The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXVI. In Honour's Ways
O memories that bless and burn, O barren gain and bitter loss, I kiss each bead and try at last to learn To kiss the cross.
Arthur went to Brandon that night, presumably on business relating to his house-furnishing. Not even Martha knew the nature of his visit to the Wheat City. It was late in the evening when he arrived, so late that he was unable to make any inquiries, but was forced to spend the night in uncertainty, with only his own gloomy thoughts for company. The varied night sounds of the city smote on his unaccustomed ear. The long hall of the hotel echoed the passing of many feet; doors slammed at intervals, and once a raucous voice called loudly for "Towels for '53'"; from the room next his came the sound of talking and laughter; farther down the hall a young baby cried dismally. Through the babel of voices came the regular pink-pank of a banjo in the parlour below. Outside, the wind raged against the frosted windows, train-bells rang and whistles blew all night long, and the pounding of horses' feet on the pavement never ceased--there seemed to be one long procession of heavy drays passing down the street.
In the quiet of his own house on Plover Creek Arthur had almost forgotten the outside world that never sleeps--the rushing, careless, inexorable world, that cannot be stayed or entreated. He had lived his life in the country, and he loved its silent places, the kindly silences of the country nights that lie so soothingly on the heart and brain. To-night, the roar of the Brandon street was full of evil significance, for this man, this interloper, whom his soul hated so bitterly, was part of the great uncaring throng that surged past; this rushing, jostling, aggressive life was what he stood for, this man who had stolen from him his heart's dearest treasure.
All night long Arthur lay staring into the darkness, trying to, fight out the greatest battle of his life; on one side Thursa and the memory of her kisses on his cheek, and on the other side honour and honesty, and all the traditions of his house; sometimes telling himself sternly that there was but one course open to him, and then, suddenly overcome by his love for her, crying out bitterly that he would never, never give her up. The pitch-black night seemed interminable to him, but dawn came at last, deep blue behind the frost-ferns on the window, slowly fading to pale azure, then suddenly changing to rosiest pink as the sun rolled up over the sandhills of the Assiniboine and sent his cheerful rays over an untroubled white world.
At half-past eight Arthur was walking the street. No one would imagine, to look at the quietly dressed young Englishman, that he was going through a severe mental struggle. Without any difficulty he found the store for which he was looking. The words on the sign, "J. C. Smeaton & Co., Dry Goods," in black and gold, seemed charged with open hostility.
A group of women stood in front of the door waiting for it to be opened. They were looking longingly at the window display of lace blouses, which were going to be sold, according to a staring sign, at half the regular price. They were the typical bargain-hunters, sharp-eyed and distrustful, and not particularly amiable. Early rising on a cold winter morning is at the best no aid to amiability, even if by the effort a ten-dollar blouse is bought for five.
The waiting group were discussing sales in general, and one woman was disposed to think that all sales were snares and delusions--she lived on Eighteenth Street, and had had to get up very early. Another woman exonerated herself from complicity in the matter of sales by saying that her sister-in-law had telephoned her to come down and get her a waist; she would never have come for herself, never! There was only one real optimist in the crowd--of course, optimism does not usually flourish before breakfast. She declared that Smeaton's sales were all right. If Smeaton advertised a sale it was a sale. People could say what they liked about Jack Smeaton, but she had always found him straight as a string.
Arthur hurried away--the woman's crude words of praise for the man he hated struck him like a blow between the eyes.
Arthur went first to a Church of England clergyman whom he knew slightly, and made inquiries. The clergyman was unable to give any information about the young man. He knew him well by sight, he said, but he had never spoken to him. He directed Arthur to go to one of the wardens of his church, a Mr. Bevan, who was one of the old-timers in Brandon and knew everybody.
To Mr. Bevan's office Arthur went, and waited there an hour, for the senior member of the firm of Bevan & Wallace, real estate brokers, did not begin the day very early. However, he did come at last, and looked sharply at Arthur's eager face as he made known his business.
"Smeaton?" Mr. Bevan cried, when Arthur was through speaking. "What do I know about young Jack Smeaton? What do you know about him? If you can tell me anything that he has been up to that is very bad, I'll be glad to hear it, the cheeky young beggar. Think of it! Last fall he went out making political speeches--I heard him! He's a rabid Grit, too, will stop at nothing to get a vote. Oh, yes, I know Jack Smeaton."
"Would you call him a man of honour?" Arthur asked.
"Man of honour?" the old man cried excitedly. "Bless your heart, what have I just told you? Didn't I say he was a Grit? Why don't you listen, man, to what I am telling you?" His voice fell to a confidential whisper. "Young Jack Smeaton is one of the strongest Grits in this city, and he has a very great influence on the young men, for they like him, mind you. Oh, he is a bad one, a deep one, and don't you forget it."
"Would you consider him a man worthy of trust?" Arthur said eagerly, trying to pierce through the old man's political prejudice.
"Trust!" the other man repeated, scorn, wonder, contempt in his voice. "Young man, where were you at the time of the last election? You talk like a man from Mars. Didn't you hear about the ballot-stuffing that went on here? How do you suppose the Grits carried this constituency? No, sir; I would not trust him, or any of them."
Arthur rose to go.
"My advice to you, young man, is to have no dealings with Jack Smeaton. He's pretty nearly sure to influence you, for, mind you, he has a way with him."
Arthur walked back to his room at the hotel with many conflicting emotions struggling in his heart. Jack Smeaton was evidently a man of strong character, and a flirtation such as he had carried on with Thursa would mean nothing to him--he had probably forgotten it by this time. Couldn't he honestly go back and tell Thursa that one of the church-wardens, to whom the clergyman had sent him for information, had told him emphatically to have nothing to do with Jack Smeaton? Thursa would ask to know nothing further. She had said, with that sweet look in her face, that if he came back and told her to forget this fellow she would marry him and do her best. Arthur recalled every tone of her dear voice, the touch of her soft little hands, as she drew his face down to hers when she said this. Thursa was his own. She had come from England as his affianced wife. What right had this adventurer to steal her away from him? Arthur clenched his fists and raged at the man who had done him this injury. He would go back to Thursa in the morning, and they would be happy yet. This man's name would never be mentioned again.
Arthur was not nearly so happy in this resolve as he expected to be. There was a distinct uneasiness in his heart that increased as the day went on. At five o'clock he stood outside the Smeaton store, to which he seemed drawn by a strange fascination. The man who was so largely in his thoughts was, no doubt, only a few feet away from him, happy, careless, prosperous, arrogant, having his own way by hook or crook. The clock struck the half-hour. The store would be closed six.
Arthur started back to the hotel. What did he care when the store closed? It was nothing to him. At the corner of Rosser and Eighth Street some Salvation Army people were holding a meeting, and as he passed through the crowd the tinkle of their cymbals in a familiar tune came to his ear. Then a dozen voices, clear and distinct, broke into singing:
If some poor wandering child of Thine, Has spurned to-day the voice divine, Now, Lord, the gracious work begin, Let him no more lie down in sin.
It brought him back to the old life at home, this dear old hymn of his childhood, with its old-fashioned, monotonous tune, and it awakened in his consciousness the voices he was trying hard to silence. A light shone in upon him and showed him a straight path, a hard road, set with thorns, which he must follow. The colour suddenly went from Arthur's face as he realized which way the path of honour led.
Abide with me from morn till eve, For without Thee I cannot live.
sang the Army, while Arthur, pale and trembling on the outer edge of the crowd, leaned against a lamppost for support. He did not hear the words they were singing, but the old tune beat into heart and brain the memories of his home and childhood. He saw his father's saintly face, proud and strong, unstained by any compromise with evil, and it called to him across the sea to play the man.
The Army had sung the hymn all through, and now they were kneeling in prayer; a thin-voiced girl led the petitions, while the others, frequently interjected exclamations of thanksgiving. Arthur did not hear a word of it, but into his troubled heart there came peace and the strength of God, which alone is able to make a man swear to his own hurt.
He walked rapidly back to the store he had left and asked to see Mr. Smeaton. Mr. Smeaton had his hat and coat on, about to leave the store, but he came back, and, taking Arthur into his office, offered him a chair.
Arthur remained standing, and, without speaking, gave the young man a searching glance. What he saw was a muscular young fellow, of about his own age, with clear gray eyes and curling brown hair. He was faultlessly dressed, and had an unmistakably straightforward expression and countenance.
"What can I do for you?" the young merchant asked.
Without a word Arthur took from his pocket Thursa's telegram. His hand trembled, and he had a queer, dizzy feeling as he did it, but he put it safely in the other man's hand.
Away across the sea, in the Rectory of St. Agnes, a gray-haired father and mother were praying for their boy so far away, and their prayer for him that day was not that he might have wealth, or ease, or fame, or the praise of men, nor that he might always gain his heart's desire--not that at all; they asked for him a greater gift still--that he might always walk in honour's ways.
Jack Smeaton's face was illumined with joy as he read Thursa's telegram.
"Did she send me this? Where is she? I want to see her--who are you?" he asked, all in one breath.
Something in Arthur's face told him who he was. "You are Arthur," he said gently.
The two young men stood looking at each other, but for a full minute neither spoke.
"I have only one question to ask you, Mr. Smeaton," Arthur said at last. "Do you love her?"
"I do," the other man replied, "as God hears me." And Arthur, looking into his clear gray eyes, believed him, and his last hope vanished.
"I feel like a miserable sneak in your presence," Jack Smeaton said humbly. "Upon my word, that enchanting little beauty turned my brain. Isn't she the most bewitching little girl in all the world?"
"I have always thought so," Arthur said quietly. "I have behaved badly to you, Mr.----"
"Wemyss," Arthur said.
"Mr. Wemyss, and I humbly apologize."
"It is not necessary," Arthur said, with an effort. "Her happiness is the only thing to be considered. She was only a child when she gave me her promise, only seventeen, and I can see now that she would not be happy with me."
"Come with me now, Mr. Wemyss. I want you to meet my people. They will be glad to have you stay for dinner."
"Thank you," Arthur said, trying hard to speak naturally. "I would rather not."
"I shall go back with you to-morrow, if I may," Mr. Smeaton said. "I cannot just say to you all that is in my heart, but you have taught me a lesson on what it is to be a gentleman."
He held out his hand, which Arthur took without hesitation, and they parted.
That night as Jack Smeaton was selecting a pearl necklace for Thursa, along with all sorts of other beautiful gifts, he was pondering deeply one thought--that perhaps, after all, successive generations of gentle breeding do count for something in the make-up of a man, and having a bishop in the family may help a little, too.