A Canadian Tale

By A. M. M.


An Evening Talk.

  “I would not have the ruthless mind
    That hurries to and fro,
Seeking for some great thing to do,
    Some secret thing to know:
I would be treated like a child,
    And guided where to go!”

    GUESS what I have brought you to-day,” said Helen, when she came to spend her promised afternoon with Katie. She held in one hand a well-stuffed satchel of work, and in the other something lightly encased in white paper.
    Katie smiled, and held out her hand. The paper, when unfolded, disclosed a rich cluster of wall-flower, giving out an odour that seemed the very concentrated essence of spring.
    “Oh, how delicious!” exclaimed Katie, gazing at the velvety gold and brown petals, and drinking in the fragrance, so rich yet so delicate. It seemed like an embodied revelation of the opening spring to her, pent up in the confinement of one room, and unable [Page 54] to go out and enjoy the sunshine of those early spring days—which she so wistfully gazed at from her window—as it lay on the still gray fields and woods, and glittered on the winding river.
    “I’m afraid you have robbed yourself though, Miss Grey,” said Katie, presently.
    “Oh, no; there are some more beginning to open already; and you have so much more leisure for enjoying it than I have, that it is much better bestowed on you.”
    “Yes, indeed,” sighed Katie, “I am idle enough now. I used to think, when I had to study so hard, how nice it would be to have nothing to do all day but read and amuse myself; and now I am so tired of it—far more tired than I used to be of work! I wish I could do something useful.”
    “There are different kinds of usefulness in the world, Katie; and whatever is decreed for us by God must be that kind of usefulness which He desires from us at the time. Sometimes the work He asks of us is simply submission to His will, when it is painful to us. Do you know, Milton says, in one of his finest sonnets, about that very thing, ‘They also serve who also stand and wait.’ I suppose it was a comfort to him to think that, in his blindness, when he must have been prevented from doing much that he would have liked to do.”
    “Yes; but then he wrote ‘Paradise Lost,’ didn’t he? Everybody can’t do that.”
    “No; and everybody isn’t asked to do it, or anything beyond their powers,” replied Helen. “But there is one kind of work everyone can do, at all times, unless under very exceptional circumstances indeed.” [Page 55]
    “What is that?”
    “I can best tell you in the words of a beautiful hymn I learned while I was away;” and there came a grave, almost sad, expression over her face, which Katie had occasionally noticed since her return, as something that had not used to be there. She repeated the lines:—

                “Wherever in the world I am,
                    In whatsoe’er estate,
                I have a fellowship with hearts
                    To keep and cultivate,
                And a work of lowly love to do
                    For the Lord on whom I wait.”

    “How pretty that is!” said Katie; “is that out of ‘The Christian Year?’”
    “No; it is a poem of Miss Warning’s. I will copy out the whole of it, and bring it to you. It is very beautiful, and very true. But it is only through having God’s love in our hearts that we can put it in practice. And if we have that, He will always show us some work of ‘lowly love’ to do, and give us power to do it.”
    “Well, what are the circumstances when it couldn’t be done?” said Katie, after thinking for some time, during which Helen had taken out her work, and was stitching away busily at some coarse plain sewing.
    “Oh!” said Helen, “I was only thinking of some such circumstances as prisoners have been in—shut up in solitary dungeons, not even seeing their gaolers, in the dark days of cruelty that we read about. But I suppose that even there a certain fellowship with hearts could be kept up through prayer. Our Saviour may have ways we don’t know of, of [Page 56] maintaining fellowship between Christian hearts separated by the most impassable earthly barriers.” Again that peculiar expression came to Helen’s eyes—an absent, dreamy look, as if her thoughts were wandering. Presently, however, it changed to a smile as she went on,—“But I have read of desolate prisoners, when they had no human hearts near to show love to, bestowing it upon the only living creatures within their reach, such as rats and spiders! And I should think that kindness to His dumb creatures is a work of lowly love that God will not despise.”
    “I was reading in a volume of ‘Chambers’s Miscellany,’” said Katie, “about a man who got so much attached to a little plant that grew up in his cell; he gave it a strange name, which I don’t know how to pronounce.”
    “‘Picciola;’ ‘poor little thing,’ it means,” said Helen. It is an Italian story, and a very pretty one. I read it long ago. Well, I suppose it was better for him than having nothing to love and care for. However, it is not likely that either you or I will be in such circumstances.”
    “I wish I knew something I could do for any one, then,” said Katie.
    “You do something for your mamma by bearing your confinement patiently. Don’t you think it would give her a great deal of pain if she saw you fretting and repining?”
    “Oh, yes; but that is so little. How bad I would be if I gave her any more trouble than I could help!”
    “Well, if you are able to sew a little now,” said Helen, “you might help me to make up some things for the Egans. They are greatly in need of getting their clothes washed, [Page 57] and cannot have this done till they are provided with changes.”
    “Oh, yes,” said Katie, eagerly; “do let me help you. Is that what you are doing now?”
    “Yes,” said Helen; “I begged cotton at some of the shops, and Mrs Duncan is going to help me to make it up. She gave me several pairs of socks which she had footed for them; the children who are going about have scarcely had any all winter.”
    “Oh, poor things! and Jim—had he any?”
    “I shouldn’t think so; most likely not. His boots were full of holes, and no doubt that was one of the things that brought on the fever. Mrs Winstanley has promised a pair of Arthur’s boots for him when he gets well again, and I hope we shall be able to make him decent enough to go to school, if he can be persuaded to stay there. He has never been at school.”
    “I don’t suppose he can read, then. It is no wonder he is a bad boy, when he has never been taught anything. Now, give me some work; you’ll see how nicely I will do it.”
    “I will give it to you on one condition, that you only do a little at a time, and put it away the moment you begin to feel tired. I don’t know what your mamma will say to me if I allow you to do more than is good for you.”
    “Oh! it will do me good; you will see that. And mamma would help too; wouldn’t you, mamma?” she asked, as her mother, who had been out for a walk, came into the room.
    Katie had previously mentioned to her mamma what [Page 58] Helen had told her of the Egans’ circumstances. Mrs Johnstone, gentle as she was, could not quite subdue all remains of the indignation she had felt against Jim for his mischievous prank, which had caused so much suffering, and it was not easy at once to change it into pity for the distress of a family whom she had looked upon as belonging to a worthless, incorrigible class. However, she knew the feeling to be a wrong one, and refrained from any expression of it, though it prevented her from cordially sympathising with Katie’s interest in them. Now, however, when Miss Grey gave her fuller particulars, and mentioned her fear that the little girl might not recover, she willingly promised to help in the preparation of clothing.
    “I have a few things myself,” she said, with a sigh, “that might be of use to some of the smaller boys. I should have tried to find out some one to give them to before now.”
    Katie knew her mother meant the clothes which had belonged to her dead little brother, and which had been locked up for years, Mrs Johnstone disliking even to open the trunk which contained them. So she made up her mind that she would ask her mamma to let her and Miss Grey take them out, and the little trunk would not any more be a source of painful recollection.
    When the April day was closing in, and the workers had laid aside their sewing, Katie reminded Helen of her promise to read her something more out of “The Christian Year.”
    “I have learned that beautiful hymn of Keble’s which you read for me, and I have read a little more; but I cannot [Page 59] understand much of it when I read it for myself. I know your reading it would make it a great deal plainer.”
    Mrs Johnstone seconded the request, adding, “The friend who gave it to me used to read it to me before I was married, and I have scarcely ever read more of it than the passages she selected.”
    Helen chose the first poem, “The Morning Hymn,” which she repeated almost entirely from memory, as they gathered around the pleasant firelight.
    “That used to be one of my favourites,” Mrs Johnstone remarked, when it was concluded. “I only wish it had done me more good.” She had a feeling, growing stronger with time, that, depressing as her ill health and many things in her life had been, she might, with God’s strengthening help, have found more work to do—more

                        “Softening gleams of love and prayer
                        To dawn on every cross and care.”

    Presently Martha came to say that tea was ready, and “the master” was come in. Helen, to Katie’s delight, was to take tea with her up-stairs, and a comfortable little table was set for them in front of Katie’s sofa, which was drawn up near the blazing fire, that threw a warm, cheerful glow around the room.
    “It seems almost worth while to be ill, to feel so comfortable and cosy,” said Katie, when they were left to enjoy their tea by themselves. “Mamma and I have tea up here together whenever papa is away, and I always enjoy it so much. When I get well I shall be quite sorry to leave this room; I like it so well now.” [Page 60]
    Helen sighed; she feared, from what Dr Elliott had said to her about Katie, that her “getting well,” which she seemed to look for as a matter of course, was by no means certain, and that a still heavier trial than this long tedious imprisonment lay before her, even if she did recover. However, she put away the thought for the present, and amused Katie, while they took their tea, with descriptions of some of the things she had seen, and the people she had met, in the city where she had been temporarily residing. Then she took an easy-chair by the fire, saying she would not work any more that evening.
    “Besides, Katie, I want to look at your beautiful prize. I have never had time to examine it yet. Have you been reading any of it?”
    “Oh, yes, a good deal; and there are such beautiful things in it! I never imagined I should like poetry so much; I thought it was always dry. But these poems are not at all.”
    “I used to like Mrs Hemans’ poetry very much when I was about your age. And this seems a very pretty copy.”
    “And don’t you like it now?” said Katie, surprised.
    “I haven’t read much of it for a good while. I daresay I should enjoy it still; but one’s taste changes as one grows older. It wouldn’t do to read one author always, you know.”
    “Well, read me some of those you like best; it is much pleasanter to hear reading than to read for myself, and holding the book always tires me a little.”
    So Helen began to turn over the pages,—magic pages to many a young reader, calling up wondrous visions of the [Page 61] southern lands of the orange and myrtle, and though sometimes a little unduly sentimental, are still pervaded with a pure and elevated tone of feeling, that renders them far more wholesome reading than much of the literature of the present day; and it almost renewed her own early days as she read to Katie the poems she had so enthusiastically admired in her childhood. By and by the conversation drifted away to graver topics, and Katie suddenly exclaimed—
    “I did not quite understand part of that hymn you repeated before tea, where it speaks about the ‘cloistered cell.’ Will you repeat it again?”
    Helen repeated the lines—

                        “We need not bid, for cloistered cell,
                        Our neighbour and our work farewell,
                        Nor strive to wind ourself too high
                        For sinful man beneath the sky.”

                        “The daily round, the common task,
                        Will furnish all we ought to ask—
                        Room to deny ourselves, a road
                        To bring us daily nearer God.”

    “Of course,” she proceeded, “it is an allusion to the idea that prevails, chiefly in the Roman Catholic Church, that retiring from the world and human relationships, into convents and monasteries, is more pleasing to God, and tends more to personal holiness, than remaining in the paths of ordinary life. And the idea running through the verses is, that as we are placed by God’s providence in the circumstances best fitted for us in this imperfect state, there is no reason why we should forsake the duties He has assigned [Page 62] us, and the path in which we shall be sure to find the work He intends us for, and which, if done rightly, will bring us nearest to Himself.”
    “They must be good people, though,” said Katie, “to go away and spend their lives so entirely in praying and trying to please God.”
    “Yes, indeed,” said Helen, warmly, “there is no doubt many of them are. I only wish more of us Protestants were as devoted. But don’t you think, for instance, that a poor girl who toils hard to help her family, and does her work well and conscientiously, is pleasing God more than if she were to go and live in a nunnery, and spend her time in saying prayers and undergoing voluntary penances? An old poet, George Herbert, whose works I hope you will by and by enjoy, says something about that—

                        “A servant with this clause
                            Makes drudgery divine,
                        Who sweeps a room as for God’s laws,
                            Makes that and the action fine.”

    “I never thought before of God’s caring how a room was swept,” said Katie.
    “Why not? How can we tell what things are great and what are small in God’s sight? The things we call great may be infinitely small before Him, and things we despise as little He may most care for. Do you remember how He had a cake ‘baken upon the coals’ for Elijah, when he was hungry and faint, and how He renewed the widow’s supply of meal, and kept her cruse of oil filled? And how many little things are recorded in the Bible, while great victories and mighty deeds are passed lightly over!” [Page 63]
    It was a new idea to Katie, as it is to many who have the mistaken impression that “religion” is a thing apart by itself, chiefly for Sundays and morning and evening devotions; who do not see that every act of daily life may be no less truly “religious” than are the definite acts of worship, which are also no less necessary and right in their place, and that it is the principle or motive, not the outward character, of the action, which makes it truly religious, or the reverse. And so they fail to recognise that beautiful harmony of Christian character which comes to light when the principle of doing everything “to the Lord and not unto men” guides every action of the daily life. When it does not, the faith professed, however genuine, surely falls far short of its true end.
    “We may see every day,” added Helen, “how many little things God does care for. It seems a little thing that He should give an insignificant plant, like the wall-flower there, its beauty and delicious fragrance, and yet I am sure it has given you a great deal of pleasure. It must be to minister pleasure, as well as to express His love of beauty, that He gives us the flowers at all.”
    “Yes; I never thought about that,” said Katie. “But it is strange that so many people—the monks and nuns, I mean—should be so much mistaken.”
    “It is right to remember, however,” continued Helen, “that the system was more beneficial in the ages when it began than it is now. In the dark ages, as they are called, there was so much wickedness and turbulence, and evil of all kinds, that many people felt the convents a place of refuge, where they might lead unmolested the pure and [Page 64] pious life which it was almost impossible for them to live in the world. Then the cruel wars that raged made many girls orphans, and sometimes a convent was the only place where they could find a safe home, or a protection from some fierce, cruel man whom they abhorred, and who wished to marry them. The monks and nuns in those days, too, used to spend their time in many works of great usefulness, such as copying the Bible when there was no printing, and teaching the young, and nursing the sick, and preparing medicines, when there were no schools, and no hospitals, and very few doctors. Girls used to be sent to stay for a time in convents, as the only place where they could be educated and kept from many evil influences; and no doubt many were brought up there to be good and useful women. It is not right to condemn institutions which have sprung up in God’s Church, and among truly good people, without trying to find out whether they did not at one time serve some worthy purpose. It is only when people try to attach permanence and sacredness to things not divinely commanded, and meant only to serve a temporary end, that they become injurious. So now, when things are so changed, and there is not the same need for convents, nor the same work for their inmates, the Roman Catholic Church, by leading people to believe that it is acceptable to God to forsake their natural duties for others of their own imposing, and lead a so-called holy life in unnatural circumstances, is guilty of perverting their consciences, and doing many great injury. But how long I have been talking! I must have tired you out.” [Page 65]
    “Oh, no!” answered Katie, smiling; “that does not tire me at all; and I like to have it to think of when I am tired, and cannot read or work.”
    The evening had indeed passed so quickly, that both were surprised when the clock struck nine, and Mr Grey, who had had some sick people to visit in the neighbourhood, called to take his daughter home. He came up to see Katie, whom he had not visited for some time, and remarked, with pleasure, that she was looking much brighter.
    “Miss Grey has done me so much good,” said Katie, with a loving smile; “I have spent such a pleasant evening to-night.”
    “By the by, Helen,” said her father, “Dr Elliott told me to-night he thought the little girl Egan dying.”
    “Oh, poor little thing!” exclaimed Katie. “Well, perhaps it will be the best thing for her!”
    “If it is God’s will, undoubtedly it must,” said Mr Grey. “Come, Helen, we must be going. Good-night, Katie. You scarcely need me to come to see you, now that I have got my curate here back again.”
    “Oh, yes! please, don’t think so, Mr Grey,” said Katie, earnestly. [Page 66]


[Chapter VII]