George MacDonald.

Stephen Archer and Other Tales online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldStephen Archer and Other Tales → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Beth Trapaga and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team


By George Macdonald









Stephen Archer was a stationer, bookseller, and newsmonger in one of the
suburbs of London. The newspapers hung in a sort of rack at his door, as
if for the convenience of the public to help themselves in passing. On
his counter lay penny weeklies and books coming out in parts, amongst
which the _Family Herald_ was in force, and the _London Journal_ not
to be found. I had occasion once to try the extent of his stock, for I
required a good many copies of one of Shakspere's plays - at a penny, if
I could find such. He shook his head, and told me he could not encourage
the sale of such productions. This pleased me; for, although it was of
little consequence what he thought concerning Shakspere, it was of the
utmost import that he should prefer principle to pence. So I loitered
in the shop, looking for something to buy; but there was nothing in the
way of literature: his whole stock, as far as I could see, consisted of
little religious volumes of gay binding and inferior print; he had
nothing even from the Halifax press. He was a good-looking fellow, about
thirty, with dark eyes, overhanging brows that indicated thought, mouth
of character, and no smile. I was interested in him.

I asked if he would mind getting the plays I wanted. He said he would
rather not. I bade him good morning.

More than a year after, I saw him again. I had passed his shop many
times, but this morning, I forget why, I went in. I could hardly
recall the former appearance of the man, so was it swallowed up in a
new expression. His face was alive, and his behaviour courteous. A
similar change had passed upon his stock. There was _Punch_ and _Fun_
amongst the papers, and tenpenny Shaksperes on the counter, printed on
straw-paper, with ugly wood-cuts. The former class of publications had
not vanished, but was mingled with cheap editions of some worthy of
being called books.

"I see you have changed your mind since I saw you last," I said.

"You have the advantage of me, sir," he returned. "I did not know you
were a customer."

"Not much of that," I replied; "only in intention. I wanted you to get
me some penny Shaksperes, and you would not take the order."

"Oh! I think I remember," he answered, with just a trace of confusion;
adding, with a smile, "I'm married now;" and I fancied I could read a
sort of triumph over his former self.

I laughed, of course - the best expression of sympathy at hand - and,
after a little talk, left the shop, resolved to look in again soon.
Before a month was over, I had made the acquaintance of his wife too,
and between them learned so much of their history as to be able to
give the following particulars concerning it.

Stephen Archer was one of the deacons, rather a young one perhaps, of
a dissenting congregation. The chapel was one of the oldest in the
neighbourhood, quite triumphant in ugliness, but possessed of a history
which gave it high rank with those who frequented it. The sacred odour
of the names of pastors who had occupied its pulpit, lingered about
its walls - names unknown beyond its precincts, but starry in the eyes
of those whose world lay within its tabernacle. People generally do
not know what a power some of these small _conventicles_ are in the
education of the world. If only as an outlet for the energies of men of
lowly education and position, who in connexion with most of the churches
of the Establishment would find no employment, they are of inestimable

To Stephen Archer, for instance, when I saw him first, his chapel was
the sole door out of the common world into the infinite. When he
entered, as certainly did the awe and the hush of the sacred place
overshadow his spirit as if it had been a gorgeous cathedral-house
borne aloft upon the joined palms of its Gothic arches. The Master is
truer than men think, and the power of His presence, as Browning has
so well set forth in his "Christmas Eve," is where two or three are
gathered in His name. And inasmuch as Stephen was not a man of
imagination, he had the greater need of the undefined influences of
the place.

He had been chief in establishing a small mission amongst the poor in
the neighbourhood, with the working of which he occupied the greater
part of his spare time. I will not venture to assert that his mind was
pure from the ambition of gathering from these to swell the flock at
the little chapel; nay, I will not even assert that there never arose
a suggestion of the enemy that the pence of these rescued brands might
alleviate the burden upon the heads and shoulders of the poorly
prosperous caryatids of his church; but I do say that Stephen was an
honest man in the main, ever ready to grow honester: and who can
demand more?

One evening, as he was putting up the shutters of his window, his
attention was arrested by a shuffling behind him. Glancing round, he
set down the shutter, and the next instant boxed a boy's ears, who ran
away howling and mildly excavating his eyeballs, while a young,
pale-faced woman, with the largest black eyes he had ever seen,
expostulated with him on the proceeding.

"Oh, sir!" she said, "he wasn't troubling you." There was a touch of
indignation in the tone.

"I'm sorry I can't return the compliment," said Stephen, rather
illogically. "If I'd ha' known you liked to have your shins kicked, I
might ha' let the young rascal alone. But you see I didn't know it."

"He's my brother," said the young woman, conclusively.

"The more shame to him," returned Stephen. "If he'd been your husband,
now, there might ha' been more harm than good in interferin', 'cause
he'd only give it you the worse after; but brothers! Well, I'm sure
it's a pity I interfered."

"I don't see the difference," she retorted, still with offence.

"I beg your pardon, then," said Stephen. "I promise you I won't
interfere next time."

So saying, he turned, took up his shutter, and proceeded to close his
shop. The young woman walked on.

Stephen gave an inward growl or two at the depravity of human nature,
and set out to make his usual visits; but before he reached the place,
he had begun to doubt whether the old Adam had not overcome him in the
matter of boxing the boy's ears; and the following interviews appeared
in consequence less satisfactory than usual. Disappointed with
himself, he could not be so hopeful about others.

As he was descending a stair so narrow that it was only just possible
for two people to pass, he met the same young woman ascending. Glad of
the opportunity, he stepped aside with his best manners and said:

"I am sorry I offended you this evening. I did not know that the boy
was your brother."

"Oh, sir!" she returned - for to one in her position, Stephen Archer
was a gentleman: had he not a shop of his own? - "you didn't hurt him
much; only I'm so anxious to save him."

"To be sure," returned Stephen, "that is the one thing needful."

"Yes, sir," she rejoined. "I try hard, but boys will be boys."

"There is but one way, you know," said Stephen, following the words
with a certain formula which I will not repeat.

The girl stared. "I don't know about that," she said. "What I want is
to keep him out of prison. Sometimes I think I shan't be able long.
Oh, sir! if you be the gentleman that goes about here, couldn't you
help me? I can't get anything for him to do, and I can't be at home to
look after him."

"What is he about all day, then?"

"The streets," she answered. "I don't know as he's ever done anything
he oughtn't to, but he came home once in a fright, and that breathless
with running, that I thought he'd ha' fainted. If I only could get him
into a place!"

"Do you live here?" he asked.

"Yes, sir; I do."

At the moment a half-bestial sound below, accompanied by uncertain
footsteps, announced the arrival of a drunken bricklayer.

"There's Joe Bradley," she said, in some alarm. "Come into my room,
sir, till he's gone up; there's no harm in him when he's sober, but he
ain't been sober for a week now."

Stephen obeyed; and she, taking a key from her pocket, and unlocking a
door on the landing, led him into a room to which his back-parlour was
a paradise. She offered him the only chair in the room, and took her
place on the edge of the bed, which showed a clean but much-worn
patchwork quilt. Charley slept on the bed, and she on a shake-down in
the corner. The room was not untidy, though the walls and floor were
not clean; indeed there were not in it articles enough to make it
untidy withal.

"Where do you go on Sundays?" asked Stephen.

"Nowheres. I ain't got nobody," she added, with a smile, "to take me

"What do you do then?"

"I've plenty to do mending of Charley's trousers. You see they're only
shoddy, and as fast as I patch 'em in one place they're out in

"But you oughtn't to work Sundays."

"I have heard tell of people as say you oughtn't to work of a Sunday;
but where's the differ when you've got a brother to look after? He
ain't got no mother."

"But you're breaking the fourth commandment; and you know where people
go that do that. You believe in hell, I suppose."

"I always thought that was a bad word."

"To be sure! But it's where you'll go if you break the Sabbath."

"Oh, sir!" she said, bursting into tears, "I don't care what become of
me if I could only save that boy."

"What do you mean by _saving_ him?"

"Keep him out of prison, to be sure. I shouldn't mind the workus
myself, if I could get him into a place."

_A place_ was her heaven, a prison her hell. Stephen looked at her
more attentively. No one who merely glanced at her could help seeing
her eyes first, and no one who regarded them could help thinking her
nice-looking at least, all in a shabby cotton dress and black shawl as
she was. It was only the "penury and pine" that kept her from being
beautiful. Her features were both regular and delicate, with an
anxious mystery about the thin tremulous lips, and a beseeching look,
like that of an animal, in her fine eyes, hazy with the trouble that
haunted her mouth. Stephen had the good sense not to press the Sabbath
question, and by degrees drew her story from her.

Her father had been a watchmaker, but, giving way to drink, had been,
as far back as she could remember, entirely dependent on her mother,
who by charing and jobbing managed to keep the family alive. Sara was
then the only child, but, within a few months after her father's
death, her mother died in giving birth to the boy. With her last
breath she had commended him to his sister. Sara had brought him
up - how she hardly knew. He had been everything to her. The child that
her mother had given her was all her thought. Those who start with the
idea "that people with nought are naughty," whose eyes are offended by
rags, whose ears cannot distinguish between vulgarity and wickedness,
and who think the first duty is care for self, must be excused from
believing that Sara Coulter passed through all that had been _decreed_
for her without losing her simplicity and purity. But God is in the
back slums as certainly as - perhaps to some eyes more evidently
than - in Belgravia. That which was the burden of her life - namely, the
care of her brother - was her salvation. After hearing her story, which
he had to draw from her, because she had no impulse to talk about
herself, Stephen went home to turn the matter over in his mind.

The next Sunday, after he had had his dinner, he went out into the
same region, and found himself at Sara's door. She was busy over a
garment of Charley's, who was sitting on the bed with half a loaf in
his hand. When he recognized Stephen he jumped down, and would have
rushed from the room; but changing his mind, possibly because of the
condition of his lower limbs, he turned, and springing into the bed,
scrambled under the counterpane, and drew it over his head.

"I am sorry to see you working on Sunday," Stephen said, with an
emphasis that referred to their previous conversation.

"You would not have the boy go naked?" she returned, with again a
touch of indignation. She had been thinking how easily a man of
Stephen's social position could get him a place if he would. Then
recollecting her manners, she added, "I should get him better clothes
if he had a place. Wouldn't you like to get a place now, Charley?"

"Yes," said Charley, from under the counterpane, and began to peep at
the visitor.

He was not an ill-looking boy - only roguish to a degree. His eyes, as
black as his sister's, but only half as big, danced and twinkled with
mischief. Archer would have taken him off to his ragged class, but
even of rags he had not at the moment the complement necessary for
admittance. He left them, therefore, with a few commonplaces of
religious phrase, falling utterly meaningless. But he was not one to
confine his ministrations to words: he was an honest man. Before the
next Sunday it was clear to him that he could do nothing for the soul
of Sara until he had taken the weight of her brother off it.

When he called the next Sunday the same vision precisely met his
view. She might have been sitting there ever since, with those
wonderfully-patched trousers in her hands, and the boy beside her,
gnawing at his lump of bread. But many a long seam had passed
through her fingers since then, for she worked at a clothes-shop all
the week with the sewing-machine, whence arose the possibility of
patching Charley's clothes, for the overseer granted her a cutting
or two now and then.

After a little chat, Stephen put the question:

"If I find a place for Charley, will you go to Providence Chapel next

"I will go _anywhere_ you please, Mr. Archer," she answered, looking
up quickly with a flushed face. She would have accompanied him to any
casino in London just as readily: her sole thought was to keep Charley
out of prison. Her father had been in prison once; to keep her
mother's child out of prison was the grand object of her life.

"Well," he resumed, with some hesitation, for he had arrived at the
resolution through difficulties, whose fogs yet lingered about him,
"if he will be an honest, careful boy, I will take him myself."

"Charley! Charley!" cried Sara, utterly neglectful of the source of
the benefaction; and rising, she went to the bed and hugged him.

"Don't, Sara!" said Charley, petulantly.

"I don't want girls to squash me. Leave go, I say. You mend my
trousers, and _I_ 'll take care of _my_self."

"The little wretch!" thought Stephen.

Sara returned to her seat, and her needle went almost as fast as her
sewing-machine. A glow had arisen now, and rested on her pale cheek:
Stephen found himself staring at a kind of transfiguration, back from
the ghostly to the human. His admiration extended itself to her deft
and slender fingers and there brooded until his conscience informed
him that he was actually admiring the breaking of the Sabbath;
whereupon he rose. But all the time he was about amongst the rest of
his people, his thoughts kept wandering back to the desolate room, the
thankless boy, and the ministering woman. Before leaving, however, he
had arranged with Sara that she should bring her brother to the shop
the next day.

The awe with which she entered it was not shared by Charley, who was
never ripe for anything but frolic. Had not Stephen been influenced by
a desire to do good, and possibly by another feeling too embryonic for
detection, he would never have dreamed of making an errand boy of a
will-o'-the-wisp. As such, however, he was installed, and from that
moment an anxiety unknown before took possession of Stephen's bosom.
He was never at ease, for he never knew what the boy might be about.
He would have parted with him the first fortnight, but the idea of the
prison had passed from Sara's heart into his, and he saw that to turn
the boy away from his first place would be to accelerate his
gravitation thitherward. He had all the tricks of a newspaper boy
indigenous in him. Repeated were the complaints brought to the shop.
One time the paper was thrown down the area, and brought into the
breakfast-room defiled with wet. At another it was found on the
door-step, without the bell having been rung, which could hardly have
been from forgetfulness, for Charley's delight was to set the bell
ringing furiously, and then wait till the cook appeared, taking good
care however to leave space between them for a start. Sometimes the
paper was not delivered at all, and Stephen could not help suspecting
that he had sold it in the street. Yet both for his sake and Sara's he
endured, and did not even box his ears. The boy hardly seemed to be
wicked: the spirit that possessed him was rather a _polter-geist_, as
the Germans would call it, than a demon.

Meantime, the Sunday after Charley's appointment, Archer, seated in
his pew, searched all the chapel for the fulfilment of Sara's part of
the agreement, namely, her presence. But he could see her nowhere.
The fact was, her promise was so easy that she had scarcely thought
of it after, not suspecting that Stephen laid any stress upon its
fulfilment, and, indeed, not knowing where the chapel was. She had
managed to buy a hit of something of the shoddy species, and while
Stephen was looking for her in the chapel, she was making a jacket for
Charley. Greatly disappointed, and chiefly, I do believe, that she had
not kept her word, Stephen went in the afternoon to call upon her.

He found her working away as before, and saving time by taking her
dinner while she worked, for a piece of bread lay on the table by her
elbow, and beside it a little brown sugar to make the bread go down.
The sight went to Stephen's heart, for he had just made his dinner off
baked mutton and potatoes, washed down with his half-pint of stout.

"Sara!" he said solemnly, "you promised to come to our chapel, and you
have not kept your word." He never thought that "our chapel" was not
the landmark of the region.

"Oh, Mr. Archer," she answered, "I didn't know as you cared about it.
But," she went on, rising and pushing her bread on one side to make
room for her work, "I'll put on my bonnet directly." Then she checked
herself, and added, "Oh! I beg your pardon, sir - I'm so shabby! You
couldn't be seen with the likes of me."

It touched Stephen's chivalry - and something deeper than chivalry. He
had had no intention of walking with her.

"There's no chapel in the afternoon," he said; "but I'll come and
fetch you in the evening."

Thus it came about that Sara was seated in Stephen's pew, next to
Stephen himself, and Stephen felt a strange pleasure unknown before,
like that of the shepherd who having brought the stray back to the
fold cares little that its wool is torn by the bushes, and it looks a
ragged and disreputable sheep. It was only Sara's wool that might seem
disreputable, for she was a very good-faced sheep. He found the hymns
for her, and they shared the same book. He did not know then that Sara
could not read a word of them.

The gathered people, the stillness, the gaslights, the solemn ascent
of the minister into the pulpit, the hearty singing of the
congregation, doubtless had their effect upon Sara, for she had never
been to a chapel and hardly to any place of assembly before. From all
amusements, the burden of Charley and her own retiring nature had kept
her back.

But she could make nothing of the sermon. She confessed afterwards
that she did not know she had anything to do with it. Like "the
Northern Farmer," she took it all for the clergyman's business, which
she amongst the rest had to see done. She did not even wonder why
Stephen should have wanted to bring her there. She sat when other
people sat, pretended to kneel when other people pretended to kneel,
and stood up when other people stood up - still brooding upon Charley's

But Archer's feelings were not those he had expected. He had brought
her, intending her to be done good to; but before the sermon was over
he wished he had not brought her. He resisted the feeling for a long
time, but at length yielded to it entirely; the object of his
solicitude all the while conscious only of the lighted stillness and
the new barrier between Charley and Newgate. The fact with regard to
Stephen was that a certain hard _pan_, occasioned by continual
ploughings to the same depth and no deeper, in the soil of his mind,
began this night to be broken up from within, and that through the
presence of a young woman who did not for herself put together two
words of the whole discourse.

The pastor was preaching upon the saying of St. Paul, that he could
wish himself accursed from Christ for his brethren. Great part of his
sermon was an attempt to prove that he could not have meant what his
words implied. For the preacher's mind was so filled with the supposed
paramount duty of saving his own soul, that the enthusiasm of the
Apostle was simply incredible. Listening with that woman by his side,
Stephen for the first time grew doubtful of the wisdom of his pastor.
Nor could he endure that such should be the first doctrine Sara heard
from his lips. Thus was he already and grandly repaid for his
kindness; for the presence of a woman who without any conscious
religion was to herself a law of love, brought him so far into
sympathy with the mighty soul of St. Paul, that from that moment the
blessing of doubt was at work in his, undermining prison walls.

He walked home with Sara almost in silence, for he found it impossible
to impress upon her those parts of the sermon with which he had no
fault to find, lest she should retort upon that one point. The arrows
which Sara escaped, however, could from her ignorance have struck her
only with their feather end.

Things proceeded in much the same fashion for a while. Charley went
home at night to his sister's lodging, generally more than two hours
after leaving the shop, but gave her no new ground of complaint. Every
Sunday evening Sara went to the chapel, taking Charley with her when
she could persuade him to go; and, in obedience with the supposed wish
of Stephen, sat in his pew. He did not go home with her any more for a
while, and indeed visited her but seldom, anxious to avoid scandal,
more especially as he was a deacon.

But now that Charley was so far safe, Sara's cheek began to generate a
little of that celestial rosy red which is the blossom of the
woman-plant, although after all it hardly equalled the heart of the
blush rose. She grew a little rounder in form too, for she lived
rather better now, - buying herself a rasher of bacon twice a week.
Hence she began to be in more danger, as any one acquainted with her
surroundings will easily comprehend. But what seemed at first the ruin
of her hopes dissipated this danger.

One evening, when she returned from her work, she found Stephen in her
room. She made him the submissive grateful salutation, half courtesy,
half bow, with which she always greeted him, and awaited his will.

"I am very sorry to have to tell you, Sara, that your brother - "

She turned white as a shroud, and her great black eyes grew greater
and blacker as she stared in agonized expectancy while Stephen
hesitated in search of a better form of communication. Finding none,
he blurted out the fact -

" - has robbed me, and run away."

"Don't send him to prison, Mr. Archer," shrieked Sara, and laid
herself on the floor at his feet with a grovelling motion, as if
striving with her mother earth for comfort. There was not a film of
art in this. She had never been to a theatre. The natural urging of
life gave the truest shape to her entreaty. Her posture was the result
of the same feeling which made the nations of old bring their
sacrifices to the altar of a deity who, possibly benevolent in the
main, had yet cause to be inimical to them. From the prostrate living
sacrifice arose the one prayer, "Don't send him to prison; don't send
him to prison!"

Stephen gazed at her in bewildered admiration, half divine and all
human. A certain consciousness of power had, I confess, a part in his
silence, but the only definite shape this consciousness took was of
beneficence. Attributing his silence to unwillingness, Sara got
half-way from the ground - that is, to her knees - and lifted a face of
utter entreaty to the sight of Stephen. I will not say words fail me

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldStephen Archer and Other Tales → online text (page 1 of 18)