Heartsease or Brother's Wife by Charlotte Mary Yonge - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

Chapter III.14


A calm stream flowing with a muddy one,

 Till, in its onward current, it absorbs

 With swifter movement and in purer light

 The vexed eddies of its wayward brother,

 A leaning and upbearing parasite,

 Clothing the stem, which else had fallen quite.

 Shadow forth thee; the world hath not another

 Of such refined and chastened purity.--TENNYSON

 Patience and prayer brought their fruit in due season.

 'Violet, you will not be able to go to church on Christmas-day.'

 'No, I am not strong enough, even if you could spare me.'

 'Do you think Mr. Rivers could come to us?'

 'O, thank you!'

 Those were the words, but the flush that gave colour to Arthur's face showed the effort which they cost, and his wife's brief answer was cut short by the sweetest tears she had ever shed.

 She wrote a note to the clergyman, which was answered by a call the same afternoon. It took Arthur by surprise; but his mind was made up, and colouring deeply, he desired that Mr. Rivers should be shown up. Violet left them alone together, her heart throbbing with grateful hope and supplication.

 Arthur's honest though faltering avowal, 'I have never thought enough of these things,' was his whole history.

 It had been grace missed and neglected, rather than wilfully abused. There had of course been opportunities, but there had been little culture or guidance in his early days; his confirmation had taken place as a matter of form, and he had never been a communicant, withheld at once by ignorance and dread of strictness, as well as by a species of awe. Even his better and more conscientious feelings had been aroused merely by his affections instead of by the higher sense of duty; and now it was through these that the true voice had at length reached him.

 He had learnt more from his little boy's devotions than all the years of his life had taught him. The ever-present influence under which his wife and that child lived and acted, impressed itself on him as a truth and reality, and the consciousness of his full responsibility dawned upon him. In the early part of his illness, his despair had been at the thought of his failures as husband, father, and son. Now there came on him the perception that not merely in his human relations had he transgressed, but that far more had he slighted the Almighty and Long-suffering Father. He looked back on his life of disregard, his dire offences-- Thus awakened, he watched each word from his little unconscious teacher, to gather from them clearer hopes of mercy and pardon. Happily, Johnnie, in his daily lessons, was going through the ground- work, and those words of mighty signification conveyed meanings to the father, which the innocent child had as yet no need to unfold. The long silent hours gave time for thought, and often when the watchers deemed that the stifled groan or restless movement arose from pain or oppression, it was in fact drawn forth by the weight on his mind. So it had gone on; while mingled feelings of shame, reserve, and reluctance to show himself in a new light, kept his lips closed, and days and weeks passed before he brought himself to speak the word even to his wife. When it was spoken, her silent intense gladness was at once a reward and a rebuke. Though she scarcely spoke, he knew her well enough to perceive more perfect joy than even at the moment when she first made him smile on their first-born son. He raised his eyes to meet that look again, when, after his interview with the clergyman, she came back to join in fixing the hour. Contrition, dread, shame, penitence, all seemed to be soothed, and yet rendered deeper, by meeting those eyes of serene and perfect content and thankfulness.

 That evening Johnnie was turning over prints by his side.

 'There is the Good Shepherd, papa. Do you see the poor sheep, who wandered out of the fold, away into the wilderness among the rocks and deserts--that is doing wrong, you know, papa. And it lost its way, and the wolf was watching to tear it to pieces, that is Satan; but the Good Shepherd,' and the child bent his head reverently, 'He went after it. Mamma said that means that He touches our hearts and makes us sorry, and it looked up and was ready--as we pray to be made good again. So then He laid it on His shoulders, and carried it safe home to be happy in the fold again. Is He not very good, papa? And only think! There is joy among the Holy Angels in Heaven when one sinner grieves and comes back.' Johnnie was wont to go on in this dreamy way without expecting an answer; but he was startled to see his father's face hidden by the shadowy fingers that propped his forehead.

 'Has it made your head ache, papa? Must I go away?'

 'Say that again, Johnnie.'

 'I cannot say it quite right,' answered the boy; 'I only know it says that the Angels in Heaven rejoice and are glad over one sinner that repenteth. I thought about it that night after I had been naughty.'

 'You, Johnnie?' Arthur could hardly believe that child capable of a fault. 'Yes,' said Johnnie, with a trembling lip; 'I was cross at doing my lessons with Aunt Theodora instead of mamma, and I was so sorry. But at night, something seemed to bring that verse, and I thought the Angels must have faces like mamma.'

 Certainly his father thought so too.

 Theodora's Christmas morning was cheered by a letter from Percy, to tell her that he was to be with Arthur and Violet on this occasion. It was greater happiness to her than it would even have been to have had him at Brogden.

 It was a very quiet day in Cadogan-place. The full freshness of awe and reverence was upon Arthur, and though he hardly spoke, and made almost no demonstration, the strength of his feeling was attested by the fatigue that ensued, partly, perhaps, from the unwonted effort of fixing his attention. All the rest of the day he lay on the sofa, silent and dozing, till in the evening, when left alone with Johnnie, he only roused himself to ask to have a Bible placed within his reach, and there losing his way in searching for the parable of the strayed sheep, he wandered about in the sayings of St. John's Gospel.

 Johnnie's delight had been the dressing the cathedral cup with a spray of holly sent to him from Brogden by his aunt, and now he sat conning the hymns he had heard in church, and musing over his prints in silence, till his brow caught an expression that strangely blended with those dreamy impressions of his father. 'Poor children! they have had a dull Christmas-day!' said Arthur, as they came to bid him good night.

 'No, no, papa; the owl-man has had such a game at play with us in the diningroom!' cried Helen.

 'Yes,' said Johnnie; 'and you know, papa, I never said my hymn to you on a Christmas-day before. I like to-day the best of all I remember.'

 The next day he was glad to find that Johnnie would, after all, have his share of the festivities of the season. Colonel Harrington came to see Arthur, and begged to have his little godson at a New Year's party at his house.

 Violet was perplexed. She could not send her little, shy boy alone, yet she did not like to let his father know that it had been a mistake to accept the invitation. Percy came to her aid. 'There is no such fun as a children's party. I wish you would smuggle me in as Johnnie's nursery governess.'

 'You know, Mrs. Harrington, don't you?’ said Arthur; 'as a general rule, you know every one, and every one knows you.'

 'Yes, I know her. Come, Violet, can't you get me in, in Johnnie's train? If you will let me take charge or him, I will keep an eye over the cake, and you shall see how I will muffle him up to come home.'

 It was too good an offer to be refused, though Violet had doubts whether it would be perfect happiness, for Johnnie was apt to shrink from strange children, and was unusually shy and timid. However, his spirits had risen of late. Ever since he had found his place in his father's heart, the drooping unchild-like sadness had passed away, and though still grave and thoughtful, there was a life and animation about him at times that cheered and delighted her.

 There was a great friendship between him and 'Uncle Percy'; they took walks together, fed the ducks in St. James's Park, had many interesting conversations on Brogden affairs, and Johnnie had been several times at the rooms over the toy-shop, and was on intimate terms with old Puss. Violet knew that he would be safe, and was willing to think it right he should be made more of a man. She felt her Johnnie's value more than ever that evening, when she saw how his father missed him. After the pleasure of seeing him ready to set off, looking so fair and bright and delicate, Arthur flagged very much.

 It had been a trying day. The experiment of a more strengthening diet had resulted in heightened pulse and increased cough, and the medical men had been obliged to own that though the acute inflammation had been subdued, the original evil still remained, and that he was farther from complete recovery than they had lately been hoping. Besides, he had sent in his claim on Mr. Gardner, on hearing of his marriage, and the answer, now due, did not come. Nothing but the company of the children seemed likely to divert his thoughts, and Helen was too much for him. She was exalted at her own magnanimity in rejoicing that Johnnie should have the treat without her, and was in a boisterous state that led to an edict of banishment, vehemently resisted. It was the first time that anything had gone wrong in Arthur's presence, and Violet was much concerned, and fearful of the effect, when, after the conquest had been achieved, she left Helen sobbing in the nursery, and came down to his room. There was not the annoyance she had dreaded; but the dejection had been deepened, and he did not respond to the somewhat forced cheerfulness with which she tried to speak of the generosity united in Helen with a hasty temper. It seemed to hurt and pain him so much to have the little girl punished, that there was nothing to be done but to try to turn away his attention.

 Those weary times were perhaps harder to bear than periods of more evident trial and excitement. Violet, as she strove to rally her spirits and sustain his, could not help so feeling it--and then she thought of Helen Fotheringham, and recollected that she had been intending to read to Arthur an affectionate letter she had received from his brother on hearing of his illness. Arthur was greatly touched by the tone in which he was mentioned in it, and began eagerly to talk over John's many proofs of affection, among which he now ranked his disregarded warnings.

 'I have not forgotten his saying I must make you happy. I little understood him then!'

 There was happiness enough in the caress that would fain have silenced him. 'Well! I have been thinking! Our marriage was the best and worst thing I ever did. It was unjust to you, and as bad as possible towards them; but that is what I can't be as sorry for as it deserves,' and he looked up with a sweet smile, fading at once-- 'except when I look at you and the children, and think what is to become of you.'

 'Oh, don't, dear Arthur! Why look forward! There has been great mercy so far. Let us rest in it.'

 'You may; it was not your fault,' said Arthur; 'but how can I? I took you in your ignorance; I let your father deceive himself about my expectations, then, when my own people were far kinder to me than I deserved, and I ought to have done everything myself to make up for my imprudence, I go and let you pinch yourself, while I squander everything on my own abominable follies! And now, here am I leaving you with all these poor children, and nothing on earth--nothing but a huge debt? What are you to do, I say?'

 He was almost angry that she did not partake his apprehension for her welfare. 'This is only a casual drawback. Dr. L-- said so!'

 'That's nothing to the purpose. My health is done for. There is nothing before me but decline. I have felt that all along, whatever doctors may say. And how can you expect me not to feel what I have brought on you?'

 'I am sure you need not be afraid for us. Is it not unkind to doubt your father and John?'

 'Suppose they should die before Johnnie comes of age--suppose John should marry!'

 Oh, Arthur, I cannot suppose anything! I am only quite sure that there is a Father who will take care of our children. I do not know how, but I am certain we shall not be forsaken. Do not grieve for us. I am not afraid.'

 'Not of poverty, even for the children?'

 'No!' said Violet. 'I know it will not come, unless it is the best thing for them.' He did not entirely comprehend her, but he liked to watch her face, it looked so beautiful in its perfect trust. He could not share that peaceful confidence for the future, the harvest of his past recklessness was present poignant dread and anxiety for the innocent ones on whom the penalty must fall. He relapsed into silence, and perhaps his meditations were as much perplexed by the nine Arabic figures as those of Violet's convalescence had once been, only where hers were units, his were hundreds.

 She interrupted him with more of John's letters, and the amusing detail of the West Indian life stood her in good stead till the sounds of return brightened his face; and Johnnie sprang into the room loaded with treasures from a Christmas tree. Never had she seen the little fellow's face so merry, or heard his tongue go so fast, as he threw everything into her lap, and then sprang about from her to his papa, showing his prizes and presenting them. Here were some lemon-drops for papa, and here a beautiful box for mamma, and a gutta-percha frog for Helen, and a flag for Annie, and bon-bons for both, and for Sarah too, and a delightful story about a little Arthur, that nobody could have but the baby--Johnnie would keep it for him till he could read it.

 'And what have you got for yourself, Johnnie!' said his father.

 'I have the giving it!' said Johnnie.

 'You are your mother's own boy, Johnnie,' said Arthur, with a sort of fond deep sadness, as the child mounted his footstool to put one of the lemon-drops into his mouth, watching to be told that it was good.

 He went off to the nursery to feed Sarah on sugar-plums, and dispose the frog and banner on his sisters' beds to delight them in the morning; while Percy, coming in, declared that this had been the little boy's happiest time. He had been far too shy for enjoyment, perfectly well behaved, but not stirring a step from his protector, only holding his hand, and looking piteously at him if invited away; and Percy declared, he was as much courted as a young lady in her teens. Sitting down with him at a table surrounded by small elves, Percy had of course kept them in a roar of laughter, throughout which Johnnie had preserved his gravity, only once volunteering a whisper, that he wished Helen was there; but Percy thought that when unmolested by attention, he had seemed quietly amused. When admitted to the Christmas tree in its glory, he had been slightly afraid of it at first, as of an unexpected phenomenon, and had squeezed his friend's hand very tight; but as he perceived how things were going, his alarm had given place to silent joyous whispers, appropriating his gifts to those at home. He had no idea of keeping anything for himself; and Percy had distressed him by a doubt whether the book, as a godfather's gift, ought to be transferred. On this Johnnie was scrupulous, and Percy had been obliged to relieve his mind by repeating the question for him to Colonel Harrington, whether he might give the book to his little brother. This settled, Johnnie's happiness had been complete, and his ecstasy during their return, at having a present for everybody, was, said Percy, the prettiest comment he had ever known on the blessedness of giving. It evidently struck Arthur. At night, Violet, from her sofa, heard him murmur to himself, 'My boy! my unselfish boy, what will you think of your father?' and then stifle a groan.

 The next afternoon, Johnnie, having as a preliminary inscribed his brother's unwieldy name all over the fly-leaf, was proceeding most happily to read the book aloud, lying on the hearth-rug, with his heels in the air. He read his mamma into a slumber, his papa into a deep reverie, which resulted in his dragging himself up from his chair, by the help of the chimney-piece, and reaching pen and writing-case from Violet's table.

 'Oh! papa!' whispered Johnnie, in an injured tone, at not having been asked to do the little service.

 'I thought it would disturb mamma less,' returned Arthur, sinking back; 'but you may give me the ink. And now, my dear, go on to yourself.'

 'Are you going to write, papa? That is being much better.'

 'I am going to try to write to your uncle. Johnnie, supposing you lose me, I look to your uncle and you for care of the little ones.'

 Johnnie gave a great sigh, and looked at his father, but made no answer. Papa's writing was a matter of curiosity, and he stood watching in silence. 'You must not watch me, Johnnie,' said Arthur, presently, for whether his son could read his writing or not, he could not bear his eyes upon it. The boy had dropped into his place on the carpet in a moment.

 It was a full confession and outpouring of his troubles. It cost him much, for there was shame at his own folly and selfishness, and he had to disclose extravagance that he well knew to be, in John's eyes, especially inexcusable. So painful was the effort, that even his fears for his family would not alone have determined him on making it, if it had not been for his new resolution to face the worst, and to have no more shufflings or concealments. He could bear to tell John better than his father, and Percy had bound him to silence towards Lord Martindale. The whole was explained to the best of his powers, which were not at present great. His debts, including that to Percy, he believed to exceed ten thousand, his resources were limited to the sale of his commission, and the improbable recovery of the debt from Gardner--his wife and children were entirely unprovided for. 'I can only trust to your kindness,' he wrote. 'If I could see you, I could die in peace. I know that while you live, you will never see Violet distressed. I have no right to ask anything, but this much I will and must beg may be looked on as my last wish. Never let the children be taken from their mother's charge. If they are to be better than I, it must be her doing. And though this is more than I should dare to ask, if you can help me, do not, when I am gone, let my boys grow up to find their father's memory loaded with these hateful debts, hanging round their necks like a burden. I know Johnnie's sense of honour would never let him rest till they were cleared; but I cannot look at his face and think of his hearing how I have served his mother. He does love me now, Heaven knows, undeservedly enough. I cannot bear to think of a cloud on his remembrance of me.'