The mothers of Rehoboth were famous women, and bore the names of the great Hebrew women of old. Among them were Leahs, Hannahs, Hagars, and Ruths, yet none held priority to Deborah Heap, the mother of Matt. Tall, gaunt, iron-visaged, with crisp, black locks despite her threescore years, she was a prophetess among her kindred—mighty in the Scriptures, and inflexible in faith.
Hers was the illustrious face of that afternoon's congregation—the face a stranger would first fasten his eye on, and on which his eye would remain; a face, too, he would fear. History was writ large on every line, character had set its seal there, and a crown of superb strength reposed on the brow. She guarded the door of her pew, which door she had guarded since her husband's death; and her deep-set eyes, glowing with suppressed passion, never flinched in their gaze at the preacher. Now and again the thin nostrils dilated as Mr. Penrose smote down some of her idols; but for this occasional sign her martyrdom was mute and inexpressive.
No one loved Deborah Heap, although those who knew her measured out to her degrees of respect. She was never known to wrong friend or foe; and yet no kindly words ever fell from her lips, nor did music of sympathy mellow her voice. Her life had been unrelieved by a single deed of charity. She was, in old Mr. Morell's language, 'a negative saint.' Mr. Penrose went further, and called her 'a Calvinistic pagan.' But none of these things moved her.
The grievance of her life was Matt's marriage with an alien; for Miriam was a child of the Established Church. Great, too, was the grievance that no children gladdened the hearth of the unequally yoked couple; and this the old woman looked on as the curse of the Almighty in return for her son's disobedience in sharing his lot with the uncovenanted.
And yet Matt loved his mother; not, however, as he loved his wife, for whom he held a tender, doating love, which the old woman was quick to see, though silent to resent, save when she said that 'Matt were fair soft o'er th' lass.' Nothing so pleased him as to be able to respect his mother's wish without giving pain to his wife. Always loyal to Miriam, he sought to be dutiful to Deborah, and, though the struggle was at times hard and taxing, few succeeded better in holding a true balance of behaviour between the twin relations of son and husband.
Now that Miriam had confided to him her secret, he felt sure his mother's anger would be somewhat turned away when she, too, shared it. And all through the afternoon service he moved restlessly, eager for the hour when, at her own fireside, he could convey the glad news to her ears.
And when that hour came, it came all too soon, for never were Matt and Miriam more confused than when they faced each other at the tea-table of Deborah. A painful repression was on them; ominous silence sealed their lips, and they flushed with a heightened colour. Matt's carefully-prepared speech forsook him—all its prettiness and poetry escaped beyond recall; and Miriam was too womanly to rescue him in his dilemma.
'It's some warm,' said Matt, drawing his handkerchief over his heated brow.
'Aw durnd know as onybody feels it but thisel, lad,' replied his mother; 'but thaa con go i' th' garden, if thaa wants to cool a bit. Tea's happen made thee sweat.'
Then followed another painful pause, in which Miriam unconsciously doubled up a spoon, on seeing which the old woman reminded her that her 'siller wurnd for marlockin' wi' i' that fashion'; and no sooner had she administered this rebuke than Matt overturned his tea.
'Are yo' two reet i' yor yeds (heads)?' snapped his mother. 'Yo' sit theer gawmless-like, one on yo' breakin' th' spoons, and t'other turnin' teacups o'er. What's come o'er yo'?'
'Mother,' stammered Matt, 'Miriam has summat to tell yo'.'
'Nay, lad, thaa may tell it thisel,' said Miriam.
'Happen thaa cornd for shame, Miriam,' stammered Matt.
'I durnd know as I've ought to be ashamed on, but it seems as though thaa hedn't th' pluck.'
The old woman grew impatient, and, supposing she was being fooled, rose from the table, and said:
'I want to know noan o' your secrets. I durnd know as I ever axed for 'em, and if yo' wait till aw do, I shall never know 'em.'
'It's happen one as yo'd like to know, though, mother.'
'It's happen one as you'd like to tell, lad,' replied the old woman, softening.
'Well, if we durnd tell yo', yo'll know soon enough, for it's one o' them secrets as willn't keep—will it, Miriam?' asked Matt of his blushing wife.
But Miriam was silent, and refused to lift her face from the pattern of the plate over which she bent low.
'Dun you think yor too owd to be a gronmother?' asked Matt of his parent, growing in boldness as he warmed to his confession.
'If I were thee I'd ax mysel if I were young enugh to be a faither, that I would,' said the old woman.
'Well, I shall happen be one afore so long, shornd I, Miriam?'
But tears were streaming from Miriam's eyes, and she answered not.
And then there dawned on the mind of Deborah the cause of her son's confusion, and a light stole across the hard lines of her face as she said:
'Is that it, lad? Thank God! thaa'rt in th' covenant after all.'
'IT'S A LAD!'
'Naa, Matt, put on thi coite and fotch th' doctor, an tak' care thaa doesn't let th' grass grow under thi feet.'
Matt needed no second bidding. In a moment he was ready, and before the old nurse turned to re-ascend the chamber stairs the faithful fellow was on his way towards the village below.
It was a morning in November, and as Matt hurried along he passed many on their way to a day's work at the Bridge Factory in the vale. Most of them knew him, dark though it was, and greeting him, guessed the errand on which he raced. Once or twice he collided with those who were slow to get out of his path, and almost overturned old Amos Entwistle into the goit as he pushed past him on the bank that afforded the nearest cut to the village.
'Naa, lad, who arto pushin' agen, and where arto baan i' that hurry? Is th' haase o' fire, or has th' missus taan her bed?'
But Matt was beyond earshot before the old man finished his rude rebuke.
Throughout the whole of his journey Matt's mind was a prey to wild and foreboding passion—passion largely the product of a rude and superstitious mind. Questions painful, if not foolish, haunted and tormented him. Would Miriam die? Had not the seven years of their past life been too happy to last? Did not his mother once reverse the old Hebrew proverb, and warn him that a night of weeping would follow a morning of joy? Would Heaven be avenged on his occasional fits of discontent, and grant him his wish for a child at the cost of the life of his wife? He had heard how the Almighty discounted His gifts; how selfish men had to pay dearly for what they wrenched against the will of God. As he hurried, these thoughts followed on as fleet feet as his own, and moaned their voices in his ears with the sounds of the wind.
It was not long before he reached Dr. Hale's door, where he so lustily rung, that an immediate response was given to his summons, the man of science putting his head through the window and asking in peremptory tones who was there.
'It's me, doctor—me—Matt, yo' know—Matt Heap—th' missis is i' bed, and some bad an' o'. Ne'er mind dressin'. Come naa;' and the half-demented man panted for breath.
'I'll be with you in a minute, Matt. Don't lose your head, that's a good fellow,' and so saying, the doctor withdrew to prepare for the journey.
To Matt, the doctor's minute seemed unending. He shuffled his feet impatiently along the gravel-path, and beat a tattoo with his fingers on the panels of the door, muttering under his breath words betraying an impatient and agitated mind; and when at last the doctor joined him, ready for departure, the strain of suspense was so great that both tears and sobs wrung themselves from his overstrained nature.
The two men walked along in silence, Matt being too timid to question the doctor, the doctor not caring to give Matt the chance of worrying him with foolish fears. Now and again Matt in his impatience tried to lead the doctor into a run, but in this the self-possessed man checked him, knowing that he covered the most ground who walked with an even step. For a little time Matt submitted to the restraint without a murmur. At last, however, his patience failed him, and he said:
'Do yo' never hurry, doctor?'
'And when is those times, doctor?
'They're bad times, Matt—times of emergency, you know.'
'An' durnd yo' think my missis is hevin' a bad time up at th' cottage yonder? I welly think yo' might hurry up a bit, doctor. You'll geet paid for th' job, yo' know. I'm noan afraid o' th' brass.'
Dr. Hale laughed at the importunity of Matt, but knowing the doggedness of the man, somewhat quickened his steps, assuring his impatient companion that all would be well. The doctor soon, however, regretted his easy-going optimism, for on mounting the brow before the cottage, Malachi o' th' Mount's wife met him, and running out towards him, said:
'Hurry up, doctor; thaa'rt wanted badly, I con tell thee. Hoo's hevin' a bad time on't, and no mistak'.'
It did not take the doctor long to see that his patient was in the throes of a crisis, and with a will he set about his trying work, all the more confident because he knew the two women by his side were experienced hands—hands on whom he could rely in hours of emergency such as the one he was now called to face.
As for Matt, he sat in the silent kitchen with his feet on the fender and an unlighted pipe between his teeth. The morning sun had long since crossed the moors, but its light brought no joy to his eyes—with him, all was darkness. He heard overhead the occasional tread of the doctor's foot, and the movements of the ministering women, while occasionally one of them would steal quietly down for something needed by the patient above. Between these breaks—welcome breaks to Matt—the silence became distressful, and the suspense a burden. Why that hush? What was going on in those fearful pauses? Could they not tell him how Miriam was? Was he not her husband, and had he not a right to know of her who was his own? By what right did the women—good and kind though they were—step in between himself and her whom he loved dearer than life? And as these questions pressed him he rose to climb the stairway and claim a share in ministering to the sufferings of the one who was his own. But when he reached the foot he paused, his nerve forsook him, and he trembled like a leaf beneath the breeze. Straining his ear, he listened, but no sound came save a coaxing and encouraging word from the old nurse, or a brief note of instruction from Dr. Hale. Should he call her by her name? Should he address her as Merry, the pet name which he only addressed to her? He opened his lips, but his tongue lay heavy. He could scarcely move it, and as he moved it in his attempt to speak, he heard its sound as it parted from, or came in contact with, the dry walls of his mouth. How long he could have borne this suspense it would be hard to say, had he not heard his mother's voice at the kitchen-door calling.
'Is that yo', mother?' said Matt, dragging himself from the foot of the stairway leading to the chamber above. 'Is that yo'?'
'Ey, Matt, whatever's to do wi' thee; aw never see thee look like that afore. Is Miriam bad, or summat?'
'Nay, mother, they willn't tell me. But go yo' upstairs, and when you've sin for yorsel come daan and tell me.'
Old Deborah took her son's advice, and went upstairs to where the suffering woman lay pale and prostrate. She saw, by a glance at the doctor's face, that he was more than anxious, while the mute signs of the nurse and Malachi o' th' Mount's wife confirmed her worst suspicions.
During his mother's absence there returned on Matt the horrible suspense which her visit had in part enabled him to throw off. Once more he felt the pressure of the silence, and the room in which he sat became haunted with a terrible vacancy—a vacancy cold and shadowy with an unrelieved gloom. There all round him were the familiar household gods; there they stood in their appointed places, but where was the hand that ruled them, the deity that gave grace to that domestic kingdom of the moors? He looked for the shadow of her form as it was wont to fall on the hearth, but there was only a blank. He lent his ear to catch the voice so often raised in merry snatch of song, but not the echo of a sound greeted him. There was a room only, swept and garnished, but empty. Then he thought of the great drama of life which was being enacted in the chamber overhead, and he asked himself why the hours were so many and why they walked with such leaden feet. There was she, his Merry, torn between the forces of life and death, giving of her own that she might perpetuate life, and braving death that life might be its lord—there was she, fighting alone! save for the feeble help of science and the cheer and succour of kindly care, while he, strong man that he was, sat there, powerless, his very impotence mocking him, and his groans and anguish but the climax of his despair.
In a little while Matt's mother came downstairs with hopelessness written on every line of her hard face.
'Thaa'll hev to mak' up thi mind to say good-bye to Miriam, lad. Hoo's noan baan to howd aat much longer. Hoo's abaat done, poor lass!'
'Yo' mornd talk like that to me, mother, or I'll put yo' aat o' the haase. I'm noan baan to say good-bye to Merry yet, by —— I' ammot!'
'Well, lad, thaa's no need to be either unnatural nor blasphemous o'er th' job. What He wills, He wills, thaa knows; and if thaa willn't bend, thaa mun break.'
'But I'll do noather, mother. Miriam's noan baan to dee yet, I con tell yo'.'
Just then Dr. Hale descended from the chamber, and beckoning Matt, whispered in his ear that he deemed it right to tell him that he feared the worst would overtake his wife, and that she would like to see him.
The words came to Matt as the first great blow of his life. True, he had anticipated the worst; but now that it came it was tenfold more severe than his anticipation. Looking at Dr. Hale with eyes too dry for tears, he said:
'Aw connot see her, doctor; aw connot see her. Yo' an' th' women mun do yor best; and don't forget to ax the Almighty to help yo'.' And so saying, Matt went out in despair into the wild November day.
As he rushed into the raw air the wind dashed the rain in his face as though to beat him back within his cottage home. Heedless of these, however, he pressed forward, wild with grief, seeking to lose his own madness amid the whirl and confusion of the storm. Low-lying, angry clouds seethed round the summits of the distant hills, and mists, like shrouds, hung over the drear and leafless cloughs. The moorland grasses lay beaten and colourless—great swamps—reservoirs where lodged the moisture of a long autumn's rain, while the roads were limp and sodden, and heavy for the wayfarer's foot. But Matt was heedless of these; and striking a drift path that crossed the hills, he followed its trend. Along it he walked—nay, raced rather, like a man pursued. And pursued he was; for he sought in vain to escape the passions that preyed on him, tormenting him. Sorrow, anguish, death; these were at his heels; and, worse than all, he thought his dying wife was following him, pleading for his return. Why had he forsaken her? Was it not cowardice—the cowardice and selfishness of his grief? Once or twice a fascination took hold of him, and, despite the terror that awed him, he threw a glance over his shoulder to see if after all he were pursued by the shadow he so much feared to meet. Then the wind began to utter strange sounds—wailings and lamentations—its burden being a wild entreaty to return; and once he thought he heard an infant's cry, and he paused in his despair.
A steep and rugged path lay before him—a path that led under trees whose swaying branches flung off raindrops in blinding showers, and a gleam of light shot shaft-like from a rift in the sombre clouds, and falling across his feet, led him to wonder how heaven could shed a fitful smile on sorrow like his own.
Familiar with the moods of nature, he deemed the hour to be that of noon; nor was he mistaken, for the sky began to clear, and with the light came the return to a calmer mind. He now, for the first time, realized the folly—probably the disaster—of his flight. Might he not be needed at the cottage? Was not his dying wife's prayer for his presence and succour? Had not an unmanly selfishness led him to play the coward? Thoughts like these led him to marshal his resolves, and turn his steps towards the valley below.
No sooner did he do this than a strong self-possession came to him, and swift was his return. The clouds were now parting, and as they chased one another towards the distant horizon, the sun—the watery November sun—shone out in silver upon the great stretch of moorland, and lit it up like a sea of light. Little globes of crystal glistened on the hedgerows, and many-coloured raindrops glowed like jewelled points on the blades of green that lay about his feet. A great arch of sevenfold radiance spanned the valley, based on either side from the twin slopes, and reaching with its crown to the summit of the skies. It was now a passage from Hebrew tradition came to his mind, and he thought of him of whom the poet wrote, 'and as he passed over Penuel, the sun rose upon him.'
And yet his heart failed him as he drew within sight of the cottage door. Was it the house of life, or the house of death?—or was it the house where death and life alike were victorious? He paused, and felt the blood flow back to its central seat, while his bones began to shake, and his heart was poured out like water. But the battle was won, though the struggle was not over, and he pressed on towards his home.
The first thing he saw on entering the door was Dr. Hale seated before a cup of steaming tea, with a great weariness in his eye, who, when he saw Matt, threw a look of rebuke, and in somewhat stern tones said:
'You can go upstairs, Matt, if you like; it's all over.'
With a spasm in his throat Matt was about to ask what it was that was all over; but he was forestalled by old Malachi's wife, who, pushing her head through the staircase doorway into the room, cried:
'It's a lad, Matt, and a fine un an' o'!'
'Hang th' lad!' cried Matt; 'how's Miriam?'
'Come and see for thisel; hoo's bin waitin' for thee this hawve haar.'
With a bound or two Matt cleared the stairway and stood by the side of Miriam.
There she lay, poor girl! limp and exhausted, wrapped in her old gown like a mummy, her long, wet hair, which was scattered in tresses on the pillow, throwing, in its dark frame, her face into still greater pallor.
'Thaa munnot speak, Miriam,' said the nurse in a low tone. 'If thaa moves tha'll dee. Thaa can kiss her, Matt; but that's all.'
Matt kissed his wife, and baptized her with his warm tears.
'And hesn't thaa getten a word for th' child, Matt?' cried old Deborah, who sat with a pulpy form upon her knees before the fire. 'It's thy lad and no mistak'; it favours no one but thisel. Look at its yure (hair), bless it!' And old Deborah stooped over it and wept. Wept—which she had never done since her girlhood's days.
But Matt's eyes were fixed on Miriam, until she, breaking through the orders of the doctor, said:
'Matt, do look at th' baby—it's thine, thaa knows.'
And then Matt looked at the baby. For the first time in his life he looked at a new-born baby, and at a baby to whom he was linked by ties of paternity, and his heart went out towards the little palpitating prophecy of life—so long expected, and perfected at such a price. And he took it in his arms, while old Deborah said:
'Thaa sees, lad, God's not forgetten to be gracious. Th' promise is still to us and aars.'
But Malachi's wife sent Matt downstairs, saying:
'We'n had enugh preachin' and cryin'. Go and ged on wi' thi wark. Th' lass is on th' mend, and hoo'll do gradely weel.'
THE LEAD OF THE LITTLE ONE.
The child grew, and its first conquest was the heart of old Deborah. Before the little life she bowed, and what her Calvinistic creed was weak to do for her, a love for her grandson accomplished. Often and long would she look into his face as he lay in her arms, until at last she, too, caught the child-feature and the child-smile. Rehoboth said old Deborah was renewing her youth; for she had been known to laugh and croon, and more than once purse up her old lips to sing a snatch of nursery rhyme—a thing which in the past she had denounced as tending to 'mak' childer hush't wi' th' songs o' sin.' The hard look died away from her eyes, and her mouth ceased to wear its sealed and drawn expression. The voice, too, became low and mellow, and her religion, instead of being that of the Church, was now that of the home.
One morning, while carrying the child through the meadows, she was overtaken by Amos Entwistle, who stopped her, saying:
'Tak' care, Deborah, tak' care, or the Almeety will overthrow thi idol. Thaa'rt settin' thi affections on things o' th' earth; and He'll punish thee for it.'
'An' do yo' co this babby one o' th' things o' th' earth?' cried the old woman fiercely.
'Yi, forsure I do. What else mut it be?'
'Look yo' here, Amos,' said Deborah, raising the child in her arms so that her rebuker might look into its little features, ruddy and reposeful—features where God's fresh touch still lingered; 'luk yo' here. Han yo' never yerd that childer's angels awlus behold th' face o' their Faither aboon?'
'Eh! Deborah, lass, aw never thought as Mr. Penrose ud turn thi yed and o'. Theer's a fearful few faithful ones laft i' Zion naa-a-days. Bud aw tell thee, th' Lord'll smite thi idol, and it'll be thro' great tribulation that tha'll enter th' Kingdom.'
'I'd ha' yo' to know, Amos Entwistle, that I'm noan in yor catechism class, an' I'm noan baan to be. Yo' can tak' an' praitch yor rubbidge somewheer else. Yo've no occasion to come to me, I con tell yo'.' And then, looking down at the reposeful little face, she kissed it, and continued, 'Did he co thee an idol, my darlin'? Ne'er heed him, owd powse ud he is!'
Before nightfall Deborah's encounter with Amos was the talk of Rehoboth, and it was freely reported that the old woman had become an infidel. Whether the cause of her infidelity resulted from Mr. Penrose's preaching or the advent of her grandchild was a disputed point. Old Amos declared, however, 'that there were a bit o' both in it, but he feared th' chilt more than th' parson.'
Deborah's first great spiritual conflict—as they called it in Rehoboth—was when her grandchild cut its first teeth. The eye of the grandmother had been quick to note a dulness and sleepiness in the baby—strange to a child of so lively and observant a turn—and judging that the incisors were parting the gums, she wore her finger sore with rubbing the swollen integuments.
One morning, as she was continuing these operations, she felt the child stiffen on her knee, and looking, saw the little eyes glide and roll as though drawn by a power foreign to the will. A neighbour, who was hastily called, declared it to be convulsions, and for some hours the little life hung in the balance. It was during these hours that Deborah fought her first and only great fight with Him whom she had been taught to address as 'th' Almeety.'
Ever since her conflict with Amos, she could not free her mind from superstitious thoughts about 'the idol.' Did she love the child overmuch, and would her over-love be punished by the child's death? She had heard and read of this penalty which the Almighty imposed upon those who loved the creature more than the Creator; and she, poor soul, to hinder this, had tried to love both the Giver and the gift. Nay, did she not love the Giver all the more, because she loved the gift so much? This was the question that vexed her. Why had God given her something to love if He did not mean her to love it?—and could she love too much what God had given? Once she put this question to Mr. Penrose, and his reply lived in her mind: 'If there is no limit to God's love of us, why should we fear to love one another too dearly or too well?' But now the test had come. The child was in danger; a shadow fell on the idol. Was it the shadow of an angry God—a God insulted by a divided love?
It was in the torturing hold of questions such as these that she once more met Amos, who, laying the flattering unction to his soul that he could forgive his enemies, struck a stab straight at her heart by saying:
'Well, Deborah, th' chilt's dying, I yer. I towd thee he would. Th' Almeety goes hawves wi' no one. He'll hev all or noan.'
'What! doesto mak' aat He's as selfish as thisel, Amos? Nay, I mun hev a better God nor thee.'
'Well, a' tell thee, He's baan to tak' th' lad, so thaa mut as weel bow to His will. Them as He doesn't bend He breaks.'
'Then He'll hev to break me, Amos; for aw shall never bend, aw con tell thee.' And the old woman stiffened herself, as though in defiance of the Providence which Amos preached.
'Why, Deborah, thaa'rt wur nor a potsherd. Thaa knows thi Bible: "Let the potsherds strive wi' th' potsherds; but woe to th' mon that strives wi' his Maker."'
'Well, I'm baan to wrostle wi' Him, an' if He flings me aw shannot ax yo' to pick me up, noather.'
'Thaa mun say, "Thy will be done," Deborah.'
'Nowe! never to th' deeath o' yon chilt.'
'Doesto say thaa willn't?'
'Yi, Amos, aw do!'
Then Amos turned away, groaning in spirit at the rebellious hearts of the children of men.
The child came safely through the convulsions, however, and as the sharp edges of the little teeth gleamed through the gums, the old woman would rub her finger over them until she felt the smart, and with tearful eye thank God for the gift He had spared, as well as for the gift He had granted—little dreaming that as she nursed her treasure she nursed also her mentor—one who, though in the feebleness of infancy, was drawing her back to a long-lost childhood, and bidding return to her the days of youth.
The old grandmother now became the light of Matt and Miriam's home. Instead of paying the occasional visit at her house, she was ever at theirs—indeed, she could not rest away from the child. Miriam long since had ceased to fear her. 'The little un,' as she used to tell Matt, 'had drawed th' owd woman's teeth;' to which Matt used to reply, 'Naa, lass, the teeth's there, but hoo's gi'en o'er bitin'.'
Not infrequently, both son and daughter would rally her on the many indulgences she granted the child, and Matt often told her that what 'he used to ged licked for, th' chilt geet kissed for.' Mr. Penrose, too, ventured to discuss theology with Matt in the old woman's presence, and she no longer eyed him with angry fire as he discoursed from the Rehoboth pulpit on the larger hope. As for Amos Entwistle, he continued to prophesy the death of the child, and when it still lived and throve, in spite of his prediction, he contented himself by saying that 'Deborah hed turned the Owd Testament blessin' into a curse.'
* * * * *
On Sunday afternoons Matt and Miriam would leave the boy at his grandmother's while they went to the service at Rehoboth. Then it was the old woman took down the family Bible, and showed to him the plates representative of the marvels of old. These began to work on the child's imagination; and once, when the book lay open at Revelation, he fastened his little eyes on a hideous representation of the bottomless pit.
'What's that, gronny?' said he, pointing to the picture.
'That, mi lad, is th' hoile where all th' bad fo'k go.'
'Who dug it? Did owd Joseph, gronny?'
'Nowe, lad; owd Joseph nobbud digs hoiles for fo'k's bodies. That hoile is fer their souls.'
'What's them, gronny?'
'Nay, lad! A connot tell thee reet—but it's summat abaat us as we carry wi' us—summat, thaa knows, that never dees.'
'And why do they put it in a hoile, gronny? Is it to mak' it better?'
'Nay, lad; they put it i' th' hoile because it's noan good.'
'Then it's summat like mi dad when I'm naughty, an' he says he'll put me i' th' cellar hoile.'
'But he never does—does he, lad?' asked the grandmother anxiously.
'Nowe, gronny. He nobbud sez he will.' And then, after a pause, he continued, 'But, gronny, if God sez He'll put 'em in He'll do as He sez—willn't He?'
'Yi, lad; He will, forsure.'
'An' haa long does He keep 'em in when He gets 'em theer? Till to-morn t'neet?'
'Longer nor Kesmas?'
'Yi, lad. But ne'er heed. Here's summat to eat. Sithee, I baked thee a pasty.'
'I noan want th' pasty, gronny. I want to yer abaat th' hoile. Haa long does God keep bad fo'k in it?'
'Ey, lad. I wish thaa'd hooisht! What doesto want botherin' thi little yed wi' such like talk?'
'Haa long does He keep 'em i' th' hoile?' persistently asked the boy.
'Well, if thaa mun know, He keeps 'em in for ever.'
'An' haa long's that, gronny? Is it as long as thee?'
'As long as me, lad! Whatever doesto mean?'
'I mean is forever as long as thaa'rt owd? Haa owd arto, gronny?'
'I'm sixty-five, lad.'
'Well, does He keep 'em i' the hoile sixty-five years?'
'Yi, lad. He does, forsure. But thi faither never puts thee i' th' cellar hoile when thaa's naughty, does he?'
'Nowe. I tell thee he nobbud sez he will,'
'By Guy, lad! If ever he puts thee i' th' cellar hoile—whether thaa'rt naughty or not—thaa mun tell me, and I'll lug his yed for him.' And the old woman became indignant in her mien.
'But if God puts fo'k i' th' hoile, why shuldn't mi faither put me i' th' hoile? It's reet to do as God does—isn't it, gronny?'
'Whatever wilto ax me next, lad?' cried the worn-out and perplexed old woman. 'Come, shut up th' Bible, and eat thi pasty.'
But the little fellow's appetite was gone, and as he fell asleep on the settle his slumber was fitful, for dark dreams disturbed him—he had felt the first awful shadow of a dogmatic faith.
Nor was old Deborah less disturbed. Sitting by the fire, with one eye on the child and the other on her Bible, the gloomy shadows of a shortening day creeping around her, she, too, with her mind's eye, saw the regions of woe—the flaming deeps where hope comes never. What if that were her grandchild's doom!—her grandchild, whose father she would smite if even for a moment he shut his little son up in the cellar of his home! How her heart loathed the passion, the cruelty, that would wreak such an act! And yet He whom she called God had reserved blackness and darkness for ever for the disobedient and rebellious.
Horror took hold of her, and the sweat moistened her brow. The firelight played on the curls of the sleeping boy, and she started as she thought of that other fire that was never quenched, and she rose and shook her clenched hand at heaven as the possibility of the singeing of a single hair of the child passed through her mind.
For a time Deborah stood alone, without a God, the faith in which she had been trained, and in which she had sheltered in righteous security, shrinking into space until she found herself in the void of a darkness more terrible than that of the pit which she had been speaking of to the child. She saw how that hitherto she had only believed she believed, and that now, when her soul was touched in its nether deeps, she had never believed at all in the creed which she had fought for and upheld with such bitterness. There, in the twilight of that Sabbath evening, she uttered what, to Rehoboth, would have been a terrible renunciation, just as a lurid beam shot its level fire across the moors, and as the sun went down, leaving her in the horror of a great darkness.
And then, in the gathering gloom, was heard the voice of the child calling:
'Well, mi lad, what is't?'
'Gronny, I don't believe i' th' hoile.'
'Bless thee, my darlin'—no more do I.'
'I durnd think as God ud send me where yo' an' mi dad wouldn't let me go—would He, gronny?'
'Nowe, lad, He wouldn't, forsure.'
And then, lighting the lamp, and turning with the old superstition to her Bible to see what the law and the testimony had to say as she opened it at random, her eyes fell on the words: 'If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him.'
That afternoon, when Matt and Miriam returned from Rehoboth, they found old Deborah less than the little child she watched over; for she, too, had not only become as a little child, but, as she said, least among the little ones.
HOW MALACHI O' TH' MOUNT WON HIS WIFE.
'So yo' want to know haa aw geet hand o' my missus, dun yo', Mr. Penrose? Well, if hoo'll nobbud be quiet while aw'm abaat it, aw'll tell yo'.'
And so saying, Malachi drew his chair to the fire, and blew a cloud of tobacco-smoke towards the rows of oat-cakes that hung on the brade fleygh over his head.
'It's forty year sin' I furst wore shoe-leather i' Rehoboth, Mr. Penrose.'
'Nay, lad, it's noan forty year whol Candlemas. It were February, thaa knows, when thaa come; and it's nobbud October yet. An' thaa didn't wear shoon noather, thaa wore clogs—clogs as big as boats, Mr. Penrose; an' they co'd him Clitter-clatter for a nickname. Hasto forgetten, Malachi?'
'Aw wish thaa wouldn't be so plaguey partic'lar, lass, an' let a felley get on wi' his tale,' said Malachi to his wife. And then, turning to Mr. Penrose, he continued: 'Aw were tryin' to say as it were forty year sin' I come to Rehoboth.'
'Forty year come Candlemas, Malachi.'
'Yi, forty year come Candlemas. Aw were bred and born aboon Padiham, an' aw come to th' Brig Factory as cut-looker, an' never laft th' job till aw went to weighin' coil on th' pit bonk.'
'All but that eighteen month thaa were away i' Yorksur, when th' cotton panic were on, thaa knows, lad.'
'Yi, lass, aw know. Naa let me ged on wi' mi tale. Well, as aw were sayin', Mr. Penrose, I come in these parts as cut-looker at th' Brig Factory, and th' fust lass as brought her piece to me were Betty yonder.'
'Thaa'rt wrang agen, Malachi. Th' fust lass as brought her piece to thee were Julia Smith. Aw remember as haa hoo went in afore me, as though it were nobbud yester morn.'
'Well, never mind, thaa wur t' fust I seed, an' that's near enugh, isn't it, Mr. Penrose?'
The minister nodded, and smiled at old Betty, who so jealously followed the story of her husband's early life.
'Well, when hoo put her piece daan afore me, I couldn't tak' mi een off her. Aw were fair gloppent (taken by surprise), an' aw did naught but ston' an' stare at her.
'"What arto starin' at?" hoo said, flushin' up to her yure (hair).
'"At yo'," I said, as gawmless as a nicked goose.
'"Then thaa'd better use thi een for what th'art paid for, an' look at them pieces i'stead o' lookin' at lasses' faces."
'And hoo walked aat o' th' warehaase like a queaan. An' dun yo' remember, Betty, haa th' young gaffer laffed at me, an' said as aw could noan play wi' th' likes o' yo'?'
'Yi, aw remember, Malachi; but ged on wi' yor tale. Mr. Penrose here is fair plagued.'
'Indeed, I'm not. Go on, Malachi. Take your own time, and tell your story in your own fashion.'
'Aw will, Mr. Penrose, if hoo'll nobbud let me. Betty were a four-loom weyver; and i' those days there wernd so many lasses as could tackle th' job. An' th' few that could were awlus piked up pratty quick for wives—for them as married 'em had no need to work theirsels, and had lots o' time on their hands for laking (playing) and such-like. Bud that wernd th' reason aw made up to Betty. It wernd th' looms that fetched me; it were her een. There's some breetness in 'em yet; bud yo' should ha' sin 'em forty years sin'! They leeted up her bonnie cheeks like dewdrops i' roses; an' noabry 'at looked i' them could see ought wrang i' 'em.'
'Malachi, if thaa doesn't hold thi tung I'll smoor (smother) thee wi' this stockin'. Thaa'rt as soft as when thaa were a lad;' and the old woman held up the article of clothing that she was darning in her hand, and shook it in a threatening manner at her eloquent spouse.
'In a bit, Mr. Penrose, I geet as I couldn't for shame to look into Betty's een at all; an' then aw took to blushin' every time hoo come i' th' warehouse wi' her pieces, an' when hoo spoke, aw trembled all o'er like a barrow full o' size. One day hoo'd a float in her piece, and aw couldn't find it i' mi heart to bate her. And when th' manager fun it aat, he said if I'd gone soft o'er Betty, it were no reason why aw should go soft o'er mi wark, and he towd me to do mi courtin' i' th' fields and not i' th' factory. But it were yeasier said nor done, aw can tell yo', for Betty were a shy un, and bided a deal o' gettin' at.
'There used to be a dur (door) leadin' aat o' th' owd warehaase into th' weyvin' shed, an' one day aw get a gimlik an' bored a hoile so as aw could peep thro' an' see Betty at her wark. It wernd so often as aw'd a chance, bud whenever th' manager's back were turned, an' aw were alone, I were noan slow to tak' my chance. It were wheer I could just see Betty at her looms. Bless thee, lass, aw think aw can see thee naa, bendin' o'er thi looms wi' a neck as praad as a swan's, thi fingers almost as nimble as th' shuttle, an' that voice o' thine treblin' like a brid!'
'Do ged on wi' yor tale, Malachi; what does Mr. Penrose want to know abaat lasses o' forty year sin'? He's geddin' one o' his own—and that's enough for him, aw'm sure.'
'Aw nobbud want him to know that there were bonnie lasses i' aar time as well as i' his—that were all, Betty.'
'Well, ged on wi' yo', an' durnd be so long abaat it, Malachi.'
'One day, Mr. Penrose, as aw were peepin' through th' hoile i' th' warehaase dur at Betty, aw could see that there were summat wrong wi' one o' th' warps, for hoo were reachin' and sweatin' o'er th' loom, an' th' tackler were stannin' at her side, an' a deal too near and o' for my likin', aw con tell yo'.
'Just as hoo were stretchin' her arm, and bendin' her shoulders to get owd o' th' ends, the tackler up wi' his an' clips her raand th' waist.
'Well, hoo were up like a flesh o' greased leetnin', and fetched him a smack o'er th' face as made him turn the colour o' taller candles. Yo' remember that, Betty, durnd yo'?
'Yi! aw remember that, Malachi,' said the old woman, proudly recalling the days of her youthful prowess; 'there were no man 'at ever insulted me twice.'
'When aw see th' tackler put his arm raand Betty, I were through th' dur and down th' alley wi' a hop, skip and jump, and hed him on th' floor before yo' could caant twice two. We rowl'd o'er together, for he were a bigger mon nor me, an' I geet my yed jowled agen th' frame o' th' loom. But I were no white-plucked un, an' aw made for him as if aw meant it. He were one too mony, however, for he up wi' his screw-key and laid mi yed open, an' I've carried this mark ever sin'.' And the old man pointed to a scar, long since healed, in his forehead. 'Then they poo'd us apart, an' said we mutn't feight among th' machinery, so we geet up an' agreed to feight it aat i' th' Far Holme meadow that neet, an' we did. We fought for over hawve an haar, summat like fifteen raands, punsin' and o' (kicking with clogs). As aw told yo', he were th' bigger mon; bud then aw hed a bit o' science o' mi side, an' I were feytin' for th' lass aw luved, an' when he come up for th' fifteenth time, I let drive atween his een, and he never seed dayleet for a fortnit.'
'An' thaa were some stiff when it were all o'er, Malachi,' said Betty.
'Yo're reet, lass! Aw limped for more nor a week, but aw geet thee, an' aw meant it, if aw'd had to feight fifteen raands more—'
'So, like the knights of olden time, Malachi, you fought for your fair lady and won her.'
'Nay, Mr. Penrose, you morn'd think he nobbud won me wi' a feight; he'd summat else to do for me beside that. Aw noan put mysel up for a boxin' match, aw con tell yo'.'
'Nowe, Mr. Penrose, th' feight were nobbud th' start like. It were sometime afore th' job were settled. Yo' see, I were a shy sort o' a chap and back'ard like at comin' for'ard. One day, haaever, Molly o' th' Long Shay come up to me when th' factory were losin', and hoo said, "Malachi, arto baan to let Amos Entwistle wed that lass o' Cronshaw's? for if thaa art thaa'rt a foo' (fool). Thaa'rt fond o' her, and hoo's fond o' thee. If hoo's too praad to ax thee to be her husband hoo's noan too praad to say 'Yea' if tha'll nobbud ax her to be thi wife."
'Molly o' Long Shay were noan sich a beauty, bud aw felt as aw could aw liked to ha' kuss'd her that day, an' no mistak'.
'"Ey, Molly," aw said, "if aw thought thaa spok' truth, aw'd see Betty to-neet."
'"See her, mon," hoo said, "an' get th' job sattled."
'Well, yo' mun know, Mr. Penrose, that Betty's faither were fond o' rootin' i' plants, an' as aw'd a turn that way mysel I thought aw'd just walk up as far as his haase, and buy a twothree, and try and hev a word wi' Betty i' th' bargain. So aw weshed mysel, and donned mi Sunday best, and went up.
'When aw geet theer, Betty were i' th' garden by hersel, as her faither were gone to a deacons' meetin' at Rehoboth.
'"What arto doin' up here, Malachi?" hoo sez.
'"I've nobbud come up to see thi faither abaat some flaars," aw stuttered.
'"He'll noan be up for an hour or two yet," hoo said. "He's gone to Rehoboth. Is it a flaar as aw con get for thee?"
'"Yi!" aw sez, "yo' con get me th' flaar aw want."
'"Which is it?" said hoo. "Is it one o' those lilies mi faither geet fro' th' hall?"
'"Nowe," aw said; "it didn't come fro' th' hall; it awlus grow'd here."
'"Well, if thaa'll tell me which it is, thaa shall hev it; where abaats is it?"
'Mr. Penrose, did yo' ever try an' shap' your mouth to tell a lass as yo' luved hir?'
Mr. Penrose remained silent.
'Well, if ever yo' did, then yo' know haa aw felt when hoo axed me where th' flaar were as aw wanted. Aw couldn't for shame to tell her. Then hoo turned on me an' said:
'"If thaa'll tell me where the flaar is I'll give it thee, but don't stand grinnin' theer."
'Then aw plucked up like. Aw said: "Aw think thaa knows where th' flaar is, Betty. An' as thaa said I mun hev it, I'll tak' it." And I gave her a kuss on th' cheek 'at were nearest to me.'
'And did she strike you as she struck the tackler?' asked Mr. Penrose.
'Did hoo strike me—? Nowe; hoo turned t'other cheek and geet a better and longer kuss nor th' first.'
'So that is how Malachi won you, is it, Betty? The story is worth a chapter in a novel.'
'Nay, aw wernd so easily won as that, Mr. Penrose. There were summat else i' th' way, and aw welly thought once he'd ha' lost me.'
'And what was that?'
'Well, yo' see,' said Malachi, 'Betty were a dipper, an' I were a sprinkler. And when I axed th' old mon for Betty he said as dippin' and sprinklin' wouldn't piece up. And then hoo were a Calvin an' I were a Methody, and that were wur and wur.
'Th' owd mon stood to his gun, and wouldn't say "Yez" till I gave in; an' aw stood to mi gun, and to Betty an' o', an' towd her faither 'at aw were as good as ony on 'em. One day th' lass come to me wi' tears in her een, and said:
'"Malachi, didsto ever read Solomon's Song?"
'"Yi, forsure aw did. Why doesto ax me that question?"
'"Doesto remember th' seventh verse o' th' last chapter?" hoo said.
'"Aw cannot say as 'ow I do. What is it?"
'"It's that," said hoo, puttin' her little Bible i' my hand.
'And when I tuk it aw read, "Many waters cannot quench love."
'"Well," aw sez, "what abaat that?"
'"Why," hoo cried, "thaa'rt lettin' Rehoboth waters quench thine."
'"Haa doesto mean?" aw axed.
'"Why, thaa willn't be dipped for me."'
Here Mr. Penrose broke into a hearty laugh, and complimented Betty, telling her she was the sort of woman to make 'converts to the cause.' Then old Malachi put on his wisest look, and continued:
'Mr. Penrose, aw mut as weel tell yo' afore yo' get wed, that it's no use feightin' agen a woman. They're like Bill o' th' Goit's donkey, they'll goa their own gate, an' th' more yo' bother wi' 'em th' wur they are. A mon's wife mak's him. Hoo shap's everythin' for him, his clooas, his gate, and his religion an' o'. Talk abaat clay i' th' honds o' th' potter, why it's naught to a man i' th' honds o' his missus.'
'So you were baptized for the love of Betty, were you, Malachi?'
'Yi; bud I were no hypocrite abaat it, for aw told her aw should never be a Calvin, an' aw never have bin. Doesto remember what thaa said, Betty, when aw tell'd thee aw should never be a Calvin?'
'Nay, aw forget, lad; it's so long sin'.'
'Bud aw haven't forgetten. Thaa said, "Never mind, thaa's no need to tell mi faither that; thaa can keep it to thisel." Aw'll tell yo' what, Mr. Penrose, a woman's as deep as th' Longridge pit shaft.'
'Well, thaa's never rued o'er joinin' Rehoboth, Malachi.'
'I've never rued o'er weddin' thee, lass; an' aw think if thaa'd gone to a wur place nor Rehoboth aw should ha' followed thee. Leastways, I shouldn't ha' liked thee to 'a' tempted me.'
'But thaa's not tell'd him all, Malachi.'
'Nowe, lass, aw hevn't, but aw will. Have yo' seen yon rose-tree that grows under the winder—that tree that is welly full durin' th' season?'
The minister nodded.
'Well, when aw fetched her fro' her faither, hoo said aw mun tak a flaar an' o', as aw coomd for one on th' neet as aw geet her. So aw took one o' th' owd felley's rose-trees, an' planted it under aar winder theer, and theer it's stood for nigh on forty year, come blow, come snow, come sun, come shade, an' the roses are still as fresh an' sweet as ever. An' so art thaa, owd lass,' and Malachi got up and kissed into bloom the faded, yet healthy, cheek of Betty, his conquest of whom he had just narrated to Mr. Penrose, and whom he still so dearly loved.
MR. PENROSE BRINGS HOME A BRIDE.
When Rehoboth heard of the coming marriage of Mr. Penrose many were its speculations on the woman he was taking for wife. Amos Entwistle said 'he'd be bun for't that th' lass wouldn't be baat brass noather in her pocket nor in her face'; to which old Enoch's wife replied that 'hoo'd need both i' Rehoboth, where they fed th' parson on scaplins (stone chippings), and teed his tung with deacons' resolutions.'
Milly wondered 'if th' lass 'ud be pratty,' and 'what colour her een 'ud be'; while old Joseph declared 'hoo'd be mighty high-minded, but that hoo were comin' to wheer hoo'd be takken daan a bit.'
The most philosophic judgment was that of Malachi o' th' Mount, who, turning on Amos one evening in the chapel yard, said:
'Look here, owd lad; it were yor pleasure to stop single; it were mine to get wed. We both on us pleeased aarsels; let th' parson do th' same. He'll noan ax thee to live wi' th' lass; he'll live wi' her hissel. Then let him pleease hissel.'
One or two of the women vexed themselves as to whether she would be a Martha or a Mary; and when Deborah Heap was appealed to she said, 'Let's hope hoo'll be a bit o' both.'
Old Joseph, overhearing this last remark, injected his venom by hinting that 'no doubt hoo'd be a Mary, but that th' maister at whose feet hoo'd sit would be a different sort to Him as went to Bethany.'
Then it was Abraham Lord's wife suggested that Joseph should 'find th' parson a pair o' wings, so as he might mate hissel wi' a angel, for she was sure naught less 'ud suit Rehoboth fo'k.' And Oliver o' Deaf Martha's wife climaxed the discussion by saying, 'if that were bein' a parson's wife, hoo'd rather be where hoo were, although their Oliver did tak' drink and ooine (punish) her.'
'I'll tell thee what, lad,' said Mrs. Lord to her husband on the night of the chapel yard conclave—'I'll tell thee what. I feel fair grieved for that lass th' parson's wed. They'n mad' up their minds they'll never tak' to her; and there's no changin' th' mind o' Rehoboth.'
'But we'll tak' to her, mother,' cried Milly, crossing, with her crutch, from the window at which she had been sitting, to take her place at her mother's side. 'We'll tak' to her; aw con luv onybody 'at Mr. Penrose luves.'
'Bless thee, lass! aw beleeve thaa con. An' we will tak' to her, as thaa sez. Fancy thee leavin' me to get wed, an' livin' i' a strange place, and all th' fo'k set agen thee afore they see thee! It mak's mi heart fair wark (ache).'
'But thaa knows, misses, hoo'll happen not tak' to thee an' Milly. Hoo'll happen be a bit aboon yo'—high-minded like.'
'Hoo'll tak' to Milly if hoo's takken to Mr. Penrose, lad; thaa'll see if hoo doesn't. Didn't he read a bit aat o' one o' her letters where hoo said hoo were fain longin' to see Milly becose hoo liked th' flaars an' stars an' sich like?'
'Yi; he did forsure.'
'Aw know hoo'll tak' to me, mother. An' if hoo doesn't, I'll mak' her, that's all.'
'Aw don't somehaa think 'at Mr. Penrose ud wed a praad woman, Abram. Do yo'?'
'I durnd think he would, lass. Bud then th' best o' men mak' mistakes o'er th' women they wed.'
'Yi; they say luv's gawmless; but aw welly think Mr. Penrose knows what he's abaat.'
'Th' Lord help him, if he doesn't! They say a mon hes to ax his wife if he's to live.'
'Aw yerd Amos say t'other day, faither, that a chap hed to live thirty year wi' a woman afore he know'd he were wed.'
'Did th' owd powse say that, lass?' cried Milly's mother. 'I nobbud wish I'd yerd him. He's lived more nor thirty year baat one, an' a bonny speciment he is. Bud it's a gradely job for th' woman 'at missed him. He were welly weddin' Malachi o' th' Mount's wife once over.'
'Yi; hoo'd a lucky miss, an' no mistak'. But happen hoo'd ha' snapped him.'
'Never, lad. There's some felleys that no woman can shap', and Amos is one o' em.'
'Aw towd him, faither, that yo' know'd yo' were wed, and yo'd nobbud been agate seventeen year.'
'An' what did he say to that, Milly?' asked her mother.
'Why, he towd me aw know'd too mich.'
And at this both Abraham and his wife joined in hearty laughter.
'When does Penrose bring his wife to Rehoboth, missis?'
'Saturday neet. We's see her for th' fust time o' Sunday mornin'. Hoo's baan to sit wi' Dr. Hale.'
'There'll be some een on her, aw bet,' said Abraham.
'Wernd there, just. Poor lass! I could fair cry for her when aw think abaat it. An' away fro' her mother, an' o'.'
'But then hoo'll hev her husband, wernd hoo?' asked Milly.
'For sure hoo will; bud he'll be i' th' pulpit, and not agen her to keep her fro' bein' 'onely like.'
'Ey, mother, aw sometimes think it must be a grand thing for a woman to see her felley in a pulpit.'
'Don't thee go soft on parsons, lass,' said her father.
* * * * *
If there had been no other welcome to the minister's wife on her Sabbath advent at Rehoboth, there was the welcome of Nature—the welcome born of the bridal hour of morn with moorland, when the awakening day bends over, and clasps with its glory the underlying and far-reaching hills. From out a cloudless sky—save where wreaths of vapour fringed the rounding blue—the sun put forth his golden arms towards the heathery sweeps that lay with their rounded bosoms greedy for his embrace, and gave himself in wantonness to his bride, kissing her fair face into blushing loveliness, and calling forth from the womb of the morning a myriad forms of life. Earth lay breathless in the clasp of heaven—they twain were one, perfect in union, and in spirit undivided. Rehoboth was seductive with a sweetness known only to the nuptials of Nature in a morning of sunshine on the moors.
It wanted two hours before service, and the young wife was wandering among the flowers of the garden of the manse that was to be her home, her spouse seated at his study window intent on the manuscript of his morning's discourse. Intent? Nay, for his eye often wandered from the underscored pages to the girl-wife who glided with merry heart and lithe footstep from flower to flower, her skirts wet as she swept the dew-jewels that glistened on the lawn and borders of the gay parterres. She, poor girl! supposing herself unwatched, drank deeply of the morning gladness, her joyous step now and again falling into the rhythmic movements of a dance. She even found herself humming airs that were not sacred—airs forbidden even on weekdays in the puritanic precincts of Rehoboth—airs she had learned in the distant city once her home. Was she not happy? and does not happiness voice itself in song? And is not the song of the happy always sacred—and sacred even on the most sacred of days?
Alas! alas! little did the young wife know the puritanic mood of Rehoboth. Behind the privet hedge fencing off the paradise, on this good Sunday morning, lurked Amos Entwistle.
The old man, hearing the voice on his way to Sunday-school, stopped, and, peeping through the fence, saw what confirmed his bitterest prejudices against the woman whom Mr. Penrose had married; and before a half-hour was passed every teacher and scholar in Rehoboth school was told that 'th' parson bed wed a doncin' lass fro' a theyater.'
Standing in his desk before the first hymn was announced, Amos cried in loud tones:
'Aw seed her mysel donce i' th' garden, on God's good Sunday morn. I seed her donce like that brazened (impudent) wench did afore King Herod, him up i' his study-winder skennin' at her when he ought to ha' bin sayin' o' his prayers. An' aw yerd her sing some mak' o' stuff abaat luv, and sich like rubbidge. What sort o' a wife dun yo' co that? G' me a lass as can strike up Hepzibah, and mak' a prayer. It's all o' a piece—short weight i' doctrin', and falderdals i' wives.'
And as Amos finished the delivery of this sentiment, and held the open hymn-book in his hand, he reached over to administer a blow on the ears of a child who was peeping through the window at a little bird trilling joyously on the deep-splayed sill outside.
During the pause between the close of Sunday-school and the commencement of morning service, congregation and scholars darkened the chapel yard in gossiping groups, each on the tiptoe of curiosity to catch a first glimpse of the bride of their pastor. All eyes were turned towards the crown of the hill which led up from the manse, and on which Mr. Penrose and his wife would first be seen. More than once an approaching couple were mistaken for them, and more than once disappointment darkened the faces of the waiting folk. With some of the older members weariness overcame curiosity, and they entered the doors, through which came the sound of instruments in process of tuning, while Amos Entwistle, cuffing and driving the younger scholars into the chapel, upbraided the elder ones by asking them 'if th' parson were the only chap as hed ever getten wed?'
At last the well-known form of the preacher was silhouetted on the brow of the hill, and by his side the wife whose advent had created such a prejudice and distaste, unknown though she was, among these moorland folks. The murmur of announcement ran round, and within, as well as without, all knew 'th' parson's wife wor amang 'em.'
As the couple entered the chapel yard the people made way, ungraciously somewhat, and shot the young bride through and through with cruel stares. Mr. Penrose greeted his congregation with a succession of nervous nods, jerky and strained, his wife keeping her eyes fixed on the gravestones over which she was led to the chapel doors.
'Sithee! hoo's getten her yers pierced,' said a loudly-dressed girl, a weaver at the factory in the vale.
'Yi; an' hoo wears droppers an' o',' replied the friend whom she addressed.
'Ey! haa hoo does pinch,' critically remarked Libby Eastwood, the dressmaker of the village.
'Nay, Libby; yon's a natural sized waist—hoo's nobbud small made, thaa sees,' said the woman to whom the remark had been made.
'Well, aw'd ha' donned a bonnet on a Sunday.'
'Yi; so would I. An' a married woman an' o'—aw think hoo might be daycent.'
'Aw'll tell thee what, Mary Ann—there's a deal o' mak' up i' that yure (hair), or aw'm mista'en.'
'Yo're reet, lass; there is, an' no mistak'.'
'Can hoo play th' pianer, thinksto?'
'Can hoo dust one?'
'Nowe, aw'll warnd hoo cornd.'
'Hoo thinks hersel' aboon porritch, does yon lot.'
'Dun yo' think hoo can mak' porritch?' sneered Amos to the woman who passed the unkindly remark.
'Nowe, Amos, aw durnd. Yon lass'll cost Penrose some brass. Yo'll see if hoo doesnd.'
While this criticism was going on in the chapel yard, Mrs. Penrose was seated in the pew of Dr. Hale, somewhat bewildered and not a little overstrained. Here, too, poor woman, she was unconsciously giving offence, for on entering she had knelt down in prayer, Old Clogs declaring that 'hoo were on her knees three minutes and a hawve, by th' chapel clock;' while at the conclusion of the service, after the congregation were on their feet in noisy exit, her devotional attitude led others to brand her both as a 'ritual' and a 'papist.'
During the afternoon there was a repetition of the morning's ordeal, and at the service the young wife was again the one on whom all eyes were fixed, and of whom all tongues whispered. Never before had she been so called to suffer. If the keen glances of the congregation had been softened by the slightest sympathy she could better have stood the glare of curiosity; but no such ray of sympathy was there blended with the looks. Hard, cold, and critical—such was the language of every eye. Rehoboth hated what it called 'foreigners'—those who had been born and brought up in districts distant from its own. All strange places were Nazareths, and all strangers were Nazarenes, and the cry was, 'Can any good thing come out therefrom?' And to this question the answer was ever negative. Outside Rehoboth dwelt the alien. In course of years the prejudice towards the intruder submitted itself to the force of custom, and less suspicious became the looks, and less harsh the tongues. Even then, however, the old Rehobothite remained a Hebrew of Hebrews; while the others, at the best, were but proselytes of the gate. It was the first brunt of this storm of suspicion from which the minister's wife was suffering, and she was powerless to stay it, or even allay its stress; nor could her husband come to her deliverance. Milly, however, like the good angel that she was, proved her friend in need, and all unconsciously, and yet effectively, turned the tide of cruel and inquisitorial scorn first of all into wonder and then into delight.
And it came about in this manner. As the congregation were leaving the chapel at the close of the afternoon service, and poor Mrs. Penrose, sorely bewildered, was jostled by the staring throng, Milly pushed her way with her crutch to the blushing woman, and, handing her a bunch of flowers, said:
'See yo', Mrs. Penrose, here's a posy for yo'. Yo're maister sez as yo' like flaars, an' aw've grow'd these i' my own garden. Aw should ha' brought 'em this mornin', but aw couldn't ged aat; an' mi mother wouldn't bring 'em for me, for hoo said aw mun bring 'em mysel.'
Mrs. Penrose could not translate the vernacular in which the child spoke, but she could, and did, translate the gift; and tears came into her eyes as she reached out her hand to take from the crippled girl the big bunch of roses, tiger-lilies and hollyhocks which Milly extended towards her. There was a welcome in the flowers of Rehoboth, if not in the people, thought she; and, at any rate, one little soul felt warmly towards her.
As Mrs. Penrose looked at the blushing flowers and caught the scents that stole up from them, and as she looked at the little face on which suffering had drawn such deep lines—a little face that told of pity for the lonely bride—a home feeling came over her, and she felt that there was another in Rehoboth, as well as her husband, by whom she was loved. To Mrs. Penrose little Milly's gift made the wilderness to rejoice and the desert to blossom as the rose; and, stooping, she kissed the child, while her tears fell fast and starred the flowers she held in her hand.
That kiss, and the tears, won half the hearts of the Rehoboth congregation.
'Hoo's a lady, whatever else hoo is,' said an old woman; 'an' if hoo's aboon porritch, hoo's none aboon kissin' a poor mon's child.'
* * * * *
That evening, as Mr. Penrose walked with his wife along the path of the old manse garden, he turned to her, saying:
'This has been a trying Sunday, little woman.'
'Yes; but I've got over it, thanks to that little lame girl. It was her nosegay that brought me through, Walter, and that little face of hers, so full of kindly concern and pity. You don't know how hard my heart was until she came to me—hard even against you for bringing me here.'
'And you kissed Milly, didn't you, Lucy?'
'Yes. I didn't do wrong, did I?'
'No. That kiss of yours has touched hearts my theology cannot touch. You are queen here now.'
Then he drew her to his side, and kissed her as she had kissed Milly, and on lips as sweet and rosy as the petals that fell at their feet.
BILLING AND SONS, PRINTERS, GUILDFORD.