KATIE JOHNSTONE’S CROSS

A Canadian Tale

By A. M. M.


CHAPTER XIV.

A Sudden Shock.


  “Why should I murmur, since the sorrow
    Thus only longer-lived would be;
Its end will come, and may to-morrow,
    When God has done His work in me.
So say I trusting, as God will, —
And trusting to the end, hold still.”



    TIME, that wears through the seasons whether rough or smooth, had brought round the day when Ned was expected home from college. As on the preceding occasion, his father went in the morning to meet him at Ashby and bring him home in the evening, and Dr Elliott, who had to attend a consultation in the little town, went with him. Katie spent most of the day in various preparations for her brother’s return, and she and Martha did their best to make the house as bright and comfortable, and the substantial tea as inviting, as their ingenuity could devise, in order to render the home-coming as pleasant as possible in circumstances where so much would be missed. When seven o’clock arrived, and the lighted lamp and [Page 156] the well-spread tea-table stood all ready for the travellers, and the fire was burning its brightest, Katie began to listen for approaching wheels; but, determined to control her restlessness, she resolutely took up some work and stitched for a while without betraying distraction. Gradually, however, the progress of the needle slackened as one quarter of an hour passed away after another, and still they did not come. Then the fire needed to be attended to; then she went to listen at the window, and presently Martha came in to express her wonder at the non-arrival, and to press Katie to take her own tea by herself without waiting any longer. Katie could not, however, bear to sit down alone, and, indeed, could not, as she said, have taken any then at any rate; and so another hour passed. She went out to the door, at last, to listen, as if the listening would bring them. A light, warm rain was falling, and she could hear in the stillness the rushing of the river and of the water in the mill-dams, but no wheels. By this time her head ached, and she felt faint from excitement, so she yielded to Martha’s entreaties so far as to swallow a cup of nearly cold tea, and then was obliged, from exhaustion, to lie down on the sofa, where she soon dropt off into an uneasy slumber. A sudden bark of Snap’s awoke her from a painful dream, with a dread of some impending danger to Ned and herself, when she heard wheels stopping at the gate. Before she could fully recall her confused senses the door opened, but instead of Ned or her papa, Dr Elliott stood before her. She was startled by the expression on his kind and usually cheerful face, and with a chill fear at her heart exclaimed, “Oh, Dr Elliott, where is Ned?” [Page 157]
    “Here, and will be in, in a minute;” but she saw there was something more.
    “And papa?” she anxiously inquired, in a faint voice that could utter no more.
    She never knew how Dr Elliott made her understand the fatal tidings; she only knew her father was dead, taken away in some sudden, unaccountable manner; and then she had a distracted recollection of seeing Ned’s face, white as a ghost’s, and miserable, and of hearing a confused noise of heavy feet in the passage; and after that all was dark and silent, and it was a good many hours before she fully awoke to anything like a conscious realisation of what had happened.
    Mr Johnstone had been standing in the doorway of the little hotel at Ashby, after having met his son and transacted most of his business. He had been conversing with an acquaintance, and was just turning to go in, when he fell heavily to the ground. Ned was instantly by his side, and Dr Elliott, who was only a few doors off, was immediately summoned, but only to confirm what those present already suspected, that life was extinct. “Heart disease,” said Dr Elliott to a friend who stood by. “I examined him a month ago, and told him that he might go off at any moment.”
    Those who were fond of tracing causes further, especially where their neighbours were concerned, asserted that the affection of the heart which had then cut him off in the prime of life, proceeded from the habits of drinking in which he had indulged, and it must be confessed that there was much to justify the opinion. [Page 158]
    It was some consolation to Katie, in the terrible shock, to know that he had at least had a warning, and to reflect, moreover, on the change of his conduct since that warning had been given, which seemed to assure her that it had not been in vain. She was glad now to recall what she had observed in him of late,—the instances of thoughtful kindness on his part, which had gratified her so much at the time, his unwonted seriousness of demeanour, his willingness that she should end the day with reading of the Scripture, the times when she had seen him reading it for himself, his accompanying her to church, and the solitary visits she knew he had paid to her mother’s grave. In the absence of anything more definite, she fondly dwelt upon these tokens of the repentance which she hoped had been his. But it was, at best, a painful subject of thought; how different from the blessed certainty she had felt about her mother! The final summons had come to him with awful suddenness; whether it had found him “watching,” who could tell?
    Mr Grey and Helen took Ned and Katie home with them immediately after the funeral, leaving Martha to take care of the house until permanent arrangements were decided upon. The shock she received from her father’s death, in its peculiar circumstances, had prostrated Katie much more than her grief for her mother, both because she had not the same pressing need as then of exerting herself for others, and because of the unspoken weight upon her mind regarding him, which prayed more upon her health and spirits than any merely physical ailment.
    But another source of anxiety now opened upon her, and [Page 159] one, too, burdened with an entirely new sense of care. Neither she nor Ned had ever known any particulars of their father’s pecuniary affairs beyond the fact, of which, from their mother’s anxious economy, they were well enough aware, that there was never more money to spend than was absolutely needed for the most necessary expenses. His only executor, who had been his confidential business friend, was Mr Wykeham, a lawyer in Ashby, and a conversation which Ned had with him, a few days after the funeral, revealed a state of things for which they were totally unprepared. It then seemed that Mr Johnstone, in order to supplement the uncertain resources of his professional income, which, in consequence of the want of confidence in him produced by his unsteady habits, was far from being what it might have been, had entered upon various speculations in land and lumber, for the carrying on of which he had been obliged to borrow to a very considerable extent. Had he been spared for some years to bring them to a conclusion, he might have realised a handsome profit, but, in the state in which they were now left, nothing could be done with them, except to transfer them to others as advantageously as possible, or else to wind them up at once. On the most favourable calculation, after disposing of all the saleable property which Mr Johnstone had left, there would still be several hundred pounds of debt remaining; a prospect which filled Ned with dismay, to whose mind, fresh and uncontaminated by contact with the world, the very idea of debt presented itself as something terrible and degrading. Mr Wykeham proposed to make an immediate composition with the [Page 160] creditors, who, he thought, would be disposed to give an allowance for the present maintenance of himself and his sister. There was providentially, however, he told him, a small sum in reserve, originally inherited by Mrs Johnstone, and settled finally upon her and her children, and this, the lawyer thought, would, if economically used, supply their absolute wants until Ned should be able to provide for himself.
    He came back to Lynford, from this interview, unusually quiet and thoughtful, and when he and Katie were alone, he explained all their circumstances to her, feeling that it was a matter which concerned her as much as himself, and that it would not be right to leave her in ignorance of it for the sake of sparing her the present pain it would cause her. And it did give her great pain, though she tried as far as possible to conceal it, not because it would reflect on herself—she scarcely thought of that, but because she felt as if it involved some disgrace to her father’s memory; a feeling which she could not quite get rid of, though Ned took care to explain that, as the speculations might reasonably have been expected to turn out well in the natural course of things, he could not be blamed for borrowing money which he had no reason to doubt he would soon be able fully to repay.
    “And what can be done?” she anxiously inquired.
    “Mr Wykeham says we must make a composition with the creditors, that is, get each of them to take partial payment of the debt instead of the whole, and then obtain a discharge from them, and have the matter ended. He thinks they would allow us something besides to live on till I am able to start life and earn somewhat for myself.” [Page 161]
    “Do you mean then,” asked Katie, “that they are never to be paid all papa owed them?”
    “Well, how can it be helped? There is nothing to pay them with in full.”
    Katie thought for a little while in silence, then she said resolutely—
    “No, they could not be paid just now, and you cannot promise them what you haven’t got; but Ned, if I were you, and had the prospect of being able some day to make money by working for it, I would promise myself, that just as soon as I could earn it, they should be paid all they have lent.”
    She spoke with a determination of tone very unusual for her, and weak as she was, Ned was struck with the energy of her voice, and the flush which excited feeling had brought to her pale cheek.
    He had thought himself of what she proposed; indeed it was impossible for a youth of his thorough honesty of nature not to think of it; yet it seemed a little hard, a little more than could justly be expected from him, to have to begin life with such a drag upon him, and he needed all Katie’s firm decision as to what was right, to convert his thought into a full-formed purpose, from which he would have been glad to escape in any way that would have satisfied his conscience. So he still tried whether nothing could be said on the other side.
    “But, you know, Katie, it is rather hard on me, who had nothing to do with borrowing the money, to have to work, and work, year after year, just to refund it, and by the time I can possibly be able to pay them, the people will [Page 162] most likely have forgotten all about it, and probably have got over their loss and their need of the money.”
    “That is not your affair, at all events, Ned. You have only to do what is right. Suppose these speculations had succeeded, and papa had lived some years longer, and made a great deal of money, wouldn’t you have thought it very unjust if you had been prevented from inheriting it?”
    “Of course,” unwillingly admitted Ned, who saw quite well what was coming next.
    “Well then, I think, as you often say, it’s a poor rule that won’t work both ways. You see, in that case, you would have had the advantage of the money that was borrowed. And as it would have been unjust to be prevented from inheriting money if there had been any, isn’t it just to inherit the responsibility of paying the debts too.”
    Ned did not reply to this; he saw the force of the argument, and could not controvert it. Presently Katie said, more earnestly—
    “Oh, Ned, if I only were able to do anything to earn money, I would work so hard to clear off everything, so that no one would have it in his power to say he had been wronged by papa. I am sure you never could be comfortable yourself in the possession of anything, if you had the feeling that there were people who could say that your father had, even unintentionally, deprived them of what was justly theirs.”
    “No, Katie, I’m sure I should not; I think myself you are in the right about it. But there would be no occasion for you to work, even if you were likely to make [Page 163] anything worth while,” he said, with a smile, “for surely, if I have health and strength, it won’t be such very hard work for me to make as much as would clear off what of the debt will be left. I’ll see Wykeham again, and tell him to do all he can to get as much cleared off as possible now, and I suppose you and I can manage well enough with mamma’s money, so that we shouldn’t want any allowance.”
    “Oh, no!” said Katie, “I wouldn’t have it, if you can possibly get your education finished without it.”
    Mr Grey and Helen, who were taken into consultation, highly approved of the resolution Ned and Katie had come to, and on the following day Ned saw Mr Wykeham, and desired him to give the creditors an assurance of immediate payment of as much of their claims as it might turn out there was property to meet, and to inform them of his own firm intention of seeing them fully satisfied as soon as he should be in a position to do so.
    Mr Grey also insisted that his house was to be the home of both Ned and Katie for the present, and that Katie was to consider herself his daughter until Ned should be able to take her to a home of his own. “And after that,” he added kindly, “if I live and she will stay.”
    Helen added her own warm assurances of the great pleasure it would be to her to have Katie with her always; and the latter, knowing that she could fully trust the sincerity of both, gratefully accepted their invitation, resolving in her own mind that she would endeavour to be of as much use to them as possible, though the kindness was one which she felt she never could repay. Martha [Page 164] was to be taken in too, to her great satisfaction, as the Greys’ own servant was about to leave them. Helen laughingly observed to Katie that even if her coming had been an inconvenience, instead of a pleasure, which it was, the advantage of getting Martha, whose efficiency and faithfulness as a servant she so well knew, would more than counterbalance it, as it would give her so much more time to attend to her own multifarious duties. “Between you and Martha, I shall have nothing to do at home at all,” she said, when Katie had been enumerating the things she wished to be left to her management.
    Snap and Daisy were of course also included in the transfer, and soon got accustomed to their new home. The former, indeed, seemed to find the warm stone door-step a very comfortable resting-place and tower of observation, where he could lie in the sun, and terrify any adventurous chickens who came round from the yard to scratch up the seeds that had been newly sown in the little flower-garden.
    Ned’s prospects and outward career were destined to be a good deal modified by this change in their circumstances. His father had wished him to become a lawyer, so that he might eventually take him into business with himself, but Ned’s own inclinations had never been in favour of it, so that he was now desirous of relinquishing it, and with it, the idea of completing his regular University course, which would only, as he said, be taking up time, now so valuable to him. His talents pointed chiefly in the direction of mathematics, and his tastes were in favour of an out-door life, so that the profession which had most charms for him, [Page 165] as well as the most likely one, was that of an engineer or surveyor. Mr Grey advised him, if he had made up his mind to it, to begin at once studying for it privately, until he should find out some competent professional man with whom he might enter on its practical study. In the meantime, by Mr Grey’s advice, he wrote to his father’s only surviving brother in Scotland, the only near relative he now had, for on his mother’s side there were none but distant ones. Mr Johnstone had kept up very little communication with his brother; but Mr Grey thought that it was only right that the latter should be informed of his death and of the circumstances in which his family had been left by it, hoping that as the uncle was a man of some influence and property, he might be able to do something to forward his nephew’s prospects.
    Ned, for his part, expected to be able to defray the expenses of his own preparation for business, and to supply the very small personal needs of Katie, from the sum of money left them by their mother, which, though comparatively small, would, he thought, with rigid economy, last until he should, as he hoped, be in receipt of an independent income.
    Mr Winstanley was one of his father’s creditors, though not to a very large amount. When informed of Ned’s determination, he warmly applauded it, as being highly creditable to his honour and honesty, and when he met Ned a day or two afterwards, he told him that he was willing to cancel that portion of his claim, nearly half, which could not be met in the present appropriation of the property. Ned and Katie thought this a remarkable instance [Page 166] of generosity in a man who was considered to be pretty sharp in looking after his own; they did not know, though perhaps Katie suspected, how much Arthur’s representations had had to do with it, nor, moreover, that it was money which Mr Winstanley had long regarded as almost hopelessly lost.
    “I am glad the boy had acted so well,” observed Mr Grey to his daughter, after they had been expressing their satisfaction with Mr Winstanley’s generosity. “It is a disgrace to a Christian country, the system of legalised robbery that goes on, when men borrow, with their eyes open, for speculating purposes, to an extent far beyond what they have any reason to think they shall be able to repay, trusting that when the worst comes to the worst, as it is sure to do sooner or later, they will extricate themselves clear out of it by making an assignment and getting a discharge. And then, however much money they may make after their second start, in nine cases out of ten, they never even think of the just debts that remain unpaid, and of the suffering they have caused, and may still be causing, those whose imprudence, or inexperience, or perhaps friendly desire to oblige, beguiled them into entrusting them with what they could yet ill afford to lose. In many cases it’s just as bad as, or worse than, when a young man robs his employer to retrieve his losses at the gambling-table, hoping to pay it back, as one of my old college companions did and thought, and was transported for it, poor fellow, while these men escape with impunity. Of course I would not venture to say as much to Ned, lest he should think I was reflecting on his father, for I don’t believe he meant to do [Page 167] anything of that kind, and Mr Wykeham told me that when he got Dr Elliott’s warning about the state of his health, he was very anxious to sell his interest in one of his best speculations in order to put things a little straight, and was only prevented because he could not at the time do it advantageously.”
    The Winstanleys showed no diminution of their kindness to Katie. Clara had done everything that affectionate regard could suggest to cheer and comfort her, and when, as the warm weather came on, the languor and prostration, from which she had never recovered, became still more noticeable, Mrs Winstanley insisted on the execution of a project she had for some time had in view,—that of taking Katie, with her own family, on a long-planned visit to the sea-side. Helen thought the scheme an excellent one, and would not hear of Katie’s declining it, which she was strongly disposed to do on the score of the expense it would entail upon her friends. But when Helen represented to her that it would give Mrs Winstanley as great pleasure to do the kindness as it could to Katie to accept it, so she overcame her scruples, and yielded, with no small delight in her heart at the prospect of seeing so much that would be new to her, and especially the sea, of which she had so often dreamed and heard both from her mother and Mrs Duncan. The only alloy to her pleasure was, that Helen was not going too. Helen would certainly have liked it very well, had the trip been practicable for her; though, much more than for herself, she coveted it for her father, who was feeling the inroads of age and the prostration due to unremitting work, and whom the sea air and the change would have [Page 168] braced and invigorated. But as, with their slender income, the expense put it out of the question, she wisely turned away her thoughts from the subject, feeling that she could trust the Disposer of their lives with this as with every other interest. She told Katie, smiling, that her turn would perhaps come next, and as, at any rate, she wished to visit her sister in the autumn after Katie came back, it would not have done for her to be away from home so long; and she took fully more pleasure than Katie herself did in preparing her outfit; and she assisted her to remodel her slender stock of dresses, so as to make them look as well as they could, for Katie was determined not to spend a penny more in this or any other way than was absolutely necessary. Helen, indeed, had some trouble in prevailing upon her to procure the additions to her wardrobe which she deemed needful, and Mrs Winstanley considerately sent her a present of a neat dark-gray travelling-dress, made as nearly as possible similar to Clara’s,—a thing Katie would never have thought of ordering for herself.
    The evening before they were to start, Helen accompanied Katie as she went to say good-bye to her friend Mrs Duncan. The day had been very sultry, but in the evening a cool breeze had sprung up, which enabled Kate with less fatigue to take a longer walk than she was usually equal to now. She had not been in that vicinity, which was that of her old home, since the house had been shut up and the furniture sold; and its deserted, desolate appearance, as she passed it, awaking a host of dear old associations, did not fail to bring tears to her eyes, though Mrs Duncan’s [Page 169] cheerful, kindly greeting soon dispelled the shadow that had come over her face.
    “I’d like well a glint o’ the bonnie blue sea, mysel’,” said Mrs Duncan, as she was bidding her good-bye; “I used to be aye glad to come in sight o’ it again when I had been for awhile away, as at the sight and hearing o’ what used to seem like an old friend, with its deep solemn murmur aye sounding in our ears. Well, it doesna much matter, for though we are told there will be “no more sea” in the country we are looking for, still there will be no longing unsatisfied there, we may be sure o’ that! And much good may the sea do you, my dear, and I hope you’ll come back a hantle rosier and stronger than you go away!”
    “Helen,” said Katie, as they slowly walked homewards in the dusk, “I feel as if I were selfish in having so much pleasure at the thought of going when you are not, and yet I do so wish you were going too.”
    “It wouldn’t be selfish, it would be ungrateful, if you were not to enjoy as much as you can a pleasure God puts in your way. As it is not put in mine at present, it cannot be best for me, just now at any rate. But I shall enjoy your letters while you are away, and think how much you will have to tell me when you come back.”
    “Yes, indeed,” said Katie, “and I’ll try and remember everything to tell you about. And you and Ned will both write to me about all that is going on here.” [Page 171]


 


[Chapter XV]