Chapter XVII. Sadness and Joy.
MORE than three years had passed, and Aline and Mabel continued to feel their life chiefly centred in those letters from the Flowery Land which came regularly, and after being passed from Aline to her mother and Mabel, were read to Mrs. Cobbold, who listened with increasing eagerness, and was delighted to know that her son had been ordained a deacon, and was conducting service in Chinese at various mountain villages in turn.
Anxiety was, however, pressing upon Mabel as the house-daughter. She could not but perceive that her mother was slowly but surely declining in health, and less and less capable of exertion. She vainly endeavoured to persuade her to see a doctor, and at last thought it well to write such a full account to her sister Frances [183/184] as brought her and her husband Lawrence Richards on the plea of a visit.
Lawrence only stayed for a day, but that was enough to show him the truth, and to cause him. to prepare his wife and her sister for the knowledge that their mother was suffering from a fatal disease, and had not many months at the utmost to live.
She had suspected this herself already, and was relieved not to have to give the first warning of the truth to her devoted Mabel, who heard more peacefully than had been expected, having been prepared by intuition. Indeed, the mother and daughter had come to understand each other so well, and to have such inner sympathy, that the shock was not so great to her as it was to Frances, though it involved to her the entire overthrow of home and of life. They both wrote to Aline, whose summer vacation was not far distant, and who undertook to arrange for giving up her post at the same time. There was indeed a farther reason for resigning her appointment. It had come to light that a small investment made by Edward Bryant's father, which had hitherto been a dead loss, and one of the stones which had weighted [184/185] the family down, had become profitable; and though there were not many shares, there were enough to secure a certain income. Mr. Cobbold strongly advised him to come home, and put matters in order, while he not only felt it right to attend to his mother's entreaties, but believed that he would now be justified in marrying, since a maintenance for a wife would be secure; and, besides, there was an opening for Aline to be useful in the little town in China where his lot had been cast. Nis Bishop and Archdeacon gave him leave of absence, and after waiting for his ordination as a priest, he would be at home in about six months' time.
"Thank God," said Mrs. Millar. "Whether I live to see him or not, I shall know that all is well for my Aline's future."
"So," said the other mother, "my son could have done much better for himself; but that Miss Aline was always after him."
This came to Frances' ears, and was repeated with great indignation. Indeed she thought it was a poor lookout for Aline to go abroad as a poor missionary's wife, be expected to teach those stupid Chinese women, and be looked down upon [185/186] by the fine ladies at the Legation, and the smart merchants' wives. And what was to become of Mabel?
"I have no fears for Mabel," said the mother.
"Well, to be sure, Mabel may be always sure of a home with us, when she wants a rest. She can easily get employment as a governess, unless that young Andrews means to make up to her, as I sometimes think he does, they are so thick over Bryant's letters. And, by what I hear, he has a good salary, besides what is to come to him from his father."
So far Mrs. Richards' suspicions were right, though James Andrews, being a modest and diffident. man, had not thought it well to disturb Mabel's mind with the great question during this time of watching over her mother's decline, though once, when he found Mrs. Millar alone, he could not help telling her of his wishes.
"My dear boy," she said, "I could not wish my Mab to be in better, more God-fearing hands. If you can win her, be certain that you have my blessing."
"And do you think I may hope?"
 "I cannot tell," was the answer, after a little pause. "You must try for yourself."
She said no more, for Aline returned, as the daughters never left their mother alone for more than a few minutes at a time.
Tenderly they watched, those two, for Frances had perforce to go home to her husband and children. At length, after days going by so quietly that they often forgot what was hanging over them, the end came suddenly. Mabel awoke to miss the breathing near her, and found that it had ceased, and the gentle, motherly soul was gone.
Then came the inevitable confusion and bustle, telegraphing to Langbridge, finding Mrs. Cobbold with them at once, and her tender pitifulness being such that they were always forgetting and calling her by her old familiar name, and when they begged her pardon, she did not seem to have been hurt.
The clergyman had been to see them, and as Aline was coming downstairs, she saw a parley of the maid with a young clerical figure, and at first was surprised that a curate should have been sent, and was shrinking back, when a voice struck her, a pair of eyes met her own, and, in another [187/188] moment, she was in Edward's arms. He had heard that his mother was with the daughters and had followed her; and after a few seconds of broken words, Aline felt forced to relieve him and lead the way to the darkened room where, in the midst of a scatter of black materials, his mother, Frances, and Mabel sat contriving in the sad way of a house of mourning.
The three sisters felt it due to the mother and son to leave them alone together, and as they stood on the stairs Aline said: "Oh, Mabel, I feel as if it was horrid of me that my heart should give such a bound. I must go and tell mother."
When, in their turn, Edward and Mrs. Cobbold felt that the girls should be left no longer to themselves, Aline was still kneeling by the bed where that silent figure lay, spent and still after the storm of tears that had come to relieve her.
All arrangements were in the hands of Dr. Richards, and Frances attended to most household matters; but the constant visits of Edward were an infinite comfort and support. to Aline and Mabel during those few sad days, and he went with them when they laid their mother to rest in Langbridge Churchyard.
 The night was spent at Langbridge, Mr. Fraser gladly taking in the young clergyman. And there was time the next day for a walk with Aline to review the thoughts and aspirations connected with the scenes of their childhood, Mabel meanwhile letting herself be the victim and plaything of the small nephew and niece who considered Auntie Mab as their property.
"It was just here," said Aline, "at the churchyard gate that you stood singing 'Salvation, oh salvation,' and said you would be a missionary, and Frances laughed at you, and asked if you meant that, or a photographer!"
"I might have made a better photographer." "But you were in earnest?"
"Ye-es, then I was; but I wavered a good deal. There, under that hedge, when dear little Mab sat preaching to a congregation of dolls, how vexed I was with her for bringing lost purposes back to me."
"Mab has never swerved," said Aline. "She has worked and saved always, from pure love of the Gospel and the Master, and pity for the heathen. I am sure that, if' it can be managed, she will go out with us."
 "She would be a most valuable helper," said Edward. "It shall be managed, if--. But did I not hear something about Andrews? There could not be a better fellow."
"Oh, yes, I know; I believe he spoke to my mother, and Frances will be sure to put a great influence on Mab in his favor; but I do not think she will give in."
"No one knows what love will do in the way of changing intentions."
Aline smiled and shook her head, though she allowed that Mr. Andrews was a very nice youth, very steady and well principled, and that Mabel always liked to talk over Edward's letters with him, and to exchange missionary magazines with him; but, as she said, he took them because he cared for Mabel and for Edward; she, because she cared for the work.
There was a good deal to be settled at Langbridge; and the house at Undercliff Road was not to be given up for six weeks, so the two sisters would return thither to overlook their things, choosing out what could be taken with Aline to China, what would remain under Mrs. Cobbold's keeping, and what would be sold. Edward [190/191] meantime would visit Mr. Fraser, the college at St. Augustine's, and the Committee of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, when he might, perhaps, be asked to act as a deputation for a time, to stir up interest in the mission work. And, at any rate, he would be occupied for the chief part of his furlough, and until the marriage, which must of course be in a rather short time. The Millar family would each possess a small income out of their inheritance from their parents, their mother's portion, and their father's savings; but a fourth part would go to the brother who was settled in New Zealand, and who had written to offer a home to "little Mab," whom he seemed still to suppose a mere child.
But Mabel's mind was made up; and before Edward took leave for his various journeys in England she had gravely and seriously laid before him and Aline her request to accompany them, and to assist in the mission work.
"You are sure that it is your real purpose?" said Edward.
"It has been my most earnest wish ever since I was old enough to know about anything," she answered. "You remember that sermon, Edward?"
"Do I not?" was his answer.
"And all the stories you used to tell me, about the sacred monkeys, and the car of Juggernauth, and the widows."
"Indeed, I do, and how crude and monstrous some of them must have been!"
"How little we understood that it was just the seed growing up," said Aline.
"Well," continued Mabel, "I always wished it and made schemes for it, and as I grew older, every geography lesson and book of travels seemed to strengthen the thoughts, though they were only air castles at first, but then came texts in the Bible, 'How beautiful upon the mountains,' and 'How shall they speak, except they be sent P' and all the rest, more than I can go over; but you know them, Edward, and I have wished and wished, and read and read, and wondered if God would take me if I dedicated myself, and whether I ought. I tried to put it away while dear mother lived, but I think she knew and guessed, Edward. I do believe it would have been the same with me even if you had stayed at home, but now--now the whole way does seem opened." She had spoken eagerly; but her voice here seemed choked, [192/193] and the tears glistened in her eyes--as, indeed, they did in Edward's.
"Dear child--dear Mabel, I am thankful that there should have been such a blessing on our childish dreams and purposes. But I think you ought to remember what I have told Aline, and she is willing to consider, as my wife, that this Chinese mission is one of more danger than most, or indeed, any, not from climate or disease, but from the fanatic risings of the populace, which the mandarins seem less and less able or willing to prevent and punish, but which are specially dangerous to women."
"I know, I have read. They have horrid fancies about the poor rescued babies. But, Edward, you would not hinder any one from our Master's work for fear of the martyr's crown?"
"No, indeed, Mabel; it is only that it is right you should know the risk--the earthly risk, I mean--'Whosoever will save his life shall lose it.
"Yes, you run the risk daily yourself, and are willing for Aline. You will take me, Edward?"
"Let us offer our prayers for acceptance--that [193/194] the desire may be brought to effect, as Mr. Goodrich taught me to pray thirteen years ago."
They all knelt and prayed, uplifted, as it were, above common life; but the prose of the undertaking had yet to come. Edward had to go to London for himself, and there would announce his intended marriage, and propose Mabel Millar as an accredited teacher to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Women's Mission Association; and she would have to present herself at the office in London to be approved and accepted. She said she did not need a salary, but he said it was necessary that she should be authorized and recognized as one sent forth by the Church of England; and, besides that, supplies of books and other requisites might be obtained in case of need.
Before this, however, Mabel had to undergo what she had been led to expect, but which was more trying than she had anticipated--the offer from James Andrews.
She had not realized how much he loved her, nor, indeed, how sweet his devotion was to her. She did like him very much, and if her mind had not been otherwise engrossed, conscious love [194/195] would have sprung up in response long ago, and when she perceived the pain she gave him by her refusal, and his grief and horror of the Chinese cruelties, of which he, too, had read with dismay, she could hardly endure to inflict so much pain. Besides, as he said, "Mabel, think of the blessing you would be to me and my home. Hoping for you, and looking for you, has lighted me up all these years. Your dear mother liked me and trusted me; and you would be free to do all the good you wished, here and elsewhere, if only you would let me make you happy, and be the joy of my life."
"Oh, do not--do not make it hard for me. I have put my hand to the plough, I cannot look back."
"It is hard, then? You are not pledged? Only, if you had not spoken--would you--will you--not think if you do not love me after all?"
"No, no, no! This is what my whole life has been meant for. I am sorry to pain you, very sorry; but it cannot be."
"And you can prefer those dull, brutal Chinese to ------"
 "No," she broke in. "It is my Master's work and call!"
And it was easier not to be shaken by Frances' remonstrances--half affectionate, half worldly; but at last all this was over, and the mission party had set forth on a journey, which may be passed over, being all by steamer and railway till they arrived at Tientsin, a city looking out on the beautiful land-locked harbor of Chefoo, and with a continually increasing settlement of Europeans. Their place of residence, the name of which meant the "Bower of Bliss," was about twenty miles off on the hills, and thither they were conveyed, the ladies in closed sedan chairs, Edward on a jinriksha.