Adela did not make her appearance at the breakfast-table next morning, although it was the morning of Christmas Day. And no one who had seen her at dinner on Christmas Eve, would have expected to see her at breakfast on Christmas-morn. Yet although her absence was rather a relief, such a gloom occupied her place, that our party was anything but cheerful. But the world about us was happy enough, not merely at its unseen heart of fire, but on its wintered countenance--evidently to all men. It was not "to hide her guilty front," as Milton says, in the first two--and the least worthy--stanzas on the Nativity, that the earth wooed the gentle air for innocent snow, but to put on the best smile and the loveliest dress that the cold time and her suffering state would allow, in welcome of the Lord of the snow and the summer. I thought of the lines from Crashaw's Hymn of the Nativity--Crashaw, who always suggested to me Shelley turned a Catholic Priest:
"I saw the curled drops, soft and slow,
Come hovering o'er the place's head,
Offering their whitest sheets of snow,
To furnish the fair infant's bed.
Forbear, said I, be not too bold:
Your fleece is white, but 'tis too cold."
And as the sun shone rosy with mist, I naturally thought of the next following stanza of the same hymn:
"I saw the obsequious seraphim
Their rosy fleece of fire bestow;
For well they now can spare their wings,
Since Heaven itself lies here below.
Well done! said I; but are you sure
Your down, so warm, will pass for pure?"
Adela, pale face and all, was down in time for church; and she and the colonel and I walked to it together by the meadow path, where, on each side, the green grass was peeping up through the glittering frost. For the colonel, notwithstanding his last night's outbreak upon the clergy, had a profound respect for them, and considered church-going one of those military duties which belonged to every honest soldier and gentleman. Percy had found employment elsewhere.
It was a blessed little church that, standing in a little meadow church-yard, with a low strong ancient tower, and great buttresses that put one in mind of the rock of ages, and a mighty still river that flowed past the tower end, and a picturesque, straggling, well-to-do parsonage at the chancel end. The church was nearly covered with ivy, and looked as if it had grown out of the churchyard, to be ready for the poor folks, as soon as they got up again, to praise God in. But it had stood a long time, and none of them came, and the praise of the living must be a poor thing to the praise of the dead, notwithstanding all that the Psalmist says. So the church got disheartened, and drooped, and now looked very old and grey-headed. It could not get itself filled with praise enough.--And into this old, and quaint, and weary but stout-hearted church, we went that bright winter morning, to hear about a baby. My heart was full enough before I left it.
Old Mr. Venables read the service with a voice and manner far more memorial of departed dinners than of joys to come; but I sat--little heeding the service, I confess--with my mind full of thoughts that made me glad.
Now all my glad thoughts came to me through a hole in the tower-door. For the door was far in a shadowy retreat, and in the irregular lozenge-shaped hole in it, there was a piece of coarse thick glass of a deep yellow. And through this yellow glass the sun shone. And the cold shine of the winter sun was changed into the warm glory of summer by the magic of that bit of glass.
Now when I saw the glow first, I thought without thinking, that it came from some inner place, some shrine of old, or some ancient tomb in the chancel of the church--forgetting the points of the compass--where one might pray as in the penetralia of the temple; and I gazed on it as the pilgrim might gaze upon the lamp-light oozing from the cavern of the Holy Sepulchre. But some one opened the door, and the clear light of the Christmas morn broke upon the pavement, and swept away the summer splendour.--The door was to the outside.--And I said to myself: All the doors that lead inwards to the secret place of the Most High, are doors outwards--out of self--out of smallness--out of wrong. And these were some of the thoughts that came to me through the hole in the door, and made me forget the service, which Mr. Venables mumbled like a nicely cooked sweetbread.
But another voice broke the film that shrouded the ears of my brain, and the words became inspired and alive, and I forgot my own thoughts in listening to the Holy Book. For is not the voice of every loving spirit a fresh inspiration to the dead letter? With a voice other than this, does it not kill? And I thought I had heard the voice before, but where I sat I could not see the Communion Table.--At length the preacher ascended the pulpit stairs, and, to my delight and the rousing of an altogether unwonted expectation, who should it be but my fellow-traveller of last night!
He had a look of having something to say; and I immediately felt that I had something to hear. Having read his text, which I forget, the broad-browed man began with something like this:
"It is not the high summer alone that is God's. The winter also is His. And into His winter He came to visit us. And all man's winters are His--the winter of our poverty, the winter of our sorrow, the winter of our unhappiness--even 'the winter of our discontent.'"
I stole a glance at Adela. Her large eyes were fixed on the preacher.
"Winter," he went on, "does not belong to death, although the outside of it looks like death. Beneath the snow, the grass is growing. Below the frost, the roots are warm and alive. Winter is only a spring too weak and feeble for us to see that it is living. The cold does for all things what the gardener has sometimes to do for valuable trees: he must half kill them before they will bear any fruit. Winter is in truth the small beginnings of the spring."
I glanced at Adela again; and still her eyes were fastened on the speaker.
"The winter is the childhood of the year. Into this childhood of the year came the child Jesus; and into this childhood of the year must we all descend. It is as if God spoke to each of us according to our need: My son, my daughter, you are growing old and cunning; you must grow a child again, with my son, this blessed birth-time. You are growing old and selfish; you must become a child. You are growing old
and careful; you must become a child. You are growing old and
distrustful; you must become a child. You are growing old and petty,
and weak, and foolish; you must become a child--my child, like the
baby there, that strong sunrise of faith and hope and love, lying in his mother's arms in the stable.
"But one may say to me: 'You are talking in a dream. The Son of God is a child no longer. He is the King of Heaven.' True, my friends. But He who is the Unchangeable, could never become anything that He was not always, for that would be to change. He is as much a child now as ever he was. When he became a child, it was only to show us by itself, that we might understand it better, what he was always in his deepest nature. And when he was a child, he was not less the King of Heaven; for it is in virtue of his childhood, of his sonship, that he is Lord of Heaven and of Earth--'for of such'--namely, of children--'is the kingdom of heaven.' And, therefore, when we think of the baby now, it is still of the Son of man, of the King of men, that we think. And all the feelings that the thought of that babe can wake in us, are as true now as they were on that first Christmas day, when Mary covered from the cold his little naked feet, ere long to be washed with the tears of repentant women, and nailed by the hands of thoughtless men, who knew not what they did, to the cross of fainting, and desolation, and death."
Adela was hiding her face now.
"So, my friends, let us be children this Christmas. Of course, when I say to anyone, 'You must be like a child,' I mean a good child. A naughty child is not a child as long as his naughtiness lasts. He is not what God meant when He said, 'I will make a child.' Think of the best child you know--the one who has filled you with most admiration. It is his child-likeness that has so delighted you. It is because he is so true to the child-nature that you admire him. Jesus is like that child. You must be like that child. But you cannot help knowing some faults in him--some things that are like ill-grown men and women. Jesus is not like him, there. Think of the best child you can imagine; nay, think of a better than you can imagine--of the one that God thinks of when he invents a child in the depth of his fatherhood: such child-like men and women must you one day become; and what day better to begin, than this blessed Christmas Morn? Let such a child be born in your hearts this day. Take the child Jesus to your bosoms, into your very souls, and let him grow there till he is one with your every thought, and purpose, and hope. As a good child born in a family will make the family good; so Jesus, born into the world, will make the world good at last. And this perfect child, born in your hearts, will make your hearts good; and that is God's best gift to you.
"Then be happy this Christmas Day; for to you a child is born. Childless women, this infant is yours--wives or maidens. Fathers and mothers, he is your first-born, and he will save his brethren. Eat and drink, and be merry and kind, for the love of God is the source of all joy and all good things, and this love is present in the child Jesus.--Now, to God the Father, &c."
"O my baby Lord!" I said in my heart; for the clergyman had forgotten me, and said nothing about us old bachelors.
Of course this is but the substance of the sermon; and as, although I came to know him well before many days were over, he never lent me his manuscript--indeed, I doubt if he had any--my report must have lost something of his nervous strength, and be diluted with the weakness of my style.
Although I had been attending so well to the sermon, however, my eyes had now and then wandered, not only to Adela's face, but all over the church as well; and I could not help observing, a few pillars off, and partly round a corner, the face of a young man--well, he was about thirty, I should guess--out of which looked a pair of well-opened hazel eyes, with rather notable eyelashes. Not that I, with my own weak pair of washed-out grey, could see the eyelashes at that distance, but I judged it must be their length that gave a kind of feminine cast to the outline of the eyes. Nor should I have noticed the face itself much, had it not seemed to me that those eyes were pursuing a very thievish course; for, by the fact that, as often as I looked their way, I saw the motion of their withdrawal, I concluded that they were stealing glances at, certainly not from, my adopted niece, Adela. This made me look at the face more attentively. I found it a fine, frank, brown, country-looking face.--Could it have anything to do with Adela's condition? Absurd! How could such health and ruddy life have anything to do with the worn pallor of her countenance? Nor did a single glance on the part of Adela reveal that she was aware of the existence of the neighbouring observatory. I dismissed the idea. And I was right, as time showed.
We remained to the Communion. When that was over, we walked out of the old dark-roofed church, Adela looking as sad as ever, into the bright cold sunshine, which wrought no change on her demeanour. How could it, if the sun of righteousness, even, had failed for the time? And there, in the churchyard, we found Percy, standing astride of an infant's grave, with his hands in his trowser-pockets, and an air of condescending satisfaction on his countenance, which seemed to say to the dead beneath him:
"Pray, don't apologize. I know you are disagreeable; but you can't help it, you know;"
--and to the living coming out of church:
"Well, have you had your little whim out?"
But what he did say, was to Adela:
"A merry Christmas to you, Addie! Won't you lean on me? You don't look very stunning."
But her sole answer was to take my arm; and so we walked towards the Swanspond.
"I suppose that's what they call Broad Church," said the colonel.
"Generally speaking, I prefer breadth," I answered, vaguely. "Do you think that's Broad Church?"
"Oh! I don't know. I suppose it's all right. He ran me through, anyhow."
"I hope it is all right," I answered. "It suits me."
"Well, I'm sure you know ten times better than I do. He seems a right sort of man, whatever sort of clergyman he may be."
"Who is he--can you tell me?"
"Why, don't you know? That's our new curate, Mr. Armstrong."
"Curate!" I exclaimed. "A man like that! And at his years too! He must be forty. You astonish me!"
"Well, I don't know. He may be forty. He is our curate; that is all I can answer for."
"He was my companion in the train last night."
"Ah! that accounts for it. You had some talk with him, and found him out? I believe he is a superior sort of man, too. Old Mr. Venables seems to like him."
"All the talk I have had with him passed between pulpit and pew this morning," I replied; "for the only words that we exchanged last night were, 'Will you join me in a cigar?' from him, and 'With much pleasure,' from me."
"Then, upon my life, I can't see what you think remarkable in his being a curate. Though I confess, as I said before, he ran me through the body. I'm rather soft-hearted, I believe, since Addie's illness."
He gave her a hasty glance. But she took no notice of what he had said; and, indeed, seemed to have taken no notice of the conversation--to which Percy had shown an equal amount of indifference. A very different indifference seemed the only bond between them.
When we reached home, we found lunch ready for us, and after waiting a few minutes for Adela, but in vain, we seated ourselves at the table.
"Awfully like Sunday, and a cold dinner, uncle!" remarked Percy.
"We'll make up for that, my boy, when dinner-time comes."
"You don't like Sunday, then, Mr. Percy?" I said.
"A horrid bore," he answered. "My old mother made me hate it. We had to go to church twice; and that was even worse than her veal-broth. But the worst of it is, I can't get it out of my head that I ought to be there, even when I'm driving tandem to Richmond."
"Ah! your mother will be with us on Sunday, I hope, Percy."
"Good heavens, uncle! Do you know what you are about? My mother here! I'll just ring the bell, and tell James to pack my traps. I won't stand it. I can't. Indeed I can't."
He rose as he spoke. His uncle caught him by the arm, laughing, and made him sit down again; which he did with real or pretended reluctance.
"We'll take care of you, Percy. Never mind.--Don't be a fool," he added, seeing the evident annoyance of the young fellow.
"Well, uncle, you ought to have known better," said Percy, sulkily, as, yielding, he resumed his seat, and poured himself out a bumper of claret, by way of consolation.
He had not been much of a companion before: now he made himself almost as unpleasant as a young man could be, and that is saying a great deal. One, certainly, had need to have found something beautiful at church, for here was the prospect of as wretched a Christmas dinner as one could ever wish to avoid.
When Percy had drunk another bumper of claret, he rose and left the room; and my host, turning to me, said:
"I fear, Smith, you will have anything but a merry Christmas, this year. I hoped the sight of you would cheer up poor Adela, and set us all right. And now Percy's out of humour at the thought of his mother coming, and I'm sure I don't know what's to be done. We shall sit over our dinner to-day like four crows over a carcass. It's very good of you to stop."
"Oh! never mind me," I said. "I, too, can take care of myself. But has Adela no companions of her own age?"
"None but Percy. And I am afraid she has got tired of him. He's a good fellow, though a bit of a puppy. That'll wear off. I wish he would take a fancy to the army, now."
I made no reply, but I thought the more. It seemed to me that to get tired of Percy was the most natural proceeding that could be adopted with regard to him and all about him.
But men judge men--and women, women--hardly.
"I'll tell you what I will do," said the colonel. "I will ask Mr. Bloomfield, the schoolmaster, and his wife, to dine with us. It's no use asking anybody else that I can think of. But they have no family, and I dare say they can put off their own Christmas dinner till to-morrow. They have but one maid, and she can dine with our servants. They are very respectable people, I assure you."
The colonel always considered his plans thoroughly, and then acted on them at once. He rose.
"A capital idea!" I said, as he disappeared. I went up to look for Adela. She was not in the drawing-room. I went up again, and tapped at the door of her room.
"Come in," she said, in a listless voice.
"How are you now, Adela?" I asked.
"Thank you, uncle," was all her reply.
"What is the matter with you, my child?" I said, and drew a chair near hers. She was half reclining, with a book lying upside down on her knee.
"I would tell you at once, uncle, if I knew," she answered very sweetly, but as sadly. I believe I am dying; but of what I have not the smallest idea."
"Nonsense!" I said. "You're not dying."
"You need not think to comfort me that way, uncle; for I think I would rather die than not."
"Is there anything you would like?"
"Nothing. There is nothing worth liking, but sleep."
"Don't you sleep at night?"
"Not well.--I will tell you all I know about it.--Some six weeks ago, I woke suddenly one morning, very early--I think about three o'clock--with an overpowering sense of blackness and misery. Everything I thought of seemed to have a core of wretchedness in it. I fought with the feeling as well as I could, and got to sleep again. But the effect of it did not leave me next day. I said to myself: 'They say "morning thoughts are true." What if this should be the true way of looking at things?' And everything became grey and dismal about me. Next morning it was just the same. It was as if I had waked in the middle of some chaos over which God had never said: 'Let there be light.' And the next day was worse. I began to see the bad in everything--wrong motives--and self-love--and pretence, and everything mean and low. And so it has gone on ever since. I wake wretched every morning. I am crowded with wretched, if not wicked thoughts, all day. Nothing seems worth anything. I don't care for anything."
"But you love somebody?"
"I hope I love my father. I don't know. I don't feel as if I did."
"And there's your cousin Percy." I confess this was a feeler I put out.
"Percy's a fool!" she said, with some show of indignation, which I hailed, for more reasons than one.
"But you enjoyed the sermon this morning, did you not?"
"I don't know. I thought it very poetical and very pretty; but whether it was true--how could I tell? I didn't care. The baby he spoke about was nothing to me. I didn't love him, or want to hear about him. Don't you think me a brute, uncle?"
"No, I don't. I think you are ill. And I think we shall find something that will do you good; but I can't tell yet what. You will dine with us, won't you?"
"Oh! yes, if you and papa wish it."
"Of course we do. He is just gone to ask Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield to dine with us."
"You don't mind, do you?"
"Oh! no. They are nice people. I like them both."
"Well, I will leave you, my child. Sleep if you can. I will go and walk in the garden, and think what can be done for my little girl."
"Thank you, uncle. But you can't do me any good. What if this should be the true way of things? It is better to know it, if it is."
"Disease couldn't make a sun in the heavens. But it could make a man blind, that he could not see it."
"I don't understand you."
"Never mind. It's of no consequence whether you do or not. When you see light again, you will believe in it. For light compels faith."
"I believe in you, uncle; I do."
"Thank you, my dear. Good-bye."
I went round by the stables, and there found the colonel, talking to his groom. He had returned already from his call, and the Bloomfields were coming. I met Percy next, sauntering about, with a huge cigar in his mouth.
"The Bloomfields are coming to dinner, Mr. Percy," I said.
"Who are they?"
"The schoolmaster and his wife."
"Just like that precious old uncle of mine! Why the deuce did he ask me this Christmas? I tell you what, Mr. Smith--I can't stand it. There's nothing, not even cards, to amuse a fellow. And when my mother comes, it will be ten times worse. I'll cut and run for it."
"Oh! no, you won't," I said. But I heartily wished he would. I confess the insincerity, and am sorry for it.
"But what the devil does my mother want, coming here?"
"I haven't the pleasure of knowing your mother, so I cannot tell what the devil she can want, coming here."
He walked away.