Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott - HTML preview
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BEFORE she had time to find a new situation, Christie received a note from Miss Tudor, saying that hearing she had left Mrs. Saltonstall she wanted to offer her the place of companion to an invalid girl, where the duties were light and the compensation large."How kind of her to think of me," said Christie, gratefully. "I'll go at once and do my best to secure it, for it must be a good thing or she wouldn't recommend it." Away went Christie to the address sent by Miss Tudor, and as she waited at the door she thought:
"What a happy family the Carrols must be!" for the house was one of an imposing block in a West End square, which had its own little park where a fountain sparkled in the autumn sunshine, and pretty children played among the fallen leaves.
Mrs. Carrol was a stately woman, still beautiful in spite of her fifty years. But though there were few lines on her forehead, few silver threads in the dark hair that lay smoothly over it, and a gracious smile showed the fine teeth, an indescribable expression of unsubmissive sorrow touched the whole face, betraying that life had brought some heavy cross, from which her wealth could purchase no release, for which her pride could find no effectual screen.
She looked at Christie with a searching eye, listened attentively when she spoke, and seemed testing her with covert care as if the place she was to fill demanded some unusual gift or skill.
"Miss Tudor tells me that you read aloud well, sing sweetly, possess a cheerful temper, and the quiet, patient ways which are peculiarly grateful to an invalid," began Mrs. Carrol, with that keen yet wistful gaze, and an anxious accent in her voice that went to Christie's heart.
"Miss Tudor is very kind to think so well of me and my few accomplishments. I have never been with an invalid, but I think I can promise to be patient, willing, and cheerful. My own experience of illness has taught me how to sympathize with others and love to lighten pain. I shall be very glad to try if you think I have any fitness for the place.""I do," and Mrs. Carrol's face softened as she spoke, for something in Christie's words or manner seemed to please her. Then slowly, as if the task was a hard one, she added:
"My daughter has been very ill and is still weak and nervous. I must hint to you that the loss of one very dear to her was the cause of the illness and the melancholy which now oppresses her. Therefore we must avoid any thing that can suggest or recall this trouble. She cares for nothing as yet, will see no one, and prefers to live alone. She is still so feeble this is but natural; yet solitude is bad for her, and her physician thinks that a new face might rouse her, and the society of one in no way connected with the painful past might interest and do her good. You see it is a little difficult to find just what we want, for a young companion is best, yet must be discreet and firm, as few young people are."
Fancying from Mrs. Carrol's manner that Miss Tudor had said more in her favor than had been repeated to her, Christie in a few plain-words told her little story, resolving to have no concealments here, and feeling that perhaps her experiences might have given her more firmness and discretion than many women of her age possessed. Mrs. Carrol seemed to find it so; the anxious look lifted a little as she listened, and when Christie ended she said, with a sigh of relief:
"Yes, I think Miss Tudor is right, and you are the one we want. Come and try it for a week and then we can decide. Can you begin to-day?" she added, as Christie rose. "Every hour is precious, for my poor girl's sad solitude weighs on my heart, and this is my one hope."
"I will stay with pleasure," answered Christie, thinking Mrs. Carrol's anxiety excessive, yet pitying the mother's pain, for something in her face suggested the idea that she reproached herself in some way for her daughter's state.
With secret gratitude that she had dressed with care, Christie took off her things and followed Mrs. Carrol upstairs. Entering a room in what seemed to be a wing of the great house, they found an old woman sewing."How is Helen to-day, Nurse?" asked Mrs. Carrol, pausing.
"Poorly, ma'am. I've been in every hour, but she only says: 'Let me be quiet,' and lies looking up at the picture till it's fit to break your heart to see her," answered the woman, with a shake of the head.
"I have brought Miss Devon to sit with her a little while. Doctor advises it, and I fancy the experiment may succeed if we can only amuse the dear child, and make her forget herself and her troubles."
"As you please, ma'am," said the old woman, looking with little favor at the new-comer, for the good soul was jealous of any interference between herself and the child she had tended for years."I won't disturb her, but you shall take Miss Devon in and tell Helen mamma sends her love, and hopes she will make an effort for all our sakes." "Yes, ma'am." "Go, my dear, and do your best." With these words Mrs. Carrol hastily left the room, and Christie followed Nurse.
A quick glance showed her that she was in the daintily furnished boudoir of a rich man's daughter, but before she could take a second look her eyes were arrested by the occupant of this pretty place, and she forgot all else. On a low luxurious couch lay a girl, so beautiful and pale and still, that for an instant Christie thought her dead or sleeping. She was neither, for at the sound of a voice the great eyes opened wide, darkening and dilating with a strange expression as they fell on the unfamiliar face."Nurse, who is that? I told you I would see no one. I'm too ill to be so worried," she said, in an imperious tone.
"Yes, dear, I know, but your mamma wished you to make an effort. Miss Devon is to sit with you and try to cheer you up a bit," said the old woman in a dissatisfied tone, that contrasted strangely with the tender way in which she stroked the beautiful disordered hair that hung about the girl's shoulders.Helen knit her brows and looked most ungracious, but evidently tried to be civil, for with a courteous wave of her hand toward an easy chair in the sunny window she said, quietly:
"Please sit down, Miss Devon, and excuse me for a little while. I've had a bad night, and am too tired to talk just yet. There are books of all sorts, or the conservatory if you like it better.""Thank you. I'll read quietly till you want me. Then I shall be very glad to do any thing I can for you."
With that Christie retired to the big chair, and fell to reading the first book she took up, a good deal embarrassed by her reception, and very curious to know what would come next.The old woman went away after folding the down coverlet carefully over her darling's feet, and Helen seemed to go to sleep.
For a time the room was very still; the fire burned softly on the marble hearth, the sun shone warmly on velvet carpet and rich hangings, the delicate breath of flowers blew in through the halt-open door that led to a gay little conservatory, and nothing but the roll of a distant carriage broke the silence now and then.
Christie's eyes soon wandered from her book to the lovely face and motionless figure on the couch. Just opposite, in a recess, hung the portrait of a young and handsome man, and below it stood a vase of flowers, a graceful Roman lamp, and several little relics, as if it were the shrine where some dead love was mourned and worshipped still.
As she looked from the living face, so pale and so pathetic in its quietude, to the painted one so full of color, strength, and happiness, her heart ached for poor Helen, and her eyes were wet with tears of pity. A sudden movement on the couch gave her no time to hide them, and as she hastily looked down upon her book a treacherous drop fell glittering on the page."What have you there so interesting?" asked Helen, in that softly imperious tone of hers. "Don Quixote," answered Christie, too much abashed to have her wits about her.
Helen smiled a melancholy smile as she rose, saying wearily: "They gave me that to make me laugh, but I did not find it funny; neither was it sad enough to make me cry as you do."
"I was not reading, I was"--there Christie broke down, and could have cried with vexation at the bad beginning she had made. But that involuntary tear was better balm to Helen than the most perfect tact, the most brilliant conversation. It touched and won her without words, for sympathy works miracles. Her whole face changed, and her mournful eyes grew soft as with the gentle freedom of a child she lifted Christie's downcast face and said, with a falter in her voice:
"I know you were pitying me. Well, I need pity, and from you I'll take it, because you don't force it on me. Have you been ill and wretched too? I think so, else you would never care to come and shut yourself up here with me!""I have been ill, and I know how hard it is to get one's spirits back again. I've had my troubles, too, but not heavier than I could bear, thank God." "What made you ill? Would you mind telling me about it? I seem to fancy hearing other people's woes, though it can't make mine seem lighter."
"A piece of the Castle of the Sun fell on my head and nearly killed me," and Christie laughed in spite of herself at the astonishment in Helen's face. "I was an actress once; your mother knows and didn't mind," she added, quickly.
"I'm glad of that. I used to wish I could be one, I was so fond of the theatre. They should have consented, it would have given me something to do, and, however hard it is, it couldn't be worse than this." Helen spoke vehemently and an excited flush rose to her white cheeks; then she checked herself and dropped into a chair, saying, hurriedly:
"Tell about it: don't let me think; it's bad for me." Glad to be set to work, and bent on retrieving her first mistake, Christie plunged into her theatrical experiences and talked away in her most lively style. People usually get eloquent when telling their own stories, and true tales are always the most interesting. Helen listened at first with a half-absent air, but presently grew more attentive, and when the catastrophe came sat erect, quite absorbed in the interest of this glimpse behind the curtain.
Charmed with her success, Christie branched off right and left, stimulated by questions, led on by suggestive incidents, and generously supplied by memory. Before she knew it, she was telling her whole history in the most expansive manner, for women soon get sociable together, and Helen's interest flattered her immensely. Once she made her laugh at some droll trifle, and as if the unaccustomed sound had startled her, old nurse popped in her head; but seeing nothing amiss retired, wondering what on earth that girl could be doing to cheer up Miss Helen so.
"Tell about your lovers: you must have had some; actresses always do. Happy women, they can love as they like!" said Helen, with the inquisitive frankness of an invalid for whom etiquette has ceased to exist.Remembering in time that this was a forbidden subject, Christie smiled and shook her head. "I had a few, but one does not tell those secrets, you know."
Evidently disappointed, and a little displeased at being reminded of her want of goodbreeding, Helen got up and began to wander restlessly about the room. Presently, as if wishing to atone for her impatience, she bade Christie come and see her flowers. Following her, the new companion found herself in a little world where perpetual summer reigned. Vines curtained the roof, slender shrubs and trees made leafy walls on either side, flowers bloomed above and below, birds carolled in half-hidden prisons, aquariums and ferneries stood all about, and the soft plash of a little fountain made pleasant music as it rose and fell.
Helen threw herself wearily down on a pile of cushions that lay beside the basin, and beckoning Christie to sit near, said, as she pressed her hands to her hot forehead and looked up with a distressful brightness in the haggard eyes that seemed to have no rest in them:
"Please sing to me; any humdrum air will do. I am so tired, and yet I cannot sleep. If my head would only stop this dreadful thinking and let me forget one hour it would do me so much good.""I know the feeling, and I'll try what Lucy used to do to quiet me. Put your poor head in my lap, dear, and lie quite still while I cool and comfort it."
Obeying like a worn-out child, Helen lay motionless while Christie, dipping her fingers in the basin, passed the wet tips softly to and fro across the hot forehead, and the thin temples where the pulses throbbed so fast. And while she soothed she sang the "Land o' the Leal," and sang it well; for the tender words, the plaintive air were dear to her, because her mother loved and sang it to her years ago. Slowly the heavy eyelids drooped, slowly the lines of pain were smoothed away from the broad brow, slowly the restless hands grew still, and Helen lay asleep.
So intent upon her task was Christie, that she forgot herself till the discomfort of her position reminded her that she had a body. Fearing to wake the poor girl in her arms, she tried to lean against the basin, but could not reach a cushion to lay upon the cold stone ledge. An unseen hand supplied the want, and, looking round, she saw two young men standing behind her.
Helen's brothers, without doubt; for, though utterly unlike in expression, some of the family traits were strongly marked in both. The elder wore the dress of a priest, had a pale, ascetic face, with melancholy eyes, stern mouth, and the absent air of one who leads an inward life. The younger had a more attractive face, for, though bearing marks of dissipation, it betrayed a generous, ardent nature, proud and wilful, yet lovable in spite of all defects. He was very boyish still, and plainly showed how much he felt, as, with a hasty nod to Christie, he knelt down beside his sister, saying, in a whisper:"Look at her, Augustine! so beautiful, so quiet! What a comfort it is to see her like herself again."
"Ah, yes; and but for the sin of it, I could find it in my heart to wish she might never wake!" returned the other, gloomily.
"Don't say that! How could we live without her?" Then, turning to Christie, the younger said, in a friendly tone:
Carefully lifting her, the brothers carried the sleeping girl into her room, and laid her down. She sighed as her head touched the pillow, and her arm clung to Harry's neck, as if she felt his nearness even in sleep. He put his cheek to hers, and lingered over her with an affectionate solicitude beautiful to see. Augustine stood silent, grave and cold as if he had done with human ties, yet found it hard to sever this one, for he stretched his hand above his sister as if he blessed her, then, with another grave bow to Christie, went away as noiselessly as he had come. But Harry kissed the sleeper tenderly, whispered, "Be kind to her," with an imploring voice, and hurried from the room as if to hide the feeling that he must not show.A few minutes later the nurse brought in a note from Mrs. Carrol.
"My son tells me that Helen is asleep, and you look very tired. Leave her to Hester, now; you have done enough to-day, so let me thank you heartily, and send you home for a quiet night before you continue your good work to-morrow."Christie went, found a carriage waiting for her, and drove home very happy at the success of her first attempt at companionship.
The next day she entered upon the new duties with interest and good-will, for this was work in which heart took part, as well as head and hand. Many things surprised, and some things perplexed her, as she came to know the family better. But she discreetly held her tongue, used her eyes, and did her best to please.
Mrs. Carrol seemed satisfied, often thanked her for her faithfulness to Helen, but seldom visited her daughter, never seemed surprised or grieved that the girl expressed no wish to see her; and, though her handsome face always wore its gracious smile, Christie soon felt very sure that it was a mask put on to hide some heavy sorrow from a curious world.
Augustine never came except when Helen was asleep: then, like a shadow, he passed in and out, always silent, cold, and grave, but in his eyes the gloom of some remorseful pain that prayers and penances seemed powerless to heal.
Harry came every day, and no matter how melancholy, listless, or irritable his sister might be, for him she always had a smile, an affectionate greeting, a word of praise, or a tender warning against the reckless spirit that seemed to possess him. The love between them was very strong, and Christie found a never-failing pleasure in watching them together, for then Helen showed what she once had been, and Harry was his best self. A boy still, in spite of his one-and-twenty years, he seemed to feel that Helen's room was a safe refuge from the temptations that beset one of his thoughtless and impetuous nature. Here he came to confess his faults and follies with the frankness which is half sad, half comical, and wholly charming in a good-hearted young scatter-brain. Here he brought gay gossip, lively descriptions, and masculine criticisms of the world he moved in. All his hopes and plans, joys and sorrows, successes and defeats, he told to Helen. And she, poor soul, in this one happy love of her sad life, forgot a little the burden of despair that darkened all the world to her. For his sake she smiled, to him she talked when others got no word from her, and Harry's salvation was the only duty that she owned or tried to fulfil.
A younger sister was away at school, but the others seldom spoke of her, and Christie tired herself with wondering why Bella never wrote to Helen, and why Harry seemed to have nothing but a gloomy sort of pity to bestow upon the blooming girl whose picture hung in the great drawing-room below.
It was a very quiet winter, yet a very pleasant one to Christie, for she felt herself loved and trusted, saw that she suited, and believed that she was doing good, as women best love to do it, by bestowing sympathy and care with generous devotion.
Helen and Harry loved her like an elder sister; Augustine showed that he was grateful, and Mrs. Carrol sometimes forgot to put on her mask before one who seemed fast becoming confidante as well as companion.
In the spring the family went to the fine old country-house just out of town, and here Christie and her charge led a freer, happier life. Walking and driving, boating and gardening, with pleasant days on the wide terrace, where Helen swung idly in her hammock, while Christie read or talked to her; and summer twilights beguiled with music, or the silent reveries more eloquent than speech, which real friends may enjoy together, and find the sweeter for the mute companionship.Harry was with them, and devoted to his sister, who seemed slowly to be coming out of her sad gloom, won by patient tenderness and the cheerful influences all about her.
Christie's heart was full of pride and satisfaction, as she saw the altered face, heard the tone of interest in that once hopeless voice, and felt each day more sure that Helen had outlived the loss that seemed to have broken her heart.
Alas, for Christie's pride, for Harry's hope, and for poor Helen's bitter fate! When all was brightest, the black shadow came; when all looked safest, danger was at hand; and when the past seemed buried, the ghost which haunted it returned, for the punishment of a broken law is as inevitable as death.
When settled in town again Bella came home, a gay, young girl, who should have brought sunshine and happiness into her home. But from the hour she returned a strange anxiety seemed to possess the others. Mrs. Carrol watched over her with sleepless care, was evidently full of maternal pride in the lovely creature, and began to dream dreams about her future. She seemed to wish to keep the sisters apart, and said to Christie, as if to explain this wish:
"Bella was away when Helen's trouble and illness came, she knows very little of it, and I do not want her to be saddened by the knowledge. Helen cares only for Hal, and Bella is too young to be of any use to my poor girl; therefore the less they see of each other the better for both. I am sure you agree with me?" she added, with that covert scrutiny which Christie had often felt before.
She could but acquiesce in the mother's decision, and devote herself more faithfully than ever to Helen, who soon needed all her care and patience, for a terrible unrest grew upon her, bringing sleepless nights again, moody days, and all the old afflictions with redoubled force.
Bella "came out" and began her career as a beauty and a belle most brilliantly. Harry was proud of her, but seemed jealous of other men's admiration for his charming sister, and would excite both Helen and himself over the flirtations into which "that child" as they called her, plunged with all the zest of a light-hearted girl whose head was a little turned with sudden and excessive adoration.
In vain Christie begged Harry not to report these things, in vain she hinted that Bella had better not come to show herself to Helen night after night in all the dainty splendor of her youth and beauty; in vain she asked Mrs. Carrol to let her go away to some quieter place with Helen, since she never could be persuaded to join in any gayety at home or abroad. All seemed wilful, blind, or governed by the fear of the gossiping world. So the days rolled on till an event occurred which enlightened Christie, with startling abruptness, and showed her the skeleton that haunted this unhappy family.Going in one morning to Helen she found her walking to and fro as she often walked of late, with hurried steps and excited face as if driven by some power beyond her control.
"Good morning, dear. I'm so sorry you had a restless night, and wish you had sent for me. Will you come out now for an early drive? It's a lovely day, and your mother thinks it would do you good," began Christie, troubled by the state in which she found the girl.But as she spoke Helen turned on her, crying passionately: "My mother! don't speak of her to me, I hate her!"
"Oh, Helen, don't say that. Forgive and forget if she has displeased you, and don't exhaust yourself by brooding over it. Come, dear, and let us soothe ourselves with a little music. I want to hear that new song again, though I can never hope to sing it as you do."
"Sing!" echoed Helen, with a shrill laugh, "you don't know what you ask. Could you sing when your heart was heavy with the knowledge of a sin about to be committed by those nearest to you? Don't try to quiet me, I must talk whether you listen or not; I shall go frantic if I don't tell some one; all the world will know it soon. Sit down, I'll not hurt you, but don't thwart me or you'll be sorry for it."
Speaking with a vehemence that left her breathless, Helen thrust Christie down upon a seat, and went on with an expression in her face that bereft the listener of power to move or speak.
"Harry has just told me of it; he was very angry, and I saw it, and made him tell me. Poor boy, he can keep nothing from me. I've been dreading it, and now it's coming. You don't know it, then? Young Butler is in love with Bella, and no one has prevented it. Think how wicked when such a curse is on us all."
The question, "What curse?" rose involuntarily to Christie's lips, but did not pass them, for, as if she read the thought, Helen answered it in a whisper that made the blood tingle in the other's veins, so full of ominous suggestion was it.
"The curse of insanity I mean. We are all mad, or shall be; we come of a mad race, and for years we have gone recklessly on bequeathing this awful inheritance to our descendants. It should end with us, we are the last; none of us should marry; none dare think of it but Bella, and she knows nothing. She must be told, she must be kept from the sin of deceiving her lover, the agony of seeing her children become what I am, and what we all may be."
Here Helen wrung her hands and paced the room in such a paroxysm of impotent despair that Christie sat bewildered and aghast, wondering if this were true, or but the fancy of a troubled brain. Mrs. Carrol's face and manner returned to her with sudden vividness, so did Augustine's gloomy expression, and the strange wish uttered over his sleeping sister long ago. Harry's reckless, aimless life might be explained in this way; and all that had perplexed her through that year. Every thing confirmed the belief that this tragical assertion was true, and Christie covered up her face, murmuring, with an involuntary shiver:"My God, how terrible!" Helen came and stood before her with such grief and penitence in her countenance that for a moment it conquered the despair that had broken bounds.
"We should have told you this at first; I longed to do it, but I was afraid you'd go and leave me. I was so lonely, so miserable, Christie. I could not give you up when I had learned to love you; and I did learn very soon, for no wretched creature ever needed help and comfort more than I. For your sake I tried to be quiet, to control my shattered nerves, and hide rny desperate thoughts. You helped me very much, and your unconsciousness made me doubly watchful. Forgive me; don't desert me now, for the old horror may be coming back, and I want you more than ever."
Too much moved to speak, Christie held out her hands, with a face full of pity, love, and grief. Poor Helen clung to them as if her only help lay there, and for a moment was quite still. But not long; the old anguish was too sharp to be borne in silence; the relief of confidence once tasted was too great to be denied; and, breaking loose, she went to and fro again, pouring out the bitter secret which had been weighing upon heart and conscience for a year.
"You wonder that I hate my mother; let me tell you why. When she was beautiful and young she married, knowing the sad history of my father's family. He was rich, she poor and proud; ambition made her wicked, and she did it after being warned that, though he might escape, his children were sure to inherit the curse, for when one generation goes free it falls more heavily upon the rest. She knew it all, and yet she married him. I have her to thank for all I suffer, and I cannot love her though she is my mother. It may be wrong to say these things, but they are true; they burn in my heart, and I must speak out; for I tell you there comes a time when children judge their parents as men and women, in spite of filial duty, and woe to those whose actions change affection and respect to hatred or contempt."
The bitter grief, the solemn fervor of her words, both touched and awed Christie too much for speech. Helen had passed beyond the bounds of ceremony, fear, or shame: her hard lot, her dark experience, set her apart, and gave her the right to utter the bare truth. To her heart's core Christie felt that warning; and for the first time saw what many never see or wilfully deny,--the awful responsibility that lies on every man and woman's soul forbidding them to entail upon the innocent the burden of their own infirmities, the curse that surely follows their own sins.
"If ever a woman had cause to repent, it is my mother; but she will not, and till she does, God has forsaken us. Nothing can subdue her pride, not even an affliction like mine. She hides the truth; she hides me, and lets the world believe I am dying of consumption; not a word about insanity, and no one knows the secret beyond ourselves, but doctor, nurse, and you. This is why I was not sent away, but for a year was shut up in that room yonder where the door is always locked. If you look in, you'll see barred windows, guarded fire, muffled walls, and other sights to chill your blood, when you remember all those dreadful things were meant for me."
"Don't speak, don't think of them! Don't talk any more; let me do something to comfort you, for my heart is broken with all this," cried Christie, panic-stricken at the picture Helen's words had conjured up.
"I must go on! There is no rest for me till I have tried to lighten this burden by sharing it with you. Let me talk, let me wear myself out, then you shall help and comfort me, if there is any help and comfort for such as I. Now I can tell you all about my Edward, and you'll listen, though mamma forbade it. Three years ago my father died, and we came here. I was well then, and oh, how happy!"
Clasping her hands above her head, she stood like a beautiful, pale image of despair; tearless and mute, but with such a world of anguish in the eyes lifted to the smiling picture opposite that it needed no words to tell the story of a broken heart.
"How I loved him!" she said, softly, while her whole face glowed for an instant with the light and warmth of a deathless passion. "How I loved him, and how he loved me! Too well to let me darken both our lives with a remorse which would come too late for a just atonement. I thought him cruel then,--I bless him for it now. I had far rather be the innocent sufferer I am, than a wretched woman like my mother. I shall never see him any more, but I know he thinks of me far away in India, and when I die one faithful heart will remember me."
There her voice faltered and failed, and for a moment the fire of her eyes was quenched in tears. Christie thought the reaction had come, and rose to go and comfort her. But instantly Helen's hand was on her shoulder, and pressing her back into her seat, she said, almost fiercely:
"I'm not done yet; yon must hear the whole, and help me to save Bella. We knew nothing of the blight that hung over us till father told Augustine upon his death-bed. August, urged by mother, kept it to himself, and went away to bear it as he could. He should have spoken out and saved me in time. But not till he came home and found me engaged did he have courage to warn me of the fate in store for us. So Edward tore himself away, although it broke his heart, and I--do you see that?"With a quick gesture she rent open her dress, and on her bosom Christie saw a scar that made her turn yet paler than before.
"Yes, I tried to kill myself; but they would not let me die, so the old tragedy of our house begins again. August became a priest, hoping to hide his calamity and expiate his father's sin by endless penances and prayers. Harry turned reckless; for what had he to look forward to? A short life, and a gay one, he says, and when his turn comes he will spare himself long suffering, as I tried to do it. Bella was never told; she was so young they kept her ignorant of all they could, even the knowledge of my state. She was long away at school, but now she has come home, now she has learned to love, and is going blindly as I went, because no one tells her what she must know soon or late. Mamma will not. August hesitates, remembering me. Harry swears he will speak out, but I implore him not to do it, for he will be too violent; and I am powerless. I never knew about this man till Hal told me to-day. Bella only comes in for a moment, and I have no chance to tell her she must not love him."Pressing her hands to her temples, Helen resumed her restless march again, but suddenly broke out more violently than before:
"Now do you wonder why I am half frantic? Now will you ask me to sing and smile, and sit calmly by while this wrong goes on? You have done much for me, and God will bless you for it, but you cannot keep me sane. Death is the only cure for a mad Carrol, and I'm so young, so strong, it will be long in coming unless I hurry it."She clenched her hands, set her teeth, and looked about her as if ready for any desperate act that should set her free from the dark and dreadful future that lay before her.
For a moment Christie feared and trembled; then pity conquered fear. She forgot herself, and only remembered this poor girl, so hopeless, helpless, and afflicted. Led by a sudden impulse, she put both arms about her, and held her close with a strong but silent tenderness better than any bonds. At first, Helen seemed unconscious of it, as she stood rigid and motionless, with her wild eyes dumbly imploring help of earth and heaven. Suddenly both strength and excitement seemed to leave her, and she would have fallen but for the living, loving prop that sustained her.Still silent, Christie laid her down, kissed her white lips, and busied herself about her till she looked up quite herself again, but so wan and weak, it was pitiful to see her.
"It's over now," she whispered, with a desolate sigh. "Sing to me, and keep the evil spirit quiet for a little while. To-morrow, if I'm strong enough, we'll talk about poor little Bella."
And Christie sang, with tears dropping fast upon the keys, that made a soft accompaniment to the sweet old hymns which soothed this troubled soul as David's music brought repose to Saul.
When Helen slept at last from sheer exhaustion, Christie executed the resolution she had made as soon as the excitement of that stormy scene was over. She went straight to Mrs. Carrol's room, and, undeterred by the presence of her sons, told all that had passed. They were evidently not unprepared for it, thanks to old Hester, who had overheard enough of Helen's wild words to know that something was amiss, and had reported accordingly; but none of them had ventured to interrupt the interview, lest Helen should be driven to desperation as before.
"Mother, Helen is right; we should speak out, and not hide this bitter fact any longer. The world will pity us, and we must bear the pity, but it would condemn us for deceit, and we should deserve the condemnation if we let this misery go on. Living a lie will ruin us all. Bella will be destroyed as Helen was; I am only the shadow of a man now, and Hal is killing himself as fast as he can, to avoid the fate we all dread."Augustine spoke first, for Mrs. Carrol sat speechless with her trouble as Christie paused. "Keep to your prayers, and let me go my own way, it's the shortest," muttered Harry, with his face hidden, and his head down on his folded arms.
"Boys, boys, you'll kill me if you say such things! I have more now than I can bear. Don't drive me wild with your reproaches to each other!" cried their mother, her heart rent with the remorse that came too late."No fear of that; you are not a Carrol," answered Harry, with the pitiless bluntness of a resentful and rebellious boy. Augustine turned on him with a wrathful flash of the eye, and a warning ring in his stern voice, as he pointed to the door. "You shall not insult your mother! Ask her pardon, or go!" "She should ask mine! I'll go. When you want me, you'll know where to find me." And, with a reckless laugh, Harry stormed out of the room. Augustine's indignant face grew full of a new trouble as the door banged below, and he pressed his thin hands tightly together, saying, as if to himself: "Heaven help me! Yes, I do know; for, night after night, I find and bring the poor lad home from gambling-tables and the hells where souls like his are lost." Here Christie thought to slip away, feeling that it was no place for her now that her errand was done. But Mrs. Carrol called her back.
"Miss Devon--Christie--forgive me that I did not trust you sooner. It was so hard to tell; I hoped so much from time; I never could believe that my poor children would be made the victims of my mistake. Do not forsake us: Helen loves you so. Stay with her, I implore you, and let a most unhappy mother plead for a most unhappy child." Then Christie went to the poor woman, and earnestly assured her of her love and loyalty; for now she felt doubly bound to them because they trusted her.
"What shall we do?" they said to her, with pathetic submission, turning like sick people to a healthful soul for help and comfort.
"Tell Bella all the truth, and help her to refuse her lover. Do this just thing, and God will strengthen you to bear the consequences," was her answer, though she trembled at the responsibility they put upon her."Not yet," cried Mrs. Carrol. "Let the poor child enjoy the holidays with a light heart,-then we will tell her; and then Heaven help us all!" So it was decided; for only a week or two of the old year remained, and no one had the heart to rob poor Bella of the little span of blissful ignorance that now remained to her.
A terrible time was that to Christie; for, while one sister, blessed with beauty, youth, love, and pleasure, tasted life at its sweetest, the other sat in the black shadow of a growing dread, and wearied Heaven with piteous prayers for her relief."The old horror is coming back; I feel it creeping over me. Don't let it come, Christie! Stay by me! Help me! Keep me sane! And if you cannot, ask God to take me quickly!"
With words like these, poor Helen clung to Christie; and, soul and body, Christie devoted herself to the afflicted girl. She would not see her mother; and the unhappy woman haunted that closed door, hungering for the look, the word, that never came to her. Augustine was her consolation, and, during those troublous days, the priest was forgotten in the son. But Harry was all in all to Helen then; and it was touching to see how these unfortunate young creatures clung to one another, she tenderly trying to keep him from the wild life that was surely hastening the fate he might otherwise escape for years, and he patiently bearing all her moods, eager to cheer and soothe the sad captivity from which he could not save her.
These tender ministrations seemed to be blessed at last; and Christie began to hope the haunting terror would pass by, as quiet gloom succeeded to wild excitement. The cheerful spirit of the season seemed to reach even that sad room; and, in preparing gifts for others, Helen seemed to find a little of that best of all gifts,--peace for herself.On New Year's morning, Christie found her garlanding her lover's picture with white roses and the myrtle sprays brides wear.
"These were his favorite flowers, and I meant to make my wedding wreath of this sweetscented myrtle, because he gave it to me," she said, with a look that made Christie's eyes grow dim. "Don't grieve for me, dear; we shall surely meet hereafter, though so far asunder here. Nothing can part us there, I devoutly believe; for we leave our burdens all behind us when we go." Then, in a lighter tone, she said, with her arm on Christie's neck:
"This day is to be a happy one, no matter what comes after it. I'm going to be my old self for a little while, and forget there's such a word as sorrow. Help me to dress, so that when the boys come up they may find the sister Nell they have not seen for two long years." "Will you wear this, my darling? Your mother beads it, and she tried to have it dainty and beautiful enough to please you. See, your own colors, though the bows are only laid on that they may be changed for others if you like."
As she spoke Christie lifted the cover of the box old Hester had just brought in, and displayed a cashmere wrapper, creamy-white, silk-lined, down-trimmed, and delicately relieved by rosy knots, like holly berries lying upon snow. Helen looked at it without a word for several minutes, then gathering up the ribbons, with a strange smile, she said:"I like it better so; but I'll not wear it yet." "Bless and save us, deary; it must have a bit of color somewhere, else it looks just like a shroud," cried Hester, and then wrung her hands in dismay as Helen answered, quietly:
"Ah, well, keep it for me, then. I shall be happier when I wear it so than in the gayest gown I own, for when you put it on, this poor head and heart of mine will be quiet at last."
Motioning Hester to remove the box, Christie tried to banish the cloud her unlucky words had brought to Helen's face, by chatting cheerfully as she helped her make herself "pretty for the boys."
All that day she was unusually calm and sweet, and seemed to yield herself wholly to the happy influences of the hour, gave and received her gifts so cheerfully that her brothers watched her with delight; and unconscious Bella said, as she hung about her sister, with loving admiration in her eyes:"I always thought you would get well, and now I'm sure of it, for you look as you used before I went away to school, and seem just like our own dear Nell." "I'm glad of that; I wanted you to feel so, my Bella. I'll accept your happy prophecy, and hope I may get well soon, very soon." So cheerfully she spoke, so tranquilly she smiled, that all rejoiced over her believing, with love's blindness, that she might yet conquer her malady in spite of their forebodings.
It was a very happy day to Christie, not only that she was generously remembered and made one of them by all the family, but because this change for the better in Helen made her heart sing for joy. She had given time, health, and much love to the task, and ventured now to hope they had not been given in vain. One thing only marred her happiness, the sad estrangement of the daughter from her mother, and that evening she resolved to take advantage of Helen's tender mood, and plead for the poor soul who dared not plead for herself.As the brothers and sisters said good-night, Helen clung to them as if loth to part, saying, with each embrace:
"Keep hoping for me, Bella; kiss me, Harry; bless me, Augustine, and all wish for me a happier New Year than the last."
When they were gone she wandered slowly round the room, stood long before the picture with its fading garland, sung a little softly to herself, and came at last to Christie, saying, like a tired child:
"No, Christie, not forgotten, only kept until the last. To-day is a good day to forgive, as we would be forgiven, and I mean to do it before I sleep," Then holding Christie close, she added, with a quiver of emotion in her voice: "I have no words warm enough to thank you, my good angel, for all you have been to me, but I know it will give you a great pleasure to do one thing more. Give dear mamma my love, and tell her that when I am quiet for the night I want her to come and get me to sleep with the old lullaby she used to sing when I was a little child."
No gift bestowed that day was so precious to Christie as the joy of carrying this loving message from daughter to mother. How Mrs. Carrol received it need not be told. She would have gone at once, but Christie begged her to wait till rest and quiet, after the efforts of the day, had prepared Helen for an interview which might undo all that had been done if too hastily attempted.
Hester always waited upon her child at night; so, feeling that she might be wanted later, Christie went to her own room to rest. Quite sure that Mrs. Carrol would come to tell her what had passed, she waited for an hour or two, then went to ask of Hester how the visit had sped."Her mamma came up long ago, but the dear thing was fast asleep, so I wouldn't let her be disturbed, and Mrs. Carrol went away again," said the old woman, rousing from a nap.
Grieved at the mother's disappointment, Christie stole in, hoping that Helen might rouse. She did not, and Christie was about to leave her, when, as she bent to smooth the tumbled coverlet, something dropped at her feet. Only a little pearl-handled penknife of Harry's; but her heart stood still with fear, for it was open, and, as she took it up, a red stain came off upon her hand.
Helen's face was turned away, and, bending nearer, Christie saw how deathly pale it looked in the shadow of the darkened room. She listened at her lips; only a faint flutter of breath parted them; she lifted up the averted head, and on the white throat saw a little wound, from which the blood still flowed. Then, like a flash of light, the meaning of the sudden change which came over her grew clear,--her brave efforts to make the last day happy, her tender good-night partings, her wish to be at peace with every one, the tragic death she had chosen rather than live out the tragic life that lay before her.
Christie's nerves had been tried to the uttermost; the shock of this discovery was too much for her, and, in the act of calling for help, she fainted, for the first time in her life. When she was herself again, the room was full of people; terror-stricken faces passed before her; broken voices whispered, "It is too late," and, as she saw the group about the bed, she wished for unconsciousness again.
Helen lay in her mother's arms at last, quietly breathing her life away, for though every thing that love and skill could devise had been tried to save her, the little knife in that desperate hand had done its work, and this world held no more suffering for her. Harry was down upon his knees beside her, trying to stifle his passionate grief. Augustine prayed audibly above her, and the fervor of his broken words comforted all hearts but one. Bella was clinging, panic-stricken, to the kind old doctor, who was sobbing like a boy, for he had loved and served poor Helen as faithfully as if she had been his own."Can nothing save her?" Christie whispered, as the prayer ended, and a sound of bitter weeping filled the room. "Nothing; she is sane and safe at last, thank God!"
Christie could not but echo his thanksgiving, for the blessed tranquillity of the girl's countenance was such as none but death, the great healer, can bring; and, as they looked, her eyes opened, beautifully clear and calm before they closed for ever. From face to face they passed, as if they looked for some one, and her lips moved in vain efforts to speak.
Christie went to her, but still the wide, wistful eyes searched the room as if unsatisfied; and, with a longing that conquered the mortal weakness of the body, the heart sent forth one tender cry:"My mother--I want my mother!"
There was no need to repeat the piteous call, for, as it left her lips, she saw her mother's face bending over her, and felt her mother's arms gathering her in an embrace which held her close even after death had set its seal upon the voiceless prayers for pardon which passed between those reunited hearts.
When she was asleep at last, Christie and her mother made her ready for her grave; weeping tender tears as they folded her in the soft, white garment she had put by for that sad hour; and on her breast they laid the flowers she had hung about her lover as a farewell gift. So beautiful she looked when all was done, that in the early dawn they called her brothers, that they might not lose the memory of the blessed peace that shone upon her face, a mute assurance that for her the new year had happily begun.
"Now my work here is done, and I must go," thought Christie, when the waves of life closed over the spot where another tired swimmer had gone down. But she found that one more task remained for her before she left the family which, on her coming, she had thought so happy.
Mrs. Carrol, worn out with the long effort to conceal her secret cross, broke down entirely under this last blow, and besought Christie to tell Bella all that she must know. It was a hard task, but Christie accepted it, and, when the time came, found that there was very little to be told, for at the death-bed of the elder sister, the younger had learned much of the sad truth. Thus prepared, she listened to all that was most carefully and tenderly confided to her, and, when the heavy tale was done, she surprised Christie by the unsuspected strength she showed. No tears, no lamentations, for she was her mother's daughter, and inherited the pride that can bear heavy burdens, if they are borne unseen."Tell me what I must do, and I will do it," she said, with the quiet despair of one who submits to the inevitable, but will not complain.
When Christie with difficulty told her that she should give up her lover, Bella bowed her head, and for a moment could not speak, then lifted it as if defying her own weakness, and spoke out bravely:
"It shall be done, for it is right. It is very hard for me, because I love him; he will not suffer much, for he can love again. I should be glad of that, and I'll try to wish it for his sake. He is young, and if, as Harry says, he cares more for my fortune than myself, so much the better. What next, Christie?"
Amazed and touched at the courage of the creature she had fancied a sort of lovely butterfly to be crushed by a single blow, Christie took heart, and, instead of soothing sympathy, gave her the solace best fitted for strong natures, something to do for others. What inspired her, Christie never knew; perhaps it was the year of self-denying service she had rendered for pity's sake; such devotion is its own reward, and now, in herself, she discovered unsuspected powers.
"Live for your mother and your brothers, Bella; they need you sorely, and in time I know you will find true consolation in it, although you must relinquish much. Sustain your mother, cheer Augustine, watch over Harry, and be to them what Helen longed to be.""And fail to do it, as she failed!" cried Bella, with a shudder.
"Listen, and let me give you this hope, for I sincerely do believe it. Since I came here, I have read many books, thought much, and talked often with Dr. Shirley about this sad affliction. He thinks you and Harry may escape it, if you will. You are like your mother in temperament and temper; you have self-control, strong wills, good nerves, and cheerful spirits. Poor Harry is willfully spoiling all his chances now; but you may save him, and, in the endeavor, save yourself."
"Oh, Christie, may I hope it? Give me one chance of escape, and I will suffer any hardship to keep it. Let me see any thing before me but a life and death like Helen's, and I'll bless you for ever!" cried Bella, welcoming this ray of light as a prisoner welcomes sunshine in his cell.
Christie trembled at the power of her words, yet, honestly believing them, she let them uplift this disconsolate soul, trusting that they might be in time fulfilled through God's mercy and the saving grace of sincere endeavor.
Holding fast to this frail spar, Bella bravely took up arms against her sea of troubles, and rode out the storm. When her lover came to know his fate, she hid her heart, and answered "no," finding a bitter satisfaction in the end, for Harry was right, and, when the fortune was denied him, young Butler did not mourn the woman long. Pride helped Bella to bear it; but it needed all her courage to look down the coming years so bare of all that makes life sweet to youthful souls, so desolate and dark, with duty alone to cheer the thorny way, and the haunting shadow of her race lurking in the background.
Submission and self-sacrifice are stern, sad angels, but in time one learns to know and love them, for when they have chastened, they uplift and bless. Dimly discerning this, poor Bella put her hands in theirs, saying, "Lead me, teach me; I will follow and obey you."
All soon felt that they could not stay in a house so full of heavy memories, and decided to return to their old home. They begged Christie to go with them, using every argument and entreaty their affection could suggest. But Christie needed rest, longed for freedom, and felt that in spite of their regard it would be very hard for her to live among them any longer. Her healthy nature needed brighter influences, stronger comrades, and the memory of Helen weighed so heavily upon her heart that she was eager to forget it for a time in other scenes and other work.So they parted, very sadly, very tenderly, and laden with good gifts Christie went on her way weary, but well satisfied, for she had earned her rest.
FOR some weeks Christie rested and refreshed herself by making her room gay and comfortable with the gifts lavished on her by the Carrols, and by sharing with others the money which Harry had smuggled into her possession after she had steadily refused to take one penny more than the sum agreed upon when she first went to them.
She took infinite satisfaction in sending one hundred dollars to Uncle Enos, for she had accepted what he gave her as a loan, and set her heart on repaying every fraction of it. Another hundred she gave to Hepsey, who found her out and came to report her trials and tribulations. The good soul had ventured South and tried to buy her mother. But "ole missis" would not let her go at any price, and the faithful chattel would not run away. Sorely disappointed, Hepsey had been obliged to submit; but her trip was not a failure, for she liberated several brothers and sent them triumphantly to Canada.
"You must take it, Hepsey, for I could not rest happy if I put it away to lie idle while you can save men and women from torment with it. I'd give it if it was my last penny, for I can help in no other way; and if I need money, I can always earn it, thank God!" said Christie, as Hepsey hesitated to take so much from a fellow-worker.
The thought of that investment lay warm at Christie's heart, and never woke a regret, for well she knew that every dollar of it would be blessed, since shares in the Underground Railroad pay splendid dividends that never fail.
Another portion of her fortune, as she called Harry's gift, was bestowed in wedding presents upon Lucy, who at length succeeded in winning the heart of the owner of the "heavenly eyes" and "distracting legs;" and, having gained her point, married him with dramatic celerity, and went West to follow the fortunes of her lord.
The old theatre was to be demolished and the company scattered, so a farewell festival was held, and Christie went to it, feeling more solitary than ever as she bade her old friends a long good-bye.The rest of the money burned in her pocket, but she prudently put it by for a rainy day, and fell to work again when her brief vacation was over.
Hearing of a chance for a good needle-woman in a large and well-conducted mantuamaking establishment, she secured it as a temporary thing, for she wanted to divert her mind from that last sad experience by entirely different employment and surroundings. She liked to return at night to her own little home, solitary and simple as it was, and felt a great repugnance to accept any place where she would be mixed up with family affairs again.
So day after day she went to her seat in the workroom where a dozen other young women sat sewing busily on gay garments, with as much lively gossip to beguile the time as Miss Cotton, the forewoman, would allow.
For a while it diverted Christie, as she had a feminine love for pretty things, and enjoyed seeing delicate silks, costly lace, and all the indescribable fantasies of fashion. But as spring came on, the old desire for something fresh and free began to haunt her, and she had both waking and sleeping dreams of a home in the country somewhere, with cows and flowers, clothes bleaching on green grass, bob-o'-links making rapturous music by the river, and the smell of new-mown hay, all lending their charms to the picture she painted for herself.
Most assuredly she would have gone to find these things, led by the instincts of a healthful nature, had not one slender tie held her till it grew into a bond so strong she could not break it.
Among her companions was one, and one only, who attracted her. The others were wellmeaning girls, but full of the frivolous purposes and pleasures which their tastes prompted and their dull life fostered. Dress, gossip, and wages were the three topics which absorbed them. Christie soon tired of the innumerable changes rung upon these themes, and took refuge in her own thoughts, soon learning to enjoy them undisturbed by the clack of many tongues about her. Her evenings at home were devoted to books, for she had the true New England woman's desire for education, and read or studied for the love of it. Thus she had much to think of as her needle flew, and was rapidly becoming a sort of sewing-machine when life was brightened for her by the finding of a friend.
Among the girls was one quiet, skilful creature, whose black dress, peculiar face, and silent ways attracted Christie. Her evident desire to be let alone amused the new comer at first, and she made no effort to know her. But presently she became aware that Rachel watched her with covert interest, stealing quick, shy glances at her as she sat musing over her work. Christie smiled at her when she caught these glances, as if to reassure the looker of her good-will. But Rachel only colored, kept her eyes fixed on her work, and was more reserved than ever.
This interested Christie, and she fell to studying this young woman with some curiosity, for she was different from the others. Though evidently younger than she looked, Rachel's face was that of one who had known some great sorrow, some deep experience; for there were lines on the forehead that contrasted strongly with the bright, abundant hair above it; in repose, the youthfully red, soft lips had a mournful droop, and the eyes were old with that indescribable expression which comes to those who count their lives by emotions, not by years.
Strangely haunting eyes to Christie, for they seemed to appeal to her with a mute eloquence she could not resist. In vain did Rachel answer her with quiet coldness, nod silently when she wished her a cheery "good morning," and keep resolutely in her own somewhat isolated corner, though invited to share the sunny window where the other sat. Her eyes belied her words, and those fugitive glances betrayed the longing of a lonely heart that dared not yield itself to the genial companionship so freely offered it.
Christie was sure of this, and would not be repulsed; for her own heart was very solitary. She missed Helen, and longed to fill the empty place. She wooed this shy, cold girl as patiently and as gently as a lover might, determined to win her confidence, because all the others had failed to do it. Sometimes she left a flower in Rachel's basket, always smiled and nodded as she entered, and often stopped to admire the work of her tasteful fingers. It was impossible to resist such friendly overtures, and slowly Rachel's coldness melted; into the beseeching eyes came a look of gratitude, the more touching for its wordlessness, and an irrepressible smile broke over her face in answer to the cordial ones that made the sunshine of her day.
Emboldened by these demonstrations, Christie changed her seat, and quietly established between them a daily interchange of something beside needles, pins, and spools. Then, as Rachel did not draw back offended, she went a step farther, and, one day when they chanced to be left alone to finish off a delicate bit of work, she spoke out frankly:
"Why can't we be friends? I want one sadly, and so do you, unless your looks deceive me. We both seem to be alone in the world, to have had trouble, and to like one another. I won't annoy you by any impertinent curiosity, nor burden you with uninteresting confidences; I only want to feel that you like me a little and don't mind my liking you a great deal. Will you be my friend, and let me be yours?"A great tear rolled clown upon the shining silk in Rachel's hands as she looked into Christie's earnest face, and answered with an almost passionate gratitude in her own: "You can never need a friend as much as I do, or know what a blessed thing it is to find such an one as you are." "Then I may love you, and not be afraid of offending?" cried Christie, much touched. "Yes. But remember I didn't ask it first," said Rachel, half dropping the hand she had held in both her own. "You proud creature! I'll remember; and when we quarrel, I'll take all the blame upon myself."
Then Christie kissed her warmly, whisked away the tear, and began to paint the delights in store for them in her most enthusiastic way, being much elated with her victory; while Rachel listened with a newly kindled light in her lovely eyes, and a smile that showed how winsome her face had been before many tears washed its bloom away, and much trouble made it old too soon.
Christie kept her word,--asked no questions, volunteered no confidences, but heartily enjoyed the new friendship, and found that it gave to life the zest which it had lacked before. Now some one cared for her, and, better still, she could make some one happy, and in the act of lavishing the affection of her generous nature on a creature sadder and more solitary than herself, she found a satisfaction that never lost its charm. There was nothing in her possession that she did not offer Rachel, from the whole of her heart to the larger half of her little room.
"I'm tired of thinking only of myself. It makes me selfish and low-spirited; for I'm not a bit interesting. I must love somebody, and 'love them hard,' as children say; so why can't you come and stay with me? There's room enough, and we could be so cosy evenings with our books and work. I know you need some one to look after you, and I love dearly to take care of people. Do come," she would say, with most persuasive hospitality. But Rachel always answered steadily: "Not yet, Christie, not yet. I 've got something to do before I can think of doing any thing so beautiful as that. Only love me, dear, and some day I'll show you all my heart, and thank you as I ought."
So Christie was content to wait, and, meantime, enjoyed much; for, with Rachel as a friend, she ceased to care for country pleasures, found happiness in the work that gave her better food than mere daily bread, and never thought of change; for love can make a home for itself anywhere.
A very bright and happy time was this in Christie's life; but, like most happy times, it was very brief. Only one summer allowed for the blossoming of the friendship that budded so slowly in the spring; then the frost came and killed the flowers; but the root lived long underneath the snows of suffering, doubt, and absence.
Coming to her work late one morning, she found the usually orderly room in confusion. Some of the girls were crying; some whispering together,--all looking excited and dismayed. Mrs. King sat majestically at her table, with an ominous frown upon her face. Miss Cotton stood beside her, looking unusually sour and stern, for the ancient virgin's temper was not of the best. Alone, before them all, with her face hidden in her hands, and despair in every line of her drooping figure, stood Rachel,--a meek culprit at the stern bar of justice, where women try a sister woman."What's the matter?" cried Christie, pausing on the threshold.
Rachel shivered, as if the sound of that familiar voice was a fresh wound, but she did not lift her head; and Mrs. King answered, with a nervous emphasis that made the bugles of her head-dress rattle dismally:
"A very sad thing, Miss Devon,--very sad, indeed; a thing which never occurred in my establishment before, and never shall again. It appears that Rachel, whom we all considered a most respectable and worthy girl, has been quite the reverse. I shudder to think what the consequences of my taking her without a character (a thing I never do, and was only tempted by her superior taste as a trimmer) might have been if Miss Cotton, having suspicions, had not made strict inquiry and confirmed them.""That was a kind and generous act, and Miss Cotton must feel proud of it," said Christie, with an indignant recollection of Mr. Fletcher's "cautious inquiries" about herself.
"It was perfectly right and proper, Miss Devon; and I thank her for her care of my interests." And Mrs. King bowed her acknowledgment of the service with a perfect castanet accompaniment, whereat Miss Cotton bridled with malicious complacency.
"Mrs. King, are you sure of this?" said Christie. "Miss Cotton does not like Rachel because her work is so much praised. May not her jealousy make her unjust, or her zeal for you mislead her?"
"I thank you for your polite insinuations, miss," returned the irate forewoman. "I never make mistakes; but you will find that you have made a very great one in choosing Rachel for your bosom friend instead of gome one who would be a credit to you. Ask the creature herself if all I've said of her isn't true. She can't deny it."
With the same indefinable misgiving which had held her aloof, Christie turned to Rachel, lifted up the hidden face with gentle force, and looked into it imploringly, as she whispered: "Is it true?"
The woful countenance she saw made any other answer needless. Involuntarily her hands fell away, and she hid her own face, uttering the one reproach, which, tender and tearful though it was, seemed harder to be borne than the stern condemnation gone before."Oh, Rachel, I so loved and trusted you!"
The grief, affection, and regret that trembled in her voice roused Rachel from her state of passive endurance and gave her courage to plead for herself. But it was Christie whom she addressed, Christie whose pardon she implored, Christie's sorrowful reproach that she most keenly felt.
"Yes, it is true," she said, looking only at the woman who had been the first to befriend and now was the last to desert her. "It is true that I once went astray, but God knows I have repented; that for years I've tried to be an honest girl again, and that but for His help I should be a far sadder creature than I am this day. Christie, you can never know how bitter hard it is to outlive a sin like mine, and struggle up again from such a fall. It clings to me; it won't be shaken off or buried out of sight. No sooner do I find a safe place like this, and try to forget the past, than some one reads my secret in my face and hunts me down. It seems very cruel, very hard, yet it is my punishment, so I try to bear it, and begin again. What hurts me now more than all the rest, what breaks my heart, is that I deceived you. I never meant to do it. I did not seek you, did I? I tried to be cold and stiff; never asked for love, though starving for it, till you came to me, so kind, so generous, so dear,--how could I help it? Oh, how could I help it then?"Christie had watched Rachel while she spoke, and spoke to her alone; her heart yearned toward this one friend, for she still loved her, and, loving, she believed in her.
"I don't reproach you, dear: I don't despise or desert you, and though I'm grieved and disappointed, I'll stand by you still, because you need me more than ever now, and I want to prove that I am a true friend. Mrs. King, please forgive and let poor Rachel stay here, safe among us."
"Miss Devon, I'm surprised at you! By no means; it would be the ruin of my establishment; not a girl would remain, and the character of my rooms would be lost for ever," replied Mrs. King, goaded on by the relentless Cotton.
"But where will she go if you send her away? Who will employ her if you inform against her? What stranger will believe in her if we, who have known her so long, fail to befriend her now? Mrs. King, think of your own daughters, and be a mother to this poor girl for their sake."
That last stroke touched the woman's heart; her cold eye softened, her hard mouth relaxed, and pity was about to win the day, when prudence, in the shape of Miss Cotton, turned the scale, for that spiteful spinster suddenly cried out, in a burst of righteous wrath:
"If that hussy stays, I leave this establishment for ever!" and followed up the blow by putting on her bonnet with a flourish.
At this spectacle, self-interest got the better of sympathy in Mrs. King's worldly mind. To lose Cotton was to lose her right hand, and charity at that price was too expensive a luxury to be indulged in; so she hardened her heart, composed her features, and said, impressively:
"Take off your bonnet, Cotton; I have no intention of offending you, or any one else, by such a step. I forgive you, Rachel, and I pity you; but I can't think of allowing you to stay. There are proper institutions for such as you, and I advise you to go to one and repent. You were paid Saturday night, so nothing prevents your leaving at once. Time is money here, and we are wasting it. Young ladies, take your seats."All but Christie obeyed, yet no one touched a needle, and Mrs. King sat, hurriedly stabbing pins into the fat cushion on her breast, as if testing the hardness of her heart.
Rachel's eye went round the room; saw pity, aversion, or contempt, on every face, but met no answering glance, for even Christie's eyes were bent thoughtfully on the ground, and Christie's heart seemed closed against her. As she looked her whole manner changed; her tears ceased to fall, her face grew hard, and a reckless mood seemed to take possession of her, as if finding herself deserted by womankind, she would desert her own womanhood.
"I might have known it would be so," she said abruptly, with a bitter smile, sadder to see than her most hopeless tears. "It's no use for such as me to try; better go back to the old life, for there are kinder hearts among the sinners than among the saints, and no one can live without a bit of love. Your Magdalen Asylums are penitentiaries, not homes; I won't go to any of them. Your piety isn't worth much, for though you read in your Bible how the Lord treated a poor soul like me, yet when I stretch out my hand to you for help, not one of all you virtuous, Christian women dare take it and keep me from a life that's worse than hell."
As she spoke Rachel flung out her hand with a half-defiant gesture, and Christie took it. That touch, full of womanly compassion, seemed to exorcise the desperate spirit that possessed the poor girl in her despair, for, with a stifled exclamation, she sunk down at Christie's feet, and lay there weeping in all the passionate abandonment of love and gratitude, remorse and shame. Never had human voice sounded so heavenly sweet to her as that which broke the silence of the room, as this one friend said, with the earnestness of a true and tender heart:
"Mrs. King, if you send her away, I must take her in; for if she does go back to the old life, the sin of it will lie at our door, and God will remember it against us in the end. Some one must trust her, help her, love her, and so save her, as nothing else will. Perhaps I can do this better than you,--at least, I'll try; for even if I risk the loss of my good name, I could bear that better than the thought that Rachel had lost the work of these hard years for want of upholding now. She shall come home with me; no one there need know of this discovery, and I will take any work to her that you will give me, to keep her from want and its temptations. Will you do this, and let me sew for less, if I can pay you for the kindness in no other way?"
Poor Mrs. King was "much tumbled up and down in her own mind;" she longed to consent, but Cotton's eye was upon her, and Cotton's departure would be an irreparable loss, so she decided to end the matter in the most summary manner. Plunging a particularly large pin into her cushioned breast, as if it was a relief to inflict that mock torture upon herself, she said sharply:
"I do. I'm very sorry, but my young ladies must keep respectable company, or leave my service," was the brief reply, for Mrs. King grew grimmer externally as the mental rebellion increased internally.
"Then I will leave it!" cried Christie, with an indignant voice and eye. "Come, dear, we'll go together." And without a look or word for any in the room, she raised the prostrate girl, and led her out into the little hall.
There she essayed to comfort her, but before many words had passed her lips Rachel looked up, and she was silent with surprise, for the face she saw was neither despairing nor defiant, but beautifully sweet and clear, as the unfallen spirit of the woman shone through the grateful eyes, and blessed her for her loyalty.
"Christie, you have done enough for me," she said. "Go back, and keep the good place you need, for such are hard to find. I can get on alone; I'm used to this, and the pain will soon be over."
"I'll not go back!" cried Christie, hotly. "I'll do slop-work and starve, before I'll stay with such a narrow-minded, cold-hearted woman. Come home with me at once, and let us lay our plans together."
"No, dear; if I wouldn't go when you first asked me, much less will I go now, for I've done you harm enough already. I never can thank you for your great goodness to me, never tell you what it has been to me. We must part now; but some day I'll come back and show you that I've not forgotten how you loved and helped and trusted me, when all the others cast me off."
Vain were Christie's arguments and appeals. Rachel was immovable, and all her friend could win from her was a promise to send word, now and then, how things prospered with her.
"And, Rachel, I charge you to come to me in any strait, no matter what it is, no matter where I am; for if any thing could break my heart, it would be to know that you had gone back to the old life, because there was no one to help and hold you up."
"I never can go back; you have saved me, Christie, for you love me, you have faith in me, and that will keep me strong and safe when you are gone. Oh, my dear, my dear, God bless you for ever and for ever!"
Then Christie, remembering only that they were two loving women, alone in a world of sin and sorrow, took Rachel in her arms, kissed and cried over her with sisterly affection, and watched her prayerfully, as she went away to begin her hard task anew, with nothing but the touch of innocent lips upon her cheek, the baptism, of tender tears upon her forehead to keep her from despair.
Still cherishing the hope that Rachel would come back to her, Christie neither returned to Mrs. King nor sought another place of any sort, but took home work from a larger establishment, and sat sewing diligently in her little room, waiting, hoping, longing for her friend. But month after month went by, and no word, no sign came to comfort her. She would not doubt, yet she could not help fearing, and in her nightly prayer no petition was more fervently made than that which asked the Father of both saint and sinner to keep poor Rachel safe, and bring her back in his good time.
Never had she been so lonely as now, for Christie had a social heart, and, having known the joy of a cordial friendship even for a little while, life seemed very barren to her when she lost it. No new friend took Rachel's place, for none came to her, and a feeling of loyalty kept her from seeking one. But she suffered for the want of genial society, for all the tenderness of her nature seemed to have been roused by that brief but most sincere affection. Her hungry heart clamored for the happiness that was its right, and grew very heavy as she watched friends or lovers walking in the summer twilight when she took her evening stroll. Often her eyes followed some humble pair, longing to bless and to be blessed by the divine passion whose magic beautifies the little milliner and her lad with the same tender grace as the poet and the mistress whom he makes immortal in a song. But neither friend nor lover came to Christie, and she said to herself, with a sad sort of courage:"I shall be solitary all my life, perhaps; so the sooner I make up my mind to it, the easier it will be to bear."
At Christmas-tide she made a little festival for herself, by giving to each of the household drudges the most generous gift she could afford, for no one else thought of them, and having known some of the hardships of servitude herself, she had much sympathy with those in like case.Then, with the pleasant recollection of two plain faces, brightened by gratitude, surprise, and joy, she went out into the busy streets to forget the solitude she left behind her.
Very gay they were with snow and sleigh-bells, holly-boughs, and garlands, below, and Christmas sunshine in the winter sky above. All faces shone, all voices had a cheery ring, and everybody stepped briskly on errands of good-will. Up and down went Christie, making herself happy in the happiness of others. Looking in at the shop-windows, she watched, with interest, the purchases of busy parents, calculating how best to fill the little socks hung up at home, with a childish faith that never must be disappointed, no matter how hard the times might be. She was glad to see so many turkeys on their way to garnish hospitable tables, and hoped that all the dear home circles might be found unbroken, though she had place in none. No Christmas-tree went by leaving a whiff of piny sweetness behind, that she did not wish it all success, and picture to herself the merry little people dancing in its light. And whenever she saw a ragged child eying a window full of goodies, smiling even, while it shivered, she could not resist playing Santa Claus till her purse was empty, sending the poor little souls enraptured home with oranges and apples in either hand, and splendid sweeties in their pockets, for the babies.
No envy mingled with the melancholy that would not be dispelled even by these gentle acts, for her heart was very tender that night, and if any one had asked what gifts she desired most, she would have answered with a look more pathetic than any shivering child had given her:"I want the sound of a loving voice; the touch of a friendly hand."
Going home, at last, to the lonely little room where no Christmas fire burned, no tree shone, no household group awaited her, she climbed the long, dark stairs, with drops on her cheeks, warmer than any melted snow-flake could have left, and opening her door paused on the threshold, smiling with wonder and delight, for in her absence some gentle spirit had remembered her. A fire burned cheerily upon the hearth, her lamp was lighted, a lovely rose-tree, in full bloom, filled the air with its delicate breath, and in its shadow lay a note from Rachel.
"A merry Christmas and a happy New Year, Christie! Long ago you gave me your little rose; I have watched and tended it for your sake, dear, and now when I want to show my love and thankfulness, I give it back again as my one treasure. I crept in while you were gone, because I feared I might harm you in some way if you saw me. I longed to stay and tell you that I am safe and well, and busy, with your good face looking into mine, but I don't deserve that yet. Only love me, trust me, pray for me, and some day you shall know what you have done for me. Till then, God bless and keep you, dearest friend, your RACHEL."
Never had sweeter tears fallen than those that dropped upon the little tree as Christie took it in her arms, and all the rosy clusters leaned toward her as if eager to deliver tender messages. Surely her wish was granted now, for friendly hands had been at work for her. Warm against her heart lay words as precious as if uttered by a loving voice, and nowhere, on that happy night, stood a fairer Christmas tree than that which bloomed so beautifully from the heart of a Magdalen who loved much and was forgiven.
VII. Through The Mist
THE year that followed was the saddest Christie had ever known, for she suffered a sort of poverty which is more difficult to bear than actual want, since money cannot lighten it, and the rarest charity alone can minister to it. Her heart was empty and she could not fill it; her soul was hungry and she could not feed it; life was cold and dark and she could not warm and brighten it, for she knew not where to go.
She tried to help herself by all the means in her power, and when effort after effort failed she said: "I am not good enough yet to deserve happiness. I think too much of human love, too little of divine. When I have made God my friend perhaps He will let me find and keep one heart to make life happy with. How shall I know God? Who will tell me where to find Him, and help me to love and lean upon Him as I ought?"
In all sincerity she asked these questions, in all sincerity she began her search, and with pathetic patience waited for an answer. She read many books, some wise, some vague, some full of superstition, all unsatisfactory to one who wanted a living God. She went to many churches, studied many creeds, and watched their fruits as well as she could; but still remained unsatisfied. Some were cold and narrow, some seemed theatrical and superficial, some stern and terrible, none simple, sweet, and strong enough for humanity's many needs. There was too much machinery, too many walls, laws, and penalties between the Father and His children. Too much fear, too little love; too many saints and intercessors; too little faith in the instincts of the soul which turns to God as flowers to the sun. Too much idle strife about names and creeds; too little knowledge of the natural religion which has no name but godliness, whose creed is boundless and benignant as the sunshine, whose faith is as the tender trust of little children in their mother's love.Nowhere did Christie find this all-sustaining power, this paternal friend, and comforter, and after months of patient searching she gave up her quest, saying, despondently:
"I'm afraid I never shall get religion, for all that's offered me seems so poor, so narrow, or so hard that I cannot take it for my stay. A God of wrath I cannot love; a God that must be propitiated, adorned, and adored like an idol I cannot respect; and a God who can be blinded to men's iniquities through the week by a little beating of the breast and bowing down on the seventh day, I cannot serve. I want a Father to whom I can go with all my sins and sorrows, all my hopes and joys, as freely and fearlessly as I used to go to my human father, sure of help and sympathy and love. Shall I ever find Him?"
Alas, poor Christie! she was going through the sorrowful perplexity that comes to so many before they learn that religion cannot be given or bought, but must grow as trees grow, needing frost and snow, rain and wind to strengthen it before it is deep-rooted in the soul; that God is in the hearts of all, and they that seek shall surely find Him when they need Him most.
So Christie waited for religion to reveal itself to her, and while she waited worked with an almost desperate industry, trying to buy a little happiness for herself by giving a part of her earnings to those whose needs money could supply. She clung to her little room, for there she could live her own life undisturbed, and preferred to stint herself in other ways rather than give up this liberty. Day after day she sat there sewing health of mind and body into the long seams or dainty stitching that passed through her busy hands, and while she sewed she thought sad, bitter, oftentimes rebellious thoughts.
It was the worst life she could have led just then, for, deprived of the active, cheerful influences she most needed, her mind preyed on itself, slowly and surely, preparing her for the dark experience to come. She knew that there was fitter work for her somewhere, but how to find it was a problem which wiser women have often failed to solve. She was no pauper, yet was one of those whom poverty sets at odds with the world, for favors burden and dependence makes the bread bitter unless love brightens the one and sweetens the other.
There are many Christies, willing to work, yet unable to bear the contact with coarser natures which makes labor seem degrading, or to endure the hard struggle for the bare necessities of life when life has lost all that makes it beautiful. People wonder when such as she say they can find little to do; but to those who know nothing of the pangs of pride, the sacrifices of feeling, the martyrdoms of youth, love, hope, and ambition that go on under the faded cloaks of these poor gentle-women, who tell them to go into factories, or scrub in kitchens, for there is work enough for all, the most convincing answer would be, "Try it."
Christie kept up bravely till a wearisome low fever broke both strength and spirit, and brought the weight of debt upon her when least fitted to bear or cast it off. For the first time she began to feel that she had nerves which would rebel, and a heart that could not long endure isolation from its kind without losing the cheerful courage which hitherto had been her staunchest friend. Perfect rest, kind care, and genial society were the medicines she needed, but there was no one to minister to her, and she went blindly on along the road so many women tread.
She left her bed too soon, fearing to ask too much of the busy people who had done their best to be neighborly. She returned to her work when it felt heavy in her feeble hands, for debt made idleness seem wicked to her conscientious mind. And, worst of all, she fell back into the bitter, brooding mood which had become habitual to her since she lived alone. While the tired hands slowly worked, the weary brain ached and burned with heavy thoughts, vain longings, and feverish fancies, till things about her sometimes seemed as strange and spectral as the phantoms that had haunted her half-delirious sleep. Inexpressibly wretched were the dreary days, the restless nights, with only pain and labor for companions. The world looked very dark to her, life seemed an utter failure, God a delusion, and the long, lonely years before her too hard to be endured.
It is not always want, insanity, or sin that drives women to desperate deaths; often it is a dreadful loneliness of heart, a hunger for home and friends, worse than starvation, a bitter sense of wrong in being denied the tender ties, the pleasant duties, the sweet rewards that can make the humblest life happy; a rebellious protest against God, who, when they cry for bread, seems to offer them a stone. Some of these impatient souls throw life away, and learn too late how rich it might have been with a stronger faith, a more submissive spirit. Others are kept, and slowly taught to stand and wait, till blest with a happiness the sweeter for the doubt that went before.
There came a time to Christie when the mist about her was so thick she would have stumbled and fallen had not the little candle, kept alight by her own hand, showed her how far "a good deed shines in a naughty world;" and when God seemed utterly forgetful of her He sent a friend to save and comfort her.
March winds were whistling among the house-tops, and the sky was darkening with a rainy twilight as Christie folded up her finished work, stretched her weary limbs, and made ready for her daily walk. Even this was turned to profit, for then she took home her work, went in search of more, and did her own small marketing. As late hours and unhealthy labor destroyed appetite, and unpaid debts made each mouthful difficult to swallow with Mrs. Flint's hard eye upon her, she had undertaken to supply her own food, and so lessen the obligation that burdened her. An unwise retrenchment, for, busied with the tasks that must be done, she too often neglected or deferred the meals to which no society lent interest, no appetite gave flavor; and when the fuel was withheld the fire began to die out spark by spark.
As she stood before the little mirror, smoothing the hair upon her forehead, she watched the face reflected there, wondering if it could be the same she used to see so full of youth and hope and energy.
"Yes, I'm growing old; my youth is nearly over, and at thirty I shall be a faded, dreary woman, like so many I see and pity. It's hard to come to this after trying so long to find my place, and do my duty. I'm a failure after all, and might as well have stayed with Aunt Betsey or married Joe.""Miss Devon, to-day is Saturday, and I'm makin' up my bills, so I'll trouble you for your month's board, and as much on the old account as you can let me have." Mrs. Flint spoke, and her sharp voice rasped the silence like a file, for she had entered without knocking, and her demand was the first intimation of her presence.
Christie turned slowly round, for there was no elasticity in her motions now; through the melancholy anxiety her face always wore of late, there came the worried look of one driven almost beyond endurance, and her hands began to tremble nervously as she tied on her bonnet. Mrs. Flint was a hard woman, and dunned her debtors relentlessly; Christie dreaded the sight of her, and would have left the house had she been free of debt."I am just going to take these things home and get more work. I am sure of being paid, and you shall have all I get. But, for Heaven's sake, give me time."
Two days and a night of almost uninterrupted labor had given a severe strain to her nerves, and left her in a dangerous state. Something in her face arrested Mrs. Flint's attention; she observed that Christie was putting on her best cloak and hat, and to her suspicious eye the bundle of work looked unduly large.
It had been a hard day for the poor woman, for the cook had gone off in a huff; the chamber girl been detected in petty larceny; two desirable boarders had disappointed her; and the incapable husband had fallen ill, so it was little wonder that her soul was tried, her sharp voice sharper, and her sour temper sourer than ever.
"I have heard of folks putting on their best things and going out, but never coming back again, when they owed money. It's a mean trick, but it's sometimes done by them you wouldn't think it of," she said, with an aggravating sniff of intelligence.
To be suspected of dishonesty was the last drop in Christie's full cup. She looked at the woman with a strong desire to do something violent, for every nerve was tingling with irritation and anger. But she controlled herself, though her face was colorless and her hands were more tremulous than before. Unfastening her comfortable cloak she replaced it with a shabby shawl; took off her neat bonnet and put on a hood, unfolded six linen shirts, and shook them out before her landlady's eyes; then retied the parcel, and, pausing on the threshold of the door, looked back with an expression that haunted the woman long afterward, as she said, with the quiver of strong excitement in her voice:
"Mrs. Flint, I have always dealt honorably by you; I always mean to do it, and don't deserve to be suspected of dishonesty like that. I leave every thing I own behind me, and if I don't come back, you can sell them all and pay yourself, for I feel now as if I never wanted to see you or this room again."
Then she went rapidly away, supported by her indignation, for she had done her best to pay her debts; had sold the few trinkets she possessed, and several treasures given by the Carrols, to settle her doctor's bill, and had been half killing herself to satisfy Mrs. Flint's demands. The consciousness that she had been too lavish in her generosity when fortune smiled upon her, made the present want all the harder to bear. But she would neither beg nor borrow, though she knew Harry would delight to give, and Uncle Enos lend her money, with a lecture on extravagance, gratis."I'll paddle my own canoe as long as I can," she said, sternly; "and when I must ask help I'll turn to strangers for it, or scuttle my boat, and go down without troubling any one." When she came to her employer's door, the servant said: "Missis was out;" then seeing Christie's disappointed face, she added, confidentially:
"If it's any comfort to know it, I can tell you that missis wouldn't have paid you if she had a been to home. There's been three other women here with work, and she's put 'em all off. She always does, and beats 'em down into the bargain, which ain't genteel to my thinkin'."
"She promised me I should be well paid for these, because I undertook to get them done without fail. I've worked day and night rather than disappoint her, and felt sure of my money," said Christie, despondently."I'm sorry, but you won't get it. She told me to tell you your prices was too high, and she could find folks to work cheaper."
"She did not object to the price when I took the work, and I have half-ruined my eyes over the fine stitching. See if it isn't nicely done." And Christie displayed her exquisite needlework with pride.
The girl admired it, and, having a grievance of her own, took satisfaction in berating her mistress.
"It's a shame! These things are part of a present, the ladies are going to give the minister; but I don't believe he'll feel easy in 'em if poor folks is wronged to get 'em. Missis won't pay what they are worth, I know; for, don't you see, the cheaper the work is done, the more money she has to make a spread with her share of the present? It's my opinion you'd better hold on to these shirts till she pays for 'em handsome."
Christie's lips trembled as she spoke, for she was feeble still, and the thought of that hardearned money had been her sustaining hope through the weary hours spent over that illpaid work. The girl said "Good-bye," with a look of mingled pity and respect, for in her eyes the seamstress was more of a lady than the mistress in this transaction.
Christie hurried to another place, and asked eagerly if the young ladies had any work for her. "Not a stitch," was the reply, and the door closed. She stood a moment looking down upon the passers-by wondering what answer she would get if she accosted any one; and had any especially benevolent face looked back at her she would have been tempted to do it, so heart-sick and forlorn did she feel just then.
She knocked at several other doors, to receive the same reply. She even tried a slop-shop, but it was full, and her pale face was against her. Her long illness had lost her many patrons, and if one steps out from the ranks of needle-women, it is very hard to press in again, so crowded are they, and so desperate the need of money.
One hope remained, and, though the way was long, and a foggy drizzle had set in, she minded neither distance nor the chilly rain, but hurried away with anxious thoughts still dogging her steps. Across a long bridge, through muddy roads and up a stately avenue she went, pausing, at last, spent and breathless at another door.
A servant with a wedding-favor in his button-hole opened to her, and, while he went to deliver her urgent message, she peered in wistfully from the dreary world without, catching glimpses of home-love and happiness that made her heart ache for very pity of its own loneliness. A wedding was evidently afoot, for hall and staircase blazed with light and bloomed with flowers. Smiling men and maids ran to and fro; opening doors showed tables beautiful with bridal white and silver; savory odors filled the air; gay voices echoed above and below; and once she caught a brief glance at the bonny bride, standing with her father's arm about her, while her mother gave some last, loving touch to her array; and a group of young sisters with April faces clustered round her.
The pretty picture vanished all too soon; the man returned with a hurried "No" for answer, and Christie went out into the deepening twilight with a strange sense of desperation at her heart. It was not the refusal, not the fear of want, nor the reaction of overtaxed nerves alone; it was the sharpness of the contrast between that other woman's fate and her own that made her wring her hands together, and cry out, bitterly:
"Oh, it isn't fair, it isn't right, that she should have so much and I so little! What have I ever done to be so desolate and miserable, and never to find any happiness, however hard I try to do what seems my duty?"
There was no answer, and she went slowly down the long avenue, feeling that there was no cause for hurry now, and even night and rain and wind were better than her lonely room or Mrs. Flint's complaints. Afar off the city lights shone faintly through the fog, like pale lamps seen in dreams; the damp air cooled her feverish cheeks; the road was dark and still, and she longed to lie down and rest among the sodden leaves.
When she reached the bridge she saw the draw was up, and a spectral ship was slowly passing through. With no desire to mingle in the crowd that waited on either side, she paused, and, leaning on the railing, let her thoughts wander where they would. As she stood there the heavy air seemed to clog her breath and wrap her in its chilly arms. She felt as if the springs of life were running down, and presently would stop; for, even when the old question, "What shall I do?" came haunting her, she no longer cared even to try to answer it, and had no feeling but one of utter weariness. She tried to shake off the strange mood that was stealing over her, but spent body and spent brain were not strong enough to obey her will, and, in spite of her efforts to control it, the impulse that had seized her grew more intense each moment.
"Why should I work and suffer any longer for myself alone?" she thought; "why wear out my life struggling for the bread I have no heart to eat? I am not wise enough to find my place, nor patient enough to wait until it comes to me. Better give up trying, and leave room for those who have something to live for."
Many a stronger soul has known a dark hour when the importunate wish has risen that it were possible and right to lay down the burdens that oppress, the perplexities that harass, and hasten the coming of the long sleep that needs no lullaby. Such an hour was this to Christie, for, as she stood there, that sorrowful bewilderment which we call despair came over her, and ruled her with a power she could not resist.
A flight of steps close by led to a lumber wharf, and, scarcely knowing why, she went down there, with a vague desire to sit still somewhere, and think her way out of the mist that seemed to obscure her mind. A single tall lamp shone at the farther end of the platform, and presently she found herself leaning her hot forehead against the iron pillar, while she watched with curious interest the black water rolling sluggishly below.
She knew it was no place for her, yet no one waited for her, no one would care if she staid for ever, and, yielding to the perilous fascination that drew her there, she lingered with a heavy throbbing in her temples, and a troop of wild fancies whirling through her brain. Something white swept by below,--only a broken oar--but she began to wonder how a human body would look floating through the night. It was an awesome fancy, but it took possession of her, and, as it grew, her eyes dilated, her breath came fast, and her lips fell apart, for she seemed to see the phantom she had conjured up, and it wore the likeness of herself.
With an ominous chill creeping through her blood, and a growing tumult in her mind, she thought, "I must go," but still stood motionless, leaning over the wide gulf, eager to see where that dead thing would pass away. So plainly did she see it, so peaceful was the white face, so full of rest the folded hands, so strangely like, and yet unlike, herself, that she seemed to lose her identity, and wondered which was the real and which the imaginary Christie. Lower and lower she bent; looser and looser grew her hold upon the pillar; faster and faster beat the pulses in her temples, and the rush of some blind impulse was swiftly coming on, when a hand seized and caught her back.
For an instant every thing grew black before her eyes, and the earth seemed to slip away from underneath her feet. Then she was herself again, and found that she was sitting on a pile of lumber, with her head uncovered, and a woman's arm about her."Was I going to drown myself?" she asked, slowly, with a fancy that she had been dreaming frightfully, and some one had wakened her. "You were most gone; but I came in time, thank God! O Christie! don't you know me?" Ah! no fear of that; for with one bewildered look, one glad cry of recognition, Christie found her friend again, and was gathered close to Rachel's heart.
"My dear, my dear, what drove you to it? Tell me all, and let me help you in your trouble, as you helped me in mine," she said, as she tenderly laid the poor, white face upon her breast, and wrapped her shawl about the trembling figure clinging to her with such passionate delight.
"I have been ill; I worked too hard; I'm not myself to-night. I owe money. People disappoint and worry me; and I was so worn out, and weak, and wicked, I think I meant to take my life.""No, dear; it was not you that meant to do it, but the weakness and the trouble that bewildered you. Forget it all, and rest a little, safe with me; then we'll talk again."
Rachel spoke soothingly, for Christie shivered and sighed as if her own thoughts frightened her. For a moment they sat silent, while the mist trailed its white shroud above them, as if death had paused to beckon a tired child away, but, finding her so gently cradled on a warm, human heart, had relented and passed on, leaving no waif but the broken oar for the river to carry toward the sea.
"Tell me about yourself, Rachel. Where have you been so long? I 've looked and waited for you ever since the second little note you sent me on last Christinas; but you never came."
"I've been away, dear heart, hard at work in another city, larger and wickeder than this. I tried to get work here, that I might be near you; but that cruel Cotton always found me out; and I was so afraid I should get desperate that I went away where I was not known. There it came into my mind to do for others more wretched than I what you had done for me. God put the thought into my heart, and He helped me in my work, for it has prospered wonderfully. All this year I have been busy with it, and almost happy; for I felt that your love made me strong to do it, and that, in time, I might grow good enough to be your friend.""See what I am, Rachel, and never say that any more!"
"Hush, my poor dear, and let me talk. You are not able to do any thing, but rest, and listen. I knew how many poor souls went wrong when the devil tempted them; and I gave all my strength to saving those who were going the way I went. I had no fear, no shame to overcome, for I was one of them. They would listen to me, for I knew what I spoke; they could believe in salvation, for I was saved; they did not feel so outcast and forlorn when I told them you had taken me into your innocent arms, and loved me like a sister. With every one I helped my power increased, and I felt as if I had washed away a little of my own great sin. O Christie! never think it's time to die till you are called; for the Lord leaves us till we have done our work, and never sends more sin and sorrow than we can bear and be the better for, if we hold fast by Him."
So beautiful and brave she looked, so full of strength and yet of meek submission was her voice, that Christie's heart was thrilled; for it was plain that Rachel had learned how to distil balm from the bitterness of life, and, groping in the mire to save lost souls, had found her own salvation there.
"Show me how to grow pious, strong, and useful, as you are," she said. "I am all wrong, and feel as if I never could get right again, for I haven't energy enough to care what becomes of me."
"I know the state, Christie: I've been through it all! but when I stood where you stand now, there was no hand to pull me back, and I fell into a blacker river than this underneath our feet. Thank God, I came in time to save you from either death!""How did you find me?" asked Christie, when she had echoed in her heart the thanksgiving that came with such fervor from the other's lips.
"I passed you on the bridge. I did not see your face, but you stood leaning there so wearily, and looking down into the water, as I used to look, that I wanted to speak, but did not; and I went on to comfort a poor girl who is dying yonder. Something turned me back, however; and when I saw you down here I knew why I was sent. You were almost gone, but I kept you; and when I had you in my arms I knew you, though it nearly broke my heart to find you here. Now, dear, come home."Home! ah, Rachel, I've got no home, and for want of one I shall be lost!"
The lament that broke from her was more pathetic than the tears that streamed down, hot and heavy, melting from her heart the frost of her despair. Her friend let her weep, knowing well the worth of tears, and while Christie sobbed herself quiet, Rachel took thought for her as tenderly as any mother.
When she had heard the story of Christie's troubles, she stood up as if inspired with a happy thought, and stretching both hands to her friend, said, with an air of cheerful assurance most comforting to see:"I'll take care of you; come with me, my poor Christie, and I'll give you a home, very humble, but honest and happy." "With you, Rachel?"
"No, dear, I must go back to my work, and you are not fit for that. Neither must you go again to your own room, because for you it is haunted, and the worst place you could be in. You want change, and I'll give you one. It will seem queer at first, but it is a wholesome place, and just what you need."
"I'll do any thing you tell me. I'm past thinking for myself to-night, and only want to be taken care of till I find strength and courage enough to stand alone," said Christie, rising slowly and looking about her with an aspect as helpless and hopeless as if the cloud of mist was a wall of iron.Rachel put on her bonnet for her and wrapped her shawl about her, saying, in a tender voice, that warmed the other's heart:
"Close by lives a dear, good woman who often befriends such as you and I. She will take you in without a question, and love to do it, for she is the most hospitable soul I know. Just tell her you want work, that I sent you, and there will be no trouble. Then, when you know her a little, confide in her, and you will never come to such a pass as this again. Keep up your heart, dear; I'll not leave you till you are safe."
So cheerily she spoke, so confident she looked, that the lost expression passed from Christie's face, and hand in hand they went away together,--two types of the sad sisterhood standing on either shore of the dark river that is spanned by a Bridge of Sighs.Rachel led her friend toward the city, and, coming to the mechanics' quarter, stopped before the door of a small, old house. "Just knock, say 'Rachel sent me,' and you'll find yourself at home." "Stay with me, or let me go with you. I can't lose you again, for I need you very much," pleaded Christie, clinging to her friend.
"Not so much as that poor girl dying all alone. She's waiting for me, and I must go. But I'll write soon; and remember, Christie, I shall feel as if I had only paid a very little of my debt if you go back to the sad old life, and lose your faith and hope again. God bless and keep you, and when we meet next time let me find a happier face than this."Rachel kissed it with her heart on her lips, smiled her brave sweet smile, and vanished in the mist.
Pausing a moment to collect herself, Christie recollected that she had not asked the name of the new friend whose help she was about to ask. A little sign on the door caught her eye, and, bending down, she managed to read by the dim light of the street lamp these words:"C. WILKINS, Clear-Starcher. "Laces done up in the best style." Too tired to care whether a laundress or a lady took her in, she knocked timidly, and, while she waited for an answer to her summons, stood listening to the noises within.
A swashing sound as of water was audible, likewise a scuffling as of flying feet; some one clapped hands, and a voice said, warningly, "Into your beds this instant minute or I'll come to you! Andrew Jackson, give Gusty a boost; Ann Lizy, don't you tech Wash's feet to tickle 'em. Set pretty in the tub, Victory, dear, while ma sees who's rappin'."
Then heavy footsteps approached, the door opened wide, and a large woman appeared, with fuzzy red hair, no front teeth, and a plump, clean face, brightly illuminated by the lamp she carried."If you please, Rachel sent me. She thought you might be able"--
Christie got no further, for C. Wilkins put out a strong bare arm, still damp, and gently drew her in, saying, with the same motherly tone as when addressing her children, "Come right in, dear, and don't mind the clutter things is in. I'm givin' the children their Sat'day scrubbin', and they will slop and kite 'round, no matter ef I do spank 'em."
Talking all the way in such an easy, comfortable voice that Christie felt as if she must have heard it before, Mrs. Wilkins led her unexpected guest into a small kitchen, smelling suggestively of soap-suds and warm flat-irons. In the middle of this apartment was a large tub; in the tub a chubby child sat, sucking a sponge and staring calmly at the newcomer with a pair of big blue eyes, while little drops shone in the yellow curls and on the rosy shoulders."How pretty!" cried Christie, seeing nothing else and stopping short to admire this innocent little Venus rising from the sea.
"So she is! Ma's darlin' lamb! and ketehin' her death a cold this blessed minnit. Set right down, my dear, and tuck your wet feet into the oven. I'll have a dish o' tea for you in less 'n no time; and while it's drawin' I'll clap Victory Adelaide into her bed."
Christie sank into a shabby but most hospitable old chair, dropped her bonnet on the floor, put her feet in the oven, and, leaning back, watched Mrs. Wilkins wipe the baby as if she had come for that especial purpose. As Rachel predicted, she found herself, at home at once, and presently was startled to hear a laugh from her own lips when several children in red and yellow flannel night-gowns darted like meteors across the open doorway of an adjoining room, with whoops and howls, bursts of laughter, and antics of all sorts.
How pleasant it was; that plain room, with no ornaments but the happy faces, no elegance, but cleanliness, no wealth, but hospitality and lots of love. This latter blessing gave the place its charm, for, though Mrs. Wilkins threatened to take her infants' noses off if they got out of bed again, or "put 'em in the kettle and bile 'em" they evidently knew no fear, but gambolled all the nearer to her for the threat; and she beamed upon them with such maternal tenderness and pride that her homely face grew beautiful in Christie's eyes.
When the baby was bundled up in a blanket and about to be set down before the stove to simmer a trifle before being put to bed, Christie held out her arms, saying with an irresistible longing in her eyes and voice:
"Let me hold her! I love babies dearly, and it seems as if it would do me more good than quarts of tea to cuddle her, if she'll let me."
"There now, that's real sensible; and mother's bird'll set along with you as good as a kitten. Toast her tootsies wal, for she's croupy, and I have to be extra choice of her."
"How good it feels!" sighed Christie, half devouring the warm and rosy little bunch in her lap, while baby lay back luxuriously, spreading her pink toes to the pleasant warmth and smiling sleepily up in the hungry face that hung over her.Mrs. Wilkins's quick eyes saw it all, and she said to herself, in the closet, as she cut bread and rattled down a cup and saucer:
"That's what she wants, poor creeter; I'll let her have a right nice time, and warm and feed and chirk her up, and then I'll see what's to be done for her. She ain't one of the common sort, and goodness only knows what Rachel sent her here for. She's poor and sick, but she ain't bad. I can tell that by her face, and she's the sort I like to help. It's a mercy I ain't eat my supper, so she can have that bit of meat and the pie."
Putting a tray on the little table, the good soul set forth all she had to give, and offered it with such hospitable warmth that Christie ate and drank with unaccustomed appetite, finishing off deliciously with a kiss from baby before she was borne away by her mother to the back bedroom, where peace soon reigned.
"Now let me tell you who I am, and how I came to you in such an unceremonious way," began Christie, when her hostess returned and found her warmed, refreshed, and composed by a woman's three best comforters,--kind words, a baby, and a cup of tea.
"'Pears to me, dear, I wouldn't rile myself up by telling any werryments to-night, but git right warm inter bed, and have a good long sleep," said Mrs. Wilkins, without a ray of curiosity in her wholesome red face."But you don't know any thing about me, and I may be the worst woman in the world," cried Christie, anxious to prove herself worthy of such confidence.
"I know that you want takin' care of, child, or Rachel wouldn't a sent you. Ef I can help any one, I don't want no introduction; and ef you be the wust woman in the world (which you ain't), I wouldn't shet my door on you, for then you'd need a lift more'n you do now."Christie could only put out her hand, and mutely thank her new friend with full eyes.
"You're fairly tuckered out, you poor soul, so you jest come right up chamber and let me tuck you up, else you'll be down sick. It ain't a mite of inconvenience; the room is kep for company, and it's all ready, even to a clean night-cap. I'm goin' to clap this warm flat to your feet when you're fixed; it's amazin' comfortin' and keeps your head cool."
Up they went to a tidy little chamber, and Christie found herself laid down to rest none too soon, for she was quite worn out. Sleep began to steal over her the moment her head touched the pillow, in spite of the much beruffled cap which Mrs. Wilkins put on with visible pride in its stiffly crimped borders. She was dimly conscious of a kind hand tucking her up, a comfortable voice purring over her, and, best of all, a motherly goodnight kiss, then the weary world faded quite away and she was at rest.
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'room."
"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'."
"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 secondclass 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?" "Mr. Power."
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.
"Never." "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'."
"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-andby 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.
"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."