The Minder( VI)
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CHAPTER VI.

MAX RINGLEY HAS AN IDEA.


IT was clear to John Ledger, when, on Max's departure to a too long neglected work, he had leisure to think, that after all his friend's affections had not been very deeply engaged, and he thought with glowing admiration of the delicate kindness of Mary, who had evidently contrived to satisfy or at least to silence Max without too seriously hurting his self-love.  How she had done it was by no means clear from Max's hyperbolical and disjointed descriptions, but that it had been done effectually and with the least possible pain was very manifest.

    John was glad—selfishly, wickedly glad.  The few words his friend had slipped out about Mary's concern for him meant nothing, of course, but they seemed unutterably sweet, and he would believe they meant something in spite of reason and right and everything else.  That his passion was hopeless, and mad and guilty as well, he knew; but that it was his passion, the one great overmastering passion of his life, he knew also, and did not at that moment wish it otherwise.  To love was enough, and every other consideration was relentlessly shut out.  And just when the guilty dream, as he regarded it, was most intoxicating it began to slip away.  He tried to fix it, strained his soul's eyes after it, clutched at it with mad desperation, but it faded before him like a dissolving view, and he was left alone in the outer darkness.  The severe strain of self-repression during the last few weeks had drained his strength, and that, with the exhaustion of his examinations, had reduced his vitality, and he was in that limp physical condition in which all mental ideas, especially those of a pensive nature, become vivid even to exaggeration; and every feature of the dreadful impasse in which he found himself stood out with startling distinctness.  The worst fear of his life was more than realised, and he, the fastidiously conscientious, was steeped in basest guilt.  He had not even been equal to the demands of elementary morality, and proposed to himself to stand at God's altar and vow to love a woman he knew he never could love; whilst solemnly pledged and spiritually married to one woman, he had allowed himself to love another.  To one of them it was robbery, and to the other, grossest insult.

    The position was bad enough when considered thus, but when he thought of it as it was related to God, and then remembered that he was not a mere man but a teacher of Christian morality, the blackness of darkness came upon him, and he would gladly have died at that moment to escape the torture.  But there was no escape; there was even no relief.  He was lying on the little horse-hair sofa, his eyes nipped tightly together in acute anguish.  Self-pity came more than once to his aid, but seeing in it only another and a deadlier foe he resisted, and hardened his heart against himself.

    In life's great extremes he had been taught to seek God, but now he felt that as the difficulty was of his own making, it could only be dealt with by himself, and that to ask God to help him out of a trouble from which there was a clear, if almost impossibly hard path of duty, was to further insult an already outraged Deity.

    He rolled about on the couch and groaned; and then a little patch of grey appeared; it could scarcely be called light, but it was some little change from the dense darkness that enveloped his soul.  He grew quiet, removed his hands from his face, and lay staring at the white ceiling.  Then he rose, went to his desk, and took out a bundle of letters and glanced them over.  Yes, there was something there; there was quite sufficient in those letters to at least palliate his offence, for Sallie had written very harshly and recklessly sometimes; he could give her up definitely and then make some atonement to God and his conscience by resolving he would never marry at all.  Then he woke from his reverie with a start, flung the letters from him as though they had bitten his fingers, and stood looking down upon them on the floor as one who watched a hissing, mesmerising snake.  There was anger, horror, disgust on his face now, and presently with a cry he made a plunge at the letters, and, lest they should tempt him again, gathered them in his hands, threw them with a little gasp into the fire, and stood watching their destruction with painful interest.  The little clock struck six, and remembering that to-morrow was Sunday he smiled bitterly, and flung himself once more on his couch.

    "No, there was no way out"; even the desperate course he had pacified his conscience with so long now seemed not only wicked but impossible.  There was one thing to do, and one only; he shrank from it, resisted it, spurned it, but there it was, certain, clear, irresistible: he ought to resign the ministry for which he was no lodger fit.

    And then he thought of his mother and Wilky Drax, and all the other kind friends who were so proud of him and interested in his welfare, and as this touched a tender chord his hot eyes grew moist for a moment; but the thought was soon lost in the reflection that when connexional discipline had been satisfied, the intrinsic sinfulness of what he had done would still be there, and as his mind reeled under the ever growing burden, he longed in that excruciating moment that he might die.

    There was a local preacher in the pulpit at St. Mary's next morning, for the now popular second minister was reported ill—the examinations, it was said—and Betty Wheeler and her brother Paul were absent from the chapel, presumably looking after the sick man; and late on Sunday evening a pale, still woman bordering on sixty got off the train at Partidge and was piloted to John's lodgings, whilst a marble-faced girl, with restless manner and wistful eyes, moved absently about at Rose Cottage, guessing, perhaps, some little of the truth, but painfully perplexed all the same.

    Meanwhile Max had reached his own circuit.  So absorbed was he in his rejection by Mary that he had allowed himself to be taken past the junction, and had to journey some twelve miles further on, and get round to Longhope as best he could.  His lodgings were almost palatial as compared with his friend's, and he looked round with a little sigh of thankfulness upon the orderliness to which his landlady had reduced things during his absence, and he was just ordering his tea when the good woman came in with a message that one of his parishioners was ill, and had sent for him.  Conscience-smitten and anxious, the impulsive fellow forgot about his hunger, and a few minutes later his coat tails were seen flying round sundry street corners, and his supporters, glancing after his retreating form, turned to each other to remark upon the wonderful devotion of their young pastor; for Max, being exceedingly popular as a preacher, could do no wrong, and his many admirers saw devotion and self-sacrifice where, in an ordinary man, they would have observed nothing but the bare performance of duty.

    An hour later he sat at his table absently consuming his chop and musing on the many incidents of his recent life.  He sighed and wagged his head, and with clenched fists vowed perpetual celibacy as he thought of Mary, but grew still and sad as he reflected on the condition and difficulties of his comrade.  The absent-minded emptying of the cold dregs of his teacup into the sugar basin instead of the slop bowl, however, brought him back; but in a very brief space he was once more asking himself what John ought to do.  It was not long, however, before he got a step further, and began to wonder what he could do himself to assist in the disentanglement.  A hare-brained idea of suggesting to John that they should both volunteer for work in some remote corner of the mission field, and thus leave all their perplexities behind them, flitted for a moment before his mind, only to be dismissed by the remembrance that John would never be a party to any such scheme.  Then the novelty of the situation brought a smile to his lips.  Hitherto he had been the one to get into scrapes, and John had had to devise the means of deliverance; but now the positions were reversed, and the unwontedness of the situation tickled him exceedingly, and he spun a piece of dry toast round on the tip of his finger and chuckled.  Then he wondered if there was any discreet, elderly minister to whom he could go for counsel; but not being able to recall any, his mind flitted to Mary Wheeler.  She was so clever, so clear-headed, so high-minded, that he was sure, if she cared, she could suggest a way out; but remembering all at once that he suspected Mary of secret fondness for John, he saw that she would certainly refuse to have anything to do with the matter.

    From Mary his mind travelled easily to Sallie Wood.  Following, as he generally did, his instinct rather than his reason, he had decided long ago that the union between John and Sallie ought never to be consummated, and he was not quite aware that in his heart of hearts he had designed his friend for his own sister.  He had never seen Sallie, but he had an immovable conviction, he knew not why, that she was not good enough for John, and it would be an infinite pity if the poor fellow sacrificed himself, as he felt certain he would do if left to his own devices.  He wondered musingly what sort of a girl Sallie was: whatever her disposition she would be madly in love with John—any girl would be.  But perhaps she was not; women are a queer quantity—Max was getting the cynicism of experience all at once—perhaps she had never learnt to value him as he and the rest of his college friends, tutors included, had done; and then a wild, ridiculous, but most alluringly daring idea flashed into his mind, and he threw back his head and grinned as he thought of it.  How would it be to go to Sallie unknown to John, and—

    "Telegram, sir; boy waitin' for hanswer."

    Max started as he heard the announcement, and then thought, with a queer little pang—

    "What if John has—"

    But he tore the salmon-coloured envelope open, and read with puzzled face—

    "Waiting answer to letter.  Wire reply.
                                          "CLOUGHTON, Bramwell."

    With puckered, scowling brow he stared at the telegram, rubbed his left ear violently, and frowned again at the incomprehensible message.  Then suddenly remembering, he plunged at the mantelpiece, and grabbed at a small heap of unopened and hitherto forgotten letters.  He ran his eye hastily over the postmarks, picked out a note with the Bramwell stamp on it, tore it open and glanced rapidly over the communication.  As he read he raised his brows and cried "Ah!" now and then in complete surprise; then he knitted his forehead, threw the note down absently on the table, and turned and glared at Mrs. Spudder in intense thought.  The landlady understood her man by this time, and stood quite unconcerned, knowing well enough that he did not see her.  After thinking thus for a short time Max turned to look for a reply form, and Mrs. Spudder had, of course, to find it for him.  Then he scribbled a few words, added a tip for the messenger, scrambled into his coat and hat, and dashed off to see his super.

    The letter informed him that the Connexional Evangelist had suddenly failed them at Bramwell through illness, and that as the arrangements had all been made, and the season was late, they could not now postpone the fixture.  They had heard of him through Mr. John Ledger and others; would he take the vacant place?  The writer was a friend of his super.'s, and was writing him by that post to ask that Mr. Ringley might be released from his ordinary work for ten days.  The missive concluded with an earnest and flattering appeal to Max to come and help them.  An hour later a telegram accepting the invitation had been sent, and Max was back in his study trying to realise the new situation.  He was so excited he could not sit still; pacing up and down his large, long room, stumbling over kicked-up edges of carpet, running against inconveniently placed chairs, he scowled and tittered, scowled and "Pshaw-ed" again, uttering between whiles all sorts of odd ejaculations.

    Coincidence!  It was no mere coincidence; it was a direct and most palpable Providential leading.  He would see Sallie, get to know her, and in ten days, perhaps a fortnight, what might not be done!

    The opening was so startlingly opportune that there must be something in it, and his sanguine temperament led him to feel that his friend's difficulties were already disposed of.

    He would be very diplomatic, trust him for that; no rushing headlong at it, and spoiling the whole game; he would study her carefully, make sure of his ground step by step, and then

    And the light-hearted fellow hugged himself in rosy anticipations of brilliant strategic success.  His heart grew soft again as he pictured to himself the relief and comfort it would be to the too scrupulous John.

    "Dear old boy! why, there was not anything on earth he would not do for John."

    All at once he pulled up abruptly, the tender look vanished from his face, and a blank expression took its place, accompanied by an almost frightened gasp, and then the comic side of his last great idea came upon him, and he threw himself into his elaborate mechanical reading chair, and rolled about and held his sides in uncontrollable laughter.

    "Ye gods!  Ye gods! it will kill me!  Lark!  There never was such a lark!" and then, springing out of his chair, he cried, "Max!  Max! she might transfer her affections, she might!" and away he went with another roar.

    "Imagine, sir! the lady suggests a simple swop!  She reads poetry and suggests Miles Standish to thee, Max!  Oh, scrumptious!  Oh, glorious!" and dropping helplessly into his chair again he drew up his legs and crowed and laughed, and crowed and laughed again.

    When at last his hilarity had exhausted itself, he began to really look at the idea.  He saw, of course, how wildly outrageous and hare-brained it was, but that only made it appeal the more attractively to his romantic, topsy-turvy nature.  How it would startle the respectables!  How the "saints"—Max had a prejudice against "saints"—would lift up holy hands in horror, and turn up the whites of their eyes!  How their college chums would grin and the old Governor look grave, with a glint in the tail of his eye!  Yes, it was a magnificently audacious idea, and intensely fascinating on that account.  It would beat a novel, he told himself, and carry confusion into the ranks of the "uncu guid."  It did not occur to him that he would be simply transferring John's difficulty to himself; he only saw the fun of the thing and the happy escape that would thus be provided for his friend.

    Gradually he grew quieter, a gentle light stole back into his eyes, and the corners of his mouth tightened a little.  A photo of his friend stood on the mantelpiece, and he presently got up and began to look steadily at it.  A long sigh escaped him as he gazed, and then he cried, nodding at the picture, "It's mad, my boy, of course!  It will never come off, as you say! but Johnny! dear, good old Johnny if there is a chance of it, and if she is passable, and if there really is no other way out, mad and crazy though it is, here's the chap that will do it!" and then gazing wistfully at the face in the photo until his eyes grew wet, he said slowly and almost solemnly, "Yes, dear boy! here's the chap that will do it."

    He had appointments at country places on the following day, and as he walked from village to village he repeated to himself his vow that nothing should induce him to go to Partidge again, and on his return journey he made the resolution four or five times over with ever-increasing intensity; but on Monday morning he was the first person to alight from the 9.57 train at Partidge station.  Circumstances alter cases, of course, and the fact that in a few days he was due at John's circuit town of Bramwell made it absolutely necessary that he should interview his friend and get all the information possible as to the character and condition of those he was about to preach to; and this was surely a sufficient reason for waiving otherwise adamantine resolutions.  He knew nothing of what had taken place since he left John, and so was astonished to find his chum in bed with his mother attending him.  John was propped up in bed with a writing-board on his knees, evidently composing a letter, but his appearance had changed so shockingly during the thirty odd hours since they parted, that for the moment Max was too alarmed to notice John's manner or occupation, until a furtive attempt on the sick man's part to hide his correspondence attracted his attention and excited his suspicion.  And just then the doctor was announced, and to Max's increasing alarm he was accompanied by a physician from Bellerby, a retired man who had great local fame.  He withdrew and wandered about restlessly in the study until the consultation was over.  They were not very long he noted, with relief, but as they were leaving the local medico came over to him and said in subdued tones—

    "You are Mr. Ledger's friend, I understand?"  Max bowed and turned a suddenly whitened face to his interrogator.

    "Ah—ah—would you mind slipping down to my surgery in about ten minutes?  We should like to see you."  Max felt his heart beating, but as the doctor departed, Mrs. Ledger came out of the bedroom and with anxious face asked what they had said.  Max told her, and then as he watched the face grow pale and the lips quiver, he felt his own eyes were getting dim, and with a sudden pathetic impulse he bent over and reverently kissed the drawn face of the mother of his friend.

    "Mr. Ledger seems a reserved sort of man, Mr.—a—a—Ringley," said the doctor, when Max, still anxious and nervous, sat down in the consulting room.

    Max nodded his head and looked at the physicians inquiringly.

    "Well now, you are his friend, his closest friend, I understand.  Is he fairly open with you—a—a—about his private affairs, you know?"

    "I know all there is to know," and Max licked his parched lips.

    "Has he had any great shock lately that you know of?  I don't want to know what it is, you know."

    "No," said Max rather bluntly, and then he almost regretted having spoken so hastily.

    "He has no financial troubles, or—"

    "Of course not! he's my friend!" and he seemed to think that answer more than sufficient, but the doctor was not quite so clear about it.

    "Have you noticed that he is troubled about any theological matters?"

    "If he were I should have known it.  Of course he's just passed a very stiff examination."

    "Yes! yes!  That is something, no doubt, but you see, this is more than overstrain—" and then he turned to his colleague and they conversed in an undertone for a moment; presently he turned and looked calculatingly at Max, and then resumed slowly—"You have never heard that there is insanity in his family?"

    Max was getting angry; a hot reply rose to his lips, but curbing himself he said gruffly—

    "I've never heard of any such thing."

    There was another and longer consultation, and then the specialist turned and began to move about the room restlessly, with his hands in his pockets.

    "Your friend, Mr. Ringley, has no disease upon him whatever, but he's frightfully run down, his vitality is very low, and the fact is the trouble is mental.  He is the victim of some fixed idea, probably a hallucination; the index finger of his brain, so to speak, does not move, and that, as I need not say, is most dangerous.  He needs no physic; he must be kept active; change of scene and occupation are imperative, and if you know anything that is likely to be troubling him you must get it out of him or get him to forget it."

    Max asked several questions and was courteously answered, but he got very little more light; nothing, in fact, but the oft-repeated injunction to get at the bottom of his friend's troubles and take him away somewhere.  Max returned in a perplexed and anxious state of mind; some of the things he had heard relieved him immensely, but the others so exactly indicated the danger he was so well aware of that he was almost frightened.  Some of the duties enjoined upon him, he knew he could discharge better than anybody else, but in the graver and more delicate things he was profoundly mistrustful.  Constitutionally he needed some one to lean upon, and had had that privilege during the last three years with John, but in this case he must act alone, and the prospect made him very uneasy.

    One moment, on the return journey, he started off with a plunge to carry out his instructions, and the next he found himself standing staring at the pavement and wondering how he must act.  He ran over in his mind a list of college friends who might possibly assist him, but found no one in whom he could confide so delicate a business.  Then he had a notion of going right away to Sallie and telling her the whole truth, and appealing to her goodness of heart to release John of her own free will, but as he could not be certain that John would accept of any such solution, he was compelled to abandon that also.  A great longing came over him to throw resolution to the winds and go and consult the Wheelers—Mr. Wheeler particularly—but as he could not decide that it would be quite fair to his friend to do this without his consent, that hope had to be relinquished like the rest.

    He had arrived at John's lodgings by this time, and as the period of action was now come, he darted upstairs and bounced into the bedroom with much of his usual boisterousness.  Mrs. Ledger met him at the top of the stairs, and checking a mad impulse to hug her, he whispered a few words that brought the light back into her eyes, and then dashing past he bounded into the room, crying, "Come out o' this!  Arise and shine!  No more malingering nonsense here!  Get up, sir!  Get up, I say—where's that water jug?" and he made a snatch at the quilt and gave a jerk to it, when he suddenly caught sight of the letter John had previously concealed.  It fluttered out with the corner of the bedcover, and John, who was beginning to smile in a wan sort of way, uttered a cry of alarm and put out his hand for the epistle.  Max, hurriedly justifying himself by the instructions he had received, took a glance at it as he picked it up, and noticed that it commenced "Dear Mr. President."  He could scarcely suppress the exclamation that rushed to his lips, but with a hasty covering joke about love letters he flung it back to the sick man, and then resumed his clamour for John to get up.  "He says you're foxing, man!  You're coming the old soldier!  Get up, I say!  Where is that water jug?"

    John, however, was engaged in concealing his unfinished letter, and so, to flatter the idea that he had noticed nothing, Max resumed his blustering demands.

    "Up, sir!  I'm in command now!  Valet, sir? certainly—at your service!  Twenty pounds a year and perquisites!  Stockings, sir? here you are!  Shaving water, sir? hot, sir? why, of course!"

    Laughing in spite of himself as the mad fellow rattled on, John was soon up and dressed, and as the fire had now been lighted in his own room, he joined his nurses and listened listlessly whilst Max, with his ridiculous comic embellishments and his own reservations, detailed the instructions he had received.  Then he evoked the ready sympathy of Mrs. Ledger by describing himself as suffering acutely from brain-fag in consequence of the strenuous efforts he had made at the recent examinations, and when this, as he hoped, produced another faint smile from John, he plunged into an account of the invitation he had received for the mission at Bramwell, and as that brought fresh inspiration he announced that he should stay with them all the week, and then they would all adjourn together to John's old home; his instructions were imperative, and he was going to carry them out; John was to do no work for a month at least.

    This last statement was, of course, purely apocryphal, but he leaned back as he made it, and avoiding John's eye, bestowed a complicated wink on the anxious mother.  Taking her cue from him, the old lady fell in with the suggestion eagerly, and when John attempted to demur he was met by a stentorian schoolmaster-like "Silence!" and sternly informed that he was under authority.  After a light repast Max sent for a conveyance, and mounting the box took them out for a long drive, keeping John close to his side and chattering away with riotous banter that opened Mrs. Ledger's eyes again and again and made her wonder whether this could really be a minister of religion and her son's chosen companion.  But he soon found that he had undertaken no easy task; his mirth, being forced, tired him strangely, and Monday was one of the longest days he had ever spent.

    Whenever, during the drive, he glanced at John, he found him abstracted and painfully depressed, and as he only replied in monosyllables, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a conversation.  As Mrs. Ledger occupied the only spare bed in the house, and he did not intend to let John out of his sight, he contrived that it should be agreed for them to sleep together at least for a night or two.  All the evening he tried to interest John in books, and found that the only subject he cared in the least for was next year's examinations, themes Max's soul hated.  But he conquered his repugnance and commenced reading aloud, only to discover that the other was not following him, but was evidently absorbed in his own gloomy reflections.

    In bed that night he got the first opportunity for quiet thought.  How ever was he to get through a week like this? and what would be the end of all these cruel entanglements?  To whom could he go for counsel and support?  Why? oh why had God allowed so extremely conscientious a man to wander into this hopeless cud-de-sac?  Over and over again he turned his harassing dubitations, and then he heard the clock strike twelve, and turned over with a fierce resolve to go to sleep.  All at once he remembered about John's unfinished letter.  He knew instinctively that it was his formal resignation as a minister—the headline made suspicion all but certainty—what else could he have to write to so high an authority about?  But what had become of it?  It had not yet been sent, he was sure, and he must take care that it never was.  John had certainly not posted it yet, and he must see that he got no opportunity of doing so.  What was there in the letter?  John had never alluded to it—a most suspicious circumstance.  They understood each other entirely; if he could get hold of the letter and destroy it, John would understand that no such thing could be done with his consent and whilst he was there.  Should he get softly out of bed and try to find it?  He had no scruple either in reading or burning it; he was only carrying out his instructions.  John had been very quiet now for nearly an hour.  Was he asleep?  He raised himself upon his elbow and looked over, and then sank back with a smothered cry, for the patient lay on his back with his eyes wide open, and evidently unconscious where he was.  Max's head dropped on the pillow with a groan.  How much longer was this miserable torture going on?

On Tuesday Sallie came, accompanied by the Bramwell super.'s daughter, and Max, whilst welcoming the interesting diversion, soon found fresh cause for worry in the confirmation of his previous suspicions.  She was fussy enough about John for a few moments, but soon showed to his friend's jealous eye that her concern was not very deep.  He had arranged for another drive, and was surprised and a little excited when Sallie proposed to sit by his side on the box.  He could not deny that she was pretty, and certainly exerted herself to be entertaining, and by the time John and he went to see them off at the station, he and Sallie were on the best possible terms.  It was always easy for the impulsive fellow to imagine himself in love with the last fair woman he had met, and he began to think that really his ridiculous and outrageous idea of solving all difficulties by stealing his friend's sweetheart was not so altogether wild and mad as he had thought.  Sallie did not attempt to conceal her delight at the prospect of his coming visit to Bramwell; though Max would have liked her better if she had been more interested in the fact that John was going too.

    He slept soundly that night, and it was as well he did, for next day was wild and wet, and they were condemned to a long endurance indoors.  John seemed uneasier than ever, and more than once announced his intention of going out, rain or no rain; but on Max making it clear that he would go with him, he seemed to grow more resigned, and abandoned the project.  "That letter," said Max to himself.  It proved a draggy, depressing, never-ending sort of a day, and as Max saw his friend sinking and growing more haggard every hour, he grew desperate and resolved to thresh the matter out again, even if it were only a fruitless repetition of old arguments.  When they had retired for the night, therefore, he closed and locked the bedroom door, and startled John by challenging him about the letter.  To his surprise the dejected fellow seemed glad to talk, and so they began, and step by step and point by point went over the whole ground.

    "It only wants strength," cried John, at the end of an hour's hard contention; "it only wants manliness and a little common honesty to put the whole thing right."

    "How?" and Max stared at his companion, half anticipating the answer.

    "How!  I must do the plain right.  I must set Sallie free, I must resign the ministry I am no longer fit for, and I must stamp the image of Mary Wheeler out of my heart."

    "Never! you shall not!  God is not a monster!  Some way will open if you will only wait, man!"

    "God!" shouted John, and his whole frame shook with emotion.  "Is God the condoner of sin?  Are we to use Him to save us from the consequences of our own folly?  Are we to expect Him to do for us what we can do for ourselves, and what for the sake of our own spiritual discipline and development we ought to do for ourselves?  God is mercy, God is love, but God is not soft."

    It was no use: Max the healthy-minded, the nimble-witted, the incurably-sanguine, had hoped to carry his point over John's feebleness by clamourous and impetuous rush of argument, but he soon realised that whatever might be the matter with his friend's body, his mind was clear enough, and saw everything with vivid, inexorable, even exaggerated distinctness; and so, after another long hour of haggling, which became more than once quite peevish, they ended where they had begun, and neither of them slept a wink that night.

    Returning from a drive, abbreviated by the weather, next day, they found a note waiting them containing an invitation from Rose Cottage to spend the evening; and Max, weary and disheartened, allowed himself to be comforted by the thought that some help would surely come to him out of this visit.  At the last moment John turned stubborn, and it was only when Max refused point blank to go without him that he yielded.  The afternoon passed rather drearily, and it was a relief to more than one there when the male Wheelers came home.  John even seemed to rouse up a little, for Mr. Wheeler made so much of his mother that he was touched by it, and exerted himself to be agreeable.  All the same, every time he was left to himself he was found with bent head absorbed in painfully sad reflections.  Mark Wheeler had rigged up a little lathe in an upstairs back room, and made some pretty articles of furniture, and as Mrs. Ledger expressed interest in his work, and there was also a model of Mary's patent to be seen there, the whole of those who were talking with the young mechanic adjourned upstairs, and Max, gnawing his thumbs and fighting with his perplexities, suddenly found himself left alone with Miss Wheeler.  She had been playing for them, and still sat on the stool toying absently with the piano keys.  He watched her furtively for a few minutes, but presently raising his eyes he caught her looking at him.  She neither blushed nor smiled, but got quietly up, slipped between him and the sofa arm, sat down close to him, and then said gently—

    "Mr. Ledger doesn't seem much better, Mr. Ringley."

    Max, nearly at his wits'-end with perplexity, felt that those soft tones were sending the cup of his troubles brimming over, and so he raised his head and answered answered chokily—

    "No."

    Mary sat looking at him sideways, and then with a sudden impulse she leaned forward, and placing her hand shyly on his with a momentary touch she said—

    "God bless you! Mr. Ringley, you're a true friend to him."

    Max's head dropped suddenly on his breast; he turned away his eyes, and then, with a swift change, he looked up into her face, and in a voice trembling with feeling he stammered—

    "It's nothing to what he's been to me.  Oh, Miss Wheeler, there'll never be another John Ledger!"

    It was the Wheelers who had arranged for the specialist, and so, using the little information she had, Mary, after another long pause, said—

    "It is some mental or spiritual trouble, I understand."

    Max did not answer all at once; slowly, however, he raised his head again and looked at her until the colour began to rise.  Ah! this was a girl indeed!  Here was a heart that could feel with him if only he dared tell her.  His was not the sort of temperament to have to bear lonely burdens.  Oh, that he could talk to somebody—her, for instance!  He would tell her a little—nothing compromising, nothing that he ought not, but just enough to let her see where he was, and evoke her precious sympathy.  No!—Yes!  Well, he would be very discreet, and so as he talked, and the wonderful face he was watching grew soft with tender interest, his sore heart opened more and more, and he was soon pouring out the whole story.  But he was not going to break his trust even under these gracious circumstances, and so he only mentioned that there was a second lady, of whom he was careful to speak in the third person.  Mary was utterly unconscious, or seemed so to him.  With parted lips and moist eyes she hung upon his words, until, gazing at her and absorbed in the witching glamour of her flattering and tender sympathy, he suddenly slipped out the wrong pronoun, and she was on her feet, the blood surging up through neck and cheek, and her whole face dyed in crimson.  For a moment she stood in speechless embarrassment, and then, as footsteps were heard coming downstairs, she turned and rushed away, leaving him covered with confusion and shame, and more miserable than he had ever been.

    How he got through the rest of that evening Max could never tell, and though Betty surpassed herself in audacious banter, he never rallied, and was heartily glad when the time came to depart.  The only thing that interested him was the reappearance of Mary, but when at last she rejoined the company, except that she was a little paler, he could detect nothing that gave him any clue to her mind.  When they were departing, however, as the little lobby did not give room enough for them all at once, Mary brought his coat into the little dining-room, and as she helped him on, she whispered—

    "Mr. Ledger's troubles are very great, Mr. Ringley," and as he turned to look at her, wondering why she should make so very common-place a remark, she went on, "but none but a good and true man would ever have them; have faith in God, dear friend!"


 
CHAPTER VII.

HOW SALLIE FOUND HER HEART.


TO the surprise of everybody at Rose Cottage, the reserved and almost stately Mary seemed almost gay in her high spirits when the visitors had left them.  She hummed a tune, and smiled as she removed her father's shoes and playfully put on his slippers; she pulled Betty's long hair, and then kissed her for apology; she slipped into the little drawing-room, and strummed a few bars almost wildly on the piano, and then broke off abruptly to speak to their solitary domestic, whom she greatly astonished by addressing as "dear."  Presently she broke out in earnest praise of Max for his devotion to his friend, but turned her head away in secret tears as her father expressed concern about John; in fact her whole conduct was so unlike her ordinary demeanour, that the men-folk went to bed mildly wondering what had come over her.  The house was so small that she and Betty had to occupy the same room, but to-night she bustled her sister off before her, and having also got rid of the servant, she extinguished all the lights in the kitchen and lobby, and then, retreating to the warm dining-room, turned up the gas, and throwing herself into a big easy-chair, abandoned herself to thought.  She was evidently profoundly affected; her eyes swam with soft warm light, her perfectly white skin seemed to gleam as from some deep, powerful, inward pleasure, and she sighed once and again with infinite contentment—

    "He will not!" she murmured, with proud, confident joy, "he will not even for me"—and then, clasping her hands together, she cried, "Let him be true, O God!  Let him conquer!  Let him stand the test, and be a man, and do what Thou wilt with me!"

    She sat musing in silence, and then, gazing absently at the jets in the little gas fire, she went on—

    "Love him!  Yea!  If he fails I'll love him for the grand struggle he is making; but if he conquers, if he conquers, I'll be proud to kiss his feet!"

    The glow of excitement faded slowly out of her face, and a long fit of pensive musing followed.  All at once she started to her feet, crying—

    "But it is wrong to love him!  I'm committing the very sin I want to see him conquer!"

    She turned half round with a repudiating gesture, and drew herself in as though shrinking from some suddenly discovered reptile; her breath came in short, quick gasps, and she cried out in a sort of holy horror—

"I'm expecting him to do what I cannot do myself."

Slowly, and as if all her strength had suddenly failed her, she sank down upon her knees, and bowing her head over the table and covering her face with her hands, she moaned—

    "Now I know!  Now I understand what he suffers!  Poor, poor Mr. Ledger!"

    For fully five minutes she remained motionless where she was, and finally, throwing back her head and revealing a drawn, vehement face, she cried—

    "I cannot! I cannot!  I do not ask to have him.  Let him win his battle, Lord!  Let me love him in secret and in silence for ever!  O God! Great, good God! I am only a woman!"

                           *                           *                           *                           *

    Max returned to John's lodgings that night in a very uneasy, fluctuating condition of mind.  He saw now why Mary Wheeler could not care for him, but he saw also what serious complications might arise from his foolish confidences.  But, after all, Mary knew the exact position of things now, and he could not entirely condemn himself.  She was a wonderful girl, and he felt towards her all that quiet trustfulness which she contrived to inspire in the minds of all who came to know her.  On the whole, therefore, he would like to have encouraged himself, and perhaps would have done so but for two puzzling facts.  One was that he could no longer disguise from himself that some change was coming over John which he did not know how to interpret, and the other that Mrs. Ledger gave ominous indications that she had got to the end of her patience, and would not much longer be kept without a fuller explanation as to the condition of her son.  He knew that examinations and over-work and recent friction in the circuit would not serve any longer as explanations, and he would either have to invent something else or tell her the truth.  He had carried out the doctor's directions with painful exactitude, and had never left John for a moment night or day, except when absolutely compelled, and then for the fewest possible minutes.  But all that Thursday Mrs. Ledger had given signs of wanting to speak to him alone, and he began to feel that if he did not heed her there would be fresh complications.

    As they were retiring, therefore, he made a little signal to "mother" as, to her great delight, he had taken to calling her, and when John had dropped upon his knees by the bedside, he threw a dressing gown over his shoulders and joined the waiting mother in the other room.

    With the simple directness which reminded him of John, she went straight to the point.  There was not only something wrong with her son, but that something was of the most serious character, and they were keeping it from her.  Did Max know what it was?  He had grown confident, almost conceited, about his diplomacy during this very trying week, and so he gave her an evasive reply, which was the amplest confirmation he could have furnished of her fears; and the next moment she had put her finger on the very spot.

    When she mentioned Sallie, he was startled, but when, in the very next sentence, she plumped out the name of Mary Wheeler, Max began to look at her as though she were something uncanny.  There was a strained silence between them after he had made his half-unconscious nod of admission, and then, with a long, soft sigh, she said—

    "Sallie's been very good to us all—but she's shallow!  You know she never cared for him, for himself—"

    "I think Miss Wheeler's more like the sort of girl for—"

    "Her!" interrupted the anxious mother, "H-a-y.  Ay, she's solid gold that creature is; she's good enough even for him."

    There was a movement in the adjoining bedroom, and they both glanced nervously towards the door.

    "It's hard!  It's terrible hard!" moaned the poor mother.

    "We must help him, mother!  We must do something!  What are we good for if we cannot help him now?"

    Mrs. Ledger looked up in a little alarm, and seemed about to object, but then another thought came, and she dropped her eyes, and looked wistfully into the dying fire.  "We munnat meddle!  It's between him and his Maker, you know"—and then, lifting her head, with rapt face and glistening eyes she added, "We must help him as Moses helped Joshua.  He's fightin' t' Malekites in t' valley, and we mun pray in t' mountain.  We shall be in good company, you know."

    "Good company, mother?"

    "Ay, Miss Wheeler's prayin' for him this very minute, and we mun help her.—Good night, my lad," and making a shy, hasty snatch at his hand, she hurriedly kissed it, and moved off to her own bedroom.

    Max heaved a sigh of relief; somehow his burden seemed lighter, and he almost burst into a cry of thankfulness when, on re-entering his bedroom and leaning over, he found John, for the first time, to his knowledge, that week, fast asleep.

    The patient was distinctly better next morning; he talked a little after breakfast, and conducted their family devotions himself.  His face was pinched enough, and his eyes looked sadly hollow; but self-possession and interest in life were evidently coming back to him, and Max struggled between hope and misgiving.  It looked as though John had won his battle and made up his mind, but how?  What had he concluded to do? and Max would have given much to have had the answer to these questions.  They were to leave in the forenoon, John and his mother going straight home, and Max returning to his circuit until next day, when he would join them at Bramwell.  He had so many things to think of that he only returned to the pressing anxieties connected with John now and again.  Many a time during the Friday evening he laughed at himself and his fantastic plan for delivering his friend, and though at bottom he saw its quixotic and absurd character, there was something about it that fascinated him, and he found himself saying that if the worst came to the worst and Sallie improved as much on acquaintance as he felt she very easily might, all women being wonderfully delightful and trustworthy to him, he would make a plunge of it, and astonish John by taking the "stumbling-block" out of the way.  Once the question insinuated itself into his pleasantly dreamy meditations, "How would John take such a manoeuvre?" but he shut it out again.  The wild, romantic absurdity of the idea vastly entertained him, and he did not know that the fact that it would, in all probability, never be tried made it the more delightful to speculate upon.

    "Ye gods!" he chuckled as he sat over his Quaker oats that night, "ye Gods! what a cackle there would be!  Stealing the sweetheart of his greatest friend!  Ha, ha!  Max, my boy, you'd be the talk of the Connexion for once!  Abominable treachery by a probationer!  The Conference paralysed with indignation!  It's spicy!  It's nuts!"

    Then he flung his spoon into the large teacup that had held his food, and as the occasion seemed to justify any recklessness, he groped in a box at the side of his bookcase, and pulled out a faded and precarious cigarette, and in brazen defiance of Connexional regulations, lighted it and flung himself back into his reading-chair, stretched out his long legs, and chuckled again.  "The Bramwellians will mob me," he grinned; "the diminutive broker will call me Judas,' and threaten my life; the saints' will be horrified; the Chairman will insist on a minor Synod; brother Ringley will be hauled up before his betters, and then—then—Mysterious collapse of the prosecution!  Pathetic plea for the prisoner by the prosecutor, and—and—and—Tableau!"

    At her father's death Sallie had improved her worldly appearance, and had gone to live, with Aunt Pfizer as a housekeeper, in a pretty little villa next door but one to the super.  She was left better off than was expected, and had set up a little governess car, which the super. occasionally had the loan of, and so Max, notwithstanding the great crazy plan he had in his head, was rather taken aback when the minister, after a hearty greeting, led the way to the station gate and introduced him to Sallie herself, seated with the reins in her hand, evidently waiting for him.  She received him effusively, made him sit next to her, complimented him on his healthy appearance, and then rattled off into an animated and most flattering description of the grand doings they were expecting during the mission.  This was playing into his hands with a vengeance; but, to his own surprise, it rather ruffled him, and he asked somewhat gruffly—

    "How's John?"

    Sallie left the super. to answer, and before they were out of the station yard she was leaning over towards him, to the peril of the driving, and telling him that they were all very glad indeed that the Connexional evangelist could not come.  He was to be entertained at the Manse, and Sallie, who was evidently on the best of terms with the occupants, came in to tea, and kept him in conversation and pressed dainties upon him until the poor fellow was out of countenance, and wished her far enough.  What disgusted him most was that John was not there, and that Sallie never alluded to him, and, in fact, showed no concern for his welfare, but even kept Max half an hour in the drawing-room consulting him about the hymns to be used at the services, even after he had announced his desire to go and see his chum.  And next day it was worse.  She sent him some flowers to adorn the breakfast table, insisted on driving him and the rest of the occupants of the house to chapel, though the distance was short, and Max had scruples about unnecessary Sunday labour.  At any other time he would have been pleased with the excellent taste she had displayed in her dress, but now he felt irritated as he glanced at her, and listened to her chatter with an inward resentment he had difficulty in keeping out of his face.  She was delighted with his sermon, and with affected shyness declined the invitation to dine, insisting that he would want a "nap"—a thing which Max detested on a Sunday.  She came in, however, to tea, and spent the rest of the day with them.

    "Where's John?" he demanded abruptly, as they were walking home after the evening service.  "And why is he not dressed in clericals?"

    "Isn't he?  I never noticed!  You see, we know him so well, we don't observe."

    "It would be better for you if you did know him," Max thought, but what he said was simply a muffled grunt.

    The services, in spite of the lateness of the season, were a great success.  Max had the golden mouth; in the pulpit he was irresistible, and very delightful results began to manifest themselves, and the little town simmered with excitement.  On Monday Sallie came with John in the governess car, and insisted on taking them both out for a long drive; and on Tuesday the experiment was repeated, but by this time Max had conceived a feeling towards Sallie which made him barely civil to her.  The services seemed to be doing John good; he entered heartily into them, and Max was delighted that anything could appeal to him and bring him out of his hopeless lassitude.  It was decided to continue the gatherings to the end of the second week, and Max's chief anxiety was how to deal with the almost indecently prominent attentions of Sallie.  But on the Thursday he never saw her all day; she was absent from the Bible reading service in the afternoon, where she had hitherto generally sung a solo, and did not turn up at night; and he discovered by a cautious question that she had not been, as he hoped, with John.  On Friday, inquiry by the Manse people elicited the information that Miss Wood was unwell, and Max had so strong a prejudice against her, that he had not the charity to believe in her excuse, but suspected her crafty angling for sympathy.

    Max was in trouble with himself.  He had always had such faith in all women, and this girl was actually making him feel mean and suspicious towards them.  He would see her at Jericho before he would ask after her again.  The idea of delivering his friend by running away with Sallie still seemed to him a triumph of brilliant strategy, but he also realised that it was impossible as far as he was concerned.  He could not, even to save John Ledger.

    The second Sunday, a day long to be remembered in Bramwell Methodism, passed away.  Such congregations, such "unction," and such delightful results as the oldest Methodist had never seen before.  Wilky Drax, with whom Max had struck up a violent friendship, refused to open his shop at all on the Monday, but spent his time standing at the paint shop door bareheaded, and tackling any unregenerates who gave him the opportunity about their "souls."

    On Monday morning, however, Max declined an invitation for a drive with the super., and went and hunted John up, with the intention of having things out with him.  John responded promptly enough, and they strolled out and down the old lane beyond Ledger's house.

    "That is where Sallie was born," said John languidly, as they passed the farm.

    "And the place where you went courting, eh?  Now, old fellow, where are we?  I'm getting out of my depth."

    "Just where we were," and the old haggard look came back into his face.

    "Ah!" and Max pulled up and looked searchingly at his friend.  "Johnny, old chap, I was beginning to hope; you have seemed so much better this last few days."

    "Yes, one cause of anxiety has been removed."

    "What's that?"

    "I can see clearly enough that—well, that it will not break her heart."

    "Ah!  Good!  Then if she doesn't make a fuss—"

    "Ah, that's another thing!  That is just what she would do, unless she had another string to her bow, of which I see no sign.  I was afraid that I was slighting a true woman's love, but I don't think now she ever really cared for me."

    "More fool she, then.  But 'fall's well that ends well.'  We shall worry through now."

    "How?"

    "How?  Well, if she never really cared for you, you've done her no great harm.  Throw her over, and serve her right.  If the worst comes to the worst, you'll only get put back a year or two, and Mary will wait."

    "Oh, Max, will you never see?"

    "See what?  It's all right, isn't it?"

    John wearily shook his head.

    "Well, of all the—.  But what's the hitch now?"

    "God!"

    "God? Ledger, I could shake you!  You're morbid, man; you're dotty!"

    "Max," and John spoke in that deliberate, quietly-decided tone at once so inexorable and yet so irritating to his friend, "God took me, a poor factory lad, and lifted me into this holy ministry, and I have dishonoured myself and brought pain and shame upon others by ceasing to love the woman I was pledged to, and—oh, bitterness of hell—loving another woman."

    "But hang it, man!" cried Max, at this dogged repetition of a statement he was utterly weary of hearing; and then he broke off and demanded sullenly, "Well, what's your gnat-straining prudery going to do next?"

    John blinked his eyes and winced, and then, drawing himself together, he said slowly—

    "The least I can do in gratitude for the fact that Sallie is not injured is to prevent Methodism having the pain of expelling me.  The money Methodism has spent upon me shall not be lost.  I'll earn my own living, and preach every Sunday as a layman—if they'll let me."

    And that was only the commencement of the argument.  For over an hour they went at it, ding, dong!  Max shouted and gesticulated, dropped his voice, and nearly cried in tender expostulation; bullied, almost threatened, until at last, nervous and excitable with the results upon himself of his preaching efforts, and utterly exasperated at John's relentless interpretation of the situation, he turned and snapped out a sentence he would have given worlds to recall the very next moment—

    "Confound it, man, don't be such a Pharisee!  She is injured after all—Oh, Johnny, don't!  Dear old Johnny, don't!  I didn't mean it!  Forgive me!"

    But the mischief was done.  In the state of mind into which John had brought himself, he saw at once that, though Sallie might still be heart-whole, yet in the judgment even of his friend he had done her a great injury, and at least had interfered with her chances of becoming suitably and happily married.

    This appeared to Max a ridiculous refinement of the facts, but to John it was terribly real, and though he still clung to his one little crumb of comfort, the iron had been forced into his soul once more, and he gave himself up to fresh self-reproach.

    "Then you've made up your mind?" said Max fiercely, after another half-hour's struggle.

    John sighed, looked at his friend with eyes that wrung Max's soul, and then said quietly—

    "I shall write to the President to-day."

    Max had to struggle with his emotions for some time, and at last, putting his hand on John's shoulder with a half-caressing touch, so natural and yet so irresistible in him, he asked, with the suspicion of tears in his eyes, and voice that was almost choked—

    "Dear old fellow, grant me one last request."

    "What is it?"

    "Wait one week; just one little week.  I feel sure something will be done before then.  If you ought to leave the ministry, where am I and lots of others of us?  Wait a week; just one week."

    "It would have been all over a fortnight ago but for you; will you promise me not to ask me again?"

    "I promise."

    "Then I will wait one week, but nothing will come of it; nothing can come of it."

    They parted presently, and Max, perturbed and infinitely saddened, left his friend at the door of his mother's cottage, and was plunging along the street, when, glancing aside, he caught sight of Sallie Wood, and she was actually trying to pass him unobserved!  Yes, and it was not prudery.  She was confused and shy, but entirely without affectation.  As their eyes met, it came into Max's mind to appeal to her to release John.  He would tell her the whole truth, and surely she would have some sense and some mercy.  But the sight of her face touched him; her evident but inexplicable embarrassment puzzled him; and he began to wonder whether she was in some spiritual trouble.  Common politeness prompted him to ask after her health, and to enquire where she had been the last few days.  She seemed to be angry at her own confusion, and recovering with a great effort, explained that she was not very well, and then put out her hand to part.  In sheer astonishment he let her go, and walked back to the Manse more perplexed and distraught than ever.  He soon found himself pitying the girl.  She was fond of John after all, and had found out something which was giving her great distress.  When she came once more to the afternoon meeting and took the solo, she looked so tenderly and wistfully sorrowful that he called himself a brute for his hard thoughts, and began to fear that he had been doing her a wrong in urging John to break with her.

    And so the time slipped by.  The mission closed on the Friday night, but there was to be a grand tea meeting on the Saturday for the reception of the hundred and sixty odd new converts, and Max had been prevailed upon to stay for the gathering, although it would mean reaching his own home about midnight.  During the time he had been in Bramwell the fantastic idea of proposing to Sallie as a means of relieving his friend had been driven from his mind by his unconquerable dislike of her, and now the soft-hearted fellow was beginning to turn to it again out of sheer pity for her.  Successful always with women, save for one memorable instance, and sustained by that harmless sort of vanity so characteristic of such natures, he did not greatly doubt that he could comfort her, and really it was a hard case to be robbed of a husband, and especially such a husband as he felt certain John would make.  "Poor girl! poor little thing!" he said to himself again and again.  "She has a heart after all, and she's pretty.  She's prettier than ever now she's in trouble and ill."

    All this affected his nerves, already unstrung by the excitements of the mission, and on Saturday morning he was so restless he could neither read nor think.  He would require a sermon for his own pulpit at Longhope on the following morning, but, though he shut himself up in the super.'s study, he only seemed thereby to be giving a better opportunity to the worrying enemy to harass him.  Nothing could he think of but Sallie and John, and John and Sallie, and then Sallie and himself.  More than once the impulse came upon him to rush out and tell her how John felt, and then if she did seem cut up about it, why he must comfort her—he must, even if she were very disconsolate;—but he never got further than that.

    Then he wondered whether it would do any good to unbosom himself to that motherly soul, Mrs. Cloughton, his hostess.  Yes,—but no; the remembrance that the things that burdened his heart were others' secrets as well as his checked him, and he got no further.  At dinner he ate so little that his hostess insisted on dosing him with nux vomica, and he was too weary and sick at heart to resist.

    "It is May day, Mr. Ringley; go out into the garden a while, it will do you good," said the motherly soul, and Max, indifferent what he did, sauntered forth presently into the sunshine.  There was a large kitchen garden behind the Manse into which Max had never been, but after wandering aimlessly about in the front for a few moments, he raised the catch of the trellis gate and entered.  The super. joined him for some time, and then was called away to attend to a caller.  Max was glad to be alone again, and wandered up and down the neatly trimmed paths, pondering the difficulty which had taken such hold upon him.  Scarcely knowing what he did, he strayed toward the bottom of the garden, and spying a seat, flung himself down upon it and was soon absorbed in fretful musings.

    Presently he heard footsteps approaching, and expecting to see the super. returning to him he raised his head, but there was no one in sight.  The footsteps came nearer; they were evidently behind him, close to him in fact, and just as he was looking round they stopped.  Where was he? and who was the new-comer?  As softly as possible he took a survey of his position, and discovered that the seat on which he sat leaned against a summerhouse in the next garden.  The building was old and covered with climbing plants, and as he gazed stupidly at it he caught a glint of colour amongst the twisted stems.  Half unconsciously he leaned forward and noticed a long crack half hidden with the foliage, and through the crack, of all persons in the world, Sallie Wood!  He drew a long breath; it seemed as if Providence were throwing him in this girl's way, unless indeed she had seen him come out and was—but he dismissed the unworthy thought.  Then he recollected that as Sallie's house was round the corner from the Manse she must have a garden behind that touched the one he was in, and that she was therefore in her own grounds.

    Had she seen him?  Should he speak to her?  Could he keep sufficient restraint upon himself if she turned pathetic—but before he could settle these points he heard a sound like a sob, and was compelled to have a second peep.  Yes, it was she.  She wore a dainty dress of some light material that suited her admirably, and he felt a thrill of admiration as he glanced her over from head to foot.  But what was this?  She was crying, and crying with her face uncovered, in evident unconsciousness of any other presence.  The sight of her made his heart melt.  He would speak to her at any cost and get to the bottom of these things.  But at that moment there were other footsteps, and as he peeped again through the handy crack, lo! John Ledger came round the curve of the box-edged path and approached the rickety summer-house.  Max could not have moved at that moment if his life had depended upon it.  Sallie did not rise, did not even raise her head as her lover came up, and when he seated himself on the edge of the seat opposite to her she still continued to look ruefully at her pretty shoe.  With a strange, fascinating feeling, as though conscious that this was no chance meeting, Max watched the couple from his questionable vantage point.

    "John"—and Sallie, whose voice sounded inexpressibly tender to the susceptible watcher, raised her eyes with an expression in them that was new to Max—"John, will you be absolutely frank with me if I am with you?  I never have been, alas! but I will be now."

    John raised his eyes in weary surprise and simply nodded.

    "John, do you really love Mary Wheeler?"

    Max in his concealment gasped, and John sprang as if stung to his feet.

    "Don't think I'm going to scold you, John dear, or reproach you—I've lost a love I never knew how to value—but I do want to know.  Do you, John?"

    And her tone was so humble and pleading that Max felt he could have hugged her.

    "Yes, Sallie!—God forgive me!"

    There was another pause; some deep, strong emotion was shaking Sallie's very soul.  At last, however, she raised her tear-dimmed eyes and asked—

    "With all your heart and mind and soul and strength, John?"

    John, staring as if he saw an apparition, mechanically nodded.

    "And do you feel that—that the world would be a blank and a wilderness if she were not in it?"

    "Yes, but—"

    Sallie had risen and gone close to her lover; she now raised her hand and checked his words.

    "And do you feel mean and cheap in her presence, and common, as though she belonged to some superior kind of beings and you were unworthy to speak to her?"

    John had evidently no more amazement left in him, and simply nodded stupidly again.

    "And do you feel that if you could serve her, be her slave, do anything that would give her pleasure, that that would be the greatest joy on earth, even though she never looked at you?"

    Once more, dazed and almost breathlessly, John said "Yes."

    She paused a long time now, with her head down; when she raised it, her face was flushed and red and her eyes gleamed with tears.

    "Then go to her, John dear, and be happy! and may the good Lord bless you both."

    Max, with dimmed eyes, stared at the crack, and felt he wanted to jump over the wall and kiss her, and John, overwhelmed by this most amazing and unexpected denouement, simply fell back in his seat and sobbed.

    Max could not, of course, attempt to leave at this point lest the others should find they had been overheard, but as he was struggling with a conscience that was calling him hard names for eavesdropping he heard a soft sound, and looking through his spy-hole he saw Sallie on her knees and her arms round her lover.

    "I didn't know, John!  I didn't!" she cried piteously.  "I cannot bear it, when I think how deceitful and mean and cruel I have been, but I didn't know!"

    "Didn't know what?" asked John, almost as much moved as she was.

    "I didn't know what it meant to be—to be—to be in love."

    "In love?"

    "Yes, in love!  Oh, John, I'm in love! and if you have suffered one thousandth part what I suffer now I'm sorry, oh, so sorry!"

    "It cannot be, Sallie; it must not—"

    "It can!  It must!  I'll go to her myself.  I'll beg her on my knees to love you.  You are worthy of her, and I'm a poor, wicked, selfish girl."

    But for the boards between them Max would have been picking her up and kissing her, and as it was he made sounds which if the others had been less absorbed they must have heard.  He felt also a strong anger arising within him against the cold-hearted John.

    "I tried to be true, Sallie," began John again, but she interrupted him.

    "True! you were true!  Why, John, you loved me once—really loved me!  But, oh, I never loved you! and now I am justly punished."

    And Max began to think that John had some bowels after all as he answered—

    "You shall not be punished, dear.  I'll conquer my wicked passion.  I'll love you, Sallie.  I always should have loved you if you had been like this; but now we'll be married, dear.  I'll conquer it and you will help me!"

    "Conquer it!" and she was on her feet in indignation.  "You cannot conquer it if it is real!  You must not!  It is a holy thing!  It is irresistible!  Oh, John, how can you?"

    "How have you found all this out?" asked John suddenly, after a long silence, and he was in his heart secretly suspecting that even this might only be one of her wiles.

    "Found it out?  Love!  Love has taught me!  I love, myself, at last, and now I know.  Oh! how could I have been so cruel to you, John? for you really loved me once; now didn't you?"

    "Yes, Sallie, I did, and—"

    "No!  No!  I love another!  He will never look at me!  He is high above me, and I am but dirt under his feet.  I shall never be with him, never be his, but oh! to love is enough; it is bliss! it is heaven itself, only—only it is so painful," and with this inconsistent little confession she hid her face in her hands and the tears dropped through her fingers to the ground.  "I cannot tell you who it is, John.  I will never—never—Oh yes, I will.  I must tell just one person in the world!  It is—it is your—Oh no! what am I saying?  I dare not!  I dare not!"

    But John saw it, and Max, sinking through the floor with fright and wonder and pity, and he knew not what besides, gave a sudden gasp and then sprang back and was discovered.  He wanted to flee, but his feet refused to do their office, and he could not have moved whatever had depended upon it.  John came hastily to the other side of the boards and gasped "Max!" and Sallie, with a frightened, woeful little scream, that remained with Max for many a day, fled, and when at last he started after her, shouting apologies and explanations, she rushed indoors and fled to her room.  Max was so consumed with shame and distress and pity for the poor girl that he could not be pacified, but John held him back and quieted him and made him sit down and talk.

    The two friends parted presently, John in a state of mind he would have found it impossible to describe, and Max consumed with one great resolve to see Sallie and apologise and propose to her.  On that point he was immovable; he called twice at her house and pressed to be allowed to speak to Sallie, but was refused.  He came back to Bramwell on Monday by an early train, more intent on his purpose than ever, only to discover that Sallie had gone to London and would not be back for an indefinite period.  Then he would go to London after her!  Poor dear girl, she must be sick with shame!  Was there ever so cowardly a thing done to a woman since the world began?  Why, if it were only as win atonement or reparation for the wrong he must win her, but besides, she was pretty and sweet—and John! why John hadn't loved her was at that moment incomprehensible to him.  But neither Aunt Pizer nor anybody else could give him any address where he would be likely to find the girl he thought he was now in love with.

    He stayed all night arguing with John, who was even now almost as severe upon himself as he had ever been, and on Tuesday morning there came a tender, plaintive letter from Sallie to her old lover, urging him to go to Mary Wheeler and be happy, and threatening that if he hesitated or tortured himself any more she would write to Rose Cottage herself.  By the afternoon post of the same day came a letter to Max from the same source.  A shy, timid, touchingly humble message it was, appealing piteously to him to keep her secret and never attempt to get speech with her.  Max cried like a great girl as he read it, and vowed that if he had to wait until he was fifty he would have her, and her only.

    It took some time to get John entirely convinced that his course was now clear, but when Sallie wrote a second time to say that she was so grieved at the trouble she had wilfully given him and all the deceptions she had practised upon him that she had written to Mary Wheeler asking her forgiveness John felt that something must be done now, and so he returned to Mary and his work.

    Work, the great healer, soon brought back the natural buoyancy of his mind, and although Mary held back for a time, she let him see how proud she was of the struggle he had made with his conscience, and soon made him a happy man.  Wilky Drax got himself into hot water by waiting upon Max when he was one day in Bramwell and offering him sage and characteristic advice to be aware of Sallie Wood, and the friendship between the two was only preserved by Mrs. Drax's gentle intercession.  Mary's patent proved a little gold mine to the firm; they were soon back in the old house; the old bank became also a paying thing once more.

    When John and Mary were married, Max, who had almost forgotten his passion for Sallie in his devotion to his last hobby, photography, "took" the bridal party, and had a characteristic quarrel with the bridesmaid, but notwithstanding these things the Bramwell people stick to it that Mr. Ringley will marry Sallie Wood, and the Partidge folk are just as certain he will marry Betty.

    Latest reports concerning him, however, state that he has been announcing some very original views on the celibacy of the clergy.

    Sallie has become a sister of the people.



THE END.





BRADBURY, AGNEW, & CO. LD., PRINTERS, LONDON AND TUNBRIDGE

 


 

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