The Girl's Own Paper, Vol. VIII_ No. 353, October 2, 1886.
|Vol. VIII.—No. 353.||OCTOBER 2, 1886.||Price One Penny.|
[Transcriber's Note: This Table of Contents was not present in the original.]
THE VALLEY OF HUMILIATION.
erle, I maybe a little old-fashionedinmy notions;middle-agedpeople neveradjust theirideas quite inharmony withyou youngfolk, but in myday we neverpaused tocount fifty ata full stop."
Aunt Agatha'svoicestartled mewith its reproachfulirritability.Well, I haddeserved thatlittle sarcasmfor I mustconfess that I had been reading verycarelessly. My favourite motto was ringingin my ears, "Laborare est orare."
Somehow the words had set themselvesto resonant music in my brain;it seemed as though I were chantingthem inwardly all the time I was climbingdown the steep hill with Christianaand her boys. Laborare est orare.And this is what I was reading on thatstill, snowy Sunday afternoon: "But wewill come again to this Valley of Humiliation.It is the best and most fruitfulpiece of ground in all these parts.It is a fat ground, and, as you see,consisteth much in meadows, and if aman was to come here in the summertimeas we do now, if he knew not anythingbefore thereof, and if he delightedhimself in the sight of his eyes, he mightsee that which would be delightful tohim. Behold how green this valley is,also how beautiful with lilies! I haveknown many labouring men that havegot good estates in this Valley of Humiliation."
"Merle," observed Aunt Agatha, alittle dryly, "we may as well leave offthere, for it seems that you and I are tohave our estate among the labouringmen in this very valley."
Aunt Agatha was a clever woman,and could say shrewd things sometimes,but she never spoke a truer word thanthis; but my wits were no longer wool-gathering.
"What a pity you stopped me justthen," I remarked, somewhat sententiously;"we have missed the purestgem of the allegory. 'He that is downneed fear no fall; he that is low nopride.'" But here a hand was lifted inprotesting fashion.
"Put the marker in the page, child,and spare me the rest; that is in favourof your argument, not mine," for a wearydiscussion had been waged between usfor two whole hours—a discussion thathad driven Aunt Agatha exhausted tothe couch, but which had only given mea tingling feeling of excitement, such asa raw recruit might experience at thesight of a battlefield. Aunt Agatha'sladylike ideas lay dead and woundedround her while I had made that lastimpetuous charge.
"I am of age, a free Englishwoman,living in a free country, and not all thenineteenth century prejudices, thoughthey are thick as dragons' teeth, shallprevent me, Merle Fenton, of sane mindand healthy body, from doing what Ibelieve to be my duty."
"Humph, I am rather doubtful of thesanity; I always told you that you weretoo independent and strong-minded fora girl; but what is the use of preachingto deaf ears?" continued Aunt Agatha,in a decidedly cross voice, as she arrangedthe cushions comfortably.
It was true that I was getting thebest of the argument, and yet I wassorry for Aunt Agatha. I felt how I wasshocking all her notions of decorum andpropriety, and giving pain to the kindestand gentlest heart in the world; but onecannot lead a new crusade withouttrampling on some prejudices. I knewall my little world would shriek "fie,"and "for shame" into my ears, and allbecause I was bent on working out a newtheory. The argument had grown outof such a little thing. I had shown AuntAgatha an advertisement in the MorningPost, and announced my intention ofanswering it in person the followingmorning.
"NURSE.—Can any lady recommenda thoroughly conscientious superior personto take charge of two children,baby eighteen months old? Assistancegiven in the nursery. Must be a good,plain needlewoman. Prince's Gate,S.W."
To the last day of my life I do notthink that I shall ever forget AuntAgatha's face when she read that advertisement.
"You intend to offer yourself for thissituation, Merle—to lose caste, and takeyour place among menials? It is enoughto make my poor brother rise in hisgrave, and your poor, dear mother too,to think of a Fenton stooping to suchdegradation." But I will forbear totranscribe all the wordy avalanche oflady-like invective that was hurled atme, accompanied by much wringing ofhands.
And yet the whole thing lay in a nut-shell.I, Merle Fenton, sound, healthy,and aged two-and-twenty, beingorphaned, penniless, and only possessingone near relative in the world—AuntAgatha—declined utterly to be dependentfor my daily bread and theclothes I wore on the goodwill of herhusband and my uncle by marriage,Ezra Keith.
No, I was not good. I daresay I wasself-willed, contradictory, and as obstinateas a mule that will go every way butthe right way, but, all the same, I lovedAunt Agatha, my dead father's onlysister, and I detested Uncle Keith witha perfectly unreasonable detestation.
Aunt Agatha had been a governessall her life. Certainly the Fenton familyhad not much to boast of in the way ofwealth. Pedigree and poverty are notaltogether pleasant yoke fellows. Itmay be comfortable to one's feelings toknow that a certain progenitor of oursmade boots at the time of the Conquest,though I am never quite sure in my mindthat they had bootmakers then; but myhistorical knowledge was always defective.But a little money is also pleasant;indeed, if the pedigree and the moneycame wooing to me, and I had to choosebetween them—well, perhaps I hadbetter hold my tongue on that subject;for what is the good of shocking peopleunless one has a very good reason fordoing so?
My father's pedigree did not help himinto good practice, and he died young—agrave mistake, people tell me, for aprofessional man to commit. My motherwas very pretty and very helpless, butthen she had a pedigree, too, and, probably,that forbade her to soil her whitehands. She was a fine lady, with moreheart than head, which she had lostmost unwisely to the handsome youngdoctor. After his death, she madefutile efforts for her child's sake, butthe grinding wheel of poverty caught thepoor butterfly and crushed her to death.
My poor, tender-hearted, unhappymother! Well, the world is a cruelplace to these soft, unprotected natures.
I should have fared badly but for AuntAgatha; her hardly-earned savingswere all spent on my education. Shewas a clever, highly-educated woman,and commanded good salaries, and outof this she contrived to board and maintainme at a school until she married,and Uncle Keith promised that I shouldshare their home.
I never could understand why AuntAgatha married him. Perhaps she wastired of the drudgery of teaching; atforty-five one may grow a little wearyof one's work. Perhaps she wanted ahome for her old age, and was tired ofwarming herself at other people's fires,and preferred a chimney corner of herown; but, strange to say, she alwaysscouted these two notions with the utmostindignation.
"I married your uncle, Merle," shewould say, with great dignity, "becausehe convinced me that he was the rightperson for me to marry. I have nomore idea than you how he contrived toinstil this notion into my head, forthough I am a plain body and neverhad any beauty, I must own I liked tall,good-looking men. But there, my dear,I lived forty-five years in the world withoutthree things very common in women'slives—without beauty, without love, andwithout discontent." And in this lastclause she was certainly right. AuntAgatha was the most contented creaturein the world.
If Uncle Keith—for never, neverwould I call him Uncle Ezra, even hadhe asked me as a personal favour to doso—if Uncle Keith had been rich Icould have understood the marriagebetter, being rather a mercenary andfar-sighted young person, but he hadonly a very small income. He wasmanaging clerk in some mercantilehouse, and, being a thrifty soul, investedall his spare cash instead ofspending it.
Aunt Agatha had lived in grandhouses all her life, but she was quite[Pg 3]content with the little cottage at Putneyto which her husband took her. Theyonly kept one servant; but Aunt Agathaproved herself to be a notable housekeeper.She arranged and rearrangedthe old-fashioned furniture that hadbelonged to Uncle Keith's mother untilshe had made quite a charmingdrawing-room; but that was just herway; she had clever brains, and cleverfingers, and to manipulate old materialsinto new fashions was just play work toher.
But for me, I am perfectly convincedthat Aunt Agatha would have calledherself the happiest woman in the world,but my discontent leavened the household.If three people elect to livetogether, the success of the schemedemands that one of the three shouldnot smile sourly on all occasions.
For two whole years I tried to beamiable when Uncle Keith was in theroom, and at last gave up the attemptin despair, baffled by my own eviltempers, and yet I will say I was not abad-tempered girl. I must have hadgood in me or Aunt Agatha would nothave been so fond of me. I call that areal crucial test—other people's fondnessfor us.
Why is it so difficult to get on withsome folk, very worthy people in theirway?
Why do some people invariably rubup one's fur until it bristles with discomfort?Why do these same thoroughlyestimable creatures bring a sortof moral east wind with them, scarifyingone's nerves? Surely it is beneath thedignity of a human being to be raspedby a harsh, drawling voice, or offendedby trifling mannerisms. Uncle Keithwas just like one of my sums—you mightadd him up, subtract from him, divideor multiply him, but he would nevercome right in the end; one alwaysreckoned that he was more or less thanhe was. He was a little, pale, washed-outlooking man, with sandy hair andprominent brown eyes. Being an oldbachelor when he married Aunt Agatha,he had very precise, formal ways, andwas methodical and punctual to a fault.Next to Uncle Keith, I hated that white-facedwatch of his. I hated the slow,ponderous way in which he drew it fromhis pocket, and produced it for my specialbenefit.
I have said that my detestation ofUncle Keith was somewhat unreasonable.I must own I had no gravereasons for my dislike. Uncle Keithhad a good moral character; he was asteady church-goer, was painstakingand abstemious; never put himself in apassion, or, indeed, lost his temper for aminute; but how was a girl to toleratea man who spent five minutes scrapinghis boots before he entered his owndoor, whatever the weather might be;who said, "Hir-rumph" (humph waswhat he meant) before every sentence,booming at one like a great bee; whoalways prefaced a lecture with a "mydear;" who would not read a paperuntil it was warmed; who would burnevery cinder before fresh coals wereallowed on the fire; who looked reproachfullyat my crumbs (I crumbledmy bread purposely at last), and scoopedthem carefully in his hand for the benefitof the birds, with the invariable remark,"Waste not, want not," a saying Ilearnt to detest?
I suppose if we are ever admittedinto heaven we shall find very oddpeople there; but perhaps they willhave dropped their trying ways andpeculiarities, as the chrysalis drops itscase, and may develop all sorts of newprismatic glories. I once heard a ladysay that she was afraid the societythere would be rather mixed; she was avery exclusive person; but Solomon tellsus that there is nothing new under thesun, so I suppose we shall never bewithout our modern Pharisees andSadducees. The grand idea to me isthat there will be room for all. I donot know when the idea first came tome that it was a mean thing to liveunder a man's roof, eating his breadand warming oneself at his fire, and allthe time despising him in one's heart.I only know that one day the idea tookpossession of me, and, like an Easternmustard seed, grew and flourished.Soon after that Uncle Keith had rathera serious loss—some mercantile venturein which he was interested had come togrief. I began to notice small retrenchmentsin the household; certain littleluxuries were