Isabella Mayo: 'Doing and Dreaming' (3).

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CHAPTER VII.

Taking Counsel.


OF course, the little household at Number Two had their weaker, wearier moments, when the hardship of the hour bore heavily upon them; when Regret looked back, and Fear looked forward.  Mrs. Withers might be tearful sometimes, and Charlotte might speak rather sharply and sternly; Lucy might be a little fitful, and even Hugh become silent.  But they each understood the other, and when Mrs. Withers heard the hard ring in Charlotte's voice, she knew it was but sympathy growing into anguish, and hastened to hide her tears; and when Lucy said a disheartened word, Hugh would rouse himself to a joke.

    Alas, it was not so harmonious at Number One.  The crisis in Will Ramsay's life had come: that crisis when it is decided whether a boy shall fully live out the special life God has given him, safe and happy in the love and confidence of his kindred, or whether he shall fight it out desperately—what might have been his stronghold turning into a hostile camp, because his foes are those of his own household.

    Poor Mrs. Torpichen!  Over and over she lamented that there was no man set in authority above her grandson!  She thought she did her best, because she scarcely ever opened her mouth, without letting fall some expression intended to have weight with Will.  Every sermon she heard, every book she read, every memory she awakened, seemed to her to bring forth new and old arguments on her side of the subject.  Were not doctors, lawyers, and clergymen, the great exponents of the highest relations of man with man—healing, helping, and constructing?  Were not the army and the navy grand buttresses of the nation?  As for the civil service (to which grandmamma secretly inclined, as being least exposed to infection or danger) was not it that administration of affairs without which nothing else could go on?  As for engineering, which Will talked of, it was a comparatively new employment, and nobody knew what sort of people would mostly take it up; for her own part, she remembered there was a text in the Bible, "Meddle not with those who are given to change."  As for the backwoods which Will muttered about sometimes, who went there but prodigals and scapegraces?  Her son Tom, who had gone abroad, had not been the brightest of the family, and his travels had certainly not improved him, or he would not have left off writing to his mother;—but there! if her heart was to be broken, the will of God be done!" and Mrs. Torpichen's handkerchief would go up to her eyes.

    Poor dear lady!  She was making herself very miserable, and quite forgot—as we are all apt to do—that misery is a very infectious disease, and that its symptoms may be more dangerous at eighteen than at sixty-eight.

    Will Ramsay could no more change the true bent of his mind than the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots.  He could not even be made to feel that his own inclinations were wrong.  But he could easily be convinced that other people thought so.  He felt that he was making Mrs. Torpichen unhappy.  He could scarcely enter into any conversation without either submitting to be talked at, or causing a quarrel.  He began to feel that though he could not be other than he was, it was still possible that he might really be one of those prodigals and scapegraces in whose ranks his grandmother seemed always ready to put him.

    He began to wonder whether some of these prodigals and scapegraces were as helplessly unconscious of real shortcoming as he was himself.  He began to feel a secret sympathy with all black sheep.

    There was no joy in his home life now.  If his grandmother was kind to him, the first sign of docility on his part caused the poor lady to eagerly press forward her old object, and so to repel him with a bitter sense of his own undutifulness and ingratitude.  He never sought Elizabeth's sympathy; and Mrs. Torpichen did, and therefore gained it.  Perhaps also, sympathy with her grandmother cost Elizabeth less than would sympathy with her brother.  The one would have involved long walks, sittings in the cold laboratory, interest in words and ways of thought foreign to her own.  The other only meant a dreamy assent delivered interjectionally in the course of her fireside romance-reading, or at most a feverish scratching up of emotion by a little sentimental talk.  Her relations to Will in the present seemed to her but a bore, a commonplace trifle, but already a vision was beginning to rise of Will in the future, a prodigal returning to her prayers and her guardian-angelship.  She rejected the one shy feeler for her fellowship which Will ever extended—a proposal to go for a long walk—and then went off to her room and prayed for him with many rounded phrases.

    Will began to made acquaintances with whom he had nothing in common but a feeling of outlawry.  They were no more willing or able to talk on his favourite subjects than Mrs. Torpichen herself.  They were simply out of tune with their homes as he was with his; and, to tell the truth, poor Will felt a sharp pang to find himself, as he phrased it, "in the same box" with such people.  "But it may not be their faults," he argued.  "I suppose I shall soon be as bad as they are!"

    Will began to stay out late of an evening; there was nothing to win him home.  He began to smoke.  He began to go to sundry entertainments which he could not even mention at Number One.  It was all very dreary.  He did not enjoy any of it.  He used to sit in the music-halls and think of that evening's talk with Charlotte in the laboratory, and of her singing afterward.  It was such an honest, wholesome kind of pleasure which he really wanted, and yet he was turning to such sad husks, in his hunger and recklessness.

    Except from the windows, he had not seen anything of the Witherses for some time.  Charlotte had been working very hard, and her absorption in Hugh had naturally made her pleasant evening with him seem a dim and distant memory.  She intended to give the Ramsays a return invitation some day, and was scarcely aware that weeks after weeks were slipping by.

    Will absolutely tried to lie in wait for Hugh Withers.  "If he be anything like his sisters," thought poor Will, "he would be a friend worth having, and he might invite me in sometimes of an evening."  Will might easily have called on the Witherses himself: but whatever he did was snubbed now-a-days, and he hated to hear them included in the snubbing.  One can very easily be made shy of giving one's self innocent pleasures.  It absolutely took far less courage to go straight "to the dogs"—to places and people that Will felt quite deserved Mrs. Torpichen's severest speeches.

    But Hugh Withers was not to be caught just then.  Will sauntered about at such hours as he had been accustomed to go to and from his office, and little dreamed that Hugh had finished Office work forever.  Once or twice he saw the brother and sister in the distance, returning from their evening walks; but then, with some strange perversity, he always kept out of their way.

    It was one of those sweet days which spring sends into winter to herald her coming, when at last he met Charlotte, returning home in the tender gloaming.

    "I have been hoping to invite your sister and you to spend an evening with us," she said, after the first greetings were over, "but I have found it rather hard to get an evening when we are all disengaged."

    "I have been almost coming, without an invitation," said Will.  Will could speak easily to Charlotte Withers, because he could say just what he meant.  When he was natural, he was polished.  The "blunt cubbishness," which Mrs. Torpichen constantly deplored, was the effect of constraint.

    "I wish you would," Charlotte answered laughing, "because then it would not be inhospitable to leave you to the tender mercies of which of us happened to be free!  But I really wish you would come in that way," she added, seriously.  "It would be so kind to Hugh.  Hugh is going blind."

    Her quiet voice, with something which he could hear in it, sent a thrill through Will.  Going blind! a lad no older than himself.  And all the while he so restless and dissatisfied.

    "I can come in this evening, if you will let me," he said impulsively, and so Charlotte opened the door, and invited him into the little passage with its faded floor-cloth and spindle-legged chair.  But just as they entered, she paused.

    "Hark!" she said.

    A strain of sweet melody floated down the house.  It started Will with its strange unearthly beauty; he almost felt as if only his soul heard it, and as if it was going to tell his soul some secrets of itself.

    "It is my brother playing," said Charlotte softly.

    "Did he always play so?" Will whispered.

    "No," she said; "he always dearly loved music, but it is only since his loss began that music has come to him."

    She knew it was so.  When first Hugh resumed his darling violin, even amid the awkwardness of unused touch and half-forgotten technicalities, she heard at once that the secret was opened to him—that secret for which a price has always been paid, though alas! there are those who pay the price and do not win the treasure.  But they all will, some day.  We all shall.  The geniuses of earth are, merely those on whom a ray of Heaven's common light has fallen.  We shall all walk in it some day.  Let us reverence our humanity, and from its heights guess what is before ourselves.

    "He is studying music now," Charlotte went on, steadily; "he means to make it his profession."

    "Miss Withers," Will broke out, "I can't go and talk to him.  I couldn't bear myself, I should be so ashamed.  You don't know what a lazy coward I am."

    Charlotte smiled brightly into his face.

    "You must not say that," she said, because you must remember God has sent our Hugh a very heavy burden, and therefore proportionate strength to bear it."

    "I believe I'm not worth having troubles sent to me to stir me up," said Will.

    "I have not the least doubt you have your full share," she answered; "some of the worst troubles show least."

    "I haven't a right to be in the world at all," said Will, desperately.  "I do nothing.  I am nothing."

    "Be something, then," she said.  She felt Will was in dreadful earnest, but that a half-mirthful manner was least likely to drive him back within himself.

    "It is very easy talking!" cried poor Will.

    "Come in here, then, and let us have a talk," she said, leading the way into a tiny side parlour.

    Will dropped into a chair in the slouching style which had come over him lately.

    "I don't know what I ought to do, and there's nobody to advise me!" he said.

    "I don't suppose I can be of any use," said Charlotte, still keeping the banter in her voice.

    "I suppose not," answered Will, with a rueful smile as the ludicrousness of the situation opened on his mind; "for my grandmother says that I want a man set over me to keep me in order."

    Charlotte laughed outright now, and Will joined her.  But she drew up a chair and sat down beside him.

    "Why, what is the matter, really?" she asked, cheerfully.

    "I can't take to office-work at all," he said; "and I've never cared to study anything except mechanics and chemistry.  I want to be an engineer, and I'd like to go abroad."

    "And that grieves Mrs. Torpichen, I suppose?" said Charlotte.

    "Yes, that's it," he answered simply.  "We have connections that could get me into the War Office or Somerset House; but what is the good of a fellow starting good in a way of life where he knows he will go wrong?  I hate being cribbed up, and having the same sort of work to do, day after day, and year after year.  I think I'd take to drinking, and I'd be ready to choke the clerk that sat next me, just to make a change!  I'd like best to go abroad and rough it.  I'd not be last in any place where he is the foremost man who can turn his hand to most things.  But grandmother says that is selfish, and that it is my bounden duty to stay with her and Elizabeth, as I'm the only grandson and brother they have.  And I can see there is something in that, and it does seem hard, or I'd have run away long ago, and taken my chance

    Charlotte looked at him thoughtfully.  He had grown much older in those last few weeks.  He looked less happy and less energetic.  His under lip hung a little loose, he spoke with a kind of careless recklessness.  She knew something of the dangers of this easy, kindly nature, apt to be smothered by duties imposed by those who deny it its rights, and to be utterly crushed beneath a load of blame and misery which it is far too simple and lowly-minded not to take wholly upon itself.

    "It will be, as you say, very hard for Mrs. Torpichen and your sister to part from you," she said, quietly; "but then will it not be even harder, if you stay with them and do not prove yourself all you might become elsewhere—if indeed, you are absolutely not quite a credit to them?"

    She felt that the loyalty of his nature was such that it could only assert its own rights in a dutiful light—only claim what it must have, by understanding that to be really unjust to ourselves can never be kind to anybody else.

    "What do you yourself think you ought to do?" she asked, very gently.

    "I don't know," he answered, pitifully.  "It seems hard that there is nobody to whom I can speak about it who can possibly advise me."

    There was a pause.  Without at all noticing the frankness with which he set her aside as an adviser, Charlotte was casting a swift mind's eye over his position.  She scarcely noticed it of herself.  It was quite natural to her.  The one hindrance to the full power of such clear, simple natures as hers is, that they are sometimes silent when they ought to speak, because they cannot believe that the idea that comes to them can possibly have failed to reach another mind.

    The pause lasted three or four minutes.  Charlotte's heart was uplifted by that strong yearning to help and comfort which is the swiftest and surest prayer.

    "Mrs. Torpichen thinks you ought to have some masculine advice?" she said, quietly.

    "Yes, she is always saying she must write to my Scotch uncles about me," answered poor Will.

    "I think you had better ask her to do so," said Charlotte.  "They will be better able than she is to consider the matter in your light, and it will be far easier and happier for her to accept their decision,—because she will rely on their judgment—than to come to one herself.  I can understand her anxiety at having your fate so wholly in her own hands," added Charlotte.

    "It's not a bad idea!" cried Will, jumping up with boyish ardour.  "It's jolly!  It's a wonder I never thought of it before.  I'll go home and tell poor granny this instant."

    "No you won't," said Charlotte, smiling; "you will go and sit awhile with my brother, and he shall play to you.  You must excuse Lucy and me because we are busy."

    "What a bother that women like these have to be busy at commonplace work," thought Will, as he followed her to her brother's room.  "But who knows whether the commonplace work may not have something to do with making them what they are.  A drop of essence may be stronger than a whole bottle of dilution."

    Will stayed with Hugh two or three hours, and in the intervals of the music they talked.  Mrs. Torpichen would have been surprised if she had heard her grandson, and had seen the tender chivalry with which he helped and watched his fast-darkening companion.  It would surely have destroyed her doubts of poor Will's gentle-manhood.  But then, when Charlotte herself brought in the little supper-tray, and served the homely bread and cheese, Mrs. Torpichen would probably have thought it a very curious phenomenon that Will should happen to reserve his most attractive manner for people like this; and if she had made that observation then, Will would have been only more than ever blunt and gauche when the solicitor's wife called at Denver Corner, and would have instituted all sorts of invidious comparisons between that poor lady and Charlotte Withers, really unjust to the former, seeing she had not herself provoked them.

    "Well," thought Will, as he hastily crossed the little court to his grandmother's house, "it would be an awful thing if I turned out such a bad fellow that I couldn't go near people like that.  I don't believe they'd shut anybody out, but I might easily find that it was too awful to go in."


 
CHAPTER VIII.

Will's Freedom.


MRS. TORPICHEN was terribly startled when her grandson volunteered the request that she would write to his Scotch relatives and take their advice as to his future career.  It is bitter indeed when one's own words turn round on one.  It is like meeting one's own ghost.  One feels that one's house is divided against itself, and cannot stand.  The poor old lady shed a few tears, at first she said that of course his uncles would agree with her, and then she said that it could not be expected their advice would be as considerate and affectionate as her own.  But Will still urged her to write, calling her by the old style of "grannie" which he had quite dropped of late.  And Mrs. Torpichen wrote.  There were one or two curious blisters on her dainty perfumed note-paper, and when the Scotch aunt saw them, she said, "She's been sprinkling her scent on the letter.  She was aye a fule body, and it gaes past my comprehension what the captain saw in her dochter, wha keened na word o' ony catechism but the cauld kail they starve pair bairns on i' the Erastian Kirk o' England."

    The two Scotch uncles met in consultation.  The one was a retired captain of a Dundee whaler; the other was a dominie, with sons in the Canadian timber trade.  The Scotch aunt sorely wondered "what garred sic a fine lady as Madam Torpichen to ask their opinion: but aiblins she finds the Ramsay bluid ower muckle for her, and maybe she's sair misguided it, and 's fain to share the scaith wi' those who dinna share her blame."  The dominie said that doubtless if Elspeth's premise was correct, and the young man was not exactly an exemplary member of society, there was much truth in her inference as to Mrs. Torpichen's motives in seeking counsel.  Still she had a moral right to that counsel, which a wiser woman would have sought before—and when the others had given their opinion, he would be most happy to give his.  Aunt Elspeth said she would advise her nephew to go as far away as ever he could: if he was a worthy man he would make a fortune the sooner, the wilder the settlement; and if he went to the dogs, they might never ken it, and at least he would not disgrace them.  The captain said he thought the lad had better get his wull—let him fight his ain battle; he'd had to do so himself; he wasna ane for makin things ower easy for young folk.  And then the dominie added that doubtless their nephew had inherited some of his father's adventurous traits, and that they had their place in the world's work, since everybody was not privileged to have gifts in the preaching of the Word, or the education of the young, but were nevertheless not to be despised.  With the leave of his brother and sister, he would indite an epistle to Mrs. Torpichen, which should embody their united sentiments, and he would also give her the address of a gentleman in London, who being on that spot now, and who having been on almost every habitable spot on the globe, would be well qualified to give much minute information, and to settle the young lad's varying inclinations.

    That letter from the North came in on a day full of sunshiny showers.  Will's heart beat fast when he saw it, and he fancied the doom had gone forth against him.  Mrs. Torpichen knew better.  She had been prepared for defeat from the moment her grandson had asked her to communicate with his Scotch relatives.  She glanced at the paper, and simply saying, "You are to go, Willie," she covered her face with her hand, and Will saw a tear trickle between her fingers.  Such thin, frail fingers!  Will remembered her lullabies, and her fairy tales, and her Christmas stockings.  He went up to her, tried to take her hands, and he said, "Grannie, if you say the word, I won't go."  She felt a great sob thrill through him.  And she put her arms about him and drew him down and kissed him, and said, "But I won't say it, Willie.  It is God's will, and it is best, my darling."

    And the kind old heart was comforted and the hot young heart was soothed.  And there was a great peace.

    Of course, Will called in at Number Two, at the earliest opportunity, and told the Witherses that he expected he should be going away, somewhere, very soon now.  And Charlotte and Lucy were a little silent over their work that afternoon.  And Lucy said at last:

    "As soon as anything pleasant comes, it seems to go, Lottie.  I wonder why we should have grown to like best the one who is going away.  It seems as if it made it all no use, Lottie."

    And Charlotte paused in her writing, and gazed straight before her, with eyes that ceased to be conscious of the narrow walls of Denver Corner.

    "Parting is not losing, Lucy," she said.  Those we like best are nearest to us wherever they be.  There are no such things as time or space to the eternal soul."

    But the words sounded over poor Lucy's head, and she thought of the pleasant evenings she had planned, and the cheerful neighbourliness to which she had looked forward.  And there was a pain in the girl's heart.  And the pathos of that pain was in Charlotte's also, but then Charlotte had learned that pathos is to life what dew is to flowers, its charm and its refreshment.

    It was presently decided that Will should go, in the first instance, to Upper Canada, and then work his way on to the West.  The gentleman to whom his Scotch uncles had introduced him, made him acquainted with two young men who were going there, the one a practical farmer and the other a practical engineer, with little money indeed, but rich in the kind of knowledge and the ready will which make the best capital to start with in a new country.  Will's chemistry and mechanics would both stand him in good stead, and he would be exposed to none of those dangers of half-idleness and utter aimlessness, which diluted many a strong young life at its first out pouring.

    Two or three more visits had been exchanged between the women of the two houses before this definite decision was made.  Poor Mrs. Torpichen began to find a real comfort in Charlotte Withers.  Charlotte had been in America, and that seemed to draw the country of her grandson's choice nearer home.  Charlotte was qualified to deliver responsible opinions as the outfit necessary and desirable.  She actually went with Mrs. Torpichen on a shopping expedition.  She had all sorts of dexterous "tips" as to the way to make things comfortable and serviceable for a long time.  It was she who wrote "W. Ramsay" over and over again down a long piece of tape, that Will might never be without a label to affix to any little personal property he might acquire when there was nobody to make it for him.  It was she who threaded those twenty needles in the "bachelor's housewife," which she made herself.  It was she who thought of stocking Will's little writing-case with thin foreign paper and envelopes.  And yet she did it all so that none, not Will himself, noticed that the suggestions came from her.

    Elizabeth Ramsay, of course, joined in all the work and all the consultations.  But she was slow and inefficient with her needle.  And she did not know anything about the condition and requirements of Canada, her sole knowledge of it being derived from the histories of the good French nuns who had known all about the wants of their time, and in courage and wisdom had gone forth among the Indian savages and their own rough pioneer countrymen.  She did not like Will's two future companions; she said "they were uninteresting; especially the engineer, who had already been in Montreal, and yet knew nothing about a Dame Marguerite who had lived in the old fortress."  She forgot that when the young man had inquired whether she meant the old fortress that was built before the earthquake she herself did not know there had ever been an earthquake in Canada, and indeed was inclined to flatly deny that any such occurrence was possible in so cold a climate.

    There came a time, just at the very last, when Will walked into the parlour, where all the ladies were sitting sewing, and said that he was going down toward the docks about some business in that neighbourhood and asked if anybody was inclined to take the walk with him.  He had a lurking wish that Charlotte would respond, and he was not disappointed.  Mrs. Torpichen thought that her grandson was rather inconsiderate in his request, and on Charlotte's behalf raised a mild remonstrance that the way was unpleasant and the hour rather late.  But Charlotte said she knew the place, and liked it best in the dusk, when the narrow streets between the high, grim walls were so deserted and still, that if the scene lay in Venice, she thought every one would see a solemn beauty in it.  Upon which Elizabeth remarked that it could never possess the tragic interest of Venice, and Charlotte rejoined that doubtless every emigrant ship was laden with a greater number of tragic and pathetic stories than have survived for us in Venetian history.

    The two started off together, and had walked some little distance before Will offered Charlotte his arm.  It was the first time the boy had ever offered his arm to any woman but his grandmother, and it was the first time Charlotte had accepted any arm since that had been withdrawn which she had once trusted as the guard and stay of her future life.  She remembered that, and looked back upon her old girlish self, full of spontaneous joy and bright with unconscious hope, as she might recall the image of another person.  But she took to herself the strengthening thought, that as long as life lasted, new duties would come, and so it would be always endurable.

    Before they reached Wapping it was quite dark, and at Hermitage Wharf they had to wait while a ship passed out of dock into the river.  All seemed dreamlike—the lights in the windows of the houses on the wharf, the rustle of the night breeze among the trees, the low gurgle of the water.  And the ship was moving out, like a life going forth.  And the lamps might go on burning, and the leaves budding and the water sobbing, when that ship might lie broken and stranded on some rock in mid-ocean, never to come back any more.

    "I shall be going out just like that, very soon," said Will, quietly, when the ship was through and they had resumed their walk.  "I wanted to go, awfully, but I see there's a sadness in it, now."

    "But you want to go still," said Charlotte.  "And a happy going away is always sad.  It is only terrible to go away without a regret."

    "I know it is best to go," Will answered, "though now I almost think I could stay at home and make myself settle down to anything.  I don't mean to say I should be happy, but that it would not make me wicked.  When one has had one's will offered one, it makes one nearly able to give it up.  It is the feeling that one has not had one's chance that drives one mad."

    "It is the hardest thing to bear," Charlotte answered, "and is only to be borne in the faith that one chance is withdrawn that a better may be given."

    "You do not think grandmother will fret after me—you don't think my going away will really hurt her, do you?" asked poor, compunctious Will.

    "No," said Charlotte, bravely.  "She will miss you very much, of course, but then that is alleviated by hearing from you very regularly, and it is a natural trial.  The unnatural one would be if you did not prove exactly what you should.  That would hurt her terribly; that might kill her.  I think many people die of that disappointment."

    "I wish I could do something to please you all, and make you all proud of me," cried Will.

    "Just do right," said Charlotte warmly; "and if even shame comes in that way, see it but as the earthly shadow of heavenly fame.  Never mind praise, never mind false accusation, never mind what your duty is, heed only that you do it."

    "If we look at things in that light," said Will, "it makes everything worth doing well."

    "And if we do once see life in that light, and also act as if we did," said Charlotte, "I think that we need not fear lest no hard, heroic task will find its way to our hand."

    "But I seem to be only pleasing myself," said Will; "you can't think how that idea has vexed me since I have got my own way.  I shall go out to do the kind of work I like, and shall be free to have my own ways in all little things.  There will be nothing for me to do to please any of you—except of course in keeping straight and steady and then that is just serving my own real interests."

    "I can tell you what you can do," Charlotte answered, quickly; "you can always write home regularly.  You can put aside an experiment that those at home shan't miss their looked-for letter.  You can't tell what a kindness that means.  You can't tell how a day wastes, when the postman does not bring what we expected in the morning.  If we don't think of these things for ourselves, nobody can tell us about them.  We may get a hint that our silence caused a little apprehension, but nobody will say to us, "It made me sit in forlorn idleness day after day; it took all relish and nourishment from my food; it made me unable to enjoy the little pleasures that clustered about my life."  Do you know, Will, it is worth while to make an effort, and a sacrifice of convenience, just to post our home letters ourselves, and to be over particular as to correctness of postage?  I know a case where a whole life was changed for the worse, in the present world, by the delay caused in the transmission of an underpaid letter."

    "But all this is such a little thing," cried Will, "and it will be all for my own pleasure, too!  And I'm afraid I shan't be able to write the kind of letters which grannie or Elizabeth will care much for."

    "I wish you would write a letter to me sometimes," said Charlotte.  "I know many of the places you will see, and of course I often think of them, and wonder if they are changing, and how."

    "Of course, I shall be only too glad," answered the gratified Will.  "Maybe I could get you some news about people you have known, too—not friends, you know, but that sort of familiar neighbours one likes to hear about when one is away."

    "Yes," said Charlotte steadily.  "I shall be very glad to hear whether some names are still over the old stores and offices.  But I have no friends in America just now.  Everybody I once knew believes something which I know to be false.  They believe that my father did a dishonourable thing—something for which he might have been arraigned and punished.  But he died just before the suspicion arose, and so he was condemned without any possibility of trial.  We are making restitution for the injury that was inflicted on others by somebody, but certainly not by our father."

    "But may not that seem to some people as if you believed it," said Will, after a pause, while he held the arm on which Charlotte's hand lay, very closely and firmly to his side, and felt that wave of yearning devotion which rises in every warm heart when it learns that the being whose serenity seemed divinely far from stain or cloud, has yet its own wound and its own shadow.

    "I do not care how it seems," Charlotte answered, gazing straight into the darkness before her.  "I feel only like one on whose domain some outrage has been committed, and who desires to make restitution to the injured, that the wrongdoer may have to answer to himself alone."

    "If the real sinner was found out, could he be punished yet?" Will asked, with a boyish sense of justice.

    "Yes: he could be forgiven," said Charlotte.  And as Will noted the thrill in her voice and the light that flashed into her eyes, he sounded, half unconsciously, that depth of the universe which hides the secret that forgiveness is as terrible to sin as is the sun to the pollution which it reveals and destroys.

    "If he liked, he could pay me again what I have repaid," Charlotte said, quite simply.  She would not be insolent in her magnanimity: she would be glad to let him make all the restitution in his power, even to compound interest for back years.  She would not fear lest the evil-doer should fancy that so he atoned for his sin.  We grow very fearless of such errors and shortcomings if we look into our own hearts and watch how justly their mistakes are corrected.

    Charlotte had not been suddenly betrayed into this confidence.  She had wished to give it, partly because she felt that too real a friendship had sprung up between Will and her, for it to be quite kind and just that he should be ignorant of the line on which hung so many of her thoughts and actions: partly because, in the spirit of the inspired advice to confess our sins one to another, she felt that as Will had spoken out his troubles and temptations to her, it was best she should show her trust in him and so save him from that sense of one-sidedness which embitters the recollection of so many confidences, and partly because the simplicity and humility of Will's own estimate of himself, had not failed to carry its own hint to a heart that was noble enough to be also ever watchful to receive a new sweetness or light.  She felt that she had often been hard,—that she had measured others by her own ideal standard, rather than by the inner struggles she so well knew.  The days had been—and not so very long ago—when she would have been stern to such dim efforts and aspirations as Will's own.  Charlotte would be just, even to herself; and she knew she had lived a high life and been brave and dealt courageously; and yet when she judged herself spirit to spirit, with this boy who had done nothing yet, who indeed had had time to do nothing, and who regarded himself as nothing, she felt that God teaches his lessons in many ways: to some by seemingly successful struggle, and to others by consciousness of failure.  And she thought of the currier of Alexandria who told Antony the Hermit that when he rose in the morning he thought within himself that the whole city, from the greatest to the least, would enter into the kingdom of God for their righteousness, whilst he for his sins should go to judgment, and of how Antony answered, "My brother, like a good goldsmith thou hast gained the kingdom of God sitting still in thy house, while I, as one without discretion, have been haunting the desert all my time, and yet not arrived at the measure of thy saying."

    Charlotte's own kindness and consideration for Will Ramsay had made her wonder whether she had always been as kind and considerate.  There had never been any bitterness in her remembrance of her lost lover, but she began to wonder whether there had not been something undone on her part, which, if done, might have made the story no memory, but a joyful present reality, and spared the pain which she clearly saw must be greater for him than for her.  If she had seen from his point instead of her own!  If she had felt that it was only natural that he should make an inquiry which it was equally natural for her filial loyalty to resent as an insult, then she should have been strong enough first to bear the pain and then to lead him to see from her point and to bear with her!  It was the self-accusation of a noble nature: the beautiful crowning discipline which God had sent her (though she did not notice that) by the hand of her own loving kindness to Will Ramsay.

    With that passion for consistency between the ideal and reality which is the sign of a harmonious nature, Charlotte was already surveying her life to see where the new-recognized weed might be still growing.

    "I ought not to be vexed because our old neighbours and friends cannot help making a mistake," she said, bravely.  "If you will take the trouble, I think I will send out some little remembrances to some of them by your hand.  I believe they will like to hear of us.  I am sure they will be sorry about Hugh.  I know they pity us, and that used to be hard for me to bear; but what does it signify?  It is the form in which kindness must come from them under the circumstances, but as we know we do not need pity, the form breaks before we touch it, and pure oil of kindness escapes and anoints us."  She spoke cheerily, but as Will looked down at her under the gaslights, he saw the sunshine of her face was April sunshine.

    In a way beyond any that had occurred to Charlotte's mind, it was well for Will that she had told him her little story.  The young are so ignorant, and ignorance has such terrors.  In our first thunderstorm we think the end of the world is come.  It is a great blessing when some pure heart, whose strength or grace has won our admiration, dares to reveal to us that a cross upholds the one, or that the other blossoms from a chasm.  If we set to work on a book of problems, about which we had no assurance, the difficulty of the first might make us fear that the whole were deceitful catches, but when we have seen the explanation of a few, we have courage to work at the others, though their solution may escape us for years.  The young have had no time for that patience which worketh experience, that experience which worketh hope.

    And then the two walked slowly home, and that was their last talk together.  Charlotte went with Mrs. Torpichen and Elizabeth to see the last of Will when he went on board his ship, and his little cabin seemed all the homelier because she stood in it a moment; and not through all the voyage did he disturb the little bag which she hung on one of its pegs, and when he had to remove it, at the close of his journey, he could almost have wept.

    And so the boy went out to his wild and lonely life; with that best angel by his side—a strong faith in a woman who could brace, and comfort, and sympathize.  This was not love in any narrow sense to which that holy and wide word is too often limited.  Charlotte was but the morning star in the lad's life.  She was meant for another's sun; but her rise on his vision gave the promise of his own dawn, and till then, could keep him content in the twilight, without the terrible temptation of closing the shutters, and lighting farthing candles.


 
CHAPTER IX.

Changes.


AND so the years began to pass.  American letters came regularly to Denver Corner; perhaps they might not have come quite so regularly, if Will had not felt that he must never write to Charlotte Withers, unless he wrote also to his own home.  The letters home were sometimes a little puzzling: all his news was so likely to frighten or shock poor Mrs. Torpichen, or to be utterly uninteresting to Elizabeth.  Will's dutiful nature did its best.  It was Charlotte who received the long screed about the last experiment or machine, or the wild adventure on the prairie.  It was Mrs. Torpichen who got the photographs and curiosities; it was Elizabeth who received the pretty Indian ornaments.  It seemed typical of his relationship to the three.

    There was once when something in Will's letters gave Charlotte a sweet dream.  He did not forget Lucy.  Lucy had been the first link in the chain which connected him with the Withers.  And Lucy was Charlotte's sister, and might easily become very like her, with an added charm like that we find in a flower we knew in its bud.  Something said to Charlotte that if Will Ramsay came home on a visit, he might take Lucy back with him.  It might be only one of those sweet love fancies which run in woman's brains when their own love story is settled or over.  But it had to perish; God only knows how many such sweet fancies do perish!  But this was put away, unfaded, among the hyacinths and snowdrops which Charlotte wreathed in Lucy's coffin.

    And so Charlotte and the blind brother were left to complete their work of filial honour.  Joyfully, with that beautiful pride which delights in the exaltation of another, Charlotte presently found that her hard task would be easy in Hugh's hands.  For others beside herself presently discovered that God had given a wonderful gift for the gift he had withdrawn, and that the sight, closed to the human face, pierced into the human soul, and brought thence secrets which it could tell to each in that magic music which has its own interpreter in every heart.

    There fell no light on the ancient sorrow—on the shameful doubt that rested on their father's name.  But the pain had somehow passed.  They spoke of the story now.  New friends heard it, even though they were scarcely admitted to that charmed sanctum of the heart where all secret things must be made manifest.  Broken ties of old acquaintanceship were re-linked across the ocean.  And some who had been most ready to condemn the dead man who could not plead his own cause, had reason to bless his daughter for the tender hospitality she extended to wandering unmistakable prodigals of their own.  Then, indeed, she could forgive them utterly, though her keen knowledge of the world discerned that her motives would be misread.

    Mrs. Torpichen and Mrs. Withers grew friendly, which made Denver Corner the more sociable, especially as they became too old and fragile to care often to run the risks of the busy thoroughfares that lay beyond its quiet precincts.  Chatty, easy-minded Mrs. Torpichen brightened and consoled Mrs. Withers as nothing else had succeeded in doing.  An equal friendship brings into play many healthy little emulations that may often slumber amid much stronger claims on the affections.  Mrs. Withers brought out her old silks and laces and the one or two heirlooms of jewellery that had been spared from sale, because of their small money value.  She had excused herself from these amenities, when Charlotte had ventured to suggest them, but Charlotte did not grudge that her wishes were fulfilled under an indirect influence.

    Elizabeth Ramsay did not yet notice that her life was growing lonely—that she was living in her land of dreams through the years when only the energies and hopes are strong enough to bid real life glow with ideal colour and warmth.  She still read her poems and romances, and her manuals of devotion, and now, raised above the pinch of a girl's pocket money, decorated her room with photographs after Fra Angelico, with pre-Raphaelite tiles and glass, with carved angels and Italian rosaries, in place of the old print of Sir Philip Sydney and the pine-cone cross.

    She went to matins and vespers, waking her grandmother and Betsey at untimely hours as she creaked down stairs to the former, and keeping them waiting for their tea till she came back from the latter.  She had visions of a conventual life, with tinted sunshine stealing down long aisles and organ music in the distance and soft-stepped women gliding to and fro.  Only she fancied she fell in love with the curate, and the vision got curiously mingled with another, of a wedded pair going out together to plant a mission chapel and baptize South Sea Islanders or Red Indians.  She thought how she would teach the little heathen children to sing, and how if she was left a widow she would still stay on among the wild people, who would have learned to love and cherish her for her husband's sake and her own.  It happened that the curate had been engaged before ever Elizabeth had seen him, and he presently got married and accepted a cure among the laudanum-eating farmers of the fen country.  And alas for poor Elizabeth, she did not even find that sweet after-glow of womanly tenderness and maternal yearning which such fanciful emotions will sometimes leave behind them in justification of their humble relationship to the great love "that makes the world go round."  If he had died—if he had gone away and been lost to sight before he married—it might have been different, and Elizabeth might have ranged his influence among that of the Fra Angelico pictures and had a definite name in her thanksgiving or on All-Saints' day.  But his bride, and her bridesmaids, and a bit of their wedding cake, made Elizabeth quite sure, not only that she had never loved him, but that she had never even fancied she had.

    Of course, she constantly met Charlotte Withers, but the two lives, that went on side by side, never mingled.  She pitied Charlotte—pitied her for her father's misfortunes; pitied her for her hard life in the past; pitied her for her brother's blindness and its exigent claims on her time and devotion.  Which pity was as wise as that of one who, longing for a nugget buried somewhere in a far country, pities the man who owns fair fields and stately houses and uncounted stores at home.


 
CHAPTER X.

Out in the West.


THERE came a day at last, years after Will had left London, when the usual American letters left at the two houses in Denver Corner were not in his handwriting.

    Elizabeth saw the strange superscription as she came in from matins, and idly thinking that one of "the partners had written for Will," let it remain unheeded, till her grandmother came down stairs.

    But while the other lay unopened in Charlotte's hand, she felt that it had not come alone; that angel fingers were closed about it, holding it from her gaze, till the angel heart could fold her heart in its own consciousness of communion, in its own rejoicing sense of all old things not lost but made anew.  She went away to her own room—her sacred room now—the place whence the angels had fetched sweet sister Lucy.

    And there she read the story of Will's death, but there was no thought of death in her mind, for all death had been slain for her long ago.  What about that old story of Elijah's departure.  Shall we cavil at the ancient historian because, in telling the story of one departure, he rose so high that he dared to tell the truth which is true of all?

    Now and again, as she read, she paused and gazed straight before her into quiet Denver Corner.  A wide and bright panorama was passing through its gray seclusion.  There were wide sweeps of hills and silver rivers and primeval forest, such as she had known so well.  And there was a train, swiftly dashing over the country.  And among its passengers there was one familiar face, bright with young life so strong and full that it need scarcely flag for three-score years to come.  And then a sickening sway in the rushing train, and a crash and shrieks and a mass of horror and anguish.  And there, low on a green bank, lay the familiar face, pale and convulsed, till a cry of terror rises: "The up train is coming," and then that brave friend of hers springs to his feet, and snatching a whistle from his pocket blows a long blast shrill and clear.  There is an awful silence, and as the nearing engine slackens speed, the wounded man drops down, smothered by the life-blood that welled up in that supreme effort.  And presently there are helpful hands among the chaos, and strong men dash away tears, and feel for a moment that God is living yet!  For the up train is saved, and Will Ramsay has died for his fellow-men.

    That was enough—quite enough for Charlotte Withers.  If she had read no more, her heart would have been quite satisfied for her friend whom God had permitted to grow in her sight to the height of the unselfishness and heroism that was in him.  He had died for his fellow men.  That was enough.  She felt but one added thrill when, reading further down the newspaper extract enclosed in the letter, she found that two or three lives of national value had been in that imperilled up train.  And years had to pass, and a great war had to call out all the manhood of a young race in its passionate agonies, before Charlotte Withers could say, "My friend's heroism saved the men who rendered these heroisms possible: my friend gave himself for those who freed the slave from his chain and the slave-holder from his sin."  But she knew that Will had died for the good of his fellow men, and that is the grand beauty of it after all, whoever those fellow men may be.

    There was something else for Charlotte in that newspaper-cutting.  That doomed down train had started from the familiar township of her youth, and more than one well-known name was in the list of killed and injured.  There was one man who had been her father's trusted friend, and the verdict of whose opinion, had it been outspoken in her father's favour, might have averted much of the suspicion attaching to his name.  Of late there had been some renewal of the ancient friendship between this man's family and the Witherses.  This man's children had not turned out well, and one boy had found his way to London, and was trying very hard to redeem his past errors.  And Charlotte and Hugh had been very tender and patient with the remorse and the struggles of one whose father had shaken his head at the first rumour adverse to his old friend, their father.  That man was dead now: killed almost at Will's side.  He had not died instantaneously.  It was told among the incidents of the catastrophe, that he had just lived to drink a little water and to gasp, "I should like to live to tell them I at least knew their father was innocent."

    Nobody else would know what that meant.  Nobody else would think of that old scandal.  But Charlotte knew.  And it was as nothing to her now.  All the old bitterness, the old cry for justice, had long been silenced.  She and her mother and Hugh and Lucy had all known that her father was innocent; and one other, not of their partial blood—this frank Will Ramsay —had never seemed to doubt it.  That sufficed.  That form of justice on which she had once felt ready to stake the balance of the universe seemed a very poor thing now, almost an insult.  But if a false suspicion had been so hard a trial to her own hot and haughty youth, how terrible a temptation might be any revelation of the truth to this man's son, despondent with past failure and weak in new resolution.  Years younger than herself, he had perhaps scarcely heard of the old slander and his father's connection with it.  He need never know.  She had no doubt that if she chose, she might follow the clew of these last words, and publicly vindicate her father's memory, and shift the burden of shame to the name of him who had veiled his sin under hypocritical severity.  But standing there, in the sweet autumn sunshine, in the quiet room whose silence seemed melodious with heavenly voices, Charlotte vowed that she would rise up between the dead and the living and strive to stay the plague of evil.  Even Hugh should never know of this: it could not increase his confidence in his father's innocence, and lest her own manner might be a little altered next time the prodigal son came to their home—even if it was but with an added tenderness and consideration—it was best that Hugh's should be preserved from any shadow of change.  And Charlotte lit a taper and cut off the end of the paragraph, and held it in the tiny flame till it was all consumed away.

    That night Hugh was to play in a great hall in the fashionable quarter, and Charlotte, as usual, was to go with him.  But when she went to him and calmly told him her solemn tidings, her brother wistfully felt for her hand.  "We will not go out this evening, Lottie," he said.

    "Yes, we will," she said: "who knows how somebody may want some message your music may bring them?  Shall we be weak because Will was strong?"

    "But while we are human we must feel human sorrow, Lottie," pleaded Hugh, searching her face with his poor blind eyes, as if he felt something had come there since they had been closed.

    "Yes, we will," she said quietly.  "I could be very sad to-day, but not for Will.  I am crying for him, Hugh, but they are only such tears as a glorious sunset brings."

    Some of the exaltation of her mood she conveyed to poor Mrs. Torpichen.  "I suppose I ought not to be sorry I let him go," said the old lady, wiping away the slow, cold tears of age.  "It has always been a great comfort to me that he did not go without my consent.  It is curious that I can't make myself understand he is dead.  Not having seen him for years and hearing the news like this, is so different from having illness in the house, and seeing the empty chairs and folding away the clothes.  My real giving up of my boy was when I let him go.  And I can't help feeling that he has shown the gallant spirit of his forefathers, and maybe it is better, after all, to die saving lives than taking them, like the young officers who were the heroes of my young days.  Maybe it will not be long before I see Will again.  Of late, as I have sat dreaming and dozing, I have sometimes almost forgotten that he was not up stairs in his little laboratory among his chemicals.  God forgive me for saying they had a nasty smell.  It was true enough, but it would be sweeter to me now than essence of roses."

    "Nobody could have ever had such a darling brother as mine," cried Elizabeth, "and nobody can have loved Will like his only sister!  I meant to have written to him to-morrow—I had not written very lately, but Will knew that my heart was always with him.  It is grand to have had such a brother, and to be able to look back on years of such uninterrupted love as ours.  Nobody ever even shared our love; we have been always all in all to each other.  Our hearts were so satisfied, they craved no more."

    And Elizabeth went away to her own room, and placed a crown of white flowers over Will's portrait, and planned how her mourning should be plain, with deep white sleeves and cuffs like those of a Sśur de Charité; and how she would have Will's hair set in jet and crystal, and wear it daily till her death, and leave directions that she should be buried with it on her breast, and the story of Will's heroic death folded in her hand.

    "I should not have thought the Witherses would have gone out to-night," she said to her grandmother, half reproachfully, as the accustomed cab came to take Charlotte and Hugh to the concert.

    "Why not, my dear?" sighed the poor old lady, whose ideas of social relationship were most elementary.  "They are not relatives."

    "They might have stayed at home, if only out of sympathy for me," sighed Elizabeth.  "They cannot care for Will as we do, but they might enter into our feelings."


At the concert, nobody took much notice of the pale, grave woman in black dress and white muslin neckerchief who came in with the blind violinist.  The applause which greeted Hugh's playing was loud and long.  Yet it died away into a strange hush, when the player raised his sightless face as though he was gazing across the throng.  He was about to play again―something not in the programme; and there was a flutter and a settling down of expectancy.

    Nobody in this world had ever heard that music before, and those who were near the musician said that his magic touch seemed to follow a listening in his face, till they almost forgot the music they heard, in watching the reflection of the music he heard.

    It began with a joyful airy gladness, a harmony of sunshine and singing and laughter.  Then one or two harsh chords were struck among the glad sounds that still went on, but with a pathetic note in them.  And then there crept in a sweet, solemn mystery, and still the glad sounds went on till they caught its dignity into themselves, and then the music marched on majestically, like years made worthy the living—till suddenly there rose a strain so piercing sweet, so terrible sweet, that the people drew in their breath.  A rest—and then the music again, soft and shadowy, like music from a mountain echoing in the valley.

    Charlotte sat like one entranced.  She knew this music was her brother's monument to the memory of her friend.  She scarcely noticed the thunders of applause that greeted its close, she knew that the music was made for her, the outward expression of her brother's life-long love.  All she did was something she had never done before, and now she did it unconsciously.  She stepped straight upon the platform, and took Hugh's instrument in one hand, and his hand in the other, and led him away.

    "Who is that lady—the violinist's wife or some enthusiastic artiste herself?" was whispered among the crowd.

    "Oh, dear no," was the answer of the wise ones; "that is only Mr. Withers's sister.  She is an old maid, and keeps house for him—just a Nobody."



THE END.
 

 


 

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