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At school, Richard had been friendly with a boy of gentle nature, not many years older than himself. The boy had stood his friend in more than one difficulty, and Richard heartily loved him. But he had suddenly disappeared from the school, and so from Richard's ken: for years he had not seen him. One evening, as he was carrying home a book, he met this Arthur Manson, looking worn and sad. He would have avoided Richard, but he stopped him, and presently the old friendship was dominant. Arthur told him his story. He had had to leave school because of the sudden cessation, from what cause he did not know, of a certain annuity his mother had till then enjoyed--rendering it imperative that he should earn his own living, and contribute to her support, for although she still had a little money, it was not nearly enough. His sister was at work with a dressmaker, but as yet earning next to nothing. His mother was a lady, he said, and had never done any work. He was himself in a counting-house in the City, with a salary of forty pounds. He told him where they lived, and Richard promised to go and see him, which he did the next Sunday.
His friend's mother lived in a little house of two floors, one of a long row lately built. The furniture was much too large, and it was difficult to move in the tiny drawing-room. It showed a feeble attempt at decoration, which made it look the poorer. Accustomed to his mother's care of her things, Richard perceived a difference: these were much finer but neglected, and looked as if they felt it. At their evening meal, however, the tea was good, and the bread and butter were of the best.
The mother was a handsome middle-aged woman--not so old, Richard somehow imagined, as she looked. She was stout and florid, with plenty of black, rather coarse hair, and seemed to Richard to have the carriage of a lady, but not speech equal to her manners. She was polite to him, but not apparently interested in her son's friend. Yet several times he found her gazing at him with an expression that puzzled him. He had, however, too clear a conscience to be troubled by any scrutiny. All the evening Arthur's face wore the same look of depression, and Richard wondered what could be amiss. He learned afterward that the mother was so self-indulgent, and took so little care to make the money go as far as it could, that he had not merely to toil from morning to night at uncongenial labour, but could never have the least recreation, and was always too tired when he came home to understand any book he attempted to read. Richard learned also that he had no greatcoat, and went to the City in the winter with only a shabby comforter in addition to the clothes he had worn all the summer. But it was not Arthur who told him this.
The girl was a graceful little creature, with the same sad look her brother had, but not the same depression. She seemed more delicate, and less capable of labour; yet her hours were longer than his, and her confinement greater. Alice had to sit the whole day plying her needle, while Arthur was occasionally sent out to collect money. But her mistress was a kind-hearted woman, and not having a fashionable clientèle, had not yet become indifferent to the well-being of her work-women. She even paid a crippled girl a trifle for reading to them, stipulating only that she should read fast, for she found the rate of their working greatly influenced by the rate of the reading. Life, if harder, was therefore not quite so uninteresting to Alice as to Arthur, and that might be why she seemed to have more vitality. Like her mother she had a quantity of hair, as dark as hers, but finer; dark eyes, not without meaning; irregular but very pleasing and delicate features; and an unusually white rather than pale complexion, with a sort of sallow glow under the diaphanous skin. There was not a little piquancy in the expression of her countenance, and Richard felt it strangely attractive.
The youths found they had still tastes in common, although Arthur had neither time nor strength to follow them. Richard spoke of some book he had been reading. Arthur was interested, but Alice so much that Richard offered to lend it her: it was the first time she had heard a book spoken of in such a tone--one of suppressed feeling, almost veneration.
The mother did not join in their talk, and left them soon--her daughter said to go to church.
"She always goes by herself," Alice added. "She sees we are too tired to go."
They sat a long time with no light but that of the fire. Arthur seemed to gather courage, and confessed the hopeless monotony of his life. He complained of no privation, only of want of interest in his work.
"Do you like your work?" he asked Richard.
"Indeed I do!" Richard answered. "I would sooner handle an old book than a bunch of bank-notes!"
"I don't doubt it," returned Arthur. "To me your workshop seems a paradise."
"Why don't you take up the trade, then? Come to us and I will teach you. I do not think my father would object."
"I learn nothing where I am!" continued Arthur.
"Our boat is not over-manned," resumed Richard. "Say you will come, and I will speak to my father."
"I wish I could! But how are we to live while I am learning?--No; I must grind away till--"
He stopped short, and gave a sigh.
"Till when, Arty?" asked his sister.
"Till death set me free," he answered.
"You wouldn't leave me behind, Arty!" said Alice; and rising, she put her arm round his neck.
"I wouldn't if I could help it," he replied.
"It's a cowardly thing to want to die," said Richard.
"I think so sometimes."
"There's your mother!"
"Yes," responded Arthur, but without emotion.
"And how should I get on without you, Arty?" said his sister.
"Not very well, Ally. But it wouldn't be for long. We should soon meet."
"Who told you that?" said Richard almost rudely.
"Don't you think we shall know each other afterwards?" asked Arthur, with an expression of weary rather than sad surprise.
"I would be a little surer of it before I talked so coolly of leaving a sister like that! I only wish I had one to care for!"
A faint flush rose on the pale face of the girl, and as swiftly faded.
"Do you think, then, that this life is only a dream?" she said, looking up at Richard with something in her great eyes that he did not understand.
"Anyhow," he answered, "I would bear a good deal rather than run the risk of going so fast asleep as to stop dreaming it. A man can die any time," he continued, "but he can't dream when he pleases! I would wait! One can't tell when things may take a turn! There are many chances on the cards!"
"That's true," replied Arthur; but plainly the very chances were a weariness to him.
"If Arthur had enough to eat, and time to read, and a little amusement, he would be as brave as you are, Mr. Tuke!" said Alice. "--But you can't mean to say there will be no more of anything for us after this world! To think I should never see Arty again, would make me die before my time! I should be so miserable I would hardly care to keep him as long as I might. We must die some day, and what odds whether it be a few days sooner, or a few days later, if we're never going to meet again?"
"The best way is not to think about it," returned Richard. "Why should you? Look at the butterflies! They take what comes, and don't grumble at their sunshine because there's only one day of it."
"But when there's no sunshine that day?" suggested Alice.
"Well, when they lie crumpled in the rain, they're none the worse that they didn't think about it beforehand! We must make the best of what we have!"
"It's not worth making the best of," cried Alice indignantly, "if that's all!"
My reader may well wonder at Richard: how could he be a lover of our best literature and talk as he did? or rather, talking as he did, how could he love it? But he had come to love it while yet under the influence of what his aunt taught him, poor as was her teaching. Then his heart and imagination were more in the ascendency. Now he had begun to admire the intellectual qualities of that literature more, and its imaginative less; for he had begun to think truth attainable through the forces of the brain, sole and supreme.
In matters of conduct, John Tuke and his wife were well agreed; in matters of opinion, they differed greatly. Jane went to church regularly, listened without interest, and accepted without question; had her husband gone, he would have listened with the interest of utter dissent. When Jane learned that her husband no longer "believed in the Bible," she was seized with terror lest he should die without repentance and be lost. Thereupon followed fear for herself: was not an atheist a horribly wicked man?--and she could not feel that John was horribly wicked! She tried her hardest, but could not; and concluded therefore that his unbelief must be affecting her. She prayed him to say nothing against the Bible to Richard--at least before he arrived at years of discretion. This John promised; but subtle effluences are subtle influences.
John Tuke did right so far as he knew--at least he thought he did--and refused to believe in any kind of God; Jane did right, she thought, as far as she knew--and never imagined God cared about her: let him who has a mind to it, show the value of the difference!
Tuke was a thinking man;--that is, set a going in any direction that interested him, he could take a few steps forward without assistance. But he could start in no direction of himself. At a small club to which he belonged, he had been brought in contact with certain ideas new to him, and finding himself able to grasp them, felt at once as if they must be true. Certain other ideas, new to him, coming self-suggested in their train, he began immediately to imagine himself a thinker, able to generate notions to which the people around him were unequal. He began to grow self-confident, and so to despise. Taking courage then to deny things he had never believed, had only not thought about, and finding he thereby gave offence, he chose to imagine himself a martyr for the truth. He did not see that a denial involving no assertion, cannot witness to any truth; nor did he perceive that denial in his case meant nothing more than non-acceptance of things asserted. Had he put his position logically, it would have been this: I never knew such things; I do not like the notion of them; therefore I deny them: they do not exist. But no man really denies a thing which he knows only by the words that stand for it. When John Tuke denied the God in his notion, he denied only a God that could have no existence.
A man will be judged, however, by his truth toward what he professes to believe; and John was far truer to his perception of the duty of man to man than are ninety-nine out of the hundred of so-called Christians to the things they profess to believe. How many men would be immeasurably better, if they would but truly believe, that is, act upon, the smallest part of what they untruly profess to believe, even if they cast aside all the rest. John cast aside an allegiance to God which had never been more than a mockery, and set about delivering his race from the fear of a person who did not exist. For, true enough, there was no God of the kind John denied; only, what if, in delivering his kind from the tyranny of a false God, he aided in hiding from them the love of a true God--of a God that did and ought to exist? There are other passions besides fear, and precious as fear is hateful. If there be a God and one has never sought him, it will be small consolation to remember that he could not get proof of his existence. Is a child not to seek his father, because he cannot prove he is alive?
The aunt continued to take the boy to church, and expose him, for it was little more she did, to a teaching she could not herself either supply or supplement. It was the business of the church to teach Christianity! her part was to accept it, and bring the child where he also might listen and accept! But what she accepted as Christianity, is another question; and whether the acceptance of anything makes a Christian, is another still.
How much of Christianity a child may or may not learn by going to church, it is impossible to say; but certainly Richard did not learn anything that drew his heart to Jesus of Nazareth, or caught him in any heavenly breeze, or even the smallest of celestial whirlwinds! He learned nothing even that made unwelcome such remarks as his father would now and then let fall concerning the clergy and the way they followed their trade; while the grin, full of conscious superiority, with which he unconsciously accompanied them, found its reflection in the honourable but not yet humble mind, beginning to be aware of its own faculty, and not aware that the religion presented in his aunt's church, a religion neither honourable nor elevating, was but the dullest travesty of the religion of St. Paul. Richard had, besides, read several books which, had his uncle been careful of the promise he had given his wife, he would have intentionally removed instead of unintentionally leaving about.
In the position Richard had just taken toward his new friends, he was not a little influenced by the desire to show himself untrammelled by prevailing notions, and capable of thinking for himself; but this was far from all that made him speak as he did. Many young fellows are as ready to deny as Richard, but not many feel as strongly that life rests upon what we know, that knowledge must pass into action. The denial of every falsehood under the sun would not generate one throb of life.
Richard told his adoptive parents where he had been, and asked if he might invite his new friends for the next Sunday. They made no objection, and when Arthur and Alice came, received them kindly. Richard took Arthur to the shop, and showed him the job he was engaged upon at the time, lauding his department as affording more satisfaction than mere binding.
"For," he said, "the thing that is not, may continue not to be; but the thing that is, should be as it was meant to be. Where it is not such, there is an evil that wants remedy. It may be that the sole remedy is binding, but that involves destruction, therefore is a poor thing beside renovation."
The argument came from a well of human pity in himself, deeper than Richard knew. But both the pity he felt and the truth in what he said came from a source eternal of which he yet knew nothing.
"It would be much easier," continued Richard, "to make that volume look new, but how much more delightful to send it out with a revived assertion of its ancient self!"
Some natures have a better chance of disclosing the original in them, that they have not been to college, and set to think in other people's grooves, instead of those grooves that were scored in themselves long before the glacial era.
"For my part," said Arthur, "I feel like a book that needs to be fresh printed, not to say fresh bound! I don't feel why I am what I am. I would part with it all, except just being the same man!"
While the youths were having their talk, Alice was in Jane's bedroom, undergoing an examination, the end and object of which it was impossible she should suspect. Caught by a certain look in her sweet face, reminding her of a look that was anything but sweet, Jane had set herself to learn from her what she might as to her people and history.
"Is your father alive, my dear?" she asked, with her keen black eyes on Alice's face.
That grew red, and for a moment the girl did not answer. Jane pursued her catechizing.
"What was his trade or profession?" she inquired.
The girl said nothing, and the merciless questioner went on.
"Tell me something about him, dear. Do you remember him? Or did he die when you were quite a child?"
"I do not remember him," answered Alice. "I do not know if I ever saw him."
"Did your mother never tell you what he was like?"
"She told me once he was very handsome--the handsomest man she ever saw--but cruel--so cruel! she said.--I don't want to talk about him, please, ma'am!" concluded Alice, the tears running down her cheeks.
"I'm sorry, my dear, to hurt you, but I'm not doing it from curiosity. You have a look so like a man I once knew,--and your brother has something of the same!--that in fact I am bound to learn what I can about you."
"What sort was the man we put you in mind of?" asked Alice, with a feeble attempt at a smile. "Not a very bad man, I hope!"
"Well, not very good--as you ask me.--He was what people call a gentleman!"
"Was that all?"
"What do you mean?"
"I thought he was a nobleman!"
"Oh!--well, he wasn't that; he was a baronet."
Alice gave a little cry.
"Do tell me something about him," she said. "What do you know about him?"
"More than I choose to tell. We will forget him now, if you please!"
There was in her voice a tone of displeasure, which Alice took to be with herself. She was in consequence both troubled and perplexed. Neither made any more inquiries. Jane took her guest back to the sitting-room.
The moment her brother came from the workshop, Alice said to him--
"Are you ready, Arthur? We had better be moving!"
Arthur was a gentle creature, and seldom opposed her; he seemed only surprised a little, and asked if she was ill. But Richard, who had all the week been looking forward to a talk with Alice, and wanted to show her his little library, was much disappointed, and begged her to change her mind. She insisted, however, and he put on his hat to walk with them.
But his aunt called him, and whispered that she would be particularly obliged to him if he would go to church with her that evening. He expostulated, saying he did not care to go to church; but as she insisted, he yielded, though not with the best grace.
Before another Sunday, there came, doubtless by his aunt's management, an invitation to spend a few weeks with his grandfather, the blacksmith.
Richard was not altogether pleased, for he did not like leaving his work; but his aunt again prevailed with him, and he agreed to go. In this, as in most things, he showed her a deference such as few young men show their mothers. Her influence came, I presume, through the strong impression of purpose she had made on him.
His uncle objected to his going, and grumbled a good deal. As the brewer looks down on the baker, so the bookbinder looked down on the blacksmith.
He said the people Richard would see about his grandfather, were not fit company for the heir of Mortgrange! But he knew the necessity of his going somewhere for a while, and gave in.
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