The schoolmaster's story.
I was walking up the street the next day, when, finding I was passing the Grammar-school, and knowing there was nothing going on there now, I thought I should not be intruding if I dropped in upon the schoolmaster and his wife, and had a little chat with them. I already counted them friends; for I felt that however different our training and lives might have been, we all meant the same thing now, and that is the true bond of fellowship. I found Mr. Bloomfield reading to his wife--a novel, too. Evidently he intended to make the most of this individual holiday, by making it as unlike a work-day as possible.
"I see you are enjoying yourselves," I said. "It's a shame to break in upon you."
"We are delighted to see you. Your interruption will only postpone a good thing to a better," said the kind-hearted schoolmaster, laying down his book. "Will you take a pipe?"
"With pleasure--but not here, surely?"
"Oh! we smoke everywhere in holiday-time."
"You enjoy your holiday, I can see."
"I should think so. I don't believe one of the boys delights in a holiday quite as heartily as I do. You must not imagine I don't enjoy my work, though."
"Not in the least. Earnest work breeds earnest play. But you must find the labour wearisome at times."
"I confess I have felt it such. I have said to myself sometimes: 'Am I to go on for ever teaching boys Latin grammar, till I wish there had never been a Latin nation to leave such an incubus upon the bosom of after ages?' Then I would remind myself, that, under cover of grammar and geography, and all the other farce-meat (as the word ought to be written and pronounced), I put something better into my pupils; something that I loved myself, and cared to give to them. But I often ask myself to what it all goes.--I learn to love my boys. I kill in them all the bad I can. I nourish in them all the good I can. I send them across the borders of manhood--and they leave me, and most likely I hear nothing more of them. And I say to myself: 'My life is like a wind. It blows and will cease.' But something says in reply: 'Wouldst thou not be one of God's winds, content to blow, and scatter the rain and dew, and shake the plants into fresh life, and then pass away and know nothing of what thou hast done?' And I answer: 'Yes, Lord."'
"You are not a wind; you are a poet, Mr. Bloomfield," I said, with emotion.
"One of the speechless ones, then," he returned, with a smile that showed plainly enough that the speechless longed for utterance. It was such a smile as would, upon the face of a child, wile anything out of you. Surely God, who needs no wiles to make him give what one is ready to receive, will let him sing some day, to his heart's content! And me, too, O Lord, I pray.
"What a pleasure it must be to you now, to have such a man as Mr. Armstrong for your curate! He will be a brother to you," I said, as soon as I could speak.
"Mr, Smith, I cannot tell you what he is to me already. He is doing what I would fain have done--what was denied to me."
"How do you mean?"
"I studied for the church. But I aimed too high. My heart burned within me, but my powers were small. I wanted to relight the ancient lamp, but my rush-light would not kindle it. My friends saw no light; they only smelt burning: I was heterodox. I hesitated, I feared, I yielded, I withdrew. To this day, I do not know whether I did right or wrong. But I am honoured yet in being allowed to teach. And if at the last I have the faintest 'Well done' from the Master, I shall be satisfied."
Mrs. Bloomfield was gently weeping; partly from regret, as I judged, that her husband was not in the position she would have given him, partly from delight in his manly goodness. A watery film stood in the schoolmaster's eyes, and his wise gentle face was irradiated with the light of a far-off morning, whose dawn was visible to his hope.
"The world is the better for you at least, Mr. Bloomfield," I said. "I wish some more of us were as sure as you of helping on the daily Creation, which is quite as certain a fact as that of old; and is even more important to us, than that recorded in the book of Genesis. It is not great battles alone that build up the world's history, nor great poems alone that make the generations grow. There is a still small rain from heaven that has more to do with the blessedness of nature and of human nature, than the mightiest earthquake, or the loveliest rainbow."
"I do comfort myself," he answered, "at this Christmas-time, and for the whole year, with the thought that, after all, the world was saved by a child.--But that brings me to think of a little trouble I am in, Mr. Smith. The only paper I have, at all fit for reading to-morrow night, is much too short to occupy the evening. What is to be done?"
"Oh! we can talk about it."
"That is just what I could not bear. It is rather an odd composition, I fear; but whether it be worth anything or not, I cannot help having a great affection for it."
"Then it is true, I presume?"
"There again! That is just one of the questions I don't want to answer. I quite sympathized with you last night in not wishing to know how much of Mr. Armstrong's story was true. Even if wholly fictitious, a good story is always true. But there are things which one would have no right to invent, which would be worth nothing if they were invented, from the very circumstance of their origin in the brain, and not in the world. The very beauty of them demands that they should be fact; or, if not, that they should not be told--sent out poor unclothed spirits into the world before a body of fact has been prepared for them. But I have always found it impossible to define the kinds of stories I mean. The nearest I can come to it is this: If the force of the lesson depends on the story being a fact, it must not be told except it is a fact. Then again, there are true things that one would be shy of telling, if he thought they would be attributed to himself. Now this story of mine is made up of fiction and fact both. And I fear that if I were called upon to take it to pieces, it would lose the force of any little truth it possesses, besides exposing me to what I would gladly avoid. Indeed I fear I ought not to read it at all."
"You are amongst friends, you know, Mr. Bloomfield."
"Entirely?" he asked, with a half comic expression.
"Well," I answered, laughing, "any exception that may exist, is hardly worth considering, and indeed ought to be thankfully accepted, as tending to wholesomeness. Neither vinegar nor mustard would be desirable as food, you know; yet--"
"I understand you. I am ashamed of having made such a fuss about nothing. I will do my best, I assure you."
I fear that the fastidiousness of the good man will not be excuse enough for the introduction of such a long preamble to a story for which only a few will in the least care. But the said preamble happening to touch on some interesting subjects, I thought it well to record it. As to the story itself, there are some remarks of Balzac in the introduction to one of his, that would well apply to the schoolmaster's. They are to the effect that some stories which have nothing in them as stories, yet fill one with an interest both gentle and profound, if they are read in the mood that is exactly fitted for their just reception.
Mr. Bloomfield conducted me to the door.
"I hope you will not think me a grumbler," he said; "I should not like your disapprobation, Mr. Smith."
"You do me great honour," I said, honestly. "Believe me there is no danger of that. I understand and sympathize with you entirely."
"My love of approbation is large," he said, tapping the bump referred to with his forefinger. "Excuse it and me too."
"There is no need, my dear friend," I said, "if I may call you such."
His answer was a warm squeeze of the hand, with which we parted.
As I returned home, I met Henry Armstrong, mounted on a bay mare of a far different sort from what a sportsman would consider a doctor justified in using for his purposes. In fact she was a thorough hunter; no beauty certainly, with her ewe-neck, drooping tail, and white face and stocking; but she had an eye at once gentle and wild as that of a savage angel, if my reader will condescend to dream for a moment of such an anomaly; while her hind quarters were power itself, and her foreleg was flung right out from the shoulder with a gesture not of work but of delight; the step itself being entirely one of work,--long in proportion to its height. The lines of her fore and hind-quarters converged so much, that there was hardly more than room for the saddle between them. I had never seen such action. Altogether, although not much of a hunting man, the motion of the creature gave me such a sense of power and joy, that I longed to be scouring the fields with her under me. It was a sunshiny day, with a keen cold air, and a thin sprinkling of snow; and Harry looked so radiant with health, that one could easily believe he had health to convey, if not to bestow. He stopped and inquired after his patient.
"Could you not get her to go out with you, Mr. Smith?" he said.
"Would that be safe, Mr. Henry?"
"Perfectly safe, if she is willing to go; not otherwise. Get her to go willingly for ten minutes, and see if she is not the better for it. What I want is to make the blood go quicker and more plentifully through her brain. She has not fever enough. She does not live fast enough."
"I will try," I said. "Have you been far to-day?"
"Just come out. You might tell that by the mare. You should see her three hours after this."
And he patted her neck as if he loved her--as I am sure he did--and trotted gently away.
When I came up to the gate, Beeves was standing at it.
"A nice gentleman that, sir!" said he.
"He is, Beeves. I quite agree with you."
"And rides a good mare, sir; and rides as well as any man in the country. I never see him leave home in a hurry. Always goes gently out, and comes gently in. What has gone between, you may see by her skin when she comes home."
"Does he hunt, Beeves?"
"I believe not, sir; except the fox crosses him in one of his rounds. Then if he is heading anywhere in his direction, they say doctor and mare go at it like mad. He's got two more in his stable, better horses to look at; but that's the one to go."
"I wonder how he affords such animals."
"They say he has a way of buying them lame, and a wonderful knack of setting them up again. They all go, anyhow."
"Will you say to your mistress, that I should like very much if she would come to me here."
Beeves stared, but said, "Yes, sir," and went in. I was now standing in front of the house, doubtful of the reception Adela would give my message, but judging that curiosity would aid my desire. I was right. Beeves came back with the message that his mistress would join me in a few minutes. In a quarter of an hour she came, wrapt in furs. She was very pale, but her eye was brighter than usual, and it did not shrink from the cold glitter of the snow. She put her arm in mine, and we walked for ten minutes along the dry gravel walks, chatting cheerfully, about anything and nothing.
"Now you must go in," I said.
"Not yet, surely, uncle. By the bye, do you think it was right of me to come out?"
"Mr. Henry Armstrong said you might."
She did not reply, but I thought a slight rose-colour tinged her cheek.
"But he said you must not be out more than ten minutes."
"Well, I suppose I must do as I am told."
And she turned at once, and went up the stair to the door, almost as lightly as any other girl of her age.
There was some progress, plainly enough. But was that a rose-tinge I had seen on her cheek or not?
The next evening, after tea, we arranged ourselves much as on the last occasion; and Mr. Bloomfield, taking a neat manuscript from his pocket, and evidently restraining himself from apology and explanation, although as evidently nervous about the whole proceeding, and jealous of his own presumption, began to read as follows.
His voice trembled as he read, and his wife's face was a shade or two paler than usual.