Tales on The Parables (IV)

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THE DEBTORS.

――――♦――――


CHAPTER I.


THERE were great rejoicings at Coalfield.  After three years' absence its lord was returning to his Warwickshire estates for a period of residence.  The old lord, his father, used to live there, but the young lord was almost a stranger, who had lived half the year in London, the other half abroad, or at least anywhere but at home.  Everybody on the estates was delighted at his coming.  If only he would stay and bring them home a countess, and be all that his father was!  Plenty of work awaited him; but then he was said to like work, such tough work as reading up bluebooks and working on Parliamentary Committees.  An agent had managed everything; not an oppressive agent—anything but that, only he would not do what a lord could do, or grant what a lord might grant.  Therefore, questions of repairs, compensations, leases, and what not, had accumulated for appeal.  The agent was a lawyer.  He was an upright and careful man, and he too was delighted at my lord's return, which was to settle many things easy to settle in a friendly discussion, very hard to settle by any number of letters.  Then there were the works; but they were under another manager, one of my lord's own choosing, whom he had brought there a perfect stranger, and who had contrived to make his way among the people of Coalfield, certainly not by dint of amiable manners.  But he had made his way, and married Mary Best, too, daughter of Mr. Best, the lawyer land agent, and the very best of the Bests, as the good people said, intending a mild joke and making a sincere compliment, for Mary Best was a sweet and good and beautiful girl, and made an admirable wife to her somewhat saturnine and gloomy husband.

    George Raleigh was one of those misplaced human beings, who are not in accord with their positions, who rarely fit into them, sometimes rise above and sometimes fall below them.  He had been a mechanic—an ironworker, and, what is rare, clever at the craft he hated; but he would have hated any craft, and he could have excelled in any.  He had been a handsome boy, had been conscious of it, and had learnt nicer habits in consequence.  "He paid for a good wash up," his comrades would say, and so he washed.  He was conscious too of something better, of a superior mind, and that too he strove to brighten.  He studied, not desultory books, but good, hard, manly themes.  He was a student of mathematics at a working men's college, where he first became acquainted with Lord A—.  A student and a first-prize winner, how be despised the prize—it should have been for him the honours of a great University.  He despised the very teaching he received, because it was not the highest.  But what with his mental culture, his personal beauty, and his manner, to which his bitter pride gave a temporary reserve and dignity, Lord A— was completely fascinated; and, after giving him the means of further qualifying himself for the position, he had made him manager of his works—for this modern lord was also miner and manufacturer, the head of a great army of industry.

    George Raleigh had not been liked at first, for the people were quicker than his lordship to discover that he was proud, with that pride which is akin to meanness, and which makes a man ashamed of what he is and anxious to appear what he is not.  That he was tolerated now, that his faults indeed were overlooked and condoned altogether, was chiefly owing to his connection with Mary Best.

    He had taken Mary out of her father's house in Coalfield: the pretty country town by the riverside, set in a nest of gardens, at the foot of which the coal barges glided in all the lights that were, of sun and moon and stars, except when the river froze over now and then in a severe winter, and made a bridge over to the uplands white with snow.  He had taken her away over these uplands and on to the moor beyond, to a house built near the works, with an ample garden of rather intractable soil, and plenty of room to grow in without and within.

    And they did grow.  Five children were born to George Raleigh, and they lived and throve in the moorland air, though it was clouded with the smoke of furnaces whose fires burnt day and night.  They were handsome, lively children, and made the house gay from morning to night, keeping their mother too in constant occupation, and another besides.  At one time Mary had been a little delicate, and her youngest sister, Lydia, had been spared from home to help her.  She could well be spared where there were still three left, and, therefore, finding plenty of work in her sister's house, there Lydia chose to remain.  And there were comings and goings of the others and of their friends, for all the Coalfield folks were friends of the Bests, and altogether Moorhouse was as pleasant a home as a man could wish, provided that man was reasonable and moderate in his wishes.

    Lydia had to keep sharp watch over her flock without the garden walls, for they were ever ready for a descent upon the works, where all sorts of mischief might be apprehended, besides danger to careless life and limb; only there was Isaac Benton, clerk and under-manager, who never failed to march Master Walter back to the house, if by chance the young gentleman should make his escape.  He and Lydia were very great friends, and for that matter so were he and Mary; but the master of Moorhouse declined to receive him there on a footing of equality, and happily the young man went on unknowing.  He went home to his mother's house and to the tea-meetings of her friends—strictly confined to the body of Primitive Methodists—without the slightest feeling that he ought to have been included in the invitation to the gayer gathering at Moorhouse—without the slightest envy of those who were invited, even though Lydia Best would be there.

    Lord A—had arrived.  A large, loose-framed, careless-looking man, restless in his movements, boyishly simple in his habits, and without any manners at all.  He was shy, almost painfully so, a rare thing in one of his class.  Most people, the humblest and plainest of his farmers, nevertheless found it easy to get on with him; found him liberal, humble, sincere, and wondered at his knowledge of farming, of crops, and breeds, and soils, and manures.  The restless eyes under those hanging brows were observing perpetually.  If the farmers had been craftsmen they would have been equally impressed with his knowledge of their craft.

    Lord A— had made his appearance at the works.  He had tired out the manager going over them, moving about in his own restless fashion—now here, now there, asking a question of this man and another of that, and not doing the thing in a methodical manner at all.  His lordship was going over the accounts too.  Was he about to do it in the same way, not going through the nice clean balance sheet, with its ready vouchers, but throwing open a ledger here and a day-book there?  Precisely.  That was exactly what he did; he took an item and asked a question here and another there, till it was no wonder that the manager got confused over it, and could not quite explain his beautifully exact balance sheet.

    George Raleigh was not only confused; he was disturbed in no ordinary degree by the request that the books and vouchers should be sent over to his lordship that he might look through them at his leisure.  They could hardly be spared for any length of time, he was told, and he replied that he should not want them for any length of time; that a single evening would suffice.

    "What does it matter?" said Mary; "let him work away at them.  I'm sure many is the night you've sat up over them when you needn't have done it, and I've looked from our window and seen your light burning—one little light in the dark corner looking out on the moor, and all the great fires roaring behind it—and have longed to come and peep over your shoulder and give you a good fright, asking what you were doing there."

    Aye, what had he been doing there?

    Lord A— sat in his library over these books and papers, getting more and more absorbed; pulling down his brows more and more; snatching bits of paper, insides of envelopes, and what not, and making rough calculations, and then starting to his feet and walking up and down the room.

    It was very late when Lord A— went up to bed that night; rather, it was very early in the morning when he lay down for a few hours' sleep; and before doing so, he had drawn up a statement, and arranged his papers, and put slips into the books for reference on the morrow.  George Raleigh was coming on the morrow to receive them back.  Well for him that he from whose hands he was to receive them was a Christian, and not in name only; that this very night he kneels by his bed in child-like prayer, and that after one petition he pauses almost with a groan.  And that petition is—"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us."

         *                            *                            *                            *                            *

    "My lord, I have a wife and children!"

    The words came from the dry lips of George Raleigh, as he stood before his judge, before the man who at that moment had supreme power over his destiny.  That man was his employer, Lord A—, not seated on the bench, indeed, at which he had taken his place as a county magistrate, but at the library table, on which lay the books and papers examined so anxiously the day before.  They had been gone over again with the manager, and their discrepancies pointed out, till the truth had been brought home—the truth that the accounts were falsified, and that a large sum remained to be accounted for.  It had been accounted for thus:—

    "I meant only to use the money, not to keep it; and having laid the foundation of a fortune with it, I would have returned it.  It was in my hands.  The temptation was great," said George Raleigh.

    "But instead of winning you lost, and this," replied his lordship severely, laying his hand upon the falsified books, "is the result.  Your course of specious dishonesty culminates in felony."


"It was a private tribunal George Raleigh stood
before, but it was a terrible one."


    It was a private tribunal George Raleigh stood before, but it was a terrible one.  Lord A— had raised him, trusted him, been "the making of him," in vulgar phrase, and now he had the power to undo him.

    "I have a wife and children," he pleaded, and the words almost stuck in his throat, for he despised himself for their abjectness, and kept his eyes upon the ground that they might not reveal the fierce fire of rage that burnt there.  Why had this man dominion over him?  Why had he been obliged to seek fortune in this quagmire, instead of inheriting it with honour, as this other man had done?  In that case might not their positions have been reversed?

    "I do not know that I should be doing right to hush this matter up," said Lord A—.  "It is a very grave thing to allow a criminal to go unpunished; to let loose upon society, without a mark set against him, a man who may do others incredible mischief."

    "I pledge my life, my lord, if you will give me time, to repay you every farthing."

    "You are sanguine," said Lord A—.

    "It will kill my wife," he said, and glared fiercely at his foe; "she is connected with people proud and honest."

    "I know that," said his lordship.  "I have known them all my life.  How many children have you?" he asked abruptly as was his way.  "Five, my lord."

    "Boys?"

    "All boys, my lord."

    "To bear your name and your shame."  Raleigh winced.  Lord A— was cutting deep.  Once more he knitted his brows, and looked among the papers at his elbow, and George Raleigh waited.

    At last he looked up.  It was the verdict, and George Raleigh's joints loosened and his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth.

    "I shall not take proceedings against you," said Lord A—, "for the sake of your wife and children.  Be an honest man in future, and I shall not repent my leniency. 'One is our master, even Christ,'" murmured the peer, almost to himself.  He did not finish the sentence, "and all we are brethren," but not one of the hundreds who laboured for him, hand to hand, felt it more truly in his heart.

    George Raleigh cast a hungry glance at the papers; but his lordship tossed them into his desk, and bowed his late manager's dismissal.

    For dismissed of course he was, and that to the astonishment of all Coalfield, who attributed it to the same caprice which had brought him there, and the feeling of Coalfield was in his favour so far as to regret this second caprice, which seemed a little unjust, and was very hard on a man with a wife and family.  The affair diminished Lord A—'s popularity not a little, indeed; but no reason was ever given to justify him.

    There was only one man who knew the real reason for George Raleigh's dismissal, and that was his wife's father.  It was in kindness to the family that Lord A— employed him in rectifying the accounts, and putting them into the hands of the new manager; but it proved a complete heart-break to old Mr. Best.  He never was the same again, and shortly afterwards he died.

    But there was one who more than suspected the truth, and that was Isaac Benton.  He offered himself for the situation vacated by Raleigh, and, by what seemed another caprice, was rejected.  The new manager was a stranger, but a man accustomed to the work, and highly recommended—an ordinary manager and an ordinary man.

    Dismissal seemed to be indeed a heavy penalty to George Raleigh, for he either could not or would not apply to Lord A— for help in obtaining another situation, and one after another was lost in consequence.  It was not everything he could do now, having got into a groove, and being altogether unwilling to do the work of a subordinate, and so he remained idle month after month.  Mary tried to get her father to lend or give him a few hundred pounds to begin manufacturing on a small scale; but Mr. Best would neither give nor lend, and Mary held to her husband, and learnt to despise her father, which added more and more of bitterness to her lot.  It was not till later that she knew what terrible justification there was for his severity.

    The Raleighs moved out of pretty Moorhouse, and took up their abode in the neighbouring town, the headquarters of a great variety of metal manufactures.  They did not go quite into the town.  It was not a pretty town, like Coalfield, standing among gardens, but one of narrow dismal streets, arched over by a roof of smoke, streets steep and stony, and foul to hideousness.  The water was too scanty to allow of cleansing.  Outside the town Mary could breathe more freely and the children would grow up stronger and healthier, so they took a house and garden, a broken-down sort of place which was even cheaper than half the room would have been in the heart of the smoke.

    Poverty was new to Mary Best, and yet she met it bravely, all the more bravely perhaps that she did not know it.  She had to give up her servants, and very hard she would have found the work of her household, but for Lydia.  Lydia insisted on going with her and sharing with her all the toil and all the privation, when she might have returned to her father's house, with its ease and comfort, its disciplined servants and its pleasant society.

    So Lydia made puddings and washed brown holland pinafores, and scrubbed blackened hands and faces, and polished knives for Mr. Raleigh, who did not like to see dirt and disorder, and liked still less to help away with it, and all with boundless cheerfulness.  She had sometimes other work to do which called for other qualities.  Mary was often troubled about other things than puddings and pinafores.  If that had been all, she could have borne it; but her husband had changed with the change in their fortunes.  He was irritable, morose, bitter, a castdown and despairing man.  And it often fell to Lydia's lot to soothe and support her sister's spirit under the trial of seeing him thus.

    And Mary, when she knew all—for her father had been unable to resist telling her—still sympathised with her unhappy husband, for misfortune was heavy on him, and they were fast approaching beggary.  If it had not been for Lydia's allowance and even Lydia's jewels, the family would have been starving.  And it seemed coming to that in spite of all.

    It was at this point that Mary wrote to her father for the last time, beseeching him to help her husband, and Mr. Best, happening to come across Lord A— while the letter was fresh in his mind and still in his pocket, showed it to his lordship, as much as to say, punishment is taking its course after all.  "I offered to take her and all the five of them, and let him go to Australia," said the old man; "but she won't hear of it."

    The very next post carried to George Raleigh, the offer of an agency for Lord A—.  It was sent from the new manager, and only accepted, and that with bitterness, when Raleigh had ascertained that it was offered not only with Lord A—'s knowledge but at his suggestion.

    Not long after this Mr. Best died, and his daughters inherited each her share of his little fortune, but in the case of Mary Raleigh it was tied up strictly under the marriage settlement drawn up by her father's own hand; her husband could not touch a penny of it.  The interest of it, a paltry hundred and fifty per annum, might be of use to Mary and the boys to live on, it was of no use to him.  What he wanted was money in his hands, money with which to make money, twenty, fifty, and a hundredfold.

    Before he died, old Mr. Best, in danger of losing his child's affections, had entrusted to Lydia also the secret of George Raleigh's dismissal, telling her that Mary already knew.  The good, brave wife had known her husband's secret and kept it faithfully—had known and never once upbraided, had never even ceased to sympathise with her husband; nay, had felt a more tender love for him bearing his burden of secret sin, as well as the misfortune which was its, to her, lesser punishment.

    But with Lydia it was different, and her secret knowledge gave her a difficult part to play.  She could no longer sympathise with her brother-in-law in his misfortune.  She was indignant at his conduct, not only at his dishonesty and crime, but at the way in which he had given himself all the airs of an injured man under the ruin which he had brought upon himself and in which he had involved his innocent family.  It was very hard for Lydia to conceal her utter revulsion of feeling when she knew the truth.  Lydia was too just to be lenient, and she had not yet learnt the mercy that is above justice.

    "Lydia the Lucky," her father used to call her, she seemed to draw so many things to herself; but it was simply by being good that she so drew them.  One of the good things was a legacy of £1,000 left her by a godmother, in gratitude for the unfailing attention of the girl to the dull, sick old woman whom she had loved to cheer.  This money Lydia was free to do with as she choose.  It had come to her shortly before her father's death, and she had simply left it in her father's hands, vainly begging some of it for George and Mary, and now she gave it all.  And that not for Mary's sake only.  She was a large-hearted girl Lydia, and she had some sort of feeling that prosperity might be good for George Raleigh, though she could not forgive him for what he had done.

    That money was the foundation of his fortune.  He traded with it; he speculated with it; he financed it into many times its value; and in a year or two he had established himself at the head of a flourishing business.

    Lydia all this time remained with her sister.  The establishment was only increased by a single servant, therefore there was work enough to do, though the hardest of the drudgery was removed.  Lydia boarded with the family, by way of being independent; but she was well worth her board and wages besides, as Mary knew.  There was plenty of work with five growing boys to keep clean and tidy, and Lydia taught the three youngest besides.  In the making of money George Raleigh was now in earnest too deadly to spend more of it than could be helped.  He spent none whatever in display, as he might once have been tempted to do.

    They did not even leave the broken-down old house which they had taken when they first came into the town, because it reminded them of their country one.  They got a lease of it very cheap, and repaired and improved it.

    It was in the bottom of a valley.  Most houses there were either at the bottom of a valley or climbing up the sides of a hill.  The town was built over any number of hills and valleys, converging towards a centre, which centre, blackened underneath with filth and grime and overhead with smoke and soot, was appropriately called "The Hole."  The Raleighs' house was just without the town, where the garden met the brown stony pasture of what had once been a water-course, only the water which had once wasted itself in dirty puddles among the stones was cut off and gathered, along with other similar streams, into a reservoir above, for the supply of the town.  They had a good garden, the chief attraction of the house, and the children could roam beyond it, which was still better, up the steep valley to the waterworks and on to the fresh breezy moor beyond, from which the wind seemed always blowing as if intent on making the dwellers in the town consume their own smoke, which they did accordingly with their own lungs.

    But now that the pressure of poverty was removed, all Lydia's efforts could not make of Mary the bright and cheerful housewife of old.  It seemed as if she had taken upon herself the humiliation which ought to have been her husband's, and that she was bearing it with her to her grave.

    George Raleigh showed no humility whatever.  The effect of his fall upon his hard, proud nature had been to make it harder and prouder still.  The effects of the forgiveness, which had saved him from utter ruin, had been for his character wholly evil.  If forgiveness does not humble and soften, it does the very reverse.  It is so with God's forgiveness once known and slighted; and unless a man learns by the grace of God to love him who has pardoned him a great debt, he will most likely hate him.  George Raleigh was glad enough to escape from the penalty of his wrong-doing, but towards the man who had allowed him to escape he felt no gratitude.  He had had the most abject fear of the ruin from which he was saved; but the man who had saved him he could not love, and so he hated him.

    With such feelings in his heart it was of course impossible for George Raleigh to be a Christian.  But then he had always professed to be a Christian.  To be a professing Christian was a habit, an obligation, a necessity.  The people in these northern towns, that is the respectable people, like the respectable people in other English towns, were professing Christians, and profession ran high in this particular town.  There were many and vigorous sects there.  To belong to one or other was also an obligation, a necessity.  To be favourably known in one of them was to thrive.   It was equivalent to a good business connection to be highly esteemed among the brethren.  Given such a soil as the heart of George Raleigh, could any climate be more favourable to the production of hypocrisy?  No man becomes a hypocrite all at once, or of malice prepense.  Hypocrisy is too hateful for that.  It requires such a conjunction as this to develop a man into a thorough hypocrite; and that was what George Raleigh became.  He united himself to the Primitive Methodists, a very flourishing community in his neighbourhood, and became a prominent church member.

    In this connection he come in contact with an old acquaintance—Isaac Benton.  Seeing that under the new manager promotion at the works was a long way off, Isaac had left them and Coalfield altogether, and come into town to shift for himself.  It was also a comfort to him to be in the same place as Lydia Best, though his shyness prevented any nearer approach to her.  But his love was a sturdy growth, each season found it stronger and stronger, in spite of long winters and little sunshine.

    And Isaac, like Raleigh, was bent on making money.  He knew that Lydia Best, had money of her own, and he would not seek that or seem to seek it.  He would not ask her to stoop to him while he remained another man's servant.  He would be his own master and her equal before he sought her.

    The good, honest fellow made a confidant of Lydia's brother-in-law; not indeed concerning his love, that was too sacred a matter to be confided to any human being, but concerning his prospects in business; and Raleigh laughed at his slow gains, his modest ambition, and thought of him as a mere plodder.  Isaac bought from Raleigh the material he required for his small manufactory, and plodded on unconscious, slow, and sure, working late and early, not only superintending but often laying his own stout hands to the works.  His dreams were of adding furnace to furnace, turning out more and more thousands of reliable nails and bags of bolts and nuts, and of one day buying a house a little way out of the smoke—a house within its walled garden, and setting in it Lydia Best and his own dear old mother.

    Mrs. Benton knew little of Lydia Best, and so had no thought of her in connection with Isaac; but she thought her son was already far enough advanced in age and in prospects to marry.  He was her only son, and she was a widow, and she wanted to see him settled in life before she died.  Nay, she felt her strength failing, and thought she would be glad of a daughter in the house against the day when it would fail utterly and there would be no one to do for Isaac all that she had once done with ease and pride.

    But it was not a fine lady like Lydia Best she coveted, who could doubtless play on the piano and do fancy work, but who could not be expected to make a pudding or cut out a shirt.  No.  She had looked out "in the communion" for the kind of daughter she coveted, and such was Rachael Prosser; and the dear old lady cultivated Rachael Prosser accordingly.  She asked her to come to tea and bring her work, and she kept her so late that it was impossible to send her home alone.  Isaac must accompany her thither, which he did obediently and calmly, while she saw them set out each time with a beating heart.

    Rachael was a very good girl, doubtless, a little childish in her words and ways, the result of real simplicity and not of affectation; but neat-handed and nice-looking enough.  Many a man would have fallen in love with her exactly as Mrs. Benton wished, but not the man who had set his heart on Lydia Best, with her swift, eager words and ways, her life and movement, and deep though soft colouring.  Rachael was a shadow by Isaac's side; her presence unfelt as a baby's, or giving only the pleasure which a pretty picture of a girl may give.

And then about this time he was admitted to that other presence which thrilled him through and through. He did not need even to look at Lydia to feel this sensation of new life. He had only to hear her voice. No, not even that; he had only to sit in the same room with her, to touch the cup she had handled, or the book she had touched.

    Hearing of his being established near them, Mary and Lydia had insisted on his coming to see them.  Mary's boys were delighted to greet their old friend, and of course Isaac's delight in them was unbounded; though how it could have been so delightful to be sat upon in every possible and impossible manner, or pulled five different ways at once, was a little mysterious.  George Raleigh looked on with quiet contempt.  The boys never ventured to treat him in that fashion.  Isaac Benton was in this, as in everything else, he thought, only a good, stupid, loutish fellow.

    But Mr. Raleigh changed his tone when he saw how Isaac kindled at the opportunity of doing Lydia any little service; how his grey eyes beamed on her with light in them which almost filled George Raleigh with envy—it revealed a heart so true and high; and when he saw that Lydia, with all her spirit, showed a consciousness in his presence which made her gentler and sweeter and quieter, and certainly not less happy.  It was time to put a stop to nonsense, this he thought then, for George Raleigh had quite other views for his wife's sister.  He was fond of Lydia in his way, and proud of her.  He would even have sacrificed himself in a small degree to have advanced her to some matrimonial sphere where she might have shed on him and his reflected lustre.  But she was still of extremest need to him.  There was time enough for her to marry.  Men were in the habit there of building up immense fortunes in a single lifetime, and enjoying them while comparatively young.  She might marry one of these.  He would soon move out of the little house in the valley, where he had remained quietly in a chrysalis state, and enter upon quite another phase of existence; till then he would keep Lydia and her money.  If she married this fellow, he would have to give the money up, and give up Lydia too.  He did not intend to do either.


 
CHAPTER II.


IT was Communion Sunday in Brook Street Chapel, which George Raleigh attended.  The sacrament had succeeded to the simple service.  The congregation had sung a hymn.  At a long table covered with a clean white cloth sat the intending communicants—a table not unlike that in Leonardo da Vinci's wonderful picture, only that many more were seated here, and seated facing each other.  A perfect hush reigned throughout the chapel, a hush which seemed intensified round the table.  Some of the faces there were wrapt, almost like that of the St. John, in an ecstasy of divine affection; a few were wet with tears, chiefly agèd women, waiting, perhaps longing, for the time when, released from every earthly care and trouble, they should drink the new wine with Christ in his Father's kingdom.  On all the faces there was shed a spiritual light—a light that never was on sea or land—something which testified to emotions not born of earth.

    Isaac Benton sat next to his mother, his manly face full of tender awe and a sort of resoluteness mixed with it, as if he was making up his mind—which indeed he was—to walk worthy of his holy calling.  His mother, a tender-faced, slight woman, sat between her son and little Rachael Prosser, her desired daughter, and was shedding thankful tears.  On the other side of Isaac sat George Raleigh, with Mary beyond him.  On his swarthy face there was neither tenderness, nor awe, nor holy resolution.  The light there was a lurid one, such as one might fancy cast by the flames of the abyss.

    Lydia, sitting apart with her sister's eldest boys, bent her head with a strange, troubled, almost awe-struck feeling, as she saw her brother-in-law sitting side by side with Isaac Benton at that table.  She herself was not "in the communion."  She had not, though she generally went to chapel with the family, severed her connection with the Church of England.

    To understand her feeling, it is necessary to relate what had taken place the night before.  On that summer Saturday eve, Lydia and Isaac had met, not by chance, upon the moor.  Lydia was leading her boys round the margin, grassy and flower-tufted, of the great sheet of water fed by the moorland streams, and enclosed from the valley by a strong embankment; and Isaac had met her there.

    Then they had come home together, still early, for the boys to go to bed; and Isaac, instead of bidding her good-bye then and there, seemed as if about to enter the house with her.  But its master met them at the gate, and greeted the young man with so cold a reception that nothing remained for him but to turn away.  He was about to do so, when, looking to Lydia, he said, "What a lovely night it is.  It seems a pity to go in so early;" and she, as if by secret compact, answered, "Yes; let us stay out a little longer."

    The boys had gone in obediently in their father's presence, and, nodding to her brother-in-law, Lydia strolled away up the valley again with Isaac, "for all the world," said George Raleigh, indignantly, to Mary—"for all the world like a pair of lovers."

    Mary was busy about the house when Lydia came back in the soft summer dusk.  George Raleigh was sitting idly at the open window; at least, he looked idle.  His thoughts were busy enough; that scheming brain of his was seldom idle.  Lydia's voice sounded softer than usual, as she asked where Mary was; and Lydia's cheek and eyes were softer and brighter, too, if George could have seen them when she went and found her sister, and laid her arms about her neck and whispered something, and they kissed each other, and Mary fell a trembling.

    When Lydia once more entered the parlour, the lamp was lighted and her brother-in-law was reading a dry trade circular.  He threw it down impatiently, however, and gave her the benefit of his attention.

    "So you've got rid of that fool of a fellow at last," he said.

    Lydia did not answer.

    "He's the stupidest fellow in the world," he went on; "he can't see when he's not wanted."

    "Who's that you're speaking about?" asked Mary, coming into the room on an errand connected with the preparation of supper.

    "Isaac Benton," replied her husband, shortly.

    "He's not stupid in one thing," said Mary, as she went out again, with a meaning glance at Lydia.

    "He's not stupid at all" said Lydia, bravely.

    "Not in looking after you at least.  Mary is right there," said George, scornfully.

    Still Lydia was silent.  His tone, even more than his words, displeased her.  She dared not trust herself to speak.

    A sense of irritation was upon him, however, and he did not stop there.  He went on to communicate it.

    "Your money would be just the thing for him," he said.  "He began with nothing, and very little would stop him; he has no intellect for business."

    "He has intellect enough to be honest, at least," flashed from Lydia, on whom the irritant had acted.

    The words were no sooner uttered than their utterance was repented of; but they could not be recalled, and as a flash of lightning penetrates for an instant into the darkest cavern, the words had lighted up the facts that were in Lydia's mind, and George Raleigh could read them there.  From that moment he knew that she knew of his dishonesty, and that there was perfect understanding between them.  But Raleigh drew a wrong conclusion, and that was, that Lydia's informant was Isaac Benton.  On Isaac Benton he resolved therefore to be revenged.  In the retirement of their own room when Mary told him of Lydia's confession, the conclusion seemed verified, and George Raleigh's dislike of Isaac Benton turned into bitterest hatred.

    And so Lydia thrilled and trembled with intuitive fear and awe when she saw the two seated together at that table in the chapel.

    A grey-haired elder handed to one of the communicants a cake of bread, and the man broke it and, taking a portion, handed it on to his neighbour.  Thus it went round the table, and in the same way the cup was handed from one to the other, and among the rest from George Raleigh to Isaac Benton.  The latter looked up as he took this last, and Lydia thought she could read the look upon his face, and that it said, "We are already brothers."  But to this look there was no response on the part of Raleigh.  The dark-bearded face, stamped with self command and concentration, remained unreadable.

    On Sunday evenings the Bentons, mother and son, were always alone.  They had "The Books"—Bibles and hymn-books—laid on the table in the little parlour, and there they read and talked between their readings.  The room in which they sat had no pretensions to be a drawing-room; it had no pretensions whatever.  It was just such a room as might have been that of a highly respectable workman, though Isaac's father had been a Wesleyan minister.  It was after her widowhood that Mrs. Benton had made herself a home.  Owing to the requirements of the sect the Wesleyan minister is homeless, being resident for only three years in any place, and moving into the house attached to the chapel, and furnished for his reception.  It was therefore a very simple one, but there was refinement in its very bareness.  Its one armchair was occupied by Mrs. Benton, and Isaac sat upright before her, not lounging after the easy fashion of the youth of his day.  But he was not reading.  He was looking out of the window, which was open, with nothing better to contemplate than the fragrant box of mignonette on its sill.  He was meditating on the necessity of telling his mother of his love for Lydia Best.

    Neither was Mrs. Benton reading, though her spectacles were in their place and a book upon her knee.  She was thinking of speaking to her son about Rachael Prosser and her wishes concerning her favourite, which did not seem likely to be realised without further active intervention.

    "My eyes are getting dimmer every day, Isaac," said the old lady, taking off her spectacles, and wiping them with her pocket-handkerchief.  "I can hardly see to read now at all, even with my spectacles."

    "You want a stronger pair, perhaps," said Isaac.  "Would you like me to read to you, mother?" he added kindly.

    "No, thank you, dear.  I would rather talk to you a bit," she replied.  "I often weary in the long days when you are away at work for somebody to talk to."

    Isaac looked at his mother.  He looked to see if she had any signs of sudden failure in her face, for he had never heard a complaint from her before.

    He could see none, however.  "Ah, mother," he said, "you wouldn't have been so lonely if little Nelly had lived."

    Nelly was a sister who had died in infancy, to the great grief of his mother—a lasting grief, for she held that she had never been wholly able to resign the idol of her heart.  And Isaac had resolved that when he married he would not quit the mother to whom he was both son and daughter.  She whom he took for a wife must take her for a mother too; but would she love the stranger as a daughter?—that was the difficulty.

    She looked back at him almost reproachfully, as if she blamed him for bringing up to her the great sorrow of her life.  "The Lord gave and Lord taketh away," she repeated solemnly.  "Blessed be the name of the Lord."

    There was a pause.

    "Isaac, I might have a daughter still," said the old woman, tremulously.  Her voice was full of emotion.  This was a trial to her, stirring her out of her sweet, patient, calm into anxious expectancy.  For it was a great change in her life—the only great change that could happen to her, except the last, and it involved too the happiness and stability of a life dearer to her than her own.

    "And you shall, mother," said Isaac, rising up before her.  "I have been thinking how I should tell you this very afternoon."  A tremor passed over his mother's face; her hands held by the book on her knee, but she controlled her voice, and answered, "I am very glad.  I love her dearly, and she will make a good and faithful wife."

    Isaac looked amazement—not unmixed with consternation.  His mother did not know about Lydia.  She had too evidently some other person in her mind, and he could not be ignorant as to who the person was.

    "Rachael will make a good wife," she repeated.

    "But it is not Rachael I mean, mother," he found courage to say.

    "Not Rachael!" she repeated.

    "No, mother; it is a lady whom I have known for several years—Lydia Best."

    Mrs. Benton was too much of a lady to express her disappointment in any way.  It was nevertheless apparent to her son.

    "You are not vexed, mother?" he said, tenderly.

    "I thought you knew no other so well as Rachael," she answered evasively; "but it may make a great difference to me."

    "How, mother?"

    "Rachael would have been content to come to me as a daughter, but now I must give up my son."

    "No, mother," said Isaac, warmly.  "Nought but death parts me and thee.  Lydia will come to you, as Rachael would have done.  Rachael may be very good; but she is not like Lydia.  Mother, you do not know her; she is the sweetest, noblest, truest woman in the world."

    But Mrs. Benton saw her son through a mist of tears.  To her Lydia was but a stranger, and her last dream had dissolved.  She could not see with her son's eyes.  She was ready to believe good and not evil of Lydia, for she herself was sweet and good; but she felt that her son's choice would never be to her what Rachael would have been.

    "Is it settled then?" she ventured to ask.

    "Not in so many words, mother," he answered, simply.  "I had not arranged my plans.  I only told her I loved her; but I will speak of our marriage at once, now that you know."

    "Then you are not sure that she will have you, Isaac," said his mother, anxiously.

    "Of that I am quite sure," he answered, in an untroubled voice.  "Such a one as Lydia does not accept love without giving it.  She would as soon take untold gold."

    "I don't know," replied the old lady; "it is best not to be too sure.  She may tell you she did not mean anything.  There have been such things, Isaac, and will be again;" and with beautiful inconsistency, she began to feel an anxious fear that her son might not prosper in his wooing.

    "And if she were such a one, mother," said Isaac, smiling securely, "I am man enough to bear the loss, and to teach myself to feel well rid of such a bargain."

    The very next day, Isaac Benton, ever straightforward and manly, sought a formal interview with Lydia, and set the question of acceptance or non-acceptance speedily at rest.  Then they talked over their plans together, in another long lover's walk, at the close of which Lydia instinctively avoided bringing Isaac into contact with her brother-in-law.

    Isaac had been right in his reading of Lydia's character.  She had not accepted his love without pledging her own, and that without a drawback.  She was his, ready to go to him when he chose, and to enter into his life fully and freely, with all the fulness and freedom of her own, and ready to say with Ruth, "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."

    But Isaac chose to defer his happiness at the bidding of his delicate scrupulosity.  It was not that he thought of Lydia's little fortune as placing her above him.  He had no such thought.  He placed her above himself, it is true, but it was on other and higher ground than this.  But he would not have it thought that she had stooped to him even by "the world," which Isaac had learned to define very sharply.  He wanted the world to do honour to her choice.

    He explained the position of his affairs to her, as he had done to her brother-in-law—those affairs at which Raleigh had laughed.  He had begun, as that gentleman had said, on nothing; that is to say, on a few hundreds, which were swallowed up in making a start.  He had no difficulty, however, in obtaining credit, a credit which was justly and honourably used, as all credit ought to be.  He had obtained credit for the raw material, and adding to it his knowledge and industry, he had amply redeemed the trust, and had already considerably increased his little capital.

    With the cognisance of all concerned, he had on this enlarged his small factory, and with it the scale of his operations, and had in consequence somewhat heavier engagements to meet.  That he could meet them punctually he had not the slightest doubt, for there was no speculation in his business.  He had added to the material supplied by his creditors its new use and value, and the money which was owing to him for the product he would pay to them, minus his rightful share.

    As soon as he could accomplish this, and buy with ready money, he would hold himself free.  Then they—how pleasant and oft-repeated that plural was!—might marry, and move into a better house, where there would be room for the mother as well as for the wife.

    Lydia was content.  And Isaac brought his mother to see her, and Lydia returned the visit, and was received with old-fashioned courtesy; but not, as Lydia felt, with perfect cordiality.  In this, Isaac's mother was only acting out her simple truthful nature.  She could not all at once give Lydia the welcome she had prepared for another, and she could not throw into her manner a warmth which she did not feel.  But she had no intention of being cold to Lydia; nay, she had the firmest intention to love, and love her well.  Perhaps an additional feeling of constraint was upon her from the little scene she had just passed through with Rachael, and which she was obliged to keep entirely to herself.  She had taken the earliest opportunity of telling Rachael of her son's engagement, and the poor girl had tried to wish him happiness with the proper amount of friendliness and unconcern; but she had broken down and wept instead, and murmured through her tears, "You must not think it is any fault of his; you must not let him know that I have been so foolish as to care for him like this."  And the old woman had answered sorrowfully, "No, my dear, it is no fault of yours; but it is of mine, and I would have been very glad if he had chosen you."

    Quite closely after this interview it was not possible for Mrs. Benton to be thoroughly cordial with Lydia.  But as the latter knew nothing of all this, she felt a little hurt at the coldness of Isaac's mother.

    Meanwhile George Raleigh was cherishing his hatred of Isaac Benton, and brooding over it in his darkened mind.  He had refused the divine suggestions of forgiveness and reconciliation which had come to him at the communion-table.  He justified his own feelings on the plea of Isaac's treachery; and the idea of separating him and Lydia was uppermost in his mind.

    It had not yet occurred to him how it was to be done.  It was certainly not to be done by using his influence openly against Isaac.  He had had enough of that.  He could hardly forbid Lydia's lover the house, for that would be to defeat his own object, and come to an open rupture with Lydia herself.  Therefore he would wait and watch.  There were circumstances which he knew of not unlikely to yield a favourable opportunity for doing Isaac a mischief.  Isaac was in his debt—a debt heavier than the young man, would have incurred if left wholly to himself.  He would rather have chosen to go on more slowly still.  But he had acted under the advice and influence of Raleigh in increasing his business, and Raleigh, who had the most entire confidence in his integrity, was himself his principal creditor.

    Lydia, on her part, was filled with the most compunctious tenderness towards her brother-in-law ever since her lightning flash of anger had revealed to him that she knew his painful past.  Instinctively she kept Isaac out of his way.  He should not be wounded at present by seeing them together, and in time he might forget her little sally—might come to regard it as an inadvertence; even to think that she had spoken in ignorance after all.  "He has forgiven it," she thought; "I am sure that he has forgiven it, and that in time he will be friendly with Isaac, for my sake as well as for his own."

    The circumstances which George Raleigh had in his mind as likely to be adverse to Lydia's lover arose out of a crisis of trade upon which the industry of the district had entered.  Nor was George Raleigh disappointed in his expectation.  Such a crisis is particularly hard on the beginner whose small capital is not elastic enough to meet the strain.  Bankruptcies are inevitable, and one bankruptcy brings on another.  The dishonest trader, the man who is trading beyond his legitimate means, who is trying to secure illegitimate profits by illegitimate risks, may be the first to fail; but he is sure to involve others in his failure—men who are not dishonest, but simply unfortunate in having trusted him.

    The very first week after his engagement one of Isaac's customers stopped payment, owing him a little over two hundred pounds.  It does not seem a great sum; but the young man had not great sums to spare, he did not deal in them; and, be it remembered, the ruin based on small sums is far worse than that which is based on great ones.  The man who fails for fifty thousand has generally less penalty to endure than the man who fails for five hundred.

    The loss of the two hundred was a great blow to Isaac.  It gave him likewise more than usual mental trouble and pain, for he had trusted this man who had failed, as a man not only honest but religious, a church member, a man of prayer.  If he became bankrupt, and Isaac could not rid himself of the feeling that it was dishonourable, nay, dishonest to do so, who was to be trusted?  All at once his own position seemed to him insecure.  All at once Isaac Benton began to look anxious, even ill.

    "It is so hard just at present to be put back in this way," he said to his mother, talking over the failure.

    "But you have often said that you were bound to meet with a check somewhere," she answered wisely.  "You will get on for all that."

    "I don't doubt it, mother; at least, I never did till this day or two, when I seem to doubt everything good," he said.

    "You are depressed," she replied, looking at him anxiously, "and you are not looking well.  Why don't you go out this evening?"

    She was glad enough to have him to herself again; but, in her unselfish affection, she thought another might cheer him more.

    "Lydia has gone away," he said.  "She has gone home for a few weeks to Coalfield, to stay with her unmarried sisters."

    That was enough perhaps to explain his depression, but he continued: "I shall weather the storm, mother, if I keep my health.  I shall be able to collect enough to meet my liabilities; but it will be close work, and a week's illness would ruin me."

    "What makes you think of illness?" asked his mother, nervously.

    "There's a great deal about," said Isaac; "and I feel out of sorts, somehow."

    There was a great deal of illness about.  The summer had been an unusually dry one.  The newly-introduced water supply had not yet reached the poorest part of the town, where the people depended for the most part on the springs and on the rain.  The springs had dried up and the barrels were empty.  What there was of water was half putrid.  Bad water and overcrowded dwellings had done their work.  Fever and dysentery were decimating the inhabitants of the worst districts and spreading into more favoured localities.

    Isaac Benton worked on, worked harder than ever, through the hot and sultry August weather; but the cloud of depression which weighed upon him did not seem to lighten.  True, he had not Lydia to cheer him; but he had Lydia's letters, only they did not cheer him, sportive and gay as they were.  Perhaps they were too sportive, for Isaac's tenderness was deep and solemn, and to jest over it was impossible to him.  While Lydia, in whom the sense of humour was stronger, often hid her most loving thoughts in sallies of fun.  From her living lips Isaac would have understood these—he was not dense in any way, and her smile would have made way for them; but written he failed to understand them.  They jarred with his mood, and his replies were forced and formal.  Still in jest, but somewhat disappointed with her lover's correspondence, Lydia at length threatened to write no more.

    The threat fell upon Isaac like a thunderbolt.  Had he only looked over the page he would have come upon a modest little postscript, telling of the writer's immediate return, and playfully appointing a meeting for the settlement of their differences by the margin of "The Reservoir."  But Isaac did not turn over the page.  He thrust the letter into his pocket and made talk to his mother, who followed him with hungry eyes, as he went off to the works, bearing himself more erectly and alertly than ever he had done in his life, for that very day lie had been called upon to face a fresh calamity.  The illness which he had half dreaded had not come upon stalwart Isaac Benton, and yet nevertheless it had dealt him a secret blow.  In a couple of days his bill to George Raleigh became due, and the man on whom he had chiefly depended for money to meet the engagement was lying stricken by fever and unable to make any arrangement for the payment of his debt.

    What was Isaac Benton to do?  He could not meet the bill; but that he could not do so was no fault of his.  There was nothing to be done save to ask George Raleigh to renew it.  There was no doubt in Isaac's mind that his request would be granted, the money was perfectly safe, both he and his debtor perfectly solvent, and yet Isaac went forth to make it with the greatest reluctance.

    In spite of this reluctance, he lost no time in seeing Raleigh and explaining how matters stood.  It was easily enough done.  Very few words sufficed.  "Hoskyns is laid up with the fever, Raleigh," said Isaac.  "I shall have to wait for my money; will you wait for yours? renew for a month, that will be long enough, for I will be able to meet it then, even if he is not ready?"

    The favour was reluctantly asked, but not in fear of a refusal.  When it was met with a refusal, Isaac expressed astonishment and even indignation.  "It will certainly never happen again," he said; "but you must do it this time, Raleigh, if it is only for your own sake.  I have no friends to go to.  You know that the money is safe, and that this is the result of an unforeseen accident."

    "I know nothing of the sort," said Raleigh.  "I tell you what it is, you are presuming on our closer connection," he added, with a sneer; "but it has not taken place yet, and I don't think it ever will."

    "I don't think it ever will " rang in Isaac's ears as he turned away, sorrowful and indignant.  It rang in his ears all day as he went in and out among his men and did the work of two, not swiftly but steadily, like the great power wheel which sets all the rest in motion.  He did not run about to borrow, to get the money by fair means or foul, as George Raleigh would have done.  He knew not the ways of borrowers.  He simply stuck to his work.  As he had said, he had no friends to go to, none on whom he had kindred or other claims.  So he took in goods and sent them out, packing and directing up to his last order and writing between, so that nothing should be left undone or unaccounted for, and waiting all the while with a feeling of dread which he could not overcome for the passing of the day on which his bill to George Raleigh came due.

    It came in its turn and matters took their course.  The bill was protested, and Isaac Benton was bankrupt.  All who had known the young man expressed pity and astonishment, for he had gained universal respect; but none knew him intimately enough to ask for explanation, or to offer substantial help.

    Supported by his perfect integrity, and also by a sorer hurt whose pain deadened that of his failure, Isaac still worked on.  Lydia, he believed had deserted him.  He had told her nothing of his trouble; but he felt sure that she must know all about it by this time, and she made no sign.  Would Raleigh have treated him as he had done if Lydia had been on his side?  Would he have uttered that taunt if he had not known?  Had she not said she would not write again?  He put away the letter in the drawer of his desk; he could not bear to look at it, and he did not answer it.  Why should he answer it?  He could not plead with her now—he a man disgraced in the sight of men.  Even in the chapel it would be some time before he would again be allowed to sit at the communion-table, and he would have to clear himself first of the suspicion of dishonesty which must always rest on those in his position.  Old Mrs. Benton perhaps suffered more than her son, for there was nothing to distract her in her suffering.  She felt the disgrace of failure still more keenly than he did, and when he spoke of selling off everything and going to America or Australia, she approved of the resolution, though her heart was like to break.  She would go with Isaac, she knew; but she could not begin life again; she would but lay her dust in that strange land, far from the grave which held her husband and her baby girl, and the old eyes grew dim indeed with their bitter weeping.

    Meantime Isaac was busy collecting all the money he could wherewith to appease his creditors; but all was not enough, for unfortunately Hoskyns was the one debtor who owed a large sum, the other sums due to him were small and scattered widely, and now Hoskyns was dead and there was no hope in that quarter, even if Isaac had been willing to distress the widow and the fatherless, which he was not.  He would, however, offer to George Raleigh all that he had, and he could not believe that Raleigh would press him further.  It was in the days, not very far back, when a judgment could be taken out either against the property or person of a bankrupt.  George Raleigh elected the latter.

    Ten days had expired and Isaac Benton had collected more than half the amount of the bill, and with this he went to Raleigh at his place of business; but the latter would not accept it.  He would have nothing less than the whole, and he could hardly conceal his exultation that at the very last hour Isaac had no more to offer.  His vengeance would now be complete.  He could shut up the man whom he had learnt to hate in a prison, ruin him, and drive him from the place.  His purpose would be accomplished more swiftly and surely than he had dared to hope.

    And it was, so far as the imprisonment was concerned.  The night following, Isaac Benton slept in a prisoner's cell; but better there, with conscience void of offence, than George Raleigh under his own roof.  His mother had risen superior to her grief to comfort him.  "I have done my best," he had said, and she had answered, "Blessed is that servant whom his Lord when he cometh shall find so doing."  And so they had parted bravely, and the old mother had undertaken to procure his release, by the sale of all that they had if necessary, for they had made up their minds to go away together.


 
CHAPTER III.


LYDIA had come back to her sister's as gay and bright as ever.  The very first evening after her arrival she had stolen out after the children's tea, but without their company, and wandered up the valley.  It was too late to take the boys, she had said, and she wanted a good long walk, and Mary had understood and silenced their clamour.  The moon was rising; the big harvest moon, made to loom larger through a sultry haze in the quarter where she rose.  Lydia passed slowly up the valley.  Bells were ringing in the town, ringing out the workers where the day was done; but they died in the distance as she went up and on.  By the time she reached the margin of "the water," as the reservoir was generally called, it was time for Isaac to be there, she had sauntered so.  His works closed at the same time as the rest, and he would not linger, save to wash those great brown hands of his free from the soil of the afternoon, and to snatch a hasty cup of tea.

    Lydia sat down on the upper margin of the sheet of water.  Artificial as it was, nature was rapidly claiming it her own, taking it into her plan, as it were, rendering it part of her general aspect.  It seemed already wrought into the yellow brown moorland on whose marge it lay.  The mosses and the wild flowers grew down to its edges, down and over, and the tall tufted rushes stood up around it.  From where Lydia sat it seemed a broad moorland lake fed by more than one moorland stream, and full even in the parching heat.  She sat and watched the moon come within its mirror, dreaming pleasantly till all of a sudden she started up and knew that she had been waiting long.  She looked once more down the valley, and along the track which Isaac must take; but he was nowhere to be seen.  Surely something had occurred to prevent his coining.  She looked at her watch.  He might have been with her an hour ago; he had never failed to come thus early heretofore.  The moon was shining on the water still, but it was her last gleam before entering the heavy cloud which was also reflected there.  She looked up at the sky and saw that there were hosts of them rolling up as if for battle.  Still she waited, and the sky darkened and darkened, and the water at her feet grew black as ink.

    Suddenly she was startled by a blaze, which lit up sky and water and the far off lines of the moors.  Again and again it came.  The summer lightning illumining the whole horizon, and throwing out in strong relief the few spires and countless tall chimneys of the town below.  Lydia felt that it was time to go, for these harmless flashes were generally the heralds of a storm, and a storm was threatening now.  The first heavy drops began to fall as Lydia turned homeward, and she had only reached the shelter of the porch when the rain came down in torrents, and, following the forked lightning instantaneously, the thunder crashed right overhead as if the towers of heaven had fallen.

    Lydia had not met Isaac by the way.  It was now certain that he had not kept his tryst.  But why?  Lydia's heart was too high to distrust her lover.  Something had happened to prevent his coming.  He would explain it soon.  Thus she thought; but she could not help feeling a shade of apprehension as to the cause which detained him.  It was no light thing—of that she felt sure.

    Nothing was said by either her sister or her brother-in-law on Lydia's return.  Mary, indeed, knew nothing.  It was not her husband's policy to tell her anything of his business matters, and he did not wish to tell her about Isaac's affair just yet, not until he was safe in prison, and till he meant her to communicate the intelligence to Lydia at once.  A few days passed—the days before Isaac's imprisonment—and Lydia waited impatiently for tidings of her lover.  But none came, and Lydia went through a hundred phases of disappointment and apprehension, but not of distrust.  The true-hearted girl felt it impossible to doubt her lover's truth.  She would have gone again to the trysting-place, thinking that he might have mistaken the day; but she knew he would not expect her there, for day and night the rain had poured almost without ceasing.  The valley was a quagmire the moor would be a bog.  Why did not Isaac write to her?  Was he ill?  Should she go to his mother?  She had almost made up her mind to the latter course, which indeed she would have followed at once, but for the feeling that she had received her coldly, when one evening Mary followed her upstairs to her room, with a face white with agitation.

    "What is wrong?" asked Lydia, at once.  "It is about Isaac," she added.  "It is about Isaac you have to tell me.  Oh, be quick," and she wrung her small, impatient hands together.

    "Isaac is in prison," sobbed Mary.

    "In prison!" exclaimed Lydia, in a tone of relief, hardly realising what it meant, having expected to hear, "Isaac is dead."

    "A bankrupt, and in prison," repeated her sister.

    "Then he has done nothing wrong," said Lydia, quietly.

    "Oh, I do not know," said Mary.  "George seems to think there is something wrong."

    "Does he?" flashed from Lydia; but she caught herself up before she had said another word—a word that would wound her sister.  "Good night, Mary," she said.  "I am glad you told me, for I feared worse than this."

    "He did not meet you that evening, then?" faltered Mary, inquiringly.

    "No, be did not meet me," she replied.

    "Oh, Lydia!"  Mary was going to say that surely he would have done so if innocent of all save misfortune.  Poor Mary!  She had to believe in endless possibilities of wrong-doing that she might retain for her husband any respect as a man among men.  But Lydia stopped her abruptly, and with a swift, searching question,—

    "Do you know who did this?"

    "Did what?" asked Mary, innocently.

    "Put Isaac in prison."

    "No," replied Mary.  "George did not say."

    Then Lydia kissed her and sent her away, holding the light for her over the stair rail; and when she had seen her enter her room, returned to her own and sat down to think.

    Lydia had a clear head and knew something of business.  She had heard it discussed all her life.  Isaac had made his affairs quite plain to her, and she failed to understand what could have brought about such a disaster.  He must have been wronged in some way, that was the conclusion she came to, and the resolve that followed was to go at once to his mother and learn all about it and then seek Isaac himself.  She sat musing till bitter became sweet, as her heart went out to him in defeat and humiliation, more tenderly than it had ever done in the pride of his simple, noble manhood.  At length she betook herself to prayer, and last of all to sleep.  On the morrow, saying nothing of her resolution, and putting on a cheerful face, with a consciousness that she was watched by both George and Mary, she waited till the former had gone away, and then set out to visit Isaac's mother.

    Early as it was Mrs. Benton was not alone.  A pretty, fair girl was waiting wistfully on the worn old woman, whom these last few days had shaken as an October wind shakes the woods.  She looked thin and sere, almost deathlike, and she rose tremblingly to meet Lydia, and holding by the table for support.

    Mrs. Benton neither spoke nor offered her hand as Lydia advanced.

    Little Rachael, timid and tender-hearted, went away and took refuge in the kitchen and cried.

    With gentle force Lydia took possession of one of Mrs. Benton's hands, and setting her in her chair knelt on the floor beside her, and looking up at her with swimming eyes told her of her recent knowledge.  Large-hearted Lydia recognised that this grief was more the mother's than her own and said so, but claimed her portion.

    But Mrs. Benton refused to look into the sweet pure eyes, enough to beguile a saint, she averred.  She withdrew her trembling old hand, and coldly asked the kneeling girl why she came there to insult her sorrow.

    "Surely, I have a right to help you," said Lydia, boldly.  "He has done nothing to deserve this, I feel sure."

    "It would have been better to have hindered it," said Isaac's mother.

    "Hindered it!" repeated Lydia; "how could I have hindered it?"

    "It is your brother's doing," said Mrs. Benton.

    Lydia sprang to her feet.  The sweet grey eyes had fire behind them, and flashed almost fiercely.  "He must be mad," she muttered to herself.  "Mrs. Benton, I will settle the claim immediately."

    "My son will settle all claims himself, Miss Best," replied the old lady, stiffly.  "I am sure he would decline, as I must do for him, any help of yours.  My son has suffered a great wrong at the hands of your brother, and he could not accept the righting of it from you."

    "I will go to him," said Lydia, eagerly; "he knows me better than to suppose I have any hand in this."

    "I request that you will be good enough to stay away from my son.  He could not bear to see you now.  He will soon be out of prison by the sale of his effects, and then he may perhaps see you before he leaves the country."

    Lydia said no more.  She could not trust herself to speak.  Thus repulsed, she bowed and turned away.  But Mrs. Benton caught a look of such anguish on the bright eager face that she relented and held out her hand.  "What is done cannot be undone," she said.  "My son's life is blighted; but I think he would be glad to hear that you grieved over it."

    The words broke Lydia's heart, and the two women wept together, and even Mrs. Benton felt that Lydia's tears were more than little Rachael's, crying in the kitchen by herself.

    Outside Mrs. Benton's house, Lydia came to a standstill.  The revulsion against her brother-in-law had reached a climax.  She felt that she could not return to his house, even for her sister's sake.  She passed the station; a train was going homewards shortly, and, impulsive in all her actions, Lydia resolved to go with it.  So she went into a stationer's shop, and wrote a note to Mary, saying that she had gone home, and sending it by hand, got her ticket and was soon off on her twenty miles' journey.  She had done it all so quietly that no one who saw her could have guessed the pent-up passion which ruled her.

    It got worse in the train, as she had a compartment all to herself, and the rapid motion favoured concentration.  When she arrived at Coalfield it was at white heat.  Avoiding the streets, she took the path by the river which led to her sisters' house, and by this time the passion had stamped itself on her face, which was pale and tense with excitement.

    As she hastened along, she was stopped by a gentleman going in the other direction.  He had been lumbering along with a pensive look in the eyes that hid deep beneath the overhanging brows; but he brightened at Lydia's approach, and went forward eagerly to meet her.  Lydia had been a favourite of his from the time when she had sat upon his knee when he was a youth at college.

    "Lord A—!" she exclaimed, in a startled voice, startled simply out of her intense concentration.

    "Is anything wrong, Miss Best?" he asked, with quiet concern, when he had seen her face, which he could not do at a distance, owing to his short-sightedness.

    Lydia had not had time to make up a face, a thing which she was by no means clever at.  Lord A— saw the extent of her agitation, which made her for the moment speechless.  It moved him strangely.

    "Take my arm," he said gently, and, turning, walked off with her.  "I have heard of your engagement," he said presently.  It was like him to know: he always did know what was happening to the people about him from that boyish time when he kept account of Lydia's dolls, and generally was found correct.

    "It is broken," she murmured.

    "Why?  My informant spoke highly of Mr. Benton; indeed, I knew him myself, and liked him extremely.  He was manager under Mr. Raleigh."

    There was the slightest possible hesitation in pronouncing the name, but Lydia caught it.  She knew what was in his mind, and burst forth with her story.  "And he was unworthy of your generosity," she began.  "That man to whom you forgave so great a debt, for a far lesser one, and one honestly incurred, has thrown Isaac Benton into prison."

    "What could have been his motive?" said Lord A—, when he had heard the whole; but he made a shrewd guess at the answer.  "I parted with Isaac Benton," said his lordship, "because I suspected that he knew or guessed the cause of Raleigh's dismissal."

    "If he knows, he has never breathed the suspicion of his knowledge," said Lydia.  "I would answer for him in this, as in everything else."

    Lord A— was looking down on her face; as child and woman it had had an infinite charm for him.  A look of longing darted from the hidden eyes.  Then he said calmly, "I should be glad to have Mr. Benton back again."

    "He is going to leave the country," said Lydia.

    "Will you leave the matter in my hands, Miss Best?" asked Lord A—.

    She looked up at him inquiringly.

    "Take no further steps," he explained, "and mention it to no one outside your own family."  They were at the door of her sisters' house—the garden door, which stood open.  Lydia acquiesced, and they parted with a warm handshake; Lydia to pour forth her trouble anew to her sympathising sisters, and Lord A— to act.

    He went straight home, tramping over the fields, with eyes fixed on the ground, entered his library and stood straightway at his desk.  Half an hour after a letter to George Raleigh was lying on the marble slab in the hall at Coalfield House, and a post later it had reached the hands of him for whom it was intended.

    The letter was a strange one.  It contained the following quotation, with Lord A signature:—


"Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion toward him, and forgave him the debt.  But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants which owed him an hundred pence.  And he laid hands on him, saying, Pay me what thou owest.  And his fellow servant with besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.  And he would not: but went and cast him into prison till he should pay the debt.  So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.  Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, 'O, thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desirest me; shouldst not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?'" (See Matt. xviii.)


    There the slightly abridged quotation ended.  But George Raleigh had no need to consult the original for the conclusion of the story, and abject fear took possession of his mind for a moment; but only for a moment.  He was almost tempted to defy him, so sure was his trust that Lord A— would and could do nothing, and yet more than ever he hated him; hated him above all for his moral superiority; for that very goodness in which he himself trusted.

    Nevertheless on the morrow Isaac Benton was free, and set himself at once to carry out the arrangements for the sale of his plant and stock.  From his mother's lips he heard an account of Lydia's visit, a wonderfully unprejudiced account, too.  Mrs. Benton had been touched by Lydia's grief; she was still more satisfied that the girl had acted rightly when she heard that it was through no interference of hers, by the payment of money at least, that her son's release had been effected.  Nothing so touches the aged as disinterested obedience.

    But Isaac acquiesced in the necessity of giving up all thought of her.  He quite exonerated her from the smallest degree of conspiracy with George Raleigh against him; but he thought her brother-in-law would never have taken such a step if he had not been convinced that Lydia did not care for him.  He devoted his first evening at home to the melancholy task of sorting out her letters, to be sent back to her.  He lingered over it.  Somehow, on second reading, they were fonder than he had thought, though the tenderness was always gay.  On coming to the last, for he was arranging them by date, he happened to turn over the leaf and find the postscript.  It laughed out upon him like a child who hides behind a door, or round a corner, to take you by surprise, and he stopped in his task, bewildered by the sudden light.  He and he alone was to blame.  She had gone to meet him, and he had failed her!  He tumbled the letters back into his desk and went out.  What was he thinking of?  It was too late for a visit—if not, indeed, too late altogether.

    Nevertheless he went on.

    On, up the valley, by the dim light of a waning moon—on to the trysting-place.  The rains had ceased that day, but the ground was wet and marshy about "the water," looming black and vast in the uncertain light.  He wandered round its soaking margin, and the streams flowing into it were rushing on in flood.  The principal one, a little river, murmuring over its pebbles all the summer through, came tumbling on dark and sullen, pouring into the brimming reservoir a mass of water for which there was no sufficient outlet.  Isaac watched it, and it seemed to him dangerous in its force.  The mass of water pressing on the outer embankment seemed greater than it could possibly sustain.  It had never struck him before, but it struck him at that moment of excitement with instant terror and apprehension.  Back again he passed to the face of the embankment, and felt rather than saw that the reservoir was not only running over, but leaking fast.

    Close at hand there was a hut, in which a man connected with the water-works—a sort of keeper of the reservoir—lived.  Isaac thought it worth while to speak to him, and he came out, lamp in hand, to examine the leakage.

    It was no ordinary leakage.  When they had looked a moment at the bulging line—the bursting streams, each read in the other's terror-stricken countenance the fatal truth.  The embankment was giving way!

    The next moment both had disappeared into the darkness.  Isaac was dashing down the valley with frantic speed toward the one house he knew, which, built in the narrowest part of the gorge, was in deadly danger.  One or two houses were in his way, and he called aloud to the dwellers and swept on.  Heaven help them to catch at his meaning, as he cried, like a madman, Save yourselves! Fly! The flood! the flood!"

    At George Raleigh's house he paused for an instant's breath, for his voice was gone.  Then he dashed himself against the parlour window, where the lights showed, with the same frantic cry.

    It was Lydia who raised the blind.  Lydia, in a fit of compunction towards her sister, had returned once more to be under the same roof with her obnoxious brother-in-law.  George Raleigh was not there.  He was still absent at his place of business.  The children were upstairs asleep.  Mary sat transfixed with terror.

    Lydia threw open the window, which happily served as a door to the terraced garden, and Isaac bounded in.  "There is not a moment to lose," he cried; "the reservoir is giving way."

    "Oh, my children," cried Mary, rising with a great cry, but sinking down again, her limbs refusing their office.

    But Lydia had darted off.  She was waking the children, for their voices could be heard already.  Four of them in their little night dresses, each with a bundle under his arm, ran into the room.  "Run up to the top of the garden, there," cried Isaac.

    But the children looked at him and at their mother in sleepy bewilderment till Lydia came in, carrying the youngest, a little chap of five.  He had no need to repeat his words.  Lydia ran out with her boy, and the others followed, Isaac almost lifting Mary out into the garden after them.  Up the sloping path they went, and up the old stone steps.  At the foot of the garden wall they dressed the children, and waited there.  Isaac thought it sufficiently safe, for it was far above the roof of the house, and he left them till he had roused one or two of the dwellers near, and set them to the task of rousing others.  Then he returned and stood by Lydia's side, but not for long.

    "There is George," exclaimed Mary, and they could hear a foot crunching the gravel in the silence which prevailed, though there was already a far off stir of arousing down the valley.

    Isaac darted back to the house, and caught its master in the act of entering his open door.  To him he repeated his warning, adding that all his household were safe above.

    They could just see each other dimly.  Isaac could discern the look of hate and defiance on Raleigh's face as he shouted, "How dare you come here with your maudlin lies?"  He was about to enter the doorway.  Isaac laid hands on him to pull him back, and the same moment a fearful sound burst upon their ears—the rush and roar of an overwhelming flood.

    Mary and Lydia fell upon their knees, clasping the trembling children with faces buried in their bosoms.  For a few moments they remained thus, hardly knowing if they themselves were safe.  When they raised their heads, Isaac, drenched with the swirl of the flood, from whose jaws he had barely escaped, and white as one who has passed through the pains of death, stood alone before them.

    "Where is George?  Oh, where is my husband?" cried Mary, wildly.

    "I laid hold of him; but he shook me off," said Isaac.  "Then we each tried to save ourselves.  I am here.  He is in the hands of God!"

    He might indeed be safe a little further down the bank.  The flood was swirling at their feet.  It was as high as the second floor of the house as nearly as they could see.  But it had spent its first fury, and as it spread down the widening valley it would subside with great rapidity.  At the head of the valley the vast wall of water had smitten house after house, and swept them away as if they had been children's toys.  At its foot it did no more than rise a few feet or even a few inches in the cottage kitchens and parlours, floating the cottage cats on their settles, and the housewives' tubs and the ale sellers' barrels.  The damage to life was very small, considering the fearfulness of the destructive force.  When the valley woke from the terrors of the night, and the sun shone on the water, subsided into an ordinary stream, it was found that few were missing.  But among these was George Raleigh.  He had been struck down by some piece of floating a débris, for he was found in the midst of a heap of rubbish with a ghastly wound in his head.  He and his obligations had passed out of the list of human liabilities.  As far as he is concerned, this story of the parable of debtors ends behind the veil.

    As for the rest, how they took up their lives and lived them may in a great measure be left to the reader's imagination.  Mary did not live long.  She was like a plant which has been snatched up by the roots, some of its tender fibres too rudely torn.  She was planted at home again, but slowly faded.  The shock of that dreadful night had been too much for heart and brain.  She died, and her orphan boys found a home with her sisters, no fewer than three of them going out into the world from pleasant Moorhouse, the home of Isaac and Lydia Benton, whence good Mrs. Benton too departed to the better world of her fervent hope.

    Long before that departure Mrs. Benton had learnt to love her son's wife with no stinted affection, for, in small things as in great, Lydia's heart was free from the canker of an unforgiving spirit.  Half the miseries of life come, not from great wrongs unpardoned, but from little grievances resented—the slighting look or word or manner that is treasured and resented, perhaps only on suspicion of its purport.  It was but a suspicion—a false one—which cost George Raleigh his life.  If an other man save Isaac Benton had come to him that night, he would have recognised his terrible earnestness, and turned and fled in time.  But enmity blinded his eyes and hardened his heart, and he perished in his sin.  Lydia might have made herself and others unhappy concerning that coldness of her husband's mother, and might have ended in alienating her husband and destroying her own peace.  Instead of that, she set herself to win the mother's heart, and from her lips she learnt poor Rachael's little story; but not till Rachael was herself consoled and happy in a husband who had chosen her himself, and who sometimes brought her over to Moorhouse to see her old friend, and who did not appear to be in the least jealous of Isaac, though it is a moral certainty that he knew all about Rachael's preference.  "And do you wish he had married Rachael, mother?" said Lydia, with laughing lips.  And the answer was a silent one—only a look, which said, "There is no need to answer this."

    The last time I saw Coalfield it was once more the scene of festivity and rejoicing.  Lord A—had brought home a countess at last, and now a son and heir had been born to him, and all over his estates there was one spontaneous outburst of sympathy with his happiness.  Bells were ringing in the little churches, and men were meeting at the works to sign congratulatory addresses.  They were crowding round Isaac Benton, who had drawn up one of these documents in a style of unusual simplicity.

    "Put down, Joe Park—his mark," shouted a grimy giant, stretching out his hand for the pen.

    There was a general laugh at Joe's expense.

    "You think I don't mean it," he said, turning on his comrades; "but I tell ee I do, mates.  The master had me up, and sent me to prison, and I've got his mark upon me besides, when I was a killin' my old woman before his eyes for turnip' my pockets inside-out when I was tipsy.  He can hit hard in the right place, the master can, and that's why I'm goin' to sign for him."  And Joe was cheered to the echo for this speech of his, for the men there felt that he was right, and that justice as well as mercy, punishment as well as forgiveness, was needed to raise men to their true level as free and responsible beings.


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