewell of her only parent. The rest of the month went by slowly and wearily to the sisters, although Grace's health still steadily improved. Her spirits drooped; she seemed to feel the influence of the dreary season.
"These are sad days, Hilda," she said, as she lay watching the melancholy dance of dead leaves. "They make me think of the lines,
'Down below the wild November whistling,
Through the beech's dome of burning red,
And the Autumn sprinkling penitential
Dust and ashes on the chestnut's head.'
"Look at the 'stormy gold' of the sunset, and the pale lights lying on the wet grass! Those empty flowerbeds are like graves. It seems a sorrowful world to me."
"Dear Grace," replied her sister, readily going back to her old office of comforter, "sad thoughts very often come to us at the close of the year. But the roots are buried under the bare, brown mold; and we believe in the resurrection of the dead: Have you forgotten the last verse of the poem you quoted just now?
'O the rest forever, and the rapture!
O the Hand that wipes the tears away!
O the golden homes beyond the sunset,
And the hope that watches o'er the clay!'
Grace's tears flowed fast; but they relieved her burdened heart.
"Thank you, Hilda," she said, after a pause. "I had been thinking of Stanley and Annie, and then my thoughts wandered back to the graves we left behind us in London."
"Christianity never lingers too long over the grave, Grace. She looks upward, laying hold of the promise, 'Because I live, you shall live also.' It is with life life eternal that we have to do; not with death."
Grace's face gradually brightened. She still watched the whirling leaves, brown and amber and red, and still listened to the mournful wail of the wind. The dusky, golden lights in the sky were growing dim, veiled by ragged grey clouds; a mist was creeping over the garden. Hilda crossed the room and stirred the fire. The burning log crackled and sent forth a shower of sparks; then the bright flames leaped up, and flung a yellow glow over the room, revealing all its various tokens of comfort and refinement. That gleam of firelight, falling on pictures, books, soft carpet, and rich crimson curtains, reminded Grace of the many blessings that surrounded her. It was like the sudden thought that God sometimes sends into an unthankful heart, bringing all His mercies to remembrance, chasing away the shadows of mistrust and ingratitude.
Hilda touched the bell, and desired Harriet to light the reading lamp and close the shutters.
"We will shut out the sight of the dead leaves and the cloudy twilight," she said, cheerfully.
Then began one of those pleasant home evenings, which are often looked back upon as some of the happiest in life. Grace's couch was wheeled near to the center table, and she volunteered to be the reader. She could bear now to be slightly raised, and could enjoy this change of position.
"I feel very strong and well, Hilda, this evening," she said; "and it is an unspeakable delight to alter my posture. One does not always like to lie flat on one's back, like the marble queens on their tombs in Westminster Abbey."
The soft yet powerful lamplight fell on the group that gathered round the table: on Mrs. Roscoe, knitting in her slow, stately fashion; on Madame Arnaud's flying needle, as she performed her miracles of embroidery with a Frenchwoman's swiftness and skill; on Hilda's fair face and bright head, bending over the flannel petticoat that was to comfort the limbs of a sick child. The strongest glow was shed on Grace, lighting up the play of her beautiful features as she read.
So the quiet evening wore away, to be remembered in after years as many such evenings are. It has been said that such were the home memories which haunted certain of our countrymen in the trenches before Sebastopol. In blinding darkness and icy rain, when shot and shell were dealing death and destruction around, such recollections as these would rise vividly before the mind. One young wife and mother recalls them as she sits in her husband's log house in Canada, and speaks of them to the little ones who have never known an English home. She tells them even to this day of an old schoolroom, bright with lamp and firelight, and of the sisters and girlish friends who clustered round the blazing hearth.
Blessed are all such recollections. They soften the heart, and remind us of those many mansions which Christ has prepared for His dear family. The earthly home faintly shadows forth the heavenly dwelling place, where the lost shall be found, and the broken ties be made firm again.
Other days went and came; and Grace would not admit, even to herself, that she missed Stanley Perth's visits. She strove earnestly to be thankful for all the good things around her, and to be contented with her lot. Was there not now a reasonable hope that she might one day be able to walk again? Dr. Landon believed that she was making sure progress towards recovery.
She knew, better than any doctor could tell her, that strength was slowly but certainly coming back. The time of complete restoration might still be far off; but it would surely come. She cherished the hope humbly and gratefully. And unceasingly she prayed, that when this great blessing was granted to her again, she might evermore serve the Giver "in newness of life."
She smiled sometimes in looking back on her old, enthusiastic friendship for Marion Neville. This girl, who had so warmly professed to return her attachment, was but a poor friend after all. She had written a commonplace letter of condolence, and then the correspondence ceased; Grace's reply was left unanswered.
If Marion had indeed been true and unselfish in her friendship, she might have given the invalid some pleasant moments. A lively letter now and then would have been a blessing to one whose life was of necessity monotonous. But Miss Neville was of the world, worldly, and had little leisure to devote to any one out of her immediate sphere. Her neglect at first wounded Grace; then angered her; and at last wholly convinced her of the worthlessness of her favorite.
The little Sunday scholars showed sincere pleasure in attending their class. As their shyness wore off, and they became at ease with their teachers, the work grew more interesting. The elder ones asked questions, and proved that they thought over all that they had heard and read. To Kate Bradley these Sunday afternoons were as delightful as they were to the sisters themselves.
Foul weather seldom kept the scholars away from the house; the walk from the farm not being long. Muddy boots and wet cloaks were left in the kitchen while the lessons went on, and the servants bore the little inconvenience without complaint.
"It would be hard," said cook, "if we couldn't put up with a little dirt on our floor for Miss Roscoe's sake. She's got enough to bear anyhow, and one hears no grumbling from her!"
In fact, the three maids became so thoroughly interested in the class, that in the winter days, when they could not spend their Sunday afternoons "out," they requested to be allowed to join it. Much good seed was sown in those hours precious grain, falling into the soft furrows prepared by God's hand, and taking root. On Harriet, a lightheaded, but warmhearted girl, the results of this instruction became very evident. Her education had been much neglected; her favorite books were of that kind which are always hastily poked into a kitchen drawer when "missus's" step is heard. Foolish romances, often worse than silly, had been her mental food. She was still under twenty, and had never lived in any place where her employers had cared about her soul.
Now she learned that there were things more interesting than haunted castles and unreal descriptions of high life. Grace and Hilda had their own way of making instruction pleasant. Harriet, in common with the rest, learned to see real places and real people with the eyes of imagination. She began to understand something about that land which bare the footprints of Jesus. She knew what kind of place was that village of Nazareth where His early years were past; what kind of building was that beautiful temple where He disputed with the doctors. From spot to spot, she and her companions followed Him while He was about His Father's business.
And Grace and Hilda, as they led their pupils on, were themselves asking direction of that Divine Guide in whose steps they strove to tread. On the whole, those gloomy autumn and winter days were happy days for them all.
January was far advanced when Stanley Perth came again to the Great Salterns. He called on a bright morning, when the last light fall of snow lay frozen and glittering on the earth and trees, and the wintry world was not un-cheerful to behold. He entered Grace's sitting room with a slow step and a careworn brow; but at the first glimpse of her radiant face he started.
"Is it, can it be possible?" he cried, joyfully.
"Possible that I can sit almost upright?" she said, smiling at this strange greeting. "Yes, thank God, I am gaining strength every day."
Had the sisters entirely forgotten Edward Collis? Not entirely, although it must be confessed that he was no longer so often in their thoughts. Sometimes they spoke of him to Stanley Perth, but, for some inexplicable reason, he seemed to dislike talking about his friend. They had too much tact to pursue a theme which he wished to avoid, and thus it came to pass that the name was well near dropped.
Their minds were fully occupied with other affairs. Sir Francis Wyatt had come from London to pay another visit to his patient, and had pronounced her cure to be a matter of certainty. She was charged on no account to overtax her strength; to continue to lie flat for a certain number of hours every day and not even to attempt to stand.
The great doctor paid another visit in May. And then it was decided that in the following month Grace should have a change of air. She was advised to go inland, and to seek out some healthful spot in the country.
Then it was also that Stanley Perth and Annie Harrington suggested Cloverdean. There was an old farmhouse on Mr. Perth's estate which, he said, would suit them very well. It was tenanted by an elderly couple, whose young birds had all forsaken the home nest; and Stanley was confident of their willingness to receive the Roscoes. Nor was he mistaken. The farmer's good wife listened to the account of Grace's affliction with tears of sympathy, and readily agreed to give up her best rooms for the young lady's use.
On the first of June the Great Salterns was forsaken for a while. Jane and Harriet were to go home to their friends; cook agreed to accompany her mistress and the young ladies to Cloverdean. A laboring man and his wife, recommended by Kate Bradley, came to take care of the house in the absence of its inhabitants. Madame Arnaud decided on paying a visit to her relatives in Paris. She started on the twenty-ninth of May; and on the morning of departure the mansion seemed unusually quiet to Mrs. Roscoe and the girls.
They were all up and dressed at an early hour, for Grace longed to start before the heat of the day set in. It was a fresh, lovely morning; the pure beauty of young summer was in its first bloom. Again the fishing boats were out on the sunny sea, and the plash of the tide was gentle and sweet. Kate Bradley had come up to the house to render any service that might be required at the last moment.
"You must not fail to give our love to our little scholars, Kate," said Grace. "Tell them that we shall look forward gladly to meeting them again."
"We shall miss you, dear Kate," whispered Hilda, affectionately. Kate sighed, but her smile was very bright.
Long afterwards Hilda recalled her own words, commonplace enough then, but sorrowfully significant hereafter. The carriage an open one drew up to the threshold; Grace was lifted into it upon her mattress; her grandmother took the seat by her side; Hilda found room opposite to Mrs. Roscoe, and cook mounted the box with the driver.
Kate stood under the spreading fans of the chestnut tree, and waved her hand with a gesture of farewell. The summer light came trembling through the green shadows, and illumined her figure here and there, touching her with stray gleams of glory. Hilda waved in return, as the carriage passed through the gate, and a strange feeling of regret filled her eyes with tears.
"It is only for a month or two," she said to herself. "Why am I so foolish about saying goodbye to Kate?"
Ah, why? Who does not remember certain partings that were bright with the expectation of speedy reunion, and were afterwards looked back upon as the last meeting on earth? Of a truth we know not what we do when we say farewell; the little stream that we step across with buoyant confidence may widen into a broad river which shall separate us forever from our friend. The next time that we see that face, the angel of death may have set his seal thereon; or the love that once shone through it may have fled, leaving it cold and changed to us. Does our Heavenly Father then forbid us to have strong affections? A thousand times, no; but He would have us extend them far beyond the limits of time.
"You must know," wrote William Cowper to Lady Hesketh, "that I should not love you half so well, if I did not believe you would be my friend to eternity. There is not room enough for friendship to unfold itself in full bloom in such a nook of life as this." Truly the bud here may be fair and sweet, but the blossom must open in a better country even a heavenly, where the Lord God is the light .
The carriage could not take the Copnor road without giving the occupants a severe shaking; the driver therefore turned the horses' heads in the opposite direction, and drove by Allen's Farm. Mrs. Hodge came to the door of her cottage as the vehicle passed; two of Widow Durrant's children were clinging to her skirts. The little ones looked plump and healthy, for the good woman was like a mother to them. Hilda, who knew their history from Kate, smiled and nodded as she went by. The great pond in front of the farm was alive with ducks and geese, and the sweet breath of flowers drifted across the road. Grace gave a long sigh of intense satisfaction.
"Oh," she said, gratefully, "what an ecstasy one feels in being out of doors in this weather!"
Her grandmother and sister looked at her with unspeakable gladness. Even Mrs. Roscoe so hard to move murmured to herself, "Thank God!" And Hilda felt the words of the grand old psalm rising and swelling in her heart, "Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless His Holy Name." That silent thanksgiving was as acceptable to Him as if it had been raised by a hundred silver voices, and chanted to the thunder of the organ.
When the outskirts of Portsmouth were left behind, the driver checked the horses, and they began slowly to ascend the chalky road that led up Portsdown Hill. On the left hand rose slope after slope, not in those days crowned by the red line of fortifications which now occupies the summit; the soft green heights were then quite lonely, and sheep browsed peacefully on the short, sweet grass. On the right lay the sea, glittering, far below, in the summer light. The coasts of Havant and Hayling could be clearly traced; there too lay the Isle of Wight, purpled by distance. And by letting the eye have a wider range, it might sweep over the harbor with its old line of battle ships, and rest on the square keep of Porchester Castle, standing on a little slip of land that seemed to rise out of the water. The shadows of the ancient keep and the trees around it were distinctly mirrored in the sea beneath.
The horses toiled patiently up the long hill; reached the brow where roads branch off to left and right; passed the old inn, and trotted gaily down the slope and through the turnpike gate, which then was still standing. Eight in front lay the lovely wooded heights of Hampshire and Sussex; hill and forest, upland and valley, all softly clouded by the faint blue haze of June. Grace gazed at the scene with the keen enjoyment of one to whom every detail was new.
It was nearly noon when the carriage turned out of the main road, and entered a long winding lane. It was a steep descent, narrow and rugged, and the horses proceeded at a leisurely pace. Grace, a little weary now, looked at the high banks where cool green ferns flourished luxuriantly, and plumes of braken were beginning to feather out in proud magnificence. It was a spot that might have been haunted by fairies one of the "un-trodden ways" which Merrie England still keeps sacred for her poets and painters. There the shriek of the railway whistle sounded faint and far away; and the tinkle of sheep bells and the music of team bells were often heard.
The low, white farmhouse, half veiled by its vines and roses, was soon reached, and Stanley Perth could be seen standing at the gate.
"You will need a thorough rest after this long drive," he said to Grace, as he helped to carry her indoors.
And she did rest; all through the languid hours of the summer afternoon, lying on her couch near an open window. That window overlooked an old fashioned garden. There was a smooth grass lawn bordered all round with a thick fringe of clove pinks; there were graceful sumac trees here and there, and the low stone wall was overgrown with roses. The low murmur of bees and June flies lulled Grace into a peaceful sleep.
When the sun was going down, and long lines of pure crimson light stretched across the sky from east to west, her couch was wheeled out of doors. She looked over quiet uplands where the long grass stood waiting for the scythe, and listened to the coo of the stock doves in the dim plantations beyond the meadows. Her couch was placed in a natural arbor, formed by young beeches, their leaves, soft and tender as if only just uncurled, whispered over Grace's head, and made a sweeter sound to her than the long rush and roll of the sea which she had left behind.
The farmer's wife, watering pot in hand, came along the narrow paths between the ranks of flowers. She paused under the beeches, and looked tenderly at the young lady on the couch; her own daughters, wives and mothers now, had all been healthy and strong, and her kind heart ached for Grace.
"Surely, miss," she said, hopefully, "Cloverdean air will make you well again. It's the healthiest place in the whole country say I, and so says my good man."
"It is a lovely spot," Grace answered, smiling. "I am already getting stronger, Mrs. Bernard; and I believe that God has brought me here to complete my recovery."
"Ah, you've got Mr. Perth's way of talking," said the good woman, well pleased. "He tells us that he likes to acknowledge God in all his ways; and it does seem to me, miss, that the Almighty blesses him for it. If he puts his hand to anything it's sure to prosper."
It was pleasant to listen to the praises of Stanley Perth; Grace did not discourage Mrs. Bernard, and she readily talked on.
"He's done more for Cloverdean, miss, than any one ever did before. All the best farms in the parish belong to him, and he's bettered the condition of every man that works upon his land. You should but hear how they speak of him, miss, one and all. But folks say among themselves that it's mighty lonesome for him in his great house, now that his mother's gone. Maybe he'll be bringing a bride home some day."
The crimson light in the sky was growing dim; the wind seemed to sigh mournfully through the beeches. Grace suddenly complained of weariness, and asked to be taken back to the house.
UNDER THE BEECHES
Grace gained strength rapidly in the pure air of Cloverdean; Hilda's health and spirits also improved, and even Mrs. Roscoe was benefited by the change. Stanley Perth came to see them every day, riding up to the gate on his coal black mare, and leaving her tied to a tree while he sought the sisters in the house or garden. And on a certain evening, long to be remembered, he found Grace on her couch under the young beeches, alone.
It was now the middle of June. The day was only just beginning to wane, and the windows were shining in the low sunlight. On the morrow the hay would be made, and then the carting must begin; very soon the upland would be left quite bare. Grace remembered how the long grass had waved in the summer wind when she first came to Cloverdean, and chose that sheltered nook under the beeches for her especial haunt. She remembered, too, all that she had thought and felt as she lay gazing over the green slope for the first time, and looking beyond it to the dark old woods. Hilda had gone into the village to visit a sick woman; Mrs. Roscoe was indoors; and Grace was left alone with her musings.
The sound of footsteps, faintly audible on the grass path that led to her retreat, made her turn her glance from the hayfield. Was it Mrs. Bernard coming to chat with her? She almost hoped not, for she was in no mood to listen to the good dame's prattle. The coo of the doves and the whispering of the leaves soothed her, as few human voices could. But it was not the face of Mrs. Bernard which appeared at the leafy entrance to her bower. She started a little, and then smiled to see Stanley Perth.
"I met Hilda," he said; "she told me she had left you here in solitude."
"'Solitude to me, Is blithe society,'" quoted Grace. "One cannot feel lonely among the birds and leaves."
"Then am I to conclude that my company is not needed?" he asked, laughing.
"No; I am always glad to see a kind friend."
There was a brief pause. Stanley pulled off a beech leaf, and smoothed it out absently upon the palm of his hand. When he spoke again his tone was very earnest.
"Miss Roscoe," he said, "do you remember the letter that Edward Collis wrote in reply to yours?"
"Yes," she replied, looking up quickly; "Hilda and I have often wondered why he has never told us what we are to do for him."
"Can you ever forgive me," continued Stanley, in a trembling voice, "for having practiced a deception? Not a very serious one," he added, half smiling at her grave and startled look, "yet I have regretted it ever since."
"I am quite in the dark," said Grace, helplessly.
"I will explain everything, Miss Roscoe, if you will listen to me patiently. But to begin, do you recollect the visit which Edward Collis paid to your father's house in London?"
"Of course I do. Did I not mention it in my letter to him?"
"He saw very plainly on that night that his presence was most unwelcome to your grandmother. In years gone by, Mrs. Roscoe had said that she hated the very name of Collis; she disliked Edward Collis the elder in no ordinary way, and she was ready to transfer her aversion to the son."
"It is true," admitted Grace, sadly.
"Edward was aware of this," Stanley went on, "and after your father died he would not force himself upon the family. He knew of the compact that had been made between his own father and yours, but he forbore to urge it upon you."
Grace's cheek flushed and paled. She remembered with shame how unwilling she had been to admit the claim of this young man. He had indeed acted in a noble spirit, and she honored him for it.
"For a short time Edward and his mother and sister led a very hard life. Mrs. Collis's health began to fail, and her son longed to give her the benefit of purer air. And then he bethought him of a great uncle of hers, after whom he had been named"
"I thought he was called Edward after his father," interrupted Grace.
"He had also two other names. This great uncle, Miss Roscoe, was a rich man, but he had unhappily quarreled with Edward's father, and that was why they did not apply to him for help when they came to England. When, however, the son saw his mother pining and fading in the close little street in London, he wrote to this uncle, begging him to receive her for a time to his house in the country."
"And what was his reply?"
"It was a far kinder one than they had looked for. He was a lonely man, and a bachelor, and they were his nearest relations. God inclined his heart towards them in a wonderful way; he invited them all to come and live with him."
"And did they go?"
"Edward was grateful to secure such a home for his mother and sister; but he told his uncle that he would rather work for himself than live upon him. Then the old man pleaded his age and infirmities, and entreated Edward to stay and help him to manage his estate. You must know that Edward had been accustomed to farming in Australia, and he soon made himself useful to his kinsman."
"And that kinsman made him his heir?" said Grace.
"Yes; the old gentleman did not live long to enjoy the society of those he had gathered round him; but they brightened his last days. He made Edward his heir, on condition that he should drop the name of Edward Collis, and only retain that of Stanley Perth."
Grace turned her clear blue eyes upon the speaker with a startled and bewildered look. He met it bravely, although his face paled slightly before he spoke again.
"Miss Roscoe, there is little more to tell. I did not know that you were living at the Great Salterns until my brother-in-law made your acquaintance. Soon after my great uncle's death, Ralph Harrington married Annie; and you know how your sad accident led him to take a deep interest in you. Then you consulted him about Edward Collis; and he, knowing the whole history, decided to let me introduce myself."
"And why did you not do so at once, Mr. Perth? What need was there for all this mystery?"
"You may well ask that question. When I entered your room at the Great Salterns for the first time, I fully meant to tell you the whole truth before I left you."
"Well?" said Grace, impatiently.
"I feared that if I did so, Mrs. Roscoe's dislike would render it impossible for me to come again."
A sudden flush overspread Grace's cheeks for a moment, and quickly died out.
"Edward Collis refused the three thousand pounds, Grace, because he had no need of the money. He told you, however, that the day might come when he should ask of you something else; something which is far more precious than silver and gold. Do you know what it is?"
There is no need to record her answer. A few minutes later Hilda came bounding along the grass path, full of self reproach for having left her so long. But there was Mr. Perth standing quietly by her side, with a contented smile on his face.
"Oh," sighed Hilda, in a tone of relief, "I thought you would have been dull without me. I am glad Stanley was here."
Then Stanley told her all that had passed, and all that with God's will was yet to come. It might be a long while before Grace could take her place in his home; but he hoped and prayed for the best. Being so near her, and seeing her growing brighter and stronger every day, he could not keep his secret longer concealed. And as Hilda laid her tearful face against her sister's, she knew that Grace did not regret this unexpected revelation.
Before Stanley left the farm that night, he opened his mind to Mrs. Roscoe, and made a full statement of the case. The old lady had been undergoing a softening process for some time; and it must be confessed that Mr. Perth, the rich landowner, was a different person to Edward Collis. She did not resent the concealment, although Stanley could not quite forgive himself for it.
"It would have been better," he said afterwards to Hilda, "if I had trusted myself entirely in God's hands, and have explained at the beginning that Stanley Perth and Edward Collis were one and the same person. I think if I had done this, I should have been freer and happier in my fellowship with Grace. The straight road is always the safest and surest."
But no one was disposed to quarrel with him; and everybody was so happy in the new state of things that he at last forgot to quarrel with himself.
July set in, and found the Roscoes still in the white farmhouse. Even cook was in no hurry to return to the Great Salterns. The air of Cloverdean, she said, was working miracles for her dear young lady; and the longer they all stayed in it the better.
Then came August. The wheat that had bent, supple and green, before the sweep of the June wind, was now standing up stiff and yellow, every separate stalk like a rod of gold tipped with rich brown. Scarlet poppies flaunted their unwelcome heads among the good grain; tall foxgloves reared themselves by the wayside, and opened their bells of speckled amethyst. The porch of the farmhouse was laden with the feathery foliage of the jasmine; and the white starry flowers kept falling and falling, and strewing the grass like fragments of snow, while the air grew heavy with rich perfume.
Then, too, the apples began to turn crimson on the old grey boughs in the orchard; and the yellow pears took a scarlet flush. Plums wore the lovely purple tinge that told of coming ripeness, and blackberries changed from deep red to black. But still the Roscoes lingered on in Cloverdean, and still the Great Salterns stood silent and desolate, with its windows and front door closed, and the flowers in its garden blooming and fading unseen.
IN THE STORM
"What ailed you to go and sprain your foot this morning?" said Luke Bradley to his brother. He spoke in a complaining tone, as if Simeon had inflicted a personal grievance upon him.
"Well, 'twas a heedless thing to do," answered Simeon, penitently. "I'll own I wasn't looking well to my steps. But there's Kate can go out with you this afternoon when you take up the crab pots."
"To be sure I can," answered Kate readily, looking up with a bright face.
Luke's brow cleared. It was an August day, very warm and still; the doors and windows of the cottage were set wide open. Sharp lay stretched at ease upon the threshold, too lazy even to snap at the bluebottle flies. Save the low whirring of insect wings, and the soft plash of the swell, not a sound could be heard. Out on the sea one or two sailing boats were becalmed, and rocked languidly on the water, with canvas idly flapping against the mast.
At dawn there had been a fresh breeze, but after the sun had been up some hours the wind suddenly dropped. The stillness and heat became intense; even in the wide open space around the cottage the atmosphere seemed stifling. Kate longed for a breath of wind that morning; her usual tasks became burdensome; again and again she went to the door hoping for a puff of fresh air, but none came.
"Father, this is the hottest day we've had this summer," she said, with a sigh.
"That it is, my girl. Don't be moving about, Kate; sit down, and take things easy."
"But the potatoes must be got ready for boiling, father; and the place wants clearing up a bit."
"Never mind clearing up today. Get the potatoes done as soon as you can, and then take your rest."
She acted on this advice, and settled herself with her sewing at the open door. Simeon, with his bandaged foot resting on a little wooden stool, busily mended nets: Luke was out of doors.
Clouds of tiny black flies were hovering over the ground, the calico on which Kate worked was spotted all over with the living specks. She shook them off as well as she could, but they collected again and again, settling on her face and hands. Even Simeon began to be annoyed by them.
"These little plagues are a sign of thunder," he said. "We shall get it afore night, I believe."
Kate ceased sewing for a while, and sat looking up at the sky, where, from her point of view, not a cloud was to be seen. Thus some minutes went by, and then her voice suddenly broke the silence, saying: "'They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.'"
"Whatever made you think of these words, Kate?" asked Simeon, pausing in his mending. "It's many a year since I heard 'em. They're somewhere in the Bible, aren't they?"
"Yes, father. When I said them I was thinking of Lizzie, and wondering when I shall see her again."
Simeon moved uneasily in his seat. Luke never allowed any "pious talk" when he was in the house, and it was very seldom that Kate dared to speak of anything beyond everyday affairs. Somehow it seemed as if those words had escaped her lips half unconsciously.
"Lizzie was a good girl," said Simeon; " an uncommon good girl. But, Kate, dearie, you won't see her again yet a while. You're young and strong stronger than Lizzie ever was, poor thing!"
"Dear father, sometimes the young and strong are taken, and the old and weak are left. The question is, are we ready to go? Ready, if it be God's will, to leave this world at a moment's notice."
"Nobody is," said Simeon, decidedly.
"Lizzie was, father; and so may you be, if you ask Jesus to cleanse you from sin in His most precious blood. Think what it must be to go about day by day, feeling that you are safe. Whatever happens, think what it must be to know that the life which awaits you is a thousand times better and fairer than this life!"
Kate said no more, for just then she saw her uncle coming towards the door. A glance at the clock told her that it was nearly twelve, and she rose at once to get ready the midday meal.
"We're going to have thunder, Luke," said Simeon, in a voice that was not quite so clear as usual.
"Not until nightfall," returned Luke, confidently, "and then it won't be heavy. Now, Kate, you've a good stout pair of arms, and you'll have to use 'em presently. You must take the oars while I keep a lookout for the floats. The pots are sunk out beyond Hayling Island."
"It will be pleasant enough on the sea, if it only gets a little cooler," said Kate.
"Oh, it'll be cool enough by-and-by. Heat never lasts long," replied Luke.
The Bradleys' own small boat was under repairs, and Luke had borrowed an old one of a fisherman. It was a crazy looking thing, thought Kate, as she stepped into it and took her seat. Luke rowed slowly away from the shore.
On they went over the quiet sea, the dark, gloomy man and the gentle girl. The heat was still as intense as ever, but Kate was shielded by her wide brimmed hat of coarse straw, and was lightly clad in a clean cotton dress. It was not so close and warm out here as it had been indoors, and yet it seemed impossible to breathe freely in such a heavy atmosphere. Chancing to look towards the west, she saw a great mass of a purple black cloud hanging there, and pointed it out to Luke.
"Uncle," she said, "the thunder is coming."
"Oh yes; it'll come tonight," he answered.
"It will come before tonight I believe, uncle."
''No, no. That black cloud will hang there for ever so long. Phew! how hot it is!" added Luke, pausing to wipe his face.
"Shall I take an oar?" asked Kate.
"Not yet. You'll have to take 'em both by-and-by. There don't seem to be many craft afloat today, Kate."
Before they had passed Hayling Island the black cloud had increased in size, and was spreading farther and farther. Kate was not afraid of a thunderstorm in a general way, but she almost trembled at the thought of being far from shore in a crazy boat while the lightning was playing around. Strange to say, Luke, who was a far greater coward than his niece, did not believe that the storm was so near as it really was.
"Now, Kate, catch hold of the oars," he said, when they had got well to the left of Hayling Island, and were clear of all danger from the Woolsners. These perilous sands stretch out far beyond the island, and are always cautiously avoided by watermen who know the coast.
Kate did as was desired, rowing slowly on, while her uncle looked out sharply for the floating corks which indicated where the pots were sunk. He had sighted the first float, and she was pulling towards it, when a low growl of thunder came pealing across the sea.
"It has come," said Kate.
"It's far off yet," he answered, intent upon hauling in the creel. The haul did not turn out to be a very good one, and he muttered angrily at his bad luck.
"It's scarcely rocky enough here," Kate remarked. "Crabs love a rocky bottom, don't they, uncle?"
A blinding flash followed her words. Luke started, and looked up. The sky was almost covered now by the vast black cloud, and the second clap of thunder was as loud as the noise of artillery.
"We'll get back to shore," he said, hastily. "We're going to have it heavy, sure enough."
He moved to take the oars, but just as Kate was giving them up another glare of lightning came upon them. This time it seemed to wrap them in bright flames, forked and dazzling. It was so awful and overwhelming that both were unnerved. Bewildered and half blinded, one of the oars slipped out of their hold.
The tide was now running out, and the oar was rapidly carried away. Luke let the boat drift after it, at the same time working with his one oar, and hoping to regain its fellow. The roar of the thunder was deafening now; in all his life the man had never known a storm so terrible, and his guilty heart began to quake for fear.
"There, uncle!" cried Kate.
Luke had come up with the oar, and seized it. As he pulled round to row home against the tide, the lightning broke over them again. So vivid was this fearful red fire that seemed to smite them with a hundred forked tongues, that Luke lost all self command. Kate's cry was echoed by a shout from a man's voice; and in the next instant the prow of a large boat had cut them down.
Luke struck out instinctively when he found himself in the water. Then, hardly knowing how, he was hauled on board the cutter that had done the mischief.
"The girl!" he cried, " my niece! where is she?"
Ay, where indeed? In that awful glare and roar all was confusion. Luke could hardly make himself understood by those around. One or two ladies in the cutter were shrieking with fright; and a gentleman was vainly striving to calm his terrified companions. Their pleasure party was a miserable affair, never to be forgotten by any of them; well was it for them, perhaps, that they were too much agitated to comprehend what had really happened. The two watermen who were in charge of the boat seemed almost bewildered by the din. But nothing was to be seen of Kate.
Like one in a dreadful dream, Luke Bradley returned to the cottage at nightfall. The storm was over then; the summer night was tranquil and sweet. Rain had fallen, and the earth was washed and cooled; the grass underfoot sent up balmy odors; stars overhead shone with a soft, steady light. But to Luke nothing seemed real and true. He walked, or rather almost staggered, across the waste ground, and paused before the closed door of the little house.
There was light within. Could it be possible the idea was too wild to be entertained for a moment that Kate had returned? Had she in some marvelous way escaped death, and reached the cottage before him? No; he knew that this could not be; and yet when he opened the door, it would scarcely have startled him to see her in her old place, sewing, by the table.
Only Simeon was there, his foot still bandaged. A single candle cast a faint light over the room, and there was a dull red glow from a few live coals in the grate. The elder brother looked up sharply as the other entered.
"What brings you back so late?" he asked. "Where's Kate?"
Luke shut the door, and setting his back against it, stared at Simeon without speaking.
"Luke, what's happened to the girl?" cried Simeon, standing upright, regardless of his hurt foot. His voice was quick and imperative; he was no longer the old easygoing Simeon of everyday life.
"The Lord knows!" burst out Luke, with a groan. And then bit by bit the terrible story was told, as all such stories are told, with many breaks and struggles. When Simeon had heard it to the end, he thrust his brother aside, as one who had the strength of a giant might have done, and flinging open the door, rushed out into the night.
Luke recovered himself, and followed him. He saw him moving away through the furze bushes with a strange uncertain gait; he was evidently making for the sea. What was he going to do? A dreadful suspicion darted into Luke's mind, he followed faster, with Sharp running at his heels. The faithful dog seemed to have an instinct that all was not right, and kept close to his masters.
Suddenly Simeon tottered and fell. And when Luke came up to him, he found him lying in a deathlike swoon, with his face pressed downward on the moist grass.
For weeks Simeon lay in the little wooden cottage at the point of death, and Luke tended him with all the care and tenderness of a woman. The man's sullen, selfish nature had undergone a marvelous change; his very aspect was altered. The few neighbors who came to them in their affliction spoke of him as a new creature, and went away wonderstruck. But no one guessed what was working in his heart while he watched by his brother's sick bed, and never left him night or day.
Kate's body was cast up by the tide upon the shore of Hayling Island. It was evident that when the boat was run down she had come into violent contact with some part of the cutter, and thus received a blow which caused instant death. So, suddenly and sadly, was this young life ended, a life whose quiet usefulness was known to very few. They laid her down to rest in the little churchyard of Hayling, there to wait for the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God. The world went its way; tides ebbed and flowed around her resting place; the wind and the sea sang their old tunes, soft and sweet, harsh and loud. And in the desolate wooden cottage Simeon was slowly feeling his way out of the phantom land of delirium, and Luke still watching over him, when the Roscoes returned to the Great Salterns.
A neighbor looking in to ask how the sick man fared, told that she had seen Miss Roscoe step out of the carriage, and walk slowly, but steadily, into the house. Then, for the first time for many a weary week, a ray of light seemed to flit over Luke's thin, worn face, and he murmured under his breath something that sounded like "Thank God!"
On the next day the door of the cottage was opened softly, and Hilda came in. The September sunshine followed her into the room, so did Sharp, whining in an undertone, and pushing his head under her hand. It was afternoon; Simeon was lying, partially dressed and enveloped in a long threadbare coat, on a sort of couch of Luke's devising. That was the first day that he was able to leave his bed, and Hilda, as she entered, was struck by the altered looks of both brothers. She had left them strong, hardy men; she found them mere wrecks of their old selves. Their pleasure at the sight of her familiar face was very evident; yet neither could speak a word of greeting. Luke set a chair for her, and made an effort to say something, but the sentence died on his lips.
Hilda sat down, and Sharp pressed closely to her side. With her trembling hand resting on the dog's rough head, and her eyes fixed on Simeon's wasted face, she said tenderly: "'The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.'"
Simeon bowed his head, as if in mute acquiescence. For a moment there was deep silence, and then Luke spoke suddenly, in a strange, choked voice.
"Oh, Miss Hilda, why has the Lord taken her away? What was He doing when He took her so useful and good and left me, the miserable sinner?"
"He was doing what was best," Hilda answered, firmly, although her tears were falling. "He spared you, Luke, that you might begin a new life; that you might carry your sins unto Jesus, and wash them all away in His precious blood. Kate had done this; she was ready to live or to die; and 'through the grave and gate of death she will pass to her joyful resurrection.'"
"Miss Hilda, I deserved no mercy. If the Lord had done what was just, He'd have cut me off without a moment's warning."
"'He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and of great kindness.' Does not His forbearance soften your heart?"
"It is broken broken! All these weeks that I've been tending Simeon, and fearing sometimes that the Lord would take him too, I've been seeing myself as I really am. Oh, Miss Hilda, such a vile wretch! Such a schemin', graspin', lyin' rascal!"
"No, no," interposed Simeon, faintly. "Not so bad as that many worse."
"None worse," said Luke, lifting his hand solemnly. "Hearken now, Miss Hilda, and you, Simeon; for it's time that I cleared my conscience. There's a deal that has to be told, and there'll be no peace for me till I've told it."
Both were silent and astonished. Simeon turned his pale face towards the speaker with an anxious look; Hilda felt her heart throbbing fast.
"Do you remember, brother," began Luke, "that on a certain Sunday afternoon, some time agone, we went together into Hodge's cottage, and Will Hodge told us his old father had been talking rubbish about John Durrant and a buried treasure? Do you remember how I asked the old man questions, and got nothin' for my pains?"
"Yes," said Simeon, slowly, after a pause. "I do remember it now; but it had all gone clean out of my head."
"Ay, I wish it had gone clean out of mine," continued Luke. "I never forgot it I was ponderin' over it day and night. Well, on the Saturday afternoon that followed that Sunday, I set out to go to Hodge's cottage, hopin' to find the old man alone, and get the truth out of him by fair means or foul. It was May weather, and summer-like; and when I got to the cottage the window was set wide open. I just crept up and looked in." He stopped, and passed his hand across his heated brow. His listeners neither stirred nor spoke.
"There was old Hodge, and who should be sittin' with him but our Kate? Their backs were turned to the window, and they never heard nor saw me. Hodge was talkin' in a wonderful earnest way, and speakin' so clear that I could catch every word. He was tellin' Kate how his heart ached for Widow Durrant and her children, and then he opened his mind about the buried money. He said that Durrant had buried it with the help of old Peggy Rooker, the witch, as folks called her; and had given her ten shillings to curse the spot. Peggy had told all this to Hodge and his wife when she lay a-dyin'; but neither of 'em had the pluck enough to search the place. And then I held my breath while the old man spoke he declared that the treasure was buried under the wall of the Great Salterns, by the blasted firs!"
Hilda's face became white as marble, and she pressed Sharp's honest head closer to her side; but she uttered not a word.
"I saw our Kate didn't believe the tale," Luke went on hoarsely. "She thought 'twas but an old man's fancy; and gave no heed to it at all. Just a week afterwards, Hodge died; and I knew that Kate and I were the only persons who'd heard his secret. So I watched and bided my time; and at last I thought of a plan for gettin' at the money."
Simeon was trembling in every limb. He moved his lips, but no sound issued from them. He cast a pleading glance at Hilda, and saw by her look that she guessed the sequel of the story.
"I begun by droppin' hints to Mrs. Roscoe's maids. Harriet was the most Timor some, and I frighted her finely with my made-up tales of ghosts. Nothin' that ever I heard of happened under those blasted firs, yet folks had given 'em a bad name; and the Evil One helped me to hatch up lies, as I now believe. Anyhow, when I'd made the servants afraid to go out of doors o' nights I knew I could work unseen."
Sharp licked the small soft fingers that held him, as if he had an instinct that Hilda needed the presence of a friend at that moment. She kept quiet, and listened on to the end.
"But I wanted to make all doubly sure. And in my wicked craft I dressed myself in a sheet taken out of my bed drew on a pair of old white socks over my boots waited till Kate and Simeon were fast asleep and then crept out into the snow like a rascal as I am. Then I made my way to the blasted firs, and was just beginnin' to dig, when I saw a woman's figure come flyin' towards the place where I was. God forgive me I made a step forward, and waved my arms to scare her away."
"God forgive you indeed!" repeated Simeon, in sore distress. "You've spoiled a young lady's life, and it's likely enough that you'll never know peace again."
"Say what you will, brother, you'll say nothing so bad as I've said to myself. But I never meant harm to Miss Roscoe, and when I heard her scream and saw her fall, I was just wild with terror. Without stopping a moment, I ran home. When I caught my breathe, I crept into the cottage again. You and Kate were sound sleepers, and I could move as softly as a cat. I did not undress, but took off the sheet and the socks, and lay down on my bed, believin' I should hear more of that night's work. Then came Miss Hilda, tappin at the door; and 'twas I that let her in."
"You watched the house for the rest of the night, what did you do then?" asked Simeon, sternly.
"I found out the spot where the money was buried, Simeon, and I dug it up. There are a hundred pounds in a tin canister, with a note, written by John Durrant's own hand. It's quite safe just as I found it and I put it in our woodshed under the fuel. Somehow I was hoardin' it and hoardin' it, for I've never had heart enough to spend a sixpence of it yet."
"It's none of yours," said Simeon.
"No. Tomorrow, please God, I'll take it to Widow Durrant. I only waited for you to get better, Simeon, before I said this. But the greatest harm that's been done was to Miss Roscoe, and that's why I wanted Miss Hilda to know the truth. I want her to know too, that many times I could have done myself a mischief when I've seen the poor young lady lying helpless as a baby! God knows it's a thousand times worse to be the doer of an ill deed than the sufferer by it!"
"Miss Hilda," said Simeon, sadly, " it's too much to expect that Miss Roscoe will forgive Luke. I don't know enough about the law to say how he will be punished if he's brought to justice. But he's been a good brother to me," added the poor fellow, with tears in his eyes, "and he's saved my life through nursin' me night and day."
"He will never be punished by our means," Hilda replied, quietly. "It has pleased God, Simeon, to restore my sister to health, and she will not embitter her happiness by any act of revenge. Yet I am more glad than words can say that Luke has told the truth. With all her good sense, she could never fully persuade herself that the figure which so terrified her was not indeed something supernatural. This mystery, I have learned lately, has preyed upon her mind, and has helped to retard her recovery."
Luke covered his face with his hands, and wept aloud. His sin had been great, and he trod the rugged path of penitence with bleeding feet. But it was the right way; the only way by which he could reach that path of peace where Lizzie and Kate had walked before him. The death of his niece had done even more for him than her gentle, self denying life. The Holy Spirit, working secretly on the hard heart, had set him thinking what his end would have been, if it had come thus suddenly and swiftly to him instead. And the same mighty influence had shown him why the saint was taken, and the sinner left.
Left, but not to be any more a useless cumberer of the ground. Left, to grow and flourish for a little space, and bear fruit for the Master who had had such mercy upon him. Left, to comfort and strengthen the childless brother, whose health never fully returned, to minister daily to his needs, and work for him patiently and well.
"Miss Hilda," said Simeon, "the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall lead my Kate to the living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from her eyes. She is safe quite safe. And she and Lizzie will be waitin' for the poor old father who follows 'em so slow. But, Miss Hilda, the Lord will guide him straight to them at last."
And Hilda, as she walked homeward, thought how often it is Christ's way to gather our best treasures into His storehouse before He takes us thither. The September light upon the sea was calm and fair; the waves softly washed the old stones and piles, and the crazy boats rocked gently at their moorings. There was little change in the scene since the day when Hilda had first beheld it, but she could not forget that one who had been her guide and faithful friend would never look upon it again.
And then she remembered what the disciples must have felt, when they walked by the Lake of Gennesaret, and thought of Him who had so often trodden its shore. A cloud had received Him out of their sight; yet brighter than sunshine on the sea was the light that shone upon their tears; and sweeter than the whisper of the waves was the echo of that Voice that said, "Where I am, there you shall be also."
The Great Salterns is still standing; but the blasted trees are there no more. Other firs were planted in their stead, and by some means these have been coaxed to thrive and grow; the northeast side of the house, therefore, is no longer so desolate as it looked in the days of yore. But the dreary mudflat is unchanged; and the coarse grass and tall rushes grow among the brackish pools just as they did long ago.
Winter after winter men go there to shoot wild birds. Wild geese, wild ducks, curlews, widgeon, and gulls of divers kinds, still gather in great flocks about this lonely spot. But no trace of the wooden cottage remains on the waste land, although the golden blossoms of the gorse still bloom and fade as in the time when Kate called the rough ground her wild garden. Gypsies camp there now and then, kindling their fires, perhaps, on the place where the Bradleys' home once stood. For Simeon and Luke have found another dwelling, "where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest."
It may be that the grandchildren of Grace and Hilda have led their own young ones to see the old house; but life is often too busy for retrospection. It might, perhaps, be well for our children if we found leisure to guide them to certain old places, and told them why they should be held sacred. There are consecrated spots where no altar was "built unto the Lord;" yet they were the scenes of wondrous manifestations of His favor. They frequently wear but an everyday aspect to the eyes of those who know not their secret history; but this old room, this prosaic street, it was here that God turned a sinner from the error of his way; it was there that Christ comforted a stricken soul.
As happy wives and mothers, the sisters often looked back upon the days they spent in the house by the sea. There where they trained and were fitted for the positions that they were intended to fill. There the great Sculptor polished well His "stones elect," and made them fit for their niches in His vast temple.
And this is what He is doing for all those who trust in Him, and acknowledge Him in their works and ways. Too many of us desire to be masters before we have served, and victors before we have fought. But He knows that the service must precede the mastery; and the brunt of battle must be borne before the laurels are won. In all that He does with us and for us, this one great purpose is clearly manifest, and can never for an instant be changed or set aside. Sorrow, patience, resignation, these are as surely good gifts from His hand, as joy and ease and gratitude. It is the rebellious heart, not content to leave itself in His care, that suffers most sharply in its season of needful discipline. It is the doubting soul who dares not rest on His promises, that finds its cross too heavy for it to bear.
But even to such as these He speaks, seeking them out in their darkness, and drawing them close to Him by the strong hand of love. Then in His mercy He teaches them the only lesson that can ever make the puzzles of life understood, and its rough places plain.
"Man's weakness waiting upon God
Its end can never miss;
For men on earth no work can do
More angel like than this.
He always wins who sides with God;
To him no chance is lost;
God's will is sweeter to him when
It triumphs at his cost.
Ill that He blesses is our good,
And unblest good is ill;
And all is right that seems most wrong,
If it be His sweet will!"