"O-o-o! Danny, oho-o-o! five o'clock!"
The clear young voice of Esther North floated across the snowy fields to the hill where the children of Glendour were coasting. Her brother Daniel, plodding up the trampled path beside the glairy track with half a dozen other boys, dragging the bob-sled on which his little sister Ruth was seated, heard the call with vague sentiments of dislike and rebellion. His twelve years rose up in arms against being ordered by a girl, even if she was sixteen and had begun to put up her hair and lengthen her skirts. She was a nice girl, to be sure--the prettiest in Glendour. But she might have had more sense than to call out that way before all the crowd. He had a good mind to pretend not to hear her.
But his comrades were not so minded. They had no idea of letting him evade the situation. They wanted him to stay, but he must do it like a man.
"Listen at your nurse already?" said one of the older lads mockingly; "she's a-callin' you. Run along home, boy!"
"Aw, no!" pleaded a youngster, not yet master of the art of irony. "Don't you mind her, Dan! The coast is just gettin' like glass, and you're the onliest one to steer the bob. You stay!"
"Please, Danny," said Ruth, keeping her seat as the sled stopped at the top of the hill, "only once more down! I ain't a bit tired."
"Dannee-ee-ee! O _Danny_!" came the sweet vibrant call again. "Five o'clock--come on--remember!"
Daniel remembered. The rules of the Rev. Nathaniel North's house were like the law of the Medes and Persians. Daniel had never met a Mede or a Persian, but in his mind he pictured them as persons with reddish-gray hair and beards and smooth-shaven upper lips, wearing white neckcloths and long black broadcloth coats, and requiring absolute punctuality at meal time, church time, school time, and family prayers. Esther's voice recalled him from the romance of the coasting-hill to the reality of life. He considered the consequences of being late for Saturday evening worship and made up his mind that they were too much for him.
"Come on, Ruthie," he cried, picking up the cord of her small sled, which she had forsaken for the greater glory and excitement of riding behind her brother on the bob. The child put her hand in his, and they ran together over the creaking snow to the place where their older sister was waiting, her slender figure in blue jacket and skirt outlined against the white field, and her golden hair shining like an aureole around her rosy face in the intense bloom of the winter sunset.
The three young Norths were the flower of Glendour: a Scotch village in western Pennsylvania, where the spirits of John Knox and Robert Burns lived face to face, separated by a great gulf. On one side of the street, near the river, was the tavern, where the lights burned late, and the music went to the tune of "Wandering Willie" and "John Barleycorn." On the other side of the street, toward the hills, was the Presbyterian church, where the sermons were an hour long, and the favourite lyric was
"A charge to keep I have."
The Rev. Nathaniel North's "charge to keep" was the spiritual welfare of the elect, and especially of his own motherless children. To guide them in the narrow way, unspotted from the world, to train them up in the faith once delivered to the saints and in the customs which that faith had developed among the Scotch Covenanters, was the great desire of his heart. For that desire he would gladly have suffered martyrdom; and into the fulfilling of his task he threw a strenuous tenderness, a strong, unfaltering, sincere affection that bound his children to him by a love which lay far deeper than all their outward symptoms of restiveness under his strict rule.
This is a thing that seldom gets into stories. People of the world do not understand it. They are strangers to the intensity of religious passion, and to the swift instinct by which the heart of a child surrenders to absolute sincerity. This was what the North children felt in their father--a devotion that was grave, stern, almost fierce in its single-hearted attachment to them. He was theirs altogether. He would not let them dance or play cards. The theatre and even the circus were tabooed to them. Novel-reading was discouraged and no books were admitted to the house which had not passed under his censorship. All this seemed strange to them; they could not comprehend it; at times they talked together about the hardship of it--the two older ones--and made little plots to relax or circumvent the paternal rule. But in their hearts they accepted it, because they knew their father loved them better than any one else in the world, and they trusted him because they felt that he was a true man and a good man.
You see they were not "children in fiction"; they were real children--and beautiful, high-spirited children too. Esther was easily the "fairest of the village maids," and the head of her class in the high-school; Daniel, a leader in games among the boys of his age; even eight-year-old Ruth with her fly-away red hair and her wide brown eyes had her devoted admirers among the younger lads. It was evident to the Rev. Nathaniel North that his children were destined to have the perilous gift of popularity, and with all his natural pride in them he was tormented with anxiety on their account. How to protect them from temptation, how to shield them from the vain allurements of wealth and folly and fashion, how to surround them with an atmosphere altogether serious and devout and pure, how to keep them out of reach of the evil that is in the world--that was the tremendous problem upon which his mind and his heart laboured day and night.
Of course he admitted, or rather he positively affirmed, according to orthodox doctrine, that there was Original Sin in them. Under every human exterior, however fair, he postulated a heart "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked." This he regarded as a well-known axiom of theology, but it had no bearing at all upon the fact of experience that none of his children had ever lied to him, and that he would have been amazed out of measure if one of them should ever do a mean or a cruel thing. Yet he believed, all the same, that the mass of depravity must be there, in the nature which they inherited through him from Adam, like a heap of tinder, waiting for the fire. It was his duty to keep the fire from touching them, to guard them from the flame, even the spark, of worldliness. He gave thanks for his poverty which was like a wall about them. He prayed every night that no descendant of his might ever be rich. He was grateful for the seclusion and plainness of the village of Glendour in which vice certainly did not glitter.
"Separate from the world," he said to himself often; "that is a great mercy. No doubt there is evil here, as everywhere; but it is not gilded, it is not attractive. For my children's sake I am glad to live in obscurity, to keep them separate from the world."
But they were not conscious of any oppressive sense of separation as they walked homeward, through the saffron after-glow deepening into crimson and violet. The world looked near to them, and very great and beautiful, tingling with life even through its winter dress. The keen air, the crisp snow beneath their feet, the quivering stars that seemed to hang among the branches of the leafless trees, all gave them joy. They were healthily tired and heartily hungry; a good supper was just ahead of them, and beyond that a long life full of wonderful possibilities; and they were very glad to be alive. The two older children walked side by side pulling the sled with Ruth, who was willing to confess that she was "just a little mite tired" now that the fun was over.
"Esther," said the boy, "what do you suppose makes father so quiet and solemn lately--more than usual? Has anything happened, or is it just thinking?"
"Well," said the girl, who had a touch of the gentle tease in her, "perhaps it is just the left-over sadness from finding out that you'd been smoking!"
"Huh," murmured Dan, "you drop that, Essie! That was two weeks ago--besides, he didn't find out; I told him; and I took my medicine, too--never flinched. That's all over. More likely he remembers the fuss you made about not being let to go with the Slocums to see the theatre in Pittsburgh. You cried, baby! I didn't."
The boy rubbed the back of his hand reminiscently against the leg of his trousers, and Esther was sorry she had reminded him of a painful subject.
"Anyway," she said, "you had the best of it. I'd rather have gone, and told him about it, and taken a whipping afterward."
"What stuff! You know dad wouldn't whip a girl--not to save her life. Besides, when a thing's done, and 'fessed, and paid for, it's all over with dad. He's perfectly fair, I must say that. He doesn't nag like girls do."
"Now _you_ drop _that_, Danny, and I'll tell you what I think is the matter with father. But you must promise not to speak to him about it."
"All right, I promise. What is it?"
"I guess--now mind, you mustn't tell--but I'm almost sure it is something about our Uncle Abel. A letter came last month, postmarked Colorado; and last week there was another letter in the same handwriting from Harrisburg. Father has been reading them over and over, and looking sadder each time. I guess perhaps Uncle Abel is in trouble or else----"
"You mean father's rich brother that lives out West? Billy Slocum told me about him once--says he's a king-pin out there, owns a mine a mile deep and full of gold, keeps lots of fast horses, wins races all over the country. He must be great. You mean him? Why doesn't father ever speak of him?"
The girl nodded her head and lowered her voice, glancing back to see that Ruth was not listening.
"You see," she continued, "father and Uncle Abel had a break--not a quarrel, but a kind of a divide--when they were young men. Lucy Slocum heard all about it from her grandmother, and told me. They were in a college scrape together, and father took his punishment, and after that he was converted, and you know how good he is. But his brother got mad, and he ran away from college, out West, and I reckon he has been--well, pretty bad. They say he gambled and drank and did all sorts of things. He said the world owed him a fortune and a good time. Now he's got piles of money and a great big place he calls Due North, with herds of cattle and ponies and a house full of pictures and things. I guess he's quieted down some, but he isn't married, and they say he isn't at all religious. He's what they call a free-thinker, and he just travels around with his horses and spends money. I suppose that is why father does not speak of him. You know he thinks that's all wrong, very wicked, and he wants to keep us separate from it all."
The boy listened to this long, breathless confidence in silence, kicking the lumps of snow in the road as he trudged along.
"Well," he said, "it seems kind of awful to have two brothers divided like that, doesn't it, Essie? But I suppose father's right, he 'most always is. Only I wish they'd make it up, and Uncle Abel would come here with some of his horses, and perhaps I could go West with him some time to make a start in life."
"Yes," added the girl, "and wouldn't it be fine to hear him tell about his adventures. And then perhaps he'd take an interest in us, and make things easier for father, and if he liked my singing he might give the money to send me to the Conservatory of Music. That would be great!"
"Yes," piped up the voice of Ruth from the sled, "and I wish he'd take us all out to Due North with him to see the ponies and the big house. That would be just lovely!"
Esther looked at Dan and smiled. Then she turned around.
"You little pitcher," she laughed, "what do you have such long ears for? But you must keep your mouth shut, anyway. Remember, I don't want you to speak to father about Uncle Abel."
"I didn't promise," said Ruth, shaking her head, "and I want him to come--it'll be better'n Santa Claus."
By this time the children had arrived at the little red brick parsonage, with its white wooden porch, on the side street a few doors back of the church. They stamped the snow off their feet, put the sled under the porch, hung their coats and hats in the entry, and went into the parlour on the stroke of half past five.
Over the mantel hung an engraving of "The Death-Bed of John Knox," which they never looked at if they could help it; on the opposite wall a copy of Reynolds's "Infant Samuel," which they adored. The pendent lamp, with a view of Jerusalem on the shade and glass danglers around the edge, shed a strong light on the marble-topped centre-table and the red plush furniture and the pale green paper with gilt roses on it.
On Saturday evening family worship came before supper. The cook and the maid-of-all-work were in their places on the smallest chairs, beside the door. On the sofa, where the children always sat, their Bibles were laid out. The father was in the big arm-chair by the centre-table with the book on his knees, already open.
The passage chosen was the last chapter of the Epistle of James. The deep, even voice of Nathaniel North sounded through that terrible denunciation of unholy riches with a gravity of conviction far more impressive than the anger of the modern muck-raker. The hearts of the children, remembering their conversation, were disturbed and vaguely troubled. Then came the gentler words about patience and pity and truthfulness and the healing of the sick. At the end each member of the house-hold was to read a sentence in turn and try to explain its meaning in a few words. The portion that fell to little Ruth was this:
"_The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much._"
She stumbled over the two longer words, but she gave her comment clearly enough in her childish voice.
"That means if we obey Him, God will do anything we ask, I suppose."
The father nodded. "Right, my child. If we keep the commandments our prayers are sure of an answer. But remember that the people in the first part of the chapter have no such promise."
There was an unusual fervour in the prayer which closed the worship that night. Nathaniel North seemed to be putting his arms around the family to shield them from some unseen danger. The children, whose thoughts had wandered a little, while he was remembering the Jews and the heathen and the missionaries, in the customary phrases, felt their hearts dimly moved when he asked that his house might be kept from the power of darkness and the ravening wolves of sin, kept in unbroken purity and peace, holy and undefiled. The potent sincerity of his love came upon them. They believed with his faith; they consented with his will.
At the supper-table there was pleasant talk about books and school work and games and the plan to make a skating-pond in one of the lower fields that could be flooded after the snow had fallen. Nathaniel North, with all his strictness, was very near to his children; he wished to increase and to share their rightful happiness; he wanted them to be separate from the world but not from him. It was when they were talking of the coming school exhibition that Ruth dropped her little surprise into the conversation.
"Father," she said, "will Uncle Abel be here then? Oh, I wish he would come. I want to see him ever so much!"
He looked at her with astonishment for a moment. Esther and Daniel exchanged glances of dismay. They did not know what was coming. A serious rebuke from their father was not an easy thing to face. But when he spoke there was no rebuke in his voice.
"Children," he said, "it is strange that one of you should speak to me of my brother Abel when I have never spoken of him to you. But it is only natural, after all, and I should have foreseen it and been more frank with you. Have other people told you of him?"
"Oh, yes," they cried, with sparkling looks, but the father's face grew darker as he noticed their eagerness.
"Let me explain to you about him," he continued gravely. "He was my older brother--a year older--and as boys we were very fond of each other. But one day we had to part because our paths went in opposite directions. He chose the broad and easy way, and I was led into the straight and narrow path. How can two walk together except they be agreed? For ten years I tried to win him back, but without success. At last he told me that he wished me never to address him on the subject of religion again, for he would rather lose both his hands and his feet than believe as I did. He went on with his reckless life, prospering in this world, as I hear, but I have never seen him since that time."
"But wouldn't you like to see him?" said Esther, dropping her eyes. "He must be quite a wonderful man. Doesn't he write to you?"
Her father's lip twitched, but he still spoke sadly and gravely.
"I see you have guessed the answer already. Yes, a letter came from him some time ago, proposing a visit, which I discouraged. Another came this week, saying that he was on his way, driving his own horses across the country, and though he had received no reply from me, he hoped to get here late Saturday--that is, to-night--or Sunday morning. Of course we must welcome my own brother--if he comes."
"Why, he may get here any minute," cried Daniel eagerly; "he's sure to change his wagon for a sleigh in Pittsburgh, and he won't have to drive 'way round by the long bridge, he can cross the river on the ice. I wonder if he's driving that famous long-distance team that Slocum told me about. Oh, that'll be simply great."
"I must go upstairs right away," exclaimed Esther, with brightening face, "to see that the guest room is ready for him when he comes."
"I'll go to help" cried Ruth, clapping her hands. "What fun to have a real uncle here. I guess he'll bring a present for each of us."
"Wait, my children," said the father, lifting his hand, "before you go I have something more to say to you. Your uncle is a man of the world, and you know the world is evil; we have been called to come out of it. He does not think as we do, nor believe as we do, nor live as we do, according to the Word. For one thing, he cares nothing for the sanctity of the Sabbath. Unless he has changed very much, he is not temperate nor reverent. I fear the effect of his example in Glendour. I fear his influence upon you, my children. It is my duty to warn you, to put you on your guard. It will be a hard trial. But we must receive him--if he comes."
"If he comes?" cried Esther, evidently alarmed; "there's no doubt of that, is there, since he has written?"
"My dear, when you know your uncle you will understand that there is always a doubt. He is very irregular and uncertain in all his ways. He may change his mind or be turned aside. No one can tell. But go to your tasks now, my children, and to bed early. I have some work to do in my study."
Each of them kissed him good-night, and he watched them out of the room with a look of tender sternness in his lined and rugged face, anxious, troubled, and ready to give his life to safeguard them from the invisible arrows of sin. Then he went into his long, narrow book-room, but not to work.
Up and down the worn and dingy carpet, between the walls lined with dull grey and brown and black books, he paced with heavy feet. The weight of a dreadful responsibility pressed upon him, the anguish of a spiritual conflict tore his heart. His old affection for his brother seemed to revive and leap up within him, like a flame from smothered embers when the logs are broken open. The memory of their young comradeship and joys together grew bright and warm. He longed to see Abel's face once more.
Then came other memories, dark and cold, crowding in upon him with evil faces to chill and choke his love. The storm of rebellion that led to the parting, the wild and reckless life in the far country, the gambling, the drinking, the fighting, the things that he knew and the things that he guessed--and then, the ways of Abel when he returned, at times, in the earlier years, with his pockets full of money to spend it in the worst company and with a high-handed indifference to all restraint, yet always with a personal charm of generosity and good-will that drew people to him and gave him a strange power over them--and then, Abel's final refusal to listen any more to the pleadings of the true faith, his good-humoured obstinacy in unbelief, his definite choice of the world as his portion, and after that the long silence and the growing rumours of his wealth, his extravagance, his devotion, if not to the lust of the flesh, at least to the lust of the eyes and the pride of life--all these thoughts and pictures rushed upon Nathaniel North and overwhelmed him with painful terror and foreboding. They seemed to loom above him and his children like black clouds charged with hidden disaster. They shook his sick heart with an agony of trembling hatred.
He did not hate his brother--no, never that--and there was the poignant pain of it. The bond of affection rooted in his very flesh, held firm and taut, stretched to the point of anguish, and vibrating in shrill notes of sorrow as the hammer of conviction struck it. He could not cast his brother out of his inmost heart, blot his name from the book of remembrance, cease to hope that the infinite mercy might some day lay hold upon him before it was too late.
But the things for which that brother stood in the world--the ungodliness, the vainglory, the material glitter and the spiritual darkness--these things the minister was bound to hate; and the more he hated the more he feared and trembled. The intensity of this fear seemed for the time to blot out all other feelings. The coming of such a man, with all his attractions, with the glamour of his success, with the odours and enchantments of the world about him, was an incalculable peril. The pastor agonised for his flock, the father for his little ones. It seemed as if he saw a tiger with glittering eyes creeping near and crouching for a spring. It seemed as if a serpent, with bright colours coiled and fatal head poised, were waiting in the midst of the children for one of them to put out a hand to touch it. Which would it be? Perhaps all of them would be fascinated. They were so eager, so innocent, so full of life. How could he guard them in a peril so subtle and so terrible?
He had done all that he could for them, but perhaps it was not enough. He felt his weakness, his helpless impotence. They would slip away from him and be lost--perhaps forever. Already his sick heart saw them charmed, bewildered, poisoned, perishing in ways where his imagination shuddered to follow them.
The torture of his love and terror crushed him. He sank to his knees beside the ink-stained wooden table on the threadbare carpet and buried his face in his arms. All of his soul was compressed into a single agony of prayer.
He prayed that this bitter trial might not come upon him, that this great peril might not approach his children. He prayed that the visitation which he dreaded might be averted by almighty power. He prayed that God would prevent his brother from coming, and keep the home in unbroken purity and peace, holy and undefiled.
From this strange wrestling in spirit he rose benumbed, yet calmed, as one who feels that he has made his last effort and can do no more. He opened the door of his study and listened. There was no sound. The children had all gone to bed. He turned back to the old table to work until midnight on his sermon for the morrow. The text was: "_As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord._"
But that sermon was not to be delivered. Mr. North woke very early, before it was light, and could not find sleep again. In the gray of the morning, when the little day was creeping among the houses of Glendour, he heard steps in the street and then a whisper of voices at his gate. He threw his wrapper around him and went down quietly to open the door.
A group of men were there, with trouble in their faces. They told him of an accident on the river. A sleigh crossing the ice during the night had lost the track. The horses had broken into an air-hole and dragged the sleigh with them. The man went under the ice with the current, and came out a little while ago in the big spring-hole by the point. They had pulled the body ashore. They did not know for sure who it was--a stranger--but they thought--perhaps----
The minister listened silently, shivering once or twice, and passing his hand over his brow as if to brush away something. When their voices paused and ceased, he said slowly, "Thank you for coming to me. I must go with you, and then I can tell." As he went upstairs softly and put on his clothes, he repeated these words to himself two or three times mechanically--"yes, then I can tell." But as he went with the men he said nothing, walking like one in a dream.
On the bank of the river, amid the broken ice and trampled yellow snow, the men had put a couple of planks together and laid the body of the stranger upon them turning up the broad collar of his fur coat to hide his face. One of the men now turned the collar down, and Nathaniel North looked into the wide-open eyes of the dead.
A horrible tremor shook him from head to foot. He lifted his hands, as if he must cry aloud in anguish. Then suddenly his face and figure seemed to congeal and stiffen with some awful inward coldness--the frost of the last circle of the Inferno--it spread upon him till he stood like a soul imprisoned in ice.
"Yes," he said, "this is my brother Abel. Will you carry him to my house? We must bury him."
During the confusion and distress of the following days that frozen rigidity never broke nor melted. Mr. North gave no directions for the funeral, took no part in it, but stood beside the grave in dreadful immobility. He did not mourn. He did not lament. He listened to his friends' consolation as if it were spoken in an unknown tongue. Nothing helped him, nothing hurt, because nothing touched him. He did no work, opened no book, spoke no word if he could avoid it. He moved about his house like a stranger, a captive, shrinking from his children so that they grew afraid to come close to him. They were bewildered and harrowed with pity. They did not know what to do. It seemed as if it were their father and not their uncle who had died.
Every attempt to penetrate the ice of his anguish failed. He gave no sign of why or how he suffered. Most of the time he spent alone in his book-room, sitting with his hands in his lap, staring at the unspeakable thought that paralysed him, the thought that was entangled with the very roots of his creed and that glared at him with monstrous and malignant face above the very altar of his religion--the thought of his last prayer--the effectual prayer, the fervent prayer, the damnable prayer that branded his soul with the mark of Cain, his brother's murderer.
The physician grew alarmed. He feared the minister would lose his reason in a helpless melancholia. The children were heart-broken. All their efforts to comfort and distract their father fell down hopeless from the mask of ice, behind which they saw him like a spirit in prison. Daniel and Ruth were ready to give up in despair. But Esther still clung to the hope that she could do something to rescue him.
One night, when the others had gone to bed, she crept down to the sombre study. Her father did not turn his head as she entered. She crossed the room and knelt down by the ink-stained table, laying her hands on his knee. He put them gently away and motioned her to rise.
"Do not do that," he said in a dull voice.
She stood before him, wringing her hands, the tears streaming down her face, but her voice was sweet and steady.
"Father," she said, "you must tell me what it is that is killing you. Don't you know it is killing us too? Is it right for you to do that? I know it is something more than uncle's death that hurts you. It is sad to lose a brother, but there is something deeper in your heart. Tell me what it is. I have the right to know. I ask you for mother's sake."
He lifted his head and looked at her. His eyelids quivered. His secret dragged downward in his breast like an iron hand clutching his throat-strings. His voice was stifled. But no matter what it cost him, to her, the first child of his love, his darling, he must speak at last.
"You have the right to know, Esther," he said, with a painful effort. "I will tell you what is in my soul. I killed my brother Abel. The night of his death, I knelt at that table and prayed that he might be prevented from coming to this house. My only thought, my only wish was that he must be kept away. That was all I asked for. God killed him because I asked it. His blood is on my soul."
He leaned back in his chair exhausted, and shut his eyes.
The girl stood dazed for a moment, struck dumb by the grotesque horror of what she had heard. Then the light of Heaven-sent faith flashed through her and the courage of human love warmed her. She sprang to her father, sobbing, almost laughing in the joy of triumph. She flung herself across his knees and put her arms around him.
"Father, did you teach us that God is our Father, our real Father?"
The man did not answer, but the girl went bravely on:
"Father, if I asked you to kill Ruth, would you do it?"
The man stirred a little, but he did not open his eyes nor answer, and the girl went bravely on:
"Father, is it fair to God to believe that He would do something that you would be ashamed of? Isn't He better than you are?"
The man opened his eyes. The light of his old faith kindled in them. He answered firmly:
"He is infinite, absolute, and unchangeable. His Word is sure. We dare not question Him. There is the promise--the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."
The girl did not look up. She clung to him more closely and buried her face on his breast.
"Yes, father dear, but if what you asked in your prayer was wrong, were you a righteous man? Could your prayer have any power?"
It was her last stroke--she trembled as she made it. There was a dead silence in the room. She heard the slow clock ticking on the mantel, the wind whistling in the chimney. Then her father's breast was shaken, his head fell upon her shoulder, his tears rained upon her neck.
"Thank God," he cried, "I was a sinner--it was not a prayer--God be merciful to me a sinner!"