English Literature

Mrs. Halliburton’s Troubles by Mrs. Henry Wood

Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles by Mrs. Henry Wood.jpg



In a very populous district of London, somewhat north of Temple Bar, there stood, many years ago, a low, ancient church amidst other churches—for you know that London abounds in them. The doors of this church were partially open one dark evening in December, and a faint, glimmering light might be observed inside by the passers-by.

It was known well enough what was going on within, and why the light was there. The rector was giving away the weekly bread. Years ago a benevolent person had left a certain sum to be spent in twenty weekly loaves, to be given to twenty poor widows at the discretion of the minister. Certain curious provisos were attached to the bequest. One was that the bread should not be less than two days old, and should have been deposited in the church at least twenty-four hours before distribution. Another, that each recipient must attend in person. Failing personal attendance, no matter how unavoidable her absence, she lost the loaf: no friend might receive it for her, neither might it be sent to her. In that case, the minister was enjoined to bestow it upon “any stranger widow who might present herself, even as should seem expedient to him:” the word “stranger” being, of course, used in contra-distinction to the twenty poor widows who were on the books as the charity’s recipients. Four times a year, one shilling to each widow was added to the loaf of bread.

A loaf of bread is not very much. To us, sheltered in our abundant homes, it seems as nothing. But, to many a one, toiling and starving in this same city of London, a loaf may be almost the turning-point between death and life. The poor existed in those days as they exist in these: as they always will exist: therefore it was no matter of surprise that a crowd of widow women, most of them aged, all in poverty, should gather round the church doors when the bread was being given out, each hoping that, of the twenty poor widows, some one might fail to appear, and the clerk would come to the door and call out her own particular name as the fortunate substitute. On the days when the shilling was added to the loaf, this waiting and hoping crowd would be increased four-fold.

Thursday was the afternoon for the distribution. And on the day we are now writing about, the rector entered the church at the usual hour: four o’clock. He had to make his way through an unusual number of outsiders; for this was one of the shilling days. He knew them all personally; was familiar with their names and homes; for the Rev. Francis Tait was a hard-working clergyman. And hard-working clergymen were more rare in those days than they are in these.

Of Scottish birth, but chiefly reared in England, he had taken orders at the usual age, and become curate in a London parish, where the work was heavy and the stipend small. Not that the duties attached to the church itself were onerous; but it was a parish filled with poor. Those familiar with such parishes know what this means, when the minister is sympathising and conscientious. For twenty years he remained a curate, toiling in patience, cheerfully hoping. Twenty years! It seems little to write; but to live it is a great deal; and Francis Tait, in spite of his hopefulness, sometimes found it so. Then promotion came. The living of this little church that you now see open was bestowed upon him. A poor living as compared with some others; and a poor parish, speaking of the social condition of its inhabitants. But the living seemed wealth compared with what he had earned as a curate; and as to his flock being chiefly composed of the poor, he had not been accustomed to anything else. Then the Rev. Francis Tait married; and another twenty years went by.

He stood in the church this evening; the loaves resting on the shelf overhead, against the door of the vestry, all near the entrance. A flaring tallow candle stood on the small table between him and the widows who clustered opposite. He was sixty-five years old now; a spare man of middle height, with a clear, pale skin, an intelligent countenance, and a thoughtful, fine grey eye. He had a pleasant word, a kind inquiry for all, as he put the shilling into their hands; the lame old clerk at the same time handing over the loaf of bread.

“Are you all here to-night?” he asked, as the distribution went on.

“No, sir,” was the answer from several who spoke at once. “Betty King’s away.”

“What is the matter with her?”

“The rheumaticks have laid hold on her, sir. She couldn’t get here nohow. She’s in her bed.”

“I must go and see her,” said he. “What, are you here again, Martha?” he continued, as a little deformed woman stepped from behind the rest, where she had been hidden. “I am glad to see you.”

“Six blessed weeks this day, and I’ve not been able to come!” exclaimed the woman. “But I’m restored wonderful.”

The distribution was approaching its close, when the rector spoke to his clerk. “Call in Eliza Turner.”

The clerk placed on the table the four or five remaining loaves, that each woman might help herself during his absence, and went out to the door.

“‘Liza Turner, his reverence has called for you.”

A sigh of delight from Eliza Turner, and a groan of disappointment from those surrounding her, greeted the clerk in answer. He took no notice—he often heard it—but turned and limped into the church again. Eliza Turner followed; and another woman slipped in after Eliza Turner.

“Now, Widow Booth,” cried the clerk, sharply, perceiving the intrusion, “what business have you here? You know it’s again the rules.”

“I must see his reverence,” murmured the woman, pressing on—a meek, half-starved woman; and she pushed her way into the vestry, and told her pitiful tale.

“I’m worse off than Widow Turner,” she moaned piteously, not in tones of complaint, but of entreaty. “She has a daughter in service as helps her; but me, I’ve my poor unfortunate daughter lying in my place weak with fever, sick with hunger! Oh, sir, couldn’t you give the bounty this time to me? I’ve not had a bit or drop in my mouth since morning; and then it was but a taste o’ bread and a drain o’ tea, that a neighbour give me out o’ charity.”

It was absolutely necessary to discountenance these personal applications. The rector’s rule was, never to give the spare bounty to those who applied for it: otherwise the distribution might have become a weekly scene of squabbling and confusion. He handed the shilling and bread to Eliza Turner; and when she had followed the other women out, he turned to the Widow Booth, who was sobbing against the wall; speaking kindly to her.

“You should not have come in, Mrs. Booth. You know that I do not allow it.”

“But I’m starving, sir,” was the answer. “I thought maybe as you’d divide it between me and Widow Turner. Sixpence for her, sixpence for me, and the loaf halved.”

“I have no power to divide the gifts: to do so would be against the terms of the bequest. How is it you are so badly off this week? Has your work failed?”

“I couldn’t do it, sir, with my sick one to attend to. And I’ve a gathering come on my thimble finger, and that has hindered me. I took ninepence the day before yesterday, sir, but last night it was every farthing of it gone.”

“I will come round and see you by-and-by,” said the clergyman.

She lifted her eyes yearningly. “Oh, sir! if you could but give me something for a morsel of bread now! I’d be grateful for a penny loaf.”

“Mrs. Booth, you know that to give here would be altogether against my rule,” he replied with unmistakable firmness. “Neither am I pleased when any of you attempt to ask it. Go home quietly: I have said that I will come to you by-and-by.”

The woman thanked him and went out. Had anything been needed to prove the necessity of the rule, it would have been the eagerness with which the crowd of women gathered round her. Not one of them had gone away. “Had she got anything?” To reply that she had something, would have sent the whole crowd flocking in to beg in turn of the rector.

Widow Booth shook her head. “No, no. I knowed it before. He never will. He says he’ll come round.”

They dispersed; some in one direction, some in another. The rector blew out the candle, and he and the clerk came forth; and the church was closed for the distribution of bread until that day week. Mr. Tait took the keys himself to carry them home: they were kept at his house. Formerly the clerk had carried them there; but since he had become old and lame, Mr. Tait would not give him the trouble.

It was a fine night overhead, but the streets were sloppy; and the clergyman put his foot unavoidably in many a puddle. The streets through which his road lay were imperfectly lighted. The residence apportioned to the rector of this parish was adjoining a well-known square, fashionable in that day. It was a very good house, with a handsome outward appearance. If you judged by it, you would have said the living must be worth five hundred a year at least. It was not worth anything like that; and the parish treated their pastor liberally in according him so good a residence. A quarter of an hour’s walk from the church brought Mr. Tait to it.

Until recently, a gentleman had shared this house with Mr. Tait and his family. The curate of a neighbouring parish, the Rev. John Acton, had been glad to live with them as a friend, admitted to their society and their table. It was a little help: and but for that, Mr. and Mrs. Tait would scarcely have thought themselves justified in keeping two servants, for the educational expenses of their children ran away with a large portion of their income. But Mr. Acton had now been removed to a distance, and they hoped to receive some one or other in his place.

On this evening, as Mr. Tait was picking his way through the puddles, the usual sitting-room of his house presented a cheerful appearance, ready to receive him. It was on the ground floor, looking upon the street, large and lofty, and bright with firelight. Two candles, not yet lighted, stood on the table behind the tea-tray, but the glow of the fire was sufficient for all the work that was being done in the room.

It was no work at all: but play. A young lady was quietly whirling round the room with a dancing step—quietly, because her feet and movements were gentle; and the tune she was humming, and to which she kept time, was carolled in an undertone. She was moving thus in the happy innocence of heart and youth. A graceful girl of middle height; one whom it gladdened the eye to look upon. Not for her beauty, for she had no very great beauty to boast of; but it was one of those countenances that win their own way to favour. A fair, gentle face, openly candid, with the same earnest, honest grey eye that so pleased you in Francis Tait, and brown hair. She was that gentleman’s eldest child, and looked about eighteen. In reality she was a year older, but her face and dress were both youthful. She wore a violet silk frock, made with a low body and short sleeves: girls did not keep their pretty necks and arms covered up then. By daylight the dress would have appeared old, but it looked very well by candle-light.

The sound of the latch-key in the front door brought her dancing to an end. She knew who it was—no inmate of that house possessed a latch-key except its master—and she turned to the fire to light the candles.

Mr. Tait came into the room, removing neither overcoat nor hat. “Have you made tea, Jane?”

“No, papa; it has only just struck five.”

“Then I think I’ll go out again first. I have to call on one or two of the women, and it will be all one wetting. My feet are soaked already”—looking down at his buckled shoes and black gaiters. “You can get my slippers warmed, Jane. But”—the thought apparently striking him—”would your mamma care to wait?”

“Mamma had a cup of tea half an hour ago,” replied Jane. “She said it might do her good; if she could get some sleep after it, she might be able to come down for a little before bedtime. The tea can be made whenever you like, papa. There’s only Francis at home, and he and I could wait until ten, if you pleased.”

“I’ll go at once, then. Not until ten, Miss Jane, but until six, or about that time. Betty King is ill, but does not live far off. And I must step in to the Widow Booth’s.”

“Papa,” cried Jane as he was turning away, “I forgot to tell you. Francis says he thinks he knows of a gentleman who would like to come here in Mr. Acton’s place.”

“Ah! who is it?” asked the rector.

“One of the masters at the school. Here’s Francis coming down. He only went up to wash his hands.”

“It is our new mathematical master, sir,” cried Francis Tait, a youth of eighteen, who was being brought up to the Church. “I overheard him ask Dr. Percy if he could recommend him to a comfortable house where he might board, and make one of the family: so I told him perhaps you might receive him here. He said he’d come down and see you.”

Mr. Tait paused. “Would he be a desirable inmate, think you, Francis? Is he a gentleman?”

“Quite a gentleman, I am sure,” replied Francis. “And we all like what little we have seen of him. His name’s Halliburton.”

“Is he in Orders?”

“No. He intends to be, I think.”

“Well, of course I can say nothing about it, one way or the other,” concluded Mr. Tait, as he went out.

Jane stood before the fire in thought, her fingers unconsciously smoothing the parting of the glossy brown hair on her well-shaped head as she looked at it in the pier-glass. To say that she never did such a thing in vanity would be wrong; no pretty girl ever lived but was conscious of her good looks. Jane, however, was neither thinking of herself nor of vanity just then. She took a very practical part in home duties: with her mother, a practical part amidst her father’s poor: and at this moment her thoughts were running on the additional work it might bring her, should this gentleman come to reside with them.

“What did you say his name was, Francis?” she suddenly asked of her brother.


“That gentleman’s. The new master at your school.”

“Halliburton. I don’t know his Christian name.”

“I wonder,” mused Jane aloud, “whether he will wear out his stockings as Mr. Acton did? There was always a dreadful amount of darning to be done to his. Is he an old guy, Francis?”

“Isn’t he!” responded Francis Tait. “Don’t faint when you see some one come in old and fat, with green rims to his spectacles. I don’t say he’s quite old enough to be papa’s father, but——”

“Why! he must be eighty then, at least!” uttered Jane, in dismay. “How could you propose it to him? We should not care to have any one older than Mr. Acton.”

“Acton! that young chicken!” contemptuously rejoined Francis. “Put him by the side of Mr. Halliburton! Acton was barely fifty.”

“He was forty-eight, I think,” said Jane. “Oh, dear! how I should like to have gone with Margaret and Robert this evening!” she exclaimed, forgetting the passing topic in another.

“They were not polite enough to invite me,” said Francis. “I shall pay the old lady out.”

Jane laughed. “You are growing too old now, Francis, to be admitted to a young ladies’ breaking-up party. Mrs. Chilham said so to mamma——”

Jane’s words were interrupted by a knock at the front door, apparently that of a visitor. “Jane!” cried her brother, in some trepidation, “I should not wonder if it’s Mr. Halliburton! He did not say when he should come!”

Another minute, and one of the servants ushered a gentleman into the room. It was not an old guy, however, as Jane saw at a glance with a distinct feeling of relief. A tall, gentlemanlike man of five or six and twenty, with thin aquiline features, dark eyes, and a clear, fresh complexion. A handsome man, very prepossessing.

“You see I have soon availed myself of your permission to call,” said he, in pleasant tones, as he took Francis Tait’s hand, and glanced towards Jane with a slight bow.

“My sister Jane, sir,” said Francis. “Jane, this is Mr. Halliburton.”

Jane for once lost her self-possession. So surprised was she—in fact perplexed, for she did not know whether Francis was playing a trick upon her now, or whether he had previously played it; in short, whether this was, or was not, Mr. Halliburton—that she could only look from one to the other. “Are you Mr. Halliburton?” she said, in her straightforward simplicity.

“I am Mr. Halliburton,” he answered, bending to her politely. “Can I have the pleasure of seeing Mr. Tait?”

“Will you take a seat?” said Jane. “Papa is out, but I do not think he will be very long.”

“Where did he go to—do you know, Jane?” cried Francis, who was smothering a laugh.

“To Betty King’s; and to Widow Booth’s. He may have been going elsewhere also. I think he was.”

“At any rate, I’ll just run there and see. Jane, you can tell Mr. Halliburton all about it whilst I am away. Explain to him exactly how he will be here, and how we live. And then you can decide for yourself, sir,” concluded Francis.

To splash through the wet streets to Betty King’s or elsewhere was an expedition rather agreeable to Francis, in his eagerness; otherwise there was no particular necessity for his going.

“I am sorry mamma is not up,” said Jane. “She suffers from occasional sick-headaches, and they generally keep her in bed for the day. I will give you any information in my power.”

“Your brother Francis thought—that it might not be disagreeable to Mr. Tait to receive a stranger into his family,” said Mr. Halliburton, speaking with some hesitation. But the young lady before him looked so lady-like, the house altogether seemed so well appointed, that he almost doubted whether the proposal would not offend her.

“We wish to receive some one,” said Jane. “The house is sufficiently large to do so, and papa would like it for the sake of society: as well as that it would help in our housekeeping,” she added, in her candour. “A friend of papa’s was with us—I cannot remember precisely how many years, but he came when I was a little girl. It was the Rev. Mr. Acton. He left us last October.”

“I feel sure that I should like it very much: and I should think myself fortunate if Mr. Tait would admit me,” spoke the visitor.

Jane remembered the suggestion of Francis, and deemed it her duty to speak a little to Mr. Halliburton of “how he would be there,” as it had been expressed. She might have done so without the suggestion, for she could not be otherwise than straightforward and open.

“We live very plainly,” she observed. “A simple joint of meat one day; cold, with a pudding, the next.”

“I should consider myself fortunate to get the pudding,” replied Mr. Halliburton, smiling. “I have been tossed about a good deal of late years, Miss Tait, and have not come in for too much comfort. Just now I am in very uncomfortable lodgings.”

“I dare say papa would like to have you,” said Jane, frankly, with a sort of relief. She had thought he looked one who might be fastidious.

“I have neither father nor mother, brother nor sister,” he resumed. “In fact, I may say that I am without relatives; for almost the only one I have has discarded me. I often think how rich those people must be who possess close connections and a happy home,” he added, turning his bright glance upon her.

Jane dropped her work, which she had taken up. “I don’t know what I should do without all my dear relatives,” she exclaimed.

“Are you a large family?”

“We are six. Papa and mamma, and four children. I am the eldest, and Margaret is the youngest; Francis and Robert are between us. It is breaking-up night at Margaret’s school, and she has gone to it with Robert,” continued Jane, never doubting but the stranger must take as much interest in “breaking-up nights” as she did. “I was to have gone; but mamma has been unusually ill to-day.”

“Were you disappointed?”

Jane bent her head while she confessed the fact, as though feeling it a confession to be ashamed of. “It would not have been kind to leave mamma,” she added, “and I dare say some other pleasure will arise soon. Mamma is asleep now.”

“What a charming girl!” thought Mr. Halliburton to himself. “How I wish she was my sister!”

“Margaret is to be a governess,” observed Jane, “and is being educated for it. She has great talent for music, and also for drawing; it is not often the two are united. Her tastes lie quite that way—anything clever; and as papa has no money to give us, it was well to make her a governess.”

“And you?” said Mr. Halliburton. The question might have been thought an impertinent one by many, but he spoke it only in his deep interest, and Jane Tait was of too ingenuous a disposition not to answer it as openly.

“I am not to be a governess. I am to stay at home with mamma and help her. There is plenty to do. Margaret cannot bear domestic duties, or sewing either. Dancing excepted, I have not learnt a single accomplishment—unless you call French an accomplishment.”

“I am sure you have been well educated!” involuntarily spoke Mr. Halliburton.

“Yes; in all things solid,” replied Jane. “Papa has taken care of that. He still directs my reading. I know a good bit—of—Latin”—she added, bringing out the concluding words with hesitation, as one who repents his sentence—”though I do not like to confess it to you.”

“Why do you not?”

“Because I think girls who know Latin are laughed at. I did not regularly learn it, but I used to be in the room when papa or Mr. Acton was teaching Francis and Robert, and I picked it up unconsciously. Mr. Acton often took Francis; he had more time on his hands than papa. Francis is to be a clergyman.”

“Miss Jane,” said a servant, entering the room, “Mrs. Tait is awake, and wishes to see you.”

Jane left Mr. Halliburton with a word of apology, and almost immediately after Mr. Tait came in. He was a little taken to when he saw the stranger. His imagination had run, if not upon an “old guy” in spectacles, certainly upon some steady, sober, middle-aged mathematical master. Would it be well to admit this young, good-looking man to his house.

If Jane Tait had been candid in her revelations to Mr. Halliburton, that gentleman, in his turn, was not less candid to her father. He, Edgar Halliburton, was the only child of a country clergyman, the Rev. William Halliburton, who had died when Edgar was sixteen, leaving nothing behind him. Edgar—he had previously lost his mother—found a home with his late mother’s brother, a gentleman named Cooper, who resided in Birmingham. Mr. Cooper was a man in extensive wholesale business, and wished Edgar to go into his counting-house. Edgar declined. His father had lived long enough to form his tastes: his greatest wish had been to see him enter the Church; and the wish had become Edgar’s own. Mr. Cooper thought there was nothing in the world like business: and looked upon that most sacred of all callings, God’s ministry, only in the light of a profession. He had carved out his own career, step by step, attaining wealth and importance, and wished his nephew to do the same. “Which is best, lad?” he coarsely asked: “To rule as a merchant prince, or starve and toil as a curate? I’m not quite a merchant prince yet, but you may be.” “It was my father’s wish,” pleaded Edgar in answer, “and it is my own. I cannot give it up, sir.” The dispute ran high—not in words, but in obstinacy. Edgar would not yield, and at length Mr. Cooper discarded him. He turned him out of doors: told him that, if he must become a parson, he might get some one else to pay his expenses at Oxford, for he never would. Edgar Halliburton proceeded to London, and obtained employment as an usher in a school, teaching classics and mathematics. From that he became a private teacher, and had so earned his living up to the present time: but he had never succeeded in getting to college. And Mr. Tait, before they had talked together five minutes, was charmed with his visitor, and invited him to take tea with him, which Jane came down to make.

“Has your uncle never softened towards you?” Mr. Tait inquired.

“Never. I have addressed several letters to him, but they have been returned to me.”

“He has no family, you say. You ought—in justice, you ought to inherit some of his wealth. Has he other relatives?”

“He has one standing to him in the same relationship as I—my Cousin Julia. It is not likely that I shall ever inherit a shilling of it, sir. I do not expect it.”

“Right,” said Mr. Tait, nodding his head approvingly. “There’s no work so thriftless as that of waiting for legacies. Wearying, too. I was a poor curate, Mr. Halliburton, for twenty years—indeed, so far as being poor goes, I am not much else now—but let that pass. I had a relative who possessed money, and who had neither kith nor kin nearer to her than I was. For the best part of those twenty years I was giving covert hopes to that money; and when she died, and NOTHING was left to me, I found out how foolish and wasteful my hopes had been. I tell my children to trust to their own honest exertions, but never to trust to other people’s money. Allow me to urge the same upon you.”

Mr. Halliburton’s lips and eyes alike smiled, as he looked gratefully at the rector, a man so much older than himself. “I never think of it,” he earnestly said. “It appears, for me, to be as thoroughly lost as though it did not exist. I should not have mentioned it, sir, but that I consider it right you should know all particulars respecting me; if, as I hope, you will admit me to your home.”

“I think we should get on very well together,” frankly acknowledged Mr. Tait, forgetting the prudent ideas which had crossed his mind.

“I am sure we should, sir,” warmly replied Edgar Halliburton. And the bargain was made.


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