A Romance of Lake Wakatipu
A Strange Hallucination took Possession of his Mind—Two Strings to the Bow—"Leave all and follow me"—The "King of Terrors"—A Flood of Light—Two Solitary Conspirators.
The completion of the will put Josiah Begg on the best possible terms with himself.
Before finally depositing it alongside the faded flower, he read it over carefully. The first part contained a few unimportant bequests, amongst which Jean Stewart's name appeared for a trifling sum. It then went on to say: "The remainder of my estate and effects I leave and bequeath to my natural daughter Mary, at present residing in the North of England." Having folded the document away, he solemnly remarked to himself, "Now, indeed, have I shown my devotion to the dead in the faithful discharge of my duty to the living." So saying, he sank back in his chair, and a strange hallucination took possession of his mind. The feeling seemed to grow upon him until it assumed for itself a distinct utterance, breathing into his ear, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me."
How long he was held by this feeling he was never able to understand, but its remembrance exercised a marked influence on his after-life. Things seen and temporal appeared to relax the firm grasp in which they had theretofore held him, and the unseen and eternal appeared to become more and more part of his being. He looked for all the world like the homeward-bound ship, which, having survived the stormy seas and adverse gales of foreign parts, was now sailing along with smooth water and favourable wind as it neared the haven of rest. He still page 59carried all sail set, hut in his lookout he betrayed less anxiety, less fear, and seemed to get along all the better. His reckonings and observations were steadily directed skyward, and in that way he came to walk more by faith than by sight.
It is, we are taught, the first false step that leads on to perdition. On the same principle, it is fair to imply, the first true step opens up the paths of righteousness. Thus it was with Josiah Begg. He had listened to the still small voice of reason and nature, and now his soul rose from nature up to nature's God.
At these signs and tokens the housekeeper became more and more perplexed. She could not understand their origin, and she was equally at a loss to account for their aim. No matter how strongly fortified the mind may otherwise be, perplexity must at length drive it into doubt, and doubt into despair. Miss Stewart had reached that crisis in the mental gradation.
There is a precautionary order in archery known as keeping two strings to one's bow, and, being a bit of a sharpshooter, Miss Stewart acted on the principle. Her arrows having completely failed on the one string, instead of strangling herself with the refractory cord and lying down and dying in despair, as less sensible maidens in her circumstances are supposed to do, she quietly drew her bow at a venture on the other string. Number two suitor was a much younger man than Josiah, and consequently much nearer her own age. Still, he was not by any means so eligible. He was, comparatively speaking, a poor man, and, according to some reckonings, no virtue can compensate for the vice or crime of poverty.
Needs must, however, when the devil drives, and that was exactly the fix Miss Stewart found herself placed in.
This admirer was a fellow-servant in the same employ—a kind of upper-class servant, a something between a private secretary and a house-steward. He wrote and despatched Josiah Begg's letters, kept his accounts, besides relieving Miss Stewart of many responsibilities in domestic affairs. He was well posted in his master's business; in fact, he shared that gentleman's confidence with Miss Stewart herself.
Hitherto the lady had kept aloof from him, but the attitude was not so marked as to occasion estrangement. They had all page 60along been on fairly-good terms, but now they became confidential. The secretary, or house-steward, admitted he too saw a decided change in his employer, but from his point of view it was a change for the better. Being further interrogated, he stated his inability to account for the change, but promised to keep his eyes open, and, if anything transpired, to communicate results to the housekeeper.
Having arrived at this understanding, we leave the housekeeper and house-steward to work out their designs in their own way.
Time and the seasons, which move tardily enough at life's opening-day, gradually quicken pace, until towards its close they attain high-pressure speed, as if in hot haste to deposit the burden of life in the narrow house appointed for all living.
Josiah Begg, having now ripened into the sear and yellow leaf, experienced the full force of these rapid revolutions, and, profiting by the lesson taught, contemplated the end from the beginning, and the beginning from the end. Turning his thoughts inwards, he could not but feel that, while his had been a uniformly successful life, it had only been so in comparison with a low standard of life and life's issues. It had brought great gain, vast stores of wealth; but these were of a transitory kind, which yielded no assistance, afforded no real support, as the critical moment approached for solving the great mystery. Leaving the life that now is, he felt that he must shortly enter upon the life to come without the least assistance or support from the uniformly successful labours in which he had been so long engaged. That thought, at first humiliating to the pride and pomp of human achievement, gradually readjusted issues, until it became of more profitable account, in a chastening of the soul. With the bodily eye he saw all was vanity and vexation of spirit, but with the eye of faith he saw the better part that fadeth not away. Pressing still forward in mental deliberations, the better part revealed itself in the light of an abstract proposition, enforced by command of the Master, who said, "Leave all, and follow me."
At first Josiah Begg fancied, almost flattered himself, he had, in a measure, anticipated the command before the command in this light had been brought home to his mind. He page 61had, in legal form, mortis causa, divested himself of his worldly possessions, besides renouncing the incentive for re-establishing his fortunes on a footing calculated to rescue his name and memory from oblivion. Deeper self-examination, however, showed much worldly dross—the cares of life and the deceitfulness of riches—still clung to him, and these reflections tended to check the flattering unction he was otherwise disposed to lay to his soul.
In that way Josiah Begg came to realise a true sense of the littleness of time compared with the magnitude of eternity; and if the knowledge made him a sadder it also made him a wiser man.
The way thus paved, the visit of the grim messenger passed by much lighter than might otherwise have been the case. Its approach was heralded by the usual symptoms of alarm, but its presence was divested of much of its terrorism. Being thus shorn of its prerogative as the King of Terrors, it assumed the milder form of the death-bed deliverance, and, in the language of the popular city clergyman who was once more called upon to do duty at the Young Men's Christian Association, "Josiah Begg, after an illness borne with Christian patience, fell asleep in Jesus."
Since we last heard of those two enterprising individuals, Miss Stewart and her admirer, they had not been idle. On the very contrary, the steward had, as he promised, kept his eyes about him, and, aided and abetted by the female confederate, succeeded in digging out full and complete information regarding the will and its contents. That information let a flood of light in upon Miss Stewart's mind, and she now understood what had so much perplexed her before—the real cause of the change which had come over her master. That knowledge she kept to herself, evidently looking upon it as no part of the compact between her and her fellow-servant.
Around Josiah's death-bed they kept close, almost exclusive, watch, so much so that, instead of sinister motives being imputed, they earned fresh laurels in the impression that they had been most attentive to him in his last illness—far more so than could have been looked for at the hands of mere hired servants.page 62
No sooner had Josiah expended his last breath than this model housekeeper silently abstracted from under his pillow a bunch of keys, which she stealthily handed over to her friend the house-steward. The latter then disappeared for a few moments, and on again returning gave the lady a significant look, adding, as he returned the keys, "It is all right; I have it here." These words were seemingly let drop into Miss Stewart's ear in such a low tone of voice one could almost have imagined there were grave fears of disturbing the dead. If such dread existed it proved groundless, for the dead still remained calm and undisturbed.
The grim messenger having finished his work by candlelight, just as the hour of midnight rang itself out, delay ensued before assistance arrived to perform the last offices of the dead. Meantime the two solitary conspirators, as we may now call them, kept their lonely watch, and when the doctor, corpse-dresser, and undertaker arrived everything appeared in the calm tranquillity of an edifying death-bed.