What in him was confidence and self-reliance had been in Ida little else than vanity and pride, and these, circumstances had enabled him to wound unto death. He had, from the first, calmly and philosophically recognized the fact that he must break down, in part, the Chinese wall of her self-approval, before any elevating ideas and ennobling impulses could enter, and as much through unforeseen events as by his effort, this had been done to a degree that threatened results that appalled him. He had been taught thoroughly that faulty and ignorant as she undoubtedly was, she was by no means shallow or weak. To his mind the depth of her despondency was the measure of her power to realize her imperfection, for he now supposed her depression was caused immediately by the fact that she had been so harshly misjudged, but in the main because of her resemblance to the flower he had tossed away and which he now remembered, with deep satisfaction, was in his note-book, ready to aid in the reassuring and encouraging work upon which he was eager to enter.
He did not dream that by tactics the reverse of those pursued by her numerous admirers he had won her heart, and that the apparent hopelessness of her passion had outweighed all other burdens.
Her kindest sentiment towards him, he believed, was the cold respect, mingled with fear and dislike, in which a sever but honest critic is sometimes held; and as he recalled his course towards her he now felt that she had little reason for even this degree of regard. He had awakened her sleeping mind not to an atmosphere of kindness and sympathy like that in which the beauty in the fabled castle had revived, but to a biting frost of harsh criticism and unjust suspicion. That there seemed, at the time, good reason for these on his part did not make it any easier for her to bear them; and in the fact that he had so misunderstood and wronged her, his confidence in his own sagacity received the severest shock it had ever experienced. He felt that he could never go forward in life with his old assured tread and manner.
Moreover the kindness and respect which he now proposed to show Ida were caused more by compunction and fear than by any warmer and friendlier motive. He wished to make amends for his injustice, to reassure the girl, to smooth over matters and extricate himself from his fateful office of critic. This experimenting with human souls for artistic purposes was a much more serious matter than he could have imagined. He had entered upon it as a part of his summer recreation, but had found himself playing with forces that had well-nigh destroyed him as well as the subject of his fancied skill. Hereafter he proposed to illumine faces with thought, feeling, and spiritual beauty on canvas only, so that, in case he should become discouraged or disgusted with his efforts and throw the work aside, there might be no such tragic protest as Ida Mayhew had almost offered. While he pitied, and now in a certain sense respected her, she filled him with the uncomfortable dread and nervous apprehension which rash and unbalanced natures always inspire. The charge he had given Stanton revealed his opinion. She was one who must be watched over, not with the tender care and sympathy that he hoped to bestow on Jennie Burton, but with kind, yet firm and wary vigilance, in order to prevent action dangerous both to herself and others; and a heavy, anxious task he believed such care would be.
His aim was not to heal the wounds he had made by a decided manifestation of kindness and respect which should be as sincere as possible in view of his knowledge of her faults; and if her present good impulses were anything more than passing moods, to encourage them, as far as he could, and then retire from the scene as soon as circumstances permitted. He had been too thoroughly frightened to wish to continue in the role of a spiritual reformer, and he had a growing perception that, with his present motive and knowledge, the work was infinitely beyond him. He began to fear that he was like certain physicians, whose skill consists chiefly in their power to aggravate disease rather than to cure it. He had found Ida a vain, silly girl, apparently. He had parted the previous evening from a desperate woman, capable of self-destruction, and her letter inseparably linked him with the marvellous change. Thus he gained the uneasy impression that there was too much nitro-glycerine in human nature in general, and in Ida Mayhew in particular, for him to use such material in working out metaphysical and artistic problems.
At the end of his long morning walk he concluded:
"Poor child! after her eyes were opened she could not help seeing a great deal that was exceedingly depressing. In regard to her parents, she is far worse off than if orphaned. In regard to herself, she finds that her best years are gone, and she has neither culture of mind nor heart—that her beauty is but a mask that cannot long conceal the enduring imperfection and deformity of her character. She associates these discoveries with me because I first disturbed her vanity; but the beauty of Jennie Burton's life, the dastardly behavior of Sibley, and the deep humiliation received through him, with other circumstances, have all combined to bring about the revelation. And yet, confound it all! I did act the stupid Pharisee on several occasions, and I might as well own it both to her and myself. A Pharisee is a fool 'per se.' Well, I'm sorry to say, her outlook for life is dark at best, even if she were not so fearfully rash and unbalanced. As it is I expect to hear some sad story of Ida Mayhew before many years pass. I'll try to brighten a few days for her, however, before I go to town, and then the farther we can drift apart the better. How delightful, in contrast, is the sense of rest and security that Jennie Burton always inspires in spite of her sad mystery."
Chapter XLI. The Protestant Confessional.
Ida's sleep was almost as deep and quiet, and when her mother stole in to look at her from time to time the following morning, her face was as colorless, as if she had taken the drug which Van Berg's heel had ground into the earth; but Mrs. Mayhew observed with satisfaction that her respiration was as regular and natural as that of a little child. Wronged nature will, to a certain extent, forgive the young and restore to them the priceless treasures of health and strength they throw away. Ida had been a sad spendthrift of both lately, but now that the evil spell was broken, the poor worn body and mind sank into a long and merciful oblivion, during which a new life began to flow back from the, as yet, unexhausted fountain of youth.
She awoke late in the morning, and it was some moments before she could recall all that had happened. Then, as she remembered her dreadful purpose, there came a strong rush of grateful feeling that she HAD awakened—that life and its opportunities were still hers.
For a moment she portrayed to herself what she had supposed would have happened that day—she imagined herself lying white and still—the people coming and going on tiptoe and speaking in hushed tones, as if death were but a troubled and easily broken sleep; while they looked at her with faces in which curiosity and horror were equally blended; she saw her father staring at her in utter despair, and her mother trying, in a pitifully helpless way, to think how appearances might still be kept up and a little shred of respectability retained. She saw the artist looking at her with stern, white face, and heard him mutter: "What were you to me that you should commit this awful deed and lay it at my door, thus blighting a life full of the richest promise with your horrible shadow?"
"Thank God, thank God!" she cried passionately. "It's all like a dreadful dream and never happened."
"Why, Ida, what IS the matter?" said Mrs. Mayhew, coming in hastily.
"I had a bad dream," said Ida, with something like a low sob.
"Ida, I want you to see the doctor, to-day. You haven't acted like yourself for over two weeks."
"Mother, what time is it?"
"Ten o'clock and after."
"Please draw the curtain. I want to see the sunlight."
"The sun is very hot to-day."
"Is it?" Then under her breath she murmured: "Thank God, so it is."
She arose and began making her toilet slowly, for the languor of her long sleep and excessive fatigue was on her still. But thought was very busy. The subject uppermost in her mind was the promised visit to old Mr. Eltinge, and she resolved to go at once, if it were a possible thing. Mrs. Mayhew having again referred to her purpose of sending for a physician, Ida turned to her and said, decisively:
"Mother, do you not realize that I am not a child? What is the use of sending for a doctor when I will not see him? I ask—I insist that you and Mr. Stanton interfere with me no longer."
"My goodness, Ida, shall not I, your own mother, take any care of you?"
"It is too late in the day now to commence taking care of me. You have permitted me to grow up so wanting in mental and moral culture that you naturally suspect me of the vilest action. Henceforth I take care of myself, and act for myself;" and she abruptly left the room and went to Mr. Burleigh's office, requesting that the light phaeton and a safe horse, such as she could drive, should be sent around to he door at once.
"Miss Ida, you've not been well. Do you think you had better go out in the heat of the day?" asked Mr. Burleigh, kindly.
She looked at him a moment, and then said, a little impulsively, "Mr. Burleigh, I thank you for speaking to me in that way. Yes, I wish to go, and think I shall be better for it."
As she entered the large hall, Van Berg, who had been on the watch, rose to greet her, but she merely bowed politely and distantly, and passed at once into the dining room. After a hasty breakfast she returned to her room by a side passage, and prepared for her expedition, paying no heed to her mother's expostulations.
Van Berg was on the piazza when she came down, but she passed him swiftly, giving him no time to speak to her, and springing into the phaeton, drove away. His anxiety was so deep that he took pains to note the road she took, and then waited impatiently for her return.
After driving several miles, and making a few inquiries by the way, Ida found herself approaching an old-fashioned house secluded among the hills.
It was on a shady side road, into which but few eddies from the turbulent current of worldly life found their way.
The gate stood hospitably open, and she drove in under the shade of an enormous silver poplar, whose leaves fluttered in the breathless summer air, as if each one possessed a separate life of its own.
As she drew near to the house she saw old Mr. Eltinge coming from his garden to greet her.
"I had about given you up," he said, "and so you are doubly welcome. Old people are like children, and don't bear disappointments very well."
"Did you really want to see me very much?" Ida asked, as he assisted her to alight.
"Yes, my child," he replied, gravely, holding her hand in a strong, warm grasp. "I felt, from your manner last evening, you were sincere. You come on an errand that is most pleasing to my Master, and I welcome you in his name as well as my own."
"Perhaps if you knew all you would not welcome me," she said in a low tone, turning away.
"Only for one cause could I withdraw my welcome," he said, still more gravely.
"What is that?" she asked in a lower tone, not daring to look at him.
"If you are not sincere," he replied, looking at her keenly.
Giving him her hand again, and looking up into his face, she said, earnestly:
"Mr. Eltinge, I am sincere. I could not be otherwise with you after your words last night. I come to you in great trouble, with a burdened heart and conscience, and I shall tell you everything, and then you must advise me, for I have no other friend to whom I can go."
"Oh, yes, you have, my child," said the old man, cheerily. "The One they called the 'Friend of sinners' is here to-day to welcome you, and is more ready to receive and advise you than I am. I'm not going to do anything for you but lead you to him who said, 'Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden;' and, 'Whosoever cometh I will in nowise cast out.'"
"How much you make those words mean, as you speak them," faltered Ida. "You almost lead me to feel that not far away there is some one, good and tender-hearted, who will take me by the hand with reassuring kindness, as you have."
"And you are right. Why, bless you, my child, religion doesn't do us much good until we learn to know our Lord as 'good and tender-hearted,' and so near, too, that we can speak to him, whenever we wish, as the disciples did in old times. So don't be one bit discouraged; see, I'll fasten your horse right here in the shade, and by and by I'll have him fed, for you must spend the day with us, and not go back until the cool of the evening. It hasn't seemed hospitable that you should have stood so long here under the trees; and I didn't mean that you should, but things never turn out as we expect."
"It is often well they don't," thought Ida, as she looked around the quiet and quaintly beautiful spot, to which a kind Providence had brought her. It seemed as if her burden already were beginning to grow lighter.
"Now come in, my child, and tell me all your trouble."
"Please, Mr. Eltinge, may I not go back with you into the garden?"
"Yes, why not? We can talk there just as well;" and he led her to a rustic seat in a shady walk, while from a tool-house near he brought out for himself a chair that had lost its back.
"I'll lean against this pear-tree," he said. "It's young and strong, and owes me a good turn. Now, my child, tell me what you think best, and then I'll tell you of One whose word and touch cures every trouble."
But poor Ida had sudden and strong misgivings. As she saw the old gentleman surrounded by his flowers and fruits, as she glanced hesitatingly into his serene, quiet face, from which the fire and passion of youth had long since faded, she thought. "So Adam might have looked had he never sinned but grown old in his beautiful garden. This aged man, who lives nearer heaven than earth, can't understand my wicked, passionate heart. My story will only shock and pain him, and it's a shame to pollute this place with such a story."
"You spoke as if you were alone and friendless in the world," said Mr. Eltinge, trying to help her make a beginning. "Are you an orphan?"
"No," said Ida, with rising color, and averting her face. "My parents are both living."
"And yet you cannot go to them? Poor child! That is the worst kind of orphanage."
"Oh, Mr. Eltinge, this place seems like the garden of Eden, and I am bringing into it a heart full of trouble and wickedness."
"Well, my child," replied the old gentleman, with a smile. "I've brought here a heart full of trouble and wickedness many a time, so you need not fear hurting the garden."
"But I fear I shall pain and shock you."
"I hope you will. I'm going to feel with and for you. What's the good of my sitting here like a post?"
"Well," said Ida, desperately, "I promised to tell you everything, and I will. If there is any chance for me I'll then know it, for you will not deceive me. Somehow, what I am and what I have to say seemed in such sad contrast with you and your garden that I became afraid. You asked about my parents. My father is a very unhappy man. He seems to have lost hope and courage. I now begin to see that I have been chiefly to blame for this. I do nothing for his comfort. Indeed, I have been so occupied with myself and my own pleasure that I have given him little thought. He does not spend much of his time at home, and when I saw him he was always tired, sad, and moody. He seemed to possess nothing that could minister to my pride and pleasure save money, and I took that freely, with scarcely even thanks in return.
"I don't like to speak against my mother, but truth compels me to add that she acts much in the same way. I don't think she loves papa. Perhaps our treatment is the chief reason why life, seemingly, has become to him a burden. When he's not busy in he office he drinks, and drinks, and I fear it is only to forget his trouble. Once or twice this summer he has looked like a man, and appeared capable of throwing off this destroying habit, and then by my wretched folly I made him do worse than ever," and she burst into a remorseful passion of tears.
"That's right, my child," said Mr. Eltinge, taking off his spectacles that he might wipe his sympathetic eyes; "you were very much to blame. Thank god, there are no Pharisees in this garden. God bless you; go on."
"This that I've told you about my father ought to be my chief trouble, but it isn't," faltered Ida. "I fear you won't understand me very well now, and you certainly will never be able to understand how I could be tempted to do something at the very thought of which I now shudder."
"No matter; my Master can understand it all if I can't. He's listening, too, remember."
"It frightens me to think so," said Ida, in an awed, trembling tone.
"That's because you don't know him. If you were severely wounded, would you be frightened to know that a good physician was right at hand to heal you?"
"But isn't God too infinite and far away to listen to listen to the story of my weakness and folly? I dare not think of him. My difficulty is just this—he IS God, and what am I?"
"One of his little children, my dear. Yes, he is infinite, but not far away. In the worst of my weakness and folly he listened patiently, and helped me out of my trouble. How are you going to get over this fact? He has listened to and helped multitudes of others in every kind of trouble and wrong. How are you going to get over these facts?"
Ida slowly wiped her eyes. Her face grew very pale, and she looked at Mr. Eltinge steadily and earnestly, as if to gather from his expression and manner, as well as words, the precise effect of her confession.
"Mr. Eltinge," she said, "at this time yesterday I did not expect to be alive to-day. I expected to be dead, and by my own hand. Will God forgive such wickedness?"
"Dead!" exclaimed the old gentleman, starting up.
"Yes," said Ida, growing still paler and trembling with apprehension, but still looking fixedly at Mr. Eltinge as if she would learn from his face whether she could hope or must despair because of her intended crime.
"And what changed your awful purpose, my child?" he said, very gravely.
"Your words at the prayer-meeting last night."
The old gentleman removed his hat and reverently bowed his head. "O God," he murmured, "thou hast been merciful to me all my days; I thank thee for this crowning mercy."
"But will God be merciful to ME?" cried Ida, in a tone of sharp agony.
The old man came to he side, and placing his hands on her head spoke with almost the authority and solemnity of one of God's ancient prophets.
"Yes, my child, yes, he will be merciful unto you—he will forgive you. But in your deep need you require more than the assurance of a poor sinful mortal like yourself. Listen to God's own word: 'Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.'
"'Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.'
"'If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins; and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin.' God answers your question himself, my child."
"Oh, may He bless you for your kindness to me! It has saved me from despair and death," sobbed Ida, burying her face in her hands, and giving way to the natural expression of feeling that ever relieves a heart that has long been overburdened.
For a few moments Mr. Eltinge said nothing, but gently stroked the bowed head as he might caress a daughter of his own. At last he asked, with a voice that was broken from sympathy with her emotion,
"How about my Master, whose kind providence has brought all this about?"
Ida gradually became more quiet, and as soon as she could trust herself to speak she lifter her head and answered:
"Mr. Eltinge, I think I can learn to love God as you portray him to me. But in my imperfection and wickedness I have not dared to think of him till I came here."
"Now, isn't that just like the devil's work!" exclaimed Mr. Eltinge. "It was our imperfection and wickedness that brought Christ to our rescue, and yet you have been made to believe that your chief claim upon our Divine Friend is a hopeless barrier against you!"
"Mr. Eltinge," said Ida, slowly, as if she were trying to be sure that each word expressed her thought, "it was that word, FRIEND, as you used it last night, that caught my ear and revived my hopes. I now believe that if you had spoken only of duty or truth, or even of God in the ordinary way, I should now be"—she buried her face in her hands and shuddered—"I should not be in this sunny garden with the memory that your hands have rested on my hands in blessing. If I am to live, I shall need, above all things, a friend, and a very patient and helpful one, or else my burden will be heavier than I can carry. I have told you about my parents, and you thus know what I must look forward to in my own home. But such is my weakness and folly, I have a far worse trouble than that. You may smile at it and think that time will bring speedy relief. Perhaps it will—I hope so. I feel that I know so little about myself and everything else that I can never be sure of anything again. Mr. Eltinge, I have been so unfortunate as to give my whole heart's love to a man who despises me. At first he seemed somewhat attracted, but he soon discovered how imperfect and ignorant I was, and coldly withdrew. He is now paying his addresses, I believe, to another lady, and I must admit that she is a lovely girl, and every way worthy of him. I think she will return his regard, if she does not already. But whether she does or not cannot matter, for he is so far my superior in every respect that he would never think of me again. In order to hide my foolish, hopeless passion, I received attentions from another man that I detested, and who has since proved himself an utter villain, but it so happened that my name became so closely associated with this low fellow, that when my heart was breaking for another reason, all thought that it was because I was infatuated with a man I loathed. Even Mr. Van Berg thought so, and I intended to compel him to respect me, or at least to think better of me, even if I had to die to carry out my purpose. I was desperate and blind with disappointment and despair. To a strong man, I suppose, these things do not count so greatly, but I'm inclined to think what with us poor women our heart-life is everything. I fairly shiver at the thought of the future. How can I carry this heavy burden, year after year? Oh, how can I bear it? How can I bear it?" and her eyes became full of desperate trouble again, at the prospect before her.
"Well, my dear," said Mr. Eltinge in broken tones, "my heart goes out to you in sympathy as if you were my own daughter, but old James Eltinge can do but little towards curing your deep troubles."
"I do not hope to be cured," said Ida, despondently, "but I would be very glad if I could think my life would not be a burden to myself and others."
Mr. Eltinge pondered a few moments, and then brightened up, as if a pleasant thought had struck him.
"What do you think of this pear-tree against which I'm leaning?" he asked. "You remember I said it owed me a good turn, and perhaps I can get my best fruit from it to-day."
"I think it is a pretty tree," said Ida, wonderingly; "and now I notice that there are some fine pears on it."
"Yes, and they are about ripe. Let us see if we can't reverse the old story with which the Bible commences. The man shall tempt the woman this time, and this shall be a tree of the knowledge of good, not of evil. Poor child, you know enough about that already;" and the old gentleman climbed up on his chair, and with his cane loosened a large yellow pear with a crimson blush on its sunny side.
"Take my hat and catch it," he had said to Ida; and she did so.
"Now, I've made you an accomplice already, and so you may as well eat the pear while I tell you a bit of history concerning this tree. It may help me to suggest some very encouraging truths."
But Ida held her pear and looked wistfully at the speaker. Her heart was still too sore to enter into the half-playful manner by which he sought to give a less gloomy cast to her thoughts.
"Some years ago," said Mr. Eltinge, resuming his seat, "we had a night of darkness and violent storm like that through which you, poor child, have just passed. The garden fence was blown down, and some stray cattle got in and made sad havoc. This pear-tree was a little thing then, and when I came out in the morning it was in a bad plight, I can tell you. The wind had snapped off the top, and it lay withering on the ground. Worse than this, one of the cattle had stepped on it, bruising it severely, and half breaking it off near the root. I don't know which of the young men you have named this unruly beast typifies—both of 'em, I'm inclined to think."
Here Ida shook her head in protest against Van Berg being classed with Sibley, and at the same time could not forbear the glimmer of a smile at the old man's homely imagery.
"Well, according to my creed," continued Mr. Eltinge, "'while there's life there's hope,' so I lifted up the poor, prostrate little tree, and tied it to a stout stake. Then I got grafting wax and covered the bruises and broken places, and finally tied all up as carefully as I used to my boys' fingers when the cut them, sixty odd years ago. And now mark, my child; I had done all that I could do. I couldn't make the wounds heal or even a new twig start; and yet here is a stately young tree beginning to bear delicious fruit. Nature took my sorry-looking little case in hand, and slowly at first, but by and by with increased vigor and rapidity, she developed what you see. I have an affection for this tree, and like to lean against it, and sometimes I half fancy it likes to have me."
"I should think it ought to," said Ida, heartily, with tears in her eyes, but a smile on her lips.
"Well, now, my child, to go on with my parable, what nature was to this pear-tree, nature's God must be to you. We cannot find in nature nor in the happiest human love that which can satisfy our deep spiritual need; but we can find all in him who came from heaven in our behalf. Jesus Christ is the patient, helpful Friend you need. He brings more than joy—even the peace and rest that follow full trust in One pledged to take care of us and make everything turn out for the best. He says of those who come to him, 'I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish.' If you will take this life from him it will never be a burden to you, and it will always be a blessing to others."
"I fear I don't quite understand you, Mr. Eltinge. What is this 'eternal life'—this new, added life which you say Christ offers, and which I'm sure I'd be very glad to take if I knew how?"
"Let Jesus answer you himself, my child. He said plainly: 'This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent.' Perhaps I can make our Lord's words clearer from your own experience, if you will permit me to refer to your feelings toward the man who, whether worthy or not has won your love. Suppose he is all you imagine, and that he lavished on you the best treasures of his heart; would not life at his side seem life in very truth, and life elsewhere but mere existence?"
"Yes," said Ida, with bowed head and pale cheeks. "I begin to understand you now. It seems to me that I could welcome sorrow, poverty, and even death, at his side, and call life rich and full. But as it is—oh, Mr. Eltinge, teach me your faith, lest I give way to despair again!"
"Poor child! poor child! Don't my white hairs teach you that I am on the threshold of the home in which 'God shall wipe away all tears'?"
"I envy you," cried Ida, almost passionately. "Think how far I am from that home!"
"Well, you are not far from the Divine Friend who leads to that home, and when you come to KNOW him and his love your life will begin to grow richer and sweeter and fuller to all eternity. This is eternal life. It's know the God who loves us and whom we have learned to love. It's not living on and on forever in a beautiful heaven, any more than the earthly life you crave is living on and on in a pleasant home such as the man of your heart might provide. The true life is the presence of the loved one himself, and all that he is to us and all that he can do for us; and if a mortal and finite creature seems to you so able to impart life, how infinitely more blessed will the life eventually be which comes from a God of boundless power and boundless love!"
"Alas, Mr. Eltinge, God seems too boundless."
"Did God seem too boundless to the little children whom he took in his arms and blessed?"
"Oh that I had been one of them!" said Ida, with a sudden rush of tears.
"Come, my dear young friend, do not expect too much of yourself to-day. You cannot take in all this truth at once, any more than this young pear tree could take all the dew and sunshine, cold and heat (for autumn frosts are needed as well as spring showers) that nature had in store for it, but its life was assured from the moment it was able to receive nature's restoring influences. So with greater certainty a happy, useful life is assured to you as soon as you receive Jesus Christ as your Saviour, Teacher, and Life-giver. 'As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,' and I assure you the Great King will look after his children right royally. But you don't know him very well yet, and so cannot have the life which flows from his fulness of life. Suppose you come here mornings, and we'll read together the story of Jesus, just as it is told in the New Testament, and I don't believe it will be long before you will say to me that my Friend is yours also. Now, come up to the house and I'll introduce you to my sister. You think me a saint; but I'll show you what a human appetite I have."
"I hear a brook near by," said Ida; "may I not go to it and bathe my face?"
"Yes, do what you like best while here. Would you rather bathe in the brook than at the house?"
"Yes, indeed. Everything seems sacred here, and I can imagine the brook yonder to be a rill from the Jordan."
"Don't be superstitious and sentimental," said the old gentleman, shaking his head gravely. "The life of a Christian means honest, patient work, and Christ's blood alone can wash us till we are whiter than snow."
Ida's face grew earnest and noble as she stepped to the symbolic tree and placed her hand on one of its lower branches.
"Mr. Eltinge," she said gently and gravely, "as this broken, wounded tree received all the help nature gave it, so I, more bruised and broken, will try to receive all the help Christ will give me to bear my burden and live a life pleasing to him. I shall be very glad indeed to come here and learn to know him better under your most kind and faithful teaching, and as I learn, I will try to do my best; but oh, Mr. Eltinge, you can't realize how very weak and imperfect—how ignorant and full of faults I am!"
"Just so the poor little tree might have spoken if it had had a voice. Indeed I thought it WOULD die. But now look at the fruit over your head. You shall take some of it home, and every pear will be a sermon to you—a juicy one, too. If you will do as you say, my child, all will be well."
She bathed her tear-stained face in the brook, and came back looking fairer than any flower in the garden. Then they went up to the old-fashioned house.
"My dear, this is my sister, Miss Eltinge," he said, presenting a white-haired old lady, who still was evidently much younger than her brother. Then, turning suddenly around in comical dismay, he said, "Why, bless you, my child, I don't know your name! Well, well, no matter! I know YOU. There are people whose names I've known half my life, and yet I don't know them and don't trust 'em."
"My name is Ida Mayhew," said the young girl simply. "I heard Mr. Eltinge speak at the prayer-meeting last night in such a way that I wanted to see him and ask his help and advice, and he has been very, very kind to me. He can tell you all."
"Yes, if he chooses," said the old gentleman with a laugh. "Sister knows me too well in my character of father confessor to expect me to tell everything."
They made her at home as the simple and well-bred only can do.
After dinner Miss Eltinge tried to entertain her for a while, but at last said, with appreciative tact:
"My dear, I think you will best enjoy yourself if you are left to range the old house and place at will. After my brother has rested he will join you again."
Ida was glad to be alone. She had made a promise of far-reaching and vital import that morning. Life was taking on new aspects that were so unfamiliar that she was bewildered. She went back to the garden, and, taking Mr. Eltinge's seat, leaned against the emblematic pear-tree, which she curiously began to associate with herself, and for which she was already conscious of something like affection.
"Oh," she sighed, "if my life would only come to abound with deeds corresponding to the fruit that is bending these boughs above me, it could not be a burden, thought it might be very sad and lonely. I now begin to understand Jennie Burton—her constant effort in behalf of others. But HE will comfort her before long. Her dark days are nearly over. No matter how deep or great her troubles may have been, they must vanish in the sunshine of such a man's love. I wonder if he has spoken plainly yet—but what need of words? His eyes and manner have told her all a hundred times. I wish she could be my friend, I wish I could speak to her plainly, for she is so kind and wise; but I must shun her, or else she'll discover the secret that I'd hide from her even more carefully than from him, if such a thing were possible. I wonder if they ever met before they came here. I never saw one human being look at another as she sometimes looks at him. I believe that deep in her heart she fairly idolizes him, although her singular self-control enables her, as a general thing, to treat him with the ease and frankness of a friend. Well, she may love him more deeply than I do because possessing a deeper nature. I can but give all I have. But I think my love would be like the little brook over there. It's not very deep or obtrusive, but Mr. Eltinge says it has never failed. Well, well! these are not the thoughts for me, though how I can help them I cannot tell. I will try to win a little respect from him before we part, and then my life, like this pear-tree, must be full of good deeds for those who have the best right to receive them," and taking a small pen-knife from her pocket she mounted the chair, and carved within the two lower branches where they could not easily be discovered the words,
Chapter XLII. The Corner-Stone of Character.
After the characteristic act by which Ida had identified the tree—once so bruised and broken—with herself, she sat down again at its foot and thought long and deeply. The deep hush and quiet of the quaint old garden was just what she needed after the delirium of her passion and despair. Her pulse began to grow more even, and her beautiful face sweet and noble with the better thoughts she now was entertaining. As she sat there leaning her head against the bole of the tree, the shadows of the leaves above deepening and brightening across her pale features, and her large, dark eyes often growing humid with sympathy with her thoughts, she made as fair a picture as could Eve herself, were she dreaming over her lost garden-home. At last she said slowly:
"I wonder if it will be possible for a Divine love gradually to supplant a human love? 'Whom to know is eternal life.' This hope seems to be my only hope—my only remedy, my one chance. I must soon go back to the city, where I cannot see good old Mr. Eltinge, where I will no longer have the excitement of occasionally meeting Mr. Van Berg, where I shall be fact to face with only the hard, prosaic difficulties that will abound in the world without, but especially in my own home. I plainly foresee that I shall become bitter, selfish, and reckless again, unless I find such a Friend as Mr. Eltinge describes, who will give me daily and positive help; a mere decorous, formal religion will be of no more use to me than pictures of bread to the famishing. I must have a strong, patient Friend who will see me through my troubles, or I'm lost. I may even grow as desperate and wicked as I have been again," and she buried her face in her hands and fairly trembled with apprehension.
"Come, my child, cheer up! All will end well yet. Take an old man's word for it. I've lived through several troubles that I thought would finish me, thanks to the good Lord, and here I am now, safe and sound and in the possession of two good homes—this one and the better one over the river they say is so dark. I don't believe it's much more of a river to the Christian than yonder little brook; but I can tell you, my child, we'll find a wonderful difference between the two shores."
Ida found that the old gentleman had joined her unperceived, and she told him of her fears.
"Now, don't worry," he answered, "about what will happen when you go back to the city. Christ himself has said: 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' Your whole duty is to do your best now, and he'll take care of the future. He did not call himself the 'Good Shepherd' for nothing, as I and millions of others, know from experience. He'll see you over all the hard places, if you ask him to, and just follow patiently. You may not be able to see the way or know where he is leading you, any more than the sheep; but the path, however flinty and thorny, will end in the fold. Of that be assured." And he gave her one or two sad chapters from his own life of which he could now speak calmly and understandingly.
As they were about to part, Ida said: "Mr. Eltinge, I'm so ignorant that I have not the remotest idea how to commence this Christian life. I greatly wish to form a character worthy of respect, but I don't know how to set about it."
"Commence by living simple and true, my dear. Truthfulness is the corner-stone of the character that men most respect and God will honor. None of us can be perfect, but we can all be honest, and pretend to be no better than we are. Just simply follow your conscience, pray daily for light and guidance, and do the best you can. Live up to the light as you get it, and remember the good Lord will be as patient with you as a mother with her baby that is just learning to walk. Be truthful and sincere as you have been with me to-day, and all will be well."
Then he brought a step-ladder, and filled a little basket with pears. "They'll ripen nicely in your drawer," he said, "and I shouldn't wonder if you found 'em kind of nourishing to your soul as well as body, now you know how they grew."
With a promise to come on the morrow Ida drove away more cheered and comforted than she had thought it possible ever to be again. But as she approached the hotel piazza, and saw the artist talking with Jennie Burton, she experienced a sinking of heart that taught her how difficult her path must be at best.
Van Berg hastened down eagerly to assist her to alight, for her reappearance lifted a terrible load of anxiety from his mind. In spite of herself the color rushed into the cheeks which of late had become so pale, and the hand she gave him trembled as he helped her from the phaeton.
"I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you again. I've been oppressed with fear all day," he could not forbear saying, in a low tone.
"I suppose you naturally felt that you could not trust me," she replied, averting her face. "I've been spending the day with a friend."
"Forgive me," he said eagerly. "I seem fated to wound you, but I wish they might hereafter be the wounds of a friend."
She would not trust herself to look up till she became more composed, but could not resist the impulse to say: "Do friends give only wounds?"
Van Berg bit his lip and followed her slowly up the steps.
"I see from your basket," said Miss Burton, kindly, "that you have been foraging. I hope you had good success."
"Yes, I think I've been successful," replied Ida, who was desperately sorry that Miss Burton had intercepted her and must see her burning cheeks. "I have not found roses, as you did, but perhaps these are more in keeping with my prosaic and material nature;" and she lifted the cover and offered the fruit.
"You treat me better than I did you," said Miss Burton, smilingly, and ignoring an implied satire which Ida had not intended. "I did not give you any of my roses."
Ida shot a side glance at the artist which said to him plainly:
"But Mr. Van Berg did," and he flushed deeply.
Then she selected a superb pear, and after looking at it keenly a moment, handed it to him with the low words:
"I think you will find that no worm has been in that."
He took it with evident embarrassment and was about to speak eagerly, but she passed quickly in, and went to her room.
"I am justly punished," said Van Berg frankly. "Miss Burton, please let me explain her allusion."
"I would rather you would not," she replied promptly, "for Miss Mayhew made it in a low tone, showing that she intended it for your ear only."
"Well, then I must content myself by saying that standing near this spot, not long since, I acted like a fool."
"It's an excellent sign of wisdom, Mr. Van Berg," she said laughingly, "that you have discovered the fact. The only fools to be despaired of are those who never find themselves out."
"Did you ever do a very foolish thing, Miss Jennie?"
"It would be a very foolish thing for me to listen to any more of such monstrous flattery. Or perhaps you are satirical and take this roundabout way of telling me that I'm human like yourself. I'm going down to supper, for I prefer Mr. Burleigh's toast to such doubtful compliments."
"Miss Jennie, I protest, I never offered you a compliment in my life," he said, accompanying her.
"In the name of the King's English, what are compliments, then?"
"Mere verbal sugar-plums, sweet, cloying, and often poisonous. My expressions of honest opinion are, like Mr. Burleigh's toast you are so fond of, made of the finest wheat of truth, leavened by my irrepressible admiration, and done to the nicest shade of brown by the warmth of my FRIENDLY regard."
"Oh, oh, OH! Your compliments are verbal balloons."
"Yes, that figure might apply to them also, for these opinions of mine—not compliments, mark!—often carry me up above the clouds and vapors of earth."
"Where you will find the atmosphere exceedingly thin and cold, I assure you," said Miss Burton, with something like seriousness in her tone. "I must remind you, Mr. Van Berg, that even Jack Bunsby did not give his opinions till they were asked, and I will take some toast, if you please, in their stead."
Stanton and Mrs. Mayhew now appeared, and the conversation became general, in which the former made rather futile efforts to conceal his dejection. His aunt had told him that Ida had merely said she had spent the day with a friend, and that she would explain her absence at the proper time. "She has such a dignified way of speaking, that you are made to feel it is an insult to ask a question, so I shall just take her at her word, and leave her to herself," concluded the lady.
"She'll never forgive me," muttered Stanton.
A little later than the others, the object of his thoughts came down to supper. The deep color which the unexpected episode with the artist had caused now lingered only as a faint glow in her cheeks. She had fastened a few pear leaves in her hair, and wore no other ornament. Her thin white dress suggested rather than reveated the exquisite symmetry of her neck and arms, and Van Berg was compelled to admit to himself that his trained and critical eyes could scarcely detect a flaw in her marvellous beauty, or in the taste shown in her costume.
But there was something about her manner which appealed to him more than her beauty even. The evening before she had chilled their hearts by her unnatural and icy words and bearing. Now there was an expression of humility and diffidence wholly unlike anything he had ever seen before. She did not seem inclined to enter into conversation, and yet she was not repellant and cold, but rather seemed to shrink from notice, and to indicate that past memories were embarrassing. But she would not look at her cousin, for she still felt a deep resentment towards him. She was no saint because she had cherished some good thoughts and impulses that day, and as for poor Stanton, he became so depressed that he lapsed into utter silence.
Miss Burton was becoming deeply interested in Ida. When she saw her crimson face as the artist hastened to the phaeton, a sudden light had flashed into her eyes, and the thought crossed her mind:
"Mr. Van Berg is the magician who is unwittingly practising upon her and making her so unlike her former self," and as she hurriedly recalled the past, she found there was much in Ida's manner not inconsistent with this theory. Still it was not with any prying, gossipy interest, that she observed closely, in order to discover if there were good reasons for her surmise.
But Ida's manner was so quiet and guarded it would have required keener eyes than even Jennie Burton's to detect the hidden fire.
The meal promised to pass, with some constraint, it is true, but without any embarrassing incident, when Mrs. Mayhew was the means of placing poor Ida in a very painful dilemma. Under a general impulse to conciliate her daughter and make amends, and with her usual want of tact, she suddenly and sententiously said:
"Well, I think Ida's very brave to be able to drive for herself."
There was a moment of embarrassed silence after this unexpected remark, and then Miss Burton made matters far worse by saying, with the kindest intentions:
"After Miss Mayhew's adventure in the stage no one can doubt her courage, and I'm sure I admire a brave woman much more than a brave man. Men are brave as a matter of course." Then she saw from the sudden scarlet that flamed up into Ida's cheeks, and the manner of the artist, who suddenly became wholly absorbed in his supper, that she had made an unfortunate allusion. There was nothing to do but promptly change the subject, so she turned and asked:
"What is the greatest number of miles you have ever driven in a day, Mr. Stanton?"
"I beg your pardon!" said the preoccupied young man, starting at the sound of his name.
Miss Burton repeated her question. But in the meantime it was evident a severe conflict was going on in Ida Mayhew's mind. How could she obey Mr. Eltinge's injunction to be honest and true, if she let this false impression concerning her behavior in the stage remain? How could she hope to win a particle of respect from Van Berg if she received again this undeserved praise? How could she look her kind old friend in the face if she continued silent? She felt she must either speak or take the pear leaves out of her hair. It was hard, bitter hard to speak then and there before them all, but her indecision soon gave place to the resolve to lay at once what Mr. Eltinge had called the corner-stone of character.
"Miss Burton," she said abruptly, as Stanton was trying to collect his wits so as to make a suitable reply.
They all looked at her involuntarily. Her face was pale now, and had the white, resolute aspect often seen in those about to face great danger.
"Miss Burton, I am sorry to say you have a false impression of my conduct in the stage. So far from showing presence of mind and courage on that occasion, I was terror-stricken and, I believe, hysterical. With all my faults, I shall at LEAST try to tell the truth hereafter."
"By Jupiter!" cried the impulsive Stanton, "that's the pluckiest thing I ever saw a woman do, or man either. Ida, from this day I'm proud of you, though you have little occasion to be so of me."
The poor girl had looked steadily at Miss Burton while speaking, but the moment the ordeal was over her lip quivered like that of a child, and she hastily left the table.
She had scarcely mounted half the stairs that led to her room before Van Berg was at her side.
"Miss Mayhew," he said eagerly, "I did not sleep last night, nor can I to-night until assured of your forgiveness. Myself I can never forgive."
Her heart was full and her nerves overstrained already. She could not speak, but she bowed her head on the rail of the balustrade, hiding her face against her arm, and strove hard to check the rising sobs.
"Miss Mayhew," he continued, in low, pleading tones, "in all my life I never condemned myself so bitterly as I have for my treatment of you. I can only appeal to your generosity. I NEED your forgiveness," and he waited for her answer.
But she could not answer. It seemed as if she could not maintain even her partial self-control a moment longer. Her heart forgave him, however, and she wished him to know it, so without lifting her head she held out her hand in the place of the words she could not trust herself to utter. He seized it eagerly, and it so trembled and throbbed in his grasp that it made him think of a wounded bird that he once had captured.
"I take your hand, Miss Mayhew," he said earnestly, "not as a sign of truce between us, but as a token of forgiveness, and the pledge of reconciliation and friendship. Your brave truth-telling to-night has atoned for your past. Please give me a chance at least to try to atone for mine."
His only reply was a faint pressure from her hand and then she sped up the stairway. He did not see her again till she came down to breakfast the following morning, when she treated him with a quiet, distant, well-bred courtesy that did not suggest the sobbing girl who had fled from him the evening before, much less the despairing, desperate woman who had given him the drug with which she had intended to end her existence. They who see conventional surfaces only know but little of life.
Truthful as she was trying to be, she was puzzling him more than ever, although he was giving a great deal of thought to the problem.
Chapter XLIII. A "Heavenly Mystery."
While Ida's manner at the breakfast-table was quiet and self-possessed, she still maintained the same distant bearing which had been characteristic the evening before. It was evident to Van Berg, however, that pride, wounded vanity, and resentment were no longer the motives for the seclusion in which she sought to remain, even while under the eyes of others. It was the natural shrinking of one who would hide weakness, trouble, and imperfection. It was the bearing of one who had been deeply humiliated, and who was conscious of a partial estrangement towards those having a knowledge of this humiliation. Thus far he could understand her; and in the proportion she was depressed and withdrew from social recognition and encouragement, his sympathy and respect were drawn out towards her.
"She is not trivial and superficial, as I supposed," he thought twenty times that morning. "There is not a sudden calm after the storm that has been raging, as would be the case were she in character like a shallow pool. Her manner now proves daily the largeness of the nature that has been so deeply moved, and which, like the agitated sea, regains its peace but slowly;" and the sagacious Van Berg, whose imagination was not under very good control began to react into the other extreme, and query whether Ida Mayhew's moral nature, now that it was aroused, was not her chief characteristic.
Meanwhile, the subject of his many-colored speculations had driven away in the low basket phaeton, having first explained briefly to her mother that she intended to spend the morning again with the two old people she had visited the previous day.
Stanton volunteered this amount of information to his friend, and there was much surmise and curiosity in their minds in regard to these "old people," and her motive in seeking them. But even Mrs. Mayhew had begun to realize that they must take Ida at her word and leave her to herself.
It was with something even more than hopefulness that Ida drew near to the garden again. She was alive; that fact, in contrast with what might have been, was like solid ground beneath her feet. Then, again, in the place of the cold, distant manner of the guests, after the departure of Sibley, she had already noticed friendly glances and an evident disposition to make amends. It also gave her not a little satisfaction that her cousin and the artist were experiencing such sincere compunctions, and were realizing the enormity of their offence. Ida was very human, and always would be. She was also a little elated over the fact that she had been able to tell the truth the evening before. The memory, however, that nestled most warmly in her heart was the assertion of Van Berg, "I NEED your forgiveness." "How much does that mean?" she asked herself again and again. "Does he really wish to be a friend, or is he only trying to smooth over matters and calm me down so he can leave me decorously, as after our hateful episode on the stage?"
Her wishes colored her thoughts. "He spoke too earnestly to mean so little," she said to herself, with a dreamy smile that Van Berg, as an artist merely, would have given much to see.
After all, perhaps one of the chief causes of her reviving spirits was in the fact she was young. She could not take a very sombre view of life that fresh summer morning, even in view of the past and the future, and her manner of greeting Mr. Eltinge and of telling her experiences since they parted suggested to him that she was gaining in self-complacency, earthly hope, and youthful spirits, rather than in the deep and lasting peace and moral strength which is built up from the Living Rock. She was finding relief from depression and suffering from causes as transient as they were superficial. Chief of all, she had not realized as he had supposed the shadow of the awful crime that was resting upon her, and the need of God's forgiveness. Almost unconsciously the old man, wise and experienced in spiritual life, sighed deeply as she finished her story.
Her quick ear caught the sigh, and her woman's intuition gathered from his face that the outlook did not seem so encouraging to him. Her heart began to sink, and she said earnestly:
"Mr. Eltinge, I've tried to be true; I want you to be faithful to me. Don't hide anything from me."
Yes, my child," he replied gravely, "you are sincere—you hide nothing. I think I understand you. I thank God he gave you strength last night to tell the truth under very trying circumstances, and you have greatly increased my respect for you that you did so. But, to use a little figurative language, if I were your doctor I might tell you that you don't realize how sick you are and have been. There have been some encouraging symptoms and circumstances, and your spirits and hope are reviving, and you are looking to these things rather than to him who taketh away the sin of the world. I tried to encourage you yesterday, my child, because I saw you were deeply depressed; and to discourage us is one of the chief aims of the Evil One. I do not wish to discourage you to-day—far from it—but I wish to realize that only the forgiveness and healing touch of the Son of God are equal to your need.
"My child," he continued, with a solemnity that made her grow very pale, "suppose I should take you to a room in the house there, show you a fair girl with eyes that should look for her duty in life closed forever, and the hands that should faithfully and bravely do it paralyzed in death. Suppose I should tell you that I had given her a poisonous drug the night before, what would I be?"
"A murderer," whispered the girl with eyes dilated with fear and horror.
"Yes," said the old man, shaking his head sadly; "I would have destroyed a life that God had given, and destroyed endless chances for happiness and usefulness, and sent a poor soul to judgement, perhaps unforgiven and unprepared. My child, it cuts me to the heart to pain you so, but the physician's probe must go to the depth of the wound. It is no kindness to the patient to put on a soothing surface application and leave death to rankle in the blood. We have no reason to believe that in the eye of God he that destroys himself is any the less guilty than he that kills another, and even in the judgment of man it's a cowardly flight from misfortunes that should be triumphed over with courage and patience, or endured with fortitude and resignation. Mark my words, it is only a flight, not an escape, for every evil you sought to shun would have been intensified and rendered eternal. Now, the simple truth is, we hold our own lives in trust from God, to be used according to his will, and we have no more right to destroy the life he entrusts to us than the life he gives to others."
Ida had buried her face in her hands and was trembling violently.
"I did not realize it before," she murmured in a low, shuddering tone. "Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do? Why doesn't the earth open and swallow me up?"
The old man came to her side again, and placing his right hand gently on her bowed head and holding a Bible in his left, continued in grave by very gentle tones:
"Take this Book, my child; it will tell you what to do. It will tell you that merciful and all-powerful arms are open to receive you, and not a hopeless grave. The Son of God has said to the heavy laden, 'Come unto me,' and 'whosoever cometh I will in nowise cast out.' Heaven is full, my child, of just such guilty souls as yours, but it was HE who saved them. It was His precious blood that washed them whiter than snow. When you seek for forgiveness and healing at His feet all will be well, but not till then, and not elsewhere."
"O, Mr. Eltinge," she sobbed, "you have pierced my heart as with a sword."
"I have, indeed, my poor child—with the sword of truth; and what's more, I can't heal the wound I've made."
"What shall I do? oh, what shall I do?" and she fairly writhed in the agony of her remorse.
"'Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world,'" he said gently but firmly, and his strong faith and the words of Holy Writ were like a rock, at which, from out of the overwhelming torrent of her remorseful despair, she grasped as her one chance, her one hope.
Lifting her streaming eyes to heaven, and clasping her hands, she cried passionately:
"O Christ, hope of the sinful, if there is mercy for such as I, forgive me, for my crime is like a falling mountain!"
A moment later she sprang up and put her arms around the old man's neck.
"My friend, my more than father!" she sobbed, "I think—I almost believe God has heard me. It seems as if I had escaped from death, and—and—my heart was breaking; but now—oh, it's all a heavenly mystery!"
"Yes," replied Mr. Eltinge brokenly, and with answering emotion, "it is a heavenly mystery. 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.'"
Ida could never forget the remaining hours which she spent that day in the old garden. it was then and there that she experienced the sensations of those entering a new spiritual life and a new world; and with some, these first impressions are very vivid; and with some, these first impressions are very vivid.
It was according to nature that it should be so in the instance of Ida Mayhew, for she was simple, positive, and warm in her feelings, rather than cold and complex. But she was sane, and abounded in the homely common sense which enabled her to understand herself and those about her. She formed fairly correct estimates of all whom she had met, and with the same simple directness she began to recognize the character of the Divine Man that Mr. Eltinge and the Bible they read together presented.
No earthly casuistry could ever lead her to doubt that he had heard her prayer that morning. She might reply simply to all cavil and questioning:
"I know he heard and answered me, and if I do not know this to be true, I cannot know anything to be true;" for never before had her consciousness made anything so distinct and real.
To say that she and multitudes of others are mistaken, is begging the whole question. It is baldly taking the ground of denial of everything outside of personal understanding and knowledge. The skepticism of very many would blot out the greater part of science, history, and geography. The facts of Christian experience and Christian testimony are as truly facts as those which are discovered by people who are hostile or indifferent to the Bible.
The broad, liberal man is he who accepts all truth and humbly waits till the fuller wisdom of coming ages reconciles what is now apparently conflicting. The bigot is he who shuts his eyes to truth he does not like, or does not understand; and he is as apt to be a scientist as the man who has learned that the God who made him can also speak to him, through his inspired word and all-pervading Spirit.
We are surrounded by earthly mysteries which the wisest cannot solve, and some of them are very sad and dark. Why should there not be, as Ida said, a heavenly mystery?
After all, it is a question of fact. The Christ of the New Testament offers to give peace and spiritual healing. Does he keep his word? We say yes, on the broad ground of human experience and human testimony—the ground on which is built the greater part of human knowledge.
If this be true, what a reproach is contained in the words of our Lord: "Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life"!
Chapter XLIV. "The Garden of Eden."
"Mr. Eltinge," Ida asked, as they were about to part, "have I a right to the glad sense of escape and safety that has come so unexpectedly?"
"Your right," he replied, "depends on the character of the Friend you have found. Do you think he is able and willing to keep his word?"
"Oh, Mr. Eltinge, how plain you make it all!"
"No, my dear; it was made plain centuries ago. You have as much right to your happy feelings as to the sunshine; but never put your feelings in the place of Christ, and trust in them. That's like putting faith in one's gratitude, instead of the friend whose services inspired the gratitude. But come again to-morrow, and we'll go on with the 'old, old story.' I've read it scores of times, but am enjoying it now with you more than ever. Good-by."
As Ida drew near to the hotel, Stanton stepped from the roadside to meet her.
"Ida," he said, "if you cannot forgive me (and perhaps you cannot), I'll leave to-morrow morning—and perhaps I had better any way. I fear it was an evil day for us both when we came to this place."
"I've thought so too, Cousin Ik," she said kindly; "but I don't now. I'm glad I came here, though it has cost me a great deal of suffering and—and—may—but no matter. I was better and worse than you thought me. I must in sincerity say that it has been hard to forgive you, for your suspicion wounded me more deeply than you'll ever know. But my own need of forgiveness has taught me to forgive others; and I now see that I also have been very disagreeable to you, Ik. Let us exchange forgiveness and be friends."
"Ida, what has come over you? You are no more like the girl that I brought to the country than I'm like the self-satisfied fool that accompanied you."
"No, Ik, you are not a fool, and never were; but, like myself, you had a good deal of self-complacency, and not much cause for it. Pardon me for speaking plainly, but after what has passed between us we can afford to be frank. You may not win Jennie Burton, but I believe she'll wake you up, and make a strong, genuine man of you."
"Ida," he said in a low tone, and with lips that quivered a little, "I'm not sorry that I love Jennie Burton, though in consequence I may never see another happy day. But good-by; I'm too confoundedly blue to-day to speak to another mortal. It's a great relief, though, that you have forgiven me. I wouldn't if I had been in your place, and don't think I forgive myself because you have let me off so easily;" and he turned hastily away, and was soon lost to her view in the shrubbery by the roadside.
If Ida had puzzled Van Berg in the morning, he was still more perplexed in the evening. Slight traces of her deep emotion still lingered around her eyes, but in the eyes themselves there shone a light and hopefulness which he had never seen before, and which he could not interpret. Moreover, her face was growing so gentle and womanly, so free from the impress of all that had marred it heretofore, that he could not help stealing glances so often that were Jennie Burton of a jealous disposition she might think his interest not wholly artistic. Although there was much of the shrinking and retiring manner of the morning, and she did not join in the general conversation, all traces of resentment and coldness towards her companions had vanished. She was considerate and even kind to her mother, but in reply to her questions concerning the people she had visited, said gently but firmly:
"I will take you there some day, mother, and then you can judge for yourself."
But with the exception of a promptness to check all reference to herself and the day's experiences, her manner was so different from what Mrs. Mayhew had been accustomed to, that she could not help turning many perplexed and curious glances toward her daughter, and was evidently no better able to understand the subtle and yet real change than was the artist himself.
Miss Burton, with her keen, delicate perceptions, recognized this difference more fully than any of the others; and her instinct, rather than anything she saw in Ida, enabled her to divine the cause in part. "I know of but one thing that can account for Miss Mayhew's behavior," she thought, "and though she guards her secret well, she cannot deceive a woman who has passed through my experience. I begin to see it all. She used Sibley as a blind, and she was blind herself, poor child, when she did so, to everything save the one womanly necessity of hiding an unsought love. Well, well, my outspoken lover has eyes for her sweet, chastened beauty to-night. Perhaps he thinks he is studying her face as an artist. Perhaps he is. But it strikes me that he has lost the critical and judicial expression which I have noticed hitherto," and a glimmer of a smile that did not in the least suggest the "green-eyed monster" hovered for a moment like a ray of light over Jennie Burton's face.
"Mother," said Ida, in a low, sympathetic tone, "I see one of your headaches coming on. Let me bathe your head after tea."
"Ida," whispered Mrs. Mayhew, "you are so changed I don't know you."
The young girl flushed slightly, and by a quick, warning look checked all further remark of this tendency.
"She is indeed marvelously changed," thought Miss Burton. "I feel it even more than I can see it. There must be some other influence at work. Who are these friends she is visiting, and who send her back to us daily with some unexpected grace? Yesterday it was truthfulness—to-day an indescribable charm of manner that has banished the element of earthiness from her beauty. I think I will join my friend (who imagines himself something more) in the study of a problem that is becoming intensely interesting."
"Miss Mayhew," Van Berg found a chance to say after supper, "you are becoming a greater enigma to me than ever."
"Well," she replied, averting her face to hide the color that would rise at his rather abrupt and pointed address, "I'd rather be a Chinese puzzle to you than what I was."
"And I no doubt have appeared to you like a Chinese Mandarin, Grand Turk, Great Mogul, not name self-satisfied Pharisees, and all of that ilk."
"I can't say that you have, and yet I've keenly felt your superiority. I think the character you are now enacting is more becoming than any of those would be, however."
"What is that?" he asked quickly.
"Well," she said hesitatingly, "I hardly know how to describe it, but it suggests a little the kindness which, they say, makes all the world kin. Good-night, Mr. Van Berg."
"Miss Jennie," he said, later in the evening, "you have an insight into character which we grosser mortals do not possess. Do you think that there is a marked change taking place in Miss Mayhew?"
"And so you expect me to read Miss Mayhew's secrets and gossip about them with you?" she answered with one of her piquant smiles.
"What a sweetbrier you are! Now tell me in your own happy way how you would describe this change which you see and understand far more clearly than I."
"I'll give you one thought that has occurred to me and then leave you to solve the problem for yourself. Have you ever seen a person who had been delirious or deranged become sand and quiet, simple and natural? Although Miss Mayhew's expression and manner are so different from what we have seen hitherto, she looks and acts to-night just as one instinctively feels she ought always to appear in order to be her true self. Before there was discord; now there is harmony."
"If I had your eyes I'd never read books. You suggest the effect perfectly, but what is the cause?"
"Was a man ever satisfied?"
"One certainly never is where you are concerned, but will always echo Oliver Twist's plaintive appeal for 'more.'"
"O constant moon! register that vow," said Miss Burton, laughing. "Mr. Van Berg, one of the first rules that I teach my young ladies is to say good-evening to a gentleman when he grows sentimental," and she smiling vanished through a window that opened on the piazza.
"Jennie Burton," he muttered, "you are a wraith, an exquisite ghost that will haunt me all my days, but on which I can never lay my hands."
The next morning the artist, in his kindling interest, was guilty of a stratagem. He took an early breakfast by himself, under the pretence that he was going on a sketching expedition; but he went straight to the brow of a little hill that overlooked the road which Ida must take should she visit her new-found friends again. He soon became very busy with his sketch-book, but instead of outlines of the landscape before him taking shape on the paper, you might have seen the form of a young girl on a stairway with her head bowed on her right arm that rested on the baluster rail, which she timidly held out her left hand in the pace of words she could not speak.
It was with a foreboding sigh that Ida realized how much she missed him at breakfast.
Before the meal was over a letter was handed to Mrs. Mayhew. It contained only these words from her husband: "In memory of my last visit I conclude it will be mutually agreeable to us all that I spend Sunday elsewhere. You need not dread my coming."
She handed the letter to her daughter with a frown and the remark: "It's just like him."
But Ida seemed much pained by its contents, and after a moment sprang up, saying: "Cousin Ik, may I speak with you?"
When they were alone she continued: "See what father has written. He must come to-night or I'll go to him. Can't I send him a telegram?"
"Yes, Coz, and I'll take it over to the depot at once."
"Ah, Ik, you are doing me a greater kindness than you know. But it's a long drive."
"The longer the better. Will you go with me?"
"I would had I not promised my old friends I visited yesterday I'd come again to-day. They are doing me good. I'll tell you about it some time," and she wrote the following telegram to her father:
"Come to Lake House to-day. Very important."
"I wish Miss Burton would go with you," she said looking up as the thought occurred to her. "Shall I ask her?"
Stanton's wistful face proved how greatly he would enjoy such an arrangement, but after a moment he said decisively: "No. It would pain her to decline, but she would."
"You are very considerate of her."
"She is sorry for me, Ida. I can see that. She has never exulted a moment in her power over me. My love is only another burden to her sad life. I can't help it, but I can make it as light as possible."
Tears came into Ida's eyes and she faltered: "Ik, I understand you."
A little later they both drove off their different ways.
In spite of everything, Ida found that her heart would grow light and gland as she pursued her way along the quiet country road, now in the shade where the trees crowded up on the eastern side, and again in the sunlight between wide stubble fields in which the quails were whistling mellowly to each other.
Van Berg watched her coming with a heart that beat a little quickly for so cool and philosophical an investigator, and was glad that her quiet old horse resumed a slow walk at the first suggestion of the hill on which he had posted himself.
Ida leaned back in the phaeton with the abandon of those who think themselves alone, and sang a snatch from an old English hymn that Van Berg remembered as one his mother had crooned over him when a child. This melody, doubly sacred to him from its associations, would have grated harshly on his ear if it had been sung by Ida Mayhew a week before; but, strange to say, the girlish voice that floated up to him was all the sweeter for thus blending itself with some of his dearest memories.
When the ascent was half made the artist sprang down from his rocky perch, and horse and maiden were so startled that they both stopped instantly.
"Do not be alarmed," said Van Berg, laughing; "I'm not a very vicious tramp, and am armed with nothing worse than a sketch-book. If I could only induce you to be an hour in coming up this hill I'd put you and the phaeton in it. I wish it were possible to put the song in, too. Why, Miss Mayhew! Am I an ogre, that I frighten you so?"
"I was not expecting to see you," she faltered, deeply vexed that her cheeks would crimson and her hand that held the reins tremble so plainly. "You naturally think I have a very guilty conscience to be so frightened," she added after a second, and regaining a little self-control.
"That quaint old hymn tune did not suggest a guilty conscience," he said kindly.
"I think I must have heard it at church," she replied. "It's been running in my head all the morning." (He now remembered with sudden pity that no memories of sacred words and song could follow her from her home and childhood.) "But I suppose you think it is strange I can sing at all, Mr. Van Berg," she continued gravely. "You must think me very superficial that I do not appear to realize more a crime that makes it exceedingly kind of you even to speak to me, since you know about it. But I have realized the wickedness of that act more bitterly than you can ever know."
"Miss Mayhew, I admit that I can't understand you at all. You have become a greater mystery to me than ever. You see, I imitate your truthfulness."
"There is no necessity of solving the problem," she said in a low tone, and averting her face.
"Do you mean," he asked, flushing slightly, "that my interest is obtrusive and not agreeable to you?"
"If inspired by curiosity—yes," and she looked him steadily in the face.
"But if inspired by a genuine and earnest wish to be your friend and to atone for the unpardonable injustice which came about from my not understanding you?"
"If I believed that," she said, with something like a smile, "I'd take you with me this morning and reveal all the mystery there is about my poor little self in one brief hour."
"How can I prove it?" he asked eagerly.
"Say it," she answered simply.
"I do say it's true, on my honor," he replied, giving her his hand.
"You may come, then, on one other condition. I would like you to draw for me a young pear-tree, and an old gentleman sitting under it."
"I will agree to any conditions," he said, springing in by her side. "Is it the tree that bore the pear you gave me? I hope you don't think I was capable of eating that pear."
"Did you throw it away?" she asked, with a shy glance.
"Miss Mayhew, I've something I wish you to see," and he took out his note-book and showed her the rose-bud he had tossed away. "Do you recognize that?"
In spite of herself the blood rushed tumultuously into her face.
"I thought that was trampled into dust long ago," she said in a low tone.
"I shall never forget your words as you left me that evening, Miss Mayhew. It was the severest and most deserved rebuke I ever had. I picked up the bud immediately, I assure you."
"I thought you left it there," she said, in a still lower tone, and then added hastily: "But I have no doubt you acted from a sense of duty."
"I can't say that I did," he answered, dryly.
"Will you please give it to me?"
"Not unless you compel me to," and he closed the book and returned it to an inside breast-pocket. "I would like to carry it as a talisman against Phariseeism, the most hateful of vices."
"Oh, very well," and she turned away her face again.
"But please tell me about this pear-tree," he resumed.
"It won't seem to you as it did to me," she replied, with an embarrassed air, "and I'm sorry I spoke of it, but now that I have I may as well go on. To explain I must go back a little. Mr. Van Berg, I'm taking you to see the old gentleman who saved me from—from—-" Her face was pale enough now.
"My dear Miss Mayhew, don't pain yourself by referring to that."
"I must," she said slowly. "By some strange fate you have seen me at my worst, and since you say you care, you shall know the rest. It may relieve your mind of a fear that I've seen in your face since. I didn't think I'll ever be so wicked and desperate again, and I wish you to know my reasons for thinking so. Well, on that dreadful night the party I was with went into a prayer-meeting, more by the way of frolic than anything else. I did not wish to go in, but, strange as it may seem to you, I was afraid to walk home, and so had to follow my company. Good old Mr. Eltinge spoke to us. He said he knew from his own long experience that there was a Divine Friend who was able and willing to cure every earthly trouble, and he spoke so simply and kindly that he caught my attention and revived my hope. I felt when I entered that place I hadn't a friend in the world or out of it. I was just blind and desperate with shame and discouragement, and—and—but perhaps you have read the letter I gave you?"
"Miss Mayhew, every word of it is burned into my memory. I scarcely moved after reading it till the morning dawned, and then I went out and walked for hours before I could compose myself and dared to meet any one. As I told you then, so I say again, I had a greater escape than you had."
"I'm very, very sorry," she replied, in a tone of deep regret.
"I too am very, very sorry, but it is for you."
She looked up quickly, and saw that his eyes were full of tears.
"I'm not ashamed of them in this instance, Miss Mayhew," he said, dashing them away.
She looked at him wonderingly, and then murmured: "Oh, thank God it has all turned out as it has." After a moment she added: "I've misjudged you also, Mr. Van Berg."
"How? Please tell me, for I feel I have more cause to be disgusted with myself than you ever had."
"Well—how shall I say what I mean? I thought you had more mind than heart."
"It appears to me I've displayed a lamentable lack of both. I must have seemed to you like an animated interrogation point."
"I soon learned you were very greatly my superior," she said simply.
"Miss Mayhew, spare me," he replied quickly, with a deprecatory gesture. "The story you were telling interests me more deeply than you will believe, and I think we shall be better acquainted before the day is over."
"Well, the rest of my story is more easily told than understood, and perhaps your man's reason may not find it very satisfactory. You know the old superstition that the sing of the cross puts to flight the Evil One. I don't believe that, but I believe that the One who suffered on the cross puts him to flight. Mr. Eltinge's simple, downright assertion that Jesus could remedy every earthly trouble—that he would be a patient, helpful Friend—broke the evil spell by which despair had blinded me, and I resolved to try and live if I could. After the old gentleman came out of the church I asked him to let me visit him, and he has been very, very kind. I told him everything. The first day he saw I was greatly discouraged, and told me the history of a young pear-tree against which he was leaning, and which was full of beautiful fruit. He said that on a stormy night it was broken by the wind, and trampled upon by some stray cattle, and he scarcely thought it could live, for it was prostrate on the ground, but he lifted it, and took care of it, and gave nature a chance to restore it. You would think nature was like a kind of mother, to hear him talk. Then he reasoned that Jesus, the Author of nature, would do for me what nature had done for the wounded tree, but that I must not expect too much at first—that I must be receptive and willing to grow patiently as the tree had done, in a new and better life. Thus the tree has become to me an emblem of hope, and I trust a prophecy of my future, although I do not expect ever to reach anything like the perfection suggested by the pear-tree and its delicious fruit. The facts that have impressed me most are that it was bruised, prostrate, and ready to die, and now it is alive and useful. Old Mr. Eltinge loves it, and likes to lean against it, as you will see."
"The fact that has impressed me most in this allegory," groaned Van Berg, "is that I was the brute that trampled on you."
"You are too severe on yourself," she said earnestly. "I shall have to take your part."
"Please do. I throw myself wholly on your mercy."
"I believe Shakespeare was right," she said, with a shy laugh and averted face. "Mercy is always twice bless'd. But I have not told you all, Mr. Van Berg. Yesterday was the most memorable day of my life. On Thursday Mr. Eltinge saw I needed encouragement; yesterday he saw that I had not realized the crime I had almost committed, and that I was stopping short of him who alone could change my whole nature. Indeed, I think he saw that I was even inclined to become well pleased with myself, and content with my prospects of winning back the esteem of others. He was faithful with me as well as kind. By an illustration, which you will pardon me for not repeating, he made it clear to me as the light that in the intent of my heart I had been guilty of murder. Mr. Van Berg, may you never know the agony and remorse that I suffered for the few moments I saw my sin somewhat as it must appear to God, and to good men like Mr. Eltinge. I was overwhelmed. It seemed as if my crime would crush me. I don't think I could have lived if the sense of terror and despair had lasted. But dear old Mr. Eltinge stood by me in that terrible moment. He put his hand on my head as a father might have done, and in tones that seemed like a voice from heaven, said: 'Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.' I felt that I could not bear my sin an instant longer; it was like a mountain of lead, and with a desperate impulse to escape, I looked to Christ—I just fled to him, as it were, and it was the same as if he had opened his arms and received me. From that moment I have felt safe, and almost happy. I can't explain all this to you, I only tell you what happened. It doesn't seem like superstition or excited imagination, as I've heard some characterize these things. It was all too real: Mr. Van Berg, the simple truth is—I've found a Friend, who is pledged to take care of me. I KNOW IT. I am reading the story of his life, under Mr. Eltinge's guidance, and that is why I come here. Now you know all the mystery there is about the faulty girl in whom circumstances have given you a passing interest. Since you knew so much that was against me, perhaps you will not think it strange that I was willing you should learn what is now in my favor. It is simply this—I've found a Divine Friend who will help me live a better life."
They had now reached Mr. Eltinge's gate, and Van Berg stepped out to open it. But before doing so, he turned to his companion, and with eyes moist with feeling, said earnestly:
"Miss Mayhew, circumstances might have given me but a passing interest in you, but YOU have won an abiding interest. You have been generous enough to forgive me, and now you will have to repel me resolutely, to prevent my being your friend. Indeed I shall be one in heart hereafter, even though you may not permit me to enjoy your society, for you may very naturally wish to shun one who cannot fail to remind you of so much that is painful. As for your story, it is a revelation to me. I may never possess your happy faith, but I will respect it;" and although he turned hastily away she could not fail to see that he was deeply moved.
Mr. Eltinge received the young man with some surprise, and did not seem to regard his presence as altogether welcome. The artist thought to disarm the old gentleman by a decided manifestation of frankness and courtesy:
"I feel that in a certain sense I am an intruder in your beautiful garden to-day. Miss Mayhew met me on the road, and I fear I must own that I had the bad grace almost the same as to invite myself hither. At least she saw that I was exceedingly anxious to come."
"Do you know Miss Mayhew's motive in coming hither?" asked Mr. Eltinge, gravely.
"I do, and I respect it."
"You take safe ground there, sir," said Mr. Eltinge, with increasing dignity. "Christianity is at least respectable. But do you believe it to be absolutely true and binding on the conscience?"
The artist was silent.
"Mr. Van Berg," resumed the old gentleman, with a gravity that tended even towards sternness, "I would not fail in any act of courtesy towards you, especially her at my own home; but justice, mercy, and truth are above all other considerations. Both you and I know this child's history sufficiently well to be aware that it is a dangerous thing to exert an influence at random on human lives. You say you know her motive in coming hither. Let me state the truth very plainly: she has turned her face heavenward; she is taking her first uncertain steps as a pilgrim towards the better home. In justice to you and in mercy to you both let me quote the words of him before whom we all shall stand;" and placing his hand on Ida's shoulder he repeated with the aspect of one of God's ancient prophets those solemn words that too many dare to ignore: "'Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.' Mr. Van Berg, in memory of the past, beware lest consciously or even unconsciously, through your indifference to her faith, you lay a straw in this child's way. The weak and the helpless are very near to the heart of God, and the most dangerous act a man ever commits is when he causes one of these little ones to offend."
Ida trembled beneath her friend's hand and wished she had not permitted the artist to come, but the young man's sincerity and good-breeding enabled him to pass the ordeal. Removing his hat, he replied to Mr. Eltinge with a fine blending of dignity and humility:
"I honor you, sir," he said, "for your faithfulness to the one who has come to you for counsel and in a certain sense for protection; and I condemn myself with bitterness that you will never understand, that I wronged her in my thoughts and wounded her by any manner. I am eager to make any and every atonement in my power. No language can express my gladness that she heard and heeded your words. Pardon me, sir, when I say I am not indifferent to her faith. It is, indeed, a mystery to me, but a noble mystery which I revere from the fruits that I have already witnessed. In my unpardonable stupidity and prejudice—in a Pharisaic pride—I have caused Miss Mayhew to offend. She has generously forgiven me. Myself I shall never forgive. If she will honor me with her friendship hereafter, I pledge you my word that no act of mine, so far as I can help it, shall ever cause you anxiety for one in whom you have so strong and natural an interest."