A Canadian Tale

By A. M. M.


A Home Mission.

  “Deal gently with the erring ones,
    Thou who hast kept thy higher birth.”

    AFTER her visit to Katie, and a few minutes spent with her old friend Mrs Duncan, Helen went on to pay her visits of charity to her poorer friends. Her last errand was to see a lonely, weakly old woman, who lived in one of the cluster of miserable houses among which was the wretched home of Jim Egan.
    Old Nancy had many complaints to make to Miss Grey: the house was full of draughts; the roof leaked; it was almost impossible for her, with her “little bit of wood,” to keep it warm; and “her rheumatiz was awful sometimes.” Helen sympathised with her very kindly and patiently, and promised to look for a room in the village where she might be more comfortable, though poor Nancy’s restless and discontented nature would never let her be long comfortable in any place. At last, when her stock of [Page 43] home complaints was exhausted, she began to think of her neighbours.
    “They say this never be a healthy place, Miss Helen,” she said; “and no more I think it can be. There’s Mrs Egan over there’s got two childer down sick with fever, an’ I think they be in a bad way. That Jim, to be sure, ’twouldn’t be much loss to her if he was out of the way; for he’s no good—a regular plague of a boy, always a-teasin’ and a worryin’ of my poor cat when he’s well, and doin’ no end of mischief.”
    “And is Jim sick now?” asked Helen.
    “Yes; he’s been down sick near a week now, and never a doctor have they got; and one of the little ones has taken ill now; and what with the drink an’ want of work, I don’t believe they’ve got food in the house to give them to eat.”
    “And does no one know of their condition—no one that could help them, I mean?”
    “It’s my belief they don’t know any one as can help them. They’ve never gone to church since I lived here; and no more they could in the rags they’ve got. Sometimes two of the girls goes out with a basket; but Jim, he won’t beg nor do nothin’ useful.”
    “I must go and see them, Nancy; they mustn’t be left in such misery,” said Helen, rising to go.
    “But you won’t go in, Miss Helen, and them havin’ fever; it’s like as not it’s catchin’.”
    “I don’t think it will be likely to hurt me, if I am in there only a few minutes. It is more likely that the misery they live in causes it. At all events, I must see. So, good-bye, Nancy. I won’t forget to look out for you.” [Page 44]
    And she hastened away to avoid Nancy’s usual formula of profusely-uttered farewell blessings, but which always grated on Helen’s ear as an unmeaning repetition of sacred words, which yet, she believed, she could not very well check.
    On knocking at Mrs Egan’s door, it was opened by a wretched-looking woman, whose dirty and tattered garments told the same tale of laziness, if not dissipation, as did the equally dirty house, in which every article of scanty furnishing seemed to be out of its place. There was scarcely any fire in the stove, though the evening was growing chilly, and no apparent preparation for an evening meal. Two grimy children were fighting over a crust of bread, and a miserable baby lay kicking on the floor. Mrs Egan looked with some surprise at her unknown visitor, who quickly explained the occasion of her visit.
    “I heard you had two children ill, and I came in to see if you were in need of anything I can procure for you.”
    “Shure it’s most things we’re in nade of indade,” said the woman, with an attempt at a laugh. “Will ye plase to come in, though it’s but a poor place for the likes o’ you;” and she made a vigorous though vain attempt to wipe a chair for the stranger’s accommodation.
    Helen asked for the sick children, and was taken to the door of a little place boarded roughly off from the rest of the house, where, in a wretched bed, lay Jim and his little sister. Both seemed too heavy with sickness even to look up; but she could see that the flush of fever was strong, and that they seemed very ill. There was no trace of any [Page 45] kind of sick-room comfort, and Helen presently said to the mother—
    “Have you asked no doctor to come? You surely should do so.”
    “Och, where’s the use o’ botherin’ a docther to come here, and never a hap’orth to pay him with? I had the fever once myself, and got well, wid never a docther to come near me.”
    “Yes, but it isn’t right to run risks; and these children need something done for them; the doctor would tell you what. I know one who would come, even if you can’t pay him, and I will ask him as I go home. Is your husband here?”
    “No, miss; he’s been away in the country these tin days lookin’ for work, an’ sorra a bit do I know what’s become of him; an’ the last bit o’ wood I had I chopped up meself last night. One o’ the childer’s out now pickin’ chips.”
    Helen made no promises for the present, but left the house, thinking as she went how she could devise means to supply needs which were so urgent. The woman was at all events not a clamorous beggar, and it was plain that the case was as bad as she had represented it. She went first to see Dr Elliott, whom she found at home; as soon as she explained her errand, she found that his interest was awakened at once. “That boy,” said he, “has been on my conscience the last two or three weeks. I found that his badness, which has made him a nuisance in the village, proceeded almost altogether from want of any useful outlet for his energy; and I have had him here two or three times shovelling snow, and doing little odd [Page 46] jobs. I never saw a boy work better, and he looked as proud as a prince when I paid him for his services. I was intending to try and find some regular occupation for him, but I haven’t seen him for two or three weeks, and I’ve been too busy to hunt him up. I’ll go and see him tonight.”
    “They seem to be in great present need,” said Helen.
    “Well, leave that to me; you’ve got enough on your hands in that line. I’ll see that they don’t starve; and I’ve got a patient near there who just wants something to do and take an interest in, so I’ll set her to making beef-tea for them.”
    “Thank you, doctor; it’s quite a weight off my mind. I felt they mustn’t be left in such distress, and I did not know how it was to be managed, they need so many things. But I don’t mean you to have it all; I want to help too; and you must tell me what will be of most use when you have seen them.”
    When Helen went next to see the Egans, she found that the doctor had been as good as his word, and that their immediate necessities for food and fuel had been supplied. The disease was pronounced to be a typhoid fever; and Dr Elliott cautioned Helen that she had better not remain long at a time in the unhealthy atmosphere of the little house. There was great need of nourishing diet for the patients; and Mrs Egan was, as might have been expected, quite incapable in such matters, so that there was need for all Helen or any one else could do in that respect. She interested the Winstanleys in the case; and Mrs Winstanley, who was usually liberal, placed at her disposal [Page 47] a small sum of money for procuring necessaries, which was a great addition to her own slender resources; for her father’s purse had generally as many calls upon it as he could very well meet. Jim was completely passive—seemingly overpowered by the prostration of the disease, and gave far less trouble than he had ever done in his life; but the little sister, whose constitution was more fragile, required a great deal of nursing, and was much less likely, the doctor said, “to pull through.”
    When Miss Fleming’s school met after the Easter holidays, and the “prize”—two handsomely-bound volumes—was discerned on the table, the general expectation of course was, that it would be handed to Miss Clara Winstanley, who had come expressly to take farewell of Miss Fleming’s establishment, previous to recommencing her lessons at home with Miss Grey. To their surprise, however, Miss Fleming informed her pupils, that although, as things had turned out, Clara Winstanley had undoubtedly won the prize, yet that young lady, with most praiseworthy generosity, had wished to waive her claim in favour of one who, she felt sure, would have deserved it but for the sad accident which had befallen her; and Miss Fleming had no doubt her pupils would be pleased with the decision, and that they hoped, as she did, that this testimony to her merit and diligence would be some small comfort to their little friend in her present afflictive circumstances. The teacher spoke with a good deal of feeling, for Katie had been one of her best and favourite scholars, and the school had never looked quite the same since her place had been vacant; the girls, too, were a good deal affected, for Katie [Page 48] had been liked by all, and all were sincerely sorry for the misfortune which had laid her aside. Clara had never been so universally popular; the girls declared among themselves that it was very good of her, and she was far more truly the heroine of the day than if she had carried home the prize for her own. She requested that she might be the bearer of the book—a handsome copy of Mrs Hemans’ Poems—to Katie, a request willingly granted by Miss Fleming; and then she said a cordial good-bye to the girls, amid freely-expressed protestations of regret at parting. She began to feel that her sacrifice, upon which she had been secretly pluming herself a little, was scarcely a sacrifice after all, for popularity was a good deal dearer to Clara than any number of volumes of poetry; and when to that was added the approval of conscience, there would be no doubt that Clara had a very considerable reward.
    So it was with a light heart and bounding step that she set out to get her friend Miss Grey to accompany her on her errand to Katie, for she was shy of going alone, feeling a little awkwardness in the meeting.
    “Look, isn’t it a lovely book!” she exclaimed, eagerly unfolding it, the moment she entered, flushed with her rapid walk. “Don’t you think Katie will be pleased?”
    Miss Grey did not feel quite sure whether Katie might not consider it a “dry poetry book;” however, she warmly admired it, and then prepared to accompany the ardent Clara.
    “But what a basketful of things you are going to carry, dear Miss Grey. Please let me carry some of them.”
    “And spoil the beautiful book, perhaps, if you [Page 49] should happen to spill some of the soup,” said Helen, laughing.
    “Soup!” said Clara, “who for? not for Katie?”
    “Oh, no! for James Egan. I am going there, across the common, afterwards.”
    “Oh, the sick boy you were telling mamma about! Is he getting better?”
    “Hardly yet; but I hope he will soon be better.”
    “And don’t you hate to go to such a miserable place,—where they have fever, too?” asked Clara, conscious that such an act of heroism would be almost impossible to her, or to Caroline either, who was almost as old as Miss Grey.
    “It isn’t the pleasantest thing in the world, certainly,” Helen replied, quietly; “but it would be much less pleasant to think that one was not doing what one ought. ‘I was sick, and ye visited me not.’ You know who says that, Clara? And it is the highest kind of happiness to do His work, so far as we can, as I hope you will know some day.”
    Clara was silent, till something occurred to direct the conversation into another channel.
    Katie was looking a good deal brighter now than when Helen first saw her, and was trying, in her recumbent position, to do a little light work. She greeted Clara very frankly, much more so than she would have done three months before; but Clara was unusually quiet. The pale, delicate look, and the traces of suffering visible in Katie’s face, subdued her, and made her manner even timid; and her inquiries whether Katie felt much better were almost [Page 50] constrained. She made no attempt to produce the important book, till Helen took it up, and said, smiling—
    “Clara has got a pleasant surprise for you, Katie. What do you think this is?”
    Katie took it with a puzzled look, which changed into one of bewilderment as she took off the paper, looked at the bright binding, and opened it at the fly-leaf, on which was written her name and the inscription.
    “I don’t understand,” she said, in amazement; “how can it be for me?”
    “Because Clara thought you had the best right to it, dear, and has given up her claim to you.”
    The colour flushed Katie’s pale face. “Oh, but you should not, Clara! I never thought of getting it. It couldn’t be mine.”
    “Yes, it is,” said Clara, quickly; “it is yours, and no one’s else. Miss Fleming said so, and I would far rather you had it.”
    Katie’s eyes filled with tears, and she held out her thin hand to Clara, who came up to her, and they kissed each other affectionately. They were always friends after that.
    Katie did not say much about the book, except, “How good of you!” and “What a beautiful book!” but Clara was quite satisfied.
    “I’ll come and read out of it to you if you like,” she said, when leaving, though she rather hoped her offer might not be accepted, for she was not fond of poetry or of reading aloud.
    “Thank you; but I can read a good deal for myself now. It will be very nice to have this to read out of. [Page 51] But I shall be very glad to see you whenever you can come.”
    “And perhaps you would like to read some of my storybooks? I will bring you some,” said Clara, who thought this a very satisfactory commutation of her first offer.
    “Can’t you stay this evening?” said Katie to Helen, who remained a few minutes after Clara was gone.
    “Not to-day; for I have a sick family to go and see, and papa is gone into the country, and will be cold and tired when he gets home; so I must be back to give him his tea early.”
    “And who are the sick family?”
    “The Egans. You remember that wild boy Jim? Well, he is very ill indeed with a dangerous fever.”
    Katie at once became intensely interested—somewhat to Helen’s surprise—till she had explained how Jim had been the cause of Jet’s death, and, in some measure, of her own accident—a circumstance which Helen had not known before.
    “But I don’t think he meant any harm. He did it just for teasing; and Dr Elliott says he thinks he was sorry; and he told him he buried poor Jet. I always wanted to know just where. You don’t think Jim will die, do you?”
    “I hope not. Perhaps, if God spare him, he may grow to be a better boy. You would like to help him to be one, wouldn’t you?”
    “Oh, yes,” said Katie, earnestly, “if I could; but I am not good enough myself yet.”
    “No one is good enough,” replied Helen. “But most [Page 52] people can help others a little, if they try; and in doing so, help themselves too. The more we do for other people, the more we are doing for ourselves, in the best sense, though that shouldn’t be our reason for doing it.”
    “Oh, no,” said Katie; “the same reason as for loving Christ, isn’t it?—‘Because He first loved us.’”
    “Yes, dear Katie,” said Helen, surprised at the thought which her answer showed; and she took her departure, musing over the difference which God in His providence had made between the outward lot and prospects of the healthy, joyous Clara, and the pale little sufferer whose sick-room she had just left. [Page 53]


[Chapter VI]