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It was dark, utterly dark, when she woke. For a minute she could not remember where she was. The candle had burned out: it must be late. The baby was on her lap--still, very still. One faint gleam of satisfaction crossed her "during dark" at the thought that he slept so peacefully, hidden from the gloom which, somehow, appeared to be all the same gloom outside and inside of her. In that gloom she sat alone.
Suddenly a prayer was in her heart. It was moving there as of itself. It had come there by no calling of it thither, by no conscious will of hers. "O God," she cried, "I am desolate!--Is there no help for me?" And therewith she knew that she had prayed, and knew that never in her life had she prayed before.
She started to her feet in an agony: a horrible fear had taken possession of her. With one arm she held the child fast to her bosom, with the other hand searched in vain to find a match. And still, as she searched, the baby seemed to grow heavier upon her arm, and the fear sickened more and more at her heart.
At last she had light! and the face of the child came out of the darkness. But the child himself had gone away into it. The Unspeakable had come while she slept--had come and gone, and taken her child with him. What was left of him was no more good to kiss than the last doll of her childhood!
When Tom came home, there was his wife on the floor as if dead, and a little way from her the child, dead indeed, and cold with death. He lifted Letty and carried her to the bed, amazed to find how light she was: it was long since he had had her thus in his arms. Then he laid her dead baby by her side, and ran to rouse the doctor. He came, and pronounced the child quite dead--from lack of nutrition, he said. To see Tom, no one could have helped contrasting his dress and appearance with the look and surroundings of his wife; but no one would have been ready to lay blame on him; and, as for himself, he was not in the least awake to the fact of his guilt.
The doctor gave the landlady, who had responded at once to Tom's call, full directions for the care of the bereaved mother; Tom handed her the little money he had in his pocket, and she promised to do her best. And she did it; for she was one of those, not a few, who, knowing nothing of religion toward God, are yet full of religion toward their fellows, and with the Son of Man that goes a long way. As soon as it was light, Tom went to see about the burying of his baby.
He betook himself first to the editor of "The Firefly," but had to wait a long time for his arrival at the office. He told him his baby was dead, and he wanted money. It was forthcoming at once; for literary men, like all other artists, are in general as ready to help each other as the very poor themselves. There is less generosity, I think, among business-men than in any other class. The more honor to the exceptions!
"But," said the editor, who had noted the dry, burning palm, and saw the glazed, fiery eye of Tom, "my dear fellow, you ought to be in bed yourself. It's no use taking on about the poor little kid: you couldn't help it. Go home to your wife, and tell her she's got you to nurse; and, if she's in any fix, tell her to come to me."
Tom went home, but did not give his wife the message. She lay all but insensible, never asked for anything, or refused anything that was offered her, never said a word about her baby, or about Tom, or seemed to be more than when she lay in her mother's lap. Her baby was buried, and she knew nothing of it. Not until nine days were over did she begin to revive.
For the first few days, Tom, moved with undefined remorse, tried to take a part in nursing her. She took things from him, as she did from the landlady, without heed or recognition. Just once, opening suddenly her eyes wide upon him, she uttered a feeble wail of "Baby!" and, turning her head, did not look at him again. Then, first, Tom's conscience gave him a sharp sting.
He was far from well. The careless and in many respects dissolute life he had been leading had more than begun to tell on a constitution by no means strong, but he had never become aware of his weakness nor had ever felt really ill until now.
But that sting, although the first sharp one, was not his first warning of a waking conscience. Ever since he took his place at his wife's bedside, he had been fighting off the conviction that he was a brute. He would not, he could not believe it. What! Tom Helmer, the fine, indubitable fellow! such as he had always known himself!--he to cower before his own consciousness as a man unworthy, and greatly to be despised! The chaos was come again! And, verily, chaos was there, but not by any means newly come. And, moreover, when chaos begins to be conscious of itself, then is the dawn of an ordered world at hand. Nay, the creation of it is already begun, and the pangs of the waking conscience are the prophecy of the new birth.
With that pitiful cry of his wife after her lost child, disbelief in himself got within the lines of his defense; he could do no more, and began to loathe that conscious self which had hitherto been his pride.
Whatever the effect of illness may be upon the temper of some, it is most certainly an ally of the conscience. All pains, indeed, and all sorrows, all demons, yea, and all sins themselves under the suffering care of the highest minister, are but the ministers of truth and righteousness. I never came to know the condition of such as seemed exceptionally afflicted but I seemed to see reason for their affliction, either in exceptional faultiness of character or the greatness of the good it was doing them.
But conscience reacts on the body--for sickness until it is obeyed, for health thereafter. The moment conscience spoke thus plainly to Tom, the little that was left of his physical endurance gave way, his illness got the upper hand, and he took to his bed--all he could have for bed, that is--namely, the sofa in the sitting-room, widened out with chairs, and a mattress over all. There he lay, and their landlady had enough to do. Not that either of her patients was exacting; they were both too ill and miserable for that. It is the self-pitiful, self-coddling invalid that is exacting. Such, I suspect, require something sharper still.
Tom groaned and tossed, and cursed himself, and soon passed into delirium. Straightway his visions, animate with shame and confusion of soul, were more distressing than even his ready tongue could have told. Dead babies and ghastly women pursued him everywhere. His fever increased. The cries of terror and dismay that he uttered reached the ears of his wife, and were the first thing that roused her from her lethargy. She rose from her bed, and, just able to crawl, began to do what she could for him. If she could but get near enough to him, the husband would yet be dearer than any child. She had him carried to the bed, and thereafter took on the sofa what rest there was for her. To and fro between bed and sofa she crept, let the landlady say what she might, gave him all the food he could be got to take, cooled his burning hands and head, and cried over him because she could not take him on her lap like the baby that was gone. Once or twice, in a quieter interval, he looked at her pitifully, and seemed about to speak; but the back-surging fever carried far away the word of love for which she listened so eagerly. The doctor came daily, but Tom grew worse, and Letty could not get well.
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