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79.—THE WIDOWS AND THE STRANGERS
qual-i-ties blan-ket shawl blan-ket
thought “Can you lend us a spare blanket?” said the monk; “these poor strangers have been out in the storm, remember."
The widow started. “What meddling busybody told him that the Baroness gave me a new blanket at Michaelmas ?” thought she; but at last, very unwillingly, she went to an inner room to fetch a blanket from her bed.
“They shall not have the new one, that's certain," inuttered the widow, and she drew out the old one, and began to fold it up. But though she had made much of its thinness to the Baroness, she was so powerfully affected at parting with it, that all its good qualities came strongly to her mind,
“It's a very suitable size," said she to herself, "and easy for my poor old arms to shake or fold; with careful usage it would last for years yet, but who knows how two wandering bodies that have been tramping miles through the storm may kick about in their sleep? And who knows if they are decent
folk at all ? Likely enough, they are two hedgebirds, who have imposed a pitiful tale on the good fathers, and never slept under anything finer than a shock of straw in their lives."
The more the good woman thought of this, the more sure she felt that it was the case, and the less willing she became to lend her blanket "to a couple of good-for-nothing tramps." A sudden idea decided her. “Ten to one they bring fever with them !” she cried ; "and dear knows I saw enough good bedding burnt after the black fever ten years ago ; it would be a sin and a shame to burn a good blanket like this,” and repeating "a sin and a shame” with great force, the widow restored the blanket to its place.
“The coverlet is not worth much,” she thought, " but my goodman bought it the year after we were married ; and if anything happened to it, I should never forgive myself! The old shawl is good enough for tramps.
Saying which, she took a ragged old shawl from a peg and folded it up. But even as she brushed and folded it, she began to grudge the faded rag.
“It saves my better one on a bad day,” she sighed; “but I suppose the father must have something."
And accordingly she took it to the monk, saying, “It's not so good as it has been ; but there is warmth in it, and it cost a pretty penny when new.”
“And is this all you can spare to the poor, houseless strangers ? ” asked the monk.
“Ay, indeed, good father," said she, "and that will cost me many a twinge of rheumatics. Folk at my age cannot lie cold at night for nothing."
" These poor strangers," said the monk, "are as aged as yourself, and have lost everything."
But as all he said had no effect in moving the widow's compassion, he departed, and knocked at the door of her neighbour. Here he told the same tale, which met with a very different hearing. This widow was one of those liberal souls whose possessions always make them feel uneasy unless they are being accepted, or used or borrowed by some one else. She blessed herself that, thanks to the Baroness, she had a new blanket, fit to lend to the king himself, and only desired to know with what else she could serve the poor strangers, and requite the charities of the brotherhood. The monk confessed that all the slender stock of household goods in the monastery was in use, and one after another, he accepted the loan of almost everything the widow had. As she gave them he put them out through the door, saying that he had a messenger outside ; and having promised that all should be duly returned on the morrow, he departed, leaving the widow with little else than the chair in which she was to pass the night.
When the monk had gone, the storm raged with greater fury than before ; and at last one terrible flash of lightning struck the widows' house, and though it did not hurt the old women, it set fire to the roof, and both cottages were soon ablaze. Now, as the terrified old creatures hobbled out into the storm, they met the monk, who, crying, “Come to the monastery! seized an arm of each, and hurried them up the hill. To such good purpose did he help them, that they
seemed to fly, and arrived at the convent gate they knew hardly how.
Under a shed by the wall were the goods and chattels of the liberal widow.
“ Take back thine own, daughter," said the monk; “thy charity hath brought its own reward.”
“But the strangers, good father ? ” said the perplexed widow.
“You are the strangers," answered the monk, “and what thy pity thought meet to be spared for the unfortunate, Heaven in thy misfortune hath spared to thee.” Then turning to the other widow, he drew the old shawl from beneath his frock, and gave it to her, saying, "I give you joy, dame, that this hath escaped the flames. It is not so good as it hath been; but there's warmth in it yet, and it cost a pretty penny when new.”
Full of confusion, the illiberal widow took back her shawl, murmuring, “Lack-a-day! if I had but known it was ourselves the good father meant ! ”
The monk gave a shrewd smile. “Ay, ay, it would have been different, I doubt not," said he ; "but accept the lesson, my daughter, and when next thou art called upon to help the unfortunate, think that it is thine own needs that would be served, and then it may be thou shalt judge better as to what thou canst spare."
As he spoke, a flash of lightning lit up the ground where the monk stood, making a vast aureole about him in the darkness of the night. In the bright light his countenance appeared stern and awful in its beauty, and when the flash was past, the monk had vanished also. Furthermore, when the widows sought shelter in the monastery, they found that the brotherhood knew nothing of their strange visitor.
Juliana Horatia Ewing. (Reprinted from " Aunt Judy's Magazine.")
Hope of those that have none other,