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I met no one at the house-door, or in the kitchen, and walked straight up the stair to my uncle's room. The blinds were down, and the curtains were drawn, and I could but just see the figure of my aunt seated beside the bed. She rose, and, without a word of greeting, made way for me to approach the form which lay upon it stretched out straight and motionless. The conviction that I was in the presence of death seized me; but instead of the wretchedness of heart and soul which I had expected to follow the loss of my uncle, a something deeper than any will of my own asserted itself, and as it were took the matter from me. It was as if my soul avoided the sorrow of separation by breaking with the world of material things, asserting the shadowy nature of all the visible, and choosing its part with the something which had passed away. It was as if my deeper self said to my outer consciousness: 'I too am of the dead--one with them, whether they live or are no more. For a little while I am shut out from them, and surrounded with things that seem: let me gaze on the picture while it lasts; dream or no dream, let me live in it according to its laws, and await what will come next; if an awaking, it is well: if only a perfect because dreamless sleep, I shall not be able to lament the endless separation--but while I know myself, I will hope for something better.' Like this, at least, was the blossom into which, under my after-brooding, the bud of that feeling broke.
I laid my hand upon my uncle's forehead. It was icy cold, just like my grannie's when my aunt had made me touch it. And I knew that my uncle was gone, that the slow tide of the eternal ocean had risen while he lay motionless within the wash of its waves, and had floated him away from the shore of our world. I took the hand of my aunt, who stood like a statue behind me, and led her from the room.
'He is gone, aunt,' I said, as calmly as I could.
She made no reply, but gently withdrew her hand from mine, and returned into the chamber. I stood a few moments irresolute, but reverence for her sorrow prevailed, and I went down the stair and seated myself by the fire. There the servant told me that my uncle had never moved since they laid him in his bed. Soon after the doctor arrived, and went up-stairs; but returned in a few minutes, only to affirm the fact. I went again to the room, and found my aunt lying with her face on the bosom of the dead man. She allowed me to draw her away, but when I would have led her down, she turned aside and sought her own chamber, where she remained for the rest of the day.
I will not linger over that miserable time. Greatly as I revered my uncle, I was not prepared to find how much he had been respected, and was astonished at the number of faces I had never seen which followed to the churchyard. Amongst them were the Coninghams, father and son; but except by a friendly grasp of the hand, and a few words of condolence, neither interrupted the calm depression rather than grief in which I found myself. When I returned home, there was with my aunt a married sister, whom I had never seen before. Up to this time she had shown an arid despair, and been regardless of everything about her; but now she was in tears. I left them together, and wandered for hours up and down the lonely playground of my childhood, thinking of many things--most of all, how strange it was that, if there were a hereafter for us, we should know positively nothing concerning it; that not a whisper should cross the invisible line; that the something which had looked from its windows so lovingly should have in a moment withdrawn, by some back-way unknown either to itself or us, into a region of which all we can tell is that thence no prayers and no tears will entice it to lift for an instant again the fallen curtain, and look out once more. Why should not God, I thought, if a God there be, permit one single return to each, that so the friends left behind in the dark might be sure that death was not the end, and so live in the world as not of the world?
When I re-entered, I found my aunt looking a little cheerful. She was even having something to eat with her sister--an elderly country-looking woman, the wife of a farmer in a distant shire. Their talk had led them back to old times, to their parents and the friends of their childhood; and the memory of the long dead had comforted her a little over the recent loss; for all true hearts death is a uniting, not a dividing power.
'I suppose you will be going back to London, Wilfrid?' said my aunt, who had already been persuaded to pay her sister a visit.
'I think I had better,' I answered. 'When I have a chance of publishing a book, I should like to come and write it, or at least finish it, here, if you will let me.'
'The place is your own, Wilfrid. Of course I shall be very glad to have you here.'
'The place is yours as much as mine, aunt,' I replied. 'I can't bear to think that my uncle has no right over it still. I believe he has, and therefore it is yours just the same--not to mention my own wishes in the matter.'
She made no reply, and I saw that both she and her sister were shocked either at my mentioning the dead man, or at my supposing he had any earthly rights left. The next day they set out together, leaving in the house the wife of the head man at the farm, to attend to me until I should return to town. I had purposed to set out the following morning, but I found myself enjoying so much the undisturbed possession of the place, that I remained there for ten days; and when I went, it was with the intention of making it my home as soon as I might: I had grown enamoured of the solitude so congenial to labour. Before I left I arranged my uncle's papers, and in doing so found several early sketches which satisfied me that he might have distinguished himself in literature if his fate had led him thitherward.
Having given the house in charge to my aunt's deputy, Mrs Herbert, I at length returned to my lodging in Camden Town. There I found two letters waiting me, the one announcing the serious illness of my aunt, and the other her death. The latter was two days old. I wrote to express my sorrow, and excuse my apparent neglect, and having made a long journey to see her also laid in the earth, I returned to my old home, in order to make fresh arrangements.
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