The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter LX

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter LX
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER LX.

AN OFFERING.

Clementina was always ready to accord any reasonable request Florimel could make of her; but her letter lifted such a weight from her heart and life that she would now have done whatever she desired, reasonable or unreasonable, provided only it was honest. She had no difficulty in accepting Florimel's explanation that her sudden disappearance was but a breaking of the social jail, the flight of the weary bird from its foreign cage back to the country of its nest; and that same morning she called upon Demon. The hound, feared and neglected, was rejoiced to see her, came when she called him, and received her caresses: there was no ground for dreading his company. It was a long journey, but if it had been across a desert instead of through her own country, the hope that lay at the end of it would have made it more than pleasant. She, as well as Lady Bellair, had friends upon the way, but no desire either to lengthen the journey or shorten its tedium by visiting them.

The letter would have found her at Wastbeach instead of London had not the society and instructions of the schoolmaster detained her a willing prisoner to its heat and glare and dust. Him only in all London must she see to bid good-bye. To Camden Town therefore she went that same evening, when his work would be over for the day. As usual now, she was shown into his room — his only one. As usual also, she found him poring over his Greek Testament. The gracious, graceful woman looked lovelily strange in that mean chamber — like an opal in a brass ring. There was no such contrast between the room and its occupant. His bodily presence was too weak to "stick fiery off" from its surroundings, and to the eye that saw through the bodily presence to the inherent grandeur, that grandeur suggested no discrepancy, being of the kind that lifts everything to its own level, casts the mantle of its own radiance around its surroundings. Still, to the eye of love and reverence it was not pleasant to see him in such entourage, and now that Clementina was going to leave him, the ministering spirit that dwelt in the woman was troubled.

"Ah!" he said, and rose as she entered, "this is then the angel of my deliverance!" But with such a smile he did not look as if he had much to be delivered from. "You see," he went on, "old man as I am, and peaceful, the summer will lay hold upon me. She stretches out a long arm into this desert of houses and stones, and sets me longing after the green fields and the living air — it seems dead here — and the face of God, as much as one may behold of the Infinite through the revealing veil of earth and sky and sea. Shall I confess my weakness, my poverty of spirit, my covetousness after the visual? I was even getting a little tired of that glorious God and man lover, Saul of Tarsus: no, not of him, never of him, only of his shadow in his words. Yet perhaps — yes, I think so — it is God alone of whom a man can never get tired. Well, no matter: tired I was, when lo! here comes my pupil, with more of God in her face than all the worlds and their skies he ever made."

"I would my heart were as full of him too, then, sir," answered Clementina. "But if I am anything of a comfort to you, I am more than glad; therefore the more sorry to tell you that I am going to leave you, though for a little while only, I trust."

"You do not take me by surprise, my lady. I have of course been looking forward for some time to my loss and your gain. The world is full of little deaths — deaths of all sorts and sizes, rather let me say. For this one I was prepared. The good summer-land calls you to its bosom, and you must go."

"Come with me," cried Clementina, her eye's eager with the light of the sudden thought, while her heart reproached her grievously that only now first had it come to her.

"A man must not leave the most irksome work for the most peaceful pleasure," answered the schoolmaster. "I am able to live — yes, and do my work — without you, my lady," he added with a smile, "though I shall miss you sorely."

"But you do not know where I want you to come," she said.

"What difference can that make, my lady, except indeed in the amount of pleasure to be refused, seeing this is not a matter of choice? I must be with the children whom I have engaged to teach, and whose parents pay me for my labor — not with those who, besides, can do well without me."

"I cannot, sir — not for long at least."

"What! not with Malcolm to supply my place?"

Clementina blushed, but only like a white rose. She did not turn her head aside; she did not lower their lids to veil the light she felt mount into her eyes; she looked him gently in the face as before, and her aspect of entreaty did not change. "Ah! do not be unkind, master," she said.

"Unkind!" he repeated. "You know I am not. I have more kindness in my heart than my lips can tell. You do not know, you could not yet imagine, the half of what I hope of and for and from you."

"I am going to see Malcolm," she said with a little sigh. "That is, I am going to visit Lady Lossie at her place in Scotland — your own old home, where so many must love you. Can't you come? I shall be travelling alone, quite alone, except my servants."

A shadow came over the schoolmaster's face: "You do not think, my lady, or you would not press me. It pains me that you do not see at once it would be dishonest to go without timely notice to my pupils, and to the public too. But, beyond that quite, I never do anything of myself. I go not where I wish, but where I seem to be called or sent. I never even wish much, except when I pray to Him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. After what he wants to give me I am wishing all day long. I used to build many castles, not without a beauty of their own — that was when I had less understanding — now I leave them to God to build for me: he does it better, and they last longer. See now, this very hour, when I needed help, could I have contrived a more lovely annihilation of the monotony that threatened to invade my weary spirit than this inroad of light in the person of my Lady Clementina? Nor will he allow me to get over-wearied with vain efforts. I do not think he will keep me here long, for I find I cannot do much for these children. They are but some of his many pagans — not yet quite ready to receive Christianity, I think — not like children with some of the old seeds of the truth buried in them, that want to be turned up nearer to the light. This ministration I take to be more for my good than theirs — a little trial of faith and patience for me — a stony corner of the lovely valley of humiliation to cross. True, I might be happier where I could hear the larks, but I do not know that anywhere have I been more peaceful than in this little room, on which I see you so often cast round your eyes curiously, perhaps pitifully, my lady."

"It is not at all a fit place for you," said Clementina with a touch of indignation.

"Softly, my lady, lest, without knowing it, your love should make you sin. Who set thee, I pray, for a guardian angel over my welfare? I could scarce have a lovelier, true; but where is thy brevet? No. my lady: it is a greater than thou that sets me the bounds of my habitation. Perhaps He may give me a palace one day. If I might choose, it would be things that belong to a cottage — the whiteness and the greenness and the sweet odors of cleanliness. But the Father has decreed for his children that they shall know the thing that is neither their ideal nor his. Who can imagine how in this respect things looked to our Lord when he came and found so little faith on the earth? But perhaps, my lady, you would not pity my present condition so much if you had seen the cottage in which I was born, and where my father and mother loved each other, and died happier than on their wedding day. There I was happy too until their loving ambition decreed that I should be a scholar and a clergyman. Not before then did I ever know anything worthy the name of trouble. A little cold and a little hunger at times, and not a little restlessness always, was all. But then — ah, then my troubles began. Yet God, who bringeth light out of darkness, hath brought good even out of my weakness and presumption and half-unconscious falsehood. When do you go?"

"To-morrow morning, as I purpose."

"Then God be with thee! He is with thee, only my prayer is that thou mayst know it. He is with me, and I know it. He does not find this chamber too mean or dingy or unclean to let me know him near me in it."

"Tell me one thing before I go," said Clementina: "are we not commanded to bear each other's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ? I read it to-day."

"Then why ask me?"

"For another question: does not that involve the command to those who have burdens that they should allow others to bear them?"

"Surely, my lady. But I have no burden to let you bear."

"Why should I have everything and you nothing? Answer me that."

"My lady, I have millions more than you, for I have been gathering the crumbs under my Master's table for thirty years."

"You are a king," answered Clementina. "But a king needs a handmaiden somewhere in his house: that let me be in yours. No, I will be proud, and assert my rights: I am your daughter. If I am not, why am I here? Do you not remember telling me that the adoption of God meant a closer relation than any other fatherhood, even his own first fatherhood, could signify? You cannot cast me off if you would. Why should you be poor when I am rich? You are poor: you cannot deny it," she concluded with a serious playfulness.

"I will not deny my privileges," said the schoolmaster, with a smile such as might have acknowledged the possession of some exquisite and envied rarity.

"I believe," insisted Clementina, "you are just as poor as the apostle Paul when he sat down to make a tent, or as our Lord himself after he gave up carpentering."

"You are wrong there, my lady. I am not so poor as they must often have been."

"But I don't know how long I may be away, and you may fall ill, or — or — see some — some book you want very much, or ——"

"I never do," said the schoolmaster.

"What! never see a book you want to have?"

"No, not now. I have my Greek Testament, my Plato, and my Shakespeare, and one or two little books besides whose wisdom I have not yet quite exhausted."

"I can't bear it!" cried Clementina, almost on the point of weeping. "You will not let me near you. You put out an arm as long as the summer's, and push me away from you. Let me be your servant." As she spoke she rose, and walking softly up to him where he sat, kneeled at his knees and held out suppliantly a little bag of white silk tied with crimson. "Take it — father," she said, hesitating, and bringing the word out with an effort: "take your daughter's offering — a poor thing to show her love, but something to ease her heart."

He took it, and weighed it up and down in his hand with an amused smile, but his eyes full of tears. It was heavy. He opened it. A chair was within his reach: he emptied it on the seat of it, and laughed with merry delight as its contents came tumbling but. "I never saw so much gold in my life if it were all taken together," he said. "What beautiful stuff it is! But I don't want it, my dear. It would but trouble me." And as he spoke he began to put it in the bag again. "You will want it for your journey," he said.

"I have plenty in my reticule," she answered. "That is a mere nothing to what I could have to-morrow morning for writing a cheque. I am afraid I am very rich. It is such a shame! But I can't well help it. You must teach me how to become poor. Tell me true: how much money have you?" She said this with such an earnest look of simple love that the schoolmaster made haste to rise that he might conceal his growing emotion.

"Rise, my dear lady," he said as he rose himself, "and I will show you." He gave her his hand, and she obeyed, but troubled and disappointed, and so stood looking after him while he went to a drawer. Thence, searching in a corner of it, he brought a half-sovereign, a few shillings, and some coppers, and held them out to her on his hand with the smile of one who had proved his point. "There!" he said, "do you think Paul would have stopped preaching to make a tent so long as he had as much as that in his pocket? I shall have more on Saturday, and I always carry a month's rent in my good old watch, for which I never had much use, and now have less than ever."

Clementina had been struggling with herself, now she burst into tears.

"Why, what a misspending of precious sorrow!" exclaimed the schoolmaster. "Do you think because a man has not a gold-mine he must die of hunger? I once heard of a sparrow that never had a worm left for the morrow, and died a happy death notwithstanding." As he spoke he took her handkerchief from her hand and dried her tears with it. But he had enough ado to keep his own back. "Because I won't take a bagful of gold from you when I don't want it," he went on, "do you think I should let myself starve without coming to you? I promise you I will let you know — come to you if I can — the moment I get too hungry to do my work well and have no money left. Should I think it a disgrace to take money from you? That would show a poverty of spirit such as I hope never to fall into. My sole reason for refusing now is that I do not need it."

But for all his loving words and assurances Clementina could not stay her tears. She, was not ready to weep, but now her eyes were as a fountain.

"See, then, for your tears are hard to bear, my daughter," he said, "I will take one of these golden ministers, and if it has flown from me ere you come, seeing that, like the raven, it will not return if once I let it go, I will ask you for another. It may be God's will that you should feed me for a time."

"Like one of Elijah's ravens," said Clementina, with an attempted laugh that was really a sob.

"Like a dove whose wings are covered with silver and her feathers with yellow gold," said the schoolmaster.

A moment of silence followed, broken only by Clementina's failures in quieting herself.

"To me," he resumed, "the sweetest fountain of money is the hand of love, but a man has no right to take it from that fountain except he is in want of it. I am not. True, I go somewhat bare, my lady; but what is that when my Lord would have it so?"

He opened again the bag, and slowly, reverentially indeed, drew from it one of the new sovereigns with which it was filled. He put it in a waistcoat pocket and laid the bag on the table.

"But your clothes are shabby, sir," said Clementina, looking at him with a sad little shake of the head.

"Are they?" he returned, and looked down at his lower garments, reddening and anxious. "I did not think they were more than a little rubbed, but they shine somewhat," he said. "They are indeed polished by use," he went on with a troubled little laugh: "but they, have no holes yet — at least none that are visible," he corrected. "If you tell me, my lady, if you honestly tell me, that my garments" — and he looked at the sleeve of his coat, drawing back his head from it to see it better — "are unsightly, I will take of your money and buy me a new suit." Over his coat-sleeve he regarded her, questioning.

"Everything about you is beautiful," she burst out. "You want nothing but a body that lets the light through." She took the hand still raised in his survey of his sleeve, pressed it to her lips, and walked with even more than her wonted state slowly from the room.

He took the bag of gold from the table and followed her down the stair. Her chariot was waiting her at the door. He handed her in, and laid the bag on the little seat in front.

"Will you tell him to drive home?" she said with a firm voice, and a smile which if any one care to understand let him read Spenser's fortieth sonnet. And so they parted. The coachman took the queer, shabby, un-London-like man for a fortune-teller his lady was in the habit of consulting, and paid homage to his power with the handle of his whip as he drove away. The schoolmaster returned to his room — not to his Plato, not even to Saul of Tarsus, but to the Lord himself.