Read CHAPTER XI.  LOVE IN DIFFICULTIES. of The Sign Of The Red Cross, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

“It means that I am a ruined man, my poor girl!”

“Ruined!  O father, how can that be?  Methought you were a man of much substance.  Mother always said so.”

Gertrude looked anxiously into the careworn face of her father, which had greatly changed during the past weeks.  He paid her occasional visits in her self-chosen home, being one of those who had ceased to fear contagion, and went about almost without precaution, from sheer indifference to the long-continued peril.  He had been a changed man ever since the melancholy deaths of his son and his wife; but today a darker cloud than any she had seen there before rested upon his brow, and the daughter was anxious to learn the reason of it.  This it was which had wrung from the Master Builder the foregoing confession.

“Your poor mother was partly right, and partly wrong.  I might have been a rich man, I might be a rich man even now ­terrible as is the state of trade in this stricken city ­had it not been that she would have me adventure beyond my means in her haste to see me wealthy before my fellows.  And the end of it is that I stand here today a ruined man!”

Gertrude held in her arms a little child, over whom she bent from time to time to assure herself that it slept.  Her face had grown pale and thin during her long confinement between the walls of this house; yet it was a happier and more contented face than it had been wont to be in the days when she lived in luxurious idleness at her mother’s side.  She looked many years older than she had done then, but there was a beauty and sweet serenity about her appearance now which had not been visible in the days of old.

“What has happened during this sad time to ruin you, dear father?” asked Gertrude gently, guessing that it would ease his heart to talk of his troubles.  “Is it the sudden stoppage of all trade?”

“That has been serious enough.  It would have done much harm had that been the only thing, but there be many, many other causes.  Thou art too young and unversed in the ways of business to understand all; but I was not content to grow rich in the course of business alone.  I had ventures of all sorts afloat ­on sea and on land; and through the death of patrons, through the sudden stoppage of all trade, numbers and numbers of these have come to no good.  My money is lost; my loans cannot be recovered.  Men are dead or fled to whom I looked for payment.  Half-finished houses are thrown back on my hands, since half London is empty.  And poor Frederick’s debts are like the sands upon the seashore.  I cannot meet them, but I cannot let others suffer for his imprudence and folly.  The old house on the bridge will have to go.  I must needs sell it so soon as a purchaser can be found.  It may be I shall have to hand it over to one of Frederick’s creditors bodily.  I had thought to end my days there in peace, with my children’s children round me.  But the Almighty is dealing very bitterly with me.  Wife and son are taken away, and now the old home must follow!”

Gertrude, who knew his great love for the house in which he had been born, well understood what a fearful wrench this would be, and her heart overflowed with compassion.

“O father! must it be so?  Is there no way else?  Methought you had stores of costly goods laid by in your warehouses.  Surely the sale of those things would save you from this last step!”

The Master Builder smiled a little bitterly.

“Truly is it said that wealth takes to itself wings in days of adversity.  I myself thought as you do, child ­at least in part; and today I visited my warehouses, to look over my goods and see what there were to fetch when men will dare to buy things which have lain within the walls of this doomed city all these months.  I had the keys of the place.  I myself locked them up when the plague forced me to close my warehouse and dismiss my men.  I saw all made sure, as I thought, with my own eyes.  But what think you I found there today?”

“O father! what?” asked Gertrude, and yet she divined the answer all too well; for she had heard stories of robbery and daring wickedness even during this season of judgment and punishment which prepared her for the worst.

“That the whole place had been plundered; that there was nothing left of any price whatever.  Thieves have broken in during this time of panic, and have despoiled me of the value of thousands of pounds.  Whilst my mind has been full of other matters, my worldly wealth has been swept away.  I stand here before you a ruined man.  And like enough the very miscreants who have used this time of public calamity for plunder and lawlessness may be lying by this time in the common grave.  But that will not give my property back to me.”

“Alas, father, these are indeed evil days!  But has no watch been kept upon the streets that such acts can be done by the evil disposed?  Is all property in the city at the mercy of the violent and wicked?”

“Only too much has vanished that same way, as I have heard from many.  Some owners are themselves gone where they will need their valuables no more, and others were careful to remove all they had to their own houses, or they themselves lived over their goods and could guard them by their presence.  That is where my error lay.  I gave your mother her will in this.  She liked not the shop beneath, and I stored my goods elsewhere.  Poor woman, she is dead and gone; we will speak no hard things of her weaknesses and follies.  But had she lived to see this day, she had grievously lamented her resolve to have naught about her to remind her of buying and selling.”

“Ah, poor mother!  I often think it was the happiest thing for her to be taken ere these fearful things came to pass.  The terror would well nigh have driven her distracted.  Methinks she would have died of sheer fright.  But, father, is all lost past recovery?  Can none of the watch or of the constables tell you aught, or help you to recover aught?”

“Ah, child, in these days of death, who is to know so much as where to carry one’s questions?  Watchmen and constables have died and changed a score of times in the past two months.  The magistrates do their best to keep order in the city, but who can fight against the odds of such a time as this?  The very men employed as watchmen may be the thieves themselves.  They have to take the services of almost any who offer.  It is no time to pick and choose.  I carried my story to the Lord Mayor himself, and he gave me sympathy and pity; but to look for the robbers is a hopeless task.  It is most like that the plague pits have received them ere now.  The mortality in the lower parts of the city is more fearful than it has ever been, and it seems as though the summer heats would never end.  Belike I shall be taken next, and then it will matter little that my fortune has taken unto itself wings.”

Gertrude came and bent over him with a soft caress.

“Say not so, dear father.  God has preserved us all this while.  Let us not distrust His love and goodness now.”

“It might be the greater mercy,” answered the Master Builder in a depressed voice.  “I am too old to start life again with nothing but my broken credit for capital.  As for you, child, your future is assured.  I could leave you happy in that thought.  You would want for nothing.”

Gertrude raised her eyes wonderingly to her father’s face.  She had laid the sleeping child in its cot, and had taken a place at her father’s feet.

“What mean you, father?” she asked.  “I have only you in the wide world now.  If you were to die, I should be both orphaned and destitute.  What mean you by speaking of my future thus?  Whom have I in the wide world besides yourself?”

The father passed his hand over her curly hair, and answered with a sigh and a smile: 

“Surely, child, thou dost know by this time that the heart of Reuben Harmer is all thine own.  He worships the very ground on which thou dost tread.  His father and I have spoken of it.  Fortune has dealt more kindly with our neighbours than with me.  Good James Harmer has laid by money, while I have adventured it rashly in the hope of large returns.  This calamity has but checked his work for these months; when the scourge is past, he will reopen business once more, and will find himself but little the poorer.  He is a wiser man than I have been; and his wife and sons have all been helpful to him.  The love of Reuben Harmer is my assurance for thy future welfare.  Thou wilt never want so long as they have a roof over their heads.

“Nay, now what ails thee, child?  Why dost thou spring up and look at me like that?”

For Gertrude’s usually tranquil face was ablaze now with all manner of conflicting emotions.  She seemed for a moment almost too agitated to speak, and when she could command herself there were traces of great emotion in her voice.

“Father, father!” she cried, “how can you thus shame me?  You must know with what unmerited scorn and contumely Reuben was treated by poor mother when it was we who were rich and they who were (in her belief, at least) poor.  She would scarce let him cross the threshold of our house.  I have tingled with shame at the way in which she spoke of and to him.  Frederick openly insulted him at pleasure.  Every slight was heaped upon him; and he was once told to his very face that he might look elsewhere for a wife, for that my fortune was to win me the hand of some needy Court gallant.  Yes, father, I heard with my own ears those very words spoken ­save that the term ‘needy’ was added in mine own heart.  Oh, I could have shrunk into the earth with shame.  And after all this, after all these insults and aspersions heaped upon him in the day of our prosperity ­am I to be made over to him penniless and needy, without a shilling of dowry?  Am I to be thrown upon his generosity in my hour of poverty, when I was denied to him in my day of supposed wealth?

“Father, father!  I cannot, I will not permit it.  I can work for my own bread if needs must be.  But I will not owe it to the generosity of Reuben Harmer, after all that has passed.  I should be humbled to the very dust!”

The Master Builder looked at his daughter in amaze.  He had never seen Gertrude quite so moved before.

“Why, child,” he exclaimed in astonishment.  “I always thought that thou hadst a liking for the youth!”

Then at that word Gertrude burst suddenly into tears and cried: 

“I love him as mine own soul, and I am not ashamed to own it.  But that is the very reason why I will have none of him now.  I will not be thrown upon his generosity like a bundle of damaged goods.  Let him seek a wife who can bring him a modest fortune with her, and who has never been scornfully denied to him before.  O father! can you not see that I can never consent to be his now?

“O mother, mother! why did you do me this ill?”

The father felt that the situation had got beyond him.  Never much versed in the ways of women, he was fairly puzzled by his daughter’s strange method of taking his confidence.  He knew, of course, of the tactics of his wife, which he had deplored at the time, though he had been unable to bring her to a better frame of mind; but since the young people liked each other, and since madam was in her grave, it seemed absurd to let a shadow stand between them and their happiness.  Perhaps if left to herself Gertrude would reach that conclusion of her own accord, and the Master Builder rose to go without pressing the matter further.

Gertrude, left alone, was weeping silently and bitterly beside the child’s cot, when she was aware of a little short laugh almost at her elbow, and a familiar voice said in sharp accents: 

“Good child!  I like a woman with a spirit of her own.  Go on as you have begun, and don’t let him think he is to have it all his own way.  Lovers are all very well, but husbands soon show their wives how cheap they hold them when they have won them all too cheap.  Throw him aside in scorn!  Let him not think or see that you care a snap of the fingers for him.  That will rivet the fetters all the faster; and when you have got him like a tame bear at the end of a chain ­why then you can make up your mind at leisure what you will end by doing.”

Gertrude sprang up suddenly, and faced Lady Scrope with flushed cheeks and glowing eyes.

The little witch-like woman with her black-handled stick and her mobcap was no unfrequent visitor to this shut-up house.  There was a communication between the two dwellings by means of a door in the cellars, and all this while curiosity, or some better motive, had prompted the eccentric old woman to come to and fro between her own luxurious house and this, paying visits to the devoted girls, and by turns terrifying and charming the children.  Gertrude had been interested from the first by the piquant individuality of the old aristocrat, and was a decided favourite with her.  It was plain now that she had been listening to the conversation between father and daughter, a thing so characteristic of her curiosity and even of her benevolence that Gertrude hardly so much as resented it.  Nevertheless, having a spirit of her own, and being by no means prepared to be dictated to in these matters, some hot words escaped her lips almost before she knew, and were answered by Lady Scrope by an amused peal of her witch-like laughter.

“Tut! tut! tut!  Hoity toity! but she is in a temper, is she, my lady?  Well a good thing too.  Your saints are insipid unless they can call up a spice of the devil on occasion!  Oh, don’t you be afraid of me, child.  I’ve known all about you and young Harmer this long time.  I agree with your late mother, that you could do better; but with all the world topsy turvy as it is now, we must take what we can get; and that young man is estimable without doubt, and a bit of a hero in his way.  I don’t blame you for loving him.  It’s the way with maids, and will be to the end of time, I take it.  All I say is, don’t throw yourself away too fast.  Show a proper pride.  Keep him dangling and fearing, rather than hoping too much.  Show him that he can’t have you just for the asking.  Why, child, I have kept a dozen fools hanging round me for a twelvemonth together sometimes; but I only married when I was tired of the game, and when I knew I had made sure of a captive who would not rebel.  I swore in church to obey poor Scrope; but, bless you, he obeyed me like a lamb to the last day of his life ­and was all the better for it.”

Lady Scrope’s reminiscences and bits of worldly wisdom were not much more to Gertrude’s taste than her father’s had been.  It was not pride, but a sense of humiliation and shame, which kept her from facing the thought of marriage with Reuben now that she was poor, when she had been scornfully denied to him when she was thought to be a well-dowered maiden.  The idea of keeping him dangling after her in suspense was about the last that would ever have entered her head.  Her feeling was one of profound humiliation and unworthiness.  Her mother’s bitter words could never be forgotten by her; and after what her father had told her of his ruined state, it appeared to her simply impossible that she should let Reuben take possession of her and her future when she could bring nothing in return.

But she could not speak of these things to Lady Scrope; and finding her favourite irresponsive and reserved, the dame shrugged her shoulders and passed on to another room, where the children were soon heard to utter shrieks and gasps of mingled delight and terror at the stories she told them, which stories invariably fascinated them to an extraordinary degree, yet left them with a sense of undefined horror that was half delightful, half terrible.

They all thought that she was a witch, and that she could spirit any of them away to fairy land.  But since she brought sweetmeats in her capacious pockets, and had an endless fund of stories at her disposal, her visits were always welcomed, and she had certainly shown herself capable of a most unsuspected benevolence at this crisis, in presenting this house to the authorities for such a purpose, and in contributing considerably to the maintenance of the desolate little inmates.

She liked to hear their dismal stories almost as well as they liked to hear hers.  She made a point of visiting every fresh batch of children, after they had been duly fumigated and disinfected, and she seemed to take a horrible and unnatural delight in the ghastly details of desolation and death which were revealed in the artless narratives of the children.

She was one of those who, knowing much of the fearful corruption of the times, were fond of prognosticating this judgment as a sweeping away of the dregs of the earth; although she still maintained that had the water supply been purer and differently arranged, the judgment of Heaven would have had to seek another medium.

For three or four days Gertrude lived in a state of feverish expectancy and subdued excitement.  She had fancied from her father’s tone in speaking that there had been some talk of a betrothal between him and his neighbour, and that Reuben might take her consent for granted.  The idea made her restless and unhappy.  She wished the ordeal of refusing him over.  She believed she was right in taking this step; but it was a hard one, and she was sometimes afraid of her own courage.  The more she thought of the matter the more she convinced herself that Reuben’s love was one of compassion rather than true affection.  He had almost ceased his attentions in her mother’s lifetime, and had been very reserved in his intercourse of late.  Doubtless if he heard of her father’s ruin, generosity would make him strive to do all that he could for her in her changed circumstances.  It would be like him then to step forward and avow himself ready to marry her.  But it was out of the question for her to consent.  She wished the matter settled and done with; she wished the irrevocable words spoken.

And yet when at dusk one evening Reuben suddenly stood before her, she felt her heart beating to suffocation, and wished that she had any reasonable excuse for fleeing from him.

His visits to the house were not frequent; he was too busy to make them so.  But from time to time he brought orphaned children to the home of shelter, or took away from it some of those for whom other homes had been found with their kinsfolk in other places.  Tonight he had brought in three little destitute orphans; but having given them over into the care of his sisters, he went in search of Gertrude, who was with the youngest of the children in a separate room, and, having sung them all to sleep, was sitting in the window thinking her own thoughts.

She knew what was coming when she saw Reuben’s face, and braced herself to meet it.  Reuben was very quiet and self-restrained ­so self-restrained that she thought she read in his manner an indication that her suspicion was correct, and that it was pity rather than love which prompted his proposal of marriage.

As a matter of fact Reuben was more in love with Gertrude now than he had ever been in his life before; but he had come to look upon her as a being so far above him in every respect that he sometimes marvelled at himself for ever hoping to win her.  The fact that her father was just now a ruined man seemed to him as nothing.  At a time like this the presence or absence of this world’s goods appeared absolutely trivial.  Reuben believed that the Master Builder would retrieve his fortune in better times without difficulty, and regarded this temporary reverse as absolutely insignificant.  Therefore he had no clue to Gertrude’s motive in her rejection of him, and accepted it almost in silence, feeling that it was what he always ought to have looked for, and marvelling at his temerity in seeking the hand of one who was to him more angel than woman.

He said very little; he took it very quietly.  It seemed to him as though all the life went out of him, and as though hope died within him for ever.  But he scarcely showed any outward emotion as he rose and said farewell; and little did he guess how, when he had gone, Gertrude flung herself on the floor in a passion of tears and sobbed till the fountain of her weeping was exhausted.

“I was right!  I was right!  It was not love; it was only pity!  But ah, how terrible it is to put aside all the happiness of one’s life!  Oh I wonder if I have done wrong!  I wonder if I could better have borne it if I had humbled myself to take what he had to offer, without thinking of anything but myself!”

Would he come again?  Would he try to see her any more?  Would this be the end of everything between them?  Gertrude asked herself these questions a thousand times a day; but a week flew by and he had not come.  She had not seen a sign of him, nor had any word concerning him reached her from without.  There was nothing very unusual in this, certainly; and yet as day after day passed by without bringing him, the girl felt her heart sinking within her, and would have given worlds for the chance of reconsidering her well-considered judgment.

How the days went by she scarcely knew, but the next event in her dream-like life was the sudden bursting into the room of Dorcas, her face flushed, and her eyelids swollen and red with weeping.

Dorcas was a member of Lady Scrope’s household, but paid visits from time to time to the other house.  Also, as Lady Scrope’s house was not shut up, she could go thence to pay a visit home at any time, and she had just come from one such visit now.

Gertrude sprang up at sight of her, asking anxiously: 

“Dorcas!  Dorcas! what is wrong?”

“Reuben!” cried Dorcas, with a great catch in her breath, and then she fell sobbing again as though her heart would break.

Gertrude stood like one turned to stone, her face growing as white as her kerchief.

“What of Reuben?” she asked, in a voice that she hardly knew for her own.  “He is not ­dead?”

“Pray Heaven he be not,” cried Dorcas through her sobs; and then, with a great effort controlling herself, she told her brief tale.

“I went home at noon today and found them all in sore trouble.  Reuben has not been seen or heard of for three days.  Mother says she had a fear for several days before that that something was amiss; he looked so wan, and ate so little, and seemed like one out of whom all heart is gone.  He would go forth daily to his work, but he came home harassed and tired, and on the last morning she thought him sick; but he said he was well, and promised to come home early.  Then she let him go, and no one has seen him since.

“Oh, what can have befallen him?  There seems but one thing to believe.  They say the sickness is worse now than ever it was.  People drop down dead in street and market, and soon there will be none left to bury them.  That must have been Reuben’s fate.  He has dropped down with the infection upon him, and if he be not lying in some pest house ­which they say it is death now to enter ­he must be lying in one of those awful graves.

“O Reuben!  Reuben! we shall never see you again!”