"Poor little creatures," sighed Clemence. "What can I do to alleviate their sorrows?"
She looked again at the wan, childish faces, then drew out her slender portmonnaie. "The Lord will provide," she thought, as the time-worn "Charity begins at home," rose to her lips, at sight of her scant supply of means. "Come here, dears," she said, beckoning to them.
The little ones crept up to her with shy, downcast eyes. She went with them into a confectioners, and filled their hands with crisp cakes and steaming rolls, and watched them with a moisture in her eyes, as they eagerly grasped at what was to them a royal feast.
"Never mind thanking me, children," she said, as they poured out a dozen incoherent exclamations, to prove their gratitude. "Always remember hereafter, when you feel unhappy, that 'God watches over you, and will surely send some one to help you if you only try to do right.'"
She tried to encourage herself with this thought, as she resumed her walk. It strengthened her to renewed effort. She paused before a store, where the wealth of the earth seemed to be collected in the "gold and silver and precious stones," that dazzled her eyes to look upon.
An elderly gentleman lounged behind the counter. She went directly up to him, and asked, in a straightforward manner.
"How much will you give me for this ring?"
It was a solitaire diamond, and had been her mother's birthday gift. The man looked at her keenly, and saw that she was not used to bargaining. He read at a glance, the story of the delicate, mourning clad girl before him.
"Fifty dollars." he answered, coolly.
"But it cost three times that sum," said Clemence, "and although I need the money, I cannot sacrifice so valuable an article in that manner. Besides its intrinsic value, it is very dear to me by association."
"Can't help that," said the man, coarsely, "its intrinsic value is all that concerns me. If you don't wish to sell it, of course you can keep it. Seeing, however, that its a pretty young lady, I'll make it seventy-five."
"Could you not make it a hundred?" she asked, hesitatingly.
"Not a cent more than seventy-five," he said emphatically. He read the despair in her face, and knew that whatever her emergency, it was so great that she must come to his terms. "You see, young woman," he condescended to explain, "you are not accustomed to this mode of business, and you do not realize that when people want ready money they must give a fair equivalent in order to get it. Times are hard, and a dollar is a dollar now. Six weeks later I might give you the sum you demand, but, to-day, it is quite impossible."
"Very well, give me the money," said Clemence, desperately; "I cannot wait a day longer."
"Cruel, cruel!" she said, as she walked homeward. "It will not meet our demands. Where is all this to end?" The keen March wind was kind to her in one respect, it removed from her face all traces of emotion that would have disturbed the invalid.
Rap, rap, rap, at the little third story room. "Come in," called Clemence, listlessly. Mrs. Mann's cheery face looked in at the door.
"Something for Mrs. Graystone," she said, holding out a small package. "It was left here a moment ago, by a tall gentleman so completely muffled in furs that I could only get a glimpse of a pair of handsome eyes. If you will not think me too curious, I should like to know what it contains."
"Open it dear," said the mother languidly.
All uttered an exclamation, as a roll of bank bills fell to the floor. There was a brief note, which ran as follows:
"MADAM—Please accept this in payment of a debt, due your late husband by the writer."
That was all, and there was no signature.
"How strange," said the widow; "I knew but little of Mr. Graystone's business affairs. It is providential."
"Just five hundred dollars," said Mrs. Mann; "Why, Clemence, it's a fortune! Why don't you tell us how pleased you are? You do not say anything."
It was true this sudden and unexpected relief, from an unknown source, had bewildered the girl. She could hardly bring herself to realize that her pecuniary troubles were at an end, for the time being, at least.
"I am very much pleased, Mrs. Mann," she said, brightening, "but give me time to get accustomed to my sudden accession of wealth, pray!"
"I would give anything to get that sad look out of your face," said the good woman, coming closer to the girl, and folding her in a motherly embrace. "Go out for a walk, you have been in the house all day, and you look pale and weary."
The long day drew to a close, and night came on dark and chill. The wind wailed around the house mournfully, and as it drew towards midnight, continued to rise still higher. The clock struck twelve.
There was an uneasy movement of the invalid tossing restlessly. Once she made an effort to raise herself, and the thin hands wandered caressingly over the bright hair of the young girl who slumbered peacefully beside her.
"Poor darling," she said, "you are heavily burdened, but it will not be for long. I feel the hour approaching."
A cold moisture settled upon her forehead, her breath came in labored gasps.
"Mother," wailed Clemence, now fully aroused, kneeling beside her, and chafing the cold hands. "Mother, speak to me?"
There was no response. The girl was alone with her dead.
"I declare, I am nearly distracted myself," said Mrs. Mann to Alicia Linden some weeks after. "It would melt the heart of a stone to hear that poor dear crying out in her delirium, 'what shall I do to obtain this or that for the poor suffering mother?' That's always the burden of her thoughts. It's perfectly dreadful. Mrs. Linden, do you think she can live?"
"I hope she may, with careful nursing," was the reply. "We will do all we can, and leave the event with Providence."
It hardly seemed a kindness to Clemence, when they told her, after she became conscious, of how near she had been to death, and that only the kindest care had won her back to life.
"It would have been better to let me die," she said, thinking how little now she had to live for.
"If God, in his wisdom, saw fit to restore you, Clemence, it was for some wise purpose of his own," said her friend.
"I know it," she replied patiently; "but I have suffered so much that I am weary of life. Remember, I am all alone in the world."
"No, not alone, dear," said the lady, "for now that you have no one else, I intend to claim you. I love you already as a daughter, and I am going to care for your future."
Clemence was too weak to do anything but yield, and when she was able to ride out, Mrs. Linden took her to her own home. But although she recovered sufficiently to walk about the house and garden, and to take long rides into the country, yet her faithful nurse began to fear that she would never be really well again.
"She needs a change," said the physician. "A journey would do her good."
So they packed up, and went off to the seaside. The bracing air did for Clemence what the doctor's medicine had failed to accomplish. In spite of the languid interest she took in everything, hope grew stronger each day in the care of her watchful friend. And at last the roses came back to her cheeks, and when they went back to the city, in the cool September days, she was strong and well once more.
"Do you know, Clemence, it is six months since you have been under my charge?" asked Mrs. Linden, as they sat sewing by the bright fire, that the chilly fall day rendered agreeable.
"Is it possible?" was the startled reply. "How long I have been a burden on your kindness! Alas! what changes have occurred within a short time."
"I know what you are thinking of now, child, and I did not wish to make you melancholy by reminding you of the past."
"Oh, Madam," said the girl, "it is never absent from my thoughts. You surely would not have me forget the great loss I have sustained?"
"No, Clemence," replied the elder, "that would be wrong, but I do not want you to brood over it. Remember who sent this affliction. 'The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.'"
"But she was all that I had to love," said Clemence; "what is life to me now?"
"Don't talk like that, dear," said Mrs. Linden, gently, "the unrestrained indulgence of grief is always wrong. Have you never thought how selfish it was to wish your mother back again, as I have so often heard you? God's ways are inscrutable. But though his children cannot always see what is best for themselves, He never errs. Your mother was a good woman, a faithful wife, and loving parent, but a life of uninterrupted prosperity had left her a stranger to the peace that cometh only from obedience to the will of Him who created us. It was in the midst of adversity that she found the source of consolation. She learned then how precious is the love the Father feels for the suffering ones of earth. She was willing to go. Her only fears were for you. Can you not have faith that the prayers she breathed for your welfare with her dying lips, will be answered? You are young yet, and there is work for you to do in the world. Interest yourself in some worthy object, and you will be astonished at the change in your own feelings."
Clemence looked up with a new light dawning upon her face. These thoughts were new to her.
"I am afraid I have been selfish," she said, coming and kneeling beside her friend, and locking her slender fingers agitatedly. "It is very hard always to do right. Believe, though, that I erred only in judgment, not through intention. Help me to do better."
"Dear child," said the motherly woman, touched by the generous confession, "we are none of us perfect. We can only try. I have said this solely for your own good. You realize that, I am sure. My only wish is to make you happy."
Clemence took up with her friend's advice. She found enough to occupy her, for there is plenty to do in the world. It needs only the willing heart. She became the instrument of much good, and many sick and sorrowful learned to love the low-voiced girl who came among them in her sable robes.
The winter passed quietly and uneventfully. Clemence went very little into society. She had no desire for it. She was content to be forgotten, and let those who were eager for the strife, crowd and jostle each other for the empty honors, for which she did not care to put in a claim. Not but that she had once been ambitious of distinction, and had been told by loving friends that she possessed talents that it was wrong to bury. There was no one to care now for her success or failure. It mattered little how the years were passed. They would find her a lonely, sorrowing woman, without home or friends. No one, be they never so hopeful, could anticipate happiness in such a future. Clemence did not, but she knew she should, in time, learn to be contented with her lot. Others had been before her. Then, too, something whispered that it would not be for long.
Mrs. Linden watched her anxiously, noting the troubled look on the girl's face, and questioned her as to its cause.
"Don't yield to despondency," she would say. "You must go more into society. Solitude is not good for you."
Obedient to her wish, Clemence afterwards accompanied her whenever she went from home.
Thus passed the time until her twentieth birthday. She reviewed, sadly, on that occasion, her past life, and formed her plans for the future. The result of her cogitations was, that not long after, she left the roof that had sheltered her since her bereavement, but to which she had no real claim, and commenced upon a new life.
This was very much against her friend's wishes.
"What wild idea has taken possession of your visionary mind now?" she queried. "Just when I thought you were quite contented to stay with me, you start off to teach a score or more of ignorant little savages in some obscure part of some obscure region, not yet blessed with the telegraph or railroad."
"Not quite so bad as that, I hope," said Clemence, laughing. "Don't, please, raise any objections to my plan, kind friend; for I want to feel that it has your sanction. Perhaps, if I get tired of teaching, I will come back to you again."
"Very well," was the rejoinder, "in that case you may go, but I shall expect to see you again very soon. You will die of home-sickness."
A lovely June day was drawing to a close, as a stage coach drew up at the one hotel in the little village of Waveland.
"Here at last, mum," said the driver, stepping forward to assist a lady to alight. "It's been a tedious ride for a delicate looking lady like you."
She was delicate looking, and very pretty, with an air of refinement that betokened good birth and careful culture.
"Yes," she said, "it has been a weary day's journey, and I shall be glad to rest."
She went into the little homespun sitting-room, and laid aside her bonnet and shawl, then went to the window, and looked out in an absent way. The high, pure brow, and calm, thoughtful eyes, remind us of one we have met before, and the slender, nervous hands, locked after her old fashion when troubled, prove that it is none other than our young friend, Clemence Graystone.
"Jerushy! ain't she style?"
Her reverie came abruptly to an end, and with a momentary feeling of annoyance, she retreated from the window, as this exclamation startled her into the knowledge that half of the inhabitants of the little village were already out and gazing at her.
"What can I do for you, Miss?" asked the obsequious landlord, a moment after. It was evident that guests beneath his hospitable roof were "like angel's visits, few and far between."
"Supper and a room."
"Yes, certainly, certainly, in no time. Here, Cary Elizy, Elizabeth Angeline, Victory Valery, where on earth air they? Neither of them three girls is never on hand when they're wanted."
There was a shuffle, a scampering, and much suppressed giggling, then a frowsy head peered in at the doorway.
"This lady wants something to eat, and a good cup of tea, directly."
"Yes," drawled a voice, "she shall have it if it takes a limb. Here, girls, spin around, I tell you, and git the young woman suthin to eat."
Meanwhile, Clemence surveyed the little room to which she had been conducted, guiltless of carpeting, and with only one chair and a washstand, beside a huge, old fashioned bedstead, and plump feather bed covered with patchwork. But everything was clean and inviting, and only too thankful for the opportunity, Clemence smoothed her hair, and bathed her aching temples, preparatory to partaking of that "good cup of tea," which her host had ordered, and which she hoped would drive away her headache.
But, alas! for human anticipations. The good, wholesome country fare which she had expected, proved to be only the refuse of what was considered unsaleable in market. In place of the steaming biscuit, golden butter, and delicious cream she had promised herself, there were huge slices of clammy bread, a plate of old-fashioned short-cake, yellow with saleratus; butter, that to say the least of it, was not inodorous, and a compound of skim milk and lukewarm water, dignified by the name of tea. Leaving it almost untasted, Clemence sought her couch, and was soon buried in profound slumber.
She awoke late the next morning, and after a hasty toilet, went down to breakfast, to find herself the center of observation. The table was tolerably well-filled, with one or two blooming damsels, and for the rest, sun-browned country boys.
"Good morning," said the gentleman of the house, heartily. "Kalkilate you was pretty well played out, yesterday. Don't look as if you'd stand much hard work. You're a school teacher, I take it? Yes, I thought so. I can generally guess at a body's business the first time trying. I ain't one of the educated sort myself, but I've picked up a few ideas knocking around the world. I've got some girls now, I'd like to have learn something, but then they don't seem to take to it. I spose that kind o' hankerin' after books comes natural to some folks, and to others it don't. Me nor none of my family never seemed to set much store by that sort of thing. It's a good thing to be gifted, though. There's neighbor Green's boy, Bill, he can 'late anything after he's heerd it once, and when there's any doins' of any kind comin' off, they send him so he can tell the rest, after he gets home, all what happened. But, as I said before, it's more'n any of the rest of us can do.
"And, to tell the truth, we don't need to be as wise as Solomon, here in these parts, to be as good as the best. When a man gets what you may call a little forehanded, he's bound to have his say about matters and things, whether he understands them or not. I rather guess, too, Miss," he added, good-naturedly, "if you stay long enough round here, you'll git to teachin' one scholar. There ain't many old maids around here, but there's any quantity of nice, industrious young men what want wives, and ain't a goin' far for to find them, eh, girls?"
There was a good deal of tittering at this last remark, and the aforementioned youths blushed to the tips of their ears.
"What singular people I have got among," thought Clemence, who could not refrain from laughing at their oddity. "What a strange fate has thrown me among them?"
She was destined to learn a good deal more of their singularities, during her prolonged sojourn at the little village. A country school teacher, having to "board round," has a good chance to study human nature.
Before she had been long at her new occupation, she found that she was expected to be, literally, "as wise as a serpent, and as harmless as a dove." There was no subject—religion or politics not excepted—which she was not expected thoroughly to understand and expound; she was evidently considered, from her position, as a sort of animated encyclopedia, to be consulted at will. And all this, to be able to instruct a half-civilized brood of children, of both sexes, in the rudiments of reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic and geography, with enough of grammar to enable them to stammer and stumble through a simple sentence, and arrive safely at the end without any material injury to the teacher's nerves.
However, it was, at least, an honorable independence, poorly remunerated though it was, and she went to work with a will.
Her first boarding place was at the house of an aged couple, by the name of Wynn, who lived a short distance from the school house. Their appearance struck her as extremely peculiar. Mrs. Wynn's tall, stooping figure, spoke plainly of a hard, laborious life. Her sharp features and keen, piercing eyes, made more prominent by the unusual lowness of the forehead, told more surely than language, of their owner's propensity to investigate the affairs of her neighbor, and proved her claim to the complimentary title, they had bestowed upon her, viz:—"That prying old mother, Wynn." But what was still more strange, was the silver hair of both these old people, and which their age did not seem to warrant. The lady, however, with a little lingering of feminine vanity in her heart, had made an awkward attempt at hair dye of home manufacture, and from a too plentiful use of sulphur and copperas, had succeeded in producing a band of vivid yellow upon each side of her temple, while the hair at the back and upon the crown of her head, was white as snow. Clemence learned afterwards that these worthy people had seen a great deal of trouble, and that their prematurely aged appearance was from that source alone.
She was not aware that they had more than one daughter, who was her pupil, but as she went into the "spare room" assigned her, and carelessly took up a "carte de visite" that lay upon the table, she saw underneath the picture of a buxom damsel, in a feeble, trembling hand, "My own sweet Rose."
She had before this noticed another queer trait of the people among whom her lot was so strangely cast, and that was their singular penchant for fancy and high-sounding names. Among her scholars there were, for the girls, respectively—Alcestine Alameda, Boadicea Beatrice, Claudia Clarinda, Eugenia Eurydice, Venetia Ignatia, and so on, indefinitely; and among a group of ragged, bare-footed boys, a number of time-honored Bible names, and such distinguished modern ones as George Washington, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Edward Everett, and even down to one little shock-headed, lisping, Abraham Lincoln.
"My own sweet Rose," proved, unhappily for Clemence, to possess more of the characteristics of a stinging nettle, than of the flower whose name she bore, and she was glad when her week was out, and she could leave her charming society, for that which she fondly hoped might be more congenial.
Clemence had begun to try her strength, and she prayed fervently that she might not "faint by the way." What other alternative had she than this? It was too sadly true, as she had told her friend, she was all alone in the world. What mattered it where the rest of her life was spent? She tried bravely to do her duty "in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her." That was enough for the present. The future stretched out, dreary and hopeless, before her.
Strangely enough, she never thought that she was young and pretty and well born, and might form new ties, if she would. She never reasoned upon the subject, for the bare possibility did not once enter her mind. This was the more strange, that she had never been in love, and there were no memories to rise up and haunt her like ghosts of forgotten joys, no dear face that had beamed upon her with the one profound affection that comes to every one at some period of their lives. There were only two graves under the willows that contained all that had ever been dear to her in life. She never dreamed of any other love than theirs, who had watched over her childhood, and left her, with prayers to heaven for her safety upon their pallid lips. Her one hope was to live so that she might meet them again, and that it might be said of her, "She hath done what she could."
Clemence Graystone was possessed of little worldly ambition, and she had no incentive to exertion, beyond what was necessary to maintain an honorable independence. She was content, with fine talents that might have won her a name, to be left behind upon the road to fame by those who were better adapted to the contest. What was it to her? A short-lived popularity, the adulation of the vulgar, the cool, critical glances of those who might sympathize and appreciate, but ever seemed more ready to condemn. She had no wish to be petted by the crowd, or court the gaze of idle curiosity. Better solitude and her own thoughts.
She had enough of the latter, you may well believe. Obscure and poverty-stricken, the world passed on, and forgot even her existence, after a way it has. She did not "keep up with the times," and she was left by the receding tide, a lonely waif upon unknown shores. What lay before her, God alone knew. Clemence felt grieved, too, to find that she was not liked by the village people. Old Mrs. Wynn took care to inform her of that, with a due amount of exaggeration. Her crime consisted in minding her own business, and letting others do the same—and they called her gentle reticence, "airs," said she felt above common folks, and prophesied that any amount of evil would befall her. She did not know that it is a trait of human nature to condemn that, which, through ignorance, people cannot appreciate the value. Therefore she mourned in secret, and blamed herself for being unsocial, and tried hard to be patient and forgiving.
At this juncture, when she most needed a counsellor, she made an acquaintance, and formed a lasting friendship. She had often admired, upon the outskirts of the village, a pretty cottage, embowered in trees, and curiosity had led her to question others about its occupant. She could only learn that a lady by the name of Hardyng lived there, quite alone. That was all she could find out in regard to it.
One morning, however, very much to her surprise, as she had never met the lady, she found on her desk an informal invitation to visit her at the cottage. Tired of her own thoughts, and wishing for something to take up her attention, she at once resolved to accept it—and, in pursuance of this determination, after school was dismissed, responded to the message in person. The door was opened immediately on her low rap.
"How kind of you to come," said one of the sweetest voices she had ever heard. "I have hoped and feared alternately, as to the result of my unceremonious request. Pray make yourself perfectly at home. I have wanted to get acquainted with you ever since I first saw you, but I go out so little, I was almost in despair, until I hit upon this method. I believe I have not yet introduced myself. I am Ulrica Hardyng, a lonely and sorrowing woman, with no one in the whole wide world to love or care for me, and I want to be your friend."
She knelt down before the young girl, whom she had already seated, and gazed with dark, unfathomable eyes into the sweet face before her.
"Loyal and true," she said, stroking the white hand softly. "I want you to love me, Miss Graystone. I knew at the first glimpse of your face, that you had suffered, poor child, and I felt for you from that moment; for who can sympathize with the afflicted so well as one who has drained to the dregs the bitter cup?"
"Oh, Madame!" said Clemence, impetuously, fascinated, as every one else had always been by the woman before her, "I shall be forever grateful for the smallest portion of your regard. You cannot imagine how completely isolated I have been, during my brief sojourn here."
"I believe that," was the reply; "a girl of your intellect and refinement can have little in common with, these obtuse village people. They cannot understand your feelings, and you cannot possibly sympathize with theirs. Your former life must have been very different from this. Tell me about it?"
It was a strange interview, but then, Ulrica Hardyng was a strange woman, and never did anything like anybody else.
"You will come again?" she said, that evening as they parted. "Fate has been kinder to me than I deserve, and sent me a sweet consoler. You and I have nothing to do with the idle forms of society. We meet each other, and that is quite enough."
"I will come again, kind friend," Clemence answered gratefully, "at an early day; for now that I have once enjoyed the pleasure of your society, it would be hard to deny myself the privilege in future."
After that they met nearly every day.
Mrs. Wynn had her say about it, too.
"So you've made the acquaintance of that stuck-up widow, have you? I've a piece of advice for you. You're an unprotected girl, and might easily get talked about. There's something queer about this Mis' Hardyng. She don't mingle with the rest of us, and I wouldn't be too thick with her, if I was in your place. Leastways, I won't let my Rose make any advances towards an acquaintance. Mind, I don't say anything against her, but I do as I'd be done by, and give you a friendly warning, such as I'd have anybody do by a child of mine, if they was around the world. For my part, I always consider it a safe plan to wait and see what other people think about them, before I make up to anybody myself. 'Taint expected that a woman that's got a character to lose should commit herself in the eyes of the world. Remember, too, that on account of your being in a public capacity, so to speak, you'd ought to be more particular about your morals. It's expected that you will do your best to set a good example to the rest of the young folks round here; not, of course, that I would say anything, whatever you might do, but then, everybody ain't so careful of the 'unruly member,' as the minister calls it. You know people will talk. For instance, Miss Pryor dropped in here a few minutes yesterday, and while we was taking a sociable cup of tea together, she told me that Mis' Parsons told Caleb Sharp, and he told her, that you looked a little too sanctimonious to have it natural, and she meant to keep her eyes on you, for all you seemed so wrapped up in your own affairs. They think you feel pretty big, I guess, for Miss Pryor said she wasn't agoing to wait to be put down by you, but took particular pains to flounce past you, with her head turned the other way, and never pretending to know you was there. Mind, though, you don't say anything to anybody about it. I am one of that kind that don't believe in making mischief, and if there's anything I do dispise, its tattling about my neighbors. It's a thing I never do, to talk against folks behind their back. There's plenty that do, though, in this very town. Now, there's that Mis' Swan, where you're going to board next week, she's been pretty well talked about, first and last, and they do say not without cause, for you know the sayin' about there always bein' some fire where there's any smoke. She makes believe all innocence, but I could tell some things that I've seen with these two eyes, if I choose.
"The last teacher we had before you came, was a single young gentleman by the name of Sweet. He was a nice, fine-looking man, with a real innocent face, and pleasant ways, and I took quite a motherly interest in him. He used to be at the Swans' very often, and I had a few suspicions of my own. I used to send Rose in, kind of sudden like, whenever I see him go by to their house. Mis' Swan felt guilty, for she knew what I meant; but, will you believe, the malicious creature actually insinuated that I had designs on him, and positively had the impudence to send me a saucy message, one day, by Rose, right before her husband and that young Sweet. I was so mad that I published the whole affair over the place within twenty-four hours. I put on my bonnet, and went in one direction, and sent Rose in another, and Mis' Swan found herself in a pretty mess, with her name on everybody's lips. But, will you believe in the ingratitude of human nature, the woman's own husband called me a meddlesome old busy-body, after I had solemnly warned him of his wife's unfaithfulness, and I was made the laughing stock of the town where I was born, and have lived a long and useful life. Nobody can tell me anything to convince me that my suspicions wasn't correct, and it went to my heart to have them say that I did it all out of spite, because I wanted to secure the school-master for my daughter. But I've lived it down, though, and have shown some people about here, that I consider them as far beneath me, as the heavens are above the earth."
Clemence found the Swan's a little homespun couple, but, on the whole, much more endurable than Mrs. Wynn and Rose.
"I suppose you have heard all about Kate's outrageous proceedings from our elderly friend?" laughed Mr. Swan, at the tea-table. "Poor Mrs. Wynn. She laid me under infinite obligations, by her efforts on my behalf, so much so, that sometimes the load of gratitude fairly oppresses me. In case matters had turned out as she feared, though, I might eventually have consoled myself with the fair Miss Rose's agreeable society."
"There, there, Harry!" said his wife, "don't say anything to prejudice Miss Graystone against them. I have forgiven her long ago, and I only hope that Rose may succeed in obtaining half as good a husband as somebody I know of."
"Well," he said, bestowing a fond glance upon the bright face beside him, "we won't say anything against them. By the way, Kitty, I received a letter to-day from Sweet, and he announces the advent of another juvenile Sweet-ness, to be named in honor of your ladyship. You see, Miss Graystone, he is a relative, having married a cousin of my wife's. There was some trouble about the match, for Uncle Eben objected to the young man, on account of his being a schoolteacher, He used to come to Kate for advice, and being rather a favorite with uncle, she finally succeeded in reconciling him to the marriage. The young couple naturally think her 'but little lower than the angels,' since her efforts in their behalf, and I never saw Sweet so indignant at anybody in my life as he was at the Wynns, for starting that infamous story. But I told him not to mind, it would blow over, and it did. Mrs. Wynn is pretty well known here, and like the rest of us, I suppose, has her good traits and her bad ones."
"How do you like our little village?" asked Mrs. Swan, to turn the conversation, a few moments after.
"I have been here so short a time that I can hardly judge, as yet," replied Clemence. "I think I shall like it better than I at first expected."
"Indeed, I hope you will," said her hostess. "We would like very much to have you settle among us. You must have observed, by this time, that there are few people of liberal education in the place."
"Yet, they are a shrewd, sensible people," said Mr. Swan, "who might, under more favorable auspices, make a figure in the world. There are many kind-hearted, Christian men and women in Waveland, Miss Graystone, notwithstanding their rough and almost repulsive exterior."
"I dare say there are many such," she replied earnestly, thinking of the cold, heartless worldlings she had left behind her in the great, busy city. "I do not judge altogether by outward appearances."
"Nor I," was the cordial answer; "the coat don't make the man, in this community, but if any one is sick, or in trouble, they will always find these rough-handed villagers ready to sympathize and aid."
Mr. Swan never made a truer remark than this last. The primitive inhabitants of Waveland, although they gossipped about each other, and speculated a little beyond the bounds of politeness and decorum, in regard to the affairs of the few strangers, who now and then appeared among them, were, on the whole, a kind-hearted, sober, industrious community. The little village possessed two stores, a hotel, blacksmith shop, a school house in which religious services were also held, and a post office, presided over, in an official capacity, by the village doctor.
There was also a weekly paper published there, by an ambitious youth, called the "Clarion," which contained snappish editorials about its neighbors, aspiring criticisms upon the publications of different authors, always ending in an unmistakable "puff," if they were at all popular, or a feeble attempt at discriminating censure, if the unlucky scribe was unknown to fame, and had (poor wretch,) his way yet to make in the literary world.
Clemence got quite attached to the Swans' during her brief stay with them. She regretted to leave them for the uncongenial society of strangers.
Her next boarding place was at Dr. Little's. He was rightly named, Mrs. Wynn had taken pains to inform her, and they were a well-matched pair.
"The way that man charged, when my Rose had the fever and chills, was amazin'. I know one thing, there would be a good opening in Waveland for any single young man who wanted to set up opposition to the old Doctor. For my part, I'd call on him every time my family needed his services, which would probably be pretty often, for Rose is kind of delicate like. He'd be sure to have one patron, for it would do me good to spite the Little's."
Clemence thought, when she first saw this couple, about whom she had heard so much, that though the little weazen-faced Doctor might chance to be rightly named, yet the same remark could not, by any means, apply to the mountain of flesh he called his wife.
"Oh, but you don't know her," said Maria, their one servant, after tea. "I always thought, before I came here, that fat people, especially them that had plenty of means, sort of took life easy. But I've changed my mind, since I knew Mis' Little. I've been in her service risin' of five years, and you might as well think of catching a weasel asleep. It's 'Mariar,' the last thing at night, and 'Mariar,' the first thing in the morning. I don't know when she rests, for she never lays down while I am awake, for fear I shant do just so much. If them there philysophers, that want to find out the secret of perpetual motion, and can't, would come across Mis' Little, they'd own beat. She's just kept a spinning for the last five years. And Sundays she's more regular to church than the minister himself, besides all the weekly meetings, and always gets up and tells what the Lord's done for her soul. Then the Doctor he follows, and talks about the gold-paved streets, and all that, and is sure to bring in a Latin quotation. After that, he sits down, and goes to twirlin' that big jack-knife of his, and I can't help thinkin', though I know it's wicked, that if he was to get to heaven as he expects, the very first thing he'd do, would be to whip out that knife, and go to scrapin' away to get a little gold dust to put in his pocket; he! he! he! Don't look so horrified, Miss Graystone. I suppose, now you think I'm dreadful ungrateful. One thing I know, they'll palaver you till you'll think they was two pink and white angels that had slid down a rainbow, especially to make themselves agreeable to you; but Maria Mott's no fool, and she knows what she's a talkin' about every time."
Dr. Little had one other servant, a simple minded, ignorant boy by the name of Harvey. He worked for his board, perfectly convinced that the pious teachings of the worthy couple were sufficient remuneration for such light services as were required of him. Harvey was an humble member of the same church in which his employer was a shining light, therefore it was his privilege to listen, with a thankful spirit, to many precious pearls of wisdom that dropped from their revered lips. In fact, Harvey was enveloped continually in the very odor of sanctity, whereby he was greatly profited. Thus the promptings of his sinful nature were effectually stifled, and he grew each day, outwardly as well as spiritually, more ethereal, less "of the earth earthly."
Maria Mott was wicked enough to say that it was because he did not get enough to eat, and to openly lament the change in the once bright-eyed, round-faced boy.
The worthy old Doctor, however, congratulated himself, and said he was fitting the boy for heaven.
Mrs. Little used to remain at the tea table to administer instruction, not, let us hope, as Maria averred, to watch Harvey so he wouldn't eat so much.
"Harvey," she asked, on one occasion, "are you not thankful that the Lord has given you so good a home?"
"Yes, Mis' Little, keeps me pretty busy though to earn it," came hollowly from the depths of a teacup.
"Mamma," called young Charlie Little, over the banister, "I want Harvey to do an errand for me. Will you please give him my order. Here is a bright new silver piece for him, too."
"Such extravagance, Charlie!" said his mother, but, coloring as Clemence passed her, "I want you to be generous to the poor, my son, I have always striven to inculcate the lesson of charity conscientiously."
Mrs. Little was good-hearted and liberal. Clemence felt sorry for having misjudged her, as she saw a bright silver piece glitter in her hand the next Sabbath, as she sat beside her during the weekly collection of contribution for the missionary fund. Maria was wrong, and she was sorry she laughed when she spoke flippantly of Mrs. Little's magnificent gift of a penny a Sabbath amounting to fifty-two cents annually. She ought to be more careful to give people the benefit of the doubt.
But she thought differently, when she got home and found Harvey patiently blacking Master Charlie's boots.
"Why, Harvey, you were not at church?" she asked, in surprise.
"No, Miss Graystone, they kept me too busy here," was the reply, in a disheartened tone, "and now Master Charlie's been off fishin', and got all covered with dust, I've got to black these boots over again. I should think he'd be ashamed ordering me round like a dog, and then walking off without even saying, thank you. If he would give me a quarter, now and then, I would not mind, for I never have a penny of my own for anything, not even to give of a Sunday. But I don't suppose a poor boy like me, has any right to have a soul," he added bitterly. "I don't much care, sometimes, whether I ever go to church again or not."
"Oh, don't say that, Harvey," said Clemence, in distressed tones. A new light broke in upon his mind. She took from her own scanty supply of pocket money, a twenty-five cent note, crisp and new, and handed it to him. "I have no bright silver piece for you, Harvey," she said, "but here is something nearly as good if you will accept it."
"Oh, thank you, a thousand times," was the grateful response, "I will get it changed into pennies for my missionary offering. I was just wishing for some money of my own, to take this afternoon to my Sunday school teacher."
"Well, I am very glad that I had it to give you," said Clemence. "Don't despair, Harvey, if your lot is hard. God sees, and he will surely reward you."
"Oh, I will try to be patient," said the boy, lifting his honest face, with the great, tear-filled eyes. "If everybody was only like you, I would be willing to do anything. But it's only Harvey here, and Harvey there, and never a pleasant word, only before folks. It's hard to bear. It did not use to be so before mother died. To be sure, we were very poor, and I had to work hard, but mother loved me."
"Poor boy!" sighed Clemence, turning away, "every heart knoweth its own sorrow."
For a delicate girl, like Clemence Graystone, this country school teaching proved very laborious work. But she bent to it bravely. It was easy to see that these rude little savages whom she taught, fairly worshipped her. Children have an innate love of the pure and good. Perhaps because they are themselves innocent, until the great, wicked world contaminates them. At any rate, the bright young creature who came among them every morning, seemed to them a being from another sphere, the embodiment of their childish ideas of purity and beauty, and they had for her somewhat of that awe that the devotees of the East feel for the gods they worship.
She sat before them, with the slant sunlight of a July day falling on her fair, sweet face.
"The week is drawing to a close, and you have all worked faithfully," she said, and taking a snowy manuscript from the desk, "now you shall have your reward. Instead of translating a little French story, as I at first intended, I have written an original one, especially for you."
A noisy cheer greeted this announcement.
"Is it true?" asked several voices.
"Yes, it is true," she responded, "and if you will be quiet, I will read it to you." And she began as follows:
"THE STORY OF ANGEL WAY."
"Her name was Angelica, but her little school friends called her 'Angie,' and those who loved her, 'Angel.' This last pet term of a fond mother, seemed not ill applied, when one looked at the serene face, and the drooping violet eyes, with the prophetic shadow of her fate in their earnest, haunting depths. Indeed, the meaning of Angelica, in the flower world, is 'Inspiration,' and I think Angel's must have come from God. When you looked at her, she seemed like one set apart for some special work, like those 'chosen ones' we love to read of. Truly, as has been so gracefully said, 'to bear, and love and live,' is a woman's patient lot. Yes, to suffer pain, to bear uncomplainingly through weary years, a load of grief and shame for others, though she herself may have sinned not, till at last it grows too great for her feeble strength, and Death comes, not as the 'King of Terrors,' but a welcome messenger, for whose coming the weary woman has waited and longed, ever since hope died out, and she knew life held for her nothing but wretchedness and woe.
"This little girl, I am going to tell you about, lived in the very heart of a great city, up dismal flights of stairs, at the very top of a huge brick building, where a great many poor people congregated together and called it home.
"There were four of them, Mr. and Mrs. Way, and Angel, and the baby whom they called Mary. There had been another member of the little family, but God had taken her, and Grandma Way's placid face was no longer seen bending over the old family Bible, in the chimney corner. It was very evident to everybody but the one who should have been the first to observe a change, that the hard-working wife and mother would soon follow her. Toil, and care and sorrow, were surely wearing out her life, but there were none to pity her but little Angel, and she was only a child.
"She was shy and bashful, too, and afraid almost of her own shadow, but every night she knelt down and prayed to God to show her how she could be useful to those she loved. And the time was surely coming when all her little strength would be tried to the uttermost.
"One night little Angel was aroused from her sleep by shrieks, and groans and curses, and the sound of a heavy blow, and she sprang from her little bed, to find her mother stretched senseless upon the floor, with the blood trickling from a wound in her head, and a group of uncouth, neighboring women gathered about her.
"'Lord save us!' they ejaculated, 'there's the child, we'd clean forgot her.'
"'Mamma, mamma!' wailed the little creature, 'is she dead?'
"'There, there, dearie, don't take on so,' said good-natured Mrs. Maloney. 'It's not dead she is at all. You see, the father came home, after bein' on a bit of a spree, with a touch of delirium, and raised a good deal of a fuss, and they took him away where he'll have to behave himself till the whisky gets out of his head.'
"'There, she's comin' to now, raise her up, Mis' Macarty, till I give her a little of this to drink. How do you feel now, poor thing?'
"'Why, what is it all about? How came I here?' said Mrs. Way, wildly; then, as her memory returned to her, she clasped Angel's little figure closely, and wept convulsively.
"'Don't take on so!' and, 'Let her alone, I tell you, it will do her good!' and, 'Do you want the woman to git the hysterics?' came indiscriminately from the females bending over her. Then Mrs. Maloney bustled away to make her a reviving cup of tea, and little widow Macarty, with her soft voice and pleasant way, soothed the heart-broken woman.
"'Never you mind, ma'am, everybody has trouble of some kind. Remember the children that's left, and keep your strength to work for them.'
"'You are good and kind,' moaned the sufferer, 'but I've nothing to reward your services.'
"'Can't I do a neighbor a kindness without their talking about pay? Suppose I should fall sick myself, maybe I'd have to pay before hand to get a little help. Your lookin' better a ready. Don't make the tea too strong, Mrs. Maloney, to excite her, and I think a bit of dry toast would be just the thing to sort of tempt her appetite.'
"Mrs. Way sat up, and a Doctor, who had been sent for, dressed her wounds, and pronounced her case not dangerous. 'You need not anticipate any great harm from the blow, madam,' he said, 'but your general health needs recuperating. Your mind acts on your body, and you must be kept free from excitement of any kind.'
"'Free from excitement,' she thought bitterly, after all was hushed in silence, and she lay weak and faint, watching the slumbers of the innocent children beside her. 'My God, pity me!' 'What have I done to deserve this cruel fate?' She thought of the long, miserable hours she had passed alone with her helpless darlings, listening for the unsteady footsteps of him who had vowed to protect her, and guard her from life's ills. And this was the end. She wished she could die, but for the children, what would become of them? 'Free from excitement,' indeed. An unprotected woman, with two small children, and only one pair of hands to work with, and these disabled, and food and fire to get, and a roof to shelter them, to say nothing of warm comfortable clothing.'
"'She got up too quick, and worried too much,' said the Doctor, when he was called again a few weeks later. 'I can do nothing for her. Where's that wretch of a husband?'
"'In the workhouse,' sobbed Mrs. Maloney. 'What will become of the children when she's dead?'
"'Have to send them to the Orphan Asylum, I suppose. Dear me! I never could see what poor people wanted with so many children, anyway,' and the elegant Dr. Dash sauntered down the four flights of stairs, humming a fashionable opera, and speculating how much that beautiful Miss Osborne really possessed in her own right.
"'Indeed, they won't go to the Orphan Asylum,' said little Mrs. Macarty, 'if I have to work and sustain them myself. The sweet, pretty darlings! How would I feel if that was my own Katy, now?'
"Nobody being able to say just how she would feel in that emergency, she bustled round, sniffing at imaginary Orphan Asylums, and nodding her head sagaciously, saying, 'We will show them a thing or two about Orphan Asylums, won't we now?'
"But little Angel had a plan of her own. Away down in her child's heart there was a sacred memory of a mother's anxious, tear-stained face, and grandma trying to comfort her with the message that had been the solace of her own grief-stricken old age:
"'Never despair, daughter! Remember, 'whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.' I had a heavenly dream about William, last night, and I feel sure that he'll find the right way at last. We'll pray for him together, and surely God will hear us.'
"'I believe that, Mother Way,' said the wife, eagerly. 'I could not die and leave him to perish. He loves his children devotedly, and I believe this child (drawing Angel nearer to her) has been sent by God for his salvation.'
"'May the Lord bless and strengthen her for the work,' said grandma in a tremulous voice, laying her thin hand upon the child's head, and Angel felt from that moment set apart, consecrated, as it were, by the last words of that dying saint, for that night, Grandma Way went to heaven. She remembered it now, and knew the time had come for her to act her part. Mrs. Macarty became her sole confidential adviser.
"'I am twelve years old,' said Angel, 'and baby Matie is nearly two; I can take care of her, if you will show me a little now and then, and I am going to try and get along here till my father comes back again.'
"'Just hear the little woman, now,' said her listener, in open-mouthed admiration. 'Sure it would be a tiptop way to manage, and I'll do my best to help you through with it.'
"And this committee of two on ways and means proved so efficient, that when William Way returned, sober and downcast, Angel just lifted up little Mary, as bright and happy as if nothing had ever occurred to sadden them, and that this very room had not recently been the scene of a dreadful tragedy, of which the helpless babes were the only witnesses.
"'Ain't it wonderful?' said Mrs. Maloney, that same day; 'Way's got off with just sixty days, and come back again, and that child putting on the airs of a woman, a tryin' to keep house for him.'
"'And I'm sure that's right enough,' said Mrs. Macarty. 'They could not make it out that he killed the woman directly, and who cares for poor folks? She's dead and gone, and that's the end of her. Little them that makes the laws care! If it was one of them there rich men on the avenue, or a flaunting theater actress, or somebody had got jealous of somebody else, and committed murder, there'd be a fine sensation. An' there'd be pictures in all the shop windows, of how he or she looked in all sorts of situations, how they looked when they was a dyin', and how they looked after they was dead; and what the murderer eat for his supper the night it all got found out, or whether he did not eat anything at all; and how many fine ladies had been to console him, and how many equally fine ministers had been to pray with him. The newsboys would be shriekin' 'murder!' at every crossin', and every corner you turned, it would be 'hev a paper, mum, with the latest proceedings about the trial?' And to crown all, you'd come home, half distracted, to find the children playing with little gallowses, and askin' when pa was goin' to murder somebody, till you felt chilled to the very marrow of your bones.'
'But poor folks, that live in attics, ain't considered human. I tell you what, though, if Mis' Way had a seen her children starving, and stole a loaf of bread to save their lives, there would have been a stir about it, and a pile of policemen from here to the corner, to 'enforce the law,' and they'd have talked in all the churches, about the depravity of the poor in these cities, and then sent another thousand or two to the heathens. The Lord only knows what the world's a comin' to.'
'And the Lord only cares, I don't,' said Mrs. Maloney, flouncing off. The honest truth was, she was a little jealous of her more intelligent neighbor, (for human nature is much the same from the garret to the drawing-room.) Mrs. Macarty needn't think she was talked down, if she did, now and then, get in a word that she had picked up out to service, that the rest of the folks in the block could not understand. One of the Maloney's, direct from Galway, wasn't to be put down by any low Irish. She'd go in and see the babies herself, and patronize them too. So, for spite, she took a dish of steaming potatoes, and left little Mike roaring, and went in to have a gossip.
"'Oh, thank you, Mrs. Maloney,' said Angel, who was fluttering around, setting the table, 'this will be so nice for papa—there he comes now.'
"A footstep sounded without, and the man came in, looking haggard and wan. 'The dirty villain,' muttered Mrs. Maloney, shuffling past him; but Angel came forward, and smoothed the hot temples, and talked in her pretty, bird-like voice. Two great tears rolled out from the hollow eyes, and a prayer that God must have heard, welled up from the depths of a penitent heart.
"Three peaceful, happy years rolled away. Angel was a tall girl of fifteen, and Mary five. They lived in a little cottage in the outskirts of the town, and the neighbors envied them their contented lot, and even strangers paused to admire their pretty home, and these fair, beautiful children. But sin once more entered their little Paradise. William Way again relapsed into dissipation, and 'the state of that man was worse than before.' The fire died out upon the hearth stone, and want, with gaunt, wolfish face, met them wherever they turned. And he, who should have protected, gave them only blows and curses. Everything went for drink. Angel tried courageously to find employment, but her slender wages were rudely taken from her, and half the time they went cold and hungry. Little Mary had always been extremely delicate, and she sunk under it and died, and was buried beside her mother. Angel despaired then, and went on for the future in a kind of maze of bewilderment, doing that which her hand found to do mechanically. Only God, who had bereft her, pitied her still, and helped her to resist temptation when it came to her.
"As her mother had done before her, Angel dragged out the weary years, almost hopeless; and the one object of her toil and solicitude, was only a pitiful wreck of the former stalwart William Way. Only a miserable, wretched creature, that grovelled in the mire of its own degradation, and from whose bosom the last spark of manhood seemed to have forever fled. To look upon him, you would ask, 'Can this being have a soul?'
"And fifteen more years dragged their weary round, and Angel was thirty, and a haggard, care-worn woman. It was a sin and a shame, people said, to wreck that girl's life, when she had many a chance where she might have married, and enjoyed the comfort of having a home of her own. And there were even those mean enough to deride her for her sacrifice, and tell her she had no ambition, and call her a fool for her pains; but she did not mind them.
"She felt glad that she had not, when, one day, the Doctor pronounced, over a broken limb that he was bandaging, that William Way was not long for this world.
"'It's wonderful how he has held on so long, at the dreadful rate he has gone on, but the last few years have told on him. He can't survive this last shock.'
"There was but little time for preparation for a future world; but Angel had faith, and, even at the eleventh hour, it met with its reward. When she closed the dying eyes, she felt that she could trust the penitent soul to the mercy of Him who created it, and 'who can make the vilest clean.'
"For herself, she knew that 'when time shall be no more,' she should find eternal peace."
There was a quick, gasping sob, and Clemence looked up, as she finished, to see a little figure in faded blue calico, flying frantically down the road.
"Which of the scholars left?" she asked.
"Only Ruth Lynn," said Maurice Wayne. "Her father used to drink, and fell in the mill pond about a year ago, and got drowned. Her mother's sick, too, and Dr. Little says she can't live, and has give up goin' to see her any longer, 'cause she can't pay. He's stingy mean to do it, for he goes twice a day to see that spiteful old Mrs. March, and I'm sure she can't live, for ma said yesterday that all her money couldn't save her. When I grow up, I'm going to be a doctor, and I'll look after every poor person twice as good as I will a rich one. That's what I'll do."
"I did not know before that Ruth's mother was so very ill," said Clemence. "I must go and see her."
She forgot it again, though, until about a week after, when the roll was called, and she marked again "absent" after Ruth's name, as she had already done several times before.
"She can't come any more," said Maurice, "her mother's worse, and they say she won't live much longer."
Clemence felt conscience-stricken at having forgotten her, and set out for the little one-roomed cabin directly after school was dismissed.
She found the direst poverty and wretchedness. A dark-haired, strong-featured woman lay on a couch under a window, where there was scarcely a whole pane of glass, and which was stuffed full of rags to keep out the draught. A stove, at which a frowsy neighbor was cooking some fat slices of pork, for the sick woman, filled the apartment with stifling heat and greasy odors.
"There's the schoolma'am," she heard in a loud whisper, as she paused for a moment upon the threshold. The invalid tried to raise herself, and gave a look of dismay at the squalid scene. Poor Mrs. Lynn had been a noted housekeeper, in her days of prosperity, and even at her greatest need, nobody could ever call her neglectful, either of her house or little Ruth, who, though always poorly clad, looked clean and wholesome. Clemence read the whole at a glance.
"Do not apologise," she interrupted, as the strange neighbor poured out a profusion of deprecatory exclamations, "I heard that Mrs. Lynn was ill, and came over to see if I could not assist in some way. Don't allow me to disturb you, madam. How does she feel now?"
"Well, pretty poorly; ain't it so, Mrs. Lynn? Don't you feel as though your time was short here below? School-ma'am's been askin."
"Yes, I'm most gone," was the feeble response, "and I should rejoice to be freed from my troubles, only for the child. I don't have faith to see just how it's a goin to work for the best, for there will be none to comfort little Ruth after I'm gone."
"Well, you must just trust in the Lord. That's what the minister told you, and he knows, for he's had a good chance to try it, preachin' all the time without half enough pay, and a donation now and then. Any way, it will be all the same a hundred years hence. There's the vittals I've been gettin ready, and now this young woman's come to sit by you, I'll run home and look after Tommy. Expect he's in the cistern by this time. If you want me, you can send Ruth, you know. Good night."
"Good night, and thank you, Mrs. Deane," said the widow, and then turned again to Clemence, "They told me you was pretty, Miss," she said, gazing with pleasure at the pure, sweet face. "My Ruth just loved you from the first. You don't know how grateful I have felt towards you for being kind to the little fatherless creature."
"Oh, don't thank me, indeed," said Clemence, "you would not, if you only knew how I have been reproaching myself for not coming before. Tell me something I can do for you."
"There is not much more for me in this world," was the reply; "but I feel burdened with care about the child. I suppose you can't understand a mother's feelings, young lady, and it is weak in me to give up so, but I can't die and leave my little helpless girl alone in the world. Oh, if I could only take her with me?"
"I see how you are situated," said Clemence, "you need a friend to help you. Have you no relatives to look to?"
"No one in the whole, wide world. Little Ruth and me are alone. You must have heard how her father died. My poor, misguided husband! He might have surrounded us with plenty, but evil companions dragged him on to a dreadful end. He was an only son. His parents died, and left him with a few hundred dollars. I had always hired out before I was married, for I had no one to look to, as I was an orphan. I had, however, saved quite a little sum out of my wages, and this, with what James had, gave us quite a fair start in life. But he took to drink, and that was the last of our happiness. I have buried five children, and this girl is the only one left. Would that God had taken her, too."
"How you must have suffered," said her young listener, down whose face sympathetic tears had been streaming, during the woman's pathetic recital. "It cannot be that you will be left to despair in your dying hour. Try and hope for the best, and be resigned to what may be in store for you, remembering it is His will."
"I do try," said the woman, meekly; "and you, will you pray for me?"
"Gladly, if you wish," said Clemence, sinking down beside the couch.
"There, I feel stronger now," said the invalid. "You must surely have been sent by God to comfort me."
Clemence's face was radiant with a light that told whence came her pure joy. She glided around softly, preparing a tempting supper out of the delicacies she had brought to the sick woman. Then she drew a chair again beside her, preparatory to a night of watching.
The woman fell into an uneasy slumber, and the hours waned, as the girl kept faithful "watch and ward." With the early morning light came a change.
"Ruth, run for the neighbors," said Clemence, in frightened tones. "Your mother is worse," and the half-dressed child fled out of the house, crying bitterly.
"Ruth, Ruth!" called the sufferer, "my poor darling."
Clemence came to her side, "I sent her after Mrs Deane," she said, soothingly, "she will be back in a few moments."
"It will be too late. I am going—oh, Father, forgive me? I cannot die in peace—my little Ruth, my little, helpless, confiding daughter, child of my love, I cannot leave her."
The great, hollow eyes fastened themselves imploringly on her face. The young watcher felt as if the minutes were hours. She listened for the footsteps that came not. The woman's breath came quick in little gasps. She tried to speak, turned on her pillow and uttered a feeble word of anguish. Her eyes again sought the face of the young watcher, and she strove again to syllable incoherent questions. Clemence came nearer and bent over her, asking in earnest, agitated tones,
"Will you trust your child with me? She shall be my own, own sister, and I will work for her, and love her, and watch over her, while life lasts?"
A faint pressure of the cold hand, and a look of heavenly peace in the dying eyes, was her only reply.
"She is gone!" said Clemence, as Mrs. Deane appeared in the doorway, "Come to me Ruth, you have lost your mother, but you have found a sister," and she clasped the sobbing little one to her arms.
"Well, if that don't beat all," said Mrs. Wynn. "Whoever heard of such goin's on? What is the girl goin' to do with that beggar-child, I'd like to know? A lone female, too, with no one to protect her, and nothing but one pair of hands. She's spoilt her market by that move. There ain't a young feller in Waveland got courage enough to make up to her now, for all that pretty face; nobody wants to take a young'un that don't belong to 'em, on their hands to support. She's clean crazy to do it.
"Rose, you'll have to finish the dishes and clean up, if it is Saturday, for I'm a goin' round to Miss Pryor's. I can't keep that to myself over Sunday, not if a whole passel of ministers was to come here to dinner, and I love my reputation for neatness, entirely."
It was a fearful responsibility, but now that she had taken it, or rather had it forced upon her by fate, Clemence felt thankful that she was thought worthy of the charge. She began to love the little, helpless creature, who looked to her now for every good. She took pleasure in combing the soft, brown hair, that had, hitherto, been twisted into an awkward knot, into pretty, graceful curls, and it would be hard to believe that the little, slender, sable-clad child, with the serious, brown eyes, that always followed Clemence with looks of love in their yearning, amber depths, could possibly be the same wild, sly, little Ruth Lynn, whom we first knew.
Notwithstanding Mrs. Wynn's adverse prediction, Clemence's "strange freak," as they called it in the little village, was not condemned by every one. There were a few liberal-minded ones, who saw at once how the case stood, and resolved to uphold the girl in her course, though they feared for the future, in which there was the possibility of failure. And, much to Clemence's astonishment, the gallant Philemon W. Strain, editor, came out with a glowing account of the whole affair in the next issue of the Clarion, in a three column article, headed "Ruth, the Village Child," complimenting the young schoolmistress in such high-flown terms, that a rival editor, who read it, thought that she must be of a literary turn, and wrote to her to solicit contributions to his paper, and another authority in a neighboring village, wanted to write her life, and was only pacified by being allowed to dedicate a poem to our young heroine, which, happily for her nerves, was never published, for being sent by the ambitious strippling to a popular magazine, was only heard of again under the head of "respectfully declined," accompanied by some severe and cutting remarks, to the effect that the writer had better look to his grammar and orthography, which uncalled for sarcasm, cruelly, but effectually extinguished what might, perhaps, have been a light, that, in the future, might had illumined the world with its effulgent rays.
Sabbath in the country. Who, that has ever enjoyed its serene beauty, can ever again long for the unhallowed day, that, in the city, is seemingly more for the recreation of the masses of working people, than for the worship of God. Clemence, leading by the hand little Ruth, thought she had never seen anything so beautiful and peaceful as the scene. Nature seemed in an attitude of devotion, and quaintly dressed little children, with their testaments and Sabbath school books, and silver-haired patriarchs and patient women, with sturdy young men, and fair, blooming girls, were all hastening, in little groups, to the place of prayer and praise.
Clemence paused, for there was yet time before the service, and drew Ruth with her, through the gate that led into the cemetery. The child shivered and shrank back, and Clemence let her have her way. She went on alone, to a distant part of the graveyard, where there was a mound of fresh earth, that covered all there was now of Ruth's loving mother.
"Poor, heart-broken woman," she thought, sorrowfully, "she has found rest now."
She bent down and made, with a pocket-knife, an incision in the fresh earth, and placed therein the long stems of a delicate boquet, which she had brought for the purpose. When she arose, bright, crystal drops sparkled upon the velvet petals, and her eyes were still shining with tears.
"God help me to be faithful to that mother's sacred trust," she murmured, as she walked away.
Ruth's slight figure had lingered behind a marble slab, at a little distance, and when she was gone, the child rushed impetuously forward, and, with one bitter, wailing cry, threw herself upon her mother's grave.
Clemence wandered aimlessly down the shady walks, crushing the long, rank weeds, and the occasional wild flowers beneath her feet, and at last sank down at the foot of a willow, whose long, drooping branches trailed nearly to the mossy sward beneath. She buried her head in her hands, and her thoughts went back over the past. The retrospection was inexpressibly wonderful.
"This is wrong," she thought, trying to shake off the sadness that oppressed her; "it will not help me to bear my burden farther. There is now, by a strange fate, another, still more weak and helpless than I, who is dependant upon my efforts, and I must not yield to sorrow." But the tears came again, as the thought that even this child, who, but for her, would be utterly forlorn and friendless, had to-day the privilege that was denied her, kneeling at the grave of one she loved. How peaceful looked this silent home of the dead! "They rest from their labors," she mused, "and pleased God, in His own good time, I, too, shall be at peace."
It was strange, in one so young; but, Clemence Graystone never spoke or acted as though she had a long lifetime of usefulness or enjoyment before her. A feeling, that amounted almost to presentiment, told her that she had not long to wait for the morning that dawneth only upon eternity; and she thought she was content to work and wait until the summons came. It might have been, in part, owing to the morbid state into which she had fallen, after the death of her parents, and these subsequent severe and long-continued trials of her strength, which was by no means great, but it was only in part. If there are some of the great heroes upon life's battle-field, who have had the future faintly foreshadowed to them, just as truly this shrinking, sensitive girl knew that, whatever might come to her now, whether of pleasure or pain, she should be upheld and borne through it, and that a crown, "more to be chosen" than the laurel wreath of a changeful and fickle world, would be her sweet reward; even that "crown of glory, which fadeth not away." She knelt down where she had been sitting, and asked God to give her patience and humility for what might come, then walked on comforted, to find Ruth. The child was waiting for her, and as she came along, slid her little hand confidingly into hers. Clemence saw that she had been crying, for the great brown eyes were humid, and tears still glittered on the silken lashes. She stooped and kissed her, but forbore to speak, and together they went into the meeting house. The congregation were already assembled, and were singing the beautiful hymn which will never grow old or forgotten, commencing, "My faith looks up to thee!" Clemence seated herself, and bowed her head, and the sweet words went down into the sacred recesses of her spirit. An admirable author has remarked, "there are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees." And, although Clemence's lips syllabled no words, her thoughts were those of the most exalted devotion. She seemed wrapped about in a spell of dreamy silence, and the words of the sermon came faintly to an ear that was all unheeding. When it was over, and they rose to sing the last hymn, she sat abstractedly, "among them, but not of them." It needed the pressure of Ruth's light hand to rouse her, and she stood up for the benediction. After it was pronounced, she became conscious, for the first time, that they had been the centre of observation. A little group immediately collected around them, and there was no end to the staring of those who stood aloof. Clemence recollected then, that this was her first appearance with Ruth in her new relationship. She felt a slight embarrassment, as so many eyes regarded her curiously and rudely, but answered pleasantly the many inquiries that were successively made of her.
"Just look at the child!" said Mrs. Wynn, "who would have thought that forlorn little thing could appear so nice and scrumptious. Let me see. Is that silk tissue that dress is made of? Extravagant!"
"Why, so it is!" echoed a chorus of voices.
"Miss Graystone, I did not expect that a person occupying your elevated position in this community, would set such a ruinous example. A teacher of youth should look to the cultivation of the mind, not to the outward adorning of the person." Mrs. Dr. Little sailed away from the little group in as dignified a manner as a lady of nearly two hundred avoirdupois could be expected to do, as she threw in this remark.
There was a momentary silence, broken by the irrepressible Mrs. Wynn. "What is that, a locket?" she asked, with a little scream of surprise. "Is it real gold? Let me see it, child!" She grasped it from the neck of the frightened little one. "Oh, its yours," she said in a disappointed tone. She had evidently expected some other face than the one that looked smilingly up; the very counterpart of the girl who stood before her, regarding her with a bewildered look. "Sinful!" she ejaculated, "as well as extravagant, to put such ideas into that young one's head. She'll have a watch next, and a new silk dress. I fear for the morals of this village. Miss Graystone, I expected better things of you. I feel it my duty to warn you solemnly, that if you go on in this way, you may lose your position and the confidence of the respectable portion of this community."
There was such a strong emphasis on the word "respectable," that Clemence's face flushed with indignant astonishment.
"At least, madam," she said, in a tone of dignified reproof, "I have sufficient sense of propriety to remember that this is no place in which to discuss such subjects. I have not forgotten to respect the Sabbath. Come dear," more gently to Ruth.
"Whew!" said Mrs. Wynn, looking after her in blank amazement; "If I ain't teetotally constonished, and clean put out, like a tallow dip under an extinguisher, by my fine young schoolmistress. You heard that, I suppose, Betsey Pryor?"
"Oh! of course I heard it," said that piece of antiquity, with a spiteful laugh, "and I hope now you are beginning to see through your model young lady. Didn't I tell you there was something behind that innocent face? 'Still water runs deep.' I knew she was a cute one. I ain't lived to for—to my age, if I ain't the oldest person in the world, and not know something of human nature. I pity your want of penetration, Mrs. Wynn. Massy! just look through that window!"
There was a general rush to that side of the room indicated by Miss Pryor, and they were rewarded for the effort with a fresh theme for gossip.
"Good gracious, Rose, look!" almost shrieked Mrs. Wynn, "there they go with Mr. Strain. Ain't that style now? Come away, Rose, with me, this minute. My conscience won't allow me to pass over this chance. There is yet time to warn Clemence Graystone, and turn her from the path of destruction. I am a virtuous matron, and I must use what influence I possess to save others from evil communications. I will even forgive that girl for the indignity offered to me this day, in public, if it is necessary to save her from misery. Her heart must be melted by Christian love and forbearance. Hasten, Rose, and we will overtake them."
Wholly intent upon her pious mission, Mrs. Wynn did not feel any disagreeable effects from the vertical rays of the blazing noonday sun, but ran down the road after the little group, who moved on, leisurely and unconscious, a few rods before them.
"Wait, Miss Graystone," she gasped, "I want to speak to you. Why, Mr. Strain, excuse my interrupting you, but I want to speak a word to this dear child. Rose, walk on with Mr. Strain, I don't wish my remarks to be overheard."
The gentleman paused a moment in a state of uncertainty, eyed the blooming Miss Rose Wynn, whose five feet five of feminine humanity, clad in bright red delaine, quite overshadowed the delicate figure beside him. But he obeyed the elder woman's command meekly, nevertheless, and went forward, asking in a pompous tone:
"Is your paternal benefactor indisposed, Miss Wynn? I did not have the pleasure of beholding that respected personage at our morning service."
"Who?" queried his fair companion. "Oh, if you mean pa, he's laid up on account of takin' cold in the hay field. 'Taint goin' to amount to much though. Let's hurry up, ma's motioning me to go faster."
They walked on, and Mrs. Wynn, eying their retreating figures with supreme satisfaction, turned and smiled blandly upon Clemence.
"Now, I've got a little breath," she articulated, still with considerable difficulty, "I want to ask you what on earth made you fly out with your best friend. I didn't mean anything, only for your own good."
"I believe you, Mrs. Wynn," said her young listener, generously. "I will admit having experienced a momentary feeling of displeasure at your words, but I have conquered it, and should have forgotten it, I am sure, without this explanation. I am afraid it is I who ought to apologise for having forgotten the respect due to age."
"There, now, don't," said Mrs. Wynn, now really in earnest. "It was mean in me, to say that before them all, and I'm sorry for it, for it shows the right spirit in you to try and defend the little creature. You have shamed us all out by the way you have acted, and if ever you want any help with the child, come to Mother Wynn, and see if she won't be as good as her word, and show you the way out of your difficulties."
"Thank you, my good, kind friend," said Clemence, grasping the hand held out to her, impulsively. "I am afraid that I am not equal to the responsibility that I have taken upon myself in the care of this child, but I shall do my very best."
"And angels can't do nothin' more," said Mrs. Wynn. "You're made of the right stuff, child, and I'm glad we had this little fallin' out, we had such a good makin' up time. I like you all the better. I wish Betsy Pryor hadn't been there to see it, though—never mind, I'll make her pay dearly for the satisfaction she enjoyed over it. I'll be your fast friend from this time forward, and I ain't one of the kind to say a thing that I don't mean."
"What a good-hearted, motherly woman," thought Clemence, after they parted. "I am sure she meant well all the time." And perhaps it was but natural that Mrs. Wynn should put Rose forward, and make her happiness a thing to be considered above everything and everybody else. Other mothers have done the same, and thought their Clementinas and Matildas the dearest girls in the world, and hated everybody cordially, who did not see them with their own partial eyes, and value them accordingly. People are not so very different from the highest to the lowest, and nearly all view the world from one stand-point, and plan and speculate as to how they can best make it subservient to their own interest. Mrs. Wynn, if no better, was at least as good as the majority of her sex.
That evening Clemence went down to the boarding place which was next in order, and which was the residence of a family by the name of Brier. The night was glorious. The moon rode proudly through the heavens, and the stars glittered brightly upon the deep azure of the evening sky. The trees cast dusky shadows across her pathway, as she walked onward, and far away to the right of her, stretched a dark forest, shrouded in impenetrable gloom and silence. All was calm repose. Sweet odors floated to her, borne on the evening breeze, while afar off came the musical plash of falling waters, and the murmuring leaves bent to whisper a benediction. Charmed by the calm beauty of the hour, she did not observe that any one was near her, until a carefully modulated voice fell on her ear:
"We meet again, my fair young friend, by a most fortunate train of circumstances. What, may I ask, was the subject of your contemplations, when I disturbed you? Judging by the sweet tranquillity of your countenance, your thoughts were of the most pleasing description."
Clemence recognized the well-known tones at once, even before she turned to glance at the new comer.
"Why, good evening, Mr. Strain," she said, trying to conceal that she had been at all startled by his vicinity, and feeling somewhat re-assured, upon recognizing the village editor. "I was not aware of your close proximity. I was admiring this lovely evening. Is it not really beautiful?"
"Beautiful!" exclaimed the gentleman, rapturously, "it is more than that, it is gorgeous beyond description!" continuing in a newspaper advertisement way, with some more remarks of a similar nature. "May I ask, Miss Graystone, if you were walking for the purpose of calm enjoyment and meditation, or whether you had any decided object in thus going out unattended?"
"I had an object," replied Clemence, "I am going to Mrs. Brier's. I thought I would go this evening, because it was so pleasant, and in order to be ready for my duties in the morning."
"Ah, yes! the Brier's are good, worthy souls, I believe, although I cannot say that they are particularly known to me. You must have observed, by this time, that I pride myself somewhat on my penetration and keen insight into the character of those with whom the extensive business of my office throws me often in contact. Yes, you must have discovered, by this time, that I am a superior judge of human nature, by the perusal of the spicy editorials which have made the Waveland Clarion widely known and feared, as well as respected. As one of the admirers of my peculiar genius remarked, to the confusion of another of the editorial fraternity, it takes Philemon W. Strain to hit off the follies and weaknesses of mankind with his humorous pen. But if it is often his duty to condemn, it is sometimes, also, his privilege to admire, as you cannot have failed to notice within the past few weeks."
Clemence acknowledged the implied compliment, and hastened to change the subject. She was glad to behold, in the distance, the lights gleaming from the Brier cottage, and hurried forward, the sooner to be rid of her not altogether welcome company. Mrs. Brier chanced to be standing in the front door, as they came up.
"Good evening, Miss Graystone," she said. "Why, Mr. Strain," in a tone of affected surprise, "who would have thought of seeing you. Come right in, both of you."
"Thank you," said the gentleman, confusedly. "I believe I will walk on, as I have an engagement for this evening." Raising his hat to the ladies, he strode away with a majestic tread. Clemence breathed a sigh of relief, as she followed the spare figure of her hostess into the house.
"You must be tired," said that lady, "sit in the rocking chair and rest yourself. Johnny," to a pale, sharp featured child, "come and bid the schoolmistress good evening."
The child came shyly up to the young teacher, and, as she held out her hand, seemed re-assured by her kindly smile.
"I suppose you know it ain't none of ourn," said Mrs. Brier, "its only a boy we took to bring up. Nobody knows who his parents be. Brier got him at the foundling hospital when he went to sell his wheat to the city. He wasn't but two years old then, but he's ten now, and a great, big, lazy, idle, good-for-nothing boy, that'll never begin to pay for his keepin'. I never wanted the young 'un around, but Brier said he'd come handy by-and-by, and save a man's wages; so as we never had any of our own, we thought we'd keep him. Children are an awful sight of trouble. This one has been such a trial. He has got such a terrible temper, and I have hard work to keep him in his place, but I do it, I can tell you," she added, glaring spitefully at the little cowering creature.
"Why, he don't look like a very naughty boy," said Clemence. "I think Johnny is one of the best behaved boys in school. He is so quiet that I hardly know he is there, except when he is reading his lessons, and those he always has well learned. He very seldom fails with a recitation."
"Well, I'm glad to hear anybody speak well of you," said Mrs. Brier to him again. "I hope she'll be able to make something of you. Guess you'll show the cloven foot, though, before long."
The child, who had been regarding Clemence with a beaming, grateful glance, turned, as the woman concluded these remarks, with a sigh so deep and mournful that Clemence's heart throbbed with sympathetic pain.
"We are none of us perfect," she said, gently, "we can only try to do right, and ask God to bless our endeavors. It requires a good deal of patience with little ones, and a firm and gentle hand to guide them."
"I ain't sure about the gentle, but I'm firm and determined enough. I mean to be feared, if I ain't loved. I don't care anything about such nonsense as winning a child's affections. He's none of mine, and I'm glad of it. He won't expect to be pampered and spoiled like the other children around here. And let me tell you, you had better profit by my example, in respect to that girl of Lynn's. It was a mighty foolish thing, burdening yourself down with the care of that child. You're poor, I take it, or you wouldn't be teachin' school here, and you say you're an orphan. What would become of you if you was to fall sick?"
"I should still trust in God," said Clemence, "and I believe He would open a way for me. I have only done what I thought to be my duty in the matter, and I have faith that I shall be fully sustained."
"Oh, you know best of course, but people will have their say, and there has been a good deal of talk lately, and rather to your disadvantage. 'Taint been looked upon in a favorable light here, taking a poor nobody's child, and dressing her up to make her feel her importance over her betters. I'm afraid you'll yet be sorry that you ever undertook to provide for her."
"God forbid," said Clemence earnestly. "I should despise myself for even once harboring such an unworthy thought. Whatever the future may have in store for me, whether for weal or woe, this child shares it, for there is no one else to give a thought or prayer for my happiness. This event, which my friends have looked upon as a calamity, has already proved a blessing, and has opened for me a new source of innocent pleasure."
"Well, now you are visionary," said her companion. "Mrs. Wynn said so, and she gets things generally pretty near right. Guess you'll learn to be a little more practical before you get through with this life. The world ain't made for folks to dream away their time in, for there's work to be done, and you know that them that don't work shan't eat. Food and shelter and good, warm clothing, to say nothin' of fine lady fixins, don't come for a song, I can tell you."
"I know it," said Clemence, drearily, her thoughts going back to the great city, where she had lived and struggled for one who was no more. "If I am given to dreams," she mused, "they are not of a sanguine nature. There are weary months of toil and discouragements, and many failures before me, for the 'end is not yet.' As another has remarked, 'a wide, rich heaven hangs above you, but it hangs very high. A wide, rough world is around you, and it lies very low.'"
A tear trickled down the girl's cheek, and fell upon her black dress. A little figure stole up, and knelt beside her, and a timid voice said, "Don't cry, please, Johnny's sorry for you." Clemence raised the little form.
"Poor child," she said, "you are early accustomed to sorrow." She parted the hair from off his forehead, with a mother touch, and noted the intelligence and sympathy in the great, thoughtful eyes. "You are a good boy, dear, let me see if I have not got something to please you." She put her hand in her pocket, and drew out a tiny Bible, and wrote therein, before handing it to him, these words in pencil—"John Brier, a gift from his Teacher."
"There, Johnny," she said, "keep that always, and promise me to read it every day, and try to follow its instructions, for, if you act in accordance with its precepts, you will have that peace and happiness that comes from a consciousness of having performed our duty."
She leaned forward and rested her head upon her hand after a way she had when troubled. Mrs. Brier's uncalled for remarks had disturbed her. Why should people say unkind things of her, when she was trying so hard to do right. Surely, there could be no wrong in the act of comforting a dying woman with the promise that her only child should be cared for and protected. She had not been eager to take upon herself this burden, but there was no one else, and it seemed almost as if God had intended her for the emergency. There was but one thing left, to struggle on as hopefully as possible, and live down these adverse circumstances.
"Your room's ready, Miss." said her hostess coming back, suddenly, and only too glad of the opportunity, Clemence bid her good night, and retired immediately.
"Johnny!" called the sharp voice of Mrs. Brier, at the early morning light, "up with you, I tell you. Do you hear? For every minute you keep me, you'll get an extra crack!" and, true to her word, there was presently a grieved cry from the child, upon whose slender shoulders at least a dozen blows were showered in rapid succession.
An hour after, when Clemence went down to breakfast, Johnny came in from the woodshed, with traces of tears on his face.
"What's the matter with the young'un?" asked Mr. Brier, as they took their places at the table. He seemed to have a little more self-control than his amiable spouse, and to be annoyed at such exhibitions before a stranger.
"The same old thing over again," was the reply, "he wouldn't get up in time to start the fire, and I took him in hand, and I'll do it again, if he don't get out of the sulks."
"Why, I guess he means to behave," said Mr. Brier, deprecatingly, "it's natural for boys to be lazy, you know."
"Well, I'll take the laziness out of him. What do you suppose he was made for, if it was not to work? As if he was goin' to be took care of, and have me delve away all of my life, washin' and makin' over clothes for him, and he not work and pay for it. There's the cow to milk, and take to pasture, the garden to weed, and wood to prepare, besides the other errands, and how's it all to be done, if you make a fine gentleman of him. It's askin' enough to send him to school, without keepin' him in idleness. He was brought here to work, and I intend to see that he does it."
"Why don't you eat your breakfast, Johnny?" asked her husband.
"Because, I can't," replied the child, tears filling his eyes. "I'm not hungry."
"But I should think any little boy ought to be, that's been out in this delightful morning air. Eat your breakfast before you go to school."
"Yes," chimed in Mrs. Brier, "don't leave anything on your plate, or I shall keep it for your dinner. I never allow anything to be wasted in this house. Here, take these nice, warmed potatoes, and don't let me see you putting on any more airs."