THE CHILDREN'S WATCHWORD.
BY THE AUTHOR OF
'KATIE JOHNSTONE'S CROSS.'
TORONTO: JAMES CAMPBELL AND SON.
I. MISS PRESTON'S LAST SUNDAY,
II. LUCY'S HOME,
III. MORE HOME SCENES,
IV. NELLY'S SUNDAY EVENING,
VI. A MISSION,
X. NEW EXPERIENCES,
XI. A START IN LIFE,
XIII. A FRIENDSHIP,
XIV. AN UNEXPECTED RECOGNITION,
XV. THE FLOWER FADETH,
XVI. DARKNESS AND LIGHT,
XVII. HOME AGAIN,
XVIII. A FAREWELL CHAPTER,
Miss Preston's Last Sunday.
"Tell me the old, old story Of unseen things above— Of Jesus and His glory, Of Jesus and His love."
The light of a lovely Sabbath afternoon in June lay on the rich green woodlands, still bright with the vivid green of early summer, and sparkled on the broad river, tossed by the breeze into a thousand ripples, that swept past the village of Ashleigh. It would have been oppressively warm, but for the breeze which was swaying the long branches of the pine-trees around the little church, which from its elevation on the higher ground looked down upon the straggling clusters of white houses nestling in their orchards and gardens that sloped away below. The same breeze, pleasantly laden with the mingled fragrance of the pines and of the newly-cut hay, fanned the faces of the children, who in pretty little groups—the flickering shadows of the pines falling on their light, fluttering summer dresses—were approaching the church, the grave demeanour of a few of the elder ones showing that their thoughts were already occupied by the pleasant exercises of the Sunday school.
Along a quiet, shady path, also leading to the church, a lady was slowly and thoughtfully walking, on whose countenance a slight shade of sadness, apparently, contended with happier thoughts. It was Mary Preston's last Sunday in her old home, previous to exchanging it for the new one to which she had been looking forward so long; and full as her heart was of thankfulness to God for the blessings He had bestowed, she could not take farewell of the Sunday school in which she had taught for several years, without some regret and many misgivings. Where, indeed, is the earnest teacher, however faithful, who can lay down the self-imposed task without some such feelings? Has the heart been in the work? Have thought and earnestness entered into the weekly instruction? Has a Christian example given force to the precepts inculcated? Above all, has there been earnest, persevering prayer to the Lord of the harvest, in dependence on whom alone the joyful reaping time can be expected?
Such were some of the questions which had been passing through Miss Preston's mind; and the smile with which she greeted her class as she took her place was a little shadowed by her self-condemning reflections—reflections which her fellow-teachers would have thought quite uncalled for in one who had been the most zealous and conscientious worker in that Sunday school. But Mary Preston little thought of comparing herself with others. She knew that to whom "much is given, of him shall be much required;" and judging herself by this standard, she felt how little she had rendered to the Lord for His benefits to her. As her wistful glance strayed during the opening hymn to the faces of her scholars, she could not help wondering what influence the remembrance of what she had tried to teach them would exert on their future lives.
As her class had been much diminished by recent changes, and in view of her approaching departure the blanks had not been filled up, it consisted on this Sunday of only three girls, of ages varying from twelve to fourteen, but differing much in appearance, and still more widely in character and in the circumstances of their lives.
Close to Miss Preston, and watching every look of the teacher she loved and grieved at losing, sat Lucy Raymond, the minister's motherless daughter, a slight, delicate-looking girl, with dark hair and bright grey eyes, full of energy and thought, but possessing a good deal of self-will and love of approbation,—dangerous elements of character unless modified and restrained by divine grace.
Next to her sat fair, plump, rosy-cheeked, curly-haired Bessie Ford, from the Mill Bank Farm—an amiable, kind-hearted little damsel, and a favourite with all her companions, but careless and thoughtless, with a want of steadiness and moral principle which made her teacher long to see the taking root of the good seed, whose development might supply what was lacking.
Very different from both seemed the third member of the class—a forlorn-looking child, who sat shyly apart from the others, shrinking from proximity with their neat, tasteful summer attire, as if she felt the contrast between her own dress and appearance and that of her school-fellows. Poor Nelly Connor's dingy straw hat and tattered cotton dress, as well as her pale, meagre face, with its bright hazel eyes gleaming from under the tangled brown hair, showed evident signs of poverty and neglect. She was a stranger there, having only recently come to Ashleigh, and had been found wandering about, a Sunday or two before, by Miss Preston, who had coaxed her into the Sunday school, and had kept her in her own class until she should become a little more familiar with scenes so strange and new. Curiosity and wonder seemed at first to absorb all her faculties, and her senses seemed so evidently engrossed with the novelty of what she saw around her, that her teacher could scarcely hope she took in any of the instruction which in the most simple words she tried to impress on her wandering mind. And so very ignorant was she of the most elementary truths of Christianity, that Miss Preston scarcely dared to ask her the simplest question, for fear of drawing towards her the wondering gaze of her more favoured classmates, who, accustomed from infancy to hear of a Saviour's love and sacrifice for sin, could scarcely comprehend how any child,
"Born in Christian lands, And not a heathen or a Jew,"
could have grown up to nearly their own age, ignorant of things which were familiar to them as household words.
Lucy and Bessie, in their happy ignorance and inexperience, little dreamed how many thousands in Christian cities full of stately churches, whose lofty spires seem to proclaim afar the Christianity of the inhabitants, grow up even to manhood and womanhood with as little knowledge of the glorious redemption provided to rescue them from their sin and degradation as if they were sunk in the thickest darkness of heathenism. Strange that congregations of professed followers of Christ, whose consciences will not let them refuse to contribute some small portion of their substance to convey the glad tidings of the gospel to distant lands, will yet, as they seek their comfortable churches, pass calmly by whole districts where so many of their fellow-countrymen are perishing for lack of that very gospel, without making one personal effort to save them! Will they not have to give an account for these things?
Nelly Connor's life had for the last two or three years been spent in one of the lowest districts of the city in which her father had fixed his abode after his emigration from the "old sod" to the New World. The horrors of that emigration she could still remember—the overcrowded steerage, where foul air bred the dreaded "ship-fever," and where the moans of the sick and dying weighed down the hearts of those whom the disease had spared. Her two little sisters had died during that dreadful voyage; and her mother, heart-broken and worn out with fatigue and watching, only lived to reach land and die in the nearest hospital. An elder brother, who was to have accompanied them, had by some accident lost his passage; and though he had, they supposed, followed them in the next ship that sailed, they never discovered any further trace of him. So, when Nelly's father had followed his wife to the grave in the poor coffin he had with difficulty provided for her, he and his daughter were all that remained of the family which had set out from their dear Irish home, hoping, in the strange land they sought, to lay the foundation of happier fortunes.
They led an uncomfortable, unsettled life for a year or two after that, exchanging one miserable lodging for another—rarely for the better. The father obtained an uncertain employment as a deck hand on a steamboat during the summer, subsisting as best he could on odd jobs during the winter, and too often drowning his sorrows and cares in the tempting but fatal cup. Poor Nelly, left without any care or teaching, soon forgot all she had ever learned; and running wild with the neglected children around her, became, as might have been expected, a little street Arab, full of shrewd, quick observation, and utter aversion to restraint of any kind.
Suddenly, to Nelly's consternation, her father brought home a second wife, a comrade's widow, with two or three young children. In the new household Nelly was at once expected to take the place of nurse and general drudge, a part for which her habits of unrestrained freedom and idleness had thoroughly disqualified her; and the results were what might have been expected. There was a good deal of heedlessness and neglect on Nelly's part, and nearly constant scolding on that of her new mother. And as the latter was neither patient nor judicious, and was, moreover, unreasonable in what she demanded from the child, there was many a conflict ending in sharp blows, the physical pain of which was nothing in comparison with the sense of injury and oppression left on the child's mind. But she had no redress; for her father being so much away from his home, had no opportunity of opposing, as he would probably have done, his wife's severe method of "managing" his motherless child.
Things were in this condition when Mrs. Connor, who had formerly belonged to Ashleigh, made up her mind to remove thither, in the expectation both of living more cheaply, and of being able, among her old acquaintances, to find more work to eke out her uncertain means of living. Her husband was now working on a steamboat which passed up and down the river on which Ashleigh was situated, so that he could not see his family as often as before. They were now settled in a small, rather dilapidated tenement, with a potato patch and pig-sty; and Mrs. Connor, who was an energetic woman, had already succeeded in making her family almost independent of the earnings which Michael Connor too often spent in the public-house. This being the case, she had no scruples in providing for her own children, without much consideration for Nelly; so that the poor child was a forlorn-looking object when Miss Preston had found her hovering wistfully about, attracted by the sight of the children streaming towards the church, and had induced her to come, for the first time in her life, into a Sunday school.
And now, with these three girls before her, differing so much in circumstances and culture, it was no wonder that Miss Preston should feel it a matter for earnest consideration what parting words she should say, which, even if unappreciated at the time, might afterwards come back to their minds, associated with the remembrance of a teacher they had loved, to help them in the conflict between good and evil which must have its place in their future lives. But she felt she could not possibly do better, in bidding farewell to her young pupils, than to direct them to Him who would never leave nor forsake them,—who was nearer, wiser, tenderer, than any earthly friend,—who, if they would trust themselves to Him, would guide them into all truth, and in His own way of peace.
She had brought them each, as a little parting remembrancer, a pretty gift-card, bearing on one side the illuminated motto, "LOOKING UNTO JESUS," a text the blessed influence of which she herself had long experimentally known. And in words so simple as for the most part to reach even little Nelly's comprehension, she spoke earnestly of the loving Saviour to whom they were to "look,"—of that wonderful life which, opening in the lowly manger of Bethlehem, and growing quietly to maturity in the green valleys of Nazareth, reached its full development in those unparalleled three years of "going about doing good," healing, teaching, warning, rebuking, comforting; not disdaining to stop and bless the little children, and at last dying to atone for our sins.
She explained to them, that although withdrawn from our earthly sight, He was as really near to them now as He had been to those Jewish children eighteen hundred years ago; that their lowest whisper could reach Him; that if they would but ask Him, He would be their truest Friend, ever at their side to help them to do right and resist temptation, to comfort them in sorrow and sweeten their joy. Her earnest tone and manner, even more than her words, impressed the children, and fixed even Nelly Connor's bright hazel eyes in a wondering gaze. It was very new and strange to her to hear about the mysterious, invisible Friend who was so loving and kind; the idea of a friend of any kind being novel to the lonely, motherless child, more accustomed to harsh, unsparing reproof than to any other language. Miss Preston, glad to see at least that her interest was excited, was fain to leave the germs of truth to take root and develope in her mind, under the silent influence of the divine Husbandman.
"Now, my dear children," she said in conclusion, "whenever you are tempted to be careless or unfaithful in duty, to think that it doesn't matter because no one will know, remember that your Saviour knows,—that whatever the duty before you may be, you have to do it 'as to the Lord, and not unto men.' Whenever you are tempted to get tired of trying to do right and resist temptation, or when you may feel sad for your sinfulness and unworthiness, think of the text I am leaving you, 'LOOKING UNTO JESUS.' And if you really and earnestly look to Him, you will always find help, and strength, and guidance, and comfort."
On the reverse side of the illuminated card she had brought for her class was printed, in clear, distinct characters, the hymn,
"I lay my sins on Jesus, The spotless Lamb of God; He bears them all, and frees us From the accursed load.
"I lay my wants on Jesus, All fulness dwells in Him; He heals all my diseases, He doth my soul redeem."
As Nelly could not read, Miss Preston made her say these verses several times after her; and as she had a quick ear and a facility for learning by heart, she could soon repeat them. That she could not understand them at present, her teacher knew; but she thought it something gained that the words at least should linger in her memory till their meaning should dawn upon her heart. Then, telling Nelly she must take care of her pretty card, and try to learn to read it for herself, she bade her class an affectionate farewell, trusting that the Friend of whom she had been teaching them would care for them when she could not.
"I'll learn the hymn, miss, and try to learn to read it, if anybody 'll teach me," said Nelly, her bright brown eyes sparkling through tears, for her warm Irish heart had been touched by the kind words and tones of her teacher, whom she expected never to see again.
Bessy Ford's sunshiny face also looked unusually sorrowful, and Lucy Raymond's trembling lip bespoke a deeper emotion, with difficulty repressed.
"I shall see you again, Lucy," Miss Preston said, with a smile, as she affectionately detained her a moment, for Lucy had been invited to be present at her teacher's marriage, at which her father was to officiate. Lucy and Bessie walked away together, the former with her first experience of a "last time" weighing on her mind and spirits; and Nelly Connor slowly stole away among the trees toward the spot she called her "home."
Bessie's momentary sadness quickly vanished as she engaged in a brisk conversation with another girl about her own age, who was eager to gossip about Miss Preston's approaching marriage, where she was going, and what she was to wear. Lucy drew off from her companion as soon as Nancy Parker joined them, partly from a real desire of thinking quietly of her teacher's parting words, partly in proud disdain of Bessie's frivolity. "How can she go on so," she thought, "after what Miss Preston has been saying?" But she forgot that disdain is as far removed from the spirit of the loving and pitying Saviour as even the frivolity she despised.
"Come, Lucy, don't be so stiff," said Nancy as they approached the shady gate of the white house where Mr. Raymond lived; "can't you tell us something about the wedding? You're going, aren't you?"
Nancy's pert, familiar tones grated upon Lucy's ear with unusual harshness, and she replied, rather haughtily, that she knew scarcely anything about it.
"Oh, no doubt you think yourself very grand," Nancy rejoined, "but I can find out all about it from my aunt, and no thanks to you. Come on, Bessie." Bessie, somewhat ashamed of her companion, and instinctively conscious of Lucy's disapproval, stopped at the gate to exchange a good-bye with her friend, who for the moment was not very cordial.
Thus Miss Preston and her class had separated, and future days alone could reveal what had become of the seed she had tried to sow.
"Is the heart a living power? Self-entwined, its strength sinks low; It can only live in loving, And by serving, love will grow."
As Lucy passed in under the acacias which shaded the gate, she was met by a pretty, graceful-looking girl about her own age, who, with her golden hair floating on her shoulders and her hat swinging listlessly in her hand, was wandering through the shrubbery.
"Why, Lucy," she exclaimed, "what a time you have been away! I've tried everything I could think of to pass the time; looked over all your books, and couldn't find a nice one I hadn't read; teased Alick and Fred till they went off for peace, and pussy till she scratched my arm. Just look there!"
But Lucy's mind had been too much absorbed to descend at once to the level of her cousin's trifling tone; and having been vexed previously at her refusal to accompany her to Sunday school, she now regretted exceedingly that Stella had not been present to hear Miss Preston's earnest words.
"Oh, Stella," she said eagerly, "I do so wish you had been with me! If you had only heard what Miss Preston said to us, it would have done you good all your life."
"Well, you know I don't worship Miss Preston," replied Stella, always ready to tease, "she looks so demure. And as for dressing, why, Ada and Sophy wouldn't be seen out in the morning in that common-looking muslin she wore to church."
"Oh, Stella, how can you go on so?" exclaimed Lucy impatiently. "If you only had something better to think of, you wouldn't talk as if you thought dress the one thing needful."
"That's a quotation from one of Uncle Raymond's sermons, isn't it?" rejoined Stella aggravatingly.
Lucy drew her arm away from her cousin's and walked off alone to the house, obliged to hear Stella's closing remark: "Well, I'm glad I didn't go to Sunday school if it makes people come home cross and sulky!" And then, unconscious of the sting her words had implanted, Stella turned to meet little Harry, who was bounding home in his highest spirits.
Lucy slowly found her way to her own room, her especial sanctuary, where she had a good deal of pleasure in keeping her various possessions neatly arranged. At present it was shared by her young visitor, whose careless, disorderly ways were a considerable drawback to the pleasure so long anticipated of having a companion of her own age. Just now her eye fell at once on her ransacked bookcase all in confusion, with the books scattered about the room. It was a trifle, but trifles are magnified when the temper is already discomposed; and throwing down her gloves and Bible, she hastily proceeded to rearrange them, feeling rather unamiably towards her cousin.
But as she turned back from the completed task, her card with its motto met her eye, like a gentle reproof to her ruffled spirit—"LOOKING UNTO JESUS." Had she not forgotten that already? She had come home enthusiastic—full of an ideal life she was to live, an example and influence for good to all around her. But, mingled in her aspirations, there was an unconscious desire for pre-eminence and an insidious self-complacency—"little foxes" that will spoil the best grapes. She had to learn that God will not be served with unhallowed fire; that the heart must be freed from pride and self-seeking before it can be fit for the service of the sanctuary. Already she knew she had been impatient and unconciliatory, contemptuous to poor ill-trained Nancy, whose home influences were very unfavourable; and now, by her hastiness towards her cousin, whom she had been so anxious to influence for good, she had probably disgusted her with the things in which she most wanted to interest her.
She did not turn away, however, from the lights conscience brought to her. Nurtured in a happy Christian home, under the watchful eye of the loving father whose care had to a great extent supplied the want of the mother she could scarcely remember, she could not have specified the time when she first began to look upon Christ as her Saviour, and to feel herself bound to live unto Him, and not to herself. But her teacher's words had given her a new impulse—a more definite realization of the strength by which the Christian life was to be lived—
"The mind to blend with outward life, While keeping at Thy side."
Humbled by her failure, she honestly confessed it, and asked for more of the strength which every earnest seeker shall receive.
With a much lighter heart and clearer brow, Lucy went to rejoin Stella, whom she found amusing herself with Harry and his rabbits, having forgotten all about Lucy's hastiness. Lucy seated herself on the grass beside them, joining readily in the admiration with which Stella, no less than Harry, was caressing the soft, white, downy creature with pink eyes, which was her brother's latest acquisition.
"I want him to call it Blanche—such a pretty name, isn't it, Lucy?" said Stella.
"I won't," declared the perverse Harry, "because I don't like it;" and so saying, he rushed off to join "the boys," as he called them.
"What have you got there?" asked Stella, holding out her hand for Lucy's card, which she had brought down. "Yes, it's pretty, but Sophy does much prettier ones; you should see some lovely ones she has done!"
"Has she?" asked Lucy with interest,—thinking Stella's sister must care more for the Bible than she herself did, if she painted illuminated texts. "I was going to tell you this was what Miss Preston was speaking to us about."
"I don't see that she could say much about that, it's so short. I don't see what it means; Jesus is in heaven now, and we can't see Him."
"Oh, but," exclaimed Lucy eagerly, overcoming her shy reluctance to speak, "He is always near, though we can't see Him, and is ready to help us when we do right, and grieved and displeased when we do wrong. I forget that myself, Stella," she added with an effort, "or I shouldn't have been so cross when I came home."
Stella had already forgotten all about that, and felt a little uncomfortable at her cousin's entering on subjects which she had been accustomed to consider were to be confined to the pulpit, or at any rate were above her comprehension. She believed, of course, in a general way, that Christ had died for sinners, as she had often heard in church, and that in some vague way she was to be saved and taken to heaven, when she should be obliged to leave this world; but it had never occurred to her that the salvation of which she had been told was to influence her life now, or awaken any love from her in response to the great love which had been shown toward her. Not daring to reply, she glanced listlessly over the hymn on the card, but took up none of its meaning. She had never been conscious of any heavy burden of sin to be "laid on Jesus." Petted and praised at home for her beauty and lively winning ways, her faults overlooked and her good qualities exaggerated, she had no idea of the evil that lay undeveloped in her nature, shutting out from her heart the love of the meek and lowly Jesus. She could scarcely feel her need of strength for a warfare on which she had never entered; and Lucy's words, spoken out of the realizing experience she had already had, were to her incomprehensible.
She was a good deal relieved when the tea-bell rang, and Lucy's two brothers, Fred and Harry, with her tall cousin Alick Steele, joined them as they obeyed the summons to the cool, pleasant dining-room, where Alick's mother, Mr. Raymond's sister, who had superintended his family since Mrs. Raymond's death, was already seated at the tea-table. Her quiet, gentle face, in the plain widow's cap, greeted them with a smile, brightening with a mother's pride and pleasure as she glanced towards her son Alick, just now spending a brief holiday at Ashleigh on the completion of his medical studies. He was a handsome high-spirited youth, affectionate, candid, and full of energy, though as yet his mother grieved at his carelessness as to the "better part" which she longed to see him choose. He had always spent his vacations at Ashleigh, and was such a favourite that his visits were looked forward to as the pleasantest events of the year.
"Girls," said Alick, "I saw such quantities of strawberries this afternoon."
"Where?" interrupted Harry eagerly.
"Was anybody speaking to you?" asked his cousin, laughing. "But I'll tell you if you won't go and eat them all up. Over on the edge of the woods by Mill Bank Farm. I could soon have filled a basket if I had had one, and if mother wouldn't have said it was Sabbath-breaking!"
"Alick, my boy," said his mother gravely, "you mustn't talk so thoughtlessly. What would your uncle say?"
"He'd say it was a pity so good a mother hadn't a better son. But never mind, mother dear, you'll see I'll come all right yet. As for these strawberries, Lucy, I vote we have a strawberry picnic, and give Stella a taste of real country life. They'll give us cream at the farm, and the Fords would join us."
Stella looked a little of the surprise she felt at the idea of the farmer's children being added to the party, but she did not venture to say anything, as Alick was by no means sparing in bringing his powers of raillery to bear on what he called her "town airs and graces."
"Well, you needn't make all the arrangements to-night," interposed Mrs. Steele; "you know your uncle doesn't like Sunday planning of amusements."
And just then Mr. Raymond entered the room, his grave, quiet face, solemnized by the thoughts with which he had been engrossed, exercising an unconsciously subduing influence over the lively juniors. Mr. Raymond never frowned upon innocent joyousness, and even the boisterous little Harry was never afraid of his father; yet there was about him a certain realization of the great truths he preached, which checked any approach to levity in his presence, and impressed even the most thoughtless; although, not tracing it to its real source, they generally set it down simply to his "being a clergyman." His children looked up to him with devoted affection and deep reverence; even Stella could not help feeling that her uncle must be a very good man; and to Alick, who under all his nonsense had a strong appreciation of practical religion, he was the embodiment of Christian excellence.
"Well, Stella," said her uncle, turning kindly to his niece, "I hope you had a pleasant afternoon. I suppose our little Sunday school looks very small after the great city ones."
"We never go to Sunday school at home, uncle," said Stella, with one of her winning smiles; "there are so many common children."
"Oh, indeed!" exclaimed Alick, seizing the opportunity of putting down Stella's airs. "Why don't you get up a select one, then, attended only by young ladies of the best families?"
Stella coloured at the sarcastic tone, but Mr. Raymond only said kindly, "Did you ever think, my dear child, how many of these poor common children, as you call them, you will have to meet in heaven?"
It was certainly a new idea to Stella, and made her feel rather uncomfortable; indeed she never cared much to think about heaven, of which her ideas were the vaguest possible.
As they went to evening service, Alick did not omit to rally Stella on her want of candour in leaving her uncle under the impression that she had been at Sunday school that afternoon.
"Why, Alick!" she exclaimed in surprise, "I didn't say I had been at Sunday school. If Uncle Raymond supposed so, it wasn't my fault."
"Only, you answered him as if his supposition was correct. I have always understood that intentionally confirming a false impression was at least the next thing to telling a story."
"Well, I'm sure Stella didn't think of that," interposed Lucy good-naturedly, noticing the rising colour of vexation on Stella's countenance.
"How tiresome they all are here!" thought Stella; "always finding out harm in things. I'm sure it wasn't my business to tell Uncle William I hadn't been at Sunday school. Sophy and Ada often tell the housemaid to say they are not at home when they are, and don't think it any harm. What would Alick say to that?"
By one of those coincidences which sometimes happen—sent, we may be sure, in God's providence—Mr. Raymond took for his text that evening the words, "Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." The coincidence startled Lucy, and made her listen with more than ordinary attention to her father's sermon, though, to do her justice, she was not usually either sleepy or inattentive. Mr. Raymond began by alluding to the "race set before us," which the apostle had spoken of in the previous verse,—the race which all who will follow Christ must know, but only in the strength He will supply. The young and strong might think themselves sufficient for it, but the stern experience of life would soon teach them that it must be often run with a heavy heart and weary feet; that "even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men utterly fall;" and that it is only they who wait on the Lord, "looking unto Jesus," who shall "mount up on wings as eagles," who shall "run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint."
Then he spoke of the Helper ever near—the "dear Jesus ever at our side," in looking to whom in faith and prayer, not trying to walk in our own strength, we may get
"the daily strength, To none who ask denied,"—
the strength to overcome temptation and conquer sloth, and do whatever work He gives us to do. Something, too, he said of what that work is: First, the faithful discharge of daily duty, whatever its nature; then the more voluntary work for Christ and our fellow-men with which the corners of the busiest life may be filled up—the weak and weary to be helped, the mourner to be sympathized with, the erring brother or sister to be sought out and brought back, the cup of cold water to be given for Christ's sake, which should not lose its reward.
He ended by speaking of the grounds on which Jesus is the "author and finisher of our faith," the great salvation won by Him for us on the cross,—a salvation to be entered upon now, so that during this life we may begin that glorious eternal life which is to go on for ever. Then he besought his hearers, by the greatness of that love which had prompted the infinite sacrifice, by the endurance of that mysterious depth of suffering which the Son of God bore for men, that He might "save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him," to come at once to have their sins washed away in the Redeemer's blood, which alone could "purge their consciences from dead works to serve the living God."
Many and many a time during Lucy's after-life did the words of that sermon come back to her mind, associated with her father's earnest, solemn tones, with the peaceful beauty of that summer Sabbath evening—with the old church, its high seats and pulpit and time-stained walls, and the old familiar faces whom all her life she had been wont to see, Sunday after Sunday, in the same familiar seats.
And what of the others? Bessie Ford, too, had noticed the coincidence, and had listened to the sermon as attentively as a somewhat volatile mind would allow her, and had gathered from it more than she could have put into conscious thought, though it was destined to bring forth fruit.
And far back, in a dusky corner of the little gallery, gleamed the bright brown eyes of little Nelly, who had ventured back to the church, and, hearing the familiar sound of the text, listened intently and picked up some things which, though only half understood, yet awakened the chords which had been already touched to a trembling response.
Even little Harry in some measure abstained from indulging in his ordinary train of meditation during church-time, consisting chiefly of planning fishing excursions and games for the holidays. How many older and wiser heads are prone to the same kind of reverie, and could not have given a better account of "papa's sermon" than he was usually able to do! Fred, the quiet student, listened with kindling eye and deep enthusiasm to his father's earnest exposition of the divine truth which had already penetrated his own mind and heart; and Alick heard it with a reverent admiration for the beautiful gospel which could prompt such noble sentiments, and with a vague determination that "some time" he would think about it in earnest.
Stella alone, of all the young group, carried away nothing of the precious truth which had been sounding in her ears. She had gone to church merely as a matter of form, without any expectation of receiving a blessing there; and during the service her wandering eyes had been employed in taking a mental inventory of the various odd and old-fashioned costumes that she saw around her, to serve for her sister's amusement when she should return home. It is thus that the evil one often takes away the good seed before it has sunk into our hearts. Stella would have been surprised had it been suggested to her that the words of the last hymn, which rose sweetly through the church in the soft summer twilight, could possibly apply to her that evening:
"If some poor wandering child of thine Have spurned to-day the voice divine, Now, Lord, the gracious work begin; Let him no more lie down in sin!"
More Home Scenes.
"Tell me the story often. For I forgot so soon; The early dew of morning Has passed away at noon."
When Bessie Ford parted from Lucy at the gate, she had still a long walk before reaching home. Mill Bank Farm was a good mile and a half from the village if you went by the road, but Bessie shortened it very considerably by striking across the fields a little way beyond the village. There were one or two fences to climb, but Bessie did not mind that any more than she minded the placid cows browsing in the pasture through which her way led. The breezy meadows, white with ox-eye daisies, and in some places yellow with buttercups, with the blue river flowing rapidly past on one side, afforded a pleasant walk at any time, and the rest of the way was still prettier. Just within the boundary of Mill Bank Farm the ground ascended slightly, and then descended into a narrow glen or ravine, with steep, rocky sides luxuriantly draped with velvet moss and waving ferns, while along the bottom of it a little stream flowed quietly enough towards the river, though a little higher up it came foaming and dashing down the rocks and turned a small saw-mill on the farm. The sides of the ravine were shady with hemlocks, spreading their long, waving boughs over the rocks, with whose dark, solemn foliage maples and birches contrasted their fresh vivid green. In spring, what a place it was for wild flowers!—as Lucy Raymond and her brothers well knew, having often brought home thence great bunches of dielytras and convallarias and orchises; and at any time some bright blossoms were generally to be found gleaming through the shade.
Bessie, however, did not linger now to look for them, but picking her way across the stepping-stones which lay in the bed of the stream, she quickly climbed the opposite bank by a natural pathway which wound up among the rocks—easily found by her accustomed feet—and passing through the piece of woodland that lay on the other side, came out on the sunny expanse of meadows and corn-fields, in the midst of which stood the neat white farmhouse, with its little array of farm buildings, and the fine old butternut tree, under the shade of which Mrs. Ford sat milking her sleek, gentle cows, little Jenny and Jack sitting on the ground beside her. The instant that they espied their sister coming through the fields, they dashed off at the top of their speed to see who should reach her first, and were soon trotting along by her side, confiding to her their afternoon's adventures, and how Jack had found nine eggs in an unsuspected nest in the barn, but had broken three in carrying them in.
"But me wouldn't have," insisted Jack sturdily, "if Jenny hadn't knocked up against me."
"Oh, Jack! Now you know I only touched you the least little bit," retorted the aggrieved Jenny.
"Well, don't jump up and down so, or I will let go your hand," said Bessie. "You almost pull my arm off! I wish you could see how quietly little Mary Thomson sits in Sunday school, and she is no bigger than you."
"Why can't I go to Sunday school, then?" demanded Jenny; "I'd be quiet too."
"And me too!" vociferated Jack; the circumstance that they were not considered old enough yet to go to Sunday school giving it a wonderful charm in their eyes. Then, as they set off again on another race toward their mother, it occurred to Bessie for the first time that these little ones were quite old enough to learn the things that other little children learned at Sunday school, and that although they were not strong enough for the long walk, and her mother's time and thoughts were always so fully engrossed with the round of domestic duties, she might easily find time to teach her little brother and sister as much as they could understand about the Saviour, who had died that they might be made good, and who when on earth had blessed little children. Something Miss Preston had said about home duties—about helping to teach and guide the little brothers and sisters—now recurred to her mind, and conscience told her that these duties she had hitherto failed of performing. She had never herself really taken Christ for her own Saviour and Guide, although she often felt a vague wish that she were "good," and the desire of pleasing Christ entered but little, if at all, into the motives and actions of her daily life. But she generally knew what was right, and occasionally, while the impulse from some good influence was still fresh, would try to do it.
"I know Miss Preston would say I ought to teach Jenny and Jack some verses and hymns on Sunday," she thought. "I'll begin to-night, when mother and the boys are gone to church;" for a certain shyness about seeming "good" made her wish to begin her teaching without witnesses.
"Here, Bessie," said Mrs. Ford as Bessie approached, "do run and get the tea ready—there's a good girl. I shan't be through yet for half an hour, for I've the calves to see to; and your father and the boys 'll be in from watering the horses, and if we don't get tea soon they'll be late for church."
Bessie went in to change her dress, with her usually good-humoured face contracted into a dissatisfied expression. She was tired; it would have been nice to sit down and read her Sunday-school book till tea-time. But of course nothing could be said; so she hurriedly pulled off her walking things, grumbling a little in her own mind at the difference between her own lot and that of Lucy Raymond, who, she felt sure, had none of these tiresome things to do. She had never thought—what, indeed, older people often lose sight of—that God so arranges the work of all His children who will do what He gives them to do, that while some may seem to have more leisure than others, all have their appointed work, of the kind best suited to discipline, and fit them for the higher sphere of nobler work, in which will probably be found much of the blessedness of eternity.
Before Bessie went down to her unwelcome task, she recollected that she must put her pretty card safe out of the children's way; so with a strong pin she fastened it up securely on the wall, on which it formed a tasteful decoration. As she did so, the motto brought back to her memory what Miss Preston had said about "looking unto Jesus" in every time of temptation, great or small, as well when inclined to be discontented or impatient, as in greater emergencies. The evil principle in her nature rose against her doing so now, but the other power was stronger; and perhaps for the first time in her life, though she regularly "said her prayers," Bessie really asked Jesus to help her to be more like Himself. Then with a new, strange happiness in her heart, that was at once the result of her self-conquest and the answer to her prayer, she ran down cheerfully to do her work, singing in a low tone the first verse of her hymn:
"I long to be like Jesus, Meek, loving, lowly, mild; I long to be like Jesus, The Father's holy child."
Jenny and Jack came running in to help her—small assistants, whom it required a good deal of patience to manage, neither allowing them to hurt themselves or anything else, nor driving them into a fit of screaming by despotically thwarting their good intentions; and Bessie's patience was not always equal to the ordeal. But on this occasion Mrs. Ford was left to pursue her dairy avocations in peace, without being called by Jack's screams to settle some fierce dispute between him and his sister, whose interference was not always very judiciously applied.
The tea was soon ready,—not, however, before Mr. Ford and his two eldest boys had come in, accompanied by Bessie's younger brother Sam, next in age to herself, who ought to have been at Sunday school, but had managed to escape going, as he often did. His mother being on Sundays, as on other days, "cumbered with much serving," and his sister generally remaining with some of her friends in the village during the interval between the morning service and Sunday school, it was comparatively easy for Master Sam to play truant, as indeed he sometimes did from the day school, where his chances of punishment were much greater, Mr. Ford being far more alive to the advantages of a "good education" than to the need of the knowledge which "maketh wise unto salvation." So that, when Bessie began her usual "Why, Sam, you weren't at Sunday school!" Sam had some plausible excuse all ready, the ingenuity of which would amuse his father so much as to lead him to overlook the offence.
"Well, Bessie," her mother exclaimed when they were all seated, "I really believe you haven't forgotten anything, for once. I should not wonder if you were to turn out a decent housekeeper yet."
For it was Mrs. Ford's great complaint of Bessie, that she was so "heedless" and "needed so much minding," though she would always add, modifying her censure, "But then you can't put an old head on young shoulders, and the child has a real good heart." And being a thoroughly active and diligent housekeeper, she generally found it less trouble to supply Bessie's shortcomings herself, so that Bessie's home education was likely to suffer by her mother's very proficiency, unless she should come to see that to do all things well was a duty she owed "unto the Lord, and not unto men."
"So, Bessie, you're going to lose your teacher?" said her father. "I hear she's to be married on Thursday."
"Yes, father, she bade us all good-bye to-day; and she gave us such pretty cards, mother, with a text and a hymn;" and on the impulse of the moment she ran up for hers, and brought it down for inspection. It was handed round the table, eliciting various admiring comments, and exciting Jack's desire to get it into his own hands, which being thwarted, he was with difficulty consoled by an extra supply of bread and butter.
"And, mother," asked Bessie, somewhat doubtfully, "may I go to-morrow and get the things to work a book-mark for Miss Preston? I'd like to do it for a new Bible the teachers are going to give her."
"I don't care," said Mrs. Ford, "if you'll only not neglect everything else while you're doing it. I don't believe in girls fiddling away their time with such things, and not knowing how to make good cheese and butter. But I wouldn't hinder you from making a present to Miss Preston, for she has been a good teacher to you."
Bessie looked delighted, but the expression quickly changed when her mother said, as they rose from table, "Bessie, I guess I'll not go to church to-night. I've had so much to do that I feel tired out; and if I did go, I'm sure I'd just go to sleep. Besides, I don't like the way the dun cow is looking; so you'd better get ready and go with father and the boys."
Now Bessie had expected to remain at home that evening, as she usually did. She had planned to teach the children for a while, according to her new resolution, and then, when they had gone to bed, to sit down to read her Sunday-school book, which seemed unusually inviting. Bessie's Sunday reading was generally confined to her Sunday-school book, for she had not yet learned to love to read the Bible, and regarded it rather as a lesson-book than as the spiritual food which those who know it truly find "sweeter than honey" to their taste. So it was not a very pleasant prospect to have to hurry off to church again, and she felt very much inclined to make the most of the slight fatigue she felt, and say she was too tired to go, in which case her mother would have willingly assented to her remaining. But conscience told her she was able to go, and ought to go; and remembering her motto and her prayer, she cheerfully prepared to accompany her father and brothers to church, and she had reason to be grateful for her choice. The words of the sermon deepened and expanded the impressions of the afternoon, and left an abiding influence on the current of her life.
When Mrs. Ford had got through her evening duties, and the little ones were hushed in sound slumber, she sat down near the open window to rest, her eye falling, as she did so, on Bessie's card. The motto upon it carried her thoughts away to the time when, as a newly-married wife, she had listened to a sermon on that very text,—a time when, rejoicing in the happiness of her new life, she had felt her heart beat with gratitude to Him who had so freely given her all things, and with a sincere desire to live to His glory. How had the desire been carried out? A very busy life hers had been, and still was. The innumerable cares and duties of her family and farm and dairy had filled it with never-ceasing active occupations, as was natural and right; but was it right that these occupations should have so crowded out the very principle that would have given a holy harmony to her life, and been a fountain of strength to meet the cares and worries that will fret the stream of the most prosperous course? Sacred words, learned in her childhood, recurred to her mind: "And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things, entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful." Had not that been her own experience? Where were the fruits that might have been expected from "the word" in her?—the Christian influence and training which might have made her household what a Christian household ought to be?
Had not the "cares of this world" been made the chief concern—the physical and material well-being of her family made far more prominent than the development of a life hid with Christ in God? Had not the very smoothness and prosperity of her life, and her self-complacency in her own good management, been a snare to her? Her husband, good and kind as he was, was, she knew, wholly engrossed with the things of this life; and her boys—steadier, she often thought with pride, than half the boys of the neighbourhood—had never yet been made to feel that they were not their own, but bought with the price of a Saviour's blood. Such higher knowledge as Bessie had was due to Miss Preston, for, like many mothers, she had not scrupled to devolve her own responsibilities on the Sunday-school teachers, and thought her duty done when she had seen her children, neatly dressed, set off to school on Sunday afternoon. And the little ones she had just left asleep—had she earnestly commended them to the Lord, and tried to teach them such simple truths about their Saviour as their infant minds could receive?
All these thoughts came crowding into her mind, as they sometimes will when the voice of the Spirit can find an entrance into our usually closed hearts; and she shrank from the thought of the account she should have to give of the responsibilities abused, the trust unfulfilled. Happily, she did not forget that "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins;" and that quiet hour of meditation, and confession, and humble resolve was one of the most profitable seasons Mrs. Ford had ever known. For God, unlike man, can work without as well as with outward instrumentality.
When the others returned from church, it was with some surprise that Mrs. Ford heard from Bessie the words of the text.
"I heard Mr. Raymond preach from that same text long ago, just after we were married, John," she said.
"Well, if you remember it, it's more than I do. But if he did preach the same sermon over again, it is well worth hearing twice."
"Yes, indeed," said his wife. "I wish I had minded it better. It would have been better for us all if we had. Bessie, are you too tired to read a chapter as soon as the boys come in? We don't any of us read the Bible enough, I'm afraid."
And Bessie, struck by something unusual in her mother's tone and manner, cheerfully read aloud, at Mrs. Ford's request, the thirteenth of Matthew and the tenth of Hebrews, although the tempting Sunday-school book still lay unread on the table up-stairs.
Nelly's Sunday Evening.
"Oh, say not, dream not, heavenly notes To childish ears are vain,— That the young mind at random floats, And cannot catch the strain."
In the meantime let us go back to Nelly Connor, and see how she spent her Sunday afternoon.
When she had wistfully watched the last of the groups of children disappearing in the distance, she walked slowly away toward her "home"—a dilapidated-looking cottage in a potato patch, enclosed by a broken-down fence, patched up by Nelly and her new mother with old barrel-staves and branches of trees. The outdoor work which fell to her lot Nelly did not so much dislike. It was the nursing of a screaming baby, or scrubbing dingy, broken boards—work often imposed upon her—which sorely tried her childish strength and patience.
Nelly found the house deserted. Sunday being Mrs. Connor's idle day, she usually went to visit some of her friends in the village, taking her children with her. A piece of bread and a mug of sour milk on the table were all that betokened any preparation for Nelly's supper; but she was glad enough to miss the harsh scolding tones that were her usual welcome home.
Nelly sat down on the doorstep to eat her crust, watching, as she did so, a little bird which was bringing their evening meal to its chirping little ones in a straggling old plum-tree near the house. For in animal life there is no such discord as sin introduces into human life, marring the beauty of God's arrangements for His creatures' happiness. Then, having nothing to keep her at home, she took up her dingy, tattered straw hat, and strolled slowly along towards the village, keeping to the shady lanes on its outskirts till she came out upon the fields across which Bessie had taken her way home.
On her way she passed Mr. Raymond's pretty shrubbery, and stood for a while quite still by the white railings, looking at the group within—Lucy and her cousin sitting under the trees on the green turf, with Harry and the rabbit close beside them. Nelly thought she had never seen anything so pretty as Stella, with her rose-leaf complexion and sunny golden hair. The two might have served a painter for a contrast, both as to externals and as to the effect of the surrounding influences which mould human life: the one, from her cradle so tenderly and luxuriously nurtured, petted, and caressed; the other, accustomed from her earliest years to privation and hardship, to harsh tones and wicked words, to all the evil influences which surround a child left to pick up its education on the city streets. Strange mystery of the "election of circumstances!"—one of the strangest in our mystery-surrounded life, never to be cleared up till all crooked things shall be made straight. Only let the privileged ones, whose lines have fallen in pleasant places, remember that "to whom much is given, of them much shall be required."
A forlorn little figure Nelly looked as she strolled along the field-paths which Bessie had taken an hour before. But she did not trouble herself much about externals, except when in company with others whose better attire made her painfully conscious of the defects in her own; and being of a nature open to every impression from surrounding objects, she was at that moment far from being an unhappy child. It was not often that she was completely free to wander at will; and the fresh breezy fields, the sweet scents of the clover and the pines, the blue rippling river, and the cows that looked calmly at her with their patient, wistful eyes, were all novelties to the town child, whose first summer it was in the country. Some faint recollections she still had of the grassy slopes of her native hills, in the days of her early childhood; but since then all her experiences of summer had been the hot, hard pavements and stifling dust of a large city.
She had never before extended her wanderings in the direction of Mill Bank Farm so far as to reach the ravine through which the little stream flowed into the river; and now, when she came to the edge of the steep slope and looked down into the luxuriant depth of foliage and fern and ragged moss-clad rock, she felt a sense of delight more intense than Bessie Ford or Lucy Raymond, familiar all their lives with such scenes, had ever experienced. She stood spell-bound at first, and then, scrambling down among rock and fern, reached the little stream, and was soon wading about in its bed, enjoying the sensation of the soft, warm water flowing over her bare feet, and pulling the little flowering water-plants that raised their heads among the moss-grown logs and stones which lay in the bed of the stream. Then she began to climb up on the other side, stopping to examine with admiring eyes every velvety cushion of moss, and cluster of tiny ferns, and fairy-like baby pine or maple, and picking with eager hands the wild roses and other blossoms which she espied among the tangled underwood.
At last, tired with her wanderings, and with hands full of her treasures, she threw herself down on a bed of dry moss that carpeted the top of a high bank of rock which overlooked the river winding away beneath, while overhead, through the feathery sprays of the long, straggling pine boughs, the slanting sunbeams flickered on the turf below.
There, in that solitary stillness—all the stiller for the confused murmur of soft sounds, and the fresh, sweet breath of the woods perfuming the air—unaccustomed thoughts came into the little girl's mind,—thoughts which, in the din and bustle of the city, where the tide of human interests sufficed to fill up her undeveloped mind, had scarcely ever entered it. But here, where the direct works of God alone were around her, her mind was irresistibly drawn towards Him of whom Miss Preston had told her, that He had made her and all she saw around her, and who lived, she supposed, somewhere beyond that blue sky. With so many pleasant things around her, the thought of their Maker was pleasant too. But then Miss Preston had told her that God loved what was good, but hated what was bad; and did not her new mother constantly tell her she was a "bad child?"—an accusation in which her conscience told her there was much truth. So God could not love her, she thought.
But Miss Preston had said that God did love her—that He cared for her continually, and wished to make her good and happy—that He had even, in some strange way which she could not understand, sent His Son to die for her, that she might be made good. It was all new and strange, but she had faith in Miss Preston; and because she had told her, she believed it must be true, that she, who had come to think herself—poor child—too bad for any one to care for, had really a great, kind Friend near her, though she could not see Him, and loving her more than the mother whose warm caress she could still remember. It was an idea that might seem beyond the grasp of a poor untaught child, were it not that He who reveals Himself to babes and sucklings can speak to the heart He has made in ways beyond our power to trace. The idea in Nelly's mind of that wonderful love which she so sorely needed, was more enlightened than many a philosopher's conception of divinity, and the dark eyes filled with tears as a half-formed prayer awoke from her heart to the loving Jesus, who, Miss Preston had told her, would hear and answer her.
And who could doubt that He did hear and answer the desolate, uncared-for child, scarcely knowing as yet what "good" meant, since her knowledge had been only of evil! Her conscience, however, was not dead, though neglected; she knew at least what "wrong" was, and felt she must leave off doing it if the Saviour was to be her friend. But how should she be able to leave off her bad, idle ways, and become a good, industrious girl, such as her new mother said most of the little girls in Ashleigh were? Then she remembered the words which Miss Preston had made her repeat, "Looking unto Jesus," and "I lay my sins on Jesus," and that Miss Preston had told her she must ask Jesus to take away her sins and make her good. But she thought the right place for speaking to Jesus must be in the church, as most of the people she had known in the city used to go to church "to confess," and she supposed that must have something to do with it.
Just then she saw the Fords passing at a little distance on their way to church, and it occurred to her that she would go too; and perhaps Jesus would hear her there, and show her how she was to be made good. So she started up, and was speedily on the other side of the ravine, almost overtaking the Fords before they reached the village. The service was beginning when she crept stealthily into one of the farthest back seats, half afraid lest she was doing wrong in thus trespassing where she had no right. Then, crouched in a corner, with her face bent forward and her elf-locks half covering her eyes, she listened with intense earnestness, trying to take in all she could of what was so new, yet already not unfamiliar to her, and half disposed to think that the kindly-looking gentleman who stood there and spoke in such solemn tones might be Jesus Himself.
Let not the more favoured ones, on whom from their cradles the blessed light of divine truth has steadily shone, smile at this poor child's ignorance, but rather try to show their gratitude for higher privileges, by seeking to impart some of the light shed on them so abundantly to those who are still wandering in darkness.
On Nelly's listening heart Mr. Raymond's sermon did not fall so fruitlessly as some might have expected. For God is, for all, the hearer and answerer of prayer, and He never leaves unheard the weakest cry to Him. As the lonely child once more sought her comfortless home, she felt a stirring of new hope within her, and scarcely minded her mother's rough words when she demanded, "What have you been doing out so late? No good, I am sure!"
Mrs. Connor had been enlarging, among sympathizing friends, on the hardship of her having to support her husband's child when he did so little himself for his family. "My goodness! all he gives us wouldn't half pay Nelly's board," she had declared; and as her grievances were still fresh in her mind, she greeted her step-child with even more asperity than usual.
But as Nelly crept away to her hard little bed, perhaps some angel, sent to minister to the motherless child, may have known that the "good-for-nothing," ignorant little girl, oppressed with the feeling of her own sinfulness, and full of the thought of her new-found heavenly Friend, was nearer the kingdom of heaven than the petted, admired, winning Stella Brooke, who had never yet learned her need of the Saviour, who came "not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
"Why should we fear youth's draught of joy, If pure, would sparkle less? Why should the cup the sooner cloy Which God has deigned to bless?"
The "strawberry picnic" proposed by Alick Steele had been fixed for the following Tuesday should it prove fine. Alick and Fred had been over at Mill Bank Farm, and the younger Fords had agreed to meet them at the ravine, with their contribution of milk and cream, and various other things which Mrs. Ford's zealous housewifery would not be prevented from sending, though Fred assured her that it was unnecessary.
"I know what young folks can eat, Mr. Fred," she replied, "and you may as well have plenty;" and Alick laughingly assured her she was quite right. Alick Steele, or the "young doctor," as his old friends now began to call him, had been an acceptable guest at many a picnic and merry-making, but he had never entered into anything of the kind with more spirit and zeal than he now threw into this simple gypsying excursion with his country cousins.
"He's no end of a fellow for a picnic," declared Harry enthusiastically, "and ten times as good as Fred;" the quiet nature of the latter always shrinking from any unusual bustle, while Alick's unfailing flow of animal spirits found a congenial outlet in any little extra excitement, especially when it was connected with the procuring of enjoyment for others. He and Harry were busy all Monday in exploring the ground and selecting the most eligible place for the repast; and Harry averred, when they returned home, that they would have a "splendid time" next day, if it were only fine.
Next morning opened as fair and bright as the excursionists could desire,—not too hot, but tempered by a pleasant breeze—"just the day for the woods, and not too rough for the water." For Stella had manifested such consternation at the idea of going through the pasture—"cows always frightened her so"—that, notwithstanding the raillery and the representations of Alick and Harry, it was evident that her pleasure would be spoiled if she were obliged to go by the field-path. Alick therefore had good-naturedly hunted up a boat, which would save them a long dusty walk by the road, and greatly enhance the pleasure of the excursion, besides carrying the "impedimenta," as Fred classically termed the baskets of provisions. Marion Wood, a playmate of Lucy's, was to accompany them in the boat, while Mrs. Steele and the boys walked across the fields.
As soon as the early dinner could be got over, the boat's cargo was taken on board, the passengers embarked, and after some little screams from Stella, who had a habit of being "nervous," the little bark shot off, swift and straight, impelled by Alick's firm, skillful strokes. The water-party reached the mouth of the ravine considerably sooner than the others; and while awaiting their arrival, Alick rowed them to a little fairy islet near the shore, where they landed to explore it, and twine their hats with the graceful creepers and ferns growing among its rocks. Then re-embarking, they floated at leisure up and down the glassy shaded water, fringed with tall reeds, the girls alternately trying their hands at the oars, till a shout from Harry and the waving of handkerchiefs announced the arrival of the rest of the party.
The strawberry-pickers had soon begun their search. Fred, who preferred rowing to strawberry-picking, undertook to take charge of Harry, who was as eager for the water as a young duck; while Mrs. Steele, taking out her knitting, sat down beside the baskets under a spreading oak, on a knoll overlooking the river, to wait until there should be a demand for tea.
Very quickly the time sped away, while the children pursued their busy but not laborious quest of the tempting berries, half hidden under their spreading leaves; and many an exclamation, half of annoyance, half of amusement, was uttered as one of them made a dart at a bright spot of crimson, fancying it a rich cluster of berries, and finding only a leaf.
"Why in the world do strawberries have red leaves, I wonder!" exclaimed Harry, who, tired at last of boating, was pretending to help them, though they all declared he ate as many as he picked.
"To inure you to the disappointments of life," responded Alick oracularly. "You'll find, as you go along, there are more red strawberry leaves than berries all through."
And Alick half sighed, as if he had already learned the lesson by experience.
"There's one thing, Alick, of which that remark doesn't hold good," remarked Fred to his cousin in an undertone. "My father says that sheet-anchor will bear us up through all the disappointments of life; and I believe it."
"Well, very likely you're right,—well for those who can feel it so. But at present I can't say I belong to that happy number. Some time or other, perhaps. You know my head has been full of all sorts of ologies except theology for a good while back."
"The 'more convenient season,' Alick," replied Fred, with a half smile.
"Here, a truce to moralizing. Who's got the most strawberries? The premium is to be the finest bunch in the collection," shouted Alick.
And after the prize had been with much ceremony and mirth adjudged to Bessie Ford, it was time to think about tea.
"Come," said Alick, "shoulder arms, that is, baskets, and march!"
All were very ready to obey Alick's word of command, and the merry party were soon collected around the snowy tablecloth spread on the turf, on which Mrs. Steele had arranged the tempting repast of pies and cakes, curds and cream, to which a fine large dish of strawberries—a contribution from the farm—formed a tempting addition.
Fred, at his aunt's request, asked a blessing, and then the good things were welcomed by the appetites sharpened by fresh air and exercise; and the feast was enlivened by the innocent glee and frolic which usually enliven such simple country parties, unfettered by form, and unsophisticated by any of the complications which creep into more elaborate picnics. Even Stella, though she felt the whole affair—especially the presence of the farmer's children—rather below her dignity as an embryo city belle, gave herself up unrestrainedly to the enjoyment of the occasion, and was more natural and free from what Alick called "airs" than she had been at any time during her visit. But the party were quite unconscious that they were watched, through the thickly drooping boughs of a large hickory, by a pair of bright, dark eyes, which were wistfully regarding them. The eyes were those of Nelly Connor, who, having been unexpectedly left free that afternoon to follow her own devices, had wandered away in the direction of the spot which had so fascinated her on Sunday.
When the tea was fairly over, and cups, dishes, and other paraphernalia were being packed up by Mrs. Steele and the girls, Stella, who, not being inclined to assist in such a menial occupation, was wandering aimlessly about, made a discovery.
"Oh, Lucy," she exclaimed, coming hurriedly up to her, "there is such a ragged, bold-looking little girl sitting over there! She has been watching us the whole time."
"Well, her watching wouldn't hurt us," said Lucy, smiling at her cousin's consternation. "I hope she was pleased with what she saw. Why, it's Nelly Connor!" she added as the little girl emerged from her hiding-place. "What can have brought her here? I'll get Aunt Mary to give her something to eat. I daresay she's hungry enough, for Miss Preston told me she didn't think her new mother gave her enough to eat."
"I think she ought to be scolded and sent away," said Stella decidedly. "You are just encouraging her impertinence in coming here to watch us."
But Lucy had already run off to her aunt, and was soon carrying a plate heaped with good things to the astonished Nelly, who, frightened at being discovered, and at Stella's frowning looks, was thinking how she might make good her escape. Stella had only spoken as she had been accustomed to hear those around her speak. She had been brought up to look upon poverty and rags as something almost wicked in themselves, and had never realized that feelings the same as her own might lie under an exterior she despised. She had never been taught the meaning of "I was a hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink." Lucy, on the contrary, had been taught to consider it the highest privilege and gratification to impart a share of the bounties bestowed upon herself to the poor and needy whom our Saviour has left as a legacy to His followers, and had already tasted the happiness of lightening somewhat the load of poverty and hardship which press upon some during all their lives.
She soon reassured Nelly, and had the satisfaction of seeing her enjoy the food with the zest of one to whom such delicacies were rare indeed, and whose appetite was very seldom fully satisfied at home. She explained to the rest that Nelly was in her class at Sunday school; and Stella mentally put it down as another objection to going there, that it involved the possibility of such undesirable acquaintanceships. Alick was much interested in the little wanderer; and even after the rest had set off towards the farmhouse, which they were to visit before returning, he remained beside her, drawing from her, bit by bit, her touching history, until she began to remember how late it was, and started homeward, much astonished and cheered by the kindness and sympathy she had met with.
Alick found the rest of the party exploring the farmyard, admiring the cows, particularly Mrs. Ford's sleek, glossy black favourite; while Harry was, to his intense delight, cantering up and down the road to the gate, on the stout little pony which the farmer usually rode to market.
As there was a full moon, there was no hurry about returning; and on the arrival of Mr. Raymond, who had walked over to meet them, Mrs. Ford insisted on their coming in for a while. And before they took their leave she brought out her large family Bible for evening worship, with the request that Mr. Raymond would read and pray before his departure; "for," she said, "I know we don't mind these things half enough, and we'd be all the better of a word or two from you."
Mr. Raymond read the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, making a few brief but impressive comments on the insufficiency for true happiness of the enjoyments which this life can furnish, fair and good gifts of God though such enjoyments may be. "The time would come, even in this life," he said, "when the joys of this world would be found wanting. And after this life, what would be their condition who had made this world their portion, and had 'not remembered their Creator in the days of their youth?'" Doubt-less the thought of his own youthful circle, and of the strong, ruddy young Fords, all so full of health and life and joyous spirits, was strongly upon him when he dwelt so earnestly upon the words: "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment."
Then, reading part of the third chapter of the First Epistle of John, he directed his hearers to the wonderful privileges provided for them, so far transcending all mere temporal gifts—to the "love the Father hath bestowed, that we should be called the sons of God,"—showing how these privileges were to be grasped through faith in the love which laid down life for us; and how that love, flowing into the heart, was to purify the life by enabling us to do the things which are pleasing in His sight.
The solemn, earnest words—few, but well chosen—seeming to come with peculiar power after the day of joyous excitement, touched responsive chords in the hearts of most of the young party, who looked earnest and thoughtful; though who could tell whether the impression should be an abiding one, or should pass away like the "early dew?" Lucy and Bessie listened with real interest—the latter, especially, with much more than she would have felt a few days before; and Mrs. Ford silently renewed her good resolutions to seek to influence her family to choose the "better part, which could not be taken away from them."
Lucy could not help glancing at Stella when the verses in the chapter about want of compassion for the brother or sister in need were read; but Stella looked placidly unconscious, and indeed her thoughts were far away,—considering how she should best impress Marian Wood, on their way home, with a due sense of the grandeur of her city life.
After many kind parting salutations, and warm invitations from Mrs. Ford to come soon and spend an afternoon at the farm, the party took leave; one division proceeding homeward by the winding road, lying white in the full moonlight, as the fields were now wet with dew, while the others took the shortest cut to the river, where the boat was lying. Very little was said during most of the way, except some subdued exclamations of delight as they passed out from the deep shadow of the overhanging rocks into the broad river, which glittered in the moonlight like a sheet of dazzling silver, roughened by the slightest ripple, and past point after point of luxuriant foliage, looking dream-like and unreal in the light that silvered their glistening leaves.
As they neared the village, Lucy suddenly recollected their unexpected guest. "I wonder how Nelly got home! Did she stay long after we left, Alick?" she said.
"No; she said her mother would be angry if she were out late, so she set off at a run."
"Lucy," said Stella, "I wonder how you can have anything to do with such a vagabond-looking child! I'm sure she was watching to see whether she could pick up anything; and she looked just like a gipsy."
"Oh, Stella! how can you be so suspicious?" exclaimed Lucy indignantly. "I don't believe Nelly would do any such thing! No wonder the poor child was watching us while we were at tea; didn't you see how hungry she was?"
"Well, I know we've had things stolen by just such children, and papa says it's best to keep such people down; for they're sure to impose on those who are kind to them, and charity is quite thrown away upon them."
"A convenient belief to save trouble," Lucy was just going to say, but wisely repressed the impulse, feeling that it would not sound very respectful to Stella's father, who, she felt, must be a very different man from her own.
"Stella," said Alick, "did it ever occur to you what you might have been if you had been left, motherless and almost fatherless, to run all day on the streets, listening to bad words and seeing all sorts of evil, without any one to say a kind word to you and teach you what is right? I wish you could have heard the poor little thing's story as she told it to me." And in a few words he gave them an outline of Nelly's history.
"Papa says you never can believe their stories," objected the city-hardened Stella.
"I know you can't always," replied Alick; "but I think I'm not easily taken in, and I'm willing to stake my judgment on this being no sham. And how would you have turned out from such a bringing-up, Mademoiselle Stella?"
"And where is her father?" Lucy asked.
"Oh, her father works on a boat, and is seldom at home. They came to live here because it is cheaper, and they can have a pig and raise potatoes."
"I wonder whether she can read," said Lucy.
"I shouldn't think so, for she never was at school in her life, nor at church either, since they left Ireland, till last Sunday."
"I wonder," said Stella, "whether she understood anything she heard."
"Possibly she might be able to give as good an account of the sermon as some other people," remarked Alick mischievously. "Come, Stella, what was the text?"
"I don't believe you know yourself," retorted Stella, colouring; and, fortunately for her, Alick's attention was just then directed to the care of landing his passengers.
As they walked home, Stella and Marian in front, eagerly engrossed in a children's party which the former was describing, Lucy remarked impatiently to Alick, "How can Stella talk in that hard, unfeeling way about poor people?"
"Poor girl!" said Alick, "it is sad to see any one so spoiled by living in a cold worldly atmosphere. As you know more of the world, Lucy, you will be more and more thankful for such a home as you have always had."
Lucy was silent. Her cousin's words made her feel that she had been indulging in self-righteous and uncharitable feelings, and she felt humbled at the lesson which she had thus received from one who did not profess to be a Christian, in one of a Christian's most important graces. But she accepted the rebuke, and she added to her evening prayer the petition that she might be made more humble, and less ready to condemn; as well as that Stella's heart might be opened to receive the love of Christ, and, through this, of her poor earthly brothers and sisters.
The little party were soon assembled at home, and after cheerful "good-nights,"—Harry remarking that "he was awful tired, but there never had been a nicer picnic,"—the wearied excursionists soon lost all sense of fatigue in peaceful slumbers and happy dreams.
"And if this simple message Has now brought peace to you, Make known the old, old story, For others need it too."
Two days after the picnic was the day fixed upon for Miss Preston's wedding, to which, as has been said, Lucy had been invited to accompany her father and aunt. Stella had not been included in the invitation, which she privately thought a great omission. It would have been such a good opportunity for showing the Ashleigh people how they dress in the city, and she felt sure that, tastefully attired in a lovely white grenadine, which would have been just the thing for the occasion, she and her dress would have added no small eclat to the wedding.
Nevertheless she behaved very amiably to Lucy, who, when she pressed her to wear one of her own pretty white dresses, and offered to lend her any of her ornaments which she fancied, felt somewhat ashamed of her own condemnatory feelings toward her cousin, since it is a very natural tendency in all of us to make our own estimate of others depend to a considerable extent upon their treatment of ourselves.
However, she adhered to her original determination of wearing the simple India muslin, which had been her own dear mother's bridal dress (its trimmings having been worked by her own hands), and all Stella's representations that it was "old-fashioned" failed to produce any effect. She would indeed have felt it treason to admit its inferiority to any of her cousin's more stylish dresses. But, to please Stella, she accepted the loan of a sash pressed upon her by her cousin, who took a considerable amount of trouble in the arrangement of her toilet, and in weaving, with innate skill, a graceful wreath of delicate pink rosebuds and green leaves, which she fastened on Lucy's dark hair, and pronounced the effect "charming," while Alick complimented her on her skill. Lucy was conscious of looking better than she had ever done before. It made her think just a little too much about her appearance, and then she felt humbled at seeing in herself the germ of the very feeling she had despised in her cousin.
The wedding arrangements were very quiet and simple. Lucy, who had never been present on so important an occasion, enjoyed it very much, notwithstanding her sorrow at parting with her teacher, whom she thought the very ideal of a bride in her simple bridal dress. Its simplicity, indeed, would probably have scandalized Stella, but Miss Preston was not going to be rich, or mingle in gay society, and she wisely thought show and finery quite out of place. But she had long made it her chief aim to possess that best ornament of "a meek and quiet spirit," which, we are told, "in the sight of God is of great price."
Before her departure she took Lucy apart to say a few words of loving counsel.
"I hope you will try to work for Christ, dear Lucy," she said, "as He gives you opportunity. Remember, a Christian who does not work is only half a Christian. Now I think if you tried, you might do Nelly Connor some good. She wants a friend very much, and is easily won by kindness."
"I should be glad to do anything I could," said Lucy; "but what would be best to try?"
"Well, poor Nelly can't read a word, you know, and I am afraid her stepmother would not spare her to go to school. But suppose you were to get her to come to you for half an hour a day. I think her mother might be induced to let her do that. And a short reading-lesson every day would soon bring her on."
Lucy was a little disappointed. It seemed such common-place drudgery to drill an untaught child in the alphabet and spelling-book. Her vague idea of "work for Christ" had been of a more exalted nature. But her friend added: "I don't mean that you should not teach her better things also. You could, little by little, teach her a good deal about Christ in the course of your daily lessons. But sometimes we may serve Him best by doing His commonest work. And think what you will do for this poor child by putting it in her power to read the Bible for herself, and have access at all times to our Saviour's own words!"
Lucy willingly promised to try, and then Mrs. Harris, as Miss Preston was now called, bade her an affectionate farewell, before going to exchange the parting words with the members of her own family. Lucy watched by the gate till she saw the carriage drive off, and then, overcome by the reaction from the excitement of the occasion, hurried home through the quiet shady lane, and disregarding Stella's call, never stopped till she reached her own room.
There the astonished Stella found her lying on her bed, crying bitterly, and asked in alarm the cause of her distress. That the parting from a Sunday-school teacher, a friend so much older than herself, could have called forth such emotion, Stella could not comprehend; and it was difficult for Lucy to explain it to so unsympathetic a listener.
"Why, I'm sure I shan't cry so when Sophy is married and goes south, a great deal farther away than Miss Preston. Now tell me how she was dressed."
"Oh, Stella! I can't just now," sobbed Lucy, whose crying was partly the result of nervous excitement, as well as of her realizing for the first time Miss Preston's departure. And Stella, finding her attempts to soothe her unavailing, returned to her story-book, until the arrival of Mrs. Steele, whom she found more communicative.
"And where is Lucy?" inquired her aunt, after satisfying Stella's curiosity. "She must have slipped away very quietly."
"Oh, she's in her own room. She was crying so, it was no use to speak to her. I don't know what for."
"She is very fond of her teacher, and I don't wonder at her crying on losing her. She is a great loss to us all."
"What a fuss they all do make over her! I'm sure she didn't seem anything particular," thought Stella as she accompanied Mrs. Steele up-stairs. Lucy had fallen asleep, but awoke on their entrance, and started up to arrange her disordered dress and hair before going to tea.
"Just look how you have crushed your nice dress now!" exclaimed Stella reproachfully. "And the wreath too! It might have been fresh all the evening. You might have taken them off if you wanted to lie down."
"I didn't think of it," said Lucy apologetically, somewhat remorseful for not having treated the result of Stella's labour with more respect. "But I shouldn't have worn it all the evening, at any rate, for after tea I am going to see Nelly Connor."
"What! that girl we saw in the wood? What are you going to see her for?" exclaimed Stella.
"Miss Preston—I mean Mrs. Harris—wants me to try to get her to come to learn to read, if papa and Aunt Mary have no objection; and I'm sure they won't."
It was to Stella a bewildering phenomenon, that Lucy should really go out of her way to invite such a girl to the house. However, partly from curiosity, and partly from having nothing better to do, she acceded to Lucy's invitation to accompany her; and after tea the girls set off, Mrs. Steele warning Lucy to be very conciliatory to Mrs. Connor, or she would not accomplish her object.
They soon reached the side of the green slope on the river bank, on which the Connors' cottage stood, and were following the path to the house, when they encountered Nelly herself, struggling up the hill with a heavy pail of water. Her brown, weather-tanned face lighted up with a glad smile when she recognised Lucy, and in reply to her inquiry she said she was carrying up water for the next day's washing.
"And do you carry it all up from the river?" said Lucy.
"Yes, miss, every drop," replied Nelly, with a weary little sigh.
"Nelly, would you like to learn to read?" asked Lucy, plunging at once into her errand.
"I don't know, miss," was the rather doubtful reply.
"Why, wouldn't you like to be able to read that nice hymn Miss Preston gave you, for yourself?"
"Yes, miss, I'd like to be able, but I don't know if I'd like the learning."
Lucy laughed, as did Stella also, and Nelly herself.
"Well, as you can't be able to do it without learning, don't you think you'd better try?" asked Lucy.
"I don't think mother would let me; and I must hurry now, or she'll be angry at me keeping her waiting, with the baby to mind."
But just then a large dog, rushing down the hill, upset poor Nelly's pail.
"Holy Mary!" she exclaimed, using the ejaculation she had been accustomed to hear from infancy, "there's all my water spilt;" and seizing her pail, she had run down to refill it, before Lucy was able to begin an intended reproof.
The girls watched her refill her pail, and return towards the cottage by a nearer though steeper path. Mrs. Connor, a tall, bony, discontented-looking woman, had come to the door to look for Nelly. Not seeing the young ladies, who were approaching the house from the other side, she screamed out in a harsh voice as Nelly approached:
"What have you been doing all this time, keeping me waiting with the child in my arms?"
"It was a dog," began Nelly, setting down her pail. But before she could finish her sentence she was roughly shaken, and sharp blows descended about her ears.
"I'll teach you to spend your time playing with dogs when I'm waiting for you. There, be off, and mind the baby;" and Nelly, putting up her hands to her face, ran crying into the house.
Lucy stood for an instant pale with indignation, and then, the impulse of the moment making her forget all her aunt's warnings as to being conciliatory, and her own prudent resolves, she announced her presence by exclaiming, in a voice unsteady with emotion: "Mrs. Connor, it's a shame to beat Nelly like that, when she hasn't been doing any harm. It was my fault she was so long, for I stopped her to speak to her, and then a dog overturned her pail."
Mrs. Connor was startled at finding there had been spectators of her violence; but she did not betray any shame she might have felt, and coolly regarding Lucy, she replied:
"Well, I don't see what business it is of yours, anyhow. If young ladies hain't nothin' better to do than meddle with other folks' children, they'd better let that be!"
"What an impertinent woman!" said Stella, quite loud enough for her to hear. "Lucy, can't you come away and let her alone?"
But Lucy, though a good deal discomposed by her reception, was determined not to be easily moved from her object; and having by this time remembered her conciliatory resolve, she said, as quietly as she could:
"Mrs. Connor, my father is Mr. Raymond, the clergyman. I came to see if you would let Nelly come to our house every day to learn to read. It's a great pity she shouldn't know how."
"I don't care who your father is," retorted the woman in the same insolent tone. "I don't see what you've got to do with it, whether it's a pity or not. The child's lazy enough already, without havin' them idees put into her head; and better people than her do without book-learning."
"Lucy, do come away! I shan't stop to listen to her impudence," exclaimed Stella as she turned and walked away with a haughty air. Mrs. Connor's quick eye followed her, and she half muttered to herself, "A city gal!" Then, taking up the pail which Nelly had set down, she went into the house without vouchsafing another look at Lucy, who, seeing the uselessness of pressing her point, hastened to join her cousin.
"Now you see, Lucy, you only get yourself insulted trying to do any good to such people," said Stella triumphantly. "I remember one of Sophy's friends once wanted her to go visiting poor people with her, and papa said he wouldn't have her go on any account; it was all nonsense running all sorts of risks to do good to people who didn't want it."
"But it wasn't Mrs. Connor, but Nelly, that I wanted to do good to, and she can't help what her odious stepmother does. Only think what it must be to live with her!"
"I'd run away! But you see Nelly herself didn't seem to care about learning to read."
"Because she didn't know the good of it," replied Lucy. "But what should you or I have done if we hadn't been made to learn, whether we liked it or not?"
"That's quite different. This girl will always have to work, I suppose, and would get on well enough without learning to read. I know mamma was always complaining that our servants were reading trashy novels, that filled their heads with nonsense and made them discontented."
"But you could have given them something better to read," suggested Lucy.
Stella said nothing in reply to this; nor did she enlighten Lucy as to the fact that in reading "trashy novels" the servants were only following their young mistresses' example. Lucy in the meantime was thinking what up-hill work doing good was, and how hard it was to know how to do it. Suddenly she remembered her motto; she had been forgetting that the difficulties of the way were to be met in a strength not her own. Perhaps it was because she had not first asked for that strength, that she had met with so little success; and she regretted having so soon departed from her resolution of "looking to Jesus" in everything.