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- The Hallam Succession - 10/43 -
For some reason which her soul approved she remained in the little chapel with her petition, and the preacher going in one day, unexpectedly, found her prostrate before the communion table, pleading as mothers only can plead. He knelt down beside her, and took her hand, and prayed with her and for her.
Quite exhausted, she sat down beside him afterward and said, amid heart-breaking sobs, "It isn't Ben's life I'm asking, sir. God gave him, and he's a fair right to tak' him, when and how he will. I hev given up asking for t' dear lad's life. But O if he'd nobbut clear his good name o' the shameful deed! I know he's innocent, and God knows it; but even if they hang Ben first, I'll give my Maker no peace till he brings the guilty to justice, and sets t' innocent in t' leet o' his countenance."
"'The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,' Martha, 'and the violent take it by force.' Don't get weary. Christ had a mother, and he loved her. Does he not love her still?"
"Thank you, sir, for that word. I'll be sure and remind him o' her. I'd forget that there was iver any mother but me; or any son but my son." "Say a word for all other weeping mothers. Think of them, Martha, all over the world, rich and poor, Christian and heathen. How many mothers' hearts are breaking to-day. You are not alone, Martha. A great company are waiting and weeping with you. Don't be afraid to ask for them, too. There is no limit to God's love and power."
"I'll pray for ivery one o' them, sir."
"Do, Martha, and you'll get under a higher sky. It's a good thing to pray for ourselves; it's a far grander thing to pray for others. God bless you, sister, and give you an answer of peace."
Very shortly after this conversation one of those singular changes in public opinion, which cannot be accounted for, began to manifest itself. After Clough's positive dying declaration, it was hardly to be expected that his daughter Mary could show any kindness to her old lover, Ben Craven. But week after week went by, and people saw that she positively refused to speak to Bill Laycock, and that she shrank even from his passing shadow, and they began to look queerly at the man. It amounted at first to nothing more than that; but as a mist creeps over the landscape, and gradually possesses it altogether, so this chill, adverse atmosphere enfolded him. He noticed that old acquaintances dropped away from him; men went three miles farther off to get a shoe put on a horse. No one could have given a clear reason for doing so, and one man did not ask another man "why?" but the fact needed no reasoning about. It was there. At the harvest festivals the men drew away from him, and the girls would not have him for a partner in any rural game. He was asked to resign his place in the knur club, and if he joined any cricket eleven, the match fell to the ground.
One September evening Elizabeth and Phyllis went to the village to leave a little basket of dainties in Martha's cottage. They now seldom saw her, she was usually in the chapel; but they knew she was grateful for the food, and it had become all they could do for her in the hard struggle she was having. The trees were growing bare; the flowers were few and without scent; the birds did not sing any more, but were shy, and twittered and complained, while the swallows were restless, like those going a long journey. Singing time was over, life burning down, it was natural to be silent and to sigh a little.
They left the basket on Martha's table and went quietly up the street. In a few minutes they met the preacher, but he also seemed strangely solemn, and very little inclined to talk. At the chapel gates there were five or six people standing. "We are going to have a prayer-meeting," he said, "will you come in?"
"It will soon be dark," answered Elizabeth, "we must reach home as quickly as possible."
Just then Martha Craven came out of the chapel. A sorrow nobly borne confers a kind of moral rank. Her neighbors, with respect and pity, stood aside silently. She appeared to be quite unconscious of them. At Phyllis and Elizabeth she looked with great sad eyes, and shook her head mournfully. To the preacher she said, "It's t' eleventh hour, sir, and no answer yet!"
"Go thy ways, Martha Craven. It will come! It is impossible thy prayers should fail! As the Lord liveth no harm shall come to thee or to thine!"
The plain little man was transfigured. No ancient prophet at the height of his vision ever spoke with more authority. Martha bowed her head and went her way without a word; and Elizabeth and Phyllis, full of a solemn awe, stood gazing at the man whose rapt soul and clear, prophetic eyes looked into the unseen and received its assurance. He seemed to have forgotten their presence, and walked with uplifted face into the chapel.
Elizabeth was the first to speak. "What did he mean?"
"He has had some assurance from God. _He knows."_
"Do you mean to say, Phyllis, that God speaks to men?"
"Most surely God speaks to those who will hear. Why should you doubt it? He changeth not. When God talked with Enoch, and Abraham spoke with God, no one was astonished. When Hagar wandered in the desert, and saw an angel descend from heaven with succor, she was not surprised. In those days, Elizabeth, men whose feet were in the dust breathed the air of eternity. They spoke to God, and he answered them."
"Does Methodism believe that this intercourse is still possible?"
"Methodism knows it is possible. The doctrine of assurance is either a direct divine interposition or it is a self-deception. It is out of the province of all human reason and philosophy. But it is impossible that it can be self-deception. Millions of good men and women of every shade of mental and physical temperament have witnessed to its truth."
"And you, Phyllis?"
"I know it."
How wonderfully certain moods of nature seem to frame certain states of mind. Elizabeth never forgot the still serenity of that September evening; the rustling of the falling leaves under their feet, the gleaming of the blue and white asters through the misty haze gathering over the fields and park. They had expected to meet the squire at the gates, but they were nearly at home ere they saw him. He was evidently in deep trouble; even Fanny divined it, and, with singular canine delicacy, walked a little behind him, and forebore all her usual demonstrations.
Antony was sitting at the hall fire. His handsome person was faultlessly dressed, and, with a newspaper laid over his knee, he was apparently lost in the contemplation of the singular effects made by the firelight among the antlers and armor that adorned the wall. He roused himself when the girls entered, and apologized for not having come to meet them; but there was an evident constraint and unhappiness in the home atmosphere. Even the "bit o' good eating," which was the squire's panacea, failed in his own case. Antony, indeed, sat and laughed and chatted with an easy indifference, which finally appeared to be unbearable to his father, for he left the table before the meal was finished.
Then a shadow settled over the party. Elizabeth had a troubled look. She was sure there had been some very unusual difference between Antony and his father. They soon separated for the night, Elizabeth going with Phyllis to her for room a final chat. There was a little fire there, and its blaze gave a pleasant air of cozy comfort to the room, and deepened all its pretty rose tints. This was to the girls their time of sweetest confidence. They might be together all the day, but they grew closest of all at this good-night hour.
They spoke of the squire's evident distress, but all Elizabeth's suppositions as to the cause fell distant from the truth. In fact, the squire had received one of those blows which none but a living hand can deal, for there are worse things between the cradle and the grave than death--the blow, too, had fallen without the slightest warning. It was not the thing that he had feared which had happened to him, but the thing which he had never dreamed of as possible. He had been walking up and down the terrace with Fanny, smoking his pipe, and admiring the great beds of many-colored asters, when he saw Antony coming toward him. He waited for his son's approach, and met him with a smile. Antony did not notice his remark about the growing shortness of the days, but plunged at once into the subject filling his whole heart.
"Father, George Eltham and I are thinking of going into business together."
"Whatever is ta saying? Business? What business?"
"Now, then, be quiet, will ta? Such nonsense!"
"I am in dead earnest, father. I cannot waste my life any longer."
"Who asks thee to waste thy life? Hev I iver grudged thee any thing to make it happy? Thou hes hed t' best o' educations. If ta wants to travel, there's letters o' credit waiting for thee. If ta wants work, I've told thee there's acres and acres o' wheat on the Hallam marshes, if they were only drained. I'll find ta money, if ta wants work."
"Father, I could not put gold in a marsh, and then sit down and wait for the wheat to grow; and all the wheat on Hallam, unless it bore golden ears, would not satisfy me. George and I are going into Sir Thomas Harrington's for a few months. Lord Eltham has spoken to him. Then George is to marry Selina Digby. She has fifty thousand pounds; and we are going to begin business."
"Wi' fifty thousand pounds o' Miss Digby's money! It's t' meanest scheme I iver heard tell on! I'm fair shamed o' thee!"
"I must put into the firm fifty thousand pounds also; and I want to speak to you about it."
"For sure! How does ta think to get it out o' me now?"
"I could get Jews to advance it on my inheritance, but I would do nothing so mean and foolish as that. I thought it would be better to break the entail. You give me fifty thousand pounds as my share of Hallam, and you can have the reversion and leave the estate to whom you wish."
The squire fairly staggered. Break the entail! Sell Hallam! The young man was either mad, or he was the most wicked of sons.
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