This is not a story which requires much preface. The tale speaks for itself. But it is only right to inform the reader, that the persons who play their parts in it (apart from the historical details given) are all fictitious, excepting John Laurence and Agnes Stone.
It rests, under God, with the men and women of England—and chiefly with those of them who are young now—whether such events as are here depicted shall recur in this nineteenth century. The battle of the Reformation will soon have to be fought over again; and reformations (no less than revolutions) are “not made with rose-water.”
“Choose you this day whom ye will serve! If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Are we ready to follow the Master,—if He lead to Calvary? Or are we ready to run the awful risk of hearing Christ’s “Depart!” rather than face men’s “Crucify”? Now, while it is called to-day, let us settle the question.
“For when the heart of man shuts out,
Straightway the heart of God takes in.”
James Russell Lowell.
“Good lack, Agnes! Why, Agnes Stone! Thou art right well be-called Stone; for there is no more wit nor no more quickness in thee than in a pebble. Lack-a-daisy! but this were never good land sithence preaching came therein,—idle foolery that it is!—good for nought but to set folk by the ears, and learn young maids for to gad about a-showing of their fine raiment, and a-gossiping one with another, whilst all the work to be wrought in the house falleth on their betters. Bodykins o’ me! canst not hear mass once i’ th’ week, and tell thy beads of the morrow with one hand whilst thou feedest the chicks wi’ th’ other? and that shall be religion enough for any unlettered baggage like to thee. Here have I been this hour past a-toiling and a-moiling like a Barbary slave, while thou, my goodly young damosel, wert a-junketing it out o’ door; and for why, forsooth? Marry, saith she, to hear a shaven crown preach at the Cross! Good sooth, but when I tell lies, I tell liker ones than so! And but now come home, by my troth; and all the pans o’ th’ fire might ha’ boiled o’er, whilst thou, for aught I know, wert a-dancing in Finsbury Fields with a parcel of idle jades like thyself. Beshrew thee for a lazy hilding (young person; a term applied to either sex) that ne’er earneth her bread by the half! Now then, hold thy tongue, Mistress, and get thee a-work, as a decent woman should. When I lack a lick o’ th’ rough side thereof, I’ll give thee due note!”
Thus far Mistress Martha Winter poured out the vials of her wrath, standing with arms akimbo in the doorway, and addressing a slight, pale-faced, trembling girl of twenty years, who stood before her with bowed head, and made no attempt at self-defence. Indeed, she would have been clever who could have slipped in a sentence, or even have edged in a word, when Mistress Winter had pulled out of her wrath-bottle that cork which was so seldom in it, as Agnes Stone knew to her cost. Nor was it the girl’s habit to excuse or defend herself. Mistress Winter’s deprecation of that proceeding was merely a flourish of rhetoric. So Agnes, as usual, let the tempest blow over her, offering no attempt to struggle, but only to stand and endure.
Mistress Winter had made an excellent investment when, six years before, she adopted Agnes Stone, then an orphan, homeless and friendless; not by any means to be “treated as one of the family,” but to be tyrannised over as drudge and victim in general. The transaction furnished her with two endless topics for gossip, on which she dilated with great enjoyment—her own surpassing generosity, and the orphan’s intense unworthiness. The generosity was not costly; for the portion of food bestowed on Agnes consisted of the scraps usually given to a dog, while she was clothed with such articles as were voted too shabby for the family wear. All work which was dirty or disagreeable, fell to Agnes as a matter of course. The widow’s two daughters, Joan and Dorothy, respectively made her the vent for ill-temper, and the butt for sarcasm; and if, in some rare moment of munificence, either of them bestowed on her a specked apple, or a faded ribbon, the most abject gratitude was expected in return. She was practically a bond slave; for except by running away, there was no chance of freedom; and running away, in her case, meant starvation.
It had not always been thus. For ten years, more or less, before her term of bondage to Martha Winter, Agnes had lived with an aunt, her only surviving relative. During this stage of her life, she had taken her fair share in the household work, had been fed and clothed—coarsely indeed, for her aunt was comparatively poor, but sufficiently—and she had been allowed a reasonable number of holidays, and had not been scolded, except when she deserved it. Though her aunt was an undemonstrative woman, who never gave her an endearing word or a caress, yet life with her was Elysium compared with present circumstances. But beyond even this, far back in early childhood, Agnes could dimly recollect another life again—a life which was love and sunshine—when a mother’s hand came between her and hardship, a mother’s heart brooded warmly over her, and a mother’s lips called her by tender pet names, “as one whom his mother comforteth.” That was long ago; so long, that to look back upon it was almost like recalling some previous state of existence; but the very memory of it, dim though it was, made the present bondage all the harder.
The offence which Agnes had committed on this occasion lay in having exceeded the time allowed her by six minutes. Out of respect to the day, which was the festival of Corpus Christi, she had been graciously granted the rare treat of a whole hour to spend as she pleased. She had chosen to spend it in hearing the latter half of a sermon preached at Paul’s Cross. For, despite Mistress Winter’s disdainful incredulity, the assertion was the simple truth; though that lady, being one of the numerous persons who cannot imagine the possibility of anything unpleasant to themselves being delightful to others, had been unable to give credence to the statement. As to the charge of dancing in Finsbury Fields, poor Agnes had never in her life been guilty of such a piece of dissipation. But she knew what to expect when she came in sight of the clock of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and became mournfully conscious that she would have to confess where she had been: for Mistress Winter had peculiar ideas about religion, and a particular horror of being righteous overmuch, which usually besets people who have no tendency in that direction. Anything in the shape of a sermon was her special abhorrence. Every Sunday morning Agnes was required to wait upon her liege lady to matins—that piece of piety lasting for the week: and three times in the year, without the faintest consideration of her feelings—always terribly outraged thereby—poor Agnes was dragged before the tribunal of the family confessor, and required to give a list of her sins since the last occasion. But anything beyond this, and sermons in particular, found no favour in the eyes of Mistress Winter.
Generally speaking, Agnes shrank from the mere thought of a lecture from this terrible dame. But this time, beyond the unpleasant sensation of the moment, it produced no effect upon her. Her whole mind was full of something else; something which she had never heard before, and could never forget again; something which made this hard, dreary, practical world seem entirely changed to her, as though