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DAWTIE AND THE CUP.
The old man had a noteworthy mental fabric. Believing himself a true lover of literature, and especially of poetry, he would lecture for ten minutes on the right mode of reading a verse in Hilton or Dante; but as to Satan or Beatrice, would pin his faith to the majority of the commentators: Milton's Satan was too noble, and Beatrice was no woman, but Theology. He was discriminative to a degree altogether admirable as to the brightness or wrongness of a proposition with regard to conduct, but owed his respectability to good impulses without any effort of the will. He was almost as orthodox as Paul before his conversion, lacking only the heart and the courage to persecute. Whatever the eternal wisdom saw in him, the thing most present to his own consciousness was the love of rare historic relics. And this love was so mingled in warp and woof, that he did not know whether a thing was more precious to him for its rarity, its money value, or its historico-reliquary interest. All the time he was a school-master, he saved every possible half-penny to buy books, not because of their worth or human interest, but because of their literary interest, or the scarcity of the book or edition. In the holidays he would go about questing for the prey that his soul loved, hunting after precious things; but not even the precious things of the everlasting hills would be precious to him until they had received the stamp of curiosity. His life consisted in a continual search for something new that was known as known of old. It had hardly yet occurred to him that he must one day leave his things and exist without them, no longer to brood over them, take them in his hands, turn, and stroke, and admire them; yet, strange to say, he would at times anxiously seek to satisfy himself that he was safe for a better world, as he called it--to feel certain, that is, that his faith was of the sort he supposed intended by Paul--not that he had himself gathered anything from the apostle, but all from the traditions of his church concerning the teaching of the apostle. He was anxious, I say, as to his safety for the world to come, and yet, while his dearest joy lay treasured in that hidden room, he never thought of the hour when he must leave it all, and go houseless and pocketless, empty-handed if not armless, in the wide, closetless space, hearing ever in the winds and the rain and the sound of the sea-waves, the one question--"Whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?" Like the rich man to whom God said the words, he had gathered much goods for many years--hundreds and hundreds of things, every one of which he knew, and every one of which he loved. A new scratch on the bright steel of one of his suits of armor was a scratch on his heart; the moth and the rust troubled him sore, for he could not keep them away; and where his treasure was, there was his heart, devoured by the same moth, consumed by the same rust. He had much suffering from his possessions--was more exposed to misery than the miser of gold, for the hoarded coin of the latter may indeed be stolen, but he fears neither moth nor rust nor scratch nor decay. The laird cherished his things as no mother her little ones. Nearly sixty years he had been gathering them, and their money-worth was great, but he had no idea of its amount, for he could not have endured the exposure and handling of them which a valuation must involve.
His love for his books had somewhat declined in the growth of his love for things, and now, by degrees not very slow, his love for his things was graduating itself after what he supposed their money-value. His soul not only clave to the dust but was going deeper and deeper in the dust as it wallowed. All day long he was living in the past and growing old in it--it is one thing to grow old in the past, and another to grow old in the present! As he took his walk about his farms, or sat at his meals, or held a mild, soulless conversation with his daughter, his heart was growing old, not healthily in the present, which is to ripen, but unwholesomely in the past, which is to consume with a dry rot. While he read the Bible at prayers, trying hard to banish worldly things from his mind, his thoughts were not in the story or the argument he read, but hovering, like a bird over its nest, about the darlings of his heart. Yea, even while he prayed, his soul, instead of casting off the clay of the world, was loaded and dragged down with all the still-moldering, slow-changing things that lined the walls and filled the drawers and cabinets of his treasure-chamber. It was a place of whose existence not even his daughter knew; for before ever she entered the house, he had taken with him a mason from the town, and built up the entrance to it from the hall, ever afterward keeping the other door of it that opened from his study carefully locked, and leaving it to be regarded as the door of a closet.
It was as terrible as Dawtie felt it, that a live human soul should thus haunt the sepulcher of the past, and love the lifeless, turning a room hitherto devoted to hospitality and mirthful intercourse into the temple of his selfish idolatry. It was as one of the rooms carved for the dead in the Beban El Malook. Sure, if left to himself, the ghost that loved it would haunt the place! But he could not surely be permitted! for it might postpone a thousand years his discovery of the emptiness of a universe of such treasures. Now he was moldering into the world of spirits in the heart of an avalanche of the dust of ages, dust material from his hoards, dust moral and spiritual from his withering soul itself.
The next day he was ill, which, common as is illness to humanity, was strange, for it had never befallen him before. He was unable to leave his bed. But he never said a word to his daughter, who alone waited on him, as to what had happened in the night. He had passed it sleepless, and without the possibility of a dream on which to fall back; yet, when morning came, he was in much doubt whether what he had seen--the face, namely, of Dawtie, peeping in at the door--was a reality, or but a vision of the night. For when he opened the door which she had closed, all was dark, and not the slightest sound reached his quick ear from the swift foot of her retreat. He turned the key twice, and pushed two bolts, eager to regard the vision as a providential rebuke of his carelessness in leaving the door on the latch--for the first time, he imagined. Then he tottered back to his chair, and sunk on it in a cold sweat. For, although the confidence grew, that what he had seen was but
. . . a false creation Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain,
it was far from comfortable to feel that he could no longer depend upon his brain to tell him only the thing that was true. What if he were going out of his mind, on the way to encounter a succession of visions--without reality, but possessed of its power! What if they should be such whose terror would compel him to disclose what most he desired to keep covered? How fearful to be no more his own master, but at the beck and call of a disordered brain, a maniac king in a cosmos acosmos! Better it had been Dawtie, and she had seen in his hands Benvenuto Cellini's chalice made for Pope Clement the Seventh to drink therefrom the holy wine--worth thousands of pounds! Perhaps she had seen it! No, surely she had not! He must be careful not to make her suspect! He would watch her and say nothing!
But Dawtie, conscious of no wrong, and full of love to the old man, showed an untroubled face when next she met him; and he made up his mind that he would rather have her ignorant. Thenceforward, naturally though childishly, he was even friendlier to her than before: it was so great a relief to find that he had not to fear her!
The next time Dawtie was dusting the books, she felt strongly drawn to look again at the picture of the cup: it seemed now to hold in it a human life! She took down the book, and began where she stood to read what it said about the chalice, referring as she read from letterpress to drawing. It was taken from an illumination in a missal, where the cup was known to have been copied; and it rendered the description in the letterpress unnecessary except in regard to the stones and dessins repoussés on the hidden side. She quickly learned the names of the gems, that she might see how many were in the high-priest's breast-plate and the gates of the new Jerusalem, then proceeded to the history of the chalice. She read that it had come into the possession of Cardinal York, the brother of Charles Edward Stuart, and had been by him intrusted to his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Albany, from whose house it disappeared, some said stolen, others said sold. It came next to the historic surface in the possession of a certain earl whose love of curiosities was well known; but from his collection again it vanished, this time beyond a doubt stolen, and probably years before it was missed.
A new train of thought was presently in motion in the mind of the girl: The beautiful cup was stolen! it was not where it ought to be! it was not at home! it was a captive, a slave! She lowered the book, half closed, with a finger between the leaves, and stood thinking. She did not for a moment believe her master had stolen it, though the fear did flash through her mind. It had been stolen and sold, and he had bought it at length of some one whose possession of it was nowise suspicious! But he must know now that it had been stolen, for here, with the cup, was the book which said so! That would be nothing if the rightful owner were not known, but he was known, and the thing ought to be his! The laird might not be bound, she was not sure, to restore it at his own loss, for when he bought it he was not aware that it was stolen; but he was bound to restore it at the price he had paid for it, if the former owner would give it! This was bare justice! mere righteousness! No theft could make the owner not the rightful owner, though other claims upon the thing might come in! One ought not to be enriched by another's misfortune! Dawtie was sure that a noble of the kingdom of heaven would not wait for the money, but would with delight send the cup where it ought to have been all the time! She knew better, however, than require magnificence in any shape from the poor wizened soul of her master--a man who knew all about everything, and whom yet she could not but fear to be nothing: as Dawtie had learned to understand life, the laird did not yet exist. But he well knew right from wrong, therefore the discovery she just made affected her duty toward him! It might be impossible to make impression on the miserliness of a miser, but upon the honesty in a miser it might be possible! The goblet was not his!
But the love of things dulls the conscience, and he might not be able, having bought and paid for it, to see that the thing was not therefore his! he might defend himself from seeing it! To Dawtie, this made the horror of his condition the darker. She was one of God's babes, who can not help seeing the true state of things. Logic was to her but the smoke that rose from the burning truth; she saw what is altogether above and beyond logic--the right thing, whose meanest servant, the hewer of its wood, not the drawer of its water, the merest scullion and sweeper away of lies from the pavement of its courts, is logic.
With a sigh she woke to the knowledge that she was not doing her work, and rousing herself, was about to put the book on its shelf. But, her finger being still in the place, she would have one more glance at the picture! To her dismay she saw that she had made a mark on the plate, and of the enormity of making a dirty mark on a book her master had made her well aware.
She was in great distress. What was to be done? She did not once think of putting it away and saying nothing. To have reasoned that her master would never know, would have been an argument, pressing and imperative, for informing him at once. She had done him an injury, and the injury must be confessed and lamented; it was all that was left to be done! "Sic a mischance!" she said, then bethought herself that there was no such thing as mischance, when immediately it flashed upon her that here was the door open for the doing of what was required of her. She was bound to confess the wrong, and that would lead in the disclosure of what she knew, rendering it comparatively easy to use some remonstrance with the laird, whom in her mind's eye she saw like a beggar man tottering down a steep road to a sudden precipice. Her duty was now so plain that she felt no desire to consult Andrew. She was not one to ask an opinion for the sake of talking opinion; she went to Andrew only when she wanted light to do the right thing; when the light was around her, she knew how to walk, and troubled no one.
At once she laid down book and duster, and went to find the laird. But he had slipped away to the town, to have a rummage in a certain little shop in a back street, which he had not rummaged for a long time enough, he thought, to have let something come in. It was no relief to Dawtie: the thing would be all the day before her instead of behind her! It burned within her, not like a sin, but like what it was, a confession unconfessed. Little wrong as she had done, Dawtie was yet familiar with the lovely potency of confession to annihilate it. She knew it was the turning from wrong that killed it, that confession gave the coup de grâce to offense. Still she dreaded not a little the displeasure of her master, and yet she dreaded more his distress.
She prepared the laird's supper with a strange mingling of hope and anxiety: she feared having to go to bed without telling him. But he came at last, almost merry, with a brown paper parcel under his arm, over which he was very careful. Poor man, he little knew there waited him at the moment a demand from the eternal justice almost as terrible as: "This night they require thy soul of thee!"--(What a they is that! Who are they?)--The torture of the moral rack was ready for him at the hands of his innocent house-maid! In no way can one torture another more than by waking conscience against love, passion, or pride.
He laid his little parcel carefully on the supper-table, said rather a shorter grace than usual, began to eat his porridge, praised it as very good, spoke of his journey and whom he had seen, and was more talkative than his wont He informed Alexa, almost with jubilation, that he had at length found an old book he had been long on the watch for--a book that treated, in ancient broad Scots, of the laws of verse, in full, even exhaustive manner. He pulled it from his pocket.
"It is worth at least ten times what I gave for it!" he said.
Dawtie wondered whether there ought not to have been some division of the difference; but she was aware of no call to speak. One thing was enough for one night!
Then came prayers. The old man read how David deceived the Philistines, telling them a falsehood as to his raids. He read the narrative with a solemnity of tone that would have graced the most righteous action: was it not the deed of a man according to God's own heart?--how could it be other than right! Casuist ten times a week, he made no question of the righteousness of David's wickedness! Then he prayed, giving thanks for the mercy that had surrounded them all the day, shielding them from the danger and death which lurked for them in every corner. What would he say when death did get him? Dawtie thought. Would he thank God then? And would he see, when she spoke to him, that God wanted to deliver him from a worse danger than any out-of-doors? Would he see that it was from much mercy he was made more uncomfortable than perhaps ever in his life before?
At length his offering was completed--how far accepted who can tell! He was God's, and He who gave him being would be his Father to the full possibility of God. They rose from their knees; the laird took up his parcel and book; his daughter went with him.
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