Still, though her visit had been most agreeable, it was pleasant to be alone again, when it came to an end, and little Jessie expressed what the others only thought when she said:
"It's nice to have Miss Bethia come once in a while, and it's nice to have her go away, too."
Debby did not come back, but everything went on as nearly as possible as usual in her absence. They hoped to have her again, by and by, so no effort was made to supply her place. If she could not come back, Violet would possibly have to stay at home after the Christmas holidays to help in the house, and in the meantime, David did what "a sensible, well-behaved boy" might be expected to do, to supply her place. And that was a great deal. David was a manly boy, and he was none the less manly that he did a great many things for his mother, that boys are not generally supposed to like to do. What those things were, need not be told, lest boys not so sensible, should call his manliness in question, and so lose their interest in him.
Indeed, it must be confessed that, sensible boy as he was, David himself had some doubts as to the manliness of some of the work that fell to him to do about this time, and did not care that his morning's occupations should be alluded to often, before Jem and Ned. But he had no doubt as to the help and comfort he was to his mother during these days, when she needed both even more than he knew. It is a manly thing in a boy to be his mother's "right hand," and David was that, and more than that, during these happy days, when they were so much alone together.
For they were happy days to them all. In spite of work and weariness, and anxiety, and a sudden sharp dread of something else harder to bear than these, that came now and then to one at least of the household, they were very happy days to them all.
Winter came early this year. Even before November was out, the sleigh-bells were merrily ringing through all the country, and during December more snow fell than had fallen during that month at any time within the memory of "the oldest inhabitant." And after the snow came the wind, tossing it hither and thither, and piling up mountainous drifts in the hollows through which the North Gore road passed, before it crossed Hardscrabble hill. It piled it up on Hardscrabble, too, and on all the hills, so that even if Mr Inglis had been quite well, he could hardly have made it the busiest season of the year in the way of visiting his parishioners, as it was his custom to do.
For usually, at this time, the farmers may enjoy something besides work, the busy season being over; and usually, too, the new farms and back settlements are easy of access, when the ground is frozen and just enough of snow has fallen to cover the roughness of the way. But this year, too much snow had fallen, so that for weeks, there were in some places, no roads at all; and over others, what with the drifts, and what with the difficulty in the sleighs passing one another where the roads were narrow, it would not have been pleasant, or even safe, to go. Mr Inglis would have tried it, doubtless, if he had been quite well, but the cold he had taken on the stormy night when old Mr Bent died, had never quite left him. He did not call himself ill, though his nights were restless, and his days languid, and if the weather had been fine, he would have gone out as usual; but the snow that had fallen, and was still falling, and the wind that roared and whistled, as it piled it up in the hollows and on the hill-sides, helped to make him content to stay at home and rest.
It was rest he needed. He was not ill—only tired, so tired that he did not care during this time of leisure, to pursue the studies that he loved so well, and, for the most part, David read to him. These were happy days to David. Generally in the quiet afternoons, when the children were at school, they were down-stairs in mamma's room, and mamma listened to the reading, too, with little Mary playing out and in of the room beside them. But on the long evenings they usually sat up-stairs in the study, with mamma coming up to see them only now and then. Sometimes there was no reading, and David went on with his lessons as usual, while his father lay on the sofa with closed eyes, thinking over the wonderful truths he wished to speak to the people when the Sabbath came round again.
Sometimes when the children, and even the mother, weary with the day's cares and labours, had gone to rest, David sat with his father far into the night. A prey to the restless wakefulness which, for the time, seems worse to bear than positive illness, Mr Inglis dreaded his bed, and David was only too glad to be allowed to sit with him. Sometimes he read to him, but oftener they talked, and David heard a great many things about his father's life, that he never would have heard but for this time. His father told him about his early home, and his brothers and sisters, and their youthful joys and sorrows—how dearly they had loved one another, and how he had mourned their loss. He told him about his mamma in her girlhood, as she was when he first knew her, how they had loved one another, and how she had blessed all his life till now, and nothing that his father told him filled David's heart with such wonder and pleasure, as did this. And when he added, one night, that to him—her first-born son—his mother must always trust, as her strength and "right hand," he could only find voice to say "Of course, papa," for the joyful throbbing of his heart. David used to tell Violet and Jem some things that his father spoke about, at such times, but this he never told. He mused over it often in the dark, with smiles and happy tears upon his face, and told himself that his mother's strength and "right hand," he would ever be, but it never came into his mind that the time might be drawing near which was to give significance to his father's words.
And so the last weeks of the year passed slowly away. Mr Inglis preached on Sunday as usual, every Sunday at the village, and every alternate Sunday at the Mills and at North Gore. He was quite able to do it, he thought, and though he had restless nights and languid days still, he called himself much better at the beginning of the year, and everything went on as usual in the house. In the village there began to be whispers that it was time for the annual "Donation Visit" to the minister's family, and certain worthy and wise people, upon whom much of the prosperity of the town was supposed to depend, laid their heads together to consult as to how this visit might be made successful in every respect—a visit to be remembered beyond all other visits, for the pleasure and profit it was to bring. But before this—before the old year had come to an end, something else had happened—something that was considered a great event in the Inglis family. They had had several letters from Frank Oswald since his going home, but one day there came a parcel as well, and this, when opened, was found to contain a good many things which were to be accepted by the young Inglises as Christmas gifts. These were very nice, and very satisfactory, as a general thing, but they need not be specified. That which gave more satisfaction to each than all the other things put together, was marked, "With Frank's love to Aunt Mary." And if he had searched through all the city for a gift, he could have found nothing that would have pleased her half so well. For added to her pleasure in receiving was the better pleasure of giving. The present was what she had been wishing for two or three winters past—a fur coat for her husband. It was not a very handsome coat. That is, it was not one of those costly garments, which sometimes rich men purchase and wear, quite as much for appearance as for comfort. It was the best of its kind, however; well made and impervious to the cold, if a coat could be made so; and when papa put it on and buttoned it round him, there were many exclamations of admiration and delight.
"We need not be afraid of Hardscrabble winds any more, papa," said David.
"I should think not. 'Blow winds and crack your cheeks,'" said Jem, laughing.
Little Mary was more than half inclined to be afraid of her papa in his unaccustomed garb, but Ned laughed at her, and made her look at Violet, who was passing her hand over the soft fur, caressing it as if she loved it; and Jessie made them all laugh by telling them that when she became a rich woman, she meant to send a fur coat to all the ministers.
It is possible that some young people, and even some people not young, may smile, and be a little contemptuous over the idea of so much interest and delight in so small a matter. It can only be said of them, that there are some things happening every day in the world, that such people don't know of, and cannot be supposed to understand. That a good woman should have to plan and wait one season, and then another, for the garment much desired—absolutely necessary for the health and comfort of her husband, need not surprise any one. It has happened to other than ministers' wives many a time, I suppose. I know it has happened to some of them. It happened once, certainly, in the experience of Mrs Inglis, and her delight in Frank's present was as real, though not so freely expressed, as was that of her children. It came with less of drawback than usually comes with the receiving of such a present. It came from one whom they believed quite able to give it, and from one whom they knew to be speaking the thought of his heart, when he said that the pleasure of his son Frank—whose present he wished it to be considered—was greater in giving it than theirs could possibly be in receiving it. Then there were thanks for their kindness to his boy, and hopes expressed that the two families would come to know more of each other in the future than had seemed possible in the past, and, altogether, it was a nice letter to send and to receive in the circumstances.
But few pleasures are quite unmixed in this world. Even while Mrs Inglis was rejoicing over her husband's future comfort, and the removal of her own anxiety with regard to it, she could not but say to herself, as she watched his flushed face and languid movements, "If it had only come a little sooner!" But she did not spoil the enjoyment of the rest by uttering her thoughts. Indeed, she was displeased with herself, calling herself unthankful and unduly anxious, and sought with earnestness to put them out of her mind.
There was something else in the letter sent by Mr Oswald, which, for the present, the father and mother did not think it necessary to discuss with the children. This was the offer made to them for David, of the situation as junior clerk in the bank of which Mr Oswald was managing director. There was no immediate necessity of deciding about the matter, as the place would not be vacant till spring, and the father and mother determined to take time to look at the matter in all its lights, before they said anything about it to David. He was already nearly fitted to enter the university, and they hoped that some time or other, means would be found to send him there; but he was too young to enter at once, and, also, he was too young and boyish-looking, to hope for a long time yet to be able to earn means to help himself, as so many students are able to do, by teaching in the public schools. So it seemed likely that this situation might be the very thing they could wish for him for the next few years. However, there were many things to be considered with regard to it. It might unsettle him from his eager pursuit of his studies, and from the cheerful doing of his other duties, were anything to be said about his leaving home just now. So they were silent, and the old year went out, and the new year came in, and everything went on as usual, till the time for the donation visit drew near.
Donation visits ought to be pleasant occasions to all concerned, for we have the very highest authority as to the blessedness of giving, and only mean and churlish natures will refuse to accept graciously what is graciously bestowed. That they often fail to be so, arises less frequently from the lack of "graciousness" on the part of either pastor or people, than from the fact that the principle on which they are often undertaken is a mistaken one—the design to thus supplement some acknowledged deficiency in the matter of the minister's salary. It often happens that the people regard as a gift, what their pastor and his family accept as their right, and thus both parties are defrauded of the mutual benefits which are the result of obligations cheerfully conferred and gratefully received.
The parish of Gourlay was very much like other parishes, in regard to these matters. They were not a rich people. The salary of their minister was moderately liberal, considering their means, but it was scant enough considering the requirements of the minister's family. It was not very regularly, nor very promptly paid; still, in one form or other, the stipulated amount generally found its way to the minister's house in the course of the year. So that the donation visit was not made for the purpose of making up a deficiency in the salary agreed on, but rather as an acknowledgment on the part of some of the people that the salary agreed upon was not sufficient, and as a token of good-will on the part of all.
If it had occurred to the people to put their expression of good-will in the form of increased salary, it would doubtless have been more agreeable to Mr Inglis. Still, he knew that more could be done on an occasion of this kind, with less inconvenience to that part of the people who were most liberal, than could be done in the legitimate way of annual subscriptions, and he had, on the whole, sufficient confidence in their kindly feeling to prevent any very painful sense of obligation in receiving their gifts, and no expression of any such feeling was ever permitted to mar the enjoyment of the occasion, as far as the people were concerned. In short, the minister and his wife had come to consider the annual donation visit, as one of those circumstances in life out of which pain or pleasure may be gotten, according as they are made the worst or the best of by those most concerned; and as they had been making the best of them for a good many years now, they were justified in looking forward to a reasonable amount of enjoyment from this one.
As for the children, they did not think of anything but enjoyment in connection with it. To them the overturning of all things in the house, up-stairs and down, which was considered a necessary part of the preparations, was great fun. Some overturning was absolutely necessary for the entertainment of about a third more people than the house could conveniently hold. So there was the putting aside all brittle articles, the shoving of tables and bureaus into corners, the taking down of beds, and the arranging of seats over all the house. For all the house must be thrown open, and the result was confusion, certainly not so delightful to the mother as to the children. The prospect of the crowd was delightful to them, too, and so were the possibilities in the way of presents. Besides the staples, butter, cheese, flannel, oats, and Indian meal, there was a possibility of something particular and personal to every one of them—chickens, or mittens, or even a book. Once Jem had got a jack-knife, and David a year of "The Youth's Companion." Last year Violet had got a new dress from Mrs Smith, and Jem a pair of boots. Very good boots they had been—they were not bad yet, but the thought of them was not altogether agreeable to Jem. However nice the boots, the being reminded of the gift by Master Smith, and that before all the boys at school, and more than once, was not at all nice; and Jem had to look back with mingled shame and triumph on a slight passage of arms that had been intended to put an end to that sort of thing on Master Smith's part. There was no danger, he thought, of getting any more boots from Mrs Smith, and all the people were not like her and her son.
Out of this trouble about the boots had arisen in Jem's mind some serious misgivings as to the entire desirableness of donation visits. David and Violet had had them before, but they were not so ready to speak of these things as Jem was; or rather as Jem would have been if his conscience had been quite clear as regarded the matter of Master Smith.
"There would be no good in troubling mamma with it," said Jem, and so there had been no exciting of one another by foolish talking; and, indeed, their misgivings had neither been of a depth nor of a nature to spoil the prospect of the visit to them. Great fun was anticipated as usual. Debby, though her sister was by no means well yet, came back to assist in the general confusion.
"There shall be no talk of 'allowances' this time," said Debby; and cellar and garret, pantry, cupboard, and closet, were all put through such a process of purifying and arranging, that not the neatest house-keeper in Gourlay could have the least chance or excuse for hinting that any "allowances" were needed. Debby's honour as a house-keeper was at stake, to say nothing of the honour of Mrs Inglis.
"It seems as natural as possible to get back to the old spot," said Debby; "and I wish to goodness sister Serepta would get well, or do something else. I mean, I wish she would go and stay to Uncle Jason's, or have Aunt Myra come and stay with her. I'm thankful your ma's got along so far, without any of those shiftless Simmses or Martins in to help her. But she's looking a kind of used up, ain't she? And it beats all how your pa's cold hangs on, don't it?"
"Oh! papa is much better," said David, eagerly, "and mamma is quite well. She is tired, but now you are here, she just lets things go, and rests. She knows it will be all right."
"That's so," said Debby, "and she can't do better."
And, indeed, she could not. Her affairs were in good hands. Debby was "as smart as a trap," and capable of anything in the way of house-keeping duties. And though not blessed with the mildest temper— people "as smart as traps" seldom are—she had the faculty of adapting herself to circumstances, and of identifying herself with the family in which she lived, in a way that stood in stead of a good deal. She was quite too smart for the patient endurance of the whims of a nervous invalid, and found positive refreshment in the present bustle and hurry, and was inclined not only to be agreeable, but confidential on the occasion.
"It's to be hoped it will amount to something this time," said she. "All this fuss and worry ought not to go for nothing, that's a fact. It would suit better all round, if they'd pay your pa at first, and have done with it. I don't believe in presents myself—not till folks' debts are paid at any rate," said Debby, looking at the subject from the minister's family's point of view. "But I ain't going to begin on that. Miss Bethia—she's been letting in the light on some folks' mind, but as this visit has got to be, I only hope we'll get enough to pay us for our trouble; and I wish it were well over."
The eventful evening came at last. It would be quite impossible to give here a full and clear account of all that was said and done, and given and received that night. It was a very successful visit, whether considered socially, or with reference to the results in the way of donations. Afterwards—a good while afterwards—they all used to think and speak of it as a delightful visit indeed. It was not without its little drawbacks, but on the whole, it was a delightful visit even at the time, and afterwards all drawbacks were forgotten. Jem had a little encounter with Mrs Smith, which he did not enjoy much at the moment, but which did not spoil the remembrance of it to him. She did not seem to resent his conduct about the boots. On the contrary, she placed him under still further obligations to her by presenting him with the "makings" of a jacket, which Jem accepted shamefacedly, but still gratefully enough, quite forgetting the dignified resolution he had confided to David, to decline all further favours from her with thanks.
David enjoyed the evening for the same reasons that all the rest enjoyed it, and so did Violet, and for another reason besides. For the very first time, she was spoken to, and treated as if she were a grown-up young lady, and a little girl no longer. This was delightful to Violet, who, though she was nearly sixteen, was small of her age, and had always been one of the children like all the rest. It was old Mrs Kerr, from the Gore Corner, who spoke to her about it first.
"A great help you must be to your mother with the house-keeping, and with the children and all," said that nice old lady. "It's a fine thing to have a grown-up daughter in the house. Only the chances are you'll just go and leave her, as mine have done."
Violet smiled, and blushed, and was conscience-stricken, not at the thought of going away to leave her mother one day, as Mrs Kerr's daughters had done, but because she knew she had never really been much help to her mother either at the sewing or the house-keeping—not half so much as Davie had been since Debby went away. For Letty was very fond of her books, and, indeed, her duty as well as her inclination had encouraged her devotion to them, at least until lately; but she was inclined to confess her faults to the old lady, lest she should think of her what was not true.
"Never mind. It will come in good time. And there's small blame to you for liking the books best, since you're your father's child, as well as your mother's," said Mrs Kerr, kindly. "And, indeed, they say folk can make hard work at the books, as well as at other things, and there's no fear of you, with your mother to teach you the other things, and you growing so womanly and big withal."
It was a very successful visit in every way. There never had been so many people present on such an occasion before; there never had been so many nice things brought and eaten. The coffee was good, and so was the tea, and the singing. The young people had a good time together, and so had the old people. The donations were of greater value than usual, and when he presented the money part of it to Mr Inglis, Mr Spry made a speech, which would have been very good "if he had known when he had done, and stopped," Debby said, and the rest thought it was not bad as it was. And the minister certainly made a good speech when he received it.
He did not use many words in thanking the people for their gifts, but they were just the right words, and "touched the spot," Debby said to Miss Bethia, who agreed. And then he went on to say what proved to these two, and to them all, that there was something for which he cared more than he cared for what they had to give. And they all remembered afterwards, though no one missed them at the time, that the few playful words that he was wont to address to the young men and maidens of the congregation on such occasions, were not spoken, but the words he did speak to them were such as some of them will never forget while they live.
It was all over at last, and the tired household was left to rest, and they awoke to a comfortless house next day. The boys helped to take out the boards and benches that had been used as seats, and to move back to their places the furniture that had been removed, and then the children went to school. Violet offered to stay at home and help to arrange the house, but Debby declared herself equal to the clearing up, and was not complimentary in her remarks as to her skill and ability in such matters, so Letty, nothing loth, went away with the rest. It was an uncomfortable day. Mr Inglis had taken more cold, at least his cough was worse, and he stayed up-stairs in his study, and David was glad when the time came that he could stay there too. However, there came order out of the confusion at last. It was a good job well over, Debby declared, and all agreed with her.
"I hate to go as bad as you hate to have me," said she, in answer to Letty's lamentations over her departure. "I don't know but your mother had better have one of those shiftless Simmses than nobody at all. There's considerable many steps to be taken in this house, as nobody knows better than me; and I hadn't the responsibility of mother's meetings, and worrying over your pa, as she has. If I were you, I'd take right hold and help, and never mind about going to school, and examination, and such, for your ma's got more than she ought to do. I must try and doctor Serepta up, so as to get back again, or there'll be something to pay. Well, good-bye! I'll be down next week, if I can fix it so, to see how you're getting along."
Letty stood looking after her disconsolately. To stay at home from school, and give up all thoughts of prizes at the coming examination, were among the last things she would like to do, to say nothing of the distasteful housework. Still, if her mother needed her, she ought to do it, and she made up her mind to do it cheerfully if it must be. But she did not need to do it. It was of more importance that she should get on with her studies, so as to be ready to do her duty as a teacher by and by, than that she should help at home just now, her mother thought, and so for a few weeks longer, everything went on as before.
David helped his mother still, doing with skill and success a great many things which at first he had not liked to do at all. He did not get on with his studies as he would have wished, partly because he had less time than usual, and partly because his father was less able to interest himself in what he was doing. David sometimes grumbled a little to Jem about it, because he feared he should not find himself so far before Ned Hunter at the end of the year, as he wished to be; and once he said something of the kind to his mother. But that was a very small matter, in her opinion.
"For after all, Davie, my boy, the Greek, and Latin, and mathematics you are so eager for, are chiefly valuable to you as a means of discipline— as a means of preparing you for the work that is before you in the world. And I am not sure but that the discipline of little cares and uncongenial work that has come upon you this winter, may answer the purpose quite as well. At any rate, the wish to get on with your studies for the sake of excelling Ned Hunter, is not very creditable."
"No, mamma. But still I think it is worth something to be able to keep up with one who has had so much money spent on him, at the best schools, and I here at home all the time. Don't you think so, mamma?"
"Well!—perhaps so. But the advantages are not all on Ned's side. Your father's help and interest in all you have been doing, has been worth more to you than any school could have been."
"That's true, mamma," said Davie, heartily. "And it is not like having lessons—tasks, I mean—to study with papa. It is pure pleasure. And that is more than Ned can say, I am afraid," added he, laughing.
"And, besides, I don't think these things would have troubled you much under any circumstances; and, as I said before, the self-denial you have had to exercise, may be better for you than even success in your studies would be."
"Self-denial, mamma! Why, I think we have had a very happy winter, so far!"
"Indeed, we have! even with some things that we might have wished different. And, Davie, you must not think you have been losing time. A boy cannot be losing time, who is being a comfort to his father and mother. And self-denial is a better thing to learn even than Greek. If you live long, you will have more use for the one than for the other, I have no doubt."
David laughed, and blushed with pleasure at his mother's words.
"I am glad that you think so—I mean that I have been a comfort. But as for the self-denial, I don't believe any of the boys have had a better time than I have had this winter. If papa were only well! But he is better now, mamma?"
"Yes; I hope so. If it were May instead of January, I should not be afraid."
"Have you been afraid, mamma? Are you afraid?" asked David, startled.
"No—not really afraid, only anxious, and, indeed, I am becoming less so every day."
And there seemed less cause. Wrapped in his wonderful coat of fur and driven by David, the minister went here and there among his people, just as usual, and had a great deal of satisfaction in it, and was not more tired at such times than he had often been before. He preached on Sunday always at the village, and generally at his other stations as well, and David might well say these were happy days.
Yes, they were happy days, and long to be remembered, because of the sorrowful days that came after them. Not but that the sorrowful days were happy days, too, in one sense; at least, they were days which neither David nor his mother would be willing ever to forget.
Young people do not like to hear of sorrowful days, and sometimes think and say, that at least all such should be left out of books. I should say so, too, if they could also be kept out of one's life, but sorrowful days will not be kept away by trying to forget them. And besides, life itself would not be better by their being left out, for out of such have come, to many a one, the best and most enduring of blessings. It does not need any words of mine to prove that God does not send them in anger to his people, but in love. We have His own word for that, repeated again and again. And if we did but know it, there are many days to which we look forward—which we hail with joyful welcome, of which we have more cause to be afraid, than of the days of trouble that are sent us by God.
February came in with wind and rain—a sudden thaw, levelling the great drifts, and sending down through all the hollows swift rushes of snow-water to cover the ice on the river—to break it up in some places, to fill the channel full till all the meadows above the millpond were quite overflowed. It did not last long. It cleared the third night, and so sudden and sharp was the coming of the cold, that not a murmur of water was to be heard where it had rushed in torrents the day before, and the millpond, and the meadows above, lay in the sunshine like a sheet of molten silver.
In this sudden change, Mr Inglis took cold. It had been like that all winter. His illness had been very severe, but just as he seemed ready to throw it off and be himself again, he always seemed to take more cold, and went back again. It was very trying—very discouraging. This was what David and Jem were saying to one another one afternoon, as they took their way down to the mill-dam where many of their companions had gone before them. It quite spoiled David's pleasure to think about it, and even Jem looked grave as they went on together.
However, there are few troubles that a pair of skates, and a mile, more or less, of shining ice, have not power to banish, for a time, at least, from the minds of boys of twelve and fourteen; and so when they came home, and their mother met them at the door, telling Jem that he was to go and ask Dr Gore to come up again, it gave them both a new shock of pain, and David asked, "Is papa worse, mamma?" with such a sinking of the heart, as he had never felt before.
"Not seriously worse, I hope," said his mother. "Still the doctor may as well come up. It will be safest."
Just a little fresh cold, the doctor said, and Mr Inglis must take care of himself for a few days. The remedies which he prescribed had the desired effect. In a day or two he was as well as usual; but on Sunday, when he was nearly through with the morning service, his voice failed so utterly that his last words were lost to all.
Of course there was no possibility of his going to the Gore in the afternoon. He could only rest at home, hoping and believing that he would be well in a little while. Indeed, the thought of the disappointment to the congregation who would assemble in the afternoon, was more in his thoughts than any future danger to himself. There need be no disappointment—at least, the people need not be made to wait; and David and Jem were sent to tell them that their father was not able to come, and that they were to read a sermon, and Mr Spry was to conduct the service as he had sometimes done before.
They took with them a sermon chosen by their father; but Mr Spry was not there, nor Mr Fiske, nor any one who thought himself capable of reading it as it ought to be read.
"Suppose you give them Miss Bethia's sermon, Davie," said Jem, laughing.
"Don't, Jem," said David, huskily. Something rising in his throat would hardly let him say it, for the remembrance of old Tim, and that fair day, and of his father's face, and voice, and words, came back upon him with a rush, and the tears must have come if he had spoken another word.
"Is there no one here that can read? Papa will be disappointed," said he, in a little.
No. There seemed to be no one. One old gentleman had not brought his glasses; another could not read distinctly, because of the loss of his front teeth; no one there was in the habit of reading aloud.
"Suppose you read it, David? You will do it first-rate," said old Mr Wood. "We'll manage the rest."
David looked grave. "Go ahead, Davie," said Jem.
"What would papa say?" said David.
"He would be pleased, of course. Why not?" said Jem, promptly.
So when the singing and prayers were over, some one spoke to him again, and he rose and opened the book with a feeling that he was dreaming, and that he would wake up by and by, and laugh at it all. It was like a dream all through. He read very well, or the people thought he did; he read slowly and earnestly, without looking up, and happily forgot that Jem was there, or he might have found it difficult to keep from wondering how he was taking it, and from looking up to see.
But Jem had the same dreamy feeling on him, too. It seemed so strange to be there without his father, and to be listening to Davie's voice; and nothing was farther from his mind than that there was anything amusing in it all. For sitting there, with his head leaning on his hands, a very terrible thought came to Jem. What if he were never to hear his father's voice in this place again? What if he were never to be well?—what if he were going to die!
He was angry with himself in a minute. It was a very foolish thought, he said; wrong even, it seemed to him. Nothing was going to happen to his father. He was not very ill. He would be all right again in a day or two. Jem was indignant with himself because of his thoughts; and roused himself, and by and by began to take notice how attentively all the people were listening, and thought how he would tell them all about it at home, and how pleased his father and mother would be. He did not try to listen, himself, but mused on from one thing to another, till he quite forgot his painful thoughts, and in a little the book was closed and David sat down.
They hurried away as quickly as they could, but not before they had to repeat over and over again to the many who crowded round them to inquire, that their father was not ill, at least not worse than he had been, only he had taken cold and was hoarse and not able to speak—that was all.
But the thought that perhaps it might not be all, lay heavy on their hearts all the way home, and made their drive a silent one. It never came into Jem's mind to banter Davie about the new dignity of his office as reader, as at first he had intended to do, or, indeed, to say anything at all, till they were nearly home. As for David, he was going over and over the very same things that had filled his mind when he drove his father from old Tim's funeral—"A good soldier of Jesus Christ," and all that was implied in the name, and his father's words about "the enrolling of one's name;" and he said to himself that he would give a great deal to be sure that his name was enrolled, forgetting that the whole world could not be enough to buy what God had promised to him freely—a name and a place among His people.
"I hope we shall find papa better," said Jem, as old Don took his usual energetic start on the hill near the bridge.
"Oh! he is sure to be better," said David. But he did not feel at all sure of it, and he could not force himself to do anything for old Don's comfort till he should see what was going on in the house. The glimpse he got when he went in was re-assuring. Violet was laying the table for tea, and singing softly to herself as she went through the house. His father and mother were in the sitting-room with the rest of the children, and they were both smiling at one of little Polly's wise speeches as he went in.
"Well, Davie, you are home again safely," said his mother.
"All right, mamma. I will tell you all about it in a minute," said David. "All right," he repeated, as he went out again to Jem, lifting a load from his heart, and from his own, too, with the word.
But was it really "all right?" Their father's face said it plainly, they thought, when they went in, and their mother's face said it, too, with a difference. A weight was lifted from Jem's heart, and his spirits rose to such a happy pitch that, Sunday as it was, and in his father's presence, he could hardly keep himself within quiet bounds, as he told them about the afternoon, and how David had read so well, and what all the people had said. David's heart was lightened, too, but he watched the look on his mother's face, and noticed that she hardly spoke a word—not even to check Jem, when the laughter of the children and Letty grew too frequent, and a little noisy, as they sat together before the lamp was lighted.
"It is all right, I hope," said he, a little doubtfully. "It would be all right for papa, whichever way it were to end—and for mamma, too,— in one sense—and for all of us," added he, with a vague idea of the propriety of submission to God's will under any circumstances. "But papa is not worse—I think he is not worse, and it will be all right by and by when summer comes again." But he still watched his mother's face, and waited anxiously for her word to confirm his hope.
It was all right, because nothing which is God's will can be otherwise to those who put their trust in Him. But it was not all right in the sense that David was determined to hope. Though he found them sitting so calmly there when he came home that night, and though the evening passed so peacefully away, with the children singing and reading as usual, and the father and mother taking interest in it all, they had experienced a great shock while the boys were away.
Gradually, but very plainly, the doctor had for the first time spoken of danger. Absolute rest for the next three months could alone avert it. The evidence of disease was not very decided, but the utter prostration of the whole system, was, in a sense, worse than positive disease. To be attacked with serious illness now, or even to be over-fatigued might be fatal to him.
It was not Dr Gore who spoke in this way, but a friend of his who was visiting him, and whom he had brought to see his patient. He was a friend of the minister, too, and deeply interested in his case, and so spoke plainly. Though Dr Gore regretted the abruptness of his friend's communication, and would fain have softened it for their sakes, he could not dissent from it. But both spoke of ultimate recovery provided three months of rest—absolute rest, as far as public duty was concerned, were secured. Or it would be better still, if, for the three trying months that were before him, he could go away to a milder climate, or even if he could get any decided change, provided he could have rest with it.
The husband and wife listened in silence, at the first moment not without a feeling of dismay. To go away for a change was utterly impossible, they put that thought from them at once. To stay at home in perfect rest, seemed almost impossible, too. They looked at one another in silence. What could be said?
"We will put it all out of our thoughts for to-day, love," said Mr Inglis, in his painful whisper, when they were left alone. "At least we will not speak of it to one another. We must not distrust His loving care of us, dear, even now."
They did not speak of it to one another, but each apart spoke of it to Him who hears no sorrowful cry of his children unmoved. He did not lift the cloud that gloomed so darkly over them. He did not by a sudden light from Heaven show them a way by which they were to be led out of the darkness, but in it He made them to feel His presence. "Fear not, for I am with thee. Be not dismayed, for I am thy God!" and lo! "the darkness was light about them!"
So when the boys came home the father's face said plainly what both heart and lip could also say, "It is all right." And the mother's said it, too, with a difference.
Of course, all that the doctors had said was not told to the children. Indeed the father and mother did not speak much about it to each other for a good many days. Mr Inglis rested, and in a few days called himself nearly well again, and but for the doctor's absolute prohibition, would have betaken himself to his parish work as usual. It was not easy for him to submit to inactivity, for many reasons that need not be told, and when the first Sabbath of enforced silence came round, it found him in sore trouble, knowing, indeed, where to betake himself, but feeling the refuge very far away.
That night he first spoke to David of the danger that threatened him. They were sitting together in the twilight. The mother and the rest were down-stairs at the usual Sunday reading and singing, which the father had not felt quite able to bear, and now and then the sound of their voices came up to break the stillness that had fallen on these two. David had been reading, but the light had failed him, and he sat very quiet, thinking that his father had fallen asleep. But he had not.
"Davie," said he, at last, "what do you think is the very hardest duty that a soldier may be called to do?"
David was silent a minute, partly from surprise at the question, and partly because he had been thinking of all that his father had been suffering on that sorrowful silent day, and he was not quite sure whether he could find a voice to say anything. For at morning worship, the father had quite broken down, and the children had been awed and startled by the sight of his sudden tears. All day long David had thought about it, and sitting there beside him his heart had filled full of love and reverent sympathy, which he never could have spoken, even if it had come into his mind to try. But when his father asked him that question, he answered, after a little pause:
"Not the fighting, papa, and not the marching. I think perhaps the very hardest thing would be to stand aside and wait, while the battle is going on."
"Ay, lad! you are right there," said his father, with a sigh. "Though why you should look on it in that way, I do not quite see."
"I was thinking of you, papa," said David, very softly; and in a little he added: "This has been a very sad day to you, papa."
"And I have not been giving you a lesson of trust and cheerful obedience, I am afraid. Yes, this has been a sad, silent day, Davie, lad. But the worst is over. I trust the worst is over now."
David answered nothing to this, but came closer, and leaned over the arm of the sofa on which his father lay, and by and by his father said:
"My boy, it is a grand thing to be a soldier of Jesus Christ, willing and obedient. And whether it is marching or fighting, or only waiting, our Commander cannot make a mistake. It ought to content us to know that, Davie, lad."
"Yes, papa," said David.
"Yes," added his father, in a little. "It is a wonderful thing to belong to the great army of the Lord. There is nothing else worth a thought in comparison with that. It is to fight for Right against Wrong, for Christ and the souls of men, against the Devil—with the world for a battle ground, with weapons 'mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds'—under a Leader Divine, invincible, and with victory sure. What is there beyond this? What is there besides?"
He was silent, but David said nothing, and in a little while he went on again:
"But we are poor creatures, Davie, for all that. We grow weary with our marching; turned aside from our chosen paths, we stumble and are dismayed, as though defeat had overtaken us; we sit athirst beside our broken cisterns, and sicken in prisons of our own making, believing ourselves forgotten. And all the time, our Leader, looking on, has patience with us—loves us even, holds us up, and leads us safe through all, and gives us the victory at the end. 'Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory!'" said Mr Inglis, and in a minute he repeated the words again.
Then he lay still for a long time, so long that it grew dark, except for the light of the new moon, and David, kneeling at the head of the sofa, never moved, thinking that his father slumbered now, or had forgotten him. But by and by he spoke again:
"When I was young, just beginning the conflict, I remember saying to myself, if God will give me twenty years in which to fight His battles, I will be content. The twenty years are almost over now. Ah! how little I have gained for Him from the enemy! Yet I may have to lay down my armour now, just as you are ready to put it on, Davie, my son."
"Papa! I am not worthy—" said David, with a sob.
"Worthy? No. It is a gift He will give you—as the crown and the palm of the worthiest will be His free gift at last. Not worthy, lad, but willing, I trust."
"Papa—I cannot tell. I am afraid—"
He drew nearer, kneeling still, and laid his face upon his father's shoulder.
"Of what are you afraid, Davie? There is nothing you need fear, except delay. You cannot come to Him too soon. David, when you were the child of an hour only, I gave you up to God to be His always. I asked Him to make you a special messenger of His to sinful men. His minister. That may be if He wills. I cannot tell. But I do know that He will that you should be one of His 'good soldiers.'"
There was a long silence, for it tired him to speak, and David said nothing. By and by his father said:
"How can I leave your mother to your care, unless I know you safe among those whom God guides? But you must give yourself to Him. Your mother will need you, my boy, but you may fight well the battles of the Lord, even while working with your hands for daily bread. And for the rest, the way will open before you. I am not afraid."
"Papa," said David, raising himself up to look into his father's face, "why are you saying all this to me to-night?"
"I am saying it to you because you are your mother's first-born son, and must be her staff and stay always. And to-night is a good time to say it."
"But, papa," said the boy with difficulty, "it is not because you think you are going to die? Does mamma know?"
"I do not know, my son. Death has seemed very near to me to-day. And it has been often in your mother's thoughts of late, I do not doubt. My boy! it is a solemn thing to feel that death may be drawing near. But I am not afraid. I think I have no cause to be afraid."
He raised himself up and looked into the boy's face with a smile, as he repeated:
"David—I have no cause to fear—since Jesus died."
"No, papa," said David, faintly. "But mamma—and—all of us."
"Yes, it will be sad to leave you, and it will be sad for you to be left. But I am not afraid. 'Leave thy fatherless children; I will preserve them alive, and let thy widow trust in me.' He has said it, and He will bring it to pass. The promise is more to me, to-night, than untold wealth could be. And Davie, I leave them to your care. You must take my place with them, and comfort your mother, and care for your brothers and sisters. And David you must be a better soldier than I have ever been."
David threw himself forward with a cry.
"Oh papa! how can I? how can I? I am afraid, and I do not even know that my name is enrolled, and that is the very first—"
"My boy! But you may know. Have you ever given yourself to our great leader? Have you asked him to enrol your name? Ask Him now. Do not I love you? His love is greater far than mine!"
There had been moments during that day when the Lord had seemed very far away from His servant, but he felt Him to be very near Him now, as he poured out his heart in prayer for his son. He did not use many words, and they were faintly and feebly uttered, but who shall doubt but they reached the ear of the Lord waiting to hear and answer. But they brought no comfort to David that night. Indeed he hardly heard them. There was only room in his heart for one thought. "Death may be drawing near!" his father had said, and beyond that he could not look. It was too terrible to believe. He would not believe it. He would not have it so.
By and by when there came the sound of footsteps on the stairs, he slipped unseen out of the room, and then out of the house, and seeking some place where he might be alone, he went up into the loft above old Don's crib, and lay down upon the hay, and wept and sobbed his heart out there. He prayed, too, asking again for the blessing which his father had asked for him; and for his father's life. He prayed earnestly, with strong crying and tears; but in his heart he knew that he cared more for his father's life and health than for the better blessing, and though he wept all his tears out, he arose uncomforted. The house was still and dark when he went in. His mother had thought that he had gone to bed, and Jem that he was sitting in the study as he often did, and he was fast asleep when David lay down beside him, and no one knew the pain and dread that was in his heart that night.
But when he rose in the morning, and went down-stairs, and heard the cheerful noise of the children, and saw his mother going about her work as she always did, all that had happened last night seemed to him like a dream. By and by his father came among them, no graver than in other days, and quite as well as he had been for a long time, and everything went on as usual all day, and for a good many days. Nobody seemed afraid. His mother was watchful, and perhaps a little more silent than usual, but that was all. As for his father, the worst must have been past that night, as he had said, for there was no cloud over him now. He was cheerful always—even merry, sometimes, when he amused himself with little Polly and the rest. He was very gentle with them all, more so than usual, perhaps, and David noticed that he had Violet and Jem alone with him in the study now and then. Once when this happened with Jem, David did not see him again all day, and afterwards—a long time afterwards—Jem told him that he had spent that afternoon in the hay-loft above old Don's crib.
At such times he used to wonder whether their father spoke to them as he had spoken to him that night, when he told him how "Death might be drawing near." But they never spoke to one another about it. And, indeed, it was not difficult during those cheerful quiet days, to put such thoughts out of their minds. The people came and went, looking grave sometimes, but not as though they had any particular cause for fear. The minister went out almost every fine day with David or his mother, or with Jem if it was Saturday, for the children were growing almost jealous of one another, as to opportunities for doing things for papa, and Jem must have his turn, too.
How kind all the people were! Surely there never was anything like it before, the children thought. Some among them whom they had not much liked, and some whom they had hardly known, came out in a wonderful way with kind words and kinder deeds, and if kindness and thoughtfulness, and love that was almost reverence, would have made him well, he would soon have been in his old place among them again. His place on Sunday was supplied as often as possible from abroad, and when it could not be, the people managed as well as they could, and that was better than usual, for all hearts were softened and touched by the sorrow that had come on them as a people, and nothing was allowed to trouble or annoy the minister that could be prevented by them. They would have liked him to go away as the doctor had advised, and the means would have been provided to accomplish it, but the minister would not hear of being sent away. He felt, he said, that he would have a better chance for recovery at home. Not that there was any chance in that, according to his thought. It was all ordered, and it would all be well, whichever way it was to end, and he was best and happiest at home.
And so the time passed on, and then, and afterwards, no one ever thought or spoke of these days but as happy days. And yet, in the secret heart of every one of them, of the mother and the children, and of the kind people that came and went, there was a half-conscious waiting for something that was drawing near. It was a hope, sometimes, and sometimes it was a dread. The neighbours put it into words, and the hopeful spoke of returning health and strength, and of the lessons of faith and love they should learn by and by, through the experience of the minister in the sick room; and those who were not hopeful, spoke of other lessons they might have to learn through other means. But in the house they only waited, speaking no word of what the end might be.
At last there came a day, when no words were needed, to tell what messenger of the King was on his way. The hushed voices of the children, the silence in the house, told it too plainly. The laboured breathing of the sick man, the feverish hand, the wandering eye, were visible tokens that death was drawing near. The change came suddenly. They were not prepared for it, they said. But there are some things for which we cannot make ourselves ready, till we feel ourselves shuddering under the blow.
Ah! well. He was ready, and the rest mattered little. Even the mother said that to herself and to him, with the sobbing of their children in her ears. She did not sob nor cry out in her pain, but kept her face calm and smiling for him till the very last. And because, with his laboured breathing, and the pain which held him fast, he could not say to her that which was in his heart, she said it all to him—how they had loved one another, and how God had cared for them always, and how happy they had been, and how, even in the parting that was before them, God's time was best, and she was not afraid.
And she was not afraid! Looking into those triumphant eyes, glad with the brightness of something that she could not see, how could she be afraid? "For neither life nor death, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord," she murmured, comforting him with her words. He was dying! He was leaving her and their children alone, with God's promise between them and poverty, and nothing else. Nothing else! Is not that enough? Think of it! God's promise!
"I am not afraid!" She said the words over and over again. "Why should I be afraid? There are things far worse than poverty to bear. 'Our bread shall be given us, and our water sure.' I might be afraid for our children without you, had they the temptations of wealth to struggle with. Their father's memory will be better to them than lands or gold. Put it all out of your thoughts, dear love. I am not afraid."
Afterwards the doubt might come—the care, the anxiety, the painful reckoning of ways and means, to her who knew that the roof that covered them and the daily bread of her children, depended on the dear life now ebbing so fast away. But now, seeing—not Heaven's light, indeed, but the reflection of its glory on his face, she no more feared life than he feared death, now drawing so near. The children came in, at times, and looked with sad, appealing eyes from one face to the other to find comfort, and seeing her so sweet and calm and strong, went out to whisper to one another that mamma was not afraid. All through these last days of suffering the dying father never heard the voice of weeping, or saw a token of fear or pain. Just once, at the very first, seeing the sign of the coming change on his father's face, David's heart failed him, and he leaned, for a moment, faint and sick upon his mother's shoulder. But it never happened again till the end was near. Seeing his mother, he grew calm and strong, trying to stand firm in this time or trouble that she might have him to lean on when the time of weakness should come. The others came and went, but David never left his mother's side. And she watched and waited, and took needful rest that she might keep calm and strong to the very end; and the dying eyes never rested on her face but they read there, "God is good, and I am not afraid."
And so the time wore on till the last night came. They did not know it was the last night; and the mother lay down within call, for an hour or two, and David watched alone. Will he ever forget those hours, so awful yet so sweet?
"It is 'the last evening,' Davie, lad!" said his father, in gasps, between his hard-drawn breaths. "Strong, but not invincible! Say something to me, dear."
"'He, also, Himself likewise took part of the same, that through death He might destroy him that hath the power of death—.'" David paused.
"Go on, dear," said his father.
"'And deliver them who through fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage.'"
"I am not—afraid! Tell me more."
"'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but to all them also that love His appearing.'"
"His gift, dear boy, His gift! Say something more."
"'In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us—'" went on David, but he had no power to add another word, and his father murmured on:
"Loved us! Wonderful!—wonderful! And gave—Himself—for us."
And then he seemed to slumber for awhile, and when he awoke David was not sure that he knew him, for his mind seemed wandering, and he spoke as if he were addressing many people, lifting his hand now and then as if to give emphasis to his words. But his utterance was laboured and difficult, and David only caught a word here and there. "A good fight"—"the whole armour"—"more than conquerors." Once he said, suddenly:
"Are you one of them, Davie? And are you to stand in my place and take up the weapons that I must lay down?"
David felt that he knew Him then, and he answered:
"Papa, with God's help, I will."
And then there came over his father's face a smile, oh! so radiant and so sweet, and he said:
"Kiss me, Davie!" And then he murmured a word or two—"Thanks!" and "Victory!" and these were the very last words that David heard his father utter; for, when he raised himself up again, his mother was beside him, and the look on her face, made bright to meet the dying eyes, was more than he could bear.
"Lie down a little, Davie. You are quite worn out," said she, softly, soothing him with hand and voice.
But he could not go away. He sat down on the floor, and laid his face on the pillow of little Mary's deserted cot, and by and by his mother came and covered him with a shawl, and he must have fallen asleep, for when he looked up again there were others in the room, and his mother's hand was laid on his father's closed eyes.
Of the awe and stillness that filled the house for the next three days of waiting, few words need be spoken.
"I must have three days for my husband, and then all my life shall be for my children," said their mother. "Davie, you and Letty must help one another and comfort the little ones."
So for the most part she was left alone, and David and Letty did what they could to comfort the rest, through that sorrowful time. The neighbours were very kind. They would have taken the little ones away for awhile, but they did not want to go, and David and Violet said to one another it was right that even the little ones should have these days to remember afterwards.
How long the days of waiting seemed! Sudden bursts of crying from the little ones broke now and then the stillness too heavy to be borne, and even Violet sometimes gave way to bitter weeping. But they thought of their mother, and comforted one another as well as they could; and David stood between her closed door and all that could disturb her in her sorrow, with a patient quiet at which they all wondered. Just once it failed him. Some one came, with a trailing mass of black garments, which it was thought necessary for her to see, and Violet said so to her brother, very gently, and with many tears. But David threw up his hands with a cry.
"What does it matter, Letty? What can mamma care for all that now? She shall not be troubled."
And she was not. Even Miss Bethia could not bring herself to put aside the words of the boy who lay sobbing in the dark, outside his mother's door.
"He's right," said she. "It don't matter the least in the world. There don't anything seem to matter much. She sha'n't be worried. Let it go," said Miss Bethia, with a break in her sharp voice. "It'll fit, I dare say, well enough—and if it don't, you can fix it afterwards. Let it go now."
But David came down, humble and sorry, in a little while.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Bethia," said he. "I don't suppose mamma would have cared, and you might have gone in. Only—" His voice failed him.
"Don't worry a mite about it," said Miss Bethia, with unwonted gentleness. "It don't matter—and it is to you your mother must look now."
But this was more than David could bear. Shaking himself free from her detaining hand, he rushed away out of sight—out of the house—to the hay-loft, the only place where he could hope to be alone. And he was not alone there; for the first thing he heard when the sound of his own sobbing would let him hear anything, was the voice of some one crying by his side.
"Is it you, Jem?" asked he, softly.
And though they lay there a long time in the darkness, they did not speak another word till they went into the house again.
But there is no use dwelling on all these sorrowful days. The last one came, and they all went to the church together, and then to the grave. Standing on the withered grass, from which the spring sunshine was beginning to melt the winter snow, they listened to the saddest sound that can fall on children's ears, the fall of the clods on their father's coffin-lid, and then they went back to the empty house to begin life all over again without their father's care.
Mr Oswald, Frank's father, came home with them. He had been written to when Mr Inglis died, and had reached Gourlay the day before the funeral, but he had not stayed at their house, and they had hardly seen him till now. They were not likely to see much of him yet, for he was a man with much business and many cares, and almost the first words he said when he came into the house, were, that he must leave for home that night, or at the latest the next morning.
"And that means whatever you want to say to me, must be said at once, and the sooner the better," said Miss Bethia, as she took Mrs Inglis's heavy crape bonnet and laid it carefully in one of the deep drawers of the bureau in her room. "I haven't the least doubt but I know what he ought to say, and what she ought to say, better than they know themselves. But that's nothing. It ain't the right one that's put in the right spot, not more than once in ten times—at least it don't look like it," added she, with an uncomfortable feeling that if any one were to know her thoughts he might accuse her of casting some reflections on the Providential arrangement of affairs. "They don't realise that I could help them any, and it will suit better if I leave them. So I'll see if I can't help Debby about getting tea."
There was not much said for a time, however. Mrs Inglis evidently made a great effort to say something, and asked about Frank and the family generally, and then said something about his journey, and then about the sudden breaking-up of the winter roads. Mr Oswald felt it to be cruel to make her speak at all, and turned to the children.
"Which is Davie?" asked he, in a little.
David rose and came forward.
"I thought you had been older. Frank seemed to speak as if you were almost a man," said he, holding out his hand.
"I am past fourteen," said David.
"And are you ready for the university, as Frank thought, or is that a mistake of his, too?"
"Yes," said David. "I am almost ready."
"Oh! he was ready long ago," said Jem, coming to the rescue. "Frank said he was reading the same books that his brother read in the second year."
"Indeed!" said Mr Oswald, smiling at his eagerness. "And you are Jem? You are neither of you such giants as I gathered from Frank, but perhaps the mistake was mine. But when one hears of horse-shoeing and Homer— you know one thinks of young men."
"And this is Violet, only we call her Letty; and this is Ned, and I am Jessie, and this is wee Polly," said Jessie, a sturdy little maiden of eight, looking with her honest grey eyes straight into Mr Oswald's face. He acknowledged her introduction by shaking hands with each as she named them.
"I find I have made another mistake," said he. "I thought Letty was a little girl who always stood at the head of her class, and who could run races with her brothers, and gather nuts, and be as nice as a boy. That was Frank's idea."
"And so she can," said Ned.
"And so she is," said Jem.
"That was so long ago," said Violet, in confusion.
It seemed ages ago to all the children.
"And Violet has grown a great deal since then," said Jem. "And are Frank's eyes better?"
"They are no worse. We hope they are better, but he cannot use them with pleasure, poor fellow."
And so they went on talking together, till they were called to tea. Miss Bethia was quite right. He did not in the least know how to begin to say what he knew must be said before he went away.
After tea, the younger children went to bed, and Miss Bethia betook herself to the kitchen and Debby, thinking, to herself, it would be well for all concerned if it should fall to her to straighten out things after all; for Mr Oswald had been walking up and down the room in silence for the last half-hour, "looking as black as thunder," Miss Bethia said, in confidence, to Debby, and no one else had spoken a word. It was a very painful half-hour to Mr Oswald. He had only begun his walk when it seemed to him impossible that he could sit and look at the pale, patient face and drooping figure of the widow a single moment more. For he was in a great strait. He was in almost the saddest position that a man not guilty of positive wrong can occupy. He was a poor man, supposed to be rich. For years, his income had scarcely sufficed for the expenses of his family; for the last year it had not sufficed. It was necessary for the success of his business, or, he supposed, it was necessary that he should be considered a rich man; and he had harassed himself and strained every nerve to keep up appearances, and now he was saying to himself that this new claim upon him could not possibly be met. He was not a hard man, though he had sometimes been called so. At this moment, his heart was very tender over the widow and her children; and it was the thought that, in strict justice, he had no right to do for them as he wished to do, that gave him so much pain. Waiting would not make it better, however, and in a little while he came and sat down by Mrs Inglis, and said:
"It seems cruel that I should expect you to speak about—anything to-night. But, indeed, it is quite necessary that I should return home to-morrow, and I might be able to advise you, if you would tell me your plans."
But, as yet, Mrs Inglis had no plans.
"It came so suddenly," said she, speaking with difficulty; "and—you are very kind."
"Will you tell me just how your affairs stand? Unless there is some one else who can do it better, I will gladly help you in your arrangements for the future."
There was no one else, and it was not at all difficult to tell him the state of their affairs. They were not at all involved. There were no debts. The rent of the house was paid till the next autumn; there were some arrears of salary, and Mrs Inglis had a claim on a minister's widow's fund in connection with the branch of the church to which her husband had belonged, but the sum mentioned as the possible annual amount she would receive was so small, that, in Mr Oswald's mind, it counted for nothing. And that was all! Mr Oswald was amazed.
"Was there not something done at one time—about insuring your husband's life?" asked he, gently.
"Yes; a good many years ago. He could not manage it then—nor since. Our income has never been large." And she named the sum.
Mr Oswald rose suddenly, and began his walk about the room again. It was incredible! A scholar and a gentleman like his cousin to rest contented all these years with such a pittance! He knew that he had been earnest and full of zeal in the cause to which he had devoted his life—more than content. Valuing money for the sake of what it could do, he had yet envied no man who had more than fell to his lot. He must have known that his children must be left penniless! How could he have borne it?
"And how should I leave mine, if I were to die to-night?" said Mr Oswald to himself, with a groan. "I who have lived a life so different."
He came and sat down again. But what could he say? Mrs Inglis spoke first.
"I have made no plans as yet. There has been no time. But I am not afraid. The way will open before us."
"Yes, you must have good courage. And you will tell me in what way I can be of use to you."
"You are very kind," said Mrs Inglis, speaking quickly. "You may be sure I shall gladly avail myself of your advice. I am not afraid. My boys are strong and willing to work. We love one another, and there are worse things than poverty."
"And, for the present, you will remain here at any rate. In a few weeks I shall see you again; and, in the meantime, you must permit me to supply anything you may require."
"You are very kind. You may be quite sure we shall apply to you if it be necessary. Just now it is not; and when we have had time to consider our plans, we shall write to you—if you cannot come."
Mrs Inglis paused; and, perhaps, becoming conscious that she had spoken with unnecessary decision, she added, gently:
"You are very kind. I believe you are a true friend, and that you will do what you can to enable us to help ourselves. That will be the best— the only way to aid us effectually. With my two brave boys and God's blessing, I don't think I need fear."
She spoke, looking, with a smile, at her sons, who were leaning over her chair. Somehow her smile moved Mr Oswald more than her tears could have done, and he said nothing for a minute or two. There was nothing clearer than that she did not intend to lay the burden of her cares on him or anyone. But what could a delicate woman, unused to battle with the world, do to keep the wolf from the door, let her courage be ever so high?
"Will you promise me one thing?" said he, rising to prepare to go. "Will you promise me to let me know how I can help you—when your plans are made—either by advice or by money? I have a right. Your husband was my relative as well as my friend."
"I promise faithfully you shall be the first person to whom I shall apply in any strait," said Mrs Inglis, rising also, and offering her hand.
"And what did your husband think of my proposal to take his son into my office?"
"He thought well of it, as he wrote to you. But nothing has been said about it yet. Can you give us a little time still? and I will write. Believe me, I am very grateful for your kindness."
"If you will only give me an opportunity to be kind. Certainly, I can wait. A month hence will be time enough to decide."
And then, when he had bidden them all good-bye, he went away.
"What did he mean by a situation, mamma?" asked Jem. "Is it for Davie? Did papa know?"
But Mrs Inglis could enter into no particulars that night. She had kept up to the end of her strength.
"I am very tired. I will tell you all about it another day. We must have patience, and do nothing rashly. The way will open before us. I am not afraid."
All the sadness of the next few weeks need not be told. They who have suffered the same loss, and lived through the first sorrowful days of bereavement, will know how it was with the mother and her children, and they who have not could never be made to understand. Anxieties as to the future could not but press on the heart of the mother, but they could scarcely be said to deepen her sadness. She was not really afraid. She knew they would not be forsaken—that their father's God would have them in His keeping. But the thought of parting from them— of sending any of them away—was very hard to bear.
If she could have seen it possible to stay in Gourlay, she would have had fewer misgivings; but there was nothing in Gourlay she could do to help to keep her children together. There was no room in so small a place for any but the public schools, long established, and, at present, prosperous; and teaching seemed the only thing in which she could engage with even moderate hopes of success.
If "a multitude of counsellors" could have helped her, she would have been helped. Every one had something to say, which proved that the earnest desire of all was that she should stay in Gourlay; but no one was so happy as to suggest a way in which she could do so without involving some measure of dependence on the kindness of friends; and though this might do for a little while, it could not do long, and they would have to go at last. Still she was in no haste to go, or very eager to make plans for the future.
"The way will open before us! I am not afraid!" was the end of many an anxious discussion during these days; and thought of sending David away from her, gave her more real pain through them all than did the consideration of what might befall them in the future; for David was going away to be junior clerk in the bank of Singleton, at a salary which seemed very large to him. It was more than a third of what his father's salary had been when it was at the best. There would not be much left for his mother and the rest by the time he had clothed and kept himself; but it was a beginning, and David was glad to begin, Jem would fain have done something, too, but his mother justly felt that the next six months at school would be of greater value to him than all he would be likely to earn, and he was to stay at home for the present.
But the mother did not have to send David away alone. The way, for which she had so patiently and confidently waited, opened to them sooner than she had dared to hope. It did not open very brightly. An opportunity to let their house to one of the new railway people made her think first of the possibility of getting away at once; and various circumstances, which need not be told, induced her to look to the town of Singleton as their future place of residence. David was to be there for a year, at least, and they could all be together, and his salary would do something toward keeping the house, and, in a place like Singleton, there might be more chance for getting for herself and Violet such employment as might suit them than they could have in Gourlay.
It was not without some doubts and fears that this arrangement was decided upon; but there seemed nothing better to do, and delay would make departure none the easier. But the doubts and fears came only now and then—the faith in God was abiding; and if she was sorrowful in those days, it was with a sorrow which rose from no distrust of Him who had been her confidence all her life-long. She knew that help would come when it was needed, and that He would be her confidence to the end.
Towards the end of April, they had a visit from a gentleman, who announced himself as Mr Caldwell, senior clerk in the bank where David was to be junior. He had come to transact business at the quarries, several miles beyond Gourlay, and had called at the request of Mr Oswald, and also because he wished to make the acquaintance of the Inglis family, especially of David, whom he expected soon to have under his immediate care. He had known Mr Inglis when he was a boy, having been then in the employment of his uncle. The children had heard of him often, and their mother had seen him more than once in the earlier years of her married life, and they were not long in becoming friendly. He was a small, dark man, slow of speech, and with some amusing peculiarities of manner, but, evidently, kindly-disposed toward them all.
His first intention had been to go on to the quarries that night, but he changed his mind before he had been long in the house, and accepted Mrs Inglis's invitation to stay to tea; and soon, to her own surprise, the mother found herself telling their plans to a very attentive listener. He looked grave, when he heard of their determination to leave Gourlay, and go and live in Singleton.
It was a warm, bright afternoon, and they were sitting on the gallery in front of the house. The snow was nearly all gone; a soft green was just beginning to make itself visible over the fields and along the roadsides, and buds, purple and green and brown, were showing themselves on the door-yard trees. The boys were amusing themselves by putting in order the walks and flower-borders in the garden, where there were already many budding things, and the whole scene was a very pleasant one to look on.
"Singleton is very different from this place," said he. "You will never like to live there."
But there are many things that people must endure when they cannot like them; and there seemed to be no better way, as he acknowledged, when he had heard all. He entered with kindly interest into all their plans, and it was arranged that, when David went to Singleton, he should go directly to his house, and, between them, no doubt, a suitable house for the family would be found. And Mrs Inglis thanked God for the new friend He had raised up for them, and took courage.
The next day, Mr Caldwell went to the quarries, and David and Jem went with him, or rather, it should be said, Mr Caldwell went with the boys, for they had old Don and the wagon, and made a very pleasant day of it, going one way and coming home the other, for the sake of showing the stranger as much of the beautiful country as possible in so short a time. They all enjoyed the drive and the view of the country, and Mr Caldwell enjoyed something besides. He was a quiet man, saying very little, and what he did say came out so deliberately that any one else would have said it in half the time. But he was a good listener, and had the faculty of making other people talk, and the boys had a great deal to say to him and to one another. Unconsciously they yielded to the influence of the sweet spring air and the sunshine, and the new sights that were around them, and the sadness that had lain so heavily on them since their father's death lightened, they grew eager and communicative, and, in boyish fashion, did the honours of the country to their new friend with interest and delight. Not that they grew thoughtless or seemed to forget. Their father's name was often on their lips,—on Jem's, at least,—David did not seem to find it so easy to utter. They had both been at the quarries before with their father, and Jem had a great deal to say about what he had heard then, and at other times, about the stones and rocks, the formations and strata; and he always ended with "That was what papa said, eh, Davie?" as though that was final, and there could be no dissent; and David said, "Yes, Jem," or, perhaps, only nodded his head gravely. He never enlarged or went into particulars as Jem did; and when once they were fairly on their way home, Jem had it all to do, for they came home by the North Gore road, over which David had gone so many, many times; and even Jem grew grave as he pointed out this farm and that, as belonging to "one of our people;" and the grave-yard on the hill, and the red school-house "where papa used to preach." And when they came to the top of the hill that looks down on the river, and the meadows, and the two villages, they were both silent, for old Don stood still of his own accord, and David, muttering something about "a buckle and a strap," sprang out to put them right, and was a long time about it, Mr Caldwell thought.
"We will let the poor old fellow rest a minute," said Jem, softly; and David stood with his face turned away, and his arm thrown over old Don's neck.
There was not much said after that, but they all agreed that they had had a very pleasant day; and Mr Caldwell said to Mrs Inglis, in his slow way, that he had enjoyed the drive, and the sight of the fine country, and the quarries, but he had enjoyed the company of her two boys a great deal more than all. And you may be sure it was a pleasure to her to hear him say it.
The breaking-up of what has been a happy home, is not an easy or pleasant thing under any circumstances. It involves confusion and fatigue, and a certain amount of pain, even when there is an immediate prospect of a better one. And when there is no such prospect, it is very sad, indeed. The happy remembrances that come with the gathering together, and looking over of the numberless things, useless and precious, that will, in the course of years, accumulate in a house, change to regrets and forebodings, and the future seems all the more gloomy because of the brightness of the past.
There were few things in Mrs Inglis's house of great value; but everything was precious to her, because of some association it had with her husband and their past life; and how sad all this was to her, could never be told.
The children were excited at the prospect of change. Singleton was a large place to them, which none of them, except David and Violet, had ever seen. So they amused one another, fancying what they would see and do, and what sort of a life they should live there, and made a holiday of the overturning that was taking place. But there was to the mother no pleasing uncertainty with regard to the kind of life they were to live in the new home to which they were going. There might be care, and labour, and loneliness, and, it was possible, things harder to bear; and, knowing all this, no wonder the thought of the safe and happy days they were leaving behind them was sometimes more than she could bear.
But, happily, there was not much time for the indulgence of regretful thoughts. There were too many things to be decided and done for that. There were not many valuable things in the house, but there were a great many things of one kind and another. What was to be taken? What to be left? Where were they all to be bestowed? These questions, and the perplexities arising out of them, were never for a long time together suffered to be out of the mother's thoughts; and busy tongues suggesting plans, and busy hands helping or hindering to carry them out, filled every pause.
The very worst day of all, was the day when, having trusted Jem to drive the little ones a few miles down the river to pay a farewell visit, Mrs Inglis, with David and Violet, went into the study to take down her husband's books. And yet that day had such an ending, as to teach the widow still another lesson of grateful trust.
It was a long time before they came to the books. Papers, magazines, pamphlets—all such things as will, in the course of years, find a place on the shelves or in the drawers of one who interests himself in all that is going on in the world—had accumulated in the study; and all these had to be moved and assorted, for keeping, or destroying, or giving away. Sermons and manuscripts, hitherto never touched but by the hand that had written them, had to be disturbed; old letters—some from the living and some from the dead—were taken from the secret places where they had lain for years, and over every one of these Mrs Inglis lingered with love and pain unspeakable.
"Never mind, Davie! Take no notice, Violet, love!" she said, once or twice, when a sudden cry or a gush of tears startled them; and so very few words were spoken all day. The two children sat near her, folding, arranging and putting aside the papers as she bade them, when they had passed through her hands.
"Wouldn't it have been better to put them together and pack them up without trying to arrange them, mamma?" said David, at last, as his mother paused to press her hands on her aching temples.
"Perhaps it would have been better. But it must have been done some time; and it is nearly over now."
"And the books? Must we wait for another day? We have not many days now, mamma!"
"Not many! Still, I think, we must wait. I have done all I am able to do to-day. Yes, I know you and Violet could do it; but I would like to help, and we will wait till to-morrow."