The reason why every one loved Tom Lecky so much was, I believe, that he was so good-tempered, so cheerful and so unselfish.
Tom was not good-looking, and, indeed, if one were disposed to be critical in such matters, one could have found fault with almost all his features except his eyes. These were brown like sealskin, and nearly always brimming over with merriment. But no one ever thought of criticising Tom's features, and there really was a common belief among the villagers that Tom was a handsome fellow. And indeed he was, for his beautiful unselfish soul gave to his face a beauty which merely regular features can never do.
Tom Lecky owned a flour-mill, which was situated a little way from Ellingford, the village where he had been born. He was "well-off," for the mill brought him a good deal of money. He had no relations, but hoped to have a very near one—a wife. This was Anne Grey, the blacksmith's daughter, who was as pretty as she was winsome. She was fond of pretty things too, flowers especially, so it was Tom's delight to gratify her fancy.
For this reason he bought Brooks's cottage, which had a lovely garden. And week by week he purchased this or that to make his cottage pretty and home-like for his bride. It would be difficult to tell how much pleasure Tom found in furnishing this cottage. He would wander in the garden-paths among the rose-bushes, smiling to himself as he thought of the many surprises in store for Anne. But a surprise was in store for him which was not at all pleasant. Anne Grey married some one else.
When Tom heard it, he locked up the pretty cottage, put the key in his pocket, and went to the mill to live. To Anne he spoke no word, though he saw her with her husband coming from the church. In fact, he spoke to no one, but did his work at the mill like a man in a dream. Some there were who tried to break through his stony reserve, but no one succeeded. Tom Lecky had become hard and soured. He remained alone in the mill—except for the mice, and for these he set traps. He caught a great many, and plunged them, trap and all, into a bucket of water. When he found a trap with a mouse in it he would look at the little creature beating itself against its prison, turning rapidly round, forcing its pointed nose between the wire bars, while its long tail hung down through the bars on the other side. He would watch the bright little eyes almost start from their sockets in fear and agony, and yet no feeling of sorrow or pity came into his heart for the tiny captive, and after a time with a smile on his face he would drown the little creature. Could this be the Tom Lecky who had had almost the tenderness of a woman at the sight of pain?
Tom's "living-room" was in the basement of the mill. In it were a table, a chair, a bed, and a cupboard. There was also a hanging bookshelf, with a row of books on it, which Tom never opened now. Through the ceiling of this room descended a ladder white with flour. If you climbed this ladder you found yourself in a room smothered with flour-dust, and your ears were almost deafened by the sound of the machinery overhead which the wind-impelled mill-wheel kept in motion, while the descending stream of ground flour travelled unceasingly down from the grinding-wheel to the bin below. There was a ladder from this room to the one above where the machinery was. There was also a room over this from which you could get outside and regulate the small spiny-looking wheel at the top so as to gain all the force of the wind. All these rooms were festooned with cobwebs quite white with flour. The spiders were white, too, which made them look larger. Even the mice caught in the traps were white with flour.
Now at eight o'clock every evening Tom sat down at the round wooden table, and ate his bread and cheese by the light of a tallow candle inserted in the neck of a bottle. And every night at this time there crept out from a crevice near the cupboard a tiny brown mouse, covered with flour-dust. This little mouse seemed eager and hungry, but it never ventured near the traps where the alluring cheese smelt so deliciously. It would wait for Tom to drop a crumb, and then would dart after it and frisk away into its hole, to return and watch again for another crumb. This happened night after night, till Tom began to watch for the little creature with some eagerness. The sound of its tiny scampering feet on the floor would call up a feeling of pleasure like that which one feels when the knock of a dear friend is heard on the door. But Tom was bitter for all this, and at times he had a savage hope that the little mouse would after all be lured into one of the traps. He did not want to feel tender or kindly any more to anything. He wanted to feel cruel and heartless, because his tenderness had cost him so much pain.
One autumn evening, when the air was still, and a sweet afterglow rested on the sky like an echo of the sunset, Tom sat thinking in his chair. It was then that he saw something which he never forgot. He saw his small friend watching one of the traps in which another mouse had just been caught. "Now it will shun me," thought Tom. "It has seen what the traps are for." But the tiny brown creature did not run away, as might have been expected, but crept up to the miller as trustfully as ever; indeed, more so, for it came upon the table and nibbled at a piece of bread close to Tom's hand. Then Tom arose, and went towards the trap, and, instead of drowning the captive, opened the door and set it at liberty. From that time he set no more traps. And he fell to thinking with shame that he had not given even a "Good-day" to those who had brought their corn to him to grind, and that when he passed through the village he had spurned children and dogs who had once been favourites of his, and had come to him with the confidence of old playmates. He remembered that some he had known and cared for had passed through sickness and trouble, and he had not gone to cheer them with a single word. And all this because he was unhappy.
And as he pondered with ever-increasing shame, the mouse crept up again and nibbled at his bread. "In spite of what this mouse has seen, it can still trust me," he thought, "and I, because one deceived me, have mistrusted all the world!"
Then he got up and put on his hat, and went out into the twilight. A little breeze had sprung up, and the trees seemed to be whispering together. He seemed to know what they said, though he could not have put it into words. He felt as if his old happiest self were rising once more from the tomb in which his resentment had buried it. It was not the light-hearted self which had once been, but it was the old loving, unselfish Tom for all that. He wandered on aimlessly at first, but afterwards with definite intentions. He would go to Brooks's cottage. He could bear to do so now. He would see how the neglected garden had done without him, and perhaps to-morrow put it to rights.
When Tom reached the garden gate (it was a tall wicket-gate through which you could get a peep at the garden) he undid the padlock, and in the half-light saw a tall holly-hock stretching itself across the entrance as if barring the way. "The garden is ours—mine and the rest of the flowers," it seemed to say. "Why do you come to disturb our peace?—you who have forsaken us."
And the miller's heart answered, "If one who has forsaken you should come back, would you not receive him?" And then there came into his mind a glad thought. Anne Grey might some day turn to him in trouble, and then he would help her, and never—certainly never—reproach her. This thought warmed his heart as he passed into the garden. How sweet was the breath of the flowers! How their delicate shapes outlined themselves in the twilight! There was the little arbor over which Tom had trained the honeysuckle and blush-roses. He had often fancied Anne sitting there in the long summer afternoons sewing and singing to herself. Now the trailers of the rose half hid the entrance, and a bat flew out at the sound of Tom's step. Night moths flitted hither and thither, and winged beetles made the air vibrate with their drowsy buzzing. The stars began to peep out one after another, and a hush seemed to fall on the garden as if the flowers were asleep.
Then Tom stooped his tall form under the rose-trailers and entered the arbor. There was a table in it, and a sort of fixture-seat all round. Tom had made it himself at leisure moments. "If we have little ones," he had said to himself, "there will be a seat for them all." Now he sat in the arbour alone, and the rose-trailers moved in and out with a rustling sound.
The sounds and scents made Tom quite drowsy, and he presently imagined he really saw and heard things which never could have happened. But they were so beautiful that he liked to think them real even afterwards.
The table in the centre of the arbour was fixed, and upon it Tom leaned his arms. So he could see the glimmer of the sky between the branches, and one single bright star that looked, as he thought, kindly on him. He gazed and gazed at the star, and at the outlined branches, and at the peep of sky, till all his heart seemed to open to good—and that is to God. He gazed till self was forgotten in a beautiful dream. Ah! happiness, he saw, did not consist in self-gratification, but in giving up for others. Then he closed his eyes like a child who has wept but is comforted; and it was then that he heard the little brown mouse talking with the flowers. Now the mouse was at the mill, as we know, so this was very odd.
"Why is the miller so sad?" asked a tall lily.
"First of all," said the mouse, "because Anne Grey is married to some one else, but most of all because he has made so many others bear his sorrow."
"And did making others bear his sorrow make his pain less?" the sunflower asked.
"No," said the mouse, "it made it more; for he had to feel cruel as well as unhappy."
Then a tiny late linum-flower spoke.
"I have not lived a long while," said the linum-flower; "I came out late. I don't quite understand it, but I think it must be best to wait for one's joy. It may be the miller is to have more joy because he has to wait."
Then a yew-tree spoke.
"You are right, little linum-flower; my relations in the graveyard have told me as much. They hear what the dead say at midnight. It is those who wait who get the truest joy!"
Then the miller heard a voice which was not like the others. It was a baby-voice with tears in it. "I is hungry," it said; and Tom started up, his eyes wide open, and in the star-glimmer he saw a tiny child looking at him. Yes, he was awake, and the child was a real child.
"I comed in here," said the little one, "betause the gate was open."
The miller took the little one in his arms and kissed it.
"So you are hungry," he said caressingly. "Well, I must take you home. What is your name?"
"Dot," said the child; "and home is goned away on wheels, and uncle don't want me no more."
"Uncle," repeated Tom reflectively. "Then have you no mother or father, little one?"
"Never had none of these things," said Dot positively. "Some of the other children had, though," she added, as if for the sake of accuracy.
"What other children?" Tom asked with interest.
"Them as was with us in the van," said Dot.
"Did you live in a van, Dot?" inquired Tom.
"Yes," said the child, "the van as has runned away. There's baskets and chairs and things all over the top of it. Uncle said he was agoing to leave me somewhere, and now he's done it."
"How old are you, Dot?"
The child shook her head. "I didn't have no birfdays," she said wistfully. "Ned and Polly and Jim did, but not me."
"Little Dot," cried Tom, hugging the small creature, "so they wanted to get rid of you, did they! Well, you shall come home with me; and, Dot, you shall begin to have birthdays to-morrow!"
"And some bread and dripping to-night—all across the loaf?" Dot asked anxiously.
"Yes, Dot, lots of times across the loaf if you want it."
"I will sell feather brushes for you," said Dot with enthusiasm.
Tom laughed. He had never laughed before all the summer through.
When Tom and Dot reached the mill it was quite dark, and Dot had to stand still in the doorway while the miller lit his candle. When the candle was lit the first thing Dot saw was the little brown mouse scudding across the table. She clapped her hands with delight, for she was not a bit afraid of mice. But the noise she made frightened the mouse, and it ran into its hole and never came out again all that night.
Tom slept on a heap of flour bags, for you see he had tucked Dot up snugly in his bed; but he slept soundly and well, for it is not so much the kind of bed we lie on, as the thoughts we lie down with, that give us pleasant sleep, and of all thoughts the best is that of having done some good and unselfish action in the day.
Dot proved uncommonly useful next morning. Tiny creature though she was, she was quite learned in domestic affairs. She lit the fire and tidied up the room before Tom was even awake. Indeed, when he did wake, it was to see her perched on his chair peeping into the cupboard to find the breakfast service. Tom's breakfast service was not extensive. It consisted of a huge cup and saucer a good deal chipped, two plates and a jam pot, this last article doing duty as a sugar-basin.
Dot was evidently well used to make-shifts, for she even invented a new one. Upon the mantelshelf was a curious old vase with a griffin's head surrounding it. It was shaped like a jug, so Dot took it down and washed it, saying to herself, "This will make a fine milk-jug."
"A fine milk-jug?" yawned the miller from his flour-bag couch. "Ah, to be sure! children want milk to drink." And with this he threw on his clothes, and hastily washed himself in a water-butt which stood near the mill steps. Then he called to Dot. "Come, little one, bring your milk-jug; we will go to the farm for milk for your breakfast."
"But we want to fetch the milk in a can," objected Dot.
Tom scratched his head in a bewildered way for a moment, then a happy thought struck him. "My beer-can will do, won't it?" he asked.
"Yes," answered Dot seriously, "only first it must be scrubbed."
So Tom scrubbed the can obediently, and when it shone sufficiently the two started off to a neighbouring farm to buy the milk.
On the way from the farm a strange thing happened. Tom and Dot were trudging merrily along a little lane, when they perceived a woman crouching under a hedge, holding in her arms a bundle wrapped in a shawl. The woman might have escaped notice, perhaps, had not a cry proceeded from the bundle. Tom had of late heard so many cries in his heart, that his ear readily lent itself to one from outside. He came up to the woman, therefore, at once and said, "You have a little one wrapped in that, haven't you? Is it hungry? If it is, here is some milk."
At first the woman did not raise her head. It was hidden in the shawl which covered the infant, so the miller repeated his question. Then the woman looked up, and the eyes which met Tom's were those of Anne Grey. She knew Tom at once, but it was with no smile of pleasure that she greeted him. Her words, too, when they came, were hard and cold. She only said, "So, Tom Lecky, you see what I have come to; rejoice in it!"
"Does the little one want food?" Tom asked again, without noticing in any way the words or the tone of the woman.
"And if it does?" said Anne, with a bitter little laugh.
"Why, if it does, I'm ready to give it some," said Tom, passing his coat-sleeve before his eyes for a moment. Then removing it suddenly he smiled into the woman's face—an April sort of smile, which scarcely knows whether to cloud over or to beam out with full warmth—and said, "And if you want anything I can give, it is yours for the taking."
The woman burst into tears, and the child, which was scarcely more than a baby, cried to bear her company. It was then that little Dot came forward and took the shawled bundle in her own baby arms, and commenced to feed it from the milk-can.
"How is it you are so early?" inquired Tom anxiously, for he knew that Anne's new home was many miles away.
"I have been here all night," she made answer.
"Anne, the cottage is still there, and the bit of furniture in it; go there, Anne—go now."
So Anne went after all to the cottage, which had been so long prepared for her, but it was not with Tom. He stayed at the mill with little Dot. And every night, when the child lay sleeping, the brown mouse crept out to bear the miller company. It was about this time that Tom thought the mouse began to talk to him as it had talked with the flowers in the garden the night he had found Dot.
"Miller," said the mouse, "is it not small things which make one happy?"
"Some things may content one, but it takes great ones to make one happy," said he.
"Contentment is happiness," said the mouse.
Now while the mouse was speaking, the candle, which was, as we have said, in the neck of a bottle instead of a candlestick, went out, and dropped right to the bottom of the bottle. There was a tiny spark seen for some time through the green glass, and by its light the miller saw many strange things, and the mouse was mixed up with them all.
The first thing he saw was a misty little ladder, made apparently of the cobwebs which festooned the mill. The ladder reached from the table right up through the floor and through the next floor, and from thence right up through the roof. A star was seen gleaming on its top. Up this strange ladder the little mouse ran, and the miller saw it by the light of the tiny spark, which somehow shot out upward rays which lit the ladder from top to bottom. When the mouse reached the top a tiny creature floated down from the star and presented it with a gift. This the mouse brought down and laid on the table before the miller. At first he thought it was sparks from the candle, but as he looked closer he found glittering words were formed by them; but they were in a language he could not read.
"What is the language?" he asked the mouse.
"The language of the eyes," answered the mouse.
"Read it to me," said the miller.
And the mouse read: "Tom, I am sorry—I am lonely; my husband and parents are dead. Tom, have you forgotten the old days?"
"It must be Anne's eyes which say this," cried the miller. "Yes, I might have read it all along."
Then the filmy ladder disappeared, and in the green light rose the little garden where the spring flowers were growing now. Within the arbour where Tom had gone to sleep one night sat Anne, her hands engaged in knitting, her eyes looking far away.
"Mouse, what is she thinking?" asked the miller. "You seem to know everything."
"Her eyes are talking," said the mouse.
"And what do they say?"
"They say, 'The miller only pities me; he no longer loves me.'"
"Ah, the eyes are wrong," cried Tom. "I will go to her and tell her so."
"Not yet," said the mouse. "Wait."
And then among the flowers there appeared a little child, and the child spoke low to the flowers.
"Listen," said the mouse.
"Oh, flowers, I have no father," murmured the child.
"Stop," cried the miller, "I must go."
And as he said this the light went quite out, and in the dim starlight which shone through the window he saw the mouse nibbling a crust of bread near his elbow. But for this little rustling sound, and Dot's breathing, all was silent. Yet there were voices in the miller's heart which made themselves heard well enough. One was the voice of Hope, the other the voice of Love.
So next day, when the sun was setting, Tom put on his best clothes, and, taking Dot by the hand, walked towards Brooks's cottage. When they reached it, Anne's little child stood in the gateway.
"Little one," said Tom, stooping and kissing the child, "is mother in the garden?"
The child pointed to the arbor.
"Stay together, children," said the miller; and then he entered the arbor.
"What did I tell you?" said the mouse. The miller was in the old room at the mill for the last night.
"It matters little what you told me," said the miller—"you taught me so much."
Now from this time the mouse spoke no more to Tom, though he often saw the little brown creature. It is only to the lonely and sorrowful that mice and trees and clouds and wind talk much. And the miller was happy, for had not Anne consented to marry him, and was not the wedding-day no farther distant now than to-morrow?
Anne visited the mill with her husband a week later, and she said, "There are many mice here. Why don't you set traps for them?"
"I cannot do that," said the miller. "One mouse has taught me more than all the books I have read. The mice are welcome to what they take of the grain."
And Anne questioned no more. It was enough for her that she and Tom were together. So I suppose the little brown mouse, or at least its descendants, still live on unmolested at the mill.