Story type: Literature
I.–THE FAMILY BIBLE
There lived a young man at Tregarrick called Robert Haydon. His father was not a native of the town, but had settled there early in life and became the leading solicitor of the place. At the age of thirty-seven he married the daughter of a county magistrate, and by this step bettered his position considerably. By the time that Robert was born his parents’ standing was very satisfactory. They were living well inside an income of L1,200 a year, had about L8,000 (consisting of Mrs. Haydon’s dowry and Mr. Haydon’s bachelor savings) safely invested, and were on visiting terms with several of the lesser county families.
In other respects they were just as fortunate. They had a sincere affection for each other, and coincident opinions on the proper conduct of life. They were people into whose heads a misgiving seldom or never penetrated. Their religious beliefs and the path of social duty stood as plain before them as their front gate and as narrow as the bridge which Mohammedans construct over hell. They loved Bob–who of four children was their only son–and firmly intended to do their best for him; and as they knew what was best for him, it followed that Bob must conform. He was a light-coloured, docile boy, with a pleasantly ingenuous face and an affectionate disposition; and he loved his parents, and learned to lean on them.
They sent him in time to Marlborough, where he wrote Latin verses of slightly unusual merit, and bowled with a break from the off which meant that there lay a thin vein of genius somewhere inside of him. When once collared, his bowling became futile; success made it deadly, and on one occasion in a school match against the M.C.C. he did things at Lord’s which caused a thin gathering of spectators–the elderly men who never miss a match–to stare at him very attentively as he returned to the pavilion. They thought it worth while to ask, “Which ‘Varsity was he bound for?”
Bob was bound for neither. He had to inherit, and consented to inherit, his father’s practice without question. His consuming desire to go up to Oxford he hinted at once, and once only, in a conversation with his father; but Mr. Haydon “did not care to expose his son to the temptations which beset young men at the Universities”–this was the very text–and preferred to keep him under his own eye in the seclusion of Tregarrick.
To a young man who is being shielded from temptation in a small provincial town there usually happens one of two things. Either he takes to drink or to discreditable essays in love-making. It is to Bob’s credit that he did neither; a certain delicate sanity in the fellow kept him from these methods of killing time. Instead, he spent his evenings at home; listened to his parents’ talk; accepted their opinions on human conduct and affairs; and tumbled honourably into love with his sisters’ governess.
Ethel Ormiston, the governess, was about a year older than Bob, good to look at, and the only being who understood what ailed Bob’s soul during this time. She was in prison herself, poor woman. Mrs. Haydon asserted afterwards that Miss Ormiston had “deliberately set herself to inveigle” the boy; but herein Mrs. Haydon was mistaken. As a matter of fact Bob, having discovered someone obliging and intelligent enough to listen, dinned the story of his aspirations into the girl’s ear with the persistent egoism of a hobbedehoy. It must be allowed, however, that the counsel she gave him would have annoyed his parents excessively.
“But I do sympathise with you,” she said after listening to an immoderately long and peevish harangue; “and I should advise you to go to your father, as a first step, and ask to be paid a very small salary for the work you do–enough to set up in lodgings alone. At present you are pauperising yourself.”
Bob did not quite understand–so she explained:
“You are twenty-one, and still receiving food and lodging from your parents as a dole. At your age, if a man receives anything at all from father or mother, he should be earning it as a right.”
She spoke impatiently, and longed to add that he was also impoverishing his intellect. She felt a touch of contempt for him; but a touch of contempt may go with love, and, indeed, competent observers have held that this mixture makes the very finest cement. Certain it is that when Bob answered pathetically, “But I don’t want to leave this roof, I–I can’t, Miss Ormiston, you know!” she missed her opportunity of pointing out that this confession stultified every one of his previous utterances. She began a sentence, indeed, but broke off, with her grey eyes fixed on the ground; and when at length she lifted them, Bob felt something take him by the throat. The few words he proceeded to blurt out stunned him much as if a grenade had exploded close at hand. But when Miss Ormiston burst into tears and declared she must go upstairs at once and pack her box, he recovered, and, looking about, found the aspect of the world bewilderingly changed. There were valleys where hills had stood a moment before.
“I’ll go at once and tell my father,” he said, drawing a full breath and looking like the man he was for the moment.
“And,” sobbed Miss Ormiston, “I’ll go at once and pack my box.”
Herein she showed foresight, for as soon as Bob’s interview with his father was over, she was commanded to leave the premises in time to catch the early train next morning.
Then the Haydon family sat down and talked to Bob.
They began by pooh-poohing the affair. Then, inconsequently, they talked of disgrace, and of scratching his name out of the Family Bible, and said they would rather follow him to his grave than see him married to Miss Ormiston. Lastly, Mrs. Haydon asked Bob who had nursed him, and taught him to walk, and read and know virtue when he saw it. Bob, in the words of the poet, replied, “My mother.” “Very well then,” said Mrs. Haydon.
After forty-eight hours of this Bob wrote to Miss Ormiston, saying, “My father’s indignation is natural, and can only be conquered by time. But I love you always.”
Miss Ormiston replied, “Your father’s indignation is natural, perhaps. But if you love me, it might be conquered by something else,” or words to that effect. At any rate, her letter implied that as it was Bob, and not his father, who proposed to make her a wife, it was on Bob, and not on his father, that she laid the responsibility of fulfilling the promise.
But Bob was weak as water. Love had given him one brief glimpse of the real world: then his father and mother began to talk, and the covers of the Family Bible closed like gates upon his prospect. At the end of a week he wrote–“Nothing shall shake me, dear Ethel. Still, some consideration is due to them; for I am their only son.”
To this Ethel Ormiston sent no answer; but reflected “And what consideration is due to me? for you are my only lover.”
For a while Bob thought of enlisting, and then of earning an honest wage as a farm-labourer; but rejected both notions, because his training had not taught him that independence is better than respectability–yea, than much broadcloth. It was not that he hankered after the fleshpots, but that he had no conception of a world without fleshpots. In the end his father came to him and said–
“Will you give up this girl?”
And Bob answered–
“I’m sorry, father, but I can’t.”
“Very well. Rather than see this shame brought on the family, I will send you out to Australia. I have written to my friend Morris, at Ballawag, New South Wales, three hundred miles from Sydney, and he is ready to take you into his office. You have broken my heart and your mother’s, and you must go.”
And Bob–this man of twenty-one or more–obeyed his father in this, and went. I can almost forgive him, knowing how the filial habit blinds a man. But I cannot forgive the letter he wrote to Miss Ormiston–whom he wished to make his wife, please remember. Nevertheless she forgave him. She had found another situation, and was working on. Her parents were dead.
Five years passed, and Bob’s mother died–twelve years, and his father died also, leaving him the lion’s share of the money. During this time Bob had worked away at Ballawag and earned enough to set up as lawyer on his own account. But because a man cannot play fast and loose with the self-will that God gave him and afterwards expect to do much in the world, he was a moderately unsuccessful man still when the inheritance dropped in. It gave him a fair income for life. When the letter containing the news reached him, he left the office, walked back to his house, and began to think. Then he unlocked his safe and took out Ethel Ormiston’s letters. They made no great heap; for of late their correspondence had dwindled to an annual exchange of good wishes at Christmas. She was still earning her livelihood as a governess.
Bob thought for a week, and then wrote. He asked Ethel Ormiston to come out and be his wife. You will observe that the old curse still lay on him. A man–even a poor one–that was worth kicking would have gone and fetched her; and Bob had plenty of money. But he asked her to come out and begged her to cable “Yes” or “No.”
She cabled “Yes.” She would start within the month from Plymouth, in the sailing-ship Grimaldi. She chose a sailing-ship because it was cheaper.
So Bob travelled down to Sydney to welcome his bride. He stepped on the Grimaldi’s deck within five minutes of her arrival, and asked if a Miss Ormiston were on board. There advanced a middle-aged woman, gaunt, wrinkled and unlovely–not the woman he had chosen, but the woman he had made.
“Ethel?” was all he found to say.
“Yes, Bob; I am Ethel. And God forgive you.”
Of the change in him she said nothing; but held out her hand with a smile.
“Marry me, Bob, or send me back: I give you leave to do either, and advise you to send me back. Twelve years ago you might have been proud of me, and so I might have helped you. As it is, I have travelled far, and am tired. I can never help you now.”
And though he married her, she never did.
“Bill Penberthy’s come back, I hear.”
The tin-smith was sharpening his pocket-knife on the parapet of the bridge, and, without troubling to lift his eyes, threw just enough interrogation into the remark to show that he meant it to lead to conversation. Every one of the dozen men around him held a knife, so that a stranger, crossing the bridge, might have suspected a popular rising in the village. But, as a matter of fact, they were merely waiting for their turn. There is in the parapet one stone upon which knives may be sharpened to an incomparable edge; and, for longer than I can remember, this has supplied the men of Gantick with the necessary excuse for putting their heads together on fine evenings and discussing the news.
“Ay, he’s back.”
“Losh, Uncle, I’d no idea you was there,” said the tin-smith, wheeling round. “And how’s your lad looking?”
“Tolerable–tolerable. ‘A’s got a black suit, my sonnies, and a white tie, and a soft hat that looks large on the head, but can be folded and stowed in your tail pocket.” Complacency shone over the speaker’s shrivelled cheeks, and beamed from his horn-spectacles. “You can tell ‘en at a glance for a Circuit-man and no common Rounder.”
“‘A’s fully knowledgeable by all accounts; learnt out, they tell me.”
“You shall hear ‘en for yourselves at meeting to-morrow. He conducts both services. Now don’t tempt me any more, that’s good souls: for when he’d no sooner set foot in th’ house and kissed his mother than he had us all down on our knees giving hearty thanks in the most beautiful language, I said to myself, ‘many’s the time I’ve had two minds about the money spent in making ye a better man than your father;’ but fare thee well, doubt! I don’t begrudge it, an’ there’s an end.”
A small girl came running down the street to the bridge-end.
“Uncle Penberthy,” she panted, “your tall son–Mr. William–said I was to run down and fetch ‘ee home at once.”
“Nothin’ wrong with ‘en, I hope?”
“I think he’s going to hold a prayer.”
The little man looked at the blade of his knife for a moment, half regretfully: then briskly clasped it, slipped it into his pocket, and hobbled away after the messenger.
The whitewashed front of the Meeting House was bathed, next evening, with soft sunset yellow when Mr. Penberthy the elder stole down the stairs between the exhortations, as his custom was, and stood bareheaded in the doorway respiring the cool air. As a deacon he temperately used the privileges of his office, and one of these was a seat next the door. The Meeting House was really no more than a room–a long upper chamber over a store; and its stairway descended into the street so sharply that it was possible, even for a short-armed man, to sit on the lowest step and shake hands with a friend in the street.
The roadway was deserted for a while. Across the atmosphere there reigned that hush which people wonder at on Sundays, forgetting that nature is always still and that nine-tenths of the week’s hubbub is made by man. Down the pale sky came a swallow, with another in chase: their wings were motionless as they swept past the doorway, but the air whizzed with the speed of their flight, and in a moment was silent again. Then from the upper room a man’s voice began to roar out upon the stillness. It roared, it broke out in thick sobs that shook the closed windows in their fastenings, it wrestled with emotion for utterance, and, overcoming it, rose into a bellow again; but, whether soaring or depressed, the strain upon it was never relaxed. Uncle Penberthy, listening to his son, felt an oppression of his own chest and drew his breath uneasily.
The tin-smith came round the corner and halted by the door.
“That son o’ yours is a boundless man,” he observed with an upward nod.
“How did he strike ye this morning?”
“I don’t remember to have been so powerfully moved in my life. Perhaps you and me being cronies for thirty year, and he your very son, may have helped to the more effectual working; but be that as it may, I couldn’t master my dinner afterwards, and that’s the trewth. Ah, he’s a man, Uncle; and there’s no denying we wanted one of that sort to awaken us to a fit sense. What a dido he do kick up, to be sure!”
The tin-smith shifted his footing uneasily as if he had something to add.
“I hope you won’t think it onneighbourly or disrespectful that I didn’ come agen this evenin’,” he begun, after a pause.
“Not at all, Jem, not at all.”
“Because, you see–“
“Yes, yes, I quite see.”
“I wouldn’ have ye think–but there, I’m powerful glad you see.” His face cleared. “Good evenin’ to ye, Uncle!”
He went on with a brisker step, while Uncle Penberthy drew a few more lingering breaths and climbed the stairs again to the close air of the meeting-room.
“I’m afraid, father, that something in my second exhortation displeased you,” said the Rev. William Penberthy as he walked home from service between his parents. He was a tall fellow with a hatchet-shaped face and eyes set rather closely together.
“Not at all, my son. What makes ye deem it?” The little man tilted back his bronzed top-hat and looked up nervously.
“Because you went out in the middle of service.”
“‘Tis but father’s habit, William,” old Mrs. Penberthy made haste to explain, laying a hand on his arm. She was somewhat stouter of build and louder of voice than her husband, but stood in just the same awe of her son. “He’s done it regular since he was appointed deacon.”
“Why?” asked William, stonily.
Uncle Penberthy pulled off his hat to extract a red handkerchief from its crown, removed his spectacles, and wiped them hurriedly.
“Them varmints of boys,” he stammered, “be so troublesome round the door–occasion’lly, that is.”
“Was that so to-night?”
“But you were absent at least twenty minutes–all through the silent prayer and half way through the third exhortation.” He gazed sternly at the amiable old man. “You didn’t hear me treat that difficulty in Colossians, two, twenty to twenty-three? If you have time, we’ll discuss it after private worship to-night. If I can make you see it in what I am sure is the right light, it will lead you to think more seriously of that glass of beer you have fallen into the habit of taking with your supper.”
It is but a fortnight since the Rev. William Penberthy came home; but in that fortnight his father and mother have aged ten years. The old man, when I took him my watch to regulate the other day–for on week-days he is a watch-maker–began to ask questions, as eagerly as a child, about the village news. It turned out that, for a whole week, he had not been down to sharpen his knife upon the bridge. He has given up his glass of beer, too, and altogether the zeal of his house is eating him up.
This morning the new minister climbed into the van with his carpet-bag. He is off to some Conference or other, and will be back again the day after to-morrow. Ten minutes after he had gone his father and mother shut up the shop and went out together. They mean to take a whole holiday and hear all the news. It was pitiful to see their fumbling haste as they helped one another to put up the shutters; and almost more pitiful to mark, as they hurried down the street arm in arm, their conscientious but feeble endeavour to look something more staid than a couple of children just out of school.