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ON THE WAY UP.
Hearing only the sounds of a peaceful talk, Sarah had ventured near enough to the door to hear something of what was said, and set at rest by finding that the cause of her terror was but a poor family that had sought refuge in the cellar, she woke up to better, and was ready to help. More than sufficiently afraid of robbers and murderers, she was not afraid of infection: "What should an old woman like me do taking the small-pox! I've had it bad enough once already!" She was rather staggered, however, when she found what Hester's plan for the intruders was.
Nothing more, since the night of the concert, had been done to make the great room habitable by the family. It had been well cleaned out and that was all. Now and then a fire was lighted in it, and the children played in it as before, but it had never been really in use. What better place, thought Hester, could there be for a small-pox ward! Thither she would convey her friends rescued from the slimy embrace of London poverty.
She told Sarah to light a great fire as speedily as possible, while she settled what could be done about beds. Almost all in the house were old-fashioned wooden ones, hard to take down, heavy to move, and hard to put up again: with only herself and Sarah it would take a long time! For safety too it would be better to hire iron beds which would be easily purified--only it was Sunday night, and late! But she knew the little broker in Steevens's Road: she would go to him and see if he had any beds, and if he would help her to put them up at once!
The raw night made her rejoice the more that she had got hold of the poor creatures drowning in the social swamp. It was a consolation, strong even against such heavy sorrows and disappointments as housed in her heart to know that virtue was going out of her for rescue and redemption.
She had to ring the bell a good many times before the door opened, for the broker and his small household had retired for the night: it was now eleven o'clock. He was not well pleased at being taken from his warm bed to go out and work--on such a night too! He grounded what objection he made, however, on its being Sunday, and more than hinted his surprise that Hester would ask him to do such a thing. She told him it was for some who had nowhere to lay their heads, and in her turn more than hinted that he could hardly know what Sunday meant if he did not think it right to do any number of good deeds on it. The man assented to her argument, and went to look out the two beds she wanted. But what in reality influenced him was dislike to offending a customer; customers are the divinities of tradesmen, as society is the divinity of society: in her, men and women worship themselves. Having got the two bedsteads extracted piecemeal from the disorganized heaps in his back shop, he and Hester together proceeded to carry them home--and I cannot help wishing lord Gartley had come upon her at the work--no very light job, for she went three times, and bore good weights. It was long after midnight before the beds were ready--and a meal of coffee, and toast, and bread and butter, spread in the great room. Then at last Hester went back to the cellar.
"Now, come," she said, and taking up the baby, which had just weight enough to lie and let her know how light it was, led the way.
Franks rose from the edge of the packing-case, on which lay the body of Moxy, with his mother yet kneeling beside it, and put his arm round his wife to raise her. She yielded, and he led her away after their hostess, the boys following hand in hand. But when they reached the cellar door, the mother gave a heart-broken cry, and turning ran and threw herself again beside her child. They all followed her.
"I can't! I can't!" she said. "I can't leave my Moxy lyin' here all alone! He ain't used to it. He's never once slep' alone since he was born. I can't bear to think o' that lovely look o' his lost on the dark night--not a soul to look down an' see it! Oh, Moxy! was your mother a-leavin' of you all alone!"
"What makes you think there will not be a soul to see it?" said Hester. "The darkness may be full of eyes! And the night itself is only the black pupil of the Father's eye.--But we're not going to leave the darling here. We'll take him too, of course, and find him a good place to lie in."
The mother was satisfied, and the little procession passed through the dark way, and up the stair.
The boys looked pleased at sight of the comforts that waited them, but a little awed with the great lofty room. Over the face of Franks, notwithstanding his little Serpent of the Prairies had crept away through the long tangled grass of the universe, passed a gleam of joy mingled with gratitude: much was now begun to be set to rights between him and the high government. But the mother was with the little body lying alone in the cellar. Suddenly with a wild gesture she made for the door.
"Oh, miss!" she cried, "the rats! the rats!" and would have darted from the room.
"Stop, stop, dear Mrs. Franks!" cried Hester. "Here! take the baby; Sarah and I are going immediately to bring him away, and lay him where you can see him when you please."
Again she was satisfied. She took the baby, and sat down beside her husband.
I have mentioned a low pitched room under the great one: in this Hester had told Sarah to place a table covered with white: they would lay the body there in such fashion as would be a sweet remembrance to the mother: she went now to see whether this was done. But on the way she met Sarah coming up with ashy face.
"Oh, miss!" she said, "the body mustn't be left a minute: there's a whole army of rats in the house already! As I was covering the table with a blanket before I put on the sheet, there got up all at once behind the wainscot the most uprageous hurry-scurry o' them horrid creaturs. They'll be in wherever it is--you may take your bible-oath! Once when I was--"
Hester interrupted her.
"Come," she said, and led the way.
She looked first into the low room to see that it was properly prepared, and was leaving it again, when she heard a strange sound behind the wainscot as it seemed.
"There, miss!" said Sarah.
Hester made up her mind at once that little Moxy should not be left alone. Her heart trembled a little at the thought, but she comforted herself that Sarah would not be far off, and that the father and mother of the child would be immediately over her head. The same instant she was ashamed of having found this comfort first, for was he not infinitely nearer to her who is lord of life and death?
They went to the cellar.
"But how," said Hester on the way, "can the Frankses have got into the place?"
"There is a back door to it, of course!" answered Sarah. "The first load of coals came in that way, but master wouldn't have it used: he didn't like a door to his house he never set eyes on, he said."
"But how could it have been open to let them in?" said Hester.
When they reached the cellar, she took the candle and went to look at the door. It was pushed to, but not locked, and had no fastening upon it except the lock, in which was the key. She turned the key, and taking it out, put it in her pocket.
Then they carried up the little body, washed it, dressed it in white, and laid it straight in its beauty--symbol--passing, like all symbols--of a peace divinely more profound--the little hands folded on the breast under the well-contented face, repeating the calm expression of that conquest over the fear of death, that submission to be "put in the hole," with which the child-spirit passed into wide spaces. They lighted six candles, three at the head and three at the feet, that the mother might see the face of her child, and because light not darkness befits death. To Hester they symbolized the forms of light that sat, one at the head and one at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they went to fetch the mother.
She was washing the things they had used for supper. The boys were already in bed. Franks was staring into the fire: the poor fellow had not even looked at one for some time. Hester asked them to go and see where she had laid Moxy, and they went with her. The beauty of Death's courtly state comforted them.
"But I can't leave him alone!" said the mother "--all night too!--he wouldn't like it! I know he won't wake up no more; only, you know, miss--"
"Yes, I know very well," replied Hester.
"I'm ready," said Franks.
"No, no!" returned Hester. "You are worn out and must go to bed, both of you: I will stay with the beautiful thing, and see that no harm comes to it."
After some persuasion the mother consented, and in a little while the house was quiet. Hester threw a fur cloak round her, and sat down in the chair Sarah had placed for her beside the dead.
When she had sat some time, the exceeding stillness of the form beside her began to fill her heart with a gentle awe. The stillness was so persistent that the awe gradually grew to dismay, and fear, inexplicable, unreasonable fear, of which she was ashamed, began to invade her. She knew at once that she must betake her to the Truth for refuge. It is little use telling one's self that one's fear is silly. It comes upon no pretence of wisdom or logic; proved devoid of both, it will not therefore budge a jot. She prayed to the Father, awake with her in the stillness; and then began to think about the dead Christ. Would the women who waited for the dawn because they had no light by which to minister, have been afraid to watch by that body all the night long? Oh, to have seen it come to life! move and wake and rise with the informing God! Every dead thing belonged to Christ, not to something called Death! This dead thing was his. It was dead as he had been dead, and no otherwise! There was nothing dreadful in watching by it, any more than in sitting beside the cradle of a child yet unborn! In the name of Christ she would fear nothing! He had abolished death!
Thus thinking, she lay back in her chair, closed her eyes, and thanking God for having sent her relief in these his children to help, fell fast asleep.
She started suddenly awake, seeming to have been roused by the opening of a door. The fringe of a departing dream lay yet upon her eyes: was the door of the tomb in which she had lain so long burst from its hinges? was the day of the great resurrection come? Swiftly her senses settled themselves, and she saw plainly and remembered clearly. Yet could she be really awake? for in the wall opposite stood the form of a man! She neither cried out nor fainted, but sat gazing. She was not even afraid, only dumb with wonder. The man did not look fearful. A smile she seemed to have seen before broke gradually from his lips and spread over his face. The next moment he stepped from the wall and came towards her.
Then sight and memory came together: in that wall was a door, said to lead into the next house: for the first time she saw it open!
The man came nearer and nearer: it was Christopher! She rose, and held out her hand.
"You are surprised to see me!" he said, "--and well you may be! Am I in your house?--And this watch! what does it mean? I seem to recognize the sweet face! I must have seen you and it together before!--Yes! it is Moxy!"
"You are right, Mr. Christopher," she answered. "Dear little Moxy died of the small-pox in our cellar. He was just gone when I found them there."
"Is it wise of you to expose yourself so much to the infection?" said the doctor.
"Is it worthy of you to ask such a question?" returned Hester. "We have our work to do; life or death is the care of him who sets the work."
The doctor bent his head low, lower, and lower still, before her. Nothing moves a man more than to recognize in another the principles which are to himself a necessity of his being and history.
"I put the question to know on what grounds you based your action," he replied, "and I am answered."
"Tell me then," said Hester, "how you came to be here. It seemed to my sleepy eyes as if an angel had melted his own door through the wall! Are you free of ordinary hindrances?" She asked almost in seriousness; for, with the lovely dead before her, in the middle of the night, roused suddenly from a sleep into which she had fallen with her thoughts full of the shining resurrection of the Lord, she would have believed him at once if he had told her that for the service of the Lord's poor he was enabled to pass where he pleased. He smiled with a wonderful sweetness as he made answer:
"I hope you are not one of those who so little believe that the world and its ways belong to God, that they want to have his presence proved by something out of the usual way--something not so good; for surely the way He chooses to work almost always, must be a better way than that in which he only works now and then because of a special necessity!"
By these words Hester perceived she was in the presence of one who understood the things of which he spoke.
"I came here in the simplest way in the world," he went on, "though I am no less surprised than you to find myself in your presence."
"The thing is to me a marvel," said Hester.
"It shall not be such a moment longer. I was called to see a patient. When I went to return as I came, I found the door by which I had entered locked. I then remembered that I had passed a door on the stair, and went back to try it. It was bolted on the side to the stair. I withdrew the bolts, opened the door gently, and beheld one of the most impressive sights I ever saw. Shall I tell you what I saw?"
"Do," answered Hester.
"I saw," said Christopher with solemnity, "the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness comprehending it not--six candles, and only the up-turned face of the dead, and the down-turned face of the sleeping! I seemed to look into the heart of things, and see the whole waste universe waiting for the sonship, for the redemption of the body, the visible life of men! I saw that love, trying to watch by death, had failed, because the thing that is not needs not to be watched. I saw all this and more. I think I must have unconsciously pushed the door against the wall, for somehow I made a noise with it, and you woke."
Hester's face alone showed that she understood him. She turned and looked at Moxy to calm the emotion to which she would not give scope.
Christopher stood silent, as if brooding on what he had seen. She could not ask him to sit down, but she must understand how he had got into the house. Where was his patient? "In the next house, of course!" she concluded. But the thing wanted looking into! That door must be secured on their side? Their next midnight visitor might not be so welcome as this, whose heart burned to the same labour as her own! "But what we really want," she thought, "is to have more not fewer of our doors open, if they be but the right ones for the angels to come and go!"
"I never saw that door open before," she said, "and none of us knew where it led. We took it for granted it was into the next house, but the old lady was so cross,--"
Here she checked herself; for if Mr. Christopher had just come from that house, he might be a friend of the old lady's!
"It goes into no lady's house, so far as I understand," said Christopher. "The stair leads to a garret--I should fancy over our heads here--much higher up, though."
"Would you show me how you came in?" said Hester.
"With pleasure," he answered, and taking one of the candles, led the way.
"I would not let the young woman leave her husband to show me out," he went on. "When I found myself a prisoner, I thought I would try this door before periling the sleep of a patient in the small-pox. You seem to have it all round you here!"
Through the door so long mysterious Hester stepped on a narrow, steep stair. Christopher turned downward, and trod softly. At the bottom he passed through a door admitting them to a small cellar, a mere recess. Thence they issued into that so lately occupied by the Frankses. Christopher went to the door Hester had locked, and said,
"This is where I came in. I suppose one of your people must have locked it."
"I locked it myself," replied Hester, and told him in brief the story of the evening.
"I see!" said Christopher; "we must have passed through just after you had taken them away."
"And now the question remains," said Hester, "--who can it be in our house without our knowledge? The stair is plainly in our house."
"Beyond a doubt," said Christopher. "But how strange it is you should know your own house so imperfectly! I fancy the young couple, having got into some difficulty, found entrance the same way the Frankses did; only they went farther and fared better!--to the top of the house, I mean. They've managed to make themselves pretty comfortable too! There is something peculiar about them--I can hardly say what in a word."
"Could I not go up with you to-morrow and see them!" said Hester.
"That would hardly do, I fear. I could be of no farther use to them were they to suppose I had betrayed them. You have a perfect right to know what is going on in your house, but I would rather not appear in the discovery. One thing is plain, you must either go to them, or unlock the cellar-door. You will be taken with the young woman. She is a capable creature--an excellent nurse. Shall I go out this way?"
"Will you come to-morrow?" said Hester. "I am alone, and cannot ask anybody to help me because of the small-pox; and I shall want help for the funeral. You do not think me troublesome?"
"Not in the least. It is all in the way of my business. I will manage for you."
"Come then; I will show you the way out. This is no. 18, Addison square. You need not come in the cellar-way next time."
"If I were you," said Christopher, stopping at the foot of the kitchen stair, "I would leave the key in that cellar-door. The poor young woman would be terrified to find they were prisoners."
She turned immediately and went back, he following, and replaced the key.
"Now let us fasten up the door I came in by," said Christopher. "I have got a screw in my pocket, and I never go without my tool-knife."
This was soon done, and he went.
What a strange night it had been for Hester--more like some unbelievable romance! For the time she had forgotten her own troubles! Ah, if she had been of one mind with lord Gartley, those poor creatures would be now moaning in darkness by the dead body of their child, or out with it in their arms in the streets, or parted asunder in the casual wards of some workhouse! Certainly God could have sent them other help than hers, but where would she be then--a fellow-worker with his lordship, and not with God--one who did it not to him! Woe for the wife whose husband has no regard to her deepest desires, her highest aspirations!--who loves her so that he would be the god of her idolatry, not the friend and helper of her heart, soul, and mind! Many of Hester's own thoughts were revealed to her that night by the side of the dead Moxy. It became clear to her that she had been led astray, in part by the desire to rescue one to whom God had not sent her, in part by the pleasure of being loved and worshipped, and in part by worldly ambition. Surer sign would God have sent her had he intended she should give herself to Gartley! Would God have her give herself to one who would render it impossible for her to make life more abundant to others? Marriage might be the absorbing duty of some women, but was it necessarily hers? Certainly not with such a man? Might not the duties of some callings be incompatible with marriage? Did not the providence of the world ordain that not a few should go unmarried? The children of the married would be but ill cared for were there only the married to care for them! It was one thing to die for a man--another to enslave God's child to the will of one who did not know him! Was a husband to take the place of Christ, and order her life for her? Was man enough for woman? Did she not need God? It came to that! Was he or God to be her master? It grew clearer and clearer as she watched by the dead. There was, there could be no relation of life over which the Lord of life was not supreme! That this or that good woman could do this or that faithless or mean thing, was nothing to her! What might be unavoidable to one less instructed, would be sin in her! The other might heed the sufferings and confusions that resulted; but for her must remain a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation!
When the morning came and she heard Sarah stirring, she sent her to take her place, and went to get a little rest.
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