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Lucy Raymond; Or, The Children's Watchword By Agnes Maule Machar Characters: 16989

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Miss Preston's Last Sunday.

"Tell me the old, old story

Of unseen things above-

Of Jesus and His glory,

Of Jesus and His love."

he light of a lovely Sabbath afternoon in June lay on the rich green woodlands, still bright with the vivid green of early summer, and sparkled on the broad river, tossed by the breeze into a thousand ripples, that swept past the village of Ashleigh. It would have been oppressively warm, but for the breeze which was swaying the long branches of the pine-trees around the little church, which from its elevation on the higher ground looked down upon the straggling clusters of white houses nestling in their orchards and gardens that sloped away below. The same breeze, pleasantly laden with the mingled fragrance of the pines and of the newly-cut hay, fanned the faces of the children, who in pretty little groups-the flickering shadows of the pines falling on their light, fluttering summer dresses-were approaching the church, the grave demeanour of a few of the elder ones showing that their thoughts were already occupied by the pleasant exercises of the Sunday school.

Along a quiet, shady path, also leading to the church, a lady was slowly and thoughtfully walking, on whose countenance a slight shade of sadness, apparently, contended with happier thoughts. It was Mary Preston's last Sunday in her old home, previous to exchanging it for the new one to which she had been looking forward so long; and full as her heart was of thankfulness to God for the blessings He had bestowed, she could not take farewell of the Sunday school in which she had taught for several years, without some regret and many misgivings. Where, indeed, is the earnest teacher, however faithful, who can lay down the self-imposed task without some such feelings? Has the heart been in the work? Have thought and earnestness entered into the weekly instruction? Has a Christian example given force to the precepts inculcated? Above all, has there been earnest, persevering prayer to the Lord of the harvest, in dependence on whom alone the joyful reaping time can be expected?

Such were some of the questions which had been passing through Miss Preston's mind; and the smile with which she greeted her class as she took her place was a little shadowed by her self-condemning reflections-reflections which her fellow-teachers would have thought quite uncalled for in one who had been the most zealous and conscientious worker in that Sunday school. But Mary Preston little thought of comparing herself with others. She knew that to whom "much is given, of him shall be much required;" and judging herself by this standard, she felt how little she had rendered to the Lord for His benefits to her. As her wistful glance strayed during the opening hymn to the faces of her scholars, she could not help wondering what influence the remembrance of what she had tried to teach them would exert on their future lives.

As her class had been much diminished by recent changes, and in view of her approaching departure the blanks had not been filled up, it consisted on this Sunday of only three girls, of ages varying from twelve to fourteen, but differing much in appearance, and still more widely in character and in the circumstances of their lives.

Close to Miss Preston, and watching every look of the teacher she loved and grieved at losing, sat Lucy Raymond, the minister's motherless daughter, a slight, delicate-looking girl, with dark hair and bright grey eyes, full of energy and thought, but possessing a good deal of self-will and love of approbation,-dangerous elements of character unless modified and restrained by divine grace.

Next to her sat fair, plump, rosy-cheeked, curly-haired Bessie Ford, from the Mill Bank Farm-an amiable, kind-hearted little damsel, and a favourite with all her companions, but careless and thoughtless, with a want of steadiness and moral principle which made her teacher long to see the taking root of the good seed, whose development might supply what was lacking.

Very different from both seemed the third member of the class-a forlorn-looking child, who sat shyly apart from the others, shrinking from proximity with their neat, tasteful summer attire, as if she felt the contrast between her own dress and appearance and that of her school-fellows. Poor Nelly Connor's dingy straw hat and tattered cotton dress, as well as her pale, meagre face, with its bright hazel eyes gleaming from under the tangled brown hair, showed evident signs of poverty and neglect. She was a stranger there, having only recently come to Ashleigh, and had been found wandering about, a Sunday or two before, by Miss Preston, who had coaxed her into the Sunday school, and had kept her in her own class until she should become a little more familiar with scenes so strange and new. Curiosity and wonder seemed at first to absorb all her faculties, and her senses seemed so evidently engrossed with the novelty of what she saw around her, that her teacher could scarcely hope she took in any of the instruction which in the most simple words she tried to impress on her wandering mind. And so very ignorant was she of the most elementary truths of Christianity, that Miss Preston scarcely dared to ask her the simplest question, for fear of drawing towards her the wondering gaze of her more favoured classmates, who, accustomed from infancy to hear of a Saviour's love and sacrifice for sin, could scarcely comprehend how any child,

"Born in Christian lands,

And not a heathen or a Jew,"

could have grown up to nearly their own age, ignorant of things which were familiar to them as household words.

Lucy and Bessie, in their happy ignorance and inexperience, little dreamed how many thousands in Christian cities full of stately churches, whose lofty spires seem to proclaim afar the Christianity of the inhabitants, grow up even to manhood and womanhood with as little knowledge of the glorious redemption provided to rescue them from their sin and degradation as if they were sunk in the thickest darkness of heathenism. Strange that congregations of professed followers of Christ, whose consciences will not let them refuse to contribute some small portion of their substance to convey the glad tidings of the gospel to distant lands, will yet, as they seek their comfortable churches, pass calmly by whole districts where so many of their fellow-countrymen are perishing for lack of that very gospel, without making one personal effort to save them! Will they not have to give an account for these things?

Nelly Connor's life had for the last two or three years been spent in one of the lowest districts of the city in which her father had fixed his abode after his emigration from the "old sod" to the New World. The horrors of that emigration she could still remember-the overcrowded steerage, where foul air bred the dreaded "ship-fever," and where the moans of the sick and dying weighed down the hearts of those whom the disease had spared. Her two little sisters had died during that dreadful voyage; and her mother, heart-broken and worn out with fatigue and watching, only lived to reach land and die in the nearest hospital. An elder brother, who was to have accompanied them, had by some accident lost his passage; and though he had, they supposed, followed them in the next ship that sailed, they never discovered any further trace of him. So, when Nelly's father had followed his wife to the grave in the poor coffin he had with difficulty provided for her, he and his daughter were all that remained of the family which had set out from their dear Irish home, hoping, in the strange land they sought, to lay the foundation of happier fortunes.

They led an uncomfortable, unsettled life for a year or two after that, exchanging one miserable lodging for another-rarely for the better. The father obtained an uncertain employment as a deck hand on a steamboat during the summer, subsisting as best he could on odd jobs during the winter, and too often drowning his sorrows and cares in the tempting but fatal cup. Poor Nelly, left without any care or teaching, soon forgot all she had ever learned; and running wild with the neglected children around her, became, as might have been expected, a little street Arab, full of shrewd, quick observation, and utter aversion to restraint of any kind.

Suddenly, to Nelly's consternation, her father brought home a second wife, a comrade's widow, wi

th two or three young children. In the new household Nelly was at once expected to take the place of nurse and general drudge, a part for which her habits of unrestrained freedom and idleness had thoroughly disqualified her; and the results were what might have been expected. There was a good deal of heedlessness and neglect on Nelly's part, and nearly constant scolding on that of her new mother. And as the latter was neither patient nor judicious, and was, moreover, unreasonable in what she demanded from the child, there was many a conflict ending in sharp blows, the physical pain of which was nothing in comparison with the sense of injury and oppression left on the child's mind. But she had no redress; for her father being so much away from his home, had no opportunity of opposing, as he would probably have done, his wife's severe method of "managing" his motherless child.

Things were in this condition when Mrs. Connor, who had formerly belonged to Ashleigh, made up her mind to remove thither, in the expectation both of living more cheaply, and of being able, among her old acquaintances, to find more work to eke out her uncertain means of living. Her husband was now working on a steamboat which passed up and down the river on which Ashleigh was situated, so that he could not see his family as often as before. They were now settled in a small, rather dilapidated tenement, with a potato patch and pig-sty; and Mrs. Connor, who was an energetic woman, had already succeeded in making her family almost independent of the earnings which Michael Connor too often spent in the public-house. This being the case, she had no scruples in providing for her own children, without much consideration for Nelly; so that the poor child was a forlorn-looking object when Miss Preston had found her hovering wistfully about, attracted by the sight of the children streaming towards the church, and had induced her to come, for the first time in her life, into a Sunday school.

And now, with these three girls before her, differing so much in circumstances and culture, it was no wonder that Miss Preston should feel it a matter for earnest consideration what parting words she should say, which, even if unappreciated at the time, might afterwards come back to their minds, associated with the remembrance of a teacher they had loved, to help them in the conflict between good and evil which must have its place in their future lives. But she felt she could not possibly do better, in bidding farewell to her young pupils, than to direct them to Him who would never leave nor forsake them,-who was nearer, wiser, tenderer, than any earthly friend,-who, if they would trust themselves to Him, would guide them into all truth, and in His own way of peace.

She had brought them each, as a little parting remembrancer, a pretty gift-card, bearing on one side the illuminated motto, "Looking unto Jesus," a text the blessed influence of which she herself had long experimentally known. And in words so simple as for the most part to reach even little Nelly's comprehension, she spoke earnestly of the loving Saviour to whom they were to "look,"-of that wonderful life which, opening in the lowly manger of Bethlehem, and growing quietly to maturity in the green valleys of Nazareth, reached its full development in those unparalleled three years of "going about doing good," healing, teaching, warning, rebuking, comforting; not disdaining to stop and bless the little children, and at last dying to atone for our sins.

She explained to them, that although withdrawn from our earthly sight, He was as really near to them now as He had been to those Jewish children eighteen hundred years ago; that their lowest whisper could reach Him; that if they would but ask Him, He would be their truest Friend, ever at their side to help them to do right and resist temptation, to comfort them in sorrow and sweeten their joy. Her earnest tone and manner, even more than her words, impressed the children, and fixed even Nelly Connor's bright hazel eyes in a wondering gaze. It was very new and strange to her to hear about the mysterious, invisible Friend who was so loving and kind; the idea of a friend of any kind being novel to the lonely, motherless child, more accustomed to harsh, unsparing reproof than to any other language. Miss Preston, glad to see at least that her interest was excited, was fain to leave the germs of truth to take root and develope in her mind, under the silent influence of the divine Husbandman.

"Now, my dear children," she said in conclusion, "whenever you are tempted to be careless or unfaithful in duty, to think that it doesn't matter because no one will know, remember that your Saviour knows,-that whatever the duty before you may be, you have to do it 'as to the Lord, and not unto men.' Whenever you are tempted to get tired of trying to do right and resist temptation, or when you may feel sad for your sinfulness and unworthiness, think of the text I am leaving you, 'Looking unto Jesus.' And if you really and earnestly look to Him, you will always find help, and strength, and guidance, and comfort."

On the reverse side of the illuminated card she had brought for her class was printed, in clear, distinct characters, the hymn,

"I lay my sins on Jesus,

The spotless Lamb of God;

He bears them all, and frees us

From the accursed load.

"I lay my wants on Jesus,

All fulness dwells in Him;

He heals all my diseases,

He doth my soul redeem."

As Nelly could not read, Miss Preston made her say these verses several times after her; and as she had a quick ear and a facility for learning by heart, she could soon repeat them. That she could not understand them at present, her teacher knew; but she thought it something gained that the words at least should linger in her memory till their meaning should dawn upon her heart. Then, telling Nelly she must take care of her pretty card, and try to learn to read it for herself, she bade her class an affectionate farewell, trusting that the Friend of whom she had been teaching them would care for them when she could not.

"I'll learn the hymn, miss, and try to learn to read it, if anybody 'll teach me," said Nelly, her bright brown eyes sparkling through tears, for her warm Irish heart had been touched by the kind words and tones of her teacher, whom she expected never to see again.

Bessy Ford's sunshiny face also looked unusually sorrowful, and Lucy Raymond's trembling lip bespoke a deeper emotion, with difficulty repressed.

"I shall see you again, Lucy," Miss Preston said, with a smile, as she affectionately detained her a moment, for Lucy had been invited to be present at her teacher's marriage, at which her father was to officiate. Lucy and Bessie walked away together, the former with her first experience of a "last time" weighing on her mind and spirits; and Nelly Connor slowly stole away among the trees toward the spot she called her "home."

Bessie's momentary sadness quickly vanished as she engaged in a brisk conversation with another girl about her own age, who was eager to gossip about Miss Preston's approaching marriage, where she was going, and what she was to wear. Lucy drew off from her companion as soon as Nancy Parker joined them, partly from a real desire of thinking quietly of her teacher's parting words, partly in proud disdain of Bessie's frivolity. "How can she go on so," she thought, "after what Miss Preston has been saying?" But she forgot that disdain is as far removed from the spirit of the loving and pitying Saviour as even the frivolity she despised.

"Come, Lucy, don't be so stiff," said Nancy as they approached the shady gate of the white house where Mr. Raymond lived; "can't you tell us something about the wedding? You're going, aren't you?"

Nancy's pert, familiar tones grated upon Lucy's ear with unusual harshness, and she replied, rather haughtily, that she knew scarcely anything about it.

"Oh, no doubt you think yourself very grand," Nancy rejoined, "but I can find out all about it from my aunt, and no thanks to you. Come on, Bessie." Bessie, somewhat ashamed of her companion, and instinctively conscious of Lucy's disapproval, stopped at the gate to exchange a good-bye with her friend, who for the moment was not very cordial.

Thus Miss Preston and her class had separated, and future days alone could reveal what had become of the seed she had tried to sow.

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