I shrank away from her when she turned towards me, a gracious smile on her face. "You are silent. Is it a hopeless errand I have come on, think you?"
"If you have come to seek Mr. Winthrop's pardon, I think it is——"
"You do not realize my influence over him. I could bend him to my will like the merest child."
I opened the album which still lay on my knee. "You must not expect to meet the same man you knew here. He has changed—matured since then—if I can judge from his face."
"His heart, I am convinced, is unchanged. He is not one to forget the one passion of his life. You have not gauged the depths of his character. Ah, me! that I should have flung such a man away!"
I made no reply, seeing she was convinced of her power; but, with all her maddening grace and beauty, I kept the hope still that she would fail. I could fancy Mr. Winthrop trampling ruthlessly on the strongest pleading of his heart sooner than stoop to the degradation of a second time asking her to be his wife.
"You have been thinking it all out, and have decided there is no chance for me."
"How do you know?" I asked, startled by her correct guess.
"Your face is a very open page. Be careful when you get to love a man, which as yet I do not think you have ever done, lest your secret may too easily be discovered. Men usually care very little for what costs them no trouble."
My face flushed hotly, but I made her no reply.
"I expected you to flash back that you were never going to fall in love. It is the way with most unsophisticated young people."
"If I should, and my love is returned, I will be faithful to any vows I may make."
"My dear friend, you are too inexperienced to make such rash promises. You do not know what mutinous elements are slumbering in your heart."
"God help me to have principle enough to smother them if they are there and get wakened."
I rose to go, as night was rapidly falling.
"I can stay no longer and so far as my helping you is concerned, I have been summoned uselessly," I said, coldly.
"No, indeed; I have heard that you were very pure minded, and see the public estimate of your character is correct. I want you to teach me to be like you, true and good."
She looked into my eyes with such a guileless expression that, for an instant, I thought she might be tired of her old, heartless life, and long to be better. I stood looking with some perplexity into the fire, scarce knowing what to say; but, turning my eyes suddenly, I saw a mocking gleam pass over her face.
"You would find it very tame patterning after me. I would advise you to seek some higher ideal—one more worthy your superior powers." I bowed and was turning towards the door.
"Just one moment longer—won't you come again? I have a favor to ask of you, but the moments have slipped away so rapidly I have not had time to say all I want. Tell me, do you not think I have sinned past all forgiveness, and should become an outcast from Oaklands and its master? Is that the old-fashioned Christianity the Bible teaches?"
"I cannot say that it is not."
"Do you not say every day 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us?'"
"Yes. But the one who has done the wrong is commanded to do his or her part also, to bring forth fruits showing their repentance."
"Am I not about to do that when I humble myself, as I shall do at the first suitable opportunity, to that proud man?"
"Are you not suing for more than that? Have you come here merely to be forgiven?"
"You must not turn inquisitor. I have not, however, offended against you, therefore you will come to see me again. Shall we say to-morrow? I seem to feel as if Oaklands and Mr. Winthrop were brought near to me when you are present."
"I cannot promise to come again this week, at least."
"Shall we say next Monday then? But it seems such a long time to wait. I was not trained to patience in childhood, and I find it a difficult task, learning it now."
"Unless something unforeseen should happen to prevent, you may look for me on Monday next." I promised, feeling a sort of pity for her in her lonely condition.
"Just one word more. Your guardian, they tell me, does not attend church regularly."
"Mr. Winthrop does not profess to be a religious man."
"Could you not influence him to a better life? Have you ever asked him to accompany you to church?"
"Certainly not. He is a better judge than I as to his duty in the matter."
"I do not think so. I fear he is drifting very far from his boyhood's teachings. His mother was a perfect woman, so far as I have been able to learn."
I looked my surprise; for I had not expected to hear such words from her lips.
"You must not judge me so harshly," she said, with gentle reproach. "I hope I am not quite so bad as you think."
"I am very glad you are interested in Mr. Winthrop, for other than selfish reasons," I said, bluntly.
She bowed her head meekly. "You will try to influence him then in the matter of church going and other pure endeavors—won't you?"
"I will try," I promised, rather uncertainly.
"And begin at once."
"Yes. I have given you the promise and usually keep my word."
"Then good-bye until next week."
The lamps were lighted when I passed along the oak walk that was my nearest approach home to Oaklands, and the fact that I had broken my promise to Mr. Winthrop never again to remain out alone after night filled me with alarm and self-reproach. I succeeded in gaining the house unperceived and was in abundant time for dinner, which I feared might have been served.
THE CHANGED HEART.
When I entered the softly illumined dining-room, I was surprised to find Mr. Winthrop standing near the fire, and gazing into it with a preoccupied expression. Mrs. Flaxman was sitting in her favorite corner, a book lying open on her knee, her eyes fixed on Mr. Winthrop somewhat anxiously. Instinctively I felt something unusual had disturbed their serenity—the sympathetic influences about me in the air which most of us know something about, acquainted me with the fact. I was almost beside Mr. Winthrop when he began to say, "Medoline must not know"—the sentence was left unfinished, for Mrs. Flaxman seeing me said, abruptly,
"Why, Mr. Winthrop, here is our runaway."
He turned towards me, a startled look in his eyes. "Have you been out?" he asked, with some surprise at her remark.
"Yes," I looked at him with a pathetic interest never felt before.
"Visiting your Mill Road pensioners?" he said, with a peculiar gesture, as if trying to rid himself of some unpleasant reflection.
"Not to-day, I do not go there every time I am out."
"No, indeed, Medoline does not confine her kindness to those poor folk alone," Mrs. Flaxman interposed.
"You do not seek for the sorrowful elsewhere, I hope?"
"The heavy-hearted are not confined to that locality alone, Mr. Winthrop."
"You include those also in your ministries of mercy," he said, with that rare smile which strongly reminded me of a bright gleam of sunshine falling on a hidden pool.
"I am not so vain as to think I can reach their case. After I have experienced the ministry of sorrow, I may touch sad hearts and comfort them."
"You are not anxious to suffer in order to do this. Remember, misery sometimes hardens."
"If we take our miseries to God, He can turn them into blessed evangels," I replied softly.
"Where did you learn that secret, Medoline?"
"It was Mr. Bowen who taught me. God left him in the darkness, and then gave him songs in the night—such grand harmonies, his life became like a thanksgiving Psalm."
"I hope you are not going to indulge in cant, Medoline. It does very well for poor beggars like them; but for the enlightened and refined it is quite out of place."
"The very noblest specimens of humanity who have climbed to the utmost peaks of intellectual excellence thought as Mr. Bowen does; as I hope to think—God helping me, as I do think," I said, with a strange gladness coming into my heart as if the old, hard heart had been suddenly changed and made clean for the Master's entrance.
"Poor little girl, I wish you had something more tangible than illusions to rhapsodize over."
My eyes filled with such happy tears as I lifted them to him, standing at his side. "If you could only trust God, believe in Him as Mr. Bowen does, you would find every other delight in life illusive, compared with the joy He would give you."
"Child, is that your own experience?"
"Yes," I murmured softly.
He turned and left the room abruptly. I went to Mrs. Flaxman, and, kneeling beside her, my head on her knee—a posture we both enjoyed—I anxiously asked: "Have I angered Mr. Winthrop?"
"No, dear, he was not angry, for I was watching him; but you did what I have not seen any one do to him for a good many years. You touched his heart; 'and a little child shall lead them,'" she murmured so softly, I scarce could catch the words.
"I am not a little child, Mrs. Flaxman," I remonstrated.
"Your are in some ways, darling. Your mother's prayers for her children have been answered. Those God has already taken are safe; and you are one of His little ones whose angel one day shall behold His face in joy."
"I am glad my mother prayed for us; God is so sure to answer a mother's prayers. I suppose it is because they are really in earnest. But did she ask anything special?"
"That you might be kept pure from the world's pollution, and get what was really for your good. Her letters to Mrs. Winthrop were full of this: They are all preserved among Mr. Winthrop's papers, and some day he will give them to you."
"She was a Christian, I think, like Mr. Bowen,—one who really had a hold on God."
"I never knew one so unspotted from the world. I too shall call her mother if I meet her in the Heavenly places; for it was she brought me to Jesus."
"Mrs. Flaxman, is it easy to come to Him,—to be His disciple?"
"So easy, the way-faring man, though a fool, need not find it too difficult."
"I believe Christ has said to me as He did to the Magdalene: 'Daughter, thy sins, which are many are all forgiven thee.' Is it not grand to be His child? There is nothing in the world I want so much as to do His will."
"You stepped out of your way, Medoline, to help others, and they have done more in return than you gave," she said, the tears filling her eyes.
"I might not have found Christ for years, but for Mr. Bowen—perhaps never," I added with a shudder.
The dinner bell ended our little fellowship meeting by the firelight. Mr. Winthrop came and we took our places at the table, the dinner going on in the same precise fashion as if there were no such thing as glad, or breaking hearts. There was very little conversation; and dinner ended, Mrs. Flaxman and I were left alone directly. I longed to ask what it was Mr. Winthrop decided I must not know; and the mere fact of his so wishing deterred me from asking. But I felt convinced it was in some way connected with Hermione Le Grande. Neither could I confess to Mrs. Flaxman that I had only an hour or two before heard from her own lips the terrible wrong she had done him, or her plainly expressed determination to win him back once more.
Usually an excellent sleeper, I lay that night finding sleep impossible, and counting the quarter hours as the great hall clock rang them out in the still space. I made the discovery, too, in the solemn hush of the night, when thought grows most active and intense, that notwithstanding his coldness and positive cynicism, I cherished for my guardian in the short time I had been with him an affection stronger than I had ever felt for any one since I had lost my two intensely-beloved parents—a loss that had embittered the otherwise happy period of girlhood. I had never realized until that night how much he was to me. Pity, perhaps, for the bitter pain that had so changed his whole nature, may have awakened me to the fact; but still there was an inexplicable charm about him that even merry-hearted, trifling Hubert felt, and forced his unwilling regard. I shrank with sudden pain from the mere thought of seeing him married to Hermione Le Grande; but instinctively feeling that his was one of those still, changeless natures which never outgrows a master passion, and recalling her beauty and grace, I could only commit him to the sure care of the God whom he affected to believe does not take cognizance of human joys or griefs. With this there came such a sense of peace and security, that my mind grew calm; and sleep, that soothes every heartache, brought its benison. The next day I felt certain both from Mrs. Flaxman's manner and Mr. Winthrop's, that some disturbing element was in the air; and finding Mrs. Flaxman more inclined to solitude than society, after my forenoon's work was ended—for what with the reading Mr. Winthrop appointed, and the time appointed by myself for painting, the entire morning until luncheon I found quite short enough. I started for Mrs. Blake's. I found her in a very happy mood.
The revival was still progressing in the Beech Street church, and Esmerelda, from day to day, had been telling me how happy Mr. Bowen was, and how some folks liked to hear him speak and pray better than any preacher in town. Now Mrs. Blake gave me particulars that the dress-loving Esmerelda had failed to note. "Dan'el and me have been oneasy about the way we've lived ever since Margaret died," she said, after we had been chatting a while about the meetings, and Mr. Lathrop, the pastor of Beech Street church, and its late ongoings. "Dan'el especially felt as if there wa'n't any chance for him; but since Mr. Bowen has got out to the meetings, he's been a powerful help. It seemed as if he jest knew how the Lord looked on us. Night afore last I went to meeting with my mind made up to stay there until I found if there was any mercy for me. I mind how I felt as I walked along the road. The snow was deep, and the night cold, and everything seemed that desolate—my! I wished I'd never been born. I don't know what made me, but I looked right up into the sky all at onct; the stars were shining bright, and I thought if God could keep all them hanging there on nothing, year after year, he could keep me in the place He wanted for me, if I'd only agree to let Him; and right there I stood stock still in the snow and said, 'Lord, I'm a poor unlarnt creatur', but I want you to keep me where you want me, the same as you do the stars. I'll take the poorest place in earth or Heaven, if you'll only adopt me as your own.' I meant what I said, and the Lord just then and there sealed the bargain; and my! but I went on to the meeting that happy I didn't know if I was on earth or up among the holy ones, who are forever praising God. Dan'el had got much the same blessing some time ago, and when we came home he took down the Bible and prayed. The preacher tells the heads of families if they want to keep their religion they must build an altar as the patriarchs did. Religion is the same now as then."
Mrs. Blake stopped only for want of breath.
"And are you as happy now as you were that night?"
"Everybit; and so is Dan'el. It's something that stays with one; and the longer you have it, and the more you have, the better content you are. The night I got converted, when we come home from meeting, Dan'el sot talking more'n he usually does; for he's a powerful still man, and, at last, he says: 'If Marget had only lived till now, she might have got the blessing too;' and then he burst right out crying. But he's never mentioned her sence, only last night, in meeting, he said, if we had friends in the other world that we weren't sure were in glory, we mustn't let that keep us sorrowful, but jest work all the harder for them that was still in the world. I didn't think Dan'el could be so changed. I heard him try to sing this morning; but, dear, his singing is something ter'ble. He has no more ear than a cow. Maybe the Lord turns it into good singing—he looks at the heart, and perhaps it sounds better up among the angels than them great singers does that gets a forten for one night's singing."
"I am sure it does," I said, emphatically. "He will make splendid music by-and-by, when he stands with the Heavenly choir."
"I reckon he'll most stop then to hear his own voice, for he does dote so on singing, and feels so bad that he can't do better."
"Singing and making melody in your hearts. You can do that now, Mrs. Blake, and with God's help, I hope to be able to do the same."
"What! have you been thinking of these things too, Miss Selwyn?"
"Yes. For a good while I have been struggling with a burden of sin that sometimes nearly crushed me; but it is gone now. Last night the joy of pardon came just like a flash of light into my heart."
"Thank the Lord for that. There's been some praying very earnest for you. They'll be glad their prayers are answered."
"I can never repay what some of you people out here have done for me."
"Well, dear, you've done for us. The minister said, 'under God we were indebted to Mr. Bowen for this revival, and there's already nigh unto fifty converted.' He couldn't have come to the meetings if you hadn't clothed him; and now, you've done still more, and got him his eyesight, he's twice as useful. 'Twould have done you good to see him in meeting the first Sunday after he come back. He'd look up at the pulpit, and then he'd look at the people; and it seemed as if he could hardly sense where he was—he was that glad and happy. The preacher said, in the evening, we'd have a praise meeting after the sermon; and sure enough we had; for when Mr. Bowen got talking about what the Lord had done for him, and what he had been to him in sorrow and blindness, before I knew it, I was crying like a baby—me that had my eyesight, and health—and never thanked the Lord for them. When I got my eyes wiped I took a look around, and there sot Dan'el a blowing his nose, and mopping his face, as if it was a sweltering day in August; and then when I looked further, there was nothing much to be seen but pocket-handkerchiefs. That was the beginning of the revival; and if you hadn't got Mr. Bowen out to meeting, there mightn't have been any. So, after the Lord, I lay it all to you."
"No, Mrs. Blake. I was scarcely equal in this matter to those poor souls who helped Noah build the Ark and were drowning for want of its shelter. They labored harder than I; for what I gave was more from impulse, and it was a pleasure."
"I guess God don't make mistakes paying folks for what they do, and maybe it's jest as well not to have a great consait of yourself; but you're the first one I've heard comparing themselves to Noah's Ark builders."
I turned the conversation somewhat abruptly.
"What is Mr. Bowen doing now?"
"He's taken on in Belcher's Mill, working at the books."
"I suppose they are getting along nicely at Mrs. Larkum's now."
"Yes, indeed. She was complaining after meeting last night, she'd only seed you onct since her father got back, to have a good talk with you."
"Shall we go there now, for a little while?"
"I'd be glad to, and she'll be pleased to see us coming, I know."
Mrs. Blake was very soon in readiness, we started out into the dull, cold air, scarce noticing that the wind was blowing raw and chill from the east, and the soughing wind betokening a storm. While I sat in Mrs. Larkum's tidy room, listening to her voice, I kept contrasting her with the elegantly dressed, beautiful woman whose face and gestures I was studying the previous day. The one nurtured in the shady places of life, and inured to poverty and hardship; the other privileged with the best opportunities for culture, and high intellectual and social development; and yet with vision grown suddenly clear, I could detect a refinement of the soul, and true womanly honor in Mrs. Larkum that the other lacked. I was glad to notice that Mrs. Larkum's tears had ceased to flow so profusely. There was an occasional moistening of the eye from sheer joy; for she too had got her experience brightened of late. She was finding it easier to trust in the Lord, and be glad in Him now that she had got a stronger arm than her own to lighten her burdens. As we talked I found they were blessed with an honest independence of spirit that proved them a better class than many who receive help.
"Father has begun to lay by money to pay you," she announced, with evident pleasure.
"He has already paid me a thousand-fold. I never want any other recompense."
"I do not think he will be satisfied to let that debt go unpaid. He was always so particular to owe no man anything. In our worst poverty he would never let me go in debt."
"Then I can never repay him," I said, sorrowfully, "for I try, like him, to be independent; but I suppose there are blessings no money can ever repay."
"Why, every time he opens his eyes in the morning, he says his first thought is to thank the Lord, and his next is a prayer that you may get your reward."
"His prayer has been answered," I murmured, with tear-filled eyes.
"Poor father was always a great man for prayer ever since I can recollect. Sometimes I used to doubt if there was anything in religion when I saw how poorly his prayers were answered; but I have since learned that the Lord does hear prayer, and that He answers in the best possible way, though when we are suffering it seems hard to wait patiently His good time."
"But if it is hard for a little spell on earth, there's a long while to have our wants satisfied when we get where He is in Heaven," Mrs. Blake said, in her calm, strong way.
"Dear Miss Selwyn, Heaven seemed very close to us in our meeting last night. I thought of you, and wished so much you were with us."
"I wish your father would pray that I might have the opportunity to come. The difficulties in the way just now seem insuperable, but with God's help they could be removed."
"Yes, indeed. I've knowed folks that was a hurt to Christians took out of the world uncommon sudden," Mrs. Blake remarked, with a very meaning nod of her head.
"I do not want Mr. Winthrop to die," I said, with quick alarm. "If I had to choose, I think I would rather die myself."
"I didn't know you liked him that well. I reckoned he was hard to please."
"I acknowledge that he is; but then a word of praise from him is worth a great deal," I frankly replied.
"I believe you are in the way to win his approval. A pure, unselfish life must gain the respect of every honest soul, soon or late," Mrs. Larkum said, with gentle assurance.
There was no more said on the subject. But the thought that Mr. Bowen was praying for me made me feel more confident that everything would turn out best for me, and for those also in whom I was most interested.
THE ENCOUNTER AT ST. MARK'S.
I did not forget through the week Mrs. Le Grande's eagerness for Mr. Winthrop to attend church, and although not permitting myself, if possible, to impute false motives to others, I concluded it was not anxiety for his spiritual well-being that prompted the desire on her part. However I resolved to ask him, and was very anxious that he should grant my request. The day dawned bright and clear, one of those hopeful days with promise of the coming summer in the clear shining of the February sun. At breakfast Mr. Winthrop spoke of the rare loveliness of the morning; the blue of the sky, soft and tender as a mother's eye, with here and there a fleecy cloud such as painters love to put on their canvas. Away to the south, the sea was dimpling and sparkling in ten thousand broken ripples, with here and there a brave vessel sailing away over the cold, heaving waters.
Mr. Winthrop seemed in more genial mood than he had been for a week; and when he left the table I followed him to the door, where he stood gazing with eyes trained to take in intelligently the charming scene. I stood silent, entering in a very half-hearted manner into his keen enjoyment of the picture painted by God's own hand, spread out before us.
"It is no use for a man to attempt copying that living, throbbing scene, nor yet to describe it," he said, with an air of dissatisfaction.
"To copy would be easy, compared with creating it," I suggested timidly.
"Yes; but when, and by whom done? That is the question that maddens one," he answered after a long pause.
"The Bible says the same hand that was nailed to the cross on Calvary created it. 'By whom also the worlds were made,'" I murmured.
"Ah, if we only had some evidence of that; but it is all dark, dark, on the other side of death, and on the other side of life too. Whence came we—whither do we tend? What power sent Sirius and all that galaxy of suns marching serenely through space? We, in our little planet-ship, falling into line, going like comets one day, and then vanishing; but the worlds moving on unconscious of our departure, and yet some power controls them and us. Medoline, to have my faith anchored as yours is, to a beneficent, all-powerful God, I would be willing to die this instant if I might be absorbed into Him, or be taken into his presence forever. You who can calmly accept your religion as you do the atmosphere you inhale, should live as far above earthly passions and entanglements, as those light clouds hanging in yonder vault are above the earth; nay, rather like the stars which only touch us by that law of the universe that holds the remotest stars together."
"Have you tried any more earnestly to find the God of the Bible than you have done Boodh or Vishnu, or other man-created deities?" I asked.
He turned to me in his keen, incisive way:—"No, Medoline, I cannot say that I have—not since boyhood, at least, when my mother, who loved the God whom Israel served so indifferently, endeavored to train my rebellious will to His service."
"You have lived all these years Godless?"
"In plain English, yes."
"Then that great star, Sirius, you just spoke of, and all the other suns, and their systems, as well as the humblest created things, have fulfilled the purposes of their Maker's will, save the last supreme effort of His power—man, originally made a 'little lower than God.' I wonder that I honor you as I do, when you deny the existence of my God and Saviour."
He looked down at me with a gentleness at which I was surprised, and his next question did not lessen this.
"Would you be terrified if death, in some form, were suddenly to seize you, dismissing you from your present environments into the unclothed state, could you trust, to the uttermost, this mighty Being whose friendship you so confidently claim?"
I paused before replying. Certainly death just then did not seem welcome. I loved life and enjoyed it, and longed for its fuller experiences. As I studied his question, there came a fear that, since I clung with such desire to life, I could not be fitted for higher places. No doubt he saw the pained, uncertain look on my face, which his question had caused.
"If God wished for me to leave this world," I said, slowly, "no doubt he would give me the necessary grace and fortitude to do so patiently; but I do not want to die now, unless it is His will. I love my life, and would like to serve my generation for a good many years. There are such grand opportunities to be useful to others."
"That is a more healthy type of piety than I would have given you credit for. I am glad you are not anxious to leave us. The Superior powers are apt to humor such fancies in the young, and remove them from this distasteful world."
I saw that a lighter mood was taking the place of his more serious one of a few minutes before, and I hastened to make my request. "Won't you come to church with me this bright morning, Mr. Winthrop?"
He looked at me with that clear, honest gaze that always seemed to penetrate my deepest thoughts.
"Why do you make that request? You have never asked me before."
A guilty blush crimsoned my face, and I murmured something about wanting him to go particularly that morning, and then hastily entered the house. As I put on my bonnet and cloak for church, I made up my mind never to make a request of him again without being able to give a good, honest reason for it.
The bell of St. Mark's began ringing as I went down the broad staircase. I paused a moment at the library door, and then went on to the drawing-room, where Mrs. Flaxman usually awaited me. I was surprised to find her sitting near the fire, a book in her hand, and no preparation made for church.
"You must go alone this morning, I fear."
"Are you not well?"
"No, dear; I cannot even plead a headache. I might go deeper, though; for I have had a heartache of late."
"Have you got bad news from Hubert?"
"On the contrary, I have had better news than usual from him in his last few letters; but, dear, I may have other anxieties than merely personal ones."
"Our anxieties should send us to God's house, and not keep us away—don't you think?"
"Yes, in most cases. Some day I may explain all this to you, Medoline; but not now."
"Good-bye, then," I said, kissing the sweet, gentle face, and thinking I knew what was keeping her at home. As I passed into the hall, I saw Mr. Winthrop coming down from his own room; but I did not pause to speak, thinking he was on his way to the library. My hand was on the door, when he called me back.
"After inviting me to church, are you going without me?"
I turned and saw that he was taking his hat.
"Are you really going?"
"Yes, really. I would be rude, indeed, to slight your first invitation."
"Do you come this morning merely because I invited you?" I asked, incredulously.
"Do you consider it courteous to inquire too minutely into the motives of your friends?"
I was silent while I stood for a few seconds regarding him closely. I wondered if he had not taken special pains with his toilet; for I had never seen him look so regally handsome before. He may have detected my admiring gaze; for he said, lightly:
"What is wrong, that you favor me with such scrutinizing glances?"
"There is nothing wrong, Mr. Winthrop, so far as my eyes can penetrate. I trust that to clearer vision than mine what lies deeper than human gaze can pierce, is equally perfect."
"Is it your custom, little one, to pay your male acquaintances such open compliments?"
"It was not a compliment. I only spoke the truth," I said, quietly, as we walked side by side down the lilac-bordered footpath, the way we always went to church when we walked, as it cut off a-half mile or more. It was a charming walk in summer; but now the low bushes looked common and ungraceful, stripped of their foliage; but the ground was high, and over their tops we could see the distant hills and the sun-kissed sea. And this morning as I tripped lightly by my guardian's side, I fancied I had never seen this quiet pathway even in its midsummer glory look so perfect.
"It is a wise plan not to tell your friends the truth always. Masculine vanity is occasionally as strongly developed as feminine," he said after we had gone some time in silence.
"But you are not vain, Mr. Winthrop; I never saw any one so free from it," I said, gravely.
"You are determined to overwhelm me with your flattery. We must change our conversational topics altogether."
"First, let me ask if flattery is not half-sister to falsehood?"
"Probably they are pretty closely related; but why are you anxious to get that matter settled?"
"Because I do not want you to believe I ever tell you what is not true. I do not think I could, if I tried."
"You reserve that privilege, then, for your other friends."
"Oh, no; I am never tempted to be untruthful with them."
"And are you so tempted in your relation with me?" he asked, a little sternly.
"Why, Medoline, you astonish me. Tell me what reason you have for being so tempted?"
"You make me afraid of you; that is my only reason," I murmured, trembling already with a touch of my natural fear of him.
"I am sorry to know that I stand in the relation of an ogre to you."
"You do not, and I never meant to tell you that. I am afraid of you. By and bye, when I get a little older, I do not think that I shall be; but you make me tell you everything."
"If that is the case I am surprised you have so little wrong-doing to confess. I believe you will ultimately convince me that a few of your sex have escaped the taint of their evil inheritance."
His words caused such a thrill of delight that, remembering what a tell-tale face I had, I turned my head to watch intently the white sails of a ship far away to the left; but I presently bethought myself to inquire what our special inheritance was.
"That which Eve left her daughters—deceit."
"But, Mr. Winthrop, we are alike descendants of hers; and the sons as often take after their mother as their father."
"That is not a bad hit. It never occurred to me before. Men and women, however, are different; whether created so originally we do not know. But sometimes we meet a woman combining the best qualities of both sexes; but so far as my experience goes, they are the rarest product of creative skill. I dare say there are men occasionally combining the same beautiful qualities."
"I think Mr. Bowen does."
"Have you ever told him as much?" Mr. Winthrop asked, with an odd smile.
"No, I have scarcely said anything to him about his goodness. I like best to let him do the talking when we are together."
"I am getting curious to see that man."
"Oh, Mr. Winthrop, if you would only come with me to their church. They are having wonderful meetings, and people are getting converted."
"What church is it?"
"Beech Street, I heard the minister pray at Mrs. Blake's funeral, and once since at the Larkums. I have longed to hear him again. I never heard anything like it in my life. It reminded me of a beautiful poem or oratorio."
"Why, have you not gone to his church, then, to hear him?"
"I feared you might be displeased."
We walked on some distance in silence. I stole a quick look once at his face to see if he was angry, but he seemed in one of his abstracted moods, and I reflected that by this time, he had probably forgotten my existence. But I was mistaken; for all at once he said abruptly, as he stood holding open the gate that led from the footpath into the main street. "You have been a more obedient girl than I expected any of your sex could be, especially one with your keen, impetuous nature. To reward your fidelity I will go to the Beech Street church whenever you wish." I looked up at him, the grateful tears in my eyes, but some way my feelings had got beyond my control, and I dared not attempt to thank him. We joined the crowds on the sidewalk and after a while he said:—
"You have not thanked me, Medoline; don't you appreciate my offer?"
I tried to speak; but my lip quivered, and I remained silent.
"You have thanked me very eloquently, little one; more so than if you had used set phrases."
The remainder of our walk was completed mostly in silence. I scarce knew why, but my heart was as glad as if June roses and song birds had been about us as we went. I looked at some staid people,—old looking to me, though few of them were past fifty,—and pitied them that they too were not young and glad-hearted like me. As we neared the church, the sunshine and gladness suddenly grew dim, for there, in all her perfect loveliness, Mrs. Le Grande was approaching St. Mark's from the opposite direction. Impulsively I turned to Mr. Winthrop, hoping he would not see her; for usually he was quite oblivious of the presence of those who might be on the street with him. A glance assured me that he was looking at her, and that her desire was gratified. He took no notice, however, of my abrupt movement, and without change of expression or voice, said: "There seems a good many strangers on their way to church this morning. Some unusual circumstance must have occurred to bring out so many curious worshippers." I could not help smiling at the veiled irony in voice and words. Fortunately we were considerably nearer the church than Mrs. Le Grande, and without quickening our steps gained its shelter before she overtook us, although I saw she moved more quickly after she saw us. St. Mark's was an ancient church, built in old colonial days. One could easily fancy themselves in a country church in some quiet English village, as their eyes fell on the high-backed pews, narrow, stained glass-windows, and walls covered with memorial tablets, and the other peculiarities of a church over a century old. The Winthrop pew was near the pulpit. A large square one, and commanding an excellent view of the congregation. When Mrs. Le Grande entered, she paused for a moment, apparently taking a rapid survey of the church; when her eye fell on our pew. Without paying any attention to the usher, she glided to the nearest vacant seat to ours. Directly, I was conscious that very many eyes were upon us. Opening my Bible, I read mechanically the words before me; but no more conscious of their meaning than if they had been Sanscrit. When the service began, in the withdrawal of attention to other things, I took courage to look at Mr. Winthrop. He sat facing Mrs. Le Grande, but with face as unruffled as if he were reading his morning paper. I glanced next at Mrs. Le Grande. She sat with downcast eyes, her color varying fitfully. She might have been taken for some beautiful picture of penitence. I do not know if Mr. Winthrop vouchsafed her a single look, but from her expression I judged that she thought he was watching her closely. It was a relief when the service was ended, although my conscience painfully reminded me that I would have another master opportunity for listening to the preached gospel to repent of, or else to confront some day; for I had been so nervous I had not listened intelligently to a single sentence of the sermon.
MRS. LE GRANDE'S STRATAGEM.
The congregation slowly dispersed, Mr. Winthrop pausing, as was his wont, for the crowd to move out. Although one of the busiest men I ever met, he never seemed in a hurry. Besides, he had an extreme dislike to be jostled by a hurrying crowd. When he saw the aisles getting empty he left the pew. Mrs. La Grande apparently, like ourselves, liked plenty of elbow-room; for she only left her pew a few steps in advance of us. Mr. Winthrop walked leisurely towards the door. I dropped behind, not wishing to bow to her in his presence, and not capable either of the rudeness of passing her without a friendly nod. My heart beat thickly as I saw him approaching nearer to her, and a moment after they were side by side. She partly turned her face toward him, an expression of contrition and appeal, making her beauty well-nigh irresistible. I gazed, fascinated; then after awhile I turned my eyes to Mr. Winthrop. I felt a sudden relief when I saw the same unconcerned expression that was habitual to him. Mrs. Le Grande looked him, for an instant, full in the face, when a swift change came over her own countenance. For the first time, probably, she realized that her power and fascination had lost their effect on him. A crimson flush of shame and anger swept over cheek and brow, as quickly followed by a deathly pallor. Mr. Winthrop, without noticing her presence, walked leisurely on. She stood perfectly still, leaning her hand, as if for support, against the back of a pew. I hastened to her side, pitying her deeply in her disappointment. She gave me a dazed look, scarce seeming to recognize me; I paused an instant and held out my hand, but she did not seem to notice it. She looked so wan and wretched I felt I must try to comfort her, though at the risk of Mr. Winthrop's displeasure.
"You are not looking well," I said compassionately. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"You would not dare, even if you were willing, with that merciless man so near," she said, faintly. I paid no attention to her remark, but asked if I might get her a glass of water.
"Yes, anything, please, to take away this deathly feeling." I drew her into a pew and forced her to lie down, crushing thereby a most elegant toilet. But I was afraid she was dying, she looked so pale; then, rushing to the vestry, I found the sexton. He looked somewhat startled at sight of me.
"Can you give me some water?—there is a lady upstairs very ill."
"That one that's such a stunner?" he said, coolly, going to a shelf near where he had water and glasses.
"I presume it is the same," I said, seizing the glass, while wondering at his indifference.
"You'd best not get too frightened, Miss Selwyn. I've heard of that one afore, and she knows what she's about."
I hastened back to my charge, leaving him to follow at his leisure. I found her on the floor, apparently unconscious. Forgetful of the dainty Paris bonnet, I began applying the water vigorously, when she opened her eyes, and said:
"That will do."
I dried her face, whisking away a few bountiful drops that were clinging to her garments. She arose directly. Several persons who had been late in leaving the church had collected around us. She glanced at them, a look of keen disappointment passing over her face. With an amazing return of vitality, she passed quickly out of the pew, saying, lightly:
"Your church was uncomfortably hot, and the air was very impure; it seems a necessity to absorb one's religion and a vitiated atmosphere at the same time."
She turned to me presently, saying:
"You get very easily alarmed, Miss Selwyn. Are you always so impetuous in your deeds of mercy?"
"Oh, no, indeed. I never had such cause for alarm but once before, and that was a poor widow who was utterly overcome by some good news I was bringing her. My friends usually have sufficient nerve to endure heavy shocks," I said, very sweetly.
Her eyes flashed, but she allowed no further sign of annoyance to escape her. When we reached the door, she turned to me and said, very cordially:
"I shall look for you to-morrow, according to promise. Forgive me for having kept you so long from your escort. I fear a scolding awaits you. Mr. Winthrop I used to find very impatient, if kept waiting."
I left her standing on the church steps, and turned my face homeward. When I reached the street I found Mr. Winthrop had got some distance ahead; but he was walking slowly, and I soon overtook him.
"Is it your custom to remain chatting with your friends after the sermon?" he asked, carelessly.
"Oh, no; but a lady who sat near us fainted just as I was standing by her."
"And, of course, as a sort of mother-general of the sorrowing, you stopped to comfort her?"
"Yes; but a few drops of water sufficed. She knew all the time I was in danger of spoiling her bonnet."
"I am glad she snubbed you. You are too innocent to be matched against so perfect an actress."
Then he changed the conversation, and Mrs. Le Grande was not mentioned again that day. I noticed, however, that he partook very sparingly of dinner; and, in the hour or two which he usually spent on the Sabbath with us in the drawing-room, he was unusually silent. I went to the library for a book, leaving him and Mrs. Flaxman alone, and returned just in time to interrupt, a second time, a conversation clearly not intended for my ears.
"Yes. She was at church this morning, looking as wickedly beautiful as ever," he was saying, as if in answer to Mrs. Flaxman's question.
When the church bells began ringing that evening, a strong desire seized me to claim the fulfillment of his promise to accompany me to the Beech Street Church. He may have read it in my face.
"Are you going to take me out again to-night?"
"Do you wish to go?" I asked, with girlish eagerness.
"I have told you before it is not polite to reply to a question by asking another."
"Then I would like very much indeed to go to Mr. Lathrop's church to-night, if you are willing."
Mrs. Flaxman looked up from her book with amazement.
"You were never at their church before. What will those people think?"
"There must always be a first time, and probably you are aware I am not in bondage to other people's thoughts," he said, with calm indifference.
"Won't you come, too, Mrs. Flaxman?" I urged.
"With pleasure," was the smiling response.
"What will your Dr. Hill think if he hears you have been to hear Lathrop?"
"I must endeavor to live above public opinion, as well as you."
"I am afraid such elevation would chill you."
"Don't you want Mrs. Flaxman to go?"
"I have nothing to say against it, if she has courage to brave public opinion."
"I did not think you reckoned me such a coward."
"That shows how little we know what our intimate friends think of us; if there was a general laying bare of hearts, methinks there would be lively times for a while."
I stood thinking his words over very seriously, and then turning to him said, gravely:—
"I would be willing for nearly all my friends to see my thoughts respecting them."
"There would be some exceptions, then. You said nearly all, remember. The few might be the ones most anxious to know, and upon whom the restriction would bear most heavily."
"They might not care what I thought," I said with a hot flush; something in his look making me tremble.
"If we are to be in time for church we should leave very shortly," he said, looking at his watch.
"And we are really going to Beech Street Church this evening?"
"Yes, really," he said, with that genial smile I was beginning to regard like a caress.
Mrs. Flaxman and I hastened to our rooms; she nearly as well pleased as I. It seemed quite too good to be true that we three were to go in company to those meetings where men and women talked to each other, and to God, of all the great things He was doing for them. I was very speedily robed and back in the drawing-room, where Mr. Winthrop was still sitting gazing into the fire with that indrawn, abstracted expression on his face which was habitual to it in repose. I waited silently near until Mrs. Flaxman should come in and interrupt his reverie. I liked to watch his face in those rare moments, and used to speculate on what he might be thinking, and wishing my own thoughts were high and strong enough to follow his on their long upward flight.
He looked at me suddenly.
"What, if I could read your thoughts now, Medoline? From your intent look I think I was the subject of your meditations." I smiled calmly.
"You would have been flattered, as you were this morning, perhaps. I was just wishing I was capable of going with you along those high paths where, by your face, I knew you were straying."
"Was that what you were thinking about, and that only?"
My face crimsoned, but I looked up bravely into the honest eyes watching me.
"Must I confess even my thoughts to you, Mr. Winthrop? I have had to ask that question before?"
"Not necessarily. But I have a fancy just now to know what else you were thinking of."
I hesitated a moment, and then said bravely: "I was looking at your face, and it occurred to me that in some faces there was the same power to thrill one's soul that there is in splendid music, or poems that can never die."
"You were in a very imaginative and sentimental mood to trace such analogies. It is not wise to see so much in a common human face."
"Do we not sometimes get glimpses of God in that way?" I asked.
"Are you always thinking such high thoughts, Medoline?"
"Oh, no, indeed. When I have nothing to inspire them, my thoughts are very commonplace. The brook cannot rise higher than its source; it needs artificial help to scale mountain tops."
He looked at me kindly as he said: "You are not fashioned after the regulation models of the woman of to-day."
"I think I have heard that idea expressed in varying phrases a good many times since I came to America."
"It does not displease you?"
"It used to at first. Possibly I am getting used to it now. I see there is so much genuine unhappiness in the world, I am not going to grieve over the mild criticisms of my friends."
"A very philosophic conclusion to come to. But does it not occur to you that other meanings than unkindly ones may be taken from these chance remarks we let fall?"
"It would please me if I could," I said, looking at him with pleased eagerness. Mrs. Flaxman entered the room then, ready for church. My head was aching severely, and a distressing giddiness occasionally seized me; but I was so eager for this long coveted privilege, I kept silent about my feelings. Sickness and I were such strangers to each other, I scarcely understood its premonitory warnings.
BEECH STREET WORSHIPPERS.
As we neared the Beech Street Church, we found a crowd of persons hurrying in the same direction. Mrs. Flaxman expressed her astonishment; since she supposed Mr. Lathrop's flock to be small in number, and humble in its class of adherents. When we reached the door, a glance inside revealed the fact that it was already comfortably filled, and where all the approaching throng were to be bestowed was a mystery. Daniel Blake was one of the ushers. His face brightened at sight of us. Nodding respectfully to Mr. Winthrop, he led us to one of the best seats in the house. I glanced around at the large congregation, and was impressed by the solemn hush pervading the place, and the expectant look on the faces of the worshippers. Mr. Bowen was sitting near and I wanted Mr. Winthrop to see and know him; so I took out my pencil and wrote on the leaf of my hymn book directing his attention to my friend. He looked keenly at the pale, rapt face, and then with a scarce perceptible smile turned to me.
The church kept filling; and while yet the people were streaming in, the minister arose, and after a brief, but exceedingly solemn invocation, gave out the hymn. In an alcove just behind the preacher's stand was a cabinet organ, and some half dozen singers, male and female; but once the singing had got well under way, organ and choir were as though they were not; nearly every one in the house was singing save myself and Mr. Winthrop. I kept silent the more keenly to enjoy the heavy volume of sound which impressed me as more reverent praise than any church music I had ever heard. I turned to Mr. Winthrop. He too was looking over the dense mass of humanity with a curious intentness, as if here were some entirely new experience. When the hymn was ended there was a moment's hush after the congregation had bowed in reverent act of worship and then the preacher's voice rose in earnest pleading. I noticed it was better modulated than at Mrs. Blake's funeral, possibly the effort to make himself heard by the scattered groups on that occasion caused the difference. My eyes filled with tears, and a strange trembling seized me as the petitions grew more earnest; the prayer was short, yet so much was comprehended in it. The Scripture lesson was read in very natural, but also solemn manner, without any attempt at rhetorical display, yet bringing out the subtle meanings of the passage in a peculiarly realistic way. The sermon was delivered in much the same manner; but in every word and gesture there seemed a reserve power and dignity, while the thoughts were strong and original; and better than all, they made one wish to be purer, more unselfish, in fact Christ-like.
The place seemed pervaded by some mysterious influence never experienced by me before in any church. The sermon was ended at last; the Judgment Day was the theme; all the old horror that used haunt me in childhood, when I thought upon this awful period in my soul's future, came back to me as the preacher with a power scarce short of inspiration pictured that day. I could hear Mrs. Flaxman's subdued weeping while in every part of the house, tears and low sobs added to the solemnity of the scene. Mr. Winthrop sat with folded arms and set stern face, apparently unmoved; but the intent watchfulness of his face as he followed the preacher assured me that the sermon was making an impression. A hymn was sung when the sermon was ended, and then all who wished to remain to the after-meeting were assured of a welcome, no matter to what church they belonged, or if aliens from all.
I scarce dared lift my eyes to Mr. Winthrop lest he might be preparing to leave; but to my relief he sat calmly down along with nearly the entire congregation, and then the other meeting began first with a number of prayers, afterward with speaking by men and women all over the house. When Mr. Bowen prayed, there was a solemn hush as if the people were almost holding their breath lest some word might be missed. I could not wonder that men's hearts were melted by the power and tenderness of his utterances. Strange that God should hide such gifts away for years when the world was in such need of workers. Along through the meeting there were occasional snatches of song, deep, resonant melody that uplifted the heart as it welled up from glad, thankful souls. Men and women rose, for the most part with modest calmness, and told what God had done for them, and what they still expected from our Father as loving as He is rich. I listened spellbound. Some of them had a story to tell so like my own that my heart was thrilled at times. I wanted to tell what God had done for me, but before that crowded house, and worse than all, in presence of Mr. Winthrop, I found it impossible; but just at the close the minister, with a kindly thoughtfulness for which I blessed him said: "There may be some one here who loves Christ but has not courage to tell us so. If they are willing to witness for Him we extend them the privilege of doing this by merely rising to their feet."
My heart beat painfully and my head swam, but forgetful of my guardian's displeasure, and the concentrated gaze of some hundreds of eyes, I stood up. I heard a heartfelt "praise God," from the direction of Mr. Bowen's pew, and then there was a gentle rustle in every part of the house, and scores stood up, Mrs. Flaxman among the rest. The meeting closed quietly, and in the same solemn hush the people departed.
Mr. Winthrop stood, waiting for the crowd to leave, not seeing the many curious glances bent our way. Presently the minister was passing our pew; he paused uncertainly, wishing to speak, I knew from the expression of his face, but waiting for Mr. Winthrop first to make some sign of recognition. I stood near enough to reach my hand; my act speedily followed by Mrs. Flaxman; and then with rare grace and courtesy Mr. Winthrop extended his hand, saying: "I have to thank you for your very faithful sermon. I did not know the present generation of preachers dared talk so plainly to their hearers."
"Perhaps you do not go in the way of hearing them; the race of heroes is not yet extinct. Not that I reckon myself a hero," he added, with an amused smile at the slip of tongue.
"The rack and flames are not necessary to prove one a hero or martyr. I dare say many who do not choose to live for their religion would die for it if it came in their way to do so."
"Yourself among the number, I believe, Mr. Winthrop," the minister said, with a penetrating look, that Mr. Winthrop returned in kind.
"I would take it as a favor if you would dine with us some day soon, and give me an evening of your society. We might have some topics in common to discuss," Mr. Winthrop said, to the surprise of each of us, Mr. Lathrop included. "Possibly you do not make such engagements on the Sabbath. Pardon me, I had forgotten you were a conscientious man," he said, after a short pause, seeing Mr. Lathrop hesitate.
"It is not my usual custom, but nevertheless, I accept your invitation with pleasure."
Mr. Bowen was waiting to speak with his minister, it may be hoping to exchange greeting with us as well. I whispered softly to Mr. Winthrop:
"Would you like to speak to Mr. Bowen?"
"If it is your desire, I will do so."
"I would like you to speak with him very much."
I made my way quickly to Mr. Bowen's side. He was standing a little way down the aisle from us. The grasp of his hand and glance of his eye were like a benediction.
"I was glad to see you here," he said, in his quiet way, which meant more than extravagant protestations from others. "There was bread for you, I think."
"Yes, and wine; better far than human lips ever quaffed."
"The new wine of our Father's Kingdom," he said, softly, with such a glad light in his eyes reminding me of some spiritual illumination the flesh could not wholly conceal.
Mr. Winthrop soon joined us, and never did I feel more grateful to my guardian than when I watched his gracious bearing towards my friend. If he had been some noted literary gentleman, he could not have been more genial and polite.
"My ward has talked so much about you that, out of pure curiosity, I came to see and hear you to-night," he said, as they walked side by side towards the door. A faint flush passed over Mr. Bowen's face, but he made no reply. I was much better pleased than if he had exclaimed against his own poor abilities, as some would have done, or rhapsodized over his indebtedness to me. I knew from the expression of Mr. Winthrop's face that he was pleased with him, and on our way home, he said: "You are like a magnet, Medoline. You draw the best types of humanity to you as the lodestone does the steel."
"You like Mr. Bowen, then?"
"I do not know him well enough yet for that; but he has genius. Da Vinci would have taken him for a model for the beloved disciple if he had lived in his day. I never saw a more spiritual face in any human being."
"He is like the disciple whom Jesus loved in one thing—he loves the Christ best of all."
"Was not that a wonderful meeting, Mr. Winthrop?" Mrs. Flaxman asked, after we had seated ourselves cosily by the bright fire in the drawing-room.
"I do not profess to be a judge in such matters."
"I think a heathen would have felt some before unknown spiritual influence there to-night, if he had understood our language," I exclaimed.
"Heathen and Christian alike are not so susceptible to spiritual influences as you, Medoline; so in harmony with the unseen and unknowable as you are getting to be."
"Religion cannot be classed with the unknowable. God only leaves us in uncertainty when we wilfully close our eyes to his teachings."
"You place no restrictions, then, on the benevolence of your Creator."
"I shall not make myself a different and narrower creed than the Bible provides."
"Men read the Bible and formulate creeds as opposite as the poles. The pendulum of their belief takes in not merely an arc, but the entire circle."
"I think they are wisest who leave creeds; I mean the non-essentials, to those who try to penetrate mysteries which, maybe, even the angels look upon as too sacred for them to explore, and just take what is necessary to make us Christ-like."
"My dear child, that is taking at a single bound faith's highest peak."
"I suppose the way-faring man, of whom the Bible speaks, does that. God may have different patents of nobility from us. I do not mean in the mere matter of birth, but of what, even to our dim vision, is vastly higher—the intellectual dower."
"Medoline tries very hard to assure herself that her Mill Road favorites are royalties in exile," Mr. Winthrop said, with a smile, turning to Mrs. Flaxman.
"I cannot say if she goes quite that far, but she certainly thinks that she has found among them some diamonds of the first water, though she cannot but acknowledge they lack the polishing touches to bring out more effectually their sparkle and brilliancy."
"I do not know if the best among them have suffered anything from the lack of the human lapidary's skill. He often, at the best, is a mere bungler, and while he makes sure to bring out the brilliancy, laps off other finer qualities the lack of which no spark or brilliancy can compensate," I replied, by no means convinced, and thinking all the time of Mrs. Le Grande who had certainly received plenty of polishing touches, but sadly lacked higher mental and moral qualities.
"A woman convinced against her will is of the same opinion still," Mr. Winthrop quoted, although addressing no one in particular.
"The author's real words are, 'A man convinced against his will,'" I retorted.
"In this case it is a woman, and a very determined, insistent little woman she is too," he replied.
I rose, and standing before my guardian, said, "I am not such a little woman, Mr. Winthrop, as you would make me believe. Actually I can look over Mrs. Flaxman's head."
"A perfect giantess, especially in defending the character of the poor and bereaved."
"If you had studied poor, hard-working people more, and books less, you would have found some of the rarest specimens of patience, and self-forgetfulness and fortitude, and oh, so many other beautiful characteristics, that you would long to strip off your proud ancestry and wealth, and become like them. They find it so much easier to be Christians—they are not bewildered by the pride of life and vanities that pall while they allure, and the perplexity of riches, and other ills the higher born are heir to."
"I sincerely hope you will not begin a new crusade, Medoline."
"Why, Mr. Winthrop, what do you mean?" I asked, surprised at the sudden turn of the conversation.
"What do I mean? You have begun it already. I only stipulate that you carry this crusade no farther."
"But I do not understand you. How then can I promise to obey your will?"
"The fashion is rapidly gaining ground for women to have some pet scheme of reform. A few of them have such ambition for publicity they take their pet scheme, and the platform, and go trailing over the land like comets. Now I do not wish you to join this motley crowd, though your heart does burn over the unacknowledged perfections of the poor."
"Surely, Mr. Winthrop, you do not insinuate there is the remotest possibility of such a thing, that I will go to lecturing," I said, with rising color.
"Have you not already begun the work? But I shall be very glad to have your promise that you will not seek a larger audience to listen to you than your present one."
"Are you in earnest?"
"I am certainly in earnest when I assure you it is my desire that you will not take up lecturing, or develop into a woman with a career."
I looked at him closely, and turning away, said, "Some day I hope to get wise enough to know when you are in earnest and when you are merely bantering me."
"I think your faculties in that respect are rapidly developing. You discovered before I did that it was merely badinage on Mr. Winthrop's part," Mrs. Flaxman said, genially.
"But, Mr. Winthrop," I said, turning to him once more, "is it right for you to judge those women so harshly who seize any honest way to get a hearing? I believe the majority of them are as much in earnest about their work as you are in any of your most cherished undertakings. Women more than men have an instinct to sacrifice themselves on the first genuine altar they meet with. One human being, especially, if he is apt to be cynical, can scarcely judge another justly."
"Are you not a little severe on me? but possibly you are correct," he said, with perfect good humor.
"I hope you will forgive me that unkind remark," I pleaded. "I am afraid, after all, it is no use for me to try to be good thoroughly and wholly. I can only be so in places."
"You must not despair yet. Much worse persons than you have developed into saints ultimately, if we can trust the calendar."
I smiled, although discomfited. "I wish you would try to be good with me. I am sure I would find it easier."
"Goodness too easily acquired is not apt to be of a very high quality. Better fight your own battles and gain your victories all by yourself," he said, with a smile as he left us for his study. My head was aching so severely that I concluded to try the effect of rest and sleep, to bring back my usual freedom from pain.
FROM THE DEPTHS.
The next day was a wild, drifting storm. My first waking thought in the early morning was the unpleasant one that my promised visit to Mrs. Le Grande must be made during the day. When I raised my head from the pillow the pain was even more severe than on the previous evening, and a dizzy faintness seized me when I tried to rise. I was so unaccustomed to sickness I had not learned the happy art of accepting patiently its behests; so, after a few more efforts, I succeeded in dressing myself. I went to the window and, on looking out, was greatly relieved to see huge drifts piled between us and the outside world, which promised at least one day's blockade unless Thomas and Samuel worked much harder than their wont.
I put in an appearance at the breakfast table, although the sight of food was exceedingly repugnant, and made a pretence to eat what was placed before me. Mr. Winthrop very cheerfully announced that I was certainly a prisoner for that day—an announcement I received with perfect indifference—the mere thought of facing the outside world as I then felt made me shudder. Probably he was surprised that I took with such extreme calmness my temporary imprisonment; for he asked if I enjoyed being snow-bound.
"I do, to-day," I answered unthinkingly.
"You must have some special reason for such a state of mind."
I did not attempt to reply, and was glad to find that his suspicions were not aroused. After we arose from the table he stood chatting with us by the fire for some time, while Mrs. Flaxman with a little help on my part washed the china and silver, interjecting a word now and then with deep content. I could see these genial moods of my guardian gave her unbounded satisfaction; sometimes when I looked in her gentle, patient face and remembered how few real joys she had in her daily life, I used to get positively angry with him, because, as a rule, he was so chary with his smiles and gracious words. As he was leaving the room he turned to me and said:—"I would like you to come to the library after you get those important partnership duties completed."
"Do you mean our dish-washing?" I asked.
"Yes, certainly. You seem to enjoy menial work very much."
"It is woman's work, Mr. Winthrop, just as much as painting pictures or studying German metaphysics is,—a much more important work for me, if I marry a poor man and become my own maid of all work."
"Ah, indeed! you think, then, of becoming one of them. I mean one of your own favorite class. I presume you have not yet selected the happy pauper whose poverty you intend to share."
"Oh, no, I have not given the question of a husband, or settlement in life any serious thought as yet. I was only supposing a case. One never knows what may happen, and even royalties now and then are reduced to genteel beggary."
"You are merely getting accustomed to the life, taking time by the forelock, we might say," he said with an amused look. "Well, since you are not altogether committed to that way of living, and in case your dreams are not realized, we will continue the German metaphysics a little longer. I got in a fresh supply of books on Saturday. I would like you to come and look them over with me. You may see something you would like to take up."
I thanked him and promised to join him shortly.
When we were alone Mrs. Flaxman said, with a reflective air, as she stood polishing the cream jug; "I never expected to see Mr. Winthrop so nice to a woman as he is to you."
"Why, Mrs. Flaxman, do you call him nice?" I asked in amazement.
"Yes, dear, beautifully so. He puts on a brusque outside, but it is as much to conceal his liking for you as anything, and then he does more for you than he would for any one else in the world. Now, if I had tried for a lifetime, I could not have got him out to Beech Street Church and I doubt if there is any one besides yourself could have done it. Some men, unknown to themselves, have strong paternal instincts; and it only requires the right touch to waken these instincts."
"But he is too young to be my father; and any way he said he was not anxious for me to regard him in that way," I remonstrated.
"He is old in heart if not in years, my child. His has been an intense and also bitter life,—the last few years at least."
"Yes, I know," I said unthinkingly; "but a man like Mr. Winthrop is foolish to let a woman like Mrs. Le Grande embitter his life."
"Medoline, where did you hear of Mrs. Le Grande?" she asked sharply.
My face crimsoned guiltily, but I remained silent.
"Was it Mrs. Blake, or any of the Mill Road people told you?"
"No, indeed. I have told you before they never gossip about him."
"Was it any of our own friends, the Carters, or Flemings? I know they are vulgarly inclined, for all they are in good society."
"It was none of these, nor any one you have seen for a good many years, that told me what I know."
"You must tell me, Medoline, who told you. It is the first time I have tried to force your confidence."
"But I have promised not to tell you."
"Had you met Mrs. Le Grande before you were with her yesterday when she fainted in church?"
My answer was a sob.
"Where had you met her, Medoline?"
"You will tell Mr. Winthrop, and he will never forgive me."
"Then you have really been with her?"
"Yes, she sent me a letter requesting me to visit her."
"And you went. When was this?"
"A week ago. But I did not dream she was a rich woman or had ever known Mr. Winthrop. I thought it was some one poor and in distress. I did not know it was a person suffering from heartbreak."
"Heart-break!" she exclaimed, with such a flash of scorn, that the surprise her words created effectually dried my tears.
"She has no heart to get broken, except the organ that propels her blood—even a cat has the same."
"She is very beautiful, and is also extremely anxious to make reparation to Mr. Winthrop for the wrong she has done him."
"She is as heartless and selfish as she is beautiful; and if she were to be allowed the privilege of making reparation, the second offence would be worse than the original one. But we will not mention her name again. Leave her alone as she deserves."
"She compelled me to give my promise to go and see her again. She looks for me to-day."
"Medoline, have you no sense of propriety? Mr. Winthrop's ward visiting, unknown to him, the woman who wrought him such grievous wrong? Can you expect him to forgive such an act, especially when he was getting to have such confidence in your honesty and purity?"
"You will tell Mr. Winthrop?"
"I must obey him. It was his hope you would never hear the disgraceful story. His special command if you did that I must tell him directly. I promised to do so and I must fulfill that promise, but at a cost, Medoline, that I dare not think of."
"Will you go directly then? Maybe this is my last day at Oaklands. I shall not stay here to suffer his contempt and displeasure." I said wearily, my bodily misery dulling to some extent the mental pain; for I was growing sick rapidly. With difficulty I gained the shelter of my own room, my one haven of refuge in the wide world. Crouching by the window I watched the mad, hurrying storm outside, and wondering vaguely if nature suffered in this elemental warfare as we did in our tempests of the soul when the very foundations of hope and happiness were getting swept from our feet. In imagination I re-lived my past months at Oaklands, my intercourse with Mr. Winthrop, his gradually increasing esteem, the friendship, nay rather the comradeship that was being cemented between us over literature and art, the help he was giving me in these, and the rare life that imagination was beginning to picture that we might enjoy through coming years together.
I realized then, as never before, how happy I had been in my new home; and with a clearness that gave me pain came the consciousness how much my guardian had become to me. After to-day I might never again call Oaklands my home. If I had gone at once and confessed to Mr. Winthrop on my return that day from Linden Lane that I had met Mrs. Le Grande he could not have been reasonably angry with me; but I had concealed from him the fact, and had also promised her another interview, and now with vision grown suddenly clear I could realize how he would receive my unwilling confession, after a whole week's silence. With aching head and heart I wondered at the cruelty of circumstance that forced the innocent to suffer with the guilty.
With my intense nature, so susceptible either to pleasure or pain, those lonely hours in my own room, that bitter day, left their trace on heart and body for long weary weeks. When at last Mrs. Flaxman came to me, her own face sad and troubled, I no longer felt the cold in my fireless room; for the blood now was rushing feverishly in my veins, and my head throbbing with intense pain. I listened to what she had to say in a dazed, half-conscious way. I heard her say something about Mr. Winthrop's displeasure, but I was too sick to care very much for anything, just then. I startled her at last by saying:—"I do not understand what you are saying. Please wait and tell me some other time."
"Sure, you have not been sitting all this time here in the cold. You should have gone where it was warm, or rung for Esmerelda to kindle your fire."
I rose and tried to walk across the room; but staggered and would have fallen only that she supported me.
"Are you sick, Medoline?" She asked, in great alarm.
"My head aches and I am very hot," I said uncertainly. I was unused to sickness and scarcely knew how much pain was necessary before I could truthfully say I was ill. I remember thinking the matter over with great seriousness, and wishing Mrs. Blake, with her superior knowledge of bodily ailments, was there to decide, until at last I got tired and tried to forget all about it. Then everything began to grow uncertain. I knew that I was lying in bed and the fire burning brightly in the grate, while persons were passing to and fro; but they did not look familiar. I kept wishing so much that Mrs. Blake would come with her strong, cheery presence to comfort me, and if she would give me a drink of pure cold water from one of her own clean glasses I should be content to turn my face to the wall and sleep. But after a time my one despairing thought was Mr. Winthrop's displeasure, while hour after hour, and day after day, I tried to tell him that I did not mean to deceive him, and wanted to be just to every one alike, but he was never convinced and used to come and go with the same stern, hard look on his face that nearly broke my heart. When just at the point of utter despair, when I thought all had turned against me, Mr. Bowen or Mrs. Blake used to step up and tell me they understood it all and believed in me, then for awhile I would shut my eyes and rest, only to open them again to plead once more for forgiveness; but to plead vainly. Then I would be on the point of leaving Oaklands forever, and bidding good-bye to every one in the household save Mr. Winthrop. He always turned away sternly and refused me his hand. I was not conscious when it was day or night. It was all one perpetual twilight. I would ask if the sun would never rise again, or the moon come back with her soft shining; but no one heeded my questions. I resolved to be so patient after this in answering people's questions when their heads were full of pain, since I knew how sad it was to go on day after day with these puzzling, wearying questions haunting one. Then there came a long, quiet time of utter forgetfulness when I passed down into the very valley of the shadow that Death casts over the nearly disembodied spirit, and here I had rest.
When at last I opened my eyes to see the old, accustomed place and faces, I was like a little child.
I lay quiet for some time wondering if it were possible for me to lift my hand. It was night, for the lamp was burning, and some one was sitting just within the shadow the lamp shade cast. I hoped it was Mrs. Blake, and lay wondering how I could find out. I tried to lift my head, but found the effort so wearying I went back into brief unconsciousness. Presently my eyes opened again; but this time there was a face bending over my bed, so that I had no need to muster my feeble forces to attract their attention. I smiled up weakly into the face that in the dim light I failed to recognize.
"Do you know me, dearie?" I was sure it was Mrs. Blake's voice sounding strong and real.
"Is it Mrs. Blake?" I asked uncertainly.
"Yes, dearie, it jest is." Then I shut my eyes, so tired I could not even think; but I heard a rustling sound, and a voice, that sounded a long way off, murmur, "Thank God!" The voice sounded familiar, but I could not recall whose it was. I tried to do so, but the effort wearied me. A spoon was put to my lips, the milk that was given to me brought back the long ago times—so long ago, I wondered if now I was an old woman; but after brief reflection I knew this could not be, since Mrs. Blake was still alive, and not much older in appearance than when I saw her last. To make sure of the matter I determined to look at her again, and opened my eyes to settle my perplexity; but this time the face looking down at me was not Mrs. Blake's. I tried to raise my head on the pillow the better to see who it was, when the person stooped near to me and said: "You are coming back to us, Medoline." I wondered who was calling me by that name. No one save Mr. Winthrop and Mrs. Flaxman were in the habit now of doing so; but my strength was so rapidly waning I could neither see nor hear very distinctly. After a few seconds, once more rallying all my forces, I looked up again.
"Who is it?" I whispered.
"Do you not know me, Medoline?"
"Is it,"—I paused, trembling so with excitement I could scarce articulate,—"is it Mr. Winthrop?"
"Yes, little one."
The old caressing name he had given me long ago, surely he must have forgiven me or he would not use it now. But I was not satisfied without the assurance that we were to take up again the kindly relations of the past; and so with an effort that seemed likely to sweep me back dangerously near that shore I had so lately been skirting, I looked up and said: "I am sorry I displeased you; won't you forgive me?" My voice was so weak I was afraid he could not catch the words I uttered; but he folded my thin, shadowy hand in his, which seemed so strong and muscular I fancied it could hold me back from the gates of Death if its owner so willed, and after a few seconds' silence, he said, gently: "You must never think of that again, Medoline. Just rest, and come back to us. We all want you more than we can tell."
"Then I am forgiven, and you will trust me once more," I pleaded softly.
"Yes, Medoline, as I expect to be trusted by you," he said, with a solemnity that made me tremble. My eyes closed in utter weariness and then I seemed to be floating, floating over summer seas, and under such peaceful, blessed skies, I began to wonder if I was not passing out to the quiet coast bordering on the Heavenly places.
Of one thing only was I certain—the hand that still held mine, which kept me from drifting quite away from the shores of time. I tried to cling to it, but my hand could only lie nerveless within its firm grasp. I believed if once the hold was loosened I should slip quietly out into the broader sea just beyond me. I wondered which was best—life or death,—then far down in my soul I seemed to grow strong, and could calmly say, "as God wills;" and for a long time I seemed to be passively awaiting His will. It was very strange, the thoughts I had, lying there so far within the border land; as if the faculties of mind and soul had nearly slipped the fleshly leash, and independently of their environment, boldly held counsel, and speculated on the possibilities of their immediate future.
But gradually the wheels of life began to turn more strongly. When next I opened my eyes the daylight was softly penetrating the closely drawn curtains. Mrs. Flaxman was standing near, looking worn and pale; but Mrs. Blake was also there, and loomed up before me, strong as ever—a look into her kindly face was like a tonic. When she saw me watching her she turned around, and very softly whispered to Mrs. Flaxman, who, casting a startled, anxious glance towards me, went silently from the room.
Mrs. Blake, without speaking, gave me some nourishment. After I had taken it I began to feel more like a living creature.
"Mrs. Blake," I whispered. She stooped down to listen. "Tell me, please, how long I have lain here."
"A good long bit, but the doctor says we mustn't talk to you, or let you talk."
"I am so tired thinking; won't you sing to me?"
"My voice ain't no great shakes; but I'll do the very best I can for you, dearie."
She went to the other side of the room, and seating herself in a comfortable easy-chair began in a low, crooning voice to sing one of Doctor Watts' cradle melodies.
Probably she had learned it in childhood from her own mother, and in turn sung it again to the infant Daniel. It soothed me better than Beethoven or Wagner's grandest compositions could have done. I lay with closed eyes, seeing in imagination the great army of mothers who had lulled their babies to sleep with those same words, and the angels hovering near with folded wings guarding the sleeping nestlings.
The voice grew indistinct, and presently sleep, more deep and refreshing than I had known for weeks, enfolded me. The doctor entered the room at last to put a stop to the music, and found Mrs. Blake tired and perspiring, but singing steadily on. Without missing a note she pointed to the bed and the peaceful sleeper. He smiled grimly and withdrew; no doubt realizing there were other soporifics applied by nature than those weighed and measured by the apothecary.
When the curtains were withdrawn from my windows, and I was strong enough to look once more on the outer world, I found the late April sun was bringing back life and beauty to the trees and shrubbery around Oaklands. Thomas and Samuel were well on with their gardening, and already a few brave blossoms were smiling up at us from mother earth. I felt like one who had been visiting dim, mysterious shores, and had got safely back from those outlying regions. I used to lie in those quiet hours of convalescence, trying to decide what was real and what fanciful in the experiences of the last few weeks. When Mrs. Flaxman considered me strong enough to listen to consecutive conversation she gave me the particulars of my sudden attack of illness and the incidents connected therewith.
I was one of the first stricken with a virulent type of typhoid fever which, in very many cases, had proved fatal.
A want of sanitary precaution in Cavendish had caused the outbreak which caused, in loss of life, and incidental expenses, far more than the most approved drainage would do in a generation. I was amazed when the names of my fellow sufferers were mentioned; among them Mrs. Le Grande, whose recovery was still considered by the doctors exceedingly uncertain.
Mr. Winthrop, she informed me, had not sufficient confidence in the local doctors to trust me entirely to their care, and at the height of the fever had sent for one from New York. "But for that," she continued, "I believe you would be in your grave to-day."