"'Sing again, prince. It makes it less tedious,' said the princess.
"But the prince was too much overcome to sing any more. And a long pause followed.
"'This is very kind of you, prince,' said the princess at last, quite coolly, as she lay in the boat with her eyes shut.
"'I am sorry I can't return the compliment,' thought the prince; 'but you are worth dying for after all.'
"Again a wavelet, and another, and another, flowed over the stone, and wetted both the prince's knees thoroughly; but he did not speak or move. Two—three—four hours passed in this way, the princess apparently fast asleep, and the prince very patient. But he was much disappointed in his position, for he had none of the consolation he had hoped for.
"At last he could bear it no longer.
"'Princess!' said he.
"But at the moment, up started the princess, crying,
"'I'm afloat! I'm afloat!'
"And the little boat bumped against the stone.
"'Princess!' repeated the prince, encouraged by seeing her wide awake, and looking eagerly at the water.
"'Well?' said she, without once looking round.
"'Your papa promised that you should look at me; and you haven't looked at me once.'
"'Did he? Then I suppose I must. But I am so sleepy!'
"'Sleep then, darling, and don't mind me,' said the poor prince.
"'Really, you are very good,' replied the princess. 'I think I will go to sleep again.'
"'Just give me a glass of wine and a biscuit, first,' said the prince very humbly.
"'With all my heart,' said the princess, and gaped as she said it.
"She got the wine and the biscuit, however; and, coming nearer with them,
"'Why, prince,' she said, 'you don't look well! Are you sure you don't mind it?'
"'Not a bit,' answered he, feeling very faint indeed. 'Only, I shall die before it is of any use to you, unless I have something to eat.'
"'There, then!' said she, holding out the wine to him.
"'Ah! you must feed me. I dare not move my hands. The water would run away directly.'
"'Good gracious!' said the princess; and she began at once to feed him with bits of biscuit, and sips of wine.
"As she fed him, he contrived to kiss the tips of her fingers now and then. She did not seem to mind it, one way or the other. But the prince felt better.
"'Now, for your own sake, princess,' said he, 'I cannot let you go to sleep. You must sit and look at me, else I shall not be able to keep up.'
"'Well, I will do anything I can to oblige you,' answered she, with condescension; and, sitting down, she did look at him, and kept looking at him with wonderful steadiness, considering all things.
"The sun went down, and the moon came up; and, gush after gush, the waters were flowing over the rock. They were up to the prince's waist now.
"'Why can't we go and have a swim?' said the princess. 'There seems to be water enough just about here.'
"'I shall never swim more,' said the prince.
"'Oh! I forgot,' said the princess, and was silent.
"So the water grew and grew, and rose up and up on the prince. And the princess sat and looked at him. She fed him now and then. The night wore on. The waters rose and rose. The moon rose likewise, higher and higher, and shone full on the face of the dying prince. The water was up to his neck.
"'Will you kiss me, princess?' said he feebly at last; for the fun was all out of him now.
"'Yes, I will,' answered the princess; and kissed him with a long, sweet, cold kiss.
"'Now,' said he, with a sigh of content, 'I die happy.'
"He did not speak again. The princess gave him some wine for the last time: he was past eating. Then she sat down again, and looked at him. The water rose and rose. It touched his chin. It touched his lower lip. It touched between his lips. He shut them hard to keep it out. The princess began to feel strange. It touched his upper lip. He breathed through his nostrils. The princess looked wild. It covered his nostrils. Her eyes looked scared, and shone strange in the moonlight. His head fell back; the water closed over it; and the bubbles of his last breath bubbled up through the water. The princess gave a shriek, and sprang into the lake.
"She laid hold first of one leg, then of the other, and pulled and tugged, but she could not move either. She stopped to take breath, and that made her think that he could not get any breath. She was frantic. She got hold of him, and held his head above the water, which was possible now his hands were no longer on the hole. But it was of no use, for he was past breathing.
"Love and water brought back all her strength. She got under the water, and pulled and pulled with her whole might, till, at last, she got one leg out. The other easily followed. How she got him into the boat she never could tell; but when she did, she fainted away. Coming to herself, she seized the oars, kept herself steady as best she could; and rowed and rowed, though she had never rowed before. Round rocks, and over shallows, and through mud, she rowed, till she got to the landing-stairs of the palace. By this time her people were on the shore, for they had heard her shriek. She made them carry the prince to her own room, and lay him in her bed, and light a fire, and send for the doctors.
"'But the lake, your Highness!' said the Chamberlain, who, roused by the noise, came in, in his night-cap.
"'Go and drown yourself in it!' said she.
"This was the last rudeness of which the princess was ever guilty; and one must allow that she had good cause to feel provoked with the lord chamberlain.
"Had it been the king himself, he would have fared no better. But both he and the queen were fast asleep. And the chamberlain went back to his bed. So the princess and her old nurse were left with the prince. Somehow, the doctors never came. But the old nurse was a wise woman, and knew what to do.
"They tried everything for a long time without success. The princess was nearly distracted between hope and fear, but she tried on and on, one thing after another, and everything over and over again.
"At last, when they had all but given it up, just as the sun rose, the prince opened his eyes.
* * * * *
"CHAPTER XV.—LOOK AT THE RAIN!
"The princess burst into a passion of tears, and fell on the floor. There she lay for an hour, and her tears never ceased. All the pent-up crying of her life was spent now. And a rain came on, such as had never been seen in that country. The sun shone all the time, and the great drops, which fell straight to the earth, shone likewise. The palace was in the heart of a rainbow. It was a rain of rubies, and sapphires, and emeralds, and topazes. The torrents poured from the mountains like molten gold; and if it had not been for its subterraneous outlet, the lake would have overflowed and inundated the country. It was full from shore to shore.
"But the princess did not heed the lake. She lay on the floor and wept. And this rain within doors was far more wonderful than the rain out of doors. For when it abated a little, and she proceeded to rise, she found, to her astonishment, that she could not. At length, after many efforts, she succeeded in getting upon her feet. But she tumbled down again directly. Hearing her fall, her old nurse uttered a yell of delight, and ran to her, screaming:
"'My darling child! She's found her gravity!'
"'Oh! that's it, is it?' said the princess, rubbing her shoulder and her knee alternately. 'I consider it very unpleasant. I feel as if I should be crushed to pieces.'
"'Hurrah!' cried the prince, from the bed. 'If you're all right, princess, so am I. How's the lake?'
"'Brimful,' answered the nurse.
"'Then we're all jolly.'
"'That we are, indeed!' answered the princess, sobbing.
"And there was rejoicing all over the country that rainy day. Even the babies forgot their past troubles, and danced and crowed amazingly. And the king told stories, and the queen listened to them. And he divided the money in his box, and she the honey in her pot, to all the children. And there was such jubilation as was never heard of before.
"Of course the prince and princess were betrothed at once. But the princess had to learn to walk, before they could be married with any propriety. And this was not so easy, at her time of life, for she could walk no more than a baby. She was always falling down and hurting herself.
"'Is this the gravity you used to make so much of?' said she, one day, to the prince. 'For my part, I was a great deal more comfortable without it.'
"'No, no; that's not it. This is it,' replied the prince, as he took her up, and carried her about like a baby, kissing her all the time. 'This is gravity.'
"'That's better,' said she. 'I don't mind that so much.'
"And she smiled the sweetest, loveliest smile in the prince's face. And she gave him one little kiss, in return for all his; and he thought them overpaid, for he was beside himself with delight. I fear she complained of her gravity more than once after this, notwithstanding.
"It was a long time before she got reconciled to walking. But the pain of learning it, was quite counterbalanced by two things, either of which would have been sufficient consolation. The first was, that the prince himself was her teacher; and the second, that she could tumble into the lake as often as she pleased. Still, she preferred to have the prince jump in with her; and the splash they made before, was nothing to the splash they made now.
"The lake never sank again. In process of time, it wore the roof of the cavern quite through, and was twice as deep as before.
"The only revenge the princess took upon her aunt, was to tread pretty hard on her gouty toe, the next time she saw her. But she was sorry for it the very next day, when she heard that the water had undermined her house, and that it had fallen in the night, burying her in its ruins; whence no one ever ventured to dig up her body. There she lies to this day.
"So the prince and princess lived and were happy; and had crowns of gold, and clothes of cloth, and shoes of leather, and children of boys and girls, not one of whom was ever known, on the most critical occasion, to lose the smallest atom of his or her due proportion of gravity."
* * * * *
"Very good indeed!"
"Quite a success!"
cried my complimentary friends.
"I don't think the princess could have rowed, though—without gravity, you know," said the schoolmaster.
"But she did," said Adela. "I won't have my uncle found fault with. It is a very funny, and a very pretty story."
"What is the moral of it?" drawled Mrs. Cathcart, with the first syllable of moral very long and very gentle.
"That you need not be afraid of ill-natured aunts, though they are witches," said Adela.
"No, my dear; that's not it," I said. "It is, that you need not mind forgetting your poor relations. No harm will come of it in the end."
"I think the moral is," said the doctor, "that no girl is worth anything till she has cried a little."
Adela gave him a quick glance, and then cast her eyes down. Whether he had looked at her I don't know. But I should think not.—Neither the clergyman nor his wife had made any remark. I turned to them.
"I am afraid you do not approve of my poor story," I said.
"On the contrary," replied Mr. Armstrong, "I think there is a great deal of meaning in it, to those who can see through its fairy-gates. What do you think of it, my dear?"
"I was so pleased with the earnest parts of it, that the fun jarred upon me a little, I confess," said Mrs. Armstrong. "But I daresay that was silly."
"I think it was, my dear. But you can afford to be silly sometimes, in a good cause."
"You might have given us the wedding." said Mrs. Bloomfield.
"I am an old bachelor, you see. I fear I don't give weddings their due," I answered. "I don't care for them—in stories, I mean."
"When will you dine with us again?" asked the colonel.
"When you please," answered the curate.
"Rather too soon that, is it not? Who is to read the next story?"
"Why, you, of course," answered his brother.
"I am at your service," rejoined Mr. Armstrong. "But to-morrow!"
"Don't you think, Ralph," said his wife, "you could read better if you followed your usual custom of dining early?"
"I am sure I should, Lizzie. Don't you think, Colonel Cathcart, it would be better to come in the evening, just after your dinner? I like to dine early, and I am a great tea-drinker. If we might have a huge tea-kettle on the fire, and tea-pot to correspond on the table, and I, as I read my story, and the rest of the company, as they listen, might help ourselves, I think it would be very jolly, and very homely."
To this the colonel readily agreed. I heard the ladies whispering a little, and the words—"Very considerate indeed!" from Mrs. Bloomfield, reached my ears. Indeed I had thought that the colonel's hospitality was making him forget his servants. And I could not help laughing to think what Beeves's face would have been like, if he had heard us all invited to dinner again, the next day.
Whether Adela suspected us now, I do not know. She said nothing to show it.
Just before the doctor left, with his brother and sister, he went up to her, and said, in a by-the-bye sort of way:
"I am sorry to hear that you have not been quite well of late, Miss Cathcart. You have been catching cold, I am afraid. Let me feel your pulse."
She gave him her wrist directly, saying:
"I feel much better to-night, thank you."
He stood—listening to the pulse, you would have said—his whole attitude was so entirely that of one listening, with his eyes doing nothing at all. He stood thus for a while, without consulting his watch, looking as if the pulse had brought him into immediate communication with the troubled heart itself, and he could feel every flutter and effort which it made. Then he took out his watch and counted.
Now that his eyes were quite safe, I saw Adela's eyes steal up to his face, and rest there for a half a minute with a reposeful expression. I felt that there was something healing in the very presence and touch of the man—so full was he of health and humanity; and I thought Adela felt that he was a good man, and one to be trusted in.
He gave her back her hand, as it were, so gently did he let it go, and said:
"I will send you something as soon as I get home, to take at once. I presume you will go to bed soon?"
"I will, if you think it best."
And so Mr. Henry Armstrong was, without more ado, tacitly installed as physician to Miss Adela Cathcart; and she seemed quite content with the new arrangement.
Before the next meeting took place, namely, after breakfast on the following morning, Percy having gone to visit the dogs, Mrs. Cathcart addressed me:
"I had something to say to my brother, Mr. Smith, but—"
"And you wish to be alone with him? With all my heart," I said.
"Not at all, Mr. Smith," she answered, with one of her smiles, which were quite incomprehensible to me, until I hit upon the theory that she kept a stock of them for general use, as stingy old ladies keep up their half worn ribbons to make presents of to servant-maids; "I only wanted to know, before I made a remark to the colonel, whether Dr. Armstrong—"
"Mr. Armstrong lays no claim to the rank of a physician."
"So much the better for my argument. But is he a friend of yours, Mr. Smith?"
"Yes—of nearly a week's standing."
"Oh, then, I am in no danger of hurting your feelings."
"I don't know that," thought I, but I did not say it.
"Well, Colonel Cathcart—excuse the liberty I am taking—but surely you do not mean to dismiss Dr. Wade, and give a young man like that the charge of your daughter's health at such a crisis."
"Dr. Wade is dismissed already, Jane. He did her no more good than any old woman might have done."
"But such a young man!"
"Not so very young," I ventured to say. "He is thirty at least."
But the colonel was angry with her interference; for, an impetuous man always, he had become irritable of late.
"Jane," he said, "is a man less likely to be delicate because he is young? Or does a man always become more refined as he grows older? For my part—" and here his opposition to his unpleasant sister-in-law possibly made him say more than he would otherwise have conceded—"I have never seen a young man whose manners and behaviour I liked better."
"Much good that will do her! It will only hasten the mischief. You men are so slow to take a hint, brother; and it is really too hard to be forced to explain one's self always. Don't you see that, whether he cures her or not, he will make her fall in love with him? And you won't relish that, I fancy."
"You won't relish it, at all events. But mayn't he fall in love with her as well?" thought I; which thought, a certain expression in the colonel's face kept me from uttering. I saw at once that his sister's words had set a discord in the good man's music. He made no reply; and Mrs. Cathcart saw that her arrow had gone to the feather. I saw what she tried to conceal—the flash of success on her face. But she presently extinguished it, and rose and left the room. I thought with myself that such an arrangement would be the very best thing for Adela; and that, if the blessedness of woman lies in any way in the possession of true manhood, she, let her position in society be what it might compared with his, and let her have all the earls in the kingdom for uncles, would be a fortunate woman indeed, to marry such a man as Harry Armstrong;—for so much was I attracted to the man, that I already called him Harry, when I and Myself talked about him. But I was concerned to see my old friend so much disturbed. I hoped however that his good generous heart would right its own jarring chords before long, and that he would not spoil a chance of Adela's recovery, however slight, by any hasty measures founded on nothing better than paternal jealousy. I thought, indeed, he had gone too far to make that possible for some time; but I did not know how far his internal discomfort might act upon his behaviour as host, and so interfere with the homeliness of our story-club, upon which I depended not a little for a portion of the desired result.
The motive of Mrs. Cathcart's opposition was evident. She was a partizan of Percy; for Adela was a very tolerable fortune, as people say.
These thoughts went through my mind, as thoughts do, in no time at all; and when the lady had closed the door behind her with protracted gentleness, I was ready to show my game; in which I really considered my friend and myself partners.
"Those women," I said, (women forgive me!), with a laugh which I trust the colonel did not discover to be a forced one—"Those women are always thinking about falling in love and that sort of foolery. I wonder she isn't jealous of me now! Well, I do love Adela better than any man will, for some weeks to come. I've been a sweetheart of hers ever since she was in long clothes." Here I tried to laugh again, and, to judge from the colonel, I verily believe I succeeded. The cloud lightened on his face, as I made light of its cause, till at last he laughed too. If I thought it all nonsense, why should he think it earnest? So I turned the conversation to the club, about which I was more concerned than about the love-making at present, seeing the latter had positively no existence as yet.
"Adela seemed quite to enjoy the reading last night," I said.
"I thought she looked very grave," he answered.
The good man had been watching her face all the time, I saw, and evidently paying no heed to the story. I doubted if he was the better judge for this—observing only ab extra, and without being in sympathy with her feelings as moved by the tale.
"Now that is just what I should have wished to see," I answered. "We don't want her merry all at once. What we want is, that she should take an interest in something. A grave face is a sign of interest. It is all the world better than a listless face."
"But what good can stories do in sickness?"
"That depends on the origin of the sickness. My conviction is, that, near or far off, in ourselves, or in our ancestors—say Adam and Eve, for comprehension's sake—all our ailments have a moral cause. I think that if we were all good, disease would, in the course of generations, disappear utterly from the face of the earth."
"That's just like one of your notions, old friend! Rather peculiar. Mystical, is it not?"
"But I meant to go on to say that, in Adela's case, I believe, from conversation I have had with her, that the operation of mind on body is far more immediate than that I have hinted at."
"You cannot mean to imply," said my friend, in some alarm, that Adela has anything upon her conscience?"
"Certainly not. But there may be moral diseases that do not in the least imply personal wrong or fault. They may themselves be transmitted, for instance. Or even if such sprung wholly from present physical causes, any help given to the mind would react on those causes. Still more would the physical ill be influenced through the mental, if the mind be the source of both.
"Now from whatever cause, Adela is in a kind of moral atrophy, for she cannot digest the food provided for her, so as to get any good of it. Suppose a patient in a corresponding physical condition, should show a relish for anything proposed to him, would you not take it for a sign that that was just the thing to do him good? And we may accept the interest Adela shows in any kind of mental pabulum provided for her, as an analogous sign. It corresponds to relish, and is a ground for expecting some benefit to follow—in a word, some nourishment of the spiritual life. Relish may be called the digestion of the palate; interest, the digestion of the inner ears; both significant of further digestion to follow. The food thus relished may not be the best food; and yet it may be the best for the patient, because she feels no repugnance to it, and can digest and assimilate, as well as swallow it. For my part, I believe in no cramming, bodily or mental. I think nothing learned without interest, can be of the slightest after benefit; and although the effort may comprise a moral good, it involves considerable intellectual injury. All I have said applies with still greater force to religious teaching, though that is not definitely the question now."
"Well, Smith, I can't talk philosophy like you; but what you say sounds to me like sense. At all events, if Adela enjoys it, that is enough for me. Will the young doctor tell stories too?"
"I don't know. I fancy he could. But to-night we have his brother."
"I shall make them welcome, anyhow."
This was all I wanted of him; and now I was impatient for the evening, and the clergyman's tale. The more I saw of him the better I liked him, and felt the more interest in him. I went to church that same day, and heard him read prayers, and liked him better still; so that I was quite hungry for the story he was going to read to us.
The evening came, and with it the company. Arrangements, similar to those of the evening before, having been made, with some little improvements, the colonel now occupying the middle place in the half-circle, and the doctor seated, whether by chance or design, at the corner farthest from the invalid's couch, the clergyman said, as he rolled and unrolled the manuscript in his hand:
"To explain how I came to write a story, the scene of which is in Scotland, I may be allowed to inform the company that I spent a good part of my boyhood in a town in Aberdeenshire, with my grandfather, who was a thorough Scotchman. He had removed thither from the south, where the name is indigenous; being indeed a descendant of that Christy, whom his father, Johnie Armstrong, standing with the rope about his neck, ready to be hanged—or murdered, as the ballad calls it—apostrophizes in these words:
'And God be with thee, Christy, my son, Where thou sits on thy nurse's knee! But an' thou live this hundred year, Thy father's better thou'lt never be.'
But I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen all, for this has positively nothing to do with the story. Only please to remember that in those days it was quite respectable to be hanged."
We all agreed to this with a profusion of corroboration, except the colonel; who, I thought, winced a little. But presently our attention was occupied with the story, thus announced:
"The Bell. A Sketch in Pen and Ink."
He read in a great, deep, musical voice, with a wealth of pathos in it—always suppressed, yet almost too much for me in the more touching portions of the story.
"One interruption more," he said, before he began. "I fear you will find it a sad story."
And he looked at Adela.
I believe that he had chosen the story on the homoeopathic principle.
"I like sad stories," she answered; and he went on at once.
"A SKETCH IN PEN AND INK.
"Elsie Scott had let her work fall on her knees, and her hands on her work, and was looking out of the wide, low window of her room, which was on one of the ground floors of the village street. Through a gap in the household shrubbery of fuchsias and myrtles filling the window- sill, one passing on the foot-pavement might get a momentary glimpse of her pale face, lighted up with two blue eyes, over which some inward trouble had spread a faint, gauze-like haziness. But almost before her thoughts had had time to wander back to this trouble, a shout of children's voices, at the other end of the street, reached her ear. She listened a moment. A shadow of displeasure and pain crossed her countenance; and rising hastily, she betook herself to an inner apartment, and closed the door behind her.
"Meantime the sounds drew nearer; and by and by, an old man, whose strange appearance and dress showed that he had little capacity either for good or evil, passed the window. His clothes were comfortable enough in quality and condition, for they were the annual gift of a benevolent lady in the neighbourhood; but, being made to accommodate his taste, both known and traditional, they were somewhat peculiar in cut and adornment. Both coat and trousers were of a dark grey cloth; but the former, which, in its shape, partook of the military, had a straight collar of yellow, and narrow cuffs of the same; while upon both sleeves, about the place where a corporal wears his stripes, was expressed, in the same yellow cloth, a somewhat singular device. It was as close an imitation of a bell, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, as the tailor's skill could produce from a single piece of cloth. The origin of the military cut of his coat was well known. His preference for it arose in the time of the wars of the first Napoleon, when the threatened invasion of the country caused the organization of many volunteer regiments. The martial show and exercises captivated the poor man's fancy; and from that time forward nothing pleased his vanity, and consequently conciliated his good will more, than to style him by his favourite title—the Colonel. But the badge on his arm had a deeper origin, which will be partially manifest in the course of the story—if story it can be called. It was, indeed, the baptism of the fool, the outward and visible sign of his relation to the infinite and unseen. His countenance, however, although the features were not of any peculiarly low or animal type, showed no corresponding sign of the consciousness of such a relation, being as vacant as human countenance could well be.
"The cause of Elsie's annoyance was that the fool was annoyed; for, he was turned his rank into scorn, and assailed him with epithets hateful to him. Although the most harmless of creatures when let alone, he was dangerous when roused; and now he stooped repeatedly to pick up stones and hurl them at his tormentors, who took care, while abusing him, to keep at a considerable distance, lest he should get hold of them. Amidst the sounds of derision that followed him, might be heard the words frequently repeated—'Come hame, come hame.' But in a few minutes the noise ceased, either from the interference of some friendly inhabitant, or that the boys grew weary, and departed in search of other amusement. By and by, Elsie might be seen again at her work in the window; but the cloud over her eyes was deeper, and her whole face more sad.
"Indeed, so much did the persecution of the poor man affect her, that an onlooker would have been compelled to seek the cause in some yet deeper sympathy than that commonly felt for the oppressed, even by women. And such a sympathy existed, strange as it may seem, between the beautiful girl (for many called her a bonnie lassie) and this 'tatter of humanity.' Nothing would have been farther from the thoughts of those that knew them, than the supposition of any correspondence or connection between them; yet this sympathy sprung in part from a real similarity in their history and present condition.
"All the facts that were known about Feel Jock's origin were these: that seventy years ago, a man who had gone with his horse and cart some miles from the village, to fetch home a load of peat from a desolate moss, had heard, while toiling along as rough a road on as lonely a hill-side as any in Scotland, the cry of a child; and, searching about, had found the infant, hardly wrapt in rags, and untended, as if the earth herself had just given him birth,—that desert moor, wide and dismal, broken and watery, the only bosom for him to lie upon, and the cold, clear night-heaven his only covering. The man had brought him home, and the parish had taken parish-care of him. He had grown up, and proved what he now was—almost an idiot. Many of the townspeople were kind to him, and employed him in fetching water for them from the river and wells in the neighbourhood, paying him for his trouble in victuals, or whisky, of which he was very fond. He seldom spoke; and the sentences he could utter were few; yet the tone, and even the words of his limited vocabulary, were sufficient to express gratitude and some measure of love towards those who were kind to him, and hatred of those who teased and insulted him. He lived a life without aim, and apparently to no purpose; in this resembling most of his more gifted fellow-men, who, with all the tools and materials needful for the building of a noble mansion, are yet content with a clay hut.
"Elsie, on the contrary, had been born in a comfortable farmhouse, amidst homeliness and abundance. But at a very early age, she had lost both father and mother; not so early, however, but that she had faint memories of warm soft times on her mother's bosom, and of refuge in her mother's arms from the attacks of geese, and the pursuit of pigs. Therefore, in after-times, when she looked forward to heaven, it was as much a reverting to the old heavenly times of childhood and mother's love, as an anticipation of something yet to be revealed. Indeed, without some such memory, how should we ever picture to ourselves a perfect rest? But sometimes it would seem as if the more a heart was made capable of loving, the less it had to love; and poor Elsie, in passing from a mother's to a brother's guardianship, felt a change of spiritual temperature, too keen. He was not a bad man, or incapable of benevolence when touched by the sight of want in anything of which he would himself have felt the privation; but he was so coarsely made, that only the purest animal necessities affected him; and a hard word, or unfeeling speech, could never have reached the quick of his nature through the hide that enclosed it. Elsie, on the contrary, was excessively and painfully sensitive, as if her nature constantly protended an invisible multitude of half-spiritual, half- nervous antennae, which shrunk and trembled in every current of air at all below their own temperature. The effect of this upon her behaviour was such, that she was called odd; and the poor girl felt that she was not like other people, yet could not help it. Her brother, too, laughed at her without the slightest idea of the pain he occasioned, or the remotest feeling of curiosity as to what the inward and consistent causes of the outward abnormal condition might be. Tenderness was the divine comforting she needed; and it was altogether absent from her brother's character and behaviour.
"Her neighbours looked on her with some interest, but they rather shunned than courted her acquaintance; especially after the return of certain nervous attacks, to which she had been subject in childhood, and which were again brought on by the events I must relate. It is curious how certain diseases repel, by a kind of awe, the sympathies of the neighbours: as if, by the fact of being subject to them, the patient were removed into another realm of existence, from which, like the dead with the living, she can hold communion with those around her only partially, and with a mixture of dread pervading the intercourse. Thus some of the deepest, purest wells of spiritual life, are, like those in old castles, choked up by the decay of the outer walls. But what tended more than anything, perhaps, to keep up the painful unrest of her soul (for the beauty of her character was evident in the fact, that the irritation seldom reached her mind), was a circumstance at which, in its present connection, some of my readers will smile, and others feel a shudder corresponding in kind to that of Elsie.
"Her brother was very fond of a rather small, but ferocious-looking bull-dog, which followed close at his heels, wherever he went, with hanging head and slouching gait, never leaping or racing about like other dogs. When in the house, he always lay under his master's chair. He seemed to dislike Elsie, and she felt an unspeakable repugnance to him. Though she never mentioned her aversion, her brother easily saw it by the way in which she avoided the animal; and attributing it entirely to fear—which indeed had a great share in the matter—he would cruelly aggravate it, by telling her stories of the fierce hardihood and relentless persistency of this kind of animal. He dared not yet further increase her terror by offering to set the creature upon her, because it was doubtful whether he might be able to restrain him; but the mental suffering which he occasioned by this heartless conduct, and for which he had no sympathy, was as severe as many bodily sufferings to which he would have been sorry to subject her. Whenever the poor girl happened inadvertently to pass near the dog, which was seldom, a low growl made her aware of his proximity, and drove her to a quick retreat. He was, in fact, the animal impersonation of the animal opposition which she had continually to endure. Like chooses like; and the bull-dog in her brother made choice of the bull-dog out of him for his companion. So her day was one of shrinking fear and multiform discomfort.
"But a nature capable of so much distress, must of necessity be capable of a corresponding amount of pleasure; and in her case this was manifest in the fact, that sleep and the quiet of her own room restored her wonderfully. If she was only let alone, a calm mood, filled with images of pleasure, soon took possession of her mind.
"Her acquaintance with the fool had commenced some ten years previous to the time I write of, when she was quite a little girl, and had come from the country with her brother, who, having taken a small farm close to the town, preferred residing in the town to occupying the farm-house, which was not comfortable. She looked at first with some terror on his uncouth appearance, and with much wonderment on his strange dress. This wonder was heightened by a conversation she overheard one day in the street, between the fool and a little pale- faced boy, who, approaching him respectfully, said, 'Weel, cornel!' 'Weel, laddie!' was the reply. 'Fat dis the wow say, cornel?' 'Come hame, come hame!' answered the colonel, with both accent and quantity heaped on the word hame. She heard no more, and knew not what the little she had heard, meant. What the wow could be, she had no idea; only, as the years passed on, the strange word became in her mind indescribably associated with the strange shape in yellow cloth on his sleeves. Had she been a native of the town, she could not have failed to know its import, so familiar was every one with it, although the word did not belong to the local vocabulary; but, as it was, years passed away before she discovered its meaning. And when, again and again, the fool, attempting to convey his gratitude for some kindness she had shown him, mumbled over the words—'The wow o' Rivven—the wow o' Rivven,' the wonder would return as to what could be the idea associated with them in his mind, but she made no advance towards their explanation.
"That, however, which most attracted her to the old man, was his persecution by the children. They were to him what the bull-dog was to her—the constant source of irritation and annoyance. They could hardly hurt him, nor did he appear to dread other injury from them than insult, to which, fool though he was, he was keenly alive. Human gad-flies that they were! they sometimes stung him beyond endurance, and he would curse them in the impotence of his anger. Once or twice Elsie had been so far carried beyond her constitutional timidity, by sympathy for the distress of her friend, that she had gone out and talked to the boys,—even scolded them, so that they slunk away ashamed, and began to stand as much in dread of her as of the clutches of their prey. So she, gentle and timid to excess, acquired among them the reputation of a termagant. Popular opinion among children, as among men, is often just, but as often very unjust; for the same manifestations may proceed from opposite principles; and, therefore, as indices to character, any mislead as often as enlighten.
"Next door to the house in which Elsie resided, dwelt a tradesman and his wife, who kept an indefinite sort of shop, in which various kinds of goods were exposed to sale. Their youngest son was about the same age as Elsie; and while they were rather more than children, and less than young people, he spent many of his evenings with her, somewhat to the loss of position in his classes at the parish school. They were, indeed, much attached to each other; and, peculiarly constituted as Elsie was, one may imagine what kind of heavenly messenger a companion stronger than herself must have been to her. In fact, if she could have framed the undefinable need of her child-like nature into an articulate prayer, it would have been—'Give me some one to love me stronger than I.' Any love was helpful, yes, in its degree, saving to her poor troubled soul; but the hope, as they grew older together, that the powerful, yet tender-hearted youth, really loved her, and would one day make her his wife, was like the opening of heavenly eyes of life and love in the hitherto blank and death-like face of her existence. But nothing had been said of love, although they met and parted like lovers.
"Doubtless if the circles of their thought and feeling had continued as now to intersect each other, there would have been no interruption to their affection; but the time at length arrived when the old couple seeing the rest of their family comfortably settled in life, resolved to make a gentleman of the youngest; and so sent him from school to college. The facilities existing in Scotland for providing a professional training, enabled them to educate him as a surgeon. He parted from Elsie with some regret; but, far less dependent on her than she was on him, and full of the prospects of the future, he felt none of that sinking at the heart which seemed to lay her whole nature open to a fresh inroad of all the terrors and sorrows of her peculiar existence. No correspondence took place between them. New pursuits and relations, and the development of his tastes and judgments, entirely altered the position of poor Elsie in his memory. Having been, during their intercourse, far less of a man than she of a woman, he had no definite idea of the place he had occupied in her regard; and in his mind she receded into the background of the past, without his having any idea that she would suffer thereby, or that he was unjust towards her; while, in her thoughts, his image stood in the highest and clearest relief. It was the centre-point from which and towards which all lines radiated and converged; and although she could not but be doubtful about the future, yet there was much hope mingled with her doubts.
"But when, at the close of two years, he visited his native village, and she saw before her, instead of the homely youth who had left her that winter evening, one who, to her inexperienced eyes, appeared a finished gentleman, her heart sank within her, as if she had found Nature herself false in her ripening processes, destroying the beautiful promise of a former year by changing instead of developing her creations. He spoke kindly to her, but not cordially. To her ear the voice seemed to come from a great distance out of the past; and while she looked upon him, that optical change passed over her vision, which all have experienced after gazing abstractedly on any object for a time: his form grew very small, and receded to an immeasurable distance; till, her imagination mingling with the twilight haze of her senses, she seemed to see him standing far off on a hill, with the bright horizon of sunset for a back-ground to his clearly defined figure.
"She knew no more till she found herself in bed in the dark; and the first message that reached her from the outer world, was the infernal growl of the bull-dog from the room below. Next day she saw her lover walking with two ladies, who would have thought it some degree of condescension to speak to her; and he passed the house without once looking towards it.
"One who is sufficiently possessed by the demon of nervousness to be glad of the magnetic influences of a friend's company in a public promenade, or of a horse beneath him in passing through a churchyard, will have some faint idea of how utterly exposed and defenceless poor Elsie now felt on the crowded thoroughfare of life. And the insensibility which had overtaken her, was not the ordinary swoon with which Nature relieves the over-strained nerves, but the return of the epileptic fits of her early childhood; and if the condition of the poor girl had been pitiable before, it was tenfold more so now. Yet she did not complain, but bore all in silence, though it was evident that her health was giving way. But now, help came to her from a strange quarter; though many might not be willing to accord the name of help to that which rather hastened than retarded the progress of her decline.
"She had gone to spend a few of the summer days with a relative in the country, some miles from her home, if home it could be called. One evening, towards sunset, she went out for a solitary walk. Passing from the little garden gate, she went along a bare country road for some distance, and then, turning aside by a footpath through a thicket of low trees, she came out in a lonely little churchyard on the hill-side. Hardly knowing whether or not she had intended to go there, she seated herself on a mound covered with long grass, one of many. Before her stood the ruins of an old church which was taking centuries to crumble. Little remained but the gable-wall, immensely thick, and covered with ancient ivy. The rays of the setting sun fell on a mound at its foot, not green like the rest, but of a rich, red-brown in the rosy sunset, and evidently but newly heaped up. Her eyes, too, rested upon it. Slowly the sun sank below the near horizon.
"As the last brilliant point disappeared, the ivy darkened, and a wind arose and shook all its leaves, making them look cold and troubled; and to Elsie's ear came a low faint sound, as from a far-off bell. But close beside her—and she started and shivered at the sound—rose a deep, monotonous, almost sepulchral voice: 'Come hame, come hame! The wow, the wow!'
"At once she understood the whole. She sat in the churchyard of the ancient parish church of Ruthven; and when she lifted up her eyes, there she saw, in the half-ruined belfry, the old bell, all but hidden with ivy, which the passing wind had roused to utter one sleepy tone; and there, beside her, stood the fool with the bell on his arm; and to him and to her the wow o' Rivven said, 'Come hame, come hame!' Ah, what did she want in the whole universe of God but a home? And though the ground beneath was hard, and the sky overhead far and boundless, and the hill-side lonely and companionless, yet somewhere within the visible, and beyond these the outer surfaces of creation, there might be a home for her; as round the wintry house the snows lie heaped up cold and white and dreary all the long forenight, while within, beyond the closed shutters, and giving no glimmer through the thick stone walls, the fires are blazing joyously, and the voices and laughter of young unfrozen children are heard, and nothing belongs to winter but the grey hairs on the heads of the parents, within whose warm hearts child-like voices are heard, and child-like thoughts move to and fro. The kernel of winter itself is spring, or a sleeping summer.
"It was no wonder that the fool, cast out of the earth on a far more desolate spot than this, should seek to return within her bosom at this place of open doors, and should call it home. For surely the surface of the earth had no home for him. The mound at the foot of the gable contained the body of one who had shown him kindness. He had followed the funeral that afternoon from the town, and had remained behind with the bell. Indeed, it was his custom, though Elsie had not known it, to follow every funeral going to this, his favourite churchyard of Ruthven; and, possibly in imitation of its booming, for it was still tolled at the funerals, he had given the old bell the name of the wow, and had translated its monotonous clangour into the articulate sounds—come home, come home. What precise meaning he attached to the words, it is impossible to say; but it was evident that the place possessed a strange attraction for him, drawing him towards it by the cords of some spiritual magnetism. It is possible that in the mind of the idiot there may have been some feeling about this churchyard and bell, which, in the mind of another, would have become a grand poetic thought; a feeling as if the ghostly old bell hung at the church-door of the invisible world, and ever and anon rung out joyous notes (though they sounded sad in the ears of the living), calling to the children of the unseen to come home, come home.—She sat for some time in silence; for the bell did not ring again, and the fool spoke no more; till the dews began to fall, when she rose and went home, followed by her companion, who passed the night in the barn.
"From that hour Elsie was furnished with a visual image of the rest she sought; an image which, mingling with deeper and holier thoughts, became, like the bow set in the cloud, the earthly pledge and sign of the fulfilment of heavenly hopes. Often when the wintry fog of cold discomfort and homelessness filled her soul, all at once the picture of the little churchyard—with the old gable and belfry, and the slanting sunlight steeping down to the very roots the long grass on the graves—arose in the darkened chamber (camera obscura) of her soul; and again she heard the faint AEolian sound of the bell, and the voice of the prophet-fool who interpreted the oracle; and the inward weariness was soothed by the promise of a long sleep. Who can tell how many have been counted fools simply because they were prophets; or how much of the madness in the world may be the utterance of thoughts true and just, but belonging to a region differing from ours in its nature and scenery!
"But to Elsie looking out of her window came the mocking tones of the idle boys who had chosen as the vehicle of their scorn the very words which showed the relation of the fool to the eternal, and revealed in him an element higher far than any yet developed in them. They turned his glory into shame, like the enemies of David when they mocked the would-be king. And the best in a man is often that which is most condemned by those who have not attained to his goodness. The words, however, even as repeated by the boys, had not solely awakened indignation at the persecution of the old man: they had likewise comforted her with the thought of the refuge that awaited both him and her.
"But the same evening a worse trial befell her. Again she sat near the window, oppressed by the consciousness that her brother had come in. He had gone up-stairs, and his dog had remained at the door, exchanging surly compliments with some of his own kind; when the fool came strolling past, and, I do not know from what cause, the dog flew at him. Elsie heard his cry and looked up. Her fear of the brute vanished in a moment before her sympathy for her friend. She darted from the house, and rushed towards the dog to drag him off the defenceless idiot, calling him by his name in a tone of anger and dislike. He left the fool, and, springing at Elsie, seized her by the arm above the elbow with such a gripe that, in the midst of her agony, she fancied she heard the bone crack. But she uttered no cry, for the most apprehensive are sometimes the most courageous. Just then, however, her former lover was coming along the street, and, catching a glimpse of what had happened, was on the spot in an instant, took the dog by the throat with a gripe not inferior to his own, and having thus compelled him to give up his hold, dashed him on the ground with a force that almost stunned him, and then with a superadded kick sent him away limping and howling; whereupon the fool, attacking him furiously with a stick, would certainly have finished him, had not his master descried his plight and come to his rescue.
"Meantime the young surgeon had carried Elsie into the house; for, as soon as she was rescued from the dog, she had fallen down in one of her fits, which were becoming more and more frequent of themselves, and little needed such a shock as this to increase their violence. He was dressing her arm when she began to recover; and when she opened her eyes, in a state of half-consciousness, the first object she beheld, was his face bending over her. Re-calling nothing of what had occurred, it seemed to her, in the dreamy condition in which the fit had left her, the same face, unchanged, which had once shone in upon her tardy spring-time, and promised to ripen it into summer. She forgot that it had departed and left her in the wintry cold. And so she uttered wild words of love and trust; and the youth, while stung with remorse at his own neglect, was astonished to perceive the poetic forms of beauty in which the soul of the uneducated maiden burst into flower. But as her senses recovered themselves, the face gradually changed to her, as if the slow alteration of two years had been phantasmagorically compressed into a few moments; and the glow departed from the maiden's thoughts and words, and her soul found itself at the narrow window of the present, from which she could behold but a dreary country.—From the street came the iambic cry of the fool, 'Come hame, come hame."
"Tycho Brahe, I think, is said to have kept a fool, who frequently sat at his feet in his study, and to whose mutterings he used to listen in the pauses of his own thought. The shining soul of the astronomer drew forth the rainbow of harmony from the misty spray of words ascending ever from the dark gulf into which the thoughts of the idiot were ever falling. He beheld curious concurrences of words therein, and could read strange meanings from them—sometimes even received wondrous hints for the direction of celestial inquiry, from what, to any other, and it may be to the fool himself, was but a ceaseless and aimless babble. Such power lieth in words. It is not then to be wondered at, that the sounds I have mentioned should fall on the ears of Elsie, at such a moment, as a message from God himself. This then—all this dreariness—was but a passing show like the rest, and there lay somewhere for her a reality—a home. The tears burst up from her oppressed heart. She received the message, and prepared to go home. From that time her strength gradually sank, but her spirits as steadily rose.
"The strength of the fool, too, began to fail, for he was old. He bore all the signs of age, even to the grey hairs, which betokened no wisdom. But one cannot say what wisdom might be in him, or how far he had not fought his own battle, and been victorious. Whether any notion of a continuance of life and thought dwelt in his brain, it is impossible to tell; but he seemed to have the idea that this was not his home; and those who saw him gradually approaching his end, might well anticipate for him a higher life in the world to come. He had passed through this world without ever awakening to such a consciousness of being, as is common to mankind. He had spent his years like a weary dream through a long night—a strange, dismal, unkindly dream; and now the morning was at hand. Often in his dream had he listened with sleepy senses to the ringing of the bell, but that bell would awake him at last. He was like a seed buried too deep in the soil, to which, therefore, has never forced its way upwards to the open air, never experienced the resurrection of the dead. But seeds will grow ages after they have fallen into the earth; and, indeed, with many kinds, and within some limits, the older the seed before it germinates, the more plentiful is the fruit. And may it not be believed of many human beings, that, the great Husbandman having sown them like seeds in the soil of human affairs, there they lie buried a life long; and only after the upturning of the soil by death, reach a position in which the awakening of their aspiration and the consequent growth become possible. Surely he has made nothing in vain.
"A violent cold and cough brought him at last near to his end, and, hearing that he was ill, Elsie ventured one bright spring day to go to see him. When she entered the miserable room where he lay, he held out his hand to her with something like a smile, and muttered feebly and painfully, 'I'm gaein' to the wow, nae to come back again.' Elsie could not restrain her tears; while the old man, looking fixedly at her, though with meaningless eyes, muttered, for the last time, 'Come hame! come hame!' and sank into a lethargy, from which nothing could rouse him, till, next morning, he was waked by friendly death from the long sleep of this world's night. They bore him to his favourite church-yard, and buried him within the site of the old church, below his loved bell, which had ever been to him as the cuckoo-note of a coming spring. Thus he at length obeyed its summons, and went home.
"Elsie lingered till the first summer days lay warm on the land. Several kind hearts in the village, hearing of her illness, visited her and ministered to her. Wondering at her sweetness and patience, they regretted they had not known her before. How much consolation might not their kindness have imparted, and how much might not their sympathy have strengthened her on her painful road! But they could not long have delayed her going home. Nor, mentally constituted as she was, would this have been at all to be desired. Indeed it was chiefly the expectation of departure that quieted and soothed her tremulous nature. It is true that a deep spring of hope and faith kept singing on in her heart, but this alone, without the anticipation of speedy release, could only have kept her mind at peace. It could not have reached, at least for a long time, the border land between body and mind, in which her disease lay.
"One still night of summer, the nurse who watched by her bedside heard her murmur through her sleep, 'I hear it: come hame—come hame. I'm comin', I'm comin'—I'm gaein' hame to the wow, nae to come back.' She awoke at the sound of her own words, and begged the nurse to convey to her brother her last request, that she might be buried by the side of the fool, within the old church of Ruthven. Then she turned her face to the wall, and in the morning was found quiet and cold. She must have died within a few minutes after her last words. She was buried according to her request; and thus she, too, went home.
"Side by side rest the aged fool and the young maiden; for the bell called them, and they obeyed; and surely they found the fire burning bright, and heard friendly voices, and felt sweet lips on theirs, in the home to which they went. Surely both intellect and love were waiting them there.
"Still the old bell hangs in the old gable; and whenever another is borne to the old churchyard, it keeps calling to those who are left behind, with the same sad, but friendly and unchanging voice—'Come hame! come hame! come hame!'"
For a full minute, there was silence in the little company. I myself dared not look up, but the movement of indistinct and cloudy white over my undirected eyes, let me know that two or three, amongst them Adela, were lifting their handkerchiefs to their faces. At length a voice broke the silence.
"How much of your affecting tale is true, Mr. Armstrong?"
The voice belonged to Mrs. Cathcart.
"I object to the question," said I. "I don't want to know. Suppose, Mrs. Cathcart, I were to put this story-club, members, stories, and all, into a book, how would any one like to have her real existence questioned? It would at least imply that I had made a very bad portrait of that one."
The lady cast rather a frightened look at me, which I confess I was not sorry to see. But the curate interposed.
"What frightful sophistry, Mr. Smith!" Then turning to Mrs. Cathcart, he continued:
"I have not the slightest objection to answer your question, Mrs. Cathcart; and if our friend Mr. Smith does not want to hear the answer, I will wait till he stops his ears."
He glanced to me, his black eyes twinkling with fun. I saw that it was all he could do to keep from winking; but he did.
"Oh no," I answered; "I will share what is going."
"Well, then, the fool is a real character, in every point. But I learned after I had written the sketch, that I had made one mistake. He was in reality about seventeen, when he was found on the hill. The bell is a real character too. Elsie is a creature of my own. So of course are the brother and the dog."
"I don't know whether to be glad or sorry that there was no Elsie," said his wife. "But did you know the fool yourself?"
"Perfectly well, and had a great respect for him. When a little boy, I was quite proud of the way he behaved to me. He occasionally visited the general persecution of the boys, upon any boy he chanced to meet on the road; but as often as I met him, he walked quietly past me, muttering 'Auntie's folk!' or returning my greeting of 'A fine day, Colonel!' with a grunted 'Ay!'"
"What did he mean by 'Auntie's folk?'" asked Mrs. Armstrong.
"My grandmother was kind to him, and he always called her Auntie. I cannot tell how the fancy originated; but certainly he knew all her descendants somehow—a degree of intelligence not to have been expected of him—and invariably murmured 'Auntie's folk,' as often as he passed any of them on the road, as if to remind himself that these were friends, or relations. Possibly he had lived with an aunt before he was exposed on the moor."
"Is wow a word at all?" I asked.
"If you look into Jamieson's Dictionary," said Armstrong, "as I have done for the express purpose, you will find that the word is used differently in different quarters of the country—chiefly, however, as a verb. It means to bark, to howl; likewise to wave or beckon; also to woo, or make love to. Any of these might be given as an explanation of his word. But I do not think it had anything to do with these meanings; nor was the word used, in that district, in either of the last two senses, in my time at least. It was used, however, in the meaning of alas—a form of woe in fact; as wow's me! But I believe it was, in the fool's use, an attempt to reproduce the sound which the bell made. If you repeat the word several times, resting on the final w, and pausing between each repetition—wow! wow! wow!—you will find that the sound is not at all unlike the tolling of a funeral bell; and therefore the word is most probably an onomatopoetic invention of the fool's own."
Adela offered no remark upon the story, and I knew from her countenance that she was too much affected to be inclined to speak. Her eyes had that fixed, forward look, which, combined with haziness, indicates deep emotion, while the curves of her mouth were nearly straightened out by the compression of her lips. I had thought, while the reader went on, that she could hardly fail to find in the story of Elsie, some correspondence to her own condition and necessities: I now believe that she had found that correspondence. More talk was not desirable; and I was glad when, after a few attempts at ordinary conversation, Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield rose to take their leave, which was accepted by the whole company as a signal for departure.
"But stay," I interposed; "who is to read or tell next?"
"Why, I will be revenged on Harry," said the clergyman.
"That you can't," said the doctor; "for I have nothing to give you."
"You don't mean to say you are going to jib?"
"No. I don't say I won't read. In fact I have a story in my head, and a bit of it on paper; but I positively can't read next time."
"Will you oblige us with a story, Colonel?" said I.
"My dear fellow, you know I never put pen to paper in my life, except when I could not help it. I may tell you a story before it is all over, but write one I cannot."
"A tale that is told is the best tale of all," I said. "Shall we book you for next time?"
"No, no! not next time; positively not. My story must come of itself, else I cannot tell it at all."
"Well, there's nobody left but you, Mr. Bloomfield. So you can't get rid of it."
"I don't think I ever wrote what was worth calling a story; but I don't mind reading you something of the sort which I have at home, on one condition."
"What is that?"
"That nobody ask any questions about it."
"But my only reason is, that somehow I feel it would all come to pieces if you did. It is nothing, as a story; but there are feelings expressed in it, which were very strong in me when I wrote it, and which I do not feel willing to talk about, although I have no objection to having them thought about."
"Well, that is settled. When shall we meet again?"
"To-morrow, or the day after," said the colonel; "which you please."
"Oh! the day after, if I may have a word in it," said the doctor. "I shall be very busy to-morrow—and we mustn't crowd remedies either, you know."
The close of the sentence was addressed to me only. The rest of the company had taken leave, and were already at the door, when he made the last remark. He now came up to his patient, felt her pulse, and put the question,
"How have you slept the last two nights?"
"Better, thank you."
"And do you feel refreshed when you wake?"
"More so than for some time."
"I won't give you anything to-night.—Good night."
"Good night. Thank you."
This was all that passed between them. Jealousy, with the six eyes of Colonel, Mrs., and Percy Cathcart, was intent upon the pair during the brief conversation. And I thought Adela perceived the fact.
The schoolmaster's story.
I was walking up the street the next day, when, finding I was passing the Grammar-school, and knowing there was nothing going on there now, I thought I should not be intruding if I dropped in upon the schoolmaster and his wife, and had a little chat with them. I already counted them friends; for I felt that however different our training and lives might have been, we all meant the same thing now, and that is the true bond of fellowship. I found Mr. Bloomfield reading to his wife—a novel, too. Evidently he intended to make the most of this individual holiday, by making it as unlike a work-day as possible.
"I see you are enjoying yourselves," I said. "It's a shame to break in upon you."
"We are delighted to see you. Your interruption will only postpone a good thing to a better," said the kind-hearted schoolmaster, laying down his book. "Will you take a pipe?"
"With pleasure—but not here, surely?"
"Oh! we smoke everywhere in holiday-time."
"You enjoy your holiday, I can see."
"I should think so. I don't believe one of the boys delights in a holiday quite as heartily as I do. You must not imagine I don't enjoy my work, though."
"Not in the least. Earnest work breeds earnest play. But you must find the labour wearisome at times."
"I confess I have felt it such. I have said to myself sometimes: 'Am I to go on for ever teaching boys Latin grammar, till I wish there had never been a Latin nation to leave such an incubus upon the bosom of after ages?' Then I would remind myself, that, under cover of grammar and geography, and all the other farce-meat (as the word ought to be written and pronounced), I put something better into my pupils; something that I loved myself, and cared to give to them. But I often ask myself to what it all goes.—I learn to love my boys. I kill in them all the bad I can. I nourish in them all the good I can. I send them across the borders of manhood—and they leave me, and most likely I hear nothing more of them. And I say to myself: 'My life is like a wind. It blows and will cease.' But something says in reply: 'Wouldst thou not be one of God's winds, content to blow, and scatter the rain and dew, and shake the plants into fresh life, and then pass away and know nothing of what thou hast done?' And I answer: 'Yes, Lord."'
"You are not a wind; you are a poet, Mr. Bloomfield," I said, with emotion.
"One of the speechless ones, then," he returned, with a smile that showed plainly enough that the speechless longed for utterance. It was such a smile as would, upon the face of a child, wile anything out of you. Surely God, who needs no wiles to make him give what one is ready to receive, will let him sing some day, to his heart's content! And me, too, O Lord, I pray.
"What a pleasure it must be to you now, to have such a man as Mr. Armstrong for your curate! He will be a brother to you," I said, as soon as I could speak.
"Mr, Smith, I cannot tell you what he is to me already. He is doing what I would fain have done—what was denied to me."
"How do you mean?"
"I studied for the church. But I aimed too high. My heart burned within me, but my powers were small. I wanted to relight the ancient lamp, but my rush-light would not kindle it. My friends saw no light; they only smelt burning: I was heterodox. I hesitated, I feared, I yielded, I withdrew. To this day, I do not know whether I did right or wrong. But I am honoured yet in being allowed to teach. And if at the last I have the faintest 'Well done' from the Master, I shall be satisfied."
Mrs. Bloomfield was gently weeping; partly from regret, as I judged, that her husband was not in the position she would have given him, partly from delight in his manly goodness. A watery film stood in the schoolmaster's eyes, and his wise gentle face was irradiated with the light of a far-off morning, whose dawn was visible to his hope.
"The world is the better for you at least, Mr. Bloomfield," I said. "I wish some more of us were as sure as you of helping on the daily Creation, which is quite as certain a fact as that of old; and is even more important to us, than that recorded in the book of Genesis. It is not great battles alone that build up the world's history, nor great poems alone that make the generations grow. There is a still small rain from heaven that has more to do with the blessedness of nature and of human nature, than the mightiest earthquake, or the loveliest rainbow."
"I do comfort myself," he answered, "at this Christmas-time, and for the whole year, with the thought that, after all, the world was saved by a child.—But that brings me to think of a little trouble I am in, Mr. Smith. The only paper I have, at all fit for reading to-morrow night, is much too short to occupy the evening. What is to be done?"
"Oh! we can talk about it."
"That is just what I could not bear. It is rather an odd composition, I fear; but whether it be worth anything or not, I cannot help having a great affection for it."
"Then it is true, I presume?"
"There again! That is just one of the questions I don't want to answer. I quite sympathized with you last night in not wishing to know how much of Mr. Armstrong's story was true. Even if wholly fictitious, a good story is always true. But there are things which one would have no right to invent, which would be worth nothing if they were invented, from the very circumstance of their origin in the brain, and not in the world. The very beauty of them demands that they should be fact; or, if not, that they should not be told—sent out poor unclothed spirits into the world before a body of fact has been prepared for them. But I have always found it impossible to define the kinds of stories I mean. The nearest I can come to it is this: If the force of the lesson depends on the story being a fact, it must not be told except it is a fact. Then again, there are true things that one would be shy of telling, if he thought they would be attributed to himself. Now this story of mine is made up of fiction and fact both. And I fear that if I were called upon to take it to pieces, it would lose the force of any little truth it possesses, besides exposing me to what I would gladly avoid. Indeed I fear I ought not to read it at all."
"You are amongst friends, you know, Mr. Bloomfield."
"Entirely?" he asked, with a half comic expression.
"Well," I answered, laughing, "any exception that may exist, is hardly worth considering, and indeed ought to be thankfully accepted, as tending to wholesomeness. Neither vinegar nor mustard would be desirable as food, you know; yet—"
"I understand you. I am ashamed of having made such a fuss about nothing. I will do my best, I assure you."
I fear that the fastidiousness of the good man will not be excuse enough for the introduction of such a long preamble to a story for which only a few will in the least care. But the said preamble happening to touch on some interesting subjects, I thought it well to record it. As to the story itself, there are some remarks of Balzac in the introduction to one of his, that would well apply to the schoolmaster's. They are to the effect that some stories which have nothing in them as stories, yet fill one with an interest both gentle and profound, if they are read in the mood that is exactly fitted for their just reception.
Mr. Bloomfield conducted me to the door.
"I hope you will not think me a grumbler," he said; "I should not like your disapprobation, Mr. Smith."
"You do me great honour," I said, honestly. "Believe me there is no danger of that. I understand and sympathize with you entirely."
"My love of approbation is large," he said, tapping the bump referred to with his forefinger. "Excuse it and me too."
"There is no need, my dear friend," I said, "if I may call you such."
His answer was a warm squeeze of the hand, with which we parted.
As I returned home, I met Henry Armstrong, mounted on a bay mare of a far different sort from what a sportsman would consider a doctor justified in using for his purposes. In fact she was a thorough hunter; no beauty certainly, with her ewe-neck, drooping tail, and white face and stocking; but she had an eye at once gentle and wild as that of a savage angel, if my reader will condescend to dream for a moment of such an anomaly; while her hind quarters were power itself, and her foreleg was flung right out from the shoulder with a gesture not of work but of delight; the step itself being entirely one of work,—long in proportion to its height. The lines of her fore and hind-quarters converged so much, that there was hardly more than room for the saddle between them. I had never seen such action. Altogether, although not much of a hunting man, the motion of the creature gave me such a sense of power and joy, that I longed to be scouring the fields with her under me. It was a sunshiny day, with a keen cold air, and a thin sprinkling of snow; and Harry looked so radiant with health, that one could easily believe he had health to convey, if not to bestow. He stopped and inquired after his patient.
"Could you not get her to go out with you, Mr. Smith?" he said.
"Would that be safe, Mr. Henry?"
"Perfectly safe, if she is willing to go; not otherwise. Get her to go willingly for ten minutes, and see if she is not the better for it. What I want is to make the blood go quicker and more plentifully through her brain. She has not fever enough. She does not live fast enough."
"I will try," I said. "Have you been far to-day?"
"Just come out. You might tell that by the mare. You should see her three hours after this."
And he patted her neck as if he loved her—as I am sure he did—and trotted gently away.
When I came up to the gate, Beeves was standing at it.
"A nice gentleman that, sir!" said he.
"He is, Beeves. I quite agree with you."
"And rides a good mare, sir; and rides as well as any man in the country. I never see him leave home in a hurry. Always goes gently out, and comes gently in. What has gone between, you may see by her skin when she comes home."
"Does he hunt, Beeves?"
"I believe not, sir; except the fox crosses him in one of his rounds. Then if he is heading anywhere in his direction, they say doctor and mare go at it like mad. He's got two more in his stable, better horses to look at; but that's the one to go."
"I wonder how he affords such animals."
"They say he has a way of buying them lame, and a wonderful knack of setting them up again. They all go, anyhow."
"Will you say to your mistress, that I should like very much if she would come to me here."
Beeves stared, but said, "Yes, sir," and went in. I was now standing in front of the house, doubtful of the reception Adela would give my message, but judging that curiosity would aid my desire. I was right. Beeves came back with the message that his mistress would join me in a few minutes. In a quarter of an hour she came, wrapt in furs. She was very pale, but her eye was brighter than usual, and it did not shrink from the cold glitter of the snow. She put her arm in mine, and we walked for ten minutes along the dry gravel walks, chatting cheerfully, about anything and nothing.
"Now you must go in," I said.
"Not yet, surely, uncle. By the bye, do you think it was right of me to come out?"
"Mr. Henry Armstrong said you might."
She did not reply, but I thought a slight rose-colour tinged her cheek.
"But he said you must not be out more than ten minutes."
"Well, I suppose I must do as I am told."
And she turned at once, and went up the stair to the door, almost as lightly as any other girl of her age.
There was some progress, plainly enough. But was that a rose-tinge I had seen on her cheek or not?
The next evening, after tea, we arranged ourselves much as on the last occasion; and Mr. Bloomfield, taking a neat manuscript from his pocket, and evidently restraining himself from apology and explanation, although as evidently nervous about the whole proceeding, and jealous of his own presumption, began to read as follows.
His voice trembled as he read, and his wife's face was a shade or two paler than usual.
"BIRTH, DREAMING, AND DEATH.
"In a little room, scantily furnished, lighted, not from the window, for it was dark without, and the shutters were closed, but from the peaked flame of a small, clear-burning lamp, sat a young man, with his back to the lamp and his face to the fire. No book or paper on the table indicated labour just forsaken; nor could one tell from his eyes, in which the light had all retreated inwards, whether his consciousness was absorbed in thought, or reverie only. The window curtains, which scarcely concealed the shutters, were of coarse texture, but of brilliant scarlet—for he loved bright colours; and the faint reflection they threw on his pale, thin face, made it look more delicate than it would have seemed in pure daylight. Two or three bookshelves, suspended by cords from a nail in the wall, contained a collection of books, poverty-stricken as to numbers, with but few to fill up the chronological gap between the Greek New Testament and stray volumes of the poets of the present century. But his love for the souls of his individual books was the stronger that there was no possibility of its degenerating into avarice for the bodies or outsides whose aggregate constitutes the piece of house-furniture called a library.
"Some years before, the young man (my story is so short, and calls in so few personages, that I need not give him a name) had aspired, under the influence of religious and sympathetic feeling, to be a clergyman; but Providence, either in the form of poverty, or of theological difficulty, had prevented his prosecuting his studies to that end. And now he was only a village schoolmaster, nor likely to advance further. I have said only a village schoolmaster; but is it not better to be a teacher of babes than a preacher to men, at any time; not to speak of those troublous times of transition, wherein a difference of degree must so often assume the appearance of a difference of kind? That man is more happy—I will not say more blessed—who, loving boys and girls, is loved and revered by them, than he who, ministering unto men and women, is compelled to pour his words into the filter of religious suspicion, whence the water is allowed to pass away unheeded, and only the residuum is retained for the analysis of ignorant party-spirit.
"He had married a simple village girl, in whose eyes he was nobler than the noblest—to whom he was the mirror, in which the real forms of all things around were reflected. Who dares pity my poor village schoolmaster? I fling his pity away. Had he not found in her love the verdict of God, that he was worth loving? Did he not in her possess the eternal and unchangeable? Were not her eyes openings through which he looked into the great depths that could not be measured or represented? She was his public, his society, his critic. He found in her the heaven of his rest. God gave unto him immortality, and he was glad. For his ambition, it had died of its own mortality. He read the words of Jesus, and the words of great prophets whom he has sent; and learned that the wind-tossed anemone is a word of God as real and true as the unbending oak beneath which it grows—that reality is an absolute existence precluding degrees. If his mind was, as his room, scantily furnished, it was yet lofty; if his light was small, it was brilliant. God lived, and he lived. Perhaps the highest moral height which a man can reach, and at the same time the most difficult of attainment, is the willingness to be nothing relatively, so that he attain that positive excellence which the original conditions of his being render not merely possible, but imperative. It is nothing to a man to be greater or less than another—to be esteemed or otherwise by the public or private world in which he moves. Does he, or does he not, behold and love and live the unchangeable, the essential, the divine? This he can only do according as God has made him. He can behold and understand God in the least degree, as well as in the greatest, only by the godlike within him; and he that loves thus the good and great has no room, no thought, no necessity for comparison and difference. The truth satisfies him. He lives in its absoluteness. God makes the glow-worm as well as the star; the light in both is divine. If mine be an earth-star to gladden the wayside, I must cultivate humbly and rejoicingly its green earth-glow, and not seek to blanch it to the whiteness of the stars that lie in the fields of blue. For to deny God in my own being is to cease to behold him in any. God and man can meet only by the man's becoming that which God meant him to be. Then he enters into the house of life, which is greater than the house of fame. It is better to be a child in a green field, than a knight of many orders in a state ceremonial.
"All night long he had sat there, and morning was drawing nigh. He has not heard the busy wind all night, heaping up snow against the house, which will make him start at the ghostly face of the world when at length he opens the shutters, and it stares upon him so white. For up in a little room above, white-curtained, like the great earth without, there has been a storm, too, half the night—moanings and prayers—and some forbidden tears; but now, at length, it is over; and through the portals of two mouths instead of one, flows and ebbs the tide of the great air-sea which feeds the life of man. With the sorrow of the mother, the new life is purchased for the child; our very being is redeemed from nothingness with the pains of a death of which we know nothing.
"An hour has gone by since the watcher below has been delivered from the fear and doubt that held him. He has seen the mother and the child—the first she has given to life and him—and has returned to his lonely room, quiet and glad.
"But not long did he sit thus before thoughts of doubt awoke in his mind. He remembered his scanty income, and the somewhat feeble health of his wife. One or two small debts he had contracted, seemed absolutely to press on his bosom; and the newborn child—'oh! how doubly welcome,' he thought, 'if I were but half as rich again as I am!'—brought with it, as its own love, so its own care. The dogs of need, that so often hunt us up to heaven, seemed hard upon his heels; and he prayed to God with fervour; and as he prayed he fell asleep in his chair, and as he slept he dreamed. The fire and the lamp burned on as before, but threw no rays into his soul; yet now, for the first time, he seemed to become aware of the storm without; for his dream was as follows:—
"He lay in his bed, and listened to the howling of the wintry wind. He trembled at the thought of the pitiless cold, and turned to sleep again, when he thought he heard a feeble knocking at the door. He rose in haste, and went down with a light. As he opened the door, the wind, entering with a gust of frosty particles, blew out his candle; but he found it unnecessary, for the grey dawn had come. Looking out, he saw nothing at first; but a second look, turned downwards, showed him a little half-frozen child, who looked quietly, but beseechingly, in his face. His hair was filled with drifted snow, and his little hands and cheeks were blue with cold. The heart of the schoolmaster swelled to bursting with the spring-flood of love and pity that rose up within it. He lifted the child to his bosom, and carried him into the house; where, in the dream's incongruity, he found a fire blazing in the room in which he now slept. The child said never a word. He set him by the fire, and made haste to get hot water, and put him in a warm bath. He never doubted that this was a stray orphan who had wandered to him for protection, and he felt that he could not part with him again; even though the train of his previous troubles and doubts once more passed through the mind of the dreamer, and there seemed no answer to his perplexities for the lack of that cheap thing, gold—yea, silver. But when he had undressed and bathed the little orphan, and having dried him on his knees, set him down to reach something warm to wrap him in, the boy suddenly looked up in his face, as if revived, and said with a heavenly smile, 'I am the child Jesus.' 'The child Jesus!' said the dreamer, astonished. 'Thou art like any other child.' 'No, do not say so,' returned the boy; 'but say, Any other child is like me.' And the child and the dream slowly faded away; and he awoke with these words sounding in his heart—'Whosoever shall receiveth one of such children in my name, receiveth me; and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.' It was the voice of God saying to him: 'Thou wouldst receive the child whom I sent thee out of the cold, stormy night; receive the new child out of the cold waste into the warm human house, as the door by which it can enter God's house, its home. If better could be done for it, or for thee, would I have sent it hither? Through thy love, my little one must learn my love and be blessed. And thou shall not keep it without thy reward. For thy necessities—in thy little house, is there not yet room? in thy barrel, is there not yet meal? and thy purse is not empty quite. Thou canst not eat more than a mouthful at once. I have made thee so. Is it any trouble to me to take care of thee? Only I prefer to feed thee from my own hand, and not from thy store.'And the schoolmaster sprang up in joy, ran upstairs, kissed his wife, and clasped the baby in his arms in the name of the child Jesus. And in that embrace, he knew that he received God to his heart. Soon, with a tender, beaming face, he was wading through the snow to the school-house, where he spent a happy day amidst the rosy faces and bright eyes of his boys and girls. These, likewise, he loved the more dearly and joyfully for that dream, and those words in his heart; so that, amidst their true child-faces, (all going well with them, as not unfrequently happened in his schoolroom), he felt as if all the elements of Paradise were gathered around him, and knew that he was God's child, doing God's work.
"But while that dream was passing through the soul of the husband, another visited the wife, as she lay in the faintness and trembling joy of the new motherhood. For although she that has been mother before, is not the less a new mother to the new child, her former relation not covering with its wings the fresh bird in the nest of her bosom, yet there must be a peculiar delight in the thoughts and feelings that come with the first-born.—As she lay half in a sleep, half in a faint, with the vapours of a gentle delirium floating through her brain, without losing the sense of existence she lost the consciousness of its form, and thought she lay, not a young mother in her bed, but a nosegay of wild flowers in a basket, crushed, flattened and half-withered. With her in the basket lay other bunches of flowers, whose odours, some rare as well as rich, revealed to her the sad contrast in which she was placed. Beside her lay a cluster of delicately curved, faintly tinged, tea-scented roses; while she was only blue hyacinth bells, pale primroses, amethyst anemones, closed blood-coloured daisies, purple violets, and one sweet-scented, pure white orchis. The basket lay on the counter of a well-known little shop in the village, waiting for purchasers. By and by her own husband entered the shop, and approached the basket to choose a nosegay. 'Ah!' thought she, 'will he choose me? How dreadful if he should not, and I should be left lying here, while he takes another! But how should he choose me? They are all so beautiful; and even my scent is nearly gone. And he cannot know that it is I lying here. Alas! alas!' But as she thought thus, she felt his hand clasp her, heard the ransom-money fall, and felt that she was pressed to his face and lips, as he passed from the shop. He had chosen her; he had known her. She opened her eyes: her husband's kiss had awakened her. She did not speak, but looked up thankfully in his eyes, as if he had, in fact, like one of the old knights, delivered her from the transformation of some evil magic, by the counter-enchantment of a kiss, and restored her from a half-withered nosegay to be a woman, a wife, a mother. The dream comforted her much, for she had often feared that she, the simple, so-called uneducated girl, could not be enough for the great schoolmaster. But soon her thoughts flowed into another channel; the tears rose in her dark eyes, shining clear from beneath a stream that was not of sorrow; and it was only weakness that kept her from uttering audible words like these:—'Father in heaven, shall I trust my husband's love, and doubt thine? Wilt thou meet less richly the fearing hope of thy child's heart, than he in my dream met the longing of his wife's? He was perfected in my eyes by the love he bore me—shall I find thee less complete? Here I lie on thy world, faint, and crushed, and withered; and my soul often seems as if it had lost all the odours that should float up in the sweet-smelling savour of thankfulness and love to thee. But thou hast only to take me, only to choose me, only to clasp me to thy bosom, and I shall be a beautiful singing angel, singing to God, and comforting my husband while I sing. Father, take me, possess me, fill me!'