Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
VIII. A Cure For Despair
WHEN Christie opened the eyes that had closed so wearily, afternoon sunshine streamed across the room, and seemed the herald of happier days. Refreshed by sleep, and comforted by grateful recollections of her kindly welcome, she lay tranquilly enjoying the friendly atmosphere about her, with so strong a feeling that a skilful hand had taken the rudder, that she felt very little anxiety or curiosity about the haven which was to receive her boat after this narrow escape from shipwreck.
Her eye wandered to and fro, and brightened as it went; for though a poor, plain room it was as neat as hands could make it, and so glorified with sunshine that she thought it a lovely place, in spite of the yellow paper with green cabbage roses on it, the gorgeous plaster statuary on the mantel-piece, and the fragrance of dough-nuts which pervaded the air. Every thing suggested home life, humble but happy, and Christie's solitary heart warmed at the sights and sounds about her.
A half open closet-door gave her glimpses of little frocks and jackets, stubby little shoes, and go-to-meeting hats all in a row. From below came up the sound of childish voices chattering, childish feet trotting to and fro, and childish laughter sounding sweetly through the Sabbath stillness of the place. From a room near by, came the soothing creak of a rocking-chair, the rustle of a newspaper, and now and then a scrap of conversation common-place enough, but pleasant to hear, because so full of domestic love and confidence; and, as she listened, Christie pictured Mrs. Wilkins and her husband taking their rest together after the week's hard work was done.
"I wish I could stay here; it's so comfortable and home-like. I wonder if they wouldn't let me have this room, and help me to find some better work than sewing? I'll get up and ask them," thought Christie, feeling an irresistible desire to stay, and strong repugnance to returning to the room she had left, for, as Rachel truly said, it was haunted for her.
When she opened the door to go down, Mrs. Wilkins bounced out of her rocking-chair and hurried to meet her with a smiling face, saying all in one breath:
"Good mornin', dear! Rested well, I hope? I'm proper glad to hear it. Now come right down and have your dinner. I kep it hot, for I couldn't bear to wake you up, you was sleepin' so beautiful."
"I was so worn out I slept like a baby, and feel like a new creature. It was so kind of you to take me in, and I'm so grateful I don't know how to show it," said Christie, warmly, as her hostess ponderously descended the complaining stairs and ushered her into the tidy kitchen from which tubs and flat-irons were banished one day in the week.
"Lawful sakes, the' ain't nothing to be grateful for, child, and you're heartily welcome to the little I done. We are country folks in our ways, though we be livin' in the city, and we have a reg'lar country dinner Sundays. Hope you'll relish it; my vittles is clean ef they ain't rich."
As she spoke, Mrs. Wilkins dished up baked beans, Indian-pudding, and brown bread enough for half a dozen. Christie was hungry now, and ate with an appetite that delighted the good lady who vibrated between her guest and her children, shut up in the "settin'-
"Now please let me tell you all about myself, for I am afraid you think me something better than I am. If I ask help from you, it is right that you should know whom you are helping," said Christie, when the table was cleared and her hostess came and sat down beside her.
"Yes, my dear, free your mind, and then we'll fix things up right smart. Nothin' I like better, and Lisha says I have considerable of a knack that way," replied Mrs. Wilkins, with a smile, a nod, and an air of interest most reassuring.
So Christie told her story, won to entire confidence by the sympathetic face opposite, and the motherly pats so gently given by the big, rough hand that often met her own. When all was told, Christie said very earnestly:
"I am ready to go to work to-morrow, and will do any thing I can find, but I should love to stay here a little while, if I could; I do so dread to be alone. Is it possible? I mean to pay my board of course, and help you besides if you'll let me."
Mrs. Wilkins glowed with pleasure at this compliment, and leaning toward Christie, looked into her face a moment in silence, as if to test the sincerity of the wish. In that moment Christie saw what steady, sagacious eyes the woman had; so clear, so honest that she looked through them into the great, warm heart below, and looking forgot the fuzzy, red hair, the paucity of teeth, the faded gown, and felt only the attraction of a nature genuine and genial as the sunshine dancing on the kitchen floor.
Beautiful souls often get put into plain bodies, but they cannot be hidden, and have a power all their own, the greater for the unconsciousness or the humility which gives it grace. Christie saw and felt this then, and when the homely woman spoke, listened to her with implicit confidence.
"My dear, I'd no more send you away now than I would my Adelaide, for you need looking after for a spell, most as much as she doos. You've been thinkin' and broodin' too much, and sewin' yourself to death. We'll stop all that, and keep you so busy there won't be no time for the hypo. You're one of them that can't live alone without starvin'
somehow, so I'm jest goin' to turn you in among them children to paster, so to speak.
That's wholesome and fillin' for you, and goodness knows it will be a puffect charity to me, for I'm goin' to be dreadful drove with gettin' up curtins and all manner of things, as spring comes on. So it ain't no favor on my part, and you can take out your board in tendin' baby and putterin' over them little tykes."
"I should like it so much! But I forgot my debt to Mrs. Flint; perhaps she won't let me go," said Christie, with an anxious cloud coming over her brightening face.
"Merciful, suz! don't you be worried about her. I'll see to her, and ef she acts ugly Lisha
'll fetch her round; men can always settle such things better'n we can, and he's a dreadful smart man Lisha is. We'll go to-morrer and get your belongins, and then settle right down for a spell; and by-an'-by when you git a trifle more chipper we'll find a nice place in the country some'rs. That's what you want; nothin' like green grass and woodsy smells to right folks up. When I was a gal, ef I got low in my mind, or riled in my temper, I jest went out and grubbed in the gardin, or made hay, or walked a good piece, and it fetched me round beautiful. Never failed; so I come to see that good fresh dirt is fust rate physic for folk's spirits as it is for wounds, as they tell on."
"That sounds sensible and pleasant, and I like it. Oh, it is so beautiful to feel that somebody cares for you a little bit, and you ain't one too many in the world," sighed Christie.
"Don't you never feel that agin, my dear. What's the Lord for ef He ain't to hold on to in times of trouble. Faith ain't wuth much ef it's only lively in fair weather; you've got to believe hearty and stan' by the Lord through thick and thin, and He'll stan' by you as no one else begins to. I remember of havin' this bore in upon me by somethin' that happened to a man I knew. He got blowed up in a powder-mill, and when folks asked him what he thought when the bust come, he said, real sober and impressive: 'Wal, it come through me, like a flash, that I'd served the Lord as faithful as I knew how for a number a years, and I guessed He'd fetch me through somehow, and He did.' Sure enough the man warn't killed; I'm bound to confess he was shook dreadful, but his faith warn't."
Christie could not help smiling at the story, but she liked it, and sincerely wished she could imitate the hero of it in his piety, not his powder. She was about to say so when the sound of approaching steps announced the advent of her host. She had been rather impressed with the "smartness" of Lisha by his wife's praises, but when a small, sallow, sickly looking man came in she changed her mind; for not even an immensely stiff collar, nor a pair of boots that seemed composed entirely of what the boys call "creak leather,"
could inspire her with confidence.
Without a particle of expression in his yellow face, Mr. Wilkins nodded to the stranger over the picket fence of his collar, lighted his pipe, and clumped away to enjoy his afternoon promenade without compromising himself by a single word.
His wife looked after him with an admiring gaze as she said:
"Them boots is as good as an advertisement, for he made every stitch on 'em himself;"
then she added, laughing like a girl: "It's redick'lus my bein' so proud of Lisha, but ef a woman ain't a right to think wal of her own husband, I should like to know who has!"
Christie was afraid that Mrs. Wilkins had seen her disappointment in her face, and tried, with wifely zeal, to defend her lord from even a disparaging thought. Wishing to atone for this transgression she was about to sing the praises of the wooden-faced Elisha, but was spared any polite fibs by the appearance of a small girl who delivered an urgent message to the effect, that "Mis Plumly was down sick and wanted Mis Wilkins to run over and set a spell."
As the good lady hesitated with an involuntary glance at her guest, Christie said quickly:
"Don't mind me; I'll take care of the house for you if you want to go. You may be sure I won't run off with the children or steal the spoons."
"I ain't a mite afraid of anybody wantin' to steal them little toads; and as for spoons, I ain't got a silver one to bless myself with," laughed Mrs. Wilkins. "I guess I will go, then, ef you don't mind, as it's only acrost the street. Like's not settin' quiet will be better for you
'n talkin', for I'm a dreadful hand to gab when I git started. Tell Mis Plumly I'm a comin'."
Then, as the child ran off, the stout lady began to rummage in her closet, saying, as she rattled and slammed:
"I'll jest take her a drawin' of tea and a couple of nut-cakes: mebby she'll relish 'em, for I shouldn't wonder ef she hadn't had a mouthful this blessed day. She's dreadful slack at the best of times, but no one can much wonder, seein' she's got nine children, and is jest up from a rheumatic fever. I'm sure I never grudge a meal of vittles or a hand's turn to such as she is, though she does beat all for dependin' on her neighbors. I'm a thousand times obleeged. You needn't werry about the children, only don't let 'em git lost, or burnt, or pitch out a winder; and when it's done give 'em the patty-cake that's bakin' for 'em."
With which maternal orders Mrs. Wilkins assumed a sky-blue bonnet, and went beaming away with several dishes genteelly hidden under her purple shawl.
Being irresistibly attracted toward the children Christie opened the door and took a survey of her responsibilities.
Six lively infants were congregated in the "settin'-room," and chaos seemed to have come again, for every sort of destructive amusement was in full operation. George Washington, the eldest blossom, was shearing a resigned kitten; Gusty and Ann Eliza were concocting mud pies in the ashes; Adelaide Victoria was studying the structure of lamp-wicks, while Daniel Webster and Andrew Jackson were dragging one another in a clothes-basket, to the great detriment of the old carpet and still older chariot.
Thinking that some employment more suited to the day might be introduced, Christie soon made friends with these young persons, and, having rescued the kitten, banished the basket, lured the elder girls from their mud-piety, and quenched the curiosity of the Pickwickian Adelaide, she proposed teaching them some little hymns.
The idea was graciously received, and the class decorously seated in a row. But before a single verse was given out, Gusty, being of a house-wifely turn of mind, suggested that the patty-cake might burn. Instant alarm pervaded the party, and a precipitate rush was made for the cooking-stove, where Christie proved by ocular demonstration that the cake showed no signs of baking, much less of burning. The family pronounced themselves satisfied, after each member had poked a grimy little finger into the doughy delicacy, whereon one large raisin reposed in proud pre-eminence over the vulgar herd of caraways.
Order being with difficulty restored, Christie taught her flock an appropriate hymn, and was flattering herself that their youthful minds were receiving a devotional bent, when they volunteered a song, and incited thereunto by the irreverent Wash, burst forth with a gem from Mother Goose, closing with a smart skirmish of arms and legs that set all law and order at defiance. Hoping to quell the insurrection Christie invited the breathless rioters to calm themselves by looking at the pictures in the big Bible. But, unfortunately, her explanations were so vivid that her audience were fired with a desire to enact some of the scenes portrayed, and no persuasions could keep them from playing Ark on the spot.
The clothes-basket was elevated upon two chairs, and into it marched the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, to judge by the noise, and all set sail, with Washington at the helm, Jackson and Webster plying the clothes and pudding-sticks for oars, while the young ladies rescued their dolls from the flood, and waved their hands to imaginary friends who were not unmindful of the courtesies of life even in the act of drowning.
Finding her authority defied Christie left the rebels to their own devices, and sitting in a corner, began to think about her own affairs. But before she had time to get anxious or perplexed the children diverted her mind, as if the little flibberty-gibbets knew that their pranks and perils were far wholesomer for her just then than brooding.
The much-enduring kitten being sent forth as a dove upon the waters failed to return with the olive-branch; of which peaceful emblem there was soon great need, for mutiny broke out, and spread with disastrous rapidity.
Ann Eliza slapped Gusty because she had the biggest bandbox; Andrew threatened to
"chuck" Daniel overboard if he continued to trample on the fraternal toes, and in the midst of the fray, by some unguarded motion, Washington capsized the ship and precipitated the patriarchal family into the bosom of the deep.
Christie flew to the rescue, and, hydropathically treated, the anguish of bumps and bruises was soon assuaged. Then appeared the appropriate moment for a story, and gathering the dilapidated party about her she soon enraptured them by a recital of the immortal history of "Frank and the little dog Trusty." Charmed with her success she was about to tell another moral tale, but no sooner had she announced the name, "The Three Cakes," when, like an electric flash a sudden recollection seized the young Wilkinses, and with one voice they demanded their lawful prize, sure that now it must be done.
Christie had forgotten all about it, and was harassed with secret misgivings as she headed the investigating committee. With skipping of feet and clapping of hands the eager tribe surrounded the stove, and with fear and trembling Christie drew forth a melancholy cinder, where, like Casablanca, the lofty raisin still remained, blackened, but undaunted, at its post.
Then were six little vials of wrath poured out upon her devoted head, and sounds of lamentation filled the air, for the irate Wilkinses refused to be comforted till the rash vow to present each member of the outraged family with a private cake produced a lull, during which the younger ones were decoyed into the back yard, and the three elders solaced themselves with mischief.
Mounted on mettlesome broomsticks Andrew and Daniel were riding merrily away to the Banbury Cross, of blessed memory, and little Vie was erecting a pagoda of oyster-shells, under Christie's superintendence, when a shrill scream from within sent horsemen and architects flying to the rescue.
Gusty's pinafore was in a blaze; Ann Eliza was dancing frantically about her sister as if bent on making a suttee of herself, while George Washington hung out of window, roaring, "Fire!" "water!" "engine!" "pa!" with a presence of mind worthy of his sex.
A speedy application of the hearth-rug quenched the conflagration, and when a minute burn had been enveloped in cotton-wool, like a gem, a coroner sat upon the pinafore and investigated the case.
It appeared that the ladies were "only playing paper dolls," when Wash, sighing for the enlightenment of his race, proposed to make a bonfire, and did so with an old book; but Gusty, with a firm belief in future punishment, tried to save it, and fell a victim to her principles, as the virtuous are very apt to do.
The book was brought into court, and proved to be an ancient volume of ballads, cut, torn, and half consumed. Several peculiarly developed paper dolls, branded here and there with large letters, like galley-slaves, were then produced by the accused, and the judge could with difficulty preserve her gravity when she found "John Gilpin" converted into a painted petticoat, "The Bay of Biscay, O," situated in the crown of a hat, and
"Chevy Chase" issuing from the mouth of a triangular gentleman, who, like Dickens's cherub, probably sung it by ear, having no lungs to speak of.
It was further apparent from the agricultural appearance of the room that beans had been sowed broadcast by means of the apple-corer, which Wash had converted into a pop-gun with a mechanical ingenuity worthy of more general appreciation. He felt this deeply, and when Christie reproved him for leading his sisters astray, he resented the liberty she took, and retired in high dudgeon to the cellar, where he appeared to set up a menagerie,--for bears, lions, and unknown animals, endowed with great vocal powers, were heard to solicit patronage from below.
Somewhat exhausted by her labors, Christie rested, after clearing up the room, while the children found a solace for all afflictions in the consumption of relays of bread and molasses, which infantile restorative occurred like an inspiration to the mind of their guardian.
Peace reigned for fifteen minutes; then came a loud crash from the cellar, followed by a violent splashing, and wild cries of, "Oh, oh, oh, I've fell into the pork barrel! I'm drownin', I'm drownin'!"
Down rushed Christie, and the sticky innocents ran screaming after, to behold their pickled brother fished up from the briny deep. A spectacle well calculated to impress upon their infant minds the awful consequences of straying from the paths of virtue.
At this crisis Mrs. Wilkins providentially appeared, breathless, but brisk and beaming, and in no wise dismayed by the plight of her luckless son, for a ten years' acquaintance with Wash's dauntless nature had inured his mother to "didoes" that would have appalled most women.
"Go right up chamber, and change every rag on you, and don't come down agin till I rap on the ceilin'; you dreadful boy, disgracin' your family by sech actions. I'm sorry I was kep' so long, but Mis Plumly got tellin' her werryments, and 'peared to take so much comfort in it I couldn't bear to stop her. Then I jest run round to your place and told that woman that you was safe and well, along'r friends, and would call in to-morrer to get your things. She 'd ben so scart by your not comin' home that she was as mild as milk, so you won't have no trouble with her, I expect."
"Thank you very much! How kind you are, and how tired you must be! Sit down and let me take your things," cried Christie, more relieved than she could express.
"Lor', no, I'm fond of walkin', but bein' ruther hefty it takes my breath away some to hurry. I'm afraid these children have tuckered you out though. They are proper good gen'lly, but when they do take to trainen they're a sight of care," said Mrs. Wilkins, as she surveyed her imposing bonnet with calm satisfaction.
"I've enjoyed it very much, and it's done me good, for I haven't laughed so much for six months as I have this afternoon," answered Christie, and it was quite true, for she had been too busy to think of herself or her woes.
"Wal, I thought likely it would chirk you up some, or I shouldn't have went," and Mrs.
Wilkins put away a contented smile with her cherished bonnet, for Christie's face had grown so much brighter since she saw it last, that the good woman felt sure her treatment was the right one.
At supper Lisha reappeared, and while his wife and children talked incessantly, he ate four slices of bread and butter, three pieces of pie, five dough-nuts, and drank a small ocean of tea out of his saucer. Then, evidently feeling that he had done his duty like a man, he gave Christie another nod, and disappeared again without a word.
When she had done up her dishes Mrs. Wilkins brought out a few books and papers, and said to Christie, who sat apart by the window, with the old shadow creeping over her face:
"Now don't feel lonesome, my dear, but jest lop right down on the sotfy and have a sociable kind of a time. Lisha's gone down street for the evenin'. I'll keep the children as quiet as one woman can, and you may read or rest, or talk, jest as you're a mind."
"Thank you; I'll sit here and rock little Vie to sleep for you. I don't care to read, but I'd like to have you talk to me, for it seems as if I'd known you a long time and it does me good," said Christie, as she settled herself and baby on the old settee which had served as a cradle for six young Wilkinses, and now received the honorable name of sofa in its old age.
Mrs. Wilkins looked gratified, as she settled her brood round the table with a pile of pictorial papers to amuse them. Then having laid herself out to be agreeable, she sat thoughtfully rubbing the bridge of her nose, at a loss how to begin. Presently Christie helped her by an involuntary sigh.
"What's the matter, dear? Is there any thing I can do to make you comfortable?" asked the kind soul, alert at once, and ready to offer sympathy.
"I'm very cosy, thank you, and I don't know why I sighed. It's a way I've got into when I think of my worries," explained Christie, in haste.
"Wal, dear, I wouldn't ef I was you. Don't keep turnin' your troubles over. Git atop of 'em somehow, and stay there ef you can," said Mrs. Wilkins, very earnestly.
"But that's just what I can't do. I've lost all my spirits and courage, and got into a dismal state of mind. You seem to be very cheerful, and yet you must have a good deal to try you sometimes. I wish you'd tell me how you do it;" and Christie looked wistfully into that other face, so plain, yet so placid, wondering to see how little poverty, hard work, and many cares had soured or saddened it.
"Really I don't know, unless it's jest doin' whatever comes along, and doin' of it hearty, sure that things is all right, though very often I don't see it at fust."
"Do you see it at last?"
"Gen'lly I do; and if I don't I take it on trust, same as children do what older folks tell 'em; and byme-by when I'm grown up in spiritual things I'll understan' as the dears do, when they git to be men and women."
That suited Christie, and she thought hopefully within herself:
"This woman has got the sort of religion I want, if it makes her what she is. Some day I'll get her to tell me where she found it." Then aloud she said:
"But it's so hard to be patient and contented when nothing happens as you want it to, and you don't get your share of happiness, no matter how much you try to deserve it."
"It ain't easy to bear, I know, but having tried my own way and made a dreadful mess on
't, I concluded that the Lord knows what's best for us, and things go better when He manages than when we go scratchin' round and can't wait."
"Tried your own way? How do you mean?" asked Christie, curiously; for she liked to hear her hostess talk, and found something besides amusement in the conversation, which seemed to possess a fresh country flavor as well as country phrases.
Mrs. Wilkins smiled all over her plump face, as if she liked to tell her experience, and having hunched sleepy little Andy more comfortably into her lap, and given a preparatory hem or two, she began with great good-will.
"It happened a number a years ago and ain't much of a story any way. But you're welcome to it, as some of it is rather humorsome, the laugh may do you good ef the story don't. We was livin' down to the east'ard at the time. It was a real pretty place; the house stood under a couple of maples and a gret brook come foamin' down the rayvine and away through the medders to the river. Dear sakes, seems as ef I see it now, jest as I used to settin' on the doorsteps with the lay-locks all in blow, the squirrels jabberin' on the wall, and the saw-mill screekin' way off by the dam."
Pausing a moment, Mrs. Wilkins looked musingly at the steam of the tea-kettle, as if through its silvery haze she saw her early home again. Wash promptly roused her from this reverie by tumbling off the boiler with a crash. His mother picked him up and placidly went on, falling more and more into the country dialect which city life had not yet polished.
"I oushter hev been the contentedest woman alive, but I warn't, for you see I'd worked at millineryin' before I was married, and had an easy time on't, Afterwards the children come along pretty fast, there was sights of work to do, and no time for pleasuring so I got wore out, and used to hanker after old times in a dreadful wicked way.
"Finally I got acquainted with a Mis Bascum, and she done me a sight of harm. You see, havin' few pies of her own to bake, she was fond of puttin' her fingers into her neighborses, but she done it so neat that no one mistrusted she was takin' all the sarce and leavin' all the crust to them, as you may say. Wal, I told her my werryments and she sympathized real hearty, and said I didn't ought to stan' it, but have things to suit me, and enjoy myself, as other folks did. So when she put it into my head I thought it amazin'
good advice, and jest went and done as she told me.
"Lisha was the kindest man you ever see, so when I up and said I warn't goin' to drudge round no more, but must hev a girl, he got one, and goodness knows what a trial she was.
After she came I got dreadful slack, and left the house and the children to Hen'retta, and went pleasurin' frequent all in my best. I always was a dressy woman in them days, and Lisha give me his earnin's real lavish, bless his heart! and I went and spent 'em on my sinful gowns and bunnets."
Here Mrs. Wilkins stopped to give a remorseful groan and stroke her faded dress, as if she found great comfort in its dinginess.
"It ain't no use tellin' all I done, but I had full swing, and at fust I thought luck was in my dish sure. But it warn't, seein' I didn't deserve it, and I had to take my mess of trouble, which was needful and nourishin,' ef I'd had the grace to see it so.
"Lisha got into debt, and no wonder, with me a wastin' of his substance; Hen'retta went off suddin', with whatever she could lay her hands on, and everything was at sixes and sevens. Lisha's patience give out at last, for I was dreadful fractious, knowin' it was all my fault. The children seemed to git out of sorts, too, and acted like time in the primer, with croup and pins, and whoopin'-cough and temper. I declare I used to think the pots and kettles biled over to spite each other and me too in them days.
"All this was nuts to Mis Bascum, and she kep' advisin' and encouragin' of me, and I didn't see through her a mite, or guess that settin' folks by the ears was as relishin' to her as bitters is to some. Merciful, suz! what a piece a work we did make betwixt us! I scolded and moped 'cause I couldn't have my way; Lisha swore and threatened to take to drinkin' ef I didn't make home more comfortable; the children run wild, and the house was gittin' too hot to hold us, when we was brought up with a round turn, and I see the redicklousness of my doin's in time.
"One day Lisha come home tired and cross, for bills was pressin', work slack, and folks talkin' about us as ef they 'd nothin' else to do. I was dishin' up dinner, feelin' as nervous as a witch, for a whole batch of bread had burnt to a cinder while I was trimmin' a new bunnet, Wash had scart me most to death swallerin' a cent, and the steak had been on the floor more'n once, owin' to my havin' babies, dogs, cats, or hens under my feet the whole blessed time.
"Lisha looked as black as thunder, throwed his hat into a corner, and came along to the sink where I was skinnin' pertaters. As he washed his hands, I asked what the matter was; but he only muttered and slopped, and I couldn't git nothin' out of him, for he ain't talkative at the best of times as you see, and when he's werried corkscrews wouldn't draw a word from him.
"Bein' riled myself didn't mend matters, and so we fell to hectorin' one another right smart. He said somethin' that dreened my last drop of patience; I give a sharp answer, and fust thing I knew he up with his hand and slapped me. It warn't a hard blow by no means, only a kind of a wet spat side of the head; but I thought I should have flew, and was as mad as ef I'd been knocked down. You never see a man look so 'shamed as Lisha did, and ef I'd been wise I should have made up the quarrel then. But I was a fool. I jest flung fork, dish, pertaters and all into the pot, and says, as ferce as you please:
"'Lisha Wilkins, when you can treat me decent you may come and fetch me back; you won't see me till then, and so I tell you.'
"Then I made a bee-line for Mis Bascum's; told her the whole story, had a good cry, and was all ready to go home in half an hour, but Lisha didn't come.
"Wal, that night passed, and what a long one it was to be sure! and me without a wink of sleep, thinkin' of Wash and the cent, my emptins and the baby. Next day come, but no Lisha, no message, no nuthin', and I began to think I'd got my match though I had a sight of grit in them days. I sewed, and Mis Bascum she clacked; but I didn't say much, and jest worked like sixty to pay for my keep, for I warn't goin' to be beholden to her for nothin'.
"The day dragged on terrible slow, and at last I begged her to go and git me a clean dress, for I'd come off jest as I was, and folks kep' droppin' in, for the story was all round, thanks to Mis Bascum's long tongue.
"Wal, she went, and ef you'll believe me Lisha wouldn't let her in! He handed my best things out a winder and told her to tell me they were gittin' along fust rate with Florindy Walch to do the work. He hoped I'd have a good time, and not expect him for a consider'ble spell, for he liked a quiet house, and now he'd got it.
"When I heard that, I knew he must be provoked the wust kind, for he ain't a hash man by nater. I could have crep' in at the winder ef he wouldn't open the door, I was so took down by that message. But Mis Bascum wouldn't hear of it, and kep' stirrin' of me up till I was ashamed to eat 'umble pie fust; so I waited to see how soon he'd come round. But he had the best on't you see, for he'd got the babies and lost a cross wife, while I'd lost every thing but Mis Bascum, who grew hatefuler to me every hour, for I begun to mistrust she was a mischief-maker,--widders most always is,--seein' how she pampered up my pride and 'peared to like the quarrel.
"I thought I should have died more'n once, for sure as you live it went on three mortal days, and of all miser'ble creeters I was the miser'blest. Then I see how wicked and ungrateful I'd been; how I'd shirked my bounden duty and scorned my best blessins.
There warn't a hard job that ever I'd hated but what grew easy when I remembered who it was done for; there warn't a trouble or a care that I wouldn't have welcomed hearty, nor one hour of them dear fractious babies that didn't seem precious when I'd gone and left
'em. I'd got time to rest enough now, and might go pleasuring all day long; but I couldn't do it, and would have given a dozin bunnets trimmed to kill ef I could only have been back moilin' in my old kitchen with the children hangin' round me and Lisha a comin' in cheerful from his work as he used to 'fore I spoilt his home for him. How sing'lar it is folks never do know when they are wal off!"
"I know it now," said Christie, rocking lazily to and fro, with a face almost as tranquil as little Vic's, lying half asleep in her lap.
"Glad to hear it, my dear. As I was goin' on to say, when Saturday come, a tremenjus storm set in, and it rained guns all day. I never shall forgit it, for I was hankerin' after baby, and dreadful worried about the others, all bein' croupy, and Florindy with no more idee of nussin' than a baa lamb. The rain come down like a reg'lar deluge, but I didn't seem to have no ark to run to. As night come on things got wuss and wuss, for the wind blowed the roof off Mis Bascum's barn and stove in the butt'ry window; the brook riz and went ragin' every which way, and you never did see such a piece of work.
"My heart was most broke by that time, and I knew I should give in 'fore Monday. But I set and sewed and listened to the tinkle tankle of the drops in the pans set round to ketch
'em, for the house leaked like a sieve. Mis Bascurn was down suller putterin' about, for every kag and sarce jar was afloat. Moses, her brother, was lookin' after his stock and tryin' to stop the damage. All of a sudden he bust in lookin' kinder wild, and settin' down the lantern, he sez, sez he: 'You're ruthern an unfortinate woman to-night, Mis Wilkins.'
'How so?' sez I, as ef nuthin' was the matter already. "'Why,' sez he, 'the spilins have give way up in the rayvine, and the brook 's come down like a river, upsot your lean-to, washed the mellion patch slap into the road, and while your husband was tryin' to git the pig out of the pen, the water took a turn and swep him away.'
"'Drownded?' sez I, with only breath enough for that one word. 'Shouldn't wonder,' sez Moses, 'nothin' ever did come up alive after goin' over them falls.'
"It come over me like a streak of lightenin'; every thin' kinder slewed round, and I dropped in the first faint I ever had in my life. Next I knew Lisha was holdin' of me and cryin' fit to kill himself. I thought I was dreamin', and only had wits enough to give a sort of permiscuous grab at him and call out:
"'Oh, Lisha! ain't you drownded?' He give a gret start at that, swallered down his sobbin', and sez as lovin' as ever a man did in this world:
"'Bless your dear heart, Cynthy, it warn't me it was the pig;' and then fell to kissin' of me, till betwixt laughin' and cryin' I was most choked. Deary me, it all comes back so livin'
real it kinder takes my breath away."
And well it might, for the good soul entered so heartily into her story that she unconsciously embellished it with dramatic illustrations. At the slapping episode she flung an invisible "fork, dish, and pertaters" into an imaginary kettle, and glared; when the catastrophe arrived, she fell back upon her chair to express fainting; gave Christie's arm the "permiscuous grab" at the proper moment, and uttered the repentant Lisha's explanation with an incoherent pathos that forbid a laugh at the sudden introduction of the porcine martyr.
"What did you do then?" asked Christie in a most flattering state of interest.
"Oh, law! I went right home and hugged them children for a couple of hours stiddy,"
answered Mrs; Wilkins, as if but one conclusion was possible.
"Did all your troubles go down with the pig?" asked Christie, presently.
"Massy, no, we're all poor, feeble worms, and the best meanin' of us fails too often,"
sighed Mrs. Wilkins, as she tenderly adjusted the sleepy head of the young worm in her lap. "After that scrape I done my best; Lisha was as meek as a whole flock of sheep, and we give Mis Bascum a wide berth. Things went lovely for ever so long, and though, after a spell, we had our ups and downs, as is but natural to human creeters, we never come to such a pass agin. Both on us tried real hard; whenever I felt my temper risin' or discontent comin' on I remembered them days and kep' a taut rein; and as for Lisha he never said a raspin' word, or got sulky, but what he'd bust out laughin' after it and say: 'Bless you, Cynthy, it warn't me, it was the pig.'"
Mrs. Wilkins' hearty laugh fired a long train of lesser ones, for the children recognized a household word. Christie enjoyed the joke, and even the tea-kettle boiled over as if carried away by the fun.
"Tell some more, please," said Christie, when the merriment subsided, for she felt her spirits rising.
"There's nothin' more to tell, except one thing that prevented my ever forgittin' the lesson I got then. My little Almiry took cold that week and pined away rapid. She'd always been so ailin' I never expected to raise her, and more 'n once in them sinful tempers of mine I'd thought it would be a mercy ef she was took out of her pain. But when I laid away that patient, sufferin' little creeter I found she was the dearest of 'em all. I most broke my heart to hev her back, and never, never forgive myself for leavin' her that time." With trembling lips and full eyes Mrs. Wilkins stopped to wipe her features generally on Andrew Jackson's pinafore, and heave a remorseful sigh.
"And this is how you came to be the cheerful, contented woman you are?" said Christie, hoping to divert the mother's mind from that too tender memory.
"Yes," she answered, thoughtfully, "I told you Lisha was a smart man; he give me a good lesson, and it set me to thinkin' serious. 'Pears to me trouble is a kind of mellerin' process, and ef you take it kindly it doos you good, and you learn to be glad of it. I'm sure Lisha and me is twice as fond of one another, twice as willin' to work, and twice as patient with our trials sense dear little Almiry died, and times was hard. I ain't what I ought to be, not by a long chalk, but I try to live up to my light, do my duty cheerful, love my neighbors, and fetch up my family in the fear of God. Ef I do this the best way I know how, I'm sure I'll get my rest some day, and the good Lord won't forgit Cynthy Wilkins. He ain't so fur, for I keep my health wonderfle, Lisha is kind and stiddy, the children flourishin', and I'm a happy woman though I be a humly one."
There she was mistaken, for as her eye roved round the narrow room from the old hat on the wall to the curly heads bobbing here and there, contentment, piety, and mother-love made her plain face beautiful.
"That story has done me ever so much good, and I shall not forget it. Now, good-night, for I must be up early to-morrow, and I don't want to drive Mr. Wilkins away entirely,"
said Christie, after she had helped put the little folk to bed, during which process she had heard her host creaking about the kitchen as if afraid to enter the sitting-room.
She laughed as she spoke, and ran up stairs, wondering if she could be the same forlorn creature who had crept so wearily up only the night before.
It was a very humble little sermon that Mrs. Wilkins had preached to her, but she took it to heart and profited by it; for she was a pupil in the great charity school where the best teachers are often unknown, unhonored here, but who surely will receive commendation and reward from the head master when their long vacation comes.
IX. Mrs. Wilkins's Minister
NEXT day Christie braved the lion in his den, otherwise the flinty Flint, in her second-class boarding-house, and found that alarm and remorse had produced a softening effect upon her. She was unfeignedly glad to see her lost lodger safe, and finding that the new friends were likely to put her in the way of paying her debts, this much harassed matron permitted her to pack up her possessions, leaving one trunk as a sort of hostage. Then, with promises to redeem it as soon as possible, Christie said good-bye to the little room where she had hoped and suffered, lived and labored so long, and went joyfully back to the humble home she had found with the good laundress.
All the following week Christie "chored round," as Mrs. Wilkins called the miscellaneous light work she let her do. Much washing, combing, and clean pinaforing of children fell to her share, and she enjoyed it amazingly; then, when the elder ones were packed off to school she lent a hand to any of the numberless tasks housewives find to do from morning till night. In the afternoon, when other work was done, and little Vic asleep or happy with her playthings, Christie clapped laces, sprinkled muslins, and picked out edgings at the great table where Mrs. Wilkins stood ironing, fluting, and crimping till the kitchen bristled all over with immaculate frills and flounces.
It was pretty delicate work, and Christie liked it, for Mrs. Wilkins was an adept at her trade and took as much pride and pleasure in it as any French blanchis-seuse tripping through the streets of Paris with a tree full of coquettish caps, capes, and petticoats borne before her by a half invisible boy.
Being women, of course they talked as industriously as they worked; fingers flew and tongues clacked with equal profit and pleasure, and, by Saturday, Christie had made up her mind that Mrs. Wilkins was the most sensible woman she ever knew. Her grammar was an outrage upon the memory of Lindley Murray, but the goodness of her heart would have done honor to any saint in the calendar. She was very plain, and her manners were by no means elegant, but good temper made that homely face most lovable, and natural refinement of soul made mere external polish of small account. Her shrewd ideas and odd sayings amused Christie very much, while her good sense and bright way of looking at things did the younger woman a world of good.
Mr. Wilkins devoted himself to the making of shoes and the consumption of food, with the silent regularity of a placid animal. His one dissipation was tobacco, and in a fragrant cloud of smoke he lived and moved and had his being so entirely that he might have been described as a pipe with a man somewhere behind it. Christie once laughingly spoke of this habit and declared she would try it herself if she thought it would make her as quiet and undemonstrative as Mr. Wilkins, who, to tell the truth, made no more impression on her than a fly.
"I don't approve on't, but he might do wuss. We all have to have our comfort somehow, so I let Lisha smoke as much as he likes, and he lets me gab, so it's about fair, I reckon,"
answered Mrs. Wilkins, from the suds.
She laughed as she spoke, but something in her face made Christie suspect that at some period of his life Lisha had done "wuss;" and subsequent observations confirmed this suspicion and another one also,--that his good wife had saved him, and was gently easing him back to self-control and self-respect. But, as old Fuller quaintly says, "She so gently folded up his faults in silence that few guessed them," and loyally paid him that respect which she desired others to bestow. It was always "Lisha and me," "I'll ask my husband"
or "Lisha 'll know; he don't say much, but he's a dreadful smart man," and she kept up the fiction so dear to her wifely soul by endowing him with her own virtues, and giving him the credit of her own intelligence.
Christie loved her all the better for this devotion, and for her sake treated Mr. Wilkins as if he possessed the strength of Samson and the wisdom of Solomon. He received her respect as if it was his due, and now and then graciously accorded her a few words beyond the usual scanty allowance of morning and evening greetings. At his shop all day, she only saw him at meals and sometimes of an evening, for Mrs. Wilkins tried to keep him at home safe from temptation, and Christie helped her by reading, talking, and frolicking with the children, so that he might find home attractive. He loved his babies and would even relinquish his precious pipe for a time to ride the little chaps on his foot, or amuse Vic with shadow rabbit's on the wall.
At such times the entire content in Mrs. Wilkins's face made tobacco fumes endurable, and the burden of a dull man's presence less oppressive to Christie, who loved to pay her debts in something besides money.
As they sat together finishing off some delicate laces that Saturday afternoon, Mrs.
Wilkins said, "Ef it's fair to-morrow I want you to go to my meetin' and hear my minister.
It'll do you good."
"Who is he?"
Christie looked rather startled, for she had heard of Thomas Power as a rampant radical and infidel of the deepest dye, and been warned never to visit that den of iniquity called his free church.
"Why, Mrs. Wilkins, you don't mean it!" she said, leaving her lace to dry at the most critical stage.
"Yee, I do!" answered Mrs. Wilkins, setting down her flat-iron with emphasis, and evidently preparing to fight valiantly for her minister, as most women will.
"I beg your pardon; I was a little surprised, for I'd heard all sorts of things about him,"
Christie hastened to say.
"Did you ever hear him, or read any of his writins?" demanded Mrs. Wilkins, with a calmer air.
"Then don't judge. You go hear and see that blessed man, and ef you don't say he's the shadder of a great rock in a desert land, I'll give up," cried the good woman, waxing poetical in her warmth.
"I will to please you, if nothing else. I did go once just because I was told not to; but he did not preach that day and every thing was so peculiar, I didn't know whether to like it or be shocked."
"It is kind of sing'lar at fust, I'm free to confess, and not as churchy as some folks like.
But there ain't no place but that big enough to hold the crowds that want to go, for the more he's abused the more folks flock to see him. They git their money's wuth I do believe, for though there ain't no pulpits and pews, there's a sight of brotherly love round in them seats, and pious practice, as well as powerful preaching, in that shabby desk. He don't need no commandments painted up behind him to read on Sunday, for he keeps 'em in his heart and life all the week as honest as man can."
There Mrs. Wilkins paused, flushed and breathless with her defence, and Christie said, candidly: "I did like the freedom and good-will there, for people sat where they liked, and no one frowned over shut pew-doors, at me a stranger. An old black woman sat next me, and said 'Amen' when she liked what she heard, and a very shabby young man was on the other, listening as if his soul was as hungry as his body. People read books, laughed and cried, clapped when pleased, and hissed when angry; that I did not like."
"No more does Mr. Power; he don't mind the cryin' and the smilin' as it's nat'ral, but noise and disrespect of no kind ain't pleasin' to him. His own folks behave becomin', but strangers go and act as they like, thinkin' that there ain't no bounds to the word free. Then we are picked at for their doin's, and Mr. Power has to carry other folkses' sins on his shoulders. But, dear suz, it ain't much matter after all, ef the souls is well-meanin'.
Children always make a noise a strivin' after what they want most, and I shouldn't wonder ef the Lord forgive all our short-comin's of that sort, sense we are hankerin' and reachin'
for the truth."
"I wish I had heard Mr. Power that day, for I was striving after peace with all my heart, and he might have given it to me," said Christie, interested and impressed with what she heard.
"Wal, no, dear, I guess not. Peace ain't give to no one all of a suddin, it gen'lly comes through much tribulation, and the sort that comes hardest is best wuth havin'. Mr. Power would a' ploughed and harrered you, so to speak, and sowed good seed liberal; then ef you warn't barren ground things would have throve, and the Lord give you a harvest accordin' to your labor. Who did you hear?" asked Mrs. Wilkins, pausing to starch and clap vigorously.
"A very young man who seemed to be airing his ideas and beliefs in the frankest manner.
He belabored everybody and every thing, upset church and state, called names, arranged heaven and earth to suit himself, and evidently meant every word he said. Much of it would have been ridiculous if the boy had not been so thoroughly in earnest; sincerity always commands respect, and though people smiled, they liked his courage, and seemed to think he would make a man when his spiritual wild oats were sown."
"I ain't a doubt on't. We often have such, and they ain't all empty talk, nuther; some of
'em are surprisingly bright, and all mean so well I don't never reluct to hear 'em. They must blow off their steam somewheres, else they'd bust with the big idees a swellin' in
'em; Mr. Power knows it and gives 'em the chance they can't find nowheres else. 'Pears to me," added Mrs. Wilkins, ironing rapidly as she spoke, "that folks is very like clothes, and a sight has to be done to keep 'em clean and whole. All on us has to lend a hand in this dreadful mixed-up wash, and each do our part, same as you and me is now. There's scrubbin' and bilin', wrenchin' and bluein', dryin' and foldin', ironin' and polishin', before any of us is fit for wear a Sunday mornin'."
"What part does Mr. Power do?" asked Christie, much amused at this peculiarly appropriate simile.
"The scrubbin' and the bilin'; that's always the hardest and the hottest part. He starts the dirt and gits the stains out, and leaves 'em ready for other folks to finish off. It ain't such pleasant work as hangin' out, or such pretty work as doin' up, but some one's got to do it, and them that's strongest does it best, though they don't git half so much credit as them as polishes and crimps. That's showy work, but it wouldn't be no use ef the things warn't well washed fust," and Mrs. Wilkins thoughtfully surveyed the snowy muslin cap, with its border fluted like the petals of a prim white daisy, that hung on her hand.
"I'd like to be a washerwoman of that sort; but as I'm not one of the strong, I'll be a laundress, and try to make purity as attractive as you do," said Christie, soberly.
"Ah, my dear, it's warm and wearin' work I do assure you, and hard to give satisfaction, try as you may. Crowns of glory ain't wore in this world, but it's my 'pinion that them that does the hard jobs here will stand a good chance of havin' extra bright ones when they git through."
"I know you will," said Christie, warmly.
"Land alive, child! I warn't thinking of Cynthy Wilkins, but Mr. Power. I'll be satisfied ef I can set low down somewheres and see him git the meddle. He won't in this world, but I know there's rewards savin' up for him byme-by."
"I'll go to-morrow if it pours!" said Christie, with decision.
"Do, and I'll lend you my bunnit," cried Mrs. Wilkins, passing, with comical rapidity, from crowns of glory to her own cherished head-gear.
"Thank you, but I can't wear blue, I look as yellow as a dandelion in it. Mrs. Flint let me have my best things though I offered to leave them, so I shall be respectable and by-and-by blossom out."
On the morrow Christie went early, got a good seat, and for half an hour watched the gathering of the motley congregation that filled the great hall. Some came in timidly, as if doubtful of their welcome; some noisily, as if, as Mrs. Wilkins said, they had not learned the wide difference between liberty and license; many as if eager and curious; and a large number with the look of children gathering round a family table ready to be fed, and sure that wholesome food would be bountifully provided for them.
Christie was struck by the large proportion of young people in the place, of all classes, both sexes, and strongly contrasting faces. Delicate girls looking with the sweet wistfulness of maidenly hearts for something strong to lean upon and love; sad-eyed women turning to heaven for the consolations or the satisfactions earth could not give them; anxious mothers perplexed with many cares, trying to find light and strength; young men with ardent faces, restless, aspiring, and impetuous, longing to do and dare; tired-looking students, with perplexed wrinkles on their foreheads, evidently come to see if this man had discovered the great secrets they were delving after; and soul-sick people trying this new, and perhaps dangerous medicine, when others failed to cure. Many earnest, thoughtful men and women were there, some on the anxious seat, and some already at peace, having found the clew that leads safely through the labyrinth of life.
Here and there a white head, a placid old face, or one of those fine countenances that tell, unconsciously, the beautiful story of a victorious soul.
Some read, some talked, some had flowers in their hands, and all sat at ease, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, waiting for the coming of the man who had power to attract and hold so many of his kind. Christie was so intent on watching those about her that she did not see him enter, and only knew it by the silence which began just in front of her, and seemed to flow backward like a wave, leaving a sea of expectant faces turning to one point. That point was a gray head, just visible above the little desk which stood in the middle of a great platform. A vase of lovely flowers was on the little shelf at one side, a great Bible reposed on the other, and a manuscript lay on the red slope between.
In a moment Christie forgot every thing else, and waited with a curious anxiety to see what manner of man this was. Presently he got up with an open book in his hand, saying, in a strong, cheerful voice: "Let us sing," and having read a hymn as if he had composed it, he sat down again.
Then everybody did sing; not harmoniously, but heartily, led by an organ, which the voices followed at their own sweet will. At first, Christie wanted to smile, for some shouted and some hummed, some sat silent, and others sung sweetly; but before the hymn ended she liked it, and thought that the natural praise of each individual soul was perhaps more grateful to the ear of God than masses by great masters, or psalms warbled tunefully by hired opera singers.
Then Mr. Power rose again, and laying his hands together, with a peculiarly soft and reverent gesture, lifted up his face and prayed. Christie had never heard a prayer like that before; so devout, so comprehensive, and so brief. A quiet talk with God, asking nothing but more love and duty toward Him and our fellow-men; thanking Him for many mercies, and confiding all things trustfully to the "dear father and mother of souls."
The sermon which followed was as peculiar as the prayer, and as effective. "One of Power's judgment-day sermons," as she heard one man say to another, when it was over.
Christie certainly felt at first as if kingdoms and thrones were going down, and each man being sent to his own place. A powerful and popular wrong was arrested, tried, and sentenced then and there, with a courage and fidelity that made plain words eloquent, and stern justice beautiful. He did not take David of old for his text, but the strong, sinful, splendid Davids of our day, who had not fulfilled the promise of their youth, and whose seeming success was a delusion and a snare to themselves and others, sure to be followed by sorrowful abandonment, defeat, and shame. The ashes of the ancient hypocrites and Pharisees was left in peace, but those now living were heartily denounced; modern money-changers scourged out of the temple, and the everlasting truth set up therein.
As he spoke, not loudly nor vehemently, but with the indescribable effect of inward force and true inspiration, a curious stir went through the crowd at times, as a great wind sweeps over a corn field, lifting the broad leaves to the light and testing the strength of root and stem. People looked at one another with a roused expression; eyes kindled, heads nodded involuntary approval, and an emphatic, "that's so!" dropped from the lips of men who saw their own vague instincts and silent opinions strongly confirmed and nobly uttered. Consciences seemed to have been pricked to duty, eyes cleared to see that their golden idols had feet of clay, and wavering wills strengthened by the salutary courage and integrity of one indomitable man. Another hymn, and a benediction that seemed like a fit grace after meat, and then the crowd poured out; not yawning, thinking of best clothes, or longing for dinner, but waked up, full of talk, and eager to do something to redeem the country and the world.
Christie went rapidly home because she could not help it, and burst in upon Mrs. Wilkins with a face full of enthusiasm, exclaiming, while she cast off her bonnet as if her head had outgrown it since she left:
"It was splendid! I never heard such a sermon before, and I'll never go to church anywhere else."
"I knew it! ain't it fillin'? don't it give you a kind of spiritnl h'ist, and make things wuth more somehow?" cried Mrs. Wilkins, gesticulating with the pepper-pot in a way which did not improve the steak she was cooking, and caused great anguish to the noses of her offspring, who were watching the operation.
Quite deaf to the chorus of sneezes which accompanied her words, Christie answered, brushing back her hair, as if to get a better out-look at creation generally:
"Oh, yes, indeed! At first it was rather terrible, and yet so true I wouldn't change a word of it. But I don't wonder he is misunderstood, belied, and abused. He tells the truth so plainly, and lets in the light so clearly, that hypocrites and sinners must fear and hate him.
I think he was a little hard and unsparing, sometimes, though I don't know enough to judge the men and measures he condemned. I admire him very much, but I should be afraid of him if I ever saw him nearer."
"No, you wouldn't; not a grain. You hear him preach agin and you'll find him as gentle as a lamb. Strong folks is apt to be ruther ha'sh at times; they can't help it no more than this stove can help scorchin' the vittles when it gits red hot. Dinner's ready, so set right up and tell me all about it," said Mrs. Wilkins, slapping the steak on to the platter, and beginning to deal out fried potatoes all round with absent-minded lavishness.
Christie talked, and the good soul enjoyed that far more than her dinner, for she meant to ask Mr. Power to help her find the right sort of home for the stranger whose unfitness for her present place was every day made more apparent to the mind of her hostess.
"What took you there first?" asked Christie, still wondering at Mrs. Wilkins's choice of a minister.
"The Lord, my dear," answered the good woman, in a tone of calm conviction. "I'd heard of him, and I always have a leanin' towards them that's reviled; so one Sabbath I felt to go, and did. 'That's the gospel for me,' says I, 'my old church ain't big enough now, and I ain't goin' to set and nod there any longer,' and I didn't."
"Hadn't you any doubts about it, any fears of going wrong or being sorry afterwards?"
asked Christie, who believed, as many do, that religion could not be attained without much tribulation of some kind.
"In some things folks is led; I be frequent, and when them leadin's corne I don't ask no questions but jest foller, and it always turns out right."
"I wish I could be led."
"You be, my dear, every day of your life only you don't see it. When you are doubtful, set still till the call conies, then git up and walk whichever way it says, and you won't fall.
You've had bread and water long enough, now you want meat and wine a spell; take it, and when it's time for milk and honey some one will fetch 'em ef you keep your table ready. The Lord feeds us right; it's we that quarrel with our vittles."
"I will," said Christie, and began at once to prepare her little board for the solid food of which she had had a taste that day.
That afternoon Mrs. Wilkins took her turn at church-going, saw Mr. Power, told Christie's story in her best style, and ended by saying:
"She's true grit, I do assure you, sir. Willin' to work, but she's seen the hard side of things and got kind of discouraged. Soul and body both wants tinkerin' up, and I don't know anybody who can do the job better 'n you can."
"Very well, I'll come and see her," answered Mr. Power, and Mrs. Wilkins went home well satisfied.
He kept his word, and about the middle of the week came walking in upon them as they were at work.
"Don't let the irons cool," he said, and sitting down in the kitchen began to talk as comfortably as if in the best parlor; more so, perhaps, for best parlors are apt to have a depressing effect upon the spirits, while the mere sight of labor is exhilarating to energetic minds.
He greeted Christie kindly, and then addressed himself to Mrs. Wilkins on various charitable matters, for he was a minister at large, and she one of his almoners. Christie could really see him now, for when he preached she forgot the man in the sermon, and thought of him only as a visible conscience.
A sturdy man of fifty, with a keen, brave face, penetrating eyes, and mouth a little grim; but a voice so resonant and sweet it reminded one of silver trumpets, and stirred and won the hearer with irresistible power. Rough gray hair, and all the features rather rugged, as if the Great Sculptor had blocked out a grand statue, and left the man's own soul to finish it.
Had Christie known that he came to see her she would have been ill at ease; but Mrs.
Wilkins had kept her own counsel, so when Mr. Power turned to Christie, saying:
"My friend here tells me you want something to do. Would you like to help a Quaker lady with her housework, just out of town?"
She answered readily: "Yes, sir, any thing that is honest."
"Not as a servant, exactly, but companion and helper. Mrs. Sterling is a dear old lady, and the place a pleasant little nest. It is good to be there, and I think you'll say so if you go."
"It sounds pleasant. When shall I go?"
Mr. Power smiled at her alacrity, but the longing look in her eyes explained it, for he saw at a glance that her place was not here.
"I will write at once and let you know how matters are settled. Then you shall try it, and if it is not what you want, we will find you something else. There's plenty to do, and nothing pleasanter than to put the right pair of hands to the right task. Good-by; come and see me if the spirit moves, and don't let go of Mrs. Wilkins till you lay hold of a better friend, if you can find one."
Then he shook hands cordially, and went walking out again into the wild March weather as if he liked it.
"Were you afraid of him?" asked Mrs. Wilkins.
"I forgot all about it: he looked so kind and friendly. But I shouldn't like to have those piercing eyes of his fixed on me long if I had any secret on my conscience," answered Christie.
"You ain't nothin' to fear. He liked your way of speakin' fust rate, I see that, and you'll be all right now he's took hold."
"Do you know Mrs. Sterling?"
"Only by sight, but she's a sweet appearin' woman, and I wouldn't ask nothin' better 'n to see more of her," said Mrs. Wilkins, warmly, fearing Christie's heart might misgive her.
But it did not, and when a note came saying Mrs. Sterling would be ready for her the next week, she seemed quite content with every thing, for though the wages were not high she felt that country air and quiet were worth more to her just then than money, and that Wilkinses were better taken homceopathically.
The spirit did move her to go and see Mr. Power, but she could not make up her mind to pass that invisible barrier which stands between so many who could give one another genuine help if they only dared to ask it. But when Sunday came she went to church, eager for more, and thankful that she knew where to go for it.
This was a very different sermon from the other, and Christie felt as if he preached it for her alone. "Keep innocency and take heed to the thing that is right, for this will bring a man peace at the last," might have been the text, and Mr. Power treated it as if he had known all the trials and temptations that made it hard to live up to.
Justice and righteous wrath possessed him before, now mercy and tenderest sympathy for those who faltered in well-doing, and the stern judge seemed changed to a pitiful father.
But better than the pity was the wise counsel, the cheering words, and the devout surrender of the soul to its best instincts; its close communion with its Maker, unchilled by fear, untrammelled by the narrowness of sect or superstition, but full and free and natural as the breath of life.
As she listened Christie felt as if she was climbing up from a solitary valley, through mist and shadow toward a mountain top, where, though the way might be rough and strong winds blow, she would get a wider outlook over the broad earth, and be nearer the serene blue sky. For the first time in her life religion seemed a visible and vital thing; a power that she could grasp and feel, take into her life and make her daily bread. Not a vague, vast idea floating before her, now beautiful, now terrible, always undefined and far away.
She was strangely and powerfully moved that day, for the ploughing had begun; and when the rest stood up for the last hymn, Christie could only bow her head and let the uncontrollable tears flow down like summer rain, while her heart sang with new aspiration:
"Nearer, my God, to thee,
E'en though a cross it be
That raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee.
Nearer to thee!"
Sitting with her hand before her eyes, she never stirred till the sound of many feet told her that service was done. Then she wiped her eyes, dropped her veil, and was about to rise when she saw a little bunch of flowers between the leaves of the hymn book lying open in her lap. Only a knot of violets set in their own broad leaves, but blue as friendly eyes looking into hers, and sweet as kind words whispered in her ear. She looked about her hoping to detect and thank the giver; but all faces were turned the other way, and all feet departing rapidly.
Christie followed with a very grateful thought in her heart for this little kindness from some unknown friend; and, anxious to recover herself entirely before she faced Mrs.
Wilkins, she took a turn in the park.
The snow was gone, high winds had dried the walk, and a clear sky overhead made one forget sodden turf and chilly air. March was going out like a lamb, and Christie enjoyed an occasional vernal whiff from far-off fields and wakening woods, as she walked down the broad mall watching the buds on the boughs, and listening to the twitter of the sparrows, evidently discussing the passers-by as they sat at the doors of their little mansions.
Presently she turned to walk back again and saw Mr. Power coming toward her. She was glad, for all her fear had vanished now, and she wanted to thank him for the sermon that had moved her so deeply. He shook hands in his cordial way, and, turning, walked with her, beginning at once to talk of her affairs as if interested in them.
"Are you ready for the new experiment?" he asked.
"Quite ready, sir; very glad to go, and very much obliged to you for your kindness in providing for me."
"That is what we were put into the world for, to help one another. You can pass on the kindness by serving my good friends who, in return, will do their best for you."
"That's so pleasant! I always knew there were plenty of good, friendly people in the world, only I did not seem to find them often, or be able to keep them long when I did. Is Mr. Sterling an agreeable old man?"
"Very agreeable, but not old. David is about thirty-one or two, I think. He is the son of my friend, the husband died some years ago. I thought I mentioned it."
"You said in your note that Mr. Sterling was a florist, and might like me to help in the green-house, if I was willing. It must be lovely work, and I should like it very much."
"Yes, David devotes himself to his flowers, and leads a very quiet life. You may think him rather grave and blunt at first, but you'll soon find him out and get on comfortably, for he is a truly excellent fellow, and my right-hand man in good works."
A curious little change had passed over Christie's face during these last questions and answers, unconscious, but quite observable to keen eyes like Mr. Power's. Surprise and interest appeared first, then a shadow of reserve as if the young woman dropped a thin veil between herself and the young man, and at the last words a half smile and a slight raising of the brows seemed to express the queer mixture of pity and indifference with which we are all apt to regard "excellent fellows" and "amiable girls." Mr. Power understood the look, and went on more confidentially than he had at first intended, for he did not want Christie to go off with a prejudice in her mind which might do both David and herself injustice.
"People sometimes misjudge him, for he is rather old-fashioned in manner and plain in speech, and may seem unsocial, because he does not seek society. But those who know the cause of this forgive any little short-comings for the sake of the genuine goodness of the man. David had a great trouble some years ago and suffered much. He is learning to bear it bravely, and is the better for it, though the memory of it is still bitter, and the cross hard to bear even with pride to help him hide it, and principle to keep him from despair."
Mr. Power glanced at Christie as he paused, and was satisfied with the effect of his words, for interest, pity, and respect shone in her face, and proved that he had touched the right string. She seemed to feel that this little confidence was given for a purpose, and showed that she accepted it as a sort of gage for her own fidelity to her new employers.
"Thank you, sir, I shall remember," she said, with her frank eyes lifted gravely to his own. "I like to work for people whom I can respect," she added, "and will bear with any peculiarities of Mr. Sterling's without a thought of complaint. When a man has suffered through one woman, all women should be kind and patient with him, and try to atone for the wrong which lessens his respect and faith in them."
"There you are right; and in this case all women should be kind, for David pities and protects womankind as the only retaliation for the life-long grief one woman brought upon him. That's not a common revenge, is it?"
"It's beautiful!" cried Christie, and instantly David was a hero.
"At one time it was an even chance whether that trouble sent David to 'the devil,' as he expressed it, or made a man of him. That little saint of a mother kept him safe till the first desperation was over, and now he lives for her, as he ought. Not so romantic an ending as a pistol or Byronic scorn for the world in general and women in particular, but dutiful and brave, since it often takes more courage to live than to die."
"Yes, sir," said Christie, heartily, though her eyes fell, remembering how she had failed with far less cause for despair than David.
They were at the gate now, and Mr. Power left her, saying, with a vigorous hand-shake:
"Best wishes for a happy summer. I shall come sometimes to see how you prosper; and remember, if you tire of it and want to change, let me know, for I take great satisfaction in putting the right people in the right places. Good-by, and God be with you."