Isabella Mayo: 'Doing and Dreaming' (1).

Home Up Recollections A Retired Life The Secret Drawer By Still Waters The Dead Sin Family Fortunes At Any Cost Rab Bethune's Double Short Stories, etc. Poems Miscellanea Main Index Site Search



Denver Corner.

THOUSANDS of people passed Denver Corner every day, who never knew of its existence.  They only saw a narrow passage under an archway, guarded by an old iron gate which generally stood half open.  If they wondered where the passage went, they probably concluded that it led only to the back doors of some of the great houses whose front windows overlooked the bustling highway where they were walking.  It was only some curious stranger in the city, perhaps some enterprising antiquarian from across the Atlantic, who ever penetrated further.

    Such visitors found that a sudden turn in the little passage brought them into a tiny square, two sides of which were filled by dead walls, and the others by two houses in that precise stage of middle age which is as trying to houses in their way as it can possibly be to human beings, making them just rather too old for beauty and not old enough to be interesting.  The shady curtains and generally neglected appearance of one of the houses might have caused the stranger to moralize over the unhappy influences of living out of a thoroughfare, but then the other house was as neat and white and shining as if it had been a model under a glass case at an exhibition.

    At the upper window of the neat house, the stranger would probably have seen a young girl sitting reading.  If he had returned the next day, the chances are many that he would have found her in the same place.

    Perhaps a picture of her, sitting there, in her bright young beauty, with a great book spread open on her knee and the blank wall before her, would have been the very best symbol of Elizabeth Ramsay's life.

    She and her elder brother William were the orphan children of a Scotchman, the captain of a small merchant vessel.  Three days after his marriage with her English mother he had left her for a long voyage, returning at the end of two years for a brief visit of three weeks, when he sailed away again.  With an almost over-strained loyalty, his young wife had elected to leave her own people and her father's house, and to spend her long months of weary waiting in her husband's native town, where the bleak air pierced her tender frame, and Presbyterian severity of manner and thought closed round her like a sea of ice.  Through his first absence she went bravely, perhaps consoled almost as much by her own sense of heroic endurance, as by the coming of a sweet little boy.  But with his second absence, there came a cruel difference.  Perhaps she had endured as long as she could, and the tension had snapped the cord.  Perhaps hope, with some strange clairvoyance, saw the future and died at once, while there seemed no reason for her failure.  Certain it was, that all the outward circumstances of that voyage were improved.  The vessel was a better one, the passage less dangerous, and the time of absence likely to be much shorter.  But equally certain it was that Mrs. Ramsay never resumed her former ways, never made the grim old matrons shake their heads at her dauntless cheerfulness, no longer kept a diary to prove to her husband how little daily duties and delights had wiled away her solitude.  She made one or two fitful efforts to rejoin the limited society of the place, and that was all.  Afterwards, she was always at home when anybody called, was always found sitting with folded hands gazing out at the parlour window that looked across the sea.  She would have liked to have held her boy on her knee, but the babe seemed frightened at the pale face that forgot even to mimic a smile for his sake.  People who had been the first to condemn her "light-headedness," and to contemn the toy-like gracefulness of her preparations for her first-born, were now caught trying to remember jokes to repeat to her, and old Mrs. Peddie, the Free-kirk minister's wife, actually got pattern and ribbons for a new-fashioned bassinet, and as she sternly phrased it, "wasted" a whole day trying to get her to be again interested in "such rubbish."  Poor Elizabeth Ramsay! her wan, waiting face revived a whole oral literature of signs and wonders and forebodings.

    The first opportunity for the arrival of a letter came and passed—without one.  There was nothing very wonderful in that, the other captains' wives assured her, and Mrs. Ramsay took it with a strange passive calmness.  Not many weeks after, the time of her trial came upon her, and this time it was a little girl they laid upon her breast.  She kissed it lightly; she did not fold her weak arms about it, and she turned her head wearily toward the window, though that bedroom window did not look upon the sea.  She was lying so, when she died.

    Captain Ramsay's ship returned to Eastport in time, but with another skipper.  He had died of cholera, and they had buried him far out on the ocean.  And for a week or two, the people who believed in "queer" things (these were mostly the very clever or the nearly doted) were not utterly despised in Eastport, and the Free-kirk minister preached a sermon from the words: "I will come to visions and revelations."

    Mrs. Ramsay's widowed mother, Mrs. Torpichen, came down to Eastport to fetch away the two little orphans.  Captain Ramsay's "people" had often lamented over his young wife's lax English and Episcopal training, but they were not at all inclined to dispute the charge of the children, and though they censured poor Mrs. Torpichen for her cap, her discarded weeds, her whist and her hymn-book, in her capacity of guardian and maintainer, they considered her a "providential blessing," especially as they remarked among themselves, they would be able as paternal relatives to exert a powerful influence on the children when their minds were opened, and they were getting able to help themselves.

    Now it so happened that the old house in Denver Corner had been Mrs. Torpichen's home all her life.  She had been born there, and as it was her marriage portion, even her wedded days had been spent there.  Through its doors she had passed with her new wedding ring on her finger, through its door she had passed again in her widow's mourning.  There she had brought up all her children, and from it she had followed the mortal remains of them all, except her daughter Elizabeth, away in Eastport, and one wild boy, Tom Torpichen, who had run off to sea and never been heard of again.  Mrs. Torpichen had had a full and interesting life of a certain kind, and in its eventide was inclined to take her rest and review her past.  The lonely rooms were not lonely to her; there was scarcely a piece of furniture that had not power to stir her heart as no living being could.

    She and her old servant devoted themselves to little Willie and Elizabeth Ramsay.  They, too, had a share in the sacred past in which the old lady lived as contentedly and prettily as a quaint piece of Chelsea china in a locked-up cabinet.  The stories for their early infancy were stories of her own childhood,—the fairy godmother of their legends was their own real great-grandmother.  Nay, they knew the idiosyncrasies of the old dog Tip, whose portrait, worked in wool, hung in the drawing-room, and the wit of the mouldy stuffed parrot Becker, as well, if not better than the dead and gone little children at whom Tip and Becker had snarled and snapped.

    Willie liked to hear these stories quite as well as Elizabeth.  But Elizabeth only wanted to go on hearing them again and again, while Willie presently brought home a stray dog, and announced that he was going to have a Tip of his own.

    Poor Willie's Tip was not received with much favour.  Odious comparisons were drawn between him and his canine name-father.  Elizabeth liked him at first, and expected him to show the sagacity and devoted affection which had characterized the first Tip after a careful education of many years.  Disappointed in this, she lost interest in him, and went back to her grandmother's stories.  But Willie stuck valiantly to his adopted favourite, and presently became inclined to scoff at and doubt any of the first Tip's performances which his own dog failed to equal.

    This very little thing was a sign set in the two lives, as very little things often are, if people could be only wise enough to understand them.  For Willie, to hear of aught was at once to seek to get it, or rather the spirit of it, into his life, however imperfectly.  For Elizabeth, it was but to long vaguely for the very thing, gone hopelessly out of reach.

    Unwary grandmamma told stories of great-uncle Robert, who had a passion for painting, and used to extract colours from household articles and make brushes out of the cat's tail.  Willie did not care a bit for painting, but the story fired him to put into practice his secret passion for mechanics, and the rolling-pin was found employed as the mainstay of a contrivance designed toward the discovery of perpetual motion.

    Grandmamma would proudly show great-grandmamma's beautiful performances in satin embroidery.  Elizabeth cobbled her strips of hemming, and lamented that satin embroidery had grown so unfashionable that one did not even know where to get a pattern.  She felt sure that she would be a splendid needle-woman if only she had satin to embroider.

    And so years passed on, till it was time to consider what Willie was "to be," and poor grandmamma was troubled with his resolution to be an engineer, a profession which had grown up in her own day, and which, therefore, no ancestor had followed before him!


Brother and Sister.

"AH! things are changing sadly in Denver Corner as well as everywhere else," sighed Mrs. Torpichen, as she looked from her window at the house which stood cornerwise beside her own.  "I wish the place was as it used to be, for your sake, children.  It was not lonesome in my time.  The two families that lived here then were just like brothers and sisters."

    "Well, we might be friends with the Withers, if we only knew them, granny," said Will.

    "They are quite a different stamp of people," Mrs. Torpichen replied.  "They may be very well in their way, but they are just common people who don't seem to understand social duties at all.  I like to be civil to one's neighbours, and it is hardly possible to pass people constantly in that narrow passage without bowing to them, but they seem as if they didn't know what it meant—the girls look so cold and the boy so shy and cubbish, while the mother always scuttles out of the way.  Eh, but our old neighbours, the rector's family, were of quite another sort.  You would have enjoyed joining in their glees and round games, Elizabeth.  And then there was such a romance about them too, for one of the sons was in the army, and another was a poet.  I helped the girls to stitch the officer's ruffles when he followed Wellington, and I used to sit with them through the evenings when there came news that there had been another great battle.  He was killed at Waterloo, after killing two French officers in attempting to take their flag, and Wellington himself wrote a line of condolence to the family, and his mother was so proud, that she would go to all the thanksgiving services, though she fainted once and had to be carried out.  As for the poet, poor fellow, his was a sad, sad story, for he loved unhappily and his head went wrong, and at last he destroyed himself."

    "Young Withers is not old enough to fall in love yet awhile," said irreverent Will, "else I suppose he might do that, though he is only in a merchant's office."

    "Ah, but there are different ways of loving, and very few people can love intensely," observed Elizabeth.

    "You know a great deal about it, don't you ?" asked Will.  "And do you mean to say then, that he was right to kill himself because he could not have what he wanted?"

    "No, no," said Mrs. Torpichen, "of course he was very wrong; but then, poor fellow, he could not help it: he had lost his reason."

    "So had that man they held the inquest over last week," argued Will, "but then he ought not to have lost his reason.  He drank it away."

    "That was quite different," said his sister; "if you have no more feeling, Willie, I wish you would not talk on such subjects."

    "It was very sad for the poor rector," mused Mrs. Torpichen, too occupied with her own memories to pay much attention to the discussion which had grown out of them; "for the coroner's jury would not believe that his son had been insane, and in those days they buried all suicides who were not insane, by torch-light, at cross roads, with a stake driven through the body.  It was so sad, for he had been such a gentle youth, with the most beautiful eyes I ever saw."

    "Well, it was a abominable custom," said Will; "but I suppose we do things quite as bad now, only in a different way."

    "Ah, but the very cruelty only made all good people the more pitiful," cried Elizabeth, a shell-pink flush on her cheek and a moisture in her eyes.  "When some were so harsh to the sin, it only made others more sensible of the sorrows and the suffering which had led to it."

    "That is what I always say," observed the irrepressible Will; "I believe you'd put things down much better if you took 'em in a calm condescending way, and sent folks to the idiot asylum instead of to jail, and gave 'em in charge of the doctor instead of the policeman."

    "You didn't understand me," said Elizabeth, "you never do understand me.  You always get hold of a fact without any feeling, and fact without feeling is only half truth, like the earth without air."

    Will laughed.  "We don't see the air," said he, "unless it's foggy!"

    "It is no use to talk to you," his sister replied, and she rose and left the room, going up stairs to her own little sanctum.

    Elizabeth was very fond of this chamber of hers, for was it not the scenery to which she had played out many a little drama in her soul?  There she had thrown her imagination into many an heroic part; had sat reading Plutarch and thinking of Lady Jane Grey; had sat reading history till she had felt herself Margaret Roper with her father's head in her lap, or Lucy Hutchinson watching at her husband's prison window.  She had cut a portrait of Sir Philip Sydney from an old book, and put it in a frame and hung it over the toilet glass.  And she had made a cross of pine cones which Will had brought home after a day's holiday, and that was fixed up between the windows.  Mrs. Torpichen did not altogether approve of this, saying "that only Papists had cared for such things in her young days," so that Elizabeth never dared to confess that in her heart of hearts she sometimes thought it would be a very beautiful thing to be a nun and shut one's self up in a cell, and dedicate all one's life to saying masses for such poor souls as Chatterton or Churchill, or nearer still, for the old rector's unhappy son.

    To own all the truth, Elizabeth Ramsay wrote poetry.  Nobody had ever seen any of it.  She thought her grandmother would not appreciate it, and as for Will,—she would never have had another moment's peace had he been let into the secret of the "tears" and "fears," the "sighs" and "cries," the "sorrows" and "to-morrows" which nearly made up her stock of rhymes.

    So she sat down this afternoon, to enjoy one of those reveries which were absorbing all the life of her life.  She knew the old servant was not quite well, but there would be sure to be bread and butter for tea, and Will could just go without toast for once, though they had had boiled mutton for dinner,―a dish which his appetite always failed to appreciate.  It was the day, too, when she ought to darn her stockings; but they could wait till to-morrow: they were sure to get done sometime, somehow: this sweet, dangerous mood of hers, which she could not quite always command, though she was delighted to think that it came on with an ever-increasing facility, was not to be postponed for any such trivialities.

    She got her pen and paper, and began:

O withered leaves and faded flowers
    That cannot bloom again;
O broken hearts in this world of ours,
    Whose life is only pain!

Ye are just swept up without a sigh,
    And out of your place ye go:
There are few to mark you with wistful eye,
    Or Pity's tender glow.

    To do Elizabeth justice, her verses did not please her.  But then in sundry lives of hectic geniuses who had died young, she had read "early verses" which did not seem to her very much better.  She felt quite sure that the inspiration must be in her, or else what fired her ambition in that direction?  Will never thought of such things.  Will had no mind beyond gases and pistons, and such common-place and material things.

    When his sister went up stairs Will thought he might as well go out.  As he went through the hall he thought he would just look into the kitchen and ask poor old Betsey if her headache was better.

    The old servant was crouching over the fire.  Her young master's inquiry roused her, and she rose.

    "I ain't either better or worse, thank ye," she said.  "But what we're born to, that we must go through, an' it's no use me a-givin' up, with all my work about me.  There's things wanted in from the grocer's.  Miss Lizzie promised to order 'em yesterday, but she forgot, and now we're cleaned out, and they must be fetched at once."

    "Never you trouble yourself, Betsey." said Will.  "I'll have them home here by the time you'd have your bonnet and shawl put on."

    "Nonsense," she resisted; "it ain't for young gentlemen to be a going to shops and fetching home parcels.  Why, your grandma's pa was that particular that he wouldn't even—"

    "Never mind the old gentleman," laughed Will.  "A lot of his notions went out of fashion along with his pigtail.  I'm going to be as fine a gentleman as he, but of quite another sort.  I don't like that storey of his brother's going into the church just because of the livings that was in the family.  That isn't my style.  So if the old gentleman's ghost pitches into me, I'll just tell him so.  Give me the leathern portmanteau, Betsey, and then I shall only look as if I was off on my travels.  Not that I care.  I'd carry all the parcels home on my head, except for the grief it would give good souls like you, Betsey.  Hurrah, what a lark!"

    "Well, well," said Betsey to herself, as he went off, "it's a real charity to let me sit still a bit longer, though he just did it because he's so fond of a frolic."

    It might be that Will's bright, healthy face was a charm which attracted wants toward him, but certain it is he seldom went out of doors without opportunities of showing all sorts of kindnesses to all sorts of people.  Now, it was to see an old lady across a road, then to whistle up an omnibus for a young one; now to pull a bell for a tiny child, then to heave a burden on to some errand-boy's shoulder.  To-day, it was to count over an old woman's change, and assure her suspicious mind that the shopman had not cheated her.

    There were two little ragged children in the shop when Will went in, waiting to be served with an ounce of tea.  They had got pushed back from the counter over and over again—they were of no importance.  Who was to reflect that perhaps some overburdened washerwoman, whose minutes were their bread, might be waiting for their return, to proceed on her labours with refreshed strength?  Will noticed them: and when the smart shopman turned to the well-dressed young gentleman with his civil "For you, sir?" Will said frankly:

    "It's these youngsters' turn first, please," and the shopman laughed and proceeded to attend to them.

    They were looking wistfully at some pretty sweets ranged in glasses on the counter.  They had no idea of wishing for them.  But Will saw the glance of the little grave eyes set in such worn and careful baby faces.  There were stray halfpence in his pocket, what fun it would be to give them a surprise!

    "Two pennyworth of those, quick!" said he, and whether or not, the shopman comprehended the situation; he stopped folding up the tea and hastily measured out the comfits, which Will as hastily thrust into the children's hands.

    They did not stop to thank him.  Perhaps they had not required to practise much giving of thanks in the course of their short lives.  They snapped at the rare treasure as a starved dog snaps at a bone, and ran off as if they feared it might be reclaimed.  Their pleasure was not half so pleasant to see as the glow of delight on Will's fresh face.

    He had done it playfully,—as being by far the best treat he could give himself with his two-pence.  It never struck him that in the years to come, in many a sordid trial and want, the remembrance of that passing pleasure might return upon those children's memories, and stir a blind faith into that joyful hope which generally works out its own fulfilment: that thoughtless boy might serve to them as a true type of those good angels who descend unawares to bless.

    There was a lady sitting in the shop who saw the whole of the little episode.  She was a rich lady, and lonely and much tried.  Before the little incident, she had thought wearily that she would give all her wealth and position to be young and merry like Will.  But when she saw what he did, she thought to herself that perhaps the best part of his youth and joyousness was still within her reach.  There was an old friend of hers whose life lacked many things, as hopelessly and as patiently as those children had wanted the sweets.  Mighty not she supply them?  And as ways and means for the transmission of unexpected blessings dawned upon her mind, a smile broke over her wan face, and her own trials seemed further off, and her own loneliness less chilling.  For the angels help those who help others, and those who are friends to their fellow-creatures bind themselves eternally to the Friend above.

    Will packed the parcels into his portmanteau, and proceeded on his homeward way, whistling.  It was almost dark,—the lamps were all lit, and the streets were very full of people hastening from business to their respective homes.  Will always liked being out at this hour: the parlours behind the shops were just illuminated, presenting pictures of homely comfort, in which Will took what his sister considered a most unromantic interest.  Perhaps Will did not hurry home at quite the speed which he had promised old Betsey.

    A girl had walked before him down the whole length of a street.  He had seen her figure without at all noticing it.  She carried a bag which seemed to be as heavy as it was unwieldy.  Suddenly some accident happened—a strap broke, or a seam burst.  It fell to the ground, scattering some of its contents.  A man, rushing to catch a train, half stumbled over it, and swore.  Two naughty street boys stood still to jeer.  Will ran to the rescue.  Though he had but one hand free from his own load, still he was an efficient help in the fluttered girl's first purpose—that of gathering up her possessions and taking refuge in the nearest portico.

    It was only the work of an instant; and she was fairly under her temporary shelter before Will noticed that the distressed damsel was his own next-door neighbour—one of the Withers girls.

    Those who know what mere contiguity means in London, will find it quite easy to believe, that though the Witherses had invaded the seclusion of Denver Corner fully six years back, and though Will had occasionally said a few words to the boy of the family, yet he had never before exchanged a single sentence with either of the daughters.

    "What shall we do?" said Will promptly.  "That bag won't hold all this again.  If we try it, it will only break down worse than before."

    The first person plural sounded so comforting that the girl did not let it slip out of the question with which only she could answer Will's inquiry.

    "What can we do?" said she.

    "I'll tell you," said Will triumphantly, "I promised to be home quickly with the tea and things, and I'm afraid I'm late already, so I'll run off with them, and come back, and we'll manage it quite easily between us.  Mind you wait, now.  You're not frightened?"

    "Frightened?  No, indeed," she answered; and off he scampered.

    The laugh which the inquiry had called to her face had scarcely died away when he came back.  She had not been idle during the short interval; she had made up a small packet, and had found a piece of string with which she had tied up the fractured bag.

    "Why, you do know how to help yourself," said candid Will.  "You really don't want me much.  Only you could not carry them both, I think."

    "I could, if I was obliged," she said rather shortly.  Poor thing, she knew she might have as much to do to-morrow, and she was not going to gainsay the strength she had.  Had Will been a little older and more observant, her words would have sounded rather ungracious.  Had he been older still and wiser, he would known that girl as she was, she had given a woman's answer, resolutely putting aside the staff, for which her hand might sometimes feel in vain.  As it was, he received her remark as he would if it had come from a boy; and thinking to himself that she was "a brick," simply took up the bag and marched along beside her.

    Will Ramsay did not know much of any girls except his sister, and his ideas concerning her sex generally received such a snubbing from her that he was beginning to keep them to himself.  To the masculine mind aged sixteen or seventeen, the feminine gender usually presents a kind of beatific vision, which no words can adequately describe, so that the plainest and homeliest terms are resorted to, as serving as well as any other.  If women would only realize the genuine affection and unbounded faith which find expression in such dubious phrases as "one of the right sort," "true blue," and "thorough-bred!"  As Will Ramsay walked along beside his neighbour, saying within himself that she was "a brick," and knew the way to "step out," it meant a warmth of appreciation rather alarming for such a sudden acquaintanceship.

    But we all like those whom we help: especially if they seem rather unhelpable people, who would prefer to repulse most assistance.  Certainly this must have been Lucy Withers's chief charm, for she did not seem a girl likely to have much other attraction for a lad with such a sister as dainty, peach-blossom Elizabeth.  Yet as Will never noticed what any woman wore, so he could not be prejudiced by Lucy's coarse dress and dingy, old-fashioned bonnet, though, unconsciously to himself, they might have repelled him by exaggerating the whiteness of her face and the angularity of her figure and movement.

    "It is rather late for you to be out alone, isn't it?" he said.  Elizabeth hardly ever went out alone, even in the brightest noontide.

    "O no," she said; "not for me.  I am often out much later than this."

    "Are you ever frightened?" he asked.

    "I used to be," she answered, "but I got over it.  There is really nothing to be frightened at.  And one does not get so tired in the dark as in the light."

    "There is a great deal of fancy in all these things, I do believe," said Will.

    "Yes, indeed," she replied, "but fancy is fact until it is surmounted."

    There was something in her tone which made Will look at her.

    "It was very brave of you to keep on doing it till you left off being frightened," he said.

    "No, it was not," she answered quietly, "it had to be done: and the sooner I ceased to be frightened, the better for me, that was all."

    They had reached Denver Corner by this time.  The old place was dark and still as usual.  The lamps were lit in Mrs. Torpichen's drawing-room: a candle was burning dimly in the Witherses' parlour.  Lucy took a key from her pocket to admit her to her home, and Will waited on the step till she had deposited both her packages within the door.  A constraint seemed to fall on her as she thanked him.  Perhaps those lamps and that candle had something to do with it.

    "What did you do with yourself all this afternoon, Will?" his grandmother asked as they all sat down at the tea table.

    "I went to the grocer's for Betsey: I took the black bag," he added hastily, to avert the shower of genteel horror otherwise sure to fall.

    Mrs. Torpichen gave a little sigh.  One could trust the manners of men in the church, the army, or the navy, as all her men-folk had been.  But fondness for machinery and chemistry seemed almost as dangerous as colonial life; and when Mrs. Torpichen thought of her own missing son Tom, she always said that she daresay he was ashamed to come back because he had got into habits of putting his feet on the table and spitting on the carpet.

    Will did not mention his gallant little adventure with Lucy Withers.  He said to himself that there was nothing to tell.  But he would have liked to speak of it.  His silence made it seem somehow guilty.  He knew the comments which would be pronounced, and he shrank from them.  He almost wished it had not happened.  That is how want of sympathy often affects a loyal young nature; it cannot show what it would, and a blank tablet is more congenial to its honesty than an inscription in secret ink.

    Elizabeth poring over "the Fairy Queen" heard in a dreamy way that her brother had "been to the grocer's."  She thought to herself how sad it was that people could so trifle away time: she had added ten somewhat similar verses to the two we have already seen, and though she had sufficient good sense to feel that the result was a failure, still she felt that at least she had had an aspiration!


At Number Two.

NOBODY seemed to hear Lucy Withers return home.  She had to find her way in as best she could.

    Her mother and brother and sister were seated at the table.  Something in the manner of her entrance made them all look up, as if they thought she had some news to tell, or something to show.  And perhaps she had, for if a fading flower in the hand is something, surely even a passing pleasure in the heart is something too.

    There was no slovenliness about the apartment, or the table arrangements.  The deficiencies were simply those sure to show sooner or later in households where money is scarce and every body either too busy or too tired for the finer details of domestic care.  It might be that the utter absence of any impromptu dash of beauty and brightness revealed an absorption and weariness of hearts as well hands.

    The dim blue china, the dull metal teapot, the worn drab carpet on the floor, and the washed-out chintz on the chairs were all in a sad harmony with the scared little woman who presided, with the grandly outlined but gaunt young woman who was cutting the bread and butter, and with the bright, eager, worn face of the lad who was just lifting the kettle from the hob.

    Lucy told her little story of her accident and her succour.  Whatever was the reason why no visitors ever came to No. 2 Denver Corner, and why a family of young and healthy people mingled in no sort of society, it certainly appeared only to have bound them closer together.  It was wonderful what little things they told each other.  They seemed to tell everything.  But they did not.  If the accident had happened without the succour, Lucy would have kept it to herself.

    Yet the sympathy between them must have lain far below the surface, since it certainly was not apparent in the eldest sister's prompt comment on Lucy's story.

    "Well, he could not do less.  I should think he must have been very glad to have something to do at all.  It must be a tame life for him, idling about with that poor old lady and that wishy-washy girl."

    "I am sure they are very nice people," said Mrs. Withers, meekly; "under all circumstances, it is not everybody who would always smile and bow as Mrs. Torpichen does when she sees me."

    "Dear me," cried Charlotte, "let them go their own ways and let us go ours.  We know quite well that there can be no real fellowship between us."  A weight in her voice rested slowly on each word of the last sentence, and gave it a meaning beyond the words, and a stillness crept over the little group.  Mrs. Withers raised her hand suddenly to her head, like one seized with a nervous pain, and her son moved his chair a little nearer to her.

    There was no conscious bitterness about Charlotte Withers's manner.  She seemed but uttering aloud what she had often said to herself even more severely.  She had one of those strong faces which reveal a nature that never knows what it is to quail before any other, because its own disadvantages whether of fate or temperament are ever far more present to itself than they could be even to the bitterest and sharpest enemy.  On the tide of adversity she could float serenely, an adamantine vessel which would not break in its roughest wave.  Only it might mean woe to any piece of thinner porcelain that must keep beside, doomed therefore not only to face breakers, which in the words of the quaint Scotch proverb, it might otherwise "jenk and let the jaw go by," but also to run the risk of collision with a strength whose lightest touch might mean fracture.  It is very well to be heroic; that is but to live up to the height of one's nature, and therefore to be happy, but woe to those whose hearts bind them to a heroism which is not wholly their own!  It is very fine to be Joan of Arc, but how about Joan of Arc's family?

    In looking at her, one could not but feel that the only real happiness ever possible to such a woman as Charlotte Withers, was some happiness which might some day crown the strain and stress which gave her young face a sublimity as of an inaccessible rock or an impregnable fortress.  For those were the similes fittest for the beauty of this woman at an age when many may still be likened to roses, or daisies, or singing birds.  If there were bowers on the summits of life's steeps, then she might rest there awhile, but she could never have had any repose in the bowers in the valleys.  When women like her find no hard, upward path, then it is not well for themselves, nor for any with whom they have to deal.

    Something of this truth had dawned upon Charlotte Withers.  She felt that she would not exchange her lot of toil and hardship for any of the easier lives which she saw about her, though how unremitting that toil was, and how hard its conditions, nobody outside the family could know.  But she was still young, and therefore severe and rash in many of her conclusions.  Perhaps there was an unconscious humility in them too: she could not realize that all others were not as herself—that the peculiar triumphs which were for her were not therefore always good for them.  One must generally be more than six-and-twenty before one enters into that patient and perfect law of harmony between the works and the hands set to them, the sorrows and the hearts that bear them, which makes no man to differ, and leaves the strongest and the wisest with no praise beyond having done that which was their duty to do.  The truth that God cares for all his creatures and works out what is best for each, has now nearly silenced the sentimental thanksgiving that implied a peculiar favouritism of providence in the bestowal of apparent advantages.  But reaction is often the old feeling in a new place, and Charlotte Withers was not without a secret exultation that she was not left to the tame and easy careers of mere "wishy-washy" girls.

    The meal did not take a very long time.  The girls rose from the table and went up stairs.  It seemed the mother's duty to wash and clear away the china, and straighten the apartment.  Perhaps that explained the dimness and dinginess of everything, for a crushed heart probably finds its plainest expression in these little household matters.

    Charlotte and Lucy went up stairs to their sanctum—a bleak, bare room furnished with a wooden table and desk and two or three cane chairs.  All the years that the Witherses had lived in Denver Corner, Charlotte had spent most of her waking hours in this place.

    Table and desk, and even floor, were strewn with sheets upon sheets of closely written paper.  Charlotte had been at work thereon since six o'clock in the morning, and there was work still remaining which would keep her up till long past midnight.  Her mother would shake her head sometimes, and with slow, weak tears trickling from her faded eyes, would prophecy:

    "You don't feel it now, Lottie; but wait till the first break in your constitution, and then the change will come in like a flood."

    "Well, we must all wear out in time," Charlotte would answer; "and working through the night in my cool room cannot be more unwholesome than dancing through it, among a hot, excited crowd."

    Lucy had carried up stairs the great baggage with which Will Ramsay had helped her, and now began to arrange its contents on the wooden table.  They consisted of a West End directory, and about two thousand envelopes.

    "Did you see the secretary at the hospital?" Charlotte asked.

    "Yes,"' Lucy answered; "and he says he will trust our judgment to determine which streets are most likely to yield a crop of subscriptions in response to the circulars."

    "Well," said Charlotte, "we scarcely charge for our judgment when we address envelopes at so much a thousand.  But it is nice to be on the liberal side in one's dealing, and it would be fine if we decided so correctly that the hospital got more this year than ever before.  And did you give him my message about the charges?  Tell me exactly what you said.""

    "I said, 'My sister sends you her compliments, and as we have never done any envelope addressing before, we do not know how to charge, so we sent to ask a lady who keeps an office for the employment of women in all kinds of work, but she did not seem to like anybody doing it apart from herself, and would not tell us; so my sister says we must be sure to be on the safe side, and we will begin doing them at three shillings a thousand, and if we find out that the proper charge is higher, we must just raise the price as we go along.'"

    "That's right," said Charlotte.  "Tell the truth and shame the devil.  And I'm quite sure we are on the safe side.  I don't want to contend with anybody, but if they will have it so, then it must be just a trial of strength."

    "It is awful work getting these envelopes backwards and forwards," said poor Lucy.  "This six shillings' worth of hard work weighs more than three or four pounds' worth of your law-copying."

    "Well, there would still be five shillings profit, if we paid a shilling for a cab," answered Charlotte.  "So we can comfort ourselves that if we are very tired or busy we can always take one, and that feeling will give us strength not to need it.  But you shan't go for them at all, Lucy, unless I'm very busy.  The exercise and change of exertion is just excellent for me.  I often only wish that I had time to take a twenty miles' walk!  But if I had time, perhaps I might not care for it, but might sit mooning at the window like Miss Ramsay next door."

    "I often think," said Lucy, "that if people's lives were more mixed up together, it would be better for everybody."

    Charlotte did not answer, she was beginning her work.  Her face seemed to grow a little sterner.

    "I'm sure it made it much easier for me to-night when Mr. Ramsay helped me, and as you say, it ought to have been a pleasure to him.  That is what I mean," Lucy added timidly.  "I cannot understand why we cannot be friendly with those Ramsays.  What should prevent our going there sometimes, and enjoying their pretty rooms, and hearing the piano.  If I had pretty rooms and a beautiful piano I should think it just the height of happiness to share them with those who had neither.   And if I was free to do exactly what I liked, I should think no fun equal to running in and helping on busy people with their work and giving them time for a pleasant walk or a longer rest."

    "Ah yes, Lucy," said Charlotte quite gently, "but somehow it is one thing to bestow these kindnesses, and altogether another to be only able to receive them."

    "Of course the receiving is the hardest part," Lucy pleaded, "because it is more blessed to give than to receive,—but then I don't know whether I can make my meaning plain—but if it is more blessed to give than to receive, then are not those who receive the greatest givers after all, because they give up the best part of the blessing?"

    Charlotte looked up thoughtfully.  "I understand," she said; "and if giving and receiving went on in that spirit all would be well: but as it is, giving is generally done in selfish pride and receiving in selfish gratification."

    "I don't say that I could receive in such a spirit of mutual love," said poor Lucy humbly.  "I think I should just receive because I was in great want.  One would not argue over a cup of cold water if one was fairly dying of thirst."

    There was more pathos in her quiet voice than in any flood of tears.  The elder sister looked at her wistfully, and it shot across her heart like a pang, that perhaps she was demanding hard things of her whom she was wont in her gentler moments to call "the little one."  Like all strong and noble natures, Charlotte Withers laid great stress on any item in another's burden of life which was not in her own.  "The little one" had had six years of comfort less than she had.  "The little one" had not had her chance of proving that life without stern duty and hardship was apt to become flat, tame, and unprofitable.  "The little one" was forced into all this struggle and endurance without a full share of the motives which made them comparatively easy to Charlotte.  "The little one" had no past to look back upon, whence to derive the consolation that even at the worst "today was better than yesterday."

    "Lucy," she said, "you do not know about some things as well as I do.  You have lived among ourselves so much.  You don't know how differently people think and feel.  For one thing, women who earn money by doing whatever work they are best able to do, are not much honoured yet.  It is thought that they lose their womanliness.  Girls who choose to live on relations who are neither very able nor very willing to maintain them, are commonly thought more lady-like.  Many men would not care to marry a woman who had worked for her bread.  People don't say these things quite plainly, Lucy.  They only act them.  They would tell us that they respected us, but they would not ask us to a dinner party.  They might say they wished their daughters were like us, but they would not be pleased if their sons wanted to marry us."

    "But surely these are not the best sort of people!" cried poor Lucy.

    Charlotte smiled.  "Aristocrats, either by nature or grace, to use a theological phrase, are a small proportion of the population," she said.  "The common run of people are mostly—very common!"

    "Then people give reasons for their prejudice," she resumed.  "They tell you that women going about among strangers without protection are in danger of a subtle kind of insult which damages their refinement of feeling and manner.  I wonder what refinement a woman has who can receive an insult?" she added royally.  In that, perhaps, Charlotte was hardly fair, for it is not every woman who can surround herself with an atmosphere which a queen on her throne might envy.

    "And you knew all this, Lottie, and defied it," said Lucy.

    Charlotte laughed.  "Yes," she said, "and it did not cost me so very much, either.  Though I was hardly seventeen, I had found out that kind of public opinion was not worth much."

    "It is so hard,—so hard," cried Lucy, and all for something that we are not obliged to do!"

    Charlotte's face grew hard and stern.  "Would it be easier if we were obliged?" she asked, coldly.

    "But it is something we have no right to do," Lucy pleaded.  "You yourself do not think we have any right to do it,—O Lottie, you do not in the least think it possible that—"

    "No, never, never," said Charlotte with a strong light kindling in her beautiful face.  "That is just where I feel I ought to be so much braver and better able to bear than you, Lucy.  For you cannot know our father as I did.  It would have been my joy to serve him living and prosperous,—so it is my pride now to serve him dead and dishonoured!"

    "But if—as he was innocent," faltered poor Lucy, "the loss which we are repaying has really no connection with him?"

    "So long as people fully believe he injured them, so long will we make full restitution," said Charlotte steadily.

    "And do you thank the right will ever come to light?" asked Lucy wistfully.

    Charlotte rose and paced the room like some beautiful mountain animal cooped in a narrow prison.

    "Sooner or later," she said.  "By our faith in God and the ultimate triumph of Right, we know that His ways are justice and His times are fit.  But then His ways are past finding out, and His hours may be a thousand years.  The sooner may be any day, Lucy.  The later may not be in this world at all.  But it will come, all the same."

    She stood still.  Her soul was on its mountain tops now.  This was the atmosphere which made hard work, hard fare, and hard measure into mere temporary accidents not worth a moment's regard.

    Lucy suppressed a sigh.  She had not had her little day, poor thing.  She was walking her life's path because Charlotte was walking it before her, showing its beauty and its duty, by the light of her will.  She was something like a pioneer's devoted servant, who never thinks of desertion, but wishes his master would stop for once in comfortable quarters instead of pushing on remorselessly across the desert.  Lucy could not help turning a longing thought to ways of life where the girls had time to make lace and read pleasant stories, and where the lads were free and gay and dashing, like young Ramsay.  Lucy could not help looking forward—not to the Eternal Hills to which Charlotte lifted her eyes and found strength, but to the nearer years.  Was it always to be thus?  How would it be with them in middle age?  And how would it all end?

    "And when it is found out,—if it is found out soon, shall we get our own back again?" she asked timidly.

    "We may, or we may not," Charlotte answered.  "Most likely we should not.  But that does not matter."

    And then they both went on with their work, and no more remarks were made, except such as had reference to pens and blotting paper.  Very soon after ten o'clock, Charlotte sent her sister off to bed.  Lightly as she always spoke of the unwholesomeness of night work, it was rarely that she allowed Lucy to do any.

    Lucy stifled down her longings and regrets: she could never put them more plainly than she had to-night, and she thought that they had entirely escaped Charlotte's notice.

    It was past midnight before Charlotte paused for a short rest.  She went to the windows, drew the blind and looked out.  It was a clear starlit night.  Denver Corner might have been on the top of a mountain, it was so lonely and so still.  There was no light burning in Mrs. Torpichen's house.  But she knew she was not the only wakeful watcher.  Her brother would be still at work in his own room.

    "And that accountant work is so much more trying than my copying," said Charlotte to herself; "and such a life seems so unnatural for a lad of his age."

    There was a gap of only eight years between herself and her brother.  But those eight years had made an immense distance between their two lives, when he was twelve and she was nearing twenty.  Besides, life cannot be counted wholly by years.  Experience is gained by force of circumstance rather than by lapse of time.  Hours may be as centuries sometimes.

    Charlotte had had her love story—ended quite and utterly put away.  Like many heroic women, she had not been loved heroically.  Nobody ever named that bit of the past: but she often thought of it, and her thoughts were without bitterness.  The sharpest pang was that the greatest loss was not her own.

    "The remembrance must make him miserable sometimes, poor fellow," she mused, "or if not, that is even greater misery.  And yet it was not his fault.  He had not counted on such a trial.  He would have been as true as other men if he had been only tested as most are!"

    But to-night her thoughts were of her brother and sister.  Was it better to be ignorant of the world and the world's ways, or to be disenchanted?  She had thought to spare them much pain which she had undergone herself; perhaps she was only heaving them to greater pain.

    She began to reflect that questions which never troubled her now, would certainly echo through their lives by and by.  A fancy-free girl like Lucy would be sure to have her maiden meditations.  Charlotte mused that a heart like her own, which has proved that the cup of earthly love does not always satisfy, is yet much more at rest than a heart ever hankering after something which, because withheld, grows to undue proportion, and seems the one infallible panacea for all ills.  Lucy would never be a brave and happy woman, unless she made her own trial of life, and won her own victory, or perhaps that defeat which sometimes means higher victory still.

    "She might be more fortunate than I was," mused the elder sister, in whose soul all the highest motherly instincts were ever yearning, and who was really far more the true mother of the younger boy and girl than the faded, broken woman who had given them physical life, and whom they now petted and pitied and called poor mamma."

    "Yes," thought Charlotte; "for Lucy is just the girl who attracts good true men."

    And there rose before her eyes a vision of Lucy, a happy wife and mother, coming in to cheer her own lonely work by pleasant chat and laughter, or welcoming her to her cheerful hearth in her few hours of leisure.  In such joy there seemed such a large share for herself, that Charlotte turned hastily, to dispel a dream which might weaken her for the stern tasks of the present.  She knew the antidote to such perilous stuff.  It was a long, well-used book, wherein sums of money, scarcely ever larger than five guineas, and often amounting to only as many shillings, were slowly, slowly reducing the sum of fifteen hundred pounds, against which they were set.  For five years had that account been going on, and the amount was still ominously large.

    But the sight of that "steep brae" only roused Charlotte's "stout heart" to mount it.  She was not without secret sources of strength which were real enough supplies to her, whatever they may seem to the outer world.  Her long, lonely walks on business, at all sorts of queer hours, late or early, her long spells of lonely long work, had hushed her soul for voices and intuitions that are apt to be drowned in the gabble of hollow civilities and lost in the dust of beaten paths.  The next world did not seem far off to Charlotte Withers, and the ministry of angels was to her no mere metaphor.  She never doubted that her departed father knew what she was doing for his sake, and in the ministry of angels surely he was very near her, with the same powers of protection and kindness which he had had on earth, only greater and wiser.  Call these ideas dreams if you choose, but we have high authority that all things must be judged by their fruits, and these brought strength and peace and a lofty joy to Charlotte Withers,

    But as she sat there, bending over that remorseless book, a new thought came to her.

    "My brother and sister are my father's dear children.  Even for his sake only, there is a duty to be done to them as well as to his enemies and accusers.  When the Master bade us give our cloak to those who had taken our coat, and so love our enemies, He never bade us hate our friends."

    And her practical conclusion was, "I must watch for some natural and simple chance of returning to a more sociable way of life."

[Next Page]



 [Home] [Up] [Recollections] [A Retired Life] [The Secret Drawer] [By Still Waters] [The Dead Sin] [Family Fortunes] [At Any Cost] [Rab Bethune's Double] [Short Stories, etc.] [Poems] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to