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THE CHRISTIAN VAGABOND.
BY BLANCHARD JERROLD.
(Continued from p. 61.)
DAME REBECCA'S STORY.
20 much as I may and should tell to him who is called
the Christian Vagabond-and much more to him than should be told to any other of God's creatures—I have
promised.” Our Lady of Charity sate with the Vagabond in the common room of the Sisterhood, on the morrow of Dame Rebecca's death. She was putting together, with a sweet sadness, a mass of flowers which two Sisters had laid upon the table before her, and which were jewelled still with the dew of the fresh summer morning. It was near the break-up of the summer time when Dame Rebecca died: the time when the insect dies within the petals of the rose, and the birds turn rough feathers to the crisp air of sunrise.
The eyes of the Vagabond fell upon the serious flower bearers, and then turned, with a plain question in them, to the Lady of Charity.
“Our Sisters of the Garden ; and these are the flowers they grow to brighten the graves of our poor: to gladden the sick-room, and to lay upon the bosom of the dead. These have brought Dame Rebecca's flowers; and, while I prepare them for her bosom, will you listen to all I can say of her—that you may judge whether she is the creature of long ago, to whom your memory seems to carry you back, with uncertain steps.
VOL. IV., N. S. 1870.
The Christian Vagabond took up flower after flower, scented them, and mused over them.
“Yes, let me turn upon the past now; but the threads, to my weak vision, are tangled overmuch.”
“ Dame Rebecca had been with me more than two years, I see by our Tables of Hospitality. It seemed to me that we had had her much longer."
“We are carried forward at a ringing pace, as we age,” the venerable Pilgrim interrupted. “We feel less acutely, we are arrested by fewer landmarks, and all the years soften to a level surface. It is so smooth that, in the end, we hardly feel that we are moving. My journeying has been very far beyond the reach of most men ; so that I can take an extraordinary stride of experiences—and mark how the glowing uplands and valleys of our freshest days, roll into a flat land of equal tint. But" here he laid a gentle hand upon the flannel sleeve of the Lady of Charity—“But, of Dame Rebecca."
“She came to us one spring evening : a most melancholy wet and grey, and chilly time it was. I have been accustomed to the faces of the miserable all my life; but I was never so startled and pained with the sight of distress, as when Sister Ursula drew me to the door of the Chamber of Christ, and begged me to look within.
“Rebecca looked much older, to me, on that evening, than when she passed away from us and her troubles yesterday. She was huddled up-a confused heap of clothes and limb—deep in a big arm-chair we keep in the chamber, the very chair by which you said your prayers last night;—and out of her livid face burned two eyes that spell-bound me, as I fell within their range. I saw a soul in agony then; making a last desperate effort to speak. She tried to articulate. Her lips moved swiftly; but not the murmur of a word came forth. Then she was desperate in her effort to express herself by motion ; but the poor body would not answer to her will, save by a quiver. When I approached her and took her stone-cold hands, so wasted, that they felt as though a little pressing would break them; her eyes, still glowing, followed me. The mouth dropped open; and thin flakes of white hair loosened over her brow of a thousand wrinkles. I took her in my arms. I am weak enough--but I could lift her--and I laid her upon the warm bed to which Sister Ursula had been attending. Still those two eyes, from that silent creature smote me: for I knew they meant to speak that which the palsied tongue could not utter. The eyes of some of the many dying creatures I have seen, have reminded me of Dame Rebecca's on that night. It is the cruellest watching of all, when the sick are silent, and the imploring
glances speak, and you cannot understand. Death comes, and leaves the wish unrecorded : the
unsaid. “But to Rebecca, God mercifully vouchsafed a long, I think, happy and comforting pause by the gates of Eternity. We nursed her to the utmost of our power and knowledge.”
"God knows it !” the solemn listener interrupted. “She had been wandering for years. We found her black staff worn to a stump, outside our gates on the morrow of her appearance. And when I told her so, the first smile flickered over her face. She felt, she told me afterwards, that she had done with the road-side, with the bed in the barn, and the beggar's wallet. She was of Jewish birth, and she used to say that in wandering she had only followed the instinct of her race, which had been pressed into their blood by the oppression of Christian hands."
“Her country, Sister Charity ?."
“She used to say, 'the country of the swallow;' for she had passed her life flying from the cold to the warm. But she knew most about France : and it was there she passed her early, she used to say, peering wistfully through her window, her happiest and her worst days. She was, in her heart of hearts, repentant: and she shall have some of our whitest flowers over her grave."
The Lady of Charity lifted a guelder rose, and added it to the funeral wreath as she spoke on, in a low, sweet, dreamy voice. “She had been very sinful in her early splendid days. She was a child of sin: and her father was a Christian. But she remained a Jewess at heart to the end. Her father was, to the world, a great man. He was powerful at court: and he brought up his daughter (whose mother had died in one of his remote châteaux of a broken heart, or a heart wrung dry by grief), as his lawful child and heiress. For in wedlock he had no children. His brothers had been killed in the wars. There was nothing but war and murder just then, upon the wicked earth.
“Amid her ragged garments we found, when we undressed her in the chamber, a small picture heavily fixed in gold. She had sunk into a deep sleep, when we took her rags from her, and discovered her remaining treasure. For this, I felt, had her fervent eyes been fixed on me., She knew that it must fall into my keeping; and all the fire she put into her sight was burned, as beacons are burned. They warned us from the danger of striking upon the last, fondly-kept treasure of her life."
“The portrait told her story?” The chin of the venerable listener rested heavily upon his staff, and his look was fixed upon Dame Rebecca's growing funeral wreath.
" It was her own face when she was young."
“Have you kept it ? ”
“She confessed that when her father took her to the court of his sovereign, where he bore a wand of office; she was bewitched with the painted chambers, the gardens jewelled with a hundred fountains, the silks and satins, the diamonds and the pearls; and the pride of man and woman speaking in a hundred glowing and wickedly wasteful shapes. She was very young, badly educated, beautiful in the sight of men, complimented by the king. The courtiers made a pathway whither she tended through the court chambers. Her phrase was, "My heart sang like a happy bird, just then.' The song was brief as the sunshine was."
“ Poor child !”
The Lady of Charity, searching amid the tumbled flowers, and finding a violet or two, went on—"She was fond of these flowers, and our gardens show some beautiful Parma violets in the season. Her story is a very common one of the world, I hear."
“Common as motes in the sun's beam,” the Vagabond muttered ; “ but let me, I beseech you, hear it to the end. You are lifting a veil that lies between me and scores of buried years."
“While she was in the hey-day of her pride and worldly glory, and she seemed to be fixed in a citadel of pleasure, through which the common sorrows of the world would never be able to make a way(you will tell me, who have seen so much of men, whether it is not a very common human story)—a personage appeared at court, upon whom all eyes were fixed. He was, it would appear, an eccentric man, to the world in which he moved. Of high birth, of fine manners, rich beyond the wealth even of Rebecca's father, over whose lands the poor creature used to boast, it took a tough horseman some trouble to ride in a day; the new comer advanced through the silks, jewels, and lace, in the homeliest leather, and cloth.
He wore neither plume nor spur.
But she said he had an eminently knightly aspect; an open, honourable countenance ; a proud carriage ; and gracious, kindly, winning ways, tinged always with a becoming gravity. The king deferred to his wisdom ; only the queen laughed at his guise, till her trembling stores of jewels blazed upon her. The king had frequent conferences with him; while placemen and coxcombs laughed and trembled at the same time in the antechamber. It was said he had come, the messenger of the poor, and with a warning to the reckless king. The country was one poor house vaulted by the heavens. There was not a laugh left in the king's subjects, so long
and merrily and recklessly had his majesty and his courtiers kept up their revelries. The plain noble had ventured in his sober grey, through the throng of pitiless spendthrifts, to speak the mind of the poor, nor leave the warning of the surly hosts of the Hungry out of it. Every narrow forehead trembled ; every scapegrace's wand of office shook in his hand. They would have been glad to carry forth the intruder and drown him under Neptune's marble eyes, in the dancing waters of the fountain. But he strode, in the conscious strength of the good workman, through them; and, on a certain day his eyes fell upon the Lady Rebecca, where she sate in a window, laughing with the lightest-headed gallants of the court."
“Yea, Lady of Charity, the story is very old; but the wreath is not finished yet-I pray you, tell me to the end.”
“I am near it; that is, so much of it as I may tell. It will hardly last me to the tying of Rebecca's flowers. The good messenger of that wicked court spoke to the Lady Rebecca. He singled her out from the rest of the dames of the palace; he had serious converse with her on his mission, and on the wickedness of which she, in her thoughtlessness of youth, was part. There was a fund of goodness in her, he thought; and he asked her when he was leaving the king, hopeless, to go forth with him among the miserable people, as his wife.”
“Rebecca would have put her cloak gladly about her ; but her father had given her to the basest of the young courtiers, who bore the highest name, shouldered the most dazzling honours, and had the least heart of any. The grave suitor had high words with Rebecca's father; for this one hated the intruder who had come to meddle with the pleasures of the court, and to persuade the king to take wands and tasteful dignities from his spendthrift courtiers ; and turn the tide of the gold, to heal the sores of the vulgar.
“From a window in the palace, when she was embroidering, at her father's command, for the base, dissolute man to whom she was given; she saw the Good Messenger of the Poor mount his horse in the court yard, and ride away. He never turned to wave a good. bye. In that place of a hundred windows, how should he tell which was hers? She cast the embroidery towards him, hoping to attract his farewell, and let him take the assurance of her eternal good-will with him ; but he did not see the work; and presently a page brought it back to her, at her father's request, and asking to know when she would have finished it for the duke whose duchess he had commanded her to be."
The Vagabond's forehead was pressed upon his hands, which grasped the crown of his staff.