It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
John Meadows had always been an active man, but now he was indefatigable. He was up at five every morning, and seemed ubiquitous; added a gray gelding to his black mare, and rode them both nearly off their legs. He surveyed land in half a dozen counties--he speculated in grain in half a dozen markets, and did business in shares. His plan in dealing with this ticklish speculation was simple. He listened to nothing anybody said, examined the venture himself, and, if it had a sound basis, bought when the herd was selling, and sold wherever the herd was buying. Hence, he bought cheap and sold dear.
He also lent money, and contrived to solve the usurers' problem--perfect security and huge interest.
He arrived at this by his own sagacity and the stupidity of mankind.
Mankind are not wanting in intelligence; but, as a body, they have one intellectual defect--they are muddle-heads.
Now these muddle-heads have agreed to say that land is in all cases five times a surer security for money lent than movables are. Whereas the fact is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Owing to the above delusion the proprietor of land can always borrow money at four per cent, and other proprietors are often driven to give ten--twenty--thirty.
So John Meadows lent mighty little upon land, but much upon oat-ricks, wagons, advantageous leases and such things, solid as land and more easily convertible into cash.
Thus without risk he got his twenty per cent. Not that he appeared in these transactions--he had too many good irons in the fire to let himself be called a usurer.
He worked this business as three thousand respectable men are working it in this nation. He had a human money-bag, whose strings he went behind a screen and pulled.
The human money-bag of Meadows was Peter Crawley.
This Peter Crawley, some years before our tale, lay crushed beneath a barrowful of debts--many of them to publicans. In him others saw a cunning fool and a sot--Meadows an unscrupulous tool. Meadows wanted a tool, and knew the cheapest way to get the thing was to buy it, so he bought up all Crawley's debts, sued him, got judgments out against him, and raising the ax of the law over Peter's head with his right hand, offered him the left hand of fellowship with his left. Down on his knees went Crawley and resigned his existence to this great man.
Human creatures, whose mission it is to do whatever a man secretly bids them, are not entitled to long and interesting descriptions.
Crawley was fifty, wore a brown wig, the only thing about him that did not attempt disguise, and slouched in a brown coat and a shirt peppered with snuff.
In this life he was an infinitesimal attorney. Previously, unless Pythagoras was a goose, he had been a pole-cat.
Meadows was ambidexter. The two hands he gathered coin with were Meadows and Crawley. The first his honest, hard-working hand; the second his three-fingered Jack, his prestidigital hand; with both he now worked harder than ever. He hurried from business to business--could not wait to chat, or drink a glass of ale after it; it was all work! work! work!--money! money! money! with John Meadows, and everything he touched turned to gold in his hands; yet for all this burning activity the man's heart had never been so little in business. His activity was the struggle of a sensible, strong mind to fight against its one weakness.
"Cedit amor rebus; res age tutus eris," is a very wise saying, and Meadows, by his own observation and instinct, sought the best antidote for love.
But the Latins had another true saying, that "nobody is wise at all hours."
After his day of toil and success he used to be guilty of a sad inconsistency. He shut himself up at home for two hours, and smoked his pipe, and ran his eye over the newspaper, but his mind over Susan Merton.
Worse than this, in his frequent rides he used to go a mile or two out of his way to pass Grassmere farmhouse; and however fast he rode the rest of his journey he always let his nag walk by the farmhouse, and his eye brightened with hope as he approached it, and his heart sank as he passed it without seeing Susan.
He now bitterly regretted the vow he had made, never to visit the Mertons again unless they sent for him.
"They have forgotten me altogether," said he bitterly. "Well, the best thing I can do is to forget them."
Now, Susan had forgotten him; she was absorbed in her own grief; but Merton was laboring under a fit of rheumatism, and this was the reason why Meadows and he did not meet. In fact, farmer Merton often said to his daughter, "John Meadows has not been to see us a long while."
"Hasn't he, father?" was Susan's languid and careless reply.
One Sunday, Meadows, weakened by his inner struggle, could not help going to Grassmere church. At least he would see her face. He had seated himself where he could see her. She took her old place by the pillar; nobody was near her. The light from a side window streamed full upon her. She was pale, and the languor of sorrow was upon every part of her face, but she was lovely as ever.
Meadows watched her, and noticed that more than once without any visible reason her eyes filled with tears, but she shed none. He saw how hard she tried to give her whole soul to the services of the church and to the word of the preacher; he saw her succeed for a few minutes at a time, and then with a lover's keen eye he saw her heart fly away in a moment from prayer and praise and consolation, and follow and overtake the ship that was carrying her George farther and farther away from her across the sea; and then her lips quivered with earthly sorrow even as she repeated words that came from Heaven, and tried to bind to her heavy heart the prayers for succor in every mortal ill, the promises of help in every mortal woe, with which holy Church and holier Writ comfort her and all the pure of heart in every age.
Then Meadows, who up to this moment had been pitying himself, had a better thought and pitied Susan. He even went so far as to feel that he ought to pity George, but he did not do it; he could not, he envied him too much; but he pitied Susan, and he longed to say something kind and friendly to her, even though there should not be a word or a look of love in it.
Susan went out by one of the church doors, Meadows by another, intending to meet her casually upon the road home. Susan saw his intention and took another path, so that he could not come up with her without following her.
Meadows turned upon his heel and went home with his heart full of bitterness.
"She hates the sight of me," was his interpretation.
Poor Susan, she hated nobody, she only hated to have to speak to a stranger, and to listen to a stranger; and in her present grief all were strangers to her except him she had lost and her father. She avoided Meadows not because he was Meadows, but because she wanted to be alone.
Meadows rode home despondently, then he fell to abusing his folly, and vowed he would think of her no more.
The next day, finding himself, at six o'clock in the evening, seated by the fire in a reverie, he suddenly started fiercely up, saddled his horse, and rode into Newborough, and, putting up his horse, strolled about the streets and tried to amuse himself looking at the shops before they closed.
Now it so happened that, stopping before a bookseller's shop, he saw advertised a work upon "The Australian Colonies."
"Confound Australia!" said Meadows to himself, and turned on his heel, but the next moment, with a sudden change of mind, he returned and bought the book. He did more, he gave the tradesman an order for every approved work on Australia that was to be had.
The bookseller, as it happened, was going up to London next day, so that in the evening Meadows had some dozen volumes in his house, and a tolerably correct map of certain Australian districts.
"Let me see," said Meadows, "what chance that chap has of making a thousand pounds out there." This was no doubt the beginning of it, but it did not end there. The intelligent Meadows had not read a hundred pages before he found out what a wonderful country this Australia is, how worthy a money-getter's attention or any thoughtful man's.
It seemed as if his rival drew Meadows after him wherever he went, so fascinated was he with this subject. And now all the evening he sucked the books like a leech.
Men observed, about this time, an irritable manner in Mr. Meadows which he had never shown before, and an eternal restlessness; they little divined the cause, or dreamed what a vow he had made, and what it cost him every day to keep it. So strong was the struggle within him, that there were moments when he feared he should go mad; and then it was that he learned the value of his mother's presence in the house.
There was no explanation between them, there could be no sympathy; had he opened his heart to her he knew she would have denounced his love for Susan Merton as a damnable crime. Once she invited his confidence. "What ails you, John?" said the old woman. "You had better tell me; you would feel easier, I'm thinking."
But he turned it off a little fretfully, and she never returned to the charge. But though there could be no direct sympathy, yet there was a soothing influence in this quaint old woman's presence. She moved quietly about, protecting his habits, not disturbing them; she seemed very thoughtful, too, and cast many a secret glance of inquiry and interest at him when he was not looking at her.
This had gone on some weeks when, one afternoon, Meadows, who had been silent as death for a full half hour, started from his chair and said with sudden resolution:
"Mother, I must leave this part of the country for a while."
"That is news, John."
"Yes. I shall go into the mining district for six months or a year, perhaps."
"Well! go, John! you want a change. I think you can't do better than go."
"I will, and no later than to-morrow."
"That is sudden."
"If I was to give myself time to think, I should never go at all."
He went out briskly with the energy of this determination.
The same evening, about seven o'clock, as he sat reading by the fire, an unexpected visitor was announced--Mr. Merton.
He came cordially in and scolded Meadows for never having been to see him.
"I know you are a busy man," said the old farmer, "but you might have given us a look in coming home from market; it is only a mile out of the way, and you are pretty well mounted in a general way."
Then the old man, a gossip, took up one of Meadows' books. "Australia! ah!" grunted Merton, and dropped it like a hot potato; he tried another, "Why, this is Australia, too; why, they are all Australia, as I am a living sinner." And he looked with a rueful curiosity into Meadows' face.
Meadows colored, but soon recovered his external composure.
"I have friends there," said he hastily, "who tell me there are capital investments in that country, and they say no more than the truth."
"Do you think he will do any good out there?" asked the old man, lowering his voice.
"I can't say," answered Meadows dryly.
"Tell us something about that country, John," said Merton; "and if you was to ask me to take a glass of your home-brewed ale I don't think I should gainsay you."
The ale was sent for, and over it Meadows, whose powers of acquisition extended to facts as well as money, and who was full of this new subject, poured the agricultural contents of a dozen volumes into Mr. Merton.
The old farmer sat open-mouthed, transfixed with interest, listening to his friend's clear, intelligent and masterly descriptions of this wonderful land. At last the clock struck nine; he started up in astonishment.
"I shall get a scolding if I stay later," said he, and off he went to Grassmere.
"Have you nothing else to say to me?" asked Meadows, as the farmer put his foot in the stirrup.
"Not that I know of," replied the other, and cantered away.
"Confound him!" muttered Meadows; "he comes and stops here three hours, drinks my ale, gets my knowledge without the trouble of digging for't, and goes away, and not a word from Susan, or even a word about her--one word would have paid me for all this loss of time--but no, I was not to have it. I will be in Devonshire this time to-morrow--no, to-morrow is market day--but the day after I will go. I cannot live here and not see her, nor speak to her--'twill drive me mad."
The next morning, as Meadows mounted his horse to ride to market, a carter's boy came up to him, and taking off his hat and pulling his head down by the front lock by way of salute, put a note into his hand. Meadows took it and opened it carelessly; it was a handwriting he did not know. But his eye had no sooner glanced at the signature than his eyes gleamed and his whole frame trembled with emotion he could hardly hide. This was the letter:
"DEAR MR. MEADOWS--We have not seen you here a long time, and if you could take a cup of tea with us on your way home from market, my father would be glad to see you, if it is not troubling you too much.
"I believe he has some calves he wishes to show you.
"I am, yours respectfully,
"P. S.--Father has been confined by rheumatism, and I have not been well this last month."
Meadows turned away from the messenger, and said quietly, "Tell Miss Merton I will come, if possible." He then galloped off, and as soon as there was no one in sight gave vent to his face and his exulting soul.
Now he congratulated himself on his goodness in making a certain vow and his firmness in keeping it.
"I kept out of their way, and they have invited me; my conscience is clear."
He then asked himself why Susan had invited him; and he could not but augur the most favorable results from this act on her part. True, his manner to her had never gone beyond friendship, but women, he argued, are quick to discern their admirers under every disguise. She was dull and out of spirits, and wrote for him to come to her; this was a great point, a good beginning. "The sea is between her and George, and I am here, with time and opportunity on my side," said Meadows; and as these thoughts coursed through his heart, his gray nag, spurred by an unconscious heel, broke into a hand-gallop, and after an hour and a half hard riding they clattered into the town of Newborough.
The habit of driving hard bargains is a good thing for teaching a man to suppress his feelings and feign indifference, yet the civil nonchalance with which Meadows, on his return from Newborough, walked into the Merton's parlor cost him no ordinary struggle.
The farmer received him cordially--Susan civilly, and with a somewhat feeble smile. The former soon engaged him in agricultural talk. Susan, meanwhile, made the tea in silence, and Meadows began to think she was capricious, and had no sooner got what she asked for than she did not care for it. After a while, however, she put in a word here and there, but with a discouraging languor.
Presently Farmer Merton brought her his tea-cup to be replenished, and upon this opportunity Susan said a word to her father in an undertone.
"Oh, ay!" replied the farmer very loud indeed; and Susan colored.
"What was you saying to me about that country--that Christmas-day is the hottest day in the year?" began Mr. Merton.
Meadows assented, and Merton proceeded to put other questions, in order, it appeared, to draw once more from Meadows the interesting information of last night.
Meadows answered shortly and with repugnance. Then Susan put in: "And is it true, sir, that the flowers are beautiful to the eye, but have no smell, and that the birds have all gay feathers, but no song?" Then Susan, scarcely giving him time to answer, proceeded to put several questions, and her manner was no longer languid, but bright and animated. She wound up her interrogatories with this climax:
"And do you think, sir, it is a country where George will be able to do any good. And will he have his health in that land, so far from every one to take care of him?"
And this doubt raised, the bright eyes were dimmed with tears in a moment.
Meadows gasped out, "Why not? why not?" but soon after, muttering some excuse about his horse, he went out with a promise to return immediately.
He was no sooner alone than he gave way to a burst of rage and bitterness.
"So, she only sent for me here to make me tell her about that infernal country where her George is. I'll ride home this instant--this very instant--without bidding them good-by."
Cooler thoughts came. He mused deeply a few minutes, and then, clinching his teeth, returned slowly to the little parlor: he sat down and took his line with a brisk and cheerful air.
"You were asking me some questions about Australia. I can tell you all about that country, for I have a relation there who writes to me. And I have read all the books about it, too, as it happens."
Susan brightened up.
Meadows, by a great histrionic effort, brightened up, too, and poured out a flood of really interesting facts and anecdotes about this marvelous land.
Then, in the middle of a narrative, which enchained both his hearers, he suddenly looked at his watch, and putting on a fictitious look of dismay and annoyance, started up with many excuses and went home--not, however, till Susan had made him promise to come again next market-day.
As he rode home in the moonlight Susan's face seemed still before him. The bright look of interest she had given him, the grateful smiles with which she had thanked him for his narration--all this had been so sweet at the moment, so bitter upon the least reflection. His mind was in a whirl. At last he grasped at one idea, and held it as with a vise.
"I shall be always welcome to her if I can bring myself to talk about that detestable country. Well, I will grind my tongue down to it. She shall not be able to do without my chat; that shall be the beginning; the middle shall be different; the end shall be just the opposite. The sea is between him and her. I am here with opportunity, resolution and money. I will have her!"
The next morning his mother said to him:
"John, do you think to go to-day?"
"The journey you spoke of."
"Among the mines."
"You have changed your mind, then?"
"What, didn't you see I was joking?"
"No!" (very dryly.)
Soon after this little dialogue Dame Meadows proposed to end her visit and return home. Her son yielded a cheerful assent. She went gravely and quietly back to her little cottage.
Meadows had determined to make himself necessary to Susan Merton. He brought a woman's cunning to bear against a woman's; for the artifice to which his strong will bent his supple talent is one that many women have had the tact and temporary self-denial to carry out, but not one man in a hundred.
Men try to beat an absent rival by sneering at him, etc. By which means the asses make their absent foe present to her mind and enlist the whole woman in his defense.
But Meadows was no ordinary man. Susan had given his quick intelligence a glimpse of a way to please her. He looked at the end, and crushed his will down to the thorny means.
Twice a week he called on the Mertons, and much of his talk was Australia. Susan was grateful. To hear of the place where George would soon be was the nearest approach she could make to hearing of George.
As for Meadows, he gained a great point, but he went through tortures on the way. He could not hide from himself why he was so welcome; and many a time as he rode home from the Mertons he resolved never to return there, but he took no more oaths; it had cost him so much to keep the last; and that befell which might have been expected, after a while, the pleasure of being near the woman he loved, of being distinguished by her and greeted with pleasure however slight, grew into a habit and a need.
Achilles was a man of steel, but he had a vulnerable part; and iron natures like John Meadows have often one spot in their souls where they are far tenderer than the universal dove-eyed, and weaker than the omnipotent. He never spoke a word of love to Susan, he knew it would spoil all; and she, occupied with another's image, and looking upon herself as confessedly belonging to another, never suspected the deep passion that filled this man's heart. But if an observer of nature had accompanied John Meadows on market-day he might have seen--diagnostics.
All the morning his eye was cold and quick; his mouth, when silent, close, firm, and unreadable; his voice clear, decided, and occasionally loud. But when he got to old Merton's fireside he mellowed and softened like the sun toward evening. There his forehead unknit itself; his voice, pitched in quite a different key from his key of business, turned also low and gentle, and soothed and secretly won the hearer by its deep, rich and pleasant modulation and variety; and his eye turned deeper in color, and, losing its keenness and restlessness, dwelt calmly and pensively for minutes at a time upon some little household object close to Susan; seldom, unless quite unobserved, upon Susan herself.
But the surrounding rustics suspected nothing, so calm and deep ran Meadows.
"Dear heart," said Susan to her father, "who would have thought Mr. Meadows would come a mile out of his way twice a week to talk to me about Geo--about the country where my heart is--and the folk say he thinks of nothing but money and won't move a step without making it."
"The folk are envious of him, girl--that is all. John Meadows is too clever for fools, and too industrious for the lazy ones; he is a good friend of mine, Susan; if I wanted to borrow a thousand pounds I have only to draw on Meadows; he has told me so half a dozen times."
"We don't want his money, father," replied Susan, "nor anybody's; but I think a great deal of his kindness, and George shall thank him when he comes home--if ever he comes home to Susan again." These last words brought many tears with them, which the old farmer pretended not to notice, for he was getting tired of his daughter's tears. They were always flowing now at the least word, "and she used to be so good-humored and cheerful-like."
Poor Susan! she was very unhappy. If any one had said to her, "to-morrow you die," she would have smiled on her own account, and only sighed at the pain the news would cause poor George. Her George was gone, her mother had been dead this two years. Her life, which had been full of innocent pleasures, was now utterly tasteless, except in its hours of bitterness when sorrow overcame her like a flood. She had a pretty flower-garden in which she used to work. When George was at home what pleasure it had been to plant them with her lover's help, to watch them expand, to water them in the summer evening, to smell their gratitude for the artificial shower after a sultry day, and then to have George in, and set him admiring them with such threadbare enthusiasm, simply because they were hers, not in the least because they were Nature's.
I will go back, like the epic writers, and sketch one of their little garden scenes.
One evening, after watering them all, she sat down on a seat at the bottom of the garden, and casting her eyes over her whole domain, said, "Well, now, I do admire flowers; don't you, George?"
"That I do," replied George, taking another seat, and coolly turning his back on the parterre, and gazing mildly into Susan's eyes.
"Why, he is not even looking at them!" cried Susan, and she clapped her hands and laughed gleefully.
"Oh, yes, he is; leastways he is looking at one of them, and the brightest of the lot to my fancy."
Susan colored with pleasure. In the country compliments don't drip constantly on beauty even from the lips of love. Then, suppressing her satisfaction, she said, "You will look for a flower in return for that, young man; come and let us see whether there is one good enough for you." So then they took hands, and Susan drew him demurely about the garden. Presently she stopped with a little start of hypocritical admiration; at their feet shone a marigold. Susan culled the gaudy flower and placed it affectionately in George's buttonhole. He received it proudly, and shaking hands with her, for it was time to part, turned away slowly. She let him take a step or two, then called him back. "He was really going off with that nasty thing." She took it out of his buttonhole, rubbed it against his nose with well-feigned anger and then threw it away.
"You are all behind in flowers, George," said Susan; "here, this is good enough for you," and she brought out from under her apron, where she had carried the furtively culled treasure, a lovely clove-pink. Pretty soul, she had nursed and watered and cherished this choice flower this three weeks past for George, and this was her way of giving it him at last; so a true woman gives--(her life, if need be). George took it and smelled it, and lingered a moment at the garden gate, and moralized on it. "Well, Susan, dear, now I'm not so deep in flowers as you, but I like this a deal better than the marigold, and I'll tell you for why; it is more like you, Susan."
"I see flowers that are pretty, but have no smell, and I see women that have good looks, but no great wisdom nor goodness when you come nearer to them. Now the marigold is like those lasses; but this pink is good as well as pretty, so then it will stand for you, when we are apart, as we mostly are--worse luck for me."
"Oh, George," said Susan, dropping her quizzing manner, "I am a long way behind the marigold or any flower in comeliness and innocence, but at least I wish I was better."
"Ay, but I do, ten times better, for--for--"
"For why, Susan?"
Susan closed the garden gate and took a step toward the house. Then, turning her head over her shoulder, with an ineffable look of tenderness, tipped with one tint of lingering archness, she let fall, "For your sake, George," in the direction of George's feet, and glided across the garden into the house.
George stood watching her. He did not at first take up all she had bestowed on him, for her sex has peculiar mastery over language, being diabolically angelically subtle in the art of saying something that expresses 1 oz. and implies 1 cwt.; but when he did comprehend, his heart exulted. He strode home as if he trod on air and often kissed the little flower he had taken from the beloved hand, "and with it words of so sweet breath composed, as made the thing more rich;" and as he marched past the house kissing the flower, need I tell my reader that so innocent a girl as Susan was too high-minded to watch the effect of her proceedings from behind the curtains? I hope not, it would surely be superfluous to relate what none would be green enough to believe.
These were Susan's happy days. Now all was changed. She hated to water her flowers now. She bade one of the farm-servants look to the garden. He accepted the charge, and her flowers' drooping heads told how nobly he had fulfilled it. Susan was charitable. Every day it had been her custom to visit more than one poor person; she carried meal to one, soup to another, linen to another, meat and bread to another, money to another--to all words and looks of sympathy. This practice she did not even now give up, for it came under the head of her religious duties; but she relaxed it. She often sent to places where she used to go. Until George went she had never thought of herself; and so the selfishness of those she relieved had not struck her. Now it made her bitter to see that none of those she pitied, pitied her. The moment she came into their houses it was, "My poor head, Miss Merton; my old bones do ache so."
"I think a bit of your nice bacon would do ME good. I'M a poor sufferer, Miss Merton. My boy is 'listed. I thought as how you'd forgotten me altogether. But 'tis hard for poor folk to keep a friend." "You see, miss, my bedroom window is broken in one or two places. John, he stopped it up with paper the best way he could, but la, bless you, paper baint like glass. It is very dull for me. You see, miss, I can't get about now as I used to could, and I never was no great reader. I often wish as some one would step in and knock me on the head, for I be no use, I baint, neer a mossel." No one of them looked up in her face and said, "Lauks, how pale you ha got to look, miss; I hopes as how nothing amiss haven't happened to you, that have been so kind to us this many a day." Yet suffering of some sort was plainly stamped on the face and in the manner of this relieving angel. When they poured out their vulgar woes, Susan made an effort to forget her own and to cheer as well as relieve them. But she had to compress her own heart hard to do it; and this suppression of feeling makes people more or less bitter. She had better have out with it, and scolded them well for talking as if they alone were unhappy; but her woman's nature would not let her. They kept asking her for pity, and she still gulped down her own heart and gave it them, till at last she began to take a spite against her pets; so then she sent to most of them instead of going. She sent rather larger slices of beef and bacon, and rather more yards of flannel than when she used to carry the like to them herself. Susan had one or two young friends, daughters of farmers in the neighborhood, with whom she was a favorite, though the gayer ones sometimes quizzed her for her religious tendencies, and her lamentable indifference to flirtation. But then she was so good and so good-humored. and so tolerant of other people's tastes. The prattle of these young ladies became now intolerable to Susan, and when she saw them coming to call on her she used to snatch up her bonnet and fly and lock herself up in a closet at the top of the house, and read some good book as quiet as a mouse, till the servants had hunted for her and told them she must be out. She was not in a frame of mind to sustain tarlatans, barege, the history of the last hop, and the prophecies of the next; the wounded deer shrunk from its gamboling associates, and indeed from all strangers, except John Meadows. "He talks to me about something worth talking about," said Susan Merton. It happened one day, while Susan was in this sad and I may say dangerous state of mind, that the servant came up to her, and told her a gentleman was on his horse at the door, and wanted to see Mr. Merton.
"Father is at market, Jane."
"Yes, miss, but I told the gentleman you were at home."
"Me! what have I to do with father's visitors?"
"Miss," replied Jane mysteriously, "it is a parson, and you are so fond of them, I could not think to let him go away without getting a word with anybody; and he has such a face. La, miss, you never saw such a face."
"Silly girl, what have I to do with handsome faces?"
"But he is not handsome, miss, not in the least, only he is beautiful. You go and see else."
"I hate strangers' faces, but I will go to him, Jane; it is my duty, since it is a clergyman. I will just go upstairs."
"La, miss, what for? you are always neat, you are--nobody ever catches you in your dishables like the rest of 'em."
"I'll just smooth my hair."
"La, miss, what for? it is smooth as marble--it always is."
"Where is he, Jane?"
"In the front parlor."
"I won't be a moment."
She went upstairs. There was no necessity; Jane was right there; but it was a strict custom in the country, and is, for that matter, and will be till time and vanity shall be no more. More majorum a girl must go up and look at herself in the glass if she did nothing more, before coming in to receive company.
Susan entered the parlor; she came in so gently that she had a moment to observe her visitor before he saw her. He had seated himself with his back to the light, and was devouring a stupid book on husbandry that belonged to her father. The moment she closed the door he saw her and rose from his seat.
"The living of this place has been vacant more than a month."
"It will not be filled up for three months, perhaps."
"So we hear, sir."
"Meantime you have no church to go to nearer than Barmstoke, which is a chapel-of-ease to this place, but two miles distant."
"Two miles and a half, sir."
"So then the people here have no divine service on the Lord's day."
"No, sir, not for the present," said Susan meekly, lowering her lashes, as if the clergyman had said, "This is a parish of heathens, whereof you are one."
"Nor any servant of God to say a word of humility and charity to the rich, of eternal hope to the poor, and" (here his voice sunk into sudden tenderness) "of comfort to the sorrowful."
Susan raised her eyes and looked him over with one dove-like glance, then instantly lowered them.
"No, sir, we are all under a cloud here," said Susan sadly.
"Miss Merton, I have undertaken the duty here until the living shall be filled up; but you shall understand that I live thirty miles off, and have other duties, and I can only ride over here on Saturday afternoon and back Monday at noon."
"Oh, sir!" cried Susan, "half a loaf is better than no bread! The parish will bless you, sir, and no doubt," added she timidly, "the Lord will reward you for coming so far to us."
"I am glad you think so," said the clergyman thoughtfully. "Well, let us do the best we can. Tell me first, Miss Merton, do you think the absence of a clergyman is regretted here?"
"Regretted, sir! dear heart, what a question. You might as well ask me do father's turnips long for rain after a month's drought;" and Susan turned on her visitor a face into which the innocent venerating love her sex have for an ecclesiastic flashed without disguise.
Her companion smiled, but it was with benevolence, not with gratified vanity.
"Let me explain my visit. Your father is one of the principal people in the village. He can assist me or thwart me in my work. I called to invite his co-operation. Some clergymen are jealous of co-operation; I am not. It is a good thing for all parties; best of all for those who co-operate with us; for in giving alms wisely they receive grace, and in teaching the ignorant they learn themselves. Am I right?" added he rather sharply, turning suddenly upon Susan.
"Oh, sir," said Susan, a little startled, "it is for me to receive your words, not to judge them."
"Humph!" said the reverend gentleman rather dryly; he hated intellectual subserviency. He liked people to think for them-selves; and to end by thinking with him.
"Father will never thwart you, sir, and I--I will co-operate with you, sir, if you will accept of me," said Susan innocently.
"Thank you, then let us begin at once." He took out his watch. "I have an hour and a half to spare, then I must gallop back to Oxford. Miss Merton, I should like to make acquaintance with some of the people. Suppose we go to the school, and see what the children are learning, and then visit one or two families in the village, so I shall catch a glimpse of the three generations I have to deal with. My name is Francis Eden. You are going to get your bonnet?"
They passed out through the garden. Mr. Eden stopped to look at the flowers. Susan colored.
"It has been rather neglected of late," said she apologetically.
"It must have been very well taken care of before, then," said he, "for it looks charming now. Ah! I love flowers dearly!" and he gave a little sigh.
They reached the school, and Mr. Eden sat down and examined the little boys and girls. When he sat down Susan winced. How angry he will be at their ignorance! thought Susan. But Mr. Eden, instead of putting on an awful look, and impressing on the children that a being of another generation was about to attack them, made himself young to meet their minds. A pleasant smile disarmed their fears. He spoke to them in very simple words and childish idioms, and told them a pretty story, which interested them mightily. Having set their minds really working, he put questions arising fairly out of his story, and so fathomed the moral sense and the intelligence of more than one. In short, he drew the brats out instead of crushing them in. Susan stood by, at first startled at the line he took, then observant, then approving. Presently he turned to her.
"And which is your class, Miss Merton?"
"I take these little girls when I come, sir.
"Miss Merton has not been here this fortnight," said a pert teacher.
Susan could have beat her. What will this good man think of me now? thought poor Susan. To her grateful relief, the good man took no notice of the observation; he looked at his watch.
"Now, Miss Merton, if I am not giving you too much trouble," and they left the school.
"You wish to see some of the folk in the village, sir?"
"Where shall I take you first, sir?"
"Where I ought to go first."
Susan looked puzzled.
Mr. Eden stopped dead short.
"Come, guess," said he, with a radiant smile, "and don't look so scared. I'll forgive you if you guess wrong."
Susan looked this way and that, encouraged by his merry smile. She let out--scarce above a whisper, and in a tone of interrogation, as who should say this is not to be my last chance since I have only asked a question not risked an answer--
"To the poorest, Mr. Eden?"
"Brava! she has guessed it," cried the Reverend Frank triumphantly; for he had been more anxious she should answer right than she had herself. "Young lady, I have friends with their heads full of Latin and Greek who could not have answered that so quickly as you; one proof more how goodness brightens intelligence," added he in soliloquy. "Here's a cottage."
"Yes, sir, I was going to take you into this one, if you please."
They found in the cottage a rheumatic old man, one of those we alluded to as full of his own complaints. Mr. Eden heard these with patience, and then, after a few words of kind sympathy and acquiescence, for he was none of those hard humbugs who tell a man that old age, rheumatism and poverty are strokes with a feather, he said quietly:
"And now for the other side; now tell me what you have to be grateful for."
The old man was taken aback and his fluency deserted him. On the question being repeated, he began to say that he had many mercies to be thankful for. Then he higgled and hammered and fumbled for the said mercies, and tried to enumerate them, but in phrases conventional and derived from tracts and sermons; whereas his statement of grievances had been idiomatic.
"There, that will do," said Mr. Eden smiling, "say nothing you don't feel; what is the use? May I ask you a few questions," added he, courteously; then, without waiting for permission, he dived skillfully into this man's life, and fished up all the pearls--the more remarkable passages.
Many years ago this old man had been a soldier, had fought in more than one great battle, had retreated with Sir John Moore upon Corunna, and been one of the battered and weary but invincible band who wheeled round and stunned the pursuers on 'that bloody and glorious day. Mr. Eden went with the old man to Spain, discussed with great animation the retreat, the battle, the position of the forces, and the old soldier's personal prowess. Old Giles perked up, and dilated, and was another man; he forgot his rheumatism, and even his old age. Twice he suddenly stood upright as a dart on the floor, and gave the word of command like a trumpet in some brave captain's name; and his cheek flushed, and his eye glittered with the light of battle. Susan looked at him with astonishment. Then when his heart was warm and his spirits attentive Mr. Eden began to throw in a few words of exhortation. But even then he did not bully the man into being a Christian; gently, firmly, and with a winning modesty, he said: "I think you have much to be thankful for, like all the rest of us. Is it not a mercy you were not cut off in your wild and dissolute youth? you might have been slain in battle."
"That I might, sir; three of us went from this parish and only one came home again.
"You might have lost a leg or an arm, as many a brave fellow did; you might have been a cripple all your days."
"That is true, sir."
"You survive here in a Christian land, in possession of your faculties; the world, it is true, has but few pleasures to offer you--all the better for you. Oh, if I could but make that as plain to you as it is to me. You have every encouragement to look for happiness there, where alone it is to be found. Then courage, corporal; you stood firm at Corunna--do not give way in this your last and most glorious battle. The stake is greater than it was at Vittoria, or Salamanca, or Corunna, or Waterloo. The eternal welfare of a single human soul weighs a thousand times more than all the crowns and empires in the globe. You are in danger, sir. Discontent is a great enemy of the soul. You must pray against it--you must fight against it."
"And so I will, sir; you see if I don't."
"You read, Mr. Giles?" Susan had told Mr. Eden his name at the threshold.
"Yes, sir; but I can't abide them nasty little prints they bring me."
"Of course you can't. Printed to sell, not to read, eh? Here is a book. The type is large, clear and sharp. This is an order-book, corporal. It comes from the great Captain of our salvation. Every sentence in it is gold; yet I think I may safely pick out a few for your especial use at present." And Mr. Eden sat down, and producing from his side pockets, which were very profound, some long thin slips of paper, he rapidly turned the leaves of the Testament and inserted his markers; but this occupation did not for a moment interrupt his other proceedings.
"There is a pipe--you don't smoke, I hope?"
"No, sir; leastways not when I han't got any baccy, and I've been out of that this three days--worse luck."
"Give up smoking, corporal, it is a foul habit."
"Ah, sir! you don't ever have a half-empty belly and a sorrowful heart, or you wouldn't tell an old soldier to give up his pipe."
"Take my advice. Give up all such false consolation, to oblige me, now."
"Well, sir, to oblige you, I'll try; but you don't know what his pipe is to a poor old man full of nothing but aches and pains, or you wouldn't have asked me," and old Giles sighed. Susan sighed, too, for she thought Mr. Eden cruel for once.
"Miss Merton," said the latter sternly, his eye twinkling all the time, "he is incorrigible; and I see you agree with me that it is idle to torment the incurable. So" (diving into the capacious pocket) "here is an ounce of his beloved poison," and out came a paper of tobacco. Corporal's eyes brightened with surprise and satisfaction. "Poison him, Miss Merton, poison him quick, don't keep him waiting."
"Poison him, sir?"
"Fill his pipe for him, if you please."
"That I will, sir, with pleasure." A white hand with quick and supple fingers filled the brown pipe.
"That is as it should be. Let beauty pay honor to courage; above all to courage in its decay."
The old man grinned with gratified pride. The white hand lighted the pipe, and gave it to the old soldier. He smiled gratefully all round and sucked his homely consolation.
"I compound with you, corporal. You must let me put you on the road to heaven, and, in return, I must let you go there in a cloud of tobacco--ugh!"
"I'm agreeable, sir," said Giles dryly, withdrawing his pipe for a moment.
"There," said Mr. Eden, closing the marked Testament, "read often in this book. Read first the verses I have marked, for these very verses have dropped comfort on the poor, the aged and the distressed for more than eighteen hundred years, and will till time shall be no more. And now good-by, and God bless you."
"God bless you, sir, wherever you go!" cried the old man with sudden energy, "for you have comforted my poor old heart. I feel as I han't felt this many a day. Your words are like the bugles sounding a charge all down the line. You must go, I suppose; but do ye come again and see me. And, Miss Merton, you never come to see me now, as you used."
"Miss Merton has her occupations like the rest of us," said Mr. Eden quickly; "but she will come to see you--won't she?"
"Oh, yes, sir!" replied Susan, hastily. So then they returned to the farm, for Mr. Eden's horse was in the stable. At the door they found Mr. Merton.
"This is father, sir. Father, this is Mr. Eden, that is coming to take the duty here for a while."
After the ordinary civilities Susan drew her father aside, and, exchanging a few words with him, disappeared into the house. As Mr. Eden was mounting his horse, Mr. Merton came forward and invited him to stay at his house whenever he should come to the parish. Mr. Eden hesitated.
"Sir," said the farmer, "you will find no lodgings comfortable within a mile of the church, and we have a large house not half occupied. You can make yourself quite at home."
"I am much obliged to you, Mr. Merton, but must not trespass too far upon your courtesy."
"Well, sir," replied the farmer, "we shall feel proud if you can put up with the like of us."
"I will come. I am much obliged to you, sir, and to your daughter."
He mounted his horse and bade the farmer good morning. Susan came out and stood on the steps and curtsied low--rustic fashion--but with a grace of her own. He took off his hat to her as he rode out of the gate, gave her a sweet, bright smile of adieu, and went down the lane fourteen miles an hour. Old Giles was seated outside his own door with a pipe and a book. At the sound of horses' feet he looked up and recognized his visitor, whom he had seen pass in the morning. He rose up erect and saluted him, by bringing his thumb with a military wave to his forehead. Mr. Eden saluted him in the same manner, but without stopping. The old soldier sat down again and read and smoked. The pipe ended--that solace was not of an immortal kind--but the book remained; he read it calmly but earnestly in the warm air till day declined.