The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXXIV. The Contrite Heart
Who knows whither the clouds have fled? In the unscarred heaven they leave no wake. And the eyes forget the tears they have shed, And the heart forgets its sorrow and ache.
----James Russell Lowell.
During Libby Anne's illness Mrs. Cavers had been so anxious about her that she had hardly given a thought to anything else; but when the little girl's perfect recovery seemed assured, she was confronted again by the problem of their future. Libby Anne's illness, in spite of the neighbours' and the doctor's kindness, had made a hole in the two hundred dollars the Watsons had given her. She still had some money left from her share of the crop, but she would need that for new clothes for herself and Libby Anne; there would be the price of their tickets, and the other expenses of the journey, and she must save enough to buy her ticket back to Manitoba.
Of course, there were still the two cows and the hens, which the neighbours had kindly taken care of for her, and there was some old machinery, but she did not expect that she would get much from the sale of it.
The first day that Libby Anne was able to walk, Dr. Clay came out to see her, and brought to Mrs. Cavers a letter from the new tenant who had rented the Steadman farm. The letter stated that the writer was anxious to buy all her furniture, machinery and stock, and wanted to make her an offer of three hundred dollars cash for them.
Mrs. Cavers read the letter with astonishment. She had never hoped for such a price. "Now, doctor," she said, "you've been to me one of the best friends any one ever had. Tell me one thing--is Sandy Braden paying part of this?"
Dr. Clay was prepared for the question and answered evasively. "I'll bring the man here to see you--he's an old Indiana farmer with lots of money, and you know your implements are in very good shape. I went out with him to the farm, and together we figured out what the stuff was worth. Here is the list; he is perfectly satisfied if you are."
Mrs. Cavers shook her head doubtfully. "I know that the stuff is not worth more than half that amount, and I know very well that either you or Mr. Braden has fixed this up for me to let me still feel independent and have my trip back home. I know that, but I'm going to take it, doctor, without a word. I am not even going to try to thank you. I haven't seen my mother or any of my own people for twelve years. It has been my sweetest dream that some day I would go back home, and now it looks as if the dream were coming true. I am like a little hungry boy who has been looking at a peach in a shop window for days and days and days, desiring without hope, when suddenly someone comes out and puts it in his hand--he will quite likely run away with it without so much as thanking his kind friend, but he's grateful just the same. That's the way it is with me, doctor; I am grateful, too, so grateful that I can't talk about it."
A month later Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne arrived safely home, and Libby Anne's enraptured eyes beheld the tall maple trees, the bed of red and yellow tulips, and the budding horse-chestnuts of her dreams. The grandmother, a gentle, white-haired old lady, looked anxiously and often at her widowed daughter's face, so worn and tired, so cruelly marked by the twelve hard years; and although Mrs. Cavers told them but little of her past life that was gloomy and sad, yet the mother's keen eyes of love read the story in her daughter's work-worn hands, her gray hair, and the furrows that care and sorrow had left in her face. She followed her about with tenderest solicitude, always planning for her comfort and pleasure. She often sat beside Mrs. Cavers when, in the quiet afternoon, she lay in the hammock on the veranda. Always as they talked the mother was thinking of the evil days that the world had held for her poor girl, and planning in every way her loving heart could devise to make it up to her, after the fashion of mothers the wide world over.
To Mrs. Cavers, the spring and summer days were full of peace and happiness. The quiet restfulness of her mother's home--the well-appointed rooms, the old-fashioned piano, with its yellow keys, in the back parlour, the dear familiar pictures on the walls--all these seemed to soothe her tired heart. The garden, with its patch of ribbongrass, its sumach trees and scarlet runners, was full of pleasant associations, and when she sat in the little vine-covered summer-house and listened to the birds nesting in the trees above, the long twelve years she had lived seemed like a bad dream, hazy and unreal--the real things were the birds and the vines, and her mother's love.
July came in warm and sultry, but behind the morning-glory vines that closed in the small veranda it was always cool and pleasant. One day Mrs. Cavers, lying in the hammock, was looking at the sweet face of her mother, who sat knitting beside her. All afternoon, as she lay there, she had been thinking of the hot, busy days on the farm which she must soon face--the busy, busy farm, where the work has to be done, for the men must be fed. Each day she seemed to dread it more--the early rising, the long, long hours, the constant hurry and rush, the interminable washing of heavy, white dishes in a hot little kitchen, reeking with tobacco smoke. She had gone through it many times, cheerfully, bravely, for there had always been in her heart the hope of something better--good days would surely come, when her husband would do better, and they would be happy yet. This thought had sustained her many times, but the good, days had never come, and now--how could she go back to it with no hope. There was nothing ahead of her but endless toil, just working every day to earn a living. Oh, was life really such a priceless boon that people should crave it so!
"Must you really go back to the West, Ellie dear?" her mother asked, as if she read her daughter's bitter thoughts.
Mrs. Cavers sat up and smiled bravely. "Oh, yes, mother, it's the West for me; but some day we'll come back again for another one of these dear, lovely visits. I always felt I would never really be rested until I got back here and had you to sit beside me. But, of course, I must go back for the harvest--it is really a beautiful country, and especially so in the fall of the year, and I have some business there which I must go and attend to." She did not tell the nature of the business.
"Ellie, I would like to have you always with me, and your dear little girl--there's only the four of us, and we are so happy here. Why can't you stay with us?"
Mrs. Cavers knew why, but she could not tell her mother that she had very little in the world beyond the price of a ticket back to Manitoba.
"I've been praying every day since you came, Ellie, that we would never need to part again," her mother said wistfully. "I can't let you go, it seems."
Just then the gate clicked and a heavy step came rapidly up the walk. Mrs. Cavers, starting to her feet, found herself face to face with Sandy Braden as he came up the steps.
For a few seconds neither of them spoke. Then Mrs. Cavers held out her hand. "Mr. Braden," she said. Words failed her.
"I want to speak to you for a few minutes," he said.
She opened the door and led him into the little parlour.
"Mrs. Cavers, I know that my presence is full of bitter memories for you," he began. "You have no reason to think kindly of me, I well know; but no one else could do this for me, or I would not force myself on you this way----"
She interrupted him. "You were kind to me and my little girl once; you did for us what few would have done. I have never thanked you, but I have always been and always will be grateful; and when I think of you--that is what I remember."
There was a silence between them for a few seconds. Then he spoke.
"I don't know how to begin to say what I want to say. I did you a great wrong--you, and others, too; not willfully, but I did it just the same. I can never make amends. Oh, forgive me for talking about making amends--but you're not the only one who has suffered; it's with me night and day. I can see Bill's face that day--on the river-bank! I liked Bill, too. As you know, I closed the bar that day forever, but it was too late--to help Bill."
Mrs. Cavers was holding the back of a chair, her face colourless and drawn.
"I heard a few days ago that you were coming back to Manitoba to work, to earn your living and the little girl's. I can't stand that--I had to come--Oh, don't scorn me like that--let me help you. If it had not been for my bar you would have had plenty. I want you to take this; it's the deed of a half-section of land near Brandon--it will keep you in plenty. I'm a blundering fellow--I've put it roughly, but God knows I mean it all right."
He stopped and wiped the perspiration from his face.
"I can't take it," Mrs. Cavers said, without moving.
"You must!" he cried, moving nearer to her. "Don't refuse! Oh, Mrs. Cavers, you were merciful to me once--do you mind how you held out your hand to me that day? God bless you, it was like a drop of water to a man in hell. Have mercy now; take a little of the burden from a guilty man's heart."
"I do forgive you freely, and I wish you well, but--I--I--can't take your money," she whispered hoarsely.
He walked up and down the room for a few moments, then turned to her again.
"Mrs. Cavers, I've been a guilty man, careless and hard, but that day--on the river-bank--I saw things as I never saw them before, and I'm trying to be square. My mother"--his voice broke and his eyes glistened--"my mother has been in heaven twenty years. She always told me about God's mercy to--the very worst--that He turned no one down that came to Him. My mother was that kind herself, and knowing her--has made it easier for me to believe that--God is always merciful--and always willing--to give a fellow a--a second chance. I can't look for it or ask it until--you take this. Now, Mrs. Cavers, I know you don't like me--why should you?--but won't you take it?"
She hesitated, and was about to refuse again, when he suddenly seized her arm and compelled her to meet his gaze.
"For God's sake!" he cried.
Mrs. Cavers took the document in her trembling hands.
Sandy Braden turned to leave the room, but she detained him.
"Mr. Braden," she almost whispered, her voice was so low, "I have a mother like yours, one who makes it easy to believe that God is always loving and kind--I want her to thank you for me. Tell her all about it--she'll understand, just like your own mother would--these dear old mothers are all the same."
Mrs. Cavers went back to the veranda and brought her mother into the parlour; then she went out, leaving them alone.
What passed between them no one ever knew, but an hour later Sandy Braden went out from the little white cottage with a new light shining in his face, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, in his heart. He went back into the world that day destined to do a strong man's part in the years to come.