The Minder( III)
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CHAPTER XI.

SALLIE TURNS THE TABLES ON HER LOVER.


AN exclamation, smothered e'er it could escape, rose to John's lips, and he stood staring in a perfect rage of sudden jealousy after the retreating figures.  His first impulse was to dash after them, and pour out his reproaches upon the shallow-minded girl who could so easily abandon him; but, standing there in the twilight, he checked himself.  He was not mistaken either in the voice or the trim, easily recognisable figure, and he watched them go round the bend of the lane and pass out of sight, with a heart full of hot, raging passion.  Then a faint feeling crept over him; he felt he had lost something, and lost it for ever.  It was some time before he could think clearly, and then he was glad he had not obeyed his first impulse.  Sallie was perfectly free; it was five months at least since she had given him his congé, so that he could not charge her with indecent haste.  There had never been the least indefiniteness in her attitude, he knew from her own lips why she could no longer entertain his suit, and there was no reason whatever why she should not console herself with some more tractable aspirant.

    These things were easy to see; but there was something behind them all, something deeper and more significant, something which he had not the courage to put into words all at once.  She did not love him, she never had loved him, as he understood the word.  He saw now that he had been nursing a delusion; he had resigned her, given her up, and accepted his position; but now he knew that he never really had resigned her, and that underneath all this fear and sorrow of his there had always been the hope—the belief, in fact—that she did care for him, and that even her worldly-minded attitude towards his future was only a left-handed sort of manifestation of that love.  How much that hope had been to him he only now knew, and the cowardice, the self-deceit, the madness of longer clinging to it, he also knew.  In that bitter moment his love did not die; it became a forbidden thing.  He felt like a judge called in the course of his duty to pass the extreme sentence on some dear friend, certain of his duty, but paralysed by his affection.  If Sallie had turned back in the lane just then, he was not so sure that he would not have taken her to his heart; but he knew that in so doing he would have been outraging his conscience and degrading his manhood.

    He turned now, and began to move slowly homewards.  All that night and the next day he wrestled with his perplexities.  Sometimes it seemed to him that he was making an unnecessary trouble of it, the situation was not after all much changed, and where it was, it was clearly a change for the better, and ought to assist his resignation; but whenever he got to that point, and was deciding to let things slide, an imperious protest rose within him.  He was once more seeking to evade the responsibility of personal decision, and an accusing voice called him traitor.

    "John," said Mrs. Drax, to whom at last he imparted his aching secret, and whose gentle face became grave and almost stern as he told his tale.  "John, Sallie is a clever lass and a bonnie one.  She's just the girl to help a man to get on, and she will—if she loves him; but God help the man who gets her without her love."

    He thanked the good woman for her words, but he didn't like them.  It was just what he felt himself—just the sort of fear he knew his mother had; and this strong confirmation, he was distressed to find, annoyed him.  All the help he got came to the support of his judgment; but oh, he wanted somebody to say a word for his clinging, reluctant heart.

    All that week John and Wilky kept up a succession of skirmishes about the notice he had given to leave, and when Friday afternoon came and he asked "off" for an hour to apply for work at Markham & Horrocks' factory, Wilky flatly refused, and treated him to a string of his most energetic English.  It increased his embarrassment to note also that his master and the rest of the paint-shop fraternity were taking the charge of sermon stealing very seriously, and assuming in all their debatings that the question of his candidature was settled.  Altogether he spent a very painful week, and when on Saturday evening, after a final "flare up" with Wilky, he returned home he was a weary, life-sick fellow.

    As he approached his own dwelling, a bright, fluffy head of hair, belonging, he well knew, to his sister Lucy, appeared for a moment at the door and then suddenly vanished, and John smiled to himself, for it was clear she was on the look-out for him.

    "Halt, sir!" cried a voice, trying to speak in tones of strong masculine command, but betrayed by treacherous laughter-like wavering, as he opened the door, and there on the hearth-rug stood his sister in the traditional attitude of a tragedy queen, right foot forward, long trailing dress (mother's), a coronet made by twisting a feathery boa round her brows, and a toasting-fork for sceptre.

    "What ho, varlet!" she cried, threatening him with her wand.  "Where's thy hat?"

    John humorously uncovered, and bowed a little.  "Out, knave!  Dost bring thy mill manners here?  'Tis the priest we want, and not the minder!"

    Smiling in spite of his heavy heart, John raised his hat again, and made a profound reverence.

    "'Tis well!  Advance, and bend thy haughty knee!"

    John did as he was commanded, and with an air, half disdain and half condescension, whilst her bright eyes danced with fun, she laid her toasting-fork on his head and bade him rise.

    "Lucy, Lucy! don't be giddy," said Mrs. Ledger; but John could see that she also had some secret source of gratification that was making her eyes shine; whilst Annie near the window was looking on with something more than complacency.

    "Your majesty has received tidings?" said John, falling smilingly into the vein, and bowing once more.

    "Tidings, my lord, the best! " and striking a fresh attitude, she went on with almost the only Shakespearian quotation she knew—


                                   "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this—this daughter of Lancashire."


    John shot at her a quick, inquiring glance, but he would not spoil her little play.  With another smile and another bow, he said—

    "Your majesty's liege subjects grow impatient.  'Good news is bettered by being shared.'"

    "The queen" had some very unmajestic emotions evidently, but checking herself and waving her toasting-fork, she cried—

    "Tell him, my Lady Annie; tell him, proud dowager," and then breaking down and flinging the sceptre unceremoniously away, she rushed at him, and throwing her arms round his neck, she kissed him impulsively, and burst out, "Oh, John, John, I've got a situation!"

    John gave a start of delight.  She was seventeen and pretty, and in some ways clever, and at great sacrifice the family had conspired together to keep her out of the mill.  John wished her to be a teacher, but she had proved helpless at figures and mathematics, and that idea had to be abandoned, whilst no other opening had as yet presented itself.  She was musical, but it would be a long time before she could earn much, and they had no piano, and not even a harmonium.  Their father, in one of his fits of pride and generosity, had obtained an instrument on the hire system, but, as they saw no means of paying for it, John and his mother had sent it back, and neither father nor Lucy raised serious objection.

    Lucy dragged her brother down into a chair, and then, though she was nearly as tall as he, mounted on his knee, and put her arms round his neck again.

    "Now, who says that shorthand is no good for girls?" she cried triumphantly, as she slid her slim fingers between his neck and his collar and began to tickle him.

    "But you are not going to be a shorthand writer," he said, catching at her hands.

    "I'm going to be a shorthand writer, and I'm going to have—guess how much, old never-hope?"

    "How much?  Oh, half-a-crown a week," said John teasingly.

    "Fifteen shillings per week, and I commence on Monday morning at Hays & Vickers';" and then taking his hands in hers and looking earnestly down into his deep eyes, she went on, "And guess who's got me the place."

    "Oh, Ferridge, or happen Flint."  John mentioned the two names that were most unpopular with his women folk just then.

    "John, you're horrid!  Guess again!" and she made a grab at his very youthful moustache.

    John did as he was bidden, always selecting the very unlikeliest names he could think of; but at last, with almost absolute confidence, he named the little broker and his wife.

    "No, no!" cried Lucy, with increasing delight.  "You couldn't guess if you tried all night and all day to-morrow."

    "Well, who is it, then?"

    "You'd never, never guess."

    "Tell him! tell him!" cried "Mother," as eager to see the effect upon John as he was to know.

    "Sallie Wood!" and she drew herself back to watch his face.

    She was more than satisfied with the effect produced, and too excited to note its exact character.  John gasped, the blood mounted into his face, he let his eyes drop lest the tell-tale light should betray him, and then began to secretly reproach himself for thinking hard of Sallie.

    Then Lucy poured out a torrent of delighted explanations and details, and from these went off to rosy prognostications of what they would do with all their wealth when she got into full wages, for she was only to have half-pay until she was thoroughly proficient with the typewriter.  The others joined her, and John soon perceived that they regarded this stroke of good luck all the more favourably because it would remove one of the stumbling-blocks out of his path.

    Her wages would not be equal to his, but it was evident that in their judgment they would be able to live, even though he should leave them.  It seemed to John, however, that just when he was bringing himself to look resignedly upon the dead body of his love for Sallie, something had happened to give new life to the corpse, and the occurrences of the next day very greatly strengthened this feeling.

    On the following night he was appointed to preach at Whittle Green, about a mile and a half from Bramwell, and half that distance beyond the residence of the Woods.  His heart beat a little quicker as he passed the farm, but he kept his head down and trudged doggedly on with a sore heart.

    "You don't object to a solo, do you, Mr. John?" said the leading singer as they were consulting together in the little vestry.

    "Oh no; I like them if they are appropriate."

    "Thank you," and handing John the service sheet, the leader took up his tune book and went into the chapel, and the preacher, glancing absently at the sheet, read, "Solo, Miss Sarah Wood."

    Whittle Green was a sort of outpost of the Bramwell Church, and was worked on mission lines.  John was not surprised, therefore, at the arrangement for special singing; but it was certainly a new thing for Sallie to come out as a soloist.  He announced her all the same when the time came, and she stood up here, supported by two fiddles and the harmonium, and began to sing one of Sankey's less known hymns.  The choir sat immediately under the pulpit.  Sallie was on one side, and so John, who could not have prevented himself watching her whatever had been the consequence, only got her face in profile.  Everything she did pleased him.  He liked the evident effort it was costing her, he liked the song she had selected; but most of all he was pleased to note that she was not regarding the thing as a performance, and trying to sing as well as she could, but was throwing herself into the spirit of the service, and trying to make her little effort an appeal in song.  For the moment she was a pleader, using the simple melody and her own fine voice to bring the Gospel message more closely home to the hearts of her hearers, and as his smothered love, thus helped, forced its way up through suspicions and misgivings, she sank back into her seat with a sudden return to self-consciousness and modesty that drove the blood into her face and a warm glow into John's heart.  He couldn't have believed it of her; there was evidently a side to her nature he did not understand.  How little people really understood each other, and how narrow it was to expect everybody to show their religion in the same way!

    There was an unusually large congregation that night, and some sort of "spirit of expectation" had possession of the people.  The news of what had taken place on the previous Sunday had reached the place and created the hope of similar results.  John noticed also that two or three of his last Sunday's converts were present, and so he was not surprised that, when the prayer-meeting came, there was what Methodists call "another breakdown."  In the joy of his reward he forgot all about Sallie, and gave a little start of surprise when, on entering the steward's house, he found her seated at the table with a glass of home-made lemonade in her hand.  She had a grave, spiritual sort of look, as though the quickening influences of the service just concluded had raised her altogether above ordinary affairs, and she listened to a story the hostess was telling about one of the converts with ardent attention.  John had a glass of milk, and as he sat with his hat on, ready to depart, he began to feel that it was rather hard to have to fight a battle with himself and force himself to stern duty just when he felt most tender and sympathetic toward all the world.  Sallie and he would, of course, go home together.  It would be pleasant to have to thank her for her kind interest in his sister, but he had resolved that upon the very first opportunity he would let her know that he was aware she had another lover, and thus break the last link between them.  It was hard to have it to do at all, but it was harder after the uplifting experiences of the night.

    Sallie lingered over her lemonade, and even when John rose to go she did not move.

    "We go the same way, don't we, Miss Wood?  May I have the pleasure?" he said, at length, fumbling nervously with his umbrella handle.

    Sallie, still apparently engaged in conversation with the hostess, turned quickly round with a look of surprise and seeming reluctance.

    "Oh, no, Mr. Ledger, don't wait for me.  I'm near home, you know."

    John was surprised and a little self-rebuked.  He had not been able altogether to keep down the suspicion that for some reason she had thrown herself in his way that night; but her words, and her manner even more than her words, seemed to show that he had once more been guilty of unworthy thoughts about her.  She might have given him up definitely, and if so, she was acting in simplest consistency with that fact.  He hesitated.  Flesh and blood clamoured within him for a postponement of the ordeal, but an inexorable instinct urged him on.  The more difficult the task the less reason for deferring it.  And as he stood there wavering, Sallie looked at him again, and seemed reluctantly to give way.

    "Wilful man must have his way," she said with playful resignation, and then she moved towards John and the door.

    The young preacher held open the garden gate for her, and then stepped stiffly to her side, nerving himself to his difficult task.  They had scarcely passed the mission room, however, when Sallie snatched impulsively at his arm, and clinging confidingly to it, lifted an anxious little sigh, and began to talk with nervous rapidity.

    "Oh, John, I do wish I was a man and could preach like you."

    "You!  Why you preached better than I, to-night."

    "For shame, John!"  And she gave his arm a hasty shake, and then with a sudden plaintive cry she went on, "Oh, I should like to do something to make the world better!"

    John had several sharp stabs of self-reproach.

    "Why, Sallie, you've done something to-night, and you did something when you got Lucy that—"

    "John!" she interrupted, "do be serious.  You vex me, talking of such trumpery things, and all the time you know I am bad."

    "Bad, Sallie? "

    "Yes, bad!  I'm a mean, mercenary, worldly girl, John, and you know it," and she looked up into his face with such innocent distress that John's heart softened.  The scene he had witnessed so recently in that very lane came back to him, however, and he did not know whether he ought to harden his heart against her or rebuke himself for unjust suspicions.  As he hesitated, Sallie, who glanced searchingly up at him once or twice, suddenly pulled up ―

    "John, now you're a preacher, how is it that I sometimes feel more sinful than I did before I was converted?  I feel sometimes full of desires to be good and useful and devote myself to good things, and then sometimes I'm so mean and selfish, and do such hard, cruel things, that afterwards I can't bear myself.  How is it?"

    She was standing there on the footpath before him, and looking up so seriously into his face whilst her dark eyes shone with eager concern that John was momentarily disarmed; but the unspoken confession in the last few words struck on his ear with an uncertain ring, and he held his breath and stood gazing down upon her.  She did not flinch.  She knew where her power lay, and John was so strangely affected that he could do nothing but look into those deep eyes.  The impulse to snatch her in his arms was well-nigh irresistible.  But its strength was his salvation.  He instinctively suspected anything he found his whole nature clamouring for, and so he checked himself, sighed, and then hedged off into a theological explanation of the condition she had described.  She listened with the same serious attention, looking steadily into his face and nodding comprehendingly, as he passed from point to point; but a more suspicious person might have noticed that her eyes wandered a little, and she seemed to be studying him rather than his words.

    "I see, I see," she murmured musingly as he finished, and then she took his arm again, and they began to move along the lane once more.  They walked in silence for a minute or two, and he was just choosing his words for the question that lay nearest his heart, when she resumed: "John, do you think I should ever be good enough to be a sister?"

    "A sister?"

    "Yes, to work amongst the poor.  There's only father and I, you know, and when he's gone I should like to do something of that sort, only—only I'm not good enough."

    "But, Sallie—"

    "Yes, I know.  You think I'm not good enough, too," and it was not resentment he found in her tones, but humble, regretful tears.

    "But, Sallie, I thought you were of the marrying sort?"

    "John!  How can you—after to-night?"

    John had the feeling that he was the worldly one now.  It was no matter, though.  He had one thought in his mind, and one only.  He had felt much of the spiritual upliftedness that was evidently governing Sallie's words; but everything disappeared before the struggles and suspenses of tortured love.  He could not live in that state; he must end it one way or the other; and so, conscious that he was doing an almost brutal thing, he blurted out—

    "Sallie, who is your lover now?"

    "John!"  She seemed angry, and hastily withdrew her hand, though her quick eyes narrowly scanned his face.  "Oh, John, I've done with those things now.  They seemed sinful since—since—you know when."

    They had reached the gate of the farm by this time, and she turned her head away to hide her emotions.

    "But, Sallie, I—"

    "No, John, no!  I'm going to live for better things.  Pray for me, John and she held her hand up to keep him away, and leaned sorrowfully on the gate.

    John was still fighting down his suspicions, and her last words did not help him.  He drew nearer to her; but before he could speak she pushed him gently away.

    "The world is so full of suffering and sorrow.  Those who ought to go and help will not, so somebody must do it."

    He saw exactly what she meant.  Oh, if only he could have believed her capable of sentiments such as these, but the other thought was still tormenting him, and he must get to the bottom of it.

    "How long have you felt like that, Sallie?"

    "Often, lately, especially since I—since you—but I'm fully determined, after to-night," and then, as if by a sudden irresistible impulse, she stepped up to him again, and lifting her eyes, soft with tears, to his, she said—

    "You'll pray for me, John, won't you?"

    It was too much.  Suspicion, fear, pride, curiosity as to her real feeling, all melted away.  The love that was in him, increased by stern repression, rose with a sudden overwhelming flood, his arms were thrown around her, and in another moment he was raining kisses upon her teary face.


 
CHAPTER XII.

THE CASTING OF THE LOT.


"JACK!  Heigh, Jack! here!"

    John, who was returning from the mill one blustery October evening, turned round and saw Jim Flintop, an old schoolmate, hurrying after him.  Jim was the son of the man who had started the charge of plagiarism against him, and who, in spite of the second minister's persistent efforts, still stuck to his text.

    "Hello, Jim! what's up?"

    Jim was a big, red-haired, red-cheeked fellow, of fiery disposition, and he now came fiercely up to John, and grabbing at the lappel of his greasy mill jacket, demanded—

    "Is it true as thou'rt on wi' Sallie Wood again?"

    "Ay, what by that?"

    "An' would thou tackle her again after she'd squashed thee once afore?"

    "Who says she did squash me?" and John's choler began to rise.

    "Who! she told me so herself."

    "What!"

    "She—told—me—so—herself, she took me on—softy as I was—when she squelched thee, an' she told me all about it, an' now she thinks thou'rt goin' to be a parson, she chucks me, and takes up wi' thee again, Jack! she's a—" but Jim could find no name strong enough.

    John was very angry, and also uneasy.

    "Jim, thou'rt mad!  I know that girl, and nobody shall speak of her like that."

    "But, man! it's true!  She daddled me about for months; she was keener on it than I was myself, but after thou'd preached at t' chapel she chucked me away like a sucked orange."

    John was dumb with confusion and resentment; all his heart rose in defence of Sallie; everybody was against her, surely he must defend her.  If only he could stifle—but he would!  He would stand by her against them all.

    "Jim," he said, speaking almost as fiercely as the other, "Sallie Wood is mine, and neither you nor anybody else shall say a word against her."

    "Shan't I?  Well, I'll show thee!  Look!  I'll have her.  I'll have her to spite thee, and when I do get her, by the Lord I'll make her smart for it."

    Jim was foaming at the mouth with fury, and did not perceive that he was betraying himself and easing John's mind.

    "Thee!" he went on, "thee take her from me!  Try it on, and I'll knock thee into sausage-meat."

    But John saw that Jim's language was too strong to be taken seriously, and that he need care no more for his information than he did for his threats, and so got away as soon as he could, although it was some time before he recovered his self-possession.  It was Jim, then, with whom he had seen Sallie on that sad Friday night; well, she had evidently never cared much about him, so he fought down this confirmation of his own misgivings, and resolved to trust his sweetheart.  He kept in that mind all night, and did not even mention the circumstance to Sallie when he saw her later; but next day at his work his doubts and fears came back with most distressing persistence, and so, for some time, he was torn with conflicting hopes and fears.  His visits to the farm were times of unalloyed delight, but his days, as he paced barefooted after his wheels, were periods of racking misgivings.  And so the days slipped by, Christmas drew near, household prospects looked brighter than he had ever known them, his mother had a wistful sort of hopefulness about her which gave him the keenest satisfaction, and but that the question of all questions remained unsettled he would have been contented.  He had never named Jim Flintop to Sallie, and as he knew that his rival was still pursuing her with his attentions, he was perplexed to know why she never alluded to the matter.  But he was weary of harassing suspicions, and ashamed to pay court to a girl and think evil of her.  He ought to trust her, and as he had a considerable fund of trustfulness he did not find it very difficult.  And so the time sped along, and from hints he received John began to be in daily fear of a summons to see the super., his uneasiness being considerably increased by the knowledge that if he had to offer for the ministry it was high time he made definite preparations.

    The super. had told Wilky that he intended to give John an appointment at the town chapel on the new plan, so that those who would have to vote at the Quarterly meeting might know what they were doing.  This set the little broker on pins, and he fell upon John so fiercely whenever they met that he began to avoid him, and dropped his frequent visits to the furniture shop.  On the Sunday of Christmas week John was appointed at Sneldridge for the afternoon service, and Wilky at night; and John's father brought word that the broker would like John to stay for the evening service and walk home with him.

    John did not like the prospect; he guessed that it would mean an unusually prolonged and, perhaps, heated discussion on the ever-present topic of his call, and it would also interfere with courting arrangements, but as he could not easily refuse his old master, he waited and heard him preach.  To John's amazement Wilky commenced what turned out to be a strikingly original sermon on the parable of the sower.  Ignoring all rules of interpretation, and looking as far away from his young friend as he could, the preacher opened with the startling question, "What would have happened if the sower had 'funked' the job, or gone to sleep, or sat down and read the newspaper, or gone courting, or spent his time making dolls and tin trumpets for the children?  There were people like that; they looked after themselves, or their wives, or their sweethearts, whilst the work of the Lord was spoiling; they sat there"—and here Wilky had a great inspiration—"sqawkin' on a fiddle whilst Rome was burning; the fields were white unto the harvest, but the labourers were few."

    But this was only the exordium.  Carefully avoiding John's eye, Wilky discussed the seed, which was all it should be, and the ground, which was of different kinds—and here he gave astonishingly clear descriptions of the soil and the truths embodied in the figure—"But what was seed or soil or anything else if there was no sower?  Pray ye the Lord of the harvest," &c.

    John listened to this amazing distortion of the Scriptures with mingled feelings; he saw, of course, the all too palpable moral, and was shocked and a little grieved at the whole affair.  To his relief Wilky never alluded to the sermon on their way home; but as they were parting, he looked with a comical seriousness at his young companion, and said, sententiously, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend," and then he turned and dashed off homewards in a most violent hurry.

    But even these extraordinary efforts, Wilky discovered, produced no effect upon the obdurate John, and as he now avoided him more than ever he adopted other means of reaching him.  Whenever he thought it probable that the young minder would be at home he would trot off down to the little cake shop, open the door hastily, bawl out, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" or "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel," or "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world," or some such passage; bang the door, and hurry away as fast as his diminutive legs would carry him.

    As this produced no effect, he changed his tactics, and when John came home one night from his work, he found a letter waiting for him.  He did not recognise the handwriting, but opening the envelope he discovered a packet that looked like a long, carefully folded epistle.  He removed the outer cover, and found a sheet of blank paper, then an inside sheet, then another, and at last he came to a bit of not too clean cardboard, upon which was written in drunken Roman capitals—


ISAIAH vi. 8.


This was followed two days later by a similar consignment, containing


LUKE ix. 62;


and a week later it was a gentler but still urgent sentence


JOSHUA vii. 10,


followed the very next post by


MATTHEW xxviii. 19.


    John smiled again and again as he received these messages, but his mother took them seriously, and arranged them in a row on the mantel piece of his little bedroom.  Then the mysterious missives suddenly ceased, but one evening, when John reached home, he found a message awaiting him to the effect that Mrs. Drax wanted to see him.  She was such a dainty person that John always thought it necessary to change his clothes before he went into her room, so that it was seven o'clock before he answered the summons.

    "Come in, John, I'm glad to see you—Wilky, you mustn't go.  Come here!"

    The broker gave a surly grunt as John entered, and was making for the door, but at his wife's command he waddled back to a chair, and sat down in a tentative ready-to-go sort of attitude.  John uttered the usual civilities, and then there was an awkward pause.

    "John," said Mrs. Drax, gently, "what am I to with this awkward man of mine?  He's nearly worrying my life out about you."

    "Me, ma'am?"

    "Me?  Me?" cried Wilky.  "Well, that's a corker?  What next?  Me bother about him; he can go to t' land o' green ginger for me."

    Mrs. Drax and John smiled at each other, as the little man blew off steam, and then closing her eyes to think, the good woman went on, with a grave look—

    "We are all hoping about you, John—and praying."

    Wilky snorted to signify that he particularly insisted on not being included in this statement.

    "You are very kind, ma'am, but I wish you wouldn't."

    "Not pray, John?"

    "Course not!  What's prayer?  We don't need nobody to pray for us!  We're hinfallible, we are," and the broker laughed a cynical, contemptuous laugh.

    "I hope you will always pray for me, ma'am, but I do wish you would not think about the other."

    "But that's what we pray about, John."

    John sighed, and shook his head slowly; presently Mrs. Drax asked—

    "Is it still the old difficulty, John?"

    "Yes, ma'am, I get no nearer; I have no call."

    "But the Church is calling you, and the fruit you have had is surely a call?"

    "But I want the call of God, ma'am."

    "T-h-a-t-'s i-t!" and Wilky snatched at one of his wife's antimacassars, which had caught on his coat buttons, and sending it flying across the room, he ripped out, "He's a nonsuch, he's not goin' to be called like the common riff-raff.  He mun have a miracle!  He wants a depytation o' cherybims to call him!  T' Almighty mun get down off His throne an' come an' ax him if he'll kindly oblige—that's wot he wants."

    Mrs. Drax waited with closed eyes until Wilky's scornful wrath had spent itself, and then went on—

    "But you would go, John, if the Church called you?"

    "Mrs. Drax," cried John, with tremulous vehemence, "if there was only one poor sinner left in the world, I'd go to the deadliest climate or the foulest fever den on earth to reach that soul, if only my Master said one little word."

    Something very like a smothered sob came from the direction of Wilky's chair, but it was covered under a violent succession of snorts and grunts and scrapings of throat.  Mrs. Drax waited a moment, evidently not very sure of her voice, and then just as she was commencing to speak, Wilky's chair flew back, and they heard him say, in husky tones—

    "Let us pray!"

    John dropped upon his knees with a full heart, and was just murmuring, "Lord help," when Wilky said in low tones—

    "Sister Drax, will you pray?"

    She was lying on the sofa as usual, but she took her hands from her face, and in low pleading tones that vibrated through John's soul she commenced to pray.  Tenderly, humbly, she pleaded that their dear friend might be guided and strengthened and rewarded for all he had done for his dear mother.  A perfect woman's prayer it was, and John shook with emotion.  She finished at last, and he was just rising to his feet when the rough little broker commenced in strangely tender tones—

    "O, Lord, Thou 's given us everything; Thou 's given us Thy Son, an' we've nowt we can give Thee; but we want to give Thee this dear lad of ours.  He's a lot to—to sister Drax an' me, an' more to his mother, an' that's why we want to give him to Thee.  Take him, Lord!  Call him, Lord!  Make him a good soul-winner.  An' oh, Lord, above all things make him a good lad.  He doesn't want no glory, no popperlarity.  He wants to hear Thy voice behind him.  Speak, Lord!  Speak soon!  Speak now! for Thy name's sake, Amen."

    Wilky looked very abashed and confused as he rose to his feet, and as John, overcome with emotion, remained as he was, Wilky was glad to respond to the knocking which had been going on for some time in the shop below; and when a few minutes later, after having promised Mrs. Drax that he would do nothing hastily, John went downstairs, he found the little broker stormily thrusting a woman out of the shop, and trying to cover up the fact that he was taking no payment for the brush she wanted, under volleys of his shot-like raillery.

    A few days later, when John returned from his class-meeting, he found a note from the super. awaiting him.  It was the long dreaded summons to an interview on the following Friday evening, and as he shyly slipped it into his pocket, Lucy challenged him to tell them the contents.

    When he smiled and shook his head, she declared she could guess, and for the next hour she and Annie and Sallie, who just then turned up, assailed him with all sorts of reasons in favour of immediate decision, and though he bantered them and laughed at them, and then most riskily tried serious argument with them, they triumphed lightly over everything he could advance, and deftly turned his own weapons against him.  His mother as usual supported him, but when they ceased, she surprised them all by heaving a heavy sigh and murmuring—

    "It's no bantering matter this, it's a heart breaker."

    "Mother!"

    "It is!" she cried almost fiercely, and then suddenly melting, she went on, turning appealingly to her son, "Johnny, when first I felt thy little mouth snugglin' against my breast it comforted a breaking heart; thou's been my one comfort and hope ever sin', but oh! I'm sore to my very soul just now."

    "But, mother," he cried in keen distress, and then hesitating and looking anxiously at her, he went on, "Mother, hearken!  I'm more eager now to go than you are to send me; I'll go just now if you'll prove to me that I am called, but I've not got the education, I've not got the gifts, and above all I've not got the call; let God give me a call Himself, clear in my own heart, and I'll go to the end of the world."

    "None are so deaf as those who won't hear."

    John was cut up; such a word from the mother he worshipped he never expected to hear, and so oppressed by constant harassing and goaded to recklessness by this last stinging lash he jumped to his feet and cried hotly—

    "Mother, you don't trust me!  You think I could decide if I would.  You shall decide for me!  Say one word, just one word, and I'll go to the super. now."

    Mrs. Ledger, pale and agitated, and full of quick remorse for her last and most unusual words, stood leaning against the mantelpiece and looking dreely into the fire.

    "Thou will?" she cried, looking wonderingly and a little fearfully at him.

    "I will, mother."  But though his words had resolution enough in them he was bitterly repenting that he had used them.

    His mother still peered broodingly into the fire, and once or twice half turned as if about to speak, but her eyes wandered back to the hot coals and she still seemed to hesitate.  It was an awful moment for her; the one ambition of her life might apparently be realised by a word.  She was a long time before she spoke, but at last she moved slowly to his side, put her hard hand on his head, and softly stroked it.

    "John, my dear, thou'rt a better Christian than thy mother.  Go thy own way; thy mother has led thee all these years, but now she'll be glad to follow.  The Lord be with thee, lad; the Lord's Will be done."

    It was a long speech for the silent, long-suffering woman, and John greatly marvelled at it, and from that hour not even Sallie herself was allowed to raise the question in that house.

    All the same John was perfectly aware that the coming of the super.'s letter was the beginning of the great crisis; the battle had commenced, and though body and brain and heart were alike weary, he knew there could be no more rest for him until the great question was settled.  Oh, what should he do?  Pray?  His whole life in those days was one long drawn out supplication, from the brief ejaculation of the moment, as he paced after his approaching and receding wheels at the mill, to the wearily drawn out night wrestlings that seemed to be sapping his strength.  He had a feeling, too, that this incessant assailing of the Divine ear was a sort of cowardice; he was asking God to do what, in the very nature of the case, he could not do.  He saw more clearly every hour that it was not merely a question as to his future, it was the supreme test of his life, and it was of the very essence of that test that, like his Divine Master, he should be left to conquer or fail alone.  Again and again he faced it, and again and again he felt that the only thing he could do was to do nothing.  "When you are uncertain what to do, do nothing," he remembered, had been a favourite phrase of a very judicious minister whose memory he greatly revered; but in his case such a course seemed to be only a shirking of the responsibility of his manhood.  It was idle to ignore the fact that he knew quite well that if he did nothing, that, in his circumstances, would be to do everything, and his candidature would go on.  Oh, if he could only have trusted himself, but the whole difficulty lay just there; he had been taught all his religious life to distrust above all things his own nature, and he wanted to be a minister.  His whole being was filled with a great ambition; was not this the very best reason for not doing it?  And when he had reasoned himself round to this veritable cul-de-sac for perhaps the fiftieth time, a feeling of utter helplessness came over him.  The thing was too great for him, the fact that he was not equal to the settlement of the question was the best possible proof that he was not equal to the work involved.  Was not the thing too great and grave to settle alone?  Was not this one of those rare occasions when man's unaided reason was insufficient?  Might he not therefore appeal to God?  Had not God in such cases condescended to human infirmity, and when there had been an honest purpose to do God's Will if it could be ascertained, had not God deigned to give some sign?

    He was fighting his battle out over his work when his thoughts first took this particular shape.  His employment was of a monotonous and mechanical character, and his mind, therefore, was fairly free to think.  Dressed in the scanty clothing which the heat necessary for the manufacture of the cotton prescribed, and following first one wheel and then another, piecing an "end" up here, cleaning a roller and putting in a new roving bobbin there, he went over and over again the same dreary mental processes.  Oh, that God would give him some indication of His Will, His very slightest would be sufficient!  Then he remembered having heard in class meetings and lovefeasts the stories told by fellow members of how, in great perplexity, God had suddenly and unmistakably revealed His Will to them.  They had seemed far-fetched, credulous, and even superstitious tales to him then; but, oh, what would he give for some such leading now!  He had always held the doctrine of particular Providence somewhat loosely, and with much modern reserve, but he would have been glad to believe it now.  But his inability to get help in this way was, of course, one of the regular penalties of unbelief, he told himself.  Then an idea occurred to him; some of the best of the old men he knew had a curious way of getting rid of perplexities.  When they had come to a standstill and knew not where to turn, he had heard them tell how they had taken the Bible in their hands and had prayed, and then opened the book haphazard, and had cast their eyes on texts which had solved all their troubles at once.

    It was a small thing to do, there could be no harm—No! it was for him, at any rate, a cowardly shirking of his responsibility.  And yet what was he to do?

    There was a little pile of cop skips standing against the iron pillar in the middle of the wheel-alley, and in the bottom skip he always kept a little Bible; he paused a moment, then made a dart at the skip, pulled himself up suddenly with something very like a shudder, and turned away after a broken "end."  A few minutes later, however, he drew near to the skip again, and again passed it by.  At last, however, with a fretful little sigh, he put his hand into the bottom skip and pulled out his Bible.  His hand shook as he held the volume, and he took a nervous glance around as if afraid of being observed; then he laid the book on the cops and allowed it to fall open where it would.  He dare not look, however, but followed the receding mule; but when it had finished its upward journey, and was returning, he left it and went and bent over the book once more.  It lay open plainly enough, there could be no mistake; he took another frightened glance about him, and then examined the page.  It was the first chapter in I. Chronicles, a mere record of names, and he turned away with a sick heart.

    For ten minutes more he paced about the oily floor, and at last persuading himself that this might be a trial of his faith, he closed the volume again and allowed it to fall open where it would.  He did not look at it at once, but went on with his work; but presently, with a little gesture of impatience, he consulted the oracle once more.  It was the fifteenth of I. Corinthians, the great chapter on the Resurrection.  A bitter smile rose to his lips, there was nothing there that bore in the least upon his case, and God was showing him very clearly that he was not to be allowed to evade his own responsibility.  Half an hour later, after many inward debatings, he reminded himself of the old local saying.  "The third time pays for all."  He had very little hope now, but a shock went through him as he noted that the page now before him had upon it a passage that was underscored.  He never marked his own Bible, he rather despised the practice.  Who could have done it?  He scarcely supposed it could have been done by supernatural fingers, but he was in a state now to accept anything, and so he bent shyly and fearfully over the text and read, "These shall go away into everlasting punishment," &c.; and then he remembered that he had marked that particular text when preparing for his local preacher's examination.  It was no use; God had absolutely refused to release him; it was not merely a decision he had to make, it was the test of his character and obedience, and he turned sadly away to his work.

    A few minutes later, he noticed that it was close upon dinner time.  Thursday was cleaning day, and as some of the machinery could only be cleansed standing, it was usually done in the dinner-hour, and the noon-tide meal had to be taken on the premises.  John sighed again as he remembered this, for he wanted time to think and pray, but everything seemed to be against him.  As the shafting overhead gave its characteristic groan and began to slacken, his mother appeared at the end of his wheel-alley; but as he was attending at that moment to the wheel-head, and could not leave, she put down the basket against the end wall, and lifted up a letter and waved it, and placed in on the basket lid.

    It was some minutes before he could get to open the Missive, which somehow set his heart beating.  The handwriting, however, relieved him; it was only another of Wilky's mysterious communications; so he put it down unopened and finished his cleaning.  He had only ten minutes for his meal when he was able to get to it, and so the note lay neglected until work had been resumed, and the loud hum of the spindles told that all was going smoothly.  Then he took out the letter and opened it with a pensive smile.  There was a change in Wilky's manner; the texts were all written out this time, and there were several of them.  Expressing in their mute way Wilky's anxiety, the texts touched John, and he began to read them with dimmed eyes; but when he had gone over them the second time, and the full force of their significance became clear, he gave a little gasp of surprise.  It looked as though Wilky knew what he had been thinking about and doing all that morning; it was certainly a striking coincidence.  Then he observed that the texts had a sort of order about them, and that one word in each selection was doubly underscored.  He spread the sheet on the top of the cop skip, picked up an oil-can, and oiled a screaming spindle, and then hastening back, he read—

    "They cast pur, that is, the lot."—Esther iii. 7.

    "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord."—Proverbs xvi. 33.

    "The lot causeth contentions to cease . . ." —Proverbs xviii. 18.

    "And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven Apostles."—Acts i. 26.

    All the above were written out in crabby, ill-shaped capitals, but underneath, as a sort of afterthought, there was scribbled—


"Not mine, not mine the choice
     In things or great or small:
 Be Thou my guide, my strength,
     My wisdom and my all."


    Late that night, two persons might have been seen sitting close to the table in the broker's back room, John and his former master.  Wilky's bushy brows were drawn together, his bristly whiskers stood out, and his whole face betrayed keenest anxiety.  John had put the fantastic idea from him in the mill, but as this was the last night before the great decision, Wilky had captured him on his way home, and had kept him there without food and with a splitting headache, trying to convince him of the wisdom of adopting the plan suggested.

    For over two hours they had been arguing, and at length John, as much to get away from his tempter as with any faith in the result, had allowed himself to be persuaded into the experiment, stipulating, however, that there should be a blank slip of paper as well as the "yes" and "no."  Wilky had protested that this gave an unfair proportion of chances against "yes," but after twenty minutes' wrangling he was fain to yield, and held out a stumpy fist, from the top of which three tags of tape-shaped paper projected.  John put out his hand to draw, but as he touched the papers Wilky drew back his hand, and protested once more that it wasn't fair; John, secretly hoping that his obstinacy would provoke Wilky into abandoning the experiment, stuck to his point.

    At last, however, irritable through overstrained excitement, Wilky gave way, and thrust the tags of paper once more under John's nose.  He sprang back as if he had been attacked by a serpent, and then turned away and stoutly declared that nothing should ever induce him to do such a thing.  Wilky, nearly beside himself, stormed, and coaxed, and argued, and at length John drew near again.  He held his hand behind him, fearful apparently of its betraying him; he looked at the stumpy fist and the three ends of paper until they began to fascinate him; he sighed heavily and shrank back, and Wilky, tortured with suspense, jerked out—

    "Draw, man! draw!"

    John sprang away again as though he had been shot, and cried piteously—

    "No, no!"

    Wilky called him a coward and a shuffler, and with fierce gleaming eyes accused him of trifling.

    John approached once more and put out his hand, and Wilky with drawn face and wild stare pushed the slips forward and looked at John.

    "Lord forgive me," cried John, and shut his eyes tight.

    "Draw!" cried Wilky, with a cry that was almost a hiss.  John with a sudden deadly calmness drew one of the tags, and shutting his eyes averted his face and held out the drawn lot for Wilky to examine.

    "It's a judgment," he wailed piteously, as he sank back into his chair.

    John had drawn the blank.


 
CHAPTER XIII.

THE CALL AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.


THE young minder's condition as he left the furniture shop that night was one of utter wretchedness; to racking perplexities that were almost unendurable he had added a deep sense of humiliation, he had been tampering with the occult, he had been playing the game of Korah, he had reduced himself to king Saul's helpless distraction and had resorted like him to a witch-of-Endor-like means of escape.  But God had been merciful, and had not answered him at all.  Racked and overstrained until his brains seemed to boil, and the very roots of his hair creep, he still saw everything with almost preternatural clearness, and the various phases of the great problem were startlingly vivid as he looked at them.  He had never seen so clearly or penetrated so deeply into the very heart of things as he seemed to do just then, and the inexorable conclusion had never before appeared so remorselessly irresistible.  Men who were making sacrifice to enter the ministry might volunteer properly enough, but to one to whom it would be a great social lift, the only right thing was to wait until the call came.  He wanted to be a minister, his whole nature seemed to rise clamorously to the chance offered, and that was the clearest possible evidence that it was only a disguised earthly ambition, and must be ruthlessly trampled down.  No, in his case, nothing but the plainest and most indubitable indication of the Divine will could justify him in making the offer, and such an indication he had certainly never yet had.  His friends, his mother, his sweetheart, were all so many unconscious instruments of temptation.  The tempter was spreading before him "the kingdoms of this world and the glory thereof," and if he wanted to save his soul alive, he must cry, "Get thee behind me, Satan."

    He walked about for a full hour before returning home, and the anxious looks cast upon him as he entered the house became more serious when he declined food and almost immediately hastened upstairs to his own room.  But nature at last began to assert herself; the walk in the open air had brought the blood from his brain and cooled him, and though conscious that he was settling into dull heavy despair he noted his condition almost gratefully.  He had intended to spend the night in prayer, but his utter exhaustion took all desire away, nature refused to be pushed a single point further, and with a groan of self-abandonment he threw himself, dressed as he was, on the bed.  Half an hour later, when his mother, distressed at the look he had worn, and the fact that he had gone to bed without supper, stole quietly into the room with a glass of milk, she found him fast asleep.  The signs of recent suffering on his face wrung her heart, but she smiled with pensive thankfulness at the soundness of his slumbers, and setting the glass down, and drawing the bed-clothes gently over him, she stood hovering at his side like a wistful guardian angel.  For several minutes she brooded over him, now bending down and looking intently into the beloved features, and now clasping her hands and turning up her face towards the dim ceiling, in rapt supplication.  Then she moved the candle to the little table and dropped upon her knees at the side of the bed, and the prayer which sheer exhaustion had intermitted was thus vicariously offered over the wearied sleeper.  For one long hour the wrestling woman urged her petition, now groping in the air as if she were snatching at the garments of the Invisible, and now smiling in the passionate persuasiveness that disdained refusal.  Then she stopped, and buried her bowed head in her hands, lifted a long pathetic sigh, and murmured through tear-wet fingers—

    "Nevertheless not as I will—nor as he will."

    The sleeper had not moved, but when she rose to her feet the anxious mother persuaded herself that there was a soft smile on the unconscious face, and so she turned away and stepped quietly out of the room and closed the door.  Never a wink did this devoted woman sleep that night, and as soon as the hot coffee stall had rumbled past to its post in the market place, and the clac, clac of the clogs began to sound in the street, she was up, preparing John's morning cup of tea.  Twice she went to the foot of the stairs to hear if he were stirring, but not the slightest sound could she catch.

    "Well," and she drew in her lips with a painful twitch, "he shall sleep as long as he can, if he loses a quarter."

    Again she listened.  Oh that he would come and set her beating heart at rest!  Ah, that was his door, and she, who was dying for a sight of his face, fled from the stairfoot in sudden fright.  He was coming downstairs in his stocking feet as usual.  He would not need to speak, one single glance at his face would tell her all.  With strained intensity, she counted every step, and stared with hungry eyes at the staircase in the corner.  He was coming! he was here—and in a sudden collapse of courage she turned away and ran into the pantry.  Breathless and panting she stood there in the darkness, expecting, yet dreading that he would speak; but as he did not she ventured out again, but went round the tables to avoid him and kept her face carefully averted.  Would he never speak!  Then she took from the sideboard his breakfast-can, and began to fumble with the little screwed up parcels of tea and sugar, and as she did so, she presently ventured to raise her eyes and look at him.  But John's face was averted now, and he studiously held down his head.  But there was something surely gleaming from under those overshadowing brows, her heart suddenly began to melt; she dropped the can on the floor and cried in sharp distress

    "John!"

    John's head dropped lower.

    "John!  John!  Look at me!"

    Yes, it was there.  The face was white and solemn, and dark rings were under the brows, but the eyes! the eyes were burning with glory, glory enhanced and made infinitely solemn by a mysterious veil of self-conscious holy shame.  A great awe fell upon her, she had never seen a look like that on mortal face before, and began to understand something of the feeling with which the Holy Mary must have looked on her Son, and realised dimly how the Israelites must have felt as they looked on the face of Moses.

    "It's come, lad," she said at last softly, and raising his eyes more melting and yet more splendid than ever, he said in tones of almost awful solemnity—

    "Yes, it's come! the burden of choice has been swallowed up in the greater burden of souls."

    After an absorbed, dreamy, solemn sort of a day, John presented himself that evening at the manse, and was rather taken aback to find both the ministers awaiting him.  The super. glanced a second time at him as he bade him be seated; there was a look on the visitor's face that was new.  The second minister sat deep in an easy-chair on the far side of the fire, with a cigar in his mouth, and the super. took the chair in front and began to fidget, as usual, with the fire-irons.

    "Well, John," he said, twirling the poker in his hands, "no use beating about the bush, you can guess why we have sent for you, eh?"

    "Yes, sir."

    The minister glanced again and sharply at the young minder.  This was certainly a new John.

    "Well, you've had twelve months to think about the matter, what do you say?"

    John paused a moment and drew a long breath; both the ministers were watching him curiously—

    "I'm in the hands of God and the Church, sir."

    Mr. Haley turned and looked at his colleague who nodded slightly through a cloud of smoke.

    "That's all right then.  Well, now, my colleague and I have formed a very high opinion of your character—"

    "And gifts," added number two.

    "And gifts," assented the super. with a nod, "and I should like to say that we shall only be too glad to render you any assistance in our power."

    "Thank you, sir," said John, fervently.

    "By the way, you hav'n't had many advantages I know, you don't know anything beyond what you learnt at the Board School, I suppose?"

    "I know shorthand, sir, and the rudiments of Latin and a little logic.  I've made use of the evening classes at the Mechanics' Institute."

    The super. raised his eyebrows in pleased surprise.

    "Good! good!  And what about your health?  The medical examination is somewhat stiff you know."

    "I never had a day's sickness in my life except when I was knocked down in Trundlegate lane."

    "You've never felt anything of that since, have you?  No?  Well, you factory folk look sallow enough, but you are most of you surprisingly tough."

    "No harm in getting as much fresh air as you can the next few months all the same," chimed in the second minister, scrutinising a most satisfactory length of ash at the end of his cigar.

    "Ah, yes, certainly! take your book into the open air whenever you can, John, but now"—and here he turned round and consulted a little book—

    "There are a few questions I am required to ask you.  You are not in any sort of debt, of course?"

    "No sir," and John looked a little surprised at the question.

    "And you don't take drams or—or tobacco"—this with a sly look at his colleague—"or snuff?"

    John, getting more at ease every moment under the kindly influences of the minister's encouragement, answered in the negative.

    "And you are not under any sort of matrimonial engagement, of course?"

    The cleric turned to put away the book as he said this, for though he had asked the question because he was required to do so, he was already assured in his own mind of the answer.

    "Well, yes, sir, I suppose I am."

    Haley whisked round in astonishment; he looked significantly at his fellow-minister, whose brows were lifted, but who smoked placidly on.

    "You suppose so!  What do you mean by that?" and John was disturbed to detect a tone of disappointment in the minister's voice.

    "I mean, sir, that there has been no formal pledge, but we are 'keeping company.'"

    The super. dropped the poker with a noisy bang, rose suddenly to his feet, turned his back to the fire, pursed out his lips, and stared sternly at the bookcase against the opposite wall.  The second minister's brows were raised still higher.  John was astonished and a little startled; what could there be wrong in his being engaged?

    "There's nothing wrong in it, is there, sir?"

    "Wrong!  No! replied the minister with an embarrassed laugh, and yet I wish it hadn't been so.  You see――But who is the young lady?"

    "Miss Sarah Wood, sir."

    "Who?"

    "Miss Sarah Wood."

    The super. threw back his head with a toss of despair; he was evidently both disappointed and alarmed, for both these good men had very definite ideas about the Woods.

    John was alarmed and a little indignant; it was clear that the ministers shared the popular prejudice against the family of his sweetheart, and so in a spirit of chivalrous loyalty to his beloved he blurted out—

    "She's a dear good girl, sir."

    To his confusion, the simple-hearted lover's defence was greeted with a burst of laughter.  When it had subsided the super. looked sideways at his colleague and the colleague looked at his superior, and off they went in another roar.

    "No, no, this is too bad; you really must excuse us, John," and the super. wiped the tears of laughter out of the corners of his eyes.  Then there was a pause, during which John noted that the ministers looked thoughtful, even grave, though he could see no possible reason for it.  Presently the younger cleric, measuring with his eye the length of his cigar stump, said thoughtfully—

    "I think you said there had been no definite engagement, Mr. John?"

    "It is definite enough, so far as I am concerned, sir, but—," and John pulled up awkwardly.

    "But you are not so sure of the lady?"

    John, unable as yet to see the bearings of these questions, and tortured with a fear of seeming disloyal to Sallie on the one hand, and of saying more than was strictly true on the other, hesitated, and so the super. bent over, and tapping him on the shoulder, said—

    "You had better let things stand as they are, John."

    "But is there some objection to a candidate being engaged, sir?"

    "Well"—and the super. was evidently weighing his words—"it is not altogether a bar, you know, but the fact is the engagement, if there is one, will have to be stated on the schedule, and—and—I shall have to certify that I think the young lady suitable for a minister's wife."

    "And she is, sir; she's very clever, and far better educated than I am; she was trained to be a schoolmistress, you know, sir."

    The two ministers had another laugh.  The super. held up his coat tails, and warmed his palms behind his back at the fire.

    "You see, John," he explained gravely, "if you are accepted it will be seven years, possibly longer, before you can get married, and in that time many things will take place, and the Conference, from long experience, knows that these early engagements don't last.  If all goes well you will go into a larger sphere of life, and your ideas and tastes will change, and if in the course of a few years you should from any cause wish to drop the engagement—well, there would be trouble, for the Conference is very strict on the point, and, I think, rightly so."

    "I shall never change, sir."

    "No, of course; so they all say in your position, and I've no doubt they mean it then, but, as a matter of fact, they do; and then comes punishment, and even in bad cases—expulsion."

    The second minister looked a little embarrassed; the super. had evidently forgotten for the moment that his colleague had been "put back" two years for some such offence.

    John reiterated his declaration that nothing would change his feelings, but the ministers smiled the smile of superior knowledge, and at length number two said—

    "Couldn't you explain the case to the young lady and get her to suspend matters for a while?  It would be much better."

    "But I might lose her altogether then," cried John, in alarm, and the parsons, somewhat to his perplexity, went off into another laugh.

    "Well, John," said the super. when their merriment had subsided, "I think there is nothing further to discuss to-night.  We won't detain you.  Of course you must push on now, and use every spare moment to the best advantage.  As to this other matter, you must act uprightly, of course, but it would be better on the whole if you could go forward as unengaged," and then he kicked his colleague's foot to detain him, and as John seemed about to protest, he went on—

    "Well, well, we'll think about it.  Good night, John."

    "She will never let him go if she knows about his prospects," mused the super., aloud, as John was being shown out.

    "She'd never have looked at him but for his prospects," replied number two.  "He's a grand lad!  I should never have expected such scrupulous honour in a factory lad.  He's a saint without knowing it; he'll never give her up," and the junior mused a moment on his super.'s words, and then, tossing the cigar stump into the fire, he said, slowly, "God help him if he doesn't."

    Meanwhile John has started for home, eager for the joy of seeing his mother's face when he told her what had been done.  But as he went along a cloud arose in his mind; it was only a little one — nothing seemed difficult now—but small though it was, he felt he would like to get it disposed of before he went home, so he turned off and made his way towards the farm.  As he went along he thought rapidly.  Why, this was the very thing he wanted.  How wonderfully everything was working out!  How good God was!  He had never yet got a definite acceptance from Sallie.  Lancashire people in their circumstances don't as a rule formally propose; they simply go on "keeping company" until they and everybody else accept the situation; the decision comes when the lady is asked to "name the happy day."  But this would give him the chance of getting the decisive word from his sweetheart; she was anxious that he should go into the ministry, and if he showed her that the question had to be answered on the official schedule that would compel her to say the sweet word he longed to hear.  The affair of young Flintop, which had never been fully explained, occurred to him at this moment, but it was no fault of hers if so many men were in love with her, and in his present uplifted state of mind he could not see anything bad in anybody; Sallie would be faithful enough now she was having her heart's wish.

    But the young lady proved coy: she drew him on, and made him repeat all the fervent declarations of love he had whispered to her before; she found out what was at the bottom of his sudden urgency, and made him give every detail of the interview from which he had just come, and then she fell to musing, and answered his ardent questions absently.  Presently she turned and seemed to measure him with her eye.  It was Friday night; the kitchen was all upset with the week-end cleaning, and they were seated in the parlour where that other memorable interview had taken place.  Again she looked him carefully over in a sidelong, calculating way, and then, after returning her glance to the fire and remaining silent for a moment, she put her elbow on the table, and looking steadily into his eyes, she said—

    "John, you have always thought me worldly and ambitious."

    There was a touch of pensive reproach in her tone, and John hastened to disavow the charge.  She waited until he had done, and then went on severely—

    "You thought I wanted your future position, not you."

    John could not deny that such thoughts had been suggested to him, and that he had to some extent entertained them.  The reproof in her voice seemed like a reproaching conscience, and he stammered out something, but instantly perceiving that he was making bad worse, he stopped confusedly.  Sallie was quite aware of her advantage, and made the most of it.

    "I was not vexed with you, because I—I liked you, and wished you well, but because I wanted to be a minister's wife myself."

    "Oh, don't, Sallie, don't; you're cruel!"

    "And if I say I love you now, I may be standing in your way—"

    "You love me, Sallie!  You love me!" and he made a grab at her hand, but she drew proudly back, still looking at him with calm, injured severity.

    "I love you so well, John Ledger, that I will not stand in your way.  You are free."

    But the effort had evidently been too much for her; her face suddenly relaxed, pain and tears came into her eyes; she seemed to be dropping, but John caught her in his arms, hugged her to his breast, kissed her passionately again and again, and then began to plead his cause with her.  He had been glad of the difficulty that had arisen, and had seen in it only an unexpectedly favourable opportunity of getting from her the avowal he so much longed to hear.  She was an angel! she was better a thousand times than he was, and he could not, he would not give her up.  She relented slowly, but at length allowed herself to be coaxed into a seat, and John talked again, and pleaded his cause most eloquently.  She smiled at last, put her hand in his, gently forgave the hard thoughts of which she had convicted him, and caressed him with little lover-like touches.  But she stuck to her point; knowing her power she insisted that nothing should be allowed to stand in his way, and declared that she would never be able to forgive herself if she, of all persons, should be a hindrance.  John assured her over and over again that there was no danger, but she would not be moved; he should be free, absolutely free; she would tell the minister herself if he didn't, and after his examinations were over—well—well, then he would very likely think her not worthy to be a minister's wife, as indeed she wasn't, but she could bear even that if only he was doing the work of God.  And John looking at her, and wondering almost to amazement at her beautiful self-sacrifice, kissed her again, and vowed that nothing should induce him to consent to her suggestion.  Then she became merry again, and plucked his hair, and attempted to curl his straggling moustache, laughing all the time at what she called his preacher-like lack of business faculty.

    "Let it go," she said, "get accepted, and then—then—if you really are silly enough to want me—well, I am here."

    John appeared to yield and left her, both of them happier than they had ever been during their connection with each other; but when he got away from the glamour of her influence he saw the inherent deception of the thing, and his soul revolted.  He was afraid to cross the wilful little witch he had just left, but his conscience would have none of it, and he resolved quietly as he went home that, if he went forward as a candidate at all, it should be as an engaged man.

    Sallie was as good as her word.  The following Wednesday she went to the sewing meeting, sat near the super.'s wife, and drew her into conversation.  Somebody mentioned John, and Sallie leaned over and whisperingly asked Mrs. Haley if it were true that John Ledger was to be a candidate for the ministry after all.

    "You should know better than I," said the lady, and Sallie blushed a little, affected a pretty surprise, and asked why?

    "Why?  Aren't you engaged to him?"

    "I?  Oh, dear no!" and then with another blush and a sudden drop into the confidential, she moved a little nearer, and admitted they had "walked out" a little, but were not engaged, and that, of course, this ministry question had stopped the thing, at least for a time.

    Mr. Haley, when his wife detailed this conversation to him, at once saw his colleague, and then Sallie herself, and then John, and the poor man finding one lover saying one thing and the other another, concluded that there must be something between the young couple, and that the honestest thing was to listen to John's plea, and enter him on the schedule as "under matrimonial engagement."  He had more scruples when it came to certifying Sallie's suitability, but even on that score, though he had an unconquerable prejudice against her, there was nothing he could put into words, and as his wife assured him that the girl was clever enough for anything, he let that go also.

    The Sunday before the all-important March quarterly meeting, John took the morning service at the Chapel, in order that the super. and the officials might hear him.  The elderly local preachers looked a little dubiously at each other as they consulted together on the flags of the chapel yard after the service.  There was an entire absence of "style" about John's deliverances.  He hadn't even divisions in his sermon.

    His father, by reason of an almost phenomenal popularity in his younger days, was still the standard of comparison amongst his compeers; but John had evidently not a single one of his father's gifts, and was, in fact, a very striking contrast to him.  But these good men soon found that they were in a minority, and whatever lingering doubts they may have had, they were careful not to express them either to the delighted worshippers or to the truculent and excited Wilky.  The charge of plagiarism sprang up again, however, and the ministers became a little anxious as to what Flintop and his supporters might do.  John was very quiet about it all.  His mind was entirely at rest; he looked brighter and even younger than he had done for some time, his only misgiving now being as to how his mother and sisters would fare when his support was withdrawn.  It would take all the few pounds he had saved to get him any sort of outfit for college, and during his term of residence there he would be able to render them little assistance.  The income from his father's business had, ever since he could remember anything, been inadequate and uncertain, and now that he recalled the fact, his father had been unusually secretive of late, which was an almost certain sign of impending trouble.  Well, God had called him; that was the great thing, and He, somehow, would provide.  This was the course of his thoughts on Monday, and when his day's work was done he hastened home to get to his beloved books.  As he placed his hands on the "sneck" of the door he heard a sort of bellowing groan, coming evidently from his mother's bedroom.  His heart stood still, and he went white to the lips.  All the sweet prospects he had been dreaming of at his work were wiped out in an instant, and blank despair came down upon him as, opening the door with a trembling hand, he saw, as he now fully expected, the county-court bailiff seated by the fire.


 
CHAPTER XIV.

AFTER ALL!


JOHN'S first thought was for his mother, and, glancing round, he found her seated on a stool under the stairs, the picture of stony grief.  She did not move for a moment or two, but as their eyes met the fountains of the deep within her seemed to break up, and she snatched at her apron and buried her face in it.

    "That's better," said Gittins, the bailiff, a short, fat, apoplectic man, puffing away stolidly at a black pipe.

    John thought it was better, too.  It was a good sign when his mother could weep.  He stepped forward towards the fireplace, and put down his breakfast can and basket, and as Annie, with red, swollen eyes, picked it up, he touched her with a little caressing gesture, and she burst into a fresh passion of tears.

    Gittins plucked at John's sleeve and whispered sympathetically—

    "Twenty-six pun five an' sevenpunce—Rose an' Crown Loan Society—Ferridge."

    John's heart went cold again.  He understood it all.  His father had been getting out of one financial difficulty by getting into another, as usual.  This time he had borrowed money from a loan society, to which Ferridge, the rent collector, had recently been appointed secretary, and the bully had evidently waited until this hour of his approaching success to deal his blow.  God help them now!

    At this moment another unearthly groan came from upstairs, and Sampson was heard wailing out—

    "Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech; I dwell in the tents of Kedar."

    John, forgetful of his own ruined prospects, and with an infinite sympathy for the broken-hearted woman under the stairs, felt his heart grow cold towards his father, and, as he tried to check his feelings, Gittins plucked at his sleeve again, and jerking a dirty thumb upwards and winking solemnly he cried under his breath—

    "He's got 'em again!"

    "A pelican in the wilderness, an owl in the desert, a sparrow upon the house-top," came downstairs, and whilst Mrs. Ledger, to whom Sampson was a man with a mind too great for the sordid details of commercial life, dried her tears and hastened upstairs to comfort her groaning spouse, Gittins leaned back in his chair and said, with another upward jerk of the thumb—

    "Methodist blue devils, I calls 'em."

    Annie, without a word, slipped her brother's tea upon the table, and, though his heart rose at the sight of it, John sat down to try to eat.

    "Strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round!" cried the man upstairs.

    John bowed his head over his cup, for the cries brought shame and resentment into his face.  At that moment Wilky, looking very stern and sad, put his head in at the door.  When he saw John he turned his eyes away, and was beating a retreat, though it was for his young friend that he was really looking.  But just at that moment Gittins looked round, and catching the little broker's eye, he pointed upwards again with a broad grin.

    "Oh that my head were waters and mine eyes a fountain of tears!" smote on the furniture dealer's ears.

    The effect was magical.  He thrust the door before him, waddled in fierce haste to the stair foot, gave it a savage kick to command attention from those above, and bawled out scathingly—

    "Bud it isn't water—not even decent water; it's nobbut froth!  Tears!" he went on, "it's other folk as has t' tears, if I know owt."

    The groaning upstairs ceased suddenly, and Mrs. Ledger began to descend.  But Wilky could not bear to see her just then, and John seemed an even greater embarrassment, and so he shuffled to the door and disappeared; but almost before he had gone there came another knock, and in stepped Sallie.  John saw in an instant that she knew everything, but he did not observe that she was disappointed and even annoyed at finding him there.  She went straight up to Mrs. Ledger and gave her an impulsive, womanly hug, that touched John deeply.  Then she came to the hearthstone, turned her back upon her lover, and stood poring into the fire.

    "He's got 'em; he's got 'em bad," said Gittins, flirting his thumb upwards, and nudging Sallie.  She shrank away from his touch, and was leaning over to speak to her lover when "How are they increased that trouble me!" came quavering down the stairs.

    "Good gracious, what's that?" and Sallie grabbed nervously at John's arm.

    "It's nobbut him; he's gotten 'em again," explained the conciliatory bailiff, soothingly.

    "Go out, John; go! I want to speak to—to your mother," and John, taking a desperate swig at the almost untouched cup of tea, arose with curiosity and troubled wonder in his eyes, but he went to the door all the same, and strode with bowed head and wan face down the lane.

    This was a complication indeed.  He was more bewildered than anything else.  What could it mean?  To have all his difficulties removed and his way made clear one day, and then to be stopped by an utterly unexpected and most humiliating trouble the next, staggered him.  It was a trial of his faith, doubtless, and it certainly lacked nothing in the way of effectiveness.  There were no means of paying except borrowing, and if even they could do that, he certainly could not leave his mother with this additional burden upon her.  He was very sure they would never be able to pay the debt, and common honesty demanded that it should be met in some other way, and met at once.  He would look well pushing forward his candidature for the ministry when his beloved ones hadn't even a roof over their heads.  He had saved in all about eight pounds—little enough if he persevered in his call—but where to get the rest, if he devoted what he had, as, of course, he must, to paying the debt, he did not know.  It was no use going to Ferridge; he had evidently calculated the effect of his blow, and would exact his pound of flesh.

    "Oh, mother; poor mother!" he moaned, and then, without exactly knowing why, he turned into Station Road and made for the furniture shop.

    A strange sight presented itself as he opened the door of the back room.  Wilky, in his shirt sleeves, his thick hair ruffled and standing out in tags towards every point of the compass, a pen behind his ear and another in his hand, blots of ink on his nose end, and his face working with strange emotion, was standing at a table covered with a chaotic pile of papers and accounts, whilst an old tin cash-box lay open before him, displaying a five-pound note, two pieces of gold, and a few other coins.

    "Come here!" he cried fiercely, as he caught sight of John, "come here!" and dragging him unceremoniously into the middle of the room, he held him grimly by the coat collar and demanded, "Can thou swear?"

    "Master!"

    "Can thou swear?"

    "Mr. Drax!"

    "I want somebody as can swear; real, rippin' blasphemous swears!  Nowt bud swearin' 'll do it!  Curse God an' die!  That's it! and I will!  I will!"

    "Oh, master, things are bad enough without—"

    "Bad; bad!  I tell thee there's things as nowt but swearin's equal to, an' this is one on 'em.  Why doesn't thou swear?"

    Wilky was simply beyond himself, and John, with horrified face, was trying to pacify him when a customer opened the front door.  Wilky face set into sudden sternness, and he made a dart for the shop, but John, alarmed at the thought of what might happen to the unoffending purchaser, caught him round the waist and dragged him, after a long scuffle, back into his chair, and went to deal with the person in the shop himself.  When he went back he found Wilky shaking his fist at the man in the mirror.

    "I will!  I'll resign!" he was shouting, with red, indignant face.  "Seven pound ten!  What's t' good o' that!  We want twenty-six!  I'll send my plan in; I'll chuck up my class, I will!" and then, to John's distress, the agitated little fellow suddenly collapsed into his big chair and broke out into long, struggling sobs.

    This was the very last thing John would have expected from his odd friend, well though he knew him, and his embarrassment may be easily imagined.

    He waited for a moment or two wondering vaguely why this additional distress should be necessary, and then he began to talk.  It would only make matters worse if he suggested the abandonment of the project so dear to them all, and yet he saw not the slightest hope.  He did his best, however, and as he did not hint at dropping his candidature, Wilky dropping gradually became quiet and at length took out his pipe.

    "There isn't even time to have an auction," he cried in a deeply injured tone, and glancing round as he spoke at his very miscellaneous stock.

    John understood, and shook his head.  He was touched to see the interest his old friend took in his affairs, and the cheerfulness with which he would evidently have realised upon his goods for the sake of clearing the way for him; but, somehow, there lay at the bottom of all his reflection a sort of feeling that the call of which he was now so satisfied carried with it necessarily the removal of all obstacles, and so he ventured to express hopes he could not very easily justify.  But Wilky was evidently thinking of something else, and puffed out great volumes of smoke, whilst his bushy eyebrows were drawn together in severe mental wrestlings.  There were times when Wilky with a little effort might have raised the money required himself, but it exasperated him to think that this unexpected difficulty had come when he had even less ready cash than usual, and did not know where to raise so large a sum in the time allowed.  He knew also that in a few hours all Bramwell would have learnt what had happened to the Ledgers, and the news could not fail to influence the minds of several people who would have to vote at the approaching Quarterly Meeting.  If only he could think of anything he could do, but he could not; and inactivity just then was so irritating that he fretted and fumed and puffed away until he had infected John with much of his own restlessness.

    Presently Wilky began to relieve his mind by denouncing John's father, and as his judgment endorsed his friend's censures whilst his heart rebuked him for filial disloyalty, he grew more and more miserable, and finally remembering that he must take some step soon, and that his mother would be needing him, he left the furniture shop and made his way to Shed Lane.  As he approached the door he heard his father's voice again, but this time the tones were short and sharp, and triumphant.  "Arise, Joshua, why liest thou thus on thy face?" was the sentence that fell on his ears as he entered, and there, standing victoriously on the hearthrug with a new, long clay pipe in his mouth and his left thumb tucked into the arm-hole of his waistcoat, was his father.  "How are the mighty fallen," he went on, majestically flourishing his pipe, "and the weapons of—of—Ferridge perished!"

    The look of ill-concealed disgust on John's face gave way to one of astonishment as he looked around.  Gittins was nowhere to be seen.  Sallie also was gone, and the tears of his mother and sisters, now more abundant than ever, were most evidently tears of joy.

    "Sallie, John!  Sallie!" cried the impetuous Lucy, flinging her arms round his neck with a fresh burst of relief-ful weeping.

    "Sallie?  What about Sallie?  She hasn't—"

    "She has, John, she has!  Oh, bless her! bless her for evermore!"

    "God forgive me for misjudging that dear lass! cried Mrs. Ledger, to whom pensive self-accusation was always more easy than rejoicing, and then, whilst Sampson paced before the fire and flung off strings of Scripture that made John's flesh creep, the young minder heard what there was to tell.

    Sallie had had the money with her when he went out, but she would not produce it in his presence because "he would make such a fuss," she said, with one of her most engaging little grimaces.  John felt a stab of wounded pride as he realised that he was indebted for the very bed on which he would sleep that night to his sweetheart, and though he would not show it in the presence of so much glad relief, his heart was heavy within him as he reflected.  It hurt his sense of delicacy to think that the girl he loved should be dragged into the sordid little troubles of their family life; he could not allow for a moment that the debt had more than changed hands.  It would have to be paid just the same, and, in fact, the kindness of Sallie laid them under the greater obligation to see that the indebtedness was discharged as soon as possible.  He hated the thought that such a thing should be mixed up with the sweet experiences of love; and he did not forget that Sallie was a Wood, and, whatever she did or said, would have very decided views indeed on the question of prompt payment.  And yet his only chance of seeing the debt discharged was to stick to his present employment and abandon his candidature, but neither his own heart nor Sallie herself would consent to that.

    Another weary, struggling night he spent; a little while ago he would have almost welcomed such an obstacle—it provided him with the very strongest reasons for remaining at home—but now, after the will of God had been clearly revealed to him in answer to incessant prayer, he could not, of course, hold back; but how he was to proceed and still pay the money now owing he failed entirely to see.  This was the second time Sallie had helped them in their need, and though he delighted in these acts of hers as showing the goodness of her heart, he was deeply distressed to think that she should have been put to such tests.  She, when he saw her next night, was just her own gay self, and utterly refused to discuss the matter.  And whilst John was pouring out his thanks and protestations of gratitude, his fate was being discussed elsewhere, for the Quarterly Meeting was in session.  The weather was wild, and the super. anticipated, regretfully, that the attendance would be reduced.  To his surprise and relief, however, ten minutes before the usual tea, a covered waggonette drove up to the chapel, and old Mr. Pashley got out accompanied by five others from Trundlegate, most of whom came but seldom to the gathering.

    During tea, Flintop and one or two of the country local preachers seemed to have important business together, and the second minister muttered something very disrespectful as he watched their consultations.  When the meeting itself opened the attendance was still somewhat below the average, but just as they were concluding the opening hymn, and the super. was counting those present, the door opened, and the stumpy form of the little broker was seen in the aperture.  He wore a coat that nearly touched the ground, had the end of a lead pencil in his mouth, and there was an air of overdone unconsciousness about him as he stepped forward and led in six men who were present there for the first time.  The chairman glanced with a twinkle in his eye at his colleague, but as he saw Flintop and his supporters whispering together, he began to cudgel his brains to recall the qualifications of the recruits the broker had marshalled.  There was only one of whom he remained in doubt, and as his colleague assured him that the brother concerned was "all right," he proceeded briskly to business.  There is much business as a rule at this assembly, but at last the question for which many of them were waiting was reached, and the super., whose remarks were followed by a series of confirmatory grunts from Wilky, spoke fairly and yet confidently of his candidate.  The second minister followed and was supported by the stewards; and the super. then invited any others to speak who might wish.

    Old Mr. Pashley broke through long years of quarterly meeting silence to commend his young friend.  As he spoke, someone in the corner where the Flintop contingent was seated uttered an almost inaudible demurrer, whereupon there came a volley of stentorian "hear, hears!" from Wilky, followed by dropping shots from his supporters.

    This put the opposition on its mettle, and Flintop rose to his feet to ask a question.

    "Could the superintendent assure them—they made no charges—that the young brother's sermons were his own?"

    The second minister rising to his feet said that he had heard the question raised more than once (a trumpet-toned "Shame!" from Wilky), and so he had taken pains to investigate the matter, and he could assure the meeting that the young man's sermons were absolutely his own productions.

    "More nor we can say for his!" rapped out Wilky, with a glance at Flintop.

    The super. tried to catch the broker's eye, and failing, he asked the meeting if it was prepared to vote.

    "We should like a little more—" began one of the opposition.

    "Vote! vote!" roared Wilky.

    The vote was taken, the furniture dealer in his excitement standing on a form to see how everybody voted, and entirely forgetting to put his own hand up.

    "Do you wish to remain neutral, brother Drax?" asked the super. with a pawky smile, upon which the little man shot up both hands, and the meeting laughed.

    "Twenty-seven for, two against, and five neutral," announced the secretary, and the meeting burst into hearty applause, whilst Wilky bustled hurriedly off to communicate the result to the anxious hearts in Shed-lane.

    The next three months brought many and varied excitements to our friend John.  With his mother growing younger under his eyes, his sisters talking of his future with proud looks, and Sallie contriving to see him almost every day without, after all, taking up much of his precious time, he struggled away at his preparations with a light heart, and but for uneasy apprehensions about finances, and especially their debt to Sallie, he would have been lighter-hearted than he had ever been in his life; even the anxieties connected with his examinations not being sufficient to damp his pleasure.  The super. arranged on the new plan that he should have plenty of practice in preaching, and the second minister undertook to act as his coach, and every spare moment he could command John spent either in his own little study-bedroom or at the house of his temporary tutor.  His father, at the paint shop gatherings, hinted in terms of hazy vastness of the sacrifices he had made and the money he had spent on John's education, and whenever Wilky was not present posed as a suffering but willing martyr, who, though he loved his son to distraction and could not support the thought of parting from him, was by processes of slow but ruthless self-crucifixion compelling himself to give him up "for the good of the cause."  As for Wilky, he suddenly developed an absorbing interest in theological institutions.  He bought a photo of Didsbury College somewhere in Manchester and brought it home as a present to his wife, and came down with unexampled fierceness upon any of the frequenters of the paint shop who still retained and expressed any trace of the old Methodist prejudice against colleges.  John passed the Synod with "flying colours," as the broker announced wherever he went for the next fortnight.  The minister who heard what is called his "July" sermon spoke very encouragingly to him about it, and the super. expressed his great confidence in the written discourse which he had prepared.

    When the official summons to the "July Committee" arrived by post it was handled by John's mother as if it had been a letter from the Queen, and Wilky was there a full half hour before there was any possibility of John getting from the mill in order to see and hear as soon as it was opened.  Wilky showed very clearly that he would have liked to go with John to Didsbury, and as he put it "Stan' up for him wi' th' big-wigs," but Mrs. Drax put her foot upon that, and Sallie, with whom Wilky had lately become quite friendly, smilingly shook her head.

    Well, John must send a "talligram" the very instant he knew the result, and Wilky would take the very first train to Manchester and bring him home in triumph.  John left Bramwell on Monday afternoon, and wrote to his mother that very night to say that the candidates he had met were all so much his superiors that he begged them not to hope too much.

    "That's just our John," said Mrs. Ledger with a wistful smile and a surreptitious kiss at the corner of the envelope, but Wilky was indignant with her; she was an "old maddlin" that "hadn't the pluck of a mouse, and John was a duffing noodle.  The July Committee knew what it was about, and he would come out at the top of the tree.  Reject him! they couldn't! they darn't! John would come back 'a full-blown minister, an' nowt else,'" and then, as a sudden brilliant idea struck him, he hurried off to Varley, the Methodist tailor, to see if he had any black cloth sufficiently good for a clerical suit.

    Tuesday and Wednesday passed very slowly.  Wilky could neither eat nor attend to business, and was down at the little house in Shed-lane two or three times a day rebuking the least sign of misgiving and pronouncing large and wonderful prophesies about John's future.  Thursday morning brought a letter, in which John described his experiences.  He said he had done better than he expected in the examinations, but enlarged again upon the immense superiority of his fellow examinees and begged them not to be too sanguine.  There was no work for any of them that day.  "Mother" went about with hands clasped and lips moving, and every now and then stole quietly off upstairs, they all knew for what.  Sallie came once in the forenoon, and immediately after dinner arrived again, dressed and ready to wait for the expected news.  Wilky fumed and fretted and put the Ledger's clock right, whilst Annie went every few minutes to the door to look for the telegraph boy.

    Two o'clock brought the afternoon post but no message; three came and passed, and just on the stroke of four there was a sharp knock at the door and a startled cry from all the women present.  It was the telegram at last, and the boy who handed it to Annie opened his eyes with astonishment as she snatched it from him and then flung it away as if it had been some venomous thing.  Wilky, with an exclamation of impatience, picked it up, but held it away from him and snarlingly cried to Sampson to open it.  Old Ledger, with white face and shaking hand, received the dread missive, and then, glancing at the directions, handed it gingerly and with evident relief to his wife.  She drew back with a startled little scream, and then as hastily snatched at it and hugged it to her breast.  Wilky, dancing about like a cat on hot coals, shouted to her to open it, but clenched his teeth and stepped backwards as if afraid it might sting him.  Then the agitated woman looked at it again, every eye in the house fixed hungrily upon her.  She toyed with it fearsomely for a little while, her lips moving in prayer.  With a face all awork, and shaking hands, she tore it open and looked at it, and then, with a gasp and a great cry, fell back into her husband's arms, and when Sallie a moment later stooped down and picked up the paper, she found all hope destroyed and all fears justified by one awful word, "Rejected."


 
CHAPTER XV.

SALLIE IS STILL-SALLIE.


ON the afternoon of the Saturday after the events described in the last chapter, John and Sallie occupied a grass bank in the field at the end of the farm garden, with their backs to the house and the lane.  Sallie's face was shadowed, her brows were slightly drawn together, her lips stood at a depressed half pout, and there was an air of weary petulance about her.  John, lying on the grass by her side and watching her face anxiously, was evidently in some perplexity.  Twice he had touched her arm, but she had not responded, and sat with her hat in her hand absently toying with the trimmings.

    "What does the super. say, then?" she asked, after an unpleasant pause, and glancing almost disdainfully at her lover.

    "He has had a note from the chairman to say that, as far as he can make out, it is the literary paper and the medical report which have thrown me.  He thinks the mission house people would have taken me for foreign work but for the doctor's schedule."

    "But you wouldn't have gone abroad?" she cried, looking down upon him with resentment, and an evident readiness to pick a quarrel.

    "Yes, I would; I would have gone anywhere, the mission field for choice; I offered to do so, you know."

    "And you would have taken me from my good home to live amongst nasty, dirty blacks, would you?" and she put on her hat, bridling the while with indignation and resentment.

    "Of course!  Why, Sallie, I thought you understood; I thought you would have gone anywhere—a—with me!"

    "With you!" and with disdainful lip and flashing eyes she rose to her feet.  " Oh, certainly, with you; any girl would go anywhere with such a grand catch as you, wouldn't she?" and the cold sarcastic scorn of her tone, even more than her contemptuous manner, stung John to the quick.

    "Sallie!" he cried, in amazed distress, "I thought —I felt sure! after—after what you said that Sunday night coming from Whittle Grove, that you would have gone anywhere—but you are vexed.  What's the matter?"

    "D-i-d y-o-u!" and she drew herself up, and flashed anger and scorn upon him.  "Then you were very much mistaken, John Ledger.  I wouldn't have gone, and if you were accepted to-day I wouldn't go an inch, so there!"

    But John was not blind; he understood instantly that there was something much more serious behind all this.  A great, awful dread took possession of him; she had been faintly sympathetic when he arrived home on Thursday night; he had seen her twice since then, and each time she had been colder than before towards him.  He had told himself that that was quite natural, under the circumstances, and he must bear with her disappointment, and any little outbreaks of fretfulness she might show.  If she loved him she would soon get over it; her love would conquer her ambition.  He had excused her thus when her reception of him had been so much less kindly than that of his mother and sisters.  She was different, of course; it would be a considerable sacrifice for a proud, ambitious girl like her to marry a man who would only be a minder after all.  With thoughts like these he had pacified his doubts and fears for two days, but now they did not suffice; a terrible fact was forcing itself insistently upon him.

    "Sallie," he cried, with white, horrified face, "you do not love me!"

    He looked so frightful for the moment that Sallie was cowed; she had always thought him a little limp and spiritless, but this visible agony of his was a revelation.  She had not formed the deliberate purpose of quarrelling and thus breaking with him; she knew that that was what it must come to now; but she would have preferred to get rid of him gradually, by snubs and slights.  Well, he was bringing it upon himself, and it might as well, perhaps, be done first as last.  People would talk if it were done so soon, but she was smarting with self-reproach, and felt stung to recklessness.

    "Love!" she cried.  "Oh, no, I don't love you!  If I'd thrown myself away as your mother did, if I'd allowed myself to be made another clog to a man struggling with poverty, if I had sunk myself to his level, and thus helped to drag us both lower, that would have been love; but because I have some respect both for him and for myself, and want our wedding to lift us both, I don't love you.  Well, I don't love you.  I don't want to love you, so there! that's an end!"

    John scarcely heard her; his own thoughts and fears were so overwhelming that he could scarcely think.  It seemed to him as if he had been suddenly plunged into paralysing darkness.  With a great cry he flung himself at her feet, and implored her to recall her words.  "She was angry; she did not, she could not, mean what she said."  For some time he pleaded thus, and Sallie, from discretion rather than relenting, gave way a little, but the interview, though John prolonged it in the desperate hope that his crushing fears were groundless, was constrained and unnatural, and he was glad at last to part in order to get time to think.

    To some extent he had brought this trouble upon himself; he had allowed his own painful conscientiousness to colour his account of his experiences in the examinations, and had told his tale without one extenuating or hope-suggesting circumstance.  He had enlarged upon the superiority of his fellow examinees, and the hopelessness, from the beginning, of his own chance, and had taken scrupulous care that all his friends should see the case as it actually was, and in doing so he had unconsciously done himself an injustice, and made the thing worse than it was.  He had not mentioned that the decision of the July Committee was not necessarily final, neither had he said anything about the possibility of trying again another year.  In truth, he was so utterly staggered by the fact that after having received what he regarded as an indubitable call, he had been refused, that he had scarcely thought of anything but the hard and faith-confounding fact itself.

    For three days he had been staring with hot strained eyes into the blackness, and the first change that had come was an infinite deepening of the night.  The first difficulty was confounding to him because of its mysteriousness, but the second had in it every ingredient of bitter despair.  Sallie had not invited him to stay to tea, though it is not necessary to charge her with anything more serious than momentary forgetfulness, but he never thought of that, but climbed over the top of the embankment and down into the lane until he reached the old stile leading into the woods, and there he cast himself down at the foot of a mossy tree-trunk and tried to face the new situation.

    And, first of all, the man in him gave trouble.  He had an unconquerable suspicion of that individual, and watched all his various moods and phases with unsleeping vigilance.  He was a wily, slippery, unscrupulous slave who must be kept down with unrelenting rigour, and now he saw this fearsome object springing to its feet and brandishing its chains, and utterly refusing any longer to be silenced or controlled.

    He had been fooled, made a tool of, degraded.  He was nothing; his thoughts and feelings and desires did not count.  That beautiful, holy goddess, Love, which dwelt in the inner shrine of his heart, had been dragged from her throne, and harnessed like a beast of burden to the chariot of a sordid woman's ambition.  But the manhood within him, outraged at the spectacle, was in open rebellion, and began to belabour him with the very chains with which it had so long been bound.  It had been cast into the mire and trampled upon, but now stood up for itself and for Love.  Love, real love, was so holy, so glorious a thing that neither man nor woman could despise it without covering themselves with everlasting dishonour.  But this love of his had not merely been despised—it had been defiled.  This angel from heaven had been dragged into the service of hell, and when she had failed in her task, had been spurned and cast aside.

    With his hot face in the hollow formed by the branching roots of the tree, John ground his teeth, and tore up and flung away handsful of the grass about him.  His friends, even his mother, would have declared that he had no pride, but he was finding now that pride had him; it was not only there, but master, and was improving the rare opportunity by revenging itself on its stern ruler.  Yes, there was no avoiding it; he, he was held so cheaply as to be of no account at all when he lacked certain possible prospects.  The rush and tumult of his wounded pride was overpowering.  He had had disappointments enough in his short life, but this was torture, this was raging madness, this was hell!

    For a few moments longer he lay gnashing and writhing in the intensity of his outraged resentment, and then another thought came, and he sat up suddenly.  Here he was, a Christian man, torn to pieces by the raging of an unregenerate passion.  The nature which he had crucified until it was surely dead had come down from its cross and mastered him.  The one devil he had so painfully cast out had returned, and brought seven others with it worse than itself.  A great fear rose up within him; white and stern, he braced himself for a fresh subjugation.  Again and again he threw the monster, and again and again it returned to the attack.  It was a long fight, and terrible, but slowly, and at great cost, he reasserted his ascendancy.  He was on his feet by this time, and, with head thrown back, eyes nipped tightly together, and fingers clutching each other behind his back, he walked about, and muttered and prayed.

    And just as pride and resentment got subdued, another feeling arose within him.  Beaten everywhere else, the tenacious adversary came suddenly upon his rear, and struck at what was always his most vulnerable point—himself.  He had brought it on himself, after all.  He knew that Sallie was above him, and he ought never to have presumed.  His attempt to win her and the angry pride he had just fought down were simply manifestations of selfishness.  To ask her to make sacrifices for him was pride and selfishness combined.  He had been doing the very thing he was so angry at in her.  Then he thought of the prejudices expressed by his mother and others, and of the spirit Sallie had shown when he had refused to become a candidate the year before.  They were all of a piece, and he ought to have been prepared.  Sallie was not spiritual, that was all; she was moved by the ordinary prudential motives of respectable people, and if he could not offer her a position, at any rate equal to the one she was in, it was mere selfishness to be displeased with her attitude.  She liked him in a way, and she had shown that if he could have offered her what she had a right to expect, she would have married him.  What more could he expect from her?  Ah, but she was pretty, after all, and just the bright, resourceful, prudent sort of person for a man of his rather dull spirit and unworldly ways.  It would be cruel to bring her down to a position in which she would have no opportunity of using and developing her gifts; she was made to excel and lead, and what a satire on his love it would be to wish her to take the position and prospects of a working man's wife.

    He was quieter by this time, and the course of his thoughts seemed to soften him; the luxury of kind feelings, after all the bitterness he had felt, was sweet to him, and he grew quite tender as he reflected.  If he had thought, as he ought to have done, he would have offered to release her as soon as he knew his fate, but he had held on, and had assumed that she was going to make a perfectly unnecessary sacrifice.  No wonder she had been fitful and querulous; he ought to have saved her the pain of making this petty little excuse of a quarrel.  And just at this point his pride came back with an utterly unexpected and confusing rush.  What a muff he was!  He was doing the most cowardly of all things—trying to deceive himself.  He knew that, his poverty excepted, he was at least Sallie's equal; he knew that he never would have lifted his eyes to her but for her own most palpable encouragement, and he could see, if only he would, that she was a worldly, scheming little hussy, unworthy of any true man's love.

    But he fought the feeling down again; it was always easy to blame himself rather than others, so he would forgive her.  No! that was not the thing; he would ask her to forgive him; he would write to her and release her; that was the least atonement he could make.  Yes, he had done the wrong, and he must undo it.  And now it seemed as if the great struggle was over, but with one of those subtle doubling to which the elusive human mind is so prone, he pulled up before another difficulty.  He was strangely contented with his decision; the victory had been easier than he expected.  Could he have arrived at it with so little effort if he loved her as he believed he did?  A change had come over him, subtle and sudden, but very real.  He excused Sallie, he justified her, he pitied her worldliness.  Yes, but what was this?  He did not love her!  All the rest had come with this suspicious ease, and was, therefore, now void of all virtue, because he no longer wanted her!

    He had got to the edge of the wood by this time, and standing near the wicket gate, he looked hastily around him as if he had lost something.  He peered wonderingly into the shadows amongst the trees, and then up at the sinking sun, and suddenly realized with amazement of heart that his own nature had outwitted him, and that whilst he had been struggling to retain Christian charity and justice towards his sweetheart, the greater thing, the deeper thing in him, the thing he had been more sure of than life itself, had somehow eluded him and slipped away—he had lost, yes, he had lost his love.  A fretful vexation rose within him.  He shook himself and looked appealingly at the thick trees, conjured up the image of Sallie, and dwelt upon it.  He recalled her pretty ways and gay laughter, he reminded himself of her kindness in the matter of his sister, and her more recent and greater kindness when the bailiffs were in the house.  He called himself an ingrate, a selfish, sulky wretch, but there he stuck.  He felt grateful, forgiving, even sympathetic toward Sallie, but the old, deep love was, at any rate, stunned, and would not now move.  But real love never dies; neglect, unkindness, harshness only strengthen it.  Had he been deceiving himself?  Had he been the ambitious one, and not Sallie?  Had he been carried away by her notice of him, and had his love been after all only a subtler form of self-love?

    He sighed and looked disconsolately around him, but the prostrate form of his wounded affection never stirred.  Oh, this was torment, pure torment!  He was sure he had loved her; he must love her; he did love her.  But there was no response from within, and with a numbed, bewildered heart he strode down the footpath and back into the lane towards home.  The only thing that was clear to him was that until he understood himself better he could not even write to Sallie.

    A long, weary fortnight of fluctuating emotions and abortive resolutions passed over, and John remained in much the same frame of mind.  He could not decide what he ought to do; and Sallie, oddly enough, did not help him either way.  There were no appointed meetings between them, but one way or another they met somewhat frequently, and it added considerably to John's perplexities that Sallie seemed as uncertain as he was himself.  One day she was fairly, though pensively, kind, and the next absent, reserved, and short.  As to the future, Wilky and the rest of the paint shop fraternity urged him boisterously and confidently to try again next year; but John could not make up his mind, because the super., who understood these things better than anybody else, never suggested such a thing, though he certainly acted as though he did not regard the case as quite settled.

    John had no difficulty in understanding why he was rejected, as far as the examinations were concerned, but he found it impossible to reconcile what had taken place with the direct and definite call of which he was now so confident.  The only thing to do, therefore, was to wait the unfolding of the Divine will.  Meanwhile he was occupied much more constantly with his relations to Sallie.  The old ardent love refused to respond to his appeals, but he sought her company because he felt that if only she would drop her wayward, undecided, and somewhat peevish manner, and be for one half-hour her own bright self, his love would awake again, and then! —Ah, then!  But beyond that he could never get.

    He had ceased to go regularly to the farm since their "tiff."  He scarcely knew why, and Sallie did not seem to notice the change; but this sort of thing could not go on.  He must get to the end of it somehow.

    The super. had gone to Conference, and John had been asked to take the week-night service.  He was leaving the band-room in Wilky company, when he noticed that Sallie, who had been present, was waiting for him.  As soon as they got out of the front street she took his arm with the prettiest little air of proprietorship possible, and chattered away about the sermon in a manner that reminded him of their oldest and sweetest days.

    As they turned into a country lane that led by a longer way round into the road to the farm, they came suddenly upon a herd of cows, and she, with a startled little cry, clung closer to him, and he put his arm round her to reassure her.  When they had got safely past, John would have withdrawn his arm, but found, with a great gush of joy, that it was held fast.  Then Sallie dropped her voice and began to speak in tones only too delightful to the struggling man by her side.  Halfway down the lane she stopped of herself, and sat down on the stile, and noticing that he still stood, she affected to be shocked at her own forgetfulness, and made him take the top step whilst she settled herself down on the lower one.

    It was the time of the year when it is scarcely ever dark, and the air was soft and balmy, whilst a serene stillness seemed to pervade everything.  Sallie looked round with a soft little sigh, leaned her shoulder against John's knee, and asked if he had ever felt such a feeling of sweet peacefulness before.  John never had, but he had often been quieter within.

    "One couldn't even think a wicked thought, a night like this, could they, John?"

    John couldn't, at any rate, and he was resolving he wouldn't.  She put her arm absently upon the edge of his knee, and turning her head a little backward, looked past him to the sky.  John glanced at her dimpled cheek and the soft white throat beyond, and felt that life was beginning to stir at last in that leaden thing he called his heart.

    "John," she said, looking up into his eyes, "when all nature seems to be breathing the name of God, as it does to-night, don't you feel as though you must go and tell everybody how good He is?"

    "I do, I do," said John earnestly, and though the upturned face looked very tempting to John's unregenerate flesh, her elevated expression made the thought seem a desecration.  She leaned her cheek upon the arm on his knee now, but appeared so absorbed in high thoughts as to be unconscious of the fact that John's eyes were filling with dangerous light.  She dropped her eyes for a moment, and seemed to be thinking, and then, raising them suddenly, she said—

    "John, are you as confident as ever that you are called to preach?"

    "Y-e-s," he replied, musingly, and then felt a stab of shame that he could even hesitate on such a point.

    "So do I.  If God has called you He will find you work, won't He, either in one sphere or another?"

    "Yes, in His own good time."

    "Yes, God's ways are very wonderful, aren't they?  People's lives are often very different from what they expect them to be."

    John agreed, and added that the chief thing was to be willing to go anywhere and do anything.

    "Y-e-s."

    Sallie seemed to be absorbed in some great thought outside the small affairs of ordinary life, and presently she asked, in the same musing, absent tone—

    "I suppose you would go anywhere, John, and do anything, would you not?"

    "I hope so."

    "Oh, I know so.  It's noble to feel like that," and there was a mute apology and confession in the soft voice that made John vexed with himself that he was not more moved by it.

    Sallie's eyes came slowly back from the horizon and then, as though a sudden recollection had flashed upon her, she fixed her gaze upon him and said—

    "Oh, John, I'd such a funny idea come into my head to-day," and then, with a spoilt sort of gesture, which among other things brought her little hand close to his, "but I won't tell you—you'll only laugh at me."

    "Yes, tell me, do!"

    But he didn't take the little hand, as he once would have done.

    "Well, I was thinking"—and her hand was touching his now—"I was thinking—God moves in a mysterious way, you know—what a thing it would be if God intended you to be a minister of some other church!"

    John had never thought of such a thing, and said so very decidedly.

    "Well, but let me tell you"—and then putting on a very arch look—"but you wise old owls of men don't believe in signs and leadings, I know."

    John, to encourage her, said that all depended, and he was getting quite vexed with the hard scepticism within him.

    "Well, I never thought of such a thing in all my life before, but less than half an hour after the idea came into my head, who should come in but Miss Hessay, the Whittle Grove new vicar's sister, you know, and without me saying a word, she commenced right off and began talking about you."

    "Oh, she's heard the gossip."

    "Never mind that.  She said her brother and she had been brought up Methodists, and that he was once a candidate for the ministry, like you, but was declined.  And they thought it a very hard thing at the time, but now they see it was the hand of the Lord."

    John was shaking his head quite energetically, but Sallie would not see, but went on—

    "Well, she says that her brother would never have done half as much good in Methodism as he has been able to do in the Church; and she hummed and haa-ed a bit, and then she hinted that a way could be made for you, and you might get ordained, and even married, in about a couple of years."

    John shook his head more decidedly than ever.

    "I'm not called to the Church, Sallie."

    "How do you know?  You cannot know that!"

    "If I'm called at all, I'm called to Methodism."

    "But they won't have you!  You cannot be called there.  It's stupid to talk like that."

    John gave his head another weary shake; but there had been another tone in Sallie's voice when she spoke last, and so to soothe her he felt for her hand, but she drew it away.

    "I can never leave the Church of my parents; I daren't."

    Sallie drew away with a petulant little cry, and, turning her back towards him, stared with annoyance in her eyes at the opposite hedge.

    "Then are you going to offer again next year?" she demanded, half turning round and eyeing him resentfully.

    John was growing a little stern, and answered gravely—

    "I don't even know that—yet."

    Pride, anger, and impatience struggled together in her face, whilst she tapped the cinderpath with her little foot, and presently she asked constrainedly—

    "When will you know?"

    But John had begun to think of something else.  He had suddenly made up his mind to speak about the thing that lay so near his heart.  His eyes glistened, and the faint lines round his mouth tightened.

    "Sallie, I should like to say something to you."

    A flash of curiosity came from under the long eyelashes, but the face was still sulky and averted.

    "Well?"

    "Sallie, I've done you a great wrong."

    "Have you only found that out to-night?"

    "I found it out some time since.  I have sought your affection when I knew that you could only respond to it at great sacrifice to yourself.  I had no right—"

    But Sallie had sprung to her feet, her eyes blazing and her little hands tightly clenched.  Why, this mouthing, melancholy factory lad was actually going to dismiss her—her!

    "Stop!" she cried imperiously.  "You whining old woman!  I've been silly enough to think that I could put some spirit into you!  Stupid that I was!  You're your father's son, John Ledger, and will whine your way into a pauper's grave.  Never dare speak to me again, except"—and here her native hardness and coarseness got the better of her prudence—"except to bring me the money I spent to save you from sleeping in the street!  Go, sir, go!"

    John went white at her words, but grew stern and strangely collected as she went on.  He stood looking at her scornful, flaming face a moment until she had done, and then, with a sort of unconscious bow, he turned on his heels and left her standing there.

    Half an hour later, when he reached home, he found a letter waiting for him which had come by the evening post, and as it had "Wesleyan Conference" embossed on the flap of the envelope, there were five souls consuming themselves with impatience to know the contents.  Wilky was nearly beside himself, and kneeled upon a chair to look over John's shoulder as he read, and this was what he saw—


DEAR JOHN
      "I have the happiness of informing you that you have just been accepted by Conference unanimously.  You are to go to the Institution for Home work.  All particulars when I return.  With every good wish,
                                                      "Sincerely yours,
                                                                         "WILLIAM HALEY."



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