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Chapter 20

A REMARKABLE FACT.


A silence followed. I need hardly say we had listened intently. During the story my father had scarcely interrupted the narrator. I had not spoken a word. She had throughout maintained a certain matter-of-fact, almost cold style, no doubt because she was herself the subject of her story; but we could read between the lines, imagine much she did not say, and supply color when she gave only outline; and it moved us both deeply. My father sat perfectly composed, betraying his emotion in silence alone. For myself, I had a great lump in my throat, but in part from the shame which mingled with my admiration. The silence had not lasted more than a few seconds, when I yielded to a struggling impulse, rose, and kneeling before her, put my hands on her knees, said, "Forgive me," and could say no more. She put her hand on my shoulder, whispered. "My dear Mrs. Percivale!" bent down her face, and kissed me on the forehead.

"How could you help being shy of me?" she said. "Perhaps I ought to have come to you and explained it all; but I shrink from self-justification,--at least before a fit opportunity makes it comparatively easy."

"That is the way to give it all its force," remarked my father.

"I suppose it may be," she returned. "But I hate talking about myself: it is an unpleasant subject."

"Most people do not find it such," said my father. "I could not honestly say that I do not enjoy talking of my own experiences of life."

"But there are differences, you see," she rejoined. "My history looks to me such a matter of course, such a something I could not help, or have avoided if I would, that the telling of it is unpleasant, because it implies an importance which does not belong to it."

"St. Paul says something of the same sort,--that a necessity of preaching the gospel was laid upon him," remarked my father; but it seemed to make no impression on Miss Clare, for she went on as if she had not heard him.

"You see, Mr. Walton, it is not in the least as if, living in comfort, I had taken notice of the misery of the poor for the want of such sympathy and help as I could give them, and had therefore gone to live amongst them that I might so help them: it is quite different from that. If I had done so, I might be in danger of magnifying not merely my office but myself. On the contrary, I have been trained to it in such slow and necessitous ways, that it would be a far greater trial to me to forsake my work than it has ever been to continue it."

My father said no more, but I knew he had his own thoughts. I remained kneeling, and felt for the first time as if I understood what had led to saint-worship.

"Won't you sit, Mrs. Percivale?" she said, as if merely expostulating with me for not making myself comfortable.

"Have you forgiven me?" I asked.

"How can I say I have, when I never had any thing to forgive?"

"Well, then, I must go unforgiven, for I cannot forgive myself," I said.

"O Mrs. Percivale! if you think how the world is flooded with forgiveness, you will just dip in your cup, and take what you want."

I felt that I was making too much even of my own shame, rose humbled, and took my former seat.

Narration being over, and my father's theory now permitting him to ask questions, he did so plentifully, bringing out many lights, and elucidating several obscurities. The story grew upon me, until the work to which Miss Clare had given herself seemed more like that of the Son of God than any other I knew. For she was not helping her friends from afar, but as one of themselves,--nor with money, but with herself; she was not condescending to them, but finding her highest life in companionship with them. It seemed at least more like what his life must have been before he was thirty, than any thing else I could think of. I held my peace however; for I felt that to hint at such a thought would have greatly shocked and pained her.

No doubt the narrative I have given is plainer and more coherent for the questions my father put; but it loses much from the omission of one or two parts which she gave dramatically, with evident enjoyment of the fun that was in them. I have also omitted all the interruptions which came from her not unfrequent reference to my father on points that came up. At length I ventured to remind her of something she seemed to have forgotten.

"When you were telling us, Miss Clare," I said, "of the help that came to you that dreary afternoon in the empty house, I think you mentioned that something which happened afterwards made it still more remarkable." "Oh, yes!" she answered: "I forgot about that. I did not carry my history far enough to be reminded of it again.

"Somewhere about five years ago, Lady Bernard, having several schemes on foot for helping such people as I was interested in, asked me if it would not be nice to give an entertainment to my friends, and as many of the neighbors as I pleased, to the number of about a hundred. She wanted to put the thing entirely in my hands, and it should be my entertainment, she claiming only the privilege of defraying expenses. I told her I should be delighted to convey her invitation, but that the entertainment must not pretend to be mine; which, besides that it would be a falsehood, and therefore not to be thought of, would perplex my friends, and drive them to the conclusion either that it was not mine, or that I lived amongst them under false appearances. She confessed the force of my arguments, and let me have it my own way.

"She had bought a large house to be a home for young women out of employment, and in it she proposed the entertainment should be given: there were a good many nice young women inmates at the time, who, she said, would be all willing to help us to wait upon our guests. The idea was carried out, and the thing succeeded admirably. We had music and games, the latter such as the children were mostly acquainted with, only producing more merriment and conducted with more propriety than were usual in the court or the streets. I may just remark, in passing, that, had these been children of the poorest sort, we should have had to teach them; for one of the saddest things is that such, in London at least, do not know how to play. We had tea and coffee and biscuits in the lower rooms, for any who pleased; and they were to have a solid supper afterwards. With none of the arrangements, however, had I any thing to do; for my business was to be with them, and help them to enjoy themselves. All went on capitally; the parents entering into the merriment of their children, and helping to keep it up.

"In one of the games, I was seated on the floor with a handkerchief tied over my eyes, waiting, I believe, for some gentle trick to be played upon me, that I might guess at the name of the person who played it. There was a delay--of only a few seconds--long enough, however, for a sudden return of that dreary November afternoon in which I sat on the floor too miserable even to think that I was cold and hungry. Strange to say, it was not the picture of it that came back to me first, but the sound of my own voice calling aloud in the ringing echo of the desolate rooms that I was of no use to anybody, and that God had forgotten me utterly. With the recollection, a doubtful expectation arose which moved me to a scarce controllable degree. I jumped to my feet, and tore the bandage from my eyes.

"Several times during the evening I had had the odd yet well-known feeling of the same thing having happened before; but I was too busy entertaining my friends to try to account for it: perhaps what followed may suggest the theory, that in not a few of such cases the indistinct remembrance of the previous occurrence of some portion of the circumstances may cast the hue of memory over the whole. As--my eyes blinded with the light and straining to recover themselves--I stared about the room, the presentiment grew almost conviction that it was the very room in which I had so sat in desolation and despair. Unable to restrain myself, I hurried into the back room: there was the cabinet beyond! In a few moments more I was absolutely satisfied that this was indeed the house in which I had first found refuge. For a time I could take no further share in what was going on, but sat down in a corner, and cried for joy. Some one went for Lady Bernard, who was superintending the arrangements for supper in the music-room behind. She came in alarm. I told her there was nothing the matter but a little too much happiness, and, if she would come into the cabinet, I would tell her all about it. She did so, and a few words made her a hearty sharer in my pleasure. She insisted that I should tell the company all about it; 'for' she said, 'you do not know how much it may help some poor creature to trust in God.' I promised I would, if I found I could command myself sufficiently. She left me alone for a little while, and after that I was able to join in the games again.

"At supper I found myself quite composed, and, at Lady Bernard's request, stood up, and gave them all a little sketch of grannie's history, of which sketch what had happened that evening was made the central point. Many of the simpler hearts about me received it, without question, as a divine arrangement for my comfort and encouragement,--at least, thus I interpreted their looks to each other, and the remarks that reached my ear; but presently a man stood up,--one who thought more than the rest of them, perhaps because he was blind,--a man at once conceited, honest, and sceptical; and silence having been made for him,--'Ladies and gentlemen,' he began, as if he had been addressing a public meeting, 'you've all heard what grannie has said. It's very kind of her to give us so much of her history. It's a very remarkable one, I think, and she deserves to have it. As to what upset her this very night as is,--and I must say for her, I've knowed her now for six years, and I never knowed her upset afore,--and as to what upset her, all I can say is, it may or may not ha' been what phylosophers call a coincydence; but at the same time, if it wasn't a coincydence, and if the Almighty had a hand in it, it were no more than you might expect. He would look at it in this light, you see, that maybe she was wrong to fancy herself so down on her luck as all that, but she was a good soul, notwithstandin,' and he would let her know he hadn't forgotten her. And so he set her down in that room there,--wi' her eyes like them here o' mine, as never was no manner o' use to me,--for a minute, jest to put her in mind o' what had been, and what she had said there, an' how it was all so different now. In my opinion, it were no wonder as she broke down, God bless her! I beg leave to propose her health.' So they drank my health in lemonade and ginger-beer; for we were afraid to give some of them stronger drink than that, and therefore had none. Then we had more music and singing; and a clergyman, who knew how to be neighbor to them that had fallen among thieves, read a short chapter and a collect or two, and said a few words to them. Then grannie and her children went home together, all happy, but grannie the happiest of them all."

"Strange and beautiful!" said my father. "But," he added, after a pause, "you must have met with many strange and beautiful things in such a life as yours; for it seems to me that such a life is open to the entrance of all simple wonders. Conventionality and routine and arbitrary law banish their very approach."

"I believe," said Miss Clare, "that every life has its own private experience of the strange and beautiful. But I have sometimes thought that perhaps God took pains to bar out such things of the sort as we should be no better for. The reason why Lazarus was not allowed to visit the brothers of Dives was, that the repentance he would have urged would not have followed, and they would have been only the worse in consequence."

"Admirably said," remarked my father.

Before we took our leave, I had engaged Miss Clare to dine with us while my father was in town.


George MacDonald