John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXV
We always rose early at Longfield. It was lovely to see the morning sun climbing over One-Tree Hill, catching the larch-wood, and creeping down the broad slope of our field; thence up toward Redwood and Leckington—until, while the dews yet lay thick on our shadowed valley, Leckington Hill was all in a glow of light. Delicious, too, to hear the little ones running in and out, bright and merry as children ought to be in the first wholesome hours of the day—to see them feeding their chickens and petting their doves—calling every minute on father or mother to investigate and enjoy some wonder in farm-yard or garden. And either was ever ready to listen to the smallest of these little mysteries, knowing that nothing in childhood is too trivial for the notice, too foolish for the sympathy, of those on whom the Father of all men has bestowed the holy dignity of parenthood.
I could see them now, standing among the flower-beds, out in the sunny morning, the father's tall head in the centre of the group—for he was always the important person during the brief hour or two that he was able to be at home. The mother close beside him, and both knotted round with an interlaced mass of little arms and little eager faces, each wanting to hear everything and to look at everything— everybody to be first and nobody last. None rested quiet or mute for a second, except the one who kept close as his shadow to her father's side, and unwittingly was treated by him less like the other children, than like some stray spirit of another world, caught and held jealously, but without much outward notice, lest haply it might take alarm, and vanish back again unawares. Whenever he came home and did not see her waiting at the door, his first question was always—"Where's Muriel?"
Muriel's still face looked very bright this morning—the Monday morning after the election—because her father was going to be at home the whole day. It was the annual holiday he had planned for his work-people. This only "dinner-party" we had ever given, was in its character not unlike that memorable feast, to which were gathered the poor, the lame, the halt, and the blind—all who needed, and all who could not return, the kindness. There were great cooking preparations—everything that could make merry the heart of man—tea, to comfort the heart of woman, hard-working woman—and lots of bright pennies and silver groats to rejoice the very souls of youth.
Mrs. Halifax, Jem Watkins, and his Jenny, were as busy as bees all morning. John did his best to help, but finally the mother pleaded how hard it was that the children should miss their holiday-walk with him, so we were all dismissed from the scene of action, to spend a long, quiet two hours, lying under the great oak on One-Tree Hill. The little ones played about till they were tired; then John took out the newspaper, and read about Ciudad Rodrigo and Lord Wellington's entry into Madrid—the battered eagles and the torn and bloody flags of Badajoz, which were on their way home to the Prince Regent.
"I wish the fighting were over, and peace were come," said Muriel.
But the boys wished quite otherwise; they already gloried in the accounts of battles, played domestic games of French and English, acted garden sieges and blockades.
"How strange and awful it seems, to sit on this green grass, looking down on our quiet valley, and then think of the fighting far away in Spain—perhaps this very minute, under this very sky. Boys, I'll never let either of you be a soldier."
"Poor little fellows!" said I, "they can remember nothing but war time."
"What would peace be like?" asked Muriel.
"A glorious time, my child—rejoicings everywhere, fathers and brothers coming home, work thriving, poor men's food made cheap, and all things prospering."
"I should like to live to see it. Shall I be a woman, then, father?"
He started. Somehow, she seemed so unlike an ordinary child, that while all the boys' future was merrily planned out—the mother often said, laughing, she knew exactly what sort of a young man Guy would be—none of us ever seemed to think of Muriel as a woman.
"Is Muriel anxious to be grown up? Is she not satisfied with being my little daughter always?"
Her father drew her to him, and kissed her soft, shut, blind eyes. Then, sighing, he rose, and proposed that we should all go home.
This first feast at Longfield was a most merry day. The men and their families came about noon. Soon after, they all sat down to dinner; Jem Watkins' plan of the barn being universally scouted in favour of an open-air feast, in the shelter of a hay-rick, under the mild blue September sky. Jem presided with a ponderous dignity which throughout the day furnished great private amusement to Ursula, John, and me.
In the afternoon, all rambled about as they liked—many under the ciceroneship of Master Edwin and Master Guy, who were very popular and grand indeed. Then the mother, with Walter clinging shy-eyed to her gown, went among the other poorer mothers there; talked to one, comforted another, counselled a third, and invariably listened to all. There was little of patronizing benevolence about her; she spoke freely, sometimes even with some sharpness, when reproving comment was needed; but her earnest kindness, her active goodness, darting at once to the truth and right of things, touched the women's hearts. While a few were a little wholesomely afraid of her—all recognized the influence of "the mistress," penetrating deep and sure, extending far and wide.
She laughed at me when I told her so—said it was all nonsense—that she only followed John's simple recipe for making his work-people feel that he was a friend as well as a master.
"What is that?"
"To pay attention and consideration to all they say; and always to take care and remember to call them by their right Christian names."
I could not help smiling—it was an answer so like Mrs. Halifax, who never indulged in any verbal sentimentalism. Her part in the world was deeds.
It was already evening, when, having each contributed our quota, great or small, to the entertainment, we all came and sat on the long bench under the walnut-tree. The sun went down red behind us, throwing a last glint on the upland field, where, from top to bottom, the young men and women were running in a long "Thread-the-needle." Their voices and laughter came fairly down to us.
"I think they have had a happy day, John. They will work all the better to-morrow."
"I am quite sure of it."
"So am I," said Guy, who had been acting the young master all day, condescendingly stating his will and giving his opinion on every subject, greatly petted and looked up to by all, to the no small amusement of us elders.
"Why, my son?" asked the father, smiling.
But here Master Guy was posed, and everybody laughed at him. He coloured up with childish anger, and crept nearer his mother. She made a place for him at her side, looking appealingly at John.
"Guy has got out of his depth—we must help him into safe waters again," said the father. "Look here, my son, this is the reason—and it is well not to be 'quite sure' of a thing unless one knows the reason. Our people will work the better, because they will work from love. Not merely doing their duty, and obeying their master in a blind way, but feeling an interest in him and all that belongs to him; knowing that he feels the same in them. Knowing, too, that although, being their superior in many things, he is their master and they his servants, he never forgets that saying, which I read out of the Bible, children, this morning: 'ONE IS YOUR MASTER—EVEN CHRIST, AND ALL YE ARE BRETHREN.' Do you understand?"
I think they did, for he was accustomed to talk with them thus—even beyond their years. Not in the way of preachifying—for these little ones had in their childish days scarcely any so-called "religious instruction," save the daily chapter out of the New Testament, and the father and mother's daily life, which was a simple and literal carrying out of the same. To that one test was brought all that was thought, or said, or done, in our household, where it often seemed as if the Master were as visibly obeyed and followed as in the household which He loved at Bethany.
As to what doctrinal creed we held, or what sect we belonged to, I can give but the plain answer which John gave to all such inquiries— that we were CHRISTIANS.
After these words from the Holy Book (which the children always listened to with great reverence, as to the Book which their parents most loved and honoured, the reading and learning of which was granted as a high reward and favour, and never carelessly allowed, or—horrible to think!—inflicted as a punishment), we ceased smiling at Guy, who in his turn ceased to frown. The little storm blew over, as our domestic storms usually did, leaving a clear, free heaven. Loving one another, of course we quarrelled sometimes; but we always made it up again, because we loved one another.
"Father, I hear the click of the gate. There's somebody coming," said Muriel.
The father paused in a great romp with his sons—paused, as he ever did when his little daughter's soft voice was heard. "'Tis only a poor boy—who can he be?"
"One of the folk that come for milk most likely—but we have none to give away to-day. What do you want, my lad?"
The lad, who looked miserable and scared, opened his mouth with a stupid "Eh?"
Ursula repeated the question.
"I wants Jacob Baines."
"You'll find him with the rest, in front of that hay-rick, over his pipe and ale."
The lad was off like a shot.
"He is from Kingswell, I think. Can anything be the matter, John?"
"I will go and see. No, boys, no more games—I will be back presently."
He went, apparently rather anxious—as was easy to find out by only a glance at the face of Ursula. Soon she rose and went after him. I followed her.
We saw, close by the hay-rick, a group of men, angrily talking. The gossiping mothers were just joining them. Far off, in the field, the younger folk were still dancing merrily down their long line of "Thread-the-needle."
As we approached, we heard sobbing from one or two women, and loud curses from the men.
"What's amiss?" said Mr. Halifax, as he came in the midst—and both curses and sobbings were silenced. All began a confused tale of wrongs. "Stop, Jacob—I can't make it out."
"This lad ha' seen it all. And he bean't a liar in big things—speak up, Billy."
Somehow or other, we extracted the news brought by ragged Billy, who on this day had been left in charge of the five dwellings rented of Lord Luxmore. During the owners' absence there had been a distraint for rent; every bit of the furniture was carried off; two or three aged and sick folk were left lying on the bare floor—and the poor families here would have to go home to nothing but their four walls.
Again, at repetition of the story, the women wept and the men swore.
"Be quiet," said Mr. Halifax again. But I saw that his honest English blood was boiling within him. "Jem"—and Jem Watkins started, so unusually sharp and commanding was his master's tone— "Saddle the mare—quick. I shall ride to Kingswell, and thence to the sheriff's."
"God bless 'ee, sir!" sobbed Jacob Baines' widowed daughter-in-law, who had left, as I overheard her telling Mrs. Halifax, a sick child to-day at home.
Jacob Baines took up a heavy knobbed stick which happened to be leaning against the hay-rick, and eyed it with savage meaning.
"Who be they as has done this, master?"
"Put that bludgeon down, Jacob."
The man hesitated—met his master's determined eye—and obeyed him, meek as a lamb.
"But what is us to do, sir?"
"Nothing. Stay here till I return—you shall come to no harm. You will trust me, my men?"
They gathered round him—those big, fierce-looking fellows, in whom was brute force enough to attack or resist anything—yet he made them listen to reason. He explained as much as he could of the injustice which had apparently been done them—injustice which had overstepped the law, and could only be met by keeping absolutely within the law.
"It is partly my fault, that I did not pay the rent to-day—I will do so at once. I will get your goods back to-night, if I can. If not, you hale fellows can rough it, and we'll take the women and children in till morning—can we not, love?"
"Oh, readily!" said the mother. "Don't cry, my good women. Mary Baines, give me your baby. Cheer up, the master will set all right!"
John smiled at her in fond thanks—the wife who hindered him by no selfishness or weakness, but was his right hand and support in everything. As he mounted, she gave him his whip, whispering—
"Take care of yourself, mind. Come back as soon as you can."
And lingeringly she watched him gallop down the field.
It was a strange three hours we passed in his absence. The misty night came down, and round about the house crept wailing the loud September wind. We brought the women into the kitchen—the men lit a fire in the farm-yard, and sat sullenly round it. It was as much as I could do to persuade Guy and Edwin to go to bed, instead of watching that "beautiful blaze." There, more than once, I saw the mother standing, with a shawl over her head, and her white gown blowing, trying to reason into patience those poor fellows, savage with their wrongs.
"How far have they been wronged, Phineas? What is the strict law of the case? Will any harm come to John for interfering?"
I told her, no, so far as I knew. That the cruelty and illegality lay in the haste of the distraint, and in the goods having been carried off at once, giving no opportunity of redeeming them. It was easy to grind the faces of the poor, who had no helper.
"Never mind; my husband will see them righted—at all risks."
"But Lord Luxmore is his landlord."
She looked troubled. "I see what you mean. It is easy to make an enemy. No matter—I fear not. I fear nothing while John does what he feels to be right—as I know he will; the issue is in higher hands than ours or Lord Luxmore's. But where's Muriel?"
For as we sat talking, the little girl—whom nothing could persuade to go to bed till her father came home—had slipped from my hand, and gone out into the blustering night. We found her standing all by herself under the walnut-tree.
"I wanted to listen for father. When will he come?"
"Soon, I hope," answered the mother, with a sigh. "You must not stay out in the cold and the dark, my child."
"I am not cold, and I know no dark," said Muriel, softly.
And thus so it was with her always. In her spirit, as in her outward life, so innocent and harmless, she knew no dark. No cold looks—no sorrowful sights—no winter—no age. The hand laid upon her clear eyes pressed eternal peace down on her soul. I believe she was, if ever human being was, purely and entirely happy. It was always sweet for us to know this—it is very sweet still, Muriel, our beloved!
We brought her within the house, but she persisted in sitting in her usual place, on the door-sill, "waiting" for her father. It was she who first heard the white gate swing, and told us he was coming.
Ursula ran down to the stream to meet him.
When they came up the path, it was not alone—John was helping a lame old woman, and his wife carried in her arms a sick child, on whom, when they entered the kitchen, Mary Baines threw herself in a passion of crying.
"What have they been doing to 'ee, Tommy?—'ee warn't like this when I left 'ee. Oh, they've been killing my lad, they have!"
"Hush!" said Mrs. Halifax; "we'll get him well again, please God. Listen to what the master's saying."
He was telling to the men who gathered round the kitchen-door the results of his journey.
It was—as I had expected from his countenance the first minute he appeared—fruitless. He had found all things at Kingswell as stated. Then he rode to the sheriff's; but Sir Ralph was absent, sent for to Luxmore Hall on very painful business.
"My friends," said the master, stopping abruptly in his narrative, "for a few hours you must make up your minds to sit still and bear it. Every man has to learn that lesson at times. Your landlord has- -I would rather be the poorest among you than Lord Luxmore this night. Be patient; we'll lodge you all somehow. To-morrow I will pay your rent—get your goods back—and you shall begin the world again, as my tenants, not Lord Luxmore's."
"Hurrah!" shouted the men, easily satisfied; as working people are, who have been used all their days to live from hand to mouth, and to whom the present is all in all. They followed the master, who settled them in the barn; and then came back to consult with his wife as to where the women could be stowed away. So, in a short time, the five homeless families were cheerily disposed of—all but Mary Baines and her sick boy.
"What can we do with them?" said John, questioningly to Ursula.
"I see but one course. We must take him in; his mother says hunger is the chief thing that ails the lad. She fancies that he has had the measles; but our children have had it too, so there's no fear. Come up-stairs, Mary Baines."
Passing, with a thankful look, the room where her own boys slept, the good mother established this forlorn young mother and her two children in a little closet outside the nursery door; cheered her with comfortable words; helped her ignorance with wise counsels—for Ursula was the general doctress of all the poor folk round. It was almost midnight before she came down to the parlour where John and I sat, he with little Muriel asleep in his arms. The child would gladly have slumbered away all night there, with the delicate, pale profile pressed close into his breast.
"Is all right, love? How tired you must be!" John put his left arm round his wife as she came and knelt by him, in front of the cheerful fire.
"Tired? Oh, of course; but you can't think how comfortable they are up-stairs. Only poor Mary Baines does nothing but cry, and keep telling me that nothing ails her lad but hunger. Are they so very poor?"
John did not immediately answer; I fancied he looked suddenly uneasy, and imperceptibly pressed his little girl closer to him.
"The lad seems very ill. Much worse than our children were with measles."
"Yet how they suffered, poor pets! especially Walter. It was the thought of them made me pity her so. Surely I have not done wrong?"
"No—love; quite right and kind. Acting so, I think one need not fear. See, mother, how soundly Muriel sleeps. It's almost a pity to waken her—but we must go to bed now."
"Stay one minute," I said. "Tell us, John—I quite forgot to ask till now—what is that 'painful business' you mentioned, which called the sheriff to Lord Luxmore's?"
John glanced at his wife, leaning fondly against him, her face full of sweet peace, then at his little daughter asleep, then round the cheerful fire-lit room, outside which the autumn night-wind went howling furiously.
"Love, we that are so happy, we must not, dare not condemn."
She looked at him with a shocked inquiry. "You don't mean—No; it is impossible!"
"It is true. She has gone away."
Ursula sank down, hiding her face. "Horrible! And only two days since she was here, kissing our children."
We all three kept a long silence; then I ventured to ask when she went away?
"This morning, early. They took—at least, Mr. Vermilye did—all the property of Lord Luxmore's that he could lay his hands upon—family jewels and money to a considerable amount. The earl is pursuing him now, not only as his daughter's seducer, but as a swindler and a thief."
"And Richard Brithwood?"
"Drinks—and drinks—and drinks. That is the beginning and the end of all."
There was no more to be said. She had dropped for ever out of her old life, as completely as a star out of the sky. Henceforth, for years and years, neither in our home, nor, I believe, in any other, was there the slightest mention made of Lady Caroline Brithwood.
All the next day John was from home, settling the Kingswell affair. The ejected tenants—our tenants now—left us at last, giving a parting cheer for Mr. Halifax, the best master in all England.
Sitting down to tea, with no small relief that all was over, John asked his wife after the sick lad.
"He is very ill still, I think."
"Are you sure it is measles?"
"I imagine so; and I have seen nearly all childish diseases, except— no, THAT is quite impossible!" added the mother, hastily. She cast an anxious glance on her little ones; her hand slightly shook as she poured out their cups of milk. "Do you think, John—it was hard to do it when the child is so ill—I ought to have sent them away with the others?"
"Certainly not. If it were anything dangerous, of course Mary Baines would have told us. What are the lad's symptoms?"
As Ursula informed him, I thought he looked more and more serious; but he did not let her see.
"Make your mind easy, love; a word from Dr. Jessop will decide all. I will fetch him after tea. Cheer up! Please God, no harm will come to our little ones!"
The mother brightened again; with her all the rest; and the tea-table clatter went on merry as ever. Then, it being a wet night, Mrs. Halifax gathered her boys round her knee for an evening chat over the kitchen-fire; while through the open door, out of the dim parlour came "Muriel's voice," as we called the harpsichord. It seemed sweeter than ever this night, like—as her father once said, but checked himself, and never said it afterwards—like Muriel talking with angels.
He sat listening awhile, then, without any remark, put on his coat and went out to fetch the good doctor. I followed him down to the stream.
"Phineas," he said, "will you mind—don't notice it to the mother— but mind and keep her and the children down-stairs till I come back?"
I promised. "Are you uneasy about Mary Baines's lad?"
"No; I have full trust in human means, and above all, in—what I need not speak of. Still, precautions are wise. Do you remember that day when, rather against Ursula's wish, I vaccinated the children?"
I remembered. Also that the virus had taken effect with all but Muriel; and we had lately talked of repeating the much-blamed and miraculous experiment upon her. I hinted this.
"Phineas, you mistake," he answered, rather sharply. "She is quite safe—as safe as the others. I wrote to Dr. Jenner himself. But don't mention that I spoke about this."
"Because to-day I heard that they have had the small-pox at Kingswell."
I felt a cold shudder. Though inoculation and vaccination had made it less fatal among the upper classes, this frightful scourge still decimated the poor, especially children. Great was the obstinacy in refusing relief; and loud the outcry in Norton Bury, when Mr. Halifax, who had met and known Dr. Jenner in London—finding no practitioner that would do it, persisted in administering the vaccine virus himself to his children. But still, with a natural fear, he had kept them out of all risk of taking the small-pox until now.
"John, do you think—"
"No; I will not allow myself to think. Not a word of this at home, mind. Good-bye!"
He walked away, and I returned up the path heavily, as if a cloud of terror and dole were visibly hanging over our happy Longfield.
The doctor appeared; he went up to the sick lad; then he and Mr. Halifax were closeted together for a long time. After he was gone, John came into the kitchen, where Ursula sat with Walter on her knee. The child was in his little white night-gown, playing with his elder brothers, and warming his rosy toes.
The mother had recovered herself entirely: was content and gay. I saw John's glance at her, and then—and then I feared.
"What does the doctor say? The child will soon be well?"
"We must hope so."
"John, what do you mean? I thought the little fellow looked better when I went up to see him last. And there—I hear the poor mother up-stairs crying."
"She may cry; she has need," said John, bitterly. "She knew it all the while. She never thought of our children; but they are safe. Be content, love—please God, they are quite safe. Very few take it after vaccination."
"It—do you mean the small-pox? Has the lad got small-pox? Oh, God help us! My children—my children!"
She grew white as death; long shivers came over her from head to foot. The little boys, frightened, crept up to her; she clasped them all together in her arms, turning her head with a wild savage look, as if some one were stealing behind to take them from her.
Muriel, perceiving the silence, felt her way across the room, and touching her mother's face, said, anxiously, "Has anybody been naughty?"
"No, my darling; no!"
"Then never mind. Father says, nothing will harm us, except being naughty. Did you not, father?"
John snatched his little daughter up to his bosom, and called her for the hundredth time the name my poor old father had named her—the "blessed" child.
We all grew calmer; the mother wept a little, and it did her good: we comforted the boys and Muriel, telling them that in truth nothing was the matter, only we were afraid of their catching the little lad's sickness, and they must not go near him.
"Yes; she shall quit the house this minute—this very minute," said the mother, sternly, but with a sort of wildness too.
Her husband made no immediate answer; but as she rose to leave the room, he detained her. "Ursula, do you know the child is all but dying?"
"Let him die! The wicked woman! She knew it, and she let me bring him among my children—my own poor children!"
"I would she had never come. But what is done, is done. Love, think—if YOU were turned out of doors this bleak, rainy night—with a dying child."
"Hush! hush!"—She sank down with a sob.
"My darling!" whispered John, as he made her lean against him—her support and comfort in all things: "do you think my heart is not ready to break, like yours? But I trust in God. This trouble came upon us while we were doing right; let us do right still, and we need not fear. Humanly speaking, our children are safe; it is only our own terror which exaggerates the danger. They may not take the disease at all. Then, how could we answer it to our conscience if we turned out this poor soul, and HER child died?"
"We will use all precautions. The boys shall be moved to the other end of the house."
I proposed that they should occupy my room, as I had had smallpox, and was safe.
"Thank you, Phineas; and even should they take it, Dr. Jenner has assured me that in every case after vaccination it has been the very slightest form of the complaint. Be patient, love; trust in God, and have no fear."
Her husband's voice gradually calmed her. At last, she turned and clung round his neck, silently and long. Then she rose up and went about her usual duties, just as if this horrible dread were not upon us.
Mary Baines and her children stayed in the house. Next day, about noon, the little lad died.
It was the first death that had ever happened under our roof. It shocked us all very much, especially the children. We kept them far away on the other side of the house—out of the house, when possible- -but still they would be coming back and looking up at the window, at which, as Muriel declared, the little sick boy "had turned into an angel and flown away." The mother allowed the fancy to remain; she thought it wrong and horrible that a child's first idea should be "putting into the pit-hole." Truer and more beautiful was Muriel's instinctive notion of "turning into an angel and flying away." So we arranged that the poor little body should be coffined and removed before the children rose next morning.
It was a very quiet tea-time. A sense of awe was upon the little ones, they knew not why. Many questions they asked about poor Tommy Baines, and where he had gone to, which the mother only answered after the simple manner of Scripture—he "was not, for God took him." But when they saw Mary Baines go crying down the field-path, Muriel asked "why she cried? how could she cry, when it was God who had taken little Tommy?"
Afterwards she tried to learn of me privately, what sort of place it was he had gone to, and how he went; whether he had carried with him all his clothes, and especially the great bunch of woodbine she sent to him yesterday; and above all, whether he had gone by himself, or if some of the "angels," which held so large a place in Muriel's thoughts, and of which she was ever talking, had come to fetch him and take care of him. She hoped—indeed, she felt sure—they had. She wished she had met them, or heard them about in the house.
And seeing how the child's mind was running on the subject, I thought it best to explain to her as simply as I could, the solemn putting off of life and putting on of immortality. I wished that my darling, who could never visibly behold death, should understand it as no image of terror, but only as a calm sleep and a joyful waking in another country, the glories of which eye had not seen nor ear heard.
"Eye has not seen!" repeated Muriel, thoughtfully; "can people SEE there, Uncle Phineas?"
"Yes, my child. There is no darkness at all."
She paused a minute, and said earnestly, "I want to go—I very much want to go. How long do you think it will be before the angels come for me?"
"Many, many years, my precious one," said I, shuddering; for truly she looked so like them, that I began to fear they were close at hand.
But a few minutes afterwards she was playing with her brothers and talking to her pet doves, so sweet and humanlike, that the fear passed away.
We sent the children early to bed that night, and sat long by the fire, consulting how best to remove infection, and almost satisfied that in these two days it could not have taken any great hold on the house. John was firm in his belief in Dr. Jenner and vaccination. We went to bed greatly comforted, and the household sank into quiet slumbers, even though under its roof slept, in deeper sleep, the little dead child.
That small closet, which was next to the nursery I occupied, safely shut out by it from the rest of the house, seemed very still now. I went to sleep thinking of it, and dreamed of it afterwards.
In the middle of the night a slight noise woke me, and I almost fancied I was dreaming still; for there I saw a little white figure gliding past my bed's foot; so softly and soundlessly—it might have been the ghost of a child—and it went into the dead child's room.
For a moment, that superstitious instinct which I believe we all have, paralyzed me. Then I tried to listen. There was most certainly a sound in the next room—a faint cry, quickly smothered—a very human cry. All the stories I had ever heard of supposed death and premature burial rushed horribly into my mind. Conquering alike my superstitious dread or fear of entering the infected room, I leaped out of bed, threw on some clothes, got a light, and went in.
There laid the little corpse, all safe and still—for ever. And like its own spirit watching in the night at the head of the forsaken clay, sat Muriel.
I snatched her up and ran with her out of the room, in an agony of fear.
She hid her face on my shoulder, trembling, "I have not done wrong, have I? I wanted to know what it was like—that which you said was left of little Tommy. I touched it—it was so cold. Oh! Uncle Phineas! THAT isn't poor little Tommy?"
"No, my blessed one—no, my dearest child! Don't think of it any more."
And, hardly knowing what was best to be done, I called John, and told him where I had found his little daughter. He never spoke, but snatched her out of my arms into his own, took her in his room, and shut the door.
From that time our fears never slumbered. For one whole week we waited, watching the children hour by hour, noting each change in each little face; then Muriel sickened.
It was I who had to tell her father, when as he came home in the evening I met him by the stream. It seemed to him almost like the stroke of death.
"Oh, my God! not her! Any but her!" And by that I knew, what I had long guessed, that she was the dearest of all his children.
Edwin and Walter took the disease likewise, though lightly. No one was in absolute danger except Muriel. But for weeks we had what people call "sickness in the house;" that terrible overhanging shadow which mothers and fathers well know; under which one must live and move, never resting night nor day. This mother and father bore their portion, and bore it well. When she broke down, which was not often, he sustained her. If I were to tell of all he did—how, after being out all day, night after night he would sit up watching by and nursing each little fretful sufferer, patient as a woman, and pleasant as a child play-mate—perhaps those who talk loftily of "the dignity of man" would smile. I pardon them.
The hardest minute of the twenty-four hours was, I think, that when, coming home, he caught sight of me afar off waiting for him, as I always did, at the white gate; and many a time, as we walked down to the stream, I saw—what no one else saw but God. After such times I used often to ponder over what great love His must be, who, as the clearest revelation of it, and of its nature, calls Himself "the Father."
And He brought us safe through our time of anguish: He left us every one of our little ones.
One November Sunday, when all the fields were in a mist, and the rain came pouring softly and incessantly upon the patient earth which had been so torn and dried up by east winds, that she seemed glad enough to put aside the mockery of sunshine and melt in quiet tears, we once more gathered our flock together in thankfulness and joy.
Muriel came down-stairs triumphantly in her father's arms, and lay on the sofa smiling; the firelight dancing on her small white face— white and unscarred. The disease had been kind to the blind child; she was, I think, more sweet-looking than ever. Older, perhaps; the round prettiness of childhood gone—but her whole appearance wore that inexpressible expression, in which, for want of a suitable word, we all embody our vague notions of the unknown world, and call "angelic."
"Does Muriel feel quite well—quite strong and well?" the father and mother both kept saying every now and then, as they looked at her. She always answered, "Quite well."
In the afternoon, when the boys were playing in the kitchen, and John and I were standing at the open door, listening to the dropping of the rain in the garden, we heard, after its long silence, Muriel's "voice."
"Father, listen!" whispered the mother, linking her arm through his as he stood at the door. Soft and slow came the notes of the old harpsichord—she was playing one of the abbey anthems. Then it melted away into melodies we knew not—sweet and strange. Her parents looked at one another—their hearts were full of thankfulness and joy.
"And Mary Baines's little lad is in the churchyard."