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CALM AND STORM.
But of the two, Catherine had herself to go first. Again and again was I sent for to say farewell to Mrs Tomkins, and again and again I returned home leaying her asleep, and for the time better. But on a Saturday evening, as I sat by my vestry-fire, pondering on many things, and trying to make myself feel that they were as God saw them and not as they appeared to me, young Tom came to me with the news that his sister seemed much worse, and his father would be much obliged if I would go and see her. I sent Tom on before, because I wished to follow alone.
It was a brilliant starry night; no moon, no clouds, no wind, nothing but stars. They seemed to lean down towards the earth, as I have seen them since in more southern regions. It was, indeed, a glorious night. That is, I knew it was; I did not feel that it was. For the death which I went to be near, came, with a strange sense of separation, between me and the nature around me. I felt as if nature knew nothing, felt nothing, meant nothing, did not belong to humanity at all; for here was death, and there shone the stars. I was wrong, as I knew afterwards.
I had had very little knowledge of the external shows of death. Strange as it may appear, I had never yet seen a fellow-creature pass beyond the call of his fellow-mortals. I had not even seen my father die. And the thought was oppressive to me. "To think," I said to myself, as I walked over the bridge to the village-street--"to think that the one moment the person is here, and the next--who shall say WHERE? for we know nothing of the region beyond the grave! Not even our risen Lord thought fit to bring back from Hades any news for the human family standing straining their eyes after their brothers and sisters that have vanished in the dark. Surely it is well, all well, although we know nothing, save that our Lord has been there, knows all about it, and does not choose to tell us. Welcome ignorarance then! the ignorance in which he chooses to leave us. I would rather not know, if He gave me my choice, but preferred that I should not know." And so the oppression passed from me, and I was free.
But little as I knew of the signs of the approach of death, I was certain, the moment I saw Catherine, that the veil that hid the "silent land" had begun to lift slowly between her and it. And for a moment I almost envied her that she was so soon to see and know that after which our blindness and ignorance were wondering and hungering. She could hardly speak. She looked more patient than calm. There was no light in the room but that of the fire, which flickered flashing and fading, now lighting up the troubled eye, and now letting a shadow of the coming repose fall gently over it. Thomas sat by the fire with the child on his knee, both looking fixedly into the glow. Gerard's natural mood was so quiet and earnest, that the solemnity about him did not oppress him. He looked as if he were present at some religious observance of which he felt more than he understood, and his childish peace was in no wise inharmonious with the awful silence of the coming change. He was no more disquieted at the presence of death than the stars were.
And this was the end of the lovely girl--to leave the fair world still young, because a selfish man had seen that she was fair! No time can change the relation of cause and effect. The poison that operates ever so slowly is yet poison, and yet slays. And that man was now murdering her, with weapon long-reaching from out of the past. But no, thank God! this was not the end of her. Though there is woe for that man by whom the offence cometh, yet there is provision for the offence. There is One who bringeth light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow, humility out of wrong. Back to the Father's house we go with the sorrows and sins which, instead of inheriting the earth, we gathered and heaped upon our weary shoulders, and a different Elder Brother from that angry one who would not receive the poor swine-humbled prodigal, takes the burden from our shoulders, and leads us into the presence of the Good.
She put out her hand feebly, let it lie in mine, looked as if she wanted me to sit down by her bedside, and when I did so, closed her eyes. She said nothing. Her father was too much troubled to meet me without showing the signs of his distress, and his was a nature that ever sought concealment for its emotion; therefore he sat still. But Gerard crept down from his knee, came to me, clambered up on mine, and laid his little hand upon his mother's, which I was holding. She opened her eyes, looked at the child, shut them again, and tears came out from between the closed lids.
"Has Gerard ever been baptized?" I asked her.
Her lips indicated a NO.
"Then I will be his godfather. And that will be a pledge to you that I will never lose sight of him."
She pressed my hand, and the tears came faster.
Believing with all my heart that the dying should remember their dying Lord, and that the "Do this in remembrance of me" can never be better obeyed than when the partaker is about to pass, supported by the God of his faith, through the same darkness which lay before our Lord when He uttered the words and appointed the symbol, we kneeled, Thomas and I, and young Tom, who had by this time joined us with his sister Mary, around the bed, and partook with the dying woman of the signs of that death, wherein our Lord gave Himself entirely to us, to live by His death, and to the Father of us all in holiest sacrifice as the high-priest of us His people, leading us to the altar of a like self-abnegation. Upon what that bread and that wine mean, the sacrifice of our Lord, the whole world of humanity hangs. It is the redemption of men.
After she had received the holy sacrament, she lay still as before. I heard her murmur once, "Lord, I do not deserve it. But I do love Thee." And about two hours after, she quietly breathed her last. We all kneeled, and I thanked the Father of us aloud that He had taken her to Himself. Gerard had been fast asleep on his aunt's lap, and she had put him to bed a little before. Surely he slept a deeper sleep than his mother's; for had she not awaked even as she fell asleep?
When I came out once more, I knew better what the stars meant. They looked to me now as if they knew all about death, and therefore could not be sad to the eyes of men; as if that unsympathetic look they wore came from this, that they were made like the happy truth, and not like our fears.
But soon the solemn feeling of repose, the sense that the world and all its cares would thus pass into nothing, vanished in its turn. For a moment I had been, as it were, walking on the shore of the Eternal, where the tide of time had left me in its retreat. Far away across the level sands I heard it moaning, but I stood on the firm ground of truth, and heeded it not. In a few moments more it was raving around me; it had carried me away from my rest, and I was filled with the noise of its cares.
For when I returned home, my sister told me that Old Rogers had called, and seemed concerned not to find me at home. He would have gone to find me, my sister said, had I been anywhere but by a deathbed. He would not leave any message, however, saying he would call in the morning.
I thought it better to go to his house. The stars were still shining as brightly as before, but a strong foreboding of trouble filled my mind, and once more the stars were far away, and lifted me no nearer to "Him who made the seven stars and Orion." When I examined myself, I could give no reason for my sudden fearfulness, save this: that as I went to Catherine's house, I had passed Jane Rogers on her way to her father's, and having just greeted her, had gone on; but, as it now came back upon me, she had looked at me strangely--that is, with some significance in her face which conveyed nothing to me; and now her father had been to seek me: it must have something to do with Miss Oldcastle.
But when I came to the cottage, it was dark and still, and I could not bring myself to rouse the weary man from his bed. Indeed it was past eleven, as I found to my surprise on looking at my watch. So I turned and lingered by the old mill, and fell a pondering on the profusion of strength that rushed past the wheel away to the great sea. doing nothing. "Nature," I thought, "does not demand that power should always be force. Power itself must repose. He that believeth shall--not make haste, says the Bible. But it needs strength to be still. Is my faith not strong enough to be still?" I looked up to the heavens once more, and the quietness of the stars seemed to reproach me. "We are safe up here," they seemed to say: "we shine, fearless and confident, for the God who gave the primrose its rough leaves to hide it from the blast of uneven spring, hangs us in the awful hollows of space. We cannot fall out of His safety. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold! Who hath created these things--that bringeth out their host by number! He calleth them all by names. By the greatness of His might, for that He is strong in power, not one faileth. Why sayest thou, O Jacob! and speakest, O Israel! my way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God?"
The night was very still; there was, I thought, no one awake within miles of me. The stars seemed to shine into me the divine reproach of those glorious words. "O my God!" I cried, and fell on my knees by the mill-door.
What I tried to say more I will not say here. I MAY say that I cried to God. What I said to Him ought not, cannot be repeated to another.
When I opened my eyes I saw the door of the mill was open too, and there in the door, his white head glimmering, stood Old Rogers, with a look on his face as if he had just come down from the mount. I started to my feet, with that strange feeling of something like shame that seizes one at the very thought of other eyes than those of the Father. The old man came forward, and bowed his head with an unconscious expression of humble dignity, but would have passed me without speech, leaving the mill-door open behind him. I could not bear to part with him thus.
"Won't you speak to me, Rogers ?" I said.
He turned at once with evident pleasure.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I was ashamed of having intruded on you, and I thought you would rather be left alone. I thought--I thought---" hesitated the old man, "that you might like to go into the mill, for the night's cold out o' doors."
"Thank you, Rogers. I won't now. I thought you had been in bed. How do you come to be out so late?"
"You see, sir, when I'm in any trouble, it's no use to go to bed. I can't sleep. I only keep the old 'oman wakin'. And the key o' the mill allus hangin' at the back o' my door, and knowin' it to be a good place to--to--shut the door in, I came out as soon as she was asleep; but I little thought to see you, sir."
"I came to find you, not thinking how the time went. Catherine Weir is gone home."
"I am right glad to hear it, poor woman. And perhaps something will come out now that will help us."
"I do not quite understand you," I said, with hesitation.
But Rogers made no reply.
"I am sorry to hear you are in trouble to-night. Can I help you?" I resumed.
"If you can help yourself, sir, you can help me. But I have no right to say so. Only, if a pair of old eyes be not blind, a man may pray to God about anything he sees. I was prayin' hard about you in there, sir, while you was on your knees o' the other side o' the door."
I could partly guess what the old man meant, and I could not ask him for further explanation.
"What did you want to see me about?" I inquired.
He hesitated for a moment.
"I daresay it was very foolish of me, sir. But I just wanted to tell you that--our Jane was down here from the Hall this arternoon----"
"I passed her on the bridge. Is she quite well?"
"Yes, yes, sir. You know that's not the point."
The old man's tone seemed to reprove me for vain words, and I held my peace.
"The captain's there again."
An icy spear seemed to pass through my heart. I could make no reply. The same moment a cold wind blew on me from the open door of the mill.
Although Lear was of course right when he said,
. . . "The tempest in my mind Doth from my senses take all feeling else Save what beats there,"
yet it is also true, that sometimes, in the midst of its greatest pain, the mind takes marvellous notice of the smallest things that happen around it. This involves a law of which illustrations could be plentifully adduced from Shakespeare himself, namely, that the intellectual part of the mind can go on working with strange independence of the emotional.
From the door of the mill, as from a sepulchral tavern, blew a cold wind like the very breath of death upon me, just when that pang shot, in absolute pain, through my heart. For a wind had arisen from behind the mill, and we were in its shelter save where a window behind and the door beside me allowed free passage to the first of the coming storm.
I believed I turned away from the old man without a word. He made no attempt to detain me. Whether he went back into his closet, the old mill, sacred in the eyes of the Father who honours His children, even as the church wherein many prayers went up to Him, or turned homewards to his cottage and his sleeping wife, I cannot tell. The first I remember after that cold wind is, that I was fighting with that wind, gathered even to a storm, upon the common where I had dealt so severely with her who had this very night gone into that region into which, as into a waveless sea, all the rivers of life rush and are silent. Is it the sea of death? No. The sea of life--a life too keen, too refined, for our senses to know it, and therefore we call it death--because we cannot lay hold upon it.
I will not dwell upon my thoughts as I wandered about over that waste. The wind had risen to a storm charged with fierce showers of stinging hail, which gave a look of gray wrath to the invisible wind as it swept slanting by, and then danced and scudded along the levels. The next point in that night of pain is when I found myself standing at the iron gate of Oldcastle Hall. I had left the common, passed my own house and the church, crossed the river, walked through the village, and was restored to self-consciousness--that is, I knew that I was there--only when first I stood in the shelter of one of those great pillars and the monster on its top. Finding the gate open, for they were not precise about having it fastened, I pushed it and entered. The wind was roaring in the trees as I think I have never heard it roar since; for the hail clashed upon the bare branches and twigs, and mingled an unearthly hiss with the roar. In the midst of it the house stood like a tomb, dark, silent, without one dim light to show that sleep and not death ruled within. I could have fancied that there were no windows in it, that it stood, like an eyeless skull, in that gaunt forest of skeleton trees, empty and desolate, beaten by the ungenial hail, the dead rain of the country of death. I passed round to the other side, stepping gently lest some ear might be awake--as if any ear, even that of Judy's white wolf, could have heard the loudest step in such a storm. I heard the hailstones crush between my feet and the soft grass of the lawn, but I dared not stop to look up at the back of the house. I went on to the staircase in the rock, and by its rude steps, dangerous in the flapping of such storm-wings as swept about it that night, descended to the little grove below, around the deep-walled pool. Here the wind did not reach me. It roared overhead, but, save an occasional sigh, as if of sympathy with their suffering brethren abroad in the woild, the hermits of this cell stood upright and still around the sleeping water. But my heart was a well in which a storm boiled and raged; and all that "pother o'er my head" was peace itself compared to what I felt. I sat down on the seat at the foot of a tree, where I had first seen Miss Oldcastle reading. And then I looked up to the house. Yes, there was a light there! It must be in her window. She then could not rest any more than I. Sleep was driven from her eyes because she must wed the man she would not; while sleep was driven from mine because I could not marry the woman I would. Was that it? No. My heart acquitted me, in part at least, of thinking only of my own sorrow in the presence of her greater distress. Gladly would I have given her up for ever, without a hope, to redeem her from such a bondage. "But it would be to marry another some day," suggested the tormentor within. And then the storm, which had a little abated, broke out afresh in my soul. But before I rose from her seat I was ready even for that--at least I thought so--if only I might deliver her from the all but destruction that seemed to be impending over her. The same moment in which my mind seemed to have arrived at the possibility of such a resolution, I rose almost involuntarily, and glancing once more at the dull light in her window--for I did not doubt that it was her window, though it was much too dark to discern, the shape of the house--almost felt my way to the stair, and climbed again into the storm.
But I was quieter now, and able to go home. It must have been nearly morning, though at this season of the year the morning is undefined, when I reached my own house. My sister had gone to bed, for I could always let myself in; nor, indeed, did any one in Marshmailows think the locking of the door at night an imperative duty.
When I fell asleep, I was again in the old quarry, staring into the deep well. I thought Mrs Oldcastle was murdering her daughter in the house above, while I was spell-bound to the spot, where, if I stood long enough, I should see her body float into the well from the subterranean passage, the opening of which was just below where I stood. I was thus confusing and reconstructing the two dreadful stories of the place--that told me by old Weir, about the circumstances of his birth; and that told me by Dr Duncan, about Mrs Oldcastle's treatment of her elder daughter. But as a white hand and arm appeared in the water below me, sorrow and pity more than horror broke the bonds of sleep, and I awoke to less trouble than that of my dreams, only because that which I feared had not yet come.
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