A GHOST STORY.
HE had sat for
two hours in the snug, brown coffee-room of the Four Swans, Norham,
and had ordered nothing, not even a bed-room or a cup of coffee.
All in vain had the honest old waiter bustled in and out stirring
the fire, and flicking crumbs from the table. He had only
brought himself to the conclusion that this strange guest was "a
queer sort," especially for a Christmas Eve.
In fact, they of the Four Swans were not much used to
strangers of any sort. They had a quiet, steady-going
connection in Norham itself. Three or four trade clubs held
their meetings there, and the six or seven bed-rooms of the
establishment were kept in just the state of order and comfort which
suited the individuality of the six or seven "commercial gentlemen"
who, when on Norham business, had patronized the Four Swans for the
last twenty or thirty years. If ever a stranger appeared, it
was generally with some such introduction as this: "Landlord, Mr.
Dash, of Blank, told me you would give me good quarters for a day,
or for a week," as the case might be. Indeed, the Four Swans
had, as it were, hidden itself from all chance-comers, for it was
situated in a quiet corner of a very quiet street, down which nobody
would think of turning unless he knew something of it beforehand and
altogether, with its interior of brown panelling, its wealth of
quaint and grotesque ornaments, its red-tiled verandah, and its
communicative confidential old servants, the Four Swans was an
excellent type of those honest, homely hostels which are fast being
"improved" from the face of the earth.
The gentleman in the coffee-room did not notice that he had
done an odd thing by coming in without a word, and remaining without
an order. Perhaps he had other things to think about. He
was a tall, middle-aged man, with a good deal of hair upon his face;
and, though he was unmistakably well-dressed, he had that indefinite
air which most men carry who at any period of their lives have
"knocked about" in ships and colonies, in canvas suits and
He had come in about five o'clock, and six o'clock struck,
and seven, and it was within two minutes of eight, when an old
Norham townsman came in to look over the papers. To the
intense satisfaction of the waiter, that effectually roused the
stranger. But so slowly like the awakening from a long,
enchanted sleep. And so it had been, an enchanted sleep
haunted by a dream of five-and-twenty years ago.
"I want to stay here for the night, waiter," he said
abruptly. "Any comfortable sort of bed-room will suit me.
And bring me some tea and toast."
The waiter was alert. "There's a little private room
off here, sir," he said, throwing open a door. "I'll set your
tray there, it's more retired like than this."
The gentleman followed as invited. It was a square
closet, with two or three stuffed chairs, a polished round table,
and a dull oil painting over the mantel. That was all that
would strike any strange eye. But the gentleman walked
straight to a panel beside the fireplace, and peered at it.
Under the slow discoloration and many washings of a long time, there
was still visible a slight dashing pen-and-ink sketch of an old man,
with a long nose and goggle spectacles.
"Dear me, sir, you've got quick eyes to find that out
directly," said the chatty old waiter. "Clever, isn't it?
A young daredevil he was that did it, and that was a portrait of the
London detective that had come down to take him off to prison.
His last meal in Norham he ate in this here room, sir, and a rare
lot of ham and eggs he did get through, sir, and never minded a bit
that the policeman was a-watching of him."
The gentleman said not one word.
"He's queerer than ever," confided the waiter to the old
cook, as he received the tea and toast from her hands. "I
began to tell him about young Rogerson, but he did not listen a bit,
did not even ask if he was hanged or anything. It's like
taking a meal to a ghost, that it is."
"You might do better than poke up old stories about as bad a
young scamp as ever lived to disgrace a honest family," retorted the
old cook, who was sharp in her temper; "and as to ghosts, there's
plenty o' ghosts everywhere, for them as has sense to see 'em,
Peter, but I don't think you need be afeared."
Meanwhile another Norham tradesman had dropped into the
coffee-room, and Peter, in the intervals of his attendance, came out
and chatted with them in a cheerful equality, wherein the sole line
of social distinction lay in his remaining standing while they were
"Real Christmas weather this," said Mr. Johnston.
"But Norham's very dull," answered Mr. Lee.
"They're a dead-and-alive set of people, now, the Norhamites,"
said Mr. Johnston, who was one himself, and would allow nobody else
to abuse them. "It used to be different in my young days.
I remember it quite gay, what with the oxen roasting to be given in
charity, and the puddings boiling for the same, and everybody that
was any-ways connected with the church and everybody seemed to be
in those days invited to tea in the Town-hall. And usen't
there to be fine carol-singing through the streets? And rare
Christmas sermons he used to preach, the old rector that was in my
"Ah, that was Mr. Rogerson," put in Peter, directing his
thumb towards the open door. "I've just been showing that gent
that bit of an old sketch up agen the wall. He broke the good
old gentleman's heart, that young scamp did."
"Ah, yes, and did a deal of harm to Norham every way,"
pursued Mr. Johnston, "We've never had a lively Christmas since; I
remember the first after his going off. What could people do
when they knew there was nothing but misery in the rectory house.
The town just kept as quiet as ever it could, and it couldn't do
less every Christmas after, during the old rector's days. And
so it got out of the good old ways."
"Poor young Rogerson," said old Mr. Lee. "I used to
think there was something good in the young fellow, for all his
wildness; and I always hoped he'd right himself, till he went and
did that wickedness that set man against him as well as God."
"I don't know about good or not," persisted Mr. Johnston,
"but I know that it took years and years before his sister Mary
looked up again. Only at last, as time began to thicken over
the tender spots o' grief and shame, she took kind of heart.
Says she once to my dear wife that's dead, 'Mrs. Johnston, our poor
Dick was the child of many prayers, and I've faith God will keep
hold of him.' And then she took fancies that he was dead.
And I noticed she was happier-like after that just as one breathes
freer in a house after the dearest corpse is buried. As for
poor Tom Rogerson, his brother ruined him for this life, anyway.
Maybe, he needn't, but poor Mr. Tom was awful proud and sensitive.
Miss Mary, she told my wife that her brother Tom said he'd never ask
people to trust him, because he couldn't expect they would, after
his brother's ways; and he wouldn't lay himself open to be
half-trusted, and watched, and suspected all the time. And so,
he that was so clever, stayed a poor under-clerk all the rest of his
days, and he left his poor widow just to struggle on and get what
places she can for her boys. Such a pretty dainty miss as she
used to be, and now she's wearing an old rusty silk that's been
turned and turned till she's forgotten which is its real right side.
'I should think what their uncle did won't go against my sons, Mr.
Johnston,' she said only the other day. 'Bless you, Mrs. Tom,'
says I, 'half the town-people are new since then.' 'I'm always
so afraid he'll come back,' says she; 'I'm sure I don't wish him not
to repent,' says she, 'I always hoped he would but I can't help
thinking of my own, and for their sakes, I'd rather he never came
back.' 'The more penitent he is, the more he'll stay away,
ma'am,' says I; 'it isn't as if the whole story was above-ground
still and he'd only got to be forgiven and all would go well, but
there's some that's dead that died in wrath and bitterness with
others for his sake. Look at poor old Mrs. Rogerson, how she
turned against Mr. Tom, good, dutiful son as he was, because he
wouldn't stay by Mr. Dick through thick and thin, and defend him as
if he were innocent. Poor dear old lady, she knows better
where she's been this many a day; but Mr. Dick had better wait to
ask your forgiveness till he can ask hers too. You forgive
him, ma'am,' says I, 'and that's enough for you; but I maintain that
he'd have no right to come disturbing your mind to ease his own.'"
"There was one that would have been glad to see him, had he
returned in ever such shame and misery," said kindly old Mr, Lee.
"Ay, ay," chimed Peter; "I know who you mean. You know
she was on the charity school committee, and when the 'lection board
met here, she always just stepped in yonder and took a look at that
rum picture on the wall. She never thought I saw her.
She never thought nobody was looking at her. My old woman says
she always walked regular among them green avenues by the old abbey,
where she used to walk with Mr. Dick when he was courting of her.
Maybe she thought he'd be sure to go there if ever he'd comed back."
At that instant the stranger came suddenly out of the brown
closet, crossed the coffee-room, left the house, and walked up the
street towards the main quarter of the town.
Quaint old Norham! The winter moonlight lay clear and
cold on its ancient cathedral, standing in its spacious square of
sombre, stately houses. The stranger stood still and gazed
That stranger knew a little boy who had attended many a
service in that cathedral awed by its sweet music, wondering at
its white-robed choristers. That little boy had known every
face on the quaint gargoyles of the ancient chapter-house, and with
childlike familiarity he had given a name to each one of those
contorted countenances. That little boy, muffled in black
weepers, had stood beside an open grave right under the great west
window, and listened to the funeral service over a little sister.
The stranger went to seek that little grave went straight to it
without one mistaken step. But it is not a little grave any
more, for under the name of "Amy Rogerson, aged four," is written,
"Also the Rev. Richard Rogerson, father of the above, aged seventy.
Also his wife Amelia, aged sixty-nine. Also their son Thomas,
Oh, little sister, who went so long before, how much did you
know of earth while you were growing up in heaven? Was not
your father very glad on the day when he entered rest and joined the
folded lamb of happier times? Oh, little sister, is there any
look on the face of an angel, whose human heart was broken?
The stranger stood still by that household tomb, and looked
around. There was another grave which that little boy had
known the family grave of that little boy's playfellows, the
Herons. But the stranger knew that he could not find that
grave in the twilight, though he could have found the way to their
house in the utter darkness!
He crossed the Cathedral Square, and issued out on Norham
High Street. The shops were very bright with Christmas goods,
and busy with Christmas trade.
There was a little, thin, sharp-looking widow, with a boy on
one side and a girl on the other, gazing intently into the best
draper's shop. The stranger stood still when he first saw
them, and then he went up softly and stood behind them.
"It's no good wasting our time, Margey," said the mother,
"for we can't afford to buy anything."
"But looking doesn't spend, mamma," pleaded Margey, "and I'd
like to plan what I'd give you if I could, mamma, and to choose what
I should like you to give me. There, you should have that
beautiful thick black silk, and it should be made with one deep
flounce like the mayor's wife's, and you should have that soft gray
shawl to wear with it. And I would have two of those merinos
a dark brown for every day, and an olive green for Sundays, and one
of those neat, plain black-cloth jackets. And there's Tom gone
off to look at the watches. Tom is going to save sixpence a
week to buy one, mamma; but won't it take a long time?"
"Ah, I wish I could give you children pleasant surprises,"
said mamma wistfully. "I was so fond of that kind of tricks
once upon a time."
"And so you are still, mamma dear," Margey replied, pressing
fondly to her. "Isn't it always a pleasant surprise when you
make us a fig-pudding? I'm sure we are very happy, and I won't
talk any more of my nonsense if it worries you."
Then the little group passed on; and the tall stranger
followed them out of the glare of the gaslight into a small by-way,
where they entered a house with "Mrs. T. Rogerson's day-school for
young ladies," written on the door. Then he went back to the
High Street, and that same night a large parcel from the drapers
came "for Mrs. Rogerson and Miss Margery," and a little packet from
the jeweller's, for "Master Tom Rogerson."
"Everything we wanted," sighed Margery happily. "I only
hope they are real. How could they have come? The
shop-people say they were ordered by a tall dark gentleman, very
pale. I wish mamma would let us believe in ghosts, and then we
could understand it easily, for that description is like dear papa.
But I never did hear of any ghost that had money. I wonder
what Aunt Mary will say when she comes to-morrow!"
The stranger went back to the Four Swans. Next morning
he went to the cathedral, and stole into a shady corner to take part
in the service. The sharp little widow came in, looking
sweeter and happier than would have seemed possible the night
before. Beside Margery and Tom, she had a lady with her an
elderly, fragile-looking lady, with one of those pale, fair faces,
that look as if perfect repose was their only remaining atmosphere
of life, and any jarring element, even of joy, would shake and rend
the tender spirit from its feeble dwelling. A face bright with
spiritual joy and pleasant fancies to those pure but weakly souls
that could never rise to create and grasp pleasant facts. What
are such fancies but the dainty aroma of them royal feast awaiting
them in their Father's mansion?
Lowly kneeled the stranger through the old familiar prayers.
He sat leaning forwards with his face in his hands, while the white-stoled
choir chanted the glorious anthem "Glory be to God in the Highest,
and on earth peace, good-will towards men."
Then he came out, silently, among the crowd of worshippers.
People were exchanging good wishes with each other actually Peter,
the old waiter, saluted even him with "a merry Christmas."
A merry Christmas!
The stranger stayed and wandered among the graves.
There was a world of silent memory seething in his heart.
Beside that vision of the little boy, listening awe-struck to the
choir, there were others of a young man, vain, extravagant, selfish,
counting as of nought, or of little value, all the love and pride
and household joy which looked so very fair from this point of view,
this lonely wandering among the dead! More pictures still.
Of a young man, reckless and cruel in his sins, full of that bravado
which dares God and good men out of fear of the devil and his
minions; of the ghastly horrors of a convict ship; of a shunned
man on a wide, lawless shore the prodigal feeding on the swine's
husks. Then of a little rough, miscellaneous group, listening
to a simple mission sermon, which even "black fellows" could
understand, and which, perhaps, was the more likely to touch the
white men, because it was so like what they had heard at their
mother's knee, or in their Sabbath-school; of a hard heart broken,
of a sinner seeking salvation, as men dying of thirst seek for
water-springs. And then the sweet household instincts, dried
and dead under the forgetfulness of God, stirring again in the
remembrance of Him, and the return to his ways. O God! such
longings for a comforting word in the old familiar voices such
dreams of atonement and reconciliation!
All these memories between that little boy and this strange,
silent man, whom nobody know.
Was there any long-tried servant of God in Gorham that
afternoon, poor, humble, stricken, and tempted to think that God in
his mercy forgets his justice, and tears the moral from the page
which He purifies with his pardoning blood? Or was there any
heedless young sinner, flattering himself that he will repent in
time, and that then all will be as if he had never sinned?
Could either have read the secrets of that silent wanderer, each
would have got a lesson never to be forgotten.
"How can I bear it?" he said within himself. "I wanted
to hear the divine love and forgiveness in a dear human voice; but I
must not tear open old wounds, that are healed as much as such
wounds can ever heal. It is just. They cannot forget.
My life lies among theirs, like a waste field whence noxious weeds
creep into other people's gardens. Will God himself forget?
How can I bear even his pardon, if his eye is fixed ever on the sins
that hang about my neck? And yet, O God, though Thou slayest
me, yet will I trust in Thee."
And so he made his way among the long grass to a square,
old-fashioned grave with all the names on it very old, except one,
which, with its remarkable epitaph, had only been written the very
To the memory of
who expressly desired that these words of God should be
written on her grave for the comfort of whoever should
come here, repentant and sorrow-stricken.
"Who is a God like
unto Thee? . . . Thou wilt cast all their sins into the
depths of the sea.
"For the Lord shall comfort Zion: He will comfort all her
waste places, and He will make her wilderness like Eden,
and her desert like the garden of the Lord: joy and
gladness shall be found therein: thanksgiving and the
voice of melody."
And the stranger bowed himself to the ground, as if he had
heard an angel's voice. Perhaps he did. Here was the
love type of that heavenly love that he was wildly clutching in a
faith that was half despair! the love that survived sin, and
suffering, and death, and stretched a hand to save and soothe from
the very grave itself.
Oh, Barbara, Barbara, your tenderness had taught you to lay
sweet snares for every possible opportunity! Oh, Barbara!
Barbara! surely God must have comforted you in your lonely walkings
in those green avenues by the ruined abbey. He did not empty
your pure heart of its earthly love, but He dropped into it a balm
which changed its bitterness to celestial nectar. Up in
heaven, where you are, Barbara, there is only joy over the returning
And still the stranger sat on the damp winter sod, with his
face between his hands. He was not wishing her back, the dear
love of his youth. Better where she was, where no mortal soil
could ever touch that great love, which was long enough, and strong
enough, to stretch from heaven to earth. Only there he sat,
shutting out from his eyes the sweet, peaceful scenes around him,
even as they must be shut from his life, and seeing far beyond the
"waste places" and "wilderness" that his own sins had made, into
that joyful country where "the ransomed of the Lord shall return,"
where "they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing
shall flee away."
That night the stranger walked again in front of that lowly
house in the quiet byway. Christmas savours came through the
kitchen window, bright light gleamed between the curtains, even
sounds of glad young laughter and merry song reached the lonely
watcher without. And he could thank God for them now. He
could even smile in sympathy with the joy he might not share.
He had his own.
In that lowly house, after supper, when the young ones were
quiet round the fire, cracking nuts and asking riddles, Aunt Mary
fell into a soft sleep on the sofa. They saw her smile in her
slumber, and when she woke she told them in her subdued, pathetic
little voice, that she had been dreaming of poor Uncle Dick: she saw
him with dear Barbara Heron, and Barbara looked so happy! "And
even in my sleep, dears," she said, "I wondered within myself, were
we all on earth still, or all safe together in heaven?"
It must have been about that time that the stranger left
Norham by the midnight mail-train. He stood up in the
carriage, and stretched out his head till the last spire of Norham
Cathedral was lost in the darkness. But even he had gotten his
Christmas blessing ere he departed the prodigal son had found his
royal feast heavenly peace and human love.
"He came and he went like a ghost," said old Peter, at the
A BAD SPECULATION.
THE Duncombes had
lived for twelve years in their little house on the Hampstead Road.
It was just a plain brick tenement standing in a row, a very
commonplace house, for which they paid the very commonplace rent of
forty pounds. The Duncombes had come to it after their
honeymoon, when Harry Duncombe, in the first flush of youthful
ambition and energy, had run over it with his old bachelor
associates, softening his manifest pride of mastership with the
disparaging comment, "that it did well enough for a beginning," and
had not scrupled to shadow out the situation and surroundings of the
ideal mansion he meant to win.
That was twelve years ago; and the Duncombes still dwelt
there. The dreamed-of success had not come yet, nor even begun
to come. The great red-brick house with the Italian garden,
standing on the margin of Caen Wood, about which Harry had always
whispered to Margaret in their courting-time, was farther off now
than it had been on their wedding-day. True, their income had
increased, but not in proportion to the claims upon it. There
were five little Duncombes, and Margaret was so keenly conscious of
their degeneracy from the quiet, snowy, sweet-tempered cherubs of
whom she had dreamed in her early married life, that she found no
time to regret her husband's old castles in the air. She knew
too well what wonders a spare twenty pounds could work in her
household, to ever think of twenty thousand, and confined her
ambitions to the modest but utterly unattainable end of keeping the
lads always in clean pinafores, and buying one yearly silk dress for
herself, while it put her in a small fit of despair to realise that
the drawing-room carpet was wearing out.
It vexed Harry Duncombe that his wife had to work so closely
and fare so hardly. He said to himself sadly that he had not
married her for this. It pained him to hear her comment on
their next neighbour's new robe or Paris bonnet, never guessing,
poor dear man, that half the time the little woman was taking to
herself the sweet unction of a sense of thrift and housewifery, even
thinking that, doubtless, smart Mrs. Bludgeon's husband would be
very glad if his gay wife followed her example. He was sorry
to know that she had really no time for practising, and could never
add another to the repertoire of hymns which she played on Sunday
evenings. Not that Harry Duncombe denied even to himself that
they were very happy. He knew they were. It was sweet o'
nights, sometimes, when Margaret would sit down beside him and
chatter in that twilight interval between the disappearance of the
boys and the arrival of supper. Only the droop of her figure
generally told him how tired she was. It was very pleasant to
take the whole tribe out upon the Heath in the long summer days, and
sit down under a tree and watch the youngsters at their gambols;
only how he wished he could afford a chaise for Margaret now she had
grown such a bad walker! Ah, could they ever take together
those rambles which he had planned in his young loving hopefulness?
Could she climb the Righi now? Could she even scramble up the
Highland hills? And when they ventured to invite a few
friends, what merry little reunions they made! It was
gratifying to see how pretty Margaret could still make herself in
that wonderful old white-lace bodice, in which sundry artful tricks
of trimming and tacking always added pleasant novelty to sweet
familiarity; and his old friend, who came from Devonshire, said he
never tasted such good milk puddings as Mrs. Duncombe's. Oh
how hospitable they would be if they could only afford it, and how
much better it would fare with many a poor, struggling, lonely item
in their acquaintance, if he and his Margaret could only achieve
that old red house with the Italian garden, and an income of about a
thousand a year!
Harry Duncombe was a religious man. Both he and his
Margaret had come of godly families, and walked in the ways of their
fathers. On the evening of their wedding day, Harry had
written on the register of the new big Bible, "As for me and my
house, we will serve the Lord." He had repeated that vow, with
a secret prayer, every time he added a new name to the little
household record. They were bringing up their children in the
way they should go, and if her boys did attend but a second-class
school, and her girl was beginning no accomplishment, yet Margaret
thankfully knew that she could trust their word almost against the
evidence of her own senses; and that, however shabby and gawky and
hoydenish they might be, they were as obedient and bright and
industrious as a mother's heart could wish. There was a family
altar in that little common house in the Hampstead Road, and a
sacred, happy Sabbath day; and yet with all this, of late Harry
Duncombe was beginning to fret sorely at his way of life as a poor
narrow way. It seemed degrading to his spirit to be always
battling so stoutly with the waves of life, and never raising his
head higher than the water-mark. It seemed hard to him that,
with all his generous impulses, he had to close his hand from giving
to others, and to seem near and stingy, while the rich churl was
called liberal. It almost broke his heart sometimes to imagine
these fine boys of his, living such a life as this in their turn;
and his poor little maid Janey what would become of her?
Must she be a lonely snubbed teacher, while other men's daughters
were walking, white-robed, to fresh bountiful homes?
Harry Duncombe was letting the world into his heart. He
could not rest satisfied with God's promise that "bread shall be
given and water shall be sure." Bread and water seem such mean
portions in this world of ours! Harry Duncombe thought and
with some soreness that he seemed almost too safe from temptation.
No Satan came to him, saying, "All this will I give thee if thou
wilt fall down and worship me." He seemed more like a
prisoner, ignominiously locked in with his tread-mill, than a
triumphant martyr, choosing the stake rather than recantation.
Mr. Duncombe had spent a hard Saturday in the City. The very
weather was trying, with hot sun and east wind. Expected
payments had failed, unexpected bills had come in. A
half-arranged order had been indefinitely postponed. More
trying than all had seemed an encounter with sundry brother-traders.
They were affluent men, keeping more and better clerks than his, and
they seemed so fresh and spirited beside his consciousness of jaded
anxiety. Their talk was of extensive speculation and large
profit, winding up with allusions to social and domestic luxuries
which never came in his way. He knew them all well. Knew
what large subscriptions they paid to public charity, and what an
atmosphere of bustle and competence they diffused among their
dependants. They seemed like healthful fertilising rivers in a
world where he was but a standing and evaporating pool. Nearly
all of them did sundry things which he had never done yet had
perhaps begun by trading riskily with property not altogether their
own, and some of them had even learned what bankruptcy meant, when
judicial inquiry and public opinion were alike lenient. He had
started with a righteous horror of these things, but, after all,
they seemed to keep the world going round. Surely it would
become a stagnant place if everybody was like him!
But the Saturday wore away at last, and now it was Sunday.
Mr. Duncombe felt almost inclined to say that he was too weary and
nervous to go to church. But not being accustomed to make such
excuse, he knew it would alarm Margaret, and so kept to his old
habit. Their pew was in a side aisle, under the gallery, and
close to a window. They did not pay for it all, and that
morning the attendant filled it with strangers, and taking
consideration the smallness of the young Duncombe, intruded one more
than the lawful number. The sunbeams shot across Mr. Duncombe
eyes, and blinded him, while the unseasonable wind stirred in his
hair and fluttered the leaves of the books. The children,
having no garments between absolute winter ones and absolute summer
ditto, were kept in the former by their careful mother, and were
consequently hot and restless. And then why would
Margaret lend a hymn-book to these pushing, stupid strangers, who
had among them a cough like a dog's bark? Generally, Mr.
Buncombe was hospitable enough to people, but he felt inclined to
punish these for the fault of the pew-opener. And then
Margaret turned to him as if she quite enjoyed sharing his book in
spite of its small type. And what a shabby thumb her glove
had! (She had mended it overnight, with a triumphant belief
that the neat handiwork was neither noticeable nor offensive.)
Mr. Buncombe did not hear the sermon. He would not even
have heard the text, only, according to custom, his little daughter
found it, and handed the Bible to him. It was "He gave them
their request, but sent leanness into their soul." He almost
pushed it impatiently away. No fear of the requests of his
heart being fulfilled; and yet his soul felt lean enough! He
heard the old minister's quiet voice go softly on, but he thought he
knew all he had to say, and that it was nothing for him.
"Ministers were such unpractical men," he said to himself
impatiently; "they knew nothing of life as it was in the actual
world." Poor minister, he was devotedly and prayerfully
serving an insignificant suburban charge, on a stipend smaller than
Harry's own despised income, and with no prospect of change, except
to the superannuation fund!
Then the service was over, and there was a collection.
Harry and Margaret only gave sixpence each, because they had divided
a shilling into threepenny pieces for the children's contribution.
And then they all went home and partook of cold beef, lettuce, and
The catechism had been duly repeated, and all the hymns
recited, and then Mrs. Duncombe, careful to provide her husband with
the repose he needed, suggested that the children should retire to
her bedroom, and spend the time remaining before tea in hearing the
eldest boy read aloud from the "Pilgrim's Progress." She began
to talk to her husband about the sermon and chapel-singing, but
finding his answers came short and slow, concluded he was rather
sleepy, and cheerfully settled herself down with Newton's "Cardiphonia."
But Mr. Duncombe was by no means sleepy. On the
contrary, he was just shaping an impulse which had come suddenly
into his mind, and which presently found its way into the words--
"Maggie, suppose you call on Mrs. Edmund Mallock to-morrow
Mrs. Duncombe looked up surprised. The Mallocks were
City people, in the same line of trade with her husband, and near
neighbours into the bargain; but they were not the style of people
on whom Margaret was in the habit of calling, on those very
few-and-far-between afternoons when she made the best of her scanty
wardrobe, and hunted up her card-case. The Mallocks might call
their house Heath Castle, and drive up their own sweep in their
carriage behind its pretty greys, but they had family traditions,
which not all their wealth and fashion could banish into utter
"Yes, Maggie," pursued Mr. Duncombe, "they are almost
strangers in this neighbourhood. And Mrs. Mallock is in
delicate health and Mallock seems a good sort of fellow and his
friendship might be very servicable to me."
"But don't you know what people say?" inquired Margaret
Mr. Duncombe poohed "That she was once on the stage, or
something of that sort. That's the utmost the scandal amounts
to, if you analyse it. Well, I don't suppose they are exactly
religious people. But making an acquaintance is not forming a
friendship. We must learn to distinguish matters, and not to
drive one principle hard and fast through everything."
"I don't approve of the mother of a young family going in
full dress to late dinners almost every night, except when she is
too ill to leave her own room," said Mrs. Duncombe with some energy.
"I don't defend it. But we must make great allowance
for difference of training, and even of position and means.
Her children are not neglected, as ours would be under similar
circumstances, because she can afford to keep good attendants, and
so her breach of duty is lessened. Besides, if people who are
rather vain and frivolous are to be left all to themselves, how are
they to grow wiser? Who knows but you may bring Mrs. Mallock
to a better sense of the duties of a wife and mother? Why, you
may do quite a mission-work in Heath Castle!" added Mr.
Duncombe, springing up in his energy and pacing the room.
"Mrs. Mallock has a soul to be saved, I presume, as much as any poor
woman in your dirty Paradise Row. If you take her in the right
way not too strait-laced and severe just at first who knows what
you may effect? Your candle should not be hidden under a
bushel, Maggie. We should not let ourselves forget who visited
the houses of both Pharisees and publicans."
Ah me! we are such dupes that Satan scarcely needs a new disguise to
deceive us. He always could quote Scripture, but we seem to trust
that he is tired of that old trick, and never to suspect that he may
be at it again.
Margaret Duncombe shook her head gently, but secretly thought to
herself that though sorely cramped in ordinary apparel, the Indian
shawl which somebody had given her at her marriage would not be too
fine for visiting at Heath Castle, and that her black silk gown was
not quite too shabby to wear beneath it. Margaret's was not a strong
character. What little sinew it had, had been imparted by its
religious training, with its strengthening rule of regular habit and
sober thought. She had always been docile and ready to follow, and
had hitherto had right leading, both in the home of her youth and of
her married life. She was not a woman to grasp the truth that, in
all humility, a weak hand must sometimes keep the helm right for the
moment when the captain falls back exhausted; that where the cross
roads are uncertain, the follower does well to stand still awhile,
and not to encourage his pioneer's hasty impulse by a too ready
assent. She could not, with Phocion, have reminded the over-eager
Athenians, that "if Alexander were really dead, he would be as dead
to-morrow as to-day." In her household she was a little too much
inclined to hurry work, and to try new recipes.
"Well, Harry," she said, "I never thought of doing what you
propose. Visiting anybody is not much in my line, you know; and
really I don't know what I shall say to Mrs. Mallock, for there is
never anything that interests me nowadays in the very newspapers, so
that I can't even talk about that."
"Take one of the children with you," suggested her husband. "Not
Tom he's such a pickle, always in mischief. Take our eldest, Steenie. Mallock has a youngster about his age." And in his thoughts he
silently added, "Children make intimacies so quickly, and keep them
up so well."
And so Mr. Duncombe sat down to his tea with a curious sense of
refreshment and exhilaration. He felt he had "a happy inspiration" as if a new current was rushing into his river of life, which
haply might be strong enough to bear its burden of hopes and cares
safe into some desired haven. If he had only stopped to analyze how
far this might be physically the result of a few hours' cessation
from worry and turmoil, he might presently have shrunk from further
following the fevered phantasms of his nightmare of exhaustion and
anxiety. Or did he really find so much more inspiriting hope in the
vague prospect of the favour of an indifferent and worldly man, than
in all the sealed promises of God, and the experienced providences
of his whole life?
Under the mingled influence of a desire to please her husband, a
repressed delight at a little forbidden-fruit sort of change, and an
uneasy wish "to get it over," Mrs. Duncombe paid her visit to Heath
Castle the very next afternoon. She and Steenie were rather awed by
the great carved portico and the Minton-tiled hall; but the
appearance of the tousled, faded hostess actually put them more at
their ease. Such marked slatternliness, in spite of the fashionable
and costly robe, would have quite jarred neat Margaret if seen in a
woman of her own position: but poor humanity has a curious
arithmetic, which loves to set richer folks' frailties against their
good-fortune, as if that might balance their account with its own!
Mrs. Mallock was pleased enough to receive a lady-visitor. She did
not have many, and she had heard her husband speak in high terms of
the Duncombes. She tried her utmost to be agreeable. She talked of
the theatres, and the latest appearances on the stage, but presently
found that was a region where her guest could not follow her, though
poor Margaret, remembering her husband's injunction "not to be too
strict at first," did not venture to say that she had never entered
a play-house in her life. She tried upon other public
entertainments, even down to the local concert, with little better
success. Margaret admitted that she was so closely engaged at home
that she knew nothing of these things. And then, with her suave
voice, Mrs. Mallock asked about the number and ages of her little
flock, and rang the bell to summon her own.
Margaret Duncombe had envied nothing at Heath Castle till she saw
those three dainty children, with their fine fresh linen and bright
sashes. This idle slut of a fine lady, with her four maid-servants
and her long purse, could easily achieve what all poor Margaret's
daily slaving could never compass. It brought pain to her heart and
almost tears to her eyes. Even her jealous motherhood was forced to
own that they were pretty children, all the three the two little
misses with their golden curls, and their taller brother, who soon
made common cause with Steenie and took him off to show him his kennel
and his pony. And Mrs. Mallock went on in her sweet, soft way to
tell her children that "this lady" had a dear little girl of her
own and wouldn't Evelyn and Cicely be very glad to see her, and
shouldn't they ask what her name was that they might send their love
to her till the mother could have cried to think of her little Jane,
in her turned mousseline-de-laine with the darned frills.
Mrs. Mallock had a confidential, caressing manner, and was
sympathetic in a loose, lazy way, which by a tone, or a sigh,
intimated that she understood more than she was told, and felt
about it heartily. To convey this was a need of her nature. Her
emotional powers had been strained beyond their real strength in her
early days, and had needed these artificial stimulants ever since. She was only too glad to encounter some one who did not repel such
encroaches with fierce, high-bred reserve. "You are one of the dear,
good model-women," she said to Margaret. "You married for love, and
you are a happy martyr of a mother. I can see
it all. You are a dreadful rebuke to a poor shilly-shallying
creature like me. But then, my dear, a satisfied heart is the
stronghold of a woman's life. A woman who possesses that must judge
her sisters tenderly," with a glance expressive of endurance and
appeal, and by no means complimentary to Mr. Mallock, whose effigy
was grimly watching them from a great gilt frame. "But then, my
dear, you must not kill yourself with care and energy. I remember my
own dear mamma. She taxed herself to the utmost in the endeavour to
do her best for us. She killed herself through it. She was as
complete a sacrifice to maternal love as if she had immolated
herself upon an altar. And did we really gain, by being so early
left poor little motherless things? Ah, Mrs. Duncombe, one cannot
tell what her loss may have cost us all through our lives! Our
worldly interests may not have suffered. But there was nobody to
guard our sensibilities to care for our heart!" (with another
glance). "You must take care of yourself, dear Mrs. Duncombe. Such
a soul as I can see you have, needs change, excitement, and joyous
outward influence, just as much as your fragile frame needs rest and
fresh air. You must not altogether expect your dear, good husband to
know that you want these things. Men look at matters from a man's
point. I know what men are, my dear. They try to save every pound
for your old age, and never notice you are dying in your youth till
you are dead, and then they sit down and say they have lost their
object in life but they go to business again next week, and before
the year is out, they feel bound to marry somebody else, for the
sake of the dear children! I shall call and take you out for a drive,
if you will permit me. I have no friends near here, and I am so
lonely! And if you are ever inclined to send your little girl to
play with mine, she will be most welcome. The darlings do sometimes
grow tired of playing only with each other. I have a most excellent
nurse, and the little lady will be no trouble, but a real boon to
us. What a fine lad your eldest boy is! Steenie ― don't you call him? How I like those simple, substantial names! I would change Godfrey,
Evelyn, and Cicely for Steenie, and Jane, and Tom, and Jem directly,
if I only could. Those fine names were Mr. Mallock's choice, not
mine! Must you really go? Well, it will be only goodbye for the
present, and you cannot think how delighted I am to have made your
Margaret went home, feeling that in fulfilment of her husband's wish
to establish friendly terms with the Mallock, she had succeeded
beyond her wildest hopes. But how dark and stuffy the house seemed,
and how rough little Jane looked, red and riotous from earnest
digging in the back garden! She felt it was true enough that she was
giving in to her hard work and many cares. She might have been a
little cross at teatime, if her family had been as exacting on her
conversational powers as they usually were, but Steenie kept them
interested in his recital of wonderful novelties, and left her free
to resolve that if she was to accompany Mrs. Mallock for a drive in
the park, she must really procure a new parasol and a fresh bonnet.
"And so you liked the formidable lady after all," Mr. Duncombe said,
in playful interpolation of her history of the grandeurs and
amenities of Heath Castle.
"Well, though I think she might be neater and brighter, there is
certainly a wonderful charm and grace about her. Of course it is
only likely that she is very different from Mrs. Monkwell or Miss
Griffin." Strong-minded, plain-speaking Mrs. Monkwell had sat up two
nights with Margaret when her children had the fever, and had girded
her up to submission and cheerfulness when her baby died. And Miss
Griffin often took out the young ones, and even treated them to the
Zoological Gardens and the Polytechnic, with refreshments of
ginger-beer and penny buns. But as Margaret named them, she sighed
for the soft luxurious atmosphere she had just left. Ah; poor
Margaret, very sweet is the south breeze playing among hawthorn and
acacia; but even the rough north-easter among the city chimney-pots
is to be preferred to the miasma, heavy with the perfume of poison
"Good night, darlings. Say good night here to mamma as well as papa.
Susan will put you to bed to-night. You are all old enough now to do
without me. Susan, you will hear Tom and Jamie say their prayers. Steenie and Jane, surely I can trust you to remember yours, although
I am not there to see you kneel down?" Thus spoke Margaret when the
children's bed-time came. "It is only uselessly tiring myself to go
off with them regularly," she explained to her husband. "Of course,
I shall go sometimes to see that things proceed correctly."
"I can trust you, Maggie," her husband answered. "One's young
enthusiasm is apt to carry one into excesses of zeal that common
sense tempers down in time. And so Godfrey Mallock took to Steenie,
And Mr. Duncombe leaned back in his chair, and felt doubly convinced
that one does have very bright inspirations sometimes. Things looked
altogether brighter than they had done yesterday. The delayed order
had returned, and a long outstanding bill had been unexpectedly
paid. With a superstition which he would have indignantly repudiated
had it been put in words, he felt as if this was wholly connected
with his brilliant advance upon the Mallock, and that "things
generally all take a turn together."
He did not know that Margaret was sitting by his side, thinking that
there was nobody to take care of her, unless she did herself, and
that men were apt to follow a narrow and selfish policy of their
own; now she came to think it over, she could remember many an
instance of it, even in her Harry.
Nor did he know that Mrs. Mallock, standing before her cheval-glass,
dressing for a musical evening in Tyburnia, was carelessly saying to
her husband ―
"I had a visit from Mrs. Duncombe today. I tried to be as kind as I
could to her; for I know you say Duncombe is a decent fellow, and it
is as well to be civil to that sort of people."
And the merchant growled, "I should think so. His word is
as good as his bond any day. He's one of the sound
"Well," Mrs. Mallock went on, "it will be easy enough for me
to take this little woman in hand. She's as soft as a taper,
but she has a style in her own quiet little way, and is quite
presentable. I will soon polish her up. I should fancy
they are pious, and don't go to theatres, and so on. But
that's all only silly, harmless prejudice, adopted partly because
the poor things haven't had much chance of getting rid of it, and it
will soon wear off."
And Mr. Mallock did not warn his wife to be careful to take
it in the right way, and not to be too startling at first!
And so weeks and months wore away, and intimate relations
were firmly established between the humble home in the Hampstead
Road and stately Heath Castle on the brow of the hill. Mr.
Mallock would often drive Mr. Duncombe from the City in his
brougham, just as his wife drove Margaret about the park in her
barouche. The children were all constantly together, and
presently Mr. Duncombe made a great exertion to put Steenie to the
same excellent local school which Godfrey Mallock attended, Mr.
Mallock urging "that nothing in the way of education could be called
extravagance." Mr. Mallock threw some business into Harry
Duncombe's hands business which soon brought in far more than that
extra twenty pounds which Margaret had once thought almost too much
to hope for. But it did not seem to relieve and improve her
overburdened domestic life as the longed for twenty pounds had once
promised to do. The servant left because "she found the work
too hard" a plea that had never been urged in all the toiling
years before. And even, as time passed on, and they could
afford to double their service, the house did not seem so calm and
comfortable as in old times. For one thing, Margaret was never
her old untiring self. She became headachy, and must take
afternoon rests, and remain in bed for breakfast, while Mrs. Mallock
was a most devoted sympathizer, always ready with some new potion or
practice, and a long history of similar suffering on her own part.
Mr. Mallock did certainly throw an immense amount of business
into Harry Duncombe's hands; almost more than he could do with
comfort to his person or his purse. But it must all be done.
He must not neglect to take this new tide at that flood which leads
on to fortune. Besides, money was needed as imperatively as
ever, though not for the bread-and-butter claims of the old days.
Little Jane was learning French and music and dancing all at the
same time now, and Steenie and even Tom were taking to gymnasiums
and cricket clubs. As for the much-dreamed-of and
at-last-attained new drawing-room carpet, Mrs. Duncombe was already
complaining that it was beginning to look shabby round the centre
table, and that Mrs. Mallock advised her that real Turkey wore the
best, and was therefore cheapest in the end.
They began to give little parties in those days. Mrs.
Duncombe thought they could do so with two servants, and dear Mrs.
Mallock was always willing to lend her invaluable maid, who knew how
to give a style to such affairs, and whose training should really be
prized by the raw domestics of the Hampstead Road. The
Mallocks were invited, and the doctor, who was turning Margaret into
an excellent chronic patient, and a number of other people who were
falling into the habit of leaving cards at the Duncombe's door.
Mrs. Monkwell, and Miss Griffin and the old Devonshire friend were
indited once or twice, but Harry was constantly adding some new
mercantile connection to the circle, so that they were presently
omitted to make room for people who "must" come. Harry
Duncombe felt his temper safer when they were away, for they were
sometimes inconveniently candid in their retrospections.
Gentle, weak Margaret attempted a compromise by inviting them "to
come in a friendly way when we are by ourselves." They had not
much enjoyed the stiff late parties, where nobody spoke to each
other without the form of an inaudible introduction, and where there
was a stand-up struggle round a "buffet," instead of the old snug
sitting down to supper. So, at first, they accepted the
homelier invitation, and went to admire the grand new furniture and
look at the photographs of the fine new friends. But Mrs.
Monkwell bluntly told Margaret that "she would be as well as ever
she had been, if she didn't give way to every fancy, but just
exerted herself as if she was obliged to." And Miss Griffin
found she could no longer interest them in her news of the
Sunday-school and the Bible-class, for their old minister was
dead, and the Duncombes had taken that opportunity to transfer their
allegiance from the humble old-fashioned place of worship to the
elegant proprietary chapel which the Mallocks attended. (The
Mallocks had not attended anywhere, when the Duncombes first visited
them. Mrs. Mallock would by no means have been thought
unsentimentally profane, but she pleaded her own weak health, their
long unsettled place of residence, and gracefully yielded to
Margaret's warm representations about the necessity of impressing
right habits on a rising family, and poor Margaret was fain to
delude herself that this was a real evidence of vital mission-work
in her connection with Heath Castle.) Besides, Miss Griffin
felt hurt that an invitation she gave the juveniles to accompany her
to the wax-works was not responded to in truth, because young Jane
said she did not care to be seen in the West-End with such a guy.
So Mrs. Monkwell and Miss Griffin dropped off by-and-by, and though
Margaret did not seem to miss them much, yet they left empty a
corner of her heart which none of her new acquaintances could fill.
They quitted the house in the Hampstead Road at last.
But they did not go into the old red-bricked mansion on the margin
of Caen Wood, although it was for sale on very favourable terms, and
under a doom of being pulled down as too antiquated for most
purchasers' tastes. Henry Duncombe still felt a longing
towards the ideal of his early ambition, but the Mallocks laughed
him out of it. It was only fit for ghosts, and cobwebs, they
said, and bade him to just think of the superior conveniences in any
of the new "palatial residences" near Belsize Park, with gas, and
hot and cold water laid on in every bed-room! Margaret
seconded them warmly, and the children also, with even more
emphasis. So into one of the fashionable new houses they
That seemed to break up the last of the old habits. Not
one in the household could have told when they last met for family
worship. It grew irregular because the boys stopped out late,
or Jane was at a party, or people stayed after supper till
inconvenient hours. And this, often and oftener. Till at
last, its opportunities were so far between that they were not
heeded when they came.
And so Mr. Duncombe arrived at middle age. His
prosperity was exacting, and he lived a very hard and busy life.
His nerves and temper had been often sorely tried. He had
frequently needed to trade with borrowed money, which was a terror
in itself. And any thought of change or failure had grown
doubly trying since he and all his family had acquired luxurious and
expensive tastes. Therefore Mr. Duncombe looked older than his
He had times of vague, vain yearning for things as they used
to be: oftenest on Sunday afternoons, when Steenie was coming and
going, and both Tom and he were worse than irregular in their church
attendance, and altogether frivolous and secular in their Sabbath
pursuits. He could not understand why it was so, and why even
the two younger lads seemed preparing to follow in their steps.
He had never set them such example. If he was generally too
tired to study his Bible and his good old divines and theologians,
at least he never touched newspapers or novels. He was rather
uneasy about his two eldest sons. They were handsome and
elegant enough, and great favourites in all the genteel
drawing-rooms where they accompanied their mother and sister.
But their late hours and nameless associates troubled him, since he
was too experienced to regard such things with the indolent,
half-smiling indulgence which Margaret had learned from the poor
silly women about her. He knew they were going wrong.
And again he said to himself bitterly, that they had not learned it
of him, and became, spasmodically, very severe and repressive.
But it was of no avail. Youth cannot be content with a
negative creed or a negative rule of life. The blight in which
the parents' spiritual health was withering, was not the atmosphere
to quicken the souls of the children. But Mr. Duncombe did not
know that it was a blight.
Mr. Duncombe thought he had good reason to be satisfied with
his daughter. People called her very pretty (it made him
wonder how pretty they would have called her mother at her age).
She was stylish, and accomplished, and very much admired. He
was sometimes annoyed at the way the young men buzzed about her, and
the calm impartial manner in which she treated them all. Why
could not she make up her mind to take one, and then get rid of the
rest? But Jane seemed a good-natured girl, and her mother said
"that young people would be young people, and had a right to their
play-hour in life," adding, what she guessed would please her
husband, that she felt sure Godfrey Mallock would finally win the
day. Harry Duncombe would pish and pshaw at that, for he could
see Godfrey only as a well-bred dandy, though not without keen
interests in money matters. But when he thought of the large
business connection, of the high commercial name, and said to
himself that young Mallock was at least as well-disposed as most
young men, and if not yet religious, at any rate far steadier than
his own poor Steenie, whose bosom friend Godfrey had always been,
from that afternoon of Margaret Duncombe's first call at Heath
Castle, then the father was reconciled to the idea.
Time came when he must send for his daughter, and formally
ask her what were her feelings towards her declared lover. He
had had no experience in such things, and there seemed to him some
nameless incongruity about it something like writing a love-letter
on lawyer's brief. His daughter was cooler and calmer than he,
sitting opposite him in her airy, morning dress. O little
Jane, in the shabby mousseline-de-laine with the darned frills!
where, are you gone away, and will you never come back again?
"It is a very serious step in life," said the father
tremulously. "It is as solemn as birth or death; only, unlike
those crises, this is left so much to our own will."
"Not altogether so. Circumstances guide us a great
deal," said his daughter Jane.
It was a truth; but out of place, like a cabbage in a rose
garden. Mr. Duncombe had exalted "circumstance" only too often
himself, but now the sound gave him that jar peculiar to our own
words when thrown back upon our ear, out of harmony with our present
mood. He almost thought Jane must be mocking. But she
met his glance with eyes that were perfectly sincere and serious in
their own way.
"Jane," he said "marriage is a very solemn thing. Your
life becomes your husband's henceforth. You are one with each
other, and must go together all the way, be it wide and fair, or
scant and gloomy. You cannot read the future. No prophet
can hint what it may bring; but this at least you should take to it
truest love and firmest faith, so that you can bear all for your
husband and trust him in all. Is it so now, Jennie?"
It was his daughter's turn to look up astonished. "I
think Godfrey and I understand each other," she answered
thoughtfully. "He has spoken to me very considerately about
all his possible future arrangements. I believe he would be
always reasonable and moderate, I have a great respect for him, and
I know he really likes me, and having known each other for so many
years is a great comfort."
"And you think this is quite enough to begin with, eh,
Jennie?" asked her father, almost sadly.
Jane smiled and blushed there can be something mechanical
even in a blush, for there is the blush of the rose, and the blush
of the pink light in the pantomime. "Well, papa," she said, "I
should scarcely have expected you to require a love-match.
They're often unsatisfactory enough, I'm sure. We must choose
between things, and make the best of our choice. At any rate,
I have never liked anybody better than Godfrey. The lot I
shall have will suit me. I'm sure I'm not fit for a poor man's
wife," she added, with a tone almost like a sigh, as if something
stirred among the tendrils of her withered, worldly youth.
"Then will you take him?" asked her father doubtfully.
She paused, and looked up with those blue eyes of hers, all
unconsciously so hard and keen. "I shall never do better," she
said; "and we have known each other a long while, and I shall be
near all of you."
So it was settled. But for days and days after, while
mother and daughter were merrily driving from shop to shop,
collecting the trousseau, the father sat in his study, resting his
head on his hands, and pondered heavily of many things. His
pondering was not thought. His ledgers always seemed to need
all the sharp decisive thought he had to spare. It was just a
confused pondering of his own sweet time of love-making, with all
its eager hope and pure ideal, and how Jane's courtship knew nothing
of all this. But his had not seemed to come to much after all,
and yet surely it ought! He was like one who falls asleep over
a delicate web of embroidery, and awakes to find the threads in
The ghost of his old self returned to him sometimes in his
musings. The image of the ardent young man who had counted
wife and babes as the best wealth of life, whose temper would never
have been ruffled by a scantier table or a plainer room, who had
spoken to God in prayer, and heard his voice in the Bible, and to
whom the Sabbath had been a day of rest outside heaven's gate, but
within hearing of the sweet sounds within. Was it all but the
enthusiasm of youth, a happy dream, the morning dew on the earth,
which the noon-tide sun must dry away? He had had fears and
anxieties then, he remembered them now but as gossamers floating on
what had surely been pure sunlight. He had trembled for the
stability of his home, for the future of his wife and children; but
how much more to him were home, and wife, and children then than
now! He might indeed be wealthier for he was now counted a
rich man but he was only poorer in all for which he had valued
wealth in leisure, in domestic comfort, in true friendship, in
honest peace of mind. There was another future too, which
troubled him more sorely than that old one of care and poverty.
He had once felt himself a Christian man; he did not seem such now,
even in his own consciousness. And as the old beliefs of his
youth rose vividly before him; with the once comforting assurance of
the Saviour, "Those that Thou gavest me I have kept, and none of
them is lost," he thought bitterly that the spiritual grace and
peace of those days could have been only a delusion, a very snare of
Satan, and that, after all, there was nothing better than to be as
he was upright, honourable, and conscientious; religious, too, in
what seemed to him a common-sense, practical way. Only there
was a beauty about the vanished dream of which this reality know
nothing. And he could have wished that his children did at
least see that vision; for if he had so degenerated from a youthhood
which had it, what would be the old age of a youth which had never
Yet when he left his study and returned to the active side of
life, he again detected his own peevish, fevered hankering after
outward good, which he foreknew to be unsatisfactory. Not Mrs.
Duncombe nor any of the family were more disturbed under their
irritations and disappointments than he was, if the cookery was not
quite perfect, or the parlour-maid's attendance negligent. How
could he do without these things? He might feel a loathing
self-contempt at his own anger and impatience; but it only made him
more angry and impatient thereat.
Jane Duncombe became Mrs. Godfrey Mallock. There was a
splendid wedding, and a fashionable honeymoon, and a grand coming
home to a luxurious house. How different from the time when
Henry Duncombe and his Margaret had been married in an empty church,
and had gone for a fortnight to Hastings, and returned to the little
den in the Hampstead Road, only partially furnished too, with divers
of its chambers left empty and locked up!
"Jane takes it all very coolly," said Mrs. Duncombe, as she
sat in her dressing-room, long after midnight, fagged to death with
the gaieties of the "house-warming." "Young people aren't
sentimental nowadays. To look at her, she might have been
married twenty times. Well, I don't know but what I'd rather
be as we were, though it was hard lines at first. But people
can't have everything."
Yet it did not strike either Mr. Duncombe or his wife that
they might have robbed their child of a pearl to give her a stone,
that they might verily have exchanged her birthright for a mess of
Now that Jane was gone, there was less domesticity than ever
in the house in Belsize Park. There were few "evenings" now
when guests and music and gaiety kept even the young men at home.
Mrs. Duncombe was often out at her daughter's house, and the father
drifted more and more into the mere man of business. A ledger
may be as fascinating and as deadly to a merchant as rouge-et-noir
to an idler of fashion. It is the spirit, rather than the
game, which makes the gambler.
So Steenie and Tom were left almost entirely to their own
devices. They ran into debt, and had to come to their mother
to wheedle their father. Mrs. Duncombe used to cry about them,
and "talk" to them. She was sure they both meant well, and
would be two fine young men when they began to settle down. It
was the cant of the circle she lived in, and Margaret's was not a
mind that looks before and after, and pierces into the heart of
things. She had half forgotten what she had hoped for her
boys, when they lay in their cradle or knelt at her knee, and she
was willing to accept an idle trust that things were not so bad as
they seemed, and would shortly mend. Not that it did not
trouble her. She was really unhappy about them. But with
all her good-heartedness, she was not a strong-hearted woman, and
lacking her early discipline of constant and necessary work, she had
drifted down into a poor helpless creature, who could scarcely have
foregone her afternoon nap and cup of strong Bohea, even for the
salvation of those who were dearest to her.
Matters grew worse and worse. People began to talk
about the young Duncombes, and invitations to parties grew rarer,
and were seldom accepted when they came. Godfrey Mallock
angrily declared that he must shut his house against his
brothers-in-law, since they, and especially Steenie, did not know
when they had enough wine, and were over-candid and quarrelsome
under such circumstances. Jane reported her husband's words to
her parents, with all the influential dignity of a young matron.
Her father must really use his authority, she urged. She
herself quoted Godfrey to her eldest brother, but for her pains only
got a laugh and a reply that made her very angry with her brother,
but, somehow, rather bitter towards her husband.
It came to an end at last. There were blood-stains on
the floor of the fashionable hotel which the brothers had most
frequented, and officers of justice hurrying to and fro about the
grand house in Belsize Park. There was a sad, sad story in the
papers, and an honest name dragged through the mire of public
criticism. There were the two younger boys, half-puzzled, all
shamed. There was the broken mother, wearily crying out to God
as she had not cried for many a thoughtless day and night.
There was Tom, with his own reputation gone in the prime of his
youth, telling the truth plainly half in manfulness, half in
defiance of all the levity, and sin, and passion, and rage, which
had at last tempted his brother to lift his hand against a
fellow-reprobate, and so had driven him out to wander the world with
the mark of Cain on his forehead.
And there in his study, with grey head resting on nerveless
hands, sat the old father. Even in that hard time, it could not let
him be this costly prosperity of his. Clerks came in and
out, among the policemen, with invoices and contracts for his
signature, and a single stroke of his pen, made in mechanical
obedience to his managing man, brought him three thousand pounds.
What did he care? except to hate the money. Mr. Mallock and
Godfrey might come in and sit opposite him, and talk stonily and
cruelly of Steenie his own Steenie, his own frank and ingenuous
boy, whom God had made for so much better things, and who his
heart-broken father felt might be nearer God still, in all his out
lawed infamy, than this heart-hollow son-in-law of his, who thought
nothing to be sin but crime, and never dreamed that respectability
could ever need repentance. But let them talk how they would,
the miserable father scarcely heard them, for still in this soul
there sounded, like the knell of a funeral bell "What doth it
profit thee to gain the whole world, and lose thine own soul, and
the souls of thy children?"
The fever of excitement and confusion subsided by-and-by, and
only left life very dreary in the great house in Belsize Park.
The father went again to his offices and warehouses, and knew that
his own clerks and porters spoke of him as "poor Mr. Duncombe."
He returned to his desolate home, where Margaret sat, always
weeping, until she had wept so long that she could weep no more.
He would sometimes almost long that the first days of stormy anguish
would return ― that he might give his whole possessions just to
speak with his firstborn child again, even if it were on his road to
the gallows. Anything, anything, better than this dead
silence, this dull hopelessness.
And he had still three sons left; but there seemed a spell on
him, so that he could not stretch out a hand to save them. He
could scarcely talk with them in an ordinary way, far less on the
fears and yearnings that were crowding his heart almost to bursting
it. He had lost the habit. His children were strangers
to him. While he had been forming his "desirable business
connections," and heaping up his gold, they had not been standing
still. And he could do nothing! The power was not in
him. Talk of the anguish of a living soul chained up in a
paralyzed body! What of a heart still loving, left in the
chill of a paralyzed soul?
Those were dark days too for Tom Duncombe. In all their
recklessness, Steenie and he had loved each other. Both their
characters had been full of good impulses. But in profane,
unconverted men, good impulses are but weaknesses fatal
inconsistencies in wickedness which surely ruin them for the world
which now is, without availing them for that which is to come.
Without strong principle, their warm affections and enthusiastic
natures had been easily led into all sorts of guilty excess, and yet
had offered them specious chance of easy return to comparatively
innocent society and pleasures. No more such chance. The
more reputable companions, whom Tom had really liked best, drew
utterly away from him now. He was an unmistakable black sheep.
Others, whose lives his had hitherto touched but occasionally, and
then with consciousness of lowest mood and speedy return, claimed
him wholly, no longer with a sort of deferent invitation, but with
proffer of sympathy, nay, even of pity and patronage. It was a
dreadful time for Tom Duncombe.
He shrank from his parents. His father seemed so stern
and strange, his mother did nothing but bewail him to his very face.
He shrank from his younger brothers he saw they shrank from him.
He would not enter Godfrey Mallock's house. The poor fellow
had a sort of half-blind consciousness that all this would not have
happened if Steenie and he had never gone to the Derby and the
theatres with Godfrey, in his fashionable sham-decorous style, and
had, therefore, a desperate defiant sense that he would not submit
to Godfrey's respectable censure and condemnation. As for
Jane, whenever she saw him, she did not spare him. "They
should have remembered they were gentlemen. They should have
known where to stop. She was not proud to remember they were
her brothers. Tom must not be astonished to find himself shut
out of society. Without being puritanic, people could not
tolerate a man who was mixed up in a public scandal."
Tom took it all very meekly from her, only when she was gone
he said to his brother James, who had overheard her, "It isn't the
doing a thing, but the being found out, that matters with Jane.
Don't you go on that principle, my boy. It's fearing man, and
daring God, and that seems to me to be courage turned upside down."
Tom wandered in and wandered out, and sauntered about.
His soul was too sad and galled to return at once to the old
dissipations. His heart was empty. The unclean spirit
had gone out for a while. Should it return it would be with
the old, old story of the companying spirits more wicked than
itself, and then the hopeless end.
Tom took after his mother. He was ready to follow, had
only too fatally followed the course that had presented itself as
easiest. He had a large, soft heart, poor fellow and from the
time that he had helped Steenie and Godfrey Mallock to rob a nest in
the great elm at Heath Castle, and then had sincerely but vainly
tried to keep the fledglings alive, he had always followed his more
daring brother into evil, and then remained behind to humble himself
under condemnation, always heartily endorsed by himself. Tom
had never been a favourite with the Mallocks. Mr. Mallock said
he had "the natural stamp of a ne'er-do-well, and that if he were
Duncombe he would have put him into the navy long ago."
It was Sunday morning, in just that same dawn of summer in
which, sixteen years before, Harry Duncombe went to chapel and did
not hear the sermon that was preached by the good minister who had
been dead so long. And now this fair Sabbath morning, "poor
Mr. Duncombe" would go to his great pew in the fashionable church.
It would be for the first time since his household calamity; his two
youngest sons might possibly go with him, but not his wife Margaret.
She was far too broken down. Nor his son Tom, though he might
be lounging idly in the dining-room, as the others took up their
books and went. Tom never went. Nobody expected him to
go. It was useless hoping that he would. The father
might see Jane and her husband in their own pew. They were
punctual at morning service, however they might give dinner-parties,
and "a little sacred music," in the evening.
Somehow, as he sat in church this morning, that other morning
rose vividly before poor Mr. Duncombe. Was it the sunshine or
the breeze that brought it back? He even saw his wife's poor
darned glove, and the blotty type of Jane's old Bible, as she handed
it to him that he might read
"He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their
Poor Mr. Duncombe! He almost groaned as he sat.
Oh, if he had but known when he was really rich! If only he
had not thrown away gold that he might gather oyster-shells!
Oh, if he had only prayed to God not to let "the cares of this
world" urge him towards "the deceitfulness of riches," till all the
precious seed of Heaven's sowing was trampled dead beneath his eager
And now it was surely too late. Yes; too late, he said
to himself. And let his thoughts career on in unrefined
despair, till they were suddenly arrested by the closing words of
"Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the
Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and
of great kindness, and repenteth Him of the evil. Who knoweth
if He will return and repent and leave a blessing behind Him?"
The words answered his heart like a voice direct from heaven.
They were God's words God's words for him just as much as the
exhortation, "Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What
shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For your
heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things."
If he had repented of disregarding that, should he disregard this?
Heedless of the departing congregation, the poor successful merchant
knelt down in his pew, and once more he felt there was verily a
Father God who listened while his soul cried out―
"Lord, Thou halt rent my heart for me. Thou only canst
turn it to Thyself. Thou art gracious and merciful. Thou
art slow to anger, else I should be utterly consumed. Lord,
Thou knowest if Thou wilt return and pardon and leave a blessing
behind Thee. O Lord, I have led my children from Thee. I
cannot lead them back. O Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner."
And he rose from his knees with a strange light on his worn
grey face. How does a man look when, after sixteen years'
wandering in the wilderness, he once more comes in sight of his
father's mansion? And yet, as he turned from the Mount of the
Lord and went once more towards the moil and soil of the world, the
old spirit that had doubted "Jehovah Jireh" could scarcely keep from
asking "Whence can help come now?"
"Is the Lord's arm shortened, that it cannot save?" He
has known, from the beginning of the world, every prayer that shall
reach Him, and He has known how He will answer each. The river
where the wounded deer shall slake his thirst to-day was started
from its spring six thousand years ago. The clock strikes at
the hour, but it was wound up long before. Say not, therefore,
"What need of prayer?" Say rather, "Lord, teach us how to
It was a dull affair, the family dinner. The roast
partridges and the almond puddings, the strawberries and the choice
wine could not enliven it. Tom was not present. The
servant reported that "he had gone out directly after Mr. Duncombe
and the young gentlemen." They knew they need not expect his
return till late at night. The boys tried to talk a little
between themselves. The mother was tearful with the sense of
the empty places at her household board. Mr. Duncombe himself
was sad and silent enough. He had been up to the Mount of the
Lord; but now he had returned to the camp, and, oh! he knew that the
golden calf which had wrought such havoc there was of his own
And what had become of Tom? Well, he had sauntered out
with a vague design of lounging on the heath. He chose the
narrower by-paths, at once to avoid the pharisees who would thank
God they were not as he was, and the publicans who would hail him as
He turned down a narrow lane of neat little cottages, with
wooden-paled gardens, rejoicing in peonies and hawthorn bushes.
He half remembered the place; he must have known somebody there a
long time ago. Surely there was also something familiar in the
trim little elderly figure which came out of one of the houses and
stepped towards him. But Tom Duncombe had not kept his mind in
that active state which must give name to every shadow that passes
over the mirror of memory. He would have thought no more of
the vague recollection had not that slight figure as it passed him
suddenly paused and turned back to inquire
"Is not this Mr. Tom Duncombe?"
He looked down at her. Yes. The hair was silvery
now, but the fashion of the bonnet was little altered, and the kind
blue eyes were the same as ever. It was his old friend of bun
and sweetmeat memory, kind-hearted, long-forgotten Miss Griffin.
"Are you going anywhere very particular?" she asked. It
was the same cheery tone that had once held out tempting choice
between Coliseums and waxworks, and it carried him back to the free,
innocent old days. "Because if you are not, there's to be such
a good minister preach at our chapel to-day. I wish you would
come with me, for I'm expecting a real treat. Do come."
And before he knew what he was doing, Tom Duncombe consented.
It was the old chapel of his childhood. It thrilled him
with tender touching associations. The same old service.
The same old style of singing. Oh, if Steenie were only here
once more sitting by his side, and all of it had never happened!
A critic would have said that the sermon was rough and queer,
disconnected in thought and incoherent in expression. It was
the voice of one whose heart overflowed his power of expression.
The preacher had been a wild, bad man once: he had done evil as he
could. Now he wanted to save sinners.
It was not such a sermon as Tom's father had needed sixteen
years before. It was not a sermon to probe the shell of
self-righteousness, nor yet was it meet for the building up and
perfecting of a true saint. The work of God's spiritual world
is as diverse as the work of physical creation, and calls for as
many kinds of instruments. If there were but the sculptor's
burin, and the dainty lawn-mower, what would break up the granite
boulders, or hew down the forest? The rough tools in the
mason's basket may be out of place in the shrines of a fine-art
gallery, but how shall the edifice be reared without them?
Before the sweet sermon on the Mount came the voice of one crying in
The text was taken from the story of the Prodigal Son; and
the preacher handled his subject strongly. He had lived out
the parable himself, and coming from the husks and the exile, he
gave new touches to the old, old picture. Poor Tom Duncombe,
still among the swine, with the very husks failing, felt a hand
suddenly laid on his soul.
It was the first time for many a day that he had been in a
place of worship; and this was one hallowed with the associations of
innocent childhood tender with memories of the lost brother and
the changed home. They seemed all in the sermon. It
might not have been heeded without them; without it, they would have
ended in a useless pang and a desperate throe for forgetfulness.
The harvest depends chiefly on the soil and the seed. Let the
sowers be humble. For without fitness of these they can do
nothing, and with it, a mere bird of the air may do as well as they.
Miss Griffin had expected another kind of discourse, and her
first impulse was to feel a little disappointed. But one
glance at the face beside her silenced even her kindly criticism.
How can one say a slighting word of the roughest rope that has saved
a drowning man?
She invited Tom to dine with her, and he went. She was
a kindly, honest little woman, and her heart yearned towards the
poor prodigal that she had known a happy, bright-faced child.
She was not a woman to dare to think of aiding a conversion was
far too humble to hope that she might drive one nail into the ark of
a soul's salvation. But she wanted to be good to him let him
feel that everybody had not turned against him, and that there were
some who had faith in him yet.
He sat down in the humble little room to the homely cold
dinner. There is no such self-revelation as anything which
throws us back on the past. By the places and ways that have
never changed, we best see the changes in ourselves.
Miss Griffin asked "a blessing," and then went on chatting in
her simple, cheerful way. Asking after Jane and her baby.
Talking of old neighbours who had died or gone away. Bringing
to mind all the quaint details of the old childish excursion days.
Tom answered and talked as best he might, until she lighted on an
anecdote of a time when she had taken him to stay with her for a
while, a little mite of six or seven (in truth, it was when his
youngest brother was born).
"You were such a little mischief!" she said; "my old cat did
not know children, and could not understand you at all. I
remember he climbed the kitchen cupboard to get away from you, and
you tried to follow him and fell and hurt your knee. It was a
bad fall and frightened me, but you boys are so determined to be
brave that you did not make much fuss. Only when you were
going to bed you found you could not kneel to say your prayers, and
I told you to say them standing. Poor little dear! you were
afraid that might not please God, and that He would not listen to
Tom looked up at her frank, kind face with his sad, weary
"I would give all I have or shall ever have, if I could be
that child again," he said, and buried his face in his hands.
Miss Griffin was frightened. Her life had but limited
experiences of this kind of thing.
"Dear, dear, I didn't think it would touch you so," she
pleaded nervously. "I'm so thoughtless, Tom; forgive me.
As for wishing one was a child again, I've felt it myself. But
there's better before us than there can be behind us, dear.
We're always children in our relation to God. He's always our
Father. That's the comfort of it."
"Yes, for you good people," said Tom, faintly.
"There's none good except God," returned the little woman.
"There's small reason for we sinners to draw distinctions between
ourselves. The moment we set ourselves up among the just we
lose our Saviour, for He came 'not to call the righteous but sinners
to repentance.'" "Dear me," she thought to herself, "I wish I
had not got to talk about these things, for I'm a weak creature, and
sure to be making blunders."
And she was very glad when Tom suddenly raised his face, and
with a great effort resumed something like his usual look and
manner, and asked her if she ever played hymns now, and persuaded
her to go to the piano and sing her old favourite, "Rock of Ages."
And then they looked through some of her religious books and
periodicals, and compared the physiognomy of missionary This who,
Miss Griffin thought, must look like the loved Apostle John, and who
had so won the hearts of his people, that a chief who had once been
a cannibal had walked two hundred miles to look upon his agθd face
in death with the countenance of missionary That, who had so set
his face against certain bloody and barbarous heathen rites, that
they had utterly disappeared from the district where he had worked,
though he himself had fallen a victim to the treachery of savage
enmity. It was all simple talk, mere chit-chat some people
might call it. But it was utter change of air to Tom's soul.
And change of air cures more effectually than sharp surgery or
They had tea together, and Tom accompanied her to chapel for
her evening service, but left her at the door and went home.
The great house in Belsize Park was very quiet. The
boys were out. Poor Mrs. Duncombe lay in her bedroom in dreamy
lamentation. The servants told Tom that "master was in the
Tom found him there, poring over the great old Bible, the
shabby old family Bible with pictures, which he had not seen opened
for many a day.
The father glanced at his son, and hastily turned again to
his page, secretly groaning under his terrible dumbness.
"Lord, Lord, would that I could speak! O speak for me,
Father of forgoing mercies."
Tom sat down gently in a chair nearly opposite, and for a
while there was silence.
"Father," said Tom softly at last, "I met Miss Griffin this
Mr. Duncombe yearned towards a something he heard in his
son's voice. He wanted to be encouraging, sympathetic,
fatherly. But nothing came save a constrained "Indeed."
"And I went to the chapel with her. I have stayed with
her till now. She is a good woman, father. Father, the
sermon was about the prodigal son."
Tom faltered, and looking up met his father's eyes, and
understood them. Oh, could any one misunderstand the eyes of a
dumb man, agonizing to cry out a welcome to one who was lost and is
"Father, I have given you a great deal of trouble and sorrow.
Will you forgive me, and help me to begin to try again?"
The father stretched out his hand silently.
"I would not ask for your pardon before I've had time to show
repentance," said poor Tom; "but I think, to know that I've told you
to expect me to be different, will help me to be so. Try to
hope for me, father."
"Tom, come round here," said Mr. Duncombe huskily, and while
Tom obeyed, his trembling old hands turned back the Bible to its
first leaf. "Look there, my boy."
And there was the faded writing, in a young man's plain, firm
"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
"It's all my fault, Tom," said the old man. "I wrote
mammon over that in my heart;" and his grey head dropped on the
yellow page as he moaned, "O Steenie, my son, would to God I had
died for thee, my son, my son!"
"It was for our sakes you did it, father," pleaded Tom.
"You'd never have been tempted but for us. I'm sure it was not
for your own happiness. Father, how can yon expect me to take
heart to begin again, unless you will yourself?"
Long and long the father and son sat closeted together.
The boys came home, and the servants got the supper tray ready, and
yet the bell did not ring. And when it did, Mr. Duncombe's
order was simply this―
"Call Mrs. Duncombe, and let everybody else in this house
Poor despised Tom, poor torn black sheep, had been the first
to find the way back to the fold, by the humble turning of
repentance and humiliation. And straight and narrow as that
path might be, there was nevertheless an awful grandeur about it.
Not even the little light-minded idle foot-boy felt inclined to
titter as Tom's fine voice tremblingly started the good old hymn he
had heard once before that day; and the shortness of Mr. Duncombe's
prayer but added to its force.
"Father, we have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and
we are no more worthy to be called Thy sons. Take our hearts,
for we cannot give them to Thee; keep them, for we cannot keep them
for Thee. Lord, teach us how to pray; teach us how to rebuild
our fallen household altar. O Lord, we have done evil as we
could; we come to Thee to undo it. Lord, for the sake of the life
and death of our Lord, we ask it. Amen."
How did it end?
The Duncombes still live in the great house in Belsize Park.
The father and mother cling to it as the old nest whence their boy
was blown out into the cruel world. Their old acquaintances
pronounce them "to be almost gone out of society." But though
Mrs. Duncombe never went to another party at the Heath Castle, she
spent many a day there last winter, when Mrs. Mallock had a
paralytic stroke. Mrs. Duncombe is stronger now than she has
been for years, and works almost as hard in other homes as she once
did in her own. Young Mrs. Mallock is very angry, and tells
her husband that "since Steenie's disgrace mamma has lost all proper
pride, and seems to take delight in visiting all sorts of shabby
people, and behaving just as if she was grandmother to them all.
It all comes of renewing friendship with that Miss Griffin.
Fancy taking out such a fright in the carriage! and yet mamma will
Mr. Duncombe has ceased to mix much in active life, but if
anybody wants help in an unostentatious act of mercy, they know to
apply to Mr. Duncombe. He cannot find his own Steenie, but he
helps every such poor prodigal that he comes across to another
chance for this world and the next, silently praying, "God send
somebody to do as much for Steenie." And he understands that,
after all, prayer is all that one can do of oneself, for he can do
no more for Jane, who he sees constantly, and who, in her hardness,
and worldliness, and vanity, he feels to be as far away as the lost
And so he goes down to the grave quietly thankful to God
who has given him to see so much salvage from the home wrecked by
his pride and impatience; for the two youngest lads are doing well
in the sight of God and man, and poor, humble, docile Tom, having
once found his Heavenly Leader, has never turned aside from
following Him. The soft, easily-persuaded heart is softest and
easiest persuaded by its Saviour. He has passed through dark
days hard days days when, on the one hand, he must confront
contempt, ridicule, anger, and, on the other, doubt, suspicion,
coldness. But he conquered all, and bears his victory so
meekly that he scarcely needs the warning which he constantly
repeats to himself
"Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall."