Helen’s Curate


Ellen Wood

First published in April 1877.

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Helen’s Curate.

1.

A summons from Mr. Brandon meant a summons. And I don’t think I should have dared to disobey one any more than I should those other summonses issued by the law courts. He was my guardian, and he let me know it.

But I was hardly pleased that the mandate should have come for me just this one particular day. We were at Crabb Cot: Helen, Anna, and William Whitney had come to it for a week’s visit; and I did not care to lose a day with them. It had to be lost, however. Mr. Brandon had ordered me to be with him as early as possible in the morning: so that I must be off betimes to catch the first train.

It was a cold bleak day towards the end of February: sleet falling now and then, the east wind blowing like mad, and cutting me in two as I stood at the hall-door. Nobody else was down yet, and I had swallowed my breakfast standing.

Shutting the door after me, and making a rush down the walk between the evergreens for the gate, I ran against Lee, the Timberdale postman, who was coming in, with the letters, on his shaky legs. His face, shaded by its grey locks, straggling and scanty, had a queer kind of fear upon it.

“Mr. Johnny, I’m thankful to meet you; I was thinking what luck it would be if I could,” said he, trembling. “Perhaps you will stand my friend, sir. Look here.”

Of the two letters he handed to me, one was addressed to Mrs. Todhetley; the other to Helen Whitney. And this last had its envelope pretty nearly burnt off. The letter inside could be opened by anybody, and some of the scorched writing lay exposed.

“If the young lady would only forgive me—and hush it up, Mr. Johnny!” he pleaded, his poor worn face taking a piteous hue. “The Miss Whitneys are both very nice and kind young ladies; and perhaps she will.”

“How was it done, Lee?”

“Well, sir, I was lighting my pipe. It is a smart journey here, all the way from Timberdale—and I had to take the long round today instead of the Ravine, because there was a newspaper for the Stone House. The east wind was blowing right through me, Mr. Johnny; and I thought if I had a bit of a smoke I might get along better. A spark must have fallen on the letter while I was lighting my pipe, and I did not see it till the letter was aflame in my hand. If—if you could but stand my friend, sir, and—and perhaps give the letter to the young lady yourself, so that the Squire does not see it—and ask her to forgive me.”

One could only pity him, poor worn man. Lee had had pecks of trouble, and it had told upon him, making him old before his time. Now and then, when it was a bad winter’s morning, and the Squire caught sight of him, he would tell him to go into the kitchen and get a cup of hot coffee. Taking the two letters from him to do what I could, I carried them indoors.

Putting Helen’s with its tindered cover into an envelope, I wrote a line in pencil, and slipped it in also.

“DEAR HELEN,

“Poor old Lee has had a mishap and burnt your letter in lighting his pipe. He wants you to forgive it and not to tell the Squire. No real damage is done, so please be kind.

“J. L.”

Directing this to her, I sent it to her room by Hannah, and made a final start for the train.

And this was what happened afterwards.

Hannah took the letter to Helen, who was in the last stage of dressing, just putting the finishing touches to her hair. Staring at the state her letter was in, she read the few words I had written, and then went into a passion at what Lee had done. Helen Whitney was as good-hearted a girl as ever lived, but hot and hasty in temper, saying anything that came uppermost when put out. She, by the help of time, had got over the smart left by the summary collapse of her marriage, and had ceased to abuse Mr. Richard Foliott. All that was now a thing of the past. And, not having had a spark of love for him, he was the more easily forgotten.

“The wicked old sinner!” she burst out: and with emphasis so startling, that Anna, reading by the window, dropped her Prayer-book.

“Helen! What is the matter?”

That’s the matter,” flashed Helen, showing the half-burnt envelope and scorched letter, and flinging on the table the piece of paper I had slipped inside. Anna took the letter up and read it.

“Poor old man! It was only an accident, Helen; and, I suppose, as Johnny says, no real damage is done. You must not say anything about it.”

“Must I not!” was Helen’s tart retort.

“Who is the letter from?”

“Never you mind.”

“But is it from home?”

“It is from Mr. Leafchild, if you must know.”

“Oh,” said Anna shortly. For that a flirtation, or something of the kind, had been going on between Helen and the curate, Leafchild, and that it would not be likely to find favour at Whitney Hall, she was quite aware of.

“Mr. Leafchild writes about the school,” added Helen, after reading the letter; perhaps tendering the information as an apology for its having come at all. “Those two impudent girls, Kate and Judith Dill, have been setting Miss Barn at defiance, and creating no end of insubordination.”

With the last word, she was leaving the room; the letter in her pocket, the burnt envelope in her hand. Anna stopped her.

“You are not going to show that, are you, Helen? Please don’t.”

“Mr. Todhetley ought to see it—and call Lee to account for his carelessness. Why, he might have altogether burnt the letter!”

“Yes; of course it was careless. But I dare say it will be a lesson to him. He is very poor and old, Helen. Pray don’t tell the Squire; he might make so much commotion over it, and then you would be sorry. Johnny asks you not.”

Helen knitted her brow, but put the envelope into her pocket with the letter: not conceding with at all a good grace, and went down nodding her head in semi-defiance. The cream of the sting lay no doubt in the fact that the letter was Mr. Leafchild’s, and that other eyes than her own might have seen it.

She did not say anything at the breakfast-table, though Anna sat upon thorns lest she should: Helen was so apt to speak upon impulse. The Squire talked of riding out; Whitney said he would go with him: Tod seemed undecided what he should do. Mrs. Todhetley read to them the contents of her letter—which was from Mary Blair.

“I shall go for a walk,” announced Helen, when the rest had dispersed. “Come and get your things on, Anna.”

“But I don’t care to go out,” said Anna. “It is a very disagreeable day. And I meant to help Mrs. Todhetley with the frock she is making for Lena.”

“You can help her when you come back. I am not going through that Crabb Ravine by myself.”

“Through Crabb Ravine!”

“Yes. I want to go to Timberdale.”

It never occurred to Anna that the errand to Timberdale could have any connection with the morning’s mishap. She put her things on without more ado—Helen always domineered over her, just as Tod did over me—and the two girls went out together.

“Halloa!” cried Tod, who was standing by the pigeon-house. “Where are you off to?”

“Timberdale,” replied Helen. And Tod turned and walked with them.

They were well through the Ravine, and close on to the entrance of Timberdale, before Helen said a word of what she had in her mind. Pulling the burnt envelope and the letter out then, she showed them to Tod.

“What do you think of that for a piece of carelessness!” she asked: and forthwith told him the whole story. Tod, hasty and impulsive, took the matter up as warmly as she had done.

“Lee ought to be reported for this—and punished. There might have been a bank-note in the letter.”

“Of course there might,” assented Helen. “And for Johnny Ludlow to want to excuse him, and ask me to hush it up!”

“Just like Johnny! In such things he is an out-and-out muff. How would the world go on, I wonder, if Johnny ruled it? You ought to have shown it to the Squire at once, Helen.”

“So I should but for Johnny and Anna. As they had asked me not to, I did not quite like to fly in their faces. But I am going to show it to your postmaster at Timberdale.”

“Oh, Helen!” involuntarily breathed Anna. And Tod looked up.

“Don’t mind her,” said Helen. “She and Johnny are just alike—making excuses for every one. Rymer the chemist is postmaster, is he not?”

“Rymer’s dead—don’t you remember that, Helen? Before he died, he gave up the post-office business. Salmon, the grocer opposite, took to it.”

This Salmon was brother to the Salmon (grocer and draper) at South Crabb. Both were long-headed men, and flourishing tradesmen in their small way.

“Poor old Lee!” cried Tod, with a shade of pity. “He is too ailing and feeble; we have often said it. But of course he must be taught not to set fire to the letters.”

Anna’s eyelashes were wet. “Suppose, by your complaining, you should get him turned out of his post?” she suggested, with the timid deference she might have observed to a royal duke—but in the presence of those two she always lost her courage. Tod answered her gently. When he was gentle to any one, it was to her.

“No fear of that, Anna. Salmon will blow old Lee up, and there’ll be an end of it. Whose letter was it, Helen?”

“It was from Mr. Leafchild—about our schools,” answered Helen, turning her face away that he might not see its sudden rush of colour.

Well, they made their complaint to Salmon; who was properly indignant and said he would look into it, Tod putting in a word for the offender, Lee. “We don’t want him reported to headquarters, or anything of that kind, you know, Salmon. Just give him a reprimand, and warn him to be cautious in future.”

“I’ll see to him, sir,” nodded Salmon.

(The final result of the burning of this letter of Helen Whitney’s, and of another person’s letter that got burnt later, was recorded in the last Series, in a paper called “Lee the Letter–Man.”

It may be as well to remind the reader that these stories told by “Johnny Ludlow” are not always placed consecutively as regards the time of their occurrence, but go backwards or forwards indiscriminately.)

Being so near, Helen and Anna thought they would call on Herbert Tanerton and Grace at the Rectory; next, they just looked in at Timberdale Court—Robert Ashton’s. Altogether, what with one delay and another, they arrived at home when lunch was nearly over. And who should be sitting there, but Sir John Whitney! He had come over unexpectedly to pass an hour or two.

Helen Whitney was very clever in her way: but she was apt to be forgetful at times, as all the rest of us are. One thing she had totally and entirely forgotten today—and that was to ask Tod not to speak of the letter. So that when the Squire assailed them with reproaches for being late, Tod, unconscious that he was doing wrong, blurted out the truth. A letter from Mr. Leafchild to Helen had been partly burnt by old Lee, and they had been to Timberdale to complain to Salmon.

“A letter from Leafchild to Helen!” cried Sir John. “That must be a mistake. Leafchild would not presume to write to Helen.”

She grew white as snow. Sir John had turned from the table to face her, and she dared not run away. The Squire was staring and frowning at the news of old Lee’s sin, denouncing him hotly, and demanding to see the letter.

“Yes, where is this letter?” asked Sir John. “Let me see it, Helen.”

“It—it was about the schools, papa.”

“About the schools! Like his impudence! What have you to do with the schools? Give me the letter.”

“My gracious me, burn a letter!” cried the Squire. “Lee must be in his dotage. The letter, my dear, the letter; we must see it.”

Between them both, Helen was in a corner. She might have been capable of telling a white fib and saying she had not the letter, rather than let her father see it. Anna, who knew she had it in her pocket, went for nobody; but Tod knew it also. Tod suspecting no complications, was holding out his hand for her to produce it. With trembling lips, and fingers that shook in terror, she slowly drew it forth. Sir John took the letter from her, the Squire caught hold of the burnt envelope.

There was not a friendly hole in the floor for Helen to drop through. She escaped by the door to hide herself and her hot cheeks. For this was neither more nor less than a love-letter from the curate, and Sir John had taken it to the window to read it in the stronger light.

“Bless my heart and mind!” cried he when he had mastered its contents, just such an exclamation as the Squire would have made. “He—he—I believe the fellow means to make love to her! What a false-hearted parson he must be! Come here, Todhetley.”

To see the two old heads poring over the letter together through their spectacles was something good, Tod said, when he told me all this later. It was just a love-letter and nothing less, but without a word of love in it. But not a bad love-letter of its kind; rather a sensible one. After telling Helen about the tracasserie in the parish school (which must have afforded him just the excuse for writing that he may have wanted), the curate went on to say a little bit about their mutual “friendship,” and finished up by begging Helen to allow him to speak to Sir John and Lady Whitney, for he could not bear to think that by keeping silent they were deceiving them. “As honourable a letter in its way as you could wish to hear read,” observed Tod; for Sir John and the Squire had read it aloud between them for the benefit of the dining-room.

“This comes of having grown-up daughters,” bewailed poor Sir John. “Leafchild ought to be put in the pillory. And where’s Helen got to? Where is that audacious girl?”

Poor Helen caught it hot and strong—Sir John demanding of her, for one thing, whether she had not had enough of encouraging disreputable young sparks with that Richard Foliott. Poor Helen sobbed and hid her head, and finally took courage to say that Mr. Leafchild was a saint on earth—not to be as much as named in the same sentence with Richard Foliott. And when I got home at night, everybody, from Helen downwards, was in the dumps, and Sir John had gone home to make mincemeat of the curate.

Buttermead was one of those straggling parishes that are often found in rural districts. Whitney Hall was situated in it, also the small village of Whitney, also that famous school of ours, Dr. Frost’s, and there was a sprinkling of other good houses. Some farm homesteads lay scattered about; and the village boasted of a street and a half.

The incumbent of Buttermead, or Whitney, was the Reverend Matthew Singleton: his present curate was Charles Leafchild. Mr. Leafchild, though eight-and-twenty years of age, was only now ordained deacon, and this year was his first in the ministry. At eighteen he had gone out to the West Indies, a post having been found for him there. He did not go by choice. Being a steady-minded young fellow, religiously inclined, he had always wished to be a parson; but his father, Dr. Leafchild, a great light among Church dignitaries, and canon residentiary of a cathedral in the North, had set his face against the wish. The eldest son was a clergyman, and of his preferment Dr. Leafchild could take tolerable care, but he did not know that he could do much in that way for his younger sons, and so Charles’s hopes had to go to the wall. Spiritual earnestness, however, at length made itself heard within him to some purpose; and he resolved, come what might, that he would quit money-making for piety. The West Indian climate did not agree with him; he had to leave it for home, and then it was that he made the change. “You would have been rich in time had you stuck to your post,” remonstrated the Reverend Doctor to him: “now you may be nothing but a curate all your life.” “True, father,” was the answer, “but I shall hope to do my duty as one.” So Charles Leafchild made himself into a parson, and here he was at Buttermead, reading through his first year, partially tabooed by his family, and especially by that flourishing divine, the head of it.

He was a good-looking young man, as men go. Rather tall than not, with a pale, calm face, brown hair that he wore long, and mild brown eyes that had no end of earnestness in their depths. A more self-denying man could not be found; though as a rule young men are not famous for great self-denial. The small stipend given by Mr. Singleton had to suffice for all his wants. Leafchild had never said what this stipend was; except that he admitted one day it was not more than seventy pounds: how much less than that, he did not state.

Just a few roods out of the village stood a small dwelling called Marigold Cottage. A tidy woman named Bean lived in it with her two daughters, one of whom was the paid mistress of the national girls’-school. Mr. Leafchild lodged here, as the late curate had before him, occupying the spare sitting-room and bedroom. And if Mrs. Bean was to be believed—and she had been a veracious woman all her life—three days out of the seven, at least, Mr. Leafchild went without meat at his dinner, having given it away to some sick or poor creature, who wanted it, he considered, more than he did. A self-denying, earnest, gentle-minded man; that’s what he was: and perhaps it may be forgiven to Helen Whitney that she fell in love with him.

When Helen went home from London, carrying with her the mortification that came of her interrupted marriage and Captain Foliott’s delinquency, she began to do what she had never done in her life before, busy herself a little in the parish: perhaps as a safety-valve to carry off her superfluous anger. The curate was a middle-aged man with a middle-aged wife and two babies, and Helen had no scruple in going about with him, here, there, and everywhere. To the schools, to the church, to practise the boys, to visit the poor, went she. But when in a few months that curate’s heart was made glad by a living—two hundred a-year and a five-roomed Vicarage—and Mr. Leafchild came in his place, it was a little different. She did not run about with the new curate as she had with the old, but she did see a good deal of him, and he of her. The result was they fell in love with one another. For the first time in her life the uncertain god, Cupid, had pierced the somewhat invulnerable heart of Helen Whitney.

But now, could anything be so inappropriate, or look more hopeless? Charles Leafchild, B.A., curate of Buttermead, positively only yet reading for his full title, scantily paid, no prospect of anything better, lacking patronage; and Miss Helen Whitney, daughter of Sir John Whitney, baronet! Looking at it from a practical point of view, it seemed that he might just as well have expected to woo and wed one of the stars in the sky.

On the bleak February morning that followed Helen’s expedition to Timberdale, Mr. Leafchild came down from his chamber and entered his sitting-room. The fire, a small one, for Mrs. Bean had received a general caution to be sparing of his coal, burnt brightly in the grate. He stood over it for a minute or two, rubbing his slender hands at the blaze: since he left the West Indies he had felt the cold more keenly than formerly. Then he turned to the breakfast-table, and saw upon it, a small portion of cold neck of mutton, an uncut loaf, and a pat of butter. His tea stood there, already made.

“If I leave the meat, it will do for dinner,” he thought: and proceeded to make his meal of bread-and-butter. Letty Bean, who chiefly waited on him, came in.

“A letter for you, sir,” she said, handing him a note.

He took it, looked at the handwriting, which was thick and sprawly and not familiar to him, and laid it beside his plate.

“Sir John Whitney’s footman brought it, sir,” continued Letty, volunteering the information: and a hot colour flushed the curate’s face as he heard it. He opened it then. Short and peremptory, it merely requested the Reverend Charles Leafchild to call upon Sir John Whitney that morning at Whitney Hall.

“Is the man waiting for an answer, Letty?”

“No, sir. He went away as soon as he gave it me.”

Mr. Leafchild half suspected what had occurred—that Sir John must, in some way, have become acquainted with the state of affairs. He judged so by the cold, haughty tone of the note: hitherto Sir John had always shown himself friendly. Far from being put out, Mr. Leafchild hoped it was so, and went on with his breakfast.

Another interruption. Mrs. Bean this time. She wore a mob cap and had lost her teeth.

“Here’s that tipsy Jones come to the door, sir. He says you told him to come.”

“Ah yes, I did; let him come in,” said the curate. “Is he tipsy this morning?”

“No, sir, only shaky. And what shall I order you for dinner, sir, today? I may as well ask, as I am here.”

“That will do,” he answered, pointing to the cold meat. “And please mash the potatoes.”

Jones came in. The man was not an incorrigibly bad doer, but weak and irresolute. If he worked two days, he idled and drank three, and his wife and children suffered. Mr. Leafchild, who felt more sorrow for him than anger, invited him to a seat by the fire, and talked to him long and persuasively, almost as one brother might talk to another, and gave him a hot cup of tea. Jones went away great in promises and penitence: and about eleven o’clock the curate betook himself to the Hall.

Of all men living, the Squire perhaps excepted, Sir John was about the worst to carry out any troublesome negotiation. He was good-hearted, irresolute, and quick-tempered.

When Mr. Leafchild was shown in, Sir John utterly forgot certain speeches he had conned over in his mind, broke down, went into a passion, and told the curate he was a designing, impudent villain.

Though his love for Helen, and that was intense, caused him to feel somewhat agitated in the presence of Helen’s father, Mr. Leafchild’s manner was quiet and calm, a very contrast to that of Sir John. After a little while, when the baronet had talked himself cool, Mr. Leafchild entered into a history of the affair: telling how he and Miss Whitney had met without any intention of any kind, except of that which might be connected with the parish interests, and how with as little intention, a mutual liking—nay, a love—had sprung up.

“Yes, that’s all very fine,” said Sir John, shuffling about his steel spectacles that were perched on his old red nose. “You knew she was my daughter; you knew well what you were about.”

The young man reddened at the reproach.

“Sir, indeed you misjudge me. I never thought of such a thing as falling in love with Miss Whitney until the love had come. Had she been the most obscure of young women, it would have been all the same.”

“Then you are an idiot for your pains,” retorted Sir John. “Why, goodness gracious me! have you not one single atom of common sense? Can’t you see how unfitting it is?”

“My family is a very good one; in point of fact, as good as yours, Sir John—if you will pardon me for saying so thus pointedly,” urged the curate in his gentle voice. “And though——”

“Oh, bother!” interrupted Sir John, having no counter argument particularly at hand. “That goes for nothing. What are your prospects?”

“They are not great. Perhaps I ought to say that I have no prospects as yet. But, sir——”

“Now come! that’s honest. No prospects! And yet you must go making love to my daughter.”

“I have not done that, sir, in one sense—‘made love.’ Hardly a word, I think, has passed between myself and Miss Whitney that you might not have heard. But we have, notwithstanding, been fully aware of the state of each other’s heart——”

“The state of each other’s fiddlestick,” spluttered Sir John. “A nice pair of you, I must say! And pray, what did you think it would come to?”

“What Miss Whitney may have thought I have not presumed to ask. For myself, I confess I am cherishing hopes for the future. It is some little time now since I have been wishing to speak to you, Sir John: and I intended, if you were so kind as not to entirely reject me, to write to my father, Dr. Leafchild, and lay the whole case before him. I think he can help me later if he will; and I certainly believe he will be only too glad to do it.”

“Help you to what?”

“To a living.”

“And, bless my heart and mind, how long do you suppose you might have to wait? A dozen years. Twenty years, for all you know. The curate who was here before you, poor Bell, had been waiting more than twenty years for one. It came to him last year, and he was forty-seven years old.”

Mr. Leafchild could say nothing to this.

“And a fine living it is, now he has it!” went on Sir John. “No, no, sir: Helen Whitney cannot be dragged into that kind of fate.”

“I should be the last to drag her, or wish to drag her into it. Believe that, Sir John. But, if I had a good living given to me, then I should like her to share it. And I think that my father would perhaps allow me some private means also, for Helen’s sake. He has money, and could do it.”

“But all those fancies and notions are just so many vapours, clouds up in the sky, and no better, don’t you see! You young men are sanguine and foolish; you lose sight of facts in fallacies. We must look at what is, not at what might be. Why, you are not yet even a priest!”

“No. I shall be ordained to that in a few months’ time.”

“And then, I suppose, you will either remain here, or get a curacy elsewhere. And your income will be that of a curate—a hundred pounds a-year, all told. Some curates get but fifty.”

“True. We are poorly paid.”

“And that may go on till you are forty or fifty years of age! And yet, in the face of it, you ask me to let you have my daughter. Now, Mr. Leafchild, you are either a simpleton yourself, or you must think I am one,” added Sir John, rising to end the interview, which had been to him one of thorough discomfort. “And I’m sure I hope you’ll pick up a little common sense, young man, and I shall order Miss Helen to pick some up too. There, that’s all.”

“I trust you are not angry with me, sir,” said the curate mildly, for Sir John was holding out his hand to be shaken.

“Well, yes, I am. Anything like this causes one such worry, you know. I’m sure I and my wife have had no sleep all night. You must not think any more of Helen. And now good-morning.”

As Mr. Leafchild walked back to his lodgings at Dame Bean’s, his hopes seemed to be about as dull as the wintry sky on which his nice brown eyes were fixed. His whole happiness, socially speaking, lay in Helen; hers lay with him; but only separation seemed to be looming in the air. Suddenly, when he was close to Marigold Cottage, a little rift broke in the leaden clouds, and a bit of pale blue sky shone forth.

“I will take that as an omen for good; pray God it may be so!” spoke the curate gladly and reverently, as he lifted his hat. “And—come what may, in storm and in tempest, God is over all.”

Helen went home in the dumps and to sundry edifying lectures. An embargo was laid on her parish work, and she only saw the curate at church. One month, two months passed over thus, and she grew pale and thin. Sir John was cross, Lady Whitney uncomfortable; they were both simple-minded people, caring more for their children’s happiness than for their grandeur. The former told the Squire in confidence that if the young fellow could get a decent living, he was not sure but he’d give in, and that he liked him ten thousand times better than he had ever liked that Foliott.

They met one day by accident. Helen was out moping in the long broad walk: which was beginning to be shady now, for May was all but in, and the trees were putting on their foliage. At the end of it she came to a standstill, leaning on the gate. The waters of the lake, out yonder, were blue as the unruffled sky. With a faint cry, she started aside, for Charles Leafchild stood before her.

Being a parson, and tacitly on honour to Sir John, he might have been expected to pass on his way without stopping; but Helen’s hand was already stretched out over the gate. He could but shake it.

“You are not looking well,” he said after a moment’s silence. “I am sorry to see it.”

What with his unexpected presence, and what with her mind’s general discomfort, Helen burst into tears. Mr. Leafchild kept her hand in his.

“I have a bad headache today,” said Helen, by way of excuse for her tears. “It has been gloomy weather lately.”

“Gloomy within and without,” he assented, giving a meaning to her words that she had not meant to imply. “But in every cloud, you know, however dark it may be, there is always a silver lining.”

“We can’t always see it,” returned Helen, drying her tears.

“No; we very often cannot. But we may trust that it is there—and be patient.”

“I think it sometimes happens that we never see it—that all is gloomy to the end, the end of life. What then?”

“Then we may be sure that it is best for us it should be so. God directs all things.”

Helen sighed: she had not learnt the love and faith and submission that made up the sum of Mr. Leafchild’s life, bringing into it so strange a peace.

“Is it true that you are going to leave?” she asked. “We heard it mentioned.”

“Yes: when I shall be fully ordained. Mr. Singleton has to take his nephew. It was an old promise—that he should come to him for his first year, just as I have. I think I shall go to Worcester.”

“To Worcester?”

“I have been offered a curacy there by one of the minor canons whose living is in the town, and I feel inclined to take it. The parish is large and has a good many of the very poor in it.”

Helen made a face. “But would you like that? You might be frightfully overworked.”

“It is what I should like. As to the work—it is done for our Master.”

He shook hands with her again, and left, the cheery smile still on his face, the thoughtful light in his steadfast eyes. And never a word of love, you see, had passed.

It was, I take it, about a fortnight after this, that there went walking one afternoon to Whitney Hall, a tall, portly, defiant-looking gentleman in gold-rimmed spectacles and a laced-up clerical hat. By the way he turned his head here and there, and threw his shoulders about as he strode along, you might have taken him for a bishop at least, instead of a canon—but canons in those days were a great deal more self-important than bishops are in these. It was the Reverend Dr. Leafchild. A real canon was he, a great man in his own cathedral, and growing rich on his share of its substantial revenues: your honorary canons with their empty title and non-stipends had not sprung into fashion then. In his pompous manner, and he had been born pompous, Dr. Leafchild asked to see Sir John Whitney.

After Mr. Leafchild’s interview with Sir John in February, he had written to his father and told him all about it, asking him whether he thought he could not help him later to a living, so that he might have a chance of winning Helen. But for Helen’s being a baronet’s daughter and the connection one that even the canon might be proud of, he would have turned a deaf ear: as it was, he listened. But Dr. Leafchild never did things in a hurry; and after some correspondence with his son (and a great deal of grumbling, meant for his good), he had now come into Worcestershire for the purpose of talking over the affair with Sir John.

The upshot was, that Sir John gave in, and sanctioned the engagement. There was an excellent living somewhere down in the North—eight hundred pounds a-year, a handsome house, and some land—the next presentation to which the canon could command. He had intended it for his eldest son; but he, by some lucky chance, had just obtained a better preferment, and the doctor could promise it to Charles. The present incumbent was old and ailing; therefore, in all probability, it would very speedily fall in. The canon added that he might settle on the young people a small sum at their marriage, say a hundred a-year, or so; and he also hinted that Charles might stand a chance of better preferment later—say a snug canonry. So Sir John shook hands heartily upon the bargain, invited the canon to stay dinner, and sent for Charles.

For the next six weeks who so happy as the curate and Helen? They came over to us at Dyke Manor (for we had gone back there) for a day or two, and we learnt to like him with our whole hearts. What a good, earnest, warm-natured man he was; and oh, how unselfish!

I remember one evening in particular when they were out together, pacing the field-path. Helen had his arm, and he was talking to her in what seemed an uncommonly solemn manner: for his hand was lifted now and then in earnestness, and both were gazing upwards. It was a beautiful sky: the sun had set in splendour, leaving crimson and gold clouds behind it, the evening star twinkled in the deepening canopy. Mrs. Todhetley sent me to them. A poor woman had come up for broth for her sick son, one of our labourers. She was in great distress: a change had taken place in him for the worse, he was calling for the clergyman to come to him before he died: but Mr. Holland was out that evening—gone to Evesham.

“Johnny, I—I think Mr. Leafchild would go,” said the mater. “Do you mind asking him?”

Hardly any need to ask. At the first word he was hastening to the woman and walking away with her. Helen’s eyes, gazing at the sky still, were wet with tears.

“Is it not beautiful, Johnny?”

“Very.” It was a glorious sunset.

“But I never saw it as I see it now. He is teaching me many things. I cannot hope to be ever as he is, Johnny, not half as good; but I think in time he will make me a little like him.”

“You have a happy life before you.”

“Yes—I hope so,” she said hesitatingly. “But sometimes a feeling makes itself heard within me—that one who is so entirely fitted for the next world may not long be left in this.”

2.

It was autumn weather—October. A lot of us were steaming over to Worcester in the train. Miss Whitney from Cheltenham, and a friend of hers—a maiden lady as ancient as herself, one Miss Conaway, of Devonshire—were staying at the Hall. Miss Conaway did not know Worcester, and was now being taken to see it—especially the cathedral. Lady Whitney, Helen, Anna, and I made up the party, and we filled the carriage. My being with them arose from chance: I had come over accidentally that morning to Whitney Hall. Of course Helen hoped to see something besides the cathedral her curate. For in June Mr. Leafchild, then in priest’s orders, entered on his new curacy at Worcester, there to stay until the expected living should fall in.

“How is he?” I asked Helen, bending over the arm of the seat that divided us.

“Working himself to death,” she whispered back to me, her tone a cross one.

“He said he was glad there would be plenty of work, you know. And it is a large parish.”

“But he need not let it put everything else out of his head.”

“Meaning you?”

“I have not heard from him for more than a week. Papa had a letter from Dr. Leafchild this morning. He said in it that Charles, when he last wrote, complained of being poorly.”

“A great many curates do get very overtaxed.”

“Oh, and what do you think?” went on Helen. “He is actually beginning to have scruples about taking that living, on the score that there’ll be hardly any work to do.”

“But—he will take it!”

“Yes, I suppose he will, because of me; but it will go against the grain, I fancy. I do think one may have too strict a conscience.”

It was past one o’clock when we reached Worcester. Lady Whitney complained in the train of having started too late. First of all there was luncheon to be taken at the Star: that brought it to past two. Then various other things had to be done: see the cathedral, and stay the afternoon service, go over the china works at Diglis, and buy a bundle of articles at the linen-draper’s. All these duties over, they meant to invade Mr. Leafchild’s lodgings in Paradise Row.

They took the draper’s to begin with, the whole of them trooping in, one after another, like sheep into a pen: and I vow that they only came out again when the bell was going for three-o’clock service. Helen was not in a genial mood: at this rate there would not be much time left for visiting the curate.

“It was Aunt Ann’s fault,” she grumbled to me—“and mamma’s. They were a good half-hour looking at the stuff for the children’s winter frocks. Aunt Ann maintained that cashmere was best, mamma held to merino. All the shelves they had taken down! I would not be a linen-draper’s shopman for the world.”

Just in time, were we, to get into our seats before the procession of clergy and choristers came in. The chanter that afternoon was Mr. Leafchild’s rector: I knew him to speak to. But there’s no space to linger upon details.

A small knot of people, ourselves and others, had collected in the transept after service, waiting for one of the old bedesmen to do the honours of the cathedral, when the chanter came down the steps of the south aisle, after disrobing in the vestry.

“Do you know who he is?” I said to Helen, who was standing with me a little apart.

“No—how should I know? Except that he must be one of the minor canons.”

“He is Mr. Leafchild’s rector.”

“Is he?” she eagerly cried, the colour coming into her face. And just then he chanced to look our way, and nodded to me. I went up to him to speak.

“This is a terrible thing about Leafchild,” he exclaimed in a minute or two.

“What is it?” I asked, my breath stopping.

Helen, who had slowly paced after me on the white flags, stood stock still and turned as pale as you please.

“Have you not heard of his illness? Perhaps not, though: it has been so sudden. A few days ago he was apparently as well as I am now. But it was only last night that the doctors began to apprehend danger.”

“Is it fever?”

“Yes. A species of typhoid, I believe. Whether caught in his ministrations or not, I don’t know. Though I suppose it must have been. He is lying at his lodgings in Paradise Row. Leafchild has not seemed in good condition lately,” continued the clergyman. “He is most unremitting in his work, fags himself from morning till night, and lives anyhow: so perhaps he was not fortified to resist the attack of an enemy. He is very ill: and since last night he has been unconscious.”

“He is dangerously ill, did you say?” spoke poor Helen, biting her lips to hide their tremor.

“Almost more than dangerous: I fear there is little hope left,” he answered, never of course suspecting who Helen was. “Good-afternoon.”

She followed him with her eyes as he turned to the cloister-door: and then moved away towards the north entrance, looking as one dazed.

“Helen, where are you going?”

“To see him.”

“Oh, but it won’t do. It won’t, indeed, Helen.”

I am going to see him,” she answered, in her most wilful tone. “Don’t you hear that he is dying? I know he is; I feel it instinctively as a sure and certain fact. If you have a spark of goodness you’ll come with me, Johnny Ludlow. It’s all the same—whether you do or not.”

I looked around for our party. They had disappeared up the other aisle under convoy of the bedesman, leaving Helen and myself to follow at our leisure; or perhaps not noticing our absence. Helen, marching away with quick steps, passed out at the grand entrance.

“It is not safe for you to go, Helen,” I remonstrated, as we went round the graveyard and so up High Street. “You would catch the fever from him.”

I shall catch no fever.”

“He caught it.”

“I wish you’d be quiet. Can’t you see what I am suffering?”

The sweetest sight to me just then would have been Lady Whitney, or any one else holding authority over Helen. I seemed responsible for any ill that might ensue: and yet, what could I do?

“Helen, pray listen to a word of reason! See the position you put me in. A fever is not a light thing to risk.”

“I don’t believe that typhoid fever is catching. He did not say typhus.”

“Of course it’s catching.”

“Are you afraid of it?”

“I don’t know that I am afraid. But I should not run into it by choice. And I’m sure you ought not to.”

We were just then passing that large druggist’s shop that the Squire always called Featherstonhaugh’s—just because Mr. Featherstonhaugh once kept it. Helen darted across the street and into it.

“A pound of camphor,” said she, to the young man behind the right-hand counter.

“A pound of camphor!” he echoed. “Did you say a pound, ma’am?”

“Is it too much?” asked Helen. “I want some to put about me: I am going to see some one who is ill.”

It ended in his giving her two ounces. As we left the shop she handed part of it to me, stowing the rest about herself. And whether it was thanks to the camphor, I don’t know, but neither of us took any harm.

“There. You can’t grumble now, Johnny Ludlow.”

Paradise Row, as every one knows, is right at the other end of the town, past the Tything. We had nearly reached the house when a gentleman, who looked like a doctor, came out of it.

“I beg your pardon,” said Helen, accosting him as he met us, and coughing to hide her agitation, “but we think—seeing you come out of the house—that you may be attending Mr. Leafchild. Is he better?”

The doctor looked at us both, and shook his head as he answered—

“Better in one sense of the word, in so far as that he is now conscious; worse in another. He is sinking fast.”

A tremor shook Helen from head to foot. She turned away to hide it. I spoke.

“Do you mean—dying?”

“I fear so.”

“Are his friends with him?”

“Not any of them. His father was sent to yesterday, but he has not yet come. We did not write before, not having anticipated danger.”

“Why don’t they have Henry Carden to him?” cried Helen in passionate agitation as the doctor walked away. “He could have cured him.”

“No, no, Helen; don’t think that. Other men are just as clever as Henry Carden. They have only one treatment for fever.”

A servant-girl answered the door, and asked us into the parlour. She took us for the relations from the north. Mr. Leafchild was lying in a room near—a comfortable bed-chamber. Three doctors were attending him, she said; but just now the nurse was alone with him. Would we like to go in? she added: we had been expected all day.

“Come with me, Johnny,” whispered Helen.

He was lying in bed, white and still, his eyes wide open. The nurse, a stout old woman in light print gown and full white apron, stood at a round table in the corner, noiselessly washing a wine-glass. She turned her head, curtsied, and bustled out of the room.

But wasn’t he weak, as his poor thin hands clasped Helen’s! His voice was hollow as he tried to speak to her. The bitter tears, running down her checks, were dropping on to the bed-clothes.

“You should not have come”, he managed to say. “My love, my love!”

“Is there no hope?” she sobbed. “Oh, Charles, is there no hope?”

“May God soothe it to you! May He have you always in His good keeping!”

“And is it no trouble to you to die?” she went on, reproach in her anguished tone. “Have you no regret for the world, and—and for those you leave behind?”

“It is God’s will,” he breathed. “To myself it is no trouble, for He has mercifully taken the trouble from me. I regret you, my Helen, I regret the world. Or, rather, I should regret it, but that I know I am going to one brighter and better. You will come to me there, my dear one, and we shall live together for ever.”

Helen knelt down by the bed; he was lying close on the edge of it; and laid her wet face against his. He held her to him for a moment, kissed her fervently, and then motioned to me to take her away.

“For your own sake, my dear,” he whispered. “You are in danger here. Give my dear love to them all.”

Helen just waved her hand back at me, as much as to say, Don’t you interfere. But at that moment the fat old nurse bustled in again, with the announcement that two of the doctors and Mr. Leafchild’s rector were crossing the road. That aroused Helen.

One minute’s close embrace, her tears bedewing his dying cheeks, one lingering hand-clasp of pain, and they parted. Parted for all time. But not for eternity.

“God be with you ever!” he breathed, giving her his solemn blessing. “Farewell, dear Johnny Ludlow!”

“I am so sorry! If you could but get well!” I cried, my eyes not much dryer than Helen’s.

“I shall soon be well: soon,” he answered with a sweet faint smile, his feeble clasp releasing my hand, which he had taken. “But not here. Fare you well.”

Helen hid herself in a turn of the passage till the doctors had gone in, and then we walked down the street together, she crying softly. Just opposite Salt Lane, a fly passed at a gallop. Dr. Leafchild sat in it muffled in coats, a cloud of sorrow on his generally pompous face.

* * * * *

And that was the abrupt end of poor Charles Leafchild, for he died at midnight, full of peace. God’s ways are not as our ways; or we might feel tempted to ask why so good and useful a servant should have been taken.

And so, you perceive, there was another marriage of Helen Whitney frustrated. Fortune seemed to be against her.

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