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A Story of To-day by Margret Howth

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school-master's joy, in the bells wakening the city yonder, in
even poor Lois's thorough content in this day,--for it would be,
he knew, a thrice happy day to her. A strange story that of the
Child coming into the world,--simple! He thought of it,
watching, through his cold, gray eyes, how all the fresh morning
told it,--it was in the very air; thinking how its echo stole
through the whole world,--how innumerable children's voices told
it in eager laughter,--how even the lowest slave half-smiled, on
waking, to think it was Christmas-day, the day that Christ was
born. He could hear from the church on the hill that they were
singing again the old song of the angels. Did this matter to
him? Did not he care, with the new throb in his heart, who was
born this day? There is no smile on his face as he listens to
the words, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good-will toward men;" it bends lower,--lower only. But in his
soul-lit eyes there are warm tears, and on his worn face a sad
and solemn joy.

CHAPTER XI.

I AM going to end my story now. There are phases more vivid in
the commonplace lives of these men and women, I do not doubt:
love, as poignant as pain in its joy; crime, weak and foul and
foolish, like all crime; silent self- sacrifices: but I leave
them for you to paint; you will find colours enough in your own
house and heart.

As for Christmas-day, neither you nor I need try to do justice to
that theme: how the old school-master went about, bustling, his
thin face quite hot with enthusiasm, and muttering, "God bless my
soul!"--hardly recovered from the sudden delight of finding his
old pupil waiting for him when he went down in the morning; how
he insisted on being led by him, and nobody else, all day, and
before half an hour had confided, under solemn pledges of
secrecy, the great project of the book about Bertrand de Born;
how even easy Mrs. Howth found her hospitable Virginian blood in
a glow at the unexpected breakfast-guest,--settling into more
confident pleasure as dinner came on, for which success was
surer; how cold it was, outside; how Joel piled on great fires,
and went off on some mysterious errand, having "other chores to
do than idling and duddering;" how the day rose into a climax of
perfection at dinner-time, to Mrs. Howth's mind,--the turkey
being done to a delicious brown, the plum-pudding quivering like
luscious jelly (a Christian dinner to-day, if we starve the rest
of the year!). Even Dr. Knowles, who brought a great bouquet out
for the school-master, was in an unwonted good-humour; and Mr.
Holmes, of whom she stood a little in dread, enjoyed it all with
such zest, and was so attentive to them all, but Margret. They
hardly spoke to each other all day; it quite fretted the old
lady; indeed, she gave the girl a good scolding about it out in
the pantry, until she was ready to cry. She had looked that way
all day, however.

Knowles was hurt deep enough when he saw Holmes, and suspected
the worst, under all his good-humour. It was a bitter
disappointment to give up the girl; for, beside the great work,
he loved her in an uncouth fashion, and hated Holmes. He met her
alone in the morning; but when he saw how pale she grew,
expecting his outbreak, and how she glanced timidly in at the
room where Stephen was, he relented. Something in the wet brown
eye perhaps recalled a forgotten dream of his boyhood; for he
sighed sharply, and did not swear as he meant to. All he said
was, that "women will be women, and that she had a worse job on
her hands than the House of Refuge,"--which she put down to the
account of his ill-temper, and only laughed, and made him shake
hands.

Lois and her father came out in the old cart in high state across
the bleak, snowy hills, quite aglow with all they had seen at the
farm-houses on the road. Margret had arranged a settle for the
sick girl by the kitchen-fire, but they all came out to speak to
her.

As for the dinner, it was the essence of all Christmas dinners:
Dickens himself, the priest of the genial day, would have been
contented. The old school-master and his wife had hearts big and
warm enough to do the perpetual honours of a baronial castle; so
you may know how the little room and the faces about the homely
table glowed and brightened. Even Knowles began to think that
Holmes might not be so bad, after all, recalling the chicken in
the mill, and,--"Well, it was better to think well of all men,
poor devils!"

I am sorry to say there was a short thunderstorm in the very
midst of the dinner. Knowles and Mr. Howth, in their anxiety to
keep off from ancient subjects of dispute, came, for a wonder, on
modern politics, and of course there was a terrible collision,
which made Mrs. Howth quite breathless: it was over in a minute,
however, and it was hard to tell which was the most repentant.
Knowles, as you know, was a disciple of Garrison, and the old
school-master was a States'-rights man, as you might suppose from
his antecedents,--suspected, indeed, of being a contributor to
"DeBow's Review." I may as well come out with the whole truth,
and acknowledge that at the present writing the old gentleman is
the very hottest Secessionist I know. If it hurts the type,
write it down a vice of blood, O printers of New England!

The dinner, perhaps, was fresher and heartier after that. Then
Knowles went back to town; and in the middle of the afternoon, as
it grew dusk, Lois started, knowing how many would come into her
little shanty in the evening to wish her Happy Christmas,
although it was over. They piled up comforts and blankets in the
cart, and she lay on them quite snugly, her scarred child's-face
looking out from a great woollen hood Mrs. Howth gave her. Old
Yare held Barney, with his hat in his hand, looking as if he
deserved hanging, but very proud of the kindness they all showed
his girl. Holmes gave him some money for a Christmas gift, and
he took it, eagerly enough. For some unexpressed reason, they
stood a long time in the snow bidding Lois good-bye; and for the
same reason, it may be, she was loath to go, looking at each one
earnestly as she laughed and grew red and pale answering them,
kissing Mrs. Howth's hand when she gave it to her. When the cart
did drive away, she watched them standing there until she was out
of sight, and waved her scrap of a handkerchief; and when the
road turned down the hill, lay down and softly cried to herself.

Now that they were alone they gathered close about the fire,
while the day without grew gray and colder,--Margret in her old
place by her father's knee. Some dim instinct had troubled the
old man all day; it did now: whenever Margret spoke, he listened
eagerly, and forgot to answer sometimes, he was so lost in
thought. At last he put his hand on her head, and whispered,
"What ails my little girl?" And then his little girl sobbed and
cried, as she had been ready to do all day, and kissed his
trembling hand, and went and hid on her mother's neck, and left
Stephen to say everything for her. And I think you and I had
better come away.

It was quite dark before they had done talking,--quite dark; the
wood-fire had charred down into a great bed of crimson; the tea
stood till it grew cold, and no one drank it.

The old man got up at last, and Holmes led him to the library,
where he smoked every evening. He held Maggie, as he called her,
in his arms a long time, and wrung Holmes's hand. "God bless
you, Stephen!" he said,-- "this is a very happy Christmas-day to
me." And yet, sitting alone, the tears ran over his wrinkled
face as he smoked; and when his pipe went out, he did not know
it, but sat motionless. Mrs. Howth, fairly confounded by the
shock, went up-stairs, and stayed there a long time. When she
came down, the old lady's blue eyes were tenderer, if that were
possible, and her face very pale. She went into the library and
asked her husband if she didn't prophesy this two years ago, and
he said she did, and after a while asked her if she remembered
the barbecue-night at Judge Clapp's thirty years ago. She
blushed at that, and then went up and kissed him. She had heard
Joel's horse clattering up to the kitchen-door, so concluded she
would go out and scold him. Under the circumstances it would be
a relief.

If Mrs. Howth's nerves had been weak, she might have supposed
that free-born serving- man seized with sudden insanity, from the
sight that met her, going into the kitchen. His dinner, set on
the dresser, was flung contemptuously on the ashes; a horrible
cloud of burning grease rushed from a dirty pint-pot on the
table, and before this Joel was capering and snorting like some
red-headed Hottentot before his fetich, occasionally sticking his
fingers into the nauseous stuff, and snuffing it up as if it were
roses. He was a church-member: he could NOT be drunk? At the
sight of her, he tried to regain the austere dignity usual to him
when women were concerned, but lapsed into an occasional giggle,
which spoiled the effect.

"Where have you been," she inquired, severely, "scouring the
country like a heathen on this blessed day? And what is that you
have burning? You're disgracing the house, and strangers in it."

Joel's good-humour was proof against even this.

"I've scoured to some purpose, then. Dun't tell the mester:
it'll muddle his brains t'-night. Wait till mornin'. Squire
More'll be down his-self t' 'xplain."

He rubbed the greasy fingers into his hair, while Mrs. Howth's
eyes were fixed in dumb perplexity.

"Ye see,"--slowly, determined to make it clear to her now and
forever,--"it's water: no, t' a'n't water: it's troubled me an'
Mester Howth some time in Poke Run, atop o' 't. I hed my
suspicions,--so'd he; lay low, though, frum all women-folks. So
's I tuk a bottle down, unbeknown, to Squire More, an' it's
oil!"--jumping like a wild Indian,--"thank the Lord fur his
marcies, it's oil!"

"Well, Joel," she said, calmly, "very disagreeably smelling oil
it is, I must say."

"Good save the woman!" he broke out, sotto voce, "she's a born
natural! Did ye never hear of a shaft? or millions o' gallons a
day? It's better nor a California ranch, I tell ye. Mebbe,"
charitably, "ye didn't know Poke Run's the mester's?"

"I certainly do. But I do not see what this green ditch-water is
to me. And I think, Joel,"----

"It's more to ye nor all yer States'-rights as I'm sick o'
hearin' of. It's carpets, an' bunnets, an' slithers of
railroad-stock, an' some colour on Margot's cheeks,--ye 'ed best
think o' that! That's what it is to ye! I'm goin' to take stock
myself. I'm glad that gell 'll git rest frum her mills an' her
Houses o' Deviltry,--she's got gumption fur a dozen women."

He went on muttering, as he gathered up his pint-pot and
bottle,--

"I'm goin' to send my Tim to college soon's the thing's in
runnin' order. Lord! what a lawyer that boy'll make!"

Mrs. Howth's brain was still muddled.

"You are better pleased than you were at Lincoln's election," she
observed, placidly.

"Lincoln be darned!" he broke out, forgetting the teachings of
Mr. Clinche. "Now, Mem, dun't ye muddle the mester's brain
t'-night wi' 't, I say. I'm goin' t' 'xperiment myself a bit."

Which he did, accordingly,--shutting himself up in the
smoke-house and burning the compound in divers sconces and
Wide-Awake torches, giving up the entire night to his diabolical
orgies.

Mrs. Howth did not tell the master; for one reason: it took a
long time for so stupendous an idea to penetrate the good lady's
brain; and for another: her motherly heart was touched by another
story than this Aladdin's lamp of Joel's wherein burned
petroleum. She watched from her window until she saw Holmes
crossing the icy road: there was a little bitterness, I confess,
in the thought that he had taken her child from her; but the
prayer that rose for them both took her whole woman's heart with
it.

The road was rough over the hills; the wind that struck Holmes's
face bitingly keen: perhaps the life coming for him would be as
cold a struggle, having not only poverty to conquer, but himself.
But he is a strong man,--no stronger puts his foot down with
cool, resolute tread; and to-night there is a thrill on his lips
that never rested there before,--a kiss, dewy and warm.
Something, some new belief, too, stirs in his heart, like a
subtile atom of pure fire, that he hugs closely,--his for all
time. No poverty or death shall ever drive it away. Perhaps he
entertains an angel unaware.

After that night Lois never left her little shanty. The days
that followed were like one long Christmas; for her poor
neighbors, black and white, had some plot among themselves, and
worked zealously to make them seem so to her. It was easy to
make these last days happy for the simple little soul who had
always gathered up every fragment of pleasure in her featureless
life, and made much of it, and rejoiced over it. She grew
bewildered, sometimes, lying on her wooden settle by the fire;
people lead always been friendly, taken care of her, but now they
were eager in their kindness, as though the time were short. She
did not understand the reason, at first; she did not want to die:
yet if it hurt her, when it grew clear at last, no one knew it;
it was not her way to speak of pain. Only, as she grew weaker,
day by day, she began to set her house in order, as one might
say, in a quaint, almost comical fashion, giving away everything
she owned, down to her treasures of colored bottles and
needle-books, mending her father's clothes, and laying them out
in her drawers; lastly, she had Barney brought in from the
country, and every day would creep to the window to see him fed
and chirrup to him, whereat the poor old beast would look up with
his dim eye, and try to neigh a feeble answer. Kitts used to
come every day to see her, though he never said much when he was
there: he lugged his great copy of the Venus del Pardo along with
him one day, and left it, thinking she would like to look at it;
Knowles called it trash, when he came. The Doctor came always in
the morning; he told her he would read to her one day, and did it
always afterwards, putting on his horn spectacles, and holding
her old Bible close up to his rugged, anxious face. He used to
read most from the Gospel of St. John. She liked better to hear
him than any of the others, even than Margret, whose voice was so
low and tender: something in the man's half-savage nature was
akin to the child's.

As the day drew near when she was to go, every pleasant trifle
seemed to gather a deeper, solemn meaning. Jenny Balls came in
one night, and old Mrs. Polston.

"We thought you'd like to see her weddin'-dress, Lois," said the
old woman, taking off Jenny's cloak, "seein' as the weddin' was
to hev been to-morrow, and was put off on 'count of you."

Lois did like to see it; sat up, her face quite flushed to see
how nicely it fitted, and stroked back Jenny's soft hair under
the veil. And Jenny, being a warm-hearted little thing, broke
into a sobbing fit, saying that it spoiled it all to have Lois
gone.

"Don't muss your veil, child," said Mrs. Polston.

But Jenny cried on, hiding her face in Lois's skinny hand, until
Sam Polston came in, when she grew quiet and shy. The poor
deformed girl lay watching them, as they talked. Very pretty
Jenny looked, with her blue eyes and damp pink cheeks; and it was
a manly, grave love in Sam's face, when it turned to her. A
different love from any she had known: better, she thought. It
could not be helped; but it WAS better.

After they were gone, she lay a long time quiet, with her hand
over her eyes. Forgive her! she, too, was a woman. Ah, it may
be there are more wrongs that shall be righted yonder in the
To-Morrow than are set down in your theology!

And so it was, that, as she drew nearer to this To-Morrow, the
brain of the girl grew clearer,--struggling, one would think, to
shake off whatever weight had been put on it by blood or vice or
poverty, and become itself again. Perhaps, even in her cheerful,
patient life, there had been hours when she had known the wrongs
that had been done her, known how cruelly the world had thwarted
her; her very keen insight into whatever was beautiful or helpful
may have made her see her own mischance, the blank she had drawn
in life, more bitterly. She did not see it bitterly now. Death
is honest; all things grew clear to her, going down into the
valley of the shadow; so, wakening to the consciousness of
stifled powers and ungiven happiness, she saw that the fault was
not hers, nor His who had appointed her lot; He had helped her to
bear it,--bearing worse himself. She did not say once, "I might
have been," but day by day, more surely, "I shall be." There was
not a tear on the homely faces turning from her bed, not a tint
of colour in the flowers they brought her, not a shiver of light
in the ashy sky, that did not make her more sure of that which
was to come. More loving she grew, as she went away from them,
the touch of her hand more pitiful, her voice more tender, if
such a thing could be,--with a look in her eyes never seen there
before. Old Yare pointed it out to Mrs. Polston one day.

"My girl's far off frum us," he said, sobbing in the
kitchen,--"my girl's far off now."

It was the last night of the year that she died. She was so much
better that they all were quite cheerful. Kitts went away as it
grew dark, and she bade him wrap up his throat with such a
motherly dogmatism that they all laughed at her; she, too, with
the rest.

"I'll make you a New-Year's call," he said, going out; and she
called out that she should be sure to expect him.

She seemed so strong that Holmes and Mrs. Polston and Margret,
who were there, were going home; besides, old Yare said, "I'd
like to take care o' my girl alone to-night, ef yoh'd let
me,"--for they had not trusted him before. But Lois asked them
not to go until the Old Year was over; so they waited
down-stairs.

The old man fell asleep, and it was near midnight when he wakened
with a cold touch on his hand.

"It's come, father!"

He started up with a cry, looking at the new smile in her eyes,
grown strangely still.

"Call them all, quick, father!"

Whatever was the mystery of death that met her now, her heart
clung to the old love that had been true to her so long.

He did not move.

"Let me hev yoh to myself, Lo, 't th' last; yoh're all I hev; let
me hev yoh 't th' last."

It was a bitter disappointment, but she roused herself even then
to smile, and tell him yes, cheerfully. You call it a trifle,
nothing? It may be; yet I think the angels looking down had tears
in their eyes, when they saw the last trial of the unselfish,
solitary heart, and kept for her a different crown from his who
conquers a city.

The fire-light grew warmer and redder; her eyes followed it, as
if all that had been bright and kindly in her life were coming
back in it. She put her hand on her father, trying vainly to
smooth his gray hair. The old man's heart smote him for
something, for his sobs grew louder, and he left her a moment;
then she saw them all, faces very dear to her even then. She
laughed and nodded to them all in the old childish way; then her
lips moved. "It's come right!" she tried to say; but the weak
voice would never speak again on earth.

"It's the turn o' the night," said Mrs. Polston, solemnly; "lift
her head; the Old Year's 'goin' out."

Margret lifted her head, and held it on her breast. She could
hear cries and sobs; the faces, white now, and wet, pressed
nearer, yet fading slowly: it was the Old Year going out, the
worn-out year of her life. Holmes opened the window: the cold
night-wind rushed in, bearing with it snatches of broken harmony:
some idle musician down in the city, playing fragments of some
old, sweet air, heavy with love and regret. It may have been
chance: yet, let us think it was not chance; let us believe that
He, who had made the world warm and happy for her, chose that
this best voice of all should bid her good-bye at the last.

So the Old Year went out in that music. The dull eyes, loving to
the end, wandered vaguely as the sounds died away, as if losing
something,--losing all, suddenly. She sighed as the clock
struck, and then a strange calm, unknown before, stole over her
face; her eyes flashed open with a living joy. Margret stooped
to close them, kissing the cold lids; and Tiger, who had climbed
upon the bed, whined and crept down.

"It is the New Year," said Holmes, bending his head.

The cripple was dead; but LOIS, free, loving, and beloved,
trembled from her prison to her Master's side in the To-Morrow.

I can show you her grave out there in the hills,--a short,
stunted grave, like a child's. No one goes there, although there
are many firesides where they speak of "Lois" softly, as of
something holy and dear: but they think of her always as not
there; as gone home; even old Yare looks up, when he talks of "my
girl." Yet, knowing that nothing in God's just universe is lost,
or fails to meet the late fulfilment of its hope, I like to think
of her poor body lying there: I like to believe that the great
mother was glad to receive the form that want and crime of men
had thwarted,--took her uncouth child home again, that had been
so cruelly wronged,--folded it in her warm bosom with tender,
palpitating love.

It pleased me in the winter months to think that the worn-out
limbs, the old scarred face of Lois rested, slept: crumbled into
fresh atoms, woke at last with a strange sentience, and, when God
smiled permission through the summer sun, flashed forth in a wild
ecstasy of the true beauty that she loved so well. In no
questioning, sad pallor of sombre leaves or gray lichens:
throbbed out rather in answering crimsons, in lilies, white,
exultant in a chordant life!

Yet, more than this: I strive to grope, with dull, earthy sense,
at her freed life in that earnest land where souls forget to
hunger or to hope, and learn to be. And so thinking, the
certainty of her aim and work and love yonder comes with a new,
vital reality, beside which the story of the yet living men and
women of whom I have told you grows vague and incomplete, like
unguessed riddles. I have no key to solve them with,--no right
to solve them.

My story is but a mere groping hint? It lacks determined truth,
a certain yea and nay? It has no conduit of God's justice running
through it, awarding apparent good and ill? I know: it is a
story of To-Day. The Old Year is on us yet. Poor old Knowles
will tell you it is a dark day; bewildered at the inexplicable
failure of the cause for which his old blood ran like water that
dull morning at Ball's Bluff. He doubts everything in the
bitterness of wasted effort; doubts sometimes, even, if the very
flag he fights for, be not the symbol of a gigantic selfishness:
if the Wrong he calls his enemy, have not caught a certain truth
to give it strength. A dark day, he tells you: that the air is
filled with the cry of the slave, and of nations going down into
darkness, their message untold, their work undone: that now, as
eighteen centuries ago, the Helper stands unwelcome in the world;
that your own heart, as well as the great humanity, asks an
unrendered justice. Does he utter all the problems of To-Day?
Vandyke, standing higher, perhaps, or, at any rate, born with
hopefuller brain, would show you how, by the very instant peril
of the hour, is lifted clearer into view the eternal prophecy of
coming content: could tell you that the unquiet earth, and the
unanswering heaven are instinct with it: that the ungranted
prayer of your own life should teach it to you: that in that Book
wherein God has not scorned to write the history of America, he
finds the quiet surety that the rescue of the world is near at
hand.

Holmes, like most men who make destiny, does not pause in his
cool, slow work for their prophecy or lamentation. "Such men
will mould the age," old Knowles says, drearily, for he does not
like Holmes: follows him unwillingly, even knowing him nearer the
truth than he. "Born for mastership, as I told you long ago:
they strike the blow, while----. I'm tired of theorists,
exponents of the abstract right: your Hamlets, and your Sewards,
that let occasion slip until circumstance or--mobs drift them as
they will."

But Knowles's growls are unheeded, as usual.

What is this To-Day to Margret? She has no prophetic insight,
cares for none, I am afraid: the common things of every-day wear
their old faces to her, dear and real. Her haste is too eager to
allay the pain about her, her husband's touch too strong and
tender, the Master beside her too actual a presence, for her to
waste her life in visions. Something of Lois's live, universal
sympathy has come into her narrow, intenser nature; through its
one love, it may be. What is To-Morrow until it comes? This
moment the evening air thrills with a purple of which no painter
as yet has caught the tint, no poet the meaning; no silent face
passes her on the street on which a human voice might not have
charm to call out love and power: the Helper yet waits near her.
Here is work, life: the Old Year you despise holds beauty, pain,
content yet unmastered: let us leave Margret to master them.

It does not satisfy you? Child-souls, you tell me, like that of
Lois, may find it enough to hold no past and no future, to accept
the work of each moment, and think it no wrong to drink every
drop of its beauty and joy: we, who are wiser, laugh at them. It
may be: yet I say unto you, their angels only do always behold
the face of our Father in the New Year.

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