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Hughie rose late next morning, and the hurry and rush of getting off to school in time left him no opportunity to get rid of the little packages in his pocket, that seemed to burn and sting him through his clothes. He determined to keep them safe in his pocket all day and put them back in the drawer at night. His mother's face, white with her long watching, and sad and anxious in spite of its brave smile, filled him with such an agony of remorse that, hurrying through his breakfast, he snatched a farewell kiss, and then tore away down the lane lest he should be forced to confess all his terrible secret.
The first person who met him in the school-yard was Foxy.
"Have you got that?" was his salutation.
A sudden fury possessed Hughie.
"Yes, you red-headed, sneaking fox," he answered, "and I hope it will bring you the curse of luck, anyway."
Foxy hurried him cautiously behind the school, with difficulty concealing his delight while Hughie unrolled his little bundles and counted out the quarters and dimes and half dimes into his hand.
"There's a dollar, and there's a quarter, and--and--there's another," he added, desperately, "and God may kill me on the spot if I give you any more!"
"All right, Hughie," said Foxy, soothingly, putting the money into his pocket. "You needn't be so mad about it. You bought the pistol and the rest right enough, didn't you?"
"I know I did, but--but you made me, you big, sneaking thief--and then you--" Hughie's voice broke in his rage. His face was pale, and his black eyes were glittering with fierce fury, and in his heart he was conscious of a wild longing to fall upon Foxy and tear him to pieces. And Foxy, big and tall as he was, glanced at Hughie's face, and saying not a word, turned and fled to the front of the school where the other boys were.
Hughie followed slowly, his heart still swelling with furious rage, and full of an eager desire to be at Foxy's smiling, fat face.
At the school door stood Miss Morrison, the teacher, smiling down upon Foxy, who was looking up at her with an expression of such sweet innocence that Hughie groaned out between his clenched teeth, "Oh, you red-headed devil, you! Some day I'll make you smile out of the other side of your big, fat mouth."
'Who are you swearing at?" It was Fusie.
"Oh, Fusie," cried Hughie, "let's get Davie and get into the woods. I'm not going in to-day. I hate the beastly place, and the whole gang of them."
Fusie, the little, harum-scarum French waif was ready for anything in the way of adventure. To him anything was better than the even monotony of the school routine. True, it might mean a whipping both from the teacher and from Mrs. McLeod; but as to the teacher's whipping, Fusie was prepared to stand that for a free day in the woods, and as to the other, Fusie declared that Mrs. McLeod's whipping "wouldn't hurt a skeeter."
To Davie Scotch, however, playing truant was a serious matter. He had been reared in an atmosphere of reverence for established law and order, but when Hughie gave command, to Davie there seemed nothing for it but to obey.
The three boys watched till the school was called, and then crawling along on their stomachs behind the heavy cedar-log fence, they slipped into the balsam thicket at the edge of the woods and were safe. Here they flung down their schoolbags, and lying prone upon the fragrant bed of pine-needles strewn thickly upon the moss, they peered out through the balsam boughs at the house of their bondage with an exultant sense of freedom and a feeling of pity, if not of contempt, for the unhappy and spiritless creatures who were content to be penned inside any house on such a day as this, and with such a world outside.
For some minutes they rolled about upon the soft moss and balsam- needles and the brown leaves of last year, till their hearts were running over with a deep and satisfying delight. It is hard to resist the ministry of the woods. The sympathetic silence of the trees, the aromatic airs that breathe through the shady spaces, the soft mingling of broken lights--these all combine to lay upon the spirit a soothing balm, and bring to the heart peace. And Hughie, sensitive at every pore to that soothing ministry, before long forgot for a time even Foxy, with his fat, white face and smiling mouth, and lying on the broad of his back, and looking up at the far-away blue sky through the interlacing branches and leaves, he began to feel again that it was good to be alive, and that with all his misery there were compensations.
But any lengthened period of peaceful calm is not for boys of the age and spirit of Hughie and his companions.
"What are you going to do?" asked Fusie, the man of adventure.
"Do nothing," said Hughie from his supine position. "This is good enough for me."
"Not me," said Fusie, starting to climb a tall, lithe birch, while Hughie lazily watched him. Soon Fusie was at the top of the birch, which began to sway dangerously.
"Try to fly into that balsam," cried Hughie.
"Yes, go on."
"Can't do it."
"Oh, pshaw! you can."
"No, nor you either. That's a mighty big jump."
"Come on down, then, and let me try," said Hughie, in scorn. His laziness was gone in the presence of a possible achievement.
In a few minutes he had taken Fusie's place a the top of the swaying birch. It did not look so easy from the top of the birch as from the ground to swing into the balsam-tree. However, he could not go back now.
"Dinna try it, Hughie!" cried Davie to him. "Ye'll no mak it, and ye'll come an awfu' cropper, as sure as deith." But Hughie, swaying gently back and forth, was measuring the distance of his drop. It was not a feat so very difficult, but it called for good judgment and steady nerve. A moment too soon or a moment too late in letting go, would mean a nasty fall of twenty feet or more upon the solid ground, and one never knew just how one would light.
"I wudna dae it, Hughie," urged Davie, anxiously.
But Hughie, swaying high in the birch, heeded not the warning, and suddenly swinging out from the slender trunk and holding by his hands, he described a parabola, and releasing the birch dropped on to the balsam top. But balsam-trees are of uncertain fiber, and not to be relied upon, and this particular balsam, breaking off short in Hughie's hands, allowed him to go crashing through the branches to the earth.
"Man! man!" cried Davie Scotch, bending over Hughie as he lay white and still upon the ground. "Are ye deid? Maircy me! he's deid," sobbed Davie, wringing his hands. "Fusie, Fusie, ye gowk! where are ye gone?"
In a moment or two Fusie reappeared through the branches with a capful of water, and dashed it into Hughie's face, with the result that the lad opened his eyes, and after a gasp or two, sat up and looked about him.
"Och, laddie, laddie, are ye no deid?" said Davie Scotch.
"What's the matter with you, Scottie?" asked Hughie, with a bewildered look about him. "And who's been throwing water all over me?" he added, wrathfully, as full consciousness returned.
"Man! I'm glad to see ye mad. Gang on wi' ye," shouted Davie, joyously. "Ye were deid the noo. Ay, clean deid. Was he no, Fusie?" Fusie nodded.
"I guess not," said Hughie. "It was that rotten balsam top," looking vengefully at the broken tree.
"Lie doon, man," said Davie, still anxiously hovering about him. "Dinna rise yet awhile."
"Oh, pshaw!" said Hughie, and he struggled to his feet; "I'm all right." But as he spoke he sank down upon the moss, saying, "I feel kind of queer, though."
"Lie still, then, will ye," said Davie, angrily. "Ye're fair obstinate."
"Get me some water, Fusie," said Hughie, rather weakly.
"Run, Fusie, ye gomeril, ye!"
In a minute Fusie was back with a capful of water.
"That's better. I'm all right now," said Hughie, sitting up.
"Hear him!" said Davie. "Lie ye doon there, or I'll gie ye a crack that'll mak ye glad tae keep still."
For half an hour the boys lay on the moss discussing the accident fully in all its varying aspects and possibilities, till the sound of wheels came up the road.
"Who's that, Fusie?" asked Hughie, lazily.
"Dunno me," said Fusie, peering through the trees.
"Do you, Scotty?"
"No, not I."
Hughie crawled over to the edge of the brush.
"Why, you idiots! it's Thomas Finch. Thomas!" he called, but Thomas drove straight on. In a moment Hughie sprang up, forgetting all about his weakness, and ran out to the roadside.
"Hello, Thomas!" he cried, waving his hand. Thomas saw him, stopped, and looked at him, doubtfully. He, with all the Section, knew how the school was going, and he easily guessed what took Hughie there.
"I'm not going to school to-day," said Hughie, answering Thomas's look.
Thomas nodded, and sat silent, waiting. He was not a man to waste his words.
"I hate the whole thing!" exclaimed Hughie.
"Foxy, eh?" said Thomas, to whom on other occasions Hughie had confided his grievances, and especially those he suffered at the hands of Foxy.
"Yes, Foxy," cried Hughie, in a sudden rage. "He's a fat-faced sneak! And the teacher just makes me sick!"
Thomas still waited.
"She just smiles and smiles at him, and he smiles at her. Ugh! I can't stand him."
"Not much harm in smiling," said Thomas, solemnly.
"Oh, Thomas, I hate the school. I'm not going to go any more."
Thomas looked gravely down upon Hughie's passionate face for a few moments, and then said, "You will do what your mother wants you, I guess."
Hughie said nothing in reply, while Thomas sat pondering.
Finally he said, with a sudden inspiration, "Hughie, come along with me, and help me with the potatoes."
"They won't let me," grumbled Hughie. "At least father won't. I don't like to ask mother."
Thomas's eyes opened in surprise. This was a new thing in Hughie.
"I'll ask your mother," he said, at length. "Get in with me here."
Still Hughie hesitated. To get away from school was joy enough, to go with Thomas to the potato planting was more than could be hoped for. But still he stood making pictures in the dust with his bare toes.
"There's Fusie," he said, "and Davie Scotch."
"Well," said Thomas, catching sight of those worthies through the trees, "let them come, too."
Fusie was promptly willing, but Davie was doubtful. He certainly would not go to the manse, where he might meet the minister, and meeting the minister's wife under the present circumstances was a little worse.
"Well, you can wait at the gate with Fusie," suggested Hughie, and so the matter was settled.
Fortunately for Hughie, his father was not at home. But not Thomas's earnest entreaties nor Hughie's eager pleading would have availed with the mother, for attendance at school was a sacred duty in her eyes, had it not been that her boy's face, paler than usual, and with the dawning of a new defiance in it, startled her, and confirmed in her the fear that all was not well with him.
"Well, Thomas, he may go with you to the Cameron's for the potatoes, but as to going with you to the planting, that is another thing. Your mother is not fit to be troubled with another boy, and especially a boy like Hughie. And how is she to-day, Thomas?" continued Mrs. Murray, as Thomas stood in dull silence before her.
"She's better," said Thomas, answering more quickly than usual, and with a certain eagerness in his voice. "She's a great deal better, and Hughie will do her no harm, but good."
Mrs. Murray looked at Thomas as he spoke, wondering at the change in his voice and manner. The heavy, stolid face had changed since she had last seen it. It was finer, keener, than before. The eyes, so often dull, were lighted up with a new, strange fire.
"She's much better," said Thomas again, as if insisting against Mrs. Murray's unbelief.
"I am glad to hear it, Thomas," she said, gently. "She will soon be quite well again, I hope, for she has had a long, long time of suffering."
"Yes, a long, long time," replied Thomas. His face was pale, and in his eyes was a look of pain, almost of fear.
"And you will come to see her soon?" he added. There was almost a piteous entreaty in his tone.
"Yes, Thomas, surely next week. And meantime, I shall let Hughie go with you."
A look of such utter devotion poured itself into Thomas's eyes that Mrs. Murray was greatly moved, and putting her hand on his shoulder, she said, gently, "'He will give His angels charge.' Don't be afraid, Thomas."
"Afraid!" said Thomas, with a kind of gasp, his face going white. "Afraid! No. Why?" But Mrs. Murray turned from him to hide the tears that she could not keep out of her eyes, for she knew what was before Thomas and them all.
Meantime Hughie was busy putting into his little carpet-bag what he considered the necessary equipment for his visit.
"You must wear your shoes, Hughie."
"Oh, mother, shoes are such an awful bother planting potatoes. They get full of ground and everything."
"Well, put them in your bag, at any rate, and your stockings, too. You may need them."
By degrees Hughie's very moderate necessities were satisfied, and with a hurried farewell to his mother he went off with Thomas. At the gate they picked up Fusie and Davie Scotch, and went off to the Cameron's for the seed potatoes, Hughie's heart lighter than it had been for many a day. And all through the afternoon, and as he drove home with Thomas on the loaded bags, his heart kept singing back to the birds in the trees overhead.
It was late in the afternoon when they drove into the yard, for the roads were still bad in the swamp, where the corduroy had been broken up by the spring floods.
Thomas hurried through unhitching, and without waiting to unharness he stood the horses in their stalls, saying, "We may need them this afternoon again," and took Hughie off to the house straight-way.
The usual beautiful order pervaded the house and its surroundings. The back yard, through which the boys came from the barn, was free of litter; the chips were raked into neat little piles close to the wood-pile, for summer use. On a bench beside the "stoop" door was a row of milk-pans, lapping each other like scales on a fish, glittering in the sun. The large summer kitchen, with its spotless floor and white-washed walls, stood with both its doors open to the sweet air that came in from the fields above, and was as pleasant a room to look in upon as one could desire. On the sill of the open window stood a sweet-scented geranium and a tall fuschia with white and crimson blossoms hanging in clusters. Bunches of wild flowers stood on the table, on the dresser, and up beside the clock, and the whole room breathed of sweet scents of fields and flowers, and "the name of the chamber was peace."
Beside the open window sat the little mother in an arm-chair, the embodiment of all the peaceful beauty and sweet fragrance of the room.
"Well, mother," said Thomas, crossing the floor to her and laying his hand upon her shoulder, "have I been long away? I have brought Hughie back with me, you see."
"Not so very long, Thomas," said the mother, her dark face lighting with a look of love as she glanced up at her big son. "And I am glad to see Hughie. He will excuse me from rising," she added, with fine courtesy.
Hughie hurried toward her.
"Yes, indeed, Mrs. Finch. Don't think of rising." But he could get no further. Boy as he was, and at the age when boys are most heartless and regardless, he found it hard to keep his lip and his voice steady and to swallow the lump in his throat, and in spite of all he could do his eyes were filling up with tears as he looked into the little woman's face, so worn and weary, so pathetically bright.
It was months since he had seen her, and during these months a great change had come to her and to the Finch household. After suffering long in secret, the mother had been forced to confess to a severe pain in her breast and under her arm. Upon examination the doctor pronounced the case to be malignant cancer, and there was nothing for it but removal. It was what Dr. Grant called "a very beautiful operation, indeed," and now she was recovering her strength, but only slowly, so slowly that Thomas at times found his heart sink with a vague fear. But it was not the pain of the wound that had wrought that sweet, pathetic look into the little woman's face, but the deeper pain she carried in her heart for those she loved better than herself.
The mother's sickness brought many changes into the household, but the most striking of all the changes was that wrought in the slow and stolid Thomas. The father and Billy Jack were busy with the farm matters outside, upon little Jessac, now a girl of twelve years, fell the care of the house, but it was Thomas that, with the assistance of a neighbor at first, but afterwards alone, waited on his mother, dressing the wound and nursing her. These weeks of watching and nursing had wrought in him the subtle change that stirred Mrs. Murray's heart as she looked at him that day, and that made even Hughie wonder. For one thing his tongue was loosed, and Thomas talked to his mother of all that he had seen and heard on the way to the Cameron's and back, making much of his little visit to the manse, and of Mrs. Murray's kindness, and enlarging upon her promised visit, and all with such brightness and picturesqueness of speech that Hughie listened amazed. For all the years he had known Thomas he had never heard from his lips so many words as in the last few minutes of talk with his mother. Then, too, Thomas seemed to have found his fingers, for no woman could have arranged more deftly and with gentler touch the cushions at his mother's back, and no nurse could have measured out the medicine and prepared her egg-nog with greater skill. Hughie could hardly believe his eyes and ears. Was this Thomas the stolid, the clumsy, the heavy- handed, this big fellow with the quick tongue and the clever, gentle hand?
Meantime Jessac had set upon the table a large pitcher of rich milk, with oat cakes and butter, and honey in the comb.
"Now, Hughie, lad, draw in and help yourself. You and Thomas will be too hungry to wait for supper," said the mother. And Hughie, protesting politely that he was not very hungry, proceeded to establish the contrary, to the great satisfaction of himself and the others.
"Now, Thomas," said the mother, "we had better cut the seed."
"Indeed, and not a seed will you cut, mother," said Thomas, emphatically. "You may boss the job, though. I'll bring the potatoes to the back door." And this he did, thinking it no trouble to hitch up the team to draw the wagon into the back yard so that his mother might have a part in the cutting of the seed potatoes, as she had had every year of her life on the farm.
Very carefully, and in spite of her protests that she could walk quite well, Thomas carried his mother out to her chair in the shade of the house, arranging with tender solicitude the pillows at her back and the rug at her feet. Then they set to work at the potatoes.
"Mind you have two eyes in every seed, Hughie," said Jessac, severely.
"Huh! I know. I've cut them often enough," replied Hughie, scornfully.
"Well, look at that one, now," said Jessac, picking up a seed that Hughie had let fall; "that's only got one eye."
"There's two," said Hughie, triumphantly.
"That's not an eye," said Jessac, pointing to a mark on the potato; "that's where the top grew out of, isn't it, mother?"
"It is, isn't it?" appealed Hughie.
Mrs. Finch took the seed and looked at it.
"Well, there's one very good eye, and that will do."
"But isn't that the mark of the top, mother?" insisted Jessac. But the mother only shook her head at her.
"That's right, Jessac," said Thomas, driving off with his team; "you look after Hughie, and mother will look after you both till I get back, and there'll be a grand crop this year."
It was a happy hour for them all. The slanting rays of the afternoon sun filled the air with a genial warmth. A little breeze bore from the orchard near by a fragrance of apple-blossoms. A matronly hen, tethered by the leg to her coop, raised indignant protest against the outrage on her personal liberty, or clucked and crooned her invitations, counsels, warnings, and encouragements, in as many different tones, to her independent, fluffy brood of chicks, while a huge gobbler strutted up and down, thrilling with pride in the glossy magnificence of his outspread tail and pompous, mighty chest.
Hughie was conscious of a deep and grateful content, but across his content lay a shadow. If only that would lift! As he watched Thomas with his mother, he realized how far he had drifted from his own mother, and he thought with regret of the happy days, which now seemed so far in the past, when his mother had shared his every secret. But for him those days could never come again.
At supper, Hughie was aware of some subtle difference in the spirit of the home. As to Thomas so to his father a change had come. The old man was as silent as ever, indeed more so, but there was no asperity in his silence. His critical, captious manner was gone. His silence was that of a great sorrow, and of a great fear. While there was more cheerful conversation than ever at the table, there was through all a new respect and a certain tender consideration shown toward the silent old man at the head, and all joined in an effort to draw him from his gloom. The past months of his wife's suffering had bowed him as with the weight of years. Even Hughie could note this.
After supper the old man "took the Books" as usual, but when, as High Priest, he "ascended the Mount of Ordinances to offer the evening sacrifice," he was as a man walking in thick darkness bewildered and afraid. The prayer was largely a meditation on the heinousness of sin and the righteous judgments of God, and closed with an exaltation of the Cross, with an appeal that the innocent might be spared the punishment of the guilty. The conviction had settled in the old man's mind that "the Lord was visiting upon him and his family his sins, his pride, his censoriousness, his hardness of heart." The words of his prayer fell meaningless upon Hughie's English ears, but the boy's heart quivered in response to the agony of entreaty in the pleading tones, and he rose from his knees awed and subdued.
There was no word spoken for some moments after the prayer. With people like the Finches it was considered to be an insult to the Almighty to depart from "the Presence" with any unseemly haste. Then Thomas came to help his mother to her room, but she, with her eyes upon her husband, quietly put Thomas aside and said, "Donald, will you tak me ben?"
Rarely had she called him by his name before the family, and all felt that this was a most unusual demonstration of tenderness on her part.
The old man glanced quickly at her from under his overhanging eyebrows, and met her bright upward look with an involuntary shake of the head and a slight sigh. Comfort was not for him, and he must not delude himself. But with a little laugh she put her hand on his arm, and as if administering reproof to a little child, she said some words in Gaelic.
"Oh, woman, woman!" said Donald in reply, "if it was yourself we had to deal with--"
"Whisht, man! Will you be putting me before your Father in heaven?" she said, as they disappeared into the other room.
There was no fiddle that evening. There was no heart for it with Thomas, neither was there time, for there was the milking to do, and the "sorting" of the pails and pans, and the preparing for churning in the morning, so that when all was done, the long evening had faded into the twilight and it was time for bed.
Before going upstairs, Thomas took Hughie into "the room" where his mother's bed had been placed. Thomas gave her her medicine and made her comfortable for the night.
"Is there nothing else now, mother?" he said, still lingering about her.
"No, Thomas, my man. How are the cows doing?"
"Grand; Blossom filled a pail to-night, and Spotty almost twice. She's a great milker, yon."
"Yes, and so was her mother. I remember she used to fill two pails when the grass was good."
"I remember her, too. Her horns curled right back, didn't they? And she always looked so fierce."
"Yes, but she was a kindly cow. And will the churn be ready for the morning?"
"Yes, mother, we'll have buttermilk for our porridge, sure enough."
"Well, you'll need to be up early for that, too early, Thomas, lad, for a boy like you."
"A boy like me!" said Thomas, feigning indignation, and stretching himself to his full height. "Where would you be getting your men, mother?"
"You are man enough, laddie," said his mother, "and a good one you will come to be, I doubt. And you, too, Hughie, lad," she added, turning to him. "You will be like your father."
"I dunno," said Hughie, his face flushing scarlet. He was weary and sick of his secret, and the sight of the loving comradeship between Thomas and his mother made his burden all the heavier.
"What's wrong with yon laddie?" asked Mrs. Finch, when Hughie had gone away to bed.
"Now, mother, you're too sharp altogether. And how do you know anything is wrong with him?"
"I warrant you his mother sees it. Something is on his mind. Hughie is not the lad he used to be. He will not look at you straight, and that is not like Hughie."
"Oh, mother, you're a sharp one," said Thomas. "I thought no one had seen that but myself. Yes, there is something wrong with him. It's something in the school. It's a poor place nowadays, anyway, and I wish Hughie were done with it."
"He must keep at the school, Thomas, and I only wish you could do the same." His mother sighed. She had her own secret ambition for Thomas, and though she never opened her heart to her son, or indeed to any one, Thomas somehow knew that it was her heart's desire to see him "in the pulpit."
"Never you mind, mother," he said, brightly. "It'll all come right. Aren't you always the one preaching faith to me?"
"Yes, laddie, and it is needed, and sorely at times."
"Now, mither," said Thomas, dropping into her native speech, "ye mauna be fashin' yersel. Ye'll jist say 'Now I lay me,' and gang to sleep like a bairnie."
"Ay, that's a guid word, laddie, an' a'll tak it. Ye may kiss me guid nicht. A'll tak it."
Thomas bent over her and whispered in her ear, "Ay, mither, mither, ye're an angel, and that ye are."
"Hoots, laddie, gang awa wi' ye," said his mother, but she held her arms about his neck and kissed him once and again. There was no one to see, and why should they not give and take their heart's fill of love.
But when Thomas stood outside the room door, he folded his arms tight across his breast and whispered with lips that quivered, "Ay, mither, mither, mither, there's nane like ye. There's nane like ye." And he was glad that when he went upstairs, he found Hughie unwilling to talk.
The next three days they were all busy with the planting of the potatoes, and nothing could have been better for Hughie. The sweet, sunny air, and the kindly, wholesome earth and honest hard work were life and health to mind and heart and body. It is wonderful how the touch of the kindly mother earth cleanses the soul from its unwholesome humors. The hours that Hughie spent in working with the clean, red earth seemed somehow to breathe virtue into him. He remembered the past months like a bad dream. They seemed to him a hideous unreality, and he could not think of Foxy and his schemes, nor of his own weakness in yielding to temptation, without a horrible self-loathing. He became aware of a strange feeling of sympathy and kinship with old Donald Finch. He seemed to understand his gloom. During those days their work brought those two together, for Billy Jack had the running of the drills, and to Thomas was intrusted the responsibility of "dropping" the potatoes, so Hughie and the old man undertook to "cover" after Thomas.
Side by side they hoed together, speaking not a word for an hour at a time, but before long the old man appeared to feel the lad's sympathy. Hughie was quick to save him steps, and eager in many ways to anticipate his wishes. He was quick, too, with the hoe, and ambitious to do his full share of the work, and this won the old man's respect, so that by the end of the first day there was established between them a solid basis of friendship.
Old Donald Finch was no cheerful companion for Hughie, but it was to Hughie a relief, more than anything else, that he was not much with either Thomas or Billy Jack.
"You're tired," he ventured, in answer to a deep sigh from the old man, toward the close of the day.
"No, laddie," replied the old man, "I know not that I am working. The burden of toil is the least of all our burdens." And then, after a pause, he added, "It is a terrible thing, is sin."
To an equal in age the old man would never have ventured this confidence, but to Hughie, to his own surprise, he found it easy to talk.
"A terrible thing," he repeated, "and it will always be finding you out."
Hughie listened to him with a fearful sinking of heart, thinking of himself and his sin.
"Yes," repeated the old man, with awful solemnity, "it will come up with you at last."
"But," ventured Hughie, timidly, "won't God forgive? Won't he ever forget?"
The old man looked at him, leaning upon his hoe.
"Yes, he will forgive. But for those who have had great privileges, and who have sinned against light--I will not say."
The fear deepened in Hughie's heart.
"Do you mean that God will not forgive a man who has had a good chance, an elder, or a minister, or--or--a minister's son, say, like me?"
There was something in Hughie's tone that startled the old man. He glanced at Hughie's face.
"What am I saying?" he cried. "It is of myself I am thinking, boy, and of no minister or minister's son."
But Hughie stood looking at him, his face showing his terrible anxiety. God and sin were vivid realities to him.
"Yes, yes," said the old man to himself, "it is a great gospel. 'As far as the east is distant from the west.' 'And plenteous redemption is ever found with him.'"
"But, do you think," said Hughie, in a low voice, "God will tell all our sins? Will he make them known?"
"God forbid!" cried the old man. "'And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.' 'The depths of the sea.' No, no, boy, he will surely forget, and he will not be proclaiming them."
It was a strange picture. The old man leaning upon the top of his hoe looking over at the lad, the gloom of his face irradiated with a momentary gleam of hope, and the boy looking back at him with almost breathless eagerness.
"It would be great," said Hughie, at last, "if he would forget."
"Yes," said the old man, the gleam in his face growing brighter, "'If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us,' and forgiving with him is forgetting. Ah, yes, it is a great gospel," he continued, and standing there he lifted up his hand and broke into a kind of chant in Gaelic, of which Hughie could catch no meaning, but the exalted look on the old man's face was translation enough.
"Must we always tell?" said Hughie, after the old man had ceased.
"What are you saying, laddie?"
"I say must we always tell our sins--I mean to people?"
The old man thought a moment. "It is not always good to be talking about our sins to people. That is for God to hear. But we must be ready to make right what is wrong."
"Yes, yes," said Hughie, eagerly, "of course one would be glad to do that."
The old man gave him one keen glance, and began hoeing again.
"Ye'd better be asking ye're mother about that. She will know."
"No, no," said Hughie, "I can't."
The old man paused in his work, looked at the boy for a moment or two, and then went on working again.
"Speak to my woman," he said, after a few strokes of his hoe. "She's a wonderful wise woman." And Hughie wished that he dared.
During the days of the planting they became great friends, and to their mutual good. The mother's keen eyes noted the change both in Hughie and in her husband, and was glad for it. It was she that suggested to Billy Jack that he needed help in the back pasture with the stones. Billy Jack, quick to take her meaning, eagerly insisted that help he must have, indeed he could not get on with the plowing unless the stones were taken off. And so it came that Hughie and the old man, with old Fly hitched up in the stone-boat, spent two happy and not unprofitable days in the back pasture. Gravely they discussed the high themes of God's sovereignty and man's freedom, with all their practical issues upon conduct and destiny. Only once, and that very shyly, did the old man bring round the talk to the subject of their first conversation that meant so much to them both.
"The Lord will not be wanting to shame us beyond what is necessary," he said. "There are certain sins which he will bring to light, but there are those that, in his mercy, he permits us to hide; provided always," he added, with emphasis, "we are done with them."
"Yes, indeed," assented Hughie, eagerly, "and who wouldn't be done with them?"
But the old man shook his head sadly.
"If that were always true a man would soon be rid of his evil heart. But," he continued, as if eager to turn the conversation, "you will be talking with my woman about it. She's a wonderful wise woman, yon."
Somehow the opportunity came to Hughie to take the old man's advice. On Saturday evening, just before leaving for home, he found himself alone with Mrs. Finch sitting beside the open window, watching the sun go down behind the trees.
"What a splendid sunset!" he cried. He was ever sensitive to the majestic drama of nature.
"Ay," said Mrs. Finch, "the clouds and the sun make wonderful beauty together, but without the sun the clouds are ugly things.
Hughie quickly took her meaning.
"They are not pleasant," he said.
"No, not pleasant," she replied, "but with the sunlight upon them they are wonderful."
Hughie was silent for some moments, and then suddenly burst out, "Mrs. Finch, does God forget sins, and will he keep them hid, from people, I mean?"
"Ay," she said, with quiet conviction, "he will forget, and he will hide them. Why should he lay the burden of our sins upon others? And if he does not why should we?"
"Do you mean we need not always tell? I'd like to tell my--some one."
"Ay," she replied, "it's a weary wark and a lanely to carry it oor lane, but it's an awfu' grief to hear o' anither's sin. An awfu' grief," she repeated to herself.
"But," burst out Hughie, "I'll never be right till I tell my mother."
"Ay, and then it is she would be carrying the weight o' it."
"But it's against her," said Hughie, his hands going up to his face. "Oh, Mrs. Finch, it's just awful mean. I don't know how I did it."
"Ye can tell me, laddie, if ye will," said she, kindly, and Hughie poured forth the whole burden that had lain so long upon him, but he told it laying upon Foxy small blame, for during those days, his own part had come to bulk so large with him that Foxy's was almost forgotten.
For some moments after he had done Mrs. Finch sat in silence, leaning forward and patting the boy's bowed head.
"Ay, but he is rightly named," she said, at length.
"Who?" asked Hughie, surprised.
"Yon store-keepin' chiel." Then she added, "But ye're done wi' him and his tricks, and ye'll stand up against him and be a man for the wee laddies."
"Oh, I don't know," said Hughie, too sick at heart and too penetrated with the miserable sense of his own meanness and cowardice, to make any promise.
"And as tae ye're mither, laddie," went on Mrs. Finch, "it will be a sair burden for her." When Mrs. Finch was greatly moved she always dropped into her broadest Scotch.
"Oh, yes, I know," said Hughie, his voice now broken with sobs, "and that's the worst of it. If I didn't have to tell her! She'll just break her heart, I know. She thinks I'm so--oh, oh--" The long pent up feelings came flooding forth in groans and sobs.
For some moments Mrs. Finch sat quietly, and then she said, "Listen, laddie. There is Another to be thought of first."
"Another?" asked Hughie. "Oh, yes, I know. But He knows already, and indeed I have often told Him. But besides, you say He will forget, and take it away. But mother doesn't know, and doesn't suspect."
"Well, then, laddie," said Mrs. Finch, with quiet firmness, "let her tell ye what to do. Mak ye're offer to tell her, and warn her that it'll grieve ye baith, and then let her say."
"Yes, I'll do it. I'll do it to-night, and if she says so, then I'll tell her."
And so he did, and when he came back to the Finch's on Monday morning, for his mother saw that leaving school for a time would be no serious loss, and a week or two with the Finches might be a great gain, he came radiant to Mrs. Finch, and finding her in her chair by the open window alone, he burst forth, "I told her, and she wouldn't let me. She didn't want to know so long as I said it was all made right. And she promised she would trust me just the same. Oh, she's splendid, my mother! And she's coming this week to see you. And I tell you I just feel like--like anything! I can't keep still. I'm like Fido when he's let off his chain. He just goes wild."
Then, after a pause, he added, in a graver tone, "And mother read Zaccheus to me. And isn't it fine how He never said a word to him?"--Hughie was too excited to be coherent--"but stood up for him, and"--here Hughie's voice became more grave--"I'm going to restore fourfold. I'm going to work at the hay, and I fired that old pistol into the pond, and I'm not afraid of Foxy any more, not a bit."
Hughie rushed breathlessly through his story, while the dark face before him glowed with intelligent sympathy, but she only said, when he had done, "It is a graund thing to be free, is it no'?"
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