The rain had passed. The gray mud of the chalk roads dried up into white dust almost beneath the travellers’ feet as they came out again after temporary shelter; and that brightest, tenderest smile, with which, on such days, the sun makes evening atonement for his absence, shone and sparkled, danced and glowed from the windmill to the water-meads. It reopened the flowers, and drew fragrant answer from the meadow-sweet and the bay-leaved willow. It made the birds sing, and the ploughboy whistle, and the old folk toddle into their gardens to smell the herbs. It cherished silent satisfaction on the bronze face of Rufus resting on his paws, and lay over Master Swift’s wan brow like the aureole of some austere saint canonized, just on this side the gates of Paradise.
The simile is not inapt, for the coarse and vigorous features of the schoolmaster had been refined to that peculiar nobleness which, perhaps, the sharp tool of suffering—used to its highest ends—can alone produce. And the smile of patience, like a victor’s wreath, lay now where hot passions and imperious temper had once struggled and been overcome.
The schoolmaster was paralyzed in his lower limbs, and he sat in a wheel-chair of his own devising, which he could propel with his own hands. The agonizing anxiety and suspense which followed Jan’s disappearance had broken him down, and this was the end. Rufus was still his only housekeeper, but a woman from the village came in to give him necessary help.
“And it be ’most like waiting upon a angel,” said she.
This woman had gone for the night, and Master Swift sat in his invalid chair in the little porch, where he could touch the convolvulus bells with his hand, and see what some old pupil of his had done towards “righting up” the garden. It was an instance of that hardly earned grace of patience in him that he did not vex himself to see how sorely the garden suffered by his helplessness.
Not without cause was the evening smile of sunlight reflected on Master Swift’s lips. Between the fingers of a hand lying on his lap lay Jan’s letter to announce that he and the artist were coming to the cottage, and in intervals of reading and re-reading it the schoolmaster spouted poetry, and Rufus wagged a sedately sympathetic tail.
“How fresh, O Lord, how
sweet and clean
Are Thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.”
And, waving his hand after the old manner towards the glowing water-meadows, he went on with increasing emphasis: —
“Who would have thought
my shrivelled heart
Could have recovered greennesse?”
Perhaps Rufus felt himself bound to answer what had a tone of appeal in it, or perhaps some strange sympathy, not with Master Swift, began already to disturb him. He rose and knocked up the hand in which the letter lay with his long nose, and wandered restlessly about, and then settled down again with his eyes towards the garden-gate.