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THE DEVIL IN THOMAS WEIR.
As the winter went on, it was sad to look on the evident though slow decline of Catherine Weir. It seemed as if the dead season was dragging her to its bosom, to lay her among the leaves of past summers. She was still to be found in the shop, or appeared in it as often as the bell suspended over the door rang to announce the entrance of a customer; but she was terribly worn, and her step indicated much weakness. Nor had the signs of restless trouble diminished as these tide-marks indicated ebbing strength. There was the same dry fierce fire in her eyes; the same forceful compression of her lips; the same evidences of brooding over some one absorbing thought or feeling. She seemed to me, and to Dr Duncan as well, to be dying of resentment. Would nobody do anything for her? I thought. Would not her father help her? He had got more gentle now; whence I had reason to hope that Christian principles and feelings had begun to rise and operate in him; while surely the influence of his son must, by this time, have done something not only to soften his character generally, but to appease the anger he had cherished towards the one ewe-lamb, against which, having wandered away into the desert place, he had closed and barred the door of the sheep-fold. I would go and see him, and try what could be done for her.
I may be forgiven here if I make the remark that I cannot help thinking that what measure of success I had already had with my people, was partly owing to this, that when I thought of a thing and had concluded it might do, I very seldom put off the consequent action. I found I was wrong sometimes, and that the particular action did no good; but thus movement was kept up in my operative nature, preventing it from sinking towards the inactivity to which I was but too much inclined. Besides, to find out what will not do, is a step towards finding out what will do. Moreover, an attempt in itself unsuccessful may set something or other in motion that will help.
My present attempt turned out one of my failures, though I cannot think that it would have been better left unmade.
A red rayless sun, which one might have imagined sullen and disconsolate because he could not make the dead earth smile into flowers, was looking through the frosty fog of the winter morning as I walked across the bridge to find Thomas Weir in his workshop. The poplars stood like goblin sentinels, with black heads, upon which the long hair stood on end, all along the dark cold river. Nature looked like a life out of which the love has vanished. I turned from it and hastened on.
Thomas was busy working with a spoke-sheave at the spoke of a cart-wheel. How curiously the smallest visual fact will sometimes keep its place in the memory, when it cannot with all earnestness of endeavour recall a thought--a far more important fact! That will come again only when its time comes first.
"A cold morning, Thomas," I called from the door.
"I can always keep myself warm, sir," returned Thomas, cheerfully.
"What are you doing, Tom?" I said, going up to him first.
"A little job for myself, sir. I'm making a few bookshelves."
"I want to have a little talk with your father. Just step out in a minute or so, and let me have half-an-hour."
"Yes, sir, certainly."
I then went to the other end of the shop, for, curiously, as it seemed to me, although father and son were on the best of terms, they always worked as far from each other as the shop would permit, and it was a very large room.
"It is not easy always to keep warm through and through, Thomas," I said.
I suppose my tone revealed to his quick perceptions that "more was meant than met the ear." He looked up from his work, his tool filled with an uncompleted shaving.
"And when the heart gets cold," I went on, "it is not easily warmed again. The fire's hard to light there, Thomas."
Still he looked at me, stooping over his work, apparently with a presentiment of what was coming.
"I fear there is no way of lighting it again, except the blacksmith's way."
"Hammering the iron till it is red-hot, you mean, sir?"
"I do. When a man's heart has grown cold, the blows of affliction must fall thick and heavy before the fire can be got that will light it.--When did you see your daughter Catherine, Thomas?"
His head dropped, and he began to work as if for bare life. Not a word came from the form now bent over his tool as if he had never lifted himself up since he first began in the morning. I could just see that his face was deadly pale, and his lips compressed like those of one of the violent who take the kingdom of heaven by force. But it was for no such agony of effort that his were thus closed. He went on working till the silence became so lengthened that it seemed settled into the endless. I felt embarrassed. To break a silence is sometimes as hard as to break a spell. What Thomas would have done or said if he had not had this safety-valve of bodily exertion, I cannot even imagine.
"Thomas," I said, at length, laying my hand on his shoulder, "you are not going to part company with me, I hope?"
"You drive a man too far, sir. I've given in more to you than ever I did to man, sir; and I don't know that I oughtn't to be ashamed of it. But you don't know where to stop. If we lived a thousand years you would be driving a man on to the last. And there's no good in that, sir. A man must be at peace somewhen."
"The question is, Thomas, whether I would be driving you ON or BACK. You and I too MUST go on or back. I want to go on myself, and to make you go on too. I don't want to be parted from you now or then."
"That's all very well, sir, and very kind, I don't doubt; but, as I said afore, a man must be at peace SOMEWHEN."
"That's what I want so much that I want you to go on. Peace! I trust in God we shall both have it one day, SOMEWHEN, as you say. Have you got this peace so plentifully now that you are satisfied as you are? You will never get it but by going on."
"I do not think there is any good got in stirring a puddle. Let by-gones be by-gones. You make a mistake, sir, in rousing an anger which I would willingly let sleep."
"Better a wakeful anger, and a wakeful conscience with it, than an anger sunk into indifference, and a sleeping dog of a conscience that will not bark. To have ceased to be angry is not one step nearer to your daughter. Better strike her, abuse her, with the chance of a kiss to follow. Ah, Thomas, you are like Jonas with his gourd."
"I don't see what that has to do with it."
"I will tell you. You are fierce in wrath at the disgrace to your family. Your pride is up in arms. You don't care for the misery of your daughter, who, the more wrong she has done, is the more to be pitied by a father's heart. Your pride, I say, is all that you care about. The wrong your daughter has done, you care nothing about; or you would have taken her to your arms years ago, in the hope that the fervour of your love would drive the devil out of her and make her repent. I say it is not the wrong, but the disgrace you care for. The gourd of your pride is withered, and yet you will water it with your daughter's misery."
"Go out of my shop," he cried; "or I may say what I should be sorry for."
I turned at once and left him. I found young Tom round the corner, leaning against the wall, and reading his Virgil.
"Don't speak to your father, Tom," I said, "for a while. I've put him out of temper. He will be best left alone."
He looked frightened.
"There's no harm done, Tom, my boy. I've been talking to him about your sister. He must have time to think over what I have said to him."
"I see, sir; I see."
"Be as attentive to him as you can."
"I will, sir."
It was not alone resentment at my interference that had thus put the poor fellow beside himself, I was certain: I had called up all the old misery--set the wound bleeding again. Shame was once more wide awake and tearing at his heart. That HIS daughter should have done so! For she had been his pride. She had been the belle of the village, and very lovely; but having been apprenticed to a dressmaker in Addicehead, had, after being there about a year and a half, returned home, apparently in a decline. After the birth of her child, however, she had, to her own disappointment, and no doubt to that of her father as well, begun to recover. What a time of wretchedness it must have been to both of them until she left his house, one can imagine. Most likely the misery of the father vented itself in greater unkindness than he felt, which, sinking into the proud nature she had derived from him, roused such a resentment as rarely if ever can be thoroughly appeased until Death comes in to help the reconciliation. How often has an old love blazed up again under the blowing of his cold breath, and sent the spirit warm at heart into the regions of the unknown! She never would utter a word to reveal the name or condition of him by whom she had been wronged. To his child, as long as he drew his life from her, she behaved with strange alternations of dislike and passionate affection; after which season the latter began to diminish in violence, and the former to become more fixed, till at length, by the time I had made their acquaintance, her feelings seemed to have settled into what would have been indifference but for the constant reminder of her shame and her wrong together, which his very presence necessarily was.
They were not only the gossips of the village who judged that the fact of Addicehead's being a garrison town had something to do with the fate that had befallen her; a fate by which, in its very spring-time, when its flowers were loveliest, and hope was strongest for its summer, her life was changed into the dreary wind-swept, rain-sodden moor. The man who can ACCEPT such a sacrifice from a woman,--I say nothing of WILING it from her--is, in his meanness, selfishness, and dishonour, contemptible as the Pharisee who, with his long prayers, devours the widow's house. He leaves her desolate, while he walks off free. Would to God a man like the great-hearted, pure-bodied Milton, a man whom young men are compelled to respect, would in this our age, utter such a word as, making "mad the guilty," if such grace might be accorded them, would "appal the free," lest they too should fall into such a mire of selfish dishonour!
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