MRS. CROMWELL GOES.
I heard nothing more of her for about a year. A note or two passed between us, and then all communication ceased. This, I am happy to think, was not immediately my fault: not that it mattered much, for we were not then fitted for much communion; we had too little in common to commune.
"Did you not both believe in one Lord?" I fancy a reader objecting. "How, then, can you say you had too little in common to be able to commune?"
I said the same to myself, and tried the question in many ways. The fact remained, that we could not commune, that is, with any heartiness; and, although I may have done her wrong, it was, I thought, to be accounted for something in this way. The Saviour of whom she spoke so often, and evidently thought so much, was in a great measure a being of her own fancy; so much so, that she manifested no desire to find out what the Christ was who had spent three and thirty years in making a revelation of himself to the world. The knowledge she had about him was not even at second-hand, but at many removes. She did not study his words or his actions to learn his thoughts or his meanings; but lived in a kind of dreamland of her own, which could be interesting only to the dreamer. Now, if we are to come to God through Christ, it must surely be by knowing Christ; it must be through the knowledge of Christ that the Spirit of the Father mainly works in the members of his body; and it seemed to me she did not take the trouble to "know him and the power of his resurrection." Therefore we had scarcely enough of common ground, as I say, to meet upon. I could not help contrasting her religion with that of Marion Clare.
At length I had a note from her, begging me to go and see her at her house at Richmond, and apologizing for her not coming to me, on the score of her health. I felt it my duty to go, but sadly grudged the loss of time it seemed, for I expected neither pleasure nor profit from the visit. Percivale went with me, and left me at the door to have a row on the river, and call for me at a certain hour.
The house and grounds were luxurious and lovely both, two often dissociated qualities. She could have nothing to desire of this world's gifts, I thought. But the moment she entered the room into which I had been shown, I was shocked at the change I saw in her. Almost to my horror, she was in a widow's cap; and disease and coming death were plain on every feature. Such was the contrast, that the face in my memory appeared that of health.
"My dear Mrs. Cromwell!" I gasped out.
"You see," she said, and sitting down, on a straight-backed chair, looked at me with lustreless eyes.
Death had been hovering about her windows before, but had entered at last; not to take the sickly young woman longing to die, but the hale man, who would have clung to the last edge of life.
"He is taken, and I am left," she said abruptly, after a long pause.
Her drawl had vanished: pain and grief had made her simple. "Then," I thought with myself, "she did love him!" But I could say nothing. She took my silence for the sympathy it was, and smiled a heart-rending smile, so different from that little sad smile she used to have; really pathetic now, and with hardly a glimmer in it of the old self-pity. I rose, put my arms about her, and kissed her on the forehead; she laid her head on my shoulder, and wept.
"Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth," I faltered out, for her sorrow filled me with a respect that was new.
"Yes," she returned, as gently as hopelessly; "and whom he does not love as well."
"You have no ground for saying so," I answered. "The apostle does not."
"My lamp is gone out," she said; "gone out in darkness, utter darkness. You warned me, and I did not heed the warning. I thought I knew better, but I was full of self-conceit. And now I am wandering where there is no way and no light. My iniquities have found me out."
I did not say what I thought I saw plain enough,--that her lamp was just beginning to burn. Neither did I try to persuade her that her iniquities were small.
"But the Bridegroom," I said, "is not yet come. There is time to go and get some oil."
"Where am I to get it?" she returned, in a tone of despair.
"From the Bridegroom himself," I said.
"No," she answered. "I have talked and talked and talked, and you know he says he abhors talkers. I am one of those to whom he will say 'I know you not.'"
"And you will answer him that you have eaten and drunk in his presence, and cast out devils, and--?"
"No, no: I will say he is right; that it is all my own fault; that I thought I was something when I was nothing, but that I know better now."
A dreadful fit of coughing interrupted her. As soon as it was over, I said,--
"And what will the Lord say to you, do you think, when you have said so to him?"
"Depart from me," she answered in a hollow, forced voice.
"No," I returned. "He will say, 'I know you well. You have told me the truth. Come in.'"
"Do you think so?" she cried. "You never used to think well of me."
"Those who were turned away," I said, avoiding her last words, "were trying to make themselves out better than they were: they trusted, not in the love of Christ, but in what they thought their worth and social standing. Perhaps, if their deeds had been as good as they thought them, they would have known better than to trust in them. If they had told him the truth; if they had said, 'Lord, we are workers of iniquity; Lord, we used to be hypocrites, but we speak the truth now: forgive us,'--do you think he would then have turned them away? No, surely. If your lamp has gone out, make haste and tell him how careless you have been; tell him all, and pray him for oil and light; and see whether your lamp will not straightway glimmer,--glimmer first and then glow."
"Ah, Mrs. Percivale!" she cried: "I would do something for His sake now if I might, but I cannot. If I had but resisted the disease in me for the sake of serving him, I might have been able now: but my chance is over; I cannot now; I have too much pain. And death looks such a different thing now! I used to think of it only as a kind of going to sleep, easy though sad--sad, I mean, in the eyes of mourning friends. But, alas! I have no friends, now that my husband is gone. I never dreamed of him going first. He loved me: indeed he did, though you will hardly believe it; but I always took it as a matter of course. I never saw how beautiful and unselfish he was till he was gone. I have been selfish and stupid and dull, and my sins have found me out. A great darkness has fallen upon me; and although weary of life, instead of longing for death, I shrink from it with horror. My cough will not let me sleep: there is nothing but weariness in my body, and despair in my heart. Oh how black and dreary the nights are! I think of the time in your house as of an earthly paradise. But where is the heavenly paradise I used to dream of then?" "Would it content you," I asked, "to be able to dream of it again?"
"No, no. I want something very different now. Those fancies look so uninteresting and stupid now! All I want now is to hear God say, 'I forgive you.' And my husband--I must have troubled him sorely. You don't know how good he was, Mrs. Percivale. He made no pretences like silly me. Do you know," she went on, lowering her voice, and speaking with something like horror in its tone, "Do you know, I cannot bear hymns!"
As she said it, she looked up in my face half-terrified with the anticipation of the horror she expected to see manifested there. I could not help smiling. The case was not one for argument of any kind: I thought for a moment, then merely repeated the verse,--
"When the law threatens endless death, Upon the awful hill, Straightway, from her consuming breath, My soul goes higher still,-- Goeth to Jesus, wounded, slain, And maketh him her home, Whence she will not go out again, And where Death cannot come."
"Ah! that is good," she said: "if only I could get to him! But I cannot get to him. He is so far off! He seems to be--nowhere."
I think she was going to say nobody, but changed the word.
"If you felt for a moment how helpless and wretched I feel, especially in the early morning," she went on; "how there seems nothing to look for, and no help to be had,--you would pity rather than blame me, though I know I deserve blame. I feel as if all the heart and soul and strength and mind, with which we are told to love God, had gone out of me; or, rather, as if I had never had any. I doubt if I ever had. I tried very hard for a long time to get a sight of Jesus, to feel myself in his presence; but it was of no use, and I have quite given it up now."
I made her lie on the sofa, and sat down beside her.
"Do you think," I said, "that any one, before he came, could have imagined such a visitor to the world as Jesus Christ?"
"I suppose not," she answered listlessly.
"Then, no more can you come near him now by trying to imagine him. You cannot represent to yourself the reality, the Being who can comfort you. In other words, you cannot take him into your heart. He only knows himself, and he only can reveal himself to you. And not until he does so, can you find any certainty or any peace."
"But he doesn't--he won't reveal himself to me."
"Suppose you had forgotten what some friend of your childhood was like--say, if it were possible, your own mother; suppose you could not recall a feature of her face, or the color of her eyes; and suppose, that, while you were very miserable about it, you remembered all at once that you had a portrait of her in an old desk you had not opened for years: what would you do?"
"Go and get it," she answered like a child at the Sunday school.
"Then why shouldn't you do so now? You have such a portrait of Jesus, far truer and more complete than any other kind of portrait can be,--the portrait his own deeds and words give us of him."
"I see what you mean; but that is all about long ago, and I want him now. That is in a book, and I want him in my heart."
"How are you to get him into your heart? How could you have him there, except by knowing him? But perhaps you think you do know him?"
"I am certain I do not know him; at least, as I want to know him," she said.
"No doubt," I went on, "he can speak to your heart without the record, and, I think, is speaking to you now in this very want of him you feel. But how could he show himself to you otherwise than by helping you to understand the revelation of himself which it cost him such labor to afford? If the story were millions of years old, so long as it was true, it would be all the same as if it had been ended only yesterday; for, being what he represented himself, he never can change. To know what he was then, is to know what he is now."
"But, if I knew him so, that wouldn't be to have him with me."
"No; but in that knowledge he might come to you. It is by the door of that knowledge that his Spirit, which is himself, comes into the soul. You would at least be more able to pray to him: you would know what kind of a being you had to cry to. You would thus come nearer to him; and no one ever drew nigh to him to whom he did not also draw nigh. If you would but read the story as if you had never read it before, as if you were reading the history of a man you heard of for the first time"--
"Surely you're not a Unitarian, Mrs. Percivale!" she said, half lifting her head, and looking at me with a dim terror in her pale eyes.
"God forbid!" I answered. "But I would that many who think they know better believed in him half as much as many Unitarians do. It is only by understanding and believing in that humanity of his, which in such pain and labor manifested his Godhead, that we can come to know it,--know that Godhead, I mean, in virtue of which alone he was a true and perfect man; that Godhead which alone can satisfy with peace and hope the poorest human soul, for it also is the offspring of God."
I ceased, and for some moments she sat silent. Then she said feebly,--
"There's a Bible somewhere in the room."
I found it, and read the story of the woman who came behind him in terror, and touched the hem of his garment. I could hardly read it for the emotion it caused in myself; and when I ceased I saw her weeping silently.
A servant entered with the message that Mr. Percivale had called for me.
"I cannot see him to-day," she sobbed.
"Of course not," I replied. "I must leave you now; but I will come again,--come often if you like."
"You are as kind as ever!" she returned, with a fresh burst of tears. "Will you come and be with me when--when--?"
She could not finish for sobs.
"I will," I said, knowing well what she meant.
This is how I imagined the change to have come about: what had seemed her faith had been, in a great measure, but her hope and imagination, occupying themselves with the forms of the religion towards which all that was highest in her nature dimly urged. The two characteristics of amicability and selfishness, not unfrequently combined, rendered it easy for her to deceive herself, or rather conspired to prevent her from undeceiving herself, as to the quality and worth of her religion. For, if she had been other than amiable, the misery following the outbreaks of temper which would have been of certain occurrence in the state of her health, would have made her aware in some degree of her moral condition; and, if her thoughts had not been centred upon herself, she would, in her care for others, have learned her own helplessness; and the devotion of her good husband, not then accepted merely as a natural homage to her worth, would have shown itself as a love beyond her deserts, and would have roused the longing to be worthy of it. She saw now that he must have imagined her far better than she was: but she had not meant to deceive him; she had but followed the impulses of a bright, shallow nature.
But that last epithet bids me pause, and remember that my father has taught me, and that I have found the lesson true, that there is no such thing as a shallow nature: every nature is infinitely deep, for the works of God are everlasting. Also, there is no nature that is not shallow to what it must become. I suspect every nature must have the subsoil ploughing of sorrow, before it can recognize either its present poverty or its possible wealth.
When her husband died, suddenly, of apoplexy, she was stunned for a time, gradually awaking to a miserable sense of unprotected loneliness, so much the more painful for her weakly condition, and the overcare to which she had been accustomed. She was an only child, and had become an orphan within a year or two after her early marriage. Left thus without shelter, like a delicate plant whose house of glass has been shattered, she speedily recognized her true condition. With no one to heed her whims, and no one capable of sympathizing with the genuine misery which supervened, her disease gathered strength rapidly, her lamp went out, and she saw no light beyond; for the smoke of that lamp had dimmed the windows at which the stars would have looked in. When life became dreary, her fancies, despoiled of the halo they had cast on the fogs of selfish comfort, ceased to interest her; and the future grew a vague darkness, an uncertainty teeming with questions to which she had no answer. Henceforth she was conscious of life only as a weakness, as the want of a deeper life to hold it up. Existence had become a during faint, and self hateful. She saw that she was poor and miserable and blind and naked,--that she had never had faith fit to support her.
But out of this darkness dawned at least a twilight, so gradual, so slow, that I cannot tell when or how the darkness began to melt. She became aware of a deeper and simpler need than hitherto she had known,--the need of life in herself, the life of the Son of God. I went to see her often. At the time when I began this history, I was going every other day,--sometimes oftener, for her end seemed to be drawing nigh. Her weakness had greatly increased: she could but just walk across the room, and was constantly restless. She had no great continuous pain, but oft-returning sharp fits of it. She looked genuinely sad, and her spirits never recovered themselves. She seldom looked out of the window; the daylight seemed to distress her: flowers were the only links between her and the outer world,--wild ones, for the scent of greenhouse-flowers, and even that of most garden ones, she could not bear. She had been very fond of music, but could no longer endure her piano: every note seemed struck on a nerve. But she was generally quiet in her mind, and often peaceful. The more her body decayed about her, the more her spirit seemed to come alive. It was the calm of a gray evening, not so lovely as a golden sunset or a silvery moonlight, but more sweet than either. She talked little of her feelings, but evidently longed after the words of our Lord. As she listened to some of them, I could see the eyes which had now grown dim with suffering, gleam with the light of holy longing and humble adoration.
For some time she often referred to her coming departure, and confessed that she "feared death; not so much what might be on the other side, as the dark way itself,--the struggle, the torture, the fainting; but by degrees her allusions to it became rarer, and at length ceased almost entirely. Once I said to her,--
"Are you afraid of death still, Eleanor?"
"No--not much," she replied, after a brief pause. "He may do with me whatever He likes."
Knowing so well what Marion could do to comfort and support, and therefore desirous of bringing them together, I took her one day with me. But certain that the thought of seeing a stranger would render my poor Eleanor uneasy, and that what discomposure a sudden introduction might cause would speedily vanish in Marion's presence, I did not tell her what I was going to do. Nor in this did I mistake. Before we left, it was plain that Marion had a far more soothing influence upon her than I had myself. She looked eagerly for her next visit, and my mind was now more at peace concerning her.
One evening, after listening to some stories from Marion about her friends, Mrs. Cromwell said,--
"Ah, Miss Clare! to think I might have done something for Him by doing it for them! Alas! I have led a useless life, and am dying out of this world without having borne any fruit! Ah, me, me!"
"You are doing a good deal for him now," said Marion, "and hard work too!" she added; "harder far than mine."
"I am only dying," she returned--so sadly!
"You are enduring chastisement," said Marion. "The Lord gives one one thing to do, and another another. We have no right to wish for other work than he gives us. It is rebellious and unchildlike, whatever it may seem. Neither have we any right to wish to be better in our way: we must wish to be better in his."
"But I should like to do something for him; bearing is only for myself. Surely I may wish that?"
"No: you may not. Bearing is not only for yourself. You are quite wrong in thinking you do nothing for him in enduring," returned Marion, with that abrupt decision of hers which seemed to some like rudeness. "What is the will of God? Is it not your sanctification? And why did he make the Captain of our salvation perfect through suffering? Was it not that he might in like manner bring many sons into glory? Then, if you are enduring, you are working with God,--for the perfection through suffering of one more: you are working for God in yourself, that the will of God may be done in you; that he may have his very own way with you. It is the only work he requires of you now: do it not only willingly, then, but contentedly. To make people good is all his labor: be good, and you are a fellow-worker with God in the highest region of labor. He does not want you for other people--yet."
At the emphasis Marion laid on the last word, Mrs. Cromwell glanced sharply up. A light broke over her face: she had understood, and with a smile was silent.
One evening, when we were both with her, it had grown very sultry and breathless.
"Isn't it very close, dear Mrs. Percivale?" she said.
I rose to get a fan; and Marion, leaving the window as if moved by a sudden resolve, went and opened the piano. Mrs. Cromwell made a hasty motion, as if she must prevent her. But, such was my faith in my friend's soul as well as heart, in her divine taste as well as her human faculty, that I ventured to lay my hand on Mrs. Cromwell's. It was enough for sweetness like hers: she yielded instantly, and lay still, evidently nerving herself to suffer. But the first movement stole so "soft and soullike" on her ear, trembling as it were on the border-land between sound and silence, that she missed the pain she expected, and found only the pleasure she looked not for. Marion's hands made the instrument sigh and sing, not merely as with a human voice, but as with a human soul. Her own voice next evolved itself from the dim uncertainty, in sweet proportions and delicate modulations, stealing its way into the heart, to set first one chord, then another, vibrating, until the whole soul was filled with responses. If I add that her articulation was as nearly perfect as the act of singing will permit, my reader may well believe that a song of hers would do what a song might.
Where she got the song she then sung, she always avoids telling me. I had told her all I knew and understood concerning Mrs. Cromwell, and have my suspicions. This is the song:--
"I fancy I hear a whisper As of leaves in a gentle air: Is it wrong, I wonder, to fancy It may be the tree up there?-- The tree that heals the nations, Growing amidst the street, And dropping, for who will gather, Its apples at their feet?
"I fancy I hear a rushing As of waters down a slope: Is it wrong, I wonder, to fancy It may be the river of hope? The river of crystal waters That flows from the very throne, And runs through the street of the city With a softly jubilant tone?
"I fancy a twilight round me, And a wandering of the breeze, With a hush in that high city, And a going in the trees. But I know there will be no night there,-- No coming and going day; For the holy face of the Father Will be perfect light alway.
"I could do without the darkness, And better without the sun; But, oh, I should like a twilight After the day was done! Would he lay his hand on his forehead, On his hair as white as wool, And shine one hour through his fingers, Till the shadow had made me cool?
"But the thought is very foolish: If that face I did but see, All else would be all forgotten,-- River and twilight and tree; I should seek, I should care, for nothing, Beholding his countenance; And fear only to lose one glimmer By one single sideway glance.
"'Tis but again a foolish fancy To picture the countenance so. Which is shining in all our spirits, Making them white as snow. Come to me, shine in me, Master, And I care not for river or tree,-- Care for no sorrow or crying, If only thou shine in me.
"I would lie on my bed for ages, Looking out on the dusty street, Where whisper nor leaves nor waters, Nor any thing cool and sweet; At my heart this ghastly fainting, And this burning in my blood,-- If only I knew thou wast with me,-- Wast with me and making me good."
When she rose from the piano, Mrs. Cromwell stretched out her hand for hers, and held it some time, unable to speak. Then she said,--
"That has done me good, I hope. I will try to be more patient, for I think He is teaching me."
She died, at length, in my arms. I cannot linger over that last time. She suffered a good deal, but dying people are generally patient. She went without a struggle. The last words I heard her utter were, "Yes, Lord;" after which she breathed but once. A half-smile came over her face, which froze upon it, and remained, until the coffin-lid covered it. But I shall see it, I trust, a whole smile some day.
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