This month’s free read is short, but very sweet.
Written in the first person narrative (Could this be a true story from Isabella’s life?), the story is about Miss Smith, a new Sunday-school teacher who finds herself drawn to one of her pupils. Little Mary Burton is fair-haired and blue-eyed, but it is her expression of Godly contentment that first catches Miss Smith’s eye.
Soon Mary Burton experiences troubles in her life. Will Miss Smith be able to help her to regain her contented spirit?
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It is many years ago that I went one morning, at the request of the clergyman of my parish, to undertake the teaching of a class of Sunday scholars. As I entered the room, in which my duties were in future to be performed every Sunday morning, the nervous feeling which had been gathering strength as I walked along, almost overcame me, and I think I should have turned and run home again, had not the kind clergyman caught sight of my anxious face, and come forward to encourage me.
“That is right, Miss Smith,” he said, as he shook hands with me. “I am glad you have consented to comply with my wishes, and to take a class here.”
“If I could only teach them right,” I answered timidly; “but I feel as if I should be better employed in learning than in teaching.”
“You have been learning for many months past,” he answered kindly, “learning from higher than mere human teaching, learning in the school of sorrow and of suffering. Let it be seen that the lesson has not been sent in vain. Strive to lead others to that gracious Saviour, whom you have yourself learned to love, and who said, ‘Suffer little children to come unto Me.’”
He led me to a class of little girls seated at the further end of the room, and left me with them. I glanced at the faces turned inquisitively towards the “new teacher.” I will relate the subsequent history of one of these children, whose appearance particularly impressed me.
Mary Burton was a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl, with an expression of contentment on her face, which made it pleasant to look at her. She was eleven years old, she told me, and lived with her mother, who was a widow. I made a point of becoming acquainted with my children in their own homes; and as Mary was never in during the week, being employed as a message-girl at a neighboring green-grocer’s, I went one Sunday, after afternoon service, to see her. I found the family seated at tea. Everything was neat and clean; and the mother, in her widow’s dress and cap, looked the picture of decent and respectable poverty. She told me she had been seven years a widow, and that her youngest child (she had three) had been born two months after his father’s death.
“I have had a hard struggle to keep things straight, ma’am,” she said; “but now that Mary is growing up to be a help and comfort to me, I feel as if a great burden was taken off me; for I know that she will do what she can to work for her mother, and that, as long as she lives, her brothers will not want for a good example and good advice.” Mary’s face was flushed with pleasure at her mother’s praise, and at the few words of encouragement which I gave her.
As I rose to take my leave, I said, “I will leave you a maxim to think about, Mary. It is this: ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain.’ God has blessed you with a naturally contented disposition, but something more is needed. May you, like Mary of old, be enabled to choose that good part, which shall never be taken from you.”
When Mary was fourteen years old her mother was taken very ill. It was a painful and lingering disease, borne with such meek patience as taught a sweet lesson of faith and trust to all who were privileged to see her in her affliction. Mary came home to look after the invalid and her two little brothers, and it was then that her mother found the blessing of having “trained up her child in the way it should go.” Early accustomed to orderly habits and to hard work, it was wonderful how that young girl contrived to keep everything about the poor invalid clean and comfortable, to have the room always tidy, and her brothers’ clothes well washed and mended.
They had many difficulties and hardships. The boys could only earn five dollars a week between them, and this did not allow food sufficient for three growing and hard-worked children, and the round faces became blue and pinched; still there was no murmuring, or parade of want. Go when I would, Mary was busy with her work, and, amid all their poverty, kept up an appearance of comfort, by her clean and tidy ways.
One day I remember I found her with a face unusually pale, and the evident traces of tears in her eyes.
“What is the matter, Mary?” I said.
She made a sign towards her mother’s bed, as if to beg me not to draw attention to her distress, and answered, as she dusted a chair and placed it near the bed for me:
“Nothing, ma’am; I think mother’s keeping pretty well just now.”
Her mother had turned anxiously around as I asked the question; but Mary had so naturally contrived her answer, placing herself at the same time in a position which should conceal her face without an apparent intention to do so, that Mrs. Burton was satisfied. It was my practice, when I visited the widow, to read a chapter aloud, which we talked over afterwards. Her religion was not a mere talk; it was a real possession. She knew “in whom she could trust;” and, in her hour of trial, of bodily suffering, and often of actual want, she would carry her trials and troubles to her Saviour, and, laying the burden at His feet rest contented in the assurance, “The Lord will provide.” She was generally a woman of few words; but that day she spoke more than was her wont, and, among other things, reminded me of the maxim which I had left with Mary on my first visit to them.
“It has often been a comfort to me since,” she said, “and I am sure I find the truth of it more and more every day. To know that our daily bread comes direct from our Father’s hands, seems to make it taste the sweeter; and when things have gone harder than usual, and I could see no way how we could get help, the help has come often in a way that I least expected, till I have been made to feel that to be content with what the Lord is pleased to give us, and to see and know that all comes from His loving hands, is indeed the greatest gain.”
I observed that as she spoke, Mary rather paused in her work, and at last she left off altogether, and stood looking out of the window, while her hands hung listlessly at her side.
It may be easily supposed that I did not usually go to the house empty-handed. I have little sympathy with the piety which leads some really good people to visit the houses of the poor, to read to them, and to give them tracts, and to over-look their bodily wants and suffering altogether. Such, at all events, was not the practice of “Him who has left us an example that we should follow his footsteps.”
It had not pleased God to endow me largely with worldly goods, but it does not require large means to enable one to be kind and helpful to the poor. If we bring a willing heart to the work, we shall soon find many ways at helping, at no greater cost than some slight personal inconvenience or self-denial. That day I had in my purse a five-dollar piece which a wealthy friend, to whom I had spoken of the widow’s patient suffering, had given me for her use. As I saw that something had gone wrong with Mary, and that she was anxious to conceal her distress from her mother, I determined on speaking to her when she accompanied me to the outer door, which she usually did, and that I would give her the money then.
Mary looked nervous when I rose to go away, and as if she would be glad of an excuse for not accompanying me. She saw however, that I expected her, and followed with a slow, unwilling step. When we were quite out of her mother’s hearing, I stopped.
“There is something vexing you, Mary,” I said, “and I suspect you do not want to tell me what it is. If it would be any comfort to speak to a true friend about your troubles, I would willingly hear what is the matter; but if you would rather not tell me, I shall not feel hurt.”
I waited a moment, and as she remained silent, I added:
“I see you would rather not; but remember, dear Mary, that there is One whose ear is ever open to our cry, who is ever ready to pity and to help us. Tell your trouble to Him, ask His guidance if you are in difficulty, cast your care upon Him if you are in trouble, and be assured that none who go in simple trust to Him, shall be sent empty away.”
She answered, “Oh, Miss Smith, I have prayed, indeed I have, but . . .”
“But it seems to you as if the Lord had not heard your prayer,” I said, finishing her sentence for her. “He does not always answer us in the way that we expect; we are poor blind creatures, and do not know what to ask for as we ought; but be assured that the prayer of faith will be answered; if not in the way we wish, at any rate in the way that will be best for us. I will not detain you any longer from your mother,” I added. “She may wonder what is keeping you. Here is a small sum which a friend gave me for you. I have seen that you are to be trusted with money, and that you are thoughtful and prudent in spending the little you have; so I feel sure you will lay this out to the best advantage.”
She looked at me with an eagerness in her large blue eyes that quite startled me; clasped her hands together, and for some minutes remained silent; then she burst into a fit of passionate, almost hysterical weeping, which shook her the more, that she endeavored to suppress all sound. When she was a little composed, she explained the cause of her agitation. Her elder brother, whose earnings brought three dollars a week to the family, had completely worn out his shoes and his clothes, and his master had more than once threatened to dismiss him unless he were better clad. Poor Mary had almost denied herself necessary food, in the endeavor to lay by a sufficient sum to buy him a pair of shoes; but meanwhile, in spite of constant mending, his clothes had become so worn that they would scarcely hold together, and on Monday, his master had warned him that this must be his last week, unless he came better clothed. Friday had come, and Mary was as far as ever from having obtained money for so extensive a purchase, and saw no means of getting it, and hence arose her anxious, careworn looks.
“I could not tell mother,” she said, “for the doctor says she must not be fretted; it might cost her her life.”
“And why could you not tell me?” I answered.
“Oh, ma’am! I thought shame, when you have done so much for us already; ’twould have been begging like.”
She was crying still, for the poor child was weak for want of sufficient food; so I said, soothingly:
“You went to the right quarter, Mary, and He, whose kind heart, when he was on earth, never allowed Him to despise the cry of the weakest or poorest, has proved that He is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever.’ As surely does this help come from Him, though through my hand, as when in olden times He commissioned the ravens to feed the prophet, or multiplied the five loaves and two small fishes into food for five thousand fainting followers.”
“Yes, ma’am, I feel it now. Mother often told me to trust in Him; but somehow I thought I was such a weak, wicked creature, He could never listen to me; but now I feel as if I could never doubt Him again, for it seems as if He had sent you on purpose to help us in our great need.”
And, indeed, from that time she seemed able to cast her whole care upon her Saviour God. She had been contented before; her training and natural temperament had made her so; but now a higher element was added—A simple trust in her heavenly Father’s love and care, an earnest faith in the redemption purchased by the blood of His dear Son, with the abiding presence of that Comforter, whose offices of love were the Saviour’s dying bequest to His people, filled her heart, and constituted that godliness which, with contentment, she truly found to be great gain.
Some months later Mrs. Burton died.
Mary had dearly loved her mother, and had looked up to her in everything for advice. It was a bitter loss, but she bore it with sweet, unmurmuring patience.
“I know she is happy now,” she said, as she uncovered the pale face, and her hot tears dropped fast upon it. “I must try to remember all she used to tell me, but, oh! I can never be like her, so good, so patient.”
We can say little in the face of death; those white, silent lips are far more eloquent than ours; they speak to the bereaved in a language which the mere spectator neither hears nor understands, so I thought it kinder to leave Mary to her Saviour and her great sorrow.
When I returned the following day she was herself again, quite composed and calm. It had been her mother’s earnest wish that Mary should, if possible, keep house for her brothers.
It was not easy, but she effected it; she was clever, and I was fortunate in interesting an excellent woman in the neighborhood in her case. This woman was a clear-starcher; she taught Mary her business without any charge and gave her constant employment. Her brothers’ earnings, too, increased as they grew older; so that, after a time, they lived in comparative comfort.
When Mary was twenty years of age, she married a farmer, who lived about five miles out of town. Her elder brother had obtained an excellent situation through his steadiness and good character. This enabled him to go into comfortable and respectable lodgings, and his younger brother went to live with him. They were both excellent, steady lads, and in a fair way to get on in the world.
It was fully four years after Mary’s marriage that I one day resolved to make her a visit, which she had earnestly pressed upon me before she left the home where I had first known her. I availed myself of a coach, which took me to within two miles of the village where Mary lived, and walked the rest of the way.
My path lay through corn-fields and green lanes, and I thoroughly enjoyed the contrast afforded by the pleasant sights and sounds of the country with the bustle and turmoil of dirty and crowded streets. A neat cottage, with a pretty garden in front of it, was pointed out to me as Mary’s home. I was prepared for order and cleanliness, but scarcely for the almost elegant comfort that pervaded the room. The furniture was of the plainest description, but there was an exquisite neatness, and even taste, in its arrangement, which made one feel that the mistress of such a house was no ordinary person.
Mary herself was there, with a baby on her knee, and a pretty little creature, two years old, playing near her on the floor. She greeted me with a happy smile.
“Oh, ma’am!” she said. “This is kind. I have longed so to show you my new home, and my little ones!”
“And I often wished to come, “I answered; “but, as you know, I have a great deal at home to occupy my time, and when I have planned to come, something has occurred to prevent me.”
It was a pleasant visit. We spoke of her mother and of past times, of her present circumstances and future prospects.
“Oh, ma’am,” she said, and grateful tears filled her eyes, “I feel as if I never can be thankful to my Father in heaven for all His goodness. Of course, we have had our troubles at times, and, worst of all, was when my little baby died, our first, when it was six months old; but, through all, we seem to have had so much comfort and peace, as if the Lord, Himself, was comforting and strengthening us. So that I am sure we have reason to say, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.’”
“Ah, Mary,” I answered, as I rose to go, “you know now, by happy experience, that ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain.’“
As I walked home that beautiful summer evening, watching the golden sunset, and the purple hue of declining day stealing over hill and valley, and thought of Mary with her sweet face and quiet happiness and peace, these words came to my mind,
“God hath appointed one remedy for all the evils in this world, and that is a contented spirit.”