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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 3. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
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page: 191

CHAPTER VI.

AFTER a few years' stay in America, where she lost some of her children, and others had married or made themselves an independent status, my wife came back to England. She was as sincerely persuaded that she was divinely inspired to return as that she had been divinely inspired to go. The field was wider there, she said, but the land was more stubborn here. Hence the need of workers was greater here than there, since moral cultivation has a tendency to spread itself when once begun; and it is better to make barren soil fit to receive the good seed than page: 192 to devote one's energies to easy tilling and kindly harvests. Comparative weakness could do this; but it wants exceptional energies—or rather, in her vocabulary, exceptional gifts of inspiration and direction—to do the other. Anyhow, she made her duty quite clear to herself, dear soul! She would have made it just as clear had it been the contrary reading.

I confess I was glad to see her again, and I was much moved when we met. The agitation was only on my own side, She had attained a quasi-Buddhistic state of suppressed individuality wherein no personal circumstances stirred her. She lived only for her work—to spread the knowledge of the truth as she held it, and to bring feminine souls into the liberty she had found for herself. Her crusade was against luxury, fashion, dress, pleasure; her exhortation was for plain living and high thinking—agitation for the direct political action of women—and self- conse- consecration page: 193 cration of the choicer sort to celibacy and propagandism. Where she had been advanced before, she was extreme now, and sometimes out of sight altogether.

Since her residence in America she had grown stouter. Her thinned hair was grey; the low-toned creamy complexion of times past had become reddened and roughened. She was neither fresh nor well-busked; she was noticeably in want of strings and stays; and her dress gave one the impression of long service, hard usage, and crying need of repair and renovation. But she had lost none of that seraphic sweetness which had always made her beautiful, and which now shone out through all this personal deterioration as the soft glory of an opal comes up through the scratched surface. And she was the same kind of virginal matron she had ever been.

All my old affection for her, all my old respect for her sincerity, came back in a page: 194 flood on my heart. The bitterness of the past was swept away; only its tenderness in the ideal remained. I forgot her high religious contempt for my lower moral nature, her doubt and disbelief, her reproach and opposition; and I saw her only in her own best form—faithful, enduring, real—one worthy of respect, and by her sex to be surrounded with that kind of protection which means honour and includes love. Perhaps on a second trial things would come more right than before. And life was lonely to me; and barren to her of all that made a woman's home.

I did not calculate, and I yielded to the impulse. But when I asked her to come back to me and try me once more as a companion and husband, she looked at me with her placid smile and serene far-away look, and refused me—not harshly, not unkindly, but without the faintest tremor in her level voice, the faintest note of hesitation or wavering.

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‘Live with you again, dear friend?’ she said. ‘If I did, I should be worse than Peter when he denied the Lord! Go back to the bondage of your worldliness?—to the religion of clean tablecloths and silk gowns?—to the soul-destroying materialism which makes time of more value than eternity, and punctuality in the hours of food of more importance than planting the good seed and saving souls alive? My poor Chris—never!’

‘But, Esther,’ I remonstrated; ‘surely cleanliness and order and refinement are gains to humanity and helpers to better things!’

‘I prefer the simplicity of goodness and the abnegation of all forms of sensuality,’ she answered. ‘Where so much is to be done, it is a sin to waste time on these minor matters. Souls are perishing for lack of spiritual sustenance, and you are occupied about dainty luxuries for your body; children are starving in the streets page: 196 for want of bread, and you criticize the butter of which your cake is made. And you want me to go down into that pit of unrighteousness? Impossible!’

‘It is more impossible to go back to elemental conditions,’ I said. ‘In such a complex state of society as ours, all circumstances claim consideration. And these artificial wants, which you condemn, give the means of subsistence to thousands who else would not know where to turn for work.’

‘Christ did not teach this,’ she answered simply. ‘And I would rather follow Christ than go into the heresies of political economy, or believe the materialism of that arch-heresy of all—that thing you call sociology.’

As I knew of old that argument on these points led to nothing but further dissension, I let the conversation drop, and, instead of taking her to my house, helped her to one of her own.

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After some difficulty we found what she wanted—a gardener's cottage of four rooms, about half an hour's journey from London on the South-East line. Here she still lives, with a maid-servant of the not over-ripe age of sixteen, whom she instructs in godliness and woman's rights—God's law and the righteousness of celibacy—contempt for the individual, and respect for the abstract, man—in devotedness to works of charity and indifference to cleanliness, punctuality, the art of cooking, or methodical housekeeping. She takes these girls at fourteen and keeps them till they are twenty, when she has, as she says, made them efficient missionaries and fit to continue the work on their own account.

She comes to see me sometimes when she runs up to London; and she lets me help her with money, as in the old fraternal days when poor Joshua was alive. I go to her on the Sundays when she writes and tells me she is alone and wishes to have page: 198 me. This is not often; for she has no time to bestow on a castaway whom she knows she cannot reclaim. At first I used to supplement her scanty larder with external supplies. But she was so sincerely distressed by the influx of unwelcome luxuries, and lamented so pathetically the moral harm I was doing her young servant by thus pampering her sensual appetite, that I have now given up the attempt. So we ‘share and share alike,’ as she says with her serene smile, when she conscientiously divides into three equal parts a dish which is about enough for one healthy appetite.

After dinner she comes and sits beside me, giving me the armchair, while she takes one without a back and with a broken seat.

‘Dear friend, how much nicer this is than that hateful life in Cave Gardens!’ she often says, while she pats my hand and sometimes strokes my coat-sleeve benignly. page: 199 ‘How much better you are as a friend outside my life than as a husband belonging to it! And what a mistake we made when we gave up the liberty of friendship for the bondage of marriage!’

‘If you are pleased, I am also, my dear,’ I answer. ‘But I wish I saw you more comfortable.’

‘More comfortable, dear friend? I am only too well cared for! Would that all my poor sisters were as well off as I!’

After a little preface of this kind, she generally reads me an address, a sermon, an essay—something which she thinks will be good for my soul and perhaps be the means of letting a little light into the dark places. When I assent to certain passages, or say something which seems to her less hopelessly unrighteous than usual, she looks at me tenderly, her soft eyes softer than ever, and her mild face illumined by that inner light which makes her always beautiful, in spite of the tarnished surface.

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‘How I wish I might be permitted to convert you, dear friend! How I wish God would grant me the grace to bring you to the light!’ she says earnestly. Then she adds, with half a sigh and half a smile: ‘In His own good time! He will not let you perish—the object of so many prayers as you are! For we all pray for you, Chris. May our voices be heard and our supplications receive a gracious answer!’

One day she was, for her, strangely sad-hearted. In general, her simple trust in the goodness and directness of Divine ordering carried her over every trial with the quiescence of perfect confidence. But to-day she was overcome. She had just heard of the death of a friend whom she greatly valued—that very M. Boris who had been such a cause of contention between us in times past. For the moment she was overwhelmed, feeling her loneliness with true womanly force, as well as grieving for the loss to the cause of one page: 201 who had been as uncompromising a partisan as herself. This young man had been strangely dear to her. She had given him more than ordinary love in its combination of maternal fondness and spiritual comradeship. On the one side, he had been like her eldest and dearest son; on the other, he was her chosen companion, helper and even leader.

She laid her head on my shoulder; and when I put up my hand to her face, I found it wet with silent tears.

For the second time impulse overcame my better judgment, and the tenderness of pity made me see in this grieving, lonely woman one I might possibly comfort and sustain.

‘Come back to me, my poor Esther!’ I said. ‘Let me take care of you, and complete your life; and do you help me with mine.’

For a moment she did not speak, but she drew my hand across her lips and kissed it page: 202 tenderly. Then she roused herself, pushed back her hair, and cleared her eyes.

‘No,’ she said, a touch of regret in her face; ‘I should be denying God and betraying the cause of righteousness to live with you again. You are unconverted and I am His servant; and there can be no true union between us. We cannot come together again. It would be faithlessness and perjury while you are what you are!’

‘My dear, what nonsense all this is!’ I said. ‘What a sacrifice of reality for illusion and of things for words! How far better for both of us it would be if you would see life in a more rational light, and make the best of the days which remain to us. Have you no duty to me, Esther? In all that world for which you sacrifice yourself, have I no place, no claim? Yet I would be your best friend and protector if you would let me!’

‘No,’ said Esther softly, but yielding no more for all her softness than page: 203 yields a rock which is covered a foot deep with moss. ‘I have no duty towards one who denies the truth. I have no part in your life and you have no claim on mine; and to be your wife again would be a sin. So let us think of something else. I will read you this last poem by Victor Hugo—or shall it be one of Channing's sermons?’

What could I do? Against such a strong principle of repugnance, it would have been useless to say more; and I had too much self-respect to court my own wife in vain. From this day I finally accepted my position, without either the wish or the endeavour to change it. She lives in her way, I in mine; and we meet on each side the ‘gulf that separates heart from heart,’ neither wishing it bridged over. She has even dropped my name. She calls herself now Mrs. Kirkland Lambert; and when she speaks of her ‘husband,’ she means Joshua.

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Some time ago a thing came into my life which caused me more pain than many other events of more importance. It was a thing which humiliated me on every side—as a man of the world who should have seen more clearly, and as a man who wished to do good and who did harm instead.

I had taken an unfurnished apartment in the house of a man who had been a butler in a family where the wife had been a lady's-maid. They were by no means coarse nor vulgar, having caught that superficial tone of refinement proper to well-conditioned upper servants; and they seemed to be, and were, as honest and straightforward as most people who live on others. They also professed for me a great deal of kindly feeling outside their trade profit; in which, as it was backed up by many uncovenanted attentions, and by uniform good-nature, I believed, according to the credulous sym- sympathy page: 205 pathy inseparable from an affectionate disposition. It is so easy to me to like and so pleasant to be liked, that, when the gold of kindness is paid over to me, I for the most part neglect to ring it, but accept it as it offers itself—as true metal, genuinely minted, and capable of bearing the test of handling.

These people, the Penders, had an only child; a daughter at this time about nineteen; for whom they had great expectations, having done the best for her within their power. She had been educated at a boarding-school, whence she had returned with a shallow knowledge of many things, some literary aptitude, desires beyond her means to gratify, and the wildest and widest social ambition. She was clever, quick to understand, with undoubted imagination, though she failed in constructive faculty; and the dream of her life was to ‘get on,’ as she called it—that is, to leave the house where at the best she was only the landlady's daughter, and to have carriages page: 206 and fine dresses, money and amusements, like those others whom she had known at school. She was not beautiful—scarcely pretty; but she had good colouring and vivacity. And, as a man, I was not very severe on a certain pertness of manner which amused me, though I can understand that it would have set the teeth of her own sex on edge.

When Mrs. Pender showed me the girl's productions, crude as they were, I saw the possibility of making something of them and her, and offered to give her lessons in composition and to help her with her studies. It satisfied my democratic instinct to put my hand to this work of levelling-up from the lower ranks, and lifting out of her inherited position one whose talent and ambition deserved better things than the continuance of her mother's business of keeping a lodging-house. I soon began to feel a really paternal interest in the girl. She was so quick and bright that it made teaching her page: 207 both pleasant and easy. Moreover, she amused me. She was so naïve in her feminine affectations and impertinences; so frank in her girlish liking for sweetmeats and plum-cake; so audacious in her bold conclusions from slender premises, that she enlivened my lonely evenings not unpleasantly.

And I confess I like to hear the frou-frou of a woman's dress about me. I like to hear the softer tones of her voice, and to look at her shining hair and the smooth outlines of her flower-like face. The action of her small hands with their slender wrists, and the jingle of her trinkets, please me. The sense of her softness, sweetness, and dainty smallness compared to my own sinewy bulk, and the feeling that I can protect her if need be, soothe what I suppose is my masculine vanity. And I feel more at home with her now, in my old age, than I do with my own sex. Men often rasp me, while women never fatigue. Though I was not so old when this affair page: 208 with Katie Pender took place as I am now, still I was old enough to feel at least the foreshadowings of all this quasi-degradation of age.

It was, then, a kind of consolation to have this girl come to my rooms in the evening, when I was tired with my own work and feeling solitary and out of gear. Her freshness and youth, and the diverting boldness with which she caught up and adopted as her own my hints and suggestions—and soon the, rather too forward perhaps, rather too pert and free, but, all the same, not unpleasant kind of familiarity she threw into her manner—made the hours go yet more smoothly. I did not want to be only a schoolmaster. I preferred that she should look on me as a half-paternal friend.

Interested as I was in her, however, I could not blind myself to the disastrous want of earnestness and thoroughness in my young pupil, which I did my best to page: 209 combat. She did not care to be, nor to do; she only desired to appear to be, and to seem to do. She would adopt a phrase, a fact, without knowing what it meant, content if it gave a false air of knowledge and a superficial brilliancy to her work. If asked to verify, she floundered, and tried to save herself by bold conjecture or random explanation—which at least had the merit of audacity. Thus, having read in a story she was writing the phrase: ‘Going to Canossa,’ I asked her: ‘What is going to Canossa, Katie?’

‘Doing what you don't like,’ said Katie, making a respectable shot in the air.

‘But who went to Canossa?’ I persisted.

‘Bismarck,’ said Katie.

She had read the phrase in the paper, and had caught something of the meaning, which she had not attempted to really understand.

It was the same with words. She hated page: 210 looking out a word to get its real meaning; and as for derivations and roots, she had for these a kind of horror that was comical in its excess. But she liked to pick up new phrases, new expressions, and to use them liberally, if more than loosely; and she was fond of the stock quotations, which she always carefully guarded with inverted commas.

‘They make the page look furnished,’ she said in excuse, when I remonstrated. ‘They are as pretty as curls on one's forehead.’

‘But they are bad style,’ I said. ‘You ought never to use a grand word when a simple one will serve your turn, unless you are writing scientifically, when you are bound to the scientific vocabulary. And if you employ these old worn-out phrases and quotations, at least leave them undistinguished by your favourite curls, as you call them. Who wants a sign-post for such a phrase as better late than never, which page: 211 I see you have put between inverted commas?’

‘Bother!’ said Katie laconically, as she scored out the offending scratches.

These efforts at literature were only a means to an end with Katie. If she could have made money in any other way, she would. She would have rather played at rouge-et-noir or ‘little horses’ than have written the finest book of the generation, if she could have made sure that her stakes would have turned up doubled. It would have been less trouble and more amusement. She took no kind of pleasure in her work for its own sake, but, as I have said, looked on it as simply a money-spinner to give her gold for her own uses.

In her plans for the future, her father and mother had no place. All was for herself alone. If she had had the trouble, was she not entitled to the reward? She thought so and meant to take it. Once when I gave page: 212 her mother a small chamber in the golden palace of her dreams, she tossed her fair frizzly head and put on her pretty little pert air—an air that suited her Roxalana nose and bright, sharp, hazel eyes, as much as Esther's steadfast gaze and placid smile suited her Madonna-like face.

‘Oh, mamma must take care of herself!’ she said. ‘She and papa get on better together than her and me.’

Only I am afraid she said ‘pa’ and ‘ma.’

‘Than she and I, Katie,’ I ruled, in my quality of pedagogue.

‘Of course I know that! I said “she and I,” so what is the good of taking me up so short?’ said Katie without blushing.

All this would doubtless have been very disheartening, had Katie Pender been a boy, or had I been a woman. But the mysterious influences of sex make us forgive in the opposite camp things which would be fatal in our own; and what man of my age page: 213 could be extreme to mark amiss the follies of a young girl of Katie's?—whom moreover he is teaching and perhaps keeping from mischief. For there were certain loose points in my young friend's character which often made me tremble for her future. Her desire to have money was so intense—her love of pleasure, dress, display, delights, so unbridled.

‘I would do anything to be rich!’ she used to say, with a kind of passionate energy that seemed to open the door to really terrible possibilities. ‘I do believe I would commit murder for it! I know I should, if I was sure not to be found out.’

‘You will get money if you work steadily,’ I said. ‘You have it in you.’

‘Work!’ said Katie, making a little grimace. ‘I hate work.’

‘I am afraid, however, your scheme of murder will not quite answer,’ I said lightly.

‘Something else might,’ she returned gravely.

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I have no power on the press. Outsiders think I have, on account of my long literary life and early connection with journalism. But if it came to a pinch, I could get nothing done for myself through favour, still less shoulder up another. I explained this twenty times to Katie, as I have explained it more than twenty to others. On the twenty-first she went back to her old formula:

‘You could if you would; but you won't.’

This meant that I could if I would get her story of about two and a half ordinary octavo volumes run through a magazine, of which I knew the editor and in which I myself often wrote. But to know a man well enough to dine with him once in the season is not to have his business judgment in one's pocket; and the strongest recommendation in the world goes for nothing, if made by one without power in favour of another who has not hit the mark. The page: 215 very length of the story was in its disfavour. It was too long or too short, and an awkward quantity to handle for either a magazine or book issue. But this had been one of my recalcitrant little pupil's acts of wilfulness wherein she would not be advised. To compress into two or lengthen into three volumes, would have taken time and cost trouble; and she would not submit herself to my maturer judgment. In consequence of which her manuscript was returned; and she made me responsible for her failure.

I was very sorry for the poor child. She had been so confident of success that she had discounted her hopes and borne herself as if all her unhatched eggs had been stalwart feathered fowl. She had bought jewellery and dresses and feminine rubbish of all kinds, to the extent of thirty pounds; and this was a sum utterly beyond her power to meet or land, failing the acceptance of her manuscript. She dared not tell her parents. Fond as they were of her, page: 216 they liked their money better; and Katie would have had a bad quarter of an hour had she confided her perplexities to them. Meantime, her debts pressed and her creditors refused to wait. The summing-up of it all was—an act of good-natured weakness on my part which led to all the rest. It was the initial loosening of the foundations which ended in the overthrow. I gave her the money to pay her debts, and in return she gave me a kiss; which I took as I should have taken it from my own daughter. But she startled me a little by saying very demurely, as she looked up at me from under her brows, her head bent down:

‘I wonder what my mamma would say, if she knew that I had given you a kiss and you had given me thirty pounds?’

‘Say?’ I answered. ‘Well, she would say it was dear at the price!’

‘It might be dearer,’ said Katie simply.

After this Katie adopted a curious man- manner page: 217 ner to me—partly mysterious, partly familiar—as if we had some secret in common;—almost as if she had some hold over me. Here was my folly. I should have put my foot down now, and firmly, and I should have ended the whole affair. But I was weak in my good-nature and absurd in my quasi-parental indulgence, and so things drifted; and perhaps I deserved all that I received.

I am sorry to say that Katie got a good deal of money out of me. She was always going to pay me back, but when she did get a story published and paid for she had other claims more dangerous and pressing, than mine; and the sums asked for as loans soon became confessed as gifts. Increasing with this facility for gratifying them, her demands became at last too onerous; and I found myself forced to make a stand. I was willing to help her to a moderate extent, but I could not carry her on my shoulders for life. Besides, I did not really care for her. page: 218 I had by now only a very feeble interest in herself, and none in her work; for I saw that she had no ambition of a noble kind, and only, as I say, desired success because of its result—money. So the end had to come, as the end of all false hopes and fancies must; and one evening, when she brought in the customary tale of her embarrassments, I put up my first stockade.

‘I am sorry,’ I said; ‘but I cannot help you any more. Let me advise you again, as a man who has worked hard for his own hand—be less extravagant. Do not get into debt, and never buy what you cannot pay for at the time. Do not treat a possible gain as a certain possession. I am qualified to give you this advice, for I have kept myself free from debt from the first year of my working life up to now; and this has been done by self-denial and care.’

‘What am I to do, if you do not help me?’ said Katie, rather defiantly. ‘You have accustomed me to look to you for page: 219 help, and it is mean of you to throw me over now.’

‘My good Katie, I told you last time that I was not able to go on with this,’ I returned. ‘Do you know how much you have had in six months?—just a hundred pounds. And a hundred pounds to a girl in your position, spent in dress and jewellery and going down to Ascot, and all the rest of it, is too much.’

‘In my position!’ said Katie in a flame. ‘What is my position so different from other girls' that I should never have any pleasure?’

‘Our position is determined by our means,’ I answered. ‘If we have not money for this or that, we cannot help it, and we must go without. And it is not every girl who spends a hundred pounds in six months, with only a few trinkets and silk gowns to show for it.’

‘It was your fault,’ said Katie, with a certain cruel justice. ‘You ought not to page: 220 have begun it from the first. And either you should have got my stories taken or you should not have encouraged me. You are bound to help me now, seeing where you have brought me. It is you who have ruined me.’

‘I do not quite follow that argument,’ I said gravely, keeping down my temper with just a conscious little effort. ‘Because I have done my best for you in teaching you, and your work has not been accepted, I do not see why I should have you on my hands for life. I have other claims; and remember, I am a poor man myself.’

Katie's face flamed, and her passion with her face. She burst out into a torrent of invectives of which I remember nothing but a few epithets, and a general feeling of scalding water and fizzing fire-works. Then she flung herself out of the room—her last words containing a vague threat of some tremendous catastrophe to happen before long, unless I would assist page: 221 her as I had taught her to expect I would.

The next day, however, she came and threw herself at my feet, clasping my knees and praying for forgiveness, weeping the while as if her heart would break, and sobbing hysterically.

It was a desperate pain to me to see the girl thus humiliate herself. All forms of abjectness, of grovelling, are worse to me than the wildest insolence; and I feel myself degraded in the degradation of another. I told Katie to get up, and I tried to lift her from the ground; but she clung to my knees with a grasp too tight and tenacious to be released, vowing all the time that she would not—she would not—unless I would say that I forgave her. She was broken-hearted—she was ill with sorrow and crying—she had cried all night—and she would never be happy again unless I said: ‘Katie, I forgive you.’

And I—I committed my second act of page: 222 folly;—and forgave her. I believed in her sincerity, in the genuine source of her tears, in her sorrow and repentance. I was old and she was young. It is for us who are old to show pity for the young—pity for their follies, their exaggerations, their faults, and, above all, their sins against ourselves. It is for us to teach them the wise tenderness of magnanimity—to give them a practical lesson in benevolence, self-command, unselfishness. If we are not pitiful, who will be? If we cannot forgive, who shall?

Besides, I had already taught myself to forgive. I had forgiven that young artist woman who had quietly stolen money out of my purse while I was out of the room—on an errand for her benefit. I had forgiven more than one traducer; and I had said to myself: ‘Strength can afford to pardon baseness.’

So I put my principles into practice once again; and this time I pardoned the page: 223 outrage, believing that I was sowing good seed and doing the girl the service which comes from example.

For a few days all went well between Katie and myself, and I congratulated myself on the value of acted morality when I saw her modest mien, her renewed industry, her self-restrained air. But it was not for long. That pitchfork never does succeed in the end; and it did not now. Her former outbreak and my leniency were, in a manner, the spring-board whence she took her next leap into the arena of insolence; and we had another scene, even more violent than the first, when she asked me again for money and again I refused it.

Weak as I had been, and sorry as I was for her, I thought it best to let her finally understand that she must not depend on me, nor on anyone but herself, for what she wanted. I knew no better way to stem the tide of foolish extravagance which had set in than to make her feel her own re- responsibility page: 224 sponsibility. It cost me something to be firm. All that I have just said of the conduct of the old to the young plucked at my heart and troubled my conscience; for it is hard to persuade one's self that one is doing right when one gains by the process. Pleasure and self-interest somehow take the backbone out of virtue; and the most robust moralist may confess to qualms when his pocket is the fuller by just so much devotion to his principles.

Nevertheless, I held on; and Katie's flames, though they scorched me, did not consume.

Then suddenly, swift as a flash she calmed down, raised her eyes quite humbly, and said in a low voice: ‘I am sorry I spoke as I did. You have been very good to me—far too good—and I have been an ungrateful beast.’

A few tears dropped quietly from her eyes as she spoke. There was no passionate bewailing, no hysterical tumult, as page: 225 in the first scene. It was, on the contrary, a very womanly and dignified repentance which touched me profoundly; and I knew myself well enough to know that I would have yielded to a dead certainty had she not abruptly left the room. She did not hear me call to her to come back. Had she, I would have given her what she wanted.

The next morning Mrs. Pender came, as usual, to receive her orders. Her face wore a curious expression—doubtful, distressed, half-inquiring, half-suspicious—all underscored by a certain timid pleasure as if afraid to trust itself.

After we had said what we had to say about the weather, the gas, the water and the dinner, she put back a chair into its place, wiping the back with her apron and fingering it nervously. Then she cleared her throat and began, as if speech were a little difficult to her:

‘You are very kind to my daughter, sir, page: 226 and I am sure both me and her father feel it much; but, if you will let me say so, I don't think you are quite judicious. My Katie is as good a girl as ever lived, but she is young yet and rather too fond of dress and all that. We didn't say anything to you before. A gold watch and chain, and a few brooches and bangles—well, they don't come amiss. And, of course, if she makes money, as she says, by her writing, she is right to spend it on her clothes as she likes. But when you come to diamond rings—then I think, sir, if you'll allow me, I must ask you not to. Diamond rings are not for the like of Katie, for all that she will not be a pauper when me and her father dies.’

All this was said with evident embarrassment, but with the verbal smoothness of one who has learned a lesson by heart and repeats it word for word without stumbling.

‘Diamond rings!’ I cried. ‘What do you mean?’

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Mrs. Pender looked at me with a little alarm. It struck me at the time that she looked at me as if I were mad.

‘That beautiful diamond ring of yours that you gave Katie last night,’ she answered. ‘But I told her I would never let her wear it; and I want you to take it back, if you will, sir. Katie asked her father to change it into money, which would be more useful to her than them stones on her hand; but I stopped that. If, however, you like to give her a trifle, not to let her feel disappointed, I will not say nay; but that is as you like yourself, sir. You are not bound to do it if you don't choose.’

Now, what was I to do?—tell Mrs. Pender the truth—that I had not given the girl that one costly gem I possessed—that diamond ring which Cordelia Gilchrist had given me, and which I did not wear, jewellery not being in my way? Was I to tear the mother's heart and ruin the daughter's character by proclaiming her the page: 228 thief and liar she was?—or was it the higher duty to accept the situation, with all its fraud and desecration, and save the mother's pain while I shielded the girl's repute?

I do not know how long I kept silent. I was so overwhelmed by the discovery of Katie's audacity and shamelessness, so perplexed between the conflicting duties of truth and kindness, that I was, as it were, struck dumb; and what Mrs. Pender must have thought of me was as much a mystery as the rest.

‘I hope you are not vexed with me, sir,’ said Mrs. Pender at last.

Her voice roused me.

‘I would rather your daughter had brought it back to me herself,’ I answered, speaking to the truth and not to the appearances of things.

She stared at me hard, and I could see that some unpleasant suspicion was in her mind; but I was too much annoyed by the whole affair to care what she thought. page: 229 I knew the truth; and, knowing that, I was indifferent to the rest. That I should be suspected of heaven knows what iniquity would be only according to the irony of fate, which punishes our moral successes far more than our failures, and makes us suffer when we do right while it sets us in high places when we do wrong.

This little episode was really one of the most painful of the minor trials of my life. I, at my age and with my wide experience, to have been tricked and betrayed by a wretched little half-educated girl to whom I had done so many kindnesses, and to be bound by the law under which I strove to live to accept and not retaliate—to suffer and not betray—all the while knowing that this young creature was laughing in her sleeve at the very qualities on which she had planned the success of her crime—it was indeed a matter for anger and humiliation. I was disgusted with her and that mean phase of human nature represented in page: 230 her; but I was more disgusted with myself—with my want of common-sense and firmness in not refusing the girl at first—my want of perspicacity in not seeing through her shallow baseness of character—my molluscous soft-heartedness which had allowed me to be so played on. No one, I think, ever belaboured himself more savagely than I cudgelled myself at this time, nor was less satisfied with any part of his moral acreage.

Neither was I sure that I had done right in not telling Mrs. Pender the truth. Who was I, that I should ordain a fellow-creature to live in a fool's paradise, because I shrank from the pain of inflicting pain? Would it not have been better to have given the mother the power of rebuke, and by so much therefore the stronger leverage of reform? Who so fit as a mother to know all about her child—even when to know all would be to discover unsuspected vices and even undreamt-of crime?

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Yet, would she have believed it, had I told her the truth? Between her daughter's word and mine, I think that mine would have been the weaker. Katie would have sworn to the gift, I to the theft; who would have judged between us? For I could not have denied that I had given her such and such sums of money; and if the one, there was no valid reason why not the other. For all that, my tortured conscience accused me daily, and my life at this moment was by no means pleasant.

Of course this ugly little episode put an end to all my help in literary matters, and was the seal of Katie's banishment from my rooms. Soon also it was the cause of my leaving the house; for the whole thing was too painful to me, and I was in a false position throughout. I was conscious, moreover, that underneath in the hidden depths lurked other matters than those which came to the front. I saw this by Mrs. Pender's manner; and I guessed page: 232 what that little scaramouch had said; but I thought it best not to inquire too closely. So, when my quarter was out, I gave notice, and in due time left the house where I had made such a bad investment of hope and endeavour.

The sequel was a terribly sad one. Some years after this I was walking home one night when I heard a woman's step behind me, closing on me. Soon some one pulled me by the coat, and said softly:

‘Mr. Kirkland! Mr. Kirkland!’

I turned round, and underneath her paint and haggard misery, her tattered finery and pitiful attempt at smartness, I recognised the wreck of poor, conscienceless, pleasure-loving Katie Pender. She had plunged headlong into the abyss for that cursed love of gew-gaws and dissipation by which many a better woman than she has been destroyed; and here was the end!—ruin, degradation, starvation; all for the sake of a few fine dresses and some days of false flourish! page: 233 She had begun by robbing me, she ended by robbing her parents. She had begun by giving me pain, she ended by breaking her mother's heart; while her father took to drink, as the best way he knew to meet his sorrow and conquer his despair. Now the end was near for her. The evil was too deep to cure, do what one would for her; and I did what I could. I at least managed that she should die decently, and so far in comfort.

I found her father and brought him to her bedside; and I made him forgive her at the last. It was a hard fight to get this done; but I reasoned him into a more generous frame of mind than he brought with him at the first. The ruin had been too terrible to be lightly passed over, even with the help of paternal love. For, as strong as had been that love, so strong and deep was the wrath following on the shame and sin and sorrow that the girl had caused. The hoarded savings of years gone; the house page: 234 where they had lived so respectably given up after the bailiffs had been put in; the wife whom he had really loved dead of distress; the daughter, on whom both parents had lavished so much hope, so much pride, a mere castaway from whom good women drew back their skirts:—yes, it all made forgiveness hard! But he broke down at last into a flood of tears, and taking her in his arms, sobbed out:

‘My girl! my girl! May God forgive you as freely do I, your father!’

So far the tragedy of the past was redeemed, and the sharpness of death's sting was blunted.

But the question always remains with me as a sore thought:—How far was I unconsciously answerable for this terrible destruction? If I had never tried to play Providence—if I had been as stern as Fate and Law are stern, and had suffered the natural consequences to follow unchecked on action—would it have happened at all? I page: 235 think not. Sinless I might be, but I was Cain as well. I had slain my little sister in my well-meant efforts to help her; and through her I had destroyed two worthy people who had never done aught but good and kindness to me. Wise after the event, I could reason it all out now and follow the crooked course step by step. At the time I seemed to be going quite the other way. It is not only in the material wilderness that we walk round in a circle, or lose our way altogether, when we believe that we are going straight as the crow flies and making a bee-line for a certain point. The moral path is just as unsatisfactory and as delusive. But to do evil where we seek to do good, to ruin a life we have done our best to improve, is the most painful of all these wanderings—these strayings. Sinless Cains—yes, there are many of these in the world, on whose brow Conscience has set the brand! Homicides by misadventure! The misadventure was unintentional, but page: 236 the homicide is not the less a fact; and the death of that poor creature is no less due to our own hand. Yet, if we did not play Providence for our fellow-creatures, what would become of them? And is it not braver and better to dare the shame of failure, with its after-consequence of self-reproach, than to let the struggling wretch sweep by in the current, and not stir one's self to help, in fear lest one should be too weak to pull to shore and unable to set firmly on the dry land? Have we not to be brave to conscience and to dare self-reproach, as well as to withstand other dangers and support other pains without flinching?

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