Esther West (3)

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CHAPTER XV.

THIRD CLASS.


IT needed a higher heart than may be at first supposed for Esther to accomplish that walk to the station without breaking down.  Her courage was strong.  She had youth, and health, and mental vigour wherewith to meet whatever lay before her; but it needed faith as well as courage to advance on an unknown path, and to feel her whole world of facts and ideas, her hold upon the past and her visible future, fall away from her in an hour.  Happily, it is not given to youth to realise the extent of any earthly calamity, and it is given to its simple faith to be able to say, "I will fear no evil."

    The village had its eyes on them, and its mind was immediately at work on the problem.  Hurst was a wide-awake village; it had not the true bucolic mind, unfathomable and incalculable in its density.  It was near enough the great city to experience constant electric shocks of mental activity; therefore it made a very shrewd guess at the truth.  Esther had been very friendly with the villagers.  There was not a child in it who did not know her and expect her greeting, the older ones dropping their curtseys, and the little ones expecting to be patted on the head or kissed if they happened to have clean enough faces.  Now, as she passed up the one-sided street, she nodded to a little group standing at one of the cottage doors.  In the front was Ann Pratt, who stood and stared rudely, saying, quite loud enough for Esther to hear, "Mother said I needn't curtsey to her no more, for I'm just as good as she is."  The words somehow drew Esther closer to her father.  If only he had been something more lovable, she would have liked to stand by him in the face of all the world.  She was getting sore of heart though, and the words hurt because they were meant to hurt.

    A few steps further, and some one plucked at her skirt.  It was a little girl of some four summers, a great pet of Esther's.  Lucy Ashe was one of those sweet blossoms on the tree of life, which compensate the lover of his kind for many a bitter fruit.  She held up her pretty face, saying, "Me div oo a tis," and Esther stooped and kissed her, and was greatly comforted.  She was so absorbed by this little incident that she did not see Mr. Moss, driving his good lady before him like a recalcitrant cow, enter into his shop, and shut the door.

    After the hot and dusty walk they came to the station, having only spoken once, when Esther pointed out a short cut through the last few fields.  Happily, she was saved waiting at the station, and the probable encounter of inquisitive acquaintances.  A train was due in a few minutes.  Martin Potter walked up to the office and took the tickets, one of which he handed to Esther it was third class.  She took it without comment, scarcely noticing it, indeed; for as the distance between her and home increased, her heart became heavier and heavier, as a burden grows heavier the further it is borne.

    "You haven't been used to travel third, I suppose," said Martin Potter to his daughter; "but what is good enough for me is good enough for you."

    There was no time to reply, for just then the train came up, and she felt herself hustled into a carriage full of men, women, and children.  The man opposite to her had a pipe in his hand, and as soon as they were in motion again he began to puff away.  She was next the window, however, and she kept her face as close to it as possible, to escape the—to her—sickening odour.

    Near the next station the train slackened speed, and a down train shot by.  She was looking out as it passed, and in the twinkling of an eye the face of Harry West flashed upon her and was gone.  The gay, good-humoured, gilded youth, sitting smiling and at ease among his first-class cushions, went flashing past, and in upon her, the next instant, pressed the rough or squalid faces of the men and women sitting opposite to her in the crowded compartment.  The shock of the contrast, in its grim reality, came upon her, and she turned deadly pale.

    "If ye don't like my pipe, miss, just say the word, and I'll put it out," said her opposite neighbour.  She smiled faintly, and said she did not think it would hurt her, though she did not like it; at which, with true courtesy, he proceeded to put out the pipe, and to deposit it in the pocket of his fustian jacket.

    Harry West had flashed past in happy unconsciousness.  He had not seen Esther as she was hurried on in the opposite direction, and he was loud in his lamentations when he heard what had taken place in his absence.  Mrs. West, lying on the sofa in a state of utter prostration, from which the servants had guessed that there was something wrong, could not answer the half of his questions.

    "If I had been here," he said, "she should not have gone away like that.  I would have threatened the man as an impostor, or else have offered him money to go away."

    Harry had great faith in the efficacy of the current coin of the realm.  His next idea was to go after Esther, and bring her back; but this was impracticable, seeing that, in her agitation, Mrs. West had never asked Martin Potter for his address—a thing which he might not have granted.

    "And it would only exasperate him to follow him immediately, and he may visit his exasperation upon her.  He is not a man to be trifled with," said Mrs. West: "and besides, he is her father."

    "Oh, but we must have her back," said Harry, boldly; it will never do to let her be spirited away in this fashion."

    "There is one way in which you could bring her back," replied Mrs. West, looking up eagerly into his face—that bright, but unsympathising face.

    "Tell me what it is," he cried with alacrity, "and trust me for doing it."

    He looked as if he was ready to start off at once on an expedition.  Alas! he was utterly uncomprehending.

    "I would not like to force your inclination in the least," she said, hesitatingly; "but if you loved Esther, you might bring her back as your wife."

    Harry laughed.  It was the very thing, he declared.  He was quite as ready to marry as to take a header into the mid Pacific.  He declared that he loved Esther, and that he would go and propose for her without delay.

    "She will have only the few thousands I have saved for her," said Mrs. West.  "You know that my husband settled the principal of his fortune on you.  If he had lived, it would have been otherwise.  He would have yielded to my wish to divide it between you.  But now it will belong to both, and I shall die happy."

    She wanted to be alone, and Harry, left to himself, became restless, as usual.  He did not know what to do with himself.  If he could only see Esther again, he thought he would be happy.  Yes; that was what he wanted to make his life complete; such a wife as she would make.  With her he would enter into every pleasure—for pleasure, happily, never meant vice to Harry.  They would live in England.  England was the proper place for a rich man to live in; but they might take a trip to the antipodes, and see Europe as they went or came.  Suddenly, he remembered the Saturday afternoon gatherings at Redhurst, and the general invitation he had had to join them.  He thought he would go—and there never was much interval between thought and act with him; reflection was not in his way.  He set off at once.

    On the way a brilliant idea came into his head.  He knew from Mrs. West that the woman and child they had met at Mr. Wiggett's garden gate were Esther's mother and sister.  Mr. Wiggett would know all about them.  He would turn in and ask, at any rate.

    He opened the gate and turned into the garden, but he saw no one there.  Mr. Wiggett was at that moment on his knees in one of the hedged enclosures of the garden.  The men were working on a field of celery, at some distance.  So he made his way to the house, and, according to his custom of making himself at home wherever he went, opened the door, and went straight into the parlour.  A girl peeped out of the kitchen, where she had just cleared up, and informed him that the missus would be down directly.  He nodded frankly, as if he knew all about it, and then proceeded to a survey of the room, wheeling round it on his heel.  There were two little half-high cupboards, loaded on the top with glass and china, a whole tea-service being set out on the top of one.  There was a great variety of chimney-piece ornaments of the same brittle material, some of them quite curious in their way.  From among these he picked up a case, which on opening contained a faded daguerreotype—first of the sun-pictures—and took to examining it closely.  It must have been done at least fifteen years, and was a representation of a young matron in a very stiff cap, with flying ribbons, an embroidered collar, and very large square brooch.  There, too, on her finger, rather ostentatiously put forward, was the wedding-ring.

    It seemed to have taken his fancy, for he held it in his hand when Mrs. Wiggett came into the parlour.  She looked rather grimly at her visitor and his occupation—grimly enough, indeed, to have confused most strangers in the same position, but it had no effect on Harry.  He looked up from the picture to the lady, and then from the lady to the picture.  "Is this taken from you?" he asked, coolly.

    "It is," she replied, tartly.  "May I ask who I have the pleasure of speaking to?" she added, in her grand style; for Sarah had picked up a genteel phraseology, and could use it with effect, especially on offending handmaidens.

    "West is my name," he answered, frankly.  "Do you know, this is exactly like a picture of the kind which I have seen before in Australia? indeed, it must have been a duplicate.  Do you know anybody there?"

    "No," replied Mrs. Wiggett, shortly and sharply.

    "It belonged to a fellow I knew out there," he went on, still regarding the picture, and disregarding the reply, as his manner was.  "I have just come over myself, and he was coming shortly to find his wife, whom he had left behind—I should have said it was the same exactly; and I never forget faces, or things either.  You haven't got married in the meantime, Mrs. Wiggett, have you?"

    She did not flinch.  "Can you tell me what your business is?" she said, sharply.

    "Only to ask you for the address of a friend of yours—Martin Potter by name."

    "Then I can't favour you," she answered.

    "You don't know?  Well, I'm sorry I troubled you," he replied, quiet unconscious of her expression of hostility, because he knew of no reason for it; and with a bow he walked past the rustling little matron, and out into the gay blossoming garden.

    The group seated on the lawn at Hurst Hill saw him coming over the fields, and hailed him as the bearer of good tidings; for his step was light and elastic, and as he drew near he waved his handkerchief—a trick of his whenever he had the slightest pretext for it.  Connie ran to the gate to meet him, and to learn what had become of her friend.


 
CHAPTER XVI.

CONNIE'S FRIEND.


THE Vaughans and their party, consisting of Mr. Walton, who was now considered one of the family, and Mr. Carrington, had waited in vain for the appearance of Esther.  They had not cared to begin the game, but were still sitting in groups on the lawn, on any spot of shade which was to be found, while the afternoon wore on.  Milly and her lover were together, just out of earshot of the rest, engaged in one of those interminable conversations, which outsiders think it would be so interesting to hear, but which they would certainly vote a dreadful bore, if written down here word for word.

    The shadows were lengthening; the servants had brought out tea to the idlers, and laid it under the shade of the great elm—which, though planted in the border beyond, threw its boughs over one corner of the lawn—when Harry was descried.  Connie threw down her cup in order to hasten towards him, and its fragrant contents were wasted on the thankless soil, to her elder sister's manifest discomfiture.  Ever since the engagement of her sister, Kate had been restless and irritable.

    As Constance came back by Harry's side, she called out suddenly, "Oh, Katie, Esther is gone."

    At that moment Mr. Carrington, charged with a cup of tea for each of the lovers, had turned his back on the approaching pair, but at these words he wheeled round, and in doing so dropped the contents of one hand on the grass.  It was evidently an unlucky tea-drinking.  With a clatter of broken china, a laugh from the lovers, and a "Never mind, Mr. Carrington," from Kate, the whole party drew together to hear what Harry had to tell.

    He told the story, as far as he knew it, with the unreserve which characterised him, having learnt from Constance that they already knew all that had preceded.  He spoke of Martin Potter's threats and of Esther's departure without any profound emotion, and concluded by saying that they would soon have her back.  All the time he was speaking, Carrington was looking at him with an expression of profound contempt, which he did not take the least pains to disguise.

    "To get her back may not be so easy as you suppose," he said.  "Her father had power to claim her, and he has power to detain her."

    "Yes," said Mr. Vaughan.  "Esther cannot be more than twenty at the utmost, and it is in her father's power to keep her till she is twenty-one; but he is powerless, I should think, under the circumstances, to injure Mrs. West."

    "Oh, perfectly," said Mr. Carrington.  "No information would lie against her; she is quite safe."

    "But, papa, you can surely do something for Esther," said Constance, with a faith in him which nothing ever shook.

    "Nobody can do anything if her father should prove obstinate," said Mr. Vaughan; "but I should hardly think he would.  It is obviously for the advantage of his child that she should return to Mrs. West; and, on the other hand, there is no advantage which he can reap by detaining her."

    "Then why should he have taken her away at all? " said Mr. Carrington.

    "I dare say it was to gratify his sense of power," said Mr. Walton, who was adroit at mental analysis.  "Besides, it is a question of rich against poor," he continued.  "Mrs. West is rich; Martin Potter is poor; he cannot allow her to triumph over him in any matter of right.  Depend upon it, there is something of this natural antagonism at the bottom of it."

    Then they diverged into the general topics most interesting to all of them—topics in which Kate and her sisters had been accustomed to find interest too.  But this afternoon the general welfare was lost sight of, in concern for their friend.  Constance begged to be excused, that she might go to Mrs. West at once, and Kate and Milly retired into the house.  Before doing so, however, the former turned to Mr. West, and asked if he would stay to dinner.  He accepted, unhesitatingly, and Constance carried with her a message to Mrs. West to that effect.

    Constance returned from "The Cedars" only just in time to run upstairs and wash her hands before dinner.  The bell had already rung, and all the others were in the drawing-room.  She came in, therefore, in her morning dress; while the other two were looking their fairest in pretty evening dresses of white muslin adorned with their favourite blue.  The consequence was, that from the contrast, Connie in grey quite justified Mr. West's description of her as the "plain one."  Moreover, she had been crying; a fact which her sisters could discern, though it probably escaped the notice of any of the gentlemen.  Mr. Carrington took her in to dinner, Mr. West having already appropriated Kate.

    The gentlemen did not remain more than a quarter of an hour behind the ladies, and no sooner had they joined them than Kate proposed a game.  There was plenty of light still, and the lawn looked more tempting than ever.  She was warmly seconded by Mr. West, at whom Constance was looking daggers; Milly and Mr. Walton offered no opposition, every phase of existence being equally satisfactory to them just then.

    The young people left Mr. Vaughan to his review, and went off to their game.

    "I shall take Mr. West in hand," said Kate; "and, Connie, you can take Mr. Carrington."  Milly and Mr. Walton being quite content to stand aside.

    It was a curious thing to watch Mr. Carrington play.  He was as serious and deliberative as if some fate hung on the issue of the game; moreover, he was, at first, singularly unfortunate, while Mr. West's reckless performances were carrying him and his partner to the goal.  Kate was guiding him through a series of successes, and both were laughing gaily, when Constance, who stood a little apart, with Mr. Carrington by her side, looked from them to her companion.  The look was one of mutual intelligence, at least Constance Vaughan read it thus.

    "I wonder," she said, "if I were to disappear from the spot I am standing on, how many people in the world would miss me after half an hour."

    "I for one," said Mr. Carrington, shortly; and Constance blushed, and for the first time in her life felt strangely conscious.

    They could only talk in disjointed sentences, because of the exigencies of their game.  Constance was called away at this point, and Kate's next stroke turning out a failure, Mr. Carrington was called on immediately, and found a savage satisfaction in sending Mr. West's ball to the furthest corner of the lawn, where it bounded off and into the shrubbery.  It was getting dusk, so that the ball could not be found, and Constance rather impatiently desired to quit the game.  Kate gave it up at once, quite good-humouredly, but no one seemed inclined to go in-doors, and Milly proposed a stroll to a little wood which skirted the hill, that they might listen to the nightingales.  They went in-doors to get some light wraps and to change their shoes, for the dews were already falling.

    The evening was one of those which intoxicate the senses with loveliness.  The full moon had risen, and was filling the garden with mystic light; the acacias at the gate looked like trees of fairy-frosted silver, the cups of the tall lilies like so many alabaster lamps; only the white flowers showed their hue, but the scents of all were mingled together in one divine essence.

    But the meadow was the loveliest of all; through the tall uncut grass the ox-eye daisies shone with a wonderful weird beauty, such as they never wear by day.  A new wonder thrilled them in the wood—the moonbeams raining through and between the leaves, making them shine like emeralds.  Before they reached the wood they had agreed to go forward in perfect silence, and Kate had had to enforce the rule on her companion more than once.  But it would not do.  Harry would whisper his admiration and his impatience; for the birds—they were few and shy—would not sing.  At length, from the distant part of the wood, the first notes came with their peculiar thrilling tenderness.  They were answered by nearer ones, and all listened breathlessly while answer and reply, complaining, pleading, caressing, again, and again, and again repeated, made the little thicket ring.

    A pause came.  Harry would follow in the direction from which the last thick-coming, thrilling notes had sounded, and Kate went with him.  Constance was about to follow, but Mr. Carrington laid his hand on her arm, and arrested her.  They stood together in the charmed silence, while the sounds of the others' footsteps died away, and in that silence each listened to the voice of his and her own heart.  At last Mr. Carrington whispered his companion's name, and the tone was unlike any tone of his that she had ever heard before, familiar friends as they were.  It did not startle her.  It was in utter harmony with the enchantment of the hour, with the raining moonbeams and the throbbing melody which yet lingered in their ears.

    She did not answer; she did not voluntarily move even; but their shadows on the sward wavered and mingled more closely.  He took her passive hand, and laid it on his arm.  "Constance," he repeated, in the same earnest whisper, "you have been like a sister to me.  You are the only woman whom I really know, except my mother, and I think you understand me better than she does.  I shall be miserable if Esther West marries this fellow."

    There was a momentary silence before his companion replied: Then her hand tightened on his arm, and she said, quietly, "You love Esther?"

    "Yes," he whispered; "I never knew how much till now.  I thought my heart was set on a career; but now I feel as if life would be worthless without her."

    Another pause, and the silence was dissolved by the wonderful thick-coming melody.  If Mr. Carrington had been looking at his companion's face, whitened by the moonlight, its expression might have struck him as something new to the cheerful, friendly girl.  It was exalted and refined by passion—a passion of tenderness and devotion—and sweet with the intense sweetness which is wrung from pain.

    It was love for another that had sounded in every tone of her companion's voice, and thrilled through every touch, awakening in her a response to which there could be no utterance now, nor for ever, though her heart should ache with it to death.  Out of his love he had hurt her thus, though unknowing of the hurt; and out of hers she stood there prepared to strengthen and comfort him.

    "I do not think that she can care for Mr. West," she said.  "Mrs. West and he seem to have made it up between them, without reference to Esther.  In your place I would not give in."  She spoke with her old playfulness, and looked up smiling.

    "But how am I even to see her now?  I have lost all my opportunities."

    "Wait, and I may be able to help you," she answered.  "I knew you would," he replied; and gave the hand that lay on his arm a friendly pressure which sent a shiver through the girl's heart.

    A new light had fallen for Constance on the weird white flowers, so disregarded by the light of common day.  As she walked through that enchanted meadow, with her hand still resting on Mr. Carrington's arm, she felt that she was no longer a careless girl.  Her long, free, happy girlhood was over; and the first act of her womanhood was self-sacrifice.
 

"Her long, free, happy girlhood was over"


    Mr. Carrington and Mr. West parted with their companions at the garden-gate, sending their respective farewells to Mr. Vaughan, seeing that it was too late to return to the house.  Constance passed unnoticed among the others, as the prayer-bell rung on their entrance—passed to her accustomed place, glad and thankful that the refuge of prayer should come between her and her common life and speech.  There was that in her face which made it seem older and harder.  There was a sadder outlook from the eyes, a firmer compression of the mouth.  It was altogether sterner, though the sternness, now and after, was always for herself.  The look stamped there for the present would wear away, give place to her old look of vivacity and humour, and to all the play of a quick womanly intellect and a warm heart; but it would come again, and yet again, and fix itself there at last.  Constance was one of those women made to support others, though they themselves are walking with bleeding feet; one of those who pour the balm of consolation out of their own bruised and broken hearts.

    But on that night there was no call upon her brave heart.  She kissed her father more fondly perhaps, and was more gentle than her wont with her sisters—that was all.  Indeed, she was so subdued, that Kate asked her playfully if she had been quarrelling with Mr. Carrington, and she answered with a smile, "No, we are as great friends as ever."


 
CHAPTER XVII.

AT HOME.


ON Saturday afternoons Mary Potter was accustomed to take the domestic drudgery out of the feeble though willing hands of her daughter Sarah, and perform its hardest tasks with her own.  She was thus engaged in brightening up the little parlour, when her husband returned with Esther, whom he introduced with very little ceremony.  He even felt a kind of savage satisfaction in flinging his proud lady daughter—for he had no doubt she was proud—into a scene of domestic discomfort.  She would be all the better able to realise at once the position of a poor man's child.

    Mary Potter never looked untidy, whatever she might be doing; but she was heated and fatigued, and the shock of the unexpected meeting seemed about to prove too much for her.  She rose from her rubbing, and staggered, and would have fallen, but for the arm which Martin flung around her, while he led her to the little shabby sofa which filled one side of the room.  The slight act of kindness on her husband's part, and the look of joyful recognition on Esther's face, revived her.  Mother and daughter sat down side by side, and were soon clasped in each other's arms.  They were very like each other as they sat thus, allowing for the difference of years, only there was in Esther an infusion of will and power which brightened and vivified all her aspects.

    When they looked up, Martin Potter had left the room.  Perhaps he wished to allow them time to exhaust the first outburst of feeling, or else he desired to leave to Esther the task of explaining how she had come there.

    All this time Sarah had been standing in the background, blacklead-brush in hand, a forlorn, untidy figure.  Nothing, not even her love for her mother, had power to keep Sarah tidy at her work—the lack of physical energy conquered her inclination.  She felt painfully conscious of straggling hair, a very dirty frock, and fingers bedaubed with metallic black, as she stood watching Esther.  But Mary noticed her girl's wistful look, and hastened to say, "This is Sarah, your sister Sarah, my greatest help and comfort."

    It was this sympathetic tenderness which made Mary absolute in the hearts of her children, but which was expended as vainly as water on the rock upon Martin Potter.  Tears filled Sarah's eyes, as attention was thus directed to her.  Esther went up to her, and, though the girl would have held her back, kissed her on the forehead, without thinking how far her pretty pure dress might be soiled by the contact, a contingency to which her sister was quite alive.  If a sudden pang not unlike jealousy had shot through the poor child's heart, it vanished at the sisterly caress.  Pushing back her hair from her brow with her blackened fingers, she retired hastily to the back kitchen content from that hour to be Esther's slave.

    After a time the entrance of little Mary, who at once claimed acquaintance with Esther, brought back Mrs. Potter's mind to her domestic difficulties.  The great difficulty, which had to be met at present was that of housing a twelfth person in the space already insufficient for eleven.  It must be accomplished in some way, however, as Mary knew.  She had learned, though in a softened form, the history of Esther's appearance, and that her stay was likely to be more than a temporary one.  She was greatly perplexed and saddened by her husband's conduct, so that after the first joy of meeting, she could not but grieve over Esther's coming.  Indeed, a joy whose source is poisoned to us is often more bitter than an actual sorrow.

    Leaving Esther and little Polly to entertain each other, she went to hold a consultation with Sarah as to what was to be done.  She found the girl ready, nay, eager, to give up anything to her new-found sister—to sleep in the coal-cellar, if necessary.  Whenever there was any sacrifice of the kind to be made, it was generally Sarah who made it, on the principle of the willing horse being made to carry the burden.  At last it was settled that she should give up her room, which she shared with little Mary, and sleep on the parlour sofa, by no means a bed of roses, for its springs were long since gone, and its stuffing unpleasantly hard and lumpy.  This settled, they both set to work to make the tiny box of a place as neat as possible, and this being done, the stranger was at length shown to her room.

    In their absence, Esther had had time to observe many things.  She noticed a row of cane-bottomed benches, ranged round the wall in that half of the room called the back parlour; and, on questioning Polly, found out that they were for "the pupils," who were coming back on Monday.  She saw that the once resplendent pattern of the Kidderminster carpet was nearly effaced by the ceaseless tread of little feet, and even riddled with holes, though these had been carefully mended.

    A worn and faded wax-cloth cover gave a look of shabby respectability to a deal table with painted legs.  Everything was shabby and worn, and yet carefully kept.  It was the same in the tiny room into which she was ushered.  Things that ought to have been white, were white no longer—never could be made white again by any process of washing; and yet they were clean.  The mother, knowing to what her child had been accustomed, had given her of her best, robbing her own room of one or two articles of simple furniture, in order to make hers more comfortable.  But nothing could redeem the sordidness of the place.  It had an unwholesome air about it in the hot July afternoon.  Through the open window she looked out on its surroundings; a sort of court, of triangular shape, lay beneath, surrounded by houses, except on the side occupied by a broken-down workshop.  The floor of the enclosure was of black beaten earth; not a blade of grass, not even a weed would grow there, as Mr. Wiggett had said.  The mere unloveliness was depressing; and the life that went on round that court seemed more depressing still.  Esther had seen the poverty of the country-people who, as regards money and the means of living, were poorer even than these; but the hovel in the midst of the fields had nothing repulsive in its aspect, as had these dingy dwellings.  Esther sickened as she looked at them, and blamed herself for sickening.

    Tea was laid in the parlour when she came down.  Sarah had called in Bob and Walter, and their mother had earnestly desired them to be on their best behaviour, which they readily promised, Master Bob beginning with the exclamation, "Oh, my eyes!" and enlarging those organs till they seemed about to suffer protrusion.  After all, he behaved like a gentleman.  Boy-like, he was greatly influenced by beauty; and after a good long stare at Esther, he made up his mind that she was "a stunner"—a conclusion which he privately communicated to Walter in the back yard after tea.  He even paid her extravagant attentions, in the way of handing bread and butter, which he consumed himself to an alarming extent.

    Then there was an interval of comparative quiet in which the mother and daughter learned much of each other's lives.  Esther questioned her mother eagerly about the school, and found that it was not the poorer children of the neighbourhood whom Mary taught, but those of a much more exclusive community of small tradesmen, who were content to pay sixpence a week that their little girls might sit genteelly in a carpeted parlour, with bare arms and shoulders, and ringleted heads, no matter how little they learned.  But Mary did her work well and conscientiously.  Every seat in her small room was filled; and Esther found that her ambition was to get a larger room somewhere, and gather together a greater number of children.  Schools like hers abounded in the neighbourhood; they were formed one year, or even quarter, and broken up the next; but, unlike her, the teachers had no qualifications whatever.  Mary had been a teacher before certificates were common; but she had seen the value of the test as a guarantee of competency, and after coming to London, over and above the toils of her family and her little school, she had qualified herself for the examination, and had actually passed.  "If I could only teach a little music," she said, "the parents would willingly pay me three times as much."

    Thus the evening wore on.  Martin Potter did not return; and Esther could see that her mother glanced up uneasily from her sewing whenever a heavy foot passed the parlour window.  Mary had again to go away to look after domestic matters, and especially to prepare the little supper to which all the working members of the family gathered on Saturday night.  In the interval, Esther sat down and wrote to Mrs. West a letter, which Bob carried to the post in triumph.  In the letter she still addressed her as "mamma," and its contents were very tender and affectionate.  She had not lost or transferred in haste the love of years; but in her heart she already called Mary "mother"; and the deeper and more passionate feelings of her nature were stirred towards the working, sorrowing woman, as they had never been stirred before.  But with delicate, instinctive shrinking from giving pain, she had scarcely mentioned her.

    At length Emily and Agnes came in, both complaining of heat and headache, and looking not a little unamiable.  Mary, watching the impression which they made on Esther, and she on them, saw, with the quickness which belongs to such tender natures, that it was less favourable than that produced by any of the others.  The meal was a constrained one.  The two lads, Martin and Willie, were unsociable, with the utter unsociableness of their kind.  The twins would sit together and talk together in undertones.  Esther did not know that it was a custom of theirs, and that, in particular moods, they would treat the whole family as outsiders, against whom they were in league for mutual defence and comfort.  Mary, too, was ill at ease; her husband's presence might not have conduced to cheerfulness, but his prolonged absence was unusual and depressing.  She had waited for him as long as she could; but when once begun, she rather hastened the meal, in order that he might have his in greater comfort alone, if that was what he wanted.  Esther was not sorry when it was over, and the little party had broken up.

    Having gone up to her own room, she closed the door softly, for fear of disturbing little Mary, already asleep.  It was still very hot: the child had tossed off her coverings, and lay quite across the bed, so that, without lifting her, there was no possibility of getting into it.  Esther knew nothing about children; she did not know that she might have lifted her into her place with perfect impunity.  Shading the candle with her hand, she stood looking on the wonderful beauty of a sleeping child—and Mary was a very lovely one.  The half-naked limbs were perfect in their fragile grace; the long lashes lay on the slightly flushed cheek; the parted lips had a look of appealing helplessness and innocence; the lightly heaving breast, in which dwelt the sacred mystery of life, made Esther experience an emotion of awe which she had never felt before.  She did not disturb the child; but she covered her over gently, for the window was still open; and putting out her light she sat down by the bed to think.  There was light enough of the moon to enable her to watch little Mary's face, and the bed was so close to the window, that she could look out into the court beneath.

    There were sounds both without and within the house.  She heard the murmur of voices—her brothers and sisters talking together in their own rooms.  In such houses one hears every word almost.  Without, people went and came at intervals.  She could not help watching them.  Within, they passed and re-passed the lighted windows, scantily curtained, and open for the heat.  Voices reached her ear through these same open windows—voices of various tones, oftenest jarring ones, perhaps because these were loudest.

    The moon was now shining full into the court; full on the black crooked chimney-stacks, out of which it made fantastic, unlovely shadows; full on the rugged roof of the broken-down workshop, and on the mean dwellings.  The same moon was shining on "The Cedars," on the noble trees, in their grand beauty and majestic calm, on the fair garden of Redhurst, and on the sweet and pleasant country all about.  What a contrast!  Then she thought of her friends—of Mrs. West, with her tender grace; of Constance, the one among her companions whom she really loved; of Harry—somehow his face and figure did not harmonise with sadness and with moonlight, and he flitted out of her thoughts.  Then she thought of Milly and her happy love, and of the life that awaited her; and of Constance and her friend Benjamin Carrington, who would one day love her with more than a friendly love.  Their future lay before them like a sunny garden.  She had entered on a wilderness.  She was only a woman, and she wept long and bitterly.


 
CHAPTER XVIII.

VIGILS.


GRADUALLY the sounds died away, the house grew quiet.  One by one the lights went out in the windows.  Esther took out her watch, Mrs. West's gift on her fifteenth birthday, and looked at the hour by the light of the moon.  It was a quarter past twelve.  Little Mary had fallen into a deeper sleep, and lay quite still.  Just then there floated up to her, also coming through one of the open windows, the verse of a hymn, sung in a subdued voice, evidently a man's.  It was too low to have reached the ear among the other murmurs which had filled the air an hour ago, but now in the silence it was quite distinct.  She leaned to listen, but could not catch the words, with the exception of the refrain, plaintive in its monotony.  It ran:


"On the other side of Jordan,
 Where the tree of life is blooming,
 There is rest for the weary!
 There is rest for the weary!
 There is rest for me!"


The hymn came to an end, and then followed a murmur, which she knew was prayer.  She heard no words, but involuntarily she bent her head, and paused from her own sad thoughts until it was over, and as she did so a sense of peace fell upon her troubled spirit.  She had been feeling that her fate was hard; to be snatched out of a life of ease and refinement, where she had been surrounded with grace and beauty, where everything that was ungracious and unlovely was hidden from the sight, and plunged into the ungracious, unlovely life she saw around her.  She had not accepted such a life as her life.  Her mother was good and gracious, and little Mary was very sweet; but she thought rather of lifting them out of their hard lot than of sharing it with them.  There was the natural hope in her heart that the change was only temporary; that she would not be allowed to remain where she was; that her father would yield, and that she would go back to Mrs. West, and be allowed to help her mother and little Mary, and the rest, and make their lives more like what her own had hitherto been.  Poor Esther! she did not take into account, sensible though she was, that suppers for ten do not cook themselves, except in the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments."  But the thought troubled and oppressed her, nevertheless, that this life had been led by her mother and her sisters, that this lovely little Mary had grown up in the midst of it, and that it was the life of all these men, women, and children sleeping around her.  "God lets them live this life; why should I be favoured?  Why should I lead one seemingly so much richer, and easier, and happier; and with something higher in it, too, than the ease, and the fulness, and the happiness, for did not these give freedom to lead the nobler life of the mind and the spirit, from which those must be debarred who are shut in by the prison walls of circumstances to sordid thoughts and earthly desires?"

    That hymn and prayer, floating on the air of the close court from one of those dingy dwellings, came as an answer to these thoughts.  Here was the outlook of the poor, meagre, dull, sordid life—an outlook whose horizon was heaven.  Might it not contain possibilities of a loftier faith, as much loftier as its earthly basis was lower; of a nobler effort, as much nobler as its task was harder; of even a richer joy, as much fuller and richer as it was emptier of mere earthly bliss?  A feeling, nay, almost a faith, that this was so, took possession of Esther's mind.  One of those fruitful seeds of spiritual life, which fall as it were at random, had floated in on her soul from that human breath, and was destined to take root in its soil and flourish there.  She found herself wondering who the singer was, and picturing to herself (a picture which she afterwards found to be utterly false) a man on the verge of the grave, whose hopes and aspirations were nigh to their realisation, the rest for which he longed.

    At length she remembered that she had never heard her father return.  The thought came with a slight noise heard within the house, the movement of some one anxious to move noiselessly.  The street-door was underneath her window, and she then heard it opened and closed gently.  The person admitted, however, had no thought of moving gently, but came in with a loud, and, she thought, uncertain step.  Another door was closed, which muffled the sounds, but Esther could hear a harsh tone and angry words.  She went to the door of her own room, and, opening it softly, stood upon the landing.  There she could hear plainly the low pleading voice of her mother, alternating with that other voice of terror.  Nothing, in the excited state of her nerves, seemed too terrible to happen now.  She stood trembling and with clasped hands, ready to descend, and, if need were, die by the hands of a murderer.

    Mary Potter, during the hours of Esther's vigil, had had one of her own of unmingled bitterness.  At first she had worked on with nimble fingers, and a heart only a little more anxious than usual.  She was, indeed, chiefly anxious to provide her poor, tired, sleepy Sarah with a place of rest, which, under the circumstances, could not be managed till all the rest had retired.  But, at length, Sarah had gone to sleep on the sofa dressed as she was, and Mary still worked on, though with ever-growing apprehensions of she knew not what terrible calamity in store for her.

    At last she could work no longer, her fingers trembled at the task.  Her whole soul was intent on waiting.  Once or twice she raised her clasped hands from her knee, and looked upward, as if appealing to the Divine pity; but she uttered no word.  Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth.  Time seemed lengthening out into eternity, an eternity of suffering—even that seemed conceivable then.  Oh! if something had happened to Martin, and she should never see him again; if he passed in his estrangement out of the living world!  Mary felt as if she would die gladly only to meet him reconciled.  What were her children to her in comparison with him, her husband? and the days of his passionate wooing came back upon her, making her heart burn within her.

    There was his step at last.  She crept out of the room, and forgot, in her eagerness, to rouse her daughter and send her away.  Yes, it was Martin, who went past her in the narrow passage with a heavy tread, and staggered in at the parlour door.  Martin, her Martin, who had prided himself, and justly, on his sobriety, almost abstinence, who looked at her with those drunken eyes, that unnatural scowl, that expression which is next to madness in its horror.

    He sat down and gazed at her with drunken defiance.  Then he caught sight of Sarah, and cried, "What is that girl doing there?"

    Martin was a temperate man, and, moreover, one of those men who cannot be intemperate with impunity—whom drink plunges into a state of irritation bordering on insanity.  He seemed about to rise and seize upon the girl, when Mary interposed.

    "Let her alone, Martin.  She was very tired," pleaded the mother, "and I allowed her to fall asleep there while I was working."  Not a reproach, not even an allusion to the lateness of the hour, passed Mary's lips—only she could not hide the pallor which had overspread her face from the faintness at her heart, nor conceal the frightened look in her eyes.

    Whether or not he had sense to see these tokens of dread and to resent them, he grew worse than before.  "Get up," he cried; and Sarah, roused from her sleep, looked up with a half-suppressed cry to see her father standing over her with an expression she had never seen before.  She started up in alarm, and again he was about to seize her, perhaps only to thrust her out of the room, when Mary again interposed, with the terrible agony of fear in her eyes.

    It is in such moments murder is done.  Martin Potter gave his wife a push, and she staggered back against the window, whose sharp corner struck her head.  The injury was not great, nor the physical pain more than Mary could bear, but the thrust had hurt her, and she wailed out, "Oh, Martin!"

    It seemed to sober him, for he muttered something about not meaning it, and added, "Go away to bed."

    "Are you not coming?" she asked; "or will you take a bit of supper first?"

    "No, I will take nothing; leave me here," was the response; and Mary was obliged to follow Sarah out of the room.

    "You must go in beside Em and Aggy," said Mary to the still sleep-bewildered girl; "your father is not well to night."

    She took a light and led Sarah up to her sisters' room, immediately below Esther's.  Then there was a whispering, and a murmur of awakened sleepers, and Sarah had found a refuge.

    All this time Esther was standing leaning against the shabby stair-rail on the dark landing; but when her mother came out again, she ventured down a few steps.  Mary started when she looked up and saw her.  They looked in each other's pale and sorrowful faces, and each knew all the other had to tell.  Mary laid her finger on her lips, and with an imploring gesture motioned Esther to retire, she herself vanishing softly into her own room—not to sleep, any more than her daughter, but to watch out the remainder of that miserable night.  Once and again, when all was silent, she took her candle and stole down to see her husband in uneasy slumber, seated where she had left him, with flushed face and labouring breath.  The third time she came the summer dawn was brightening in the sky.  Her husband's face too had changed, and he looked haggard and worn.  As she stood regarding him he opened his eyes and met hers, so tender, so pitiful.  He shut his again, murmuring, "I can't bear the light."

    "Are you ill?" she asked, going up to him.

    "My head is like to split," he answered.

    She went still closer to him and bent over his chair.  He suffered his head to rest on her bosom, and after a little said, "It's the first and the last time, Mary."

    The wife restrained her tears, restrained even her kisses, and only touched the bent head with her lips.  "You will come upstairs and go to bed for a few hours," she whispered, "and let me bring you a cup of tea.  I should like one myself."

    And Martin Potter rose and followed her, putting his hand to his brow, which throbbed at every step.


 
CHAPTER XIX.

PHILIP—EVANGELIST.


AFTER seeing her husband fall into an uneasy slumber, Mary had stolen softly upstairs and into Esther's room, to find her on her knees before the bed with her face buried in her hands.  Mary touched her gently, and she rose, with that strange startled look in her eyes which comes from being suddenly recalled from a state of concentrated emotion.  "Why are you not in bed?" whispered her mother.

    "I did not like to disturb her;" and Esther pointed to the little sleeper stretched across the couch.

    "That will never do," said her mother, lifting the child and laying her in her place without in the least awakening her.  "Now, you must go to rest.  Your father has been very ill.  It is the first time in his life that I have ever seen him so," she added, with a tact that met the truth, if the truth had occurred to Esther, as well as the half-truth which she wished her to believe.

    And after her mother left her, Esther, unaccustomed to watching, had fallen asleep in the dawn, and slept far into the morning.

    When at length she awoke, the child was gone.  She had been carried away at the hour when she usually rose by the ever-watchful Mary.  Though the morning was far advanced, there was perfect silence in the house, and when Esther came down she was astonished to find that the household had been long astir.  The two lads had taken their younger brothers, down to the mischief-loving Johnny, away to the park, which partly accounted for the silence that prevailed.  But even Sarah had been creeping about all the morning in a more than usually subdued manner.  All had moved softly and spoken in whispers, as soon as the words had passed from one to another, "Father is ill."

    Yes, Martin Potter was ill.  But, with the fierce resolution of his character, he would not submit to be ill.  He would wrestle with his suffering and overcome it.  He did not know that his wife had kept the house quiet for him; he would have resented it if he had known that she did so, though he was ready enough on ordinary occasions to find fault with the noise.  He would not lie still, though his head throbbed wildly and made every movement anguish; nor allow Mary to darken the room, though every ray of light shot through his eye-balls, and seemed to scorch and wither his brain like fire.  He would go out and "throw it off."  So he said, and so he did.

    "Wait a very little, Martin, and I will go with you," Mary had ventured to say.

    "You think I'm not fit to be trusted," he answered bitterly, and went away alone.

    Emily and Agnes, disregarding a hint from their mother; that they might ask Esther to accompany them, went off together to church or chapel.  They were disobeying their father in the spirit, though they stood in sufficient awe of him to obey in the letter of his commandments.  They wore the white net bonnets with an alteration.  White flowers had been substituted for blue, and the effect was still sufficiently light and airy.  They had sat up the night before making another out of the same cheap material, in the place of the one that had been hopelessly crushed.  They had also resolved to keep out of their father's sight, and they rejoiced to see him depart.  They had possessed themselves, moreover, of cheap lockets, whose long blue velvet ribbons were to be tied behind after they left the house.  Since there was no longer necessity for concealment they put on their ornaments, and went out boldly with their blue streamers.  Mary sighed over the girls as she saw them go.  They were the most untoward of her children.  Doubtless they had friends of their own to meet—boy-lovers, as is the custom of their class in London—for they flatly refused to allow little Mary to go with them.

    Then Esther, seeing that the little one fretted to get out into the air and sunshine, volunteered to take her for a walk; so they sallied forth together, and were soon in Queen's Road, Chelsea.  Esther had never lived in a city, had never even seen the poor quarter of a great town, and the road up which she allowed little Mary, in all the pride of superior knowledge of the locality, to lead her, was to her a revelation from the depths.  Many of the shops were open and as busy as on a week-day.  There were cast-off garments hanging at the doors; stalls at which scraps of meat were being turned over by dirty fingers—food which sickened the girl even to look at.  And the men and women looked as if they had not slept the night before; indeed, as if they had never slept at all, so worn and weary were they.  Then so foul too, without and within, that Esther caught away her little sister from contact and hearing with such haste that the child stumbled, and would have fallen but for one of these dreadful beings from whom she shrank in terror and disgust.  A bloated woman caught little Mary on the other side—an Irishwoman, for the brogue was strong in which she said, "Take care, darlint."  Mary did not shrink, but smiled back in the woman's face, like the sunbeam she was.  Esther felt something like rebuke from her sister's childish confidence,

    There was a corner round which a little crowd had gathered.  Some one was speaking in the midst of it.  The crowd consisted of one or two men in; fustian jackets, with short pipes in their mouths; several women, and a number of little children.  Mary began pulling at Esther's hand.  She evidently wanted her to join the crowd.  "It'th Philip," she cried, in explanation.

    "And who is Philip?" said Esther, suffering herself to be led to the edge of the crowd.

    That was beyond little Mary's powers.  That it was Philip was enough for her, and she thought it ought to have been enough for the whole world.  "He 'ith Philip," she repeated.  And Esther found herself standing among the poor women.

    The man in the midst had given out a hymn and was proceeding to sing it.  As soon as Esther heard the voice she recognised that of her neighbour, which had fascinated her the night before.  This accounted for little Mary's knowledge of him.  Esther longed to see him, but he was of small stature, and she was unwilling to press forward.  She waited till the hymn was sung.  Then, taking advantage of the elevation of a door-step, the preacher raised himself above the crowd, and began to pray.

    He was a small and slight young man, with a perfectly pale face, of which the features were boldly and finely cut; but over them, from time to time, passed a nervous twitching which was painful to Esther to look at.  The hair was thin, and of a light golden brown, and he wore his beard of the same colour.  It was a face full of keen intelligence.  A passion of kindliness beamed out of the full grey eyes.  Now they were closed, and the white face took the rapt concentration of one who communes with the Invisible.

    The sermon came next, and still Esther stood and listened. She could not help herself now, for little Mary, who had slipped hold of her hand during the prayer, had gently wormed her way through the crowd, and was now standing at the preacher's knees with eyes intent upon his lips.

    The discourse was very brief.  It did not occupy more than five minutes.  The preacher was not eloquent.  At first he spoke with hesitancy, and not without iteration; but he gained in power as he proceeded.  Taking for his text the invitation, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," "I have not far to go to find those whom Christ invites," he said.  "You are weary and heavy laden, all of you, unless you have come into this rest; and not you only, but all men, however easy and light their lives may seem to you. The rich are heavy laden with their riches, just as you are with your poverty, only they trust in their riches to give them rest, and you cannot trust in your poverty.  No man can rest till he has found God, and save in Christ no man can find him, though he would search the whole universe.  Except in Christ we cannot know the heart of God, his pity for us, his love to us.  Therefore he only can give us rest; therefore he is our salvation, who verily died that we might live.  For this rest is not the rest beyond the grave.  It is a living rest, enabling us to carry every burden except sin; that burden we must lay down at the Saviour's feet; from that his power must loose us and let us go.  Oh, brothers and sisters, how long will you carry that heavy burden?  How long will you be weary, while he is waiting to give you rest?"

    It was not so much the words that penetrated the hearts of the listeners.  The same words, read or spoken, might have fallen as so many dead letters upon eye or ear; it was the spirit that breathed through them, and gave them the force of living realities.  It was the intense conviction on the part of the speaker that he was holding forth to his hearers the word of life, which could lift them above all weariness, and dullness, and earthliness, into a region of spiritual peace and joy.  An atmosphere was around him, full of clearness and of sunshine, as that of the mountain-tops, and he was calling to the dwellers in a dark and fetid prison to come forth and share his light, and life, and joy.  Esther felt herself irresistibly attracted to the preacher, with that subtle attraction which we feel towards some natures; that longing to enter into a communion of spirit with them, to see as they see, to worship as they worship.  When the brief sermon had come to an end in a few words of blessing, the little throng dispersed, and Mary, laying hold of the preacher's hand, bent her steps to his, leaving Esther to follow, which she did.  As she walked on close behind them, she found herself trying to catch the words he was speaking to the child, but could not for the noises of the streets, so bewildering to an ear accustomed to the breathing calm of country ways.

    At length they reached the river, and were about to cross the bridge, when Mary looked back, and Philip, following the child's eyes, encountered Esther's gaze.

    "Had we not better go home, Mary?" she said.  "I am afraid we shall lose ourselves."

    She felt, rather than saw, that Philip was regarding her with a look of keen, but not impertinent, scrutiny.  It was to his child companion, however, that he spoke.  "Are you with this lady?" he asked.

    Esther made answer, "I am her sister," while Mary lisped her "Yes."

    "I have never seen you," he replied, looking perplexed; "and I thought I had seen the whole family."

    "I have been brought up away from home," she rejoined, colouring slightly.

    "And are you going to live there now?" he asked, finding that in her manner and tone which he felt to be incongruous with the surroundings in Sutton Alley.

    She hesitated, and then replied, "I think so."

    "Then we shall be near neighbours," he said.

    "It was you whom I heard singing last night?" she ventured to say.

    "I hope I did not disturb you," was the reply.

    "Oh, no," she answered, hastily; and then they all lapsed into silence, and stood looking on the lovely reach of river sweeping past the grounds of the old hospital.  In a few minutes, during which Philip had seemed to have forgotten those who were standing beside him, he moved, and said, "I am going on now."  Mary still clung to his hand.

    "Ought we not to return home?" said Esther, gently.  "I'm afraid we shall not find our way back."

    He stooped and questioned the child concerning her knowledge of the locality; and as she gave a very confused account of the way home, he offered to accompany them, at least for a part of it.  "I was going to preach once more in the park," he said, "but I shall come out again in the afternoon."

    Esther now conjectured that he was a missionary, though his dress was that of a common workman, and his ungloved hands looked hard and brown.

    "Do you preach every day?" she asked, for they were proceeding in silence, Philip's manner, like his speech, having a kind of hesitancy, which sometimes broke into abruptness, and seemed to Esther, then, almost ungracious.

    "No," he replied, in this manner of his, "I work at the forge on week-days."

    Again they marched on in silence—a silence which Esther would not break again.

    "You have never lived in London?" he said, at length.

    "Never," she answered.  "I never saw such a sight as I have seen to-day.  It is terrible.  If preaching would save these men and women, I think every man, and every woman too, would be bound to preach to them."

    "So I think," he answered.  "'Do the work of an evangelist;' the hammer seems to ring it on the anvil all the week.  But you doubt if preaching will do it," he said, abruptly, almost sharply.  "What do you think would save them?"

    "We—" She forgot she was no longer rich; had no longer any title to, or claim on, riches.  "We," she said, "must give up everything—all our wealth.  It seems to me we must be willing to live and die for them to do them any good."

    "Well, you're not so far wrong.  I thought you were going to say better houses and better schools would save them, and I know that it won't.  God meant men to live in good houses, no doubt.  He never meant them to house worse than the beasts.  He meant us all the physical good we are capable of, and he meant it for all; of that we may be quite sure.  But he meant more than that; else there's no meaning in all this misery.  He will not have life fair without and foul within.  He will not let us be content with an animal's happiness.  The misery does not come from without; you can't take it away by any social science whatever.  These people would foul the fairest house you could put them into, and sicken themselves on the most wholesome fare.  I know there are some who say, 'Improve the body, and the soul will improve;' but I take it the other way is the right one: Improve the soul, and the improvement of the body will follow."

    Esther was listening with eyes bent on the ground; little Mary, like the link between them, holding a hand of each.  "But how are their souls to be reached?" said she, earnestly.  "Words are weak; and, besides, they seem as it were to speak another language.  I only meant that deeds might do more than words; that one could scarcely reach them with only words; that it would need some great sacrifice of ours to make them, in the faintest way, realise the sacrifice of Christ—our greatest love to make them understand the least of God's."

    She spoke with kindling fervour and eloquence, as she had never spoken in her life before.  The beautiful dawn of the spirit was on her cheeks and in her eyes.

    There was an eagerness in the glance that sprang to meet hers.  "You are ready, then, to give up all for Christ?" he cried.

    Blunt, personal, impertinent, such words have been called before now, and such words are often spoken neither well nor wisely; but then they were exquisitely timed, as the stroke on the glowing iron.  They vibrated through Esther's inmost heart.

    "I," she said, startled, and in tears—"I have nothing to give."

    "You have yourself," he said, gently; and lifting his hat, he murmured good-bye, and left her standing close to home.


 
CHAPTER XX.

STRUCK DOWN.


WHEN Martin Potter left his home and walked out into the streets on that sunny Sabbath morning, he hardly knew whither he was going.  He seemed to be as one walking on burning ploughshares; and as one, by a stretch of imagination, may be supposed to do in such a case, he almost ran, quickening the agony as if to get it over.  When he reached the bridge, making for the waste places of Battersea Fields, he stood still for a little and looked over the parapet upon the river.  The light breeze which swept over it gave him a moment's ease.  He took off his hat, and allowed it to play on his burning forehead.  Through all the pain not only his senses, but his intellect, seemed exalted into a keenness which of itself was torture.  The struggle of his life was intensified for him—the hitherto vain struggle to rise.  He clenched his teeth, and muttered through them, "And even yet I will win or die! I can't play the beast."

    And now the very breeze that had cooled at first seemed to burn, and he turned away and crossed the bridge with a strange sensation that it was sinking under him.  On the other side, after wandering aimlessly up and down, he at length seated himself on the river bank.  Then a strange feeling came over him that he was really in darkness—in darkness in the broad sunshine—he and the whole universe.  He knew he was sitting in the sun, but the river ran before him black as ink.  He looked up into the sky: it was clear, cloudless, but black—black as night.  The boats as they glided past were black—black as death.  He could endure it no longer.  He rose and took his way back to the bridge.  There he stood again leaning over, till the horrible sinking came upon him again.  Down, down he went! the inky heavens closed over him, the inky river awaited him; now he floated away upon it.  He had sunk in a swoon upon the bridge.

    First, one or two children gathered, gazing awestruck; then some men and women passed on the other side, saying, "Oh, never mind; he's drunk."  Then a rough stirred him with his foot, and said, "You'd better get up out o' that, or bobby'll be at you."

    Martin Potter's hat was crushed over his eyes, so that no one could see his face; and when the policeman did come, he fell upon the same charitable supposition as the other passers-by.  With a more peremptory action of his foot, not unlike a kick, indeed, he told him to get up.  But the man could neither obey nor feel; whereupon the policeman made up his mind to take him off to the station, and looked round for help.

    And in the station Martin Potter might have raved out the night, but for Philip's returning feet.  Here was a human being cast by the wayside; that was enough for him, as it was for his Master when he walked in Galilee.

    "Dead drunk," muttered the representative of the law, as Philip stopped before the prostrate man.

    "All the more need to see after him," thought Philip; and stooping down, he raised his hat and saw his neighbour Martin Potter.

    "You know him!" said the policeman, as Philip uttered an exclamation of surprise.

    "Yes, I know him," answered the latter, frankly, "and I never yet saw him drunk.  He is ill: he has fainted."

    "He don't look much like a sick man," said the policeman; but Philip had quickly removed him out of his crouching position by the wall of the bridge, and laid him down flat on his back; then running to the river, which was at full tide, he drenched his cotton handkerchief in it, and returning, laid it on Martin Potter's forehead.  In a few minutes Potter's chest began to heave and struggle, and at length with a groan he came to himself, and looked up in Philip's face.

    "You are ill," said the latter, gently.

    "I chose to make a beast of myself last night," replied Martin Potter, struggling to raise himself, and looking rather resentfully at Philip; "that's all."

    The policeman walked away, content to leave the recovering man in Philip's hands, also content in having his judgment of the case verified to some extent.

    "Let me help you," said Philip, lingering; for there was more than a last night's fit of intemperance in the haggard face beside him.

    Potter rose, and was about to refuse the offered help, but, as he rose, he felt his limbs bend beneath his weight, and he clutched almost fiercely at Philip's arm.

    "It's hard that a man like me can't get drunk for once in his life without suffering like this for it.  I know fellows who can do it any day of their lives, and be none the worse for it."

    "That seems the harder to me," answered his companion; "but there's more the matter with you than that, it seems to me.  Have you ever had the fever?"

    Philip meant the typhus fever, the deadly scourge which lays the strong man low.

    "I never was sick in my life," said Potter.  "You don't think I've got the fever?" he added, with quick apprehension in his voice.

    "Tell me how you feel," said Philip; "I've been through it myself."

    Martin Potter described the sensations he had experienced, and Philip shook his head.

    "I fear you are in for it," he replied.  "You must go to bed as soon as you get home, and call in the doctor. It's no use fighting against it when it has hold of you.  It's best to give in at once."

    "I'll never give in," answered the unhappy man, looking at his companion with eyes in which there was delirium to be read.

    Philip's mouth quivered like a woman's as he turned away his head, saying to himself, "Poor fellow, I hope he will pull through."

    It was all that Philip could do to get Martin Potter safely to his own home.  With Philip's help he was put to bed, and a neighbouring practitioner called in, who declared that the patient had a violent attack of fever upon him.  Philip had remained till the doctor came, and he now offered to share with Mary the task of nursing her husband. This, however, she declined, and Philip rose to go.  "It may want a man's strength to keep him quiet in the night," he said, as he took his leave, "but you can call me at any hour."

    "Thank you, thank you," said Mary, clasping his hand.  Then he bowed a little awkwardly to Esther, kissed little Mary, who seemed to expect it, and went away.

    Not for a moment, on that day, did Mary quit her husband's pillow.  Esther—for it was she who took her vacant place in the household—kept all quiet without, and within the darkened room the wife kept watch, feeling that there lay all life for her.

    Esther did not find her post quite a sinecure; but her very strangeness served to check the more rebellious of her subjects.  Then the elder lads, who had stood aloof, seeing the sweetness and patience which she brought to bear upon the troublesome Johnny, came to her help, and carried him off after dinner for a long afternoon in the park.  They were old enough to understand the extent of the calamity that had fallen upon the house, and to become very grave under its shadow.  Sarah drudged on noiselessly, sometimes creeping upstairs, and sitting hot and wearied on the steps opposite to the room where her father lay, till she heard a murmur from within, and then venturing to peep in and ask, by telegraphic signs, if her mother wanted anything.  The twins, as usual, lived their life apart, though sharing in the general concern.  They went out again in the afternoon; but Esther noticed that the blue streamers were suppressed for the present.

    She could hardly believe her senses as she felt herself moving in the midst of this strange new life—so real, so vivid, so full of palpitating anxiety.  All her past life seemed as a dream to her.  The reality of living was with the suffering present, not with that easy, enjoying past.  The hot afternoon passed over; tea-time came, and all the family had gathered again to what was their evening meal, when Sarah, who had taken up some tea to her mother, asked Esther to go up and speak to her.  She left the room at once, and her going was the signal for a breaking out of repressed spirits.  "Doesn't she give us lots of butter!" said Bob, with his mouth quite full, while Master Johnny's fist made for the sugar-basin.

    "If she don't look out there'll be nothing left for tomorrow," said Walter.

    "Bob, you're a greedy fellow," said Martin.  "She"—indicating Esther—"doesn't know the ways of the house, and you're taking advantage."  So they went on wrangling.

    Mary, meantime, was consulting Esther as to the best way of keeping her little scholars from assembling on Monday; and Esther undertook to write about a dozen notes, and send the boys round with them, as the children were living in the neighbourhood.  Writing materials were procured, and the notes, stating that owing to serious illness in the family, Mrs. Potter's "classes for young ladies" must be discontinued for the present, were despatched.


 
CHAPTER XXI.

THE BROKEN LADDER.


BEFORE the evening closed the doctor came again, but only to find his patient worse, as indeed he had expected.  "The fever has been hanging about him for some time," he said to Mary; "but he has fought it off till now."

    Had he been complaining of illness during the past week?

    No, there had been no complaint; but Mary had no doubt in her own mind that he had suffered without complaining, and the suffering accounted for his increased irritability and gloom.  It might account also for the intoxication of the previous night.  He had probably gone on drinking, in the hope of throwing off the depression of the illness with which he was struggling.

    Thus Mary strove with all her gentle wisdom to excuse her husband to herself.  Might not the same cause have led to his conduct with regard to Esther?  Mary could not shut her eyes to the wrong inflicted on her daughter, to all outward appearance at least.  "Things are so different here to what you have been accustomed to," said she, almost ashamed that she should see the shifts to which they were put in arranging the accommodation for the night.  This she did on the landing beside the door within which she kept her watch, resisting all entreaties that she herself should rest while she provided for the others.  "He never would have brought you here if he had been quite himself," she added, in a lower tone.  "He has been suffering all the past week; and, listen, he is quite delirious now."

    Mary paused, and they stood and listened to the murmurs which came from within the room.  They grew louder and more distinct.  He fancied himself bearing a heavy load and mounting a ladder.  "Hold fast!  Steady it!—steady it!" he called, in a voice suppressed with anxiety.  "There!  I knew it was rotten; I knew it would not bear the weight.  What a gap is left!  I can't get over it!  I tell you I can't—I'm done for!  Oh, God! my head!"

    "If you only knew," said Mary, weeping, "how hard he has fought to get up the ladder, and how bitterly he has failed.  You cannot know how bitter failure is to a man like him.  He was so eager, so strong, so steady, and, but for the failure, he would have been so good.  If he had but succeeded he would have been so different."  She looked at Esther through her tears, as if appealing for belief, appealing doubtfully too, and she saw on the girl's face a keener anguish of sympathy than her own.  "I wish you had never come here," she whispered.

    "No, you must not wish that," replied Esther, taking her mother's hand in both of hers.  "I am glad that he—that my father brought me here.  I seem to have been asleep and dreaming, and I would rather be awaked and live.  I feel as if I had no right to that smooth, easy life I have left; and I shall be so glad to help you.  You will let me help, will you not?"

    "Not now; you must go to bed now.  To-morrow you will need your strength.  Good-night;" and Mary kissed her daughter and sent her away.  And somehow she felt comforted—felt that she could never lose her altogether again.

    And Esther was awake, keenly and terribly awake, to the pressure of the life in the midst of which she found herself.  Seated once more on the bed beside her sleeping sister, she realised it keenly: the over-crowded dwelling, sunk in repose, holding so many lives, so many destinies; the possibilities of all those lives narrowed by the necessities of living, pressed upon by crushing circumstance; her father fighting with his fever; her sweet, wise mother at her patient watch—all these awakened dormant sympathies in Esther's soul, which she knew and felt would never sleep again, and which, full of pain and pity as they were, held at the core of them a joy and exultation—that which a poet of our day has called "the joy of eventful living."

    Gifted with large and loving comprehension, the result of a clear intellect and a generous heart, a great sympathy with this struggling, working life, had laid hold of her.  She began to wonder if she had any right to go back to her old life; but it could never be the same—she could not live any longer for enjoyment.  Here Philip and his preaching came into her mind, and raised a crowd of solemn thoughts which took shape in prayer.  She fell asleep listening for his singing—fell asleep in the silence.

    It was very early morning when she sought her mother's room, ready for action, and fresh and vigorous from sleep in the pure air, which visits the city by night, if people will only keep their windows open to receive the heavenly visitor.  And in that household there was, indeed, need for a fresh and vigorous spirit.  Mary looked ten years older in the morning light, and gladly accepted Esther's offer to make tea for her; and having received directions where to find things, Esther went into the little kitchen, and made the necessary preparations with a celerity and neatness which would have astonished Sarah, who was still asleep in her improvised bed on the parlour sofa.

    It was wonderful how smoothly things went that morning.  Under Sarah's directions, who had to be roused at last, Esther put her hands to all the tasks of the household.  The lads went off to work, the boys to school, and the twins to what they called their house of business.  The day was well begun—the day that passes whether we are hale and happy, or sick and sorrowful, and whose progress is the same whether it brings life or death.

    It brought another grave trouble under Esther's notice—a trouble which overshadows and comes side by side with every other among the poor—the want of
money.  Esther was not quite, perhaps, in the mental condition of the princess, who, when told that the people starved for want of bread, said, "Why don't they eat cakes?" but she had never known the want of money, and, therefore, had never known its value—that it was not only food, and clothing, and shelter, but heart's ease and freedom from crushing anxieties; that it was health, and healing, and life itself.

    One or two little weekly bills had been presented that morning, and their bearers had been diplomatically dismissed unpaid.  The task of dismissing them had been confided to Sarah; and Sarah was rapidly becoming confidential with this sister, who was so much older and grander—"so like a lady," indeed, and yet who looked upon her—Sarah—as an authority in domestic matters.

    "I told the baker that father was ill, and mother would call and pay him in a few days.  He will trust us," said the girl, proudly, "for we always pay."

    "But why did you not pay him?" asked Esther, innocently.

    "Oh! there will be many things wanted," answered Sarah, unconsciously using her mother's words, "and we must have ready money to get them.  But I don't know what is to be done if father lies long; there will be nothing then but what Willie, and Martin, and Emily, and Agnes can earn, and that won't do more than buy bread for so many."

    "Please take this," said Esther, emptying her purse on the kitchen table; "I am sure mamma will give me more."

    She used the familiar name unhesitatingly, and reflection did not check her trust in the source of supply which she had indicated.

    Then the doctor paid his visit.  "He's a strong man, and may get through it," he said, in reply to Mary's eager questioning.

    Her own weariness had made her desponding, which added to the alarm always inspired by the state of unconsciousness.  She was impressed with the idea of her husband's danger.  But the doctor insisted on her taking rest.

    "You must save your strength," he said, "for it will all be needed.  His life will depend upon your care."

    Then learning that Esther was a daughter of the house, he ordained that she should take her mother's place, for the next few hours at least.

    Mary could not disregard the doctor's injunction.  She lay down to rest.

    "You must promise to wake me if he stirs; especially if he asks for me.  He has not known me all the night.  What if he should never know me again?"

    And Esther promised, and took her mother's place in the sick-room.

    Thus the day wore on.  It was afternoon when a rap came to the door which startled the whole house.  It was Harry West.  Esther came to him straight from the darkened room where she had kept watch for the first time beside a sick-bed—her mother awakened by the noise, had already taken her place.  He greeted her with a gaiety which jarred upon her, almost hurt her.  As great a distance had been placed between them in those last three days as it sometimes takes half a lifetime to place between characters of original diversity, inevitable as that moving apart always is.

    He began by railing at Mrs. Wiggett.  "I would have been here on Saturday, if the old lady had favoured me with your address," he said.

    "She must have known it," said Esther, quietly, "for it was she and her husband who found out all about me."

    "I know that," he replied (Harry always knew everything in the shape of gossip,) "and I'm determined to find out all about her.  Indeed, I've found out already.  I'm certain she has another husband out in Australia.  Fancy that little shrew with two husbands.  I should think they would hardly fight for which was to have her; " and he laughed merrily, and held out his hand to little Mary, who had been standing wide-eyed and with parted lips by Esther's side.

    He was quite at his ease in the little parlour, as he was everywhere else.  He observed everything, but then nothing impressed him.  He was not struck with its poverty, nor with Esther's gravity of demeanour.  At length he asked if he could see her father.  He was approaching the object of his visit, but no one could have told that the object was one of tender moment.  His gaiety had nothing of tenderness in it.

    But if Esther had known his purpose, she could not have been more repressive in her manners; not that this would have helped her, however, if circumstances had not been on her side.  "You cannot see him," she answered; he is lying ill."

    "What's the matter?" he asked, carelessly.

    "Fever."

    He shrank visibly.  His courage, being physical, was for the things he could fight with.  He dreaded disease.

    She noticed the gesture.  "I have just come from his room," she said, "and he is quite insensible."

    "Then you ought to come away at once," he said, "as long as he cannot hinder you.  Will you return with me?"

    "No; I cannot," she answered.  "You forget that he is my father, and that I am bound to respect his will—all the more," she added, "that he is unable to enforce it."

    He was about to urge objections, but she broke off suddenly.

    "You have not told me anything about mamma.  Is she ill; is she unhappy?  You must tell her that I cannot come back to her, cannot even see her, till he is better."

    He assured her that she was just as usual—he had not thought she was particularly ill, or particularly unhappy; only she had expected Esther to return.

    "Will you wait till I write to her?" she asked, feeling that no message carried through Harry's medium would carry her meaning in it.  He assented, and she hastened to write; and in the meantime he went to the window and threw it more fully open, twice interrupting her to mention the best-known preventives of infection, thus showing, with his usual transparency, in what direction his mind was working.

    Esther hastened to close her letter, and to send him away.

    "You ought not to be longer here," she said.  "Tell mamma I will write every day."

    "And when he is better you will come back to us?  He will be more reasonable then, perhaps."

    "I will come and see mamma the hour in which I am free,'' she replied.

    "It is such a bore," he said, holding out his hand—one of those plump, well-favoured hands that have no grip of fellowship in them—"it will spoil all our pleasure.  Your friends are all lamenting over you, Miss Constance quite disconsolate.  There never was anything so hard, I should think.  What a horrid place to live in, too! and everything in the country looking lovely.  I say," he whispered on the threshold, "if he should die, you would be free."

    She started with horror.  "I would rather stay here for ever," she replied, with passion; and drawing back a step or two, she uttered a constrained and cold good-bye.



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