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T was an afternoon in November; the sun was set, but,
through the dull twilight, objects were still dimly visible, while a thick, wetting rain, from the unbroken canopy of cloud, fell slowly but heavily on the earth, which
seemed so completely saturated that it would absorb no more. No sound was to be heard save that of the measured, melancholy fall of the rain, as it dripped from the leafless boughs on the dank fallen foliage beneath, or as, from the eaves of the houses, it plashed on the dirty, ill-paved streets of Ruthersholm-a small town in one of the inland counties of Scotland. In the outskirts of this town was a little row of cottages, belonging to the humbler class of the inhabitants, having the road in front, and behind, marketgardens, and crofts or meadows, where cows pastured in the summertime.
At the door of one of these cottages, on the evening above mentioned, stood, as if on the look-out for some one, a young and comely girl
. She appeared to be about twenty, had a plump, tight, tidy little figure, and a bright, blooming, kindly face, with the fair skin, rosy cheeks, and yellow hair which compose the favourite type of beauty among her own class in the country to which she belonged. Her merino gown, rather too fashionably made for a servant, and her coquettish little cap, trimmed with blue ribbons, shewed that Jessie Gibson was not without some idea that she was a beauty.
'He's no coming, mother ; he'll no ha' been able to ford the water, an' the ferry-boat wadna gang out sic a nicht as this.'
'Come in, hinny,' cried a voice from the interior : “it's nae wyte o' Robin's, i 'se warrant that.'
'I think I see him, though–I see something doon the road,' Jessie responded joyfully. 'It canna be onybody else sic a nicht as this.
And, indeed, no living creature, save a criminal fleeing from detection, or a lover hastening to his mistress, or some one urged by a passion as strong as these, would have been voluntarily exposed on so inclement a night. But for the moment Jessie had forgotten that some have no choice that there are those who have not where to hide their heads even from the pelting of the pitiless blast of November. But the night was now so dark, and the rain so thick, that the individual in question was almost close to the door, at which Jessie was standing, ere the latter perceived that instead of Robin Rae, her lover, it was an unfortunate person of this class. The new-comer looked between twenty and thirty ; her poor, thin, wet garments were clinging to her emaciated figure; and her wan, sickly face, and unearthly dark eyes, were hardly shaded by her battered bonnet. She held, wrapped in a ragged petticoat of blue flannel, an infant folded to her bosom, as if she sought to give it thus a little warmth.
The momentary feeling of irritation produced in Jessie's mind by the disappointment of finding that, after all, it was not her lover, vanished on seeing this miserable object, for her impulses were naturally both benevolent and active. The wanderer told a piteous tale. The infant, she said, was the child of a dead sister, who had been the wife of a respectable workman in a large town in Yorkshire. A depression in trade had thrown him out of employment, and while endeavouring to obtain work, he had been seized with inflammation of the lungs, which had terminated fatally. His unhappy wife, just on the eve of her confinement, had written to her sister-her only living relation-begging the latter to hasten to her, as she felt convinced her own end was at hand. This girl, who lived in Ayrshire, gaining a poor livelihood there by working the much-admired embroidery on muslin, had not hesitated to set out, expending her little all on the journey to Yorkshire. She had arrived just in time to receive the poor widow's last breath, and the charge of the babe -her dying sister's legacy. She was now on her way back to Ayrshire with the little burden. Her money being long since spent, she had come nearly all the distance on foot, and for the last two days had begged her way from door to door. “But,' she continued, being now under the shelter of the narrow passage, into which, while she spoke, Jessie had drawn her—now my strength has failed me; the babe, the dear, dear babe is dying, if not dead, and this night I know not where to seek a roof to cover us. Here the poor girl, overcome by grief and fatigue, burst into a fit of low hysterical weeping. Jessie drew her into their outer room—a sort of kitchen -a decent, cleanly, tidy apartment with a blazing fire, and a row of cups set for tea on a deal table at the window.
The rest of the family, consisting of the mother and two or three children, a great deal younger than Jessie, crowded round the stranger, who, in a fainting state, produced by the sudden of the apartment, had fallen into a great wooden chair, somewhat the shape of a half-circle, with a railing round the bow. Mrs Gibson took the baby, while her daughter administered some tea to the poor woman.
'I am dying ; I can do no more—God help us !' sobbed the latter in a tone almost inaudible, and then, from sheer exhaustion, relapsed again into insensibility. Meanwhile Mrs Gibson had the infant on her knee. It, too, seemed hardly to live ; and its small, pinched features, and fingers like straws, told a tale of suffering which excited in the hearts of the mother and daughter feelings of the most painful commiseration.
'Better send for the doctor,' said Mrs Gibson.
'I will rin mysel' this minute,' cried Jessie ; and seizing an old shawl, without one thought of the best gown, which had been put on to do honour to Robin, she rushed out into the rain, and in a few minutes returned with a surgeon who lived near. He shook his head mournfully when he saw the baby ; and having felt the pulse of the poor woman, pronounced that she was in a fever, produced by exposure to cold, fatigue, and hunger. She ought, he said, to be put to bed immediately. Mrs Gibson and Jessie regarded one another in consternation. To turn out a sick, and perhaps dying stranger on such a night as this, was an impossibility to their compassionate natures-yet how to keep her, perhaps through a long illness, they knew not, for they were poor.
Mrs Gibson was a widow, who, in addition to a very small income left her by her husband, drove a trade in apples, gingerbread, wooden dolls, and other such matters, to enable her to maintain her family. Her three eldest children could now, however, support themselves. Her two sons obtained wages as journeymen carpenters in a neighbouring town; and Jessie, who was her eldest child, was at service as housemaid in the family of a gentleman-farmer in the neighbourhood. She was at present at home on a visit for a few days. She had been engaged for some time to a highly respectable young man, a gardener, but who had not yet obtained any permanent employment, and consequently could not afford to marry. But they were both young, and had all the world before them; so they were quite happy, and looked forward to the future with mutual confidence. But to return to the sick girl and the dying infant. What was to be done? All looked blank. At last, Jessie exclaimed with a brightening face : 'I ken what, mother! I have a pound saved frae my wages, an' that will keep the puir lassie or she gets better. Maybe, she will can pay me some time-if no, never heed. I ken Robin wad be pleased. Mrs Gibson was at first doubtful; but she, too, saw no other way, and she felt that the stranger must be succoured. Once, too, taken possession of by this generous idea, Jessie would hear of nothing else. Besides the really compassionate and generous impulses by which she had been actuated in the first place, there was something pleasing to her imagination, and flattering to her vanity, in the idea of being capable of making such a sacrifice, and of the praise which would redound to her from all sides on that account. Distressed as she was at the condition of their forlorn guest, disappointed as she had been by Robin's non-appearance, Jessie had seldom felt in better spirits, or more pleased with herself, than she did to-night. Despoiling herself of the 'best gown' and gay cap, in her own active, business-like way, she helped the poor stranger, who was now restored to a state of partial sensibility, to her own bed. The latter, who, in answer to a question from Jessie, had said her name was Helen Gray, murmured blessings on her benefactress, mingled with inquiries for the infant. In accordance with the advice of the surgeon, who had now left, Jessie began to prepare a few spoonfuls of food for the patient.
I had better take the arrow-root, dinna ye think, mother?'
Oh, there was sic a heap o't, it will ne'er be missed. Naebody takes it but Miss Ann whiles, for she's no vera strong. I thought it wad be the very thing for our ain little Katie.
An' I ha' gotten some oatmeal an' a wheen eggs. What is’t to them? An' it makes an unco difference to the like o' us.'
'I am sure,' returned Mrs Gibson, 'there can be nae ill in folk minding their ain, an' what the waur is onybody o' what they dinna miss? An' ye might ha' eaten a' thae things if ye likit. It wad be an unco heartless-like thing for a lassie to ha' plenty hersel', an' see her mother and sisters want. But my Jessie's nane o' that kind. What is a bit egg or a neffu' o' meal to rich folk? An' then, ye ken, ye dinna get sae muckle wage by a pund as Betsy Miller, an' she is no half sic a clever servant. If it wasna that ye had an easy, comfortable place wi' the Youngs, I wadna hear o'your biding. So ye're quite right to make it up wi' a wheen things ye might eat yersel'. My word! Mrs Young wad like ill if ye was to fit.
'I dinna think Robin wad like it, though. He's very strict.'
‘But how is he to ken ? An' it's fair nonsense o' him. Naebody is mair partikler nor mysel. I am sure, if I saw a housefu' o' gold an' silver, I wadna touch a sixpence that didna belong me.'
Nor me, mother. I fand a gold sovereign Miss Ann had droppit i' the gairden ae day, an' brought till her or she missed it, an' they have aye trusted me wiʼ aʼthing sin syne. I ken what's right as weel as Robin.'
"To be sure, hinny. An' what wad we ha' done wi' that puir lassie, if it hadna been for the arrow-root? We're as ready to gie as take. Ne'er fash yersel' about Robin, hinny. He'll ne'er ken a word about it; an' wha's a preen the waur, I wad like to ken ?' asked Mrs Gibson triumphantly.
And now I fear that, to some of my readers, there may appear an inconsistency between the humane, nay, generous and self-sacrificing conduct, and the accommodating honesty of Mrs Gibson and her daughter. But such inconsistencies are not uncommon ; nay, they are only apparent, not real inconsistencies. Some persons judge of character as, in the infancy of science, doctors used to judge of diseases-merely by the symptoms. Now, sometimes, morally as well as physically, different diseases have similar symptoms; and as physical anatomy is necessary in the one case to enable us to ascertain the originating cause of the evil, so is moral anatomy in the other. Many excellent persons would at once have jumped to the conclusion, that Jessie Gibson was a girl altogether devoid of principle; but such was not the case. She and her mother only spoke the truth when they said, that if a houseful of gold and silver were in their power, they would not touch a sixpence. To take money or wearing-apparel, was stealing ; to take food, was not; and then, it would never be missed. Moreover, Jessie was led still further astray by her really strong feelings of family affection. She did not reflect that she was only selfishly indulging her own feelings, and pampering a vain passion for praise, and an egotistical desire to be considered generous and kind-hearted at the expense of justice. Hers was not so much wilful wickedness as a moral obliquity of vision, not uncommon among those whose feelings have not been trained, and whose reasoning powers have not been cultivated. But it is never easy to break down the barrier of habitual ignorance, more especially when its foundation is a settled selfindulgence of any kind-even of our good impulses. I
habitual ignorance, for some, I hope, having already made a breach in that Chinese wall—the most effectual hinderance to the entrance of all improvement—are in the habit of having from time to time a little of the broken rubbish cleared away; while with others, Jessie among the number, the wall was yet in its pristine strength and solidity. Now, it is much easier to clear away the broken rubbish, than to make the breach while the wall is still hardened and compacted by the strong cement of habit.
Jessie watched all night by her protégée, feeling like a heroine, and her spirits quite elated by the consciousness of her own magnanimity and generosity. It was while poor Helen Gray was in a