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At an early hour Haldane, true to his purpose, departed from the home of his childhood in the guise of a laborer, as he had come. His mother heard his step on the stairs, for she had passed a sleepless night, agitated by painful emotions. She wished to call him back; she grieved over his course as a "dark and mysterious providence," as a misfortune which, like death, could not be escaped; but with the persistence of a little mind, capable of taking but a single and narrow view, she was absolutely sure she was right in her course, and that nothing but harsh and bitter experience would bring her wayward son to his senses.
Nor did it seem that the harsh experience would be wanting, for the morning was well advanced when he reached his place of work, and he received a severe reprimand from the foreman for being so late. His explanation, that he had received permission to be absent, was incredulously received. It also seemed that gibes, taunts, and sneers were flung at him with increasing venom by his ill-natured associates, who were vexed that they had not been able to drive him away by their persecutions.
But the object of their spite was dwelling in a world of which they knew nothing, and in which they had no part, and, almost oblivious of their existence, he performed his mechanical duty in almost undisturbed serenity.
Mr. Growther welcomed him back most heartily and with an air of eager expectation, and when Haldane briefly but graphically narrated his experience, he hobbled up and down the room in a state of great excitement.
"You've got it! you've got it! and the genuine article, too, as sure as my name is Jeremiah Growther!" he exclaimed; "I'd give the whole airth, and anything else to boot, that was asked, if I could only git religion. But it's no use for me to think about it; I'm done, and cooled off, and would break inter ten thousand pieces if I tried to change myself. I couldn't feel what you feel any more than I could run and jump as you kin. My moral j'ints is as stiff as hedge-stakes. If I tried to git up a little of your feelin', it would be like tryin' to hurry along the spring by buildin' a fire on the frozen ground. It would only make one little spot soft and sloppy; the fire would soon go out: then it would freeze right up agin. Now, with you it's spring all over; you feel tender and meller-like, and everything good is ready to sprout. Well, well! if I do have to go to old Nick at last, I'm powerful glad he's had this set-back in your case."
Long and earnestly did Haldane try to reason his quaint friend out of his despairing views of himself. At last the old man said testily:
"Now, look here; you're too new-fledged a saint to instruct a seasoned and experienced old sinner like me. You don't know much about the Lord's ways yet, and I know all about the devil's ways. Because you've got out of his clutches (and I'm mighty glad you have) you needn't make light of him, and take liberties with him as if he was nobody, 'specially when Scripter calls him 'a roarin' lion.' If I was as young as you be, I'd make a dead set to git away from him; but after tryin' more times than you've lived years, I know it ain't no use. I tell you I can't feel as you feel, any more than you can squeeze water out of them old andirons. A-a-h!"
Haldane was silent, feeling that the old man's spiritual condition was too knotty a problem for him to solve.
After a few moments Mr. Growther added, in a voice that he meant to be very solemn and impressive:
"But I want you to enjoy your religious feelin's all the same. I will listen to all the Scripter readin' and prayin' you're willin' to do, without makin' any disturbance. Indeed, I think I will enjoy my wittles more, now that an honest grace can be said over 'em. An' when you read the Bible, you needn't read the cussin' parts, if yer don't want to. I'll read 'em to myself hereafter. I'll give you all the leeway that an old curmudgeon like myself kin; and I expect to take a sight o' comfort in seein' you goin' on your way rejoicin'."
And he did seem to take as much interest in the young man's progress and new spiritual experiences as if he alone were the one interested. His efforts to control his irritability and profanity were both odd and pathetic, and Haldane would sometimes hear him swearing softly to himself, with strange contortions of his wrinkled face, when in former times he would have vented his spite in the harshest tones.
Haldane wrote fully to Mrs. Arnot of his visit to his native city and its happy results, and enlarged upon his changed feelings as the proof that he was a changed man.
Her reply was prompt and was filled with the warmest congratulations and expressions of the sincerest sympathy. It also contained these words:
"I fear that you are dwelling too largely upon your feelings and experiences, and are giving to them a value they do not possess. Not that I would undervalue them--they are gracious tokens of God's favor; but they are not the grounds of your salvation and acceptance with God."
Haldane did not believe that they were--he had been too well taught for that--but he regarded them as the evidences that he was accepted, that he was a Christian; and he expected them to continue, and to bear him forward, and through and over the peculiar trials of his lot, as on a strong and shining tide.
Mrs. Arnot also stated that she was just on the eve of leaving home for a time, and that on her return she would see him and explain more fully her meaning.
In conclusion, she wrote: "I think you did what was right and best in returning to Hillaton. At any rate, you have reached that age when you must obey your own conscience, and can no longer place the responsibility of your action upon others. But, remember, that you owe to your mother the most delicate forbearance and consideration. You should write to her regularly, and seek to prove that you are guided by principle rather than impulse. Your mother has much reason to feel as she does, and nothing can excuse you from the sacred duties you owe to her."
Haldane did write as Mrs. Arnot suggested. In a few days he received the following letter from his mother:
"We shall sail for Europe as soon as we can get ready for the journey. Our lawyer is making all the necessary arrangements for us. I will leave funds with him, and whenever you are ready in good faith to accept my offer, leave Hillaton, and live so that this scandal can die out, you can obtain from him the means of living decently and quietly. As it is, I live in daily terror lest you again do something which will bring our name into the Hillaton papers; and, of course, everything is copied by the press of this city. Will the time ever come when you will consider your mother's and sisters' feelings?"
For a time all went as well as could be expected in the trying circumstances of Haldane's life. His prayers for strength and patience were at first earnest, and their answers seemed assured--so assured, indeed, that in times of haste and weariness prayer eventually came to be hurried or neglected. Before he was aware of it, feeling began to ebb away. He at last became troubled, and then alarmed, and made great effort to regain his old, happy emotions and experiences; but, like an outgoing tide, they ebbed steadily away.
His face indicated his disquiet and anxiety, for he felt like one who was clinging to a rope that was slowly parting, strand by strand.
Keen-eyed Mr. Growther watched him closely, and was satisfied that something was amiss. He was much concerned, and took not a little of the blame upon himself.
"How can a man be a Christian, or anything else that's decent, when he keeps such cussed company as I be?" he muttered. "I s'pose I kinder pisen and wither up his good feelin's like a sulphuric acid fact'ry."
One evening he exclaimed to Haldane, "I say, young man, you had better pull out o' here."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll give you a receipt in full and a good character, and then you look for a healthier boardin'-place."
"Ah, I see! You wish to be rid of me?"
"No, you don't see, nuther. I wish you to be rid of me."
"Of course, if you wish me to go, I'll go at once," said Haldane, in a despondent tone.
"And go off at half-cock into the bargain? I ain't one of the kind, you know, that talks around Robin Hood's barn. I go straight in at the front door and out at the back. It's my rough way of coming to the p'int at once. I kin see that you're runnin' behind in speret'al matters, and I believe that my cussedness is part to blame. You don't feel good as you used to. It would never do to git down at the heel in these matters, 'cause the poorest timber in the market is yer old backsliders. I'd rather be what I am than be a backslider. The right way is to take these things in time, before you git agoin' down hill too fast. It isn't that I want to git rid of you at all. I've kinder got used to you, and like to have you 'round 'mazingly; but I don't s'pose it's possible for you to feel right and live with me, and so you had better cut stick in time, for you must keep a-feelin' good and pi'us-like, my boy, or it's all up with you."
"Then you don't want me to go for the sake of your own comfort?"
"Not a bit of it. I only want you to git inter a place that isn't so morally pisened as this, where I do so much cussin'; for I will and must cuss as long as there's an atom left of me as big as a head of a pin. A-a-h!"
"Then I prefer to take my chances with you to going anywhere else."
"I have thought more than twice."
"Then yer blood be on yer own head," said Mr. Growther with tragic solemnity, as if he were about to take Haldane's life. "My skirts is clear after this warnin'."
"Indeed they are. You haven't done me a bit of harm."
"Where does the trouble come from then? Who is a-harmin' you?"
"Well, Mr. Growther," said Haldane, wearily, "I hardly know what is the matter. I am losing zest and courage unaccountably. My old, happy and hopeful feelings are about all gone, and in their place all sorts of evil thoughts seem to be swarming into my mind. I have tried to keep all this to myself, but I have become so wretched that I must speak. Mrs. Arnot is away, or she might help me, as she ever does. I wish that I felt differently; I pray that I may, but in spite of all I seem drifting back to my old miserable self. Every day I fear that I shall have trouble at the mill. When I felt so strong and happy I did not mind what they said. One day I was asked by a workman, who is quite a decent fellow, how I stood it all? and I replied that I stood it as any well-meaning Christian man could. My implied assertion that I was a Christian was taken up as a great joke, and now they call me the 'pi'us jail-bird.' As long as I felt at heart that I was a Christian, I did not care; but now their words gall me to the quick. I do not know what to think. It seems to me that if any one ever met with a change I did. I'm sure I wish to feel now as I did then; but I grow worse every day. I am losing self-control and growing irritable. This evening, as I passed liquor saloons on my way home, my old appetite for drink seemed as strong as ever. What does it all mean?"
Mr. Growther's wrinkled visage worked curiously, and at last he said in a tone and manner that betokened the deepest distress:
"I'm awfully afeerd you're a-backslidin'."
"I wish I had never been born," exclaimed the youth, passionately, "for I am a curse to myself and all connected with me, I know I shall have trouble with one man at the mill. I can see it coming, and then, of course, I shall be discharged. I seem destined to defeat in this my last attempt to be a man, and I shall never have the courage or hope to try again. If I do break down utterly, I feel as if I will become a very devil incarnate. O! how I wish that Mrs. Arnot was home."
"Now this beats me all out," said Mr. Growther, in great perplexity. "A while ago you felt like a saint and acted like one, now you talk and act as if Old Nick and all his imps had got a hold on ye. How do you explain all this, for it beats me?"
"I don't and can't explain. But here are the facts, and what are you going to do with them?"
"I ain't a-goin' to do nothin' with 'em except cuss 'em; and that's all I kin do in any case. You've got beyond my depth."
The sorely tempted youth could obtain but little aid and comfort, therefore, from his quaint old friend, and, equally perplexed and unable to understand himself, he sought to obtain such rest as his disquieted condition permitted.
As a result of wakefulness in the early part of the night, he slept late the following morning, and hastened to his work with scarcely a mouthful of breakfast. He was thus disqualified, physically as well as mentally, for the ordeal of the day.
He was a few minutes behind time, and a sharp reprimand from the foreman rasped his already jangling nerves. But he doggedly set his teeth and resolved to see and hear nothing save that which pertained to his work.
He might have kept his resolve had there been nothing more to contend with than the ordinary verbal persecution. But late in the afternoon, when he had grown weary from the strain of the day, his special tormentor, a burly Irishman, took occasion, in passing, to push him rudely against a pert and slattern girl, who also was foremost in the tacit league of petty annoyance. She acted as if the contact of Haldane's person was a purposed insult, and resented it by a sharp slap of his face.
Her stinging stroke was like a spark to a magazine; but paying no heed to her, he sprang toward her laughing ally with fierce oaths upon his lips, and by a single blow sent him reeling to the floor. The machinery was stopped sharply, as far as possible, by the miscellaneous workpeople, to whom a fight was a boon above price, and with shrill and clamorous outcries they gathered round the young man where he stood, panting, like a wounded animal at bay.
His powerful antagonist was speedily upon his feet, and at once made a rush for the youth who had so unexpectedly turned upon him; and though he received another heavy blow, his onset was so strong that he was able to close with Haldane, and thus made the conflict a mere trial of brute force.
As Haldane afterward recalled the scene, he was conscious that at the time he felt only rage, and a mad desire to destroy his opponent.
In strength they were quite evenly matched, and after a moment's struggle both fell heavily, and Haldane was able to disengage himself. As the Irishman rose, and was about to renew the fight, he struck him so tremendous a blow on the temple that the man went to the floor as if pierced by a bullet, and lay there stunned and still.
When Haldane saw that his antagonist did not move, time was given him to think; he experienced a terrible revulsion. He remembered his profanity and brutal rage, he felt that he had broken down utterly. He was overwhelmed by his moral defeat, and covering his face with his hands, he groaned "Lost, lost!"
"By jocks," exclaimed a rude, half-grown fellow, "that clip would have felled an ox."
"Do you think he's dead?" asked the slattern girl, now thoroughly alarmed at the consequences of the blow she had given.
"Dead!" cried Haldane, catching the word, and, pushing all aside, he knelt over his prostrate foe.
"Water, bring water, for God's sake!" he said eagerly, lifting up the unconscious man.
It was brought and dashed in his face. A moment later, to Haldane's infinite relief he revived, and after a bewildered stare at the crowd around him, fixed his eyes on the youth who had dealt the blow, and then a consciousness of all that had occurred seemed to return. He showed his teeth in impotent rage for a moment, as some wild animal might have done, and then rose unsteadily to his feet.
"Go back to your work, all on ye," thundered the foreman, who, now that the sport was over, was bent on making a great show of his zeal; "as for you two bull-dogs, you shall pay dearly for this; and let me say to you, Mister Haldane, that the pious dodge won't answer any longer."
A moment later, with the exception of flushed faces and excited whisperings, the large and crowded apartment wore its ordinary aspect, and the machinery clanked on as monotonously as ever.
Almost as mechanically Haldane moved in the routine of his labor, but the bitterness of despair was in his heart.
He forgot that he would probably be discharged that day; he forgot that a dark and uncertain future was before him. He only remembered his rage and profanity, and they seemed to him damning proofs that all he had felt, hoped, and believed was delusion.
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