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THE NEW OLD HOUSE.
It was a lovely moon-lighted midnight when they set out, the four of them, to walk from the gate across the park to the Old House. Like shadows they flitted over the green sward, all silent as shadows. Scarcely a word was spoken as they went, and the stray syllable now and then, was uttered softly as in the presence of the dead. Suddenly but gently opened in Juliet's mind a sense of the wonder of life. The moon, having labored through a heap of cloud into a lake of blue, seemed to watch her with curious interest as she toiled over the level sward. The air now and then made a soundless sigh about her head, like a waft of wings invisible. The heavenly distances seemed to have come down and closed her softly in. All at once, as if waked from an eternity of unconsciousness, she found herself, by no will of her own, with no power to say nay, present to herself--a target for sorrow to shoot at, a tree for the joy-birds to light upon and depart--a woman, scorned of the man she loved, bearing within her another life, which by no will of its own, and with no power to say nay, must soon become aware of its own joys and sorrows, and have no cause to bless her for her share in its being. Was there no one to answer for it? Surely there must be a heart-life somewhere in the universe, to whose will the un-self-willed life could refer for the justification of its existence, for its motive, for the idea of it that should make it seem right to itself--to whom it could cry to have its divergence from that idea rectified! Was she not now, she thought, upon her silent way to her own deathbed, walking, walking, the phantom of herself, in her own funeral? What if, when the bitterness of death was past, and her child was waking in this world, she should be waking in another, to a new life, inevitable as the former--another, yet the same? We know not whence we came--why may we not be going whither we know not? We did not know we were coming here, why may we not be going there without knowing it--this much more open-eyed, more aware that we know we do not know? That terrible morning, she had come this way, rushing swiftly to her death: she was caught and dragged back from Hades, to be there-after--now, driven slowly toward it, like an ox to the slaughter! She could not avoid her doom--she must encounter that which lay before her. That she shrunk from it with fainting terror was nothing; on she must go! What an iron net, what a combination of all chains and manacles and fetters and iron-masks and cages and prisons was this existence--at least to a woman, on whom was laid the burden of the generations to follow! In the lore of centuries was there no spell whereby to be rid of it? no dark saying that taught how to make sure death should be death, and not a fresh waking? That the future is unknown, assures only danger! New circumstances have seldom to the old heart proved better than the new piece of cloth to the old garment.
Thus meditated Juliet. She was beginning to learn that, until we get to the heart of life, its outsides will be forever fretting us; that among the mere garments of life, we can never be at home. She was hard to teach, but God's circumstance had found her.
When they came near the brow of the hollow, Dorothy ran on before, to see that all was safe. Lisbeth was of course the only one in the house. The descent was to Juliet like the going down to the gates of Death.
Polwarth, who had been walking behind with Ruth, stepped to her side the moment Dorothy left her. Looking up in her face, with the moonlight full upon his large features, he said,
"I have been feeling all the way, ma'am, as if Another was walking beside us--the same who said, 'I am with you always even to the end of the world.' He could not have meant that only for the few that were so soon to follow Him home; He must have meant it for those also who should believe by their word. Becoming disciples, all promises the Master made to His disciples are theirs."
"It matters little for poor me," answered Juliet with a sigh. "You know I do not believe in Him."
"But I believe in Him," answered Polwarth, "and Ruth believes in Him, and so does Miss Drake; and if He be with us, he can not be far from you."
With that he stepped back to Ruth's side, and said no more.
Dorothy opened the door quickly, the moment their feet were on the steps; they entered quickly, and she closed it behind them at once, fearful of some eye in the night. How different was the house from that which Juliet had left! The hall was lighted with a soft lamp, showing dull, warm colors on walls and floor. The dining-room door stood open; a wood-fire was roaring on the hearth, and candles were burning on a snowy table spread for a meal. Dorothy had a chamber-candle in her hand. She showed the Polwarths into the dining-room, then turning to Juliet, said,
"I will take you to your room, dear."
"I have prepared your old quarters for you," she said, as they went up the stair.
With the words there rushed upon Juliet such a memory of mingled dreariness and terror, that she could not reply.
"You know it will be safest," added Dorothy, and as she spoke, set the candle on a table at the top of the stair. They went along the passage, and she opened the door of the closet. All was dark.
She opened the door in the closet, and Juliet started back with amazement. It was the loveliest room! and--like a marvel in a fairy-tale--the great round moon was shining gloriously, first through the upper branches of a large yew, and then through an oriel window, filled with lozenges of soft greenish glass, through which fell a lovely picture on the floor in light and shadow and something that was neither or both. Juliet turned in delight, threw her arms round Dorothy, and kissed her.
"I thought I was going into a dungeon," she said, "and it is a room for a princess!"
"I sometimes almost believe, Juliet," returned Dorothy, "that God will give us a great surprise one day."
Juliet was tired, and did not want to hear about God. If Dorothy had done all this, she thought, for the sake of reading her a good lesson, it spoiled it all. She did not understand the love that gives beyond the gift, that mantles over the cup and spills the wine into the spaces of eternal hope. The room was so delicious that she begged to be excused from going down to supper. Dorothy suggested it would not be gracious to her friends. Much as she respected, and indeed loved them, Juliet resented the word friends, but yielded.
The little two would themselves rather have gone home--it was so late--but staid, fearing to disappoint Dorothy. If they did run a risk by doing so, it was for a good reason--therefore of no great consequence.
"How your good father will delight to watch you here sometimes, Miss Drake," said Polwarth, "if those who are gone are permitted to see, walking themselves unseen."
Juliet shuddered. Dorothy's father not two months gone and the dreadful little man to talk to her like that!
"Do you then think," said Dorothy, "that the dead only seem to have gone from us?" and her eyes looked like store-houses of holy questions.
"I know so little," he answered, "that I dare hardly say I think any thing. But if, as our Lord implies, there be no such thing as that which the change appears to us--nothing like that we are thinking of when we call it death--may it not be that, obstinate as is the appearance of separation, there is, notwithstanding, none of it?--I don't care, mind: His will is, and that is every thing. But there can be no harm, where I do not know His will, in venturing a may be. I am sure He likes His little ones to tell their fancies in the dimmits about the nursery fire. Our souls yearning after light of any sort must be a pleasure to him to watch.--But on the other hand, to resume the subject, it may be that, as it is good for us to miss them in the body that we may the better find them in the spirit, so it may be good for them also to miss our bodies that they may find our spirits."
"But," suggested Ruth, "they had that kind of discipline while yet on earth, in the death of those who went before them; and so another sort might be better for them now. Might it not be more of a discipline for them to see, in those left behind, how they themselves, from lack of faith, went groping about in the dark, while crowds all about them knew perfectly what they could not bring themselves to believe?"
"It might, Ruth, it might; nor do I think any thing to the contrary. Or it might be given to some and not to others, just as it was good for them. It may be that some can see some, or can see them sometimes, and watch their ways in partial glimpses of revelation. Who knows who may be about the house when all its mortals are dead for the night, and the last of the fires are burning unheeded! There are so many hours of both day and night--in most houses--in which those in and those out of the body need never cross each others' paths! And there are tales, legends, reports, many mere fiction doubtless, but some possibly of a different character, which represent this and that doer of evil as compelled, either by the law of his or her own troubled being, or by some law external thereto, ever, or at fixed intervals, to haunt the moldering scenes of their past, and ever dream horribly afresh the deeds done in the body. These, however, tend to no proof of what we have been speaking about, for such 'extravagant and erring spirit' does not haunt the living from love, but the dead from suffering. In this life, however, few of us come really near to each other in the genuine simplicity of love, and that may be the reason why the credible stories of love meeting love across the strange difference are so few. It is a wonderful touch, I always think, in the play of Hamlet, that, while the prince gazes on the spirit of his father, noting every expression and gesture--even his dress, as he passes through his late wife's chamber, Gertrude, less unfaithful as widow than as wife, not only sees nothing, but by no sigh or hint, no sense in the air, no beat of her own heart, no creep even of her own flesh, divines his presence--is not only certain that she sees nothing, but that she sees all there is. She is the dead, not her husband. To the dead all are dead. The eternal life makes manifest both life and death."
"Please, Mr. Polwarth," said Juliet, "remember it is the middle of the night. No doubt it is just the suitable time, but I would rather not make one in an orgy of horrors. We have all to be alone presently."
She hated to hear about death, and the grandest of words, Eternal Life, which to most means nothing but prolonged existence, meant to her just death. If she had stolen a magic spell for avoiding it, she could not have shrunk more from any reference to the one thing commonest and most inevitable. Often as she tried to imagine the reflection of her own death in the mind of her Paul, the mere mention of the ugly thing seemed to her ill-mannered, almost indecent.
"The Lord is awake all night," said Polwarth, rising, "and therefore the night is holy as the day.--Ruth, we should be rather frightened to walk home under that awful sky, if we thought the Lord was not with us."
"The night is fine enough," said Juliet.
"Yes," said Ruth, replying to her uncle, not to Juliet; "but even if He were asleep--you remember how He slept once, and yet reproached His disciples with their fear and doubt."
"I do; but in the little faith with which He reproached them, He referred, not to Himself, but to His Father. Whether He slept or waked it was all one: the Son may sleep, for the Father never sleeps."
They stood beside each other, taking their leave: what little objects they were, opposite the two graceful ladies, who also stood beside each other, pleasant to look upon. Sorrow and suffering, lack and weakness, though plain to see upon them both, had not yet greatly dimmed their beauty. The faces of the dwarfs, on the other hand, were marked and lined with suffering; but the suffering was dominated by peace and strength. There was no sorrow there, little lack, no weakness or fear, and a great hope. They never spent any time in pitying themselves; the trouble that alone ever clouded their sky, was the suffering of others. Even for this they had comfort--their constant ready help consoled both the sufferer and themselves.
"Will you come and see me, if you die first, uncle?" said Ruth, as they walked home together in the moonlight. "You will think how lonely I am without you."
"If it be within the law of things, if I be at liberty, and the thing seem good for you, my Ruth, you may be sure I will come to you. But of one thing I am pretty certain, that such visions do not appear when people are looking for them. You must not go staring into the dark trying to see me. Do your work, pray your prayers, and be sure I love you: if I am to come, I will come. It may be in the hot noon or in the dark night: it may be with no sight and no sound, yet a knowledge of presence; or I may be watching you, helping you perhaps and you never know it until I come to fetch you at the last,--if I may. You have been daughter and sister, and mother to me, my Ruth. You have been my one in the world. God, I think sometimes, has planted about you and me, my child, a cactus-hedge of ugliness, that we might be so near and so lonely as to learn love as few have learned it in this world--love without fear, or doubt, or pain, or anxiety--with constant satisfaction in presence, and calm content in absence. Of the last, however, I can not boast much, seeing we have not been parted a day for--how many years is it, Ruth?--Ah, Ruth! a bliss beyond speech is waiting us in the presence of the Master, where, seeing Him as He is, we shall grow like Him and be no more either dwarfed or sickly. But you will have the same face, Ruth, else I should be forever missing something."
"But you do not think we shall be perfect all at once?"
"No, not all at once; I can not believe that: God takes time to what He does--the doing of it is itself good. It would be a sight for heavenly eyes to see you, like a bent and broken and withered lily, straightening and lengthening your stalk, and flushing into beauty.--But fancy what it will be to see at length to the very heart of the person you love, and love Him perfectly--and that you can love Him! Every love will then be a separate heaven, and all the heavens will blend in one perfect heaven--the love of God--the All in all."
They were walking like children, hand in hand: Ruth pressed that of her uncle, for she could not answer in words.
Even to Dorothy their talk would have been vague, vague from the intervening mist of her own atmosphere. To them it was vague only from the wide stretch of its horizon, the distance of its zenith. There is all difference between the vagueness belonging to an imperfect sight, and the vagueness belonging to the distance of the outlook. But to walk on up the hill of duty, is the only way out of the one into the other. I think some only know they are laboring, hardly know they are climbing, till they find themselves near the top.
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