Part 3 out of 4
man. Fur Lo. I AM tryin'."
Holmes did not notice him.
"Good-night, Lois," he said, kindly, as she lighted his lamp.
He put some money on the table.
"You must take it," as she looked uneasy. "For Tiger's board,
say. I never see him now. A bright new frock, remember."
She thanked him, her eyes brightening, looking at her father's
The old man followed Holmes out.
"Have done with this," said Holmes, sternly. "Whoever breaks law
abides by it. It is no affair of mine."
The old man clutched his hands together fiercely, struggling to
"Ther' 's none knows it but yoh," he said, in a smothered voice.
"Fur God's sake be merciful! It'll kill my girl,--it 'll kill
her. Gev me a chance, Marster."
"You trouble me. I must do what is just."
"It's not just," he said, savagely. "What good'll it do me to go
back ther'? I was goin' down, down, an' bringin' th' others with
me. What good'll it do you or the rest to hev me ther'? To make
me afraid? It's poor learnin' frum fear. Who taught me what was
right? Who cared? No man cared fur my soul, till I thieved 'n'
robbed; 'n' then judge 'n' jury 'n' jailers was glad to pounce on
me. Will yoh gev me a chance? will yoh?"
It was a desperate face before him; but Holmes never knew fear.
"Stand aside," he said, quietly. "To-morrow I will see you. You
need not try to escape."
He passed him, and went slowly up through the vacant mill to his
The man sat down on the lower step a few moments, quite quiet,
crushing his hat up in a slow, steady way, looking up at the
mouldy cobwebs on the wall. He got up at last, and went in to
Lois. Had she heard? The old scarred face of the girl looked
years older, he thought,--but it might be fancy. She did not say
anything for a while, moving slowly, with a new gentleness, about
him; her very voice was changed, older. He tried to be cheerful,
eating his supper: she need not know until to-morrow. He would
get out of the town to-night, or---- There were different ways
to escape. When he had done, he told her to go; but she would
"Let me stay til' night," she said. "I be n't afraid o' th'
"Why, Lo," he said, laughing, "yoh used to say yer death was hid
"I know. But ther' 's worse nor death. But it'll come right,"
she said, persistently, muttering to herself, as she leaned her
face on her knees, watching,--"it'll come right."
The glimmering shadows changed and faded for an hour. The man
sat quiet. There was not much in the years gone to soften his
thought, as it grew desperate and cruel: there was oppression and
vice heaped on him, and flung back out of his bitter heart. Nor
much in the future: a blank stretch of punishment to the end. He
was an old man: was it easy to bear? What if he were black?
what if he were born a thief? what if all the sullen revenge of
his nature had made him an outcast from the poorest poor? Was
there no latent good in this soul for which Christ died, that a
kind hand might not have brought to life?
None? Something, I think, struggled up in the touch of his hand,
catching the skirt of his child's dress, when it came near him,
with the timid tenderness of a mother touching her dead baby's
hair,--as something holy, far off, yet very near: something in
his old crime- marked face,--a look like this dog's, putting his
head on my knee,--a dumb, unhelpful love in his eyes, and the
slow memory of a wrong done to his soul in a day long past. A
wrong to both, you say, perhaps; but if so, irreparable, and
never to be recompensed. Never?
"Yoh must go, my little girl," he said at last.
Whatever he did must be done quickly. She came up, combing the
thin gray hairs through her fingers.
"Father, I dunnot understan' what it is, rightly. But stay with
"Yoh've a many frien's, Lo," he said, with a keen flash of
jealousy. "Ther' 's none like yoh,--none."
"Father, look here."
She put her misshapen head and scarred face down on his hand,
where he could see them. If it had ever hurt her to be as she
was, if she had ever compared herself bitterly with fair, beloved
women, she was glad now, and thankful, for every fault and
deformity that brought her nearer to him, and made her dearer.
"They're kind, but ther' 's not many loves me with true love,
like yoh. Stay, father! Bear it out, whatever it be. Th' good
time 'll come, father."
He kissed her, saying nothing, and went with her down the street.
When he left her, she waited, and, creeping back, hid near the
mill. God knows what vague dread was in her brain; but she came
back to watch and help.
Old Yare wandered through the great loom rooms of the mill with
but one fact clear in his cloudy, faltering perception,--that
above him the man lay quietly sleeping who would bring worse than
death on him to-morrow. Up and down, aimlessly, with his
stoker's torch in hand, going over the years gone and the years
to come, with the dead hatred through all of the pitiless man
above him,--with now and then, perhaps, a pleasanter thought of
things that had been warm and cheerful in his life,--of the
corn-huskings long ago, when he was a boy, down in "th'
Alabam',"--of the scow his young master gave him once, the first
thing he really owned: he was almost as proud of it as he was of
Lois when she was born. Most of all remembering the good times
in his life, he went back to Lois. It was all good, there, to go
back to. What a little chub she used to be! Remembering, with
bitter remorse, how all his life he had meant to try and do
better, on her account, but had kept putting off and putting off
until now. And now---- Did nothing lie before him but to go back
and rot yonder? Was that the end, because he never had learned
better, and was a "dam' nigger"?
"I'll NOT leave my girl!" he muttered, going up and down,--"I'll
NOT leave my girl!"
If Holmes did sleep above him, the trial of the day, of which we
have seen nothing, came back sharper in sleep. While the strong
self in the man lay torpid, whatever holier power was in him came
out, undaunted by defeat, and unwearied, and took the form of
dreams, those slighted messengers of God, to soothe and charm and
win him out into fuller, kindlier life. Let us hope that they
did so win him; let us hope that even in that unreal world the
better nature of the man triumphed at last, and claimed its
reward before the terrible reality broke upon him.
Lois, over in the damp, fresh-smelling lumber-yard, sat coiled up
in one of the creviced houses made by the jutting boards. She
remembered how she used to play in them, before she went into the
mill. The mill,--even now, with the vague dread of some
uncertain evil to come, the mill absorbed all fear in its old
hated shadow. Whatever danger was coming to them lay in it, came
from it, she knew, in her confused, blurred way of thinking. It
loomed up now, with the square patch of ashen sky above, black,
heavy with years of remembered agony and loss. In Lois's
hopeful, warm life this was the one uncomprehended monster. Her
crushed brain, her unwakened powers, resented their wrong dimly
to the mass of iron and work and impure smells, unconscious of
any remorseless power that wielded it. It was a monster, she
thought, through the sleepy, dreading night,--a monster that kept
her wakeful with a dull, mysterious terror.
When the night grew sultry and deepest, she started from her
half-doze to see her father come stealthily out and go down the
street. She must have slept, she thought, rubbing her eyes, and
watching him out of sight,--and then, creeping out, turned to
glance at the mill. She cried out, shrill with horror. It was a
live monster now,--in one swift instant, alive with fire,--quick,
greedy fire, leaping like serpents' tongues out of its hundred
jaws, hungry sheets of flame maddening and writhing towards her,
and under all a dull and hollow roar that shook the night. Did
it call her to her death? She turned to fly, and then----He was
alone, dying! He had been so kind to her! She wrung her hands,
standing there a moment. It was a brave hope that was in her
heart, and a prayer on her lips never left unanswered, as she
hobbled, in her lame, slow way, up to the open black door, and,
with one backward look, went in.
There was a dull smell of camphor; a farther sense of coolness
and prickling wet on Holmes's hot, cracking face and hands; then
silence and sleep again. Sometime--when, he never knew--a gray
light stinging his eyes like pain, and again a slow sinking into
warm, unsounded darkness and unconsciousness. It might be years,
it might be ages. Even in after-life, looking back, he never
broke that time into weeks or days: people might so divide it for
him, but he was uncertain, always: it was a vague vacuum in his
memory: he had drifted out of coarse, measured life into some
out-coast of eternity, and slept in its calm. When, by long
degrees, the shock of outer life jarred and woke him, it was
feebly done: he came back reluctant, weak: the quiet clinging to
him, as if he had been drowned in Lethe, and had brought its
calming mist with him out of the shades.
The low chatter of voices, the occasional lifting of his head on
the pillow, the very soothing draught, came to him unreal at
first: parts only of the dull, lifeless pleasure. There was a
sharper memory pierced it sometimes, making him moan and try to
sleep,--a remembrance of great, cleaving pain, of falling
giddily, of owing life to some one, and being angry that he owed
it, in the pain. Was it he that had borne it? He did not
know,--nor care: it made him tired to think. Even when he heard
the name, Stephen Holmes, it had but a far-off meaning: he never
woke enough to know if it were his or not. He learned, long
after, to watch the red light curling among the shavings in the
grate when they made a fire in the evenings, to listen to the
voices of the women by the bed, to know that the pleasantest
belonged to the one with the low, shapeless figure, and to call
her Lois, when he wanted a drink, long before he knew himself.
They were very long, pleasant days in early December. The
sunshine was pale, but it suited his hurt eyes better: it crept
slowly in the mornings over the snuff-coloured carpet on the
floor, up the brown foot-board of the bed, and, when the wind
shook the window-curtains, made little crimson pools of mottled
light over the ceiling,--curdling pools, that he liked to watch:
going off, from the clean gray walls, and rustling curtain, and
transparent crimson, into sleeps that lasted all day.
He was not conscious how he knew he was in a hospital: but he did
know it, vaguely; thought sometimes of the long halls outside of
the door, with ranges of rooms opening into them, like this, and
of very barns of rooms on the other side of the building with
rows of white cots where the poorer patients lay: a stretch of
travel from which his brain came back to his snug fireplace,
quite tired, and to Lois sitting knitting by it. He called the
little Welsh-woman, "Sister," too, who used to come in a stuff
dress, and white bands about her face, to give his medicine, and
gossip with Lois in the evening: she had a comical voice, like a
cricket chirping. There was another with a real Scotch brogue,
who came and listened sometimes, bringing a basket of undarned
stockings: the doctor told him one day how fearless and skilful
she was, every summer going to New Orleans when the yellow fever
came. She died there the next June: but Holmes never, somehow,
could realize a martyr in the cheery, freckled-faced woman whom
he always remembered darning stockings in the quiet fire-light.
It was very quiet; the voices about him were pleasant and low.
If he had drifted from any shock of pain into a sleep like death,
some of the stillness hung about him yet; but the outer life was
homely and fresh and natural.
The doctor used to talk to him a little; and sometimes one or two
of the patients from the eye-ward would grow tired of sitting
about in the garden-alleys, and would loiter in, if Lois would
give them leave; but their talk wearied him, jarred him as
strangely as if one had begun on politics and price-currents to
the silent souls in Hades. It was enough thought for him to
listen to the whispered stories of the sisters in the long
evenings, and, half-heard, try and make an end to them; to look
drowsily down into the garden, where the afternoon sunshine was
still so summer-like that a few holly-hocks persisted in showing
their honest red faces along the walls, and the very leaves that
filled the paths would not wither, but kept up a wholesome ruddy
brown. One of the sisters had a poultry-yard in it, which he
could see: the wall around it was of stone covered with a brown
feathery lichen, which every rooster in that yard was determined
to stand on, or perish in the attempt; and Holmes would watch,
through the quiet, bright mornings, the frantic ambition of the
successful aspirant with an amused smile.
"One 'd thenk," said Lois, sagely, "a chicken never stood on a
wall before, to hear 'em, or a hen laid an egg."
Nor did Holmes smile once because the chicken burlesqued man: his
thought was too single for that yet. It was long, too, before he
thought of the people who came in quietly to see him as anything
but shadows, or wished for them to come again. Lois, perhaps,
was the most real thing in life then to him: growing conscious,
day by day, as he watched her, of his old life over the gulf.
Very slowly conscious: with a weak groping to comprehend the
sudden, awful change that had come on him, and then forgetting
his old life, and the change, and the pity he felt for himself,
in the vague content of the fire-lit room, and his nurse with her
interminable knitting through the long afternoons, while the sky
without would thicken and gray, and a few still flakes of snow
would come drifting down to whiten the brown fields,--with no
chilly thought of winter, but only to make the quiet autumn more
quiet. Whatever honest, commonplace affection was in the man
came out in a simple way to this Lois, who ruled his sick whims
and crotchets in such a quiet, sturdy fashion. Not because she
had risked her life to save his; even when he understood that, he
recalled it with an uneasy, heavy gratitude; but the drinks she
made him, and the plot they laid to smuggle in some oysters in
defiance of all rules, and the cheerful, pock-marked face, he
Doctor Knowles came sometimes, but seldom: never talked, when he
did come: late in the evening generally: and then would punch his
skin, and look at his tongue, and shake the bottles on the
mantel-shelf with a grunt that terrified Lois into the belief
that the other doctor was a quack, and her patient was totally
undone. He would sit, grum enough, with his feet higher than his
head, chewing an unlighted cigar, and leave them both thankful
when he saw proper to go.
The truth is, Knowles was thoroughly out of place in these little
mending-shops called sick-chambers, where bodies are taken to
pieces, and souls set right. He had no faith in your slow,
impalpable cures: all reforms were to be accomplished by a
wrench, from the abolition of slavery to the pulling of a tooth.
He had no especial sympathy with Holmes, either: the men were
started in life from opposite poles: and with all the real
tenderness under his surly, rugged habit, it would have been hard
to touch him with the sudden doom fallen on this man, thrown
crippled and penniless upon the world, helpless, it might be, for
life. He would have been apt to tell you, savagely, that "he
wrought for it."
Besides, it made him out of temper to meet the sisters. Knowles
could have sketched for you with a fine decision of touch the
role played by the Papal power in the progress of humanity,--how
far it served as a stepping-stone, and the exact period when it
became a wearisome clog. The world was done with it now,--
utterly. Its breath was only poisoned, with coming death. So
the homely live charity of these women, their work, which no
other hands were ready to take, jarred against his abstract
theory, and irritated him, as an obstinate fact always does run
into the hand of a man who is determined to clutch the very heart
of a matter. Truth will not underlie all facts, in this muddle
of a world, in spite of the Positive Philosophy, you know.
Don't sneer at Knowles. Your own clear, tolerant brain, that
reflects all men and creeds alike, like colourless water, drawing
the truth from all, is very different, doubtless, from this
narrow, solitary soul, who thought the world waited for him to
fight down his one evil before it went on its slow way. An
intolerant fanatic, of course. But the truth he did know was so
terribly real to him, there was such sick, throbbing pity in his
heart for men who suffered as he had done! And then, fanatics
must make history for conservative men to learn from, I suppose.
If Knowles shunned the hospital, there was another place he
shunned more,--the place where his Communist buildings were to
have stood. He went out there once, as one might go alone to
bury his dead out of his sight, the day after the mill was
burnt,--looking first at the smoking mass of hot bricks and
charred shingles, so as clearly to understand how utterly dead
his life-long scheme was. He stalked gravely around it, his
hands in his pockets; the hodmen who were raking out their
winter's firewood from the ashes remarking, that "old Knowles
didn't seem a bit cut up about it." Then he went out to the farm
he had meant to buy, as I told you, and looked at it in the same
stolid way. It was a dull day in October. The river crawled
moodily past his feet, the dingy prairie stretched drearily away
on the other side, while the heavy-browed Indiana hills stood
solemnly looking down the plateau where the buildings were to
Well, most men have some plan of life, into which all the
strength and the keen, fine feeling of their nature enter; but
generally they try to make it real in early youth, and, balked
then, laugh ever afterwards at their own folly. This poor old
Knowles had begun to block out his dream when he was a gaunt,
gray-haired man of sixty. I have known men so build their
heart's blood, and brains into their work, that, when it tumbled
down, their lives went with it. His fell that dull day in
October; but if it hurt him, no man knew it. He sat there,
looking at the broad plateau, whistling softly to himself, a long
time. He had meant that a great many hearts should be made
better and happier there; he had dreamed----God knows what he had
dreamed, of which this reality was the foundation,--of how much
world-freedom, or beauty, or kindly life this was the heart or
seed. It was all over now. All the afternoon the muddy sky hung
low over the hills and dull prairie, while he sat there looking
at the dingy gloom: just as you and I have done, perhaps, some
time, thwarted in some true hope,--sore and bitter against God,
because He did not see how much His universe needed our pet
He got up at last, and without a sigh went slowly away, leaving
the courage and self-reliance of his life behind him, buried with
that one beautiful, fair dream of life. He never came back
again. People said Knowles was quieter since his loss; but I
think only God saw the depth of the difference. When he was
leaving the plateau, that day, he looked back at it, as if to say
good-bye,--not to the dingy fields and river, but to the
Something he had nursed so long in his rugged heart, and given up
now forever. As he looked, the warm, red sun came out, lighting
up with a heartsome warmth the whole gray day. Some blessing
power seemed to look at him from this grave yard of his hopes,
from the gloomy hills, the prairie, and the river, which he never
was to see again. His hope accomplished could not have looked at
him with surer content and fulfilment. He turned away,
ungrateful and moody. Long afterwards he remembered the calm and
brightness which his hand had not been raised to make, and
understood the meaning of its promise.
He went to work now in earnest: he had to work for his
bread-and-butter, you understand? Restless, impatient at first;
but we will forgive him that: you yourself were not altogether
submissive, perhaps, when the slow-built expectation of life was
destroyed by some chance, as you called it, no more controllable
than this paltry burning of a mill. Yet, now that the great hope
was gone on which his brain had worked with rigid, fierce
intentness, now that his hands were powerless to redeem a
perishing class, he had time to fall into careless, kindly habit:
he thought it wasted time, remorsefully, of course. He was
seized with a curiosity to know what plan in living these people
had who crossed his way on the streets; if they were
disappointed, like him. Humbled, he hardly knew why: vague,
uncertain in action. Quit dogging old Huff with his advice;
trotted about the streets with a cowed look, that, if one could
have seen into the jaded old heart under his snuffy waistcoat,
would have seemed pitiful enough. He went sometimes to read the
papers to old Tim Poole, who was bed-ridden, and did not pish or
pshaw once at his maundering about secession, or the misery in
his back. Went to church sometimes: the sermons were bigotry,
always, to his notion, sitting on a back seat, squirting
tobacco-juice about him; but the simple, old-fashioned hymns
brought the tears to his eyes:--"They sounded to him like his
mother's voice, singing in Paradise:" he hoped she could not see
how things had gone on here,--how all that was honest and strong
in his life had fallen in that infernal mill. Once or twice he
went down Crane Alley, and lumbered up three pair of stairs to
the garret where Kitts had his studio,--got him orders, in fact,
for two portraits; and when that pale-eyed young man, in a fit of
confidence, one night, with a very red face drew back the curtain
from his grand "Fall of Chapultepec," and watched him with a lean
and hungry look, Knowles, who knew no more about painting than a
gorilla, walked about, looking through his fist at it, saying,
"how fine the chiaroscuro was, and that it was a devilish good
thing altogether." "Well, well," he soothed his conscience,
going downstairs, "maybe that bit of canvas is as much to that
poor chap as the Phalanstery was once to another fool." And so
went on through the gas-lit streets into his parishes in cellars
and alleys, with a sorer heart, but cheerfuller words, now that
he had nothing but words to give.
The only place where he hardened his heart was in the hospital
with Holmes. After he had wakened to full consciousness, Knowles
thought the man a beast to sit there uncomplaining day after day,
cold and grave, as if the lifeful warmth of the late autumn were
enough for him. Did he understand the iron fate laid on him?
Where was the strength of the self-existent soul now? Did he
know that it was a balked, defeated life, that waited for him,
vacant of the triumphs he had planned? "The self-existent soul!
stopped in its growth by chance, this omnipotent deity,--the
chance burning of a mill!" Knowles muttered to himself, looking
at Holmes. With a dim flash of doubt, as he said it, whether
there might not, after all, be a Something,--some deep of calm,
of eternal order, where he and Holmes, these coarse chances,
these wrestling souls, these creeds, Catholic or Humanitarian,
even that namby-pamby Kitts and his picture, might be
unconsciously working out their part. Looking out of the
hospital-window, he saw the deep of the stainless blue,
impenetrable, with the stars unconscious in their silence of the
maddest raging of the petty world. There was such calm! such
infinite love and justice! it was around, above him; it held him,
it held the world,--all Wrong, all Right! For an instant the
turbid heart of the man cowered, awestruck, as yours or mine has
done when some swift touch of music or human love gave us a
cleaving glimpse of the great I AM. The next, he opened the
newspaper in his hand. What part in the eternal order could THAT
hold? or slavery, or secession, or civil war? No harmony could
be infinite enough to hold such discords, he thought, pushing the
whole matter from him in despair. Why, the experiment of
self-government, the problem of the ages, was crumbling in ruin!
So he despaired, just as Tige did the night the mill fell about
his ears, in full confidence that the world had come to an end
now, without hope of salvation,--crawling out of his cellar in
dumb amazement, when the sun rose as usual the next morning.
Knowles sat, peering at Holmes over his paper, watching the
languid breath that showed how deep the hurt had been, the maimed
body, the face outwardly cool, watchful, reticent as before. He
fancied the slough of disappointment into which God had crushed
the soul of this man: would he struggle out? Would he take Miss
Herne as the first step in his stair-way, or be content to be
flung down in vigorous manhood to the depth of impotent poverty?
He could not tell if the quiet on Holmes's face were stolid
defiance or submission: the dumb kings might have looked thus
beneath the feet of Pharaoh. When he walked over the floor, too,
weak as he was it was with the old iron tread. He asked Knowles
presently what business he had gone into.
"My old hobby in an humble way,--the House of Refuge."
They both laughed.
"Yes, it is true. The janitor points me out to visitors as
`under-superintendent, a philanthropist in decayed
circumstances.' Perhaps it is my life-work,"--growing sad and
"If you can inoculate these infant beggars and thieves with your
theory, it will be practice when you are dead."
"I think that," said Knowles, gravely, his eye kindling,--"I
"As thankless a task as that of Moses," said the other, watching
him curiously. "For YOU will not see the pleasant land,--YOU
will not go over."
The old man's flabby face darkened.
"I know," he said.
He glanced involuntarily out at the blue, and the clear-shining,
"I suppose," he said, after a while, cheerfully, "I must content
myself with Lois's creed, here,--`It'll come right some time.' "
Lois looked up from the saucepan she was stirring, her face
growing quite red, nodding emphatically some half-dozen times.
"After all," said Holmes, kindly, "this chance may have forced
you on the true road to success for your new system of Sociology.
Only untainted natures could be fitted for self-government. Do
you find the fallow field easily worked?"
Knowles fidgeted uneasily.
"No. Fact is, I'm beginning to think there 's a good deal of an
obstacle in blood. I find difficulty, much difficulty, Sir, in
giving to the youngest child true ideas of absolute freedom, and
"You teach them these by reason alone?" said Holmes, gravely.
"Well,--of course,--that is the true theory; reason is the only
yoke that should be laid upon a free-born soul; but I--I find it
necessary to have them whipped, Mr. Holmes."
Holmes stooped suddenly to pat Tiger, hiding a furtive smile.
The old man went on, anxiously,--
"Old Mr. Howth says that is the end of all self-governments: from
anarchy to despotism, he says. Brute force must come in. Old
people are apt to be set in their ways, you know. Honestly, we
do not find unlimited freedom answer in the House. I hope much
from a woman's assistance: I have destined her for this work
always: she has great latent power of sympathy and endurance,
such as can bring the Christian teaching home to these wretches."
"The Christian?" said Holmes.
"Well, yes. I am not a believer myself, you know; but I find
that it takes hold of these people more vitally than more
abstract faiths: I suppose because of the humanity of Jesus. In
Utopia, of course, we shall live from scientific principles; but
they do not answer in the House."
"Who is the woman?" asked Holmes, carelessly.
The other watched him keenly.
"She is coming for five years. Margret Howth."
He patted the dog with the same hard, unmoved touch.
"It is a religious duty with her. Besides, she must do
something. They have been almost starving since the mill was
Holmes's face was bent; he could not see it. When he looked up,
Knowles thought it more rigid, immovable than before.
When Knowles was going away, Holmes said to him,--
"When does Margret Howth go into that devils' den?"
"The House? On New-Year's." The scorn in him was too savage to
be silent. "It is the best time to begin a new life. Yourself,
now, you will have fulfilled your design by that time,--of
Holmes was leaning on the mantel-shelf; his very lips were pale.
"Yes, I shall, I shall,"--in his low, hard tone.
Some sudden dream of warmth and beauty flashed before his gray
eyes, lighting them as Knowles never had seen before.
"Miss Herne is beautiful,--let me congratulate you, in Western
The old man did not hide his sneer.
"I thank you, for her."
Lois held the candle to light the Doctor out of the long
"Yoh hev n't seen Barney out 't Mr. Howth's, Doctor? He's ther'
"No. When shall you have done waiting on this--man, Lois? God
help you, child!"
Lois's quick instinct answered,--
"He's very kind. He's like a woman fur kindness to such as me.
When I come to die, I'd like eyes such as his to look at, tender,
"Women are fools alike," grumbled the Doctor. "Never mind.
`When you come to die?' What put that into your head? Look up."
The child sheltered the flaring candle with her hand.
"I've no tho't o' dyin'," she said, laughing.
There was a gray shadow about her eyes, a peaked look to the
face, he never saw before, looking at her now with a physician's
"Does anything hurt you here?" touching her chest.
"It's better now. It was that night o' th' fire. Th' breath o'
th' mill, I thenk,--but it's nothin'."
"Burning copperas? Of course it's better! Oh, that's nothing!"
he said, cheerfully.
When they reached the door, he held out his hand, the first time
he ever had done it to her, and then waited, patting her on the
"I think it'll come right, Lois," he said, dreamily, looking out
into the night. "You're a good girl. I think it'll all come
right. For you and me. Some time. Good-night, child."
After he was a long way down the street, he turned to nod
good-night again to the comical little figure in the door-way.
If Knowles hated anybody that night, he hated the man he had left
standing there with pale, heavy jaws, and heart of iron; he could
have cursed him, standing there. He did not see how, after he
was left alone, the man lay with his face to the wall, holding
his bony hand to his forehead, with a look in his eyes that if
you had seen, you would have thought his soul had entered on that
path whose steps take hold on hell.
There was no struggle in his face; whatever was the resolve he
had reached in the solitary hours when he had stood so close upon
the borders of death, it was unshaken now; but the heart, crushed
and stifled before, was taking its dire revenge. If ever it had
hungered, through the cold, selfish days, for God's help, or a
woman's love, it hungered now, with a craving like death. If
ever he had thought how bare and vacant the years would be, going
down to the grave with lips that never had known a true wife's
kiss, he remembered it now, when it was too late, with bitterness
such as wrings a man's heart but once in a lifetime. If ever he
had denied to his own soul this Margret, called her alien or
foreign, it called her now, when it was too late, to her rightful
place; there was not a thought nor a hope in the darkest depths
of his nature that did not cry out for her help that night,--for
her, a part of himself,--now, when it was too late. He went over
all the years gone, and pictured the years to come; he remembered
the money that was to help his divine soul upward; he thought of
it with a curse, getting up and pacing the floor of the narrow
room, slowly and quietly. Looking out into the still starlight
and the quaint garden, he tried to fancy this woman as he knew
her, after the restless power of her soul should have been
chilled and starved into a narrow, lifeless duty. He fancied her
old, and stern, and sick of life, she that might have been what
might they not have been, together? And he had driven her to this
It was of no use to repent of it now. He had frozen the love out
of her heart, long ago. He remembered (all that he did remember
of the blank night after he was hurt) that he had seen her white,
worn-out face looking down at him; that she did not touch him;
and that, when one of the sisters told her she might take her
place, and sponge his forehead, she said, bitterly, she had no
right to do it, that he was no friend of hers. He saw and heard
that, unconscious to all else; he would have known it, if he had
been dead, lying there. It was too late now: why need he think
of what might have been? Yet he did think of it through the long
winter's night,--each moment his thought of the life to come, or
of her, growing more tender and more bitter. Do you wonder at
the remorse of this man? Wait, then, until you lie alone, as he
had done, through days as slow, revealing as ages, face to face
with God and death. Wait until you go down so close to eternity
that the life you have lived stands out before you in the
dreadful bareness in which God sees it,--as you shall see it some
day from heaven or hell: money, and hate, and love will stand in
their true light then. Yet, coming back to life again, he held
whatever resolve he had reached down there with his old iron
will: all the pain he bore in looking back to the false life
before, or the ceaseless remembrance that it was too late now to
atone for that false life, made him the stronger to abide by that
resolve, to go on the path self-chosen, let the end be what it
might. Whatever the resolve was, it did not still the gnawing
hunger in his heart that night, which every trifle made more
fresh and strong.
There was a wicker-basket that Lois had left by the fire, piled
up with bits of cloth and leather out of which she was
manufacturing Christmas gifts; a pair of great woollen socks,
which one of the sisters had told him privately Lois meant for
him, lying on top. As with all of her people, Christmas was the
great day of the year to her. Holmes could not but smile,
looking at them. Poor Lois!--Christmas would be here soon, then?
And sitting by the covered fire, he went back to Christmases
gone, the thought of all others that brought Margret nearest and
warmest to him: since he was a boy they had been together on that
day. With his hand over his eyes, he sat quiet by the fire until
morning. He heard some boy going by in the gray dawn call to
another that they would have holiday on Christmas week. It was
coming, he thought, rousing himself,-- but never as it had been:
that could never be again. Yet it was strange how this thought
of Christmas took hold of him, after this,-- famished his heart.
As it approached in the slow-coming winter, the days growing
shorter, and the nights longer and more solitary, so Margret
became more real to him,--not rejected and lost, but as the wife
she might have been, with the simple, passionate love she gave
him once. The thought grew intolerable to him; yet there was not
a homely pleasure of those years gone, when the old school-master
kept high holiday on Christmas, that he did not recall and linger
over with a boyish yearning, now that these things were over
forever. He chafed under his weakness. If the day would but
come when he could go out and conquer his fate, as a man ought to
do! On Christmas eve he would put an end to these torturing
taunts, be done with them, let the sacrifice be what it might.
For I fear that even now Stephen Holmes thought of his own need
and his own hunger.
He watched Lois knitting and patching her poor little gifts, with
a vague feeling that every stitch made the time a moment shorter
until he should be free, with his life in his hand again. She
left the hospital at last, sorrowfully enough, but he made her
go: he fancied the close air was hurting her, seeing at night the
strange shadow growing on her face. I do not think he ever said
to her that he knew all she had done for him, or thanked her; but
no dog or woman that Stephen Holmes loved could look into his
eyes, and doubt that love. Sad, masterful eyes, such as are seen
but once or twice in a lifetime: no woman but would wish, like
Lois, for such eyes to be near her when she came to die, for her
to remember the world's love in. She came hobbling back every
day to see him after she had gone, and would stay to make his
soup, telling him, child-like, how many days it was until
Christmas. He knew that, as well as she, waiting through the
cold, slow hours, in his solitary room. He thought sometimes she
had some eager petition to offer him, when she stood watching him
wistfully, twisting her hands together; but she always smothered
it with a sigh, and, tying her little woollen cap, went away,
walking more slowly, he thought, every day.
Do you remember how Christmas came that year? how there was a
waiting pause, when the States stood still, and from the peoples
came the first awful murmurs of the storm that was to shake the
earth? how men's hearts failed them for fear, how women turned
pale, and held their children closer to their breasts, while they
heard a far cry of lamentation for their country that had fallen?
Do you remember how, amidst the fury of men's anger, the
storehouses of God were opened for that land? how the very
sunshine gathered new splendours, the rains more fruitful
moisture, until the earth poured forth an unknown fulness of life
and beauty? Was there no promise there, no prophecy? Do you
remember, while the very life of the people hung in doubt before
them, while the angel of death came again to pass over the land,
and there was no blood on any door-post to keep him from that
house, how serenely the old earth folded in her harvest, dead,
till it should waken to a stronger life? how quietly, as the time
came near for the birth of Christ, this old earth made ready for
his coming, heedless of the clamour of men? how the air grew
fresher above, day by day, and the gray deep silently opened for
the snow to go down and screen and whiten and make holy that
fouled earth? I think the slow-falling snow did not fail in its
quiet warning; for I remember that men, too, in a feeble way
tried to make ready for the birth of Christ. There was a
healthier glow than terror stirred in their hearts; because of
the vague, great dread without, it may be, they drew closer
together round household fires, were kindlier in the good
old-fashioned way; old friendships were wakened, old times talked
over, fathers and mothers and children planned homely ways to
show the love in their hearts and to welcome in Christmas. Who
knew but it might be the last? Let us be thankful for that happy
Christmas-day. What if it were the last? What if, when another
comes, and another, one voice, the kindest and cheerfullest then,
shall never say "Happy Christmas" to us again? Let us be
thankful for that day the more,--accept it the more as a sign of
that which will surely come.
Holmes, even, in his dreary room and drearier thought, felt the
warmth and expectant stir creeping through the land as the day
drew near. Even in the hospital, the sisters were in a busy
flutter, decking their little chapel with flowers, and preparing
a fete for their patients. The doctor, as he bandaged his broken
arm, hinted at faint rumours in the city of masquerades and
concerts. Even Knowles, who had not visited the hospital for
weeks, relented and came back, moody and grum. He brought Kitts
with him, and started him on talking of how they kept Christmas
in Ohio on his mother's farm; and the poor soul, encouraged by
the silence of two of his auditors, and the intense interest of
Lois in the background, mazed on about Santa-Claus trees and
Virginia reels until the clock struck twelve, and Knowles began
Christmas was coming. As he stood, day after day, looking out of
the gray window, he could see the signs of its coming even in the
shop-windows glittering with miraculous toys, in the market-carts
with their red-faced drivers and heaps of ducks and turkeys, in
every stage-coach or omnibus that went by crowded with boys home
for the holidays, hallooing for Bell or Lincoln, forgetful that
the election was over, and Carolina out.
Pike came to see him one day, his arms full of a bundle, which
turned out to be an accordion for Sophy.
"Christmas, you know," he said, taking off the brown paper, while
he was cursing the Cotton States the hardest, and gravely
kneading at the keys, and stretching it until he made as much
discord as five Congressmen. "I think Sophy will like that," he
said, looking at it sideways, and tying it up carefully.
"I am sure she will," said Holmes,--and did not think the man a
fool for one moment.
Always going back, this Holmes, when he was alone, to the
certainty that home-comings or children's kisses or Christmas
feasts were not for such as he,--never could be, though he sought
for the old time in bitterness of heart; and so, dully
remembering his resolve, and waiting for Christmas eve, when he
might end it all. Not one of the myriads of happy children
listened more intently to the clock clanging off hour after hour
than the silent, stern man who had no hope in that day that was
He learned to watch even for poor Lois coming up the corridor
every day,--being the only tie that bound the solitary man to the
inner world of love and warmth. The deformed little body was
quite alive with Christmas now, and brought its glow with her, in
her weak way. Different from the others, he saw with a curious
interest. The day was more real to her than to them. Not
because, only, the care she had of everybody, and everybody had
of her seemed to reach its culmination of kindly thought for the
Christmas time; not because, as she sat talking slowly, stopping
for breath, her great fear seemed to be that she would not have
gifts enough to go round; but deeper than that,--the day was real
to her. As if it were actually true that the Master in whom she
believed was freshly born into the world once a year, to waken
all that was genial and noble and pure in the turbid, worn-out
hearts; as if new honour and pride and love did flash into the
realms below heaven with the breaking of Christmas morn. It was
a beautiful faith; he almost wished it were his. A beautiful
faith! it gave a meaning to the old custom of gifts and kind
words. LOVE coming into the world!--the idea pleased his
artistic taste, being simple and sublime. Lois used to tell him,
while she feebly tried to set his room in order, of all her
plans,-- of how Sam Polston was to be married on New-Year's,--but
most of all of the Christmas coming out at the old
school-master's: how the old house had been scrubbed from top to
bottom, was fairly glowing with shining paint and hot fires,--how
Margret and her mother worked, in terror lest the old man should
find out how poor and bare it was,--how he and Joel had some
secret enterprise on foot at the far end of the plantation out in
the swamp, and were gone nearly all day.
She ceased coming at last. One of the sisters went out to see
her, and told him she was too weak to walk, but meant to be
better soon,--quite well by the holidays. He wished the poor
thing had told him what she wanted of him,--wished it anxiously,
with a dull presentiment of evil.
The days went by, cold and slow. He watched grimly the
preparations the hospital physician was silently making in his
case, for fever, inflammation.
"I must be strong enough to go out cured on Christmas eve," he
said to him one day, coolly.
The old doctor glanced up shrewdly. He was an old Alsatian, very
"You say so?" he mumbled. "Chut! Then you will go. There are
some--bull-dog, men. They do what they please,--they never die
unless they choose, begar! We know them in our practice, Herr
Holmes laughed. Some acumen there, he thought, in medicine or
mind: as for himself, it was true enough; whatever success he had
gained in life had been by no flush of enthusiasm or hope; a
dogged persistence of "holding on," rather.
A long time; but Christmas eve came at last: bright, still,
frosty. "Whatever he had to do, let it be done quickly;" but not
till the set hour came. So he laid his watch on the table beside
him, waiting until it should mark the time he had chosen: the
ruling passion of self-control as strong in this turn of life's
tide as it would be in its ebb, at the last. The old doctor
found him alone in the dreary room, coming in with the frosty
breath of the eager street about him. A grim, chilling sight
enough, as solitary and impenetrable as the Sphinx. He did not
like such faces in this genial and gracious time, so hurried over
his examination. The eye was cool, the pulse steady, the man's
body, battered though it was, strong in its steely composure.
"Ja wohl!--ja wohl!" he went on chuffily, summing up: latent
fever,--the very lips were blue, dry as husks; "he would
go,--oui?--then go!"--with a chuckle. "All right, gluck Zu!"
And so shuffled out. Latent fever? Doubtless, yet hardly from
broken bones, the doctor thought,--with no suspicion of the
subtile, intolerable passion smouldering in every drop of this
man's phlegmatic blood.
Evening came at last. He stopped until the cracked bell of the
chapel had done striking the Angelus, and then put on his
overcoat, and went out. Passing down the garden walk a miserable
chicken staggered up to him, chirping a drunken recognition. For
a moment, he breathed again the hot smoke of the mill,
remembering how Lois had found him in Margret's office, not
forgetting the cage: chary of this low life, even in the peril of
his own. So, going out on the street, he tested his own nature
by this trifle in his old fashion. "The ruling passion strong in
death," eh? It had not been self-love; something deeper: an
instinct rather than reason. Was he glad to think this of
himself? He looked out more watchful of the face which the
coming Christmas bore. The air was cold and pungent. The
crowded city seemed wakening to some keen enjoyment; even his own
weak, deliberate step rang on the icy pavement as if it wished to
rejoice with the rest. I said it was a trading city: so it was,
but the very trade to-day had a jolly Christmas face on; the
surly old banks and pawnbrokers' shops had grown ashamed of their
doings, and shut their doors, and covered their windows
with frosty trees, and cathedrals, and castles; the shops opened
their inmost hearts; some child's angel had touched them, and
they flushed out into a magic splendour of Christmas trees, and
lights, and toys; Santa Claus might have made his head-quarters
in any one of them. As for children, you stumbled over them at
every step, quite weighed down with the heaviness of their joy,
and the money burning their pockets; the acrid old brokers and
pettifoggers, that you met with a chill on other days, had turned
into jolly fathers of families, and lounged laughing along with
half a dozen little hands pulling them into candy-stores or
toy-shops; all of the churches whose rules permitted them to show
their deep rejoicing in a simple way, had covered their cold
stone walls with evergreens, and wreaths of glowing fire-berries:
the child's angel had touched them too, perhaps,--not unwisely.
He passed crowds of thin-clad women looking in through open
doors, with red cheeks and hungry eyes, at red-hot stoves within,
and a placard, "Christmas dinners for the poor, gratis;" out of
every window on the streets came a ruddy light, and a spicy
smell; the very sunset sky had caught the reflection of the
countless Christmas fires, and flamed up to the zenith, blood-red
Holmes turned down one of the back streets: he was going to see
Lois, first of all. I hardly know why: the child's angel may
have touched him, too; or his heart, full of a yearning pity for
the poor cripple, who, he believed now, had given her own life
for his, may have plead for indulgence, as men remember their
childish prayers, before going into battle. He came at last, in
the quiet lane where she lived, to her little brown frame-shanty,
to which you mounted by a flight of wooden steps: there were two
narrow windows at the top, hung with red curtains; he could hear
her feeble voice singing within. As he turned to go up the
steps, he caught sight of something crouched underneath them in
the dark, hiding from him: whether a man or a dog he could not
see. He touched it.
"What d' ye want, Mas'r?" said a stifled voice.
He touched it again with his stick. The man stood upright, back
in the shadow: it was old Yare.
"Had ye any word wi' me, Mas'r?"
He saw the negro's face grow gray with fear.
"Come out, Yare," he said, quietly. "Any word? What word is
The man did not move. Holmes touched him with the stick.
"Come out," he said.
He came out, looking gaunt, as with famine.
"I'll not flurr myself," he said, crunching his ragged hat in his
He drove the hat down upon his head, and looked up with a sullen
"Yoh've got me, an' I'm glad of 't. I'm tired, fearin'. I was
born for hangin', they say," with a laugh. "But I'll see my
girl. I've waited hyur, runnin' the resk,--not darin' to see
her, on 'count o' yoh. I thort I was safe on Christmas-day,--but
what's Christmas to yoh or me?"
Holmes's quiet motion drove him up the steps before him. He
stopped at the top, his cowardly nature getting the better of
him, and sat down whining on the upper step.
"Be marciful, Mas'r! I wanted to see my girl,--that's all.
She's all I hev."
Holmes passed him and went in. Was Christmas nothing to him?
How did this foul wretch know that they stood alone, apart from
It was a low, cheerful little room that he came into, stooping
his tall head: a tea-kettle humming and singing on the wood-fire,
that lighted up the coarse carpet and the gray walls, but spent
its warmest heat on the low settee where Lois lay sewing, and
singing to herself. She was wrapped up in a shawl, but the
hands, he saw, were worn to skin and bone; the gray shadow was
heavier on her face, and the brooding brown eyes were like a
tired child's. She tried to jump up when she saw him, and not
being able, leaned on one elbow, half-crying as she laughed.
"It's the best Christmas gift of all! I can hardly b'lieve
it!"--touching the strong hand humbly that was held out to her.
Holmes had a gentle touch, I told you, for dogs and children and
women: so, sitting quietly by her, he listened for a long time
with untiring patience to her long story; looked at the heap of
worthless trifles she had patched up for gifts, wondering
secretly at the delicate sense of colour and grace betrayed in
the bits of flannel and leather; and took, with a grave look of
wonder, his own package, out of which a bit of woollen thread
"Don't look till to-morrow mornin'," she said, anxiously, as she
lay back trembling and exhausted.
The breath of the mill! The fires of the world's want and crime
had finished their work on her life,--so! She caught the meaning
of his face quickly.
"It's nothin'," she said, eagerly. "I'll be strong by
New-Year's; it's only a day or two rest I need. I've no tho't o'
And to show how strong she was, she got up and hobbled about to
make the tea. He had not the heart to stop her; she did not want
to die,--why should she? the world was a great, warm, beautiful
nest for the little cripple,-- why need he show her the cold
without? He saw her at last go near the door where old Yare sat
outside, then heard her breathless cry, and a sob. A moment
after the old man came into the room, carrying her, and, laying
her down on the settee, chafed her hands, and misshapen head.
"What ails her?" he said, looking up, bewildered, to Holmes.
"We've killed her among us."
She laughed, though the great eyes were growing dim, and drew his
coarse gray hair into her hand.
"Yoh wur long comin'," she said, weakly. "I hunted fur yoh every
The old man had pushed her hair back, and was reading the sunken
face with a wild fear.
"What ails her?" he cried. "Ther' 's somethin' gone wi' my girl.
Was it my fault? Lo, was it my fault?"
"Be quiet!" said Holmes, sternly.
"Is it THAT?" he gasped, shrilly. "My God! not that! I can't
Lois soothed him, patting his face childishly.
"Am I dyin' now?" she asked, with a frightened look at Holmes.
He told her no, cheerfully.
"I've no tho't o' dyin'. I dunnot thenk o' dyin'. Don't mind,
dear! Yoh'll stay with me, fur good?"
The man's paroxysm of fear for her over, his spite and cowardice
"It's him," he yelped, looking fiercely at Holmes. "He's got my
life in his hands. He kin take it. What does he keer fur me or
my girl? I'll not stay wi' yoh no longer, Lo. Mornin' he'll
send me t' th' lock-up, an' after"----
"I care for you, child," said Holmes, stooping suddenly close to
the girl's livid face.
"To-morrow?" she muttered. "My Christmas-day?"
He wet her face while he looked over at the wretch whose life he
held in his hands. It was the iron rule of Holmes's nature to be
just; but to-night dim perceptions of a deeper justice than law
opened before him,--problems he had no time to solve: the
sternest fortress is liable to be taken by assault,--and the dew
of the coming morn was on his heart.
"So as I've hunted fur him!" she whispered, weakly. "I didn't
thenk it wud come to this. So as I loved him! Oh, Mr. Holmes,
he's hed a pore chance in livin',--forgive him this! Him that'll
come to-morrow 'd say to forgive him this."
She caught the old man's head in her arms with an agony of tears,
and held it tight.
"I hev hed a pore chance," he said, looking up,--"that's God's
truth, Lo! I dunnot keer fur that: it's too late goin' back.
But Lo-- Mas'r," he mumbled, servilely, "it's on'y a little time
t' th' end: let me stay with Lo. She loves me,--Lo does."
A look of disgust crept over Holmes's face.
"Stay, then," he muttered,--"I wash my hands of you, you old
He bent over Lois with his rare, pitiful smile.
"Have I his life in my hands? I put it into yours,--so, child!
Now put it all out of your head, and look up here to wish me
She looked up cheerfully, hardly conscious how deep the danger
had been; but the flush had gone from her face, leaving it sad
"I must go to keep Christmas, Lois," he said, playfully.
"Yoh're keepin' it here, Sir." She held her weak grip on his
hand still, with the vague outlook in her eyes that came there
"Was it fur me yoh done it?"
"Yes, for you."
"And fur Him that's comin', Sir?" smiling.
Holmes's face grew graver.
"No, Lois." She looked into his eyes bewildered. "For the poor
child that loved me" he said, half to himself, smoothing her
Perhaps in that day when the under-currents of the soul's life
will be bared, this man will know the subtile instincts that drew
him out of his self-reliance by the hand of the child that loved
him to the Love beyond, that was man and died for him, as well as
she. He did not see it now.
The clear evening light fell on Holmes, as he stood there looking
down at the dying little lamiter: a powerful figure, with a face
supreme, masterful, but tender: you will find no higher type of
manhood. Did God make him of the same blood as the vicious,
cringing wretch crouching to hide his black face at the other
side of the bed? Some such thought came into Lois's brain, and
vexed her, bringing the tears to her eyes: he was her father, you
know. She drew their hands together, as if she would have joined
them, then stopped, closing her eyes wearily.
"It's all wrong," she muttered,--"oh, it's far wrong! Ther' 's
One could make them 'like. Not me."
She stroked her father's hand once, and then let it go. There
was a long silence. Holmes glanced out, and saw the sun was
"Lois," he said, "I want you to wish me a happy Christmas, as
Holmes had a curious vein of superstition: he knew no lips so
pure as this girl's, and he wanted them to wish him good-luck
that night. She did it, looking up laughing and growing red:
riddles of life did not trouble her childish fancy long. And so
he left her, with a dull feeling, as I said before, that it was
good to say a prayer before the battle came on. For men who
believed in prayers: for him, it was the same thing to make one
day for Lois happier.
It was later than Holmes thought: a gray, cold evening. The
streets in that suburb were lonely: he went down them, the
new-fallen snow dulling his step. It had covered the peaked
roofs of the houses too, and they stood in listening rows, white
and still. Here and there a pale flicker from the gas-lamps
struggled with the ashy twilight. He met no one: people had gone
home early on Christmas eve. He had no home to go to: pah! there
were plenty of hotels, he remembered, smiling grimly. It was
bitter cold: he buttoned up his coat tightly, as he walked slowly
along as if waiting for some one,--wondering dully if the gray
air were any colder or stiller than the heart hardly beating
under the coat. Well, men had conquered Fate, conquered life and
love, before now. It grew darker: he was pacing now slowly in
the shadow of a long low wall surrounding the grounds of some
building. When he came near the gate, he would stop and listen:
he could have heard a sparrow on the snow, it was so still.
After a while he did hear footsteps, crunching the snow heavily;
the gate clicked as they came out: it was Knowles, and the
clergyman whom Dr. Cox did not like; Vandyke was his name.
"Don't bolt the gate," said Knowles; "Miss Howth will be out
They sat down on a pile of lumber near by, waiting, apparently.
Holmes went up and joined them, standing in the shadow of the
lumber, talking to Vandyke. He did not meet him, perhaps, once
in six months; but he believed in the man, thoroughly.
"I've just helped Knowles build a Christmas-tree in yonder,--the
House of Refuge: you know. He could not tell an oak from an
arbor-vitae, I believe."
Knowles was in no mood for quizzing.
"There are other things I don't know," he said, gloomily,
recurring to some subject Holmes had interrupted. "The House is
going to the Devil, Charley, headlong."
"There's no use in saying no," said the other; "you'll call me a
Knowles did not listen.
"Seems as if I am to go groping and stumbling through the world
like some forsaken Cyclops with his eye out, dragging down
whatever I touch. If there were anything to hold by, anything
Vandyke looked at him gravely, but did not answer; rose and
walked indolently up and down to keep himself warm. A lithe,
slow figure, a clear face with delicate lips, and careless eyes
that saw everything: the face of a man quick to learn, and slow
"There she comes!" said Knowles, as the lock of the gate rasped.
Holmes had heard the slow step in the snow long before. A small
woman came out, and went down the silent street into the road
beyond. Holmes kept his back turned to her, lighting his cigar;
the other men watched her eagerly.
"What do you think, Vandyke?" demanded Knowles. "How will she
"Do for what?"--resuming his lazy walk. "You talk as if she were
a machine. It is the way with modern reformers. Men are so many
ploughs and harrows to work on `the classes.' Do for what?"
Knowles flushed hotly.
"The work the Lord has left for her. Do you mean to say there is
none to do,--you, pledged to Missionary labour?"
The young man's face coloured.
"I know this street needs paving terribly, Knowles; but I don't
see a boulder in your hands. Yet the great Task-master does not
despise the pavers. He did not give you the spirit and
understanding for paving, eh, is that it? How do you know He
gave this Margret Howth the spirit and understanding of a
reformer? There may be higher work for her to do."
"Higher!" The old man stood aghast. "I know your creed,
then,--that the true work for a man or a woman is that which
develops their highest nature?"
"You have a creed-mania, Knowles. You have a confession of faith
ready-made for everybody, but yourself. I only meant for you to
take care what you do. That woman looks as the Prodigal Son
might have done when he began to be in want, and would fain have
fed himself with the husks that the swine did eat."
Knowles got up moodily.
"Whose work is it, then?" he muttered, following the men down the
street; for they walked on. "The world has waited six thousand
years for help. It comes slowly,--slowly, Vandyke; even through
The young man did not answer: looked up, with quiet, rapt eyes,
through the silent city, and the clear gray beyond. They passed
a little church lighted up for evening service: as if to give a
meaning to the old man's words, they were chanting the one anthem
of the world, the Gloria in Excelsis. Hearing the deep
organ-roll, the men stopped outside to listen: it heaved and
sobbed through the night, as if bearing up to God the wrong of
countless aching hearts, then was silent, and a single voice
swept over the moors in a long, lamentable cry:--"Thou that
takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us!"
The men stood silent, until the hush was broken by a low
murmur:--"For Thou only art holy." Holmes had taken off his hat,
unconscious that he did it; he put it on slowly, and walked on.
What was it that Knowles had said to him once about mean and
selfish taints on his divine soul? "For Thou only art holy:" if
there were truth in that!
"How quiet it is!" he said, as they stopped to leave him. It
was,--a breathless quiet; the great streets of the town behind
them were shrouded in snow; the hills, the moors, the prairie
swept off into the skyless dark, a gray and motionless sea lit by
a low watery moon. "The very earth listens," he said.
"Listens for what?" said the literal old Doctor.
"I think it listens always," said Vandyke, his eye on fire. "For
its King--that shall be. Not as He came before. It has not long
to wait now: the New Year is not far off."
"I've no faith in holding your hands, waiting for it; nor have
you either, Charley," growled Knowles. "There's an infernal lot
of work to be done before it comes, I fancy. Here, let me light
Holmes bade them good-night, laughing, and struck into the
by-road through the hills. He shook hands with Vandyke before he
went,--a thing he scarce ever did with anybody. Knowles noticed
it, and, after he was out of hearing, mumbled out some sarcasm at
"a minister of the gospel consorting with a cold, silent
scoundrel like that!" Vandyke listened to his scolding in his
usual lazy way, and they went back into town.
The road Holmes took was rutted deep with wagon-wheels, not
easily travelled; he walked slowly therefore, being weak,
stopping now and then to gather strength. He had not counted the
hours until this day, to be balked now by a little loss of blood.
The moon was nearly down before he reached the Cloughton hills:
he turned there into a narrow path which he remembered well. Now
and then he saw the mark of a little shoe in the snow,--looking
down at it with a hot panting in his veins, and a strange flash
in his eye, as he walked on steadily.
There was a turn in the path at the top of the hill, a sunken
wall, with a broad stone from which the wind had blown the snow.
This was the place. He sat down on the stone, resting. Just
there she had stood, clutching her little fingers behind her,
when he came up and threw back her hood to look in her face: how
pale and worn it was, even then! He had not looked at her
to-night: he would not, if he had been dying, with those men
standing there. He stood alone in the world with this little
Margret. How those men had carped, and criticised her, chattered
of the duties of her soul! Why, it was his, it was his own,
softer and fresher. There was not a glance with which they
followed the weak little body in its poor dress that he had not
seen, and savagely resented. They measured her strength? counted
how long the bones and blood would last in their House of Refuge?
There was not a morsel of her flesh that was not pure and holy in
his eyes. His Margret? He chafed with an intolerable fever to
make her his, but for one instant, as she had been once. Now,
when it was too late. For he went back over every word he had
spoken that night, forcing himself to go through with it,--every
cold, poisoned word. It was a fitting penance. "There is no
such thing as love in real life:" he had told her that! How he
had stood, with all the power of his "divine soul" in his will,
and told her,--he,--a man,--that he put away her love from him
then, forever! He spared himself nothing,--slurred over nothing;
spurned himself, as it were, for the meanness, in which he had
wallowed that night. How firm he had been! how kind! how
masterful!--pluming himself on his man's strength, while he held
her in his power as one might hold an insect, played with her
shrinking woman's nature, and trampled it under his feet, coldly
and quietly! She was in his way, and he had put her aside. How
the fine subtile spirit had risen up out of its agony of shame,
and scorned him! How it had flashed from the puny frame standing
there in the muddy road despised and jeered at, and calmly judged
him! He might go from her as he would, toss her off like a
worn-out plaything, but he could not blind her: let him put on
what face he would to the world, whether they called him a master
among men, or a miser, or, as Knowles did to-night after he
turned away, a scoundrel, this girl laid her little hand on his
soul with an utter recognition: she alone. "She knew him for a
better man than he knew himself that night:" he remembered the
The night was growing murky and bitingly cold: there was no
prospect on the snow-covered hills, or the rough road at his
feet with its pools of ice-water, to bring content into his face,
or the dewy light into his eyes; but they came there, slowly,
while he sat thinking. Some old thought was stealing into his
brain, perhaps, fresh and warm, like a soft spring air,--some
hope of the future, in which this child-woman came close to him,
and near. It was an idle dream, only would taunt him when it was
over, but he opened his arms to it: it was an old friend; it had
made him once a purer and better man than he could ever be again.
A warm, happy dream, whatever it may have been: the rugged,
sinister face grew calm and sad, as the faces of the dead change
when loving tears fall on them.
He sighed wearily: the homely little hope was fanning into life
stagnant depths of desire and purpose, stirring his resolute
ambition. Too late? Was it too late? Living or dead she was
his, though he should never see her face, by some subtile power
that had made them one, he knew not when nor how. He did not
reason now,--abandoned himself, as morbid men only do, to this
delirious hope of a home, and cheerful warmth, and this woman's
love fresh and eternal: a pleasant dream at first, to be put away
at pleasure. But it grew bolder, touched under-deeps in his
nature of longing and intense passion; all that he knew or felt
of power or will, of craving effort, of success in the world,
drifted into this dream, and became one with it. He stood up,
his vigorous frame starting into a nobler manhood, with the
consciousness of right,--with a willed assurance, that, the first
victory gained, the others should follow.
It was late; he must go on; he had not meant to sit idling by the
road-side. He went through the fields, his heavy step crushing
the snow, a dry heat in his blood, his eye intent, still, until
he came within sight of the farm-house; then he went on, cool and
grave, in his ordinary port.
The house was quite dark; only a light in one of the lower
windows,--the library, he thought. The broad field he was
crossing sloped down to the house, so that, as he came nearer, he
saw the little room quite plainly in the red glow of the fire
within, the curtains being undrawn. He had a keen eye; did not
fail to see the marks of poverty about the place, the gateless
fences, even the bare room with its worn and patched carpet:
noted it all with a triumphant gleam of satisfaction. There was
a black shadow passing and repassing the windows: he waited a
moment looking at it, then came more slowly towards them,
intenser heats smouldering in his face. He would not surprise
her; she should be as ready as he was for the meeting. If she
ever put her pure hand in his again, it should be freely done,
and of her own good-will.
She saw him as he came up on the porch, and stopped, looking out,
as if bewildered,--then resumed her walk, mechanically. What it
cost her to see him again he could not tell: her face did not
alter. It was lifeless and schooled, the eyes looking straight
forward always, indifferently. Was this his work? If he had
killed her outright, it would have been better than this.
The windows were low: it had been his old habit to go in through
them, and he now went up to one unconsciously. As he opened it,
he saw her turn away for an instant; then she waited for him,
entirely tranquil, the clear fire shedding a still glow over the
room, no cry or shiver of pain to show how his coming broke open
the old wound. She smiled even, when he leaned against the
window, with a careless welcome.
Holmes stopped, confounded. It did not suit him,--this. If you
know a man's nature, you comprehend why. The bitterest reproach,
or a proud contempt would have been less galling than this gentle
indifference. His hold had slipped from off the woman, he
believed. A moment before he had remembered how he had held her
in his arms, touched her cold lips, and then flung her off,--he
had remembered it, every nerve shrinking with remorse and
unutterable tenderness: now----! The utter quiet of her face
told more than words could do. She did not love him; he was
nothing to her. Then love was a lie. A moment before he could
have humbled himself in her eyes as low as he lay in his own, and
accepted her pardon as a necessity of her enduring, faithful
nature: now, the whole strength of the man sprang into rage, and
mad desire of conquest.
He came gravely across the room, holding out his hand with his
old quiet control. She might be cold and grave as he, but
underneath he knew there was a thwarted, hungry spirit,--a
strong, fine spirit as dainty Ariel. He would sting it to life,
and tame it: it was his.
"I thought you would come, Stephen," she said, simply, motioning
him to a chair.
Could this automaton be Margret? He leaned on the mantel-shelf,
looking down with a cynical sneer.
"Is that the welcome? Why, there are a thousand greetings for
this time of love and good words you might have chosen. Besides,
I have come back ill and poor,--a beggar perhaps. How do women
receive such,--generous women? Is there no etiquette? no
hand-shaking? nothing more? remembering that I was once--not
indifferent to you."
He laughed. She stood still and grave as before.
"Why, Margret, I have been down near death since that night."
He thought her lips grew gray, but she looked up clear and
"I am glad you did not die. Yes, I can say that. As for
hand-shaking, my ideas may be peculiar as your own."
"She measures her words," he said, as to himself; "her very
eye-light is ruled by decorum; she is a machine, for work. She
has swept her child's heart clean of anger and revenge, even
scorn for the wretch that sold himself for money. There was
nothing else to sweep out, was there?"--bitterly,--"no
friendships, such as weak women nurse and coddle into being,--or
love, that they live in, and die for sometimes, in a silly way?"
"No, not unmanly. Margret, let us be serious and calm. It is no
time to trifle or wear masks. That has passed between us which
leaves no room for sham courtesies."
"There needs none,"--meeting his eye unflinchingly. "I am ready
to meet you and hear your good-bye. Dr. Knowles told me your
marriage was near at hand. I knew you would come, Stephen. You
He winced,--the more that her voice was so clear of pain.
"Why should I come? To show you what sort of a heart I have sold
for money? Why, you think you know, little Margret. You can
reckon up its deformity, its worthlessness, on your cool fingers.
You could tell the serene and gracious lady who is chaffering for
it what a bargain she has made,--that there is not in it one
spark of manly honour or true love. Don't venture too near it in
your coldness and prudence. It has tiger passions I will not
answer for. Give me your hand, and feel how it pants like a
hungry fiend. It will have food, Margret."
She drew away the hand he grasped, and stood back in the shadow.
"What is it to me?"--in the same measured voice.
Holmes wiped the cold drops from his forehead, a sort of shudder
in his powerful frame. He stood a moment looking into the fire,
his head dropped on his arm.
"Let it be so," he said at last, quietly. "The worn old heart
can gnaw on itself a little longer. I have no mind to whimper
Something that she saw on the dark sardonic face, as the red
gleams lighted it, made her start convulsively, as if she would
go to him; then controlling herself, she stood silent. He had
not seen the movement,--or, if he saw, did not heed it. He did
not care to tame her now. The firelight flashed and darkened,
the crackling wood breaking the dead silence of the room.
"It does not matter," he said, raising his head, laying his arm
over his strong chest unconsciously, as if to shut in all
complaint. "I had an idle fancy that it would be good on this
Christmas night to bare the secrets hidden in here to you,--to
suffer your pure eyes to probe the sorest depths: I thought
perhaps they would have a blessing power. It was an idle fancy.
What is my want or crime to you?"
The answer came slowly, but it did come.
"Nothing to me."
She tried to meet the gaunt face looking down on her with its
proud sadness,--did meet it at last with her meek eyes.
"No, nothing to you. There is no need that I should stay longer,
is there? You made ready to meet me, and have gone through your
"It is no part. I speak God's truth to you as I can."
"I know. There is nothing more for us to say to each other in
this world, then, except good-night. Words--polite words--are
bitterer than death, sometimes. If ever we happen to meet, that
courteous smile on your face will be enough to speak--God's truth
for you. Shall we say good-night now?"
"If you will."
She drew farther into the shadow, leaning on a chair.
He stopped, some sudden thought striking him.
"I have a whim," he said, dreamily, "that I would like to
satisfy. It would be a trifle to you: will you grant it?--for
the sake of some old happy day, long ago?"
She put her hand up to her throat; then it fell again.
"Anything you wish, Stephen," she said, gravely.
"Yes. Come nearer, then, and let me see what I have lost. A
heart so cold and strong as yours need not fear inspection. I
have a fancy to look into it, for the last time."
She stood motionless and silent.
"Come,"--softly,--"there is no hurt in your heart that fears
She came out into the full light, and stood before him, pushing
back the hair from her forehead, that he might see every wrinkle,
and the faded, lifeless eyes. It was a true woman's motion,
remembering even then to scorn deception. The light glowed
brightly in her face, as the slow minutes ebbed without a sound:
she only saw his face in shadow, with the fitful gleam of
intolerable meaning in his eyes. Her own quailed and fell.
"Does it hurt you that I should even look at you?" he said,
drawing back. "Why, even the sainted dead suffer us to come near
them after they have died to us,--to touch their hands, to kiss
their lips, to find what look they left in their faces for us.
Be patient, for the sake of the old time. My whim is not
"I am patient."
"Tell me something of yourself, to take with me when I go, for
the last time. Shall I think of you as happy in these days?"
"I am contented,"--the words oozing from her white lips in the
bitterness of truth. "I asked God, that night, to show me my
work; and I think He has shown it to me. I do not complain. It
is a great work."
"Is that all?" he demanded, fiercely.
"No, not all. It pleases me to feel I have a warm home, and to
help keep it cheerful. When my father kisses me at night, or my
mother says, `God bless you, child,' I know that is enough, that
I ought to be happy."
The old clock in the corner hummed and ticked through the deep
silence, like the humble voice of the home she toiled to keep
warm, thanking her, comforting her.
"Once more," as the light grew stronger on her face,--"will you
look down into your heart that you have given to this great work,
and tell me what you see there? Dare you do it, Margret?"
"I dare do it,"--but her whisper was husky.
He watched her more as a judge would a criminal, as she sat
before him: she struggled weakly under the power of his eye, not
meeting it. He waited relentless, seeing her face slowly whiten,
her limbs shiver, her bosom heave.
"Let me speak for you," he said at last. "I know who once filled
your heart to the exclusion of all others: it is no time for mock
shame. I know it was my hand that held the very secret of your
being. Whatever I may have been, you loved me, Margret. Will
you say that now?"
"I loved you,--once."
Whether it were truth that nerved her, or self-delusion, she was
strong now to utter it all.
"You love me no longer, then?"
"I love you no longer."
She did not look at him; she was conscious only of the hot fire
wearing her eyes, and the vexing click of the clock. After a
while he bent over her silently,--a manly, tender presence.
"When love goes once," he said, "it never returns. Did you say
it was gone, Margret?"
One effort more, and Duty would be satisfied.
"It is gone."
In the slow darkness that came to her she covered her face,
knowing and hearing nothing. When she looked up, Holmes was
standing by the window, with his face toward the gray fields. It
was a long time before he turned and came to her.
"You have spoken honestly: it is an old fashion of yours. You
believed what you said. Let me also tell you what you call God's
truth, for a moment, Margret. It will not do you harm."--He
spoke gravely, solemnly.--"When you loved me long ago, selfish,
erring as I was, you fulfilled the law of your nature; when you
put that love out of your heart, you make your duty a tawdry
sham, and your life a lie. Listen to me. I am calm."
It was calmness that made her tremble as she had not done before,
with a strange suspicion of the truth flashing on her. That she,
casing herself in her pride, her conscious righteousness, hugging
her new-found philanthropy close, had sunk to a depth of
niggardly selfishness, of which this man knew nothing. Nobler
than she; half angry as she felt that, sitting at his feet,
looking up. He knew it, too; the grave judging voice told it; he
had taken his rightful place. Just, as only a man can be, in his
judgment of himself and her: her love that she had prided herself
with, seemed weak and drifting, brought into contact with this
cool integrity of meaning. I think she was glad to be humbled
before him. Women have strange fancies, sometimes.
"You have deceived yourself," he said: "when you try to fill your
heart with this work, you serve neither your God nor your
fellow-man. You tell me," stooping close to her, "that I am
nothing to you: you believe it, poor child! There is not a line
on your face that does not prove it false. I have keen eyes,
Margret!"-- He laughed.--"You have wrung this love out of your
heart? If it were easy to do, did it need to wring with it every
sparkle of pleasure and grace out of your life! Your very hair
is gathered out of your sight: you feared to remember how my hand
had touched it? Your dress is stingy and hard; your step, your
eyes, your mouth under rule. So hard it was to force yourself
into an old worn-out woman! Oh, Margret! Margret!"
She moaned under her breath.
"I notice trifles, child! Yonder, in that corner, used to stand
the desk where I helped you with your Latin. How you hated it!
Do you remember?"
"It always stood there: it is gone now. Outside of the gate
there was that elm I planted, and you promised to water while I
was gone. It is cut down now by the roots."
"I had it done, Stephen."
"I know. Do you know why? Because you love me: because you do
not dare to think of me, you dare not trust yourself to look at
the tree that I had planted."
She started up with a cry, and stood there in the old way, her
fingers catching at each other.
"It is cruel,--let me go!"
"It is not cruel."--He came up closer to her.--"You think you do
not love me, and see what I have made you! Look at the torpor of
this face,--the dead, frozen eyes! It is a `nightmare death in
life.' Good God, to think that I have done this! To think of
the countless days of agony, the nights, the years of solitude
that have brought her to this,--little Margret!"
He paced the floor, slowly. She sat down on a low stool, leaning
her head on her hands. The little figure, the bent head, the
quivering chin brought up her childhood to him. She used to sit
so when he had tormented her, waiting to be coaxed back to love
and smiles again. The hard man's eyes filled with tears, as he
thought of it. He watched the deep, tearless sobs that shook her
breast: he had wounded her to death,--his bonny Margret! She was
like a dead thing now: what need to torture her longer? Let him
be manly and go out to his solitary life, taking the remembrance
of what he had done with him for company. He rose
uncertainly,--then came to her: was that the way to leave her?
"I am going, Margret," he whispered, "but let me tell you a story
before I go,--a Christmas story, say. It will not touch you,--it
is too late to hope for that,--but it is right that you should
She looked up wearily.
"As you will, Stephen."
Whatever impulse drove the man to speak words that he knew were
useless, made him stand back from her, as though she were
something he was unfit to touch: the words dragged from him
"I had a curious dream to-night, Margret,--a waking dream: only a
clear vision of what had been once. Do you remember--the old
What disconnected rambling was this? Yet the girl understood it,
looked into the low fire with sad, listening eyes.
"Long ago. That was a free, strong life that opened before us
then, little one,--before you and me? Do you remember the
Christmas before I went away? I had a strong arm and a hungry
brain to go out into the world with, then. Something better,
too, I had. A purer self than was born with me came late in
life, and nestled in my heart. Margret, there was no fresh
loving thought in my brain for God or man that did not grow from
my love of you; there was nothing noble or kindly in my nature
that did not flow into that love, and deepen there. I was your
master, too. I held my own soul by no diviner right than I held
your love and owed you mine. I understand it, now, when it is
too late."--He wiped the cold drops from his face.--"Now do you
know whether it is remorse I feel, when I think how I put this
purer self away,--how I went out triumphant in my inhuman, greedy
brain,--how I resolved to know, to be, to trample under foot all
weak love or homely pleasures? I have been punished. Let those
years go. I think, sometimes, I came near to the nature of the
damned who dare not love: I would not. It was then I hurt you,
Margret,--to the death: your true life lay in me, as mine in
He had gone on drearily, as though holding colloquy with himself,
as though great years of meaning surged up and filled the broken
words. It may have been thus with the girl, for her face
deepened as she listened. For the first time for many long days
tears welled up into her eyes, and rolled between her fingers
"I came through the streets to-night baffled in life,--a mean man
that might have been noble,--all the years wasted that had gone
before,--disappointed,--with nothing to hope for but time to work
humbly and atone for the wrongs I had done. When I lay yonder,
my soul on the coast of eternity, I resolved to atone for every
selfish deed. I had no thought of happiness; God knows I had no
hope of it. I had wronged you most: I could not die with that
"Unforgiven, Stephen?" she sobbed; "I forgave it long ago."
He looked at her a moment, then by some effort choked down the
word he would have spoken, and went on with his bitter
"I came through the crowded town, a homeless, solitary man, on
the Christmas eve when love comes to every man. If ever I had
grown sick for a word or touch from the one soul to whom alone
mine was open, I thirsted for it then. The better part of my
nature was crushed out, and flung away with you, Margret. I
cried for it,--I wanted help to be a better, purer man. I need
it now. And so," he said, with a smile that hurt her more than
tears, "I came to my good angel, to tell her I had sinned and
repented, that I had made humble plans for the future, and ask
her---- God knows what I would have asked her then! She had
forgotten me,--she had another work to do!"
She wrung her hands with a helpless cry. Holmes went to the
window: the dull waste of snow looked to him as hopeless and
vague as his own life.
"I have deserved it," he muttered to himself. "It is too late to
Some light touch thrilled his arm.
"Is it too late, Stephen?" whispered a childish voice.
The strong man trembled, looking at the little dark figure
standing near him.
"We were both wrong: I have been untrue, selfish. More than you.
Stephen, help me to be a better girl; let us be friends again."
She went back unconsciously to the old words of their quarrels
long ago. He drew back.
"Do not mock me," he gasped. "I suffer, Margret. Do not mock me
with more courtesy."
"I do not; let us be friends again."
She was crying like a penitent child; her face was turned away;
love, pure and deep, was in her eyes.
The red fire-light grew stronger; the clock hushed its noisy
ticking to hear the story. Holmes's pale lip worked: what was
this coming to him? His breast heaved, a dry heat panted in his
veins, his deep eyes flashed fire.
"If my little friend comes to me," he said, in a smothered voice,
"there is but one place for her,--her soul with my soul, her
heart on my heart."--He opened his arms.--"She must rest her head
here. My little friend must be--my wife."
She looked into the strong, haggard face,-- a smile crept out on
her own, arch and debonair like that of old time.
"I am tired, Stephen," she whispered, and softly laid her head
down on his breast.
The red fire-light flashed into a glory of crimson through the
room, about the two figures standing motionless there,--shimmered
down into awe-struck shadow: who heeded it? The old clock ticked
away furiously, as if rejoicing that weary days were over for the
pet and darling of the house: nothing else broke the silence.
Without, the deep night paused, gray, impenetrable. Did it hope
that far angel-voices would break its breathless hush, as once on
the fields of Judea, to usher in Christmas morn? A hush, in air,
and earth, and sky, of waiting hope, of a promised joy. Down
there in the farm-window two human hearts had given the joy a
name; the hope throbbed into being; the hearts touching each
other beat in a slow, full chord of love as pure in God's eyes as
the song the angels sang, and as sure a promise of the Christ
that is to come. Forever,--not even death would part them; he
knew that, holding her closer, looking down into her face.
What a pale little face it was! Through the intensest heat of
his passion the sting touched him. Some instinct made her glance
up at him, with a keen insight, seeing the morbid gloom that was
the man's sin, in his face. She lifted her head from his breast,
and when he stooped to touch her lips, shook herself free,
laughing carelessly. Alas, Stephen Holmes! you will have little
time for morbid questionings in those years to come: her cheerful
work has begun: no more self-devouring reveries: your very pauses
of silent content and love will be rare and well-earned. No more
tranced raptures for to-night,--let to-morrow bring what it
"You do not seem to find your purer self altogether perfect?" she
demanded. "I think the pale skin hurts your artistic eye, or the
frozen eyes,--which is it?"
"They have thawed into brilliant fire,-- something looks at me
half-yielding and half-defiant,--you know that, you vain child!
But, Margret, nothing can atone"----
"Yes, stop. That is right, Stephen. Remorse grows maudlin when
it goes into words," laughing again at his astounded look.
He took her hand,--a dewy, healthy hand,-- the very touch of it
meant action and life.
"What if I say, then," he said, earnestly, "that I do not find my
angel perfect, be the fault mine or hers? The child Margret,
with her sudden tears, and laughter, and angry heats, is gone,--I
killed her, I think,--gone long ago. I will not take in place of
her this worn, pale ghost, who wears clothes as chilly as if she
came from the dead, and stands alone, as ghosts do."
She stood a little way off, her great brown eyes flashing with
tears. It was so strange a joy to find herself cared for, when
she had believed she was old and hard: the very idle jesting made
her youth and happiness real to her. Holmes saw that with his
quick tact. He flung playfully a crimson shawl that lay there
about her white neck.
"My wife must suffer her life to flush out in gleams of colour
and light: her cheeks must hint at a glow within, as yours do
now. I will have no hard angles, no pallor, no uncertain memory
of pain in her life: it shall be perpetual summer."
He loosened her hair, and it rolled down about the bright,
tearful face, shining in the red fire-light like a mist of tawny
"I need warmth and freshness and light: my wife shall bring them
to me. She shall be no strong-willed reformer, standing alone: a
sovereign lady with kind words for the world, who gives her hand
only to that man whom she trusts, and keeps her heart and its
secrets for me alone."
She paid no heed to him other than by a deepening colour; the
clock, however, grew tired of the long soliloquy, and broke in
with an asthmatic warning as to the time of night.
"There is midnight," she said. "You shall go, now, Stephen
Holmes,--quick! before your sovereign lady fades, like
Cinderella, into grayness and frozen eyes!"
When he was gone, she knelt down by her window, remembering that
night long ago,-- free to sob and weep out her joy,--very sure
that her Master had not forgotten to hear even a woman's prayer,
and to give her her true work,--very sure,--never to doubt again.
There was a dark, sturdy figure pacing up and down the road, that
she did not see. It was there when the night was over, and
morning began to dawn. Christmas morning! he remembered,--it was
something to him now! Never again a homeless, solitary man! You
would think the man weak, if I were to tell yon how this word
"home" had taken possession of him,--how he had planned out work
through the long night: success to come, but with his wife
nearest his heart, and the homely farm-house, and the old
school-master in the centre of the picture. Such an humble
castle in the air! Christmas morning was surely something to him.
Yet, as the night passed, he went back to the years that had been
wasted, with an unavailing bitterness. He would not turn from
the truth, that, with his strength of body and brain to command
happiness and growth, his life had been a failure. I think it
was first on that night that the story of the despised Nazarene
came to him with a new meaning,--One who came to gather up these
broken fragments of lives and save them with His own. But
vaguely, though: Christmas-day as yet was to him the day when
love came into the world. He knew the meaning of that. So he
watched with an eagerness new to him the day-breaking. He could
see Margret's window, and a dim light in it: she would be awake,
praying for him, no doubt. He pondered on that. Would you think
Holmes weak, if he forsook the faith of Fichte, sometime, led by
a woman's hand? Think of the apostle of the positive
philosophers, and say no more. He could see a flickering light
at dawn crossing the hall: he remembered the old school-master's
habit well,--calling "Happy Christmas" at every door: he meant to
go down there for breakfast, as he used to do, imagining how the
old man would wring his hands, with a "Holloa! you're welcome
home, Stephen, boy!" and Mrs. Howth would bring out the jars of
pine-apple preserve which her sister sent her every year from the
West Indies. And then---- Never mind what then. Stephen Holmes
was very much in love, and this Christmas-day had much to bring
him. Yet it was with a solemn shadow on his face that he watched
the dawn, showing that he grasped the awful meaning of this day
that "brought love into the world." Through the clear, frosty
night he could hear a low chime of distant bells shiver the air,
hurrying faint and far to tell the glad tidings. He fancied that
the dawn flushed warm to hear the story,--that the very earth
should rejoice in its frozen depths, if it were true. If it were
true!--if this passion in his heart were but a part of an
all-embracing power, in whose clear depths the world struggled
vainly!-- if it were true that this Christ did come to make that
love clear to us! There would be some meaning then in the old