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 patched coat.
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 be quiet.
“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 chamber.
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 not.
“Let me stay til’ night,” she said. “I be n’t afraid o’ th’ mill.”
“Why, Lo,” he said, laughing, “yoh used to say yer death was hid here, somewheres.”
“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 me,–stay, father!”
“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 never forgot.
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 have risen.
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 reform.
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 earnest.
“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 think that.”
“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, eternal stars.
“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 unselfish heroism.”
“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 burnt.”
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 marriage?”
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 fashion.”
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 passages.
“Yoh hev n’t seen Barney out ‘t Mr. Howth’s, Doctor? He’s ther’ now.”
“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, pitiful.”
“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 eyes.
“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 head.
“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 for money,–money!
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 to snore.
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 coming.
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 plain-spoken.
“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!”
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 as cinnabar.
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 arson, eh?”
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 hands,–“I’ll not.”
He drove the hat down upon his head, and looked up with a sullen fierceness.
“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 the world?
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 peeped forth.
“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’ givin’ up.”
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 day,–every day.”
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 bear it!”
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 came uppermost.
“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 scoundrel!”
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 good-bye.”
She looked up cheerfully, hardly conscious how deep the danger had been; but the flush had gone from her face, leaving it sad and still.
“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 sometimes.
“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 hair.
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 down.
“Lois,” he said, “I want you to wish me a happy Christmas, as people do.”
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 presently.”
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 lying diviner.”
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 certain!”
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 to teach.
“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?”
“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 your religion.”
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 my cigar.”
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 words.
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 steady.
“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 did before.”
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 over pain.”
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 part well.”
“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 detection?”
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 satisfied yet.”
“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 hear it.”
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 slowly.
“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 time?”
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 you.”
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 unheeded.
“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 wrong unforgiven.”
“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 confession.
“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 amend.”
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 would.
“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 gold.
“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