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Chapter 21

LADY BERNARD.


When she came we had no other guest, and so had plenty of talk with her. Before dinner I showed her my husband's pictures; and she was especially pleased with that which hung in the little room off the study, which I called my boudoir,--a very ugly word, by the way, which I am trying to give up,--with a curtain before it. My father has described it in "The Seaboard Parish:" a pauper lies dead, and they are bringing in his coffin. She said it was no wonder it had not been sold, notwithstanding its excellence and force; and asked if I would allow her to bring Lady Bernard to see it. After dinner Percivale had a long talk with her, and succeeded in persuading her to sit to him; not, however, before I had joined my entreaties with his, and my father had insisted that her face was not her own, but belonged to all her kind.

The very next morning she came with Lady Bernard. The latter said she knew my husband well by reputation, and had, before our marriage, asked him to her house, but had not been fortunate enough to possess sufficient attraction. Percivale was much taken with her, notwithstanding a certain coldness, almost sternness of manner, which was considerably repellent,--but only for the first few moments, for, when her eyes lighted up, the whole thing vanished. She was much pleased with some of his pictures, criticising freely, and with evident understanding. The immediate result was, that she bought both the pauper picture and that of the dying knight.

"But I am sorry to deprive your lovely room of such treasures, Mrs. Percivale," she said, with a kind smile.

"Of course I shall miss them," I returned; "but the thought that you have them will console me. Besides, it is good to have a change; and there are only too many lying in the study, from which he will let me choose to supply their place."

"Will you let me come and see which you have chosen?" she asked.

"With the greatest pleasure," I answered.

"And will you come and see me? Do you think you could persuade your husband to bring you to dine with me?"

I told her I could promise the one with more than pleasure, and had little doubt of being able to do the other, now that my husband had seen her.

A reference to my husband's dislike to fashionable society followed, and I had occasion to mention his feeling about being asked without me. Of the latter, Lady Bernard expressed the warmest approval; and of the former, said that it would have no force in respect of her parties, for they were not at all fashionable.

This was the commencement of a friendship for which we have much cause to thank God. Nor did we forget that it came through Miss Clare.

I confess I felt glorious over my cousin Judy; but I would bide my time. Now that I am wiser, and I hope a little better, I see that I was rather spiteful; but I thought then I was only jealous for my new and beautiful friend. Perhaps, having wronged her myself, I was the more ready to take vengeance on her wrongs from the hands of another; which was just the opposite feeling to that I ought to have had.

In the mean time, our intimacy with Miss Clare grew. She interested me in many of her schemes for helping the poor; some of which were for providing them with work in hard times, but more for giving them an interest in life itself, without which, she said, no one would begin to inquire into its relations and duties. One of her positive convictions was, that you ought not to give them any thing they ought to provide for themselves, such as food or clothing or shelter. In such circumstances as rendered it impossible for them to do so, the ought was in abeyance. But she heartily approved of making them an occasional present of something they could not be expected to procure for themselves,--flowers, for instance. "You would not imagine," I have heard her say, "how they delight in flowers. All the finer instincts of their being are drawn to the surface at the sight of them. I am sure they prize and enjoy them far more, not merely than most people with gardens and greenhouses do, but far more even than they would if they were deprived of them. A gift of that sort can only do them good. But I would rather give a workman a gold watch than a leg of mutton. By a present you mean a compliment; and none feel more grateful for such an acknowledgment of your human relation to them, than those who look up to you as their superior."

Once, when she was talking thus, I ventured to object, for the sake of hearing her further.

"But," I said, "sometimes the most precious thing you can give a man is just that compassion which you seem to think destroys the value of a gift."

"When compassion itself is precious to a man," she answered, "it must be because he loves you, and believes you love him. When that is the case, you may give him any thing you like, and it will do neither you nor him harm. But the man of independent feeling, except he be thus your friend, will not unlikely resent your compassion, while the beggar will accept it chiefly as a pledge for something more to be got from you; and so it will tend to keep him in beggary."

"Would you never, then, give money, or any of the necessaries of life, except in extreme, and, on the part of the receiver, unavoidable necessity?" I asked.

"I would not," she answered; "but in the case where a man cannot help himself, the very suffering makes a way for the love which is more than compassion to manifest itself. In every other case, the true way is to provide them with work, which is itself a good thing, besides what they gain by it. If a man will not work, neither should he eat. It must be work with an object in it, however: it must not be mere labor, such as digging a hole and filling it up again, of which I have heard. No man could help resentment at being set to such work. You ought to let him feel that he is giving something of value to you for the money you give to him. But I have known a whole district so corrupted and degraded by clerical alms-giving, that one of the former recipients of it declared, as spokesman for the rest; that threepence given was far more acceptable than five shillings earned."

A good part of the little time I could spare from my own family was now spent with Miss Clare in her work, through which it was chiefly that we became by degrees intimate with Lady Bernard. If ever there was a woman who lived this outer life for the sake of others, it was she. Her inner life was, as it were, sufficient for herself, and found its natural outward expression in blessing others. She was like a fountain of living water that could find no vent but into the lives of her fellows. She had suffered more than falls to the ordinary lot of women, in those who were related to her most nearly, and for many years had looked for no personal blessing from without. She said to me once, that she could not think of any thing that could happen to herself to make her very happy now, except a loved grandson, who was leading a strange, wild life, were to turn out a Harry the Fifth,--a consummation which, however devoutly wished, was not granted her; for the young man died shortly after. I believe no one, not even Miss Clare, knew half the munificent things she did, or what an immense proportion of her large income she spent upon other people. But, as she said herself, no one understood the worth of money better; and no one liked better to have the worth of it: therefore she always administered her charity with some view to the value of the probable return,--with some regard, that is, to the amount of good likely to result to others from the aid given to one. She always took into consideration whether the good was likely to be propagated, or to die with the receiver. She confessed to frequent mistakes; but such, she said, was the principle upon which she sought to regulate that part of her stewardship.

I wish I could give a photograph of her. She was slight, and appeared taller than she was, being rather stately than graceful, with a commanding forehead and still blue eyes. She gave at first the impression of coldness, with a touch of haughtiness. But this was, I think, chiefly the result of her inherited physique; for the moment her individuality appeared, when her being, that is, came into contact with that of another, all this impression vanished in the light that flashed into her eyes, and the smile that illumined her face. Never did woman of rank step more triumphantly over the barriers which the cumulated custom of ages has built between the classes of society. She laid great stress on good manners, little on what is called good birth; although to the latter, in its deep and true sense, she attributed the greatest priori value, as the ground of obligation in the possessor, and of expectation on the part of others. But I shall have an opportunity of showing more of what she thought on this subject presently; for I bethink me that it occupied a great part of our conversation at a certain little gathering, of which I am now going to give an account.


George MacDonald