Chapter 3 The Gift Reversed
Night was still heavy in the sky. On open plains, from hill-tops, and from the decks of solitary ships at sea, a distant low-lying line, that promised by-and-by to change to light, was visible in the dim horizon; but its promise was remote and doubtful, and the moon was striving with the night-clouds busily.
The shadows upon Redlaw’s mind succeeded thick and fast to one another, and obscured its light as the night-clouds hovered between the moon and earth, and kept the latter veiled in darkness. Fitful and uncertain as the shadows which the night-clouds cast, were their concealments from him, and imperfect revelations to him; and, like the night-clouds still, if the clear light broke forth for a moment, it was only that they might sweep over it, and make the darkness deeper than before.
Without, there was a profound and solemn hush upon the ancient pile of building, and its buttresses and angles made dark shapes of mystery upon the ground, which now seemed to retire into the smooth white snow and now seemed to come out of it, as the moon’s path was more or less beset. Within, the Chemist’s room was indistinct and murky, by the light of the expiring lamp; a ghostly silence had succeeded to the knocking and the voice outside; nothing was audible but, now and then, a low sound among the whitened ashes of the fire, as of its yielding up its last breath. Before it on the ground the boy lay fast asleep. In his chair, the Chemist sat, as he had sat there since the calling at his door had ceased—like a man turned to stone.
At such a time, the Christmas music he had heard before, began to play. He listened to it at first, as he had listened in the church-yard; but presently—it playing still, and being borne towards him on the night air, in a low, sweet, melancholy strain—he rose, and stood stretching his hands about him, as if there were some friend approaching within his reach, on whom his desolate touch might rest, yet do no harm. As he did this, his face became less fixed and wondering; a gentle trembling came upon him; and at last his eyes filled with tears, and he put his hands before them, and bowed down his head.
His memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble, had not come back to him; he knew that it was not restored; he had no passing belief or hope that it was. But some dumb stir within him made him capable, again, of being moved by what was hidden, afar off, in the music. If it were only that it told him sorrowfully the value of what he had lost, he thanked Heaven for it with a fervent gratitude.
As the last chord died upon his ear, he raised his head to listen to its lingering vibration. Beyond the boy, so that his sleeping figure lay at its feet, the Phantom stood, immovable and silent, with its eyes upon him.
Ghastly it was, as it had ever been, but not so cruel and relentless in its aspect—or he thought or hoped so, as he looked upon it trembling. It was not alone, but in its shadowy hand it held another hand.
And whose was that? Was the form that stood beside it indeed Milly’s, or but her shade and picture? The quiet head was bent a little, as her manner was, and her eyes were looking down, as if in pity, on the sleeping child. A radiant light fell on her face, but did not touch the Phantom; for, though close beside her, it was dark and colourless as ever.
“Spectre!” said the Chemist, newly troubled as he looked, “I have not been stubborn or presumptuous in respect of her. Oh, do not bring her here. Spare me that!”
“This is but a shadow,” said the Phantom; “when the morning shines seek out the reality whose image I present before you.”
“Is it my inexorable doom to do so?” cried the Chemist.
“It is,” replied the Phantom.
“To destroy her peace, her goodness; to make her what I am myself, and what I have made of others!”
“I have said seek her out,” returned the Phantom. “I have said no more.”
“Oh, tell me,” exclaimed Redlaw, catching at the hope which he fancied might lie hidden in the words. “Can I undo what I have done?”
“No,” returned the Phantom.
“I do not ask for restoration to myself,” said Redlaw. “What I abandoned, I abandoned of my own free will, and have justly lost. But for those to whom I have transferred the fatal gift; who never sought it; who unknowingly received a curse of which they had no warning, and which they had no power to shun; can I do nothing?”
“Nothing,” said the Phantom.
“If I cannot, can any one?”
The Phantom, standing like a statue, kept its gaze upon him for a while; then turned its head suddenly, and looked upon the shadow at its side.
“Ah! Can she?” cried Redlaw, still looking upon the shade.
The Phantom released the hand it had retained till now, and softly raised its own with a gesture of dismissal. Upon that, her shadow, still preserving the same attitude, began to move or melt away.
“Stay,” cried Redlaw with an earnestness to which he could not give enough expression. “For a moment! As an act of mercy! I know that some change fell upon me, when those sounds were in the air just now. Tell me, have I lost the power of harming her? May I go near her without dread? Oh, let her give me any sign of hope!”
The Phantom looked upon the shade as he did—not at him—and gave no answer.
“At least, say this—has she, henceforth, the consciousness of any power to set right what I have done?”
“She has not,” the Phantom answered.
“Has she the power bestowed on her without the consciousness?”
The phantom answered: “Seek her out.”
And her shadow slowly vanished.
They were face to face again, and looking on each other, as intently and awfully as at the time of the bestowal of the gift, across the boy who still lay on the ground between them, at the Phantom’s feet.
“Terrible instructor,” said the Chemist, sinking on his knee before it, in an attitude of supplication, “by whom I was renounced, but by whom I am revisited (in which, and in whose milder aspect, I would fain believe I have a gleam of hope), I will obey without inquiry, praying that the cry I have sent up in the anguish of my soul has been, or will be, heard, in behalf of those whom I have injured beyond human reparation. But there is one thing—”
“You speak to me of what is lying here,” the phantom interposed, and pointed with its finger to the boy.
“I do,” returned the Chemist. “You know what I would ask. Why has this child alone been proof against my influence, and why, why, have I detected in its thoughts a terrible companionship with mine?”
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”
Redlaw shrank, appalled, from what he heard.
“There is not,” said the Phantom, “one of these—not one—but sows a harvest that mankind MUST reap. From every seed of evil in this boy, a field of ruin is grown that shall be gathered in, and garnered up, and sown again in many places in the world, until regions are overspread with wickedness enough to raise the waters of another Deluge. Open and unpunished murder in a city’s streets would be less guilty in its daily toleration, than one such spectacle as this.”
It seemed to look down upon the boy in his sleep. Redlaw, too, looked down upon him with a new emotion.
“There is not a father,” said the Phantom, “by whose side in his daily or his nightly walk, these creatures pass; there is not a mother among all the ranks of loving mothers in this land; there is no one risen from the state of childhood, but shall be responsible in his or her degree for this enormity. There is not a country throughout the earth on which it would not bring a curse. There is no religion upon earth that it would not deny; there is no people upon earth it would not put to shame.”
The Chemist clasped his hands, and looked, with trembling fear and pity, from the sleeping boy to the Phantom, standing above him with his finger pointing down.
“Behold, I say,” pursued the Spectre, “the perfect type of what it was your choice to be. Your influence is powerless here, because from this child’s bosom you can banish nothing. His thoughts have been in ‘terrible companionship’ with yours, because you have gone down to his unnatural level. He is the growth of man’s indifference; you are the growth of man’s presumption. The beneficent design of Heaven is, in each case, overthrown, and from the two poles of the immaterial world you come together.”
The Chemist stooped upon the ground beside the boy, and, with the same kind of compassion for him that he now felt for himself, covered him as he slept, and no longer shrank from him with abhorrence or indifference.
Soon, now, the distant line on the horizon brightened, the darkness faded, the sun rose red and glorious, and the chimney stacks and gables of the ancient building gleamed in the clear air, which turned the smoke and vapour of the city into a cloud of gold. The very sun-dial in his shady corner, where the wind was used to spin with such unwindy constancy, shook off the finer particles of snow that had accumulated on his dull old face in the night, and looked out at the little white wreaths eddying round and round him. Doubtless some blind groping of the morning made its way down into the forgotten crypt so cold and earthy, where the Norman arches were half buried in the ground, and stirred the dull sap in the lazy vegetation hanging to the walls, and quickened the slow principle of life within the little world of wonderful and delicate creation which existed there, with some faint knowledge that the sun was up.
The Tetterbys were up, and doing. Mr. Tetterby took down the shutters of the shop, and, strip by strip, revealed the treasures of the window to the eyes, so proof against their seductions, of Jerusalem Buildings. Adolphus had been out so long already, that he was halfway on to “Morning Pepper.” Five small Tetterbys, whose ten round eyes were much inflamed by soap and friction, were in the tortures of a cool wash in the back kitchen; Mrs. Tetterby presiding. Johnny, who was pushed and hustled through his toilet with great rapidity when Moloch chanced to be in an exacting frame of mind (which was always the case), staggered up and down with his charge before the shop door, under greater difficulties than usual; the weight of Moloch being much increased by a complication of defences against the cold, composed of knitted worsted-work, and forming a complete suit of chain-armour, with a head-piece and blue gaiters.
It was a peculiarity of this baby to be always cutting teeth. Whether they never came, or whether they came and went away again, is not in evidence; but it had certainly cut enough, on the showing of Mrs. Tetterby, to make a handsome dental provision for the sign of the Bull and Mouth. All sorts of objects were impressed for the rubbing of its gums, notwithstanding that it always carried, dangling at its waist (which was immediately under its chin), a bone ring, large enough to have represented the rosary of a young nun. Knife-handles, umbrella-tops, the heads of walking-sticks selected from the stock, the fingers of the family in general, but especially of Johnny, nutmeg-graters, crusts, the handles of doors, and the cool knobs on the tops of pokers, were among the commonest instruments indiscriminately applied for this baby’s relief. The amount of electricity that must have been rubbed out of it in a week, is not to be calculated. Still Mrs. Tetterby always said “it was coming through, and then the child would be herself;” and still it never did come through, and the child continued to be somebody else.
The tempers of the little Tetterbys had sadly changed with a few hours. Mr. and Mrs. Tetterby themselves were not more altered than their offspring. Usually they were an unselfish, good-natured, yielding little race, sharing short commons when it happened (which was pretty often) contentedly and even generously, and taking a great deal of enjoyment out of a very little meat. But they were fighting now, not only for the soap and water, but even for the breakfast which was yet in perspective. The hand of every little Tetterby was against the other little Tetterbys; and even Johnny’s hand—the patient, much-enduring, and devoted Johnny—rose against the baby! Yes, Mrs. Tetterby, going to the door by mere accident, saw him viciously pick out a weak place in the suit of armour where a slap would tell, and slap that blessed child.
Mrs. Tetterby had him into the parlour by the collar, in that same flash of time, and repaid him the assault with usury thereto.
“You brute, you murdering little boy,” said Mrs. Tetterby. “Had you the heart to do it?”
“Why don’t her teeth come through, then,” retorted Johnny, in a loud rebellious voice, “instead of bothering me? How would you like it yourself?”
“Like it, sir!” said Mrs. Tetterby, relieving him of his dishonoured load.
“Yes, like it,” said Johnny. “How would you? Not at all. If you was me, you’d go for a soldier. I will, too. There an’t no babies in the Army.”
Mr. Tetterby, who had arrived upon the scene of action, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, instead of correcting the rebel, and seemed rather struck by this view of a military life.
“I wish I was in the Army myself, if the child’s in the right,” said Mrs. Tetterby, looking at her husband, “for I have no peace of my life here. I’m a slave—a Virginia slave:” some indistinct association with their weak descent on the tobacco trade perhaps suggested this aggravated expression to Mrs. Tetterby. “I never have a holiday, or any pleasure at all, from year’s end to year’s end! Why, Lord bless and save the child,” said Mrs. Tetterby, shaking the baby with an irritability hardly suited to so pious an aspiration, “what’s the matter with her now?”
Not being able to discover, and not rendering the subject much clearer by shaking it, Mrs. Tetterby put the baby away in a cradle, and, folding her arms, sat rocking it angrily with her foot.
“How you stand there, ’Dolphus,” said Mrs. Tetterby to her husband. “Why don’t you do something?”
“Because I don’t care about doing anything,” Mr. Tetterby replied.
“I am sure I don’t,” said Mrs. Tetterby.
“I’ll take my oath I don’t,” said Mr. Tetterby.
A diversion arose here among Johnny and his five younger brothers, who, in preparing the family breakfast table, had fallen to skirmishing for the temporary possession of the loaf, and were buffeting one another with great heartiness; the smallest boy of all, with precocious discretion, hovering outside the knot of combatants, and harassing their legs. Into the midst of this fray, Mr. and Mrs. Tetterby both precipitated themselves with great ardour, as if such ground were the only ground on which they could now agree; and having, with no visible remains of their late soft-heartedness, laid about them without any lenity, and done much execution, resumed their former relative positions.
“You had better read your paper than do nothing at all,” said Mrs. Tetterby.
“What’s there to read in a paper?” returned Mr. Tetterby, with excessive discontent.
“What?” said Mrs. Tetterby. “Police.”
“It’s nothing to me,” said Tetterby. “What do I care what people do, or are done to?”
“Suicides,” suggested Mrs. Tetterby.
“No business of mine,” replied her husband.
“Births, deaths, and marriages, are those nothing to you?” said Mrs. Tetterby.
“If the births were all over for good, and all to-day; and the deaths were all to begin to come off to-morrow; I don’t see why it should interest me, till I thought it was a coming to my turn,” grumbled Tetterby. “As to marriages, I’ve done it myself. I know quite enough about them.”
To judge from the dissatisfied expression of her face and manner, Mrs. Tetterby appeared to entertain the same opinions as her husband; but she opposed him, nevertheless, for the gratification of quarrelling with him.
“Oh, you’re a consistent man,” said Mrs. Tetterby, “an’t you? You, with the screen of your own making there, made of nothing else but bits of newspapers, which you sit and read to the children by the half-hour together!”
“Say used to, if you please,” returned her husband. “You won’t find me doing so any more. I’m wiser now.”
“Bah! wiser, indeed!” said Mrs. Tetterby. “Are you better?”
The question sounded some discordant note in Mr. Tetterby’s breast. He ruminated dejectedly, and passed his hand across and across his forehead.
“Better!” murmured Mr. Tetterby. “I don’t know as any of us are better, or happier either. Better, is it?”
He turned to the screen, and traced about it with his finger, until he found a certain paragraph of which he was in quest.
“This used to be one of the family favourites, I recollect,” said Tetterby, in a forlorn and stupid way, “and used to draw tears from the children, and make ’em good, if there was any little bickering or discontent among ’em, next to the story of the robin redbreasts in the wood. ‘Melancholy case of destitution. Yesterday a small man, with a baby in his arms, and surrounded by half-a-dozen ragged little ones, of various ages between ten and two, the whole of whom were evidently in a famishing condition, appeared before the worthy magistrate, and made the following recital:’—Ha! I don’t understand it, I’m sure,” said Tetterby; “I don’t see what it has got to do with us.”
“How old and shabby he looks,” said Mrs. Tetterby, watching him. “I never saw such a change in a man. Ah! dear me, dear me, dear me, it was a sacrifice!”
“What was a sacrifice?” her husband sourly inquired.
Mrs. Tetterby shook her head; and without replying in words, raised a complete sea-storm about the baby, by her violent agitation of the cradle.
“If you mean your marriage was a sacrifice, my good woman—” said her husband.
“I do mean it,” said his wife.
“Why, then I mean to say,” pursued Mr. Tetterby, as sulkily and surlily as she, “that there are two sides to that affair; and that I was the sacrifice; and that I wish the sacrifice hadn’t been accepted.”
“I wish it hadn’t, Tetterby, with all my heart and soul I do assure you,” said his wife. “You can’t wish it more than I do, Tetterby.”
“I don’t know what I saw in her,” muttered the newsman, “I’m sure;—certainly, if I saw anything, it’s not there now. I was thinking so, last night, after supper, by the fire. She’s fat, she’s ageing, she won’t bear comparison with most other women.”
“He’s common-looking, he has no air with him, he’s small, he’s beginning to stoop and he’s getting bald,” muttered Mrs. Tetterby.
“I must have been half out of my mind when I did it,” muttered Mr. Tetterby.
“My senses must have forsook me. That’s the only way in which I can explain it to myself,” said Mrs. Tetterby with elaboration.
In this mood they sat down to breakfast. The little Tetterbys were not habituated to regard that meal in the light of a sedentary occupation, but discussed it as a dance or trot; rather resembling a savage ceremony, in the occasionally shrill whoops, and brandishings of bread and butter, with which it was accompanied, as well as in the intricate filings off into the street and back again, and the hoppings up and down the door-steps, which were incidental to the performance. In the present instance, the contentions between these Tetterby children for the milk-and-water jug, common to all, which stood upon the table, presented so lamentable an instance of angry passions risen very high indeed, that it was an outrage on the memory of Dr. Watts. It was not until Mr. Tetterby had driven the whole herd out at the front door, that a moment’s peace was secured; and even that was broken by the discovery that Johnny had surreptitiously come back, and was at that instant choking in the jug like a ventriloquist, in his indecent and rapacious haste.
“These children will be the death of me at last!” said Mrs. Tetterby, after banishing the culprit. “And the sooner the better, I think.”
“Poor people,” said Mr. Tetterby, “ought not to have children at all. They give us no pleasure.”
He was at that moment taking up the cup which Mrs. Tetterby had rudely pushed towards him, and Mrs. Tetterby was lifting her own cup to her lips, when they both stopped, as if they were transfixed.
“Here! Mother! Father!” cried Johnny, running into the room. “Here’s Mrs. William coming down the street!”
And if ever, since the world began, a young boy took a baby from a cradle with the care of an old nurse, and hushed and soothed it tenderly, and tottered away with it cheerfully, Johnny was that boy, and Moloch was that baby, as they went out together!
Mr. Tetterby put down his cup; Mrs. Tetterby put down her cup. Mr. Tetterby rubbed his forehead; Mrs. Tetterby rubbed hers. Mr. Tetterby’s face began to smooth and brighten; Mrs. Tetterby’s began to smooth and brighten.
“Why, Lord forgive me,” said Mr. Tetterby to himself, “what evil tempers have I been giving way to? What has been the matter here!”
“How could I ever treat him ill again, after all I said and felt last night!” sobbed Mrs. Tetterby, with her apron to her eyes.
“Am I a brute,” said Mr. Tetterby, “or is there any good in me at all? Sophia! My little woman!”
“’Dolphus dear,” returned his wife.
“I—I’ve been in a state of mind,” said Mr. Tetterby, “that I can’t abear to think of, Sophy.”
“Oh! It’s nothing to what I’ve been in, Dolf,” cried his wife in a great burst of grief.
“My Sophia,” said Mr. Tetterby, “don’t take on. I never shall forgive myself. I must have nearly broke your heart, I know.”
“No, Dolf, no. It was me! Me!” cried Mrs. Tetterby.
“My little woman,” said her husband, “don’t. You make me reproach myself dreadful, when you show such a noble spirit. Sophia, my dear, you don’t know what I thought. I showed it bad enough, no doubt; but what I thought, my little woman!—”
“Oh, dear Dolf, don’t! Don’t!” cried his wife.
“Sophia,” said Mr. Tetterby, “I must reveal it. I couldn’t rest in my conscience unless I mentioned it. My little woman—”
“Mrs. William’s very nearly here!” screamed Johnny at the door.
“My little woman, I wondered how,” gasped Mr. Tetterby, supporting himself by his chair, “I wondered how I had ever admired you—I forgot the precious children you have brought about me, and thought you didn’t look as slim as I could wish. I—I never gave a recollection,” said Mr. Tetterby, with severe self-accusation, “to the cares you’ve had as my wife, and along of me and mine, when you might have had hardly any with another man, who got on better and was luckier than me (anybody might have found such a man easily I am sure); and I quarrelled with you for having aged a little in the rough years you have lightened for me. Can you believe it, my little woman? I hardly can myself.”
Mrs. Tetterby, in a whirlwind of laughing and crying, caught his face within her hands, and held it there.
“Oh, Dolf!” she cried. “I am so happy that you thought so; I am so grateful that you thought so! For I thought that you were common-looking, Dolf; and so you are, my dear, and may you be the commonest of all sights in my eyes, till you close them with your own good hands. I thought that you were small; and so you are, and I’ll make much of you because you are, and more of you because I love my husband. I thought that you began to stoop; and so you do, and you shall lean on me, and I’ll do all I can to keep you up. I thought there was no air about you; but there is, and it’s the air of home, and that’s the purest and the best there is, and God bless home once more, and all belonging to it, Dolf!”
“Hurrah! Here’s Mrs. William!” cried Johnny.
So she was, and all the children with her; and so she came in, they kissed her, and kissed one another, and kissed the baby, and kissed their father and mother, and then ran back and flocked and danced about her, trooping on with her in triumph.
Mr. and Mrs. Tetterby were not a bit behind-hand in the warmth of their reception. They were as much attracted to her as the children were; they ran towards her, kissed her hands, pressed round her, could not receive her ardently or enthusiastically enough. She came among them like the spirit of all goodness, affection, gentle consideration, love, and domesticity.
“What! are you all so glad to see me, too, this bright Christmas morning?” said Milly, clapping her hands in a pleasant wonder. “Oh dear, how delightful this is!”
More shouting from the children, more kissing, more trooping round her, more happiness, more love, more joy, more honour, on all sides, than she could bear.
“Oh dear!” said Milly, “what delicious tears you make me shed. How can I ever have deserved this! What have I done to be so loved?”
“Who can help it!” cried Mr. Tetterby.
“Who can help it!” cried Mrs. Tetterby.
“Who can help it!” echoed the children, in a joyful chorus. And they danced and trooped about her again, and clung to her, and laid their rosy faces against her dress, and kissed and fondled it, and could not fondle it, or her, enough.
“I never was so moved,” said Milly, drying her eyes, “as I have been this morning. I must tell you, as soon as I can speak.—Mr. Redlaw came to me at sunrise, and with a tenderness in his manner, more as if I had been his darling daughter than myself, implored me to go with him to where William’s brother George is lying ill. We went together, and all the way along he was so kind, and so subdued, and seemed to put such trust and hope in me, that I could not help crying with pleasure. When we got to the house, we met a woman at the door (somebody had bruised and hurt her, I am afraid), who caught me by the hand, and blessed me as I passed.”
“She was right!” said Mr. Tetterby. Mrs. Tetterby said she was right. All the children cried out that she was right.
“Ah, but there’s more than that,” said Milly. “When we got up stairs, into the room, the sick man who had lain for hours in a state from which no effort could rouse him, rose up in his bed, and, bursting into tears, stretched out his arms to me, and said that he had led a mis-spent life, but that he was truly repentant now, in his sorrow for the past, which was all as plain to him as a great prospect, from which a dense black cloud had cleared away, and that he entreated me to ask his poor old father for his pardon and his blessing, and to say a prayer beside his bed. And when I did so, Mr. Redlaw joined in it so fervently, and then so thanked and thanked me, and thanked Heaven, that my heart quite overflowed, and I could have done nothing but sob and cry, if the sick man had not begged me to sit down by him,—which made me quiet of course. As I sat there, he held my hand in his until he sank in a doze; and even then, when I withdrew my hand to leave him to come here (which Mr. Redlaw was very earnest indeed in wishing me to do), his hand felt for mine, so that some one else was obliged to take my place and make believe to give him my hand back. Oh dear, oh dear,” said Milly, sobbing. “How thankful and how happy I should feel, and do feel, for all this!”
While she was speaking, Redlaw had come in, and, after pausing for a moment to observe the group of which she was the centre, had silently ascended the stairs. Upon those stairs he now appeared again; remaining there, while the young student passed him, and came running down.
“Kind nurse, gentlest, best of creatures,” he said, falling on his knee to her, and catching at her hand, “forgive my cruel ingratitude!”
“Oh dear, oh dear!” cried Milly innocently, “here’s another of them! Oh dear, here’s somebody else who likes me. What shall I ever do!”
The guileless, simple way in which she said it, and in which she put her hands before her eyes and wept for very happiness, was as touching as it was delightful.
“I was not myself,” he said. “I don’t know what it was—it was some consequence of my disorder perhaps—I was mad. But I am so no longer. Almost as I speak, I am restored. I heard the children crying out your name, and the shade passed from me at the very sound of it. Oh, don’t weep! Dear Milly, if you could read my heart, and only knew with what affection and what grateful homage it is glowing, you would not let me see you weep. It is such deep reproach.”
“No, no,” said Milly, “it’s not that. It’s not indeed. It’s joy. It’s wonder that you should think it necessary to ask me to forgive so little, and yet it’s pleasure that you do.”
“And will you come again? and will you finish the little curtain?”
“No,” said Milly, drying her eyes, and shaking her head. “You won’t care for my needlework now.”
“Is it forgiving me, to say that?”
She beckoned him aside, and whispered in his ear.
“There is news from your home, Mr. Edmund.”
“Either your not writing when you were very ill, or the change in your handwriting when you began to be better, created some suspicion of the truth; however that is—but you’re sure you’ll not be the worse for any news, if it’s not bad news?”
“Then there’s some one come!” said Milly.
“My mother?” asked the student, glancing round involuntarily towards Redlaw, who had come down from the stairs.
“Hush! No,” said Milly.
“It can be no one else.”
“Indeed?” said Milly, “are you sure?”
“It is not—” Before he could say more, she put her hand upon his mouth.
“Yes it is!” said Milly. “The young lady (she is very like the miniature, Mr. Edmund, but she is prettier) was too unhappy to rest without satisfying her doubts, and came up, last night, with a little servant-maid. As you always dated your letters from the college, she came there; and before I saw Mr. Redlaw this morning, I saw her. She likes me too!” said Milly. “Oh dear, that’s another!”
“This morning! Where is she now?”
“Why, she is now,” said Milly, advancing her lips to his ear, “in my little parlour in the Lodge, and waiting to see you.”
He pressed her hand, and was darting off, but she detained him.
“Mr. Redlaw is much altered, and has told me this morning that his memory is impaired. Be very considerate to him, Mr. Edmund; he needs that from us all.”
The young man assured her, by a look, that her caution was not ill-bestowed; and as he passed the Chemist on his way out, bent respectfully and with an obvious interest before him.
Redlaw returned the salutation courteously and even humbly, and looked after him as he passed on. He drooped his head upon his hand too, as trying to reawaken something he had lost. But it was gone.
The abiding change that had come upon him since the influence of the music, and the Phantom’s reappearance, was, that now he truly felt how much he had lost, and could compassionate his own condition, and contrast it, clearly, with the natural state of those who were around him. In this, an interest in those who were around him was revived, and a meek, submissive sense of his calamity was bred, resembling that which sometimes obtains in age, when its mental powers are weakened, without insensibility or sullenness being added to the list of its infirmities.
He was conscious that, as he redeemed, through Milly, more and more of the evil he had done, and as he was more and more with her, this change ripened itself within him. Therefore, and because of the attachment she inspired him with (but without other hope), he felt that he was quite dependent on her, and that she was his staff in his affliction.
So, when she asked him whether they should go home now, to where the old man and her husband were, and he readily replied “yes”—being anxious in that regard—he put his arm through hers, and walked beside her; not as if he were the wise and learned man to whom the wonders of Nature were an open book, and hers were the uninstructed mind, but as if their two positions were reversed, and he knew nothing, and she all.
He saw the children throng about her, and caress her, as he and she went away together thus, out of the house; he heard the ringing of their laughter, and their merry voices; he saw their bright faces, clustering around him like flowers; he witnessed the renewed contentment and affection of their parents; he breathed the simple air of their poor home, restored to its tranquillity; he thought of the unwholesome blight he had shed upon it, and might, but for her, have been diffusing then; and perhaps it is no wonder that he walked submissively beside her, and drew her gentle bosom nearer to his own.
When they arrived at the Lodge, the old man was sitting in his chair in the chimney-corner, with his eyes fixed on the ground, and his son was leaning against the opposite side of the fire-place, looking at him. As she came in at the door, both started, and turned round towards her, and a radiant change came upon their faces.
“Oh dear, dear, dear, they are all pleased to see me like the rest!” cried Milly, clapping her hands in an ecstasy, and stopping short. “Here are two more!”
Pleased to see her! Pleasure was no word for it. She ran into her husband’s arms, thrown wide open to receive her, and he would have been glad to have her there, with her head lying on his shoulder, through the short winter’s day. But the old man couldn’t spare her. He had arms for her too, and he locked her in them.
“Why, where has my quiet Mouse been all this time?” said the old man. “She has been a long while away. I find that it’s impossible for me to get on without Mouse. I—where’s my son William?—I fancy I have been dreaming, William.”
“That’s what I say myself, father,” returned his son. “I have been in an ugly sort of dream, I think.—How are you, father? Are you pretty well?”
“Strong and brave, my boy,” returned the old man.
It was quite a sight to see Mr. William shaking hands with his father, and patting him on the back, and rubbing him gently down with his hand, as if he could not possibly do enough to show an interest in him.
“What a wonderful man you are, father!—How are you, father? Are you really pretty hearty, though?” said William, shaking hands with him again, and patting him again, and rubbing him gently down again.
“I never was fresher or stouter in my life, my boy.”
“What a wonderful man you are, father! But that’s exactly where it is,” said Mr. William, with enthusiasm. “When I think of all that my father’s gone through, and all the chances and changes, and sorrows and troubles, that have happened to him in the course of his long life, and under which his head has grown grey, and years upon years have gathered on it, I feel as if we couldn’t do enough to honour the old gentleman, and make his old age easy.—How are you, father? Are you really pretty well, though?”
Mr. William might never have left off repeating this inquiry, and shaking hands with him again, and patting him again, and rubbing him down again, if the old man had not espied the Chemist, whom until now he had not seen.
“I ask your pardon, Mr. Redlaw,” said Philip, “but didn’t know you were here, sir, or should have made less free. It reminds me, Mr. Redlaw, seeing you here on a Christmas morning, of the time when you was a student yourself, and worked so hard that you were backwards and forwards in our Library even at Christmas time. Ha! ha! I’m old enough to remember that; and I remember it right well, I do, though I am eighty-seven. It was after you left here that my poor wife died. You remember my poor wife, Mr. Redlaw?”
The Chemist answered yes.
“Yes,” said the old man. “She was a dear creetur.—I recollect you come here one Christmas morning with a young lady—I ask your pardon, Mr. Redlaw, but I think it was a sister you was very much attached to?”
The Chemist looked at him, and shook his head. “I had a sister,” he said vacantly. He knew no more.
“One Christmas morning,” pursued the old man, “that you come here with her—and it began to snow, and my wife invited the lady to walk in, and sit by the fire that is always a burning on Christmas Day in what used to be, before our ten poor gentlemen commuted, our great Dinner Hall. I was there; and I recollect, as I was stirring up the blaze for the young lady to warm her pretty feet by, she read the scroll out loud, that is underneath that pictur, ‘Lord, keep my memory green!’ She and my poor wife fell a talking about it; and it’s a strange thing to think of, now, that they both said (both being so unlike to die) that it was a good prayer, and that it was one they would put up very earnestly, if they were called away young, with reference to those who were dearest to them. ‘My brother,’ says the young lady—‘My husband,’ says my poor wife.—‘Lord, keep his memory of me, green, and do not let me be forgotten!’”
Tears more painful, and more bitter than he had ever shed in all his life, coursed down Redlaw’s face. Philip, fully occupied in recalling his story, had not observed him until now, nor Milly’s anxiety that he should not proceed.
“Philip!” said Redlaw, laying his hand upon his arm, “I am a stricken man, on whom the hand of Providence has fallen heavily, although deservedly. You speak to me, my friend, of what I cannot follow; my memory is gone.”
“Merciful power!” cried the old man.
“I have lost my memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble,” said the Chemist, “and with that I have lost all man would remember!”
To see old Philip’s pity for him, to see him wheel his own great chair for him to rest in, and look down upon him with a solemn sense of his bereavement, was to know, in some degree, how precious to old age such recollections are.
The boy came running in, and ran to Milly.
“Here’s the man,” he said, “in the other room. I don’t want him.”
“What man does he mean?” asked Mr. William.
“Hush!” said Milly.
Obedient to a sign from her, he and his old father softly withdrew. As they went out, unnoticed, Redlaw beckoned to the boy to come to him.
“I like the woman best,” he answered, holding to her skirts.
“You are right,” said Redlaw, with a faint smile. “But you needn’t fear to come to me. I am gentler than I was. Of all the world, to you, poor child!”
The boy still held back at first, but yielding little by little to her urging, he consented to approach, and even to sit down at his feet. As Redlaw laid his hand upon the shoulder of the child, looking on him with compassion and a fellow-feeling, he put out his other hand to Milly. She stooped down on that side of him, so that she could look into his face, and after silence, said:
“Mr. Redlaw, may I speak to you?”
“Yes,” he answered, fixing his eyes upon her. “Your voice and music are the same to me.”
“May I ask you something?”
“What you will.”
“Do you remember what I said, when I knocked at your door last night? About one who was your friend once, and who stood on the verge of destruction?”
“Yes. I remember,” he said, with some hesitation.
“Do you understand it?”
He smoothed the boy’s hair—looking at her fixedly the while, and shook his head.
“This person,” said Milly, in her clear, soft voice, which her mild eyes, looking at him, made clearer and softer, “I found soon afterwards. I went back to the house, and, with Heaven’s help, traced him. I was not too soon. A very little and I should have been too late.”
He took his hand from the boy, and laying it on the back of that hand of hers, whose timid and yet earnest touch addressed him no less appealingly than her voice and eyes, looked more intently on her.
“He is the father of Mr. Edmund, the young gentleman we saw just now. His real name is Longford.—You recollect the name?”
“I recollect the name.”
“And the man?”
“No, not the man. Did he ever wrong me?”
“Ah! Then it’s hopeless—hopeless.”
He shook his head, and softly beat upon the hand he held, as though mutely asking her commiseration.
“I did not go to Mr. Edmund last night,” said Milly,—“You will listen to me just the same as if you did remember all?”
“To every syllable you say.”
“Both, because I did not know, then, that this really was his father, and because I was fearful of the effect of such intelligence upon him, after his illness, if it should be. Since I have known who this person is, I have not gone either; but that is for another reason. He has long been separated from his wife and son—has been a stranger to his home almost from this son’s infancy, I learn from him—and has abandoned and deserted what he should have held most dear. In all that time he has been falling from the state of a gentleman, more and more, until—” she rose up, hastily, and going out for a moment, returned, accompanied by the wreck that Redlaw had beheld last night.
“Do you know me?” asked the Chemist.
“I should be glad,” returned the other, “and that is an unwonted word for me to use, if I could answer no.”
The Chemist looked at the man, standing in self-abasement and degradation before him, and would have looked longer, in an ineffectual struggle for enlightenment, but that Milly resumed her late position by his side, and attracted his attentive gaze to her own face.
“See how low he is sunk, how lost he is!” she whispered, stretching out her arm towards him, without looking from the Chemist’s face. “If you could remember all that is connected with him, do you not think it would move your pity to reflect that one you ever loved (do not let us mind how long ago, or in what belief that he has forfeited), should come to this?”
“I hope it would,” he answered. “I believe it would.”
His eyes wandered to the figure standing near the door, but came back speedily to her, on whom he gazed intently, as if he strove to learn some lesson from every tone of her voice, and every beam of her eyes.
“I have no learning, and you have much,” said Milly; “I am not used to think, and you are always thinking. May I tell you why it seems to me a good thing for us, to remember wrong that has been done us?”
“That we may forgive it.”
“Pardon me, great Heaven!” said Redlaw, lifting up his eyes, “for having thrown away thine own high attribute!”
“And if,” said Milly, “if your memory should one day be restored, as we will hope and pray it may be, would it not be a blessing to you to recall at once a wrong and its forgiveness?”
He looked at the figure by the door, and fastened his attentive eyes on her again; a ray of clearer light appeared to him to shine into his mind, from her bright face.
“He cannot go to his abandoned home. He does not seek to go there. He knows that he could only carry shame and trouble to those he has so cruelly neglected; and that the best reparation he can make them now, is to avoid them. A very little money carefully bestowed, would remove him to some distant place, where he might live and do no wrong, and make such atonement as is left within his power for the wrong he has done. To the unfortunate lady who is his wife, and to his son, this would be the best and kindest boon that their best friend could give them—one too that they need never know of; and to him, shattered in reputation, mind, and body, it might be salvation.”
He took her head between her hands, and kissed it, and said: “It shall be done. I trust to you to do it for me, now and secretly; and to tell him that I would forgive him, if I were so happy as to know for what.”
As she rose, and turned her beaming face towards the fallen man, implying that her mediation had been successful, he advanced a step, and without raising his eyes, addressed himself to Redlaw.
“You are so generous,” he said, “—you ever were—that you will try to banish your rising sense of retribution in the spectacle that is before you. I do not try to banish it from myself, Redlaw. If you can, believe me.”
The Chemist entreated Milly, by a gesture, to come nearer to him; and, as he listened looked in her face, as if to find in it the clue to what he heard.
“I am too decayed a wretch to make professions; I recollect my own career too well, to array any such before you. But from the day on which I made my first step downward, in dealing falsely by you, I have gone down with a certain, steady, doomed progression. That, I say.”
Redlaw, keeping her close at his side, turned his face towards the speaker, and there was sorrow in it. Something like mournful recognition too.
“I might have been another man, my life might have been another life, if I had avoided that first fatal step. I don’t know that it would have been. I claim nothing for the possibility. Your sister is at rest, and better than she could have been with me, if I had continued even what you thought me: even what I once supposed myself to be.”
Redlaw made a hasty motion with his hand, as if he would have put that subject on one side.
“I speak,” the other went on, “like a man taken from the grave. I should have made my own grave, last night, had it not been for this blessed hand.”
“Oh dear, he likes me too!” sobbed Milly, under her breath. “That’s another!”
“I could not have put myself in your way, last night, even for bread. But, to-day, my recollection of what has been is so strongly stirred, and is presented to me, I don’t know how, so vividly, that I have dared to come at her suggestion, and to take your bounty, and to thank you for it, and to beg you, Redlaw, in your dying hour, to be as merciful to me in your thoughts, as you are in your deeds.”
He turned towards the door, and stopped a moment on his way forth.
“I hope my son may interest you, for his mother’s sake. I hope he may deserve to do so. Unless my life should be preserved a long time, and I should know that I have not misused your aid, I shall never look upon him more.”
Going out, he raised his eyes to Redlaw for the first time. Redlaw, whose steadfast gaze was fixed upon him, dreamily held out his hand. He returned and touched it—little more—with both his own; and bending down his head, went slowly out.
In the few moments that elapsed, while Milly silently took him to the gate, the Chemist dropped into his chair, and covered his face with his hands. Seeing him thus, when she came back, accompanied by her husband and his father (who were both greatly concerned for him), she avoided disturbing him, or permitting him to be disturbed; and kneeled down near the chair to put some warm clothing on the boy.
“That’s exactly where it is. That’s what I always say, father!” exclaimed her admiring husband. “There’s a motherly feeling in Mrs. William’s breast that must and will have went!”
“Ay, ay,” said the old man; “you’re right. My son William’s right!”
“It happens all for the best, Milly dear, no doubt,” said Mr. William, tenderly, “that we have no children of our own; and yet I sometimes wish you had one to love and cherish. Our little dead child that you built such hopes upon, and that never breathed the breath of life—it has made you quiet-like, Milly.”
“I am very happy in the recollection of it, William dear,” she answered. “I think of it every day.”
“I was afraid you thought of it a good deal.”
“Don’t say, afraid; it is a comfort to me; it speaks to me in so many ways. The innocent thing that never lived on earth, is like an angel to me, William.”
“You are like an angel to father and me,” said Mr. William, softly. “I know that.”
“When I think of all those hopes I built upon it, and the many times I sat and pictured to myself the little smiling face upon my bosom that never lay there, and the sweet eyes turned up to mine that never opened to the light,” said Milly, “I can feel a greater tenderness, I think, for all the disappointed hopes in which there is no harm. When I see a beautiful child in its fond mother’s arms, I love it all the better, thinking that my child might have been like that, and might have made my heart as proud and happy.”
Redlaw raised his head, and looked towards her.
“All through life, it seems by me,” she continued, “to tell me something. For poor neglected children, my little child pleads as if it were alive, and had a voice I knew, with which to speak to me. When I hear of youth in suffering or shame, I think that my child might have come to that, perhaps, and that God took it from me in His mercy. Even in age and grey hair, such as father’s, it is present: saying that it too might have lived to be old, long and long after you and I were gone, and to have needed the respect and love of younger people.”
Her quiet voice was quieter than ever, as she took her husband’s arm, and laid her head against it.
“Children love me so, that sometimes I half fancy—it’s a silly fancy, William—they have some way I don’t know of, of feeling for my little child, and me, and understanding why their love is precious to me. If I have been quiet since, I have been more happy, William, in a hundred ways. Not least happy, dear, in this—that even when my little child was born and dead but a few days, and I was weak and sorrowful, and could not help grieving a little, the thought arose, that if I tried to lead a good life, I should meet in Heaven a bright creature, who would call me, Mother!”
Redlaw fell upon his knees, with a loud cry.
“O Thou,” he said, “who through the teaching of pure love, hast graciously restored me to the memory which was the memory of Christ upon the Cross, and of all the good who perished in His cause, receive my thanks, and bless her!”
Then, he folded her to his heart; and Milly, sobbing more than ever, cried, as she laughed, “He is come back to himself! He likes me very much indeed, too! Oh, dear, dear, dear me, here’s another!”
Then, the student entered, leading by the hand a lovely girl, who was afraid to come. And Redlaw so changed towards him, seeing in him and his youthful choice, the softened shadow of that chastening passage in his own life, to which, as to a shady tree, the dove so long imprisoned in his solitary ark might fly for rest and company, fell upon his neck, entreating them to be his children.
Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, he laid his hand upon the boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him.
Then, he gave his right hand cheerily to Philip, and said that they would that day hold a Christmas dinner in what used to be, before the ten poor gentlemen commuted, their great Dinner Hall; and that they would bid to it as many of that Swidger family, who, his son had told him, were so numerous that they might join hands and make a ring round England, as could be brought together on so short a notice.
And it was that day done. There were so many Swidgers there, grown up and children, that an attempt to state them in round numbers might engender doubts, in the distrustful, of the veracity of this history. Therefore the attempt shall not be made. But there they were, by dozens and scores—and there was good news and good hope there, ready for them, of George, who had been visited again by his father and brother, and by Milly, and again left in a quiet sleep. There, present at the dinner, too, were the Tetterbys, including young Adolphus, who arrived in his prismatic comforter, in good time for the beef. Johnny and the baby were too late, of course, and came in all on one side, the one exhausted, the other in a supposed state of double-tooth; but that was customary, and not alarming.
It was sad to see the child who had no name or lineage, watching the other children as they played, not knowing how to talk with them, or sport with them, and more strange to the ways of childhood than a rough dog. It was sad, though in a different way, to see what an instinctive knowledge the youngest children there had of his being different from all the rest, and how they made timid approaches to him with soft words and touches, and with little presents, that he might not be unhappy. But he kept by Milly, and began to love her—that was another, as she said!—and, as they all liked her dearly, they were glad of that, and when they saw him peeping at them from behind her chair, they were pleased that he was so close to it.
All this, the Chemist, sitting with the student and his bride that was to be, Philip, and the rest, saw.
Some people have said since, that he only thought what has been herein set down; others, that he read it in the fire, one winter night about the twilight time; others, that the Ghost was but the representation of his gloomy thoughts, and Milly the embodiment of his better wisdom. I say nothing.
—Except this. That as they were assembled in the old Hall, by no other light than that of a great fire (having dined early), the shadows once more stole out of their hiding-places, and danced about the room, showing the children marvellous shapes and faces on the walls, and gradually changing what was real and familiar there, to what was wild and magical. But that there was one thing in the Hall, to which the eyes of Redlaw, and of Milly and her husband, and of the old man, and of the student, and his bride that was to be, were often turned, which the shadows did not obscure or change. Deepened in its gravity by the fire-light, and gazing from the darkness of the panelled wall like life, the sedate face in the portrait, with the beard and ruff, looked down at them from under its verdant wreath of holly, as they looked up at it; and, clear and plain below, as if a voice had uttered them, were the words.
Lord keep my Memory green.
– End –