"Won't you sit, Mrs. Percivale?" she said, as if merely expostulating with me for not making myself comfortable.
"Have you forgiven me?" I asked.
"How can I say I have, when I never had any thing to forgive?"
"Well, then, I must go unforgiven, for I cannot forgive myself," I said.
"O Mrs. Percivale! if you think how the world is flooded with forgiveness, you will just dip in your cup, and take what you want."
I felt that I was making too much even of my own shame, rose humbled, and took my former seat.
Narration being over, and my father's theory now permitting him to ask questions, he did so plentifully, bringing out many lights, and elucidating several obscurities. The story grew upon me, until the work to which Miss Clare had given herself seemed more like that of the Son of God than any other I knew. For she was not helping her friends from afar, but as one of themselves,—nor with money, but with herself; she was not condescending to them, but finding her highest life in companionship with them. It seemed at least more like what his life must have been before he was thirty, than any thing else I could think of. I held my peace however; for I felt that to hint at such a thought would have greatly shocked and pained her.
No doubt the narrative I have given is plainer and more coherent for the questions my father put; but it loses much from the omission of one or two parts which she gave dramatically, with evident enjoyment of the fun that was in them. I have also omitted all the interruptions which came from her not unfrequent reference to my father on points that came up. At length I ventured to remind her of something she seemed to have forgotten.
"When you were telling us, Miss Clare," I said, "of the help that came to you that dreary afternoon in the empty house, I think you mentioned that something which happened afterwards made it still more remarkable." "Oh, yes!" she answered: "I forgot about that. I did not carry my history far enough to be reminded of it again.
"Somewhere about five years ago, Lady Bernard, having several schemes on foot for helping such people as I was interested in, asked me if it would not be nice to give an entertainment to my friends, and as many of the neighbors as I pleased, to the number of about a hundred. She wanted to put the thing entirely in my hands, and it should be my entertainment, she claiming only the privilege of defraying expenses. I told her I should be delighted to convey her invitation, but that the entertainment must not pretend to be mine; which, besides that it would be a falsehood, and therefore not to be thought of, would perplex my friends, and drive them to the conclusion either that it was not mine, or that I lived amongst them under false appearances. She confessed the force of my arguments, and let me have it my own way.
"She had bought a large house to be a home for young women out of employment, and in it she proposed the entertainment should be given: there were a good many nice young women inmates at the time, who, she said, would be all willing to help us to wait upon our guests. The idea was carried out, and the thing succeeded admirably. We had music and games, the latter such as the children were mostly acquainted with, only producing more merriment and conducted with more propriety than were usual in the court or the streets. I may just remark, in passing, that, had these been children of the poorest sort, we should have had to teach them; for one of the saddest things is that such, in London at least, do not know how to play. We had tea and coffee and biscuits in the lower rooms, for any who pleased; and they were to have a solid supper afterwards. With none of the arrangements, however, had I any thing to do; for my business was to be with them, and help them to enjoy themselves. All went on capitally; the parents entering into the merriment of their children, and helping to keep it up.
"In one of the games, I was seated on the floor with a handkerchief tied over my eyes, waiting, I believe, for some gentle trick to be played upon me, that I might guess at the name of the person who played it. There was a delay—of only a few seconds—long enough, however, for a sudden return of that dreary November afternoon in which I sat on the floor too miserable even to think that I was cold and hungry. Strange to say, it was not the picture of it that came back to me first, but the sound of my own voice calling aloud in the ringing echo of the desolate rooms that I was of no use to anybody, and that God had forgotten me utterly. With the recollection, a doubtful expectation arose which moved me to a scarce controllable degree. I jumped to my feet, and tore the bandage from my eyes.
"Several times during the evening I had had the odd yet well-known feeling of the same thing having happened before; but I was too busy entertaining my friends to try to account for it: perhaps what followed may suggest the theory, that in not a few of such cases the indistinct remembrance of the previous occurrence of some portion of the circumstances may cast the hue of memory over the whole. As—my eyes blinded with the light and straining to recover themselves—I stared about the room, the presentiment grew almost conviction that it was the very room in which I had so sat in desolation and despair. Unable to restrain myself, I hurried into the back room: there was the cabinet beyond! In a few moments more I was absolutely satisfied that this was indeed the house in which I had first found refuge. For a time I could take no further share in what was going on, but sat down in a corner, and cried for joy. Some one went for Lady Bernard, who was superintending the arrangements for supper in the music-room behind. She came in alarm. I told her there was nothing the matter but a little too much happiness, and, if she would come into the cabinet, I would tell her all about it. She did so, and a few words made her a hearty sharer in my pleasure. She insisted that I should tell the company all about it; 'for' she said, 'you do not know how much it may help some poor creature to trust in God.' I promised I would, if I found I could command myself sufficiently. She left me alone for a little while, and after that I was able to join in the games again.
"At supper I found myself quite composed, and, at Lady Bernard's request, stood up, and gave them all a little sketch of grannie's history, of which sketch what had happened that evening was made the central point. Many of the simpler hearts about me received it, without question, as a divine arrangement for my comfort and encouragement,—at least, thus I interpreted their looks to each other, and the remarks that reached my ear; but presently a man stood up,—one who thought more than the rest of them, perhaps because he was blind,—a man at once conceited, honest, and sceptical; and silence having been made for him,—'Ladies and gentlemen,' he began, as if he had been addressing a public meeting, 'you've all heard what grannie has said. It's very kind of her to give us so much of her history. It's a very remarkable one, I think, and she deserves to have it. As to what upset her this very night as is,—and I must say for her, I've knowed her now for six years, and I never knowed her upset afore,—and as to what upset her, all I can say is, it may or may not ha' been what phylosophers call a coincydence; but at the same time, if it wasn't a coincydence, and if the Almighty had a hand in it, it were no more than you might expect. He would look at it in this light, you see, that maybe she was wrong to fancy herself so down on her luck as all that, but she was a good soul, notwithstandin,' and he would let her know he hadn't forgotten her. And so he set her down in that room there,—wi' her eyes like them here o' mine, as never was no manner o' use to me,—for a minute, jest to put her in mind o' what had been, and what she had said there, an' how it was all so different now. In my opinion, it were no wonder as she broke down, God bless her! I beg leave to propose her health.' So they drank my health in lemonade and ginger-beer; for we were afraid to give some of them stronger drink than that, and therefore had none. Then we had more music and singing; and a clergyman, who knew how to be neighbor to them that had fallen among thieves, read a short chapter and a collect or two, and said a few words to them. Then grannie and her children went home together, all happy, but grannie the happiest of them all."
"Strange and beautiful!" said my father. "But," he added, after a pause, "you must have met with many strange and beautiful things in such a life as yours; for it seems to me that such a life is open to the entrance of all simple wonders. Conventionality and routine and arbitrary law banish their very approach."
"I believe," said Miss Clare, "that every life has its own private experience of the strange and beautiful. But I have sometimes thought that perhaps God took pains to bar out such things of the sort as we should be no better for. The reason why Lazarus was not allowed to visit the brothers of Dives was, that the repentance he would have urged would not have followed, and they would have been only the worse in consequence."
"Admirably said," remarked my father.
Before we took our leave, I had engaged Miss Clare to dine with us while my father was in town.
When she came we had no other guest, and so had plenty of talk with her. Before dinner I showed her my husband's pictures; and she was especially pleased with that which hung in the little room off the study, which I called my boudoir,—a very ugly word, by the way, which I am trying to give up,—with a curtain before it. My father has described it in "The Seaboard Parish:" a pauper lies dead, and they are bringing in his coffin. She said it was no wonder it had not been sold, notwithstanding its excellence and force; and asked if I would allow her to bring Lady Bernard to see it. After dinner Percivale had a long talk with her, and succeeded in persuading her to sit to him; not, however, before I had joined my entreaties with his, and my father had insisted that her face was not her own, but belonged to all her kind.
The very next morning she came with Lady Bernard. The latter said she knew my husband well by reputation, and had, before our marriage, asked him to her house, but had not been fortunate enough to possess sufficient attraction. Percivale was much taken with her, notwithstanding a certain coldness, almost sternness of manner, which was considerably repellent,—but only for the first few moments, for, when her eyes lighted up, the whole thing vanished. She was much pleased with some of his pictures, criticising freely, and with evident understanding. The immediate result was, that she bought both the pauper picture and that of the dying knight.
"But I am sorry to deprive your lovely room of such treasures, Mrs. Percivale," she said, with a kind smile.
"Of course I shall miss them," I returned; "but the thought that you have them will console me. Besides, it is good to have a change; and there are only too many lying in the study, from which he will let me choose to supply their place."
"Will you let me come and see which you have chosen?" she asked.
"With the greatest pleasure," I answered.
"And will you come and see me? Do you think you could persuade your husband to bring you to dine with me?"
I told her I could promise the one with more than pleasure, and had little doubt of being able to do the other, now that my husband had seen her.
A reference to my husband's dislike to fashionable society followed, and I had occasion to mention his feeling about being asked without me. Of the latter, Lady Bernard expressed the warmest approval; and of the former, said that it would have no force in respect of her parties, for they were not at all fashionable.
This was the commencement of a friendship for which we have much cause to thank God. Nor did we forget that it came through Miss Clare.
I confess I felt glorious over my cousin Judy; but I would bide my time. Now that I am wiser, and I hope a little better, I see that I was rather spiteful; but I thought then I was only jealous for my new and beautiful friend. Perhaps, having wronged her myself, I was the more ready to take vengeance on her wrongs from the hands of another; which was just the opposite feeling to that I ought to have had.
In the mean time, our intimacy with Miss Clare grew. She interested me in many of her schemes for helping the poor; some of which were for providing them with work in hard times, but more for giving them an interest in life itself, without which, she said, no one would begin to inquire into its relations and duties. One of her positive convictions was, that you ought not to give them any thing they ought to provide for themselves, such as food or clothing or shelter. In such circumstances as rendered it impossible for them to do so, the ought was in abeyance. But she heartily approved of making them an occasional present of something they could not be expected to procure for themselves,—flowers, for instance. "You would not imagine," I have heard her say, "how they delight in flowers. All the finer instincts of their being are drawn to the surface at the sight of them. I am sure they prize and enjoy them far more, not merely than most people with gardens and greenhouses do, but far more even than they would if they were deprived of them. A gift of that sort can only do them good. But I would rather give a workman a gold watch than a leg of mutton. By a present you mean a compliment; and none feel more grateful for such an acknowledgment of your human relation to them, than those who look up to you as their superior."
Once, when she was talking thus, I ventured to object, for the sake of hearing her further.
"But," I said, "sometimes the most precious thing you can give a man is just that compassion which you seem to think destroys the value of a gift."
"When compassion itself is precious to a man," she answered, "it must be because he loves you, and believes you love him. When that is the case, you may give him any thing you like, and it will do neither you nor him harm. But the man of independent feeling, except he be thus your friend, will not unlikely resent your compassion, while the beggar will accept it chiefly as a pledge for something more to be got from you; and so it will tend to keep him in beggary."
"Would you never, then, give money, or any of the necessaries of life, except in extreme, and, on the part of the receiver, unavoidable necessity?" I asked.
"I would not," she answered; "but in the case where a man cannot help himself, the very suffering makes a way for the love which is more than compassion to manifest itself. In every other case, the true way is to provide them with work, which is itself a good thing, besides what they gain by it. If a man will not work, neither should he eat. It must be work with an object in it, however: it must not be mere labor, such as digging a hole and filling it up again, of which I have heard. No man could help resentment at being set to such work. You ought to let him feel that he is giving something of value to you for the money you give to him. But I have known a whole district so corrupted and degraded by clerical alms-giving, that one of the former recipients of it declared, as spokesman for the rest; that threepence given was far more acceptable than five shillings earned."
A good part of the little time I could spare from my own family was now spent with Miss Clare in her work, through which it was chiefly that we became by degrees intimate with Lady Bernard. If ever there was a woman who lived this outer life for the sake of others, it was she. Her inner life was, as it were, sufficient for herself, and found its natural outward expression in blessing others. She was like a fountain of living water that could find no vent but into the lives of her fellows. She had suffered more than falls to the ordinary lot of women, in those who were related to her most nearly, and for many years had looked for no personal blessing from without. She said to me once, that she could not think of any thing that could happen to herself to make her very happy now, except a loved grandson, who was leading a strange, wild life, were to turn out a Harry the Fifth,—a consummation which, however devoutly wished, was not granted her; for the young man died shortly after. I believe no one, not even Miss Clare, knew half the munificent things she did, or what an immense proportion of her large income she spent upon other people. But, as she said herself, no one understood the worth of money better; and no one liked better to have the worth of it: therefore she always administered her charity with some view to the value of the probable return,—with some regard, that is, to the amount of good likely to result to others from the aid given to one. She always took into consideration whether the good was likely to be propagated, or to die with the receiver. She confessed to frequent mistakes; but such, she said, was the principle upon which she sought to regulate that part of her stewardship.
I wish I could give a photograph of her. She was slight, and appeared taller than she was, being rather stately than graceful, with a commanding forehead and still blue eyes. She gave at first the impression of coldness, with a touch of haughtiness. But this was, I think, chiefly the result of her inherited physique; for the moment her individuality appeared, when her being, that is, came into contact with that of another, all this impression vanished in the light that flashed into her eyes, and the smile that illumined her face. Never did woman of rank step more triumphantly over the barriers which the cumulated custom of ages has built between the classes of society. She laid great stress on good manners, little on what is called good birth; although to the latter, in its deep and true sense, she attributed the greatest a priori value, as the ground of obligation in the possessor, and of expectation on the part of others. But I shall have an opportunity of showing more of what she thought on this subject presently; for I bethink me that it occupied a great part of our conversation at a certain little gathering, of which I am now going to give an account.
MY SECOND DINNER-PARTY.
For I judged that I might now give another little dinner: I thought, that, as Percivale had been doing so well lately, he might afford, with his knowing brother's help, to provide, for his part of the entertainment, what might be good enough to offer even to Mr. Morley; and I now knew Lady Bernard sufficiently well to know also that she would willingly accept an invitation from me, and would be pleased to meet Miss Clare, or, indeed, would more likely bring her with her.
I proposed the dinner, and Percivale consented to it. My main object being the glorification of Miss Clare, who had more engagements of one kind and another than anybody I knew, I first invited her, asking her to fix her own day, at some considerable remove. Next I invited Mr. and Mrs. Morley, and next Lady Bernard, who went out very little. Then I invited Mr. Blackstone, and last of all Roger—though I was almost as much interested in his meeting Miss Clare as in any thing else connected with the gathering. For he had been absent from London for some time on a visit to an artist friend at the Hague, and had never seen Miss Clare since the evening on which he and I quarrelled—or rather, to be honest, I quarrelled with him. All accepted, and I looked forward to the day with some triumph.
I had better calm the dread of my wifely reader by at once assuring her that I shall not harrow her feelings with any account of culinary blunders. The moon was in the beginning of her second quarter, and my cook's brain tolerably undisturbed. Lady Bernard offered me her cook for the occasion; but I convinced her that my wisdom would be to decline the offer, seeing such external influence would probably tend to disintegration. I went over with her every item of every dish and every sauce many times,—without any resulting sense of security, I confess; but I had found, that, odd as it may seem, she always did better the more she had to do. I believe that her love of approbation, excited by the difficulty before her, in its turn excited her intellect, which then arose to meet the necessities of the case.
Roger arrived first, then Mr. Blackstone; Lady Bernard brought Miss Clare; and Mr. and Mrs. Morley came last. There were several introductions to be gone through,—a ceremony in which Percivale, being awkward, would give me no assistance; whence I failed to observe how the presence of Miss Clare affected Mr. and Mrs. Morley; but my husband told me that Judy turned red, and that Mr. Morley bowed to her with studied politeness. I took care that Mr. Blackstone should take her down to dinner, which was served in the study as before.
The conversation was broken and desultory at first, as is generally the case at a dinner-party—and perhaps ought to be; but one after another began to listen to what was passing between Lady Bernard and my husband at the foot of the table, until by degrees every one became interested, and took a greater or less part in the discussion. The first of it I heard was as next follows.
"Then you do believe," my husband was saying, "in the importance of what some of the Devonshire people call havage?"
"Allow me to ask what they mean by the word," Lady Bernard returned.
"Birth, descent,—the people you come of," he answered.
"Of course I believe that descent involves very important considerations."
"No one," interposed Mr. Morley, "can have a better right than your ladyship to believe that."
"One cannot nave a better right than another to believe a fact, Mr. Morley," she answered with a smile. "It is but a fact that you start better or worse according to the position of your starting-point."
"Undeniably," said Mr. Morley. "And for all that is feared from the growth of levelling notions in this country, it will be many generations before a profound respect for birth is eradicated from the feelings of the English people."
He drew in his chin with a jerk, and devoted himself again to his plate, with the air of a "Dixi." He was not permitted to eat in peace, however.
"If you allow," said Mr. Blackstone, "that the feeling can wear out, and is wearing out, it matters little how long it may take to prove itself of a false, because corruptible nature. No growth of notions will blot love, honesty, kindness, out of the human heart."
"Then," said Lady Bernard archly, "am I to understand, Mr. Blackstone, that you don't believe it of the least importance to come of decent people?"
"Your ladyship puts it well," said Mr. Morley, laughing mildly, "and with authority. The longer the descent"—
"The more doubtful," interrupted Lady Bernard, laughing. "One can hardly have come of decent people all through, you know. Let us only hope, without inquiring too closely, that their number preponderates in our own individual cases."
Mr. Morley stared for a moment, and then tried to laugh, but unable to determine whereabout he was in respect of the question, betook himself to his glass of sherry.
Mr. Blackstone considered it the best policy in general not to explain any remark he had made, but to say the right thing better next time instead. I suppose he believed, with another friend of mine, that "when explanations become necessary, they become impossible," a paradox well worth the consideration of those who write letters to newspapers. But Lady Bernard understood him well enough, and was only unwinding the clew of her idea.
"On the contrary, it must be a most serious fact," he rejoined, "to any one who like myself believes that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children."
"Mr. Blackstone," objected Roger, "I can't imagine you believing such a manifest injustice."
"It has been believed in all ages by the best of people," he returned.
"To whom possibly the injustice of it never suggested itself. For my part, I must either disbelieve that, or disbelieve in a God."
"But, my dear fellow, don't you see it is a fact? Don't you see children born with the sins of their parents nestling in their very bodies? You see on which horn of your own dilemma you would impale yourself."
"Wouldn't you rather not believe in a God than believe in an unjust one?"
"An unjust god," said Mr. Blackstone, with the honest evasion of one who will not answer an awful question hastily, "must be a false god, that is, no god. Therefore I presume there is some higher truth involved in every fact that appears unjust, the perception of which would nullify the appearance."
"I see none in the present case," said Roger.
"I will go farther than assert the mere opposite," returned Mr. Blackstone. "I will assert that it is an honor to us to have the sins of our fathers laid upon us. For thus it is given into our power to put a stop to them, so that they shall descend no farther. If I thought my father had committed any sins for which I might suffer, I should be unspeakably glad to suffer for them, and so have the privilege of taking a share in his burden, and some of the weight of it off his mind. You see the whole idea is that of a family, in which we are so grandly bound together, that we must suffer with and for each other. Destroy this consequence, and you destroy the lovely idea itself, with all its thousand fold results of loveliness."
"You anticipate what I was going to say, Mr. Blackstone," said Lady Bernard. "I would differ from you only in one thing. The chain of descent is linked after such a complicated pattern, that the non-conducting condition of one link, or of many links even, cannot break the transmission of qualities. I may inherit from my great-great-grandfather or mother, or some one ever so much farther back. That which was active wrong in some one or other of my ancestors, may appear in me as an impulse to that same wrong, which of course I have to overcome; and if I succeed, then it is so far checked. But it may have passed, or may yet pass, to others of his descendants, who have, or will have, to do the same—for who knows how many generations to come?—before it shall cease. Married people, you see, Mrs. Percivale, have an awful responsibility in regard of the future of the world. You cannot tell to how many millions you may transmit your failures or your victories."
"If I understand you right, Lady Bernard," said Roger, "it is the personal character of your ancestors, and not their social position, you regard as of importance."
"It was of their personal character alone I was thinking. But of course I do not pretend to believe that there are not many valuable gifts more likely to show themselves in what is called a long descent; for doubtless a continuity of education does much to develop the race."
"But if it is personal character you chiefly regard, we may say we are all equally far descended," I remarked; "for we have each had about the same number of ancestors with a character of some sort or other, whose faults and virtues have to do with ours, and for both of which we are, according to Mr. Blackstone, in a most real and important sense accountable."
"Certainly," returned Lady Bernard; "and it is impossible to say in whose descent the good or the bad may predominate. I cannot tell, for instance, how much of the property I inherit has been honestly come by, or is the spoil of rapacity and injustice."
"You are doing the best you can to atone for such a possible fact, then, by its redistribution," said my husband.
"I confess," she answered, "the doubt has had some share in determining my feeling with regard to the management of my property. I have no right to throw up my stewardship, for that was none of my seeking, and I do not know any one who has a better claim to it; but I count it only a stewardship. I am not at liberty to throw my orchard open, for that would result not only in its destruction, but in a renewal of the fight of centuries ago for its possession; but I will try to distribute my apples properly. That is, I have not the same right to give away foolishly that I have to keep wisely."
"Then," resumed Roger, who had evidently been pondering what Lady Bernard had previously said, "you would consider what is called kleptomania as the impulse to steal transmitted by a thief-ancestor?"
"Nothing seems to me more likely. I know a nobleman whose servant has to search his pockets for spoons or forks every night as soon as he is in bed."
"I should find it very hard to define the difference between that and stealing," said Miss Clare, now first taking a part in the conversation. "I have sometimes wondered whether kleptomania was not merely the fashionable name for stealing."
"The distinction is a difficult one, and no doubt the word is occasionally misapplied. But I think there is a difference. The nobleman to whom I referred makes no objection to being thus deprived of his booty; which, for one thing, appears to show that the temptation is intermittent, and partakes at least of the character of a disease."
"But are there not diseases which are only so much the worse diseases that they are not intermittent?" said Miss Clare. "Is it not hard that the privileges of kleptomania should be confined to the rich? You never hear the word applied to a poor child, even if his father was, habit and repute, a thief. Surely, when hunger and cold aggravate the attacks of inherited temptation, they cannot at the same time aggravate the culpability of yielding to them?"
"On the contrary," said Roger, "one would naturally suppose they added immeasurable excuse."
"Only," said Mr. Blackstone, "there comes in our ignorance, and consequent inability to judge. The very fact of the presence of motives of a most powerful kind renders it impossible to be certain of the presence of the disease; whereas other motives being apparently absent, we presume disease as the readiest way of accounting for the propensity; I do not therefore think it is the only way. I believe there are cases in which it comes of pure greed, and is of the same kind as any other injustice the capability of exercising which is more generally distributed. Why should a thief be unknown in a class, a proportion of the members of which is capable of wrong, chicanery, oppression, indeed any form of absolute selfishness?"
"At all events," said Lady Bernard, "so long as we do our best to help them to grow better, we cannot make too much allowance for such as have not only been born with evil impulses, but have had every animal necessity to urge them in the same direction; while, on the other hand, they have not had one of those restraining influences which a good home and education would have afforded. Such must, so far as development goes, be but a little above the beasts."
"You open a very difficult question," said Mr. Morley: "What are we to do with them? Supposing they are wild beasts, we can't shoot them; though that would, no doubt, be the readiest way to put an end to the breed."
"Even that would not suffice," said Lady Bernard. "There would always be a deposit from the higher classes sufficient to keep up the breed. But, Mr. Morley, I did not say wild beasts: I only said beasts. There is a great difference between a tiger and a sheep-dog."
"There is nearly as much between a Seven-Dialsrough and a sheep-dog."
"In moral attainment, I grant you," said Mr. Blackstone; "but in moral capacity, no. Besides, you must remember, both what a descent the sheep-dog has, and what pains have been taken with his individual education, as well as that of his ancestors."
"Granted all that," said Mr. Morley, "there the fact remains. For my part, I confess I don't see what is to be done. The class to which you refer goes on increasing. There's this garrotting now. I spent a winter at Algiers lately, and found even the suburbs of that city immeasurably safer than any part of London is now, to judge from the police-reports. Yet I am accused of inhumanity and selfishness if I decline to write a check for every shabby fellow who calls upon me pretending to be a clergyman, and to represent this or that charity in the East End!"
"Things are bad enough in the West End, within a few hundred yards of Portland Place, for instance," murmured Miss Clare.
"It seems to me highly unreasonable," Mr. Morley went on. "Why should I spend my money to perpetuate such a condition of things?"
"That would in all likelihood be the tendency of your subscription," said Mr. Blackstone.
"Then why should I?" repeated Mr. Morley with a smile of triumph.
"But," said Miss Clare, in an apologetic tone, "it seems to me you make a mistake in regarding the poor as if their poverty were the only distinction by which they could be classified. The poor are not all thieves and garroters, nor even all unthankful and unholy. There are just as strong and as delicate distinctions too, in that stratum of social existence as in the upper strata. I should imagine Mr. Morley knows a few, belonging to the same social grade with himself, with whom, however, he would be sorry to be on any terms of intimacy."
"Not a few," responded Mr. Morley with a righteous frown.
"Then I, who know the poor as well at least as you can know the rich, having lived amongst them almost from childhood, assert that I am acquainted with not a few, who, in all the essentials of human life and character, would be an honor to any circle."
"I should be sorry to seem to imply that there may not be very worthy people amongst them, Miss Clare; but it is not such who draw our attention to the class."
"Not such who force themselves upon your attention certainly," said Miss Clare; "but the existence of such may be an additional reason for bestowing some attention on the class to which they belong. Is there not such a mighty fact as the body of Christ? Is there no connection between the head and the feet?"
"I had not the slightest purpose of disputing the matter with you, Miss Clare," said Mr. Morley—I thought rudely, for who would use the word disputing at a dinner-table? "On the contrary, being a practical man, I want to know what is to be done. It is doubtless a great misfortune to the community that there should be such sinks in our cities; but who is to blame for it?—that is the question."
"Every man who says, Am I my brother's keeper? Why, just consider, Mr. Morley: suppose in a family there were one less gifted than the others, and that in consequence they all withdrew from him, and took no interest in his affairs: what would become of him? Must he not sink?"
"Difference of rank is a divine appointment,—you must allow that. If there were not a variety of grades, the social machine would soon come to a stand-still."
"A strong argument for taking care of the smallest wheel, for all the parts are interdependent. That there should be different classes is undoubtedly a divine intention, and not to be turned aside. But suppose the less-gifted boy is fit for some manual labor; suppose he takes to carpentering, and works well, and keeps the house tidy, and every thing in good repair, while his brothers pursue their studies and prepare for professions beyond his reach: is the inferior boy degraded by doing the best he can? Is there any reason in the nature of things why he should sink? But he will most likely sink, sooner or later, if his brothers take no interest in his work, and treat him as a being of nature inferior to their own."
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Morley, "but is he not on the very supposition inferior to them?"
"Intellectually, yes; morally, no; for he is doing his work, possibly better than they, and therefore taking a higher place in the eternal scale. But granting all kinds of inferiority, his nature remains the same with their own; and the question is, whether they treat him as one to be helped up, or one to be kept down; as one unworthy of sympathy, or one to be honored for filling his part: in a word, as one belonging to them, or one whom they put up with only because his work is necessary to them."
"What do you mean by being 'helped up'?" asked Mr. Morley.
"I do not mean helped out of his trade, but helped to make the best of it, and of the intellect that finds its development in that way."
"Very good. But yet I don't see how you apply your supposition."
"For an instance of application, then: How many respectable people know or care a jot about their servants, except as creatures necessary to their comfort?"
"Well, Miss Clare," said Judy, addressing her for the first time, "if you had had the half to do with servants I have had, you would alter your opinion of them."
"I have expressed no opinion," returned Miss Clare. "I have only said that masters and mistresses know and care next to nothing about them."
"They are a very ungrateful class, do what you will for them."
"I am afraid they are at present growing more and more corrupt as a class," rejoined Miss Clare; "but gratitude is a high virtue, therefore in any case I don't see how you could look for much of it from the common sort of them. And yet while some mistresses do not get so much of it as they deserve, I fear most mistresses expect far more of it than they have any right to."
"You can't get them to speak the truth."
"That I am afraid is a fact."
"I have never known one on whose word I could depend," insisted Judy.
"My father says he has known one," I interjected.
"A sad confirmation of Mrs. Morley," said Miss Clare. "But for my part I know very few persons in any rank on whose representation of things I could absolutely depend. Truth is the highest virtue, and seldom grows wild. It is difficult to speak the truth, and those who have tried it longest best know how difficult it is. Servants need to be taught that as well as everybody else."
"There is nothing they resent so much as being taught," said Judy.
"Perhaps: they are very far from docile; and I believe it is of little use to attempt giving them direct lessons."
"How, then, are you to teach them?"
"By making it very plain to them, but without calling their attention to it, that you speak the truth. In the course of a few years they may come to tell a lie or two the less for that."
"Not a very hopeful prospect," said Judy.
"Not a very rapid improvement," said her husband.
"I look for no rapid improvement, so early in a history as the supposition implies," said Miss Clare.
"But would you not tell them how wicked it is?" I asked.
"They know already that it is wicked to tell lies; but they do not feel that they are wicked in making the assertions they do. The less said about the abstract truth, and the more shown of practical truth, the better for those whom any one would teach to forsake lying. So, at least, it appears to me. I despair of teaching others, except by learning myself."
"If you do no more than that, you will hardly produce an appreciable effect in a lifetime."
"Why should it be appreciated?" rejoined Miss Clare.
"I should have said, on the contrary," interposed Mr. Blackstone, addressing Mr. Morley, "if you do less—for more you cannot do—you will produce no effect whatever."
"We have no right to make it a condition of our obedience, that we shall see its reflex in the obedience of others," said Miss Clare. "We have to pull out the beam, not the mote."
"Are you not, then, to pull the mote out of your brother's eye?" said Judy.
"In no case and on no pretence, until you have pulled the beam out of your own eye," said Mr. Blackstone; "which I fancy will make the duty of finding fault with one's neighbor a rare one; for who will venture to say he has qualified himself for the task?"
It was no wonder that a silence followed upon this; for the talk had got to be very serious for a dinner-table. Lady Bernard was the first to speak. It was easier to take up the dropped thread of the conversation than to begin a new reel.
"It cannot be denied," she said, "whoever may be to blame for it, that the separation between the rich and the poor has either been greatly widened of late, or, which involves the same practical necessity, we have become more aware of the breadth and depth of a gulf which, however it may distinguish their circumstances, ought not to divide them from each other. Certainly the rich withdraw themselves from the poor. Instead, for instance, of helping them to bear their burdens, they leave the still struggling poor of whole parishes to sink into hopeless want, under the weight of those who have already sunk beyond recovery. I am not sure that to shoot them would not involve less injustice. At all events, he that hates his brother is a murderer."
"But there is no question of hating here," objected Mr. Morley.
"I am not certain that absolute indifference to one's neighbor is not as bad. It came pretty nearly to the same thing in the case of the priest and the Levite, who passed by on the other side," said Mr. Blackstone.
"Still," said Mr. Morley, in all the self-importance of one who prided himself on the practical, "I do not see that Miss Clare has proposed any remedy for the state of things concerning the evil of which we are all agreed. What is to be done? What can I do now? Come, Miss Clare."
Miss Clare was silent.
"Marion, my child," said Lady Bernard, turning to her, "will you answer Mr. Morley?"
"Not, certainly, as to what he can do: that question I dare not undertake to answer. I can only speak of what principles I may seem to have discovered. But until a man begins to behave to those with whom he comes into personal contact as partakers of the same nature, to recognize, for instance, between himself and his trades-people a bond superior to that of supply and demand, I cannot imagine how he is to do any thing towards the drawing together of the edges of the gaping wound in the social body."
"But," persisted Mr. Morley, who, I began to think, showed some real desire to come at a practical conclusion, "suppose a man finds himself incapable of that sort of thing—for it seems to me to want some rare qualification or other to be able to converse with an uneducated person"—
"There are many such, especially amongst those who follow handicrafts," interposed Mr. Blackstone, "who think a great deal more than most of the so-called educated. There is a truer education to be got in the pursuit of a handicraft than in the life of a mere scholar. But I beg your pardon, Mr. Morley."
"Suppose," resumed Mr. Morley, accepting the apology without disclaimer,—"Suppose I find I can do nothing of that sort; is there nothing of any sort I can do?"
"Nothing of the best sort, I firmly believe," answered Miss Clare; "for the genuine recognition of the human relationship can alone give value to whatever else you may do, and indeed can alone guide you to what ought to be done. I had a rather painful illustration of this the other day. A gentleman of wealth and position offered me the use of his grounds for some of my poor friends, whom I wanted to take out for a half-holiday. In the neighborhood of London, that is a great boon. But unfortunately, whether from his mistake or mine, I was left with the impression that he would provide some little entertainment for them; I am certain that at least milk was mentioned. It was a lovely day; every thing looked beautiful; and although they were in no great spirits, poor things, no doubt the shade and the grass and the green trees wrought some good in them. Unhappily, two of the men had got drunk on the way; and, fearful of giving offence, I had to take them back to the station.—for their poor helpless wives could only cry,—and send them home by train. I should have done better to risk the offence, and take them into the grounds, where they might soon have slept it off under a tree. I had some distance to go, and some difficulty in getting them along; and when I got back I found things in an unhappy condition, for nothing had been given them to eat or drink,—indeed, no attention, had been paid them whatever. There was company at dinner in the house, and I could not find any one with authority. I hurried into the neighboring village, and bought the contents of two bakers' shops, with which I returned in time to give each a piece of bread before the company came out to look at them. A gayly-dressed group, they stood by themselves languidly regarding the equally languid but rather indignant groups of ill-clad and hungry men and women upon the lawn. They made no attempt to mingle with them, or arrive at a notion of what was moving in any of their minds. The nearest approach to communion I saw was a poke or two given to a child with the point of a parasol. Were my poor friends likely to return to their dingy homes with any great feeling of regard for the givers of such cold welcome?"
"But that was an exceptional case," said Mr. Morley.
"Chiefly in this," returned Miss Clare, "that it was a case at all—that they were thus presented with a little more room on the face of the earth for a few hours."
"But you think the fresh air may have done them good?"
"Yes; but we were speaking, I thought, of what might serve towards the filling up of the gulf between the classes."
"Well, will not all kindness shown to the poor by persons in a superior station tend in that direction?"
"I maintain that you can do nothing for them in the way of kindness that shall not result in more harm than good, except you do it from and with genuine charity of soul; with some of that love, in short, which is the heart of religion. Except what is done for them is so done as to draw out their trust and affection, and so raise them consciously in the human scale, it can only tend either to hurt their feelings and generate indignation, or to encourage fawning and beggary. But"—
"I am entirely of your mind," said Mr. Blackstone. "But do go on."
"I was going to add," said Miss Clare, "that while no other charity than this can touch the sore, a good deal might yet be effected by bare justice. It seems to me high time that we dropped talking about charity, and took up the cry of justice. There, now, is a ground on which a man of your influence, Mr. Morley, might do much."
"I don't know what you mean, Miss Clare. So long as I pay the market value for the labor I employ, I do not see how more can be demanded of me—as a right, that is."
"We will not enter on that question, Marion, if you please," said Lady Bernard.
Miss Clare nodded, and went on.
"Is it just in the nation," she said, "to abandon those who can do nothing to help themselves, to be preyed upon by bad landlords, railway-companies, and dishonest trades-people with their false weights, balances, and measures, and adulterations to boot,—from all of whom their more wealthy brethren are comparatively safe? Does not a nation exist for the protection of its parts? Have these no claims on the nation? Would you call it just in a family to abandon its less gifted to any moral or physical spoiler who might be bred within it? To say a citizen must take care of himself may be just where he can take care of himself, but cannot be just where that is impossible. A thousand causes, originating mainly in the neglect of their neighbors, have combined to sink the poor into a state of moral paralysis: are we to say the paralyzed may be run over in our streets with impunity? Must they take care of themselves? Have we not to awake them to the very sense that life is worth caring for? I cannot but feel that the bond between such a neglected class, and any nation in which it is to be found, is very little stronger than, if indeed as strong as, that between slaves and their masters. Who could preach to them their duty to the nation, except on grounds which such a nation acknowledges only with the lips?"
"You have to prove, Miss Clare," said Mr. Morley, in a tone that seemed intended to imply that he was not in the least affected by mistimed eloquence, "that the relation is that of a family."
"I believe," she returned, "that it is closer than the mere human relation of the parts of any family. But, at all events, until we are their friends it is worse than useless to pretend to be such, and until they feel that we are their friends it is worse than useless to talk to them about God and religion. They will none of it from our lips."
"Will they from any lips? Are they not already too far sunk towards the brutes to be capable of receiving any such rousing influence?" suggested Mr. Blackstone with a smile, evidently wishing to draw Miss Clare out yet further.
"You turn me aside, Mr. Blackstone. I wanted to urge Mr. Morley to go into parliament as spiritual member for the poor of our large towns. Besides, I know you don't think as your question would imply. As far as my experience guides me, I am bound to believe that there is a spot of soil in every heart sufficient for the growth of a gospel seed. And I believe, moreover, that not only is he a fellow-worker with God who sows that seed, but that he also is one who opens a way for that seed to enter the soil. If such preparation were not necessary, the Saviour would have come the moment Adam and Eve fell, and would have required no Baptist to precede him."
A good deal followed which I would gladly record, enabled as I now am to assist my memory by a more thorough acquaintance with the views of Miss Clare. But I fear I have already given too much conversation at once.
THE END OF THE EVENING.
What specially delighted me during the evening, was the marked attention, and the serious look in the eyes, with which Roger listened. It was not often that he did look serious. He preferred, if possible, to get a joke out of a thing; but when he did enter into an argument, he was always fair. Although prone to take the side of objection to any religious remark, he yet never said any thing against religion itself. But his principles, and indeed his nature, seemed as yet in a state of solution,—uncrystallized, as my father would say. Mr. Morley, on the other hand, seemed an insoluble mass, incapable of receiving impressions from other minds. Any suggestion of his own mind, as to a course of action or a mode of thinking, had a good chance of being without question regarded as reasonable and right: he was more than ordinarily prejudiced in his own favor. The day after they thus met at our house, Miss Clare had a letter from him, in which he took the high hand with her, rebuking her solemnly for her presumption in saying, as he represented it, that no good could be done except after the fashion she laid down, and assuring her that she would thus alienate the most valuable assistance from any scheme she might cherish for the amelioration of the condition of the lower classes. It ended with the offer of a yearly subscription of five pounds to any project of the wisdom of which she would take the trouble to convince him. She replied, thanking him both, for his advice and his offer, but saying that, as she had no scheme on foot requiring such assistance, she could not at present accept the latter; should, however, any thing show itself for which that sort of help was desirable, she would take the liberty of reminding him of it.
When the ladies rose, Judy took me aside, and said,—
"What does it all mean, Wynnie?"
"Just what you hear," I answered.
"You asked us, to have a triumph over me, you naughty thing!"
"Well—partly—if I am to be honest; but far more to make you do justice to Miss Clare. You being my cousin, she had a right to that at my hands."
"Does Lady Bernard know as much about her as she seems?"
"She knows every thing about her, and visits her, too, in her very questionable abode. You see, Judy, a report may be a fact, and yet be untrue."
"I'm not going to be lectured by a chit like you. But I should like to have a little talk with Miss Clare."
"I will make you an opportunity."
I did so, and could not help overhearing a very pretty apology; to which Miss Clare replied, that she feared she only was to blame, inasmuch as she ought to have explained the peculiarity of her circumstances before accepting the engagement. At the time, it had not appeared to her necessary, she said; but now she would make a point of explaining before she accepted any fresh duty of the kind, for she saw it would be fairer to both parties. It was no wonder such an answer should entirely disarm cousin Judy, who forthwith begged she would, if she had no objection, resume her lessons with the children at the commencement of the next quarter.
"But I understand from Mrs. Percivale," objected Miss Clare, "that the office is filled to your thorough satisfaction."
"Yes; the lady I have is an excellent teacher; but the engagement was only for a quarter."
"If you have no other reason for parting with her, I could not think of stepping into her place. It would be a great disappointment to her, and my want of openness with you would be the cause of it. If you should part with her for any other reason, I should be very glad to serve you again."
Judy tried to argue with her, but Miss Clare was immovable.
"Will you let me come and see you, then?" said Judy.
"With all my heart," she answered. "You had better come with Mrs. Percivale, though, for it would not be easy for you to find the place."
We went up to the drawing-room to tea, passing through the study, and taking the gentlemen with us. Miss Clare played to us, and sang several songs,—the last a ballad of Schiller's, "The Pilgrim," setting forth the constant striving of the soul after something of which it never lays hold. The last verse of it I managed to remember. It was this:—
Thither, ah! no footpath bendeth; Ah! the heaven above, so clear, Never, earth to touch, descendeth; And the There is never Here!"
"That is a beautiful song, and beautifully sung," said Mr. Blackstone; "but I am a little surprised at your choosing to sing it, for you cannot call it a Christian song."
"Don't you find St. Paul saying something very like it again and again?" Miss Clare returned with a smile, as if she perfectly knew what he objected to. "You find him striving, journeying, pressing on, reaching out to lay hold, but never having attained,—ever conscious of failure."
"That is true; but there is this huge difference,—that St. Paul expects to attain,—is confident of one day attaining; while Schiller, in that lyric at least, seems—I only say seems—hopeless of any satisfaction: Das Dort ist niemals Hier."
"It may have been only a mood," said Miss Clare. "St. Paul had his moods also, from which he had to rouse himself to fresh faith and hope and effort."
"But St. Paul writes only in his hopeful moods. Such alone he counts worthy of sharing with his fellows. If there is no hope, why, upon any theory, take the trouble to say so? It is pure weakness to desire sympathy in hopelessness. Hope alone justifies as well as excites either utterance or effort."
"I admit all you say, Mr. Blackstone; and yet I think such a poem invaluable; for is not Schiller therein the mouth of the whole creation groaning and travailling and inarticulately crying out for the sonship?"
"Unconsciously, then. He does not know what he wants."
"Apparently, not. Neither does the creation. Neither do we. We do know it is oneness with God we want; but of what that means we have only vague, though glowing hints."
I saw Mr. Morley scratch his left ear like a young calf, only more impatiently.
"But," Miss Clare went on, "is it not invaluable as the confession of one of the noblest of spirits, that he had found neither repose nor sense of attainment?"
"But," said Roger, "did you ever know any one of those you call Christians who professed to have reached satisfaction; or, if so, whose life would justify you in believing him?"
"I have never known a satisfied Christian, I confess," answered Miss Clare. "Indeed, I should take satisfaction as a poor voucher for Christianity. But I have known several contented Christians. I might, in respect of one or two of them, use a stronger word,—certainly not satisfied. I believe there is a grand, essential unsatisfaction,—I do not mean dissatisfaction,—which adds the delight of expectation to the peace of attainment; and that, I presume, is the very consciousness of heaven. But where faith may not have produced even contentment, it will yet sustain hope: which, if we may judge from the ballad, no mere aspiration can. We must believe in a living ideal, before we can have a tireless heart; an ideal which draws our poor vague ideal to itself, to fill it full and make it alive."
I should have been amazed to hear Miss Clare talk like this, had I not often heard my father say that aspiration and obedience were the two mightiest forces for development. Her own needs and her own deeds had been her tutors; and the light by which she had read their lessons was the candle of the Lord within her.
When my husband would have put her into Lady Bernard's carriage, as they were leaving, she said she should prefer walking home; and, as Lady Bernard did not press her to the contrary, Percivale could not remonstrate. "I am sorry I cannot walk with you, Miss Clare," he said. "I must not leave my duties, but"—
"There's not the slightest occasion," she interrupted. "I know every yard of the way. Good-night."
The carriage drove off in one direction, and Miss Clare tripped lightly along in the other. Percivale darted into the house, and told Roger, who snatched up his hat, and bounded after her. Already she was out of sight; but he, following light-footed, overtook her in the crescent. It was, however, only after persistent entreaty that he prevailed on her to allow him to accompany her.
"You do not know, Mr. Roger," she said pleasantly, "what you may be exposing yourself to, in going with me. I may have to do something you wouldn't like to have a share in."
"I shall be only too glad to have the humblest share in any thing you draw me into," said Roger.
As it fell out, they had not gone far before they came upon a little crowd, chiefly of boys, who ought to have been in bed long before, gathered about a man and woman. The man was forcing his company on a woman who was evidently annoyed that she could not get rid of him.
"Is he your husband?" asked Miss Clare, making her way through the crowd.
"No, miss," the woman answered. "I never saw him afore. I'm only just come in from the country."
She looked more angry than frightened. Roger said her black eyes flashed dangerously, and she felt about the bosom of her dress—for a knife, he was certain.
"You leave her alone," he said to the man, getting between him and her.
"Mind your own business," returned the man, in a voice that showed he was drunk.
For a moment Roger was undecided what to do; for he feared involving Miss Clare in a row, as he called it. But when the fellow, pushing suddenly past him, laid his hand on Miss Clare, and shoved her away, he gave him a blow that sent him staggering into the street; whereupon, to his astonishment, Miss Clare, leaving the woman, followed the man, and as soon as he had recovered his equilibrium, laid her hand on his arm and spoke to him, but in a voice so low and gentle that Roger, who had followed her, could not hear a word she said. For a moment or two the man seemed to try to listen, but his condition was too much for him; and, turning from her, he began again to follow the woman, who was now walking wearily away. Roger again interposed.
"Don't strike him, Mr. Roger," cried Miss Clare: "he's too drunk for that. But keep him back if you can, while I take the woman away. If I see a policeman, I will send him."
The man heard her last words, and they roused him to fury. He rushed at Roger, who, implicitly obedient, only dodged to let him pass, and again confronted him, engaging his attention until help arrived. He was, however, by this time so fierce and violent, that Roger felt bound to assist the policeman.
As soon as the man was locked up, he went to Lime Court. The moon was shining, and the narrow passage lay bright beneath her. Along the street, people were going and coming, though it was past midnight, but the court was very still. He walked into it as far as the spot where we had together seen Miss Clare. The door at which she had entered was open; but he knew nothing of the house or its people, and feared to compromise her by making inquiries. He walked several times up and down, somewhat anxious, but gradually persuading himself that in all probability no further annoyance had befallen her; until at last he felt able to leave the place.
He came back to our house, where, finding his brother at his final pipe in the study, he told him all about their adventure.
MY FIRST TERROR.
One of the main discomforts in writing a book is, that there are so many ways in which every thing, as it comes up, might be told, and you can't tell which is the best. You believe there must be a best way; but you might spend your life in trying to satisfy yourself which was that best way, and, when you came to the close of it, find you had done nothing,—hadn't even found out the way. I have always to remind myself that something, even if it be far from the best thing, is better than nothing. Perhaps the only way to arrive at the best way is to make plenty of blunders, and find them out.
This morning I had been sitting a long time with my pen in my hand, thinking what this chapter ought to be about,—that is, what part of my own history, or of that of my neighbors interwoven therewith, I ought to take up next,—when my third child, my little Cecilia, aged five, came into the room, and said,—
"Mamma, there's a poor man at the door, and Jemima won't give him any thing."
"Quite right, my dear. We must give what we can to people we know. We are sure then that it is not wasted."
"But he's so very poor, mamma!"
"How do you know that?"
"Poor man! he has only three children. I heard him tell Jemima. He was so sorry! And I'm very sorry, too."
"But don't you know you mustn't go to the door when any one is talking to Jemima?" I said.
"Yes, mamma. I didn't go to the door: I stood in the hall and peeped."
"But you mustn't even stand in the hall," I said. "Mind that."
This was, perhaps, rather an oppressive reading of a proper enough rule; but I had a very special reason for it, involving an important event in my story, which occurred about two years after what I have last set down.
One morning Percivale took a holiday in order to give me one, and we went to spend it at Richmond. It was the anniversary of our marriage; and as we wanted to enjoy it thoroughly, and, precious as children are, every pleasure is not enhanced by their company, we left ours at home,—Ethel and her brother Roger (named after Percivale's father), who was now nearly a year old, and wanted a good deal of attention. It was a lovely day, with just a sufficient number of passing clouds to glorify—that is, to do justice to—the sunshine, and a gentle breeze, which itself seemed to be taking a holiday, for it blew only just when you wanted it, and then only enough to make you think of that wind which, blowing where it lists, always blows where it is wanted. We took the train to Hammersmith; for my husband, having consulted the tide-table, and found that the river would be propitious, wished to row me from there to Richmond. How gay the river-side looked, with its fine broad landing stage, and the numberless boats ready to push off on the swift water, which kept growing and growing on the shingly shore! Percivale, however, would hire his boat at a certain builder's shed, that I might see it. That shed alone would have been worth coming to see—such a picture of loveliest gloom—as if it had been the cave where the twilight abode its time! You could not tell whether to call it light or shade,—that diffused presence of a soft elusive brown; but is what we call shade any thing but subdued light? All about, above, and below, lay the graceful creatures of the water, moveless and dead here on the shore, but there—launched into their own elemental world, and blown upon by the living wind—endowed at once with life and motion and quick response.
Not having been used to boats, I felt nervous as we got into the long, sharp-nosed, hollow fish which Percivale made them shoot out on the rising tide; but the slight fear vanished almost the moment we were afloat, when, ignorant as I was of the art of rowing, I could not help seeing how perfectly Percivale was at home in it. The oars in his hands were like knitting-needles in mine, so deftly, so swimmingly, so variously, did he wield them. Only once my fear returned, when he stood up in the swaying thing—a mere length without breadth—to pull off his coat and waistcoat; but he stood steady, sat down gently, took his oars quietly, and the same instant we were shooting so fast through the rising tide that it seemed as if we were pulling the water up to Richmond.
"Wouldn't you like to steer?" said my husband. "It would amuse you."
"I should like to learn," I said,—"not that I want to be amused; I am too happy to care for amusement."
"Take those two cords behind you, then, one in each hand, sitting between them. That will do. Now, if you want me to go to your right, pull your right-hand cord; if you want me to go to your left, pull your left-hand one."
I made an experiment or two, and found the predicted consequences follow: I ran him aground, first on one bank, then on the other. But when I did so a third time,—
"Come! come!" he said: "this won't do, Mrs. Percivale. You're not trying your best. There is such a thing as gradation in steering as well as in painting, or music, or any thing else that is worth doing."
"I pull the right line, don't I?" I said; for I was now in a mood to tease him.
"Yes—to a wrong result," he answered. "You must feel your rudder, as you would the mouth of your horse with the bit, and not do any thing violent, except in urgent necessity."
I answered by turning the head of the boat right towards the nearer bank.
"I see!" he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. "I have put a dangerous power into your hands. But never mind. The queen may decree as she likes; but the sinews of war, you know"—
I thought he meant that if I went on with my arbitrary behavior, he would drop his oars; and for a little while I behaved better. Soon, however, the spirit of mischief prompting me, I began my tricks again: to my surprise I found that I had no more command over the boat than over the huge barge, which, with its great red-brown sail, was slowly ascending in front of us; I couldn't turn its head an inch in the direction I wanted.
"What does it mean, Percivale?" I cried, pulling with all my might, and leaning forward that I might pull the harder.
"What does what mean?" he returned coolly.
"That I can't move the boat."
"Oh! It means that I have resumed the reins of government."
"But how? I can't understand it."
"And I am wiser than to make you too wise. Education is not a panacea for moral evils. I quote your father, my dear."
And he pulled away as if nothing were the matter.
"Please, I like steering," I said remonstratingly. "And I like rowing."
"I don't see why the two shouldn't go together."
"Nor I. They ought. But not only does the steering depend on the rowing, but the rower can steer himself."
"I will be a good girl, and steer properly."
"Very well; steer away."
He looked shorewards as he spoke; and then first I became aware that he had been watching my hands all the time. The boat now obeyed my lightest touch.
How merrily the water rippled in the sun and the wind! while so responsive were our feelings to the play of light and shade around us, that more than once when a cloud crossed us, I saw its shadow turn almost into sadness on the countenance of my companion,—to vanish the next moment when the one sun above and the thousand mimic suns below shone out in universal laughter. When a steamer came in sight, or announced its approach by the far-heard sound of its beating paddles, it brought with it a few moments of almost awful responsibility; but I found that the presence of danger and duty together, instead of making me feel flurried, composed my nerves, and enabled me to concentrate my whole attention on getting the head of the boat as nearly as possible at right angles with the waves from the paddles; for Percivale had told me that if one of any size struck us on the side, it would most probably capsize us. But the way to give pleasure to my readers can hardly be to let myself grow garrulous in the memory of an ancient pleasure of my own. I will say nothing more of the delights of that day. They were such a contrast to its close, that twelve months at least elapsed before I was able to look back upon them without a shudder; for I could not rid myself of the foolish feeling that our enjoyment had been somehow to blame for what was happening at home while we were thus revelling in blessed carelessness.
When we reached our little nest, rather late in the evening, I found to my annoyance that the front door was open. It had been a fault of which I thought I had cured the cook,—to leave it thus when she ran out to fetch any thing. Percivale went down to the study; and I walked into the drawing-room, about to ring the bell in anger. There, to my surprise and farther annoyance, I found Sarah, seated on the sofa with her head in her hands, and little Roger wide awake on the floor.
"What does this mean?" I cried. "The front door open! Master Roger still up! and you seated in the drawing-room!"
"O ma'am!" she almost shrieked, starting up the moment I spoke, and, by the time I had put my angry interrogation, just able to gasp out—"Have you found her, ma'am?"
"Found whom?" I returned in alarm, both at the question and at the face of the girl; for through the dusk I now saw that it was very pale, and that her eyes were red with crying.
"Miss Ethel," she answered in a cry choked with a sob; and dropping again on the sofa, she hid her face once more between her hands.
I rushed to the study-door, and called Percivale; then returned to question the girl. I wonder now that I did nothing outrageous; but fear kept down folly, and made me unnaturally calm.
"Sarah," I said, as quietly as I could, while I trembled all over, "tell me what has happened. Where is the child?"
"Indeed it's not my fault, ma'am. I was busy with Master Roger, and Miss Ethel was down stairs with Jemima."
"Where is she?" I repeated sternly.
"I don't know no more than the man in the moon, ma'am."
"Run out to look for her?"
"How long have you missed her?"
"An hour. Or perhaps two hours. I don't know, my head's in such a whirl. I can't remember when I saw her last. O ma'am! What shall I do?"
Percivale had come up, and was standing beside me. When I looked round, he was as pale as death; and at the sight of his face, I nearly dropped on the floor. But he caught hold of me, and said, in a voice so dreadfully still that it frightened me more than any thing,—
"Come, my love; do not give way, for we must go to the police at once." Then, turning to Sarah, "Have you searched the house and garden?" he asked.
"Yes, sir; every hole and corner. We've looked under every bed, and into every cupboard and chest,—the coal-cellar, the boxroom,—everywhere."
"The bathroom?" I cried.
"Oh, yes, ma'am! the bathroom, and everywhere."
"Have there been any tramps about the house since we left?" Percivale asked.
"Not that I know of; but the nursery window looks into the garden, you know, sir. Jemima didn't mention it."
"Come then, my dear," said my husband.
He compelled me to swallow a glass of wine, and led me away, almost unconscious of my bodily movements, to the nearest cab-stand. I wondered afterwards, when I recalled the calm gaze with which he glanced along the line, and chose the horse whose appearance promised the best speed. In a few minutes we were telling the inspector at the police-station in Albany Street what had happened. He took a sheet of paper, and asking one question after another about her age, appearance, and dress, wrote down our answers. He then called a man, to whom he gave the paper, with some words of direction.
"The men are now going on their beats for the night," he said, turning again to us. "They will all hear the description of the child, and some of them have orders to search."
"Thank you," said my husband. "Which station had we better go to next?"
"The news will be at the farthest before you can reach the nearest," he answered. "We shall telegraph to the suburbs first."
"Then what more is there we can do?" asked Percivale.
"Nothing," said the inspector,—"except you find out whether any of the neighbors saw her, and when and where. It would be something to know in what direction she was going. Have you any ground for suspicion? Have you ever discharged a servant? Were any tramps seen about the place?"
"I know, who it is!" I cried. "It's the woman that took Theodora! It's Theodora's mother! I know it is!"
Percivale explained what I meant.
"That's what people get, you see, when they take on themselves other people's business," returned the inspector. "That child ought to have been sent to the workhouse."
He laid his head on his hand for a moment.
"It seems likely enough," he added. Then after another pause—"I have your address. The child shall be brought back to you the moment she's found. We can't mistake her after your description."
"Where are you going now?" I said to my husband, as we left the station to re-enter the cab.
"I don't know," he answered, "except we go home and question all the shops in the neighborhood."
"Let us go to Miss Clare first," I said.
"By all means," he answered.
We were soon at the entrance of Lime Court.
When we turned the corner in the middle of it, we heard the sound of a piano.
"She's at home!" I cried, with a feeble throb of satisfaction. The fear that she might be out had for the last few moments been uppermost.
We entered the house, and ascended the stairs in haste. Not a creature did we meet, except a wicked-looking cat. The top of her head was black, her forehead and face white; and the black and white were shaped so as to look like hair parted over a white forehead, which gave her green eyes a frightfully human look as she crouched in the corner of a window-sill in the light of a gas-lamp outside. But before we reached the top of the first stair we heard the sounds of dancing, as well as of music. In a moment after, with our load of gnawing fear and helpless eagerness, we stood in the midst of a merry assembly of men, women, and children, who filled Miss Clare's room to overflowing. It was Saturday night, and they were gathered according to custom for their weekly music.
They made a way for us; and Miss Clare left the piano, and came to meet us with a smile on her beautiful face. But, when she saw our faces, hers fell.
"What is the matter, Mrs. Percivale?" she asked in alarm.
I sunk on the chair from which she had risen.
"We've lost Ethel," said my husband quietly.
"What do you mean? You don't"—
"No, no: she's gone; she's stolen. We don't know where she is," he answered with faltering voice. "We've just been to the police."
Miss Clare turned white; but, instead of making any remark, she called out to some of her friends whose good manners were making them leave the room,—
"Don't go, please; we want you." Then turning to me, she asked, "May I do as I think best?"
"Yes, certainly," answered my husband.
"My friend, Mrs. Percivale," she said, addressing the whole assembly, "has lost her little girl."
A murmur of dismay and sympathy arose.
"What can we do to find her?" she went on.
They fell to talking among themselves. The next instant, two men came up to us, making their way from the neighborhood of the door. The one was a keen-faced, elderly man, with iron-gray whiskers and clean-shaved chin; the other was my first acquaintance in the neighborhood, the young bricklayer. The elder addressed my husband, while the other listened without speaking.
"Tell us what she's like, sir, and how she was dressed—though that ain't much use. She'll be all different by this time."
The words shot a keener pang to my heart than it had yet felt. My darling stripped of her nice clothes, and covered with dirty, perhaps infected garments. But it was no time to give way to feeling.
My husband repeated to the men the description he had given the police, loud enough for the whole room to hear; and the women in particular, Miss Clare told me afterwards, caught it up with remarkable accuracy. They would not have done so, she said, but that their feelings were touched.
"Tell them also, please, Mr. Percivale, about the child Mrs. Percivale's father and mother found and brought up. That may have something to do with this."
My husband told them all the story; adding that the mother of the child might have found out who we were, and taken ours as a pledge for the recovery of her own.
Here one of the women spoke.
"That dark woman you took in one night—two years ago, miss—she say something. I was astin' of her in the mornin' what her trouble was, for that trouble she had on her mind was plain to see, and she come over something, half-way like, about losin' of a child; but whether it were dead, or strayed, or stolen, or what, I couldn't tell; and no more, I believe, she wanted me to."
Here another woman spoke.
"I'm 'most sure I saw her—the same woman—two days ago, and no furrer off than Gower Street," she said. "You're too good by half, miss," she went on, "to the likes of sich. They ain't none of them respectable."
"Perhaps you'll see some good come out of it before long," said Miss Clare in reply.
The words sounded like a rebuke, for all this time I had hardly sent a thought upwards for help. The image of my child had so filled my heart, that there was no room left for the thought of duty, or even of God.
Miss Clare went on, still addressing the company, and her words had a tone of authority.
"I will tell you what you must do," she said. "You must, every one of you, run and tell everybody you know, and tell every one to tell everybody else. You mustn't stop to talk it over with each other, or let those you tell it to stop to talk to you about it; for it is of the greatest consequence no time should be lost in making it as quickly and as widely known as possible. Go, please."
In a few moments the room was empty of all but ourselves. The rush on the stairs was tremendous for a single minute, and then all was still. Even the children had rushed out to tell what other children they could find.
"What must we do next?" said my husband.
Miss Clare thought for a moment.
"I would go and tell Mr. Blackstone," she said. "It is a long way from here, but whoever has taken the child would not be likely to linger in the neighborhood. It is best to try every thing."
"Right," said my husband. "Come, Wynnie."
"Wouldn't it be better to leave Mrs. Percivale with me?" said Miss Clare. "It is dreadfully fatiguing to go driving over the stones."
It was very kind of her; but if she had been a mother she would not have thought of parting me from my husband; neither would she have fancied that I could remain inactive so long as it was possible even to imagine I was doing something; but when I told her how I felt, she saw at once that it would be better for me to go.
We set off instantly, and drove to Mr. Blackstone's. What a long way it was! Down Oxford Street and Holborn we rattled and jolted, and then through many narrow ways in which I had never been, emerging at length in a broad road, with many poor and a few fine old houses in it; then again plunging into still more shabby regions of small houses, which, alas! were new, and yet wretched! At length, near an open space, where yet not a blade of grass could grow for the trampling of many feet, and for the smoke from tall chimneys, close by a gasometer of awful size, we found the parsonage, and Mr. Blackstone in his study. The moment he heard our story he went to the door and called his servant. "Run, Jabez," he said, "and tell the sexton to ring the church-bell. I will come to him directly I hear it."
I may just mention that Jabez and his wife, who formed the whole of Mr. Blackstone's household, did not belong to his congregation, but were members of a small community in the neighborhood, calling themselves Peculiar Baptists.
About ten minutes passed, during which little was said: Mr. Blackstone never seemed to have any mode of expressing his feelings except action, and where that was impossible they took hardly any recognizable shape. When the first boom of the big bell filled the little study in which we sat, I gave a cry, and jumped up from my chair: it sounded in my ears like the knell of my lost baby, for at the moment I was thinking of her as once when a baby she lay for dead in my arms. Mr. Blackstone got up and left the room, and my husband rose and would have followed him; but, saying he would be back in a few minutes, he shut the door and left us. It was half an hour, a dreadful half-hour, before he returned; for to sit doing nothing, not even being carried somewhere to do something, was frightful.
"I've told them all about it," he said. "I couldn't do better than follow Miss Clare's example. But my impression is, that, if the woman you suspect be the culprit, she would make her way out to the open as quickly as possible. Such people are most at home on the commons: they are of a less gregarious nature than the wild animals of the town. What shall you do next?"
"That is just what I want to know," answered my husband.
He never asked advice except when he did not know what to do; and never except from one whose advice he meant to follow.
"Well," returned Mr. Blackstone, "I should put an advertisement into every one of the morning papers."
"But the offices will all be closed," said Percivale.
"Yes, the publishing, but not the printing offices."
"How am I to find out where they are?"
"I know one or two of them, and the people there will tell us the rest."
"Then you mean to go with us?"
"Of course I do,—that is, if you will have me. You don't think I would leave you to go alone? Have you had any supper?"