Mrs. Roberts was in no mood for laughing, the tears were dropping slowly on the flower she held in her hand. Mart saw in the glass just then a sight which seemed to add to her surprise. She turned wondering eyes on her hostess.
"What are you crying for?" she asked. "Don't spoil the flower; it is like the one Dirk bought me once. He said you sent it to me. I kept it most a week. I took it over to Sallie's, and she got fresh water for it every day, somehow; and it was then she begun to tell me what you said about heaven, and I thought if God had made such flowers as that for you, it was likely he had made a heaven for you; but I didn't believe it was for Dirk till to-night, and I didn't have no kind of a notion how it looked till just now. Do you believe what that man said—that folks like Dirk can go? Of course, if Madge went, why Dirk would have a right. He is bad just because he has to be. He never had no chance to be anything else; and he ain't very bad, anyhow—nothing to compare with some." Her voice was almost fierce in its earnestness; she was beginning to resent the creeping doubt that Mrs. Roberts' silence suggested.
Careful words must be spoken now. What if this awakening soul should be turned aside! No wonder that the unspoken words were prayers.
"Dirk has a right to go to heaven," she said, steadily, sweetly; "there is not the shadow of a doubt as to his right. No one in the world—not Satan himself—can deprive him of it; and it is not only his right, but his duty to go."
"Then he shall!"
I wish I could give you an idea of the strength in the girl's voice. It almost carried conviction with it to Mrs. Roberts' heart.
"Come and sit down," she said, and she drew her towards one of the low cushions. If Mart sat on that, her head would be just where a gentle hand could stroke the masses of hair.
"Let me talk with you about this. You are mistaken in one thing. Dirk is very bad. He is bad enough to shut him out of heaven forever."
The girl started, and tried to fling off the caressing hand.
"So are you," said the gentle voice.
"Oh, me! Don't talk about me! Whoever said I wasn't bad? Let me go; I want to go home. I don't care how hard it rains."
"And so am I," continued the gentle voice.
The girl on the cushion ceased struggling to free herself from the caressing touch, and remained motionless.
"Let me tell you of something that we have each done a great many times. We have been asked and urged and coaxed day after day, and year after year, to accept an invitation to go to this very heaven, and we have paid no attention at all; and this, after Jesus Christ had given His life to make a way for us to go. Is not that being bad?"
"Dirk he never had no invitation—never heard anything about it."
"Yes, he has," speaking with quiet firmness. "The Lord Jesus Christ told me to invite him, and I have done so a great many times, and he has made no answer; and Sallie Calkins has invited you, and you have treated it in just the same way."
"I didn't believe it."
"Isn't that being bad? What has He ever done that you should refuse to believe His word, when He died an awful death to prove to you that He was in earnest?"
"You said Dirk had a right to go."
"So he has. Jesus Christ has given him a right, if he will. I have invited you to my house, and asked you to spend the night in this room, and sleep in this bed. Has any person a right to keep you from doing so?"
"No." An emphatic nod of the head, and a lingering, almost loving look at the white bed behind her.
"Then cannot you truthfully say that you have a right to be here? My dear girl, it is so faint an illustration of what Jesus Christ has done to give you a right to heaven, that I almost wonder at your understanding it. But can you imagine something of how I should have felt had I urged you to come to me night after night, for weeks and years, and you had turned from me with no answer, or else with scorn?"
"You wouldn't have kept on asking me." Mart spoke with the assurance of one who had firm faith in her statement.
"No, I presume I should not. I would have said after the third or fourth invitation, 'If she really will not have anything to do with me I cannot help it,' and I should have tried to forget you. This is one of the many differences between Christ and me. He waits, and asks, and asks. How long will you keep Him waiting?"
I have given you only the beginning of the conversation. It was long ere it was concluded.
Down stairs Mr. Ried waited as long as he could, curious to know the result of Mart's first impressions. Then he went away, and Gracie went to her room, and the house settled into quiet, and Mr. Roberts, in the library, waited for his wife, while she told over again, with tender words and simple illustrations, the "old, old story," so fitted to the wants of the world.
How many times has there been a like result.
It was midnight when they knelt together, the fair child of luxury and the child of poverty; but the Saviour, who intercedes for both, bent His ear, and heard again the cry of a groping soul, seeking Him out of darkness, and held out His loving, never-failing arms, able to reach down to her depth, and received her to himself. Who can tell that story? Who can describe how heaven seemed to the girl just then?
It was not what Mrs. Roberts had expected. I cannot even say that it was what she had hoped for. Her faith had not reached to such a height at all. She could hardly have put into words what she hoped. When she ventured to try to tell it to the friends in the parlor, and to you, I doubt whether you understood. She thought to get a hold on the girl; to show her something of God's beauty and love, as it shone through herself; to make her long after something her life did not give, and to gradually lead her to seek after satisfaction in Christ. A long process—something that should unfold gradually, with many discouraging drawbacks, and some days that would look like utter failures. She had schooled herself to be prepared for this, but she had not looked for Him to exert His mighty power to save in a moment. How it had touched her to find a soul, hungry, not for itself, but for a brother, I shall not attempt to tell. The first words she said, after she went back to her waiting husband, a little after midnight, were these:—
"He could not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief. I think that is what is the matter with the world to-day. I wonder if He would not be pleased with one who could throw herself at His feet with a childlike abandon of faith, and expect wonders, yes, and impossibilities, just as a child feels that anything can be done by father? God has shamed my faith to-night. It is as though I had asked for a crumb of bread, and he gave me the entire loaf. That girl up-stairs has not heard of Him before as a Saviour for her; has never thought of such a thing, or, at least, dreamed of its possibility, and yet she has given herself to Him. And Evan, what do you think were the first words she said? 'O Lord, take Dirk, too!' She is on her knees at this moment praying for him. If you could have seen her face when it first dawned upon her that she could tell God about him, and ask for His mighty power to be exerted in his behalf, it would have been a picture for your lifetime. Oh, Evan, Evan, why can we not expect great things of God?"
"AN AWFUL PROBLEM"
Isn't it strange, the ways the Lord takes to answer prayers?
Much prayer had been made for Dirk Colson, but few had thought of his sister. Sallie Calkins, it is true, had come with trembling steps into the light of Christ's love, and had immediately desired to have Mart enjoy it with her, but was very trembling and doubting as to her ability to reach Mart, or to influence her in the right direction. She sent the bonnet and cape to the lecture with a prayer, but she did not look for the prayer to be answered. Verily, He has to be content with faith "less than a grain of mustard-seed."
Was the rest of the story an answer to prayer? We are to remember that He has strange ways. Events startling enough in their import followed each other in rapid succession. In the first place, Dirk's father, poor, wrecked man, returned no more. Whether he had wandered among the network of railroads which lined the southern portion of the city, and lost his life there, or whether he had fallen into the river, or just how he had disappeared, could not be discovered. There were three men killed by an accident on the road one night, but their disfigured bodies were buried before Dirk heard of it. There was a man seen struggling in the water off the lower wharf one evening, but he sank before help could reach him, and his body was not recovered. There were half a dozen men killed by a boiler explosion, but that was not heard of in time to look into it. There were so many ways in which the wreck might have gone out of life and left no sign. They were safe in supposing that he was intoxicated, and that was about all they could be perfectly sure of, concerning him; that, and the fact that he came no more. Of course, there was no such search for him as is made for the man of respectability and position. To one who had some idea of the worth of a soul, it was pitiful to see what a tiny ripple this disappearance made on the surface of life.
A moment of startled questioning by those who lived in the immediate neighborhood; a few women with aprons thrown over their heads congregating in groups around the pump, or before the door of the bakery; a crowd of dirty children, stopping their play for a moment, and speaking lower;—then the tide of noisy, fighting, swearing life went on.
One was gone out from it. Whither? None knew, few cared; and there were such crowds and crowds left, how could he be missed?
One missed him,—an abused, insulted, downtrodden woman. One whom, years before, he had promised to love and cherish until death parted them, and had broken the vows almost as soon as taken, and never renewed them again. Yet that woman wept bitter tears over his absence; watched for him, listened nightly for his staggering footsteps; rose up from her heap of straw in the corner in the middle of the night, and set wide open the cellar door, and listened to the angry voices floating down to her from some drunken brawl further up the street, if, perchance, she might hear his; listened, and held her breath, and quivered all over with hope and fear: then crept back to her miserable bed, covered her head with the ragged quilt, and cried herself into a few hours of forgetfulness.
"She is crying herself to death about him!" Mart said. There was surprise mingled with awe in her voice.
She told it to Dirk, and the two stood thoughtfully for a moment looking out at the one window. They carefully avoided looking at each other. They did not understand. To them there was simply relief in the father's absence. They had no trace of love for him in their hearts. The word "father" meant nothing to them but misery. Still there was that in them which respected the mother's grief; they tried to shield her. Dirk, of his own thoughtfulness, brought home a bit of tea in a paper, and bought half a pint of milk at the corner bakery; and Mart took lessons of Sallie, and made a delicate slice of toast, and borrowed Sallie's one cup and saucer to serve the tea in. She was disappointed that the mother cried, and could hardly drink the tea. She was even almost vexed that the mother said with tears that "poor Jock always did like tea so much, and she had always thought that maybe if he could have had it hot and strong he would not have taken to the drink."
Mart had no faith in this, no belief that anything in her father's past life could have kept him from the drink; but she held herself silent, and let the tears have their way. All the time she had in her heart one great solemn regret. There was one who would have helped her father; would and could have saved him, even from rum. What if she, his daughter, had known the Lord Jesus, and could have taken the miserable father to Him and had him transformed! Mart had no doubt about His power to do it. An unanswerable argument had been given her. No infidel need try to assail her now.
But the father! Why had everybody kept silence, and let him sink away?
Why had not she known Christ? Why had she not listened to Sallie but a week before? Why had not Dirk learned the way and saved his father? An awful problem! Mart's life must henceforth be shadowed by it.
Meantime what was Mrs. Roberts to do for this new-born soul? How was she to help her, and, through her, to help her brother?
She, in her elegant home, sat down to study this problem.
Life at East Fifty-fifth Street was so far removed from life in the alley that she knew nothing about the missing father. Days passed, and, busy with many claims of society, she had made no movement toward helping the girl, and knew as yet no way to do it; yet she carried her on her heart. Monday evening came and went, and still she had been detained from any effort.
One afternoon her thoughts shaped themselves into action. She would go and see Mart. She would get Dirk to protect her in her journey down the alley; also, in accomplishing this, she would accomplish another thing. She would call on Dirk at his place of business. The chief of the office was a Christian man; yet she had reason to believe that he knew less about Dirk, and cared much less for him, than he did for his little dog, who sat in the window and barked at passers-by.
She had no difficulty in securing attention. Ladies were not often admitted, but a card bearing the name "Mrs. Evan Roberts" was sufficient passport among any of the business men of the city.
Mr. Stone was more than ready, he was eager to serve her. What could he do for the elegantly-dressed lady whose carriage waited at the door, while she came in person among the bales and boxes? Her business must be urgent.
It was. Could she speak with Mr. Colson just for a moment? She would not detain him long; but she wished to make an appointment with him for the next day.
"Mr. Colson!" The chief and his perplexed assistant looked at each other thoughtfully, and shook their heads. There was no such person connected with their establishment. She must have the wrong number.
No; she was positive.
"He told me only three days ago that he was in your employ. He is on the third floor, I believe."
The gentlemen looked at each other again.
"Colson!" repeated Mr. Stone. "There is certainly a mistake. Briggs is in charge on the third floor front, and Dickson has the back rooms. No, Mrs. Roberts, we have no such name among our men, I am positive."
But Mrs. Roberts gently held her ground. She was sure she was not mistaken, for she had talked with him about his work and the different men. He was in Mr. Briggs' department, she felt quite sure. He was not a foreman, she explained, but quite a young man; had been there but a few weeks, and Dr. Everett was the one who had interested himself in securing the place.
Light of some sort began to dawn on the perplexed faces of the gentlemen.
"Can she mean black Dirk, do you suppose?" questioned the elder, looking hard at his associate.
Then came the sweet voice of the visitor.
"Oh, no; he is not a colored gentleman. His name is Colson,—Mr. Derrick Colson."
"That is the one," said the gentleman, quickly. Should he laugh or be annoyed?
It took but a moment after that to summon "Mr. Derrick Colson." Black he was, certainly, not only by reason of his naturally dark skin, but because of the grimy work, whatever it was, which fell to his lot. His big apron was soiled with ink and oil, and daubed with bits of dark color which seemed not to be either.
He came forward with his usual shambling gait, and an additional shade of sullenness apparent on his face, but it glowed a swarthy red when he recognized the lady.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Colson," she said, and she held forth her delicately-gloved hand.
His own went forward to meet it; then drew suddenly back.
"It is not clean enough," he said; "there's ink or something on it."'
But the lavender kids were not withdrawn.
"Never mind the ink; a little honest soil never hurt anybody," and the rough, dark hand was taken in her own.
Then occurred a few moments' chat; at least the lady chatted with easy familiarity. She referred to the "Social Parlors," to the "Monday Evenings," to Miss Dennis' "Musicale," to half a dozen themes about which the bewildered gentlemen within hearing knew nothing.
Could it be that the low-voiced, gentle lady was trying to give them a lesson as well as to talk with Dirk? Finally she made an appointment for the next afternoon. Would his employer be so kind as to excuse him for an hour, if convenient? Certainly, it would be convenient to please Mrs. Evan Roberts.
Dirk was very much embarrassed. He blushed and stammered, and did not know how to answer any of the kindnesses; but there were two things during the interview which gave Mrs. Roberts more pleasure than you, perhaps, are able to understand.
One was, that at sight of her he had suddenly snatched off the paper cap which he wore, and the other, that having set it again on his head as he turned from her, he glanced back from the door, and, in answer to her bow and smile, lifted the ugly little cap with an air that was an exact imitation of young Ried, and yet so well done that you would not have thought of it as an imitation.
Mrs. Roberts could have clapped her hands; but she did not. Instead she said, sweetly:—
"I am very glad that Mr. Colson is in the employ of a Christian gentleman. He is greatly in need of help from all Christian sources, and I am sure there is that in him which will respond to judicious effort."
Then she let the bewildered man attend her to her carriage, and went her way rejoicing.
* * * * *
But there were plans being laid for her at that moment of which she knew nothing.
To-morrow she would go and see the golden-haired girl. In a neatly-packed basket she had certain things, among them a bonnet and a sack that she knew would fit the hair and face, and she believed would give Mart pleasure. If only she could contrive a natural way to give them to her, and there could be planned ways of keeping them safe from the pawnbroker's grasp. All this time she knew nothing of the fact that the hand which had grasped for years to furnish the pawnbroker was stilled forever. It had not once occurred to Dirk to tell her. It is a solemn fact that in this greater excitement he had actually forgotten it! As for the "Christian employer," he did not know of it to tell. He had not so much as known whether black Dirk had a father or not. He was simply a street rough, whom Dr. Everett was trying experiments with; and because there was an unusual pressure on the office, and poor help was better than none, he was helping the experiment.
However, when Dirk went home from the office that night he remembered that the father was gone.
Mart met him at the door, a look of solemn determination on her face.
"Dirk," she said, "she's going; as sure as you live, she's going. She's been bad all the afternoon. Sallie says that Mark's doctor will come to see her,—she knows he will, and Mark shall go for him as soon as he comes home; but I don't mean to wait for no doctor. I want her to come. She knows the way, and I want mother to be told it right, so there won't be no mistake. You go for her, Dirk, right off straight. There ain't any time to lose, for I tell you now she's going. She's been failing all along, you know, and she has just cried herself down. Dirk, will you go for her as fast as you can?"
The confusion of pronouns might have bewildered you. They did not Dirk. "Her" meant to him exactly what it did to Mart. He could not think how it could possibly mean any other person. But this was astounding news about his mother! It was one thing to have a father disappear, whom he had simply feared, until he had learned to hate; it was quite another thing to talk about the going away of the only one who had ever tried to mend his clothes, and who had sat up nights to wash them when she could.
He strode past Mart into the wretched room, and looked at the bed in the corner.
The mother was asleep, but on her face was a strange change—a something that he had never seen there before, worn and sunken as it always was. It made him understand Mart's fears.
"I'll go," he said huskily, and rushed from the house.
"Her" carriage was just rolling down the avenue as his swift feet cleared the alley. He knew the horses. He was a little ahead of them; but it was not probable that the driver would stop for him.
"Won't you stop that carriage?" he said in breathless haste to a policeman at the corner; "I've got to speak to the lady that's in it."
"I'll be quite likely to, no doubt!" said the policeman, in quiet irony. "What rascality are you up to now, Dirk? Can't you be decent for a few days?"
But Dirk was trying to free himself from the detaining hand, and threw up one arm in a sort of despairing gesture to the coachman. Mr. Roberts caught the signal, recognized the face, and in another moment the horses stood restlessly by the curb-stone, and Dirk, his embarrassment gone, told his brief story rapidly.
"Father went off a spell ago, and never came back; and mother, she is sickly, and it set her crying; and she's going, Mart thinks, and I guess it's so; and Mart wants you to come and show her the way. She said you knew how, and you would come."
"MAY SHE GO WITH ME?"
Of course she went. And, of course, now that the truth was known, much was done. Dr. Everett was summoned. The wretched bed, with its distressing rags, were turned out together, and a comfortable one took its place. Broths and teas and jellies and physical comfort of every kind were furnished, and the doctor did his best to battle with the disease that long years of want and misery had fastened upon their victim. It was all too late, of course. It was true, what Mr. Roberts sadly said, that half of the effort, expended years or even months before, might have saved the poor, tortured life; but now!
How awful those "too lates" are! Isn't it a wonder that we ever take the risk of having one ring in our ears forever? There was one thing over which some of these Christian workers shed tears of joy.
"I am too late," said Dr. Everett, "but my Master has as much power to-day as ever. He can save her."
And He did. The poor, tired woman, who years before had remembered an old story well enough to name her one daughter "Martha," in memory of the one who "loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus," roused her dull heart at the mention of His name, and listened while the wonderful story was told her that He loved not only Martha and her sister, but her own poor, sinful, wrecked self; loved her enough to reach after her, and call and wait, and prepare for her a home in His glory.
Dear! Why has not some one come with the news before? Surely she would have listened during these long, sad years. Well, they made the way plain. Neither was it a difficult thing to do. The woman was weary and travel-stained and afraid, and longed for nothing so much as a place of refuge. She knew that she was a sinner; she knew that she was, and had been for many a year, powerless to help herself. Why should she not hail with joy the story of a great and willing Helper?
"Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden." She opened her eyes with a gleam of eagerness to hear the words. "Weary?"' Yes, indeed! "Heavy laden?" Who more so? If the call was not for her, whom could it mean? What else? Why, what, but the glorious old story, "I will give you rest?" What wonder that she closed her eyes and smiled! What wonder that the first words after that were: "I'll come; show me how." And He showed her how.
"Dirk," the sister said, when the mother had gone the last and only restful journey of her life, "Dirk, she went to heaven; and I'm going. I've been wanting to tell you for more than a week, but I didn't know how. He asked me to, and I'm going. Now you must. 'Cause we never had a good time here, and she'll kind of expect it in heaven, and be looking out for you; she always looked out for you, Dirk."
Then did Dirk lose his half-sullen self-control, and great tears rolled down his dark cheeks.
But the sister shed no tears. She had serious business to attend to. Dirk must go to heaven now without fail.
* * * * *
One day there was an unusual scene in the alley. It was no uncommon thing to see a coffin carried out from there, but on this day there was a hearse, and a minister in Dr. Everett's carriage, and Dirk and his sister, in neat apparel, came out together and were seated in Mr. Roberts' carriage; and all the boys of the Monday-evening Class walked arm in arm after the slow-moving carriages; and the children of the alley stopped their placing and their fighting, and the women stood silent in doorways, and took, most of them, their very first lesson in the proprieties of life.
"She's got a ride in a carriage at last, poor soul!" said one, thinking of the worn-out body in the coffin; and another said: "I wonder what poor old Jock would think of all this?"
But the scene made its impression, and left its lesson. I think the voices of some of them were lower during the rest of the day because of it.
What next? It was the question that filled Mrs. Roberts' thoughts. Something must be done for Dirk and Mart. That fearful alley was no place for human beings; certainly not for these two. But what to do with them was a question not easily answered.
Various plans were proposed. Sallie Calkins' two rooms were much better than the cellar in which the Colson family had lived; and there was a chance to rent a room next to Sallie's, with a closet opening from it for Dirk. How would it do to have them board with Sallie? The suggestion came first from Gracie Dennis, and sounded reasonable. Mrs. Roberts was almost ashamed to dislike it as much as she did. Sallie's neat rooms were home now. The father, for this length of time at least, held to his pledge; and son and daughter were radiant over him. He had gone to work, and already the two rooms were taking on an air of greater comfort because of the little things that he proudly brought home.
Sallie was doing her part wisely. The table was regularly laid now, with a white cloth and knives and forks; and two new cups and plates had been added to the dishes. Would it be wise to invade this home just at this juncture and introduce boarders? Mrs. Roberts did not believe that it would. It was not as though the father had an established character, and stood ready to shield his children; they were still acting the protective, and he had but too recently risen from the depths where Dirk and Mart had laughed and jeered at him. Besides, the rooms were located in that dreadful alley; and, do what she would, Mrs. Roberts could not feel that that dangerously-beautiful face could find a safe abiding-place in that alley. Some other way must be thought of.
Their immediate future was arranged through the intervention of a house agent; for even that dreary and desolate cellar had its agent, who was eager to secure his rent. He was unwise enough to undertake to interview Mrs. Roberts as she descended from her carriage, not long after it had followed Mart's mother to the grave.
He considered this effort of his a special stroke of business energy. He wanted to be patient with the poor, he said; there wasn't an agent in the city who waited for them oftener than he did; but business was business, and it stood to reason that he could not depend on a fellow like Dirk. It had been bad enough when the mother was there, but he couldn't think of such a thing as risking it now. What was he to understand? Did she mean to rent the room for them, and for how long? Because it was his duty to look out for the future.
What would be more natural than for Mrs. Roberts, with those two young things looking on, to say that of course she would be responsible for the rent as long as they lived in the room? Thus reasoned the house agent.
Instead of which, Mrs. Roberts turned toward Dirk, her face flushed over the hardness of a man who could stop a boy and girl on such business on their way from their mother's grave, and said:—
"If I were in your place, Mr. Colson, I should not rent these rooms at all. They are not suited to your sister's needs. I am sure you can do better."
The agent was disgusted. "Mr. Colson," indeed! The disreputable young scamp whom nobody trusted. He would show this silly woman a fact or two.
"Business is business" he repeated, doggedly. "Either they must take the room, and pay the rent in advance, or else they must hustle out this very night." He had waited now three days after time for decency's sake, and more than that he couldn't and wouldn't do.
Dirk stood looking from one to the other; the red coming and going on his swarthy face. Here was responsibility! He had not thought of it before. The mother was not there to count out the hoarded rent with trembling fingers, and save the wretched home to them for another month. She would never be there again. He had nothing with which to pay rent; he had nowhere to move. Yet she had called him Mr. Colson, and seemed to expect him to act for himself and Mart.
It was she who answered the agent, but she spoke to Dirk.
"Very well; I suppose you are quite as willing to leave here to-night as at any time? If I were you, I would leave immediately. Let your sister come home with me for the night, and until you have time to make other arrangements."
Mr. Roberts had been summoned to a bank meeting, and had sent Ried to attend his wife. He came forward now, from the carriage where he had stood waiting, and laid a hand on Dirk's arm.
"And you come home with me to-night, Colson," he said in a cordial tone, such as he might have used with any young friend; "then we shall have a chance to talk things over and make plans."
"That is nice," Mrs. Roberts said, quickly, rejoicing in her heart over Ried's promptness to act. "Then you can get away from this wretched place at once. Mr. Roberts will see to the removal of your goods, whatever you need, and the agent can call on him in the morning. That will be the simplest way to settle it all. May she go with me?"
A slight, caressing movement of a gloved hand on the girl's arm accompanied this question.
Mart was silent with bewilderment. When had Dirk ever before been asked what she might do, or might not do? At first she was half inclined to scorn the suggestion. Then, suddenly, it came to her with a sense of relief and protection: she was not alone; it was Dirk's business to think of and care for her. Would he do it?
As for Dirk, no wonder that his face was deeply flushed. New thoughts were struggling in his heart. He was to decide for Mart; he was the head of the home now. Mrs. Roberts waited anxiously. She longed exceedingly to rouse in the boy, who was already grown to the stature of a man, a sense of responsibility.
A moment more, and he had shaken himself free from the spell which seemed to bind him.
"We'll do as you say." He spoke with the air of a man who had assumed his proper place and taken up his duties. "Mart, you go along with her, and I'll see about things to-morrow."
And Mart, for the first time in her life, received and obeyed in silence a direction from her brother.
Possibly Mrs. Roberts may have been mistaken, but she thought that much had been accomplished that day.
Yet none of them realized whereunto this thing would grow.
Mrs. Roberts, when she ushered Mart that evening into the pink room again, and showed her how to manage the hot and cold water, and which bell to ring if she needed anything, and in every imaginable way treated her as a guest, whom it was pleasant to serve, had really no plans just then—no hobby to ride—but simply acted out the dictates of her heart. You will remember that her Christian life had been always unconventional. The very fact that during her early girlhood she had been painfully trammelled by what "they" would say or think, seemed to have had its influence over her later experiences. Since she had been made free, she would be free, indeed; that is, with the liberty with which Christ makes us free. What would please Him she resolved should be the one thought to which she would give careful attention. Now, it is perhaps worthy of mention, that this closely following disciple did not once stop to determine whether it would please Him to give such tender care to this stray child of His, or whether she would be considered doing not just the thing, in His eyes, if she entertained her in the pink room.
About what He could have her do next, she gave much thought. And it was not for days, or rather weeks, that she caught the possibility of His meaning that the pink room should really be the girl's own.
It was just this way. The weeks went by, and no plan for settling Mart comfortably elsewhere met Mrs. Roberts' approval. There was constantly some excellent reason why the one mentioned would not do.
Meantime they became, she and Gracie Dennis, more and more deeply interested in Mart. In her wardrobe first. "Wherever she lives she should have respectable clothing; thus much is easily settled." So the matron decreed, and Gracie did not gainsay it. She became absorbed in preparing it. Such fascinating work! So many things were needed, and her skin was so delicate, and her eyes so blue, and Gracie's choice of shades and textures fitted her so precisely. Then, when dressed, simple though her toilet was, her remarkable beauty shone out so conspicuously as to alarm Mrs. Roberts whenever she thought of her in shop or store.
Several times during the weeks, she visited Sallie Calkins, and looked about her with a thoughtful air, and came away feeling that it would not do. There was Mark, growing into manhood, a good boy, hard-working, respectable, proud of his good, homely sister, and of his reformed father. The two rooms were taking on every sort of homely comfort that Sallie's skill, helped by Mrs. Roberts' suggestions, could devise. It was growing into a model little home in its way, but there was not a corner in it where Mart would fit.
Then, as the days passed, a subtle, fascinating change began to come over Mart. She slipped quietly into certain household duties. She showed marvellous skill with her needle; such skill, indeed, that Gracie Dennis said more than once: "I'll tell you, Flossy, what to do with her: put her in a good establishment, and let her learn the dressmaking trade. She could make her fortune in time." And Mrs. Roberts smiled, and assented to the statement, but not to the proposition. There was no dressmaking establishment known to her where she was willing to place so young and pretty and ignorant a girl. But she was quite willing that Mart should learn the looping of dresses, and the fitting of sacks and collars and ruffles; and take many a stitch for her, as well as for Gracie. She was willing to have her do a dozen little nameless things, the ways of doing which she had caught up; until at last the touch of her fingers began to be felt about the rooms, and Mrs. Roberts began to notice that she should miss Mart when she went away. Still, from the first time she said this, the thought came afterward with a smile of satisfaction, and it was but a week afterward that she caught herself phrasing it, that she should miss her if she went away.
What about Dirk? Young Ried could have told you more of him during these days than anybody else. He still stayed at the boarding-house. Mrs. Saunders, the mistress of it, was one whom, if you had known her, you would feel sure could interest herself heartily in such as he. There was a bit of a room next to Ried's. To be sure, it had been used for a clothes-press, and it took the busy housekeeper half a day to plan how she could get along without it; but she planned, and offered it to Ried for his protege.
"Just for the present, you know, until he sees what he can do, poor fellow," she said, and Ried accepted the little room joyfully, and helped fit it up.
"WHAT IF I BELONGED?"
You think things are taking very rapid strides? Well, don't you know that there come periods when they do just that thing, or appear to? Why, even the buds on the trees teach us the lesson. How many springtimes have you gone to your bed feeling that the season was late, and the trees were bare, and the fruits would all be backward, and Nature was dawdling along in a very wearisome fashion; and awakened in the morning to find that there had in the night been a gentle rain, and a movement of mysterious power among the buds and the grasses, and that now, in the morning sunshine, the world had burst into bloom? Yet, did you really suppose, after all, that the work was done in one night?
There was progress of several sorts in the class at the South End. Even a casual observer could have seen a change in the boys that first Sunday after they had attended Dirk's mother to the grave. The dignity of that hour of sorrow was still upon them. Even the very reckless and world-hardened will offer a certain degree of respect to death. On ordinary occasions, the boys might have been merry at Dirk's expense, for they saw changes in him; but the memory of his mother's coffin kept them silent, and let his changed manner have its effect.
That Sunday was full of small events to Dirk; at least they are small enough when one puts them on paper, though I admit that they looked large to him. Several people interested themselves in his welfare.
"Poor fellow!" said Mrs. Saunders, "I suppose his mother tried to do for him. Just as likely as not she had a clean shirt for him of a Sunday morning."'
You will perceive that Mrs. Saunders, though all her life a resident of a large city, was not very well-acquainted with the abject poor. In point of fact, Dirk Colson had had no extra clothing for his mother to make clean. But Mrs. Saunders, full of the motherly thought, yet finding no trace of a shirt in the bundle of rags that Dirk had brought with him, went down one day into the depths of an old trunk, and brought to light and mended and washed and ironed a shirt that had long been laid aside.
It lay in its purity on a chair at the foot of Dirk's bed on Sabbath morning. He lay still and looked at it for a while, then arose and gave such careful attention to the soap and water as was new to him, and arrayed himself in the clean linen.
His clothes were whole and clean. Mr. Roberts had seen to it that he went respectably dressed to his mother's funeral.
A tap at his door a little later, and young Ried appeared, shoe-brush and blacking-box in hand.
"Want to borrow?" he said, in the careless tone of one who might have supposed that the blacking of his boots was an every-day matter to this boy. "I always keep my own; it is cheaper than to depend on the street boys."
Dirk said nothing at all, but reached forth his hand, and took the offered tools, and the hint which came with them. When he went down to breakfast his boots shone, and his fresh paper collar was neatly arranged; altogether he was not the boy to whom I first introduced you. I am not sure that Policeman Duffer would have recognized him. A collar and a necktie make a great difference in some people's personal appearance. Dirk wondered a little as to where the box of paper collars came from. The necktie he had just found lying in the bottom of the box. It was the mate of the one young Ried wore, but that told nothing, for both were simple and plain, and could be bought by the dozens in any furnishing store.
It is small wonder that the boys in the class looked at him. Nimble Dick wore at first a roguish air, but a sudden memory of Dirk's face when he turned away from his mother's grave came in time. Open graves are not easy things to forget.
Dirk went to the church that day; went with young Ried by invitation, and sat in the pew behind Mr. Roberts.
By the way, the seat which he occupied was another of Mr. Roberts' peculiarities. Three seats were rented by him in a central part of the large church. One of these seats he and his wife regularly occupied. The others were almost as regularly occupied by the clerks from the store who chose to make that their church home. Six sittings to a pew. When a young man chose, Mr. Roberts was ready to enter into a business engagement with him, whereby the sitting should be considered his own; Mr. Roberts considering it to be no part of any one's concern that the sum for which he thus sub-let the sittings was not a tenth of what the first rental cost. It was in this way that Mr. Ried owned sittings in the pew just back of that occupied by Mr. Roberts; and brought with him constantly one and another young man. Today the young man was Dirk Colson.
It was all a strange world to him. He had wandered into the gallery of the Mission Chapel, and looked down from his perch on the crowd of worshippers; but this morning he was in the very centre of things, as if he were one of them. Perhaps it is not strange that the startled inquiry came to his heart: What if I belonged? Where did he belong now? He had lost his place; he must make another. What if it should be in this neighborhood, among these surroundings? Such thoughts did not take actual shape to him, so that he could have put them into words; they merely hovered in his atmosphere. Mrs. Roberts sat so that he could look at her, which thing he liked to do. It had long since been settled in his mind that he had one friend, and that one was Mrs. Roberts. He admired Gracie Dennis, too, with a different sort of admiration from that which he gave to the matron. She might be all very well; and she was a splendid reader; and he knew that he could imitate her on certain sentences, at least. And she had taught him to use the type-writer—an accomplishment which he meant to perfect himself in as soon as he had a chance. In fact, his ambition reached higher than that: one of these days he meant to make one of his own with certain improvements! Who shall say that Dirk was not growing?
On this particular day there sat beside Mrs. Roberts a lady,—a stranger. He could not see her face, but for some reason, which he did not understand, Dirk liked to look at her. She suggested something to him that seemed like a familiar dream. He thought much about her, and resolved to see if in her face she looked like any one he ever saw. As she turned at the close of the service he was looking at her steadily. Lo! it was Mart.
Now the possibility had not once suggested itself to his mind. If you think this doubtful, you merely show that you know nothing about the transforming effect of a becoming dress, no matter how simple it may be. Remember, Dirk had never but twice seen his sister in a bonnet. The first time it was Sallie's, and though the effect was sufficiently startling, yet Sallie's bonnet did not fit her face, as this creation of Gracie Dennis' fingers did. The second time the bonnet had been a hideous black one, proffered by an old woman who lived in the story above them, and whose thoughtfulness Mrs. Roberts would not mar by making any mention of the neat one which she had brought in a box that day. The black bonnet had been like a mask, hiding Mart's beauty.
The bonnet that she wore now was not of that character. It told a wonderful story to Dirk's astonished gaze. Now, indeed, the likeness was plain; without doubt, the girl whose face lighted with a curious smile at sight of him, bore a striking likeness to the woman who had smiled at him whenever she met him!
A curious effect this had on Dirk. There was that in his sister which made it possible for her to be something like the woman who had won his heart; and that sister was in his care: she had said so; he must work for her, and watch over her!
I suppose that Sabbath was really the beginning of the surface changes in Mrs. Roberts' class. Not the beginning to the teacher, but to those people who only have eyes for strongly marked things.
I know that it was but a few weeks afterward that Mrs. Roberts came home with such an unusual light in her eyes, and with her face so full of brightness, that her husband said, inquiringly:—
"What is it, Flossy?"
She turned to him, eagerly, ready to laugh.
"It is what you will understand, but a great many people wouldn't. It is so nice that you understand things! I feel just like saying, 'Thank the Lord.'"
"Do you mean to convey the idea that only a very few favored people feel like that? I don't know of a person who has not great occasion. What is your special one?"
"Evan, the last boy had his boots blacked, and a fresh paper collar on!"
Mr. Roberts threw back his head and laughed,—a genial, hearty laugh. His wife looked on, smiling. There is a great deal of character in a laugh, remember; you would have known that this was a sympathetic one.
Mr. Roberts was entirely capable of realizing what this said to his wife about the future of her boys. It was becoming certain that their self-respect was awakened.
A few days thereafter occurred another of those little things which mark some characters.
Dirk, at Mrs. Saunders' breakfast-table on Sabbath morning, heard talk that on Monday he recalled. By the way, I should have told you of one other way in which the Sabbath became a marked day to him. He slept in the little room which opened from Ried's, but his meals were picked up at a restaurant, as occasion offered,—a much nicer and surer method of living than he had ever known before. Even the commonest restaurant had great respectability to him. Yet you will remember that he had by this time taken several suppers in Mrs. Roberts' dining-room. He knew that there was a difference in things; in fact, his experience now stretched over infinite differences; but the first time he sat down to Mrs. Saunders' breakfast-table, on a Sabbath morning, he discovered another grade: this by no means belonged to the restaurant class? The Sunday breakfasts and dinners were some of Mrs. Saunders' quiet ways of helping along the work of the Christian world. Many a young man appeared at her table as the guest of Ried or of Dr. Everett, or of some other of the boarders, who was unaware that he owed the pleasant experience to the landlady.
Well, Dirk at the Sabbath-table heard talk of one General Burton, famous as a soldier, a scholar, and an orator. General Burton was in the city, the guest of a prominent man; he was to speak on the following evening in one of the great halls, and much eager talk was had concerning him; great desire was expressed to hear him, to get a glimpse of him. Dirk listened in silence, but had his own thoughts about what it must be to have people talking about one, wanting to get a glimpse of one, and next, what it must be to be intimate with such people. Did Mrs. Roberts know the great man? he wondered. And then Dirk smiled as he thought how queer it was that he should know Mrs. Roberts; that he might, in fact, be called intimately acquainted with her!
Remembering this reverie of his, you will better understand how he felt on Monday morning, as he made his way in haste down a quiet part of one of the up-town streets, intent on an errand that required promptness, to hear his name called by Mrs. Roberts.
"Good morning!" she said. "Are you in too great haste to recognize your friends? I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. General Burton, Mr. Colson. General, this is one of my young men, of whom I told you."
Whereupon the famous general, hero of many battles, held out his honored hand, and took Dirk's in a cordial grasp. I don't suppose I could explain to you what an effect this action had on a boy like Dirk.
There is this comfort: you may be a student of human nature, and therefore may understand it all without explanation.
This is only one of many so-called trifles which occurred during the weeks, to make their indelible impress on the characters of the boys.
Of course, the Monday Evenings prospered. Reading-lessons and writing-lessons, and, as time passed, lessons of all sorts made good progress.
Neatly-blackened boots, carefully-arranged hair, and fresh collars became the rule instead of the exception.
Other avenues for improvement opened. It became noised abroad in Christian circles that great transformations were being worked among a certain set of hard young fellows who had hitherto been best known to the police. Mr. Roberts was interviewed by one and another, and one outgrowth of the talks was that tickets for a course of expensive and valuable and attractive lectures on popular subjects were placed in large numbers in Mr. Roberts' hands for him to use at discretion. Moreover, seats were rented in the church towards which most of the boys gravitated—the one connected with their Mission; seats re-rented after Mr. Roberts' plan, so that as often as there appeared a young man who cared to have a spot in the church which belonged to him, it could be had for a very small sum; in fact, as pews rented in that church, a ridiculously small sum.
These are only hints of the channels which time and patience and thought opened for these young men, on whom, but a short time before, Satan believed himself to have so firm a grip.
One feature of the "Monday Evenings" had, in the course of time, to be changed. The young teacher of elocution went home.
"I want to go," she said at last, in answer to her hostess' pleading. "I think it quite likely that papa would let me stay and attend school here; but I am in haste to get home. You need not look sober, Flossy. I have had a happier time than I have ever had in my life before; and I have found here a sort of happiness that will last. It almost breaks my heart to think of leaving those boys,—especially my dear Dick Bolton; but really, I need to go home and undo certain things that I left badly done. You don't half know me, Flossy Shipley. When I came here I was a regular goose. If you had known what a simpleton I was, and how hateful I had been about some things at home, you would never have invited me.
"Among other things that were hateful about me, I was a real horror to my mother. I thought I had reason to distrust and dislike her; when the truth is that I have cause to go down on my knees and thank her for keeping me from some things. I'm in a real hurry to get home, and show that young mother of mine what a perfectly angelic daughter I can be."
And Mrs. Roberts smiled and kept her own counsel; and this was all that she was supposed to know about her young guest. She never knew the whole story about Professor Ellis; though there was a girl, Hester Mason by name, in Dr. Everett's Sabbath-school, who could have told her a good deal about him, and about Gracie Dennis' helping to break the net that Satan had woven for her unwary feet. The fact is, there is a great deal concerning all these people—Hester Mason and Dr. Everett and Joy Saunders and Joy Saunders' mother—which I should have liked to tell you if I could have found room. You may read of them any time, however, if you choose, in a book called "An Endless Chain." Of course, the story of their lives does not end even there, because the chain is, as I said, endless; but there are many of the links presented to view.
So Grace Dennis went home. And neither then, nor afterward, did Mrs. Roberts hear in detail the story of Professor Ellis. What matter? She had, however, a short added chapter. It came in a letter from Mrs. Marion Dennis not long after Gracie's return. It read thus.—
Oh, Flossy Shipley Roberts! blessed little scheming saint that you are! What did you do? How did you do it! Ah! I know more about it than those sentences would indicate. The dear Lord did it, working through you, His servant. He has called our Gracie to higher ground, filled her heart with that which has made insignificant things take their true place, and wrong things show for what they are.
You know, of course, that it is all right about Professor Ellis;—or no! I fear it is all wrong about him, but right with our Gracie. I hear that he has permanently located in your city. Perhaps your Christian charity can reach him. He sent Gracie a letter, trying to explain certain affairs about that Mason girl, with which I presume you are familiar. She showed me the letter and her answer. He will not write her another!
"I don't know any Mason girl," said Mrs. Roberts to her husband, "but it doesn't matter. I don't want to know the story if there is nothing to be done through it. There are stories enough that one must know."
"IT IS NO MADE-UP AFFAIR"
It was Monday evening, and there was company at Mr. Roberts' home; not the usual Monday evening gathering, but quite a large party of well-dressed men and women, many of them young, yet some were middle-aged. The pretty room opposite the conservatory was thrown open, and aglow with lights and flowers; and groups were continually passing in and out, admiring the paintings and the flowers, and the type-writers of different patterns, and the books and magazines, of which there were many. But interest was not confined to this room. The parlors were thrown open and the music-room beyond; even the cosy little library was public property for this one evening. The company was large, and their tastes were varied; so no pains had been spared to give them variety.
You are acquainted with quite a number of the guests; yet I am by no means sure that you would recognize them all. Even in so short a period of time as three years, great changes may be elicited!
For instance, do you know the young man in unnoticeable, and therefore appropriate, evening dress, who is doing duty at the piano, watching with practiced eye the course of the player, and turning the leaf with skilful hand at just the right moment? It is a somewhat embarrassing position; but his manner leads you to suppose that he has been accustomed to it all his life, and that he reads music well. In the latter belief you are correct; but as to being accustomed to it—three years ago Nimble Dick could have told you a different story!
You can't believe that it is he? I do not wonder. The change is certainly a great one; but he does not feel it. To tell you the truth, he almost forgets, when he becomes absorbed in his work, that this sort of society was not always open to him. Three years means a long time to the young; and Richard Bolton has so long been accustomed to the freedom of Mrs. Roberts' parlors, and to the sort of people whom one finds there, that none of the refinements of polite life are strange to him; and as to turning music, has he not done it for his hostess numberless times?
If your eyes are now opened, it is possible that you may be trying to spy out other young men. The rooms are full of them, elegantly-dressed, fashionable young men; but a few are noticeable by the air which they have of being in a sense responsible for the comfort of the others. They are on the alert; they are taking care that no young guest shall appear for a moment to be forgotten or neglected. They appear to be entirely familiar with the house and all its appointments. They can be appealed to for a glass of water or an ice, or to know what special scene this landscape hanging over the mantel represents, or whose bust this is in the niche at the left, or in what portion of the library a certain book will be found, or from what part of the foreign world that strangely-shaped shell came, and they are all equally at home. In short, it is like having a dozen or twenty young hosts to look after your comfort and pleasure. In point of fact, there are seventeen of them. The original seven has thus increased. Two months ago there were twenty, but one has secured an appointment as telegraph operator in a distant city, and as Stephen Crowley occupies a similar position in one of the offices in this city, some very interesting conversations are held, and many important items connected with the "Monday Evenings" and the South End School and the "Library Association," etc., are transmitted when the lines are not otherwise employed. Young Haskell, too, has gone with one of the partners from the store where he was first employed, to set up a branch store in a not distant town; and his old Sabbath-school teacher has already received letters from him, saying that they have started a branch Sunday-school in the south part of the town, and that he has picked seven little wretches out of the streets, from eight to twelve years of age, and gone to work. "And, dear Mrs. Roberts, I wish you would pray for me, that I may be able to bring every one of them to Christ."
So the letter ran; and that tells volumes to the initiated about young Haskell.
But although the changes among these young men have been great almost to bewilderment, only one of the number has been promoted to a dazzling height. The others are without exception earning good, honest livings for themselves; securing good, substantial educations through the evening classes which have grown out of that first effort; bidding fair to become leading and honored citizens when they actually take their places as men. But Mark Calkins, faithful, plodding, good-hearted, patient Mark, has surpassed them all! The truth is "that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart," what sort of magnificence surrounds him now. He has gone to court. The chief Ruler of the realm has sent for Mark to be always in his immediate presence in the palace; and with what joy he went I cannot tell you. Nor how often they speak of him, and try to let their hearts conceive of the glory which surrounds him, and dwell on the day when they will be called, one after another, to share the same glory; for this is the ambition of more than half of them.
Now, in that sentence is unveiled the most curious part of my curious story; and that it is curious, I frankly admit. It is no made-up affair. I am not responsible for the strangeness of it. You are to remember that "truth is stranger than fiction," and then to understand that I am telling you the truth. It is, then, a fact, that these young men have each received conditional appointments to serve in the palace, high in power and splendor and dignity. The conditions are that they are to be willing to be guided in all things by the will of their King, whom they each admit to be wise above all wisdom, and to be kind above all their conceptions of kindness. It is true that nine of the number have accepted their appointments, donned their uniform, assumed their positions as He has directed, and are waiting for the summons to appear in person at court. It is also true that the others are still in a state of indecision; they do not know whether to accept the appointment or not. It is true that they feel themselves honored; that they believe this to be the only path of honorable and safe promotion. It is true that they have full faith in those who will tell with joy, that, having enlisted, they find the service even in this ante-room sweet, and the rewards great. It is true that they severally visited Mark, just as the door was opening to admit him to the palace, and heard him speak of the glimpses of its glory, and heard that his last words before he went away were, "Oh, mine eyes see the King in his beauty!" and that his voice was jubilant as that of a conqueror, and his face radiant as with a reflection of unseen glory; and yet they hesitate, and dally with the call, and mean, some time, to have such an inheritance deeded to them, but not now! Remember, I am not responsible for this. Were I writing fiction I should hesitate to set down such idiotic folly, expecting you to call it unnatural or absurdly overdrawn; but I do solemnly declare to you that this is fact. Account for the folly of their behavior as best you can.
Well, Sallie and her father are left behind. But, mind you, they are not among the doubtful ones. They both as much expect to serve at court as they expect to live through all eternity. But while they wait they are busy. They have moved from the alley; the surroundings were not such as they liked. Did you notice that bit of a house landing modestly back from the road, at the further corner of those ample grounds that surround the South End Church? It is the sexton's house, and that church, and those Sunday-school rooms, and those grounds, and everything pertaining to them, are under his care. The father is the sexton, it is true, and attends the furnace and rings the bell; but it is Sallie's care that keeps seat and desk and window so beautifully free from dust or stain. Oh, they live busy lives, and happy ones. Sallie trusted not in vain in her father's promise that night, when he put his weak will into the pledge; but you are to understand that it was but a few days thereafter when he planted his weak and wavering feet on the Rock of Ages. Then did Satan angle for him in vain.
So, on this Monday evening, there were but seventeen at the gathering. I hesitate over what to name the gathering. I would call it a party, but that in many respects it was so totally different from anything with which you are probably acquainted by that name.
The young man who stands by the door of the conservatory, eagerly describing to Miss Henderson a rare and curious flower, which has been sent to Mrs. Roberts from California, is "black Dirk." Really, I hope you are sufficiently astonished; for he looks so utterly unlike the scamp who used to be the special torment of the South End Mission that I should be disappointed if you were not impressed by it. "Mr. Colson" almost everybody calls him now. The name has long since lost its strangeness. He is in the employ of the great firm of Bostwick, Smythe, Roberts & Co., and although Mr. Roberts has never found it convenient to do so before, there were reasons why he thought it would be well to have a clerk within call; so Mr. Colson boards with what was the junior partner of the firm. He is so no more, by the way, for Mr. Ried has been received as a member, and is decidedly a junior partner. Probably Mr. Roberts could tell you, if he chose, why one so young, and without capital, had been elected to partnership; but, as a rule, he keeps his own counsel, only remarking that the young man developed remarkable business faculties which were patent to the whole firm. To his wife he said:—
"I tell you, Flossy, I believe a consecrated life will be honored by the Lord, in whatever channel he gives it talents to develop. 'Whatsoever he doth shall prosper.' That young man is going to have a career in business. I shouldn't be surprised if the Master meant him to show the world how a Christian can use money to his glory."
It is early yet to prophesy what Mr. Colson will do. Doubtless he will be a merchant; certainly he will be a Christian; possibly he will be an orator, of whom the world will yet hear,—a temperance orator, for instance. I know you would like to hear him read a poem. He is not confined to Will Carleton's style now, though he still reads with power some of those inimitable delineations of life; but Gracie Dennis offers no more criticisms when he reads. In fact, I have heard her defer to him, when a question arose, as one who had probably studied the passage, and caught its best. I am willing to confess that my poor black Dirk was a bit of a genius. The thought I desire you to catch is that so many of those poor fellows, who of necessity live by their wits in the city slums, are diamonds which could be fitted to shine. You take a diamond and throw it down in the dirt and filth, and put your foot on it and grind it in, and leave it there, sinking and soiling, day after day, year after year, and when somebody comes along and picks it out, how much will it gleam for him at first? Yet the diamond is there.
"Thou shalt be a royal diadem in the hand of thy God." Mrs. Roberts had been at work hunting diamonds for His diadem.
As Mr. Colson stood there chatting freely with Miss Henderson, there was nothing about the association that looked incongruous, neither did it occur to any. There was not a trace of embarrassment about this boy from the slums; he had forgotten the slums, and stood talking with one of the aristocrats of the city.
How came she to talk with him, to allow herself to be entertained by him? Let me tell you: thereby hangs a tale. Some time before this evening—in fact, nearly two years before—Mrs. Roberts had come to a puzzle, and stood and looked at it doubtfully. Then she presented it to the others:—
"They are growing easy in their manners with me, learning to be gentlemanly without embarrassment, and thoughtful over little things without being ashamed of it; but I am afraid that with other ladies they would be sadly frightened and awkward. When Mrs. Delaney came in this evening I could but notice how utterly silent Mr. Colton became; he had been talking well before. It seems as though there was a great gulf between them and social advancement. How can we bridge it?"
Then young Ried ventured his thought:—"My sister Ester had a class in the Center Street Sabbath-school—nice little girls, who wore pretty dresses, and had their hair curled, and came from the best families. After she was taken sick, she told me one of her regrets was that she had not stayed well long enough to try a plan which she had. She meant to take a class of rough little boys in the mission-school, and she meant to ask the mothers of the little girls to let them come, once a month, and play with the little boys from the streets—she to play with them, and watch over them every moment; but to try to interest the girls in teaching the boys gentleness and good manners. I don't know how it would have worked. Ester was never well enough to undertake it; nor could she seem to enlist any one else in such service. It has grave objections, I suppose; but I have always thought that I should like to see something of the kind carefully tried."
Mrs. Roberts, before this little story was half-concluded, had turned those eager eyes of hers on the speaker—eyes that always had a peculiar light in them whenever her soul took in a new suggestion.
"Thank you," she said. "I see, oh! a great many things. I ought to have called in that dear sister Ester to help on this phase of the question before. It has always seemed to me as though we were doing her work."
"THEIR WORKS DO FOLLOW THEM"
That was the beginning of a new effort. There were certain young ladies becoming well-known to Mrs. Roberts, by reason of a similarity of tastes which drew them to her.
She sat down one day and wrote out their names with great care on her tablets.
Miss Henderson's name headed the list. She was one of the aristocrats. I use the word in its highest sense. The accidents of wealth and position were hers; at least, that is the way we talk, though I suppose we all believe that the Lord is the giver of both, and will require an account of the same at our hands.
If this be so, Miss Henderson will be more ready than some with her rendering; for she is of royal blood, and guards well the honor of the Christian name she bears.
Without hesitation, Miss Henderson headed the list. The others were chosen more slowly; ten of them, picked soldiers, to do special duty "in His name."
It required much explanation, much care to plan wisely.
But the girls caught at the idea.
In the course of weeks they formed a band, with Miss Henderson for president. Ostensibly they were a literary society; really they were diamond polishers.
They met one evening by invitation, with Mrs. Roberts, and made the acquaintance of the "Monday Club." They sang for them, read for them, heard them read; chatted with them on the various topics of the hour, the last lecture of the course, which all had attended; a certain book carefully read and criticised by Mr. and Mrs. Roberts and Dr. Everett in the Monday Club,—not so carefully read by the young ladies; therefore, it came to pass that they were somewhat worsted in an argument concerning it, which was bad neither for the young ladies nor the Monday Club.
Finally, they were taken out to supper by these young men, who had so far come under Mrs. Robert's' influence that they were willing to endure torture for the sake of pleasing her.
It is a long story. I could write another book about it just as well as not.
The main difficulty would be that the critics would pronounce the story overdrawn. They always do when one revels in facts. It is only when an author keeps within the range of sober fiction that he may feel comparatively safe from this charge.
These young ladies represented other parlors and other dining-rooms. They arranged for little graceful entertainments, to which the Monday Club was invited. Gradually others were invited too—good, solid men, and wise-hearted, motherly women. The invitations were select, the "polishers" were chosen with care; but it was surprising to these workers to find how large the Christian world is, and how many stood ready to help if they were shown love.
"It is one of the best suggestions that that dear Ester has given us." This Mrs. Roberts said one evening when the Young Ladies' Band and the Monday Club combined their forces and gave an entertainment to some of the best people on the avenue.
I have given you hints of how they did it. They were every one Christians, these young ladies; none others were chosen. They worked with a single aim in view—His glory. They took no step that was not paved with prayer. Do you need to be told that they succeeded?
This was one of the reasons why Mr. Colson chatted with Miss Henderson with perfect freedom, and why his bow was graceful and easy when she introduced him to her friend Miss Fanshawe, of Philadelphia. He was accustomed to being introduced to her friends.
I'm sure I hope you wish I would tell you somewhat of Mart Colson. If you are not deeply interested in her I am disappointed in you. She has been such an object of interest to me since that time when I caught a glimpse of her once through the cellar-window, with a gleam of sunset making her hair into gold.
It is a summer evening of which I tell you, and she is all in white—except her eyes; nothing can be bluer than they are to-night,— and except the flowers about her. She is always among the flowers.
I hesitate, after all, to tell you about Mart. Hers is one of those stories hard to tell. Besides, her friend and patron has suffered much criticism because of her, and though Mrs. Roberts does not care in the least, I find that I am sensitive.
"Has she really kept that Colson girl with her all these years?" Yes, she has. I speak it meekly, but she has! "And never had her learn a trade, or work in a factory, or learn to support herself in any way?" She has never sent her anywhere to learn a trade or to work in a factory or to stand behind a counter. It is too true.
No, I was almost sure you did not approve of it. But, for all that, I don't mean to argue Mrs. Roberts' cause. "To her own Master she standeth or falleth."
Not but what Mrs. Roberts has argued, on occasion,—with Gracie Dennis, for instance, who paid her a few weeks' visit, less than three months after she first went home.
"Flossy," she would say, "what are you going to do—with the girl? Do you really mean to keep her here?"
"She has no mother, my child, nor father; and her brother is not able to care for her yet. Where would you have me send her?"
"Why, Flossy, there are places."
"Yes, my dear, I know it, and this is one of them."
"Well, but she ought to be learning things. How is she going to support herself?"
"She is studying arithmetic with me, you know, and writing and reading with the dining-room girls; and I am teaching her music, and Mr. Roberts proposes to have her join the history class as soon as she is sufficiently advanced in the more common studies."
"But, Flossy Shipley, that is great nonsense! You know what I mean. You cannot turn the world upside down in that fashion, or make an orphan asylum of your house or a charity school."
"My dear, do you really think the house is in danger? Does it look like an orphan asylum or feel like a charity school?"
Then would Gracie Dennis laugh, but look a trifle vexed, nevertheless, and mutter that people couldn't do things that way in this world.
Then would Flossy be ready with her gentle drops of oil to soothe the ruffles.
"Gracie, dear, I am not trying to reform the world. There are a great many girls left destitute I know, and I will do at wholesale all I can for them; but this one is peculiar. You have admitted that it was unusual to see such dangerous beauty, and she is unusual in her mental development. She could be fierce and wicked; she is ignorant and bitter about many things; I am afraid for her. I have not been able to think of a place where the Lord Jesus would have me take her. I must see to it that He is pleased, you know, at all hazards. If He does not mean us to keep her in the shelter of our home for the present, we do not know what He means.
"We cannot 'mother' the whole race: He has not even suggested it to our hearts. He has simply said, 'Here, take this one; there is room for her; keep her until I plainly tell you that her place is elsewhere.' Gracie, would you have me tell Him we cannot?"
By this time Gracie would be humble and sweet.
"It is very good of you," she would say, meekly, "and I was not thinking of such a thing as finding fault. I was only wondering whether—whether— well, you know—whether such a life as she is leading in your house would not unfit her for her proper sphere?"
But a sentence like that was always liable to put little Mrs. Roberts on all the dignity she possessed. Her husband had ideas on that subject, and had imbued her with them. Her voice could even sound almost haughty as she said:—
"As to that, Gracie, we must remember that the 'sphere' of an American woman is the one that she can fill acceptably in God's sight. He may call her to the highest; I don't know. Since she is the daughter of a King, there may be no spot on His footstool too high for His intentions concerning her."
There was outside criticism, of course. Indeed, Mrs. Roberts was sufficiently peculiar in many respects to call for much criticism from the world. They talked much about "that girl" she had picked up. Gradually they said "that Colson girl"; then one day some daughter asked, "Is she really a sister of that handsome Mr. Colson in the store?" And by-and-by there were some who spoke of her as "Mattie Colson." That was the name which Mrs. Roberts always called her. It began gradually to be known also that "Mattie Colson" knew a great deal which was worth knowing. Three years of companionship with a lady like Mrs. Roberts, and such as she gathers about her, can do much for a girl who wishes much done for her.
As to "earning her living," I am not sure but she was learning to do it in several ways. Mrs. Roberts struggled against all false ideas of life, therefore taught her none.
She was not the cook, but she could, and had on occasion, served up a most enjoyable breakfast.
She was not the second-girl, yet her fingers were undeniably skilful in the arrangement of rooms and tables. She was not the sewing-girl, yet constant were the calls on fingers that had become wise in these directions. She was by no means the nurse, yet there was a little golden-haired "Flossy" in the sunny room upstairs whose devoted slave she was, and whose mother felt that Mattie's loving, watchful care over her darling was only second to her own, and was so to be relied upon, by day and night, as to repay tenfold whatever she might have done for the girl.
In fact, it would perhaps be difficult to define "Mart" Colon's position in the house. Yet she was, as I said, becoming known among the young ladies outside as "Mattie Colson, that handsome young Colson's sister; as pretty as a doll, and a protege of that lovely Mrs. Roberts, you know." As for the Young Ladies' Band,—I do not include them when I talk of the girls "outside,"—what they had done for Mattie Colson she could not have told you though she tried, her eyes shining with tears.
The days had come wherein the very matrons who had said that it was a strange thing for Mrs. Roberts to take a girl from the slums into her family—that it was "tempting Providence to attempt such violent wrenches"—now said one to another, that "it must be a great relief to Mrs. Roberts to have that Mattie Colson always at her elbow to see that everything about the home was just as it should be;" and they added, with a sigh, that "some people were very fortunate."
Now, dear critic, you stand all ready to say that this is a very nice paper story, but that in actual life attempts at doing good do not result so smoothly; that to be "natural," Mrs. Roberts ought, at least, to have tried in vain to reclaim half of her boys.
It is true, I have said nothing to you about two or three whom she has not as yet reached, though she is still trying. My story was not of them, but of the twenty whom she did reach. Concerning your verdict, there are two things that I want to say: First, go into the work, and give the time and patience and faith and prayer that Mrs. Roberts and her fellow-workers gave, before you decide that it is vain.
And secondly, will you kindly remember that, whether this be natural or not, it is true?
I do not think I have told you the immediate occasion of this particular gathering. It was, in fact, a reception given to Mrs. Ried. It is not likely that I need tell you at this late day that her name was Gracie Dennis Ried. I could have told you much about it, had I been writing a story of that sort.
In fact, there is a chance for considerable romancing. There are matters of interest that I might tell you, about "Mr. Colson" himself, young as he is; and about Mattie, who wears to-night a rose that she did not pick from the conservatory; but I don't mean to tell it.
I have just one other bit of history to give you. They stood together for a moment—the young bridegroom and the lady with whom he had faithfully worked ever since that rainy afternoon in which he had confided his gloom to her.
Both were looking at the two young men who stood near the piano, waiting to join in the chorus. Both had known these young men as "Nimble Dick" and "Black Dirk."
Still another of the original seven stood in the immediate vicinity. The glances of the two workers took them all in; then they looked at each other, and smiled meaningly.
"I have been thinking of that first Sunday afternoon," said Mrs. Roberts. "I asked them to pick up my handkerchief, which had dropped, and 'Nimble Dick' said, 'Pick it up yourself, mum! you're as able to as we be!' I wonder if they would remember it? What if I should tell them!"
As she spoke the bit of cambric in her hand designedly dropped almost at the feet of Dirk Colson. He stooped for it instantly, but "Nimble Dick" was too quick for him, and presented it to the owner with a graceful bow, and a slightly triumphant smile.
But the chorus was commencing, and the bass and tenor were at once absorbed in their work; so Mr. Ried and Mrs. Roberts had the memorial laugh all to themselves. None but they understood what the white handkerchief said.
Despite the laughter there was a suspicious mist in Mr. Ried's eyes.
"How far is mirth removed from tears?" he asked his hostess. And then: "Do you know, when I look at these young men, moving about your rooms at their ease, really ornaments to society, and think of the places in the world that they will be likely to fill, and think of what they were when you first saw them, the overwhelming contrast brings the tears!"
Said Mrs. Roberts:—
"I will tell you something that will do your heart good.
"Did you know that our young lady helpers had reorganized in larger force, and with certain fixed lines of work, which they feel certain they can do?
"The effort has passed out of the realm of mere experiment.
"They have chosen a name. They are henceforth to be known as THE ESTER RIED BAND.
"They came to me for a motto to hang in their rooms, below the name; and I gave them this:—
"'And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me. Write. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors: and their works do follow them.'"