"I must just tell you our good news," she said. "My father has won his case, and has got heavy damages."
"I am very glad," said Brian. "It must be a great relief to you all to have it over."
"Immense! Father looks as if a ton's weight had been taken off his mind. Now I hope we shall have a little peace."
With a hasty good bye she hurried on, an unusual elasticity in her light footsteps. In Guilford Square she met a political friend of her father's, and was brought once more to a standstill. This time it was a little unwillingly, for M. Noirol teased her unmercifully, and at their last meeting had almost made her angry by talking of a friend of his at Paris who offered untold advantages to any clever and well-educated English girl who wished to learn the language, and who would in return teach her own. Erica had been made miserable by the mere suggestion that such a situation would suit her; the slightest hint that it might be well for her to go abroad had roused in her a sort of terror lest her father might ever seriously think of the scheme. She had not quite forgiven M. Noirol for having spoken, although the proposal had not been gravely made, and probably only persevered in out of the spirit of teasing. But today M. Noirol looked very grave.
"You have heard our good news?" said Erica. "Now don't begin again about Madame Lemercier's school; I don't want to be made cross today of all days, when I am so happy."
"I will tease you no more, dear mademoiselle," said the Frenchman; but he offered no congratulations, and there was something in his manner which made Erica uneasy.
"Is anything wrong? Has anything happened?" she asked quickly.
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders.
"Who knows! It is an evil world, Mademoiselle Erica, as you will realize when you have lived in it as long as I have. But I detain you. Good bye. AU REVOIR!"
He took off his hat with a flourish, and passed on.
Erica, feeling baffled and a little cross, hurried home. M. Noirol had not teased her today, but he had been inscrutable and tiresome, and he had made her feel uneasy. She opened the front door, and went at once to her father's study, pausing for a moment at the sound of voices within. She recognized, however, that it was her cousin, Tom Craigie, who was speaking, and without more delay she entered. Then in a moment she understood why M. Noirol had been so mysterious. Tom was speaking quickly and strongly, and there was a glow of anger on his face. Her father was standing with his back to the mantlepiece, and there was a sort of cold light in his eyes, which filled Erica with dismay. Never in the most anxious days had she seen him look at once so angry, yet as weighed down with care.
"What is the matter?" she questioned, breathlessly, instinctively turning to Tom, whose hot anger was more approachable.
"The scamp of a Christian has gone bankrupt," he said, referring to the defendant in the late action, but too furious to speak very intelligibly.
"Mr. Cheale, you mean?" asked Erica.
"The scoundrel! Yes! So not a farthing of costs and damages shall we see! It is the most fiendish thing ever heard of!"
"Will the costs be very heavy?"
"Heavy! I should think they would indeed!" He named the probable sum; it seemed a fearful addition to the already existing burden of debts.
A look of such pain and perplexity came over Erica's face that Raeburn for the first time realizing what was passing in the room, drew her toward him, his face softening, and the cold, angry light in his eyes changing to sadness.
"Never mind, my child," he said, with a sigh. "'Tis a hard blow, but we must bear up. Injustice won't triumph in the end."
There was something in his voice and look which made Erica feel dreadfully inclined to cry; but that would have disgraced her forever in the eyes of stoical Tom, so she only squeezed his hand hard and tried to think of that far-distant future of which she had spoken to Charles Osmond, when there would be no tiresome Christians and bigots and lawsuits.
There was, however, one person in the house who was invariably the recipient of all the troubled confidences of others. In a very few minutes Erica had left the study and was curled up beside her mother's couch, talking out unreservedly all her grief, and anger, and perplexity.
Mrs. Raeburn, delicate and invalided as she was, had nevertheless a great deal of influence, though perhaps neither Raeburn, nor Erica, nor warm-hearted Tom Craigie understood how much she did for them all. She was so unassuming, so little given to unnecessary speech, so reticent, that her life made very little show, while it had become so entirely a matter of course that every one should bring his private troubles to her that it would have seemed extraordinary not to meet with exactly the sympathy and counsel needed. Today, however, even Mrs. Raeburn was almost too despondent to cheer the others. It comforted Erica to talk to her, but she could not help feeling very miserable as she saw the anxiety and sadness in her mother's face.
"What more can we do, mother?" she questioned. "I can't think of a single thing we can give up."
"I really don't know, dear," said her mother with a sigh. "We have nothing but the absolute necessaries of life now, except indeed your education at the High School, and that is a very trifling expense, and one which cannot be interfered with."
Erica was easily depressed, like most high-spirited persons; but she was not used to seeing either her father or her mother despondent, and the mere strangeness kept her from going down to the very deepest depths. She had the feeling that at least one of them must try to keep up. Yet, do what she would, that evening was one of the saddest and dreariest she had ever spent. All the excitement of contest was over, and a sort of dead weight of gloom seemed to oppress them. Raeburn was absolutely silent. From the first Erica had never heard him complain, but his anger, and afterward his intense depression, spoke volumes. Even Tom, her friend and play fellow, seemed changed this evening, grown somehow from a boy to a man; for there was a sternness about him which she had never seen before, and which made the days of their childhood seem far away. And yet it was not so very long ago that she and Tom had been the most light-hearted and careless beings in the world, and had imagined the chief interest of life to consist in tending dormice, and tame rats, and silk worms! She wondered whether they could ever feel free again, whether they could ever enjoy their long Saturday afternoon rambles, or whether this weight of care would always be upon them.
With a very heavy heart she prepared her lessons for the next day, finding it hard to take much interest in Magna Charta and legal enactments in the time of King John, when the legal enactments of today were so much more mind-engrossing. Tom was sitting opposite to her, writing letters for Raeburn. Once, notwithstanding his grave looks, she hazarded a question. "Tom," she said, shutting up her 'History of the English People,' "Tom, what do you think will happen?"
Tom looked across at her with angry yet sorrowful eyes.
"I think," he said, sternly, "that the chieftain will try to do the work of ten men at once, and will pay off these debts or die in the attempt."
The "chieftain" was a favorite name among the Raeburnites for their leader, and there was a great deal of the clan feeling among them. The majority of them were earnest, hard-working, thoughtful men, and their society was both powerful and well-organized, while their personal devotion to Raeburn lent a vigor and vitality to the whole body which might otherwise have been lacking. Perhaps comparatively few would have been enthusiastic for the cause of atheism had not that cause been represented by a high-souled, self-denying man whom they loved with all their hearts.
The dreary evening ended at length, Erica helped her mother to bed, and then with slow steps climbed up to her little attic room. It was cold and comfortless enough, bare of all luxuries, but even here the walls were lined with books, and Erica's little iron bedstead looked somewhat incongruous surrounded as it was with dingy-looking volumes, dusky old legal books, works of reference, books atheistical, theological, metaphysical, or scientific. On one shelf, amid this strangely heterogeneous collection, she kept her own particular treasures—Brian's Longfellow, one or two of Dickens's books which Tom had given her, and the beloved old Grimm and Hans Andersen, which had been the friends of her childhood and which for "old sakes' sake" she had never had the heart to sell. The only other trace of her in the strange little bedroom was in a wonderful array of china animals on the mantlepiece. She was a great animal lover, and, being a favorite with every one, she received many votive offerings. Her shrine was an amusing one to look at. A green china frog played a tuneless guitar; a pensive monkey gazed with clasped hands and dreadfully human eyes into futurity; there were sagacious looking elephants, placid rhinoceroses, rampant hares, two pug dogs clasped in an irrevocable embrace, an enormous lobster, a diminutive polar bear, and in the center of all a most evil-looking jackdaw about half an inch high.
But tonight the childish side of Erica was in abeyance; the cares of womanhood seemed gathering upon her. She put out her candle and sat down in the dark, racking her brain for some plan by which to relieve her father and mother. Their life was growing harder and harder. It seemed to her that poverty in itself was bearable enough, but that the ever-increasing load of debt was not bearable. As long as she could remember, it had always been like a mill-stone tied about their necks, and the ceaseless petty economies and privations seemed of little avail; she felt very much as if she were one of the Danaids, doomed forever to pour water into a vessel with a hole in it.
Yet in one sense she was better off than many, for these debts were not selfish debts—no one had ever known Raeburn to spend an unnecessary sixpence on himself; all this load had been incurred in the defense of what he considered the truth—by his unceasing struggles for liberty. She was proud of the debts, proud to suffer in what she regarded as the sacred cause; but in spite of that she was almost in despair this evening, the future looked so hopelessly black.
Tom's words rang in her head—"The chieftain will try to do the work of ten men!" What if he overworked himself as he had done once a few years ago? What if he died in the attempt? She wished Tom had not spoken so strongly. In the friendly darkness she did not try to check the tears which would come into her eyes at the thought. Something must be done! She must in some way help him! And then, all at once, there flashed into her mind M. Noirol's teasing suggestion that she should go to Paris. Here was a way in which, free of all expense, she might finish her education, might practically earn her living! In this way she might indeed help to lighten the load, but it would be at the cost of absolute self-sacrifice. She must leave home, and father and mother, and country!
Erica was not exactly selfish, but she was very young. The thought of the voluntary sacrifice seemed quite unbearable, she could not make up her mind to it.
"Why should I give up all this? Why should prejudice and bigotry spoil my whole life?" she thought, beginning to pace up and down the room with quick, agitated steps. "Why should we suffer because that wretch has gone bankrupt? It is unfair, unjust, it can't be right."
She leaned her arms on the window sill and looked out into the silent night. The stars were shining peacefully enough, looking down on this world of strife and struggle; Erica grew a little calmer as she looked; Nature, with its majesty of calmness, seemed to quiet her troubled heart and "sweep gradual-gospels in."
From some recess of memory there came to her some half-enigmatical words; they had been quoted by Charles Osmond in his speech, but she did not remember where she had heard them, only they began to ring in her ears now:
"There is no gain except by loss, There is no life except by death, Nor glory but by bearing shame, Nor justice but by taking blame."
She did not altogether understand the verse, but there was a truth in it which could hardly fail to come home to one who knew what persecution meant. What if the very blame and injustice of the present brought in the future reign of justice! She seemed to hear her father's voice saying again, "We must bear up, child; injustice won't triumph in the end."
"There is no gain except by loss!"
What if her loss of home and friends brought gain to the world! That was a thought which brought a glow of happiness to her even in the midst of her pain. There was, after all, much of the highest Christianity about her, though she would have been very much vexed if any one had told her so, because Christianity meant to her narrow-mindedness instead of brotherly love. However it might be, there was no denying that the child of the great teacher of atheism had grasped the true meaning of life, had grasped it, and was prepared to act on it too. She had always lived with those who were ready to spend all in the promotion of the general good; and all that was true, all that was noble in her creed, all that had filled her with admiration in the lives of those she loved, came to her aid now.
She went softly down the dark staircase to Raeburn's study; it was late, and, anxious not to disturb the rest of the house, she opened the door noiselessly and crept in. Her father was sitting at his desk writing; he looked very stern, but there was a sort of grandeur about his rugged face. He was absorbed in his work and did not hear her, and for a minute she stood quite still watching him, realizing with pain and yet with a happy pride how greatly she loved him. Her heart beat fast at the thought of helping him, lightening his load even a little.
"Father," she said, softly.
Raeburn was the sort of a man who could not be startled, but he looked up quickly, apparently returning from some speculative region with a slight effort. He was the most practical of men, and yet for a minute he felt as if he were living in a dream, for Erica stood beside him, pale and beautiful, with a sort of heroic light about her whole face which transformed her from a merry child to a high-souled woman. Instinctively he rose to speak to her.
"I will not disturb you for more than a minute, father," she said, "it is only that I have thought of a way in which I think I could help you if you would let me."
"Well, dear, what is it?" said Raeburn, still watching half dreamily the exceeding beauty of the face before him. Yet an undefined sense of dread chilled his heart. Was anything too hard or high for her to propose? He listened without a word to her account of M. Noirol's Parisian scheme, to her voluntary suggestion that she should go into exile for two years. At the end he merely put a brief question. "Are you ready to bear two years of loneliness?"
"I am ready to help you," she said, with a little quiver in her voice and a cloud of pain in her eyes.
Raeburn turned away from her and began to pace up and down the little room, his eyes not altogether free from tears, for, pachydermatous as he was accounted by his enemies, this man was very tender over his child, he could hardly endure to see her pain. Yet after all, though she had given him a sharp pang, she had brought him happiness which any father might envy. He came back to her, his stern face inexpressibly softened.
"And I am ready to be helped, my child; it shall be as you say."
There was something in his voice and in the gentle acceptance of help from one so strong and self-reliant which touched Erica more than any praise or demonstrative thanks could have done. They were going to work together, he had promised that she should fight side by side with him.
"Lawsuits may ruin us," said Raeburn, "but, after all, the evil has a way of helping out the good." He put his arm round her and kissed her. "You have taught me, little one, how powerless and weak are these petty persecutions. They can only prick and sting us! Nothing can really hurt us while we love the truth and love each other."
That was the happiest moment Erica had ever known, already her loss had brought a rapturous gain.
"I shall never go to sleep tonight," she said. "Let me help you with your letters."
Raeburn demurred a little, but yielded to her entreaties, and for the next two hours the father and daughter worked in silence. The bitterness which had lurked in the earlier part of the pamphlet that Raeburn had in hand was quite lacking in its close; the writer had somehow been lifted into a higher, purer atmosphere, and if his pen flew less rapidly over the paper, it at any rate wrote words which would long outlive the mere overflow of an angry heart.
Coming back to the world of realities at last somewhere in the small hours, he found his fire out, a goodly pile of letters ready for his signature, and his little amanuensis fast asleep in her chair. Reproaching himself for having allowed her to sit up, he took her in his strong arms as though she had been a mere baby, and carried her up to her room so gently that she never woke. The next morning she found herself so swathed in plaids and rugs and blankets that she could hardly move, and, in spite of a bad headache, could not help beginning the day with a hearty laugh.
Raeburn was not a man who ever let the grass grow under his feet, his decisions were made with thought, but with very rapid thought, and his action was always prompt. His case excited a good deal of attention; but long before the newspapers had ceased to wage war either for or against him, long before the weekly journals had ceased to teem with letters relating to the lawsuit, he had formed his plans for the future. His home was to be completely broken up, Erica was to go to Paris, his wife was to live with his sister, Mrs. Craigie, and her son, Tom, who had agreed to keep on the lodgings in Guilford Terrace, while for himself he had mapped out such a programme of work as could only have been undertaken by a man of "Titanic energy" and "Herculean strength," epithets which even the hostile press invariably bestowed on him. How great the sacrifice was to him few people knew. As we have said before, the world regarded him as a target, and would hardly have believed that he was in reality a man of the gentlest tastes, as fond of his home as any man in England, a faithful friend and a devoted father, and perhaps all the more dependent on the sympathies of his own circle because of the bitter hostility he encountered from other quarters. But he made his plans resolutely, and said very little about them either one way or the other, sometimes even checking Erica when she grumbled for him, or gave vent to her indignation with regard to the defendant.
"We work for freedom, little one," he used to say; "and it is an honor to suffer in the cause of liberty."
"But every one says you will kill yourself with overwork," said Erica, "and especially when you are in America."
'"They don't know what stuff I'm made of," said Raeburn; "and, even if it should use me up, what then? It's better to wear out than to rust out, as a wise man once remarked."
"Yes," said Erica, rather faintly.
"But I've no intention of wearing out just yet," said Raeburn, cheerfully. "You need not be afraid, little son Eric; and, if at the end of those two years you do come back to find me gray and wrinkled, what will that matter so long as we are free once more. There's a good time coming; we'll have the coziest little home in London yet."
"With a garden for you to work in," said Erica, brightening up like a child at the castle in the air. "And we'll keep lots of animals, and never bother again about money all our lives."
Raeburn smiled at her ides of felicity—no cares, and plenty of dogs and cats! He did not anticipate any haven of rest at the end of the two years for himself. He knew that his life must be a series of conflicts to the very end. Still he hoped for relief from the load of debt, and looked forward to the reestablishment of his home.
Brian Osmond heard of the plans before long, but he scarcely saw Erica; the Christmas holidays began, and he no longer met her each afternoon in Gower Street, while the time drew nearer and nearer for her departure for Paris. At length, on the very last day, it chanced that they were once more thrown together.
Raeburn was a great lover of flowers, and he very often received floral offerings from his followers. It so happened that some beautiful hot-house flowers had been sent to him from a nursery garden one day in January, and, unwilling to keep them all, he had suggested that Erica should take some to the neighboring hospitals. Now there were two hospitals in Guilford Square; Erica felt much more interested in the children's hospital than in the one for grown-up people; but, wishing to be impartial she arranged a basketful for each, and well pleased to have anything to give, hastened on her errand. Much to her delight, her first basket of flowers was not only accepted very gratefully, but the lady superintendent took her over the hospital, and let her distribute the flowers among the children. She was very fond of children, and was as happy as she could be passing up and down among the little beds, while her bright manner attracted the little ones, and made them unusually affectionate and responsive.
Happy at having been able to give them pleasure, and full of tender, womanly thoughts, she crossed the square to another small hospital; she was absorbed in pitiful, loving humanity, had forgotten altogether that the world counted her as a heretic, and wholly unprepared for what awaited her, she was shown into the visitors' room and asked to give her name. Not only was Raeburn too notorious a name to pass muster, but the head of the hospital knew Erica by sight, and had often met her out of doors with her father. She was a stiff, narrow-minded, uncompromising sort of person, and, in her own words was "determined to have no fellowship with the works of darkness." How she could consider bright-faced Erica, with her loving thought for others and her free gift, a "work of darkness," it is hard to understand. She was not at all disposed, however, to be under any sort of obligation to an atheist, and the result of it was that after a three minutes' interview, Erica found herself once more in the square, with her flowers still in her hand, "declined WITHOUT thanks."
No one ever quite knew what the superintendent had said to her, but apparently the rebuff had been very hard to bear. Not content with declining any fellowship with the poor little "work of darkness," she had gone on in accordance with the letter of the text to reprove her; and Erica left the house with burning cheeks, and with a tumult of angry feeling stirred up in her heart. She was far too angry to know or care what she was doing; she walked down the quiet square in the very opposite direction to "Persecution Alley," and might have walked on for an indefinite time had not some one stopped her.
"I was hoping to see you before you left," said a pleasant quiet voice close by her. She looked up and saw Charles Osmond.
Thus suddenly brought to a standstill, she became aware that she was trembling from head to foot. A little delicate, sensitive thing, the unsparing censure and the rude reception she had just met with had quite upset her.
Charles Osmond retained her hand in his strong clasp, and looked questioningly into her bright, indignant eyes.
"What is the matter, my child?" he asked.
"I am only angry," said Erica, rather breathlessly; "hurt and angry because one of your bigots has been rude to me."
"Come in and tell me all about it," said Charles Osmond; and there was something so irresistible in his manner that Erica at once allowed herself to be led into one of the tall, old-fashioned houses, and taken into a comfortable and roomy study, the nicest room she had ever been in. It was not luxurious; indeed the Turkey carpet was shabby and the furniture well worn, but it was home-like, and warm and cheerful, evidently a room which was dear to its owner. Charles Osmond made her sit down in a capacious arm chair close to the fire.
"Well, now, who was the bigot?" he said, in a voice that would have won the confidence of a flint.
Erica told as much of the story as she could bring herself to repeat, quite enough to show Charles Osmond the terrible harm which may be wrought by tactless modern Christianity. He looked down very sorrowfully at the eager, expressive face of the speaker; it was at once very white and very pink, for the child was sorely wounded as well as indignant. She was evidently, however, a little vexed with herself for feeling the insult so keenly.
"It is very stupid of me," she said laughing a little; "it is time I was used to it; but I never can help shaking in this silly way when any one is rude to us. Tom laughs at me, and says I am made on wire springs like a twelfth-cake butterfly! But it is rather hard, isn't it, to be shut out from everything, even from giving?"
"I think it is both hard and wrong," said Charles Osmond. "But we do not all shut you out."
"No," said Erica. "You have always been kind, you are not a bit like a Christian. Would you"—she hesitated a little—"would you take the flowers instead?"
It was said with a shy grace inexpressibly winning. Charles Osmond was touched and gratified.
"They will be a great treat to us," he said. "My mother is very fond of flowers. Will you come upstairs and see her? We shall find afternoon tea going on, I expect."
So the rejected flowers found a resting place in the clergyman's house; and Brian, coming in from his rounds, was greeted by a sight which made his heart beat at double time. In the drawing room beside his grandmother sat Erica, her little fur hat pushed back, her gloves off, busily arranging Christmas roses and red camellias. Her anger had died away, she was talking quite merrily. It seemed to Brian more like a beautiful dream than a bit of every-day life, to have her sitting there so naturally in his home; but the note of pain was struck before long.
"I must go home," she said. "This is my last day, you know. I am going to Paris tomorrow."
A sort of sadness seemed to fall on them at the words; only gentle Mrs. Osmond said, cheerfully:
"You will come to see us again when you come back, will you not?"
And then, with the privilege of the aged, she drew down the young, fresh face to hers and kissed it.
"You will let me see you home," said Brian. "It is getting dark."
Erica laughingly protested that she was well used to taking care of herself, but it ended in Brian's triumphing. So together they crossed the quiet square. Erica chattered away merrily enough, but as they reached the narrow entrance to Guilford Terrace a shadow stole over her face.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "this is the last time I shall come home for two whole years."
"You go for so long," said Brian, stifling a sigh. "You won't forget your English friends?"
"Do you mean that you count yourself our friend?" asked Erica, smiling.
"If you will let me."
"That is a funny word to use," she replied, laughing. "You see we are treated as outlaws generally. I don't think any one ever said 'will you let' to me before. This is our house; thank you for seeing me home." Then with a roguish look in her eyes, she added demurely, but with a slight emphasis on the last word, "Good bye, my friend."
Brian turned away sadly enough; but he had not gone far when he heard flying footsteps, and looking back saw Erica once more.
"Oh, I just came to know whether by any chance you want a kitten," she said; "I have a real beauty which I want to find a nice home for."
Of course Brian wanted a kitten at once; one would have imagined by the eagerness of his manner that he was devoted to the whole feline tribe.
"Well, then, will you come in and see it?" said Erica. "He really is a very nice kitten, and I shall go away much happier if I can see him settled in life first."
She took him in, introduced him to her mother, and ran off in search of the cat, returning in a few minutes with a very playful-looking tabby.
"There he is," she said, putting the kitten on the table with an air of pride. "I don't believe he has an equal in all London.
"What do you call him?" asked Brian.
"His name is St. Anthony," said Erica. "Oh, I hope, by the bye, you won't object to that; it was no disrespect to St. Anthony at all, but only that he always will go and preach to my gold fish. We'll make him do it now to show you. Come along Tony, and give them a sermon, there's a good little kit!"
She put him on a side table, and he at once rested his front paws on a large glass bowl and peered down at the gold fish with great curiosity.
"I believe he would have drowned himself sooner or later, like Gray's cat, so I dare say it is a good thing for him to leave. You will be kind to him, won't you?"
Brian promised that he should be well attended to, and, indeed there was little doubt that St. Anthony would from that day forth be lapped in luxury. He went away with his new master very contentedly, Erica following them to the door with farewell injunctions.
"And you'll be sure to butter his feet well or else he won't stay with you. Good bye, dear Tony. Be a good little cat!"
Brian was pleased to have this token from his Undine, but at the same time he could not help seeing that she cared much more about parting with the kitten than about saying good bye to him. Well, it was something to have that lucky St. Anthony, who had been fondled and kissed. And after all it was Erica's very childishness and simplicity which made her so dear to him.
As soon as they were out of sight, Erica, with the thought of the separation beginning to weigh upon her, went back to her mother. They knew that this was the last quiet time they would have together for many long months. But last days are not good days for talking. They spoke very little. Every now and then Mrs. Raeburn would make some inquiry about the packing or the journey, or would try to cheer the child by speaking of the house they would have at the end of the two years. But Erica was not to be comforted; a dull pain was gnawing at her heart, and the present was not to be displaced by any visions of a golden future. "If it were not for leaving you alone, mother, I shouldn't mind so much," she said, in a choked voice. "But it seems to me that you have the hardest part of all."
"Aunt Jean will be here, and Tom," said Mrs. Raeburn.
"Aunt Jean is very kind," said Erica, doubtfully. "But she doesn't know how to nurse people. Tom is the one hope, and he has promised always to tell me the whole truth about you; so if you get worse, I shall come home directly."
"You mustn't grudge me my share of the work," said Mrs. Raeburn. "It would make me very miserable if I did hinder you or your father."
Erica sighed. "You and father are so dreadfully public-spirited! And yet, oh, mother! What does the whole world matter to me if I think you are uncomfortable, and wretched, and alone?"
"You will learn to think differently, dear, by and by," said her mother, kissing the eager, troubled face. "And, when you fancy me lonely, you can picture me instead as proud and happy in thinking of my brave little daughter who has gone into exile of her own accord to help the cause of truth and liberty."
They were inspiriting words, and they brought a glow to Erica's face; she choked down her own personal pain. No religious martyr went through the time of trial more bravely than Luke Raeburn's daughter lived through the next four and twenty hours. She never forgot even the most trivial incident of that day, it seemed burned in upon her brain. The dreary waking on the dark winter morning, the hurried farewells to her aunt and Tom, the last long embrace from her mother, the drive to the station, her father's recognition on the platform, the rude staring and ruder comments to which they were subjected, then the one supreme wrench of parting, the look of pain in her father's face, the trembling of his voice, the last long look as the train moved off, and the utter loneliness of all that followed. Then came dimmer recollections, not less real, but more confused; of a merry set of fellow passengers who were going to enjoy themselves in the south of France; of a certain little packet which her father had placed in her hand, and which proved to be "Mill on Liberty;" of her eager perusal of the first two or three chapters; of the many instances of the "tyranny of the majority" which she had been able to produce, not without a certain satisfaction. And afterward more vividly she could recall the last look at England, the dreary arrival at Boulogne, the long weary railway journey, and the friendly reception at Mme Lemercier's school. No one could deny that her new life had been bravely begun.
CHAPTER VI. Paris
But we wake in the young morning when the light is breaking forth; And look out on its misty gleams, as if the moon were full; And the Infinite around, seems but a larger kind of earth Ensphering this, and measured by the self-same handy rule. Hilda among the Broken Gods.
Not unfrequently the most important years of a life, the years which tell most on the character, are unmarked by any notable events. A steady, orderly routine, a gradual progression, perseverance in hard work, often do more to educate and form than a varied and eventful life. Erica's two years of exile were as monotonous and quiet as the life of the secularist's daughter could possibly be. There came to her, of course, from the distance the echoes of her father's strife; but she was far removed from it all, and there was little to disturb her mind in the quiet Parisian school. There is no need to dwell on her uneventful life, and a very brief description of her surroundings will be sufficient to show the sort of atmosphere in which she lived.
The school was a large one, and consisted principally of French provincial girls, sent to Paris to finish their education. Some of them Erica liked exceedingly; every one of them was to her a curious and interesting study. She liked to hear them talk about their home life, and, above all things, to hear their simple, naive remarks about religion. Of course she was on her honor not to enter into discussions with them, and they regarded all English as heretics, and did not trouble themselves to distinguish between the different grades. But there was nothing to prevent her from observing and listening, and with some wonder she used to hear discussions about the dresses for the "Premiere Communion," remarks about the various services, or laments over the confession papers. The girls went to confession once a month, and there was always a day in which they had to prepare and write out their misdemeanors. One day, a little, thin, delicate child from the south of France came up to Erica with her confession in her hand.
"Dear, good Erica," she said, wearily, "have the kindness to read this and to correct my mistakes."
Erica took the little thing on her knee, and began to read the paper. It was curiously spelled. Before very long she came to the sentence, "J'ai trop mange."
"Why, Ninette," exclaimed Erica, "you hardly eat enough to feed a sparrow; it is nonsense to put that."
"Ah, but it was a fast day," signed Ninette. "And I felt hungry, and did really eat more than I need have."
Erica felt half angry and contemptuous, half amused, and could only hope that the priest would see the pale, thin face of the little penitent, and realize the ludicrousness of the confession.
Another time all the girls had been to some special service; on their return, she asked what it had been about.
"Oh," remarked a bright-faced girl, "it was about the seven joys—or the seven sorrows—of Mary."
"Do you mean to say you don't know whether it was very solemn or very joyful?" asked Erica, astonished and amused.
"I am really not sure," said the girl, with the most placid good-tempered indifference.
On the whole, it was scarcely to be wondered at that Erica was not favorably impressed with Roman Catholicism.
She was a great favorite with all the girls; but, though she was very patient and persevering, she did not succeed in making any of them fluent English speakers, and learned their language far better than they learned hers. Her three special friends were not among the pupils, but among the teachers. Dear old Mme. Lemercier, with her good-humored black eyes, her kind, demonstrative ways, and her delightful stories about the time of the war and the siege, was a friend worth having. So was her husband, M. Lemercier the journalist. He was a little dried-up man, with a fierce black mustache; he was sarcastic and witty, and he would talk politics by the hour together to any one who would listen to him, especially if they would now and then ask a pertinent and intelligent question which gave him scope for an oration.
Erica made a delightful listener, for she was always anxious to learn and to understand, and before long she was quite AU FAIT, and understood a great deal about that exceedingly complicated thing, the French political system. M. Lemercier was a fiery, earnest little man, with very strong convictions; he had been exiled as a communist but had now returned, and was a very vigorous and impassioned writer in one of the advanced Republican journals. He and his wife became very fond of Erica, Mme. Lemercier loving her for her brightness and readiness to help, and monsieur for her beauty and her quickness of perception. It was surprising and gratifying to meet with a girl who, without being a femme savante, was yet capable of understanding the difference between the Extreme Left and the Left Center, and who took a real interest in what was passing in the world.
But Erica's greatest friend was a certain Fraulein Sonnenthal, the German governess. She was a kind-eyed Hanoverian, homely and by no means brilliantly clever, but there was something in her unselfishness and in her unassuming humility that won Erica's heart. She never would hear a word against the fraulein.
"Why do you care so much for Fraulein Sonnenthal?" she was often asked. "She seems uninteresting and dull to us."
"I love her because she is so good," was Erica's invariable reply.
She and the fraulein shared a bedroom, and many were the arguments they had together. The effect of being separated from her own people was, very naturally, to make Erica a more devoted secularist. She was exceedingly enthusiastic for what she considered the truth and not unfrequently grieved and shocked the Lutheran fraulein by the vehemence of her statements. Very often they would argue far on into the night; they never quarreled, however hot the dispute, but the fraulein often had a sore time of it, for, naturally, Luke Raeburn's daughter was well up in all the debatable points, and she had, moreover, a good deal of her father's rapidity of thought and gift of speech. She was always generous, however, and the fraulein had in some respects the advantage of her, for they spoke in German.
One scene in that little bedroom Erica never forgot. They had gone to bed one Easter-eve, and had somehow fallen into a long and stormy argument about the resurrection and the doctrine of immortality. Erica, perhaps because she was conscious of the "weakness" she had confessed to Brian Osmond, argued very warmly on the other side; the poor little fraulein was grieved beyond measure, and defended her faith gallantly, though, as she feared, very ineffectually. Her arguments seemed altogether extinguished by Erica's remorseless logic; she was not nearly so clever, and her very earnestness seemed to trip her up and make all her sentences broken and incomplete. They discussed the subject till Erica was hoarse, and at last from very weariness she fell asleep while the Lutheran was giving her a long quotation from St. Paul.
She slept for two or three hours; when she woke, the room was flooded with silvery moonlight, the wooden cross which hung over the German's bed stood out black and distinct, but the bed was empty. Erica looked round the room uneasily, and saw a sight which she never forgot. The fraulein was kneeling beside the window, and even the cold moonlight could not chill or hide the wonderful brightness of her face. She was a plain, ordinary little woman, but her face was absolutely transformed; there was something so beautiful and yet so unusual in her expression that Erica could not speak or move, but lay watching her almost breathlessly. The spiritual world about which they had been speaking must be very real indeed to Thekla Sonnenthal! Was it possible that this was the work of delusion? While she mused, her friend rose, came straight to her bedside, and bent over her with a look of such love and tenderness that Erica, though not generally demonstrative, could not resist throwing her arms round her neck.
"Dear Sunnyvale! You look just like your name!" she exclaimed, "all brightness and humility! What have you been doing to grow so like Murillo's Madonna?"
"I thought you were asleep," said the fraulein. "Good night, Herzolattchen, or rather good morning, for the Easter day has begun."
Perhaps Erica liked her all the better for saying nothing more definite, but in the ordinary sense of the word she did not have a good night, for long after Thekla Sonnenthal was asleep, and dreaming of her German home, Luke Raeburn's daughter lay awake, thinking of the faith which to some was such an intense reality. Had there been anything excited or unreal about her companion's manner, she would not have thought twice about it; but her tranquillity and sweetness seemed to her very remarkable. Moreover, Fraulein Sonnenthal was strangely devoid of imagination; she was a matter-of-fact little person, not at all a likely subject for visions and delusions. Erica was perplexed. Once more there came to her that uncomfortable question: "Supposing Christianity were true?"
The moonlight paled and the Easter morn broke, and still she tossed to and fro, haunted by doubts which would not let her sleep. But by and by she returned to the one thing which was absolutely certain, namely, that her German friend was lovable and to be loved, whatever her creed.
And, since Erica's love was of the practical order, it prompted her to get up early, dress noiselessly, and steal out of the room without waking her companion; then, with all the church bells ringing and the devout citizens hurrying to mass, she ran to the nearest flower stall, spent one of her very few half-francs on the loveliest white rose to be had, and carried it back as an Easter offering to the fraulein.
It was fortunate in every way that Erica had the little German lady for her friend, for she would often have fared badly without some one to nurse and befriend her.
She was very delicate, and worked far too hard; for, besides all her work in the school, she was preparing for an English examination which she had set her heart on trying as soon as she went home. Had it not been for Fraulein Sonnenthal, she would more than once have thoroughly overworked herself; and indeed as it was, the strain of that two years told severely on her strength.
But the time wore on rapidly, as very fully occupied time always does, and Erica's list of days grew shorter and shorter, and the letters from her mother were more and more full of plans for the life they would lead when she came home. The two years would actually end in January; Erica was, however, to stay in Paris till the following Easter, partly to oblige Mme. Lemercier, partly because by that time her father hoped to be in a great measure free from his embarrassments, able once more to make a home for her.
CHAPTER VII. What the New Year Brought
A voice grows with the growing years; Earth, hushing down her bitter cry, Looks upward from her graves, and hears, "The Resurrection and the Life am I."
O love Divine,—whose constant beam Shines on the eyes that will not see, And waits to bless us, while we dream Thou leavest us because we turn from Thee!
Nor bounds, nor clime, nor creed Thou know'st, Wide as our need Thy favors fall; The white wings of the Holy Ghost Stoop, seen or unseen, o'er the heads of all. Whittier
It was the eve of the new year, and great excitement prevailed in the Lemerciers' house. Many of the girls whose homes were at a distance had remained at school for the short winter holiday, and on this particular afternoon a number of them were clustered round the stove talking about the festivities of the morrow and the presents they were likely to have.
Erica, who was now a tall and very pretty girl of eighteen, was sitting on the hearth rug with Ninette on her lap; she was in very high spirits, and kept the little group in perpetual laughter, so much so indeed that Fraulein Sonnenthal had more than once been obliged to interfere, and do her best to quiet them.
"How wild thou art, dear Erica?" she exclaimed. "What is it?"
"I am happy, that is all," said Erica. "You would be happy if the year of freedom were just dawning for you. Three months more and I shall be home."
She was like a child in her exultant happiness, far more child-like, indeed, than the grave little Ninette whom she was nursing.
"Thou art not dignified enough for a teacher," said the fraulein, laughingly.
"She is no teacher," cried the girls. "It is holiday time and she need not talk that frightful English."
Erica made a laughing defense of her native tongue, and such a babel ensued that the fraulein had to interfere again.
"Liebe Erica! Thou art beside thyself! What has come to thee?"
"Only joy, dear Thekla, at the thought of the beautiful new year which is coming," cried Erica. "Father would say I was 'fey,' and should pay for all this fun with a bad headache or some misfortune. Come, give me the French 'David Copperfield,' and let me read you how 'Barkis Veut Bien,' and 'Mrs. Gummidge a Pense de l'Ancien.'"
The reading was more exquisitely ludicrous to Erica herself than to her hearers. Still the wit of Charles Dickens, even when translated, called forth peals of laughter from the French girls, too. It was the brightest, happiest little group imaginable; perhaps it was scarcely wonderful that old Mme. Lemercier, when she came to break it up, should find her eyes dim with tears.
"My dear Erica—" she said, and broke off abruptly.
Erica looked up with laughing eyes.
"Don't scold, dear madame," she said, coaxingly. "We have been very noisy; but it is New year's eve, and we are so happy."
"Dear child, it is not that," said madame. "I want to speak to you for a minute; come with me, cherie."
Still Erica noticed nothing; did not detect the tone of pity, did not wonder at the terms of endearment which were generally reserved for more private use. She followed madame into the hall, still chattering gayly.
"The 'David Copperfield' is for monsieur's present tomorrow," she said, laughingly. "I knew he was too lazy to read it in English, so I got him a translation."
"My dear," said madame, taking her hand, "try to be quiet a moment. I—I have something to tell you. My poor little one, monsieur your father is arrived—"
"Father! Father here!" exclaimed Erica, in a transport of delight. "Where is he, where? Oh, madame, why didn't you tell me sooner?"
Mme. Lemercier tried in vain to detain her, as with cheeks all glowing with happiness and dancing eyes, she ran at full speed to the salon.
"Father!" she cried, throwing open the door and running to meet him. Then suddenly she stood quite still as if petrified.
Beside the crackling wood fire, his arms on the chimney piece, his face hidden, stood a gray-haired man. He raised himself as she spoke. His news was in his face; it was written all too plainly there.
"Father!" gasped Erica in a voice which seemed altogether different from the first exclamation, almost as if it belonged to a different person.
Raeburn took her in his arms.
"My child—my poor little Eric!" he said.
She did not speak a word, but clung to him as though to keep herself from falling. In one instant it seemed as though her whole world had been wrecked, her life shattered. She could not even realize that her father was still left to her, except in so far as the mere bodily support was concerned. He was strong; she clung to him as in a hurricane she would have clung to a rock.
"Say it," she gasped, after a timeless silence, perhaps of minutes, perhaps of hours, it might have been centuries for aught she knew. "Say it in words."
She wanted to know everything, wanted to reduce this huge, overwhelming sorrow to something intelligible. Surely in words it would not be so awful—so limitless.
And he said it, speaking in a low, repressed voice, yet very tenderly, as if she had been a little child. She made a great effort to listen, but the sentences only came to her disjointedly and as if from a great distance. It had been very sudden—a two hours' illness, no very great suffering. He had been lecturing at Birmingham—had been telegraphed for—had been too late.
Erica made a desperate effort to realize it all; at last she brought down the measureless agony to actual words, repeating them over and over to herself—"Mother is dead."
At length she had grasped the idea. Her heart seemed to die within her, a strange blue shade passed over her face, her limbs stiffened. She felt her father carry her to the window, was perfectly conscious of everything, watched as in a dream, while he wrenched open the clumsy fastening of the casement, heard the voices in the street below, heard, too, in the distance the sound of church bells, was vaguely conscious of relief as the cold air blew upon her.
She was lying on a couch, and, if left to herself, might have lain there for hours in that strange state of absolute prostration. But she was not alone, and gradually she realized it. Very slowly the re-beginning of life set in; the consciousness of her father's presence awakened her, as it were, from her dream of unmitigated pain. She sat up, put her arms round his neck, and kissed him, then for a minute let her aching head rest on his shoulder. Presently, in a low but steady voice, she said: "What would you like me to do, father?"
"To come home with me now, if you are able," he said; "tomorrow morning, though, if you would rather wait, dear."
But the idea of waiting seemed intolerable to her. The very sound of the word was hateful. Had she not waited two weary years, and this was the end of it all? Any action, any present doing, however painful, but no more waiting. No terrible pause in which more thoughts and, therefore, more pain might grow. Outside in the passage they met Mme. Lemercier, and presently Erica found herself surrounded by kind helpers, wondering to find them all so tearful when her own eyes felt so hot and dry. They were very good to her, but, separated from her father, her sorrow again completely overwhelmed her; she could not then feel the slightest gratitude to them or the slightest comfort from their sympathy. She lay motionless on her little white bed, her eyes fixed on the wooden cross on the opposite wall, or from time to time glancing at Fraulein Sonnenthal, who, with little Ninette to help, was busily packing her trunk. And all the while she said again and again the words which summed up her sorrow: "Mother is dead! Mother is dead!"
After a time her eyes fell on her elaborately drawn paper of days. Every evening since her first arrival she had gone through the almost religious ceremony of marking off the day; it had often been a great consolation to her. The paper was much worn; the weeks and days yet to be marked were few in number. She looked at it now, and if there can be a "more" to absolute grief, an additional pang to unmitigated sorrow, it came to her at the sight of that visible record of her long exile. She snatched down the paper and tore it to pieces; then sunk back again, pale and breathless. Fraulein Sonnenthal saw and understood. She came to her, and kissed her.
"Herzbluttchen," she said, almost in a whisper, and, after a moment's pause: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott."
Erica made an impatient gesture, and turned away her head.
"Why does she choose this time of all others to tell me so," she thought to herself. "Now, when I can't argue or even think! A sure tower! Could a delusion make one feel that anything is sure but death at such a time as this! Everything is gone—or going. Mother is dead!—mother is dead! Yet she meant to be kind, poor Thekla, she didn't know it would hurt."
Mme. Lemercier came into the room with a cup of coffee and a brioche.
"You have a long journey before you, my little one," she said; "you must take this before you start."
Yes, there was the journey; that was a comfort. There was something to be done, something hard and tiring—surely it would blunt her perceptions. She started up with a strange sort of energy, put on her hat and cloak, swallowed the food with an effort, helped to lock her trunk, moved rapidly about the room, looking for any chance possession which might have been left out. There was such terrible anguish in her tearless eyes that little Ninette shrunk away from her in alarm. Mme. Lemercier, who in the time of the siege had seen great suffering, had never seen anything like this; even Thekla Sonnenthal realized that for the time she was beyond the reach of human comfort.
Before long the farewells were over. Erica was once more alone with her father, her cheeks wet with the tears of others, her own eyes still hot and dry. They were to catch the four o'clock train; the afternoon was dark, and already the streets and shops were lighted; Paris, ever bright and gay, seemed tonight brighter and gayer than ever. She watched the placid-looking passengers, the idle loungers at the cafes; did they know what pain was? Did they know that death was sure? Presently she found herself in a second-class carriage, wedged in between her father and a heavy-featured priest; who diligently read a little dogs-eared breviary. Opposite was a meek, weasel-faced bourgeois, with a managing wife, who ordered him about; then came a bushy-whiskered Englishman and a newly married couple, while in the further corner, nearly hidden from view by the burly priest, lurked a gentle-looking Sister of Mercy, and a mischievous and fidgety school boy. She watched them all as in a dream of pain. Presently the priest left off muttering and began to snore, and sleep fell, too, upon the occupants of the opposite seat. The little weasel-faced man looked most uncomfortable, for the Englishman used him as a prop on one side and the managing wife nearly overwhelmed him on the other; he slept fitfully, and always with the air of a martyr, waking up every few minutes and vainly trying to shake off his burdens, who invariably made stifled exclamations and sunk back again.
"That would have been funny once," thought Erica to herself. "How I should have laughed. Shall I always be like this all the rest of my life, seeing what is ludicrous, yet with all the fun taken out of it?"
But her brain reeled at the thought of the "rest of life." The blank of bereavement, terrible to all, was absolute and eternal to her, and this was her first great sorrow. She had known pain, and privation, and trouble and anxiety, but actual anguish never. Now it had come to her suddenly, irrevocably, never to be either more or less; perhaps to be fitted on as a garment as time wore on, and to become a natural part of her life; but always to be the same, a blank often felt, always present, till at length her end came and she too passed away into the great Silence.
Despair—the deprivation of all hope—is sometimes wild, but oftener calm with a deathly calmness. Erica was absolutely still—she scarcely moved or spoke during the long weary journey to Calais. Twice only did she feel the slightest desire for any outward vent. At the Amiens station the school boy in the corner, who had been growing more restless and excited every hour, sprung from the carriage to greet a small crowd of relations who were waiting to welcome him. She saw him rush to his mother, heard a confused affectionate babel of inquiries, congratulations, laughter. Oh! To think of that happy light-heartedness and the contrast between it and her grief. The laughter seemed positively to cut her; she could have screamed from sheer pain. And, as if cruel contrasts were fated to confront her, no sooner had her father established her in the cabin on board the steamer, than two bright looking English girls settled themselves close by, and began chatting merrily about the new year, and the novel beginning it would be on board a Channel steamer. Erica tried to stop her ears that she might not hear the discussion of all the forthcoming gayeties. "Lady Reedham's dance on Thursday, our own, you know, next week," etc., etc. But she could not shut out the sound of the merry voices, or that wounding laughter.
Presently an exclamation made her look and listen.
"Hark!" said one of her fellow passengers. "We shall start now; I hear the clock striking twelve. A happy new year to you, Lily, and all possible good fortune."
"Happy new year!" echoed from different corners of the cabin; the little Sister of Mercy knelt down and told her beads, the rest of the passengers talked, congratulated, laughed. Erica would have given worlds to be able to cry, but she could not. The terrible mockery of her surroundings was too great, however, to be borne; her heart seemed like ice, her head like fire; with a sort of feverish strength she rushed out of the cabin, stumbled up the companion, and ran as if by instinct to that part of the deck where a tall, solitary figure stood up darkly in the dim light.
"It's too cold for you, my child," said Raeburn, turning round at her approach.
"Oh, father, let me stay with you," sobbed Erica, "I can't bear it alone."
Perhaps he was glad to have her near him for his own sake, perhaps he recognized the truth to which she unconsciously testified that human nature does at times cry out for something other than self, stronger and higher.
He raised no more objections, they listened in silence till the sound of the church bells died away in the distance, and then he found a more sheltered seat and wrapped her up closely in his own plaid, and together they began their new year. The first lull in Erica's pain came in that midnight crossing; the heaving of the boat, the angry dashing of the waves, the foam-laden wind, all seemed to relieve her. Above all there was comfort in the strong protecting arm round her. Yet she was too crushed and numb to be able to wish for anything but that the end might come for her there, that together they might sink down into the painless silence of death.
Raeburn only spoke once throughout the passage; instinctively he knew what was passing in Erica's mind. He spoke the only word of comfort which he had to speak: a noble one, though just then very insufficient:
"There is work to be done."
Then came the dreary landing in the middle of the dark winter's night, and presently they were again in a railway carriage, but this time alone. Raeburn made her lie down, and himself fell asleep in the opposite corner; he had been traveling uninterruptedly for twenty hours, had received a shock which had tried him very greatly, now from sheer exhaustion he slept. But Erica, to whom the grief was more new, could not sleep. Every minute the pain of realization grew keener. Here she was in England once more, this was the journey she had so often thought of and planned. This was going home. Oh, the dreariness of the reality when compared with those bright expectations. And yet it was neither this thought nor the actual fact of her mother's death which first brought the tears to her burning eyes.
Wearily shifting her position, she looked across to the other side of the carriage, and saw, as if in a picture, her father. Raeburn was a comparatively young man, very little over forty; but his anxieties and the almost incredible amount of hard work of the past two years had told upon him, and had turned his hair gray. There was something in his stern set face, in the strong man's reserved grief, in the pose of his grand-looking head, dignified, even in exhaustion, that was strangely pathetic. Erica scarcely seemed to realize that he was her father. It was more as if she were gazing at some scene on the stage, or on a wonderfully graphic and heart-stirring picture. The pathos and sadness of it took hold of her; she burst into a passion of tears, turned her face from the light, and cried as if no power on earth could ever stop her, her long-drawn sobs allowed to go unchecked since the noise of the train made them inaudible. She was so little given to tears, as a rule, that now they positively frightened her, nor could she understand how, with a real and terrible grief for which she could not weep, the mere pathetic sight should have brought down her tears like rain. But the outburst brought relief with it, for it left her so exhausted that for a brief half hour she slept, and awoke just before they reached London, with such a frightful headache that the physical pain numbed the mental.
"How soon shall we be—" home she would have said, but the word choked her. "How soon shall we get there?" she asked faintly. She was so ill, so weary, that the mere thought of being still again—even in the death-visited home—was a relief, and she was really too much worn out to feel very acutely while they drove through the familiar streets.
At last, early in the cold, new year's morning, they were set down in Guilford Square, at the grim entrance to Persecution Alley. She looked round at the gray old houses with a shudder, then her father drew her arm within his, and led her down the dreary little cul-de-sac. There was the house, looking the same as ever, and there was Aunt Jean coming forward to meet them, with a strange new tenderness in her voice and look, and there was Tom in the background, seeming half shy and afraid to meet her in her grief, and there, above all, was the one great eternal void.
To watch beside the dying must be anguish, and yet surely not such keen anguish as to have missed the last moments, the last farewells, the last chance of serving. For those who have to come back to the empty house, the home which never can be home again, may God comfort them—no one else can.
Stillness, and food, and brief snatches of sleep somewhat restored Erica. Late in the afternoon she was strong enough to go into her mother's room, for that last look so inexpressibly painful to all, so entirely void of hope or comfort to those who believe in no hereafter. Not even the peacefulness of death was there to give even a slight, a momentary relief to her pain; she scarcely even recognized her mother. Was that, indeed, all that was left? That pale, rigid, utterly changed face and form? Was that her mother? Could that once have been her mother? Very often had she heard this great change wrought by death referred to in discussions; she knew well the arguments which were brought forward by the believers in immortality, the counter arguments with which her father invariably met them, and which had always seemed to her conclusive. But somehow that which seemed satisfactory in the lecture hall did not answer in the room of death. Her whole being seemed to flow out into one longing question: Might there not be a Beyond—an Unseen? Was this world indeed only
"A place to stand and love in for an hour, With darkness and the death-hour rounding it?"
She had slept in the afternoon, but at night, when all was still, she could not sleep. The question still lurked in her mind; her sorrow and loneliness grew almost unbearable. She thought if she could only make herself cry again perhaps she might sleep, and she took down a book about Giordano Bruno, and read the account of his martyrdom, an account which always moved her very much. But tonight not even the description of the valiant unshrinking martyr of Free-thought ascending the scaffold to meet his doom could in the slightest degree affect her. She tried another book, this time Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities." She had never read the last two chapters without feeling a great desire to cry, but tonight she read with perfect unconcern of Sydney Carton's wanderings through Paris on the night before he gave himself up—read the last marvelously written scene without the slightest emotion. It was evidently no use to try anything else; she shut the book, put out her candle, and once more lay down in the dark.
Then she began to think of the words which had so persistently haunted Sydney Carton: "I am the Resurrection and the Life." She, too, seemed to be wandering about the Parisian streets, hearing these words over and over again. She knew that it was Jesus of Nazareth who had said this. What an assertion it was for a man to make! It was not even "I BRING the resurrection," or "I GIVE the resurrection," but "I AM the Resurrection." And yet, according to her father, his humility had been excessive, carried almost to a fault. Was he the most inconsistent man that ever lived, or what was he? At last she thought she would get up and see whether there was any qualifying context, and when and where he had uttered this tremendous saying.
Lighting her candle, she crept, a little shivering, white-robed figure, round the book-lined room, scanning the titles on every shelf, but bibles were too much in use in that house to be relegated to the attics, she found only the least interesting and least serviceable of her father's books. There was nothing for it but to go down to the study; so wrapping herself up, for it was a freezing winter's night, she went noiselessly downstairs, and soon found every possible facility for Biblical research.
A little baffled and even disappointed to find the words in that which she regarded as the least authentic of the gospels, she still resolved to read the account; she read it, indeed, in two or three translations, and compared each closely with the others, but in all the words stood out in uncompromising greatness of assertion. This man claimed to BE the resurrection, of as Wyclif had it, "the agen risying and lyf."
And then poor Erica read on to the end of the story and was quite thrown back upon herself by the account of the miracle which followed. It was a beautiful story, she said to herself, poetically written, graphically described, but as to believing it to be true, she could as soon have accepted the "Midsummer Night's Dream" as having actually taken place.
Shivering with cold she put the books back on their shelf, and stole upstairs once more to bear her comfortless sorrow as best she could.
CHAPTER VIII. "Why Do You Believe It?"
Then the round of weary duties, cold and formal, came to meet her, With the life within departed that had given them each a soul; And her sick heart even slighted gentle words that came to greet her, For grief spread its shadowy pinions like a blight upon the whole. A. A. Proctor
The winter sunshine which glanced in a side-long, half-and-half way into Persecution Alley, and struggled in at the closed blinds of Erica's little attic, streamed unchecked into a far more cheerful room in Guilford Square, and illumined a breakfast table, at which was seated one occupant only, apparently making a late and rather hasty meal. He was a man of about eight-and-twenty, and though he was not absolutely good-looking, his face was one which people turned to look at again, not so much because it was in any way striking as far as features went, but because of an unusual luminousness which pervaded it. The eyes, which were dark gray, were peculiarly expressive, and their softness, which might to some have seemed a trifle unmasculine, was counterbalanced by the straight, dark, noticeable eyebrows, as well as by a thoroughly manly bearing and a general impression of unfailing energy which characterized the whole man. His hair, short beard, and mustache were of a deep nut-brown. He was of medium height and very muscular looking.
On the whole it was as pleasant a face as you would often meet with, and it was not to be wondered at that his old grandmother looked up pretty frequently from her arm chair by the fire, and watched him with that beautiful loving pride which in the aged never seems exaggerated and very rarely misplaced.
"You were out very late, were you not, Brian?" she observed, letting her knitting needles rest for a minute, and scrutinizing the rather weary-looking man.
"Till half-past five this morning," he replied, in a somewhat preoccupied voice.
There was a sad look in his eyes, too, which his grandmother partly understood. She knitted another round of her sock and then said:
"Have you seen Tom Craigie yet?"
"Yes, last night I came across him," replied Brian. "He told me she had come home. They traveled by night and got in early yesterday morning."
"Poor little thing!" sighed old Mrs. Osmond. "What a home-coming it must have been?"
"Grannie," said Brian, pushing back his chair and drawing nearer to the fire "I want you to tell me what I ought to do. I have a message to her from her mother, there was no one else to take it, you know, except the landlady, and I suppose she did not like that. I want to know when I might see her; one has no right to keep it back, and yet how am I to know whether she is fit to bear it? I can't write it down, it won't somehow go on to paper, yet I can hardly ask to see her."
"We cannot tell that the message might not comfort her," said Mrs. Osmond. Then, after a few minutes' thought she added: "I think, Brian, if I were you, I would write her a little note, tell her why you want to see her, and let her fix her own time. You will leave it entirely in her own hands in that way."
He mused for a minute, seemed satisfied with the suggestion, and moving across to the writing table, began his first letter to his love. Apparently it was hard to write, for he wasted several sheets and much time that he could ill afford. When it was at length finished, it ran as follows:
"Dear Miss Raeburn,—I hardly like to ask to see you yet for fear you should think me intrusive, but a message was entrusted to me on Tuesday night which I dare not of myself keep back from you. Will you see me? If you are able to, and will name the time which will suit you best, I shall be very grateful. Forgive me for troubling you, and believe me, Yours faithfully, Brian Osmond."
He sent it off a little doubtfully, by no means satisfied that he had done a wise thing. But when he returned from his rounds later in the day the reply set his fears at rest.
It was written lengthways across a sheet of paper; the small delicate writing was full of character, but betrayed great physical exhaustion.
"It is good of you to think of us. Please come this afternoon if you are able. Erica."
That very afternoon! Now that his wish was granted, now that he was indeed to see her, Brian would have given worlds to have postponed the meeting. He was well accustomed to visiting sorrow-stricken people, but from meeting such sorrow as that in the Raeburns' house he shrunk back feeling his insufficiency. Besides, what words were delicate enough to convey all that had passed in that death scene? How could he dare to attempt in speech all that the dying mother would fain have had conveyed to her child? And then his own love! Would not that be the greatest difficulty of all? Feeling her grief as he did, could he yet modify his manner to suit that of a mere outsider—almost a stranger? He was very diffident; though longing to see Erica, he would yet have given anything to be able to transfer his work to his father. This, however, was of course impossible.
Strange though it might seem, he—the most unsuitable of all men in his own eyes—was the man singled out to bear this message, to go to the death-visited household. He went about his afternoon work in a sort of steady, mechanical manner, the outward veil of his inward agitation. About four o'clock he was free to go to Guilford Terrace.
He was shown into the little sitting room; it was the room in which Mrs. Raeburn had died, and the mere sight of the outer surroundings, the well-worn furniture, the book-lined walls made the whole scene vividly present to him. The room was empty, there was a blazing fire but no other light, for the blinds were down, and even the winter twilight shut out. Brian sat down and waited. Presently the door opened, he looked up and saw Erica approaching him. She was taller than she had been when he last saw her, and now grief had given her a peculiar dignity which made her much more like her father. Every shade of color had left her face, her eyes wee full of a limitless pain, the eyelids were slightly reddened, but apparently rather from sleeplessness than from tears, the whole face was so altered that a mere casual acquaintance would hardly have recognized it, except by the unchanged waves of short auburn hair which still formed the setting as it were to a picture lovely even now. Only one thing was unchanged, and that was the frank, unconventional manner. Even in her grief she could not be quite like other people.
"It is very good of you to let me see you," said Brian, "you are sure you are doing right; it will not be too much for you today."
"There is no great difference in says, I think," said Erica, sitting down on a low chair beside the fire. "I do not very much believe in degrees in this kind of grief. I do not see why it should be ever more or ever less. Perhaps I am wrong, it is all new to me."
She spoke in a slow, steady, low-toned voice. There was an absolute hopelessness about her whole aspect which was terrible to see. A moment's pause followed, then, looking up at Brian, she fancied that she read in his face, something of hesitation, of a consciousness that he could ill express what he wished to say, and her innate courtesy made her even now hasten to relieve him.
"Don't be afraid of speaking," she said, a softer light coming into her eyes. "I don't know why people shrink from meeting trouble. Even Tom is half afraid of me. I am not changed, I am still Erica; can't you understand how much I want every one now?
"People differ so much," said Brian, a little huskily, "and then when one feels strongly words do not come easily."
"Do you think I would not rather have your sympathy than an oration from any one else! You who were here to the end! You who did everything for—for her. My father has told me very little, he was not able to, but he told me of you, how helpful you were, how good, not like an outsider at all!"
Evidently she clung to the comforting recollection that at least one trustable, sympathetic person had been with her mother at the last. Brian could only say how little he had done, how much more he would fain have done had it been possible.
"I think you do comfort me by talking," said Erica. "And now I want you, if you don't mind, to tell me all from the very first. I can't torture my father by asking him, and I couldn't hear it from the landlady. But you were here, you can tell me all. Don't be afraid of hurting me; can't you understand, if the past were the only thing left to you, you would want to know every tiniest detail!"
He looked searchingly into her eyes, he thought she was right. There were no degrees to pain like hers! Besides, it was quite possible that the lesser details of her mother's death might bring tears which would relieve her. Very quietly, very reverently, he told her all that had passed—she already knew that her mother had died from aneurism of the heart—he told her how in the evening he had been summoned to her, and from the first had known that it was hopeless, had been obliged to tell her that the time for speech even was but short. He had ordered a telegram to be sent to her father at Birmingham, but Mrs. Craigie and Tom were out for the evening, and no one knew where they were to be found. He and the landlady had been alone.
"She spoke constantly of you," he continued. "The very last words she said were these, 'Tell Erica that only love can keep from bitterness, that love is stronger than the world's unkindness.' Then, after a minute's pause, she added, 'Be good to my little girl, promise to be good to her.' After that, speech became impossible, but I do not think she suffered. Once she motioned to me to give her the frame off the mantlepiece with your photograph; she looked at it and kept it near her—she died with it in her hand."
Erica hid her face; that one trifling little incident was too much for her, the tears rained down between her fingers. That it should have come to that! No one whom she loved there at the last—but she had looked at the photograph, had held it to the very end, the voiceless, useless picture had been there, the real Erica had been laughing and talking at Paris! Brian talked on slowly, soothingly. Presently he paused; then Erica suddenly looked up, and dashing away her tears, said, in a voice which was terrible in its mingled pain and indignation.
"I might have been here! I might have been with her! It is the fault of that wretched man who went bankrupt; the fault of the bigots who will not treat us fairly—who ruin us!"
She sobbed with passionate pain, a vivid streak of crimson dyed her cheek, contrasting strangely with the deathly whiteness of her brow.
"Forgive me if I pain you," said Brian; "but have you forgotten the message I gave you? 'It is only love that can keep from bitterness!'"
"Love!" cried Erica; she could have screamed it, if she had not been so physically exhausted. "Do you mean I am to love our enemies?"
"It is only the love of all humanity that can keep from bitterness," said Brian.
Erica began to think over his reply, and in thinking grew calm once more. By and by she lifted up her face; it was pale again now, and still, and perfectly hopeless.
"I suppose you think that only Christians can love all humanity," she said, a little coldly.
"I should call all true lovers of humanity Christians," replied Brian, "whether they are consciously followers of Christ or not."
She thought a little; then with a curiously hard look in her face, she suddenly flashed round upon him with a question, much as her father was in the habit of doing when an adversary had made some broad-hearted statement which had baffled him.
"Some of you give us a little more charity than others; but what do you mean by Christianity? You ask us to believe what is incredible. WHY do you believe in the resurrection: What reason have you for thinking it true?"
She expected him to go into the evidence question, to quote the number of Christ's appearances, to speak of the five hundred witnesses of whom she was weary of hearing. Her mind was proof against all this; what could be more probable than that a number of devoted followers should be the victims of some optical delusion, especially when their minds were disturbed by grief. Here was a miracle supported on one side by the testimony of five hundred and odd spectators all longing to see their late Master, and contradicted on the other side by common sense and the experience of the remainder of the human race during thousands of years! She looked full at Brian, a hard yet almost exultant expression in her eyes, which spoke more plainly than words her perfect conviction:
"You can't set your evidences against my counter-evidences! You can't logically maintain that a few uneducated men are to have more weight than all the united experience of mankind."
Never would she so gladly have believed in the doctrine of immortality as now, yet with characteristic honesty and resoluteness she set herself into an attitude of rigid defense, lest through strong desire or mere bodily weariness she should drift into the acceptance of what might be, what indeed she considered to be error. But to her surprise, half to her disappointment, Brian did not even mention the evidences. She had braced herself up to withstand arguments drawn from the five hundred brothers, but the preparation was useless.
"I believe in the resurrection," said Brian, "because I cannot doubt Jesus Christ. He is the most perfectly lovable and trustable being I know, or can conceive of knowing. He said He should rise again, I believe that He did rise. He was perfectly truthful, therefore He could not mislead; He KNEW, therefore He could not be misled."
"We do not consider Him to be all that you assert," said Erica. "Nor do His followers make one inclined to think that either He or His teaching were so perfect as you try to make out. You are not so hard-hearted as some of them—"
She broke off, seeing a look of pain on her companion's face. "Oh, what am I saying!" she cried in a very different tone, "you who have done so much—you who were always good to us—I did not indeed mean to hurt you, it is your creed that I can't help hating, not you. You are our friend, you said so long ago."
"Always," said Brian; "never doubt that."
"Then you must forgive me for having wounded you," said Erica, her whole face softening. "You must remember how hard it all is, and that I am so very, very miserable."
He would have given his life to bring her comfort, but he was not a very great believer in words, and besides, he thought she had talked quite as long as she ought.
"I think," he said, "that, honestly acted out, the message intrusted to me ought to comfort your misery."
"I can't act it out," she said.
"You will begin to try," was Brian's answer; and then, with a very full heart, he said goodbye and left his Undine sitting by the fire, with her head resting on her hands, and the words of her mother's message echoing in her ears. "It is only love that can keep from bitterness; love is stronger than the world's unkindness."
Presently, not daring to dwell too much on that last scene which Brian had described, she turned to his strange, unexpected reason for his belief in the resurrection, and mused over the characteristics of his ideal. Then she thought she would like to see again what her ideal man had to say about his, and she got up and searched for a small book in a limp red cover, labeled "Life of Jesus of Nazareth—Luke Raeburn." It was more than two years since she had seen it; she read it through once more. The style was vigorous, the veiled sarcasms were not unpleasant to her, she detected no unfairness in the mode of treatment, the book satisfied her, the conclusion arrived at seemed to her inevitable—Brian Osmond's ideal was not perfect.
With a sigh of utter weariness she shut the book and leaned back in her chair with a still, white, hopeless face. Presently Friskarina sprung up on her knee with a little sympathetic mew; she had been too miserable as yet to notice even her favorite cat very much, now a scarcely perceptible shade of relief came to her sadness, she stroked the soft gray head. But scarcely had she spoken to her favorite, when the cat suddenly turned away, sprung from her knee and trotted out of the room. It seemed like actual desertion, and Erica could ill bear it just then.
"What, you too, Friskie," she said to herself, "are even you glad to keep away from me?"
She hid her face in her hands; desolate and miserable as she had been before, she now felt more completely alone.
In a few minutes something warm touching her feet made her look up, and with one bound Friskarina sprung into her lap, carrying in her mouth a young kitten. She purred contentedly, looking first at her child and then at her mistress, saying as plainly as if she had spoken:
"Will this comfort you?"
Erica stroked and kissed both cat and kitten, and for the first time since her trouble a feeling of warmth came to her frozen heart.
CHAPTER IX. Rose
A life of unalloyed content, A life like that of land-locked seas. J. R. Lowell
"Elspeth, you really must tell me, I'm dying of curiosity, and I can see by your face you know all about it! How is it that grandpapa's name is in the papers when he has been dead all these years? I tell you I saw it, a little paragraph in today's paper, headed, 'Mr. Luke Raeburn.' Is this another namesake who has something to do with him?"
The speaker was a tall, bright-looking girl of eighteen, a blue-eyed, flaxen-haired blond, with a saucy little mouth, about which there now lurked an expression of undisguised curiosity. Rose, for that was her name, was something of a coax, and all her life long she had managed to get her own way; she was an only child, and had been not a little spoiled; but in spite of many faults she was lovable, and beneath her outer shell of vanity and self-satisfaction there lay a sterling little heart.
Her companion, Elspeth, was a wrinkled old woman, whose smooth gray hair was almost hidden by a huge mob-cap, which, in defiance of modern custom, she wore tied under her chin. She had nursed Rose and her mother before her and had now become more like a family friend than a servant.
"Miss Rose," she replied, looking up from her work, "if you go on chatter-magging away like this, there'll be no frock ready for you tonight," and with a most uncommunicative air, the old woman turned away, and gave a little impressive shake to the billowy mass of white tarletan to which she was putting the finishing touches.
"The white lilies just at the side," said Rose, her attention diverted for a moment. "Won't it be lovely! The prettiest dress in the room, I'm sure." Then, her curiosity returning, "But, Elspeth, I sha'nt enjoy the dance a bit unless you tell me what Mr. Luke Raeburn has to do with us? Listen, and I'll tell you how I found out. Papa brought the paper up to Mamma, and said, 'Did you see this?' And then mamma read it, and the color came all over her face, and she did not say a word, but went out of the room pretty soon. And then I took up the paper, and looked at the page she had been reading, and saw grandpapa's name."
"What was it about?" asked old Elspeth.
"That's just what I couldn't understand; it was all about secularists. What are secularists? But it seems that this Luke Raeburn, whoever he is, has lost his wife. While he was lecturing at Birmingham on the soul, it is said, his wife died, and this paragraph said it seemed like a judgment, which was rather cool, I think."
"Poor laddie!" signed old Elspeth.
"Elspeth," cried Rose, "do you know who the man is?"
"Miss Rose," said the old woman severely, "in my young days there was a saying that you'd do well to lay to heart, 'Ask no questions, and you'll be told no stories.'"
"It isn't your young days now, it's your old days, Elsie," said the imperturbable Rose. "I will ask you questions as much as I please, and you'll tell me what this mystery means, there's a dear old nurse! Have I not a right to know about my own relations?"
"Oh, bairn, bairn! If it were anything you'd like to hear, but why should you know what is all sad and gloomful? No, no, go to your balls, and think of your fine dresses and gran' partners, though, for the matter of that, it is but vanity of vanities—"
"Oh, if you're going to quote Ecclesiastes, I shall go!" said Rose, pouting. "I wish that book wasn't in the Bible! I'm sure such an old grumbler ought to have been in the Apocrypha."
Elspeth shook her head, and muttered something about judgment and trouble. Rose began to be doubly curious.
"Trouble, sadness, a mystery—perhaps a tragedy! Rose had read of such things in books; were there such things actually in the family, and she had never known of them? A few hours ago and she had been unable to think of anything but her first ball, her new dress, her flowers; but she was seized now with the most intense desire to fathom this mystery. That it bid fair to be a sad mystery only made her more eager and curious. She was so young, so ignorant, there was still a halo of romance about those unknown things, trouble and sadness.
"Elspeth, you treat me like a child!" she exclaimed; "it's really too bad of you."
"Maybe you're right, bairn," said the old nurse; "but it's no doing of mine. But look here, Miss Rose, you be persuaded by me, go straight to your mamma and ask her yourself. Maybe there is a doubt whether you oughtn't to know, but there is no doubt that I mustn't tell you."
Rose hesitated, but presently her curiosity overpowered her reluctance.
Mrs. Fane-Smith, or, as she had been called in her maiden days, Isabel Raeburn, was remarkably like her daughter in so far as features and coloring were concerned, but she was exceedingly unlike her in character, for whereas Rose was vain and self-confident, and had a decided will of her own, her mother was diffident and exaggeratedly humble. She was a kind-hearted and a good woman, but she was in danger of harassing herself with the question, "What will people say?"
She looked up apprehensively as her daughter came into the room. Rose felt sure she had been crying, her curiosity was still further stimulated, and with all the persuasiveness at her command, she urged her mother to tell her the meaning of the mysterious paragraph.
"I am sorry you have asked me," said Mrs. Fane-Smith, "but, perhaps, since you are no longer a child, you had better know. It is a sad story, however, Rose, and I should not have chosen to tell it to you today of all days."
"But I want to hear, mamma," said Rose, decidedly. "Please begin. Who is this Mr. Raeburn?"
"He is my brother," said Mrs. Fane-Smith, with a little quiver in her voice.
"Your brother! My uncle!" cried Rose, in amazement.
"Luke was the oldest of us," said Mrs. Fane-Smith, "then came Jean, and I was the youngest of all, at least of those who lived."
"Then I have an aunt, too, an Aunt Jean?" exclaimed Rose.
"You shall hear the whole story," replied her mother. She thought for a minute, then in rather a low voice she began: "Luke and Jean were always the clever ones, Luke especially; your grandfather had set his heart on his being a clergyman, and you can fancy the grief it was to us when he threw up the whole idea, and declared that he could never take Orders. He was only nineteen when he renounced religion altogether; he and my father had a great dispute, and the end of it was that Luke was sent away from home, and I never have seen him since. He has become a very notorious infidel lecturer. Jean was very much unsettled by his change of views, and I believe her real reason for marrying old Mr. Craigie was that she had made him promise to let her see Luke again. She married young and settled down in London, and when, in a few years, her husband died, she too, renounced Christianity."
To tell the truth, Rose was not deeply interested in the story, it fell a little flat after her expectations of a tragedy. It had, moreover, a sort of missionary flavor, and she had till the last few months lived in India, and had grown heartily tired of the details of mission work, in which both her father and mother had been interested. Conversions, relapses, heathenism, belief and unbelief were words which had sounded so often in her ears that now they bored her; as they were the merest words to her it could hardly be otherwise. But Rose's best point was her loyalty to her own family, she had the "clan" feeling very strongly, and she could not understand how her mother could have allowed such a complete estrangement to grow up between her and her nearest relations.
"Mamma," she said, quickly, "I should have gone to see Uncle Luke if I had been you."
"It is impossible, dear," replied Mrs. Fane-Smith. "Your father would not allow it for one thing, and then only think what people would say! This is partly my reason for telling you, Rose; I want to put you upon your guard. We heard little or nothing of your uncle when we were in India, but you will find it very different here. He is one of the most notorious men in England; you must never mention his name, never allude to him, do you understand me?"