Nathan lighted her steps
Along some parts of the coast in South Wales the mountains rise abruptly from the shore, with only a narrow shingle between them and the sea.
High above the coast, however, there are warm, sunny little valleys and dells among the hills, where sheep can find pasture and a fold; and here there are many small farmsteads, surrounded by wild rocks and bleak uplands, where the farmer and his family live with their servants, if they happen to have any, as they used to do in old times, sitting in the same kitchen, and taking their meals together as one household.
Miss Priscilla Parry was the last of three leaseholders of one of these little farms. Her grandfather had enclosed the meadows and the corn-fields from the open mountain, on condition that he should have a lease for three lives from the owner of the land. His own and his son’s had been two of the lives, and Priscilla’s was the third.
The farm was poor, for the land was hard to cultivate. In every field there were places where the rocks pierced through the scanty soil, and stood out, grey and sharp, amid the grass and the ripening corn. The salt-laden winds and the fogs from the sea swept over them. Miss Priscilla spent no money in draining or manuring them; for was not the lease to pass away when she died, and she was nearly sixty years of age already?
But the sheep and the cows throve wonderfully on the short, sweet herbage they browsed on the mountains; and her butter and cheese, and the mutton she sold to the butchers, were known through all the country. Nobody could produce finer. Every one knew she was saving money up in her little mountain farmstead, and the money was being carefully laid by for Rhoda Parry, the niece she had adopted in her infancy and brought up as her own child.
Miss Priscilla was a spare, hard-featured woman, with a weather-stained face, and hands as horny as a man’s with farm-work. Twice a week she wore a bonnet and shawl, when she went to market or church. All other times her head was covered by a cotton hood, which could not be damaged by rain, snow, or wind; and in bad weather she often went about her farm with an old sack over her shoulders. Her shoes were as thick and as heavily nailed as old Nathan’s, her head servant, and she strode in and out of her sheds and stables and pigsties as if she had been a man. It was said she could get more work done for smaller wages than any farmer in the country.
There was not a prettier girl in all the parish, which was ten miles across, than Rhoda Parry, and she was always prettily and daintily dressed. She had her share of the work to do, but it was the easiest and most pleasant. If the weather was fine and clear, she might go to call the cattle home from their cool and breezy pasturage on the mountain side. The cows she had to milk were the gentle ones, that never kicked.
Aunt Priscilla did the churning of the cream, but Rhoda made the butter up into pretty golden pats, and wrapped them in cool, dark-green leaves. Rhoda tended the little flower patches in the garden, whilst her aunt saw to the vegetables. The light home-work, too, was Rhoda’s; but the rough, laborious scrubbing and washing were done by her aunt and the only little maid they kept.
When Rhoda was about eighteen, another niece of Priscilla Parry’s died in London, leaving one little girl quite unprovided for. All the other relatives decided that, as Priscilla was a single woman doing well in the world, it was clearly her duty to adopt the child, and without waiting for her consent, or her refusal, which was the more likely, they packed off little Joan to her great-aunt’s farm.
The child was under six years of age, puny and pale and sickly, having lived most of her time in a close back room, up three pairs of stairs, in a London house of business, where her mother had been housekeeper. Her only playfellow had been a cat, and the prospect from her window had been the walls of the houses on the opposite side of a narrow court, and a mere streak of sky above them.
Miss Priscilla did not at all like to have another child thrown upon her. Her plans had been laid long ago, and to adopt Joan would quite upset them. She intended to make Rhoda independent, that she might have no temptation to marry for a home when her aunt died. Getting married, to Aunt Priscilla, usually meant the greatest misfortune that could befall a woman; and to guard Rhoda from it was the fixed purpose of her life.
Like Queen Elizabeth, she could not forgive anyone belonging to her, man or woman, who was foolish enough to marry. Her old man-servant, Nathan, had escaped this error, like herself; and both of them had lived free and single and wise, as Miss Priscilla Parry often said, even to their old age. Her cherished day-dream was that Rhoda would follow their example, and dwell with her in tranquillity and peace, until she herself closed her eyes, and fell asleep, in the course of twenty years or more, leaving Rhoda a staid, discreet, and unmarried woman of middle age.
Here was another child come, a girl too; and if she grew fond of Joan she would have the same misfortune to dread for her, and feel the same desire to save her from it. But she was a proud woman, proud of her character and name, and she could not turn the desolate child away. She was in some measure religious too, and if it was God’s will, she felt she must take to Joan. But Aunt Priscilla took to Joan as a cross.
To Rhoda, however, Joan was altogether welcome. She had never had a playfellow, and Joan was so small and light and delicate that she seemed almost like a plaything, a living doll. The two were never apart. They rambled together about the breezy mountains, catching glimpses of the blue sea here and there; and they ran down the rough, rocky lane to the village on the shore, two miles away; and they kept house on market-days, as if it had been a merry sort of game, when Aunt Priscilla was away. It was a wonderful change to Joan from her close, dark little room in London.
The farm-house had been built at different times, and though it contained no more than four bedrooms, there were three staircases in it, two of them leading up to single rooms. One of these was set apart for Joan and Rhoda, where the window looked out upon the small garden and the green mountain slopes, with the sea and the sky around and above them.
The two were never apart
The farm kitchen, where they chiefly lived, opened into the fold, round which were built the stables and the cow-sheds, with the barn filling up one side of it, between them and the house. In the middle lay a heap of rotting straw, where the pigs burrowed and the fowls scratched diligently for hidden food; and all round it ran a causeway of large round stones, on which the hoofs of the horses rang, and even the soft, slow tread of the cows could be heard. There was a small blacksmith’s forge at the end of the fold, for old Parry had been something of a smith himself, and Miss Priscilla could quite well overlook the shoeing of her horses and the mending of her cart-wheels.
The house-door was always open, and as there was not a morsel of carpet in the place, not even in the parlour, no one was afraid of dirty footsteps. There seemed to be something of busy and cheerful work going on every day, though the place was so far removed from any town or village.
Miss Priscilla Parry’s head servant, old Nathan, took to Joan from the first. He was a white-headed, strong old man, nearly seventy years of age, but still able to do a fair day’s work, or to take the whole management of affairs, if Miss Priscilla were laid up, which she never had been in all her life. He had lived as a boy with her grandfather, and as a man with her father, and the farm seemed to belong as much to him as to her. Like most of the people about, he was no Churchman; and being very ready of speech he was a favourite preacher to the little congregations meeting in some of the farm-houses scattered about the mountains.
Every Sunday evening there was a service held in Priscilla’s kitchen, when twenty or thirty of the neighbours would come in to listen to Nathan’s sermons. Of late years a number of young men, some of whom came long distances, had been in the habit of attending these Sunday evening meetings.
Old Nathan liked this very much; but Aunt Priscilla’s heart was devoured by anxiety. Some of the new hearers were neighbours’ sons, steady, dull young farmers, too awkward and shame-faced to push themselves forward; but there were others, bold young sailors, used to voyaging hither and thither and to making their own way in strange places, who did not hesitate to put themselves in the very front, close by the settle where she sat, and to sing bass to Rhoda’s treble, and even to find the text for her in the Bible. One of them, a notorious young scamp, Evan Price, was Aunt Priscilla’s greatest plague and aversion; but she never caught a single word or glance from Rhoda which could show that the girl encouraged him, or any one among the others; and as long as that was the case she was willing enough for them to look at her treasure, or long for it, but she could not bear the idea of losing it.
To little Joan everything was delightful. There had been the hay harvest, and the corn harvest, and the cutting of fern on the mountains for winter fodder, and the threshing of the corn on the barn-floor, and the piling up of great heaps of straw in the wide bays on each side of the barn.
And now Christmas was coming. Joan had never kept Christmas, and knew nothing about it. But at Aunt Priscilla’s farm it was a great day, as it always had been since she could remember. Every relative who could come to the farm was invited weeks beforehand; and nothing else was talked of but Christmas Day. The Sunday evening before it came old Nathan’s sermon was all about the shepherds in the field, and how they found the little babe lying in the manger; and he told the story so well that Joan did not go to sleep at all, but sat listening to him with her dark eyes wide open.
“Is it our manger, Rhoda?” she asked, when they went upstairs to their own little room to bed. “Will the babe be lying in our manger to-morrow morning?”
“Perhaps,” answered Rhoda; “nobody knows whose manger He will come to.”
“Oh! I wish it could be ours!” cried Joan eagerly. “I wish Mary and Joseph ’ud bring the little baby here, and the shepherds ’ud come to seek for Him. Wouldn’t you love it, Rhoda?
“Shall we two get up early, very early in the morning, like the shepherds did, and go and look in our manger if He’s there?” asked Rhoda.
“Oh, yes, yes!” answered Joan, almost wild with delight. “Oh! Rhoda, only suppose the baby should be there!”
Long before old Nathan was stirring, or anyone else in the house was awake, Rhoda and Joan crept quietly down their own little staircase, and after lighting the candle in Nathan’s great horn lantern, they let down the bar of the house-door and stepped out into the fold. It was very dark, but the dim light from the lantern sparkled upon a fine hoar-frost, which lay like silver on the causeway and glittered on every straw scattered about the yard. Not a sound was to be heard, except a very soft, low moan from the sea, and that they listened for as they stood still on the doorstep. Joan’s heart was beating fast, and her small fingers clasped Rhoda’s hand tightly as they stole along the causeway to the cow-shed just beyond the barn.
The cow-shed was divided into two, and they passed through the outer one, where the cows were lying in their stalls, and turned their large, sleepy eyes upon the two girls, as if to inquire why they were disturbed so early. In the little shed beyond the fodder and the hay were kept, and the stalls were empty. The barn opened into it, and the deep black space under the high roof of the barn served to deepen the delicious awe in Joan’s little heart. Rhoda herself trembled a little with a strange feeling of seeking something which possibly might be found. She had never realised so vividly that the Lord Jesus Christ was indeed born in a stable and cradled in a manger; and she trod softly, with her heart beating, like Joan’s, faster than usual.
They stood still for a minute on the low door-sill, their lantern casting its dim rays into the silent shed. Behind them was the deep breathing of the cows, and the slow sound of their munching, and all about them was the sweet, familiar scent of the hay. But this silent, empty spot, half lit up by the lantern, seemed a strange, unfamiliar place they hardly dared to enter. Rhoda lingered with a vague awe in her heart, whilst little Joan grasped her hand as if in terror.
“Let us sing ‘Hark! the herald angels!’” whispered Rhoda.
Very softly, with a timid and tremulous voice, Rhoda began the hymn, and little Joan took it up in an undertone. They sang the verses through, gathering courage as they did so. Then with solemn steps they approached the manger and raised the lantern to look into its cradle lined with hay. It was empty.
“I suppose Mary is gone somewhere else,” said little Joan, half grieved; “it wasn’t in her way to come here, p’rhaps, or you and me we’d have been so glad, Rhoda!”
“Perhaps she’ll come next Christmas,” answered Rhoda. “We’ll come and look every Christmas morning, and sing our hymn, and perhaps we shall find them some time — Mary, and Joseph, and the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger. Now we’ll go back, and wake up aunty, and tell her all about it.”
Aunt Priscilla hardly knew what to think of it. Rhoda had always been given to “making believe.” She had often played at being David killing Goliath with a smooth pebble from the brook, or Ruth gleaning in the fields, or the Queen of Sheba, with a crown of cowslips, visiting King Solomon. For the last few years these fancies had left her, but they were all coming back again with little Joan. And going to look for the child Jesus in the manger; was it right or wrong? She spoke privately to Nathan, and the old man smiled, though he shook his white head.
“They’ll grow older and wiser in time,” he said; “and sure the Lord ’ud never be angered wi’ two young creatures seeking after Him in any way!”
But when the next Christmas came all was changed at the farm-house on the mountain. There had been no preparations made for keeping it as a holiday, and no gathering of kinsfolk was invited by Priscilla Parry. Nathan unbarred the kitchen-door, and lighted little Joan across the fold; but she went into the stable alone, and stood on the threshold singing the Christmas hymn with a sad, pale face that wore a lonely and frightened expression. The manger was empty, as it had been the year before; but the home seemed empty too.
All Joan knew of the beginning of this mournful change was, that she awoke one pleasant sunny morning and found Rhoda gone.
That day Aunt Priscilla roamed about the farmstead and the scattered fields her grandfather had enclosed upon the mountain, like one distracted, calling everywhere for Rhoda. The farm-labourers loitered about the fold and the little blacksmith’s shop, whispering mysteriously whenever Joan had been within hearing. There had been nobody to keep them to their work, for Nathan was away all day, and did not return till the late sunset was past and even the loftiest peak of the highest mountain stood grey and dark against the sky.
Nobody had bade Joan to go to bed, and she was afraid of her little, lonely, separate room, if Rhoda was not coming back to sleep with her. Not a single word had Aunt Priscilla spoken to her all the day, and if the young servant-girl had not given her some bread and a bowl of milk she would have been left without food, for Aunt Priscilla had not eaten a morsel, or sat down in the kitchen, since the early morning.
Joan had curled herself up in a corner of the oak settle, which stood as a screen on one side of the corner fireplace, and had fallen fast asleep there, when she was aroused by Nathan’s voice. He spoke so quietly and sadly that it did not quite awake her, and her drowsy ears took in the sound as if he had been talking to some one a long way off. But suddenly Aunt Priscilla spoke, in a voice so terrible and loud that she woke up in a fright. Her aunt was standing in the middle of the floor, and the light from a candle fell upon her face, weary and grey, and drawn into a frown of stern and passionate anger.
“She shall never enter my doors again!” she exclaimed; “neither she nor her husband, Evan Price — the worst scamp in the country! I’ll never forgive her. Deceiving me all these months! Let nobody ever name her name to me again; she’s dead to me for evermore.”
“No, no,” said old Nathan, sorrowfully; “don’t thee harden thy heart against her, Miss Priscilla. She’s been deceived as well as us, poor, young, ignorant lass! She doesn’t know what Evan is yet: a handsome young raskill, as all the girls make much of. If she repents — and she will repent, poor creature — thou must pardon her.”
“Never!” cried Aunt Priscilla, “not on my death-bed!”
“‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive them as sin against us,’” he answered, in a very mournful and solemn voice.
“I’ll never pray that prayer again!” she said fiercely. “I haven’t sinned against the Lord as she’s sinned against me. I’ve never brought shame and disgrace on Him. The Lord may pardon her, but I can’t!”
“Hush!” exclaimed Nathan, “hush! God Himself is hearkening to us. Our sins against Him are as if we owed Him ten thousand talents; and the sins of our fellow-creatures against us are no more than a hundred pence. It is our crucified Lord that says it. Ah! thou knowest it well. ‘O thou wicked servant, said the lord in the parable,’ I forgave thee all that debt because thou desiredst me; shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall My Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother his trespasses.’ It’s an awful thing when the Heavenly Father delivers a soul to the tormentors! May God in His infinite mercy deliver thee; only take heed that thou drive not away His Holy Spirit from thee!”
Aunt Priscilla said no more, but went away upstairs, leaving the kitchen in utter darkness. Joan trembled from head to foot as she listened to her heavy tread in the room above. When old Nathan struck a light, her white, scared little face was the first thing he saw. He sat down on the settle beside her, and took her tenderly into his arms.
“It’s a sad day for thee, too, my little lamb,” he said; “thou’s lost thy playfellow, and there’s hard times before thee.”
“Where’s Rhoda?” asked Joan, trembling.