The Dead Sin & other stories II.

Home Up Recollections A Retired Life The Secret Drawer By Still Waters Doing and Dreaming Family Fortunes At Any Cost Rab Bethune's Double Short Stories, etc. Poems Miscellanea Main Index Site Search
 


 

[Previous Page]


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 corduroys.

    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 seated.

    "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 young days."

    "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 upon it.

    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, aged forty-eight."

    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 last year:


To the memory of
BARBARA HERON,
Aged 47,

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 sinner!

    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 Four Swans.


――――♦――――

 
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 rice-pudding.

    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 afternoon."

    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 oblivion.

    "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 doubtfully.

    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 acquaintance."

    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 plants.

    "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, did he?"

    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 old-fashioned sort."

    "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 removed.

    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 years.

    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 hopeless tangle.

    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 known it?

    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 pottage.

    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 soul."

    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 feet!

    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 the sermon—

    "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 pray."

                   *                       *                       *                       *                       *

    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 making!

    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 fellow.

    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 wilderness.

    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 you."

    Tom looked up at her frank, kind face with his sad, weary eyes.

    "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 bitter potion.

    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 library."

    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 morning."

    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 found?

    "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 hand.

    "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 come here."

    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 do it."

    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 son.

    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."


――――♦――――

[The Old Mirror]

 


 

 [Home] [Up] [Recollections] [A Retired Life] [The Secret Drawer] [By Still Waters] [Doing and Dreaming] [Family Fortunes] [At Any Cost] [Rab Bethune's Double] [Short Stories, etc.] [Poems] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

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