In a side lane of Timberdale, just off the churchyard, was the cottage of Jael Batty, whose name you have heard before. Side by side with it stood another cottage, inhabited by Lee, the assistant letter-carrier; or, as Timberdale generally called him, the letter-man. These cottages had a lively look-out, the farrier’s shop and a few thatched hayricks opposite; sideways, the tombstones in the graveyard.
Some men are lucky in life, others are unlucky. Andrew Lee was in the latter category. He had begun life as a promising farmer, but came down in the world. First of all, he had to pay a heap of money for some man who had persuaded him to become his security, and that stripped him of his means. Afterwards a series of ill-fortunes set in on the farm: crops failed, cattle died, and Lee was sold up. Since then, he had tried at this and tried at that; been in turn a farmer’s labourer, an agent for coal, and the proprietor of a shop devoted to the benefit of the younger members of the community, its speciality being bull’s-eyes and besoms for birch-rods. For some few years now he had settled down in this cottage next door to Jael Batty’s, and carried out the letters at fourteen shillings a-week.
There were two letter-men, Spicer and Lee. But there need not have been two, only that Timberdale was so straggling a parish, the houses in it lying far and wide. Like other things in this world, fortune, even in so trifling a matter as these two postmen, was not dealt out equally. Spicer had the least work, for he took the home delivery, and had the most pay; Lee did all the country tramping, and had only the fourteen shillings. But when the place was offered to Lee he was at a very low ebb indeed, and took it thankfully, and thought he was set up in riches for life; for, as you well know, we estimate things by comparison.
Andrew Lee was not unlucky in his fortunes only. Of his three children, not one had prospered. The son married all too young; within a year he and his wife were both dead, leaving a baby-boy to Lee as a legacy. The elder daughter had emigrated to the other end of the world with her husband; and the younger daughter had a history. She was pretty and good and gentle, but just a goose. Goose that she was, though, all the parish liked Mamie Lee.
About four years before the time I am telling of, there came a soldier to Timberdale, on a visit to Spicer the letter-carrier, one James West. He was related to Spicer’s wife; her nephew, or cousin, or something of that sort; a tall, good-looking, merry-tempered dragoon, with a dashing carriage and a dashing tongue; and he ran away with the heart of Mamie Lee. That might not so much have mattered in the long-run, for such privilege is universally allowed to the sons of Mars; but he also ran away with her. One fine morning Mr. James West was missing from Timberdale, and Mamie Lee was missing also. The parish went into a rapture of indignation over it, not so much at him as at her; called her a “baggage,” and hoping her folly would come home to her. Poor old Lee thought he had received his death-blow, and his hair turned grey swiftly.
Not more than twelve months had gone by when Mamie was back again. Jael Batty was running out one evening to get half-a-pound of sugar at Salmon’s shop, when she met a young woman with a bundle staggering down the lane, and keeping under the side of the hedge as if she were afraid of falling, or else did not want to be seen. Too weak to carry the bundle, she seemed ready to sink at every step. Jael Batty, who had her curiosity like other people, though she was deaf, peered into the bent face, and brought herself up with a shriek.
“What, is it you, Mamie Lee! Well, the impedence of this! How on earth could you pick up the brass to come back here?”
“Are my poor father and mother alive? Do they still live here?” faltered Mamie, turning her piteous white face to Jael.
“They be both alive; but it’s no thanks to you. If they —— Oh, if I don’t believe —— What have you got in that ragged old shawl?”
“It’s my baby,” answered Mamie; and she passed on.
Andrew Lee took her in with sobs and tears, and thanked Heaven she had come back, and welcomed her unreasonably. The parish went on at him for it, showering down plenty of abuse, and asking whether he did not feel ashamed of himself. There was even a talk of his post as letter-carrier being taken from him; but it came to nothing. Rymer was postmaster then, though he was about giving it up; and he was a man of too much sorrow himself to inflict it needlessly upon another. On the contrary, he sent down cordials and tonics and things for Mamie, who had had a fever and come home dilapidated as to strength, and never charged for them. Thomas Rymer’s own heart was slowly breaking, so he could feel for her.
The best or the worst of it was, that Mamie said she was married. Which assertion was of course not believed, and only added to her sin in the eyes of Timberdale. The tale she told was this. That James West had taken her straight to some town, where he had previously had the banns put up, and married her there. The day after the marriage they had sailed for Ireland, whither he had to hasten to join his regiment, his leave of absence having expired. At the end of some seven or eight months, the regiment was ordered to India, and he departed with it, leaving her in her obscure lodging at Cork. By-and-by her baby was born; she was very ill then; very; had fever and a cough, and sundry other complications; and what with lying ill eight weeks, and being obliged to pay a doctor and a nurse all that time, besides other expenses, she spent all the money Mr. James West left with her, and had no choice between starvation and coming back to Timberdale.
You should have heard how this account was scoffed at. The illness, and the baby, and the poverty nobody disputed — they were plain enough to be seen by all Timberdale; and what better could she expect, they would like to know? But when she came to talk about the church (or rather, old Lee for her, second-hand, for she was not at all a person now to be spoken to by Timberdale), then their tongues were let loose in all kinds of inconvenient questions. Which was the town? — and which was the church in it? — and where were her “marriage lines”? Mamie could give no answer at all. She did not know the name of the town, or where it was situated. James had taken her with him in the train to it, and that was all she knew; and she did not know the name of the church or the clergyman; and as to marriage lines, she had never heard of any. So, as Timberdale said, what could you make out of this, except one thing — that Mr. Jim West had been a deep rogue, and taken her in. At best, it could have been but a factitious ceremony; perhaps in some barn, got up like a church for the occasion, said the more tolerant, willing to give excuse for pretty Mamie if they could; but the chief portion of Timberdale looked upon the whole as an out-and-out invention of her own.
Poor Andrew Lee had never taken a hopeful view of the affair from the first; but he held to the more tolerant opinion that Mamie had been herself deceived, and he could not help being cool to Spicer in consequence. Spicer in retaliation threw all the blame upon Mamie, and held up Mr. James West as a paragon of virtue.
But, as the time went on, and no news, no letter or other token arrived from West, Mamie herself gave in. That he had deceived her she slowly became convinced of, and despair took hold of her heart. Timberdale might have the satisfaction of knowing that she judged herself just as humbly and bitterly as they judged her, and was grieving herself to a shadow. Three years had passed now since her return, and the affair was an event of the past; and Mamie wore, metaphorically, the white sheet of penitence, and hardly dared to show her face outside the cottage-door.
But you may easily see how all this, besides the sorrow, told upon Lee. Fourteen shillings a week for a man and his wife to exist upon cannot be called much, especially if they have seen better days and been used to better living. When the first grandchild, poor little orphan, arrived to be kept, Lee and his wife both thought it hard, though quite willing to take him; and now they had Mamie and another grandchild. This young one was named Jemima, for Mamie had called her after her faithless husband. Five people and fourteen shillings a-week, and provisions dear, and house-rent to pay, and Lee’s shoes perpetually wanting to be mended! One or two generous individuals grew rather fond of telling Lee that he would be better off in the union.
It was November weather. A cold, dark, biting, sharp, drizzly morning. Andrew Lee got up betimes, as usual: he had to be out soon after seven to be ready for his letter delivery. In the kitchen when he entered it, he found his daughter there before him, coaxing the kettle to boil on the handful of fire, that she might make him his cup of tea and give him his breakfast. She was growing uncommonly weak and shadowy-looking now: a little woman, still not much more than a girl, with a shawl folded about her shivering shoulders, a hacking cough, and a mild, non-resisting face. Her father had lately told her that he would not have her get up in the morning; she was not fit for it: what he wanted done, he could do himself.
“Now, Mamie, why are you here? You should attend to what I say, child.”
She got up from her knees and turned her sad brown eyes towards him: bright and sweet eyes once, but now dimmed with the tears and sorrow of the last three years.
“I am better up; I am indeed, father. Not sleeping much, I get tired of lying: and my cough is worse in bed.”
He sat down to his cup of tea and to the bread she placed before him. Some mornings there was a little butter, or dripping, or mayhap bacon fat; but this morning he had to eat his bread dry. It was getting near the end of the week, and the purse ran low. Lee had a horror of debt, and would never let his people run into it for the smallest sum if he knew it.
“It’s poor fare for you this morning, father; but I’ll try and get a morsel of boiled pork for dinner, and we’ll have it ready early. I expect to be paid today for the bit of work I have been doing for young Mrs. Ashton. Some of those greens down by the apple-trees want cutting: they’ll be nice with a bit of pork.”
Lee turned his eyes in the direction of the greens and the apple-trees; but the window was misty, and he could only see the drizzle of rain-drops on the diamond panes. As he sat there, a thought came into his head that he was beginning to feel old: old, and worn, and shaky. Trouble ages a man more than work, more than time; and Lee never looked at the wan face of his daughter, and at its marks of sad repentance, but he felt anew the sting which was always pricking him more or less. What with that, and his difficulty to keep the pot boiling, and his general state of shakiness, Lee was older than his years. Timberdale had fallen into the habit of calling him Old Lee, you see; but he was not sixty yet. He had a nice face; when it was a young face it must have been like Mamie’s. It had furrows in it now, and his scanty grey locks hung down on each side of it.
Putting on his top-coat, which was about as thin as those remarkable sheets told of by Brian O’Linn, Lee went out buttoning it. The rain had ceased, but the cold wind took him as he went down the narrow garden-path, and he could not help shivering.
“It’s a bitter wind today, father; in the north-east, I think,” said Mamie, standing at the door to close it after him. “I hope there’ll be no letters for Crabb.”
Lee, as he pressed along in the teeth of the cruel east wind, was hoping the same. Salmon the grocer, who had taken the post-office, as may be remembered, when the late Thomas Rymer gave it up, was sorting the letters in the room behind the shop when Lee went in. Spicer, a lithe, active, dark-eyed man of forty-five, stood at the end of the table waiting for his bag. Lee went and stood beside him, giving him a brief good-morning: he had not taken kindly to the man since West ran away with Mamie.
“A light load this morning,” remarked Mr. Salmon to Spicer, as he handed him his appropriate bag. “And here’s yours, Lee,” he added a minute after: “not heavy either. Too cold for people to write, I suppose.”
“Anything for Crabb, sir?”
“For Crabb? Well, yes, I think there is. For the Rector.”
Upon going out, Spicer turned one way, Lee the other. Spicer’s district was easy as play; Lee’s was a regular country tramp, the farm-houses lying in all the four points of the compass. The longest tramp was over to us at Crabb. And why the two houses, our own and Coney’s farm, should continue to be comprised in the Timberdale delivery, instead of that of Crabb, people could never understand. It was so still, however, and nobody bestirred himself to alter it. For one thing, we were not often at Crabb Cot, and the Coneys did not have many letters, so it was not like an every-day delivery: we chanced to be there just now.
The letter spoken of by Salmon, which would bring Lee to Crabb this morning, was for the Reverend Herbert Tanerton, Rector of Timberdale. He and his wife, who was a niece of old Coney’s, were now staying at the farm on a week’s visit, and he had given orders to Salmon that his letters, during that week, were to be delivered at the farm instead of at the Rectory.
Lee finally got through his work, all but this one letter for the parson, and turned his steps our way. As ill-luck had it — the poor fellow thought it so afterwards — he could not take the short and sheltered way through Crabb Ravine, for he had letters that morning to Sir Robert Tenby, at Bellwood, and also for the Stone House on the way to it. By the time he turned on the solitary road that led to Crabb, Lee was nearly blown to smithereens by the fierce north-east wind, and chilled to the marrow. All his bones ached; he felt low, frozen, ill, and wondered whether he should get over the ground without breaking down.
“I wish I might have a whiff at my pipe!”
A pipe is to many people the panacea for all earthly discomfort; it was so to Lee. But only in the previous February had occurred that damage to Helen Whitney’s letter, when she was staying with us, which the authorities had made much of; and Lee was afraid to risk a similar mishap again. He carried Salmon’s general orders with him: not to smoke during his round. Once the letters were delivered, he might do so.
His weak grey hair blowing about, his thin and shrunken frame shivering and shaking as the blasts took him, his empty post-bag thrust into his pocket, and the Rector of Timberdale’s letter in his hand, Lee toiled along on his weary way. To a strong man the walk would have been nothing, and not much to Lee in fairer weather. It was the cold and wind that tired him. And though, after giving vent to the above wish, he held out a little while, presently he could resist the comfort no longer, but drew forth his pipe and struck a match to light it.
How it occurred he never knew, never knew to his dying day, but the flame from the match caught the letter, and set it alight. It was that thin foreign paper that catches so quickly, and the match was obstinate, and the wind blew the flame about. He pressed the fire out with his hands, but a portion of the letter was burnt.
If Timbuctoo, or some other far-away place had been within the distance of a man’s legs, Lee would have made straight off for it. His pipe on the ground, the burnt letter underneath his horrified gaze, and his hair raised on end, stood he. What on earth should he do? It had been only a pleasant young lady’s letter last time, and only a little scorched; now it was the stern Rector’s.
There was but one thing he could do — go on with the letter to its destination. It often happens in these distressing catastrophes that the one only course open is the least palatable. His pipe hidden away in his pocket — for Lee had had enough of it for that morning — and the damaged letter humbly held out in his hand, Lee made his approach to the farm.
I chanced to be standing at its door with Tom Coney and Tod. Those two were going out shooting, and the Squire had sent me running across the road with a message to them. Lee came up, and, with a face that seemed greyer than usual, and a voice from which most of its sound had departed, he told his tale.
Tom Coney gave a whistle. “Oh, by George, Lee, won’t you catch it! The Rector ——”
“The Rector’s a regular martinet, you know,” Tom Coney was about to add, but he was stopped by the appearance of the Rector himself.
Herbert Tanerton had chanced to be in the little oak-panelled hall, and caught the drift of the tale. A frown sat on his cold face as he came forward, a frown that would have befitted an old face better than a young one.
He was not loud. He did not fly into a passion as Helen Whitney did. He just took the unfortunate letter in his hand, and looked at it, and looked at Lee, and spoke quietly and coldly.
“This is, I believe, the second time you have burnt the letters?” and Lee dared not deny it.
“And in direct defiance of orders. You are not allowed to smoke when on your rounds.”
“I’ll never attempt to smoke again, when on my round, as long as I live, sir, if you’ll only be pleased to look over it this time,” gasped Lee, holding up his hands in a piteous way. But the Rector was one who went in for “duty,” and the appeal found no favour with him.
“No,” said he, “it would be to encourage wrong-doing, Lee. Meet me at eleven o’clock at Salmon’s.”
“Never again, sir, so long as I live!” pleaded Lee. “I’ll give you my word of that, sir; and I never broke it yet. Oh, sir, if you will but have pity upon me and not report me!”
“At eleven o’clock,” repeated Herbert Tanerton decisively, as he turned indoors again.
“What an old stupid you must be!” cried Tod to Lee. “He won’t excuse you; he’s the wrong sort of parson to do it.”
“And a pretty kettle of fish you’ve made of it,” added Tom Coney. “I wouldn’t have minded much, had it been my letter; but he is different, you know.”
Poor Lee turned his eyes on me: perhaps remembering that he had asked me, the other time, to stand his friend with Miss Whitney. No one could be his friend now: when the Rector took up a grievance he did not let it drop again; especially if it were his own. Good-hearted Jack, his sailor-brother, would have screened Lee, though all the letters in the parish had got burnt.
At eleven o’clock precisely the Reverend Herbert Tanerton entered Salmon’s shop; and poor Lee, not daring to disobey his mandate, crept in after him. They had it out in the room behind. Salmon was properly severe; told Lee he was not sure but the offence involved penal servitude, and that he deserved hanging. A prosperous tradesman in his small orbit, the man was naturally inclined to be dictatorial, and was ambitious of standing well with his betters, especially the Rector. Lee was suspended there and then; and Spicer was informed that for a time, until other arrangements were made, he must do double duty. Spicer, vexed at this, for it would take him so much the more time from his legitimate business, that of horse doctor, told Lee he was a fool, and deserved not only hanging but drawing and quartering.
“What’s up?” asked Ben Rymer, crossing the road from his own shop to accost Lee, as the latter came out of Salmon’s. Ben was the chemist now — had been since Margaret’s marriage — and was steady; and Ben, it was said, would soon pass his examination for surgeon. He had his hands in his pockets and his white apron on, for Mr. Ben Rymer had no false pride, and would as soon show himself to Timberdale in an apron as in a dress-coat.
Lee told his tale, confessing the sin of the morning. Mr. Rymer nodded his head significantly several times as he heard it, and pushed his red hair from his capacious forehead.
“They won’t look over it this time, Lee.”
“If I could but get some one to be my friend with the Rector, and ask him to forgive me,” said Lee. “Had your father been alive, Mr. Rymer, I think he would have done it for me.”
“Very likely. No good to ask me — if that’s what you are hinting at. The Rector looks upon me as a black sheep, and turns on me the cold shoulder. But I don’t think he is one to listen, Lee, though the king came to ask him.”
“What I shall do I don’t know,” bewailed Lee. “If the place is stopped, the pay stops, and I’ve not another shilling in the world, or the means of earning one. My wife’s ailing, and Mamie gets worse day by day; and there are the two little ones. They are all upon me.”
“Some people here say, Lee, that you should have sent Mamie and her young one to the workhouse, and not have charged yourself with them.”
“True, sir, several have told me that. But people don’t know what a father’s feelings are till they experience them. Mary was my own child that I had dandled on my knee, and watched grow up in her pretty ways, and I was fonder of her than of any earthly thing. The workhouse might not have taken her in.”
“She has forfeited all claim on you. And come home only to break your heart.”
“True,” meekly assented Lee. “But the Lord has told us we are to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven. If I had turned her adrift from my door and heart, sir, who knows but I might have been turned adrift myself at the Last Day.”
Evidently it was of no use talking to one so unreasonable as Lee. And Mr. Ben Rymer went back to his shop. A customer was entering it with a prescription and a medicine-bottle.
One morning close upon Christmas, Mrs. Todhetley despatched me to Timberdale through the snow for a box of those delectable “Household Pills,” which have been mentioned before: an invention of the late Mr. Rymer’s, and continued to be made up by Ben. Ben was behind the counter as usual when I entered, and shook the snow off my boots on the door-mat.
“Anything else?” he asked me presently, wrapping up the box.
“Not today. There goes old Lee! How thin he looks!”
“Starvation,” said Ben, craning his long neck to look between the coloured globes at Lee on the other side the way. “Lee has nothing coming in now.”
“What do they all live upon?”
“Goodness knows. Upon things that he pledges, and the vegetables in the garden. I was in there last night, and I can tell you it was a picture, Mr. Johnny Ludlow.”
“A picture of what?”
“Misery: distress: hopelessness. It is several weeks now since Lee earned anything, and they have been all that time upon short commons. Some days on no commons at all, I expect.”
“But what took you there?”
“I heard such an account of the girl — Mamie — yesterday afternoon, of her cough and her weakness, that I thought I’d see if any of my drugs would do her good. But it’s food they all want.”
“Is Mamie very ill?”
“Very ill indeed. I’m not sure but she’s dying.”
“It is a dreadful thing.”
“One can’t ask too many professional questions — people are down upon you for that before you have passed,” resumed Ben, alluding to his not being qualified. “But I sent her in a cordial or two, and I spoke to Darbyshire; so perhaps he will look in upon her today.”
Ben Rymer might have been a black sheep once upon a time, but he had not a bad heart. I began wondering whether Mrs. Todhetley could help them.
“Is Mamie Lee still able to do any sewing?”
“About as much as I could do it. Not she. I shall hear what Darbyshire’s report is. They would certainly be better off in the workhouse.”
“I wish they could be helped!”
“Not much chance of that,” said Ben. “She is a sinner, and he is a sinner: that’s what Timberdale says, you know. People in these enlightened days are so very self-righteous!”
“How is Lee a sinner?”
“How! Why, has he not burnt up the people’s letters? Mr. Tanerton leads the van in banning him, and Timberdale follows.”
I went home, questioning whether our folk would do anything to help the Lees. No one went on against ill-doings worse than the Squire; and no one was more ready than he to lend a helping hand when the ill-doers were fainting for want of it.
It chanced that just about the time I was talking to Ben Rymer, Mr. Darbyshire, the doctor at Timberdale, called at Lee’s. He was a little, dark man, with an irritable temper and a turned-up nose, but good as gold at heart. Mamie Lee lay back in a chair, her head on a pillow, weak and wan and weary, the tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. Darbyshire was feeling her pulse, and old Mrs. Lee pottered about, bringing sticks from the garden to feed the handful of fire. The two children sat on the brick floor.
“If it were not for leaving my poor little one, I should be glad to die, sir,” she was saying. “I shall be glad to go; hope it is not wrong to say it. She and I have been a dreadful charge upon them here.”
Darbyshire looked round the kitchen. It was almost bare; the things had gone to the pawnbroker’s. Then he looked at her.
“There’s no need for you to die yet. Don’t get that fallacy in your head. You’ll come round fast enough with a little care.”
“No, sir, I’m afraid not; I think I am past it. It has all come of the trouble, sir; and perhaps, when I’m gone, the neighbours will judge me more charitably. I believed with all my heart it was a true marriage — and I hope you’ll believe me when I say it, sir; it never came into my mind to imagine otherwise. And I’d have thought the whole world would have deceived me sooner than James.”
“Ah,” says Darbyshire, “most girls think that. Well, I’ll send you in some physic to soothe the pain in the chest. But what you most want, you see, is kitchen physic.”
“Mr. Rymer has been very good in sending me cordials and cough-mixture, sir. Mother’s cough is bad, and he sent some to her as well.”
“Ah, yes. Mrs. Lee, I am telling your daughter that what she most wants is kitchen physic. Good kitchen physic, you understand. You’d be none the worse yourself for some of it.”
Dame Lee, coming in just then in her pattens, tried to put her poor bent back as upright as she could, and shook her head before answering.
“Kitchen physic don’t come in our way now, Dr. Darbyshire. We just manage not to starve quite, and that’s all. Perhaps, sir, things may take a turn. The Lord is over all, and He sees our need.”
“He dave me some pep’mint d’ops,” said the little one, who had been waiting to put in a word. “Andy, too.”
“Who did?” asked the doctor.
Darbyshire patted the little straw-coloured head, and went out. An additional offence in the eyes of Timberdale was that the child’s fair curls were just the pattern of those on the head of James the deceiver.
“Well, have you seen Mamie Lee?” asked Ben Rymer, who chanced to be standing at his shop-door after his dinner, when Darbyshire was passing by from paying his round of visits.
“Yes, I have seen her. There’s no radical disease.”
“Don’t you think her uncommonly ill?”
Darbyshire nodded. “But she’s not too far gone to be cured. She’d get well fast enough under favourable circumstances.”
“Meaning good food?”
“Meaning food and other things. Peace of mind, for instance. She is just fretting herself to death. Shame, remorse, and all that, have taken hold of her; besides grieving her heart out after the fellow.”
“Her voice is so hollow! Did you notice it?”
“Hollow from weakness only. As to her being too far gone, she is not so at present; at least, that’s my opinion; but how soon she may become so I can’t say. With good kitchen physic, as I’ve just told them, and ease of mind to help me, I’ll answer for it that I’d have her well in a month; but the girl has neither the one nor the other. She seems to look upon coming death in the light of a relief, rather than otherwise; a relief to her own mental trouble, and a relief to the household, in the shape of saving it what she eats and drinks. In such a condition as this, you must be aware that the mind does not help the body by striving for existence; it makes no effort to struggle back to health; and there’s where Mamie Lee will fail. Circumstances are killing her, not disease.”
“Did you try her lungs?”
“Partially. I’m sure I am right. The girl will probably die, but she need not die of necessity; though I suppose there will be no help for it. Good-day.”
Mr. Darbyshire walked away in the direction of his house, where his dinner was waiting: and Ben Rymer disappeared within doors, and began to pound some rhubarb (or what looked like it) in a mortar. He was pounding away like mad, with all the strength of his strong hands, when who should come in but Lee. Lee had never been much better than a shadow of late years, but you should have seen him now, with his grey hair straggling about his meek, wan face. You should have seen his clothes, too, and the old shoes, out at the toes and sides. Burning people’s letters was of course an unpardonable offence, not to be condoned.
“Mamie said, sir, that you were good enough to tell her I was to call in for some of the cough lozenges that did her so much good. But ——”
“Ay,” interrupted Ben, getting down a box of the lozenges. “Don’t let her spare them. They won’t interfere with anything Mr. Darbyshire may send. I hear he has been.”
But that those were not the days when beef-tea was sold in tins and gallipots, Ben Rymer might have added some to the lozenges. As he was handing the box to Lee, something in the man’s wan and worn and gentle face put him in mind of his late father’s, whose heart Mr. Ben had helped to break. A great pity took the chemist.
“You would like to be reinstated in your place, Lee?” he said suddenly.
Lee could not answer at once, for the pain at his throat and the moisture in his eyes that the notion called up. His voice, when he did speak, was as hollow and mild as Mamie’s.
“There’s no hope of that, sir. For a week after it was taken from me, I thought of nothing else, night or day, but that Mr. Tanerton might perhaps forgive me and get Salmon to put me on again. But the time for hoping that went by: as you know, Mr. Rymer, they put young Jelf in my place. I shall never forget the blow it was to me when I heard it. The other morning I saw Jelf crossing that bit of waste ground yonder with my old bag slung on his shoulder, and for a moment I thought the pain would have killed me.”
“It is hard lines,” confessed Ben.
“I have striven and struggled all my life long; only myself knows how sorely, save God; and only He can tell, for I am sure I can’t, how I have contrived to keep my head any way above water. And now it’s under it.”
Taking the box, which Ben Rymer handed to him, Lee spoke a word of thanks, and went out. He could not say much; heart and spirit were alike broken. Ben called to his boy to mind the shop, and went over to Salmon’s. That self-sufficient man and prosperous tradesman was sitting down at his desk in the shop-corner, complacently digesting his dinner — which had been a good one, to judge by his red face.
“Can’t you manage to do something for Lee?” began Ben, after looking round to see that they were alone. “He is at a rare low ebb.”
“Do something for Lee?” repeated Salmon. “What could I do for him?”
“Put him in his place again.”
“I dare say!” Salmon laughed as he spoke, and then demanded whether Ben was a fool.
“You might do it if you would,” said Ben. “As to Lee, he won’t last long, if things continue as they are. Better give him a chance to live a little longer.”
“Now what do you mean?” demanded Salmon. “Why don’t you ask me to put a weathercock on yonder malthouse of Pashley’s? Jelf has got Lee’s place, and you know it.”
“But Jelf does not intend to keep it.”
“Who says he does not?”
“He says it. He told me yesterday that he was sick and tired of the tramping, and meant to resign. He only took it as a convenience, whilst he waited for a clerkship he was trying for at a brewery at Worcester. And he is to get that with the new year.”
“Then what does Jelf mean by talking about it to others before he has spoken to me?” cried Salmon, going into a temper. “He thought to leave me and the letters at a pinch, I suppose! I’ll teach him better.”
“You may teach him anything you like, if you’ll put Lee on again. I’ll go bail that he won’t get smoking again on his rounds. I think it is just a toss-up of life or death to him. Come! do a good turn for once, Salmon.”
Salmon paused. He was not bad-hearted, only self-important.
“What would Mr. Tanerton say to it?”
Ben did not answer. He knew that there, after Salmon himself, was where the difficulty would lie.
“All that you have been urging goes for nonsense, Rymer. Unless the Rector came to me and said, ‘You may put Lee on again,’ I should not, and could not, attempt to stir in the matter; and you must know that as well as I do.”
“Can’t somebody see Tanerton, and talk to him? One would think that the sight of Lee’s face would be enough to soften him, without anything else.”
“I don’t know who’d like to do it,” returned Salmon. And there the conference ended, for the apprentice came in from his dinner.
Very much to our surprise, Mr. Ben Rymer walked in that same evening to Crabb Cot, and was admitted to the Squire. In spite of Mr. Ben’s former ill-doings, which he had got to know of, the Squire treated Ben civilly, in remembrance of his father, and of his grandfather, the clergyman. Ben’s errand was to ask the Squire to intercede for Lee with Herbert Tanerton. And the pater, after talking largely about the iniquity of Lee, as connected with burnt letters, came round to Ben’s way of thinking, and agreed to go to the Rectory.
“Herbert Tanerton’s harder than nails, and you’ll do no good,” remarked Tod, watching us away on the following morning; for the pater took me with him to break the loneliness of the walk. “He’ll turn as cold to you as a stone the moment you bring up the subject, sir. Tell me I’m a story-teller when you come back if he does not, Johnny.”
We took the way of the Ravine. It was a searching day; the wintry wind keen and “unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Before us, toiling up the descent to the Ravine at the other end, and coming to a halt at the stile to pant and cough, went a woebegone figure, thinly clad, which turned out to be Lee himself. He had a small bundle of loose sticks in his hand, which he had come to pick up. The Squire was preparing a sort of blowing-up greeting for him, touching lighted matches and carelessness, but the sight of the mild, starved grey face disarmed him; he thought, instead, of the days when Lee had been a prosperous farmer, and his tone changed to one of pity.
“Hard times, I’m afraid, Lee.”
“Yes, sir, very hard. I’ve known hard times before, but I never thought to see any so cruel as these. There’s one comfort, sir; when things come to this low ebb, life can’t last long.”
“Stuff,” said the Squire. “For all you know, you may be back in your old place soon: and — and Mrs. Todhetley will find some sewing when Mamie’s well enough to do it.”
A faint light, the dawn of hope, shone in Lee’s eyes. “Oh, sir, if it could be! and I heard a whisper today that young Jelf refuses to keep the post. If it had been anybody’s letter but Mr. Tanerton’s, perhaps — but he does not forgive.”
“I’m on my way now to ask him,” cried the pater, unable to keep in the news. “Cheer up, Lee — of course you’d pass your word not to go burning letters again.”
“I’d not expose myself to the danger, sir. Once I got my old place back, I would never take out a pipe with me on my rounds; never, so long as I live.”
Leaving him with his new hope and the bundle of firewood, we trudged on to the Rectory. Herbert and Grace were both at home, and glad to see us.
But the interview ended in smoke. Tod had foreseen the result exactly: the Rector was harder than nails. He talked of “example” and “Christian duty;” and refused point-blank to allow Lee to be reinstated. The Squire gave him a few sharp words, and flung out of the house in a passion.
“A pretty Christian he is, Johnny! He was cold and hard as a boy. I once told him so before his stepfather, poor Jacob Lewis; but he is colder and harder now.”
At the turning of the road by Timberdale Court, we came upon Lee. After taking his faggots home, he waited about to see us and hear the news. The pater’s face, red and angry, told him the truth.
“There’s no hope for me, sir, I fear?”
“Not a bit of it,” growled the Squire. “Mr. Tanerton won’t listen to reason. Perhaps we can find some other light post for you, my poor fellow, when the winter shall have turned. You had better get indoors out of this biting cold; and here’s a couple of shillings.”
So hope went clean out of Andrew Lee.
Christmas Day and jolly weather. Snow on the ground to one’s heart’s content. Holly and ivy on the walls indoors, and great fires blazing on the hearths; turkeys, and plum-puddings, and oranges, and fun. That was our lucky state at Crabb Cot and at Timberdale generally, but not at Andrew Lee’s.
The sweet bells were chiming people out of church, as was the custom at Timberdale on high festivals. Poor Lee sat listening to them, his hand held up to his aching head. There had been no church for him: he had neither clothes to go in nor face to sit through the service. Mamie, wrapped in an old bed-quilt, lay back on the pillow by the fire. The coal-merchant, opening his heart, had sent a sack each of best Staffordshire coal to ten poor families, and Lee’s was one. Except the Squire’s two shillings, he had had no money given to him. A loaf of bread was in the cupboard; and a saucepan of broth, made of carrots and turnips out of the garden, simmered on the trivet; and that would be their Christmas dinner.
Uncommonly low was Mamie today. The longer she endured this famished state of affairs the weaker she grew; it stands to reason. She felt that a few days, perhaps hours, would finish her up. The little ones were upstairs with their grandmother, so that she had an interval of rest; and she lay back, her breath short and her chest aching as she thought of the past. Of the time when James West, the handsome young man in his gay regimentals, came to woo her, as the soldier did the miller’s daughter. In those happy days, when her heart was light and her song blithe as a bird’s in May, that used to be one of her songs, “The Banks of Allan Water.” Her dream had come to the same ending as the one told of in the ballad, and here she lay, deserted and dying. Timberdale was in the habit of prosaically telling her that she had “brought her pigs to a fine market.” Of the market there could be no question; but when Mamie looked into the past she saw more of romance there than anything else. The breaking out of the church bells forced a rush of tears to her heart and eyes. She tried to battle with the feeling, then turned and put her cheek against her father’s shoulder.
“Forgive me, father!” she besought him, in a sobbing whisper. “I don’t think it will be long now; I want you to say you forgive me before I go. If — if you can.”
And the words finished up for Lee what the bells had only partly done. He broke down, and sobbed with his daughter.
“I’ve never thought there was need of it, or to say it, child; and if there had been — Christ forgave all. ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to men.’ The bells are ringing it out now. He will soon take us to Him. Mamie, my forlorn one: forgiven; yes, forgiven; and in His beautiful world there is neither hunger, nor disgrace, nor pain. You are dying of that cold you caught in the autumn, and I shan’t be long behind you. There’s no longer any place for me here.”
“Not of the cold, father; I am not dying of that, but of a broken heart.”
Lee sobbed. He did not answer.
“And I should like to leave my forgiveness to James, should he ever come back here,” she whispered: “and — and my love. Please tell him that I’d have got well if I could, if only for the chance of seeing him once again in this world; and tell him that I have thought all along there must be some mistake; that he did not mean deliberately to harm me. I think so still, father. And if he should notice little Mima, tell him ——”
A paroxysm of coughing interrupted the rest. Mrs. Lee came downstairs with the children, asking if it was not time for dinner.
“The little ones are crying out for it, Mamie, and I’m sure the rest of us are hungry enough.”
So they bestirred themselves to take up the broth, and take seats round the table. All but Mamie, who did not leave her pillow. Very watery broth, the carrots and turnips swimming in it.
“Say grace, Andy,” cried his grandmother.
For they kept up proper manners at Lee’s, in spite of the short commons.
“For what we are going to receive,” began Andy: and then he pulled himself up, and looked round.
Bursting in at the door, a laugh upon his face and a white basin in his hands, came Mr. Ben Rymer. The basin was three parts filled with delicious slices of hot roast beef and gravy.
“I thought you might like to eat a bit, as it’s Christmas Day,” said Ben. “And here’s an orange or two for you youngsters.”
Pulling the oranges out of his pocket, and not waiting to be thanked, Ben went off again. But he did not tell them what he was laughing at, or the trick he had played his mother — in slicing away at the round of beef, and rifling the dish of oranges, while her back was turned, looking after the servant’s doings in the kitchen, and the turning-out of the pudding. For Mrs. Rymer followed Timberdale in taking an exaggerated view of Lee’s sins, and declined to help him.
Their faces had hardly done glowing with the unusual luxury of the beef, when I dropped in. We had gone that day to church at Timberdale; after the service, the Squire left the others to walk on, and, taking me with him, called at the Rectory to tackle Herbert Tanerton again. The parson did not hold out. How could he, with those bells, enjoining goodwill, ringing in his ears? — the bells of his own church. But he had meant to come round of his own accord.
“I’ll see Salmon about it tomorrow,” said he. “I did say just a word to him yesterday. As you go home, Johnny may look in at Lee’s and tell him so.”
“And Johnny, if you don’t mind carrying it, I’ll send a drop of beef-tea to Mamie,” whispered Grace. “I’ve not dared to do it before.”
So, when it was getting towards dusk, for the Squire stayed, talking of this and that, there I was, with the bottle of beef-tea, telling Lee the good news that his place would be restored to him with the new year, and hearing about Ben Rymer’s basin of meat. The tears rolled down old Lee’s haggard cheeks.
“And I had been fearing that God had abandoned me!” he cried, full of remorse for the doubt. “Mamie, perhaps you can struggle on a bit longer now.”
But the greatest event of all was to come. Whilst I stood there, somebody opened the door, and looked in. A tall, fine, handsome soldier: and I did not at the moment notice that he had a wooden leg from the knee downwards. Ben’s basin of beef had been a surprise, but it was nothing to this. Taking a glance round the room, it rested on Mamie, and he went up to her, the smile on his open face changing to concern.
“My dear lassie, what’s amiss?”
“James!” she faintly screamed; “it’s James!” and burst into a fit of sobs on his breast. And next the company was augmented by Salmon and Ben Rymer, who had seen James West go by, and came after him to know what it meant, and to blow him up for his delinquencies.
“Mamie not married!” laughed James. “Timberdale has been saying that? Why, what extraordinary people you must be! We were married at Bristol — and I’ve got the certificate in my knapsack at Spicer’s: I’ve always kept it. You can paste it up on the church-door if you like. Not married! Would Mamie else have gone with me, do you suppose? Or should I have taken her?”
“But,” said poor Lee, thinking that heaven must have opened right over his head that afternoon to shower down gifts, “why did you not marry her here openly?”
“Because I could not get leave to marry openly. We soldiers cannot marry at will, you know, Mr. Lee. I ought not to have done it, that’s a fact; but I did not care to leave Mamie, I liked her too well; and I was punished afterwards by not being allowed to take her to India.”
“You never wrote, James,” whispered Mamie.
“Yes, I did, dear; I wrote twice to Ireland, not knowing you had left it. That was at first, just after we landed. Soon we had a skirmish with the natives out there, and I got shot in the leg and otherwise wounded; and for a long time I lay between life and death, only partly conscious; and now I am discharged with a pension and a wooden leg.”
“Then you can’t go for a soldier again!” cried Salmon.
“Not I. I shall settle at Timberdale, I think, if I can meet with a pretty little place to suit me. I found my poor mother dead when I came home, and what was hers is now mine. And it will be a comfortable living for us, Mamie, of itself: besides a few spare hundred pounds to the good, some of which you shall be heartily welcome to, Mr. Lee, for you look as if you wanted it. And the first thing I shall do, Mamie, my dear, will be to nurse you back to health. Bless my heart! Not married! I wish I had the handling of him that first set that idea afloat!”
“You’ll get well now, Mamie,” I whispered to her. For she was looking better already.
“Oh, Master Johnny, perhaps I shall! How good God is to us! And, James — James, this is the little one. I named her after you: Jemima.”
“Peace on earth, and goodwill to men!” cried old Lee, in his thankfulness. “The bells said it today.”
And as I made off at last to catch up the Squire, the little Mima was being smothered with kisses in her father’s arms.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men!” To every one of us, my friends, do the Christmas bells say it, as Christmas Day comes round.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55