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Righteous Over Much by Ian Maclaren

I

How do you do, Crashaw? didn't know you condescended to conversaziones at the Town Hall, at least when there is no dancing. Their Worships will be satisfied this evening, for the whole world and his wife seem to be here, and some people that have never been in the world before, one would judge."

"There is just one person I wish particularly to see, and I can't find her; that is Arkwright's young wife. I passed the old man himself a minute ago, conversing with Peterson, and lecturing on the effect of the American tariff on wool. Has he left her at home, Jack, to keep her out of harm and to tantalise the public?"

"Not he. Jacob is quite proud of her, to do him justice, and worships the ground on which she treads, although I doubt whether she knows that or cares. Mrs. Arkwright is very beautiful In my humble judgment, but there is a wide gulf between twenty-one and seventy. Besides, she has a temper, and no sympathy with his religious notions. When December weds May, it's bound to be either a comedy or a tragedy, and this is half and between."

"When you have quite finished your interesting moral reflections, Jack, and can attend to practical detail, could you do me the pleasure of pointing Mrs. Arkwright out to me, and, as you seem to have seen a good deal of her, introducing your unworthy servant? I'll be able then to judge for myself. We are obliged to Arkwright for creating a piquant situation."

"Come to the next room, where the band is playing; Mrs. Arkwright was there ten minutes ago. But I don't know whether I can intrude on her at the present moment, even although provided with so good-looking and well-dressed an excuse. Yes; there, Crashaw, in the alcove, talking to a parson, that is Jacob's wife. Was I right?"

"Your taste, Jack, is perfect; but, indeed, a man who admires Mrs. Arkwright deserves no credit; it is inevitable. There is prettiness, and there is sweetness, and there is taking-ness, and they are very well, but this is on another level."

"I thought you would be astonished, and am pleased to notice that even so blasé a critic of womankind can grow enthusiastic on occasion. Isn't that a proud head?"

"Why, Jack, that woman ought to have been a duchess, and a leader of society in town, instead of Mrs. Jacob Arkwright, wife of a self-made wool-spinner and a deacon. Her face is the most complete piece of Grecian beauty I ever saw—nose, eyes, chin, mouth, perfect; forehead perhaps the slightest bit high—a Greek would have worn a ribbon—and that glorious hair, brown shot with gold."

"She is certainly looking splendid to-night Do you notice how she has put the other women to confusion?"

"Simply a goddess among a lot of peasants. I say, Jack, how in the world did that girl, with such a face and such an air, ever marry Arkwright? Where was she hidden away? Had she no opportunity? Talk about waste, this is an absolute sin. Do you know her history?"

"Lived with her mother, and got her living by teaching. Arkwright, who has all his life been busy with wool and religious affairs, saw her in chapel, and remembered he was human. Fell in love with her on first sight, having lived scatheless unto threescore years and ten, and got a fellow-deacon to negotiate the affair; at least, so it is reported."

"Most likely, I should say; but, Jack, what an abandoned criminal that mother of hers must have been, and what did she herself do this thing for? She has a will of her own, or else I do not know a woman's face."

"Oh, the old story. Her mother was proud and poor, and considered Arkwright an excellent suitor. Mrs. Arkwright is not much troubled about religion, and I fancy has a very different idea of things from her husband, but she had the chance of a handsome provision for herself and her mother, and she seized it There could be no romance; but can you blame the old lady, Crashaw, urging such a marriage, or the daughter escaping from the dreary governess life?"

"No, I suppose not. The girl took the veil, and obtained a settlement at the same time, after a sound Protestant fashion; but it does seem a crime against nature to sacrifice a beautiful young woman to a hard, bloodless old Puritan like Arkwright, who is, I grant you, very able in wool, and perfectly straight in character, but who is perfectly uncultured and hopelessly bigoted. What a life of dreariness she must lead in the Arkwright circle!"

"Well, of course she can't attend concerts, nor dance, nor hunt, nor go into society, but she has a good home, and a carriage, and as much money as she can spend. I don't suppose that she cares for Jacob, but she does her duty as a wife, and does not seem unhappy."

"Certainly Mrs. Arkwright is not unhappy this evening with her present companion. I will hazard the guess, Jack, without any reflection on her wifely character, that she never looked at her worthy, but not very attractive, husband with the same interest which she is bestowing on that handsome parson. Who is he, Jack?"

"Egerton's his name, and he's Arkwright's minister—a Congregationalism or Baptist; I can never remember the difference. He is a very able fellow, they say, and a rattling good preacher, quite broad and liberal in his views, but a perfect ascetic in his life. He must be very much in Mrs. Arkwright's company, and he's certainly the decentest man she knows."

"Arkwright is about seventy, and is not so strong as he looks, Jack; his wife will have time to console herself, and her second husband will be a very lucky man, for he will have a fortune and her heart."

II

"You have come quickly, Mr. Egerton, and that was well done," said Jacob Arkwright, looking very white and worn, propped up with pillows. "I have much to say, and I'll take a sup o' brandy; them that never touches drink when they're well get the good when they're ill.

"That gives me the strength I need for the time, and ma work is nearly done. Don't go away, Laura; I want you to hear what I say to the pastor.

"The doctor says 'at ma days are few, mayhap only to-morrow, and it's best to speak when a man's head is clear, and I thank God mine is that, though my body be weakened by this sickness."

His wife stood on one side of the bed, now and then rearranging the pillows at his back and bathing his forehead with vinegar—for scent he would not have—and Egerton stood on the other, refusing to sit down while she stood, and watching her strong white hands at their service, but only once did he look her straight in the face.

"You're young, Pastor—thirty, did ye say?—and I'm owd, seventy-two this month, and I havena' known you long, but there's no mon I've liked better or could trust more." And he looked steadily at Egerton with a certain softening of expression.

"You've been very kind to me and to the chapel, Mr. Arkwright, and I hope it may be God's will to spare you and raise you up again," and although the words were formal, the accent was tender and moving.

"No, no, lad; our times are in His hand, and I have received the summons, and so we 'ill go to business. And first about ma affairs. I wish ye to understand everything, that ye may be able to do your duty by ma widow."

Egerton was conscious that Mrs. Arkwright straightened herself, and could feel the silence in the room; but the dying man was not one to appreciate an atmosphere.

"It may be that I was too owd for marrying, and ma ways too old-fashioned. Ma house has no been very bright for a young wife, and ma conscience did not allow me liberty in worldly amusements. But according to my nature I can say before God that I loved ye, Laura, and have tried to do ma part by ye."

"You married me a poor girl, and have been most... kind to me, Jacob. Why speak of such things?" and her voice was proud and pained.

"You have been a faithful wife to me," he went on, as one fulfilling a plan, "and have put up with my... peculiarities—for I know you do not think wi' me in things, and do not like some of the men 'at came to the house. Oh, I said nowt, but I saw aal."

Mrs. Arkwright laid her hand on her husband's, and it occurred to Egerton from a slight flush on his face that she had never done this before.

"Ma will has been made for a year"—it was plain that Mr. Arkwright was to go on to the end, and Egerton could not have lifted his eyes for a ransom—"and I have left aal to my wife without any condition, with just one legacy. It is to you, Egerton, and I hope you'ill not refuse it—just something to remind you of me, and... get you books."

"It was very... good of you, sir, and I am most... grateful, but I... really can't accept your kindness. It is not likely that I will ever marry, and I've got enough for myself."

As he spoke, Mrs. Arkwright shook up the pillows hastily, and went to a side table for a glass.

"Well, if you will not, then there's an end of it; but you will grant me another favour which may be harder," and for a minute Arkwright seemed to hesitate.

"Ma wife will be left young and rich, and although I have never said it to you, ma lass, she is... beautiful."

"Jacob, this is not seemly." Her voice was vibrant with passion.

"Blame me not for saying this once, and if another be present, he is our friend, and I am coming to my point; the brandy again, and I'll soon be done.

"You have no brother, and I have no person of my blood to guide you, ma lass; ye might be persecuted by men 'at would bring you nowt but trouble and vexation of heart You need an honest man to be your guardian and give you advice.

"Ye may never want to marry again, for I doubt ye have had little joy these years, or again ye may, to taste some joy, and I would count it unjust to hinder you—peace, lass, till I be done; I was ever rough and plain—and some one must see that your husband be a right mon.

"So I turned it over in ma mind, and I sought for a friend 'at was sound o' heart and faithful. This speaking is hard on me, but it 'ill soon be done." And as Mrs. Arkwright stooped to give him brandy once more, Egerton saw that her cheeks were burning.

"An older mon might have been better, but ye're old for your years, Pastor, and have parted wi' the foolishness o' youth. You have some notions I don't hold with, for I'm the owd sort—believe and be saved, believe not and be damned—but ye're no a mon to say yea and do nay. Naa, naa, I have seen more than I said; and though some 'at came to the house had the true doctrine, they were shoddy stuff.

"George Egerton, as I have done good to you and not ill these years, will ye count Laura Arkwright as your sister, and do to her a brother's part, as ye will answer to God at the laast day?"

The wind lifted the blind and rustled in the curtains; the dying man breathed heavily, and waited for an answer. Egerton looked across the bed, but Mrs. Arkwright had withdrawn behind the curtain. Arkwright's eyes met the minister's with an earnest, searching glance.

"I will be as a brother to your wife while I live."

As he spoke, Arkwright grasped his hand and gave a sigh of content; but when Egerton left the room, Laura refused to touch his hand, and her face was blazing with anger.

III

"You have been very generous to the chapel, and we thank you very much for keeping up all Mr. Arkwright's subscriptions those three years. The work of God would have been much crippled had it not been for your liberality."

"Do you know, Mr. Egerton, that when you talk in that grave, approving fashion, as if I were one of your devout women like poor Mrs. Tootle, who is really a good creature, although her husband is a sanctimonious idiot, I feel a perfect hypocrite."

"Why do you always depreciate yourself..."

"Do not interrupt me, for I am determined to settle this matter once for all, and not walk about in a vain show, as if I were a saint You think me good, and so do the chapel people, I suppose, because I give to foreign missions and Bible-women, and go to the prayer-meeting, and attend the special meetings. Do you know why I do those things?"

"Yes, I think so," said the minister; "but I will hear your reason."

"Because Mr. Arkwright believed in missions and evangelists, and he was... a better husband to me than I was wife to him, and because it would be dishonourable not to use his money for the objects he approved."

"And the services? Is that the reason you are always present, and set such a good example?" And it was plain the minister did not take Mrs. Arkwright at her value of herself.

"Oh, this is because... because..."

"Yes?" And Mr. Egerton smiled as one who is giving checkmate.

"Because you were Jacob's friend, and the only man he... loved, and because, although we have quarrelled several times, and I have been very rude to you once or twice, still"—and a smile brought Mrs. Arkwright's face to perfection—"we are friends also."

"You have been... angry with me," said Egerton, "when I could not understand the reason, but I never doubted your friendship. If I were in serious trouble, I would come to you rather than to any man."

"Would you really?" Then her tone changed.

"I don't believe you, for you would go to some snuffy, maundering old minister."

"And you are good," he insisted, taking no notice of her petulance. "You are honest, and brave, and high-minded, and loyal, and..."

"Pious, with a gift of prayer, you had better add. How blind you are, for all your knowledge and... other qualities. You forgot to add sweet-tempered; but perhaps you were coming to that."

"No, I would not say that, and I am rather glad you are not gentle,"—the minister was very bold,—"for you would not be... yourself."

"You had your suspicions, then, and are not sure that I am ready for canonising? Do you know I feel immensely relieved; suppose we celebrate this confession by tea? Would you ring the bell, Mr. Egerton?"

"There is something I want to talk about, and as it's rather important, would you mind, Mrs. Arkwright, giving me a few minutes first? Tea is rather distracting."

"Composing, I find it—but as you please; is it the District Visitors, or the Nurses' Home, or the Children's Holiday, and is it money?" Mrs. Arkwright for some reason was very gracious.

"No, it has nothing to do with the chapel. I wish to speak about... yourself."

"Yes?" and she looked curiously at him.

"You remember that day when Mr. Arkwright committed you to my care, and I gave my word to..

"Do your best to look after a very troublesome woman," Mrs. Arkwright interposed hurriedly; "it was a... risky task, and I thought you were far too hasty, and just a little presumptuous, in undertaking it, but you've been a very lenient guardian for your age. Have I done anything wrong?"

"No, and you could not at any time in my eyes,"—Mrs. Arkwright made as though she would curtsey,—"but others might do wrong to you, and I have been anxious for some time.

"Mr. Arkwright was afraid lest some unworthy man should admire you or desire your wealth, and... marry you, and your life be miserable. And he wished me to save you from this, and I promised to do my best."

"Well?" and her voice had begun to freeze. "I remember all that."

"It is difficult to speak about such things, but you know that I... would do anything to save you pain...."

"Go on," and now her eyes were fixed on the minister.

"It came to my ears and I saw for myself that one whom I knew slightly and did not like was paying you attentions, and it might be, as I also heard, was favoured by you. So it seemed my duty to make enquiries about Mr. Crashaw."

"And?"

"There is nothing against his character, and I have heard much good of him—that he has cultured tastes and is very well liked by those who know him; personally we could never be friends, for various reasons, but he... is not unworthy to be the husband of... a good woman. That is all I have to say"; and the saying of it was plainly very hard to the minister.

"You recommend me to marry Mr. Crashaw, if that gentleman should do me the honour to ask my hand, or do you propose to suggest this step to him, so as to complete your duty as guardian?" Mrs. Arkwright was now standing and regarding Egerton with fierce scorn.

"My information seemed to me reliable"—he was also standing, white and pained—"and I thought it would help you in that case to know what I have told you, when you came to decide."

"If I knew who told you such falsehoods, I would never speak to them again, and I would make them suffer for their words. Mr. Crashaw! and it was to that cynical, worldly, supercilious tailor's block you were to marry me. What ill have I done you?"

"God knows I did not desire.... I mean... do you not see that I tried to do what was right at a cost?... Why be so angry with me?"

"Because I do not really care what any person in this town or all Yorkshire says about me, but I do care and cannot endure that you should turn against me, and be content to see me Crashaw's wife or any other man's." And she drove the minister across the room in her wrath—he had never seen her so beautiful—till he stood with his back to the door, and she before him as a lioness robbed of her cubs.

"It has been my mistake, for I understand not women," he said, with proud humility. "I beg your pardon, and am more than ever... your servant."

She looked at him stormily for ten seconds; then she turned away. "If that is all you have to say, you need not come again to this house."

IV

"You will excuse me sending a verbal message by the doctor, for, as you see, I am past writing, and... the time is short I wanted to speak with you, Mrs. Arkwright, once before... I died." And Egerton thought of the day she had stood by her husband's deathbed as now she stood by his, only that the nurse had left the room and there was no third person to be an embarrassment "Do not suppose I forget your words to me the last time we met in private," he continued, as she did not speak nor look at him, beyond one swift glance as she came into the room; "and believe me, I would not have forced myself on you, nor would I have asked this favour, had it not been that... I have something of which I must deliver my soul."

"You are not dying; you were a strong man, and a few days' illness couldn't... be fatal," she burst out, and it seemed as if Mrs. Arkwright for once was going to lose control and fall a-weeping.

Then she mastered herself, and said almost coldly, "Had I known you were so ill, I would have called to inquire; but nothing was said of pneumonia, only a bad cold."

"You forgive me, then, that ill-judged interference, Mrs. Arkwright, and anything else in which I have offended you or failed in... my brother's part?"

"Do not speak like that to me unless you wish to take revenge; it is I who ask your pardon for my evil temper and insolence that day, and other times; but you are too... good, else you would have understood."

"You did not, then, hate me, as I supposed?" and his voice was strained with eagerness.

"When you were prepared to approve my engagement to Mr. Crashaw? Yes, I did, and I could have struck you as you bore witness to his character—whom you detested. Conscientious and unselfish... on your part, very. And yet at the same time I... did not hate you; I could have... you are a dull man, Mr. Egerton, and I am not a saint. Is it milk you drink?" And when she raised his head, her hands lingered as they had not done before on her husband's.

"Are you really dying?" She sat down and looked at him, her head between her hands. "You and I are, at least, able to face the situation."

"Yes, without doubt; but I am not a martyr to overwork, or anything else; my death is not a sentimental tragedy; do not let any one speak of me in that fashion: I simply caught a cold and did not take care; it's quite commonplace." When he smiled his face was at its best, the dark blue eyes having a roguish look as of a boy.

Mrs. Arkwright leant back on her chair and bit her lower lip.

"This is good-bye, then, and our friendship—six years long, isn't it?—is over. Had I known it was to be so short—well, we had not quarrelled."

"Not over," and he looked wistfully at her; "this life does not end all."

"Ah, you have the old romantic faith, and one would like to share it, but no one knows; this life is the only certainty."

"In a few hours," he went on, "I shall know, and I expect to see my friend Jacob Arkwright, whom I loved, although we only knew one another for three years, and he... will ask for you." Mrs. Arkwright regarded Egerton with amazement.

"He will ask how I kept my trust, and I... will be ashamed, unless you hear my confession and forgive me. For I... have sinned against you and your husband."

"In what?" she asked, with a hard voice.

"God knows that I had no thought of you he might not have read while he was here. And afterwards for a year I was in heart your brother; and then—oh, how can I say it and look you in the face, who thought me a good and faithful minister of Christ?" and his eyes were large with pain and sorrow.

"Say it," she whispered, "say it plain; you must," and she stretched out her hand in commandment.

"I loved you as... a man loves a woman whom he would make his wife, till it came to pass that I made excuses to visit you, till I watched you on the street, till I longed for the touch of your hand, till I... oh, the sin and shame—thought of you in the service and... at my prayers; yet I had been left your guardian and had promised to be as a brother to you; besides, nor was this the least of my shame, you were rich."

"And now?" She had risen to her feet "I have finally overcome, but only within these few months, and my heart is at last single. You are to me again my friend's wife, and I shall meet him... in peace, if you forgive me."

For a few seconds nothing was heard but his rapid breathing, and then she spoke with low, passionate voice.

"Your love needs no forgiveness; your silence... I can never forgive."

He lived for two hours, and he spoke twice. Once he thanked his nurse for her attentions, and just before he passed away she caught the words, "through much tribulation... enter the Kingdom... God."