'But isn't th' Almeety His own Measter?'
'So He is, but His ways are past findin' out.'
'An' thaa means to say thaa'd save my lass, and th' Almeety wouldn't save me?'
'It's decrees, thaa knows, lad, it's decrees,' said Amos, unshaken by the argument of his friend.
'Then there's summat wrang with th' decrees, that's all, Amos. There's been a mistak' somewhere.'
'Hooist, lad! hooist! durnd talk like that. Woe to th' mon that strives wi' his Maker.'
'If thi Maker's th' mon thaa maks Him aat to be, I'm noan partic'lar abaat oather His woes or His blessin's.'
'No more am I,' cried Dan, as he stood up and stretched himself with a yawn. 'We mud as well mak' most o' life if we're booked for t'other shop, though mine's a warm un i' this world, as yo' all know.'
'It is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,' said Amos, in solemn tones.
And the whistle sounded for the renewal of work, and the men dispersed.
* * * * *
The clock in the factory yard pointed to the hour of ten, and four hundred toilers were sweating out their lives in one of Manufacture's minting-shops of wealth. Overhead the shafting ran in rapid revolutions, communicating its power and speed by lengths of swaying, sagging belts to the machinery that stood so closely packed on the vibrating floors, and between which passed, and behind which stood, the operatives, unconscious of danger, and with scarce a care than how to keep pace with the speed of steam and the flying hours. Every eye was strained, and every nerve as highly strung as the gearing of the revolving wheels, the keen glances of the overlookers seeing to it that none paused until the hour of release.
The atmosphere was heavy, the temperature high, and flecks of 'fly' floated on the stifling air, wafted by the breath born of whirring wheels, and finding rest on the hair of women and the beards of men until the workers looked as though they were whitened by the snows of a premature decay.
Women and girls sang snatches of songs, and bits of old familiar airs, with no accompaniment but the roar and rattle around, their voices unheard save when some high-pitched note was struck; and others found odd moments when by lip-signs and dumb show they communicated with their fellow-workers.
Men and women, boys and girls, passed and repassed one another in narrow alleys and between revolving machinery, crushing together without sense of decency, and whispering hastily in one another's ear some lewd joke or impure word, the moisture from their warm flesh mingling with the smell of oil and cotton, and their semi-nude forms offering pictures for the realistic pen of a Zola or a Moore.
It was but one of the laps in the great race of competition where steam contends with human breath, and iron is pitted against flesh and blood. Over the hills were other factories where the same race was going on, where other masters were competing, and other hands were laying down life that they themselves and their little ones might live—examples of the strange paradox that only those can save their lives who lose them. Outside was pasturage and moorlands, and the dear, sweet breath of heaven, the flowers of the field, the song of birds, the yearning bosom of Nature warm with love towards her children. Yet here, within, was a reeking house of flesh—not the lazar ward of the city slum, but the sweating den of a competitive age.
In the top story of the factory Amos was walking to and fro among his roving frames, and dividing his time between hurried glances at his workers and a small greasy tract he held in his hand, entitled 'An Everlasting Task for Arminians.' Turning aside for a moment to drive some weary operative with a word as rough as a driver uses to his over-driven horse, he would return to the 'Everlasting Task,' and cull some choice sentence or read some twisted text used to buttress up the Calvinistic creed. Reading aloud to himself the words—'Real Christian charity is swallowed up in the Will of God, nor is it in its nature to extend itself one step beyond, nor desire one thing contrary to, the glory of Jehovah. All the charity we possess beyond this may be properly called fleshly charity'—he lifted his eyes to see two of his 'back-tenters' playing behind the frames, and his real Christian charity displayed itself in pulling their ears until they tingled and bled, and in freely using his feet in sundry kicks on their shins. And yet, wherein was this man to blame? Was he not what commerce and Calvinism had made him?
The finger of the clock in the factory yard was creeping towards the hour of eleven, when a smell, ominous to every old factory hand, was borne into the nostrils of Amos. In a moment his 'Everlasting Task' was thrust into his shirt-breast, and he ran towards the door from which the stairway of the room descended.
No, he was not mistaken, the smell was the smell of fire, and scarcely had he gone down a half-dozen steps before he met a man with blanched face, who barely found breath to say:
'Th' scutchin' room's ablaze.'
Amos carried a cool head. His religion had done one thing for him: it had made him a fatalist, and fatalists are self-contained.
In a moment he took in the whole situation. He knew that the stairways would act as a huge draught, up which the flames from the room below would bellow and blaze. He knew, too, that all way of escape being cut off below, screaming women and girls, maddened with fright, would rush to the topmost room of the mill, where probably they would become a holocaust to commerce. He knew, too, that those who sought the windows and let themselves down by ropes and warps would lose their presence of mind, and probably fall mangled and broken on the flag floor of the yard, sixty or seventy feet below. All this passed through his mind ere the old watch in his fob had marked the lapse of five seconds.
In a moment his resolve was taken. He went back to the roving-room with steady step, and a face as calm as though he were standing in the light of a summer sun. By the time he reached the room the machinery was beginning to slow down, and a mad stampede was being made by the hands towards the door.
Raising his arm, he cried:
'Go back, lasses; there's no gate daan theer. Them of us as 'as to be brunt will be brunt, and them of us as is to escape will ged off wi' our lives. Keep cool, lasses; we'll do our best; and remember 'at th' Almeety rules.'
One thing turned out in the favour of Amos and of his rovers. The mad rush from below poured into the room under him, and not, as he expected, into his own, the lower room being one where there was a better chance of escape. Seeing this, he barred up his own doorway to prevent the girls and women swarming below, where they would have made confusion worse confounded. Then he beat out one of the windows, and proceeded to fix and lower a rope by way of escape.
'Now then, lasses,' said he, having rapidly completed his task, 'th' little uns fust,' and in a moment a girl of twelve was swinging seventy feet in the air, while a crowd of roaring humanity below held its breath, and gazed with dilating eyes on the child who hung between life and death. In a minute more the spell of silence broke, and a roar, louder than before, told that the little one had touched earth without injury, save hands all raw from friction with the rope along which she had slidden.
Child after child followed; then the women were taken in their turn, and lowered safely into the factory yard.
By the time it came to the turn of Amos, the roar of the fire sounded like the distant beating of many seas along a rock-bound coast. The hot breath was ascending, and thin tongues of flame began to shoot through the floor of the room where he stood. The pungent smell of burnt cotton stung his nostrils and blinded his eyes with pain, and the atmosphere was fevered to such a degree that with difficulty he drew his breath.
His turn had come, but was he the last in the room? Something told him that he was not, that he must look round and satisfy himself, otherwise his duty was unfulfilled.
The tongues of flame became fiercer; he saw them running along the joints of the boarding, and feeding on the oil and waste which had accumulated there for years. He felt his hour was come. But he was calm. God ruled. No mistake could be made by the Almighty—nor could any mistake be made by himself, for was he not under Divine guidance?
Calmly he walked along the length of the room, stepping aside to escape the flame, and searching behind each roving-frame in his walk, as though to assure himself that no one remained unsaved.
Coming to the last frame, he saw the fainting form of one of his back-tenters, the very child whose ears he had so savagely pulled but an hour before.
There she lay, with her pallid, pinched face across her arm, the flames creeping towards her as though greedy to feed themselves on her young life.
In an instant Amos stepped towards the child and raised her in his arms, intending to return to the window and so seek escape. He was too late, however; a wall of fire stretched across the room, and he felt the floor yielding beneath his feet.
He was still calm and self-contained. He thought of Him who was said to dwell in devouring flames, and was Himself a consuming fire. He thought of the three Hebrew youths and the sevenfold-heated furnace. He thought of the One who was the wall of fire to His people, and he was not afraid.
On swept the blaze. In a few moments he knew the roof must follow the fast-consuming floor. Still he was calm. He stepped on to one of the stone sills to secure a moment's respite, and he cried in an unfaltering voice, 'The Lord reigneth. Let His will be done.'
Frantic efforts were being made by the crowd below to recall Amos, who had been seen to disappear from the window into the room. His name was shouted in wild and entreating cries, and men reared ladders, only to find them too short, while women threw up their arms and fell fainting in excitement on the ground.
On swept the flame. Still Amos held his own on the stone ledge. Grand was his demeanour—erect, despite his seventy years, clasping with a death grip the fainting child. All around him was smoke and mingling fire; but the Lord reigned—what He willed was right; in Him was no darkness at all.
Suddenly he lifted his eyes, and saw above him a manhole that led into the roof. In a moment he sprang along the frames, and passed in with his burden, and beat his way through the slates which in another minute were to fall in with the final collapse of the old factory.
Creeping along the ridge, he made his way towards the great chimney-shaft that ran up at one end of the building, and bidding the girl, who by contact with the air was now conscious, cling to his neck, the old man laid hold of the lightning-rod, and began his dangerous descent to the ground.
But he knew no fear; there was no tremor in his muscles; steadily he descended, feeling that God held his hands, and he told his Rehoboth friends afterwards, when he recounted his escape, that he felt the angels were descending with him.
When he reached the ground amid wild and passionate cries of joy, he disengaged the child from his neck, and wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt, said:
'The Lord's will be done.'
Dr. Hale, who was standing by the side of Mr. Penrose, and who heard the saying of old Amos, turned and said:
'Calvinism grows strong men, does it not?'
'Yi, doctor, yo're reet,' exclaimed old Joseph; 'theer's no stonning agen God's will.'
1. THE CANDLE OF THE LORD. 2. THE TWO MOTHERS. 3. THE SNOW CRADLE.
THE CANDLE OF THE LORD.
Through the summer months the old Bridge Factory stood in ruins; the only part that remained intact being the tall chimney-shaft, down which Amos Entwistle had brought the fainting child from out the flames. The days were long and the weather warm, and the inhabitants of Rehoboth spent the sunny hours in wandering over the moors, never dreaming of hard times and the closing year. A few of the more frugal and thrifty families had secured employment in a neighbouring valley, returning home at the week end. The many, however, awaited the rebuilding of the mill and the recommencement of work at their old haunt. But when the autumn set in chill and drear, and the October rains swept the trees and soaked the grass—when damp airs hung over the moors morning by morning, and returned to spread their chill canopy at eventide—faces began to wear an anxious look, and hearts lost the buoyancy of the idle summer hours.
There is always desolation in the late autumn on the moors. The great hills lose their bold contours, now dying away in a cold gray of sky, through which a blurred sun sheds his watery ray; while the bracken, with its beaten fronds, and the heather with its disenchanted bloom, change the gorgeous carpet of colour into wastes and wilds of cheerless expanse. The wind sobs as though conscious of the coming winter's stress—sad with its prophecy of want, and cold, and decay. Little rivulets that ran gleaming like silver threads—the Pactolian streams of childhood's home and lover's whisperings—now swell and deepen and complain, as though angry with the burdens of the falling clouds. Bared branches and low-browed eaves weep with the darkened and lowering sky, and withered leaves beat piteously at the cottage windows they once shadowed with their greenery, or lie limp and clayey on the roadside and the path. Then, in the silent night, there falls the first rime, and in the morning is seen the hoary covering that tells of the year's ageing and declining days. At the corner of the village street the hoarse cough is heard, and around the hearth the children gather closely, no longer sporting amid the flowers, or peopling the cloughs with fairy homes. A dispiriting hand tones down the great orchestra of Nature, and all her music is set to a minor key, her 'Jubilate' becoming a threnody—a great preludious sob.
It was in autumn hours such as these—and only too well known in Rehoboth—that old Mr. Morell used to discourse on the fading leaf, and tell of a harvest past and a summer ended, and bid his flock so number their days that they might apply their hearts unto wisdom. It was now, too, that the dark procession used to creep more frequently up the winding path to the Rehoboth grave-yard, and the heavy soil open oftener beneath old Joseph's spade, and the voice of the minister in deeper and more measured tones repeat the words, 'We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.' It was now also that the feeble and the aged shunned the darkening shadows of the streets, and crept and cowered over the kindling hearth in the sheltered home. In Rehoboth October and November were ever drear; and now that the old Bridge Factory was in ruins, and work scarce and food scant, the minds of the people were overcast with what threatened to be the winter of a discontent.
On an afternoon in mid-November, Mr. Penrose forsook his study for what he hoped might be an exhilarating walk across the gloomy moors. The snow—the first snow—was beginning to descend, gently and lazily, in pure, feathery flakes, remaining on earth for a moment, and then merging its crystals into the moisture that lay along the village street.
Turning a corner, he met Dr. Hale, who, after a hearty greeting, said:
'What is this I hear about your resignation, Mr. Penrose?'
'I don't know what you've heard, doctor, but I am resigning.'
'Nonsense! Running away from ignorance, eh? What would you say if I ran away from disease?'
'Canst thou minister to a mind diseased?' was Mr. Penrose's sharp retort.
'No, I cannot. But you can, and it's your duty to do so.'
'You're mistaken, doctor. I cannot go to the root of the moral disease of Rehoboth. If it were drink, or profligacy, or greed, I might; but self-righteousness beat Jesus, and no wonder it beats me.'
Taking Mr. Penrose by the arm, Dr. Hale said:
'You see that falling snow. Why does it disappear as soon as it touches earth?'
'Because the earth is higher in temperature than the snow, and therefore melts it,' replied the young man, wondering at the sudden change in the conversation.
'And if it keeps on falling for another hour, why will it cease to disappear? Why will it remain?' continued the doctor.
'Because its constant falling will so cool the earth that the earth will no longer melt it,' said Mr. Penrose, growing impatient with his examination in the rudiments of science.
'Well said, my friend. And therein lies a parable. You think your teaching falls to disappear. No; it falls to prepare. You must continue to let it fall, and finally it will remain, and lodge itself in the minds of your people. There, now, I have given you one of the treasures of the snow. But here's old Moses. Good-morning, Mr. Fletcher; busy as usual?'
'Yi, doctor, aw'm findin' these clamming fowk a bit o' brass.'
'How's that, Moses?' asked the minister.
'Why, yo' know as weel as aw do, Mr. Penrose. Sin' I yerd yo' talk abaat Him as gies liberally, I thought aw'd do a bit on mi own accaant.'
'There, now,' said Dr. Hale, 'the snow is beginning to stay, is it not?'
As the doctor and Moses said 'Good-day,' the pastor continued his walk in a brooding mood, scarce lifting his head from the ground, on which the flakes were falling more thickly and beginning to remain. Lost in thought, and continuing his way towards the end of the village, he was startled by a tapping at the window of Abraham Lord's cottage, and, looking up, he saw Milly's beckoning hand.
Passing up the garden-path and entering the kitchen, he bade the girl a good-afternoon, and asked her if she were waiting for the 'angel een.'
'Nay,' said Milly; 'I'm baan to be content wi' th' daawn (down) off their wings to-day.'
'So you call the snow "angels' down," do you?'
'Ey, Mr. Penrose,' cried her mother. 'Hoo's names for everythin' yo' can think on. Hoo seed a great sunbeam on a bank of white claads t' other day, and hoo said hoo thought it were God Hissel', because th' owd Book said as He made th' clouds His chariot.'
'But why do you call the snow "angels' down," Milly?'
'Well, it's i' this way, Mr. Penrose,' replied the girl. 'I've sin th' birds pool th' daawn off their breasts to line th' nest for their young uns. And why shouldn't th' angels do th' same for us? Mi faither says as haa snow is th' earth's lappin', and keeps all th' seeds warm, and mak's th' land so as it 'll groo. So I thought happen it wur th' way God feathered aar nest for us. Dun yo' see? It's nobbud my fancy.'
'And a beautiful fancy, too, Milly.'
And all that waning afternoon, as Mr. Penrose climbed the hills amid the falling flakes, he thought of Milly's quaint conceit, and looking round amid the gathering gloom, and seeing the great stretch of snowy covering that now lay on the undulating sweeps, he asked himself wherein lay the difference between the vision of John the Divine when he saw the angels holding the four winds of heaven, and Milly when she saw the angels giving of their warmth to earth in falling flakes of snow.
As the darkness deepened, Mr. Penrose—fearless of the storm, and at home on the wilds—made his way towards a lone farmstead known as 'Granny Houses,' and so-called because of an old woman who lived there, and who, by keeping a light in her window on dark winter nights, guided the colliers to a distant pit across the moors. She was the quaint product of the hills and of Calvinism, but shrewd withal, and of a kind heart. Indeed, the young minister had taken a strong liking to her, and frequently called at her far-away home.
'Ey, Mr. Penrose, whatever's brought yo aat a neet like this?' she cried, as the preacher stood white as a ghost in the doorway of the farmstead. 'Come in and dry yorsel. Yo're just i' time fur baggin (tea), and there's noan I'm as fain to see as yo'.'
'Thank you, Mrs. Halstead; I'm glad to be here. It's a grand night.' And looking through the open doorway at the great expanse of snow-covered moor, he said, 'What a beautiful world God's world is—is it not?'
'I know noan so mich abaat its beauty, but I know its a fearful cowd (cold) world to-neet. Shut that dur afore th' kitchen's filled wi' snow. When yo're as owd as me yo'll noan be marlockin' i' snow at this time o' neet. What's life to young uns is death to owd uns, yo' know. But draw up to th' fire. That's reet; naa then, doff that coite, and hev a soup o' tay. An' haa 'n yo' laft 'em all daan at Rehoboth? Clammin', I reckon.'
'You're not far from the word, Mrs. Halstead. Many of them don't know where to-morrow's food and to-morrow's fire is coming from.'
'Nowe, I dare say. Bud if they'd no more sense nor to spend their brass in th' summer, what can they expect? There's some fo'k think they can eyt their cake and hev it. But th' Almeety doesn't bake bread o' that mak'. He helps them as helps theirsels. He gay' five to th' chap as bed five, and him as bed nobbud one, and did naught wi' it—why, He tuk it fro' him, didn't He? I'll tell yo' what it is, Mr. Penrose, there's a deal o' worldly wisdom i' providence. Naa come, isn't there?'
Mr. Penrose laughed.
'Theer's that Oliver o' Deaf Martha's. Naa, I lay aught he's noan so mich, wi' his dog-feightin' and poachin'. His missis wur up here t'other day axin' for some milk for th' childer. An' hoo said ut everybody wur ooined (punished for want of food) at their house but Oliver an' th' dog. Theer's awlus enugh for them.'
'Yes, I believe that is so.'
'It wur that dog as welly killed Moses Fletcher, wurnd it?'
'I think it was,' replied Mr. Penrose.
'And haa is owd Moses sin yo' dipped him o'er agen? It 'll tak' some watter and grace to mak' him ought like, I reckon. But they tell me he's takken to gien his brass away. It 'll noan dry th' een o' th' poor fo'k he's made weep, tho'—will it, Mr. Penrose?'
'Perhaps not, Mrs. Halstead; but Moses is an altered man.'
'And noan afore it wur time. But what's that noise in th' yard? It saands like th' colliers. What con they be doin' aat o' th' pit at this time? They're noan off the shift afore ten, and it's nobbud hawve-past six.'
In another moment the door of the cottage was thrown open and a collier entered, white with falling snow, and breathless. When he had sufficiently recovered, he said:
'Gronny, little Job Wallwork's getten crushed in th' four-foot, and it's a'most up wi' him. They're bringin' on him here.'
'Whatever wilto say next, lad? Poor little felley, where's he getten hurt? On his yed?'
'Nay; he's crushed in his in'ards, and he hasnd spokken sin'. They're carryin' him on owd Malachi's coite' (coat).
A sound of shuffling feet was heard in the snow, and four men, holding the ends of a greatcoat, bore the pale-faced, swooning boy into the glare of Mrs. Halstead's kitchen. His thin features were drawn, and a clayey hue overspread his face—a hue which, when she saw with her practised eye, she knew was the shadow of the destroyer.
'Poor little felley!' she cried; 'and his mother a widder an' all.'
And then, bending down over the settle whereon they had placed the mangled lad, she pressed her lips on the pale brow, clammy with the ooze of death—lips long since forsaken by the early blush of beauty, yet still warm with the instinct which in all true women feeds itself with the wasting years. Tears fell from her eyes—tears that told of unfathomed deeps of motherhood, despite her threescore years and ten; while with lean and tremulous hand she combed back the dank masses of hair that lay in clusters about the boy's pallid face. Her reverence and love thus manifested—a woman's offering to tortured flesh in the dark chamber of pain—she unbuckled the leathern strap that clasped the little collier's breeches to his waist, and, with a touch gentle enough to carry healing, bared the body, now discoloured and torn, though still the veined and plastic marble—the flesh-wall of the human temple, so fearfully and wonderfully made.
The boy lay immobile. Scarce a pulse responded to the old woman's touch as she placed the palm of her hand over the valve of his young life. Nor did her fomentations rouse him, as feebler grew the protest of the heart to the separation of the little soul from the mangled body. At last the watchers thought the wrench was over, and Death the lord of life.
Then the clayey hue, so long overshadowing the face, faded away in the warmth of a returning tide of life, as a gray dawn is suffused by sunrise. The beat became stronger and more frequent, there was a movement in the passive limbs, and, opening his eyes dreamily, then wonderingly, and at last consciously, the lad looked into the old woman's face and said:
'Yi! it's Gronny, lad. And haa doesto feel?'
The boy tried to move, and uttered a feeble cry of pain.
'Lie thee still, lad. Doesto think thaa can ston this?' and the old woman laid another hot flannel on the boy's body.
At first he winced, and a look of terrible torture passed over his face. Then he smiled and said:
'Yi! Gronny, aw can bide thee to do ought.'
Mr. Penrose, helpless and silent, stood at the foot of the settle on which lay the dying boy, the colliers seeking the gloomy corners of the large kitchen, where in shadow they awaited in rude fear the death of their little companion. The old woman, cool and self-possessed, plied her task with a tenderness and skill born of long years of experience, cheering with words of endearment the last moments of the sufferer.
The boy's rally was brief, for internal haemorrhage set in, and swiftly wrought its fatal work, sweeping the vital tide along channels through which it no longer returned to the fount of life, and leaving the weary face with a pallor that overmastered the flush that awhile before brought a momentary hope. His eyes grew dim, and the light from the lamp seemed to recede, as though it feared him, and would elude his gaze. The figures in the room became mixed and commingled, and took shapes which at times he failed to recognise. Then a sensation of falling seized him, and he planted his hands on the cushion of the settle, as though he would stay his descent.
Looking at Mr. Penrose through a ray of consciousness, he said:
'Th' cage is goin' daan fearfo quick. Pray!'
The old woman caught the word, and, turning to the minister, she said:
'He wants thee to mak' a prayer.'
Mr. Penrose drew nearer to the boy, and repeated the grand death-song of the saints: 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.'
The boy shook his head—for him the words had no meaning. Then, raising himself, he said:
'Ax God O'meety to leet His candle. I'm baan along th' seam, an' it's fearfo dark!'
To Mr. Penrose the words were strange, and, turning to the colliers, he asked them what the boy wanted.
Then Malachi o' the Mount came towards the minister and said:
'Th' lad thinks he's i' th' four-foot seam, and he connot find his road, it's so dark, and he wants a leet—a candle, yo' know, same as we use in th' pit. He wants the Almeety to leet him along.'
Still Mr. Penrose was in darkness.
Then the boy turned to old Malachi, and, with a farewell look of recognition and a last effort of speech, said:
'Malachi, ax Him as is aboon to leet His great candle, and show me th' road along th' seam. It's some fearsome and dark.'
And Malachi knelt by the side of the lad, and, in broken accents and rude vernacular, said:
'O God O'meety, little Job's baan along th' four-foot seam, an' he connot see his gate (way). Leet Thy candle, Lord—Thy great candle—and mak' it as leet as day for th' lad. Leet it, Lord, and dunnot put it aat till he geds through to wheere they've no need o' candles, becose Thaa gies them th' leet o' Thysel.'
The prayer over, every eye was turned to the boy, on whose face there had broken a great light—a light from above.
THE TWO MOTHERS.
The royal repose of death reigned over the features of little Job as his mother entered the kitchen of the Granny Houses Farm. She had been summoned from Rehoboth by a collier, fleet of foot, who, as soon as the injured boy was brought to the pit-bank, started with the sad news to the distant village. No sooner did the woman catch the purport of the news, than she ran out wildly into the snowy air—not waiting to don shawl or clogs, but speeding over the white ground as those only speed who love, and who know their loved ones are in need.
A wild wind was blowing from the north, and the fleecy particles fell in fantastic whirls and spirals, to drift in treacherous banks over the gullies and falls that lay along the path; while here and there thin black lines, sinuous in their trend, told where moorland waters flowed, and guided the hurrying mother to her distant goal. The groaning trees, tossed by the tempest, flung off showers of half-frozen flakes, that falling on her flaming cheeks failed to cool the fever of her suspense, while the yielding snow beneath her feet became a tantalus path, delaying her advance, and seeming to make more distant her suffering child.
Ploughing her way through the Green Fold Clough, she climbed the steeps at the further end, and stood, breathless, on the bank of the great reservoir that lay dark in the hollow of the white hills. Her heart beat savagely and loud—so loud that she heard it above the din of the storm; and cruel pain relentlessly stabbed her heaving side, while her breath was fetched in quick respirations.
As she thus stood, tamed in her race of love by the imperative call of exhausted nature, Dr. Hale loomed through the snowy haze, and, reading instinctively who she was and whither she was bound, proffered his assistance for the remaining half of the journey.
He had not walked with her for many yards before he saw her exposed condition. Her hair was flying in frozen tresses about her unshawled bosom, and no outer covering protected her from the chill blast.
'Mrs. Wallwork,' said he, 'you ought not to be crossing the moors a night like this, uncovered as you are. You are tempting Nature to do her worst with you, you know.'
'Ne'er heed me, doctor. It's mi lad yon aw want yo' to heed. I shall be all reet if he's nobbud reet. I con walk faster if yo' con,' and so saying, the jaded woman sprang, like a stung horse, under the spur of love.
'But I have two lives to think of,' replied Dr. Hale, 'both mother's and son's.'
'Mine's naught, doctor, when he's i' danger. Who bothers their yeds abaat theirsels when them as they care more for are i' need? Let's hurry up, doctor.'
And again she sprang forward, to struggle with renewed effort through the yielding snow. Then, turning towards her companion, she cried:
'Where wur he hurt, doctor? Did they tell yo'?'
But the doctor was silent.
Seizing his arm with eager grip, she continued:
'Dun yo' think he's livin', doctor? Or is he deead? Did they say he wur deead?'
'We must be patient a little longer,' was the doctor's kind reply. 'See! there's the light in the window of Granny Houses!'
And there shone the light—distant across the fields, and blurred and indistinct through the falling snow. Without waiting to find the path, the mother ran in a direct line towards it, scaling the walls with the nimbleness of youth, to fall exhausted on the threshold of the farmstead.
Raising herself, she looked round with a blank stare, dazed with the glow of the fire and the light of the lamp. In the further corners of the room, and away from each other, sat the old woman and Mr. Penrose and Malachi o' the Mount, while on the settle beneath the window lay the sheeted dead.
'Where's th' lad?' cried the mother, the torture of a great fear racking her features and agonizing her voice.
There was no reply, the three watchers by the dead helplessly and mutely gazing at the snow-covered figure that stood beneath the open doorway within a yard of her child.
'Gronny, doesto yer? Where's my lad? And yo', Malachi—yo' took him daan th' shaft wi' yo'; what ban yo' done wi' him?'
Still there was no response. A paralysis silenced each lip. None of the three possessed a heart that dared disclose the secret.
Seeing the sheeted covering on the settle, the woman, with frantic gesture, tore it aside, and when her eye fell on the little face, grand in death's calm, a great rigor took hold of her, and then she became rigid as the dead on whom her gaze was fixed.
In a little while she stooped over the boy, and, baring the cold body, looked long at the crushed and discoloured parts, at last bending low her face and kissing them until they were warm with her caress. Then old granny, turning round to Mr. Penrose, whispered:
'Thank God, hoo's weepin'!'
'Let her weep,' said Dr. Hale; 'there's no medicine like tears.'
* * * * *
That night, long after the snow had ceased to fall, and the tempestuous winds with folded wings were hushed in repose, and distant stars glittered in steely brightness, the two women, holding each other's hand, sat over the hearth of the solitary moorland farmstead. They were widows both, and both now were sisters in the loss of an only child.
Granny, as she was called, bore that name not from relationship, but from her kindliness and age. It was the pet name given to her by the colliers to whom she so often ministered in their risks and exposures at the adjacent pit. Into her life the rain had fallen. After fifteen years of domestic joy, her only child, a son, fell before the breath of fever, and in the shadow of that loss she ever since walked. Then her husband succumbed to the exposure of a winter's toil, and now for long she had lived alone. But as she used to say, 'Suppin' sorrow had made her to sup others' sorrow with them.' Her cup, though deep and full, had not embittered her heart, but led her to drink with those whose cup was deeper than her own. The death of little Job had rolled away the stone from the mouth of the sepulchre of her own dead child; and as she held the hand of the lately-bereaved mother she dropped many a word of comfort.
'I'll tell thee what aw've bin thinkin',' said the old woman.
'What han yo' bin thinkin', Gronny?'
'Why, I've bin thinkin' haa good th' Almeety is—He's med angels o' them as we med lads.'
'I durnd know what yo' mean, Gronny.'
'Why, it's i' this way, lass; my Jimmy and yor little Job wur aar own, wurnd they?'
'Yi, forsure they wur.'
'We feshioned 'em, as the Psalmist sez, didn't we?'
'Thaa sez truth, Gronny,' wept the younger woman.
'And we feshioned 'em lads an' o'.'
'Yi, and fine uns; leastways, my little Job wur—bless him.'
And the mother turned her tearful eyes towards the settle whereon lay the corpse.
'Well, cornd yo' see as God hes finished aar wark for us, and what we made lads, He's made angels on?'
'But aw'd sooner ha' kept mine. Angels are up aboon, thaa knows; an' heaven's a long way off.'
'Happen noan so far as thaa thinks, lass; and then th' Almeety will do better by 'em nor we con.'
'Nay, noan so, Gronny. God cornd love Job better nor I loved him.'
'But he willn't ged crushed in a coile seam i' heaven; naa, lass, will he?'
'Thaa's reet, Gronny, he willn't. But if He mak's us work here, why does He kill us o'er th' job, as he's killed mi little lad?'
'Thaa mun ax Mr. Penrose that, lass; I'm no scholard.'
'Aw'll tell thee what it is, Gronny. It noan seems reet that thee and me should be sittin' by th' fire, and little Job yonder cowd i' th' shadow. Let's pool up th' settle to th' fire; he's one on us, though he's deead.'
'Let him alone, lass; he's better off nor them as wants fire; there's no cowd wheer he's goan.'
Rising from her chair, and turning the sheet once more from off the boy's face, the mother said:
'Where hasto goan, lad? Tell thi mother, willn't taa?' And then, looking round at the old woman, she said, 'Doesto think he yers (hears) me, Gronny?'
'Aw welly think he does, lass; but durnd bother him naa. He's happen restin', poor little lad; or happen he's telling them as is up aboon all abaat thee—who knows?'
'Aw say, Gronny, Jesus made deead fo'k yer Him when He spok', didn't He?'
'Yi, lass, He did forsure.'
'Who wur that lass He spok' to when He turned 'em all aat o' th' room, wi' their noise and shaatin'?'
'Tha means th' rich mon's lass, doesndto?'
'Yi! Did He ever do ought for a poor mon's lass?'
'He did for a poor woman's lad, thaa knows—a widder's son—one like thine.'
'But he's noan here naa, so we's be like to bide by it, ey, dear? Mi lad! mi lad!'
'Don't tak' on like that, lass; noather on us 'll hev to bide long. It's a long road, I know, when fo'k luk for'ards; but it's soon getten o'er, and when thaa looks back'ards it's nobbud short. I tell thee I've tramped it, and I durnd know as I'm a war woman for the journey. It's hard wark partin' wi' your own; but then theer's th' comfort o' havin' had 'em. I'd rayther hev a child and bury it, nor be baat childer, like Miriam Heap yonder.'
'Aw dare say as yo're reet, Gronny; aw's cry and fret a deal over little Job, but then aw's hev summat to think abaat, shornd I? Aw geet his likeness taken last Rehoboth fair by a chap as come in a callivan (caravan), and it hengs o'er th' chimley-piece. But aw's noan see th' leet in his een ony more, nor yer his voice, nor tak' him wi' me to th' chapel on Sundos,' and the woman again turned to the dead boy, and fondly lingered over his familiar features, weeping over them her tears of despair.
'Come, lass, tha munn't tak' on like that. Sit yo' daan, an' I'll tell yo' what owd Mr. Morell said to me when mi lad lay deead o' th' fayver, and noan on 'em would come near me. He said I mut (must) remember as th' Almeety had nobbud takken th' lad upstairs. But aw sez, "Mr. Morell, theer's mony steps, an' I cornd climb 'em." "Yi," sez he, "theer is mony steps, but yo' keep climbin' on 'em every day, and one day yo'll ged to th' top and be i' th' same raam (room) wi' him." An', doesto know, every time as I fretted and felt daan, I used to think o' him as was upstairs, and remember haa aw wur climbin' th' steps an' gettin' nearer him.'
'But yo've noan getten to th' top yet, Gronny.'
'No, aw hevn't, but aw'm a deal nearer nor aw wur when he first laft me. An' doesto know, lass, aw feel misel to be gettin' so near naa that aw can welly yer him singin'. There's nobbud a step or two naa, and then we's be i' th' same raam.'
'An' is th' Almeety baan to mak' me climb as mony steps as thaa's climbed afore I ged into th' same raam as He's takken little Job too, thinksto?'
'Ey, lass. Aw durnd know; but whether thaa's to climb mony or few thaa'll hev strength gien thee, as aw hev.'
'Aw wish God's other room wurnd so far off, Gronny—nobbud t'other side o' th' wall instead o' th' story aboon. Durnd yo'?'
'Nay, lass; they're safer upstairs. Thaa knows He put's 'em aat o' harm's way.'
'But aw somehaa think aw could ha' takken care o' little Job a bit longer. And when he'd groon up, thaa knows, he could ha' takken care o' me.'
'Yi, lass; we're awlus for patchin' th'Almeety's work; and if He leet us, we's mak' a sorry mess on it and o'.'
'Well, Gronny, if I wur God Almeety I'd be agen lettin' lumps o' coile fall and crush th' life aat o' lads like aar Job. It's a queer way o' takkin 'em upstairs, as yo' co it.'
'Hooisht! lass, thaa mornd try to speerit through th' clouds that are raand abaat His throne. He tak's one i' one way, an another i' another; but if He tak's em to Hissel they're better off than they'd be wi' us.'
'Well, Gronny, aw tell thee, aw cornd see it i' that way yet;' and again the mother caressed the body of her son.
Once more she turned towards the old woman, and said:
'Aw shouldn't ha' caared so mich, Gronny, if he'd deed as yor lad deed—i' his own bed, an' wi' a fayver; bud he wur crushed wi' a lump o' coile! Poor little lad! Luk yo' here!' and the mother bared the body and showed the discoloured parts.
'Did ta' ever see a child dee o' fayver, lass?'
'Not as aw know on. Aw've awlus bin flayed, and never gone near 'em.'
'Thaa may thank God as thy lad didn't dee of a fayver. Aw's never forgeet haa th' measter and I watched and listened to aar lad's ravin's. Haa he rached aat wi' his honds, and kept settin' up and makin' jumps at what he fancied he see'd abaat him; and when we co'd him he never knowed us. Nowe, lass, he never knowed me until one neet he seemed to come to hissel, and then he looked at me and said, "Mother!" But it wur all he said—he never spok' at after.'
'Yi; but yo' see'd yur lad dee—and mine deed afore I could get to him.'
'That is so, lass! but as aw stood an' see'd mine deein', I would ha' gien onything if I could ha' shut mi een, or not bin wi' him. I know summat as what Hagar felt when hoo said, "Let me not see th' deeath o' th' child"—I do so.'
The younger woman wept, and the tears brought relief to her pent-up heart. She had found a mother's ear for her mother's sorrow; and the after-calm of a great grief was now falling over her. She leaned her aching head on the shoulders of the older and stronger woman by whose side she sat, and at last her sorrow brought the surcease of sleep. The fire threw its fitful flicker on her haggard face, lighting up in strange relief the lines of agony and the moisture of the freshly fallen tears. Now and again she sobbed in her slumber—a sob that shook her soul—but she slept, and sleep brought peace and oblivion.
'Sleep on, lass, sleep on, and God ease thi poor heart,' said the old Granny, as she held the woman's hand in hers. 'Thaa's hed both thi travails naa; thaa's travailed i' birth, and thaa's travailed i' deeath, like mony a poor soul afore thee. There wur joy when thaa brought him into th' world, and theer's sorrow naa he's goan aat afore his time. Ey, dear! A mother's life's like an April morn—sunleet and cloud, fleshes o' breetness, and showers o' rain.'
And closing her eyes, she, too, slept. And in that lone outlying fold, far away in the snowy bosom of the hills, there was the sleep of weariness, the sleep of sorrow, and the sleep of death. And who shall say that the last was not the kindliest and most welcome?
THE SNOW CRADLE.
As Mr. Penrose and Malachi o' th' Mount closed the door of Granny Houses on the sorrowing widowed mother, there opened to them a fairy realm of snow. Stepping out on its yielding carpet of crystals, they looked in silent wonder at the fair new world, where wide moors slept in peaceful purity, and distant hills lifted their white summits towards the deep cold blue of the clearing sky. Steely stars glittered and magnified their light through the lens of the eager, frosty air, and old landmarks were hidden, and roads familiar to the wayfarer no longer discovered their trend. Little hillocks had taken the form of mounds, and stretches of level waste were swept by ranges of drift and shoulders of obstructing snow.
No sooner did Mr. Penrose look out on this new earth than a feeling of lostness came on him, and, linking his arm in that of the old man, he said:
'Can you find the way, Malachi?'
'Wheer to, Mr. Penrose?'
'Why, to Rehoboth, of course. Where else did you think I wanted to go at this time of night?'
'Nay, that's what I wur wonderin' when yo' axed me if I knew th' way,' replied the old man.
'Oh! I beg your pardon; I thought perhaps the snow might throw you off the track.'
'Throw me off th' track, an' on these moors and o'? Nowe, Mr. Penrose, I hevn't lived on 'em forty years for naught, I con tell yo'.'
'But when you cannot see your way, what then?'
'Then I walks by instink.'
And by instinct the two men crossed the wastes of snow towards the Green Fold Clough, through which gorge lay the path that led to the village below.
Just as they traversed the edge of the Red Moss, old Malachi broke the silence by saying:
'Well, Mr. Penrose, what do yo' think o' yon?'
'Think of what, Malachi?' asked the perplexed divine, for neither of them, for some moments, had spoken.
'Think o' yon lad as has getten killed, and o' his mother?'
There are times when a man dares not utter his deepest feelings because of the commonplace character of the words through which they only can find expression. If Malachi had asked Mr. Penrose to write the character of God on a blackboard before a class of infants, he would not have been placed in a greater difficulty than that now involved by the question of Malachi. Already his mind was dark with the problem of suffering. Little Job's cry for 'the candle of the Almeety' had reached depths he knew not were hidden in his heart; while the look in the mother's face, as she stood snow-covered in the doorway of the farmstead, and as the firelight lent its glare to her blanched and pain-wrought face, continued ceaselessly to haunt him. And now Malachi wanted to know what he thought of it all! How could he tell him?
Finding Mr. Penrose remained silent, Malachi continued: 'Yon woman's supped sorrow, and no mistak'. Hoo buried her husband six months afore yon lad wur born. Poor little felley! he never know'd his faither.'
'Ah! I never knew that. Then she has supped sorrow, as you call it.'
'Owd Mr. Morell used to say as he could awlus see her deead husband's face i' hers until th' child wur born, and then it left her, and hoo carried th' face o' th' little un hoo brought up. But it'll be a deead face hoo'll carry in her een naa, I'll be bun for't.'
'How was it his mother sent him to work in the pit?—such a dangerous calling, and the boy so young.'
'You'll know a bit more, Mr. Penrose, when yo've lived here a bit longer. His fo'k and hers hev bin colliers further back nor I can remember; and they noan change trades wi' us.'
'But why need he go to work so young?' asked the minister.
Malachi stopped and gazed in astonishment at the minister, and then said:
'I durnd know as he would ha' worked in th' pit, Mr. Penrose, if you'd ha' kep' him and his mother and o'. But fo'k mun eat, thaa knows. Th' Almeety's gan o'er rainin' daan manna fro' heaven, as He used to do in th' wilderness.'
Mr. Penrose did not reply.
'Yo' know, Mr. Penrose,' continued Malachi, 'workin' in a coile-pit is like preychin': it's yezzy (easy) enugh when yo' ged used to 't. An' as for danger—why, yo' connot ged away fro' it. As owd Amos sez, yo're as safe i' one hoile (workshop) as another.'
'Yes; that's sound philosophy,' assented Mr. Penrose.
'Mr. Morell once tell'd us in his preychin' abaat a chap as axed a oracle, or summat, what kind of a deeath he would dee; and when he wur towd that he would happen an accident o' some sort, they couldn't geet him to shift aat o' his garden, for fear he'd be killed. But it wur all no use; for one day, as he wur sittin' amang his flaars, a great bird dropped a stooan, and smashed his yed. So yo' see, Mr. Penrose, if yo've to dee in th' pulpit yo'll dee theer, just as little Job deed i' th' coile-pit.'
As Malachi delivered himself of this bit of Calvinistic philosophy, a sound of voices was borne in on the two men from the vale below, and looking in the direction whence it came, the old man and Mr. Penrose saw a group of dark figures thrown into relief on the background of snow.
The sounds were too distant to be distinctly heard, but every now and then there was mingled with them the short, sharp bark of a dog.
'I welly think that's Oliver o' Deaf Martha's dog,' excitedly cried Malachi. 'Surely he's noan poachin' a neet like this? He's terrible lat' wi' his wark if he is.'
'If I'm not mistaken, that is Moses Fletcher's voice,' replied Mr. Penrose. 'Listen!'
'You're reet; that's Moses' voice, or I'm a Jew. What's he doin' aat a neet like this, wi' Oliver's dog? I thought he'd bed enough o' that beast to last his lifetime.'
The two men were now leaning over a stone wall and looking down into the ravine below. Suddenly Malachi pricked up his ears, and said:
'An' that's Amos's voice an' all. By Guy, if it hedn't bin for Oliver o' Deaf Martha's I should ha' said it wur hevin' a prayer-meetin' i' th' snow. What's brought owd Amos aat wi' Moses—to say naught o' th' dog?'
Just then an oath reached the ears of the listening men.
'No prayer-meeting, Malachi,' said Mr. Penrose, laughing.
'Nowe—nobbud unless they're like Ab' o' th' Heights, who awlus swore a bit i' his prayers, because, as he said, swearin' wur mighty powerful. But him as swore just naa is Oliver hissel—I'll lay mi Sunday hat on't.'
By this time the moving figures on the snow were approaching the foot of the hill whereon the two men stood, and Malachi, raising his hands to his mouth, greeted them with a loud halloo.
Immediately there came a reply. It was from Oliver himself, in a loud, importuning voice:
'Han yo' fun him?'
'Fun who?' asked Malachi.
'Why, that chilt o' mine! Who didsto think we wur lookin' for?'
'Who knew yo' were lookin' for aught but—'
'Which child have you lost?' cried Mr. Penrose, for Oliver had a numerous family.
'Little Billy—him as Moses pooled aat o' the lodge.'
'Come along, Malachi, let us go down and help; it's a search party.'
* * * * *
Everybody in Rehoboth knew little Billy o' Oliver's o' Deaf Martha's. He was a smart lad of eight years, with a vivid imagination and an active brain. His childish idealism, however, found little food in the squalid cottage in which he dragged out his semi-civilized existence; but among the hills he was at home, and there he roamed, to find in their fastnesses a region of romance, and in their gullies and cloughs the grottoes and falls that to him were a veritable fairy realm. Child as he was, in the summer months he roamed the shady plantations, and sailed his chip and paper boats down their brawling streams, feeding on the nuts and berries, and lying for hours asleep beneath the shadows of their branching trees. He was one of the few children into whose mind Amos failed to find an inlet for the catechism; and once, during the past summer, he had blown his wickin-whistle in Sunday-school class, and been reprimanded by the superintendent because he gathered blackberries during the sacred hours.
A few days previous to his disappearance in the snow he had heard the legend of Jenny Greenteeth, the haunting fairy of the Green Fold Clough, and how that she, who in the summer-time made the flowers grow and the birds sing, hid herself in winter on a shelf of rock above the Gin Spa Well, a lone streamlet that gurgled from out the rocky sides of the gorge. The story laid hold of his young mind, and under the glow of his imagination assumed the proportions of an Arabian Nights' wonder. He dreamed of it by night, and during the day received thrashings not a few from his zealous schoolmaster, because his thoughts were away from his lessons with Jenny Greenteeth in her Green Fold Clough retreat. On this, the afternoon of the first snowfall of the autumn, there being a half-holiday, the boy determined once more to explore the haunts of the fairy; and just as Mr. Penrose turned out of his lodgings to kill the prose of his life, which he felt to be killing him, Oliver o' Deaf Martha's little boy turned out of his father's hovel to feed the poetry that was stirring in his youthful soul. The north wind blew through the rents and seams of his threadbare clothing; but its chill was not felt, so warm with excitement beat his little heart. And when the first flakes fell, he clapped his hands in wild delight, and sang of the plucking of geese by hardy Scotchmen, and the sending of their feathers across the intervening leagues.
Poor little fellow! His was a hard lot when looked at from where Plenty spread her table and friends were manifold. But he was not without his compensations. His home was the moors, and his parent was Nature. He knew how to leap a brook, and snare a bird, and climb a tree, and shape a boat, and cut a wickin-whistle, and many a time and oft, when bread was scarce, he fed on the berries that only asked to be plucked, and grew so plentifully along the sides of the great hills.
The dusk was falling, and the snow beginning to lie thick, as he entered the dark gorge of the Clough; but to him darkness and light were alike, and as for the snow, it was more than a transformation-scene is to the petted child of a jaded civilization. He watched the flakes as they came down in their wild race from the sky, and saw them disappear on touching the stream that ran through the heart of the Clough. He gathered masses of the flaky substance in his hand, and, squeezing them into balls, threw them at distant objects, and then filled his mouth with the icy particles, and revelled in the shock and chill of the melting substance between his teeth as no connoisseur of wine ever revelled in the juices of the choice vintages of Spain and France. Then he would shake and clap his hands because of what he called the 'hot ache' that seized them, only to scamper off again after some new object around which to weave another dream of wonder.
The dusk gave place to gloom, and still faster fell the snow, white and feathery, silent and sublime. The child felt the charm, and began to lose himself in the impalpable something that, like a curtain of spirit, gathered around. He, too, was now as white as the shrubs through which he wended his way, and every now and then he doffed his cap, and, with a wild laugh of delight, flung its covering of snow upon the ground. Then, out of sheer fulness of life and rapport with the scene, he would rush for a yard or two up the steep sides of the Clough and roll downwards in the soft substance which lay deeply around.
The gloom thickened and nightfall came, but the snow lighted up the dark gorge, and threw out the branching trees, the tall trunks of which rose columnar-like as the pillars of some cathedral nave. Did the boy think of home—of fire—of bed? Not he! He thought only of Jenny Greenteeth, the sprite of the Clough, and of the Gin Spa Well, above which she was said to sleep; and on he roamed.
And now the path became narrower and more tortuous, while on the steep sides the snow was gathering in ominous drifts. Undaunted he struggled on, knee-deep, often stumbling, yet always rising to dive afresh into the yielding element that lay between himself and the enchanted ground beyond. In a little time he came to a great bulging bend, around the foot of which the waters flowed in sullen sweeps. Here, careful as he was, he slipped, and lay for a moment stunned and chilled with his sudden immersion. Struggling to the bank, he regained his foothold, and, rounding the promontory of cliff which had almost defeated his search, he turned the angle that hid the grotto, and found himself at the Gin Spa Well.
He heard the 'drip, drip' of falling waters as they oozed from out their rocky bed, and fell into one of those tiny hollows of nature which, overflowing, sent its burden towards the stream below. He looked above, and saw the fabled ledge—its mossy bank all snow-covered—with the entrance to Jenny Greenteeth's chambers dark against the white that lay around. Tired with the search, yet glad at heart with the find, he climbed and entered, the somnolence wrought by the snow soon closing his eyes, and its subtle opiate working on his now wearily excited brain. There he slept—and dreamed.
* * * * *
As soon as Mr. Penrose and Malachi reached the search party, and heard how the boy had been missing since the afternoon, the minister suggested they should search the Clough, as it was his favourite haunt. His advice was at first unheeded, Oliver declaring he had been taken off in a gipsy caravan, and Amos capping his suspicion by speaking of the judgments of the Almighty on little lads who gathered flowers on Sunday, and blew wickin-whistles in school, and refused to learn their catechism. Second thoughts, however, brought them over to Mr. Penrose's mind, and they set out for the Clough.
The descent was far from easy, the banks being steep, and treacherous with their covering of newly-fallen snow. Once or twice Amos, in his declaration of the Divine will, nearly lost his footing, and narrowly escaped falling into the defile, the entrance to which they sought to gain. Oliver manifested his anxiety and parental care in sundry oaths, while Moses Fletcher, who had loved the child ever since saving him from the Lodge, said little and retained his wits.
When the search party entered the heart of the Clough, Oliver's dog began to show signs of excitement, that became more and more noticeable as they drew near to the Gin Spa Well. Here the brute suddenly stopped and whined, and commenced to wildly caper.
'Th' dog's goin' mad,' said Amos.
'It's noan as mad as thee, owd lad,' replied Moses. 'I'll lay ought we'n noan so far fro' th' chilt.'
'It is always wise to stop when a dog stops,' assented the minister.
'Yi; yo' connot stand agen instink,' said Malachi.
'Good lad! good lad! find him!' sobbed Oliver to his dog; and the brute again whined and wagged its tail and ran round and between the legs of the men.
'There's naught here,' impatiently cried Amos.
I'll tak' a dog's word agen thine ony day, owd lad,' said Moses.
'Well, thaa's no need to be so fond o' th' dog. It once welly worried thi dog, and thee into th' bargain.'
'Yi; it's bin a bruiser i' id time, an' no mistak'; but it's turned o'er a new leaf naa—and it's noan so far off th' child;' and Malachi, too, commenced to encourage it in its search.
'It looks to me as th' child's getten up theer somehaa;' and so saying, Moses pointed to the ledge of rock where Jenny Greenteeth was said to slumber through the winter's cold.
'What mut th' child ged up theer for?' asked Amos. 'Thaa talks like a chap as never hed no childer.'
At this rebuff Moses was silent; for not only was he a childless man, but until the day he saved the very child they were now seeking from the Green Fold Lodge, children had been nothing to him. Now, however, he had learned to love them, and none better than the little lost offspring of Oliver o' Deaf Martha's.
While the two men were wrangling, Mr. Penrose stepped aside and commenced the climb towards the ledge. The snow lay white and undisturbed on the shelving surface, and there was no sign of recent movements. Looking round, he discovered the mouth of the recess. There it stood, black and forbidding. In another moment the minister stooped down and looked in; but all was dark and silent, nor did he care to go further along what to him was an unknown way.
'Have any of you a light?' asked he of the men below; and Malachi handed him his collier's candle and matches, with which he commenced to penetrate the gloom.
It was a small cavernous opening out of which, in years past, men had quarried stone. Damp dripped from the roof, and ran down its seamed and discoloured sides. Autumn leaves, swept there by the wind, strewed its uneven floor, and lay in heaps against the jutting angles. A thin line of snow had drifted in through the mouth, and ran like a river of light along the gloomy entrance, to lose itself in the recesses beyond.
The feeble flicker of the candle which Mr. Penrose held in his hand flung hideous shadows, and lighted up the cave dimly enough to make it more eerie and grotesque. The minister had not searched long before he was startled by a cry—a faint and childish cry:
'Arto Jenny Greenteeth?'
'No, my boy; I'm Mr. Penrose.'
'It's noan th' parson aw want; aw want th' fairy.'
And then the chilled and startled boy was carried down to the men below.
In a moment Oliver o' Deaf Martha's seized his boy and wrapped him in the bosom of his coat, hugging and kissing him as though he would impart the warmth of his own life to the little fellow.
'It's noan like thee to mak' a do like that, Oliver,' said Amos, unmoved, 'but thaa shaps (shapes) weel.' And as the child began to cry and struggle, Amos continued, 'Sithee! he's feeard on thee. He's noan used to it. He thinks he ought to hev a lickin' or summat.'
But Oliver continued his caresses.
'Well, Oliver, I've never sin thee takken th' road afore.'
'Nowe, lad! I've never lost a chilt afore.'
1. A WOMAN'S SECRET. 2. HOW DEBORAH HEARD THE NEWS. 3. 'IT'S A LAD!' 4. THE LEAD OF THE LITTLE ONE.
A WOMAN'S SECRET.
On a little mound, within the shadow of her cottage home, and eagerly scanning the moors, stood Miriam Heap. An exultant light gleamed in her dark eyes, and her bosom rose and fell as though swept with tumultuous passion. Ever womanly and beautiful, she was never more a queen than now, as the wind tossed the raven tresses of her crown of hair, and wrapped her dress around the well-proportioned limbs until she looked the draped statue of a classic age. There was that, too, within her breast which filled her with lofty and pardonable pride, for she awaited her husband's return to communicate to him the royal secret of a woman's life.
Miriam and Matthias—or Matt, as she called him—had been seven years married, the only shadow of their home being its childlessness. Matt's prayers and Miriam's tears brought no surcease to this sorrow, while the cruel superstition that dearth of offspring was the curse of heaven and the shame of woman, rested as a perpetual gloom over the otherwise happy home.
Of late, however, the maternal hope had arisen in the heart of Miriam; nor was the hope belied. To her, as to Mary of old, the mystic messengers had whispered, and He with whom are the issues of life had regarded the low estate of His handmaiden. That of which she so long fondly dreamed, and of late scarce dared to think of, was now a fact, and a great and unspeakable joy filled her heart.
As yet her secret was unshared. Even her husband knew it not, for Matt was away in a distant town, fitting up machinery in a newly-erected mill. Miriam felt it to be as hard to carry alone the burden of a great joy as the burden of a great sorrow. But she resolved that none should know before him, whose right it was to first share the secret with herself; so she kept it, and pondered over it in her heart.
And now Matt was on his homeward journey, and Miriam knew that shortly they would be together in their cottage home. How should she meet him, and greet him, and confess to him the joy that overwhelmed her? What would he say? Would he love her more, or would the advent of the little life divide the love hitherto her undisputed own? Was the love of father towards mother a greater and stronger and holier love than that of husband towards wife? or did the birth of children draw off from each what was before a mutual interchange? Thus she teased her throbbing brain, and vexed her mind with questions she knew not how to solve. And yet her woman's instincts told her that the new love would weld together more closely the old, and that she and Matt would become one as never before. And then a dim memory of a sentence in the old creed came upon her—something about 'One in three and three in one, undivided and eternal'—but she knew not what she thought.
As Miriam stood upon the little mound within the shadow of her roof-tree, eagerly scanning the moors for Matt's return, cool airs laden with moorland scents played around her, and masses of snowy cloud sailed along the horizon, flushing beneath the touch of the after-glow with as pure a rose as that mantling on her womanly face. The blue distances overhead were deepening with sundown, and the great sweeps of field and wild were sombre with the hill shadows that began to fall. In a copse near where she stood a little bird was busy with her fledglings, and from a meadow came the plaintive bleat of a late yeaned lamb. From the distant village the wind carried to her ears the cry of an infant—a cry that lingered and echoed and started strange melodies in the awakening soul of Miriam. Child of the hills as she was, never before in all her thirty years of familiarity with them, and freedom among them, had she seen and felt them as now. A great and holy passion was upon her, and she took all in through the medium of its golden haze. The early flowers at her feet glowed like stars of hope and promise—and the bursting buds of the trees told of spring's teeming womb and dew of youth; while the shadow of her cottage gable and chimney—falling as it did across the little mound on which she stood—recalled to her the promises of Him who setteth the solitary in families.
Then she returned to herself, and to her new and opening world of maternity. No longer would she be the butt at which the rude, though good-natured, jests of her neighbours were thrown, for she too would soon hold up her head proudly among the mothers of Rehoboth. And as for Matt's mother—fierce Calvinist that she was, and whom in the past she had so much feared—what cared she for her now? She would cease to be counted by her as one of the uncovenanted, and told that she had broken the line of promise given to the elect. How well she remembered the night when the old woman, taking up the Bible, read out aloud: 'The promise is unto you, and to your children,' afterwards clinching the words by saying: 'Thaa sees, Miriam, thaas noan in it, for thaa's no childer'; and how, when she gently protested, 'But is not the promise to all that are afar off?' the elect sister of the church and daughter of God destroyed her one ray of hope by saying: 'Yi! but only to as mony as the Lord aar God shall co.' And Matt—poor Matt—across whom the cold shadow had so long lain, and which, despite his love of her, would creep now and again like a cloud over the sunshine of his face—Matt, too, would be redeemed from his long disappointment, and renewed in strength as he saw a purpose in his life's struggle, even the welfare of his posterity. These thoughts, and many others, all passed through Miriam's mind as she stood looking out from the mound upon the sundown moors.
Dreaming thus, she was startled by a well-known voice; and looking in the direction whence the sound came, she saw her husband in the distance beckoning her to meet him. Nor did she wait for his further eager gesticulations, but at once, with fleet foot, descended the slope, towards the path by which he was approaching.
Ere she reached him, however, she realized as never before the secret she was about to confide, and for the first time in her life became self-conscious. How could she meet Matt, and how could she tell him? In a moment her naturalness and girlish buoyancy forsook her. She was lost in a distrait mood. Joy changed to shyness; a hot flush, not of shame, but of restraint, mounted her cheeks. Then she slackened her pace, and for a moment wished that Matt could know all apart from her confession.
To how many of nervous temperament is self-consciousness the bane of existence—while the more such try to master it, the more unnatural they become! It separates souls, begetting an aloofness which, misunderstood, ends in mistrust and alienation; and it lies at the root of too many of the fatal misconceptions of life. There are loving hearts that would pay any price to be freed from the self-enfolding toils that wrap them in these crisis hours. And so would Miriam's, for she felt herself shrink within herself at the approach of Matt. She knew nothing of mental moods, never having heard of them, nor being able to account for, or analyze, them. All she knew, poor girl, was that for the first time in her life she was not herself; and as she responded to Matt's warm greeting, she felt she was not the wife, nor the woman, who but a few weeks ago had so affectionately farewelled him, and who but a few moments ago so longed for his return.
Nor was Matt unconscious of this change, for as soon as the greeting was over he said, with tones of anxiety in his voice:
'What ails thee, my lass?'
'Who sez as onnythin' ails me?' was her reply, but in a tone of such forced merriment that Matt only grew the more concerned.
'Who sez as onnything ails thee?' cried he. 'Why those bonny een o' thine—an' they ne'er tell lies.'
Miriam was walking at his side, her dark eyes seeking the ground, and half hidden by the droop of their long-fringed lids. Indeed, she was too timid to flash their open searching light, as was her wont, into the face of Matt; and when she did look at him, as at times she was forced to, the glance was furtive and the gaze unsteady.
'Come, mi bonny brid (bird),' said her husband, betraying in his voice a deeper concern, 'tell thi owd mon what's up wi thee. I've ne'er sin thee look like this afore. Durnd look on th' grass so mich. Lift that little yed (head) o' thine. Thaa's no need to be ashamed o' showing thi face—there's noan so mony at's better lookin'—leastways, I've sin noan.'
Miriam was silent; but as Matt's hand stole gently into hers, and she felt the warm touch of his grasp, her heart leapt, and its pent-up burden found outlet in a sob. Then he stayed his steps, and looked at her, as a traveller would pause and look in wonderment at the sudden portent in the heavens of a coming storm, and putting his hand beneath the little drooping chin, he raised the pretty face to find it wet with tears.
'Nay! nay! lass, thaa knows I conrot ston salt watter, when it's i' a woman's een.
But Miriam's tears fell all the faster
'I'll tell yo' what it is, owd lass. I shornd hev to leave yo' agen,' and his arm stole round the little neck, and he drew the sorrowful face to his own, and kissed it. 'But tell yor owd mon what's up wi yo'.'
'Ne'er mind naa, Matt; I'll—tell—thee—sometime,' sobbed the wife.
'But I mun know naa, lass, or there'll be th' hangments to play. I'll be bun those hens o' Whittam's hes been rootin' up thi flaars in th' garden. By gum! if they hev, I'll oather neck 'em, or mak' him pay for th' lumber (mischief).'
'Nowe, lad—thaa'rt—mista'en—Whittam's hens hesn't bin i' th' garden sin' thaa towd him abaat 'em last.'
'Then mi mother's bin botherin' thee agen,' said Matt, in a sharp tone, as though he had at last hit upon the secret of his wife's sorrow.
'Wrang once more,' replied Miriam, with a light in her eye; and then, looking up at her husband with a gleam, she said: 'I durnd think as thi mother'll bother me mich more, lad.'
'Surely th' old lass isn't deead!' he cried in startled tones. And then, recollecting her treatment of Miriam, he continued: 'But I needn't be afeard o' that, for thaa'll never cry when th' old girl geets to heaven. Will yo', mi bonnie un?'
'Shame on thee, Matt,' said Miriam, smiling through her tears.
'Bless thee for that smile, lass. Thaa looks more thisel naa. There's naught like sunleet when it's in a woman's face.'
'Thaa means eyeleet,' Miriam replied, with a gleam of returning mirth.
'Ony kind o' leet, so long as it's love-leet and joy-leet, and i' thi face, an o'. But thaa's noan towd me what made thee so feeard (timid) when aw met thee.'
By this time Matt and his wife were on the threshold of their cottage, and the woman's heart beat loudly as she felt the moment of her great confession was at hand.
'Naa, come, Merry' (he always called her Merry in the higher moments of their domestic life)—'come, Merry, no secrets, thaa knows. There's naught ever come atween thee and me, and if I can help, naught ever shall.'
Miriam started, and once more wondered if the little life of which Matt as yet knew nothing would come in between herself and him, and divide them; or whether it would bind more closely their already sacred union.
'Naa, Merry,' continued he, seating himself in the rocking-chair, or 'courtin'-cheer,' as he called it, and drawing his blushing, yielding wife gently on his knee, 'naa, Merry, whod is it?'
'Cornd ta guess?' asked she, hiding her face on his shoulder.
'Nowe, lass; aw've tried th' hens and mi mother, and aw'm wrang i' both, an' aw never knew aught bother thee but t' one or t' other on 'em. Where mun I go next?'
Again there were tears in Miriam's eyes, and with one supreme effort she raised her blushing face from Matt's shoulder to his bushy whiskers, and burying her rosy lips near his ear, whispered something, and then sank on his breast.
Then Matt drew his wife so closely to him that she bit her lips to stifle the cry of pain that his love-clasp brought; and when he let her go, it was that he might shower on her a rain of kisses, diviner than had ever been hers in the seven happy years of their past wedded life. For some minutes Matt sat with Miriam in his arms, a spell of sanctity and silence filling the room. In that silence both heard a voice—a little voice—preludious of the music of heaven, and they peopled the light which haloed them with a presence, childlike and pure. Then it was that Miriam looked up at her husband and said:
'Th' promise is not brokken, thaa sees, after all. It's to us and to aar childer, for all thi mother hes said so mich abaat it.'
'Ey, lass,' replied he, his manhood swept by emotion, 'o' sich is the kingdom o' heaven.'
And a gleam of firelight fell on the darkening wall, and lit up an old text which hung there, and they both read, 'Children are a heritage from God.'
* * * * *
'An' arto baan to keep it a secret, lass?' asked Matt, when once the spell of silence was broken.
'Why shouldn't I? There's no one as aw know as has any reet to know but thee.'
'But they'll noan be so long i' findin' it aat. Then they'll never let us alone, lass. There'll be some gammin', aw con tell thee.'
'I'm noan feared on 'em, Matt. I con stan' mi corner if thaa con.'
'Yi, a dozen corners naa, lass. Thaa knows it used to be hard afore when they were all chaffin' me at th' factory, but they can talk their tungs off naa for aught I care. But they'll soon find it aat.'
'None as soon as thaa thinks, Matt. They've gan o'er sperrin (being inquisitive) long sin', and when they're off th' scent they're on th' wrang scent.'
'Aw think aw'd tell mi mother, lass, if aw were thee.'
'Let her find it aat, as t'others 'll hev to do.'
'As thaa likes, lass. But thaa knows hoo's fretted and prayed and worrited hersel a deal abaat thee for mony a year. And if hoo deed afore th' child were born we sud ne'er forgive aarsels.'
'Thaa'rt mebbe reet, lad. It'll pleaz her to know, and hoo's bin a good mother to thee.'
'Yi. Hoo's often said as if hoo could nobbud be a gron'mother hoo'd say, as owd Simeon said, "Mine een hev sin Thy salvation."'
'Well, we'll go up and see her when th' chapel loses to-morrow afternoon. Put that leet aat, lad; it's time we closed aar een.'
Matt turned down the lamp, and shot the bolt of his cottage door, and followed his wife up the worn stone stairway to the room above, to rest and await the dawning of the Sabbath.
That night, as the moonbeams fell in silver shafts through the little window, and filled the chamber with a haze of subdued light, a mystic presence, unseen, yet felt, filled all with its glory. The old four-poster rested like an ark in a holy of holies, its carved posts of oak gleaming as the faces of watching angels on those whose weary limbs were stretched thereon. The rugged features of Matt were touched into grand relief, his hair and beard dark on the snowy pillow and coverlet on which they lay. On his strong, outstretched arm reposed she whom he so dearly, and now so proudly, loved, her large, lustrous eyes looking out into the sheeted night, her pearly teeth gleaming through her half-opened lips, from which came and went her breath in the regular rhythm and sweetness of perfect health. Long after her husband slept she lay awake, silently singing her own 'Magnificat'—not in Mary's words, it is true, but with Mary's music and with Mary's heart.
And then she slept—and the moonbeams paled before the sunrise, and the morning air stirred the foliage of the trees that kissed the window-panes, and little birds came and sang their matins, and another of God's Sabbaths spread its gold and glory over the hills of Rehoboth.
HOW DEBORAH HEARD THE NEWS.
It was Sabbath on the moors—on the moors where it was always Sabbath.
Old Mr. Morell used to say, 'For rest, commend me to these eternal hills;' and so Matt Heap thought as he threw open his chamber casement and looked on their outline in the light of morning glory. Their majesty and strength were so passionless, their repose so undisturbed. How often he wondered to himself why they always slept—not the sleep of weariness, but of strength! And how often, when vexed and jaded, had he shared their calm as his eyes rested on them, or as his feet sought their solitudes! How they stirred the inarticulate poetry of his soul! At times he found himself wondering if their sweeping lines were broken arcs of a circle drawn by an infinite hand; and anon, he would ask if their mighty mounds marked the graves of some primeval age—mounds raised by the gods to the memory of forces long since extinct.
As Matt looked at these hills, there rolled along their summits snowy cumuli—billowy masses swept from distant cloud tempests, and now spending their force in flecks of white across the blue sky-sea that lay peaceful over awakening Rehoboth. A fresh wind travelled from the gates of the sun, laden with upland sweets, and mellowing moment by moment under the directer rays of the eastern king; while the sycamores in the garden, as if in playful protest, bent before the touch of its caress, only to rise and rustle as, for the moment, they escaped the haunting and besetting breeze, lending to their protest the dreamy play of light and shade from newly-unsheathed leaves. There was a strange silence, too—a silence that made mystic music in Matt's heart—a silence all the more profound because of the distant low of oxen, and the strain of an old Puritan hymn sung by a shepherd in a neighbouring field. Matt's heart was full, and, though he knew it not, he was a worshipper—he was in the spirit on the Lord's Day.
'Is that thee, Matt?'
'Yi, lass, for sure it is. Who else should it be, thinksto?'
'Nay, I knew it were noabry but thee; but one mun say summat, thaa knows. What arto doin' at th' winder? Has th' hens getten in th' garden agen?'
'Nowe, not as aw con see.'
'Then what arto lookin' at? Thaa seems fair gloppened (surprised).'
'I'm nobbud lookin' aat a bit. It's a bonny seet and o', I can tell thee.'
'Thaa's sin' it mony a time afore, lad, hesn't ta? Is there aught fresh abaat it?'
'There's summat fresh i' mi een, awm thinkin'. Like as I never seed th' owd country look as grand as it looks this morn.'
'Aw'll hev a look wi' thee, Matt; ther'll happen be summat fresh for my een and o'.'
And so saying, Miriam crept to his side and, in unblushing innocence, took her stand at the window with Matt.
It was a comely picture which the little birds saw as they twittered round and peeped through the ivy-covered casement where Matt and Miriam stood framed in the morning radiance and in the glow of domestic love—she with loose tresses lying over her bare shoulders, all glossy in the sunshine, her head resting on the strong arm of him who owned her, and drew her in gentle pride to his beating heart—the two together looking out in all the joy of purity and all the unconscious ease of nature on the sun-flooded moors.
'It's grand, lass, isn't it?'
'Yi, Matt, it is forsure.'
'And them hills—they're awlus slumberin', am't they? Doesto know, I sometimes wish I could be as quiet as they are. They fret noan; weet or fine, it's all th' same to them.'
'They're a bit o'er quiet for me, lad. I'd rather hev a tree misel. It tosses, thaa knows, and tews i' th' tempest, and laughs i' th' sunleet, and fades i' autumn. It's some like a human bein' is a tree.'
'An' aw sometimes think there's summat very like th' Almeety i' th' hills.'
'Doesto, Matt? Ey, aw shouldn't like to think He were so far off as they are, nor as cowd (cold) noather.'
'Nay, lass, they're noan so far off. Didn't owd David say, "As th' mountens are raand abaat Jerusalem, so th' Lord is raand abaat His people"?'
'He did, forsure. But didn't he say that a good man were like a tree planted by th' brookside?'
'Yi; and he said summat else abaat a good woman, didn't he, Miriam?'
'What were that, lad?'
'Why, didn't th' owd songster say, "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by th' sides o' thine house, and thi childer like olive plants raand abaat thy table"?'
Miriam blushed, and held up her lips to be kissed; nor did Matt faintly warm them with his caresses.
* * * * *
That afternoon, as Matt and Miriam walked down the field-path towards the Rehoboth shrine, they wondered how it was that so much praise was rendered to the Almighty outside the temple made with hands. Both of them had been taught to locate God in a house. Rehoboth chapel was His dwelling-place—not the earth with the fulness thereof, and the heavens with their declaration of glory. Yet, somehow or other, they felt to-day that moor and meadow were sacred—that their feet trod paths as holy as the worn stone aisle of the conventicle below. The airs of spring swept round them, carrying notes from near and far—whisperings from the foliage of trees, and cadences from moors through whose herbage the wind lisped, and from doughs down which it moaned. Early flowers vied with the early greenery carpeting the fields, and the grass was long enough to wave in shadow and intermingle its countless glistening blades. Then their hearts went out towards Nature's harmonies; and tears started to Miriam's eyes as the larks dropped their music from the sunny heights. Now they passed patient oxen looking out at them with quiet, impressive eyes, and the plaintive bleat of the little lambs still brought many a throb to Miriam's heart.
Turning down by the Clough, they met old Enoch and his wife, who, though on their way to Rehoboth, were so full of the spirit of the hour and the season that they thought little of the bald ritual and barn-like sanctuary that was drawing their steps.
'This is grond, lad,' said Enoch to Matt, as he threw back his shoulders to take a deep inspiration of the moorland air. 'It's fair like a breath o' th' Almeety.'
'Yi; it's comin' fro' th' delectable mountains, for sure it is. I'm just thinkin' it's too fine to go inside this afternoon.'
'I'll tell thee what, Matt, I know summat haa that lad Jacob felt when he co'd th' moorside th' gate o' heaven.'
'Ey, bless thee, Enoch, it wernd half as grand as this!' said his wife, as she plucked a spray of may blossom from a hawthorn that overarched the path through the Clough.
'Mebbe not, lass; but aw know summat haa he felt like.'
'Did it ever strike thee, Enoch, that there were a deal o' mountain climbin' among th' owd prophets—like as they fun th' Almeety on th' brow (hill)?'
'Aw never made much o' th' valleys, lad. Them as lived in 'em hes bin a bad lot. We may well thank God as we live up as high as we do. But I'll tell yo' what—we're baan to be lat' for the service. Step it aat, lasses.'
On reaching the chapel yard, they found Amos Entwistle dismissing his catechism class with a few words of warning as to deportment during service, whilst old Joseph was busy cuffing the unruly lads whose predilections for dodging round the gravestones overcame the better instinct of reverence for the day and for the dead. Mr. Penrose was just entering the vestry, and discordant sounds came through the open door as of stringed instruments in process of tuning.
The congregation was soon seated—a hardy race, reared on the hills, and disciplined in the straitest of creeds. Stolid and self-complacent, theirs was an unquestioning faith, accepting, as they did, the Divine decrees as a Mohamedan accepts his fate. What was, was right—all as it should be; elect, or non-elect, according to the fore-knowledge, it was well. Sucking in their theology with their mothers' milk, and cradled in sectarian traditions, they loved justice before mercy, and seldom walked humbly before God. And yet these Rehoboth mothers had borne and reared a strong offspring—children hard, narrow, and self-righteous, yet of firm fibre, and of real grit withal.