ho is it that says there is no romance in humble life? - that because a man may be wanting in outward refinement he cannot know the meaning of the word? He who says so proves that he has but very superficially studied human nature, and that there are heights he has not climbed and depths he has not fathomed. There are romances in humble life. Thousands of stories might be told of noble endurance, self-sacrifice, high-souled devotion, and faithful long-tried love, that would go to prove the fact. The simple country girl may be as true and noble a woman as the high-born lady; and a man may be a hero though he wear fustian and be utterly ignorant of what is called good society.
The true noblesse oblige is not confined to any rank or class, and is to be found amongst the poor and lowly as well as amongst the wealthy and high-born. Let the following little story, taken from real life, prove this.
It is only a simple village tale of a girl who held justice, duty, and honour dearer than love and happiness. A girl who, though she had no high attainments and not very much education, was in her unconscious way as true a heroine as many a noble woman of whose names history has made household words.
The sun was setting redly behind the western hills, throwing a ruddy glow upon the cottage windows, a glow which was reflected at one angle of the village street upon a young girl sitting on a low chair in a dark doorway, that framed her figure like a picture. It was a picture such as Birket Foster loves to paint.
Sunlight falling in golden flakes through the leaves of the creeper that draped the doorway; a box of mignonette and scarlet geraniums on the sill of the diamond-paned window; an old grey cat leisurely eating her supper out of a blue and white saucer; while the centre piece of the picture was the bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked maiden, with her fresh, clear complexion, browned by constant exposure to summer sun and winter wind; a tall, well-rounded figure in a simple lilac print gown, scrupulously neat and clean, and a blue worsted stocking in her hand, whose length was rapidly increasing under her deft fingers - fingers that were neither very small nor very white; how could they help being rough and coarse when gloves were a thing almost unknown in the village, and when so much household work fell to their share?
The background of the doorway, where the girl sat, was sombre enough; and through the gathering shadows you could catch sundry glimpses of flitches of bacon hanging from the ceiling of the room, rows of glass jars arranged in the window, filled with what the village children knew as "goodies," drawers and boxes with the names of the contents written in large text hand, rolls of drapery, strings of onions, and other articles too numerous to mention, showing that the house was indeed a general shop - the village emporium, where you could buy almost anything, from a linsey dress or a "double Gloucester" to a quarter of a pound of raw sugar or a pennyworth of slate pencil. In fact, this was almost the only shop which the little village of Cleasthorpe afforded, and was, besides, the post-office and what stood for a club, for when public affairs, or, more often, narrower local interests, were to be discussed, the men were accustomed to meet and talk in John Hayes's dark, little shop, amidst the odours of cheese, smoked haddocks, and lamp oil. Thither, too, the young ladies from "The Manor" did not scruple to come when they fell short of embroidery cotton, postage stamps, or some such trifles. And Mary Hayes - our bright-eyed heroine - would stand and serve them with her ever-ready smile and pleasant voice, a smile that was just as ready and voice just as pleasant when addressing the little fellow coming in eager and self-important, enjoying the rare treat of a halfpenny to spend on some of the tempting goodies in the window, which he had so often regarded with wistful eyes and longing little mouth. She was a great favourite with the children, and never grew impatient with them for their anxious delay in coming to a conclusion respecting the various merits of bull's eyes or acid drops against toffee or peppermint lozenges.
She was a favourite with their mothers, too, for whom she always had a bright smile and cheery word when they came for their usual Saturday marketings. In fact, she was a general favourite, and held her own, as the saying is, with all in the village. Also - and perhaps this spoke as well for her as anything else - she was the friend of all the girls, too. They might at times feel a little feminine jealousy of her, when the young men seemed to value her society so much more than that of any of them; but there never was any real ill-feeling. Mary was so good-natured and kind-hearted, so forgetful of self, so careless of attracting attention, so ready to help in any difficulty - from the settling of some dispute to the trimming of a bonnet in the latest fashion - that the girls could not have quarrelled with her even if they had wished.
Sims Reeves (1818-1900)Born John Reeves at Woolwich on the 26th September, 1818, he received his musical education from his father, a musician in the royal artillery. After more training he appeared at Drury Lane (1841-43) in subordinate tenor parts. He later studied under G M Bordogni in Paris and A Mazzucato in Milan, where he made his debut in Italian opera at La Scala as Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
His career on the English operatic stage began at Drury Lane in December 1847 in the same part, with Berlioz as the conductor. At the Norwich festival (1848) he made a great sensation in "The enemy said," from Israel in Egypt.
At the time he was recognised as the leading English tenor; and the tenor parts in M Costa's Eli and Naaman, were written for him. His first Handel festival was that of 1857.
He died at Worthing on the 25th October, 1900.
From Encyclopaedia Britannica
But after all it was only Tom Altham, whose father acted as the village butcher, and was bringing up his only son to the same trade. But that prosaic fact did not take away any of the romance in Mary's sight, and she thought herself the happiest and proudest girl in all England because his choice had fallen upon her.
No real love-making had as yet passed between them; people were slow to act in Cleasthorpe, and Tom was not a man of many words. A sort of silent understanding was all that existed between them, and Mary was well content.
It was Saturday evening, and Tom Altham's business was done for the day, and as soon as the early tea was over the young fellow had hastened to change his working dress, arranged with much care a pink rose and a sprig of southern wood in his buttonhole, and sauntered slowly down the street, trying to look entirely unconcerned.
"Off to the Hayes's as usual," said his mother, with a shrewd smile, as she peered out of the window, watching her son's tall figure, which was throwing a preternaturally long shadow behind him in the setting sunlight.
Mrs Altham was right. Tom was a very frequent visitor at the shop, and Mary was not at all surprised to see him arriving, though she was coquette enough to make believe she did not see him until he was close upon her and had bidden her good evening. Then she looked up with a feigned start and a deepened colour.
"Why, whoever would have thought of seeing you here to-night, Mr Tom? Why aren't you down in the meadow playing cricket? Everyone else is there but father and me. Maybe I'd have gone, but father seemed a bit worried, so I stayed at home to keep him company."
"I didn't want to go," the young fellow answered, rather sheepishly. "I thought I'd come here and get some herrings; mother wants some."
"You'd better go inside, then; father's there, and he'll serve you," Mary answered, laughing inwardly at his lame excuse.
"All right," he replied; "there's no special hurry."
So saying, he put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the doorpost, well pleased to watch the bonny bright face and deft fingers, clicking the knitting needles. The shop behind looked very dark and gloomy, and in the little parlour beyond, Tom could just catch a glimpse of an old man, white-haired and round-shouldered, sitting at a table covered with slips of paper, much thumbed and very greasy.
"Father's worried," Mary repeated, after a pause, seeing that her companion did not seem talkatively inclined. "He won't tell me his bothers, for fear of making me worry too, but I know he's got some bad debts. I wish he would tell me; maybe I could help him."
"How's that?" asked Tom.
"The shop's not done very well lately, somehow. Prices have gone down, you see; and father's lost some money I know, and there's a lot owing that father can't get in. It would set him up finely if he could get hold of it, but he just can't, and so there he is." And an anxious shade came over the girl's face.
"How so?" Tom demanded, in a sympathetic tone.
"Oh, for lots of reasons. There's one account, and a very big one, too, owing from Mr Brownlow for ever so long. Then he died, you know, and Mrs Brownlow has gone away, no one knows where. Then there's a lot of bills owing from poor folks who say they can't pay, and father's that soft-hearted he won't make them. He's lots to bother him, has father." And Mary ended with a sigh.
"He's nought to bother him with his daughter," answered Tom, with a clumsy attempt at gallantry.
Mary flushed a little, tossed her head, and tried to look scornful as she gave him a glance from under her lashes.
"I say, Mr Tom, you're complimentary this evening," she said.
"Well, I mean it," he replied. "Your father's a happy man to have such a daughter. I wish you were mine, Mary. No, I don't mean that," he hastily corrected himself, "for then I'd have to be an old man. But when I see you kissing him," jerking his head in the direction of the little back-parlour, "and filling his pipe, and petting him as if you loved him ever so, why, it makes me feel like - like - I don't know what it makes me feel like!"
Mary blushed rosy-red at the awkward speech, and was about to answer him when a querulous voice came from the parlour. "Mary, I wish you'd come here."
"All right, father; I'm coming," she answered, unwillingly enough it must be confessed, while Tom's countenance fell dolefully.
"I say, Mary, it's too bad," he began; "I wanted to have a talk with you. Can't the old gentleman wait?"
"I should think not! Wait for you indeed!" and she spoke impatiently, to hide her own vexation.
"Well, no, I didn't really mean it," he replied, penitently; "but I say, Mary, won't you come a walk with me after church to-morrow evening, just down by the river, where it's so nice and quiet and no one there? I want to tell you something."
"I don't know; perhaps," very coyly and hesitatingly, as she rolled up the long blue stocking with unnecessary care and precision.
"No, but promise," he pleaded, eagerly: "say you will. I'll never ask you again, if you don't choose, but just promise this once!"
"Well, then, I promise," she answered, unable to resist his pleading tone, and gave him her hand at parting. He held it firmly in both his own, as if he never meant to let it go, and gazed down into her face with a look there was no mistaking - a look that told more plainly than words the deep love that possessed him, a love that was, perhaps, all the more earnest and concentrated because he found himself so unable to find fitting words in which to give it utterance.
"Mary! Mary!" came fretfully from the dark back parlour.
"Coming, father," and Mary drew her hand hastily away from the detaining clasp.
"To-morrow evening; don't forget," he whispered.
She nodded brightly with an answering smile, and tripped away out of the bright sunshine into the gloomy little parlour, trying to look unconscious, and feeling glad that the room was too dark for her father to notice her face too closely.
"What a long time you are in coming, Mary," the old man complained, turning round and pushing his spectacles up on his forehead. "I want you to cast up these figures for me; your eyes are younger than mine, and I don't know what's come over me to-night - I'm sorely pottered with 'em."
She took the well-thumbed papers out of the old man's shaking hand, and sitting down by his side; did her best to understand his difficulties and help him out of them. But his explanations were so vague, his calculations so confused, and his mind so thoroughly bewildered that she found it difficult to know what he wanted her to do, and after spending some time in vainly trying to make his meaning clear, the old man fairly lost his temper, and declaring that his head ached until he was "fair muddled," he swept all the papers into his desk, locked them up, and bade Mary see to supper.
"You're tired, father," she said soothingly; I'll get supper while you shut up shop, and then you shall go to bed and get rested, and then on Monday we'll do the bills together, when you are bright and fresh."
But when the old man sat down to supper he could not eat, and Mary looked at him with concern, for he did not seem at all like himself. "I can't eat, Mary," he said, fretfully, pushing his plate away from him; "I can't think what's come over me."
"You'd better go to bed, father," she said; "I'll bring you a basin of something hot when you're laid down, and you'll likely sleep sound and be alright to-morrow."
According to his wont, the old man submitted, and went slowly upstairs to his own room, whither Mary soon followed him with a steaming basin of soup in her hand. She saw him comfortably settled down for the night, and placed a handbell within his reach.
"Just you ring that, father, when you want anything," she said, "and I shall hear it and come to you at once; but I hope you won't be awake to do it, but sleep straight away."
"I think I shall," he answered, in a weary tone; "I'm very tired, some way, Mary. Good night, my lass, and God bless you!"
It was an unusual speech for John Hayes, and Mary wondered over it a little as she gave him a good night kiss, but soon forgot about it in the crowd of pleasant thoughts and anticipations that would fill her mind.
She set out her best muslin dress for the morrow's wear; took carefully from its box her new Sunday bonnet, handling it tenderly, and wondering if Tom Altham would admire the blue ribbons and scarlet geraniums, put it carefully back; undressed in the moonlight and knotted up her flowing hair; then, kneeling by the uncurtained window, she looked out marvelling at the splendour of the night and going over in her mind the short conversation on the doorstep. What happiness the recollection gave her! There was no drawback to it. Tom Altham was all she could desire, and a great favourite with her father. There could be no difficulties in the way. She knew he meant to put the final question to-morrow, while she...; but at this stage of thought Mary's head sank upon her clasped hands and a very earnest prayer arose that she might be worthy of this great happiness.
The moon shed its silver radiance over the earth; one or two stars were shining in the dark sky; the sounds of village life were hushed, and, kneeling at the window of her little chamber, Mary Hayes told herself there was not in England a girl so blessed and happy as she.
The Sabbath sun rose bright and clear, and shone warmly in through the window of Mary's room. The birds twittered under the eaves, and from the sky above came the lark's clear notes, carolling his morning hymn of praise.
Mary was up and dressed early - not in the clean sprigged muslin, for Mary was a careful girl, and there was the fire to light downstairs, and various household duties to be performed before she would be ready to don the Sunday dress and bonnet, and set out for church with her father down the green lane. She moved briskly about; lit the fire and laid the breakfast-table, drawing it up to the open window, where her father could enjoy the scent of the roses and sweet briar, singing to herself the while out of the very lightness and gladsomeness of her heart.
When the table was spread with the frugal repast and the kettle singing on the fire, Mary went upstairs and tapped at her father's door. He had not come down yet, and she reproached herself for having been so much absorbed in her own thoughts as to have forgotten that he had complained of not feeling well the previous evening.
"Breakfast's ready, father," she said, and then tapped again more loudly, as she met with no response. "Perhaps he's oversleeping himself," she said. But a still louder knock meeting with no reply, she began to grow anxious, and softly opening the door, she peeped in.
Her father was lying on the bed, and at the first glance Mary thought he was asleep, but when she drew nearer she saw that his eyes were open and that he was looking at her earnestly, and, as she thought, imploringly.
"Breakfast's ready, father," she said in her cheerful voice; "you've gone and overslept yourself. I've rapped three times."
There was still no reply. The old man lay there silent and speechless, with nothing to show that he was conscious of his daughter's presence except the piteous expression of fear and dumb entreaty in his eyes. His daughter, little accustomed to illness, was terribly alarmed. She raised her father's head, tried to make him drink, spoke to him again and again, begging him to answer her; and when she found that all her efforts to rouse him were unsuccessful, she laid him back gently on the pillow, and ran downstairs and into the next house for help.
"Oh, Mrs Carter!" she cried, throwing open the cottage door without the ceremony of knocking, "do come back with me! Father's took bad, and I can't make out what ails him. Her won't move nor speak, and takes no notice of anything I do."
Kind-hearted Mrs Carter, who was just sitting down to her breakfast-table, rose hastily, and leaving her untasted tea to cool in the cup, hurried across the road, and followed Mary's eager footsteps up the steep stairs and into John Hayes's bedroom.
The old man lay just as his daughter had left him - speechless and motionless, with the same troubled look in his eyes, and his face strangely livid and distorted.
"What ails him Mrs Carter?" asked Mary, as she anxiously watched the good woman's face to read her verdict there.
"It's a stroke he's had, my lass. You'd better send for the doctor at once, though it's little he can do when a man's struck."
"But will he die?" whispered the poor girl, in her terror and distress.
Mrs Carter shook her head. "Wait till the doctor comes," she said in tones meant to be reassuring. "He'll tell you better nor me. Happen he'll live long enough; happen he'll get better of it, or happen," sinking her voice to a whisper, "he'll just go out like the snuff of a candle. But put your bonnet on, my lass, and run down for the doctor. I'll wait here. The air'll do you good; you look ready to faint."
Dr Winter came, but could do nothing. Mrs Carter had been right in saying the old man had had a stroke, and how it would end no one could say. He might pass away any moment, or he might live for days or months.
Mary's place in the village choir was empty that day. Neither was there any walk for her by the riverside after evening service. Instead, the day was spent by her father's bedside, while the summer sun shone without, the birds sang gaily, and the church bells filled the air with their solemnly joyful music. Patiently Mary sat by the stricken old man. The shadows crept round and lengthened; the soft breeze, laden with the scent of roses, hay, and sweet briar, came in through the open window, and mingled with it came the distant lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep and lambs. Now the clang and the clash of the bells ringing for evensong had ceased, and in the silent chamber Mary could catch the faint rise and fall of the hymns, sung to the dear familiar tunes. It soothed her anxious sorrow listening thus, and presently she found herself humming softly in accompaniment to the distant music, and the very words fell like balm on her heart.
"Oh, God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home."
She wondered if her father took in the meaning of the beautiful words. Surely they ought to soothe away the terrible anxiety in his eyes. He was always fond of hymns, and liked to hear Mary sing them; but now he seemed insensible to their meaning and to the hope and comfort they conveyed.
She had repeated his favourite texts over and over softly in his ear, and had read him short passages from the New Testament; but nothing seemed to calm the trouble which was evidently on his mind, and which the dumb lips seemed to be longing and striving in vain to tell.
"What is it he wants, Mrs Carter?" Mary asked, when the old woman came in for the sixth time that day to see how her neighbour was. "I'm sure he wants something, and I can't make out what. I can't bear to see him look so, and not know what he wants. I'm sure he wants me to do something."
"They mostly look so," answered the old woman. "Maybe they are thinking of things they had meant to say; but there's no use wondering when they can't tell us. Try not to think of it, honey; don't bother yourself worse nor you can help. Go and take a little walk and I'll wait here till you come back. He won't want anything just now but what I can get him as well as you."
Mary thanked the kind old woman, and did as she was bidden, as far as going out into the fresh air. but she was not inclined for a walk, and shrank from meeting any of the little groups of friends and neighbours who were congregated here and there, discussing the news of the village, or sauntering by the riverside, or along the meadow paths. Instead, she seated herself in the open doorway, and leaning her head against the oak frame, abandoned herself to sad thoughts.
A voice at her side roused her, and she turned to meet the face of Tom Altham, who stood close by with a look of pitying tenderness on his face.
"Poor little Mary," he said, softly; "there was no walk by the river for us this evening."
The tender tones were too much for the poor girl. She had borne up bravely through the day, but Tom's pity and the yearning love shining so unmistakably in his eyes made her break down. Her lip began to quiver, and then, hiding her face in her hands, she burst into tears.
"Don't cry, Mary; don't cry," pleaded Tom, with an odd little quiver in his voice. "I can't bear to see you cry. I wish I could take all your trouble from you." He possessed himself of one of her hands as he spoke, and it was not withdrawn. His kind pressure was gently returned, for Tom's love and sympathy were very precious to the poor girl then. She was soon calm again, and had raised her face and wiped her eyes.
"I can't bear to see you in trouble, Mary," the young man went on. "It cuts me to the heart to see you cry, when I'd lay down my life cheerfully to make you happy. I'd meant to tell you a great deal this evening, my dear, if things had gone right, and you'd have met me by the river. Maybe you'd not be in a humour now to hear what I'd got to say?" he questioned, hesitatingly and doubtfully.
"No, not to-night, Tom," she answered quickly, while her thoughts flew to the old father upstairs lying in his living death. "It seems I oughtn't to think of anything but him just now, when he's so as he might go off any moment."
"You know best, Mary," he answered, with a heavy sigh, in which there was no trace of impatience. "I'll wait till you're ready to listen to me, and if you want anyone to help you any time with the old man, you know how glad I'll be to do it."
"Thank you, Tom," was all she said, but the look she gave him spoke more than words, and he was content; while to her in her sorrow his patient unselfish love came with a wonderful power of soothing comfort.
All the next day the shutters of old John Hayes's shop were up. The villagers shook their heads in friendly condolence over the poor old man's illness, and postponed their purchases until such time as business should resume its sway in the little store.
Little Benny Mills, a would-be buyer, stood in front of the shutters with a look of woeful disappointment, and with a bright new penny clutched tightly in his small damp fist. There was no chance of bull's eyes or peppermint drops today.
Mary spent all that day by her father's bedside. The old man lay still in the same state as on the previous day; motionless and speechless, but still with the same hungry, longing expression in his eyes. It haunted Mary, who wearied herself with vain attempts to make out what he wanted.
At last an idea struck her suddenly: could he be thinking about the bills that had worried him so on Saturday evening? They had troubled him then, and it might be that he was thinking of them still. She moved across the room to her father's side, and, bending over him, she looked into his eager eyes and asked gently, "Is it those bills you're thinking of, father?"
A light seemed to come over the poor distorted countenance; the eyes seemed a little to lose their hungry gaze.
Mary went on:
"And you want me to make them out for you, father? To see what they are all about and settle them for you?"
She was right at last; there could be no mistaking the relief on the old man's face.
"Then I'll bring them and settle them all here in your room. I'll soon arrange it, never fear, and don't you trouble about it any more." She stooped and kissed him lightly, and then ran downstairs to fetch the pile of greasy, well-thumbed bills and papers.
A wonderfully confused assortment they were: a mixture of bills to pay and bills owing; badly spelled and worse written. Poor Mary - not a brilliant scholar at any time - was half inclined to throw up her task as hopeless more than once. "I can't make head or tail of them!" she said to herself in despair. But a glance at the face of her father, comparatively calm and contented now, spurred her on to further attempts, and after two or three hours groping in darkness she saw her way through at last, and set to work to make with great care and trouble a little account of all that was owing to her father and all that he himself owed. The total startled her. What was owing to him consisted mostly of bad debts, which Mary knew well enough there was little if any chance of being paid; while on the other side the amount owing fairly staggered her. Accounts for things bought for the shop supplied long ago were there unsettled; bills for articles which the old man had bought recklessly and which had not sold again.
"There's a lot owing, father," she said, trying to speak calmly. "And you've been worrying over it as you've lain there."
The eager eyes seemed to assent, but still regarded the girl imploringly. Still the old man was not satisfied. Mary glanced from her father to the bills, and again from the bills to her father.
Then with a sudden inspiration she said, "You want them all paid, don't you, father? You were meaning to pay every penny before you were taken ill, and you don't know what will happen now if you don't get up again. That's it, I'm sure it is! Well, don't worry any more, dear father," this very gently and soothingly; "you leave 'em all to me, I'll see to them, and take care that every penny is paid, if it takes all my life to do it," she added under her breath.
She had found the clue at last. The hungry, eager look seemed to die away from the poor old face.
"You will promise, Mary?" it seemed to ask.
"Father, I promise," she said, kneeling down by his bedside and tenderly stroking one of his helpless hands. "I'll pay every penny that you owe, God helping me, and no one shall suffer for us. Does that content you?"
The peaceful look was sufficient answer, and then as if rest had come with Mary's promise, the old man's eyes closed, and he seemed inclined to sleep. She drew the bed-curtain so as to shield him from the afternoon sun, and then went and sat down by the low window-seat with a troubled anxious face, as if a burden of care had fallen upon her.
She had mad a solemn promise to a dying man, and she meant to keep it if it took a lifetime to fulfil. But what did that entail? Instinctively her thoughts flew to Tom Altham, and a wild impotent pain surged up in her heart, for did not this promise mean separation from him? Oh, she could not give him up! she cried inwardly in dumb anguish. She could not lay aside the gift that had been offered her; and yet there was the promise she had made. Not for any love or any happiness could she go back from it. But oh, how cruel it all seemed! Was duty such a hard thing? Could it be that such a sacrifice was demanded of her? Then she glanced to the bed where the old man lay with closed eyes as if asleep, and she thought of the look of peace and contentment that had come over his poor old face when she gave him her solemn promise. No, she could not go back from it, cost what it might.
In deep trouble of soul the poor girl fell on her knees by the low window-seat, and burying her face in her hands, raised an earnest wordless prayer for strength to do right without counting the cost. Long she kneeled there, but she rose at length with a light of holy courage and steadfast purpose on her chastened face, which told of a hard struggle and a victory won.There would be no going back now. With God-given strength she would keep straight forward, laying aside all vain regrets and selfish longings.
For a week longer the shutters of the little shop remained up, while old John Hayes still lay in his living death. But the troubled look had passed away from his eyes, or if its shadow ever seemed to be returning, a whispered "I promise, father," from Mary was sufficient to restore them to calmness.
On the evening of the eighth day the release came, and the bell tolled its solemn notice to the village that the old man had passed away. He had gone without word or sign; but his daughter, holding his hand in her loving clasp as he entered the dark valley, felt that all was well, and knew that she had had power to soothe his last hours with the promise that death had made sacred.
They laid the old man to rest in the green churchyard, where the willows waved and the roses bloomed, and the little river that ran by the side of the low moss-grown wall seemed to be for ever singing a gentle monotonous dirge for those who slept beneath the grass.
Relations there were none to follow the old man to his last resting-place, but friends and neighbours flocked to the graveside out of respect to his memory, and from a real affection for the poor girl, left so solitary now. Their presence and sympathy soothed her in her sorrow and loneliness, and yet it was an unutterable relief to be alone at home once more - away from their kindly condolences, and alone with her grief and anxiety.
She had shut herself in, and was relieving the weary weight at her heart with a quiet fit of weeping, when she heard a low, hesitating tap at the outer door. Very unwillingly she rose to answer it; she did so long to be alone. But on the doorstep, standing there with a face full of the deepest, tenderest sympathy, she saw Tom Altham.
"You must forgive me for coming to see you so soon, Mary," he said, "but I could not rest without coming to tell you how sorry I am. I could not bear to think of you all alone and never a soul near you, and so I came. You must forgive me, Mary, if I've vexed you with coming, but I could not help it."
"You're very kind," she said, and then stood silent, not asking him to enter the house.
But Tom leaned against the door-post as if he did not mean to go away directly, and Mary waited with a palpitating heart, dreading what he would say next.
"You're all alone now, Mary," he said, after a pause of a few moments; and the words were spoken so gently and tenderly that the poor girl felt the sobs rising in her throat.
"You mustn't stay alone, Mary," he went on. "Won't you come to me? You know I wanted to ask you before, though maybe I sound sudden now. But I can't leave you all alone, Mary; won't you come to me? You know I wanted to ask you before, though maybe I sound sudden now. But I can't leave you all alone, Mary; won't you come to me? You know I've loved you faithful a great while now; and I think the old man liked me too, and I think he'd be glad, if he could see now, to know as how you'd got some one to care for you. I think he'd rest better in his grave if he knew that; and, Mary, though I can't say a great deal, I do know I love you so that I'd die for you gladly any day."
"Oh, don't, don't!" she wailed, interrupting him with a sudden cry of distress; "don't say any more, Tom, for it can never be!"
"But why, Mary? What do you mean?" he asked, in some surprise. "Why, when I spoke to you before I thought..."
"Don't think any more, Tom," she answered, making a brave effort to speak calmly, "for it can't ever be now. Didn't you know as how poor father died sadly in debt?"
"Yes, I heard something or other about it, but what's that got to do with us?"
"He was sorely troubled about it, was father, when he lay ill. I could see well enough, and I found out what ailed him, and then I promised him I'd pay the debts for him, and he seemed satisfied and content like; and I must pay them, Tom, if it takes me all my life to do it."
"I don't see why you should," he answered, a trifle impatiently; "you never ran 'em up, you know, and I don't see why you ought to pay them. I'm sure it could be arranged some way, and the folks you owe would be satisfied when they knew the old man was gone and only you were left."
"I know you don't meant that, Tom," she answered him, with a grave reproachful look; "why that wouldn't be honourable, and you know that as well as I do, and when I've promised father, too! Why he'd never rest in his grave, and I, Tom, I couldn't rest and know as how folks were suffering by us, and perhaps cursing father's memory. No, Tom, you know a deal better than that, and you don't mean it really."
"No, I don't, Mary; forgive me," he answered, penitently. "I didn't mean it, only it seemed hard on you; but never mind, my dear, we'll manage it somehow, never fear. Only you consent to come to me and we'll soon pay everything between us; two's better than one, you know, and when we are married we can save fast enough, I'll warrant you. I've got a tidy little sum laid by in the bank already."
"You're very good, Tom," she replied, wistfully; "but it can't be. I wouldn't take your savings, and I wouldn't let any man marry me while I had these debts hanging over me; besides, if you paid, it wouldn't be me doing it, you see, and I promised father, and I must keep to my word, or he'd never rest."
"How much do you owe, my dear? Perhaps it ain't so bad as you think."
Mary named the sum, which was so much beyond Tom's expectations that a low whistle of dismay was all the opinion he gave.
"It's a good bit, you see," she said. "But I'll manage some way, and I thank you kindly all the same, Tom."
"But it'll take you your life to scrape and save all that money, Mary," he persisted. "Let me help you, and we'll manage it ever so much easier between us. You can't bear such a burden alone. Only let us get married and trust to the future. My business is good, you know, and we'll manage it ever so much easier between us. You can't bear such a burden alone. Only let us get married and trust to the future. My business is good, you know, and we'll live as careful as may be. Do be persuaded, Mary."
But Mary shook her head resolutely.
"It wouldn't do, Tom; I daren't risk it. And I must pay the money my own self, or father would never be satisfied; and I promised him, you know."
And Tom found all his entreaties vain. To all he could plead and urge she still replied with the same words, "I promised father." And his own good sense told him she was right. And the truth and honour of his nature applauded the girl's steadfast resolution, though his love fought so hard against it; while her heart was pleading so earnestly in his favour that she would give him love for love, that at last she broke down utterly, and burst into a fit of hysterical tears.
"Oh, go away, Tom!" she cried sharply in her pain; "it's killing me! And I tell you it can never be. I've promised, and I can't go back. Don't urge me any more!"
Her distress was so real that Tom could not but desist.
"Well, then, I'll not trouble you any more, Mary," he said. "Only look here, my dear, won't you give me your promise? If I have that I'll be content to wait any time for you. I'll be patient for any number of years. Only let me have your promise, and we'll be as happy as we can."
But Mary shook her head. "It won't do, Tom. It wouldn't be fair to you to keep you waiting for years and years. You'd get tired of it in time, and you'd be too good to tell me - I know you would - though all the time I was growing old and ugly and ill-tempered, and you were wanting to marry some sweet little girl who was young and pretty, and who'd make you such a good wife."
And here again she was firm and proof against his eager disclaimings and his indignation at the bare idea of his ever growing tired of her or of his love changing.
"I'm sure it's all for the best," she said, in a sad, weary tone, but so firmly withal that Tom felt that further appeals were useless. "You'll thank me some day."
"Well, then, I'll say no more," he answered, "for I see your mind's made up. But just tell me one thing, Mary - if things had turned out differently, say you could have cared for me just a little! Say I wasn't mistaken in thinking you'd not meant to quite turn me off!"
And simple-minded Mary, who was no coquette, placed her hand in his, and answered, "Why, Tom, I love you with all my heart."
"Thank you for the word," he replied, holding her hand firmly; "then I can wait. You'll find me true, my dear; and when you are ready I shall be waiting. I shan't grow tired or changed, you'll find, whatever you may think now."
And though the young fellow went away that evening with a very heavy heart, yet he could not but admit that the girl was right. "God help her!" he said to himself; "she's as noble a little soul as ever was, and if I loved her before, I love her ten times more, though I could not turn from what she thought was right. She's better than I by a long score. Bless her!"
Next day Mary was at her usual place behind the little counter, for the shutters were down early, and business was to be resumed as usual. Life had its purpose for her now, and she must strain every nerve and waste not a single opportunity if she would lessen the heavy burden of the debt that hung like a nightmare on her soul.
And from henceforth it was no idle life she led. She worked early and late, never spared herself, lived within the utmost bounds of economy, denied herself almost every pleasure and relaxation, bending her whole energies to the one object she had in view.
Of course, the whole affair was discussed and re-discussed in all its bearings by the whole village, as any affair of more or less importance is always discussed in small communities, and the verdict passed upon the girl's conduct was by no means unanimous. Some few applauded, but the greater portion thought "she was an idiot for her pains. Why should she bother herself paying the old man's debts when, no doubt, things could be arranged comfortable somehow, and then she could begin with a clean score." These latter, be it remarked, were none of them creditors of the old man.
But Mary went on her way unmoved by praise or blame. She had given a sacred promise, and she would perform it, come what might, and she was not to be deterred from her purpose by adverse criticism. So she set herself steadily to work, saving every penny that she possibly could, as eagerly as the veriest miser, and wearying herself with endeavours to make the little shop more attractive to entice customers.
And gradually as new objects of interest came to the fore the curiosity of the neighbours died away, and Mary was left in peace to pursue her own course. It even began to be forgotten that Tom Altham had once shown such a decided preference for Mary. Perhaps he fought shy, said some, when it was found under what circumstances old John Hayes had died, and no blame to him. If there ever had been anything between the two, said others, it was all over now. They were too good friends for there to be anything more between them. For Tom would often call in upon Mary, either during business hours to make some purchase, or in the evening when business was slack. He would come then and chat with her for a few moments over the counter, and was always ready to help her in any difficulty, or to assist her in any way she would allow.
No, they were far too good friends to be lovers, said the neighbors; and Tom was a likely young fellow who could no doubt take his pick from any of the girls of the village, with whom he had always been a favourite. Why, there was Kitty Forrest, the baker's daughter, with her yellow curls and blue eyes, whom he could have for the asking, as anyone knew; and there was Polly Weston, who would give her eyes for him, and her father the richest man in the neighbourhood, with only that one daughter.
But Tom was invulnerable to the attractions of Miss Weston's fortune and personal charms; and Kitty Forrest curled her yellow tresses and flashed her blue eyes upon him in vain. If his friends chaffed him about the two young ladies he merely laughed it off, saying he was cut out for an old bachelor, and did not intend to give up his freedom yet awhile.
And so the time passed. The seasons came and went, but no special changes seemed to visit the sleepy little village of Cleasthorpe. Children were born, old people passed away and were laid to rest in the green churchyard; young men said good-bye to their native place and went to seek their fortunes either abroad or in some busy town, but still the life of the village went on undisturbed in its accustomed groove.
Polly Weston had married Harry Forrest, while his sister Kitty, despairing of making any impression on Tom Altham's obdurate heart, had smiled upon the suit of a neighbouring young farmer, whose heart had been taken captive by her blue eyes and yellow curls.
And Tom Altham still lived with his old mother in their comfortable little home at the end of the village, while Mary Hayes toiled away at the work of her shop, growing paler and quieter as time went by.
But her hard, unremitting labour had its reward when, at the end of each year, she saw the heavy debt growing less and less, though at times, when weary and disheartened at the slow progress she made, she felt as if the money were being coined out of her heart's blood. For she seemed to advance so lamentably slowly in her appointed duty and time was slipping by so quickly and she seemed to have had so little youth, but to be growing an old woman before her time, and sometimes she did so long for a little ease and pleasure, a little respite from the grinding toil of her every-day duties.
But it was not often that such thoughts troubled her. In truth she had little time to indulge in them, and even when most tempted to repine and rebel she always had the thought to comfort her that she was doing right, and that the reward for her long patient service was sure to come, if not in this life, at least hereafter.
And meantime she took a silent secret comfort in the fact that Tom Altham remained unmarried. Many of their young companions were married, and had clusters of little ones around their knees. But Tom remained with his old mother, and though he never spoke a word of love to Mary now, yet the fact was a great comfort to her.
Time passed on. Mary was a girl no longer. There were lines of anxious care and thought on the brow that used to be so smooth, and her abundant brown tresses were streaked with silver threads. But the light of a steadfast holy purpose had given her face a beauty better than that of her early girlhood. For if the bloom and freshness of youth had departed, in their place had come a chastened gentleness and a pathetic expression of patience and endurance, that told of many a hard struggle and dearly-bought victory.
Once more it is the close of a bright summer's day. It is just twelve years since Mary Hayes sat at the door of the little shop and Tom Altham came to ask her to walk with him by the riverside.
The setting sun is shining redly now as it did then. A soft cool breeze is stirring the air and whispering in the branches of the fir-trees that stand so black against the glowing sky. From the meadows by the river come the sounds of laughing and shouting, for the village boys are down there playing cricket, many of the cottage doors are open, and the villagers are standing to enjoy the evening air and a little friendly gossip with their neighbours. But Mary Hayes is all alone. Somehow she seems rather to have withdrawn herself from gossip and social intercourse of late years; she had no time for them, she would have said, and no money to entertain her friends, even in the simple style that obtained in Cleasthorpe, and in fact her busy life for the last twelve years had left her little or no time for social duties.
But this evening she was sitting, for a marvel, idle; absolutely doing nothing, except watching the changing effects of the sunset sky, and listening to the sleepy cawing of the rooks sailing home to their nests in the fir-tree tops and the distant sounds of mirth coming up from the meadows.
The fiery red was dying out of the sky, and soft opal shades were creeping up; the gorgeous orange clouds were giving place to soft emerald and palest gold, and a few stars were beginning to twinkle faintly in the darkening blue of the sky.
Twilight was creeping on and would soon deepen into the gloom of the summer's night. Mary waited a little longer and then rose suddenly; she put a little shawl over her shoulders, and, closing the door, slipped out bareheaded, past the next three houses and into the little churchyard. All was very quiet there; no one was about at that hour, and Mary made her way down the carefully kept pathway to a quiet corner, where, under a simple little headstone, bearing his name and the dates of his birth and death, lay her father.
Flowers of his daughter's planting and rearing adorned the grave, and Mary knelt down to pluck up one or two obtrusive weeds and to gather one white rose blooming there. Then she patted the inanimate stone softly, and whispered, with a little sob catching her voice, "Father, do you hear me? Do you know I've done what you wanted me to do? Do you know your name is clear now, and that every penny of that terrible debt has been paid - the very last to-day? Father, it's taken a weary while to do; can you look down from heaven and see what I've done? I know you'd bless poor Mary if you could. And, oh, father, it's been such hard work sometimes!"
The remembrance of the past twelve years with all their trials and struggles came over her as she knelt there, and partly the thought of all she had undergone, mingled with the relief she felt now that the burden had rolled away, broke her composure, and she began to weep tears that wonderfully relieved her heart, and seemed like the last shower after a long-continued storm.
She raised her head at last, and started to find she was not alone. Tom Altham was standing by her side, watching her with a face of great concern.
"I didn't meant to startle you," he said, apologetically, "but I came to speak to you this evening. Mother wanted some yarn or wool or something, you know, and I found the door shut, and Mrs Eastwood told me she had seen you slip away here. There's nothing wrong, Mary, is there?"
"Oh, no, thank you," she said, drying her eyes and trying to speak in an unconcerned tone.
"You keep his grave beautifully," Tom said next, à propos of nothing.
"I like to see it bright," she answered. "It may be foolish, but I like to think he sees it and is pleased."
Tom seated himself on a corner of a near tombstone, and seemed in no hurry to go away.
"You told me you were going to take stock this week, Mary," he said, at last, hesitatingly; "did it do as well as you expected?"
Tom had kept himself tolerably au courant with her business affairs.
"Yes, thank you kindly," she answered.
"Then, Mary, you must be about free now; you know the score was nearly cleared off last Christmas."
"It's all off now," she answered, simply; "and I'd come here to tell father. I thought somehow he'd know better if I told him just here. He'd be so glad, poor father."
"Then, Mary," he cried joyfully, seizing her hand; "you'll let me ask the question now that you put off twelve years ago. I've waited very patiently, my dear."
"Oh, no, no!" she cried, trying to withdraw her hand. "You mustn't ask me now."
"Why?" he asked, still keeping firm hold of her hand. "Have you given up caring for me?"
"Oh, it isn't that, Tom; it isn't that, but you oughtn't to come back to me. I'm so old and ugly now, and you could do so much better for yourself, and you know it."
"I'll go away if you tell me honestly you've given up caring about me, and for nothing else," he replied, firmly. "And I do not want to do better for myself, even if I could, which I beg leave to say I can't, and I think I'm likely to know, when I've never changed my mind for twelve years. I'll go away if you tell me you've changed yours."
He was looking eagerly into her downcast face, which was now suffused with burning blushes, and her voice was low and faltering as she answered, "No, I haven't."
"Then will you come and be my wife, Mary? I've waited a long time."
"But I've grown so old and ugly, Tom; it isn't fair to you," she repeated; but his only answer was to draw her close to his side and put his arm round her.
"Oh, my dear," he cried; "just as if your dear face wasn't more beautiful to me than the loveliest girl's in the land. Will you have me, Mary?"
"If you think I'm worth taking," she answered shyly. Then with a little gush of irrepressible feeling, "Oh, Tom, I've loved you faithfully all these years."
There was a wedding in the little village church that summer before the harvest was gathered in. Tom was impatient, and hurried matters on. He had waited twelve years, and could not afford to wait any longer, he said. Besides, his mother was old, feeble, and wanted a daughter to take care of her, so Mary must hurry her preparations.
And Mary consented. Surely there had been delay enough, and she and Tom had known their own hearts all this time. Relief and happiness seemed to have brought back her youth, and on the day that Tom Altham led his bride to the altar, there were plenty there to affirm that never had a bonnier bride been seen in the village.
There were several thoughtless young girls in their teens, who were not slow to declare that though they liked Mary with all their hearts, it wasn't an interesting wedding when "the bride was thirty-seven if she was a day; and for their parts if they weren't married long before they arrived at such a venerable age, they would not care to marry at all." Perhaps they did not know the story of long-tried constancy which lent such a halo of romance to the simple village wedding; but even had their careless remarks reached the bride's ear they would not have disturbed her calm joy and contentment. After long weary struggling she had reached the haven at last, and was enjoying the bright promise of a happy future, lighted by the knowledge of a long and wearisome task faithfully performed, and by "the smile of duty done."