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Chapter 32


"Please, ma'am, is Master Fido to carry Master Zohrab about by the back o' the neck?" said Jemima, in indignant appeal, one afternoon late in November, bursting into the study where I sat with my husband.

Fido was our Bedlington terrier, which, having been reared by Newcastle colliers, and taught to draw a badger,--whatever that may mean,--I am hazy about it,--had a passion for burrowing after any thing buried. Swept away by the current of the said passion, he had with his strong forepaws unearthed poor Zohrab, which, being a tortoise, had ensconced himself, as he thought, for the winter, in the earth at the foot of a lilac-tree; but now, much to his jeopardy, from the cold and the shock of the surprise more than from the teeth of his friend, was being borne about the garden in triumph, though whether exactly as Jemima described may be questionable. Her indignation at the inroad of the dog upon the personal rights of the tortoise had possibly not lessened her general indifference to accuracy.

Alarmed at the danger to the poor animal, of a kind from which his natural defences were powerless to protect him, Percivale threw down his palette and brushes, and ran to the door.

"Do put on your coat and hat, Percivale!" I cried; but he was gone.

Cold as it was, he had been sitting in the light blouse he had worn at his work all the summer. The stove had got red-hot, and the room was like an oven, while outside a dank fog filled the air. I hurried after him with his coat, and found him pursuing Fido about the garden, the brute declining to obey his call, or to drop the tortoise. Percivale was equally deaf to my call, and not until he had beaten the dog did he return with the rescued tortoise in his hands. The consequences were serious,--first the death of Zohrab, and next a terrible illness to my husband. He had caught cold: it settled on his lungs, and passed into bronchitis.

It was a terrible time to me; for I had no doubt, for some days, that he was dying. The measures taken seemed thoroughly futile.

It is an awful moment when first Death looks in at the door. The positive recognition of his presence is so different from any vividest imagination of it! For the moment I believed nothing,--felt only the coming blackness of absolute loss. I cared neither for my children, nor for my father or mother. Nothing appeared of any worth more. I had conscience enough left to try to pray, but no prayer would rise from the frozen depths of my spirit. I could only move about in mechanical and hopeless ministration to one whom it seemed of no use to go on loving any more; for what was nature but a soulless machine, the constant clank of whose motion sounded only, "Dust to dust; dust to dust," forevermore? But I was roused from this horror-stricken mood by a look from my husband, who, catching a glimpse of my despair, motioned me to him with a smile as of sunshine upon snow, and whispered in my ear,--

"I'm afraid you haven't much more faith than myself, after all, Wynnie."

It stung me into life,--not for the sake of my professions, not even for the honor of our heavenly Father, but by waking in me the awful thought of my beloved passing through the shadow of death with no one beside him to help or comfort him, in absolute loneliness and uncertainty. The thought was unendurable. For a moment I wished he might die suddenly, and so escape the vacuous despair of a conscious lingering betwixt life and the something or the nothing beyond it.

"But I cannot go with you!" I cried; and, forgetting all my duty as a nurse, I wept in agony.

"Perhaps another will, my Wynnie,--one who knows the way," he whispered; for he could not speak aloud, and closed his eyes.

It was as if an arrow of light had slain the Python coiled about my heart. If he believed, I could believe also; if he could encounter the vague dark, I could endure the cheerless light. I was myself again, and, with one word of endearment, left the bedside to do what had to be done.

At length a faint hope began to glimmer in the depths of my cavernous fear. It was long ere it swelled into confidence; but, although I was then in somewhat feeble health, my strength never gave way. For a whole week I did not once undress, and for weeks I was half-awake all the time I slept. The softest whisper would rouse me thoroughly; and it was only when Marion took my place that I could sleep at all.

I am afraid I neglected my poor children dreadfully. I seemed for the time to have no responsibility, and even, I am ashamed to say, little care for them. But then I knew that they were well attended to: friends were very kind--especially Judy--in taking them out; and Marion's daily visits were like those of a mother. Indeed, she was able to mother any thing human except a baby, to whom she felt no attraction,--any more than to the inferior animals, for which she had little regard beyond a negative one: she would hurt no creature that was not hurtful; but she had scarcely an atom of kindness for dog or cat, or any thing that is petted of woman. It is the only defect I am aware of in her character.

My husband slowly recovered, but it was months before he was able to do any thing he would call work. But, even in labor, success is not only to the strong. Working a little at the short best time of the day with him, he managed, long before his full recovery, to paint a small picture which better critics than I have thought worthy of Angelico, I will attempt to describe it.

Through the lighted windows of a great hall, the spectator catches broken glimpses of a festive company. At the head of the table, pouring out the red wine, he sees one like unto the Son of man, upon whom the eyes of all are turned. At the other end of the hall, seated high in a gallery, with rapt looks and quaint yet homely angelican instruments, he sees the orchestra pouring out their souls through their strings and trumpets. The hall is filled with a jewelly glow, as of light suppressed by color, the radiating centre of which is the red wine on the table; while mingled wings, of all gorgeous splendors, hovering in the dim height, are suffused and harmonized by the molten ruby tint that pervades the whole.

Outside, in the drizzly darkness, stands a lonely man. He stoops listening, with one ear laid almost against the door. His half-upturned face catches a ray of the light reflected from a muddy pool in the road. It discloses features wan and wasted with sorrow and sickness, but glorified with the joy of the music. He is like one who has been four days dead, to whose body the music has recalled the soul. Down by his knee he holds a violin, fashioned like those of the orchestra within; which, as he listens, he is tuning to their pitch.

To readers acquainted with a poem of Dr. Donne's,--"Hymn to God, my God, in my sickness,"--this description of mine will at once suggest the origin of the picture. I had read some verses of it to him in his convalescence; and, having heard them once, he requested them often again. The first stanza runs thus:--

  "Since I am coming to that holy room
  Where with the choir of saints forevermore
  I shall be made thy musique, as I come,
  I tune the instrument here at the door;
  And what I must do then, think here before."

The painting is almost the only one he has yet refused to let me see before it was finished; but, when it was, he hung it up in my own little room off the study, and I became thoroughly acquainted with it. I think I love it more than any thing else he has done. I got him, without telling him why, to put a touch or two to the listening figure, which made it really like himself.

During this period of recovery, I often came upon him reading his Greek New Testament, which he would shove aside when I entered. At length, one morning, I said to him,--

"Are you ashamed of the New Testament, Percivale? One would think it was a bad book from the way you try to hide it."

"No, my love," he said: "it is only that I am jealous of appearing to do that from suffering and weakness only, which I did not do when I was strong and well. But sickness has opened my eyes a good deal I think; and I am sure of this much, that, whatever truth there is here, I want it all the same whether I am feeling the want or not. I had no idea what there was in this book."

"Would you mind telling me," I said, "what made you take to reading it?"

"I will try. When I thought I was dying, a black cloud seemed to fall over every thing. It was not so much that I was afraid to die,--although I did dread the final conflict,--as that I felt so forsaken and lonely. It was of little use saying to myself that I mustn't be a coward, and that it was the part of a man to meet his fate, whatever it might be, with composure; for I saw nothing worth being brave about: the heart had melted out of me; there was nothing to give me joy, nothing for my life to rest up on, no sense of love at the heart of things. Didn't you feel something the same that terrible day?"

"I did," I answered. "I hope I never believed in Death all the time; and yet for one fearful moment the skeleton seemed to swell and grow till he blotted out the sun and the stars, and was himself all in all, while the life beyond was too shadowy to show behind him. And so Death was victorious, until the thought of your loneliness in the dark valley broke the spell; and for your sake I hoped in God again."

"And I thought with myself,--Would God set his children down in the dark, and leave them to cry aloud in anguish at the terrors of the night? Would he not make the very darkness light about them? Or, if they must pass through such tortures, would he not at least let them know that he was with them? How, then, can there be a God? Then arose in my mind all at once the old story, how, in the person of his Son, God himself had passed through the darkness now gathering about me; had gone down to the grave, and had conquered death by dying. If this was true, this was to be a God indeed. Well might he call on us to endure, who had himself borne the far heavier share. If there were an Eternal Life who would perfect my life, I could be brave; I could endure what he chose to lay upon me; I could go whither he led."

"And were you able to think all that when you were so ill, my love?" I said.

"Something like it,--practically very like it," he answered. "It kept growing in my mind,--coming and going, and gathering clearer shape. I thought with myself, that, if there was a God, he certainly knew that I would give myself to him if I could; that, if I knew Jesus to be verily and really his Son, however it might seem strange to believe in him and hard to obey him, I would try to do so; and then a verse about the smoking flax and the bruised reed came into my head, and a great hope arose in me. I do not know if it was what the good people would call faith; but I had no time and no heart to think about words: I wanted God and his Christ. A fresh spring of life seemed to burst up in my heart; all the world grew bright again: I seemed to love you and the children twice as much as before; a calmness came down upon my spirit which seemed to me like nothing but the presence of God; and, although I dare say you did not then perceive a change, I am certain that the same moment I began to recover."

George MacDonald