Isabella Mayo: 'Doing and Dreaming' (2).

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CHAPTER IV.

Chrysanthemums.


DID anybody ever resolve to do anything without instantly finding an opening by which to carry out his resolution?  Possibly the opening was always there, only waiting the opened vision and outstretched hand to recognize and seize it.

    All the little household offices at Number Two had to be done by one or other member of the family, and these brought little interests and honours of their own.  The poverty or the occupations which shut out from morning calls or country visits open up other channels of social duty and helpfulness.  The lives which seem void of pleasures because they have not the pleasures of our lives, have pleasures of their own.

    There was an old milk-woman who served both the houses in Denver Corner.  At Number One only old Betsey knew her, and old Betsey knew how both her husband and her son had met their deaths in their employment as railway guards, and how hard the old woman worked and fared that she might keep herself and her little grandson off the parish.  Old Betsey called her "a decent body," and sometimes gave some bones a second boiling that she might offer a cup of broth to the old woman on her rounds in the cold mornings.  That was all Betsey could do.  She never thought of speaking about her to Mrs. Torpichen, and if she had, the most that would have resulted, would have been the gift of a cast-off garment.  To give old clothes to more immediate dependants, and to have a guinea ready for every institution to which one might be asked to subscribe, was the form which charity took with Mrs. Torpichen.

    But at Number Two, Charlotte Withers knew the old woman, for as much as she possibly could, Charlotte did everything miscalled "menial" which had to be seen by outsiders.  Her mother might set the breakfast and dust the rooms, but it was she who took in the milk, and fetched the shopping if the trades-people did not come in time.  She knew her mother would have done these things heartlessly and despairingly, because "nothing mattered now," and she knew that Lucy, the poor "little one," would have done them furtively and painfully, because how could she possibly realize how little this kind of things mattered at all?

    Charlotte Withers knew all about the old woman's husband and son, and all about the little grandson.  It was she who had suggested the possibility of his attending a night-school, even while he "minded" a stall during the day: for this was before the School-Board epoch.  It cost Charlotte a pang to make the suggestion when she could not offer to pay the trifling fee.  But the idea would have been much harder for the poor old woman to find for herself, than the extra two pence a week.  It is help such as this which aids the poor, not in their poverty, but out of it.  The moral strength that the grandmother derived from feeling that her Jem was "getting an eddication" carried her bravely through the minute thrift which made an ounce and a half of tea last as long as two-ounces had.  She used to bring his "copies" to show Miss Withers, and when Jem, sharp and shrewd, and anxious to be "making something," began to be tempted by the emoluments of pot-boys and stable lads, it was Charlotte who noticed when one of the lawyers for whom she worked wanted an office boy, and put in a word for Jem and his good character, and got him the place.

    He had entered on his duties about a week before the commencement of our story.  And this morning, when Charlotte answered the old woman's ring, she found her armed with a huge bunch of chrysanthemums, which she offered with the explanation, that "Jem had been visiting a friend of his, out Loughton way, which his father was a market gardener, and Jem had got those given him, and bid her say, if Miss Withers would accept them, with his respects, he'd take it werry kind."

    Of course Charlotte was delighted.  Now the milk-woman always rang the bells of No. 1 and No. 2 simultaneously, because Betsey was often slow; but this morning she was prompt.

    "Them's real pretty flowers," she said, for she and Charlotte had long exchanged "good mornings."  "I wish there were more of them on sale about here, that I might bring 'em home to the missus sometimes.  But there's nothing to be had but them cut-and-dried boukets, set so stiff, that you hardly know whether they're real flowers, or cut out of vegetables."

    "Let me give you some of these," said Charlotte.  It struck her this would be a pleasant recognition of Will Ramsay's kindness to her sister.  She made a liberal division of the flowers, and directed Betsey to take them to Mrs. Torpichen at breakfast time with Miss Withers's compliments."

    When Lucy came down stairs, Charlotte told her of the little advance she had made toward neighbourliness.  Not that Charlotte much expected aught would come of it, but she feared lest anything in her manner on the previous evening should have led Lucy to fancy that she would discourage any more intimate relations with the outside world, an impression she wished utterly to remove.  Lucy said nothing, but her heart filled with the tenderest gratitude.  It was by similar experiences of her watchful and ready love, that Charlotte had bound her brother and sister to herself, in a loyalty, that might have become blind idolatry, had its object been less worthy.

    Then they applied themselves to their work.  The days were never long at No. 2.  The possibility of every post bringing orders for more work was as exciting as the possibility of invitations, and there was absorbing interest in making one order so dovetail with another as to miss none.

    Charlotte did not find her occupation of copyist so merely mechanical as some people would have thought it.  She had curious manuscripts to copy sometimes—many of which she discovered never ultimately found their way into print, but which revealed strange ways of thought seething under the formulas of the world, and now and then casting up a fact which refused to be forgotten.  Her interviews with their writers, too, the undress kind of interviews so possible in arrangement, where one regards the other much as an automaton, were deeply interesting to Charlotte.  Studies of character underlay her matter-of-fact arrangements about folios and pages and pence.  By these interviews she had long since discovered that the prodigality of Nature is not confined to matter; that minds are maimed and wasted with the same seeming recklessness as bodies; that the fields of speculation are as red with mangled thought as are the fields of battle with the slain.  It was a tonic discipline, bitter but wholesome, because it presently brought the conviction that the one redeeming power of the universe was goodness in the form of that love which seeks not its own, and looks not on its own things but on the things of others; that just as deep as the mark of selfishness is set on anything—strength, intellect, perception, or emotion—just so narrowed would be its influence and so swift and certain its decay and doom.  Many and many a fancy which Charlotte had once counted as faith were torn up in that stern blast of experience.  But truth is ever merciful, and always gives tenfold more than she takes away.

    Even the dry law papers which she copied had lessons for Charlotte—hints of the subtlety and magnitude of hereditary influences, of strange secret compensating laws of nature, to say nothing of occasional terrible revelations of social depths and complications beneath the smooth surface of society, each working itself into some great problem that the race must solve some day.

    But apart from all these finer seeds of thought, which could fructify on no soil not specially prepared for them, Charlotte soon learned how it is that practical life so often seems to compensate for the want of theoretic training, and that "plain people," so called, often safely walk straight on, where philosophers are left to grope in the mist of their own imaginings.  It was not long before Charlotte, as a genuine working woman, found out that, whatever women should be and whatever they may become, they are not at present the best friends to women; that, in the present century at least, few women who have not had personal and enforced experience of earning money, are to be trusted with deciding the rate of payment for work to be done by their own sex; that feminine logic is in such a condition that it is apt to conclude that if the overdriven, untrained, and often morally degraded slave of a slop worker is infamously ill paid by six shillings a week, the educated, trustworthy, and model employee of a lady-philanthropist should go down on her knees in gratitude for a wage of half a guinea.

    "To whom is woman to look for justice, except to her sister woman?" asked one enthusiastic lady who had kept Charlotte waiting for half an hour while she talked to an idle lady of rank, and who then proceeded to dock two pence off Charlotte's modest account, because the last page of the manuscript was not quite covered, though she never thought of paying, as Charlotte never thought of charging, if the last page held only a few lines.

    "Perhaps to her brother man," Charlotte answered, quietly.

    "Oh, man is always our natural enemy," said the lady.

    "I have wondered sometimes how it is that God did not divide the sexes by something at least as wide as the Atlantic," Charlotte observed.

    "So have I," assented the lady, who did not see the sarcasm.  She gave Charlotte a ticket for her lecture of that evening, and Charlotte, having nothing else to do, went to hear it, and smiled secretly at the manifest delight with which the speaker allowed a viscount to escort her to the platform.  Would she have been quite so pleased if he had been even dowager-duchess?  Charlotte concluded that theories need not much be dreaded, while there remains within their own originators a secret principle which turns them into satire.

    But Charlotte saw clearly enough that her sex had certain rights not yet fully attained: the right of more duty and the right of better acquiring powers to do it, and that in this quest, even the scream of the wildest "woman's rights woman" has its place and its use, if only to startle and warn.  She saw that men have no "right" to set their womankind aside from their share of the serious and worthy duty of life; that those family duties which must ever be the first, cannot occupy all women, all their lives; that brothers must not feel their dignity touched if their sisters are bread-winners, or think they have no right to wish to be so because they can be "kept" like stalled oxen, even though they be as helpless to command that such sustenance be continued a single day.

    With fresh food pouring every day into these grooves of thought, Charlotte never found her work monotonous.  She was quite aware that these years of stern labour had been to her a time of more rapid growth than all the years before.

    She and Lucy always had a great deal of talk while they were writing.  Lucy could not have gathered up at first hand as Charlotte did, but she could learn from Charlotte.  She got Charlotte's conclusions, without the terrible throes through which Charlotte reached many of them.  In proportion as the mental tonic was less bitter, of course it was less strengthening, but it was as strong as she could take, sometimes almost stronger.  With all the sisters' tender affection for each other, this disproportion of strength stood in the way of that perfect form of friendship which requires to make no secret, even of moments of depolarization and process.  With all profoundest reverence be it spoken, but perhaps some weaker hearts wavered and sunk, when the same Voice which had said, "Ye believe in God, believe also in me," was heard to cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me"—that very cry which, above all others, has appealed to the innermost depth and loyalty of the stronger natures.

    But Charlotte had one such friend; and a life that counts even one such is a rich life.

    There need but few words in this deeper, understanding love, and Charlotte and her brother Hugh seldom talked together as did Charlotte and Lucy.

    Hugh was only eighteen now; he had been quite a child when the shadows had fallen which had darkened all their lives.  In those first days of darkness, when to the family shame and impoverishment there was added for Charlotte an especial heart-pang, he had seemed the only one who ever found out that she, who was so strong to uphold and cheer the rest, yet crept away sometimes to solitude and darkness.  He had stolen into her chamber, never speaking, never touching her, but just sitting down and waiting until she stretched out her hand to his, and then only nestling a little nearer.  In the voyage from America to England which lay in the history of that period, it was Hugh who always shared Charlotte's midnight walks on deck, long after the mother and Lucy were weeping in their dreams below.

    In all the time that had gone by since, nobody else knew that Charlotte had ever quailed.  Her mother and Lucy must not guess that the strength on which they founded theirs could shake.  In Mrs. Withers it would have unloosed a stream of self-pity and maternal bewailing that would for a time have utterly swamped the cheerfulness that was growing over the black morass of their trial.

    Hugh's little room was his elder sister's sanctuary.  There she went that sad evening when she found that the writer of the sweet poems which had thrilled her as she copied them, was but an unhappy soul who had failed in every duty that makes womanhood holy.  There she went on the anniversaries of her broken-off engagement.  There, too, she repaired at those strange times so familiar to most deeper souls, when with no fresh outward cause, a cloud sweeps down on life, like a November fog, shutting out the heavens and the hills, and defiling the path we tread, till heart is sick and foot is weary.

    Generally she said nothing.  She had never gone beyond the laconic remark that "she was in the dumps."  It was enough just to sit down beside Hugh's desk, and listen to the scratch, scratch of his pen, as he added up his rows of figures, and meet his eyes as every now and then he looked up and smiled.  That always presently brought back her faith—her restful confidence in the great depth of love and wisdom lying below the storms of time and fate, and made the little trouble or failure of the day show—in its reality the mere falling off of a chrysalis,—that the thought or the effort within may rise into higher form.  Once or twice a few tears had come, as the tension of lonely agony relaxed.  But Hugh never said a word.  Only, if possible, he generally left off working, and asked her to come with him for a walk.  They used to go to Tower Hill and look down on the river; to St. Paul's Churchyard, and see the cathedral in the moonlight; and Charlotte always came home, as she herself would have put it, "in her right mind."  She could not explain the spell.  She only knew that no spiritual Abana or Pharphar, no eloquent poet or preacher, no new sights or wonderful sounds, could have brought the healing that lay in those few moments of silent sympathy, and in the simple cheer of their twilight stroll.

    Charlotte did not go to Hugh's room only when she was sad.  She went straight there when, on the evening after she had sent the flowers to Mrs. Torpichen, old Betsey brought a note conveying that lady's compliments and thanks, and an invitation to Miss Withers to take tea at Number One on the following evening, and bring her brother or sister with her.

    She had not expected such a result, and it almost startled her, as aims fulfilled before our anticipation do startle us.  Would it be really honest to visit a house where it was not known that her dead father's memory was blackened by a charge of fraud and forgery?  Was she really doing what was best for Hugh and Lucy, or might they not presently learn bitter lessons which should shut them up in a soul-solitude and cynicism far more terrible than mere social seclusion?  And yet how delighted Lucy was, and how pleasant it was to hear her break off with natural girlish chatter, baying that she thought she should let her hair down in curls, and trim her best frock with some crochet of her own making.  Charlotte felt even her own heart beat quicker.  However concentrated has been our experience, life can never possibly be quite finished for us at six-and-twenty.

    She went off to Hugh's chamber, leaving Lucy standing before the little square looking glass in their writing room, with her hair loosened in a sunny shower about her shoulders.  Charlotte wanted to be with somebody whose soul would reflect back her own mingled feelings blended into form and purpose.

    Having been very busy, she had not visited Hugh at his work for two or three weeks.  She found the room very strongly lighted, but she did not notice that at first.

    "Actually an invitation to take tea next door," she cried.  "The boy helps our Lucy in the street, I send Mrs. Torpichen a bunch of flowers, and lo, an acquaintanceship is struck up!  The world is not a very cold, closed world, after all; is it, Hugh?"

    "It is always as kind as it can be," said Hugh.  And Charlotte knew that, like herself, he was thinking that it needs a great strength to accept the world's kindness as far as it can give it, and yet go cheerily on to the regions where it cannot follow.

    "This life is dull for Lucy," Charlotte said.  "A change and more society will be better for her."

    "It will be better for us all," Hugh answered.

    "I don't know that it will give much pleasure to me," Charlotte said again.

    "You have never considered whether anything was pleasant to you, but only if it was right and best," answered Hugh.

    And Charlotte looked up at him and thanked him with her eyes.  For his simple words, with rebuke lovingly hidden in praise, had conveyed a truth which is often needed by those who would never shrink from undisguised duty, to wit: that which is generally considered pleasure, in ceasing to be pleasure to them may itself pass over to the domain of sternest duty—a self-sacrifice cunningly hidden in festal wreaths and incense.

    "Young Ramsay is a fine fellow," Hugh went on.  "I've often wished I knew more of him, and could grow more like him."

    "You!" cried Charlotte, with sisterly injustice; "why, you are worth a hundred such."

    Hugh laughed heartily, and shook his head.

    "Would he sit toiling as you do?" said Charlotte.  "Would he give up everything of his own, as you do!"

    "Yes, he would, and be a great deal merrier over it," Hugh persisted.  "I don't give up much.  I'm naturally a quiet, sedentary individual; no other life would suit me better than this."

    "Ah," said Charlotte, startled out of her principle of reserve by her desire to show her brother to himself as she saw him.  "You may be quiet and sedentary, but you would not be less quiet studying Greek than adding figures.  And then your music!  And no time for any of it."

    Something like a spasm of pain flashed over Hugh's face for an instant, and then vanished.

    He only said, "We believe in God, and in immortal life by His will."

    And the quiet voice, simple as were the words, gave back to Charlotte her accustomed vision of the wide sweeps of Eternity, with space enough for all crooked paths to grow straight and for the slowest harvests to ripen.)  And she again felt that the same strength which had been given her for her stern duties, would also uphold her through the puzzles and delays of life.

    There was a short silence, and then Charlotte said:

    "I wish you and Lucy could accept this invitation."

    "But it is given to you," Hugh answered, "and Lucy must go with you.  It does not matter at all.  I get as much good out of it as either of you.  For young Ramsay and I am sure to become friendly, now."

    "Hugh" said his sister, looking up suddenly, "do you think it is good for you to work with such a dreadfully brilliant light?"

    "Brilliant!" he echoed.  "I have been thinking how bad it is.  Night after night I have been turning it higher, but all to no purpose."

    "Do you mean to say that you do not now see that the room is in a blaze of light?" Charlotte asked, almost indignantly.

    "On the contrary," he said, "I had just moved my desk closer to the burner, because I could scarcely see at all."

    Charlotte rose from the low seat she had taken, and as she looked at her brother a strange anxiety crept across her face.

    "Is it only this light that you notice is so bad?" she asked, with a forced carelessness.

    Hugh laughed, in perfect unconsciousness.  "No," he said, "I wonder how mother can endure such poor candles as we have lately, in her parlour."

    A terrible fear had seized on Charlotte's heart.  But she said, quite calmly, "I think you have been working too hard, and by artificial light.  You must have a few days' rest."

    "I can't, just now," Hugh answered.

    "You must rest to-morrow," she said.  "We two shall be taking holiday, and I shall have no enjoyment at all, if I think of you toiling away here.  Be idle for once, Hugh, by way of a treat to me."

    "Very well, then," he replied, laughing.  "And I hope you will consider that if I give up my evening's work for your sake, I make you a present worth about five shillings."

    "My darling, my darling," she cried tenderly; and put her arms around his neck and kissed him in a way that Hugh did not understand at all.


 
CHAPTER V.

The Invitation.


IT might not have deducted much from Lucy Withers's glee had she known that the invitation from Mrs. Torpichen was wholly a suggestion of Will Ramsay's.

    When Charlotte's chrysanthemums appeared on the breakfast table, he had thought it a fit opportunity to throw in a remark about his having "happened to help the younger Miss Withers with her bag, the day before."

    "Well, I'm sure it is very well-bred of them to acknowledge a kindness so nicely," said Mrs. Torpichen.  I must send in something in my turn.  Some of the new-laid eggs we get from the country might be a treat for them, poor things."

    "Why don't you ask them to tea?" Will blurted out; "I should think they'd like that best.  I know I should."

    "Oh, but my dear, we can't ask everybody to tea, just because they know how to behave themselves," said Mrs. Torpichen.  "I often think my little dressmaker is a much better bred woman than many one meets in society, but one would never think of asking her to tea."

    "Why not?" asked undaunted Will.

    "Because it is not usual," answered the grandmamma.

    "But is it wrong?" Will persisted.

    "I can't say it is wrong, my dear," said Mrs. Torpichen; "it would be just queer—what nobody else does."

    "Then if everybody else did wrong, you would not do right, because it would be queer?" inquired Will.

    Grandmamma parried the question.  "Ladies and gentlemen," said she, "cannot be the friends of those who are not ladies and gentlemen.  They may be kind to them, and they should be always particularly courteous and considerate toward their inferiors."  Grandmamma always tagged morals to her arguments, just as she had tagged them to the lessons of Will's and Elizabeth's childhood.

    "I want to know what makes a lady or gentleman!" observed sturdy Will.  "I am sure the Miss Withers I met last night spoke like a lady and behaved like one."

    "I have no doubt they are very well-behaved and well-meaning young people," pursued Mrs. Torpichen dubiously.  "It would not matter so much if it was a question of your acquaintanceship with their brother.  But I have to consider Elizabeth."

    "I mean to be friendly with them myself—if they will let me," said Will, quietly.  Will might argue boisterously and bluntly, but his resolutions always came calmly.  Grandmamma was puzzled: she had not understood these things among the men of her own family.  As she would have-said, "They had been quite different."  She had never doubted that they took ways of their own, but they had always kept them entirely out of sight from their womankind: treating all their little religious and social dogmas with the cheerful acquiescence usually shown to the babblings of babes, Grandmamma felt ready to blame herself for the novel enjoyment she had experienced in Will's inclination to frank confidence.  It might require her to hear things that would not be pleasant to her, and that she would not know what to do with.  She sighed and observed:

    "I fear I made a mistake in bringing you up beside me.  A boy needs a man to manage him."

    "I wish I was under a man's manage," retorted Will, "for if he did not give me more freedom than you do, grandma—I'd take it;" and Will flung out of the room, and presently an odour, not of Araby, revealed that he was busy with what Mr. Torpichen called his "nasty chemicals."

    "What do you think about this, Elizabeth?" asked poor, puzzled Mrs. Torpichen,

    Elizabeth, who had been deep in the perusal of "Sir Charles Grandison," looked up, and asked innocently, "About what, grandmamma?"

    "Hoot, child, are you deaf?" said Mrs. Torpichen, techily.  "Don't you hear that Will wants to ask the Witherses to tea?"

    "Well, grandmamma," Elizabeth answered, "I think we should do so.  It might have a good influence on them.  Our blessings are only given us to be imparted."

    But Mrs. Torpichen heard her granddaughter's magnanimous sentiments only as Elizabeth had heard the discussion between her and Will.  She was reflecting that she must not cross the boy too much that if she gave him his own way a little, he might listen the more when she urged upon him the civil service appointment, for which she had interest.  Might not he be satisfied to "amuse" himself with his engines and chemicals in his spare hours, till he got a wife, when he would be sure to discard all that "rubbish," and settle down to the Times, and a rubber of whist, like any other gentleman?  Yes, she would give Will his way, not because she thought it right, but because she thought it safe.

    She sat down and wrote the note to Charlotte, and actually sent Betty off with it, before she went up stairs and told Will.

    He received the news as coolly and as ungratefully as people usually receive privileges conceded not by right but by policy.  It is poor diplomacy to grant one's will, after first withholding and soiling it.  It is like allowing a nation to resume a province we cannot keep, after we have blighted and impoverished it.  The concession is but a monument of the wrong.

    "Well, I did it to please him," was the poor grandmother's inward comment, "and if he is not pleased, at any rate I have done my best, and I have nothing to reproach myself with."

    "I shan't enjoy any fun now," was Will's own reflection.  "I can't be jolly with people after they've been picked to pieces.  But I must do the best I can, for it won't be fair to give the Withers a dull time because of grandmother's nonsense."

    Many of Mrs. Torpichen's qualms were ended when the two girls came in.  Charlotte did not look "a common person."  She was no longer disguised by cheap and coarse outer garments, moiled and hacked by hard usage in all weathers.  Perhaps the costliest robe would not have set forth her grave beauty and dignity, so well as her plain dark gown, made in one of those simple styles which outlast a score of fashions, and closing about her throat with a frill of thick muslin.  There was something in her composure that actually made Mrs. Torpichen turn with a sense of relief to Lucy, with her flowing curls and her pretty mixture of girlish shyness and delight.

    In truth, Charlotte was so preoccupied that she was quite deadened to the pleasure and pain that might easily have mingled in this first return to the ways and habits of her early girlhood.  All the joys and sorrows of the past, even the stern task which it had set her life, were, just now, all paled before a new terror that was rising within her.  She had made Hugh renew his promise of not working at all that night, and she was secretly resolved that next morning she would make him go with her to the best oculist in London.  Over and over again she said to herself that it was nothing—some mere passing weakness caused by over-exertion—that she only wished to assure herself of this fact, and then must be more watchful of Hugh and all would be well.  But over and over again, something said to her that this was not nothing—that it would not pass; that this very presentiment was a shadow mercifully sent before to prepare her for another blow.  And then she braced up her heart, and bade it be hopeful while it could, for it was a duty which another day might snatch from it.

    Elizabeth, with her ideas of "good influence," had not thought it necessary to dress for people who could not be considered "company"; and somehow Elizabeth looked slack and dim beside Charlotte and Lucy.  She did not know what to talk about.  It could be no use to speak of the "Fairie Queen" or of Sir Philip Sidney to these girls, who would surely take no interest in these subjects, even if they had ever heard their names.  It was useless to expect them to share her enthusiasm about heroes and heroism, for, as grandmamma said, "they must have hard enough work to get their livelihood, poor things!"  She must begin at some point which they were likely to understand, and then try to lead them upwards.  How pleasant it would be to open to them entirely new avenues of elevation and enjoyment!  She began by asking Lucy if she was fond of reading.  To which Lucy replied that she liked it, but did not think she was so fond of it as some people were.

    "Oh, I think you would be if you got nice books," said Elizabeth.  "What kind of books do you like best?"

    "Novels?" suggested Will.

    "I have read hardly any," said Lucy.  "I think I like poetry best, one need only read such little bits to get thoughts that stay in one's mind while one is at work."

    "I adore poetry," said Elizabeth, "and how interesting poets must be.  I daresay that you don't know there was a poet once lived in your house?"

    "What was his name?" asked Charlotte.

    "Tristram—Reginald Tristram," answered Elizabeth.

    "You never heard of him before, did you, Miss Withers?" asked Will.

    "All poets do not attain fame," said Elizabeth.  "Don't you remember Gray's line about 'mute, inglorious Miltons?'"

    "Aren't your ideas rather in a muddle?" asked Will, saucily; "I may be a 'mute, inglorious Milton' for aught you know; but if a man once writes, he is not 'mute,' whether he is a Milton or not.  I don't believe Reginald Tristram even got into print."

    "All poetry is not printed, Will," said Elizabeth.

    "No, indeed," said Charlotte, earnestly.  "All poetry is not even written—just as all lovely scenes and all changing skies are not painted."

    "I reckon you read a good deal, Miss Withers," observed Will, quite deferently.

    "I have read a good deal," answered Charlotte, simply.

    "I like the sort of books that make you do something," added Will, edging his chair a little nearer to her.

    "I think that quality depends as much on the reader as on the book," Charlotte replied, smiling.  Will's healthy, handsome face and frank manner attracted and touched the quiet woman, who knew what was in him and in the world before him so much better than he knew himself.

    "I don't understand literary merits," said Will, humbly, "but I know what I like.  I like books with life in 'em, and where a man does something besides talk and spoon.  You'll not care for Cooper's novels, now, Miss Withers."

    "Indeed I do," she answered.  "I have read nearly all of them, and like them all.  'The Pilot,' is perhaps my favourite."

    "Why, so it's mine," said Will, in ecstasy.  "I didn't think ladies cared for that sort of book!  And do you like Marryat's novels?"

    "Some of them," Charlotte admitted.  "I like 'The Old Commodore,' exceedingly."

    "Well, this is jolly?" was Will's candid comment.  "I've never before got anybody to talk to me about these books, except fellows, and all fellows don't seem to care for them.  Those books make me wish I was on the sea, or in the backwoods cutting down trees, and living a fine free life."

    "What is the use of wishing that, when you are to be a professional man in London?" said Mrs. Torpichen, softly.

    "That isn't settled yet," retorted Will, with a dour change of face and tone which signified more to Charlotte than to anybody else in the room.  And there was a moment's pause, till Will went on:

    "But there are some books that people don't read except to help them to do something, straight off.  A fellow won't read chemistry unless he's making experiments, nor mechanics unless he goes in for machinery.  I suppose you don't take any interest in these things, Miss Withers?"

    "I don't know very much about them," she answered.  "I used to be very much interested in chemical experiments, but that was very long ago, and I fear that the little knowledge I acquired then has grown quite rusty."

    "Oh, if that's all," said Will, "you'll soon rub it up again.  If you'd care for them, I'd show you some nice experiments this evening."

    "You cause horrid smells, and I'm always afraid of something going off and making a mess," expostulated Mrs. Torpichen.

    "You can come up to my laboratory," said Will.  "It has no carpet to spoil.  Anybody who likes can come, and then go away when they are tired."

    "Shall you care to go?" Elizabeth inquired of Lucy.

    "Yes, very much indeed," was the answer, "for I have heard so much about these experiments from Charlotte, but have never seen any myself."

    "Then we will go," said Elizabeth.  "Only I think the laboratory is very disagreeable.  One is afraid to move for fear of doing some mischief.  And then it is all a fuss and a mess for nothing.  If there was any object in it, it would be delightful.  How grand it is to think of Miss Herschel helping the great astronomer in his observatory.  But then Will can't do anything really."

    Nobody could guess that it cost Charlotte an effort to enter Will's little door.  Mrs. Torpichen thought that she was naturally glad of any amusement.  And Elizabeth, who from her own chamber could see something of the barrenness of the Witherses' workroom, said to herself that they could not notice the dinginess of the laboratory.  But indeed, when Charlotte once entered it, she found that it did not too vividly recall the elaborately fitted and kept room in which she had been the interested pupil, and even the proud helper of the lover she lost.  There were the familiar bottles and batteries, the pervading atmosphere; and there all resemblance ended.

    Mrs. Torpichen and Elizabeth and Lucy lingered about awhile, and soon retired.  Elizabeth tempted Lucy away by naming the piano.

    Will was in his element.  Who of us is not delighted to have a hearer who knows enough to enter into our arguments, and yet not so much as to be above our explanations?

    "I wish Elizabeth was like you," he said frankly.  "But she's all for poetry and romance.  She does not care for these things, and I don't care for those."

    "Oh, I should think you like poetry," said Charlotte.

    "Me!" exclaimed Will.  "You would not say so, if you knew me!" he added, with a sort of compunction.  "I'm just a common, practical sort of fellow."

    "Well, isn't poetry practical?" asked Charlotte.  She thought within herself, "Is not poetry the very distilled essence of practical life?" but she would not go into abstract metaphysics; but went on, "for instance, it is called practical to have a home, and care for it and keep it, therefore if a song like 'Home, sweet home,' stirs up many to remember and care for their homes, is not that practical too?"

    "I never thought of it in that light," said Will; "but poets are generally queer, foolish sort of people themselves; now aren't they?"

    Charlotte laughed softly.  "Some poets are despised because they did not make money, or become Lord Mayor, but it is forgotten that they laid up treasure and gained rank of their own special kind.  Some poets are very poor creatures indeed.  But the great poets are generally even very practical in business.  Shakespeare made money, and bought the manor house, and kept very strict accounts."

    "One never thinks of Shakespeare as a poet," said Will thoughtfully.  "Indeed, one does not think of him much, at all.  One thinks of Lady Macbeth and Hamlet, and half forgets he made them.  I haven't read much of Shakespeare," he hastened to confess.  "But I've seen two or three of his plays acted."

    "It is a proof of his greatness that he shows himself only in his work," said Charlotte, "for that is like God himself.  And his work, like Nature, ever keeps an open secret.  For instance, as long as people thought it right to torture and cheat Jews, they fancied Shakespeare thought so too; yet somehow his picture of Shylock made some people think differently, and then it was seen that that was what Shakespeare had meant."

    Will listened reverently; perhaps he did not enter into all her words, but he caught a glimpse of rights and freedom which he had been taught long to regard as sheer rebellion and irreverence.  What! might even such blunt criticism as he was often inclined to give to picture or poem, be a truer veneration than mere consent and praise?  In such case it would be worth going to galleries and reading books.  For unfortunately, the great masters of art or thought, like great liberators, can hardly set men free from other tyrants, without enslaving them to themselves.

    "I sometimes think," Charlotte went on quietly, while Will pottered about, "that we are not quite fair in our use of the word 'poet.'  Poetry is only the expression of somebody's heroic life, or of somebody's sweet or noble thoughts.  Sometimes it is the life or the thoughts of the poet himself, and then the life or the thought is as infinitely higher and more beautiful than the mere language which displays it, as a grand landscape or a glorious sky is beyond the best picture ever made.  What I mean is, that surely no inspiration is so direct as that which breathes in beautiful deeds, and that he who does best is therefore the most inspired man!"

    "I've thought something like that, at times," said Will eagerly; "though I could never have put it so.  I've thought if I'd had a chance among those old knights, I might have made another ballad by giving somebody else something to write about, though I can't make two words clink myself."

    "But you have as good a chance today of making your life worth living and therefore worth telling," said Charlotte.

    "What can a fellow do now?" asked Will, ruefully.

    "Anything," said Charlotte.  It is not what we do, but the spirit in which we do it, which signifies.  What makes the difference between mercenary and patriotic troops?  They both fight: they are both paid.  But the former fight that they may be paid, and the others are paid that they may fight.  Whatever work we do, if we do it, not only just as well as others can compel us to do it, but with our utmost strength and ability, becomes heroic work, and makes the worker a hero.  And I do believe if his strength and ability grow beyond his work, the economy of the universe will soon find it out.  Many heroic occasions lack heroes, but I don't think a hero ever lacked an heroic occasion."

    "But this is called the iron age," said Will.  "It is an age of machinery, and telegraphs and steam engines do seem terribly matter of fact."

    "Why should they?" asked Charlotte.  "May not the fault lie with us and not with them?  Is not vigilance as much the honourable duty of a railway guard as of a sentry?  Is not his post of caring for the safety of his fellow-creatures as good for the exercise of self-conquest and self-forgetfulness as that of any watchman on castles of old?  The dreadful accidents that must happen sometimes, and all the sorrow and misery they bring, should show us what the general dutifulness and efficiency of these people mean."

    "I can see that," said Will, thoughtfully; "but few people notice it—they don't think anything of a man who, as they say, 'merely does his duty.' "

    "And yet that is all that anybody can do," answered Charlotte; "because, whatever comes in our way and within our power, is nothing less or more than merely our duty.'"

    "Ah, but people mean that they merely do the duty for which they are paid," said Will.

    "That is because it is too commonly put that we work for our wages, and not that we take wages that we may work," explained Charlotte; but man is always better than his theories, for whenever we come across anybody who does only that which is in his bond, we are instantly aware of somebody who is not doing his duty.  All social life would stop to-morrow, unless nearly everybody filled, not only the measure of his labour, but pressed it down, and let it run over!"

    "I've sometimes thought that maybe railway guards and engine drivers and such like, who are so careful and so patient with crowds of people going out for their health and pleasure, may be doing God's work as much as missionaries and preachers," said Will, thoughtfully.  "But then grandmother says it is quite a different thing, and whenever clergymen say anything at all about these practical matters, they only say that God will even accept such trifles from those who can give no more."

    "In such a tangled mass as this life is, I do not know how anybody can decide what is a trifle and what is not," Charlotte replied gravely.

    "Oh, but they mean these are just worldly affairs, just what we do with our hands—nothing high or spiritual, don't you see," said Will, shyly.

    "I do not understand how things can be thus separated," Charlotte answered.  "How can the soul show itself, except through the body?  How can we know what any man believes, except by what he does?  The apostle himself was clearly on the side of the proposal, 'I will show thee faith by my works.'  What is religion except it is life?"

    "I wish I could always think so," said Will.  "It would make it a great deal easier for me," he added, with quite unconscious self-praise.  "If I thought it was worshipping God to make a good engine or invent some machine to help people, that would be grand.  I do think it is, myself, sometimes, but when everybody else seems to think it is wicked, I get puzzled, and ready to give it all up."

    "I don't know how it is," he went on, "but I seem doomed to be wicked one way or the other.  I don't believe I'll be a good man if I stay here, at office work.  I'll either be downright wild or I'll be a sleepy drone.  Is it right for me to stay when I know that?  Then when I talk of going away, pioneering somewhere, grandmamma cries, and says it will break her heart, and that it is my duty to stay with Elizabeth.  She did let some of her own sons go away, and she lost sight of the last one who went, and I suppose that makes her nervous; but anyhow, is it right for me to go while she feels so?"

    "It is not right of you to be angry with her for feeling so," said Charlotte, gently.  "It is quite natural in her.  You can't think how much it will cost her to give you up."

    "I'm sure I don't see why it should: I'm only a trouble to her," observed Will, softened.

    "I don't know how it is," he resumed, "but I feel as if I am bound to go out to the Far West of America.  There isn't any reason for it.  None of our people have been there, but I almost feel as if I'd been there myself already, and was fated to return.  It feels as if something was waiting for me to do out there.  Do you think there is anything in these feelings, Miss Withers?"

    "I cannot say I do not," she answered quietly.  I almost think they are what is meant in the Bible, when it is said, 'The Lord called him.'  But if it is indeed the voice of God, then a way will be opened for you to obey, now that your eyes are opened to watch for it.  It is strange that you should be longing to go to the part of the world whence we have come.  We were all born in Wisconsin."

    Will felt a strange thrill as she said that.  It was like the first responding vibration on the chord that he had been long striking; but he only said:

    "I suppose we must go down stairs.  It's too bad of me to have kept you up in this nasty room all this time."

    "I have enjoyed myself exceedingly," was Charlotte's truthful answer.  Her admission to the needs of another life seemed to have given her heart fresh strength to face even its new terror.  For the bitterest wrong that sorrow can do us, is that it is apt to shut us in with itself, Blessed be any necessity or duty which forces back the door!  Charlotte felt that she owed a debt to frank Will Ramsay, and that she had served nobody so much as herself when she had resolved to venture again into a little social life.

    Down in the parlour, Elizabeth had been singing.  Lucy Withers neither played nor sang; her education had been cut short just too soon for accomplishments.  But she had told her hostesses that her sister "used to sing," and so Charlotte was at once invited to perform.  A glance at Elizabeth's music quite explained how Will thought that poetry was out of sympathy with such feelings as he knew himself.  There were old sentimental songs of Mrs. Torpichen's generation.  "Oh, no, we never mention her," or "Poor Mary Anne," and there were newer sentimental songs.  "When the swallows," and "I cannot sing the old songs."  Charlotte tried a different strain, the stirring melody of


"A wet sheet and a flowing sea,
 A wind that follows fast";


and when that was done, she struck up


"Pibroch of Donuil Dhu,
 Pibroch of Donuil!"


and had her reward in Will's brightened face, and enthusiastic comment.

    "That is the style!"

    So ended a very pleasant evening.  Only one person felt a little disappointed, and that was Elizabeth.  She had found no opportunity for being Lady Bountiful, or for "elevating influence."  She could not feel that all the reason for gratulation lay with herself.  She even felt a pang of jealousy as she thought of the deferent and interested tone Will had used toward Miss Withers.  It seemed a positive injustice to herself, that the Withers should be so different to the ordinary girls she had supposed them.  She even had a secret consciousness that in her acquaintance with them the balance of advantage might not be on their side.

    "They are not common people," was Mrs. Torpichen's verdict.  "It is a pity they are so poor; the eldest sister might be an ornament to any class of society.  I'm glad you thought of inviting them, Will," she added diplomatically.

    "The younger one is a pretty little thing," said Will, "but Miss Withers is a brick;" and he thought to himself, "It was well to be Hugh Withers to have such a sister," and then supposed he was breaking the tenth commandment, for though it did not forbid one to covet "one's neighbour's sister," she was certainly included in the clause "or anything that is his."


 
CHAPTER VI.

Darkness.


NEXT day brought its stern duty to Charlotte.

    In persuading Hugh to visit an oculist she did not have so much difficulty as she had feared.  Nor yet did he laugh at her or warn her that she was "fussing."  But he was quite cheerful.

    Mrs. Withers and Lucy made no remark on such an unwonted event as Hugh's staying away from his office and going out in the morning with Charlotte.  It was one feature of the extreme and intimate confidence in which the family lived, that what was not told was never asked.  It was certain to be told when the right time came.  The custom had grown up in the earlier days when Charlotte had been battling sternly and blindly for work, when effort would have been checked or hindered by questions or comments, and failure doubly embittered.

    The brother and sister had scarcely been together in the West End of London by daylight before.  As Charlotte mechanically glanced at the brilliant shops they were passing, there came to her remembrance a poor funeral she had once seen, where the little children following their dead father were pressing forward to see the sweet unfamiliar lane through which they were driving.  And then she thought of the many pleasant holiday sea-side resorts which hundreds never see till they go there to vainly watch some hand-to-hand combat where death conquers.  But Hugh went on talking cheerily.

    It seemed to poor Charlotte as if an atmosphere of doom hung over the great house where their journey ended.  The servant who had admitted them seemed to speak with the consideration due to the fated.  Was it possible that any little children were laughing and playing in the upper chambers?  Did merry guests ever pass up and down the broad staircase?  How cool the place was; how shadowed, how quiet!  Never, to the end of her days, did Charlotte forget that chamber, with its dim turkey carpet, its great mirror, its dark pictures, and the terrible instruments standing here and there.  Sitting there, she knew she would never forget it.  Sitting there, if the passionate hopefulness of love would have permitted it, she could herself have written out the sentence soon to be pronounced.  It is a mercy that it is often so, or we could scarcely forgive the man who told us what God had not told us first.

    The great oculist came in―a bluff middle-aged man.  His minutes were guineas.  He knew at a glance which was his patient, and began asking his quick, pointed questions.  Hugh answered as pointedly.  Charlotte stood aside, and heard the gentler tone creep into the oculist's voice, and knew what it meant!

    "Well," he said, withdrawing the last instrument he had tried, but leaving his hand on Hugh's shoulder, "well."

    "What is to be done?" Hugh asked brightly.

    "Nothing," said the oculist, very kindly; "but if you are careful of yourself it may come on slowly, and you may be much better prepared for it than you are now."  He looked up at Charlotte, but he understood her white face and set lips, and attempted no consolation.  She did not say a word as she opened her purse; but the oculist put his hand over hers.

    "I'm not going to be paid for such work as this," he said.

    "But you must be paid, sir," said Hugh.

    "Very well," he answered; "come and pay me when you are making a fortune in some line you would never have entered upon but for to-day.  That has happened to me before now.  I shall put you down among my debtors, and shall expect to see you again!"

    He shook hands with Hugh: he looked at Charlotte again, and still took no notice of her.

    Once more they were out in the street.  Hugh put his hand through his sister's arm, and she did not heed where he led her, till suddenly the houses ceased, and Hyde Park, with its autumn trees in a soft white mist, lay before them.

    There were few people there at that season of the year.  Hugh turned into a long avenue of young trees.  He must speak to Charlotte now.  She had kept her terrible silence long enough.  And they were alone at last.

    "Lottie!" was all he said.

    "O, Hugh, Hugh," she cried, "what have I done—what have I done? it is I who have brought this on you."

    "Are you quite sure I should not have found out what was my duty without your telling me, Lottie?" her brother asked very quietly.

    "But it was not your duty," she wailed.  "Nobody would have said it was duty!  Perhaps it was only my pride."

    "It was my pride, too," said Hugh.

    "I ought to have been more thoughtful for you," she cried.  "I ought to have renumbered what a boy you were, and what a changed life you were made to live!  And I ought not to have let you go on working as you did, night after night, artificial light, and often not enough of it."

    "You did it yourself," said Hugh, "and it has not harmed you."

    "It was not worth while," she exclaimed again—"my father himself would say it was not worth it."

    Poor Charlotte!  Was there ever a sacrifice which at sometime in its history did not seem too dear?  What great man who has freed a country has not turned disgusted from the bickering and pettiness of its politics to regret the graves which he filled to purchase such freedom?  There must not be too much counting of the cost in our beginnings.  It is well that we cannot see some of the near consequences of our heroisms, or they might remain unperformed.  If we could see all their consequences and the consequences of their consequences, it might have a different effect.

    "If I could only bear it itself," she cried again.  "But I have brought it upon you."

    "You have the hardest part to bear still, Lottie," said Hugh; "for I know myself I would rather this had happened to me than to you, and you have to bear its happening to me.  I don't believe any of us will ever be able to cheat you out of the hardest part, Lottie."

    She was crying now: the horrible spell was broken.

    "I shall begin playing the violin again, Lottie," Hugh went on, cheerfully.  "It seems I am to have leisure for it after all.  You can't think what a trial it was to give that up.  Now I will practise very diligently, and I'll be a help to you yet, and not a burden, Lottie."

    "A burden!" she echoed.  "If you say that again, Hugh, I shall hate you!"

    "Then I think I had better say it again," said Hugh, playfully, "just to see what your hatred is like.  For I have never had anything from you but the truest love."

    "You shall do no more of that horrible accountant-work," said Charlotte, positively.

    "I don't think I will," Hugh assented, cheerfully.  "I'll stick to my practising fancy!  I haven't even touched my violin for more than two years!  My playing made me so dissatisfied, that I thought I had better give it up, as I should have no leisure to improve it.  You see that was all I knew about it, Lottie."

    "Don't trouble yourself about a little more delay in paying off that money for father's sake," he went on again, presently.  "I shall soon make up for that."

    "You need not think about that," said Charlotte, quickly.

    "Yes I must," he answered.  "It gives me hope and ambition."

    "And what will poor mother say!" Charlotte cried, tears bursting out afresh.  "Must she and Lucy know at once?  I wonder if it is quite certain!—if there is no hope?"

    "They must know at once," said Hugh calmly.  "They will learn how to bear it from you.  If you do not think it an unmitigated calamity, they will soon agree with you."

    "I am afraid my much practising will bore you and Lucy terribly at first," he resumed.  "But soon I hope it will be pleasant to hear.  Lottie, I can't expect you to believe how the thought of my return to music reconciles me to my coming blindness.  I think God is shutting my eyes that I may hear better.  I can't see beauty everywhere, as some people seem to see it; but I can hear harmony in everything—even rising out of the discord of a street squabble.  I don't think the Scotch wife spoke metaphorically when she said her husband's step had 'music in it.'  Lottie, I do believe I shall actually see better in my mind, playing and blind, than without music and with my eyes!  Perhaps I shall even get egotistical, and fancy that because my lot suits me, it is privileged beyond others."

    And so the two went home in the tender autumn sunshine, and another great sorrow lay behind them, another hope put in its grave.  But the flowers of peace were springing over it already, and the light on the Everlasting Hills was still sweeter than before.  And Charlotte, with her new terror already growing old and familiar in her heart, found it had but brought fresh strength to her ancient faith that "to-day is better than yesterday."



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