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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter V

page 25

Chapter V.

GGood afternoon, Miss Bateman," said Mr. Webster, one day, as he met Netta on her way from the workhouse.

"Have you been, as usual, to see your poor parishioners?"

"I have been to see our landlord," said Netta.

"Your landlord! I thought no one knew exactly to whom the Manor-house belonged."

"Oh, yes. At present I believe it belongs to a man named Smith, who has a mortgage on it, and who went to New Zealand some years ago; but Mr. Villiers, the real owner of the property, and in whose family the Manor-house has been for many generations, is in the 'house.' "

"You don't mean to say in the workhouse! How do you account for that?"

"It is a very sad story," answered Netta. "The Villiers were always known to be living beyond their means, and when the old lady died things became very bad. One or two of the old servants clung to them as long as they lived; and Mr. Smith allowed them to live on in the house as long as they cared to (you know he lets papa have it now rent-free on condition that he keeps it in repair; for he says that, perhaps, some day he may come home and live in it himself). After the death of the servants, old Mr. Villiers lived there quite alone, and would see no one, until he had become almost an imbecile, and was in a dreadful state when he was taken into the 'house.' He has always avoided me before, but to-day he asked the matron if he might see me for a little while. He was very fond of my cousin's husband when he was a little boy, and it seems Joe often sends page 26 him papers now. He had also heard about Joe's efforts to get his factory hands to make some provision for old age."

"He is now quite well, then?" asked Mr. Webster.

"Oh, quite well, and wonderfully bright; he looks as if he would live many years yet.

"'I have been wanting to see you for some time, Miss Bate, man,' he said. 'I am told that you often hear from Joe Wiseman, and that he is doing well in New Zeland.'

"'Very well, indeed,' I said.

"'And that he is trying to bring about a scheme for an old age pension?'

"'Not quite that, Mr. Villiers,' I said; 'but he is trying to get his employees to put a little away each week for that purpose, and he also does it himself for his own family.'

"' Ah, well!' said the old man:

'"Smallest helps, if rightly given,
Make the impulse stronger."

'I always said Joe would be a Wiseman in more than name; but I feel sure there must be a compulsory Act brought in before an old age pension scheme is an accomplished fact. Moral suasion is a grand thing—a grand thing, Miss Bateman, when the world is prepared for it; but I am afraid that is not just yet. Give my kindest regards to Joe, and tell him to persevere, and God will reward his efforts, and the unborn millions will rise up and call him blessed. But,' continued the old man, 'I don't quite understand the papers Joe sends me. In the leading article you will, perhaps, read of thousands and thousands of acres of good land not yet taken up; then, in the next column, you will see a good deal about the unemployed; and further on, a little para, graph something like this: "The inmates in the Old People's Refuge this week are—Males, 118; females, 38." And that is a charitable institution?'

"'I think so," I said.

"'Rather a high number for their comparatively small towns. And have you noticed, Miss Bateman, how the men always outnumber the women in those places? And it is the same there as it is here.'

page 27

"'I had not noticed,' I said.

"'I suppose a woman can better look after herself than a man can.'

"'Are you not reversing the order of things, Miss Bateman—at least, according to public opinion? Don't you think that, perhaps, we spend more upon ourselves in our younger days, and that it is the old law of cause and effect? The same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. "As ye sow, so ye shall reap," 'said the old man, sadly.

"'Are you comfortable here, Mr. Villiers?' I asked, as he was turning to go away. Poor old gentleman! He got white to the lips; then the blood surged back again to his face, his lips trembled, and his eyes filled with tears; but, by a great effort, he controlled himself, and answered: 'Yes, they are very good to me.' And then he hurried away to hide his emotion."

"How very diversified our lots are in this world," said Mr. Webster, thoughtfully. "One man will build for himself a palatial dwelling, while his neighbour has to live in a tumbledown cottage not fit to house cattle in. Another will spend as much money on one dinner for his friends as would buy food enough for a hundred poor families for a week. Don't you think sometimes, Miss Bateman, what a huge failure Christianity is?"

"No, I have never thought so," answered Netta. "I have always been under the impression that it was the want of Christianity which caused so many failures. Where would you find those precepts? Not in the Sermon on the Mount? or I must have overlooked those verses. How would they read? 'Ye shall build for yourselves palatial dwellings, and let your neighbours live in tumble-down cottages, not fit to house cattle in!' 'Thou shalt gather together thy rich friends, and provide for them a feast, that shall cost as much money as would buy food for a hundred poor families for a week!' Or we will take the other side: 'Ye shall waste your substance on horse-racing, gambling, etc., in your youth and manhood, and be dependent on charity in old age.' Or we will take old Peter Robinson's case: 'Thou shalt spend as much money on beer and tobacco in page 28 thy younger days, as would have been sufficient to keep thee comfortable in old age.' "

"Don't be sarcastic, Miss Bateman," said Mr. Webster; "you know we are supposed to be a Christian nation."

"We are supposed to be an artistic nation, too, I should think," said Netta, "by the amount of 'hand-paintings' we see everywhere, and by the number of pictures there were at the Exhibition last week; but I hardly think that will prove that we are all artists," and they both laughed heartily over some of the exhibits. "But, on the other hand," continued Netta, "we could hardly argue from that, that art is a failure; or that we should blame or destroy the old masters because they are not better copied."

"I am afraid it is useless my arguing with you on any subject," said Mr. Webster, laughing. "Do you know much about Theosophy, Miss Bateman?"

"No, very little," replied Netta.

"There you get true brotherhood," he said. "Some friends of mine, who are Theosophists, lent me some books a little while ago, and Ernest and I are reading them together."

"Mr. Webster!" exclaimed Netta, with flashing eyes, "how dare you!"

Alfred Webster had always stood a little in awe of those eyes of Netta's, well knowing that if she thought a principle of right and wrong was involved, she would not spare him, and wished now he had left Theosophy alone, and for some time they walked on in silence. Netta was the first to speak.

"Forgive me, Mr. Webster," she said very gently, but very gravely, "if I spoke too sharply; but I think it a very, very great responsibility to unsettle young people's minds, when you have nothing to offer them instead. Of course, there are difficulties connected with the Bible, but take it away and you increase them a hundredfold. Let Ernest get his brotherhood, pure and simple, from his New Testament. It not only says 'Bear ye one another's burdens,' 'Love your neighbour as yourself,' but 'Love your enemies.' Where will you find brotherhood wider or fuller than that?"

page 29

As they neared the Manor-house, they overtook Ernest, who was going there to spend the evening, and a very little persuasion induced Alfred to go in, too. Both gentlemen were very fond of music, and an evening at the Manor was among their chief pleasures, as all the Batemans were musical. Agnes and Addie played and sang well; as for Netta—she was really clever at most things, but music was her forte. Her father used to say that nothing soothed and rested him of an evening, as did one of Netta's sonatas; and it was very seldom they retired for the night without a little music. At an "At Home," or at any of their local concerts, if Netta played, there was instant silence as soon as her fingers touched the piano. Mr. Bateman was very much amused one evening at one of their concerts, as he sat at the back of the hall among the small boys, to hear their comments on Netta's playing. One pale-cheeked, blue-eyed little follow, as Netta finished, heaved a deep sigh of satisfaction, and murmured more to himself than to anyone else, "There! that's what I call a noise worth listening to!" Another, not quite so subdued, was calling to his neighbour in a loud "stage whisper," "I say, Bill, ain't she a good 'un! I wouldn't mind getting a pianar myself if I could play like that!"