The Christmas dinner.
Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield arrived; the former a benevolent, grey-haired man, with a large nose and small mouth, yet with nothing of the foolish look which often accompanies such a malconformation; and the latter a nice-looking little body, middle-aged, rather more; with half-grey curls, and a cap with black ribbons. Indeed, they were both in mourning. Mr. Bloomfield bore himself with a kind of unworldly grace, and Mrs. Bloomfield with a kind of sweet primness. The schoolmaster was inclined to be talkative; nor was his wife behind him; and that was just what we wanted.
"I am sorry to see you in mourning," said the colonel to Mr. Bloomfield, during dessert. "I trust it is for no near relative."
"No relative at all, sir. But a boy of mine, to whom, through God's grace, I did a good turn once, and whom, as a consequence, I loved ever after."
"Tell Colonel Cathcart the story, James," said his wife. "It can do no harm to anybody now; and you needn't mention names, you know. You would like to hear it, wouldn't you, sir?"
"Very much indeed," answered the colonel.
"Well, sir," began the schoolmaster, "there's not much in it to you, I fear; though there was a good deal to him and me. I was usher in a school at Peckham once. I was but a lad, but I tried to do my duty; and the first part of my duty seemed to me, to take care of the characters of the boys. So I tried to understand them all, and their ways of looking at things, and thinking about them.
"One day, to the horror of the masters, it was discovered that a watch belonging to one of the boys had been stolen. The boy who had lost it was making a dreadful fuss about it, and declaring he would tell the police, and set them to find it. The moment I heard of it, my suspicion fell, half by knowledge, half by instinct, upon a certain boy. He was one of the most gentlemanly boys in the school; but there was a look of cunning in the corner of his eye, and a look of greed in the corner of his mouth, which now and then came out clear enough to me. Well, sir, I pondered for a few moments what I should do. I wanted to avoid calling any attention to him; so I contrived to make the worst of him in the Latin class--he was not a bad scholar--and so keep him in when the rest went to play. As soon as they were gone, I took him into my own room, and said to him, 'Fred, my boy, you knew your lesson well enough; but I wanted you here. You stole Simmons's watch.'"
"You had better mention no names, Mr. Bloomfield," interrupted his wife.
"I beg your pardon, my dear. But it doesn't matter. Simmons was eaten by a tiger, ten years ago. And I hope he agreed with him, for he never did with anybody else I ever heard of. He was the worst boy I ever knew.--'You stole Simmons's watch. Where is it?' He fell on his knees, as white as a sheet. 'I sold it,' he said, in a voice choked with terror. 'God help you, my boy!' I exclaimed. He burst out crying. 'Where did you sell it?' He told me. 'Where's the money you got for it?' 'That's all I have left,' he answered, pulling out a small handful of shillings and halfcrowns. 'Give it me,' I said. He gave it me at once. 'Now you go to your lesson, and hold your tongue.' I got a sovereign of my own to make up the sum--I could ill spare it, sir, but the boy could worse spare his character--and I hurried off to the place where he had sold the watch. To avoid scandal, I was forced to pay the man the whole price, though I daresay an older man would have managed better. At all events, I brought it home. I contrived to put it in the boy's own box, so that the whole affair should appear to have been only a trick, and then I gave the culprit a very serious talking-to. He never did anything of the sort again, and died an honourable man and a good officer, only three months ago, in India. A thousand times over did he repay me the money I had spent for him, and he left me this gold watch in his will--a memorial, not so much of his fault, as of his deliverance from some of its natural consequences."
The schoolmaster pulled out the watch as he spoke, and we all looked at it with respect.
It was a simple story and simply told. But I was pleased to see that Adela took some interest in it. I remembered that, as a child, she had always liked better to be told a story than to have any other amusement whatever. And many a story I had had to coin on the spur of the moment for the satisfaction of her childish avidity for that kind of mental bull's-eye.
When we gentlemen were left alone, and the servants had withdrawn, Mr. Bloomfield said to our host:
"I am sorry to see Miss Cathcart looking so far from well, colonel. I hope you have good advice for her."
"Dr. Wade has been attending her for some time, but I don't think he's doing her any good."
"Don't you think it might be well to get the new doctor to see her? He's quite a remarkable man, I assure you."
"What! The young fellow that goes flying about the country in boots and breeches?"
"Well, I suppose that is the man I mean. He's not so very young though--he's thirty at least. And for the boots and breeches--I asked him once, in a joking way, whether he did not think them rather unprofessional. But he told me he saved ever so much time in open weather by going across the country. 'And,' said he, 'if I can see patients sooner, and more of them, in that way, I think it is quite professional. The other day,' he said, 'I was sent for, and I went straight as the crow flies, and I beat a little baby only by five minutes after all.' Of course after that there was nothing more to say."
"He has very queer notions, hasn't he?"
"Yes, he has, for a medical man. He goes to church, for instance."
"I don't count that a fault."
"Well, neither do I. Rather the contrary. But one of the profession here says it is for the sake of being called out in the middle of the service."
"Oh! that is stale. I don't think he would find that answer. But it is a pity he is not married."
"So it is. I wish he were. But that is a fault that may be remedied some day. One thing I know about him is, that when I called him in to see one of my boarders, he sat by his bedside half an hour, watching him, and then went away without giving him any medicine."
"I don't see the good of that. What do you make of that? I call it very odd."
"He said to me: 'I am not sure what is the matter with him. A wrong medicine would do him more harm than the right one would do him good. Meantime he is in no danger. I will come and see him to-morrow morning.' Now I liked that, because it showed me that he was thinking over the case. The boy was well in two days. Not that that indicates much. All I say is, he is not a common man."
"I don't like to dismiss Dr. Wade."
"No; but you must not stand on ceremony, if he is doing her no good. You are judge enough of that."
I thought it best to say nothing; but I heartily approved of all the honest gentleman said; and I meant to use my persuasion afterwards, if necessary, to the same end; for I liked all he told about the new doctor. I asked his name.
"Mr. Armstrong," answered the schoolmaster.
"Armstrong--" I repeated. "Is not that the name of the new curate?"
"To be sure. They are brothers. Henry, the doctor, is considerably younger than the curate."
"Did the curate seek the appointment because the doctor was here before him?"
"I suppose so. They are much attached to each other."
"If he is at all equal as a doctor to what I think his brother is as a preacher, Purleybridge is a happy place to possess two such healers," I said.
"Well, time will show," returned Mr. Bloomfield.
All this time Percy sat yawning, and drinking claret. When we joined the ladies, we found them engaged in a little gentle chat. There was something about Mrs. Bloomfield that was very pleasing. The chief ingredient in it was a certain quaint repose. She looked as if her heart were at rest; as if for her everything, was right; as if she had a little room of her own, just to her mind, and there her soul sat, looking out through the muslin curtains of modest charity, upon the world that went hurrying and seething past her windows. When we entered--
"I was just beginning to tell Miss Cathcart," she said, "a curious history that came under my notice once. I don't know if I ought though, for it is rather sad."
"Oh! I like sad stories," said Adela.
"Well, there isn't much of romance in it either, but I will cut it short now the gentlemen are come. I knew the lady. She had been married some years. And report said her husband was not overkind to her. All at once she disappeared, and her husband thought the worst of her. Knowing her as well as I did, I did not believe a word of it. Yet it was strange that she had left her baby, her only child, of a few months, as well as her husband. I went to see her mother directly I heard of it, and together we went to the police; and such a search as we had! We traced her to a wretched lodging, where she had been for two nights, but they did not know what had become of her. In fact, they had turned her out because she had no money. Some information that we had, made us go to a house near Hyde Park. We rang the bell. Who should open the door, in a neat cap and print-gown, but the poor lady herself! She fainted when she saw her mother. And then the whole story came out. Her husband was stingy, and only allowed her very small sum for housekeeping; and perhaps she was not a very good manager, for good management is a gift, and everybody has not got it. So she found that she could not clear off the butcher's bills on the sum allowed her; and she had let the debt gather and gather, till the thought of it, I believe, actually drove her out of her mind for the time. She dared not tell her husband; but she knew it must come out some day, and so at last, quite frantic with the thought of it, she ran away, and left her baby behind her."
"And what became of her?" asked Adela.
"Her husband would never hear a word in her favour. He laughed at her story in the most scornful way, and said he was too old a bird for that. In fact, I believe he never saw her again. She went to her mother's. She will have her child now, I suppose; for I hear that the wretch of a husband, who would not let her have him, is dead. I daresay she is happy at last. Poor thing! Some people would need stout hearts, and have not got them."
Adela sighed. This story, too, seemed to interest her.
"What a miserable life!" she said.
"Well, Miss Cathcart," said the schoolmaster, "no doubt it was. But every life that has to be lived, can be lived; and however impossible it may seem to the onlookers, it has its own consolations, or, at least, interests. And I always fancy the most indispensable thing to a life is, that it should be interesting to those who have it to live. My wife and I have come through a good deal, but the time when the life looked hardest to others, was not, probably, the least interesting to us. It is just like reading a book: anything will do if you are taken up with it."
"Very good philosophy! Isn't it, Adela?" said the colonel.
Adela cast her eyes down, as if with a despairing sense of rebuke, and did not reply.
"I wish you would tell Miss Cathcart," resumed the schoolmaster to his wife, "that little story about the foolish lad you met once. And you need not keep back the little of your own history that belongs to it. I am sure the colonel will excuse you."
"I insist on hearing the whole of it," said the colonel, with a smile.
And Mrs. Bloomfield began.
Let me say here once for all, that I cannot keep the tales I tell in this volume from partaking of my own peculiarities of style, any more than I could keep the sermon free of such; for of course I give them all at second hand; and sometimes, where a joint was missing, I have had to supply facts as well as words. But I have kept as near to the originals as these necessities and a certain preparation for the press would permit me.
Mrs. Bloomfield, I say, began:
"A good many years ago, now, on a warm summer evening, a friend, whom I was visiting, asked me to take a drive with her through one of the London parks. I agreed to go, though I did not care much about it. I had not breathed the fresh air for some weeks; yet I felt it a great trouble to go. I had been ill, and my husband was ill, and we had nothing to do, and we did not know what would become of us. So I was anything but cheerful. I knew that all was for the best, as my good husband was always telling me, but my eyes were dim and my heart was troubled, and I could not feel sure that God cared quite so much for us as he did for the lilies.
"My friend was very cheerful, and seemed to enjoy everything; but a kind of dreariness came over me, and I began comparing the loveliness of the summer evening with the cold misty blank that seemed to make up my future. My wretchedness grew greater and greater. The very colours of the flowers, the blue of the sky, the sleep of the water, seemed to push us out of the happy world that God had made. And yet the children seemed as happy as if God were busy making, the things before their eyes, and holding out each thing, as he made it, for them to look at.
"I should have told you that we had two children then."
"I did not know you had any family," interposed the colonel.
"Yes, we had two then. One of them is now in India, and the other was not long out of heaven.--Well, I was glad when my friend stopped the carriage, and got out with the children, to take them close to the water's edge, and let them feed the swans. I liked better to sit in the carriage alone--an ungrateful creature, in the midst of causes for thankfulness. I did not care for the beautiful things about me; and I was not even pleased that other people should enjoy them. I listlessly watched the well-dressed ladies that passed, and hearkened contemptuously to the drawling way in which they spoke. So bad and proud was I, that I said in my heart, 'Thank God! I am not like them yet!' Then came nursemaids and children; and I did envy the servants, because they had work to do, and health to do it, and wages for it when it was done. The carriage was standing still all this time, you know. Then sickly-looking men passed, with still more sickly-looking wives, some of them leading a child between them. But even their faces told of wages, and the pleasure of an evenings walk in the park. And now I was able to thank God that they had the parks to walk in. Then came tottering by, an old man, apparently of eighty years, leaning on the arm of his grand-daughter, I supposed--a tidy, gentle-looking maiden. As they passed, I heard the old man say: 'He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.' And his quiet face looked as if the fields were yet green to his eyes, and the still waters as pleasant as when he was a little child.
"At last I caught sight of a poor lad, who was walking along very slowly, looking at a gay-coloured handkerchief which he had spread out before him. His clothes were rather ragged, but not so ragged as old. On his head was what we now call a wide-awake. It was very limp and shapeless; but some one that loved him had trimmed it with a bit of blue ribbon, the ends of which hung down on his shoulder. This gave him an odd appearance even at a distance. When he came up and I could see his face, it explained everything. There was a constant smile about his mouth, which in itself was very sweet; but as it had nothing to do with the rest of the countenance, the chief impression it conveyed was of idiotcy. He came near the carriage, and stood there, watching some men who were repairing the fence which divided the road from the footpath. His hair was almost golden, and went waving about in the wind. His eye was very large and clear, and of a bright blue. But it had no meaning in it. He would have been very handsome, had there been mind in his face; but as it was, the very regularity of his unlighted features made the sight a sadder one. His figure was young; but his face might have belonged to a man of sixty.
"He opened his mouth, stuck out his under jaw, and stood staring and grinning at the men. At last one of them stopped to take breath, and, catching sight of the lad, called out:
"'Why, Davy! is that you?'
"'Ya-as, it be,' replied Davy, nodding his head.
"'Why, Davy, it's ever so long since I clapped eyes on ye!' said the man. 'Where ha' ye been?'
"'I 'aint been nowheres, as I knows on.'
"'Well, if ye 'aint been nowheres, what have ye been doing? Flying your kite?'
"Davy shook his head sorrowfully, and at the same time kept on grinning foolishly.
"'I 'aint got no kite; so I can't fly it.'
"'But you likes flyin' kites, don't ye?' said his friend, kindly.
"'Ya-as,' answered Davy, nodding his head, and rubbing his hands, and laughing out. 'Kites is such fun! I wish I'd got un.'
"Then he looked thoughtfully, almost moodily, at the man, and said:
"'Where's your kite? I likes kites. Kites is friends to me.'
"But by this time the man had turned again to his work, and was busy driving a post into the ground; so he paid no attention to the lad's question."
"Why, Mrs. Bloomfield," interrupted the colonel, "I should just like you to send out with a reconnoitring party, for you seem to see everything and forget nothing."
"You see best and remember best what most interests you, colonel; and besides that, I got a good rebuke to my ingratitude from that poor fellow. So you see I had reason to remember him. I hope I don't tire you, Miss Cathcart."
"Quite the contrary," answered our hostess.
"By this time," resumed Mrs. Bloomfield, "another man had come up. He had a coarse, hard-featured face; and he tried, or pretended to try, to wheel his barrow, which was full of gravel, over Davy's toes. The said toes were sticking quite bare through great holes in an old pair of woman's boots. Then he began to tease him rather roughly. But Davy took all his banter with just the same complacency and mirth with which he had received the kindliness of the other man.
"'How's yer sweetheart, Davy?' he said.
"'Quite well, thank ye,' answered Davy.
"'What's her name?'
"'Ha! ha! ha! I won't tell ye that.'
"'Come now, Davy, tell us her name.'
"'Don't be a fool.'
"'I aint a fool. But I won't tell you her name.'
"'I don't believe ye've got e'er a sweetheart. Come now.'
"'I have though.'
"'I don't believe ye.'
"'I have though. I was at church with her last Sunday.'
"Suddenly the man, looking hard at Davy, changed his tone to one of surprise, and exclaimed:
"'Why, boy, ye've got whiskers! Ye hadn't them the last time I see'd ye. Why, ye are set up now! When are ye going to begin to shave? Where's your razors?'
"''Aint begun yet,' replied Davy. 'Shall shave some day, but I 'aint got too much yet.'
"As he said this, he fondled away at his whiskers. They were few in number, but evidently of great value in his eyes. Then he began to stroke his chin, on which there was a little down visible--more like mould in its association with his curious face than anything of more healthy significance. After a few moments' pause, his tormentor began again:
"'Well, I can't think where ye got them whiskers as ye're so fond of. Do ye know where ye got them?'
"Davy took out his pocket-handkerchief, spread it out before him, and stopped grinning.
"'Yaas; to be sure I do,' he said at last.
"'Ye do?' growled the man, half humorously, half scornfully.
"'Yaas,' said Davy, nodding his head again and again.
"'Did ye buy 'em?'
"'Noa,' answered Davy; and the sweetness of the smile which he now smiled was not confined to his mouth, but broke like light, the light of intelligence, over his whole face.
"'Were they gave to ye?' pursued the man, now really curious to hear what he would say.
"'Yaas,' said the poor fellow; and he clapped his hands in a kind of suppressed glee.
"'Why, who gave 'em to ye?'
"Davy looked up in a way I shall never forget, and, pointing up with his finger too, said nothing.
"'What do ye mean?' said the man. 'Who gave ye yer whiskers?'
"Davy pointed up to the sky again; and then, looking up with an earnest expression, which, before you saw it, you would not have thought possible to his face, said,
"'Who?' shouted the man.
"'Blessed Father,' Davy repeated, once more pointing upwards.
"'Blessed Father!' returned the man, in a contemptuous tone; 'Blessed Father!--I don't know who that is. Where does he live? I never heerd on him.'
"Davy looked at him as if he were sorry for him. Then going closer up to him, he said:
"'Didn't you though? He lives up there'--again pointing to the sky. 'And he is so kind! He gives me lots o' things.'
"'Well!' said the man, 'I wish he'd give me thing's. But you don't look so very rich nayther.'
"'Oh! but he gives me lots o' things; and he's up there, and he gives everybody lots o' things as likes to have 'em.'
"'Well, what's he gave you?'
"'Why, he's gave me some bread this mornin', and a tart last night--he did.'
"And the boy nodded his head, as was his custom, to make his assertion still stronger.
"'But you was sayin' just now, you hadn't got a kite. Why don't he give you one?'
"'_He'll_ give me one fast 'nuff,' said Davy, grinning again, and rubbing his hands.
"Miss Cathcart, I assure you I could have kissed the boy. And I hope I felt some gratitude to God for giving the poor lad such trust in Him, which, it seemed to me, was better than trusting in the three-per-cents, colonel; for you can draw upon him to no end o' good things. So Davy thought anyhow; and he had got the very thing for the want of which my life was cold and sad, and discontented. Those words, Blessed Father, and that look that turned his vacant face, like Stephen's, into the face of an angel, because he was looking up to the same glory, were in my ears and eyes for days. And they taught me, and comforted me. He was the minister of God's best gifts to me. And to how many more, who can tell? For Davy believed that God did care for his own children.
"Davy sauntered away, and before my friend came back with the children, I had lost sight of him; but at my request we moved on slowly till we should find him again. Nor had we gone far, before I saw him sitting in the middle of a group of little children. He was showing them the pictures on his pocket-handkerchief. I had one sixpence in my purse--it was the last I had, Mr. Smith."
Here, from some impulse or other, Mrs. Bloomfield addressed me.
"But I wasn't so poor but I could borrow, and it was a small price to give for what I had got; and so, as I was not able to leave the carriage, I asked my friend to take it to him, and tell him that Blessed Father had sent him that to buy a kite. The expression of childish glee upon his face, and the devout God bless you, Lady, upon his tongue, were strangely but not incongruously mingled.
"Well, it was my last sixpence then, but here I and my husband are, owing no man anything, and spending a happy Christmas Day, with many thanks to Colonel and Miss Cathcart."
"No, my good Madam," said the colonel; "it is we who owe you the happiest part of our Christmas Day. Is it not, Adela?"
"Yes, papa, it is indeed," answered Adela.
Then, with some hesitation, she added,
"But do you think it was quite fair? It was you, Mrs. Bloomfield, who gave the boy the sixpence."
"I only said God sent it," said Mrs. Bloomfield.
"Besides," I interposed, "the boy never doubted it; and I think, after all, with due submission to my niece, he was the best judge."
"I should be only too happy to grant it," she answered, with a sigh. "Things might be all right if one could believe that-- thoroughly, I mean."
"At least you will allow," I said, "that this boy was not by any means so miserable as he looked."
"Certainly," she answered, with hearty emphasis. "I think he was much to be envied."
Here I discovered that Percy was asleep on a sofa.
Other talk followed, and the colonel was looking very thoughtful. Tea was brought in, and soon after, our visitors rose to take their leave.
"You are not going already?" said the colonel.
"If you will excuse us," answered the schoolmaster. "We are early birds."
"Well, will you dine with us this day week?"
"With much pleasure," answered both in a breath.
It was clear both that the colonel liked their simple honest company, and that he saw they might do his daughter good; for her face looked very earnest and sweet; and the clearness that precedes rain was evident in the atmosphere of her eyes.
After their departure we soon separated; and I retired to my room full of a new idea, which I thought, if well carried out, might be of still further benefit to the invalid.
But before I went to bed, I had made a rough translation of the following hymn of Luther's, which I have since completed--so far at least as the following is complete. I often find that it helps to keep good thoughts before the mind, to turn them into another shape of words.
From heaven above I come to you, To bring a story good and new:
Of goodly news so much I bring-- I cannot help it, I must sing.
To you a child is come this morn, A child of holy maiden born;
A little babe, so sweet and mild-- It is a joy to see the child!
'Tis little Jesus, whom we need Us out of sadness all to lead:
He will himself our Saviour be, And from all sinning set us free.
Here come the shepherds, whom we know; Let all of us right gladsome go, To see what God to us hath given-- A gift that makes a stable heaven.
Take heed, my heart. Be lowly. So Thou seest him lie in manger low: That is the baby sweet and mild; That is the little Jesus-child.
Ah, Lord! the maker of us all!
How hast thou grown so poor and small, That there thou liest on withered grass-- The supper of the ox and ass?
Were the world wider many-fold, And decked with gems and cloth of gold, 'Twere far too mean and narrow all, To make for Thee a cradle small.
Rough hay, and linen not too fine, The silk and velvet that are thine; Yet, as they were thy kingdom great, Thou liest in them in royal state.
And this, all this, hath pleased Thee, That Thou mightst bring this truth to me: That all earth's good, in one combined, Is nothing to Thy mighty mind.
Ah, little Jesus! lay thy head
Down in a soft, white, little bed, That waits Thee in this heart of mine, And then this heart is always Thine.
Such gladness in my heart would make Me dance and sing for Thy sweet sake. Glory to God in highest heaven, For He his son to us hath given!