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Chapter XXXII. Christian Murdoch
|Chapter XXXIII. A Seed Sown→|
Christian had never spoken to Murdoch openly of his secret labor. He was always aware that she knew and understood; he had seen her knowledge in her face almost from the first, but they had exchanged no words on the subject. He had never wavered from his resolve since he had made it. Whatever his tasks had been in the day, or however late his return was at night, he did not rest until he had given a certain number of hours to this work. Often Christian and his mother, wakening long after midnight, heard him moving about in his closed room. He grew gaunt and hollow-eyed, but he did not speak of what he was doing, and they never knew whether he was hopeful or despairing.
Without seeing very much of the two women, he still found himself led to think, of them constantly. He was vaguely conscious that since their interview in the graveyard, he had never felt free from Christian Murdoch. More than once her mother's words came back to him with startling force. "She sits and looks on and says nothing. She asks nothing, but her eyes force me to speak."
He knew that she was constantly watching him. Often he looked up and met her glance, and somehow it was always a kind of shock to him. He knew that she was wondering and asking herself questions she could not ask him.
"If I gave it up or flagged," he told himself, "she would know without my saying a word."
There had grown in her a beauty of a dark, foreign type. The delicate olive of her skin and the dense blackness of her eyes and hair caused her to be considered a novelty worth commenting upon by the men of Broxton society, which was of a highly critical nature. She went out a great deal as the spring advanced and began to know the place and people better. She developed a pathetic eagerness to make friends and understand those around her. One day, she went alone to Broxton Chapel and after sitting through one of Mr. Hixon's most sulphurous sermons, came home in a brooding mood.
"Why did you go?" Murdoch was roused to ask.
"I thought," she answered, "it might make me better. I thought I would try."
Not long afterward, when he had gone out of the house and she was left sitting with Mrs. Murdoch, she suddenly looked up from the carpet on which her eyes had been fixed and asked her a question.
"Is it true that I am beginning to be very handsome?" she demanded.
"Yes," Mrs. Murdoch answered, "it is true."
A dark cloud settled upon her face and her eyes fell again.
"I heard some men in the street speak aloud to each other about it," she said. "Do they speak so of all women who are handsome?"
"I don't know," her companion replied, surveying her critically and with some anxiety.
"They used to speak so of—her," she said, slowly. "She was a beautiful woman. They were always telling her of it again and again, and I used to go and look at myself in the glass and be glad that I was thin and dark and ugly and that they laughed at me. I wanted to be hideous. Once, when I was a child, a man said: 'Never mind, she will be a beauty some day—like her mother!' and I flew at him and struck him, and then I ran away to my room and fell down upon my knees and said the first prayer I ever said in my life. I said, 'O God!—if there is a God—strike me dead! O God!—if there is a God—strike me dead!'"
The woman who listened shuddered.
"Am I like—anybody?" she said next.
"I do not know," was the answer.
"I could not tell myself, if I were," she said. "I have watched for it for so long that I should not see it if it had come. I look every day. Perhaps I am and do not know. Perhaps that is why they look at me in the street, and speak of me loud as I go by."
Her voice fell into a whisper. She threw herself upon her knees and laid her head upon the woman's lap.
"Cover me with your arms," she said. "Cover me so that you may not see my face."
She was constantly moved to these strange outbursts of feeling in these days. A few nights later, as he sat at work after midnight, Murdoch fancied that he heard a sound outside his door. He went to it and opened it and found himself confronting the girl as she sat crouched upon the lowest step of the stairway.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I could not go to sleep," she answered. "I could not stop thinking of what you were doing. It seemed as if I should have a little share in it if I were here. Are you,"—almost timidly,—"are you tired?"
"Yes," he answered, "I am tired."
"Are you—any nearer?"
"Sometimes I think so, but so did he."
She rose slowly.
"I will go away," she said. "It would only disturb you to know I was here."
She moved a step upward and then paused uncertainly.
"You told me once," she said, "that there was no reason why I should not be as good and happy as any other woman. Are you sure of what you said?"
"For God's sake, do not doubt in that way," he said.
She stood looking down at him, one hand resting upon the balustrade, her dark eyes wild with some strange emotion.
"I lie awake at night a great deal," she said, "and I am always thinking of what has gone by. Sometimes—lately—I have wished that—I had forgiven her."
"I have wished so too," he answered.
"I know that," she returned. "But I did not and it is too late. Everything is over for her and it is too late. For a long time I was glad, but now—I suppose I am repenting. She did not repent. She suffered, but she did not repent. I think I am repenting."
When he returned to his room he found he could not settle down to work again. He walked up and down restlessly for some time, and at last threw himself upon the bed and lay wide awake thinking in the darkness.
It always cost him a struggle to shut out the world and life and concentrate himself upon his labor in those days. A year before it would have been different, now there was always a battle to be fought. There were dreams to be held at bay and memories which his youth and passion made overwhelming forces.
But to-night, somehow, it was Christian Murdoch who disturbed him. There had been a terrible wistfulness in her voice—a wistfulness mingled with long-repressed fear, which had touched him more than all. And so, when sleep came to him, it happened that her figure stood out alone from all others before him, and was his last thought.
Among those whom Christian Murdoch learned to know was Janey Briarley. She saw her first in the streets, and again in Mrs. Murdoch's kitchen, where she occasionally presented herself, attired in the huge apron, to assist in a professional capacity upon "cleanin' days." The baby having learned to walk, and Mr. Briarley being still an inactive member of the household, it fell upon Janey and her mother to endeavor to add, by such efforts as lay in their power, to their means for providing for the eleven. With the assistance of the apron, Janey was enabled to make herself generally useful upon all active occasions.
"Hoo's a little thing, but hoo's a sharp un," Mrs. Briarley was wont to say. "Hoo can work like a woman. I dunnot know what I'd ha' done wi'out her. Yo' try her, Missus, an' see."
She spent each Saturday afternoon in Mrs. Murdoch's kitchen, and it was not long before Christian drifted into an acquaintance with her. The first time she saw her on her knees before the fire-place, surrounded by black-lead brushes, bath-brick, and "pipe-clay" and vigorously polishing the fender, she stopped short to look at her.
"How old are you?" she asked, after a little while."I'm twelve, goin' on thirteen," was the reply, without any cessation of the rubbing.
The girl leaned against the side of the mantel and surveyed her critically.
"You don't look that old," she said.
"Aye, but I do," returned the child, "i' tha looks at my face. I'm stunted wi' nussin', that's what mak's me so little."
She gave her face a sharp turn upward, that it might be seen.
"I've had enow to mak' me look owd, I con tell thee," she remarked.
The interest she saw in her countenance inspired her. She became comparatively garrulous upon the subject of the family anxieties. "Feyther" figured in his usual unenviable role, and Granny Dixon was presented in strong colors, but finally she pulled herself up and changed the subject with startling suddenness.
"I've seed thee mony a toime afore," she said, "an' I've heerd folk talk about thee. I nivver heerd him say owt about thee, though."
"Whom do you mean?" asked Christian, with a little frown.
"Mester Murdoch. We used to see a good deal on him at th' start, but we dunnot see him so often i' these days. He's gotten other places to go to. Th' quality mak' a good deal on him."
She paused and sat up, polishing brush in hand.
"I dunnot wonder as they say yo're han'some," she volunteered.
"Who says so?" coldly.
"Th' men in th' Works an' th' foak as sees yo' i' th' street. Some on 'em says you're han'somer than her—an' that's sayin' a good bit, yo' know.""'Her' is Miss Ffrench?"
"Aye. Yo' dunnot dress as foine, an' yo're dark-skinned, but theer's summat noice about yo'. I dunnot wonder as they say yo're han'some."
"Never mind talking about that. Tell me about something else."
The termination of the interview left them on sufficiently good terms.
Janey went home with a story to tell.
"She's crossed th' seas," she said, "an' lived i' furrin parts. She's getten queer ways an' she stares at a body—but I loike her fur aw that."
"Been i' furrin parts!" exclaimed Mrs. Briarley. "Bless us! No wonder th' poor thing's a bit heathenish. Hast tha ivver seed her at Chapel, Jane Ann?"
The fact that she had not been seen at chapel awakened grave misgivings as to the possible presence of popery and the "scarlet woman," which objectionable female figured largely and in most unpleasant guise in the discourses of Brother Hixon.
"Theer's no knowin' what th' poor lass has been browt up to," said the good matron, "livin' reet under th' Pope's nose an' nivver darin' to say her soul's her own. I nivver had no notion o' them furrin parts mysen. Gie me Lancashire."
But the next week the girl made her visit to the chapel and sat throughout the sermon with her steadfast black eyes fixed upon the Reverend Mr. Hixon. Once, during a moment of inflammatory eloquence, that gentleman, suddenly becoming conscious of her gaze, stopped with a start and with difficulty regained his equilibrium, though Christian did not flinch at all, or seem to observe his alarm and confusion.
She cultivated Janey with an odd persistence after this. She asked her questions concerning her life and experiences, and always seemed to find her interesting. Often Janey was conscious of the fact that she stood and looked at her for some time with an air of curiosity.
"Do you," she asked her suddenly one day, "do you believe all that man says to you?"
Janey started into a sitting posture, as was her custom when roused in the midst of her labors.
"Eh! bless us! Yes," she exclaimed. "Dunnot yo'?"
Recollections of the "scarlet woman" flashed across her young hearer's mind.
"Art tha a Papist?" she gasped.
"Art tha," Janey asked, breathlessly,—"art tha goin' to be?"
"I don't know."
"An' tha—tha does na believe what Mester Hixon says?"
"What does tha believe?"
She stared up at the dark young face aghast. It was quite unmoved. The girl's eyes were fixed on space.
"Wheer—wheer does tha expect to go when tha dees?"
"I don't know," she said, coldly; "very often I don't care."
Janey dropped her brush and forgot to pick it up."Why, bless thee!" she exclaimed with some sharpness, and also with the manner of one presenting the only practical solution of a difficulty, "tha'lt go to hell, i' tha does na repent!"
The girl turned her eyes upon her.
"Does it all depend on that?" she demanded.
"Aye, to be sure," she replied, testily. "Does na tha know that?"
"Then," said Christian, slowly, "I shall not go to hell for I am repenting."
And she turned about and walked away.