A SPARED LIFE

A great sorrow is like a mountain in our way: we must either climb
to its top, or lie grovelling at its base. If we grovel, the path of
life is blocked up for ever, and the shadow of our misery is upon us
night and day. If we climb, we shall find purer air and fairer regions.
Heaven will be nearer to us, the world will lie beneath our feet;–we
shall bless God for the trial that has lifted us so high above our old
selves. We shall comprehend a little of the vast Love that reared the
mountain;–ay, we shall break forth into singing, “Thou, Lord, of Thy
goodness, hast made my hill so strong!”

It was clear that Helen would never climb her mountain. In the old
days, although she was three years older than her cousin, Rhoda had
found out that nothing would ever lift her above the dead level of
life. Always beautiful, always common-place, always a little sly–such
were her childish characteristics, and they were unaltered by time.
Her beauty was of that kind which inevitably gives a false impression.
Every smile was a poem; every glance seemed to tell of thoughts
too deep for words. She was the very impersonation of the German
Elle-maid–as hollow a piece of loveliness as ever sat by the roadside
in the old Schwarzwald, and lured unwary travellers to accept the fatal
goblet or kiss.

When she said, tearfully, that Robert Clarris had fallen in love at
their first interview, and would not rest till he had married her,
Rhoda knew that she spoke the simple truth. No one who looked into the
eloquent brown eyes, and watched the play of the sweet lips, could
marvel at Robert’s impetuosity. One could understand how that fair face
had drawn out the old Samson cry, “Get her for me, for she pleaseth me
well.”

“I might have done far better, Rhoda,” she said, plaintively; “but I
had a hard situation, and I wanted to get out of it. You don’t know
the misery of being nursery governess. One is just like the bat in the
fable, neither a bird nor a beast–neither a lady nor a servant. The
position is bad enough for an ugly girl; but it is ten times worse for
a pretty one.”

No one could blame Helen for speaking of her beauty as an established
fact.

“When I was married to Robert,” she continued, “I soon began to
be disappointed in him. There was an end to all the nice little
attentions. I was almost his goddess until I became his wife.”

“Oh, that’s a very old story,” responded Rhoda. “Lovers are just like
our old apple trees; one would think to see the quantity of blossom
that there would be a deal of fruit; but there never is. Great promise
and small fulfilment–that’s always the case with men.”

“He was dreadfully stingy,” went on Helen. “He worried me sadly about
my expenses. I was not allowed enough money to keep myself decently
dressed. I think he liked to see me shabby.”

“You are wearing a very good dress at this moment,” remarked Rhoda.

“Yes, this is well enough,” answered her cousin, colouring slightly. “I
was obliged to get things without his leave sometimes, or I should have
looked like a scarecrow. Robert would never believe that I wanted any
clothes.”

“What did he do with the money that he stole?” Rhoda asked abruptly.

“How should I know?” sighed Helen. “He never gave a shilling of it to
me. One day he came home and told me, quite suddenly, that his sin must
be discovered. I thought that he was crazed, and when I found that he
was in his right mind, I nearly lost my senses. Never get married,
Rhoda; take my advice, and be a single woman. It’s the only way to keep
out of misery.”

“I’m not thinking of marrying, Helen,” replied Rhoda, rather sharply;
“but every marriage is not such a mistake as yours has been. God knew
what He was about, I suppose, when He brought Adam and Eve together.
There’s little sense in abusing a good road just because you couldn’t
walk upright on it.”

“You would not have found it easy to walk with Robert,” said Helen,
mournfully. “And now he has gone off, and has left me sticking in the
mire! It’s worse than being a widow.”

Rhoda melted at once at the thought of Helen’s desolate condition.

“Perhaps he may really get on in Australia,” she rejoined, trying to
speak hopefully; “and then he may send for you and the child.”

“Oh, I hope not!” returned Helen, with a little start. “If he gets on,
he will send home money for us; but I do not want to live with him
again.”

There can be no separation so utter and hopeless as that which parts
two who have been made one. The closer the union, the more complete is
the disunion. Even at that moment, when Rhoda’s wrath was hot against
Robert Clarris, she was struck with Helen’s entire lack of wifely
feeling. She could almost have pitied the man who had so thoroughly
alienated the mother of his child. And then she reflected that this
dread of reunion on Helen’s part told fearfully against him. Helen was
weak, but was she not also gentle and affectionate? Better, indeed, was
it for them to keep asunder until another life should present each to
the other under a new aspect.

She did not pursue the subject further. With a sudden desire to be away
from Helen and her troubles, she wrapped herself in a thick shawl,
and went up the fields that rose behind the cottage. On the highest
land the farmer was mending a fence. She could hear the strokes of his
mallet as he drove the stakes into the ground.

As Rhoda drew near, she stood still and looked at him–a hale, handsome
man, whose face, fringed by an iron-grey beard, was like a rosy russet
apple set in grey lichen. His smock-frock showed white against the
dark background of brown trees. The air was so quiet that one could
listen to his breathing as his strong arms dealt the sturdy blows.

She was proud of him as she stood there in the wide field watching him
unseen. He would leave her nothing save the legacy of an unstained
name, but the worth thereof was far above rubies. No one would sneer
at her as the daughter of a disgraced man. No one would whisper, “She
comes of a bad stock; take heed how you trust her.” Many a rogue has
wriggled out of well-earned punishment with the aid of his sire’s good
name. Many an honest Christian has gone groaning through life under the
burden of a parent’s evil reputation.

With this pride in him Rhoda was unconsciously blending a pride
in herself. “Some eyes,” she thought, “are too blind to see their
blessings; I am quick of sight. The Author and Giver of all good things
finds in me a grateful receiver.”

Thus she loudly echoed the Pharisee’s cry “Lord, I thank Thee that I
am not as other men.” And never, perhaps, is the Divine patience so
severely tried as when that self-complacent voice is heard. How sweet
in Christ’s ears must be those other voices–stealing up to Him through
the egotist’s loveless _Te Deum_–breathing the publican’s old prayer,
“God be merciful to me a sinner!”

It was a day of sober brightness. A white mist had risen above the
western slopes, and the setting sun shone through it. Brown furrows
had begun to take a rich auburn tinge; tree-shadows crept farther and
farther across the green sod; crows flew heavily homewards. From the
wet thickets came the old fresh ferny scents, sweetening the calm air.
The mallet blows ceased; the farmer had ended his task, and turned
towards his daughter.

“You are not sorry to get back to our fields, Rhoda?” he said. “You’ll
see the primroses showing their pretty faces by-and-by. Ah, it seems
but yesterday that you and Helen were filling your pinafores with
them!”

“Helen’s winter has come before its time, father,” answered Miss
Farren, gravely. “Her wicked husband has made her life desolate.”

“And his own too,” added the farmer, in a pitying tone.

“That is as it should be,” returned Rhoda, quickly. “He has escaped the
punishment he merited; but there’s satisfaction in knowing that God’s
justice will surely reach him.”

“Ay,” murmured the farmer softly, “God’s mercy will surely reach him.”

“God’s favour is for those who walk uprightly,” said Rhoda.

“Ah, Rhoda, the mercy is granted before they learn to walk uprightly,”
replied her father. “It comes to those who have fallen and are ready to
perish. There are few of us who can see ourselves in every criminal, as
old Baxter did. And there are fewer still who can believe that a man
may come out of the Slough of Despond cleaner than he went in.”

They turned towards the house, walking silently down the green slopes.
Rhoda was angry and perplexed; what was the use of living a respectable
life if sinners were to be highly esteemed? When she spoke again it was
in a harsh tone.

“Robert Clarris has found defenders, it seems! A man who has committed
such a crime as his should scarcely be so lightly forgiven!”

“There is one thing I’d have you remember, Rhoda,” said the farmer,
patiently, “and that is, the difference between falling into sin and
living in sin. It’s just the difference between the man who loves and
hugs his disease and he who writhes under it, and longs to be cured.”

“Even supposing that this is Robert’s first fault,” continued Miss
Farren, “there must have been a long course of unsteady walking before
such a fall could be brought about.”




“Maybe not,” her father responded. “Some men lose their characters,
Rhoda, as others lose their lives, by being off their guard for one
moment. And when you talk of God’s justice, recollect that it means
something very different from man’s judgment. The Lord hates the sin
worse than we do, but He knows what we can never know–the strength of
the temptation.”

By that time the pair had descended the last slope, and were drawing
near the cottage. The back-door stood open. Rhoda could see the red
glow of the kitchen fire, and the outline of her mother’s figure as she
moved to and fro. It was a pleasant glimpse of household warmth and
light, and it charmed her ill temper away. But she did not remember
that there might be wanderers in the world at that moment–driven out
into life’s wilderness by sin–whose hearts would well-nigh break at
this little glimpse of a home. She did not think of that awful sense of
loss which crime must leave behind it. Perhaps that open house-door had
suggested thoughts like these to the farmer, for he paused before they
entered.

“Rhoda,” he said, solemnly, “never fall into the mistake of thinking
that sinners aren’t punished enough. It’s a very common blunder. Many a
man might have hanged himself, as Judas did, if Christ hadn’t stepped
in and shown him what the atonement is. It is to the Davids and Peters
and Sauls that He says, ‘Where sin abounded, grace did much more
abound.'”

November came to an end. December set in with biting winds and gloomy
skies, and then followed a sharp, wintry Christmas.

It was a hard time for the birds. Rhoda would sit at the window
and watch them congregating on the brier-bush in the corner of the
garden. Now it was a plump thrush, puffing out its speckled breast,
and feasting on the scarlet hips; now it was a blackbird, with dusky
plumage and yellow bill. Then a score of finches and sparrows would
alight on the frozen snow, and quarrel over the crumbs that she had
scattered there. All day the sky was grey and clear; but sometimes at
sunset, a flush would rest upon the white fields, tinting them with the
delicate pink of half-opened apple-blossoms.

On Christmas Eve, Rhoda Farren sat watching the hungry birds no
longer. A little human life was drawing very near to immortality. The
baby–Helen’s wee, fragile baby–was hovering between two worlds.

And then, for the first time, all Rhoda’s sleeping instincts started
up, awake and strong. Anger and selfishness were alike forgotten. Let
the solemn feet of death be heard upon the threshold of the house,
and all the petty wranglings of its inmates are stilled. He was
coming–“the angel with the amaranthine wreath”–but Rhoda held the
little one in her arms, and prayed the Father to shut the door against
him.

We know not what we ask when we pray for a child’s life. We are
pleading with the Good Shepherd that He will leave a little lamb in the
wilderness instead of taking it into the fold. We are asking that it
may tread the long, toilsome way home, instead of the short, smooth
path that leads straight to rest. Surely our Lord never loves us better
than when He says nay to such prayers as these. When we become even
as they–the little children–and enter into the kingdom, we shall
understand the infinite compassion of His denial.

Christmas night closed in; and outside the cottage, the mummers, gay in
patchwork and ribbons, clashed their tin swords, and sang their foolish
rhymes. John went out and entreated them to go away. A glance through
the open door showed Rhoda the clear, broad moonlight, shining over
the snow-waste, and she heard the subdued voices of the men as they
went off to some happier house. Then the door closed again, and she saw
nothing but the little child’s wan face.

“If it were taken,” she thought, “they should all feel something as the
shepherds did when ‘the angels were gone away from them into heaven.'”
Even she had begun to realize that a babe is indeed God’s angel in
a household. Often, like those Christmas angels, it stays just long
enough to be the messenger of peace and good-will, and then returns
to Him who sent it. Like them, it leaves us without an earth-stain on
its vesture; without a regret for the world from which it is so soon
withdrawn.

But Helen’s little one was to remain. The household rejoiced, and Rhoda
learnt to recognise herself in a new character. She became the baby’s
head-nurse and most devoted slave.

“Was there ever such a child?” she asked, as it gained strength and
beauty. “It will be as pretty as Helen by-and-by.”

“It has a look of Robert,” said the farmer, thoughtfully.

Rhoda’s smiles fled. She wanted to forget the relationship between
that man and her darling. Nor was she without a fear that it might
have inherited some touch of his evil nature. Her heart never softened
towards him because he was the father of the child. And yet how much
richer her life had grown since she had taken the baby into it!

The snow lay long upon the ground. It was so lengthened a winter, that
spring seemed to come suddenly. There was a burst of primroses on the
borders of the fields. They lit up shady places with their pale yellow
stars, and spread themselves out in sheets. Every puff of wind was
sweet with the breath of violets; birds sang their old carols–now two
or three clear notes–now a shake–then a long whistle. All God’s works
praised Him in the freshness of their new life. Old dry stumps, that
Rhoda had thought dead and useless, began to put forth green shoots.
The earth teemed with surprises; all around there was a continual
assertion of vitality. And so hard is it to distinguish the barrenness
of winter from the barrenness of death, that every spring has its
seeming miracles. The tree that our impatient hands had well-nigh hewn
down may be our sweetest shelter in the heat of summer noontide.

Not until the high winds had sent the blossoms drifting over the
orchards like a second snowfall, did there come news of Helen’s husband.

The tidings came through Mr. Elton. Clarris had written to him,
enclosing a letter for his wife. He had also sent notes to the amount
of forty pounds to his former employer. From time to time he promised
money should be forwarded until the whole sum that he had taken was
restored.

“I believe,” wrote Mr. Elton to the farmer, “that he will keep his
word. He does not, he declares, hope to wipe out his sin by this
restitution. ‘I am not one whit better than any other criminal,’ he
writes, ‘but I have been more leniently dealt with than most of my
brethren. God’s mercy, acting through you, has done much for me.'”

Helen did not show Rhoda the letter that had been received. She was
paler and sadder after reading it, but she said nothing about its
contents. Rhoda took the child in her arms, leaving its mother sitting
in silence, and went out into the garden.

The wild winds had sunk to rest. A light shower had fallen in the early
morning, beating out the sweetness of the new-born roses, and the long,
soft grass. The old walks glittered and twinkled in the sunshine. The
sky was radiantly blue, and the clouds were fair.

“After all,” thought Rhoda, looking upward with a sudden lifting of the
spirit, “heaven is full of forgiven sinners!”

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