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Hester had been to church, and had then visited some of her people, carrying them words of comfort and hope. They received them in a way at her hand, but none of them, had they gone, would have found them at church. How seldom is the man in the pulpit able to make people feel that the things he is talking about are things at all! Neither when the heavens are black with clouds and rain, nor when the sun rises glorious in a blue perfection, do many care to sit down and be taught astronomy! But Hester was a live gospel to them--and most when she sang. Even the name of the Saviour uttered in her singing tone and with the expression she then gave it, came nearer to them than when she spoke it. The very brooding of the voice on a word, seems to hatch something of what is in it. She often felt, however, as if some new, other kind of messengers than she or such as she, must one day be sent them; for there seemed a gulf between their thoughts and hers, such as neither they nor she could pass.
In fact they could not think the things she thought, and had no vocabulary or phrases or imagery whereby to express their own thinkings. God does not hurry such: have we enough of hope for them, or patience with them? I suspect their teachers must arise among themselves. They too must have an elect of their own kind, of like passions with themselves, to lift them up, and perhaps shame those that cannot reach them. Our teaching to them is no teaching at all; it does not reach their ignorance; perhaps they require a teaching that to our ignorance would seem no teaching at all, or even bad teaching. How many things are there in the world in which the wisest of us can ill descry the hand of God! Who not knowing could read the lily in its bulb, the great oak in the pebble-like acorn? God's beginnings do not look like his endings, but they are like; the oak is in the acorn, though we cannot see it. The ranting preacher, uttering huge untruths, may yet wake vital verities in chaotic minds--convey to a heart some saving fact, rudely wrapped in husks of lies even against God himself.
Mr. Christopher, thrown at one time into daily relations with a good sort of man, had tried all he could to rouse him to a sense of his higher duties and spiritual privileges, but entirely without success. A preacher came round, whose gospel was largely composed of hell-fire and malediction, with frequent allusion to the love of a most unlovely God, as represented by him. This preacher woke up the man. "And then," said Christopher, "I was able to be of service to him, and get him on. He speedily outgrew the lies his prophet had taught him, and became a devout Christian; while the man who had been the means of rousing him was tried for bigamy, convicted and punished."
This Sunday Hester, in her dejection and sadness about Gartley, over whom--not her loss of him--she mourned deeply, felt more than ever, if not that she could not reach her people, yet how little she was able to touch them, and there came upon her a hopelessness that was heavy, sinking into the very roots of her life, and making existence itself appear a dull and undesirable thing. Hitherto life had seemed a good thing, worth holding up as a heave-offering to him who made it; now she had to learn to take life itself from the hand of God as his will, in faith that he would prove it a good gift. She had to learn that in all drearinesses, of the flesh or spirit, even in those that seem to come of having nothing to do, or from being unable to do what we think we have to do, the refuge is the same--he who is the root and crown of life. Who would receive comfort from anything but love? Who would build on anything but the eternal? Who would lean on that which has in itself no persistence? Even the closest human loves have their only endurance, only hope of perfection, in the eternal perfect love of which they are the rainbow-refractions. I cannot love son or daughter as I would, save loving them as the children of the eternal God, in whom his spirit dwells and works, making them altogether lovely, and me more and more love-capable. That they are mine is not enough ground for enough love--will not serve as operative reason to the height of the love my own soul demands from itself for them. But they are mine because they are his, and he is the demander and enabler of love.
The day was a close, foggy, cold, dreary day. The service at church had not seemed interesting. She laid the blame on herself, and neither on prayers nor lessons nor psalms nor preacher, though in truth some of these might have been better; the heart seemed to have gone out of the world--as if not Baal but God had gone to sleep, and his children had waked before him and found the dismal gray of the world's morning full of discomfortable ghosts. She tried her New Testament; but Jesus too seemed far away--nothing left but the story about him--as if he had forgotten his promise, and was no longer in the world. She tried some of her favourite poems: each and all were infected with the same disease--with common-place nothingness. They seemed all made up--words! words! words! Nothing was left her in the valley but the shadow, and the last weapon, All-prayer. She fell upon her knees and cried to God for life. "My heart is dead within me," she said, and poured out her lack into the hearing of him from whom she had come that she might have himself, and so be. She did not dwell upon her sorrows; even they had sunk and all but vanished in the gray mass of lost interest.
The modern representatives of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar would comfort us with the assurance that all such depression has physical causes: right or wrong, what does their comfort profit! Consolation in being told that we are slaves! What noble nature would be content to be cured of sadness by a dose of medicine? There is in the heart a conviction that the soul ought to be supreme over the body and its laws; that there must be a faith which conquers the body with all its tyrants; and that no soul is right until it has that faith--until it is in closest, most immediate understanding with its own unchangeable root, God himself. Such faith may not at once remove the physical cause, if such there be, but it will be more potent still; in the presence of both the cause and the effect, its very atmosphere will be a peace tremulous with unborn gladness. This gained, the medicine, the regimen, or the change of air may be resorted to without sense of degradation, with cheerful hope and some indifference. Such is perhaps the final victory of faith. Faith, in such circumstances, must be of the purest, and may be of the strongest. In few other circumstances can it have such an opportunity--can it rise to equal height. It may be its final lesson, and deepest. God is in it just in his seeming to be not in it--that we may choose him in the darkness of the feeling, stretch out the hand to him when we cannot see him, verify him in the vagueness of the dream, call to him in the absence of impulse, obey him in the weakness of the will.
Even in her prayers Hester could not get near him. It seemed as if his ear were turned away from her cry. She sank into a kind of lethargic stupor. I think, in order to convey to us the spiritual help we need, it is sometimes necessary--just as, according to the psalmist, "he giveth to his beloved in their sleep"--to cast us into a sort of mental quiescence, that the noise of the winds and waters of the questioning intellect and roused feelings may not interfere with the impression the master would make upon our beings. But Hester's lethargy lasted long, and was not so removed. She rose from her knees in a kind of despair, almost ready to think that either there was no God, or he would not hear her. An inaccessible God was worse than no God at all! In either case she would rather cease!
It had been dark for hours, but she had lighted no candle, and sat in bodily as in spiritual darkness. She was in her bedroom, which was on the second floor, at the back of the house, looking out on the top of the gallery that led to the great room. She had no fire. One was burning away unheeded in the drawing-room below. She was too miserable to care whether she was cold or warm. When she had got some light in her body, then she would go and get warm!
What time it was she did not know. She had been summoned to the last meal of the day, but had forgotten the summons. It must have been about ten o'clock. The streets were silent, the square deserted--as usual. The evening was raw and cold, one to drive everybody in-doors that had doors to go in at.
Through the cold and darkness came a shriek that chilled her with horror. Yet it seemed as if she had been expecting it--as if the cloud of misery that had all day been gathering deeper and deeper above and around her, had at length reached its fullness, and burst in the lightning of that shriek. It was followed by another and yet another. Whence did they come? Not from the street, for all beside was still; even the roar of London was hushed! And there was a certain something in the sound of them that assured her that they rose in the house. Was Sarah being murdered? She was half-way down the stairs before the thought that sent her was plain to herself.
The house seemed unnaturally still. At the top of the kitchen stairs she called aloud to Sarah--as loud, that is, as a certain tremor in her throat would permit. There came no reply. Down she went to face the worst: she was a woman of true courage--that is, a woman whom no amount of apprehension could deter when she knew she ought to seek the danger.
In the kitchen stood Sarah, motionless, frozen with fear. A candle was in her hand, just lighted. Hester's voice seemed to break her trance.
She started, stared, and fell a trembling. She made her drink some water, and then she came to herself.
"It's in the coal-cellar, miss!" she gasped. "I was that minute going to fetch a scuttleful! There's something buried in them coals as sure as my name's Sarah!"
"Nonsense!" returned Hester. "Who could scream like that from under the coals? Come; we'll go and see what it is."
"Laws, miss! don't you go near it now. It's too late to do anything. Either it's the woman's sperrit as they say was murdered there, or it's a new one."
"And you would let her be killed without interfering?"
"Oh, miss, all's over by this time!" persisted Sarah, with white lips trembling.
"Then you are ready to go to bed with a murderer in the house?" said Hester.
"He's done his business now, an' 'll go away."
"Give me the candle. I will go alone."
"You'll be murdered, miss--as sure's you're alive!"
Hester took the light from her, and went towards the coal-cellar. The old woman sank on a chair.
I have already alluded to the subterranean portion of the house, which extended under the great room. A long vault, corresponding to the gallery above, led to these cellars. It was rather a frightful place to go into in search of the source of a shriek. Its darkness was scarcely affected by the candle she carried; it seemed only to blind herself. She tried holding it above her head, and then she could see a little. The black tunnel stretched on and on, like a tunnel in a feverish dream, a long way before the cellars began to open from it. She advanced, I cannot say fearless, but therefore only the more brave. She felt as if leaving life and safety behind, but her imagination was not much awake, and her mental condition made her almost inclined to welcome death. She reached at last the coal-cellar, the first that opened from the passage, and looked in. The coal-heap was low, and the place looked large and very black. She sent her keenest gaze through the darkness, but could see nothing; went in and moved about until she had thrown light into every corner: no one was there. She was on the point of returning when she bethought herself there were other cellars--one the wine-cellar, which was locked: she would go and see if Sarah knew anything about the key of it. But just as she left the coal-cellar, she heard a moan, followed by a succession of low sobs. Her heart began to beat violently, but she stopped to listen. The light of her candle fell upon another door, a pace or two from where she stood. She went to it, laid her ear against it, and listened. The sobs continued a while, ceased, and left all silent. Then clear and sweet, but strange and wild, as if from some region unearthly, came the voice of a child: she could hear distinctly what it said.
"Mother," it rang out, "you may put me in the hole."
And the silence fell deep as before.
Hester stood for a moment horrified. Her excited imagination suggested some deed of superstitious cruelty in the garden of the house adjoining. Nor were the sobs and cries altogether against such supposition. She recovered herself instantly, and ran back to the kitchen.
"You have the keys of the cellars--have you not, Sarah?" she said.
"Yes, miss, I fancy so."
"Where does the door beyond the coal-cellar lead out to?"
"Not out to nowhere, miss. That's a large cellar as we never use. I ain't been into it since the first day, when they put some of the packing-cases there."
"Give me the key," said Hester. "Something is going on there we ought to know about."
"Then pray send for the police, miss!" answered Sarah, trembling. "It ain't for you to go into such places--on no account!"
"What! not in our own house?"
"It's the police's business, miss!"
"Then the police are their brothers' keepers, and not you and me, Sarah?"
"It's the wicked as is in it, I fear, miss."
"It's those that weep anyhow, and they're our business, if it's only to weep with them. Quick! show me which is the key."
Sarah sought the key in the bunch, and noting the coolness with which her young mistress took it, gathered courage from hers to follow, a little way behind.
When Hester reached the door, she carefully examined it, that she might do what she had to do as quickly as possible. There were bolts and bars upon it, but not one of them was fastened; it was secured only by the bolt of the lock. She set the candle on the floor, and put in the key as quietly as she could. It turned without much difficulty, and the door fell partly open with a groan of the rusted hinge. She caught up her light, and went in.
It was a large, dark, empty place. For a few moments she could see nothing. But presently she spied, somewhere in the dark, a group of faces, looking white through the circumfluent blackness, the eyes of them fixed in amaze, if not in terror, upon herself. She advanced towards them, and almost immediately recognized one of them--then another; but what with the dimness, the ghostliness, and the strangeness of it all, felt as if surrounded by the veiling shadows of a dream. But whose was that pallid little face whose eyes were not upon her with the rest? It stared straight on into the dark, as if it had no more to do with the light! She drew nearer to it. The eyes of the other faces followed her.
When the eyes of the mother saw the face of her Moxy who died in the dark, she threw herself in a passion of tears and cries upon her dead. But the man knelt upon his knees, and when Hester turned in pain from the agony of the mother, she saw him with lifted hands of supplication at her feet. A torrent of divine love and passionate pity filled her heart, breaking from its deepest God-haunted caves. She stooped and kissed the man upon his upturned forehead.
Many are called but few chosen. Hester was the disciple of him who could have cured the leper with a word, but for reasons of his own, not far to seek by such souls as Hester's, laid his hands upon him, sorely defiling himself in the eyes of the self-respecting bystanders. The leper himself would never have dreamed of his touching him.
Franks burst out crying like the veriest child. All at once in the depths of hell the wings of a great angel were spread out over him and his! No more starvation and cold for his poor wife and the baby! The boys would have plenty now! If only Moxy--but he was gone where the angels came from--and theirs was a hard life! Surely the God his wife talked about must have sent her to them! Did he think they had borne enough now? Only he had borne it so ill! Thus thought Franks, in dislocated fashion, and remained kneeling.
Hester was now kneeling also, with her arms round her whose arms were about the body of her child. She did not speak to her, did not attempt a word of comfort, but wept with her: she too had loved little Moxy! she too had heard his dying words--glowing with reproof to her faithlessness who cried out like a baby when her father left her for a moment in the dark! In the midst of her loneliness and seeming desertion, God had these people already in the house for her help! The back-door of every tomb opens on a hill-top.
With awe-struck faces the boys looked on. They too could now see Moxy's face. They had loved Moxy--loved him more than they knew yet.
The woman at length raised her head, and looked at Hester.
"Oh, miss, it's Moxy!" she said, and burst into a fresh passion of grief.
"The dear child!" said Hester.
"Oh, miss! who's to look after him now?"
"There will be plenty to look after him. You don't think he who provided a woman like you for his mother before he sent him here, would send him there without having somebody ready to look after him?"
"Well, miss, it wouldn't be like him--I don't think!"
"It would not be like him," responded Hester, with self-accusation.
Then she asked them a few questions about their history since last she saw them, and how it was they had sunk so low, receiving answers more satisfactory than her knowledge had allowed her to hope.
"But oh miss!" exclaimed Mrs. Franks, bethinking herself, "you ought not to ha' been here so long: the little angel there died o' the small-pox, as I know too well, an' it's no end o' catching!"
"Never mind me," replied Hester; "I'm not afraid. But," she added, rising, "we must get you out of this immediately."
"Oh, miss! where would you send us?" said Mrs. Franks in alarm. "There's nobody as 'll take us in! An' it would break both our two hearts--Franks's an' mine--to be parted at such a moment, when us two's the father an' mother o' Moxy. An' they'd take Moxy from us, an' put him in the hole he was so afeared of!"
"You don't think I would leave my own flesh and blood in the cellar!" answered Hester. "I will go and make arrangement for you above and be back presently."
"Oh thank you, miss!" said the woman, as Hester sat down the candle beside them. "I do want to look on the face of my blessed boy as long as I can! He will be taken from me altogether soon!"
"Mrs. Franks," rejoined Hester, "you musn't talk like a heathen."
"I didn't know as I was saying anything wrong, miss!"
"Don't you know," said Hester, smiling through tears, "that Jesus died and rose again that we might be delivered from death? Don't you know it's he and not Death has got your Moxy? He will take care of him for you till you are ready to have him again. If you love Moxy more than Jesus loves him, then you are more like God than Jesus was!"
"Oh, miss, don't talk to me like that! The child was born of my own body?"
"And both you and he were born of God's own soul: if you know how to love he loves ten times better."
"You know how to love anyhow, miss! the Lord love you! An angel o' mercy you been to me an' mine."
"Good-bye then for a few minutes," said Hester. "I am only going to prepare a place for you."
Only as she said the words did she remember who had said them before her. And as she went through the dark tunnel she sang with a voice that seemed to beat at the gates of heaven, "Thou didst not leave his soul in hell."
Mrs. Franks threw herself again beside her child, but her tears were not so bitter now; she and hers were no longer forsaken! She also read her New Testament, and the last words of Hester had struck her as well as the speaker of them:
"And she'll come again and receive us to herself!" she said. "--An' Christ'll receive my poor Moxy to himself! If he wasn't, as they say, a Christian, it was only as he hadn't time--so young, an' all the hard work he had to do--with his precious face a grinnin' like an angel between the feet of him, a helpin' of his father to make a livin' for us all! That would be no reason why he as did the will o' his father shouldn't take to him. If ever there was a child o' God's makin' it was that child! I feel as if God must ha' made him right off, like!"
Thoughts like these kept flowing through the mind of the bereaved mother as she lay with her arm over the body of her child--ever lovely to her, now more lovely than ever. The small-pox had not been severe--only severe enough to take a feeble life from the midst of privation, and the expression of his face was lovely. He lay like the sacrifice that sealed a new covenant between his mother and her father in heaven. We have yet learned but little of the blessed power of death. We call it an evil! It is a holy, friendly thing. We are not left shivering all the world's night in a stately portico with no house behind it; death is the door to the temple-house, whose God is not seated aloft in motionless state, but walks about among his children, receiving his pilgrim sons in his arms, and washing the sore feet of the weary ones. Either God is altogether such as Christ, or the Christian religion is a lie.
Not a word passed between husband and wife. Their hearts were too full for speech, but their hands found and held each the other. It was the strangest concurrence of sorrow and relief! The two boys sat on the ground with their arms about each other. So they waited.
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