THE STORY OF THE ONE DARK HOUR

Rhoda tried hard to conceal her loss. Now that the treasure was gone,
she double-locked the casket. No one, she resolved, should know how
poor she was. So well did she play her part, that those around thought
her sterner and harder–that was all.

Her manner to Ralph changed visibly. She began to avoid his company;
their familiar conversations were at an end. Her whole energy was now
devoted to one endeavour–to keep him in ignorance of that which he had
won. If she were poor, he should be none the richer. And thus, poor
soul, she went about her daily duties, putting on a hard face to hide
her weakness. Even Nelly found that Rhoda was not so pleasant as she
used to be, and the child turned more and more to Mr. Channell. Was he
gaining her too?

“I am losing everything, and he is getting everything,” said Rhoda, to
herself. “Perhaps this is God’s way of showing me how small my strength
is. Haven’t I lost the very thing that I thought myself best able to
keep?”

It will always be so with those whom the Lord teaches. In one way or
another the humbling process must be gone through. Sometimes it is seen
of all men; sometimes it is known to Him alone. But as certainly as He
loves us “shall the nail that is fastened in the sure place be removed,
and be cut down and fall; and the burden that was upon it shall be cut
off, for the Lord hath spoken it.” In the soul that He makes his own He
will not leave a single peg to hang self-confidence upon. And when our
chamber walls are bare, and the tawdry rags of self-esteem are swept
out, He will enter and fill the room with sweetness.

One afternoon, in the golden harvest-time, Rhoda and Nelly sauntered up
into the wheat-fields. The reapers were resting under the hedges; in
the largest field nearly all the corn had been gathered into sheaves.
Rhoda tired quickly now; for when the heart is heavy, the limbs are apt
to be weary. She stopped in the middle of the field and dropped down to
rest, leaning her back against a great russet shock. A few stray ears
nodded overhead, and Nelly nestled under their shadow.

She had always been an impulsive child, one of those children who will
ask any question that comes into their heads, and a good many come. She
had no notion of restraining her curiosity. If anything puzzled her,
she must always have it explained.

“Rhoda,” she said, suddenly, in her clear little voice, “what has Mr.
Channell done to offend you? Don’t you like him?”

The words struck Rhoda like a sharp unexpected blow. Without a moment’s
pause she cried out harshly and bitterly–

“I wish he’d never come here, Nelly; I wish you and I had never seen
him!”

Nelly was so startled by the passionate tone that she jumped up from
her seat. As she moved, somebody on the other side of the shock moved
also. It was Mr. Channell. Rhoda turned her head in time to see him
walking away. In an instant she realized that he had heard all, but
she dared not think of the construction that would be put upon her
outburst. Perhaps she had mortally offended her father’s best friend;
perhaps he would go away from them all for ever.

“Oh, what a wretched woman I am!” she groaned, aloud. And then she saw
that Nelly had run off after Ralph Channell.

She rose slowly, and wandered back again to the cottage. The doors and
windows were set wide open. Her mother sat peacefully knitting in the
parlour, but Rhoda went straight upstairs to her own room. Nobody could
do her any good just then. She wanted to be alone and get her senses
together. Her head ached, and she had a dazed, helpless feeling of
having cut herself off from everything comforting. So she sat down for
a few minutes by the bedside, then got up, and fell suddenly on her
knees.

In her prayer she did not get much beyond telling God that she was
miserable. It was rather an outpouring of sorrow than a plea for help.
But it was her first heartfelt confession of utter weakness, and
perhaps that was the best way of asking for strength. The stray sheep
that falls helpless at the Shepherd’s feet is sure to be folded in His
arms and carried in His bosom.

She could not go down and sit at the tea-table as usual, and no one
came to disturb her in her solitude. But at last, when the shadows were
lengthening over the fields, and the distant church-clock struck six,
she heard a footstep on the stairs. The door opened softly, and her
mother’s face looked in.

“May I come to you, Rhoda?” she asked, gently.

“Yes, mother,” Rhoda answered. “I know how shocked and hurt you must
be,” she added. “But, indeed, I couldn’t help it.”

“O Rhoda,” said Mrs. Farren, “we’ve all thought you seemed stern and
strange lately, but we didn’t know until to-day that you had found out
our secret. _He_ says that it has been all wrong from the beginning; he
thinks you ought to have heard the truth at once.”

“The truth, mother?” echoed Rhoda. “What is it that you mean?”

“He says, dear Rhoda, that he ought to have told you who he was,” Mrs.
Farren replied. “He sees now that it was wrong to come here under a new
name.”

“A new name!” her daughter repeated. “For pity’s sake, mother, speak
plainly. Who is he, if he is not Ralph Channell?”

“We all thought you must have found out,” said Mrs. Farren, in a
perplexed tone. “He is poor Helen’s husband–Robert Clarris.”

It was not until some minutes had passed away that Rhoda was calm
enough to hear her mother’s story. The two sat hand in hand, nearer to
each other in heart than they had ever been before. Perhaps Mrs. Farren
had always been a little afraid of her daughter; but now that she had
got a glimpse into Rhoda’s inner self the reserve vanished.

“We had always felt sure that Robert was no practised sinner,” she
began; “but we did not know what it was that had driven him to a
crime–we only guessed something like the truth. O Rhoda, it’s an awful
thing when vanity gets the upper hand with a woman! Poor Helen made a
sad confession to me when she lay dying in this very room. It’s hard to
speak of the faults of the dead; but there’s justice to be done to the
living.”

“Whatever her faults may have been, they were no worse than mine,”
Rhoda said, humbly; “and she has done with sinning now, while I shall
be going on–perhaps for years longer.”

“Helen got deeply into debt,” Mrs. Farren continued; “and she used,
I am afraid, to go to balls and theatres without her husband’s
knowledge. He was sent away sometimes on business by Mr. Elton. But
don’t think her worse than she was, Rhoda–she loved gaiety and
admiration passionately, but she wasn’t a bad woman at heart–he always
knew and believed that; yet she got him into terrible difficulties,
poor child! And at last, when her debts had amounted to three hundred
pounds, she flung herself at his feet and confessed the truth.”

Both the women were crying. It was indeed hard to expose the faults and
follies of the dead. They felt as if they had been tearing the soft
turf and sweet flowers from Helen’s grave; and yet it had to be done.

“Robert was not a converted man at that time,” went on Mrs. Farren.
“The blow knocked him down, and utterly bewildered him. He saw no
means at all of paying the debts, and he knew they must be paid
immediately. Helen hadn’t confessed till her creditors had driven her
to extremities; and he went into the city in a state of despair, for
there was ‘no help for him in his God.’ Perhaps he would have asked aid
from his employer if Mr. Elton had been the owner of the business. But
old Mrs. Elton was a close woman, and her son did nothing without her
consent.”

Rhoda could almost guess what was coming. She could see now that man’s
extremity is often the devil’s opportunity. If a soul does not seek
help from God, the prince of darkness steps in.

“On that very morning,” said Mrs. Farren, “he found a note from Mr.
Elton waiting for him in the office. His master told him that he had
been suddenly called off to Ireland to look after some property there.
He should be absent six weeks–perhaps longer. Clarris was to take his
place and manage things, as he always did while Mr. Elton was away.
And just an hour or two later a sunburnt, sailor-like man came in, and
clapped Robert on the shoulder. Robert, poor fellow, didn’t recollect
him at first; but when he said that he was Frank Ridley, and that he
had come to pay a debt of long standing, he remembered all about him.”

“Oh! mother, why did he come just then?” sighed Rhoda.

“The Lord suffered it to be so,” Mrs. Farren answered. “Christ’s hour
was not yet come. That was the devil’s hour, and a dark hour it was.”

She went on with the story in her own straightforward way. Frank Ridley
and Mr. Elton had been schoolfellows and dear friends. But while Elton
was steady and painstaking, even in boyhood, Frank was a never-do-well.
One chance after another slipped through his fingers; situations were
got and lost. At last some new opening offered itself; but money was
needed, and Frank was at that time almost penniless. He came to Elton
in his strait, and asked for the loan of three hundred pounds.

To everybody’s surprise, Mrs. Elton lent him the sum. She had a liking
for handsome young Ridley, and opened her purse with a good grace for
his sake. But Frank’s undertaking was, as usual, a dead failure, and
the money was hopelessly lost. Ridley himself was lost too. For eight
years he was neither seen nor heard of; and then he turned up again in
Elton’s office with a pocket-book stuffed with bank-notes.




“I’ve found out my vocation at last,” he shouted, in his hearty tones.
“I’m captain of a trading vessel, and I’ve traded on my own account to
good purpose. Here’s the three hundred, and I’m downright sorry that I
must be off again without seeing your governor, Clarris.”

Robert received the money–all in notes–and gave a receipt; and then
the sailor went his way. After that the enemy came in like a flood, and
the deep waters rushed over Robert’s soul. He did not cry, “Lord, save,
or I perish!” Alas! he thought of everything rather than of Him who is
able to save to the uttermost. Here was the exact sum that was needed.
Frank Ridley was off on his voyages again, and would never, perhaps,
return. Robert had only to put the notes in his pocket, and make no
entry in the ledger. Of course there was a certain risk in doing this;
but it was very unlikely that anything would be found out. And here was
the sum–the very sum that was wanted–within his grasp. He would pay
it all back; he would work night and day to do that. He caught at that
honest resolution, and clung to it as a man clings to a frail spar when
the ship goes to pieces.

This was Apollyon’s hour of triumph. Robert went out and paid Helen’s
bills on that very night. But the burden that he had taken up was far
heavier than that which he had thrown off. It was on a Monday morning
that he had received Ridley’s money; and the succeeding days dragged
on as if each day were weighted with iron fetters, till Saturday came.
Robert wrote to his master daily, entering into all the details of
business as minutely as usual. Then on the Sunday morning–that last
Sunday that he ever spent with Helen–he went upstairs after breakfast,
and laid down upon his bed. The sense of sin and shame was upon him; he
would not mock God by going to church and looking like a respectable
man. His wife did not know what ailed him. He had told her that the
debts were paid–that was all.

Monday came again, the anniversary of his sin. And there, on the
office-desk, lay a letter addressed to himself in his master’s
handwriting. It had been written on Saturday, and was dated from Dublin.

“I find I am at liberty to come home at once,” Mr. Elton wrote. “I
have found a friend here who will look after the property for me.
Strangely enough, I ran against Frank Ridley yesterday, and could
scarcely believe my own eyes. He had come to Dublin in quest of an old
sweetheart. He told me that he had called at the office, and had paid
his old debt. He showed me your receipt when I looked incredulous. I am
rather surprised that you did not mention this in your letters.”

Robert Clarris put on his hat and coat and went quietly into the outer
office.

“Blake,” he said, calling the eldest of the under clerks, “I am not
well, and must go home at once. I leave the keys in your charge, for I
know you may be trusted.”

Blake–an honest fellow–looked into Clarris’s face, and saw that he
spoke the truth.

Then followed the last miserable interview with Helen, and the hurried
preparations for flight. His wife entreated that she might go away to
her old home, under her uncle’s roof. She had brought him nothing but
trouble, she owned piteously; and he would get on better without her.
Alas, poor Helen! a sorry helpmeet she had been to the man who had
loved her! These two had not asked the Lord to their marriage-feast,
and had never drunk of the wine of His love. And so they parted, never
to meet again till they should meet at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

In Melbourne there was one Ralph Channell, who had been the friend
of Robert’s father, and the miserable man found him out. He told Mr.
Channell his whole story. Nothing was concealed. The sin, in all its
hideousness, was exposed to Ralph Channell’s sight. And yet he took the
sinner to his heart.

But he tested the young man patiently. He let him scrape and save to
pay back the money that he had stolen; he would not give him a single
farthing. Every shilling of the restored sum was fairly earned in Mr.
Channell’s service, and paid out of a small salary. And all that time
he saw that a mighty work of grace was going on in Robert’s soul.

When Mr. Channell lay dying, a lonely, childless man, he called Robert
to his side. “All my property is yours,” he said; “you are my sole
heir, and you must take my name–ay, and you must make it loved and
honoured in the old country.”

So Robert came to England, full of yearnings for the child whom he had
never seen. From John Farren he learnt that Rhoda’s heart was hardened
against him. And yet, how could he help loving her for the love that
she bare to Nelly? He knew all about Rhoda from her mother’s letters.
And he wanted, more than he ever acknowledged, to see this woman who
could be so hard and yet so tender. The opportunity came. He bought the
farm, and gave it to Farmer Farren; only stipulating that it should
go to Rhoda at her father’s death. And he came to dwell amongst the
Farrens as Ralph Channell.

This was all that the mother had to tell. Rhoda got up, when the tale
was ended, and went quietly out of the house.

The sun had just gone down; but there was light in the west, where rosy
cloud-islands floated in a golden sea. And there was a light in Rhoda’s
face that gave her a new charm.

She knew, by some subtle instinct, where she should find Robert
Channell. She ascended the steep, winding lane, that led to the old
churchyard. How did she guess that one woman’s harshness would send
him to the grave of another? How is it that women go straight
to a conclusion which a man could only reach by a circuitous route?

He neither saw nor heard her coming. His head was bent over that
flowery mound, and the grass deadened the sound of her feet. She had
been very brave until she found herself by his side. And then all her
strength and courage suddenly fled. She had no words to plead for
forgiveness; she could only touch his arm with her trembling hand, and
call him by the name that she had hated all these years,–

“Robert!”

There was very little said just then. The last glow was dying out
of the skies, and the dews were falling on Helen’s grave. But the
Lord lifted up the light of His countenance upon them, and gave them
peace.