( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BY CLAUDE A. SHEPPERSON A.R.W.S.
MISS BITTERN'S CORONATION
BY ELLEN THORNEYCROFT FOWLER
IT was tea-time at Windybrook Farm ; and the tea-party was discussing as was everybody in England at that time —the progress of the European War. Mrs. Wylie, the mistress of the farm, was a Methodist, as were also her guests, Miss Skiddow and Miss Bittern ; and the assembly was particularly honoured by the presence of the Reverend Stephen Mills, the new minister of that circuit. Mr. Mills had only come to Windygate, the neighbouring village, last Conference ; and as Conference fell in August, and this was only September, he was still surrounded by the halo of novelty. He had never " travelled " in a country circuit before : his work had hitherto lain in crowded towns ; but so long a spell of slum-work had exhausted his physical and nervous force, and the Conference had allotted to him a country circuit where he might take things easily, and recuperate his enfeebled powers : and incidentally where he might also live for a time in close communion with Nature, and so learn some of the lessons which Job was made to learn when the Lord answered him out of the whirlwind.
Mrs. Wylie was a sober and godly matron, who feared God and despised Man with equal fervour ; Miss Skiddow concealed the sentimental heart of a girl in the breast of a pallid and washed-out old maid ; Miss Bittern was dark and tall and forbidding, with a warped nature and an acid tongue ; and they were all three on that side of fifty which an old bishop once described as " the sunny side, because it is the side nearest Heaven."
" The thing that interests me so much in the war is that we are on the same side as the Russians," remarked Miss Skiddow. " The Russians always seem to me such wonderful people." The little spinster had a keen nose for anything that savoured of romance.
Not so Mrs. Wylie. " I don't see why they are more wonderful than anybody else, Annie, when you come to that : not to them as knows them. I suppose we are all more or less wonderful to foreigners."
It occurred to Mr. Mills that a foreigner would have to be very foreign indeed before he applied such an epithet as " wonderful " to anything connected with Mrs. Wylie ; but he wisely did not give expression to this thought.
" Oh ! they are so mysterious and picturesque," replied Annie Skiddow ; " and make me think of the wilds of Siberia and the mysteries of the Eastern Church, and all sorts of strange and wonderful things."
Mrs. Wylie shook her head. " They don't me : they only make me think of wolves and Russia leather. I remember reading a story when I was a child about some people who drove about Siberia in a sledge, and kept throwing their children one by one to the wolves to keep them quiet. Fortunately they had a large family, and so were able to get safe and sound to their journey's end."
Mr. Mills wanted to laugh, but again wisely refrained. His work among the poor had taught him the value of self-restraint especially where his sense of humour was concerned.
" And my father had a Russia leather purse," continued Mrs. Wylie, " given him as a prize at a spelling-bee held in the Leterbury circuit. It smelt something beautiful. Mother always kept it in her pocket-handkerchief drawer for that very reason."
" And what does Russia make Miss Bittern think of, I wonder ? " asked Mr. Mills, endeavouring to draw into conversation the one silent member of the party.
Miss Bittern sniffed scornfully. " It makes me think of what everything else makes me think of, namely, the cruelty of God in making all those millions of human beings without asking them whether they want to be made or not ! "
" For shame, Maria ! " exclaimed the hostess. " It is wrong to speak against the Lord at any time, but especially in the presence of a minister."
" Not at all, Mrs. Wylie," said Mr. Mills gently. " If Miss Bittern has hard thoughts of God it is to one of His ministers that she ought to express them. As His ambassador it is my duty to explain the actions of my King to those who do not understand them for themselves."
" You'll have a deal to explain away if you begin to explain His dealings towards me," retorted the spinster bitterly.
" Well, anyway, I will try ; and if I, His minister, fail, then doubtless He will explain Himself. Are you a Methodist, Miss Bittern ? "
Miss Bittern shook her head. " I used to be before I ceased to believe in religion. But I'm nothing now."
"For shame, Maria ! " repeated Mrs. Wylie ; and Miss Skiddow's pale blue eyes grew like two china plates with horror. " And before a minister, too ! " Mr. Mills' former reproof had been lost upon the farmer's wife. One of the chief sources of her general strength and efficiency was that what others said never affected what she did.
The tactful man of God considered that it was time to return to Miss Skiddow's muttons. " Perhaps Miss Skiddow will tell us more particularly why the Russians interest her so much."
Delighted like the rest of her sex at an opportunity of talking about her feelings, the sentimental Annie replied : " Because they are so picturesque and romantic ; I re-member years ago being thrilled by reading the account of the present Emperor of Russia's coronation. It was all so splendid and symbolical. And the part that thrilled me the most was when the Empress kneeled down before him and he placed the crown on her head with his own hands. It seemed so wonderful for a woman to be crowned by the hand that she loved best in the whole world ! "
In spite of herself Miss Bittern's dark eyes flashed with interest ; but all she said was, " Very pretty for the Empress herself, no doubt, but of no account to the rest of the world that don't have such things happen to them."
" I only wish they did," sighed Miss Skiddow.
" Why, whatever use would they be if they did ? " demanded Mrs. Wylie. " I never in all my life knew anybody talk as much nonsense as you do, Annie ! I can't imagine Wylie putting a crown on my head, and it would be no pleasure to me even if he attempted such a thing. I should think he'd have gone off his own head, instead of on to mine. I really can't stand such foolishness, Annie, and I wonder you aren't ashamed to talk it and before a minister, too ! "
The wisdom of Mrs. Wylie completely crushed Miss Skiddow, and made her wish she had not spoken. But it had an opposite effect upon Mr. Mills. He was one of those blessed few to whom the wisdom of this world is foolishness, and vice versa.
" I agree with Miss Skiddow that it would indeed be glorious if such events happened to the rest of us," he said gently.
" But they don't," snapped Miss Bittern ; " and that's the long and the short of it."
" Are you sure of that ? " asked the minister ; " I am not."
The three women looked at him in three different kinds of amazement. Miss Skiddow's was tinged with unfeigned delight, Miss Bittern's with a grudging interest, while Mrs. Wylie leaped to the conclusion that the hard work of his former circuit had affected the new minister's brain.
Miss Skiddow was the one to give expression to the universal surprise. " My goodness, Mr. Mills ; what a beautiful idea ! Though I don't quite see how you work it out."
" Naturally you don't," retorted Miss Bittern ; " be-cause it's all moonshine."
" Not at all, Maria," interposed Mrs. Wylie, who had been taught that the mentally afflicted should always be humoured rather than crossed. " I daresay it's quite a common affair in the busy circuits that Mr. Mills has come from, though I can't say it's often done in country places like this. But the ways of towns and country are so different, which nobody understands as hasn't been there, and that's why it so unsettles servants who have always lived in the country even to visit a town ; though why they prefer town situations to country ones I never can make out, unless it's the picture palaces."
" How do you work it out, Mr. Mills ? " persisted Miss Skiddow.
" Quite simply," replied the minister. " Are we not told that if we are faithful unto death we shall each receive a crown of life from the Hands of the One Who loves us best of all from the Hands that were pierced for our sakes ? "
" Oh, what a beautiful idea ! " repeated Miss Skiddow.
Miss Bittern gave a harsh laugh as she rose from her seat to depart. " Well, there won't be any crown for me anyway, for I shan't be faithful unto death. I've no faith left now, and there will be still less by the time I come to die."
" Don't speak like that, Maria, for fear the Lord should take you at your word," said Mrs. Wylie, also rising to speed the parting guest. " It's shocking to hear you, and especially before a minister ! "
But Maria was not to be subdued. " Minister or no minister, I shall say what I think, and folks must just take me as I am or leave me."
" I don't know what Mr. Mills will think of you," continued Mrs. Wylie in distress, feeling that for a minister of religion to be thus spoken of under her roof in some way convicted her of inhospitality if not of actual sacrilege.
" I'm sure I don't know, and, what's more, I don't care," retorted Maria with her bitter laugh ; and with scanty adieux to her fellow-guests she bounced out of the room and out of the house.
" That poor soul has suffered much," remarked the minister, who thought more of people's minds than of their manners. " Tell me about her."
" She was jilted on her wedding-day," began Miss Skiddow.
" So she was," interrupted the hostess ; " but I don't see that that has given her any right to be rude to a new minister under my roof : not any right whatsoever."
" Perhaps if we had suffered as she has suffered we should be as she is," suggested Mr. Mills in his Christian charity.
But Mrs. Wylie repudiated his suggestion. " Not we ! I'm sure if Wylie had jilted me on my wedding-day, I shouldn't have taken it as an excuse for insulting ministers of religion in other people's houses, nor felt it gave me any right to do such a thing. And as for suffering why, them as marries suffer as much as them as doesn't. Often more. Many's the time that Wylie has put me out far more than if he'd jilted me on my wedding-day in fact, there's been times when I've wished that he had, and I'd have felt it a kindness on his part, men being what they are, and particularly aggravating as husbands ; but you don't catch me flying at everybody's throat because he didn't, or insulting a new preacher to his face. I take it that it's the duty of a Christian woman to bear the burden that the Lord has seen fit to lay on her shoulders, whether that burden takes the form of being jilted on her wedding-day or married on it ; and only the Lord knows which burden is the hardest to bear."
" Still she was dressed for her wedding and actually at the chapel for it," remarked Miss Skiddow, in charitable excuse for poor Maria's bitterness : " in a white cashmere dress, and a wreath of real white roses and orange-blossom."
" And I was at the chapel ready dressed in my wedding-dress to be married to Wylie thirty years ago, and was actually married to him, and have had to put up with his tantrums ever since, men being what they are, and the best of husbands being but a doubtful blessing ; yet you don't find me snapping off everybody else's head, and insulting new ministers to their very faces ! "
But Miss Skiddow went on as if her hostess had not spoken : " And after she'd waited at the chapel for nearly an hour, and they found that her young man had run off with his landlady's daughter, who was much prettier than she was, though not as intelligent, poor Maria went back home and took off her wedding-dress and wreath and put them in a box and locked them up, and has never looked at them since, though it's close on thirty years ago. And it turned her that bitter that there's no getting on with her at all, though I was always fond of Maria and always shall be."
" And don't forget to add," said Mrs Wylie, " that her young man took to beating his wife before he'd been married a twelvemonth."
" Still it must be distressing to be jilted on one's wedding day," urged the gentle Annie.
" It may be more distressing to be married on it," retorted Mrs. Wylie ; " and it would have been in Maria's case. If she'd any sense in her head she'd go down on her knees and thank the Lord for that jilting business. Why, if she'd have married him he'd have beaten her like he did the other."
But Miss Skiddow held her ground. " She thinks that if he'd married her he wouldn't have beaten her."
" Well then, Annie, I can tell her that he would. If men are given to beating their wives, the sort of wife doesn't make any difference to them. You can take my word for that."
But Miss Skiddow wasn't going to take Mrs. Wylie's word for anything so problematical. " You never can tell. You know what people do, things being what they are, but you never can tell what they'd have done if things had been different."
This conversation made a great impression upon Mr. Mills. He saw as none of her other friends did the true inwardness of Maria's sorrow : and he realised the original depths and sweetness of a nature upon which a disappointment could have had such a blighting effect. Only true sweetness could have turned so sour : only great warmth could have been so thoroughly chilled. A slighter nature would have been more slightly affected : a weaker character would have been temporarily bent, rather than permanently crushed. And because he comprehended, he pardoned. Maria's sharp speeches flew by him unheeded and unanswered.
All that autumn Mr. Mills set himself to thaw the ice of Maria's nature, and to induce the spring of love and tenderness in her sore heart to flow once again. He sought her out, and held long conversations with her ; endeavouring to prove to her that in spite of her conviction to the contrary God still loved and cared for her. To a certain extent Maria responded to his advances, she revealed to him the hidden beauties of her mind and character, and talked to him freely and often brilliantly upon many subjects which interested them both. But on one point she was as adamant. She refused to believe that, since Man had slighted her, God was still waiting and longing for her to return to Him. Her self-confidence had received a blow from which it seemed unable to recover. Mr. Mills succeeded at last in curing her of the bitterness which her sorrow had engendered ; but he was incapable of raising her from the depths of her humiliation. She believed that she was despised alike by God and Man ; and no argument that the minister could urge could shake her in this conviction. The man who cruelly jilted her had slain at one blow her love and her romance and her happiness ; but he had done her a greater evil even than these : he had destroyed her sell-respect. She no longer felt herself of any value either to herself or to others. And the man who does this to a woman deals her " the most unkindest cut of all " : for there is a spark of innocent vanity kindled in the heart of every woman as soon as she is loved ; and when that s park is extinguished, the glory of her womanhood is gone. A woman bereft of any saving spark of vanity may be a drudge or a slave or a rebel : but she is no longer a woman.
" Annie Skiddow doesn't think I understand all her beautiful and romantic ideas," Maria confided to the minister one afternoon when he had overtaken her on her way home from Windygate and was walking back with her : " yet I do far better than she does herself. But I daren't let myself think about them, they make me so miserable."
Mr. Mills nodded. " I know."
" When she was talking that day about the Empress of Russia's coronation, and of how beautiful it was for the hand that loved her to put the crown upon her head, I knew exactly what she meant ; but it made me mad to feel that there were such beautiful things in the world and I was cut out from every one of them. Of course I didn't expect to be an empress and have a golden crown like that : I'm not such a fool ; but I felt that that was only a symbol of what happens to every happily married woman. The hand of the man she has chosen to be her king crowns her with the crown of wifehood. And it turned all my heart to gall to know that I wasn't considered worthy even of an honour that falls to so many women, simply because I wasn't what men call pretty ! "
" There are fairer crowns than even the crown of wifehood," said Mr. Mills gently. " After all, it is only man-given ; but the crown of life is God-given. To my mind there is something very beautiful in the Roman Catholic idea that the woman who gives herself to the work of the Church instead of to domestic happiness is the bride of Christ. I think it is only an enlargement of St. Paul's idea that the married woman cares for the things that please her husband, but the unmarried woman cares for those that please the Lord."
Miss Bittern was silent for a moment. Then she said : " If that were true, then the old maid would have as beautiful a lot as the married woman ? "
" Quite so : some would say even more beautiful I think I should say so myself. Provided, of course, that the unmarried woman cared for the things that concern the Lord as much as the married woman cares for the things that concern her husband. Given two frivolous and selfish and worldly women one married and one single I should say that the single one will be worse than the married one, marriage of necessity inducing a certain amount of give-and-take and a certain truth with realities. But of two truly religious women one married and one single I should say that the single one would have the better chance of making the greater saint, for the reason which St. Paul mentions."
Maria's usually hard face softened. " It seems a wonderfully beautiful idea that any woman could be the bride of Christ," she murmured, her strict Protestant training never having allowed her to hear the phrase before. But the new minister was superior to conventions even Protestant ones.
" So beautiful," he said, " that I regret the reformed Churches haven't adopted it. But I do not agree with the Roman idea that to earn this title a woman must retire into a nunnery for the rest of her mortal life. I hold that every unmarried woman who fulfils St. Paul's ideal and cares only for the things which concern the Lord in short, who loves and serves her Lord as the married woman loves and serves her husband is entitled to be called the bride of Christ."
For a minute the new idea flooded Maria's face with joy. Then the habit of years reasserted itself, and the joy faded. " It's a beautiful notion for those who are good enough for it, but not for such as me."
The minister's eyes were filled with an infinite pity. " Why not ? " he asked.
Maria turned her head away so that he should not see the trembling of her lips. " If I wasn't counted worthy to be a man's bride, I'm surely not worthy to be the bride of Christ."
The minister walked on by her side in silence. Then he suddenly said : " And why weren't you considered worthy to be a man's bride, Miss Bittern ? You are clever and capable and generous and warm-hearted. What more has any man a right to ask for in a wife ? "
" I wasn't pretty, you see, and the girl he set before me was."
" But what has that to do with the present question ? The Lord looketh not on the outward appearance, you know, but on the heart ; and I know you have a large and loving heart to give Him."
" It's too late now. I'm old and ugly and stupid, and no good for anything. I used to have youth and brains even if I hadn't looks ; but I've lost even them now."
In vain the minister argued : poor Miss Bittern's self-abasement refused to be comforted. But at last she cried, as many have cried before her : " If only the Lord would give me a sign that He wanted me and my love, then I could give myself to Him. But as it is, I can't believe that He has any use for a stupid, ugly old woman like me ! "
" Perhaps He will give you a sign if we ask Him, and if it is in accordance with His Divine Will to do so. But if you venture to ask Him for this, you must put away all trace of bitterness out of your own heart. If He deigns to meet you, you must be ready to meet Him. Have you forgiven the man who was to have been your husband ? "
" Yes ; years ago."
" And the woman whom he chose in your place ? " " Yes."
" And is there nothing left to keep alive the memory of that old wrong ? "
Miss Bittern hesitated a moment ; then she said : " There's only one thing left. There's my wedding-dress and wreath which I put away in a box on the day that was to have been my wedding-day and have never looked at since."
" Then you must take them out of their box, and either destroy them or make some use of them. As long as you keep them shut up, you are keeping shut up with them some of the anger and bitterness of that old, unhappy time ; and as long as there is any bitterness in your heart or in your home you cannot be in perfect harmony with Christ."
By that time they were nearing Miss Bittern's home. " If you will come home with me," she said after a moment's silence, " I will open that box right now, and put away all that old misery for ever. But even then I cannot believe that Christ will want the love and the service of such an ugly, stupid old maid as I am. Oh, if He would only give me a sign that He accepts my service and my love ! "
" We will ask Him," replied the minister gently, as Miss Bittern opened the door of her small house, and ushered him into the parlour.
" Let us pray," he said, kneeling down ; and Miss Bittern knelt down beside him. Then he went on : " Blessed Lord, Who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking : may it please Thee to grant to this Thy servant a sign that Thou wilt accept her as Thine own, and wilt grant her grace to share Thy Crown of Thorns on earth, and Thy Crown of Glory in heaven, so that she may evermore be one with Thee, both in this life and in the life to come. We ask it for Thy Name's sake. Amen."
" Now let us ratify the covenant you are ready to make with God," said the minister rising from his knees, " and leave Him to ratify His with you. And as an earthly bride forgets her own people and her father's house in the new life to which she is giving herself, so the bride of Christ puts away the old things so that all things may become new."
In silence Maria led the way into a small unfurnished room in the middle of which stood a locked trunk ; and in silence she knelt down and opened it. First she took out a cashmere dress, that had once been white but now was yellow with age, and laid it on the floor ; then she took out white shoes and stockings and gloves, and laid them beside it, and then a tulle veil, falling into holes as she handled it. The minister thought that this was all ; but there was still one other thing in the old trunk. And as Miss Bittern lifted up the remains of what had once been her wedding-wreath of white roses and orange-blossom, she and the minister saw that what she was holding in her hand was a Crown of Thorns.
And that was the story of Miss Bittern's conversion, or as Mr. Mills would put it of Miss Bittern's coronation.