The Coming of the Preachers (III)
Home Up Biographic Sketch Clog Shop Chronicles Beckside Lights Scowcroft Critics Doxie Dent Making the Million The Minder The Mangle House From Crooked Roots Old Wenyon's Will The Partners Life's Working Creed Reviews, etc. Main Index Site Search
 


 

[Previous Page]


CHAPTER XI.

THE COMING OF WESLEY


HELSHAM, usually the dullest of places, was lively enough now.  Rumours of the wildest and most exciting character arrived from one source or other almost every hour anent the political situation, and the honest tradesmen, roused to patriotic ardour one hour, and plunged into mournful forebodings the next, found it impossible to stick steadily to business, but leaving their affairs to their wives or assistants, gathered in little knots in the streets, receiving and assisting each other to digest the highly spiced stories which seemed to spring no one knew whence or how.

    The taverns of course drove a flourishing trade, for the regular frequenters of each hostel foregathered at their own particular house of entertainment and turned it into a sort of committee room of political exigencies.  Then the sound of the drum began to be heard in the streets, and the gay ribbons of the recruiting-sergeant were seen at many an ale-house door.

    Press-gang rumours also made their appearance, and there was lamentation in more than one lowly home over a sturdy bread-winner carried off to serve his country in the approaching wars.  And, as if these were not enough, about the middle of the afternoon of the day when Mark tried to come to an understanding with his mistress, the grave and reverend seigniors, who were discussing Jacobitism in the Hanover Arms' parlour, were startled to hear the news concerning the intended visit of Mr. Charles Wesley.

    The vicar, who as usual was leading the conversation, received the information with a string of objurgations too violent to print, and members of the select circle near him turned and looked at each other as if to ask if so very provoking an announcement could by any possibility have truth in it.

    "Methodism!" shouted the little tailor.  "I tell ye, neighbours, 'tis jesuitical devilry! 'tis the popish wolf i' sheep's clothing."

    "This very morn, no other," said the courier, who still wore riding-clothes and spoke in slow, weighty tones, "'twas told me in Purstock town that this same Charles Wesley had prayed for the Pretender in the open street."

    "An excellent fine Government have we in these times, of a truth," sneered the tailor indignantly; but as this was getting perilously near to treasonable language, the landlord interposed and asked them to have regard for the reputation of the "house."

    Then Mr. Josephus broke in and demanded why this rascally preaching was not put down by the proper authorities; and, acting on this suggestion, it was decided to send for the mayor, and if necessary press upon him the urgent importance of taking the matter into his own hands and forbidding the preachers the town.  But the messenger returned with the information that his worship had that morning been called away to the county capital on business connected with the threatened invasion, and so it was decided to interview the town clerk.

    That worthy, who was a seedy little fellow in an enormous wig that nearly hid his thin, bilious face, joined with his friends in denouncing the preachers, but explained, with many parenthetic regrets, that there was no law to punish the offenders now, but that he believed if a score or two honest lads could be got together who would take the law into their own hands, why, then the authorities were really so very much occupied with important matters of State that they might do what they listed without any excessive danger of being brought to account for it.

    And then Mr. Josephus spoke up; he was really intensely indignant.  It had been bad enough when an unknown representative of this "fanatical" new religion had invaded the town and made such a disturbance, but when they had got over that, and were just settling down to their ordinary, easy-going life, to be threatened with a visit from one of the "heads" of this new craze was simply intolerable, and he, for his part, would find money, or anything else that was needed, to put a stop to such intrusions.

    Having thus gradually worked themselves into a sort of informal committee of ways and means, the company proceeded to make arrangements for the reception of the obnoxious preacher.  The recruiting-sergeant was to be interviewed and plied with drink until he should promise to lend his drums for the occasion, and these, with similar instruments already belonging to townspeople, could be trusted to make noise enough to drown the voice of the most stentorian preacher.

    The town clerk, having explained that, much as he should enjoy the fun, his office forbade him taking any open part in it, and the vicar, with much more sincerity, having bemoaned the fact that he must keep in the background for similar reasons, the little tailor was told off to secure the assistance of Big Barny, and Mr. Josephus undertook to repeat his former arrangement with the apprentices.

    Some objection was raised to the matter being committed to Mark again, but Mr. Josephus felt that the former failure somehow reflected upon him, and he therefore insisted on the matter being left in his hands, in order that he might redeem his character by the thoroughness with which he should wipe out his former disgrace.

    By this time it was quite dark, and when Mr. Josephus, with his brother and the vicar, arrived at the hat-shop the lamp had been lighted, and Mark was at his place behind the screen, struggling with the emotions which had been awakened by the announcement with which we closed the last chapter.  Mr. Josephus bade him follow them into the parlour, and Mr. Ebenezer, dropping behind his companions, bestowed on the young journeyman a significant and complicated wink.

    As soon as they were seated, and the vicar had paid his compliments to Kinty by means of a can of sack, Mr. Josephus opened the business by informing Mark of the coming of Mr. Wesley.  Mark nodded, and, without exactly knowing why, stole a glance at his young mistress, who, however, seemed so occupied in making Mr. Ebenezer put his wig straight that she did not observe him.

    He was now informed that there could be no more "shilly-shally" about dealing with the Methodists.  Mr. Josephus denounced them in terms of severest scorn, and demanded that Mark should prove that he was worthy of being regarded as a loyal townsman by at once making arrangements for a rigorous treatment of the religious invaders.  Mark attempted to raise an objection, but his master, who seemed to be in one of his rare talking moods, waved his hand and stopped him, and the journeyman had to listen to all the suggested plans, together with a long lecture on his duty to his masters and his country, rounded off with a number of vague hints of reward.

    Again Mark would have interrupted, but Mr. Josephus, having got well a-going, found it difficult to stop, and, as he had partaken more freely than usual of intoxicants, he was in a most voluble mood, and once more launched out into a denunciation of the Wesleys and their followers, retailing a number of more or less embellished stories of the reported doings of these "disgraceful and criminal" religionists.  Mark, though he attempted to speak as already indicated, was only too glad for his master to go on, for he was never in a less fit condition to answer, and found it impossible to make up his mind.

    At length, however, his master's harangue came to an end, and every eye in the company was turned to him.  He drew a long breath, hesitated a little, rubbed the oak floor with one foot, and then, raising his glance to his master's face, he was just about to make an evasive reply when Kinty, who was watching him closely, broke in:

    "La! uncle, but I should like to see this horrid preaching-monster—an' hearken him."

    And whilst Mr. Josephus turned to her with a snap, and the vicar lifted his hands in pious horror, Mr. Ebenezer gave a chuckling sort of laugh, rubbed his wig with the hand that held his snuff-box, and, totally oblivious of the fact that he was sprinkling his clothes with the pungent dust, cried out:

    "I—fatkins, an' so would I!"

    And before any one could stop her, Kinty had added:

    "'Twould be vastly entertaining—better than a gibbeting."

    Josephus was dumbfounded.  What would this highly licensed madcap of a girl suggest next?  He looked from her to her equally frivolous uncle, and then at Mark and the vicar, as if appealing to them to know whether they had ever heard of so outrageous a suggestion, and was just opening his mouth to rebuke her as she deserved when Ebenezer broke in:

    "No harm, brother; he won't swallow us.  'Cursed cows have short horns.'"

    And then Kinty took up the tale again.  Very cleverly and cautiously she talked, appealing most deftly to that strong curiosity so deep in rustic natures, laughing gaily at all her uncle's fears of her getting corrupted by the preacher, and assuming always that, after they had gratified her whim, the design in hand could be carried out according to arrangement.

    And her chief point made an impression.  Neither her uncle nor the vicar was proof against the wish to see and hear, for once at any rate, a character that had become nationally notorious, and so, though Mr. Josephus held out for some time longer, when the vicar, under the spell of Kinty's bright eyes, went over to the enemy, he was compelled to surrender, though he did it with the worst possible grace, and with the strict stipulation that when they had once gratified a curiosity for which he pretended great contempt, but which he was conscious of not being entirely proof against himself, he should be no longer balked of his purpose.

    Mark, to his immense relief and equally great astonishment, was therefore dismissed for the present, but with strict injunctions to hold himself in readiness to carry out his master's wishes at any moment of the coming day.

    Next morning Mr. Josephus discovered that the feeling Kinty had expressed was by no means an uncommon one, a good many people in the town, who expressed the utmost horror of the new doctrines, confessing to a strong desire "for once only" to see and hear one of the chief exponents of them; and it became clear to him that, whatever the final issue, Mr. Charles Wesley might be sure of a great congregation when he appeared.

    By ten o'clock little knots of people were already beginning to assemble at the cross,— smock-frocked labourers from the country, with here and there a "renter," as the tenant farmers were called; workmen of all sorts, idle apprentices, a chapman or two plying their wares, small tradesmen and their assistants, tavern-loungers, wool-croppers with their striped aprons and hosen caps, and women with white head-coverings and gaudy print dresses.

    All these, and many more, gradually came to make up a crowd, which, as the appointed time drew near, must have numbered nearly a thousand persons.  Except on fair-days, such a crowd had not assembled in Helsham marketplace for many a long day.

    Kinty, in a flat straw hat that drooped a little over the ears and gave her a coquettish look, came to the preaching in the company of Mr. Josephus; for her favourite uncle had grown impatient, and started off some twenty minutes before them.  A little cry of disappointment escaped her as she came up and discovered that with her stature it would now be almost impossible to see, and she was looking round for some vantage-ground, when the currier, whose shop stood at the corner of the street, end on to the market-place, came forward and invited them upstairs into his storeroom, the flap door of which, when opened, commanded an excellent view of the whole square.

    Here they could both see and hear; and Kinty, glancing over the crowd, perceived Uncle Ebenezer standing close up to the little knot of Methodists who were evidently waiting for the preacher.  His wig was down into the back of his neck, and the cocked hat that held it in its place showed serious signs of falling behind him.  It was evident that he, at any rate, was entirely engrossed.

    A little farther from them stood the vicar, with the corners of his mouth drawn peevishly down, and his eyes constantly wandering towards Big Barny and a gang of roughs who occupied the middle of the road, and who were armed with cudgels and small bags of dust and stones.  Close against the wall, under their feet, the occupants of the store next observed a band of men with drums, old cans, and superannuated musical instruments, upon which they were evidently growing impatient to perform, while the constable and two stout assistants formed a little party to themselves, and studied with dubious eyes the preparations of Barny and his colleagues.

    Kinty was looking for Mark, and at last she spied him standing alongside Goody Wagstaffe, and listening with evident embarrassment to something the old dame was saying.  At this moment her attention was attracted to a rough-looking fellow, evidently a small-coal man, who, mounted upon a donkey which he was trying to drive into the crowd, was flourishing over his shoulders a long flail-like thing, the lash of which had bladders strung upon it, with which he was belabouring all who came within his reach.

    This was too good fun for a man of Big Barny's tastes to resist, and so he darted forward, and was just grabbing at the bladder-whip when some one touched him from behind, and springing round with a foul curse upon his lips, he found himself face to face with a carefully dressed and evidently very gentlemanly clergyman, who politely asked to be allowed to pass.  Barny's long arms fell to his side, his jaw dropped confusedly, and, with a blundering apology, he stepped back; and then turned and stared with amazement at his comrades, for the person who had spoken to him was Charles Wesley.  With a clumsy respectfulness, amounting almost to awe, the crowd fell back on each side, and the preacher strode to the cross.

    Taking his stand upon the worn steps, and facing the crowd with respectful confidence, he gave out a hymn, and almost immediately commenced to sing.  The inhabitants of Helsham had very little knowledge of hymnology, and so with the exception of two or three who stood nearest to the preacher nobody joined in at first.  But the tune was taking, though somewhat plaintive, and first one and then another took up the unwonted exercise.

    The preacher read out the verses one by one; the words were bright and warm, and the chorus was irresistible.  Soon the greater part of that immense company were singing, and that with heart and relish, and when at last the hymn ended there could be no doubt in any person's mind present that Mr. Wesley would get a hearing for once.

    The prayer, which was long and impassioned, was followed with keenest attention by the now numerous occupants of the currier's store doorway, but whilst they were not able to catch in any single sentence the slightest phrase which could be applied to Jacobitism, there was that in the supplication which rebuked them, and made them feel something akin to shame.

    After a portion of Scripture had been read and another hymn sung to an old psalm-tune well known to all, the clergyman began to preach.  Some one tapped a drum as the text was announced, but so many angry heads were turned round sharply, and so many people cried "Hush!" that the venture was not persevered with.  In two or three moments after he commenced, the preacher had such attention as the vicar had never been able to boast of during his whole ministry, and necks were craned forward and hands were placed behind ears in order that not a syllable might be lost.

    The effect seemed to Kinty to be something uncanny, and whilst her own heart fluttered as some of the burning words forced their way down to her conscience, she became aware of a strange, subtle, sympathetic influence that was moving the crowd at her feet.  A moment or two later the sensation became audible; a soft, low, moaning hum rose to her ears, and the crowd seemed to be under some wondrous spell.

    The man with the donkey had got down from his seat, and was standing gazing at the preacher spellbound; Big Barny, with dropped jaw and raised eyebrows, was leaning heavily over the shoulders of a little man before him, and Kinty caught the gleam of tears in his eyes; whilst Goody Wagstaffe, a few feet from the preacher, was turning up to heaven a face that shone with a wonderful light.

    Kinty heaved a great sigh and looked again for Mark, but as she scanned the heads of the crowd she saw a couple of thin arms suddenly thrown up, and there broke upon her ear the most awful shriek she had ever heard.

    Before she could draw her breath a man's voice came from the outer edge of the crowd in a cry that was despair itself, and as she stepped back into the store in terror, a woman, standing just under the doorway, threw herself headlong upon the crowd, and began to pour out the most repulsive and horrible blasphemies.

    The scene that followed haunted Kinty's imagination for many a day.  The preacher's voice was drowned in the wails of frantic men and women; respectable townsmen, heads of families, stood there and sobbed like children; others fell on their knees and began to cry for the Divine mercy; women suddenly burst forth into weird hysterical laughter, and passionately hugged each other; and, to complete the picture, the roughs in the background began to beat a wild ran-tan on their drums.

    The preacher stopped now, and sprang fearlessly into the midst of the crowd, vainly striving to subdue the emotions his words had aroused, and administer comfort to those in genuine spiritual distress.  And at this moment Uncle Josephus took the terrified and almost helpless Kinty and led her away from the door.


 
CHAPTER XII.

AN ATTACK


AND whilst Kinty and her uncle were making their way home, Mark Rawson still stood watching the scene we have just described.  He was about as innocent of religion as any other healthy young pagan of his time, and whatever tendency there might have been in him in that direction was checked and almost smothered under the strong ambition which had recently taken possession of him.

    He had, however, quite his share of that native reverence for sacred things which lies deep in the breast of every human being, and is the surest thing to which the advocates of religion can appeal.  In his conception of things, whatever religion was or was not, it represented the decencies and respectabilities of life, and the scene upon which he was gazing produced in him a strong but very complete revulsion of feeling.

    Religion!  To connect these outrageous scenes with holy things was nothing short of blasphemy.  It was more like Pandemonium, and about the likeliest thing he could think of for bringing Christianity into disrepute with all well-disposed persons.

    There, a few yards from him, was Big Barny grovelling on the cobble-stones and smearing his dirty face with tear-stains, whilst he bellowed and slobbered like a whipped schoolboy, and just behind him stood his draggle-tailed paramour, "Yorkshire Peggy," who was tearing her matted red hair with one hand, and clinging with childish terror to the cloak of Goody Wagstaffe with the other.

    Groans and sobs and occasional bursts of hysterical laughter filled the air, and even decent tradesfolk and respectable women were wringing their hands and making strenuous efforts to get at Mr. Wesley to speak to him.  Mark was outraged; scorn and indignation burned within him; and when the carpenter in whose loft the Methodists held their private meetings rose from his knees, where he had been speaking to a sobbing girl, and touched Mark on the elbow, saying as he did so, in what to the young hatter seemed tones of whining sanctimoniousness, "Will you also be His disciple?" Mark felt strongly impelled to knock him down, and turning away, with eyes that flashed with scorn, and a lip that was curled in intense contempt, he hissed out:

    "Thou scabby shoulder-clapper!" and strode angrily back to his work.

    "That thee, Mark?" called out Mr. Josephus as he entered the shop, and proceeded to hang up his cap in the little office.

    "Ay, ay, sir," answered Mark, hesitating, as he turned to his books.

    "Then come hither, man—come hither!"

    Promptly obeying the summons, the marks of his recent disgust still traceable on his face deepened as he discovered Kinty, sitting limp and wan in the elbow-chair, whilst Mr. Josephus, agitated and angry, was pacing before the fire, impatiently waiting his subordinate's appearance; and the vicar, with the inevitable can of liquor at his elbow, sat drumming his fingers on the table.

    "Well, what think's to o' matters now?" demanded Josephus, glaring fiercely at the young journeyman.

    "Think, sir?" cried Mark, impatient to disburden himself; "what can I think?  'Tis witchery!—witchery, no less."

    "Witchery?" shouted the parson in husky tones.  "'Tis devilry!—hellish devilry!  Conversion, sir?—i' gad, but they've converted me to-day!  Devils, say you?—yea, truly; I believe i' devils now, legions o' devils, an' possession o' devils.  Sink me, but I believe it all now!"

    "What is the Government about?" began Mr. Josephus.  But, jumping to his feet as if he had been struck, the vicar burst out again in wrathful scorn:

    "Government, sir?  Government is passing Toleration Acts an' Conventicle Acts, an' manufacturing Jacobites by wholesale!  Gad! we shall all be Jacobites soon out o' pure compulsion!" and then, scared lest any one should have heard his rash and treasonable words, he glanced quickly round and sank back somewhat abashed into his chair.

    But nobody there objected to his violent language, Mark least of all.  He was studying Kinty, and instead of finding her as he expected, scornful and mocking, he observed that she was silent, timid, and woebegone.  He was indignant.

    It took no little to intimidate that bright and plucky little woman, and the fact that she had been so affected was the strongest possible evidence of the outrageous nature of the incidents they had just witnessed.  There must be no further dallying with an evil of this sort.  His mind was entirely made up.  Pity and toleration were worse than wasted on wretches who brought terror and madness amongst their fellow-men.

    He was ready for anything, as eager now to commence as he had before been reluctant, and ere they had talked many minutes a scheme had been sketched by which all future public preaching should be stopped, and even the meetings at the "loft" brought to an end, even if they had to resort to the extreme course of burning the building over the heads of the Methodists.

    But at this moment Mr. Ebenezer came waddling into the parlour, and everybody turned to look at him, and then at each other, for the old fellow's appearance was such as to excite the utmost concern.

    He seemed suddenly to have become a smaller man; his garments hung loosely upon him, and what of his face could be seen from under his forward-tilted hat was ashen grey in colour.  His hands hung heavily upon the sides of his great-coat pockets, and he brought a flavour into the room which told that he had been drinking.

    He did not speak as he entered, he did not even raise his head, but shuffled to his seat in the chimney-corner, and dropped into his place like an over-wearied traveller.

    Mark watched his old master with concern, and with an inward curse laid the change he saw at the door of the objectionable new religionists, against whom he vowed summary and terrible vengeance.  Kinty also seemed distressed, and went quietly over to her uncle; and, slipping her tiny hand into his, sat on the arm of his chair, mutely assuring him of her sympathy.

    Then the vicar started the conversation again but Mr. Ebenezer seemed to be quite uninterested, and was soon, in the excitement of the discussion, forgotten.

    All through that day and the next, whilst Mark was maturing his plans for attacking the Methodists, Kinty was engaged in nursing her uncle; and whenever Mark went into the parlour, he was dismissed in the fewest possible words, and could get no opportunity of speaking to his mistress alone.

    Mr. Ebenezer developed gout, and sat in the corner with his right foot enswathed in cloths, engaged in a series of exceedingly interesting experiments with various famous local cures for his disorder.  This doctoring seemed to divert the old fellow's mind, and he was somewhat more cheerful, the concern of his friends being chiefly shown in their curiosity to ascertain exactly how he had been affected by Mr. Wesley's preaching.

    That this was the original cause was very clear, and that he had been strongly moved by it was also apparent; for the appearance of gout in his great toe was the almost certain consequence of any extraordinary mental excitement.  But how precisely the affair had affected him, and what his present opinion might be, they had no means of finding out, for he was most unusually taciturn.

    The only thing that really interested him was some new remedy for his old enemy, and in the course of some forty-eight hours he had tried treacle poultices, in which both he and Kerry the maid had much faith, elixir of vitriol, raw beefsteak plaster, a decoction of tansy, and was just arranging for a sort of primitive vapour bath, when the vicar called on the Methodist business, and immediately prescribed a preparation of elder buds.

    On the third morning, therefore, after the now notorious sermon, when Mark stepped into the parlour on some matter of trade, he found his old master sitting with his bad leg upon a chair, slowly sipping elder tea, whilst a pile of pamphlets, all of which were in some way connected with Methodism, lay on the table before him.

    To Mark's surprise, the patient scarcely noticed his presence, but kept on reading the pamphlet he happened to have in his hand, every now and again taking off his great horn glasses and polishing them on the corner of the tablecloth, sighing heavily as he did so.  At this point, however, Kinty came in, accompanied by Kerry, who carried a large bowl of some herbal decoction for the purpose of fomenting the invalid's foot, and Mr. Ebenezer rather astonished Mark by asking the domestic what was the latest news about the Methodists.

    He grew more surprised, and a little suspicious also, when Kerry, as if expecting the question, began a long story of the changes which had been produced in the town by Charles Wesley's sermon.

    Big Barny and Yorkshire Peggy had made arrangements to be legally married, as a condition of membership amongst the new sect; Tommy Rolls, the man who had carried the bladder-whip on the day of Mr. Wesley's visit, had sold his dogs and rabbit-snares, and declared his intention of abandoning poaching for ever whilst Eli Glass, the keeper of the Fox and Grapes, a disreputable ale-house in the lowest part of Tan-pit Lane, had handed over to the custom-house authorities certain spirits which he had been in the habit of retailing, but which he was not certain had ever had duty paid upon them, and had poured out his stock of small-ale into the "goyt," with the avowed intention of never selling intoxicants again.

    Mr. Ebenezer seemed very strangely interested in these details, and so far forgot himself as to set his foot into the nearly boiling herbs; but though he drew it back again with a yell, and repeated it when Kerry, on her knees, accidentally touched the inflamed toe, he was most unaccountably indifferent, and soon had the serving-woman running over a list of persons in the town running who had shown leanings towards the obnoxious sect.  When she finished her tale with the information that so many people now attended the Methodists' services that the loft was too small, and they were on the look-out for a larger building, he lapsed into a brown study, out of which even his interest in his own disordered member was not sufficient to recall him.

    Mark did not like these symptoms at all.  Surely the old man was not coming what the sectaries would call "under conviction"!  Now that he was in a fair way for ingratiating himself in the good graces of Mr. Josephus, it would be a pretty complication if he found Mr. Ebenezer, whom he so greatly respected, against him.

    And then there was young mistress.  Why was she so very silent and shy these days?  Why was it that she had never given him the chance of exchanging words with her since the day of the now famous sermon?

    But, after all, these were minor matters; the Methodists themselves had helped him out of a great difficulty, and had put it into his power to get on terms again with the all-important person upon whom the fulfilment of his ambitions depended, and he would make the most of his opportunity, and strike whilst the iron was hot.

    Mr. Josephus had been most unusually amiable these last few days, and had told him not to spare money, time, or pains to accomplish the task he had now formally undertaken, and he had had so much encouragement to proceed from both the vicar and the landlord of the Hanover Arms that there was no longer any room for hesitation.

    Besides, every day that passed over was giving a chance to his rival.  He had discovered, by diligently plying Kerry as he sat over his meals in the kitchen, that there was something in the visit of the young maltster which he had so accidentally been witness to, and he could not help wondering how it was that that young man remained quiet so long.  For, as far as he could ascertain, he had never been to the house since.  At any rate, every day the formal proposal which he dreaded so much was delayed was a day gained for him, and he was determined to make the most of his opportunities.

    On the fifth morning after the scene in the market-place, as Mark was engaged in a prolonged and irritating struggle with an old farmer who was "cheapening" a beaver hat, who should walk into the shop but his worship the mayor, who inquired in a very surly voice for Mr. Josephus.  He was evidently suffering under great, though suppressed, excitement, and gnawed chafingly at his under lip as he waited for Mark's answer to his question.

    The young hatter went suddenly cold, and with clumsy embarrassment ushered the magistrate into the parlour, whence, as he absently struggled with the haggling customer, he caught sounds of loud-voiced and apparently angry discussion.  Then Mr. Josephus came to the parlour door and beckoned him to join them, and he was compelled to leave the old farmer to the shopman, whilst he went with beating heart to do his master's bidding.

    The mayor, who had all along been regarded as shamefully indifferent to the disturbances caused by the Methodists, now seemed to have found some cause for great resentment; he was white to the lips, and his utterance, which was never very clear, had now become confused and sputtering in the excess of his anger.

    "'Tis preposterous! 'tis an af-af-af-affront to the majesty o' the law 'tis rebellion! rank, staring rebellion, no less he roared, smiting the table with his fist, and glaring round the room as though appealing against any gainsayer.

    "Why doesn't your worship bring the law on 'em?" asked Mr. Josephus in respectful perplexity.

    "Law!  Law, says you?  That's where it b-b-b-ites, man!  'Tis the law that has done it!  'Tis your new Riot Acts an' your Toleration Laws that stop us!  Putting down disturbers!  Why, man, 'tis the very thing that causes 'em all!"  And then, breaking suddenly off and making a grab at Mark, he seized him by the lapel of his coat and went on excitedly: "Sithi, youngster! go to it! to it, man!  Purge 'em out! burn 'em out! drown 'em out! and, by the great Harry, I'll give thee five gowden guineas!"

    A deep groan came at this moment from somewhere behind the magistrate, and whipping petulantly round he discovered Mr. Ebenezer sitting in his accustomed corner, and apparently entirely engrossed in the condition of his toe.

    The diversion, however, caused Mark to look round, and the pride he was beginning to feel at being regarded as of so much importance by the chief men of the town suffered a sudden shadowing as he perceived Kinty looking at him with sad and somewhat anxious eyes.  But the mayor had resumed the discussion upon the Methodists, and Mark soon forgot everything else in the flattering sense of his own importance and the gain he was expecting to make out of his undertaking to lead the persecutions.

    They talked a long time, and it soon became clear to him that he must act at once if he desired to retain either the favour of the maltster or the good opinion of his master; and so, after a long discussion of ways and means, Mark was released for the day from his service in the shop, and so set at liberty to carry out his arrangements for uprooting the intrusive sectaries.

    He started on his errand in the highest possible spirits, though he could not help reflecting with regret how much easier his task would have been if he had gone forward with it before Mr. Wesley's visit, for then Big Barny, the small-coal man, and several others could have been got together at a moment's notice.  But they had now gone over to the enemy, and he had to refuse to allow himself to think how awkward these men might make it if they were inclined to show fight.

    As he proceeded with his task, however, his difficulties seemed to increase.  Slinger, a roistering apprentice whitesmith, replied to his invitation by looking him solemnly in the face, and quoting, "Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm"; and two roughs, who were brickmakers, offered to pray with him, whilst Corny Steep, the maltster's waggoner, handed him a tract, and exhorted him to make his "calling and election sure," and he soon discovered that he was not only making no progress with his scheme, but was forewarning the Methodists themselves of the danger that threatened them.

    Eventually, however, he had to swallow his pride, and apply to the ostlers and stablemen at the Hanover Arms, and the other old posting-houses of the town, and these, with the assistance of a band of young quarrymen, formed a company which in numbers at any rate was more than satisfactory; and having fixed the corner of the lane leading down to the carpenter's shop as the rendezvous for the evening, Mark hastened back to the shop to inform Mr. Josephus of his success.

    Punctually at eight o'clock he made for the place appointed, and found his band already assembled.  At his bidding, they lighted their lanterns and then darkened them, and followed him down the entry, only to discover that the place was in total darkness.  Staples, a red-haired, out-of-work "drawer" (potboy), suggested that they should break into the workshop underneath the loft, and with the shavings set fire to the building; but as the mayor had warned him against such an extreme course, Mark withheld them, and dismissed them for the night, after arranging for a similar meeting the following evening.

    Later on the same night he discovered that, as he feared, the Methodists had got wind of their intention, and had taken refuge in a dwelling house at the other end of the town.

    Next evening they met with a similar experience, and though to satisfy some of the more impetuous spirits Mark attempted to find out where the "fanatics" were met, he was not successful, and he had some difficulty in persuading his assistants to re-assemble yet once again on the following night.  Mark's forces were somewhat depleted when they came together, but he learnt as soon as he arrived that the Methodists were already in the room, two or three indeed having passed to the gathering whilst his comrades had stood waiting.

    With the same arrangements as before they stole quietly up the entry and into the yard, and to their delight found that the Methodists had commenced to sing.  At a word from their leader the gang divided and surrounded the building, standing sufficiently far back to be able to see the dim light through the windows.  The tune was soft and plaintive, and the singers were evidently few in number.

    "Hold, boys! tarry till I whistle and then fling all together.  Take me?"

    Various husky grunts came in response, there was a moment or two of silence, broken only by the droning of the tune within the building, then a shrill whistle, followed by a shout and a whiz of stones and the crashing and shivering of glass.

    "To it! another!" shouted Mark, and as cries and groans came from inside crash, crash, came the stones once more.

    Howls and shrieks, the scuffling of feet and the overturning of seats could now be heard, and a moment later the door of the loft was flung open, and the tall form of Goody Wagstaffe appeared at the top of the stairs.

    "Mercy, neighbours, mercy!" she cried, lifting her long thin arms in supplication.

    "The witchwoman!  Duck her!  To the' pond wi' her!" shouted some one; and in less time than it takes to describe the poor old soul was dragged from her place, hoisted upon the shoulders of four strong young fellows, and a moment later a piercing shriek and a loud, heavy splash announced that the barbarous wretches had fulfilled their threat.

    Meanwhile Mark and the others had forced their way into the room, where a scene met them which at any other time would have made the young hatter sick with shame and resentment.  In the middle of the room knelt two women, with blood trickling down their faces and arms lifted up to their Maker in prayer for deliverance.

    Into the dim corners wives had been thrust by their husbands, who stood before them with white, set faces, evidently resolved to defend their beloved ones at any cost, and here and there men and women were struggling over benches and the prostrate forms of their fellow-worshippers towards the door.

    "Out o' this!  Out o' this, you snivellers!" shouted Mark; but his own sick heart took all the menace out of his words, and he was just leaning forward to see more distinctly in the dimness, when he caught sight of a little white face, which, with closed eyes, was turned up to the roof, and in the midst of the uproar he heard a song, the words and tune of which were both strange to him, come forth from the bruised and bleeding mouth of a maiden of about fourteen summers.


"Other refuge have I none,
     Hangs my helpless soul on Thee
 Leave, ah, leave me not alone,
     Still support and comfort me.
 All my trust on Thee is stayed,
     All my help from Thee I--


but here, perhaps fortunately for Mark's feelings, a great, hulking fellow seized a bench and was lifting it through the window, but one end of it caught the rude, wooden, six-branched candlestick which hung in the centre of the room, and brought it down with a tremendous crash upon the little singer's head.

    In spite of himself, Mark uttered a fierce shriek but as the room was now in total darkness, all he could do was to grope forward towards the now prostrate singer.  Before he could reach her, however, there was a loud shout outside, the youths behind Mark were pushed violently forward, and the deep voice of Big Barny was heard calling on the rioters to desist.

    Mark struggled hard to reach the singer, but the more he pushed one way the more he was pressed the other.  All at once he felt the cool night air on his cheek, he was lifted from his feet and carried in the press for three or four yards, then a wild blow struck him somewhere on the side of his head, he felt himself suddenly whizzing through the air, and when he came to himself he was lying on the ground underneath the steps leading up to the loft, with a head that felt as if leading it did not belong to him, and a leg that was twisted under him and broken.


 
CHAPTER XIII.

THE FLAX MILL GOSPEL


BEFORE he could quite realise all that had happened to him Mark had swooned again, and when he next recovered consciousness he was lying on his sister's truckle bed by the fire at home, and the irascible local apothecary was busy setting his limb.  The pain in that member, however, was as nothing to what he felt in other parts of his body; he was sore all over, and his head sung and swam again if he moved it ever so little.  He had fallen or been pushed from the top of the unrailed staircase of the loft, and his sister and the other volunteer nurses in the room were giving thanks in incoherent terms to Providence that he had not been killed outright.

    The apothecary snapped and swore at him as if it were a crime to have broken a limb; and Mark was heartily glad when the operation was finished and he was bidden go to sleep.  But that soon proved to be impossible, and he spent a weary night struggling with pain that every hour seemed to grow worse.

    Immediately after breakfast next morning Mr. Ebenezer, still lame, and limping on a stick, arrived, bringing with him a local bone-setter of great repute, and in spite of Mark's feeble protests, his suffering member was subjected to a long and not too gentle examination, the bone-setter pishing and pshawing and shaking his head, and finally announcing that the leg was not set at all, and that the patient must during the night, have suffered agonies.

    Mark, though scared at the prospect of a second operation, was compelled to confirm this latter statement; and so the limb was once more subjected to professional treatment, and the poor sufferer groaned and almost screamed under the hands of his tormentor.  He was soon, however, aware of a change in his own feelings; and when his visitors had left him it was not long before he had dropped into a nice refreshing sleep, from which he awoke later in the afternoon to find Mistress Kinty bending anxiously over him.

    During the next few days he began to realise that this accident of his seemed likely to turn out very much to his advantage.  The young mistress was most anxious and assiduous in her attentions, and showed a concern which was far in excess of anything that could be expected from her merely as the niece of his employers; the only drawback being that, although his sister very considerately gave them many opportunities, Kinty never would remain alone with him, and so he could not, contrive as he would, get a chance of speaking to her about the matter that was always uppermost in his thoughts.  Moreover, there was a gravity and soberness in her manner which was to him most perplexing, and which he could not any longer put down to mere concern for his recovery.

    The mayor also sent little delicacies from his kitchen nearly every day, and twice during the first fortnight of his confinement came to see him.  Mr. Ebenezer's attentions, though somewhat embarrassing, were only what he might expect from the kindly heart of the old man, and but for the fact that he produced almost every time he came some new salve or lotion, and insisted on its being used, Mark would have been glad enough to see him.

    The most encouraging circumstance, however, was the conduct of Mr. Josephus.  That worthy came every day, and often in a roundabout way dropped remarks which showed Mark that he felt that the accident had been brought about in an endeavour to oblige him, which of course was the sweetest possible medicine to the sufferer.  In addition to these things, Mark rejoiced to discover that he was being sorely missed in the business.  Mr. Ebenezer made no bones about it, but as he saw it gratified the patient, he enlarged to the point of romance upon the inconveniences they were suffering, and the impatience they all felt for his recovery.

    But Mr. Ebenezer, as Mark well knew, took little interest in the business, and it was to his brother that he looked for signs of his own importance.  And certainly these were not wanting, for almost every day the senior partner of the firm would come in, ostensibly to inquire how he was progressing, and then in an offhanded, clumsily disguised manner make a business remark, which would lead Mark to reply as he knew he was expected to do, and supply the information that was required; whilst once, and sometimes oftener, each day the shop-man would come down post haste with some question which required an immediate answer, and which showed the young hatter how very important he was to the well-being of the business.

    One thing, however, greatly troubled him whilst he was thus laid aside, the way was entirely open to his rival, and he made no doubt that that young gentleman was making the most of his opportunities.  This was a matter upon which he could not ask questions except very cautiously, and all he could ascertain was the information which Kerry, who came down every day with some dainty from the young mistress, imparted, that, as far as she could observe, there was no change in the situation.

    Judge, therefore, of his surprise and delight when his sister came hurrying into the room one afternoon about a fortnight after the accident, with the amazing but delightful information that the young maltster had turned Methodist, and had been driven from home by his indignant father and disinherited.  The more he reflected on this intelligence the better he liked it.

    The way was now fairly open to him.  That Mr. Josephus would follow the mayor's example and repudiate with scorn the pretensions of a man who belonged to the hated sectaries he was absolutely certain, and the inconveniences to which they were being put by his absence from the shop were working for him as no amount of pleading on his part could have done.

    Mr. Josephus had already hinted that they would have to remove him to the shop as soon as it was safe to do so, in order to have him at hand for consultation; and when that came about, and he was left, as he knew he would be, many hours of the day in the parlour with the young mistress, he was confident that with the feelings she had already betrayed towards him, he would not be long before he accomplished his heart's desire.

    As to the Methodists, he felt a little weary of them; and as this accident of his had served his purpose with his master more effectually than any amount of heretic-baiting could have done, he would be glad enough to wash his hands of them altogether.  He had heard without much interest that they were supposed to be entirely disheartened by their persecutions; the loft had been left in such a state on the night of the attack that it was not possible to use it again, if even it had been safe to do so; and nobody else would lend them any sort of building in which to assemble, and so Mark's sister who was his chief informant, supposed they had heard the last of them.

    Mark was not so sure; but he was glad enough to know that he would not be troubled any further about them, and almost grateful to them for having captured his rival, and thus removed one of the most serious dangers to his prospects.

    Meanwhile his injured limb progressed somewhat slowly, and this exposed him to the torture of having to take a succession of infallible remedies prescribed by Uncle Ebenezer for the purpose of "bringing him on," a compensating consideration being that his master had conceived a violent prejudice against the then all-popular bleeding, and he was therefore delivered from that infliction.

    Five or six weeks thus passed away and the spring was creeping upon them, the days grew longer and the air softer, and Mark was getting out of all patience to be about again.  The bone-setter, however, was inexorable, and he was not even permitted to be removed, as he so much wished, to the shop.  Lack of active occupation robbed the patient somewhat of his natural rest, and he found it impossible to sleep long after dawn.

    On a certain Sabbath morning, about the end of March, he lay wakeful and reflective in his little bed by the fireside, feeling somewhat oppressed by the unusual warmth of the air and the closeness of the room.  By the aid of his long walking-stick he had succeeded, after several attempts, in unloosing the fastening of the little window just behind him and opening the aperture, when his ears were delighted with a stream of delightful bird melody that came pouring into the room, heightened as it was to him by the balmy sweetness of the fresh morning air.  No other sounds could be heard, except the distant lowing of cattle and an occasional footstep in the lane, and he surrendered himself to the influences of the occasion and felt his soul bathed in soothing, yet healing and purifying peace.

    For an hour or more he lay steeping himself in the quiet influences about him, and was just beginning to think it was time to wake his sister, who, since his accident, had occupied his own little bedroom under the thatch, when suddenly the stillness was broken by a man's deep voice apparently close to him.  It sounded like some one reading aloud, and before he had time to think whence it came, there rose in the air the solemn strains of the Old Hundredth, sung, evidently, by a goodly number of mixed voices.

    "Good Lord!" cried Mark, "'tis the Methodists!" and, with a protesting frown and a gesture of petulant disgust, he flung himself back upon his couch.  But the music clung to him, seemed, in fact, to wrap him round, and before the hymn was finished he found himself listening to it attentively, and finding in it something that harmonised somehow with the sweet stillness which at first it seemed so rudely to have disturbed.

    Then the singing stopped, and Mark began to wonder where the sounds came from.  At firs the had concluded they were holding an open-air service in the lane, but the solitary man's voice he could now hear, evidently raised in prayer, seemed to come in through the little window, and so, dragging himself to his feet, and groping for his crutch, he moved cautiously to the open casement and looked out.

    Yes, there it was.  Standing end on to the back of the cottage, so close that the near corner obstructed the light of the little window, was a comparatively large building which, as long as Mark could remember, had been used as a flax mill.  He recollected now that during his illness he had heard that it had been given up, and he understood at once that the Methodists must have got hold of it by some means and turned it into a meeting-house.  The nearest window had a swinging flap for its upper half, and that was open, and this was the reason he had heard so distinctly.

    For the moment a curious, almost superstitious, feeling took possession of him; it appeared as if some mysterious powers were at work on behalf of these hated religionists, and he might, after all, have to attribute his late accident to occult agencies, he did not care further to define.

    But the leader of the service was raising his voice, and Mark soon perceived that he was praying.  He could now hear every word distinctly, and what a prayer it was!  Instead of the droning, sing-song, lifeless sentences to which he had been accustomed at church, this petition glowed with intense reality.  It seemed to Mark as if the suppliant were in the very presence of some one from whom he was desperately yet confidently intent upon wringing some immediate concession.  He pleaded boldly, almost passionately, and yet with a reverence that seemed all the truer because it was not expressed in words.

    It was a long, roundabout supplication, but Mark felt as if he could see some great shining personality with whom the suppliant was pleading, and when at last the petition came to a close, he heaved a great sigh and fell against the cottage wall profoundly impressed.

    Just then he heard an exclamation behind him, and, glancing round, discovered his sister making her way to his window.  With an impatient but decisive gesture he waved her back, and when she persisted in speaking he almost hissed out, "Hush!"  Unconsciously he had thrust his head farther into the casement, but all the sounds he could catch were voices speaking in conversational tones together with the very puzzling clinking of pots, for the fact was the worshippers were holding a love-feast, only Mark had never heard of such an institution.

    Presently they began to sing again, this time a lively, swinging tune which, before Mark could fairly catch, changed into a sort of duet, shrill voices of women being followed by the deep bass tones of the men, and then the women again, and so on for some little time, until, but for the catching nature of the music, Mark could have smiled at the, to him, ludicrous performance.  After another short pause he heard a strange voice speaking—a woman's—but he could not catch the low tones, and when she raised her voice, she became at his distance incoherent.

    Suddenly the deep tones of a voice he knew reached him, and Big Barny began to tell the story of his long life of wickedness and his subsequent conversion, with all the blessed consequences both for him and the woman who was now his wife.  Then there was another sing, two or three more speakers followed, and Mark listened spellbound to a tale that moved his very soul, coming from the evidently excited Goody Wagstaffe.

    By this time he had got his head halfway through the window, and his sister again remonstrated with him, only to be rebuked with even a sterner impatience than before.  The love-feast had for the time, at any rate, entirely captured him, and as he strained his whole attention to hear, he now caught, soft and low, the hymn which the little maiden had sung in the loft on the day of the attack.

    It seemed to vibrate through Mark's whole nature; but whilst he listened it stopped, and some one—evidently the little girl before named—was speaking.  But he could not hear, only, after he had listened for some time, he just caught in tones of growing excitement: "God bless our enemies!  Jesus died for our enemies!  'Twas only one little wound on my head, but He was wounded all over for me—and for them."

    Mark felt he was choking, and drew back, catching as he did so the chorus of Amens! with which the finish of the child's "testimony" was received.  A moment more, and he heard the leader praying again, and as he placed his hand on his thumping heart that he might hear what was being asked for, there was a shuffling of feet in the flax mill, and realising that the meeting was over, he sank back and fell upon the little bed overcome.

    And now it seemed as though a long lazy, and conveniently docile conscience had suddenly awakened, and was taking vengeance for its past ill-treatment.  Every scene in which he had taken part against the Methodists came back to him with startling vividness, and drove deeper the iron into his soul.

    For some moments he lay in agonised thought, and would have relieved himself with groans, or even tears, but for the presence of his sister.  Twice she summoned him to breakfast, but he took no heed; and it was only when she came and pulled his hands away from over his eyes, and sneeringly asked him if the Methodists had "madded" him, too, that he roused himself and drew up to the table.  It was little that he ate that morning, and his sister grew angrier and more scornful as she vainly pressed first one little dainty upon him and then another.  He felt more like himself, however, after the meal, and suggested to Nancy that his accident must have made him weak and nervous; and she, not to let him off too easily, retorted that he always had been weak where he ought to be strongest.

    He was content, however, to escape thus easily, and spent the whole morning trying to get rid of the impression made upon him by the love-feast, and convince himself that his conduct towards the new sect was quite justifiable.  Somehow, his reasoning, however conclusive, brought him little relief, and he found himself growing strangely pensive and irritable.

    In the afternoon, however, when church was over, Mistress Kinty called to see him, and she looked so bonny in her Sunday clothes, and was so very bright and cheerful, with something of her old gaiety of manner, that he forgot everything else whilst she was present.  Then Mr. Josephus looked in, and before he was well seated commenced to tell his young friend that the vicar had just turned away half a score Methodists who had the "owdaciousness" to come to the sacrament.  The old master, Mark thought, seemed unusually bitter, even for him, against the hated religionists, and he soon discovered the reason.

    "Why, sir," he said, "the Methodists have got the flax mill."

    It would appear that Mark had unconsciously touched an angry wound somewhere upon his master, for the old man jumped excitedly to his feet.

    "Flax mill, i' Gad! flax mill!  Ay, ay, they've got the flax mill, sure enough," and he laughed bitterly, as though there were some unknown hatefulness in the circumstance.

    Mark scarce knew how to reply to so mysterious a remark, but he was saved the trouble, for Mr. Josephus suddenly rose from his scat, and stepping across the sanded floor bent over Mark and demanded fiercely:

    "Where got the Methodists three hundred pounds? the scurvy scratchbacks haven't a guinea among them."

    "Nay, nay, sir.  Where?" asked Mark, looking up into his employer's face inquiringly, and waiting for further light.

    "Where?  What drivelling old doze-pot 'ud do the like, save one.  'Tis him, man, him, I'm telling thee!"

    Now "him," however devoid of grammar, was usually the term with which Mr. Josephus indicated his brother, and Mark's eyes opened wide, and he gave vent to a prolonged "W-he-w!"  That was a complication indeed, and he sat back in his chair and looked at his employer with a long, wondering stare, as if to assist his amazed reflections.  It was evidently only a shrewd guess at present, but for the next few minutes Mr. Josephus poured out upon his absent and eccentric brother all the maledictions he could command, his wrath being intensified by the fact well enough understood by Mark that easygoing and placable as Mr. Ebenezer was, he was not easy to manage on the side of his cranks.

    This then explained much in his junior master's conduct which had been perplexing, and he realised that in trying to oblige one employer had inadvertently estranged the other.  And he did not forget either that where Mistress Kinty was concerned, Mr. Ebenezer might easily prove a more dangerous opponent than even his narrow-minded brother.

    For some time, therefore, after Mr. Josephus's departure, Mark remained in anxious thought over this new complication, and the experiences of the morning were crowded out of his thoughts.  A little later, however, Mr. Ebenezer called at the cottage, and was just the same jovial kindly soul as ever, and Mark felt considerably relieved when he made no allusion to the new sect.

    There was no service at the church in the evenings, but Mark's sister, as the night was fine, went out for a much-needed walk in the fresh air, and he was left—not altogether unwillingly—by himself.  He was tired by this time, and lay down on the little bed to rest; but whilst his body reposed, his busy brain was as active as ever, and he was just going over again the events of the day when he heard singing once more, and realised that the Methodists were holding another meeting.

    Somehow, the thing disturbed him strangely.  He got up, banged the open window, and began to pace the floor.  Then he laughed at his own weakness, and told himself that he would go through with the scheme on which he had set his heart, "Methodists or no Methodists."  The music seemed to irritate him, and he limped to the door and stood in the opening to be away from the sound.

    But the more he tried to escape, the closer the thing seemed to cling to him.  He muttered something very like a curse, and looked up and down the narrow lane in vain search for something or somebody to distract his attention.  Then he sneered at himself for his cowardice, came into the house again and resumed his pacing of the floor.

    Presently he made a sudden dart at the back window, but pulled himself up, called himself a fool, and stood waveringly in the middle of the room.  Gradually, however, he edged towards the casement, told himself he would just ascertain what sort of meeting was being held, toyed hesitantly for a minute or two with the fastening, and then flung back the window and listened.  The meeting had now been in progress for some time, and the worshippers were singing again.  He had heard them use the tune before, and thought he would amuse himself by learning it from them.

    The music came to an end presently, but he still lingered at the window.  Then he heard the preacher—if such he was—read a portion of Scripture, to which, however, he paid small attention, and he was just debating with himself whether he would not retire from his place, when the speaker raised his voice, and Mark distinctly heard, "How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" read out as a kind of text.

    The reader, who now began to preach, had a coarse voice and was evidently uneducated, but before he had uttered half a dozen sentences Mark was listening with all his powers.  His leg, his former resolutions, were now all forgotten, and with craned neck and bated breath he drank in every word.  The voice of the preacher got higher and higher, then dropped for a moment, but soon rang out until it was almost a shout.  Mark was gripping the window frame as though his life depended upon it.

    On and on went the sermon, and deeper and deeper drove the iron into Mark's soul.  He was white to the lips, his breath came short and fast, a sense of utter and awful lostness took possession of him, and when at length the preacher, with a jerky peroration, rang out once more the "How? how shall we escape?" Mark burst into a great broken-hearted sob, and fell back on the bed, crying in a pitiless, hopeless wail:

    "God ha' mercy!  God ha' mercy on me a sinner!"


 
CHAPTER XIV.

CROSSING THE RUBICON


AND whilst Mark lay thus on his little bed struggling with feelings which were all the more distressing because they were so new and strange, his sister was "taking the air" and entertaining herself with thoughts of the pleasantest possible character.  At last they were in sight of the goal, and the weary hopes of many days were about to be realised.

    They had been singularly fortunate, of late especially, and things which at one time were difficulties, had turned out to their advantage and the furtherance of their cherished plans.  She had turned away from the town, and was making for the country; her step quickened under the stimulating nature of her thoughts, and she threw up her head and smiled to herself.

    For years now she had cherished this great ambition for her brother, and it was from her that he had first received the suggestion upon which they were still working.  The position to which they aspired, though difficult, was not impossible, and of late everything had favoured them.  The accident that might have been so serious, seemed to have been sent by some good fairy to help them, for certainly it had produced an effect upon Mr. Josephus such as no mere Methodist-baiting could have done; and though she still anticipated that he would demur to Mark's proposal, and even be nasty for a little time, she made no doubt in her own mind but that they would eventually succeed.

    As for Mistress Kinty, she had had, by means of this same accident, quite wonderful opportunities of studying that impetuous young lady, and had not neglected the occasion.  The little impulsive, but highly characteristic self-revelations which she had given, were, equally with her succeeding lapses into self-conscious reserve, instructive to the all-observant Nancy; and she felt no manner of doubt in her mind that, however wayward and captious that young lady had been in the past, now Mark had only to ask and have.  And ask he should; and that before he was many days older.

    The impatience of the brothers to get him once more upon the premises boded nothing but good, and she expected that before next Sunday, at latest, Mark would be once more in his place; though, of course, able to do nothing except superintend.  But that also, when she thought of it, was the best thing that could be for them.  In his lame condition he would receive much consideration, and almost certainly spend most of his time in the parlour.

    Altogether it seemed to the delighted girl that they were on the eve of the realisation of their ambitious hopes, and she turned round and stepped back to the little cottage humming, though it was Sunday, a merry little country catch.

    "Fegs! 'tis a man's trick precise!" she cried light-heartedly, as she opened the door some twenty minutes later and found the room in darkness.  "Mark, what art thou about i' th' dark, man?"

    And as the fire was almost out, she groped in a little cupboard on the door-side of the mantelpiece for the flint and tinder-box, by which means she speedily procured a light, railing gaily the while at her brother for his man-like negligence.

    "Where is a, where is a?  Dreaming o' love an' fortune beelike," she laughed, struggling with the obstinate candle, and then, as she discovered her brother lying full length on the bed with his face buried in his pillow, she broke off, and cried: "Good God! what's this?  Mark, Mark! what's amiss?"

    Mark hugged the end of the pillow to the side of his face and groaned.

    With a cry, half-alarm and half-impatience, she jerked the pillow away from him, and, setting the candle upon the table, gripped him by the shoulders and turned him over until she could see his face; and then, as she caught sight of his drawn, agonised expression, she fell down on her knees by his side, and, pressing her face against his, began to beseech him to tell her what had happened.

    Three times, with increasing earnestness, she repeated the question, and at last, with another groan, he turned his head away and muttered something about the Methodists, and, at the same moment, she caught the cold spring air that came in through the still open window, and comprehended something of what had taken place.  At that moment she felt she hated the new sect as she could hate nothing else under the sun; but, warned by what had happened on a previous occasion, she checked herself and remained with her face against his, struggling to obtain the mastery of her feelings.

    For some moments they continued in this position, and Nancy was just about to make a coaxing request for explanations, when Mark lifted his pale, suffering face to hers, and said with an earnestness that left no doubt as to the seriousness of the case:

    "Nance, I'm accursed! 'tis the finger o' God on my leg, like the Bible man wi' the shrunk sinew.  Nance, oh, Nance! I'd gi' my life an' every hope that's in it if I'd ne'er put finger on those people.  Nance, dear Nance, I'm accursed!"

    She could not help it: rage, scorn, and maddening fear carried her away, and disregarding all prudence, she for the next ten minutes poured out upon the obnoxious sect every epithet of contempt and bitter hatred she could command.  Twice, at least, Mark tried to stop her, but her anger was in full flood and swept his remonstrances before it.

    Then she turned upon him, and in bitter, biting phrase mocked at his cowardice and spiritlessness.  To this he listened with limp, exasperating indifference, and brought back all her alarm and anger by finally turning away once more, and groaning as he had done fifty times that night, "God ha' massy upo' me, a sinner."

    This sort of thing was utterly beyond Nancy.  Spiritual sorrow was not only something unknown to her, it was incomprehensible; she felt baffled and entirely nonplussed, she had no one to help her, no friend to whom she could turn in this great perplexity, and as a sense of all that was involved as far as she understood it, came upon her, followed by a realisation of perfect helplessness before trials and difficulties of such a peculiar character, her strong, tenacious courage broke utterly down, and she burst into a passion of weeping.

    This appealed to the man in Mark; he got up and tried to soothe her, and the more she pushed him away and upbraided him the more persistent he became in his consolations.  He put his arm around her—a thing he had never done since they were children.  Then he tried to kiss away her tears and pacify her agitation but it was long before he made any impression and the mean little candle burned down into the socket, and finally went out in a smoky sputter.

    Still they sat on in the darkness, and presently Nancy found her tongue again and began to reason with him.  Then he told her just where he was, and though she could not understand his feeling, she comprehended that he was chiefly troubled lest he should have brought some curse upon himself by his conduct towards the Methodists.  She strove hard to reassure him, and belied her own feelings by mocking at his apprehensions, but in a gentle, coaxing sort of way.

    Then she took up the talking herself, and deftly appealed to his great pride by showing him what a triumph the Methodists would make of his change of front, even though he never joined their society.  Proceeding, she pretended to break confidences, excusing herself by the special pressure of their position, and gave him details of what Kinty had said and done, using her own vivid imagination for the purpose with growing effect.  From these things she passed to a survey of their position, and appealed to him not to spoil the great dream of their lives just when it was about to be realised.

    Her confidence visibly affected her brother.  He shook his head at her most hopeful statements, but she was quick enough to know that it was only the unbelief that loves to have more proof offered to it; and so she talked on.  Then she pointed out that all that was necessary was that he should brighten up, and keep his own counsel until he had got Kinty; after that, if his conscience was not at rest, he could do whatever he liked, and nobody would stop him.

    Everything that a busy brain and a keen sense of the desperateness of the situation could suggest, she urged upon him, and, as she presently discovered that he was being influenced, she talked on, going over and over again the same arguments; and at last, long after midnight, she allowed him to go supperless to bed with the confidence that she had not laboured in vain.

    It scarcely needs to be stated that Mark did not sleep that night.  As soon as his sister had left him, the whole of his old feelings came back upon him with redoubled force.  As he tried to analyse them, he found, as his sister had asserted, that they were largely superstitious, or at least he tried to persuade himself so; only he was conscious of something behind his fears, dark and awful, which he had not yet had courage to face, but which he felt certain would not long be kept back.

    The position was exceedingly tantalising, and he felt more than a little of his sister's resentment as he realised how completely indulgence in these apprehensions would forfeit all that he had lived and worked for.  Mr. Josephus was, he knew, as fierce as ever in his opposition to the new sect, and was only waiting his recovery to resume operations.  And what if he refused his master?  He shuddered as he pictured the scene.  Mr. Josephus's blazing wrath, and the even more terrible scorn in Mistress Kinty's pretty eyes.  Was ever a poor wretch in so torturing a position?

    But morning brought Kinty in her very gayest mood, and Mark felt both fears and scruples melting away in her seductive presence.  She brought a message that he could be done without no longer, and that Uncle Josephus was coming down with a sedan-chair some time in the forenoon to fetch him to the shop; and she arched her brows and looked with bewitching mock-seriousness at Nancy, as she explained that she did not think it at all impossible that Mark might be kept at the shop altogether, at least for some time, and until he could walk freely and safely to and fro.

    And the welcome he received at the shop went further to undo the work of the day before.  Mr. Ebenezer was uproarious, and insisted upon celebrating the occasion by opening a bottle of wine and treating the shopman and the men in the work-cellar to sack.  Mr. Josephus showed quite as much pleasure, only in a more dignified way; whilst Kerry, bringing in the wine, gave him a boisterous hug, which set Kinty off chattering about "privileged persons" in a most delightful and tempting way.

    Mr. Josephus was anxious to get at the books, but his brother would hear none of it, and it was late in the afternoon before anything of a business nature was attempted.  Mark soon found plenty to occupy his thoughts, and so his relations to the Methodists were thrust relentlessly into the background.

    Thus the time slipped away, the days passed into weeks, Mark's leg was getting rapidly better, and he was able to go about on it, though not for any length of time.  His days during this period were times of delight, for everybody made so much of him and Mr. Josephus was so frank in acknowledging his indispensability that much of his old pride came back, and he already saw himself in possession of the establishment and the dainty little woman who adorned it.

    As for Kinty herself, she was most delightfully, and yet tantalisingly changeable, as was natural to her.  Sometimes she became almost bold in her advances, going so far indeed as to suggest that the dangerous music lessons might be resumed, and then she would have most perplexing and tormenting fits of shy reticence, during which he scarcely saw her.

    The gossips, too, of both shop and parlour disturbed him, for in sleepy old Helsham during these times the people found little to talk about but the Methodists.  Every day Mr. Ebenezer brought some interesting detail about the doings of the sect, and Mr. Josephus and the shopman waxed eloquent together about the way in which they were spoiling the sport of the town by drawing into their circle first one and then another of the townsmen, until it was scarcely possible to get up a decent cock-fight at all.

    Then the vicar would call, pouring out wrath and indignation, and complaining about the impertinence of the Methodists, who insisted upon coming to church, causing that venerable building, which, in recent times, was almost empty, to be nearly filled with worshippers.  It was easy to hear and forget these things in the day-time, but when night came and the young hatter was alone, he had to fight the battle over again, with the uneasy conviction that he was not overcoming his misgivings, but that, in fact, they were slowly gaining the ascendency.

    Night after night he struggled with his restless, unsleeping conscience, and the small hours of the mornings usually found him making some temporary truce in order to get sleep.  But next night he had to face one more broken vow added to all the rest, and he soon realised that he was in the grip of some power that was steadily acquiring a stronger hold upon him.

    By this time he had gone back to live at home, and he had to put on the best appearance he could, in order to lull the watchful and jealous vigilance of his sister.  She was constantly urging him to make the great plunge, and propose formally to Uncle Josephus for Kinty's hand, and it was an added difficulty with him that he had to be constantly inventing excuses for delay.

    Meanwhile, his feelings were undergoing a subtle, but profound and significant change.  A chilling sense of loneliness came upon him; it appeared to him that he had gone before his Maker, supported by the company and cheers of his neighbours, and that all at once he had awakened to the discovery that he was deserted, and stood alone in the dread Presence.  Slowly he became conscious that mere superstitious fear and apprehension of punishment as a persecutor was receding in his mind before another and a stronger feeling.  The Methodists, and everything connected with them, seemed to fade into the background, obscured by a much more important question.

    Then he awoke to the fact that he no longer cared as he used to do about his position at the shop and the furtherance of his great scheme, and Kinty and all the proud and tender thoughts which her name suggested seemed to be parts of a long bygone dream.  Steadily but relentlessly it was forced in upon him, that he had a personal relationship with the Deity, and that religion was not merely a national or social affair, not such in any true sense, in fact, at all; but a personal one, and that the one question for him, greater than all other and before all other, was his own position as an individual in the sight of his God.  The world and its affairs were mere shadows about him; this was the question, and besides it there was no other.

    And just when this feeling began to seem unbearable, he was plunged into fresh distress by finding that it was giving way as the former one had done to another.  There stole over his heart now a humbling, prostrating consciousness of deep personal defilement.  It was not merely that his sins, the errors of his life, put on new forms of seriousness, neither was it his persecutions of the Methodists only, though these came back to him again with added terribleness; it was an awful sense of guiltiness, a consciousness of personal sinfulness isolating,- crushing, and condemning.  For the first time in his life he knew what it was to be a sinner.

    He became querulous, absent-minded, and deeply melancholy.  He could neither eat nor sleep; and he became convinced that he would not be able to conceal his condition much longer from those about him.  He was not concealing it as it was.  Kinty became undisguisedly concerned, and urged him every day to see the apothecary.  Mr. Ebenezer prescribed thyme tea, decoction of valerian root, and water-cress broth, whilst Mr. Josephus had the manner of a man who had been disappointed about something, and was peevish and taciturn.  Nancy was almost at her wits' end, and alternately coaxed him into telling her what was troubling him, and sneered at him as a "pluckless dare-naught" and a long-faced Methodist.  Goaded by her taunts, Mark made more than one effort to break the spell that was upon him.

    One night he stayed at the shop after hours and entertained Kinty and Mr. Ebenezer with all the rollicking old country songs and catches he could think of, and then sat over the fire when he got home and watched his fiddle burn before his eyes.  At another time he plunged into an ale-house and sat down to a gaming-table, remaining and playing until there was no one left but the landlord.

    He followed this up by going for three successive nights to the same place, and ended by having to be carried home dead drunk.  But this escapade so intensified his sufferings that he vowed to have no more of it, and took to attending the services both at the church and the Dissenting meeting-house, settling down eventually at the latter place, and vainly trying to make up his mind to unburden himself to the minister.

    By this time, also, he had formed the habit of reading a Bible; neither he nor his sister possessed such a thing, and he had to borrow one from Kerry, now an avowed Methodist.  For a time these religious exercises brought him relief; but they exposed him to much chaff, both from his master and his sister; and presently he discovered that they were increasing his misery, though he dared not give them up.  To these he eventually added the practice of reading church prayers in private, morning and evening.

    By this time summer had come, and he was still in the same unsettled condition with regard to his prospects, whilst his private troubles were fast becoming unbearable.

    He had been settling down of late into a dull, heavy misery from which it seemed impossible to arouse himself; but one day, at the latter end of May, he received two pieces of intelligence which fairly stirred him: one was that Kinty was going away, as the country roads were now as good as they ever were in the year, to visit an aunt in Derbyshire, and the other that Mr. John Wesley would preach in a field at the end of the town next day at two o'clock.

    For some time Mark could not tell which of these two announcements disturbed him most, but very soon the greater had entirely driven out the other, and he knew that the crisis of his life had come.  Kinty was petulant and sulky about his indifference to her departure, and he found her studying him with perplexed and almost angry looks once or twice.  But he had no room in his mind even for her, one thing filled his thoughts and one only—the man who was coming on the morrow could give him relief, could end the awful night in which he lived.  Dare he make use of him? and what would be the result if he did?

    He had grown almost accustomed to sleepless nights by this time, but that evening seemed all too short for the struggle that was going on within him.  Daybreak brought no relief, and he went to the shop with the conflict still raging in his breast.

    The coming of the great leader of this wonderful religious movement stirred Helsham even as the visit of his brother had not done.  Mr. Josephus was ready immediately he arrived at the shop with a proposition for disturbing and mobbing the coming man, and Mark had to make an excuse about the condition of his leg and the state of his health, to escape being pressed into the opposition.

    At two o'clock punctually the preacher was in his place, and half Helsham was there to listen to him.  Mr. Josephus, disgusted with, and vowing vengeance against Mark, was induced to accompany his niece once more, and he chafed and fumed and cursed under his breath as he noted that the crowd, in its eagerness to hear, forgot to oppose, and hung eagerly on the lips of the meek-looking little gentleman who was addressing them.

    Presently the sermon was finished, but there was no outburst of emotion as on previous occasions, and the party from the hat-shop was just turning away when a slight movement in the crowd near the preacher attracted their notice; a moment later they saw Mark Rawson step up to Mr. Wesley and put out his hand.

    And it was in this way that the knowledge was conveyed to those who were so much concerned in it, that as far as he was concerned the die was cast.


 
CHAPTER XV.

AT BAY


AT John Wesley's invitation Mark accompanied him to the house of an old lady, who was aunt to the young maltster and a quakeress, and who, since his expulsion from home, had provided that young convert with a shelter.

    In a few choking words Mark explained his condition, and the long weeks of misery he had endured; and after two or three questions, the great Evangelist, ignoring entirely his abject confessions and his connection with the persecutions, proceeded to speak to him of the great and sufficient Sacrifice made for all human guilt, and then with words of gentle but most comforting encouragement dismissed him.

    Mark went down the steps from the quakeress's house like one in a dream, and when he had got out of the little front garden and into the lane, he stood wavering for a moment, as though uncertain where to go.  Then he turned his back upon the town, and ignoring alike the time of day and the claims of business, he started in the direction of home.  Just before he reached it, however, he turned aside and passed over a little stile to the left, and skirting the flax mill yard struck for the fields beyond.

    And as he went he dwelt eagerly upon the few words Mr. Wesley had said to him in parting.  He was still supremely miserable, and yet as he walked along he was conscious of a change; not the change of which the Methodists most perplexingly made so much, but an alteration in the direction of the index-finger of his mind.

    For many a weary week now it had pointed with immovable and inexorable fixedness to his own heart, and its deep and awful defilement; but now he was conscious that he was looking almost constantly away from himself to the great Atonement, and especially to Him who was that Atonement.  The idea gradually filled his whole mind, and he could think of nothing else.  It was a perfect day; the sun shone with warm, glad rays, the soft air was filled with the music of birds and the fragrance of flowers, all nature seemed to be full of hope and joy, and in spite of himself he was conscious that it was exerting upon him a healing, comforting charm.

    Slowly, as the sun breaks through the fogs, he saw the face of the great redeeming Christ forcing its way through the thick mists of mournful, morbid sorrow in which his soul had so long been enveloped; he was conscious of a movement within him, as of the lifting of a great load followed by such a sense of melting softness, that in a moment the fountains of the great deep were broken up in his heart, and he flung himself upon the ground and buried his face in the long grass with a sob that shook his whole frame.

    But presently the old anguish came back in a new and more agonising shape; his sin was no longer sin against the great stern Judge of all the world, no longer against society, or even, as he had so often felt lately, against himself, but against this great pitiful, suffering Christ, whom he had crucified afresh by his folly and selfishness.

    The anguish of that moment was excruciating; the worst horrors he had as yet endured seemed as nothing to it.  He clutched wildly at the grass under his fingers, thrust his face deeper into the ground, and was struggling with an almost irresistible impulse to cry out, when all at once he was conscious of singing, and as he held his breath and listened there came to him, he knew not how or whence,


"Would Jesus have the sinner die?
 Why hangs He then on yonder tree?"


Mark would scarce have moved to save his life.  This was the answer to his prayers; this was the message of God; this was mercy and salvation.

    It was a sweet girlish voice with curiously tender cadences in it, as if the singer knew who was listening and was trying to help.  Mark drank in the simple words and felt they were life to him, and then, after hearing the last line of the verse:


"They know not that by Me they live,"


repeated, after the Methodist fashion, twice or three times, he recognised the voice, and lifting his head caught sight of the little maiden who had sung in the loft on that now ever-memorable night.  She had the scar of the bruise made by the falling candlestick still on her brow, and was singing in unconsciousness of any human presence, when Mark suddenly started to his feet with a wild, joyful cry, and before she could recognise her companion he had snatched her up in his arms, and whilst kisses were rained down on her fair little face he was calling her the angel of God and the messenger of peace.

    With old-fashioned puritan-like prudishness the abashed little singer rebuked him for what she called his unregenerate familiarity, and then made him sit down amongst the flowers at her side in the hedge bottom, and invited him to tell her, "How it was with his soul."

    She listened to his long story with glistening eyes and little cries of sympathy, and then she told him her own experience, and sang him more hymns, and again asked him how he felt.  Mark's ignorance of theological terminology and the agitation of his heart rendered him unable to satisfy the little inquisitor, and so, after cross-questioning him with quaint precocity, she announced that he had been "under conviction, but was now a servant of Christ's, but only under the law," and eagerly exhorted him to it "press forward" until he should get into "perfect liberty."

    Then she rose to go, but seemed to hesitate as if she would like to say something more, but feared to do so.  At Mark's encouragement, however, she suggested that she should pray with him, and they knelt down under the hedge, whilst she clasped her thin hands and turned up her face toward the ocean-blue above them, and began to speak to her Maker on behalf of "the brand plucked from the burning."

    Mark followed her simple petitions with an oft-repeated "yea," and when they parted, though he felt nothing which he could conclude meant what the Methodists called conversion, there was a rest and peace of heart so strangely sweet and precious that he found it difficult to believe that religion had anything better for him.

    For some time longer he remained in the fields communing with his Maker and his own wondering, tremulous heart; but presently thoughts of the duties he was neglecting came back to him, and he was astonished to discover how comparatively unimportant these and the hopes and ambitions they represented had become to him.  All the same, he realised that it was necessary to decide at once upon his future course of action, and he resolved to return to the shop and face the matter out whilst he was supported by the uplifting and inspiring influences which now possessed him.

    If he went home and told his sister, there was no knowing what she might say or do; and though he felt himself absolutely firm in his purpose, he feared lest her pleadings should move him, and determined to get the matter settled before he saw her.  Every step he took, however, seemed to increase the difficulties of his position, and when he turned into the High Street and caught sight of the shop, his heart began to beat in anticipation of the storm which he knew awaited him.

    As he entered he caught sight of the pudgy face of Mr. Ebenezer pressed against the little window of the parlour door, but it disappeared as he stepped across the threshold, and he went round the corner of the screen and hung up his hat.

    "Thou'rt waited for i' th' parlour," said the shop-man, and he raised his eyebrows as a significant hint of impending trouble.

    With a choky little cough and a sinking heart, Mark ascended the three steps, knocked timidly at the door, and, pushing it before him, entered the room.

    Mr. Ebenezer sat in his usual place, with his wig over his brow, ostensibly reading one of his indispensable pamphlets, but peeping over the top of it with timid, anxious looks; whilst Kinty, carefully dressed in a quiet-coloured, lace-tuckered dress over a crimson quilted petticoat, from under which there peeped out a pair of dainty Spanish-leather shoes and a hint of bright-clocked stockings, sat on a low seat near him.  Her arms were bare to the elbows, and she was making an elaborate pretence of being absorbed in her sampler.

    Mr. Josephus occupied a chair opposite his brother, and sat with his back to the door; but as Mark entered he wheeled round, and, struggling evidently to keep down his anger, demanded harshly:

    "Where hast been these two hours?"

    "Speaking wi' the preacher and walking in Gridley fields," answered Mark, lifting his eyes for a moment and then dropping them under the glare of his enraged employer.

    "So," cried Mr. Josephus, springing to his feet and tossing up his head haughtily, "it is a point i' the new religion to clatter wi' preachers an' take the air i' master's time, is't?  An excellent pretty religion, of a truth."

    "Twas a matter of life and—"

    "Matter! matter!" shouted the furious Josephus, "'twas a matter o' treachery, sir! treachery to this house!  'Twas snaking i' th' grass!  'Twas running wi' th' hare an' hunting with hounds.  'Twas two-faced hypocrisy, i' Gad! "

    Mark felt his temper rising, and bit his lip to keep back hot words, glancing the while at Mistress Kinty, who, however, still kept her head down and gave no sign.  Ebenezer's face was close against the print he was pretending to read, and a low, deep sigh escaped him.

    Josephus strode to and fro before the empty fireplace, jerking his head about until the tail of his wig flapped first on one shoulder and then on the other, muttering curses under his breath, and finally he pulled up and snarled:

    "Hast naught to say, sulky?  Out wi' it, man!  Thou'rt a Methodist, a scurvy, snivelling Methodist, eh?"

    "Please God, sir, I am!"

    "What!" and though the hatter had made the accusation himself, he was evidently utterly amazed at Mark's open avowal of it, and gazed at his servant as though the statement he had made was incredible.  An indescribable sound came from behind Mr. Ebenezer's pamphlet, and his spectacles fell upon the floor, whilst even Kinty ducked her head suddenly over her work.

    There was a long, uncomfortable pause, during which Mr. Josephus's dropped jaw slowly returned to its place, and he nipped his small mouth together with hardening resolution.

    "Boy," he said at last, "flout thy mangy Methodism here and I'll beggar thee."  And then as Mark seemed about to speak, he lifted his hand, and cried imperiously: "Begone!  Go thy ways to thy belated work, and when the shop is shut bring hither the keys, and, mark me! consider to chuck up this Methodism, and all shall be o'er-looked; but if thou wilt not, by the Lord Harry, thou shalt trudge!"

    "Master ―" began Mark.

    But the irate hatter rapped out an oath.

    "Begone, begone, insolent Jack-pudding!  Wilt affront me to my very face?  Begone!"

    As he backed to the doors Mark lifted his eyes to the young mistress, and just as he was disappearing she raised her head and looked at him.

    There was cautiousness, self-restraint and a curious sort of scrutiny in her look, but as far as he could see not a gleam of sympathy, and with a fresh sinking of the heart and a quiver of the lip he retired to the little office.

    As he stood there at his desk his heart grew heavier within him every moment, and his brain throbbed distractedly.  The strong consolation that had come into his heart in the Cridley fields seemed to have left him, and a terrible sense of loneliness crept over him, benumbing and paralysing all his powers.

    He did not even then remember that he had had no food since dinner; but this and the dejection of his mind seemed to take all the manhood out of him.  Kinty's parting look perplexed him, and in his condition at that moment perplexity was almost worse than actual distress.

    Mr. Ebenezer's manner was very disappointing, and he discovered now, that when he had balanced his situation on previous occasions, he had always had some sort of reserved hope that when the worst came to the worst the old gentleman would be his friend.  Well, the worst had come, and come in its bitterest form, and his old friend had never moved a finger for him.

    As for his sister, he knew that when the struggle for which he was now waiting was over, he had to go home to one which would be in some senses more dreadful still.  And where now was his religion?  He had understood, nay, he had actually seen that this new form of Christianity had made weak people amazingly strong, and lo! he had never known what real weakness was until that moment.

    He could only conclude, therefore, that he had been deceived in the hope that the peace which came to him that afternoon in the fields was the peace, and he was there, with the great air-castle of his life tumbling to pieces at his feet, without a solitary compensation even from the thing for which he had sacrificed it all.  And as he thought he prayed; and as he prayed he felt that he was only growing sadder and sadder every moment.

    It was a bitter hour, and he shuddered and shrank within himself as he contemplated the ordeal through which he was called to pass.  Then it occurred to him as a curious circumstance that he had spent his time thus far in timid self-pity, and had never addressed himself to the great question which he must immediately decide.  He had to bring his mind back again and again from fruitless self-commiseration, and even then he found it strangely difficult to fix his mind on the great issue.  His brain seemed dull and stupid in that direction, and try as he might he could not come to anything like consecutive thought.

    Meanwhile, the time slipped relentlessly by, and beyond a dull, listless inclination to let things drift, he was conscious of no decision which would help him in his trial.

    Presently he awoke to the fact that the shop-man was putting up the shutters, and a few moments later he stood at his desk with the keys in his hand, and the answer to the great question still to find.

    Twice he turned to the parlour door, and twice he drew back again; but at last with a reckless plunge he knocked and pushed it open before him.  The brothers were still in the places in which he had left them, and though it was midsummer, their faces were turned towards the fire and their backs to him.

    "The keys, sir," he said huskily, and stepped up to Josephus and held them out.

    Josephus was smoking, and without turning his head he bade the young journeyman hang them up in their accustomed place, and when he had done so he pointed to a chair, and said gruffly:

    "Sit, boy, sit!"

    Mark dropped dejectedly into his seat, and waited with beating heart for his master to commence.  Mr. Ebenezer was taking snuff in great pinches, and purposely avoided catching the younger man's eye, and Mark, suddenly remembering, glanced anxiously round the room and discovered that Kinty was not present.

    Josephus smoked moodily on for some time, and then, turning slightly round, he said, in a rusty, almost pathetic, tone:

    "Boy, thou hast gone far to making thy masters old men to-day."

    The most unwonted tenderness of this remark touched a chord in Mark's sore heart, and he stammered out:

    "Nay, master; nay, nay!"

    Josephus shook his head in a melancholy regretfulness, and then went on sorrowfully:

    "Thou hast served us excellent well these eight long years, excellent well."

    This was the first frank acknowledgment that Mark had received from his senior master, and coming at this moment it quite unmanned him; but before he could command himself to speak soberly the old man went on:

    "We never had a thought to part from thee, let alone in anger."

    At any other time this almost unnatural lapse into tenderness would have excited Mark's suspicion, and perhaps also his contempt; but now it came with almost overwhelming power to him, and he felt all his purposes slipping away, a sense of ingratitude and selfishness came upon him, and with twitching mouth and broken tones he cried:

    "Oh, masters, forgive me! forgive me for a senseless ingrate!"

    Mr. Ebenezer snatched off his wig and recklessly wiped his eyes with it, and Mark looked from one to the other of the brothers, wondering in the self-depreciation so new and still so easy to him if he were the base wretch he felt himself to be.

    Suddenly, however, Josephus changed his tone, and leaning over the elbow of his chair, and punctuating every word upon the young fellow's knee as he spoke, he said earnestly:

    "Boy, there be twelve hundred guineas i' that shop an' trade."

    And then, after waiting to watch the effect upon his hearer, he went on:

    "And it's waiting for some fine fellow to take up with."

    The room seemed to be swimming round, and Mark's heart rose into his mouth.  Here was the great prize for which he had so long schemed and waited actually thrust at him.  He made an effort to speak, but though he opened his mouth, no sound came forth, save the cracking of his parched lips.

    Josephus was watching his young servant with keenest interest, and when he did not speak he went on:

    "An' there's a parcel o' petticoats goes to this bargain, an' the hussy has t-w-o t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d g-u-i-n-e-a-s."

    Josephus's voice sank into a thick, portentous whisper as he uttered the last words, and, rising from his chair, he stood with his back to the fireplace and gazed at Mark with eager impatience.

    But the poor fellow had nothing to say; the temptation seemed to have defeated its own purpose by its very strength, and so many thoughts struggled together in his brain that he found it impossible to arrange them into speech.  The master was fast losing control of himself; such incredible stupidity he could not understand at all, and at last he rapped out:

    "Well, man, haste naught to say?"

    Mark drew a long breath, looked at his master as though he were not sure even yet that he had heard aright; but at last he found power to say:

    "Dear master, I shall esteem you for ever for what you have just said.  I love young mistress with my whole soul, her dear idea will remain with me for ever; but—but—what says she upon this matter?"

    "She!  Tut, tut, man, fear not for that.  Thou halt but to forswear the Methodists, and—"

    But Mark had suddenly risen to his feet.  The mention of the name of the hated sect brought him back with prompt swiftness to himself, and then, for the first time, he knew what he would do.

    "Master," he said slowly, "you lifted me to heaven and dashed me to hell at a stroke.  All that a grateful servant could do will I do to pleasure you and Mr. Ebenezer.  All that man may do for woman will I do for my dear mistress, but in the sight of my God this that you ask I cannot do."

    There was a dead silence, broken only by certain mysterious mutterings from Ebenezer, who had picked up his wig from the ground where he had previously thrown it, and was now holding it upon his head with clutched fingers, as though he were in a storm that was blowing it off. Josephus had gone white with passion, his little eyes fairly blazed with baffled rage, and he glared at Mark as though he would scorch him.  Presently, however, he obtained some sort of control of himself and asked with ominous calmness:

    "Is that thy final answer?"

    And Mark, with bowed head and drooping eyes, answered slowly:

    "My final answer."

    Ebenezer's attention seemed attracted at this moment by something behind Mark; but before the young Methodist could glance round the storm broke.  With a furious dash the enraged Josephus sprang at the parlour door and flung it open, and then, oblivious of the fact that the shop was locked up, he snatched at Mark's little cocked hat, and flung it through the doorway, shouting wrathfully:

    "Go ingrateful cur!  Canting Methodist, go! and never show thy dirty jib inside these walls more!"

    And then he shrank back with a baffled cry, and Mark felt a soft little arm slid into his; and before he could realise what was happening, he heard a high, clear woman's voice saying:

    "Where he goes, I go."

    And looking down, lo! Kinty, with white face and glowing eyes, stood at his side, looking triumph and defiance at her nonplussed and crestfallen uncle.



[Next Page]

 


 

[Home] [Up] [Biographic Sketch] [Clog Shop Chronicles] [Beckside Lights] [Scowcroft Critics] [Doxie Dent] [Making the Million] [The Minder] [The Mangle House] [From Crooked Roots] [Old Wenyon's Will] [The Partners] [Life's Working Creed] [Reviews, etc.] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be addressed to.... Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk