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Chapter 33

THE CLOUDS AFTER THE RAIN.


But the clouds returned after the rain. It will be easily understood how the little money we had in hand should have rapidly vanished during Percivale's illness. While he was making nothing, the expenses of the family went on as usual; and not that only, but many little delicacies had to be got for him, and the doctor was yet to pay. Even up to the time when he had been taken ill, we had been doing little better than living from hand to mouth; for as often as we thought income was about to get a few yards ahead in the race with expense, something invariably happened to disappoint us.

I am not sorry that I have no special faculty for saving; for I have never known any, in whom such was well developed, who would not do things they ought to be ashamed of. The savings of such people seem to me to come quite as much off other people as off themselves; and, especially in regard of small sums, they are in danger of being first mean, and then dishonest. Certainly, whoever makes saving the end of her life, must soon grow mean, and will probably grow dishonest. But I have never succeeded in drawing the line betwixt meanness and dishonesty: what is mean, so far as I can see, slides by indistinguishable gradations into what is plainly dishonest. And what is more, the savings are commonly made at the cost of the defenceless. It is better far to live in constant difficulties than to keep out of them by such vile means as must, besides, poison the whole nature, and make one's judgments, both of God and her neighbors, mean as her own conduct. It is nothing to say that you must be just before you are generous, for that is the very point I am insisting on; namely, that one must be just to others before she is generous to herself. It will never do to make your two ends meet by pulling the other ends from the hands of those who are likewise puzzled to make them meet.

But I must now put myself at the bar, and cry Peccavi; for I was often wrong on the other side, sometimes getting things for the house before it was quite clear I could afford them, and sometimes buying the best when an inferior thing would have been more suitable, if not to my ideas, yet to my purse. It is, however, far more difficult for one with an uncertain income to learn to save, or even to be prudent, than for one who knows how much exactly every quarter will bring.

My husband, while he left the whole management of money matters to me, would yet spend occasionally without consulting me. In fact, he had no notion of money, and what it would or would not do. I never knew a man spend less upon himself; but he would be extravagant for me, and I dared hardly utter a foolish liking lest he should straightway turn it into a cause of shame by attempting to gratify it. He had, besides, a weakness for over-paying people, of which neither Marion nor I could honestly approve, however much we might admire the disposition whence it proceeded.

Now that I have confessed, I shall be more easy in my mind; for, in regard of the troubles that followed, I cannot be sure that I was free of blame. One word more in self-excuse, and I have done: however imperative, it is none the less hard to cultivate two opposing virtues at one and the same time.

While my husband was ill, not a picture had been disposed of; and even after he was able to work a little, I could not encourage visitors: he was not able for the fatigue, and in fact shrunk, with an irritability I had never perceived a sign of before, from seeing any one. To my growing dismay, I saw my little stock--which was bodily in my hand, for we had no banking account--rapidly approaching its final evanishment.

Some may think, that, with parents in the position of mine, a temporary difficulty need have caused me no anxiety: I must, therefore, mention one or two facts with regard to both my husband and my parents.

In the first place, although he had as complete a confidence in him as I had, both in regard to what he said and what he seemed, my husband could not feel towards my father as I felt. He had married me as a poor man, who yet could keep a wife; and I knew it would be a bitter humiliation to him to ask my father for money, on the ground that he had given his daughter. I should have felt nothing of the kind; for I should have known that my father would do him as well as me perfect justice in the matter, and would consider any money spent upon us as used to a divine purpose. For he regarded the necessaries of life as noble, its comforts as honorable, its luxuries as permissible,--thus reversing altogether the usual judgment of rich men, who in general like nothing worse than to leave their hoards to those of their relatives who will degrade them to the purchase of mere bread and cheese, blankets and clothes and coals. But I had no right to go against my husband's feeling. So long as the children had their bread and milk, I would endure with him. I am confident I could have starved as well as he, and should have enjoyed letting him see it.

But there were reasons because of which even I, in my fullest freedom, could not have asked help from my father just at this time. I am ashamed to tell the fact, but I must: before the end of his second year at Oxford, just over, the elder of my two brothers had, without any vice I firmly believe, beyond that of thoughtlessness and folly, got himself so deeply mired in debt, both to tradespeople and money-lenders, that my father had to pay two thousand pounds for him. Indeed, as I was well assured, although he never told me so, he had to borrow part of the money on a fresh mortgage in order to clear him. Some lawyer, I believe, told him that he was not bound to pay: but my father said, that, although such creditors deserved no protection of the law, he was not bound to give them a lesson in honesty at the expense of weakening the bond between himself and his son, for whose misdeeds he acknowledged a large share of responsibility; while, on the other hand, he was bound to give his son the lesson of the suffering brought on his family by his selfishness; and therefore would pay the money--if not gladly, yet willingly. How the poor boy got through the shame and misery of it, I can hardly imagine; but this I can say for him, that it was purely of himself that he accepted a situation in Ceylon, instead of returning to Oxford. Thither he was now on his way, with the intention of saving all he could in order to repay his father; and if at length he succeeds in doing so, he will doubtless make a fairer start the second time, because of the discipline, than if he had gone out with the money in his pocket.

It was natural, then, that in such circumstances a daughter should shrink from adding her troubles to those caused by a son. I ought to add, that my father had of late been laying out a good deal in building cottages for the laborers on his farms, and that the land was not yet entirely freed from the mortgages my mother had inherited with it.

Percivale continued so weak, that for some time I could not bring myself to say a word to him about money. But to keep them as low as possible did not prevent the household debts from accumulating, and the servants' wages were on the point of coming due. I had been careful to keep the milkman paid; and for the rest of the tradesmen, I consoled myself with the certainty, that, if the worst came to the worst, there was plenty of furniture in the house to pay every one of them. Still, of all burdens, next to sin, that of debt, I think, must be heaviest.

I tried to keep cheerful; but at length, one night, during our supper of bread and cheese, which I could not bear to see my poor, pale-faced husband eating, I broke down.

"What is the matter, my darling?" asked Percivale.

I took a half-crown from my pocket, and held it out on the palm of my hand.

"That's all I've got, Percivale," I said.

"Oh! that all--is it?" he returned lightly.

"Yes,--isn't that enough?" I said with some indignation.

"Certainly--for to-night," he answered, "seeing the shops are shut. But is that all that's troubling you?" he went on.

"It seems to me quite enough," I said again; "and if you had the housekeeping to do, and the bills to pay, you would think a solitary half-crown quite enough to make you miserable."

"Never mind--so long as it's a good one," he said. "I'll get you more to-morrow."

"How can you do that?" I asked.

"Easily," he answered. "You'll see. Don't you trouble your dear heart about it for a moment."

I felt relieved, and asked him no more questions.

The next morning, when I went into the study to speak to him, he was not there; and I guessed that he had gone to town to get the money, for he had not been out before since his illness, at least without me. But I hoped of all things he was not going to borrow it of a money-lender, of which I had a great and justifiable horror, having heard from himself how a friend of his had in such a case fared. I would have sold three-fourths of the things in the house rather. But as I turned to leave the study, anxious both about himself and his proceedings, I thought something was different, and soon discovered that a certain favorite picture was missing from the wall: it was clear he had gone either to sell it or raise money upon it.

By our usual early dinner-hour, he returned, and put into my hands, with a look of forced cheerfulness, two five-pound notes.

"Is that all you got for that picture?" I said.

"That is all Mr. ---- would advance me upon it," he answered. "I thought he had made enough by me to have risked a little more than that; but picture-dealers--Well, never mind. That is enough to give time for twenty things to happen."

And no doubt twenty things did happen, but none of them of the sort he meant. The ten pounds sank through my purse like water through gravel. I paid a number of small bills at once, for they pressed the more heavily upon me that I knew the money was wanted; and by the end of another fortnight we were as badly off as before, with an additional trouble, which in the circumstances was any thing but slight.

In conjunction with more than ordinary endowments of stupidity and self-conceit, Jemima was possessed of a furious temper, which showed itself occasionally in outbursts of unendurable rudeness. She had been again and again on the point of leaving me, now she, now I, giving warning; but, ere the day arrived, her better nature had always got the upper hand,--she had broken down and given in. These outbursts had generally followed a season of better behavior than usual, and were all but certain if I ventured the least commendation; for she could stand any thing better than praise. At the least subsequent rebuke, self would break out in rage, vulgarity, and rudeness. On this occasion, however, I cannot tell whence it was that one of these cyclones arose in our small atmosphere; but it was Jemima, you may well believe, who gave warning, for it was out of my power to pay her wages; and there was no sign of her yielding.

My reader may be inclined to ask in what stead the religion I had learned of my father now stood me. I will endeavor to be honest in my answer.

Every now and then I tried to pray to God to deliver us; but I was far indeed from praying always, and still farther from not fainting. A whole day would sometimes pass under a weight of care that amounted often to misery; and not until its close would I bethink me that I had been all the weary hours without God. Even when more hopeful, I would keep looking and looking for the impossibility of something to happen of itself, instead of looking for some good and perfect gift to come down from the Father of lights; and, when I awoke to the fact, the fog would yet lie so deep on my soul, that I could not be sorry for my idolatry and want of faith. It was, indeed, a miserable time. There was, besides, one definite thought that always choked my prayers: I could not say in my conscience that I had been sufficiently careful either in my management or my expenditure. "If," I thought, "I could be certain that I had done my best, I should be able to trust in God for all that lies beyond my power; but now he may mean to punish me for my carelessness." Then why should I not endure it calmly and without complaint? Alas! it was not I alone that thus would be punished, but my children and my husband as well. Nor could I avoid coming on my poor father at last, who, of course, would interfere to prevent a sale; and the thought was, from the circumstances I have mentioned, very bitter to me. Sometimes, however, in more faithful moods, I would reason with myself that God would not be hard upon me, even if I had not been so saving as I ought. My father had taken his son's debts on himself, and would not allow him to be disgraced more than could be helped; and, if an earthly parent would act thus for his child, would our Father in heaven be less tender with us? Still, for very love's sake, it might be necessary to lay some disgrace upon me, for of late I had been thinking far too little of the best things. The cares more than the duties of life had been filling my mind. If it brought me nearer to God, I must then say it had been good for me to be afflicted; but while my soul was thus oppressed, how could my feelings have any scope? Let come what would, however, I must try and bear it,--even disgrace, if it was his will. Better people than I had been thus disgraced, and it might be my turn next. Meantime, it had not come to that, and I must not let the cares of to-morrow burden to-day.

Every day, almost, as it seems in looking back, a train of thought something like this would pass through my mind. But things went on, and grew no better. With gathering rapidity, we went sliding, to all appearance, down the inclined plane of disgrace.

Percivale at length asked Roger if he had any money by him to lend him a little; and he gave him at once all he had, amounting to six pounds,--a wonderful amount for Roger to have accumulated; with the help of which we got on to the end of Jemima's month. The next step I had in view was to take my little valuables to the pawnbroker's,--amongst them a watch, whose face was encircled with a row of good-sized diamonds. It had belonged to my great-grandmother, and my mother had given it me when I was married.

We had had a piece of boiled neck of mutton for dinner, of which we, that is my husband and I, had partaken sparingly, in order that there might be enough for the servants. Percivale had gone out; and I was sitting in the drawing-room, lost in any thing but a blessed reverie, with all the children chattering amongst themselves beside me, when Jemima entered, looking subdued.

"If you please, ma'am, this is my day," she said.

"Have you got a place, then, Jemima?" I asked; for I had been so much occupied with my own affairs that I had thought little of the future of the poor girl to whom I could have given but a lukewarm recommendation for any thing prized amongst housekeepers.

"No, ma'am. Please, ma'am, mayn't I stop?"

"No, Jemima. I am very sorry, but I can't afford to keep you. I shall have to do all the work myself when you are gone."

I thought to pay her wages out of the proceeds of my jewels, but was willing to delay the step as long as possible; rather, I believe, from repugnance to enter the pawn-shop, than from disinclination to part with the trinkets. But, as soon as I had spoken, Jemima burst into an Irish wail, mingled with sobs and tears, crying between the convulsions of all three,--

I thought there was something wrong, mis'ess. You and master looked so scared-like. Please, mis'ess, don't send me away."

"I never wanted to send you away, Jemima. You wanted to go yourself."

"No, ma'am; that I didn't. I only wanted you to ask me to stop. Wirra! wirra! It's myself is sorry I was so rude. It's not me; it's my temper, mis'ess. I do believe I was born with a devil inside me."

I could not help laughing, partly from amusement, partly from relief.

"But you see I can't ask you to stop," I said. "I've got no money,--not even enough to pay you to-day; so I can't keep you."

"I don't want no money, ma'am. Let me stop, and I'll cook for yez, and wash and scrub for yez, to the end o' my days. An' I'll eat no more than'll keep the life in me. I must eat something, or the smell o' the meat would turn me sick, ye see, ma'am; and then I shouldn't be no good to yez. Please 'm, I ha' got fifteen pounds in the savings bank: I'll give ye all that, if ye'll let me stop wid ye."

When I confess that I burst out crying, my reader will be kind enough to take into consideration that I hadn't had much to eat for some time; that I was therefore weak in body as well as in mind; and that this was the first gleam of sunshine I had had for many weeks.

"Thank you very much, Jemima," I said, as soon as I could speak. "I won't take your money, for then you would be as poor as I am. But, if you would like to stop with us, you shall; and I won't pay you till I'm able."

The poor girl was profuse in her thanks, and left the room sobbing in her apron.

It was a gloomy, drizzly, dreary afternoon. The children were hard to amuse, and I was glad when their bedtime arrived. It was getting late before Percivale returned. He looked pale, and I found afterwards that he had walked home. He had got wet, and had to change some of his clothes. When we went in to supper, there was the neck of mutton on the table, almost as we had left it. This led me, before asking him any questions, to relate what had passed with Jemima; at which news he laughed merrily, and was evidently a good deal relieved. Then I asked him where he had been.

"To the city," he answered.

"Have you sold another picture?" I asked, with an inward tribulation, half hope, half fear; for, much as we wanted the money, I could ill bear the thought of his pictures going for the price of mere pot-boilers.

"No," he replied: "the last is stopping the way. Mr. ---- has been advertising it as a bargain for a hundred and fifty. But he hasn't sold it yet, and can't, he says, risk ten pounds on another. What's to come of it, I don't know," he added. "But meantime it's a comfort that Jemima can wait a bit for her money."

As we sat at supper, I thought I saw a look on Percivale's face which I had never seen there before. All at once, while I was wondering what it might mean, after a long pause, during which we had been both looking into the fire, he said,--

"Wynnie, I'm going to paint a better picture than I've ever painted yet. I can, and I will."

"But how are we to live in the mean time?" I said.

His face fell, and I saw with shame what a Job's comforter I was. Instead of sympathizing with his ardor, I had quenched it. What if my foolish remark had ruined a great picture! Anyhow, it had wounded a great heart, which had turned to labor as its plainest duty, and would thereby have been strengthened to endure and to hope. It was too cruel of me. I knelt by his knee, and told him I was both ashamed and sorry I had been so faithless and unkind. He made little of it, said I might well ask the question, and even tried to be merry over it; but I could see well enough that I had let a gust of the foggy night into his soul, and was thoroughly vexed with myself. We went to bed gloomy, but slept well, and awoke more cheerful.


George MacDonald