Was it Heaven? Or Hell?
"You told a lie?"
"You confess it--you actually confess it--you told a lie!"
The family consisted of four persons: Margaret Lester, widow, aged thirty six; Helen Lester, her daughter, aged sixteen; Mrs. Lester's maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester Gray, twins, aged sixty-seven. Waking and sleeping, the three women spent their days and night in adoring the young girl; in watching the movements of her sweet spirit in the mirror of her face; in refreshing their souls with the vision of her bloom and beauty; in listening to the music of her voice; in gratefully recognizing how rich and fair for them was the world with this presence in it; in shuddering to think how desolate it would be with this light gone out of it.
By nature--and inside--the aged aunts were utterly dear and lovable and good, but in the matter of morals and conduct their training had been so uncompromisingly strict that it had made them exteriorly austere, not to say stern. Their influence was effective in the house; so effective that the mother and the daughter conformed to its moral and religious requirements cheerfully, contentedly, happily, unquestionably. To do this was become second nature to them. And so in this peaceful heaven there were no clashings, no irritations, no fault-finding, no heart-burnings.
In it a lie had no place. In it a lie was unthinkable. In it speech was restricted to absolute truth, iron-bound truth, implacable and uncompromising truth, let the resulting consequences be what they might. At last, one day, under stress of circumstances, the darling of the house sullied her lips with a lie--and confessed it, with tears and self-upbraidings. There are not any words that can paint the consternation of the aunts. It was as if the sky had crumpled up and collapsed and the earth had tumbled to ruin with a crash. They sat side by side, white and stern, gazing speechless upon the culprit, who was on her knees before them with her face buried first in one lap and then the other, moaning and sobbing, and appealing for sympathy and forgiveness and getting no response, humbly kissing the hand of the one, then of the other, only to see it withdrawn as suffering defilement by those soiled lips.
Twice, at intervals, Aunt Hester said, in frozen amazement:
"You told a lie?"
Twice, at intervals, Aunt Hannah followed with the muttered and amazed ejaculation:
"You confess it--you actually confess it--you told a lie!"
It was all they could say. The situation was new, unheard of, incredible; they could not understand it, they did not know how to take hold of it, it approximately paralyzed speech.
At length it was decided that the erring child must be taken to her mother, who was ill, and who ought to know what had happened. Helen begged, besought, implored that she might be spared this further disgrace, and that her mother might be spared the grief and pain of it; but this could not be: duty required this sacrifice, duty takes precedence of all things, nothing can absolve one from a duty, with a duty no compromise is possible.
Helen still begged, and said the sin was her own, her mother had had no hand in it--why must she be made to suffer for it?
But the aunts were obdurate in their righteousness, and said the law that visited the sins of the parent upon the child was by all right and reason reversible; and therefore it was but just that the innocent mother of a sinning child should suffer her rightful share of the grief and pain and shame which were the allotted wages of the sin.
The three moved toward the sick-room.
At this time the doctor was approaching the house. He was still a good distance away, however. He was a good doctor and a good man, and he had a good heart, but one had to know him a year to get over hating him, two years to learn to endure him, three to learn to like him, and four and five to learn to live him. It was a slow and trying education, but it paid. He was of great stature; he had a leonine head, a leonine face, a rough voice, and an eye which was sometimes a pirate's and sometimes a woman's, according to the mood. He knew nothing about etiquette, and cared nothing about it; in speech, manner, carriage, and conduct he was the reverse of conventional. He was frank, to the limit; he had opinions on all subjects; they were always on tap and ready for delivery, and he cared not a farthing whether his listener liked them or didn't. Whom he loved he loved, and manifested it; whom he didn't live he hated, and published it from the housetops. In his young days he had been a sailor, and the salt-airs of all the seas blew from him yet. He was a sturdy and loyal Christian, and believed he was the best one in the land, and the only one whose Christianity was perfectly sound, healthy, full-charged with common sense, and had no decayed places in it. People who had an ax to grind, or people who for any reason wanted wanted to get on the soft side of him, called him The Christian-- a phrase whose delicate flattery was music to his ears, and whose capital T was such an enchanting and vivid object to him that he could see it when it fell out of a person's mouth even in the dark. Many who were fond of him stood on their consciences with both feet and brazenly called him by that large title habitually, because it was a pleasure to them to do anything that would please him; and with eager and cordial malice his extensive and diligently cultivated crop of enemies gilded it, beflowered it, expanded it to "The only Christian." Of these two titles, the latter had the wider currency; the enemy, being greatly in the majority, attended to that. Whatever the doctor believed, he believed with all his heart, and would fight for it whenever he got the chance; and if the intervals between chances grew to be irksomely wide, he would invent ways of shortening them himself. He was severely conscientious, according to his rather independent lights, and whatever he took to be a duty he performed, no matter whether the judgment of the professional moralists agreed with his own or not. At sea, in his young days, he had used profanity freely, but as soon as he was converted he made a rule, which he rigidly stuck to ever afterward, never to use it except on the rarest occasions, and then only when duty commanded. He had been a hard drinker at sea, but after his conversion he became a firm and outspoken teetotaler, in order to be an example to the young, and from that time forth he seldom drank; never, indeed, except when it seemed to him to be a duty-- a condition which sometimes occurred a couple of times a year, but never as many as five times.
Necessarily, such a man is impressionable, impulsive, emotional. This one was, and had no gift at hiding his feelings; or if he had it he took no trouble to exercise it. He carried his soul's prevailing weather in his face, and when he entered a room the parasols or the umbrellas went up--figuratively speaking-- according to the indications. When the soft light was in his eye it meant approval, and delivered a benediction; when he came with a frown he lowered the temperature ten degrees. He was a well-beloved man in the house of his friends, but sometimes a dreaded one.
He had a deep affection for the Lester household and its several members returned this feeling with interest. They mourned over his kind of Christianity, and he frankly scoffed at theirs; but both parties went on loving each other just the same.
He was approaching the house--out of the distance; the aunts and the culprit were moving toward the sick-chamber.
The three last named stood by the bed; the aunts austere, the transgressor softly sobbing. The mother turned her head on the pillow; her tired eyes flamed up instantly with sympathy and passionate mother-love when they fell upon her child, and she opened the refuge and shelter of her arms.
"Wait!" said Aunt Hannah, and put out her hand and stayed the girl from leaping into them.
"Helen," said the other aunt, impressively, "tell your mother all. Purge your soul; leave nothing unconfessed."
Standing stricken and forlorn before her judges, the young girl mourned her sorrowful tale through the end, then in a passion of appeal cried out:
"Oh, mother, can't you forgive me? won't you forgive me?--I am so desolate!"
"Forgive you, my darling? Oh, come to my arms!--there, lay your head upon my breast, and be at peace. If you had told a thousand lies--"
There was a sound--a warning--the clearing of a throat. The aunts glanced up, and withered in their clothes--there stood the doctor, his face a thunder-cloud. Mother and child knew nothing of his presence; they lay locked together, heart to heart, steeped in immeasurable content, dead to all things else. The physician stood many moments glaring and glooming upon the scene before him; studying it, analyzing it, searching out its genesis; then he put up his hand and beckoned to the aunts. They came trembling to him, and stood humbly before him and waited. He bent down and whispered:
"Didn't I tell you this patient must be protected from all excitement? What the hell have you been doing? Clear out of the place?"
They obeyed. Half an hour later he appeared in the parlor, serene, cheery, clothed in sunshine, conducting Helen, with his arm about her waist, petting her, and saying gentle and playful things to her; and she also was her sunny and happy self again.
"Now, then;" he said, "good-by, dear. Go to your room, and keep away from your mother, and behave yourself. But wait--put out your tongue. There, that will do--you're as sound as a nut!" He patted her cheek and added, "Run along now; I want to talk to these aunts."
She went from the presence. His face clouded over again at once; and as he sat down he said:
"You too have been doing a lot of damage--and maybe some good. Some good, yes--such as it is. That woman's disease is typhoid! You've brought it to a show-up, I think, with your insanities, and that's a service--such as it is. I hadn't been able to determine what it was before."
With one impulse the old ladies sprang to their feet, quaking with terror.
"Sit down! What are you proposing to do?"
"Do? We must fly to her. We--"
"You'll do nothing of the kind; you've done enough harm for one day. Do you want to squander all your capital of crimes and follies on a single deal? Sit down, I tell you. I have arranged for her to sleep; she needs it; if you disturb her without my orders, I'll brain you-- if you've got the materials for it.
They sat down, distressed and indignant, but obedient, under compulsion. He proceeded:
"Now, then, I want this case explained. They wanted to explain it to me--as if there hadn't been emotion or excitement enough already. You knew my orders; how did you dare to go in there and get up that riot?"
Hester looked appealing at Hannah; Hannah returned a beseeching look at Hester--neither wanted to dance to this unsympathetic orchestra. The doctor came to their help. He said:
Fingering at the fringes of her shawl, and with lowered eyes, Hester said, timidly:
"We should not have disobeyed for any ordinary cause, but this was vital. This was a duty. With a duty one has no choice; one must put all lighter considerations aside and perform it. We were obliged to arraign her before her mother. She had told a lie."
The doctor glowered upon the woman a moment, and seemed to be trying to work up in his mind an understand of a wholly incomprehensible proposition; then he stormed out:
"She told a lie! Did she? God bless my soul! I tell a million a day! And so does every doctor. And so does everybody--including you-- for that matter. And that was the important thing that authorized you to venture to disobey my orders and imperil that woman's life! Look here, Hester Gray, this is pure lunacy; that girl couldn't tell a lie that was intended to injure a person. The thing is impossible-- absolutely impossible. You know it yourselves--both of you; you know it perfectly well."
Hannah came to her sister's rescue:
"Hester didn't mean that it was that kind of a lie, and it wasn't. But it was a lie."
"Well, upon my word, I never heard such nonsense! Haven't you got sense enough to discriminate between lies! Don't you know the difference between a lie that helps and a lie that hurts?"
"All lies are sinful," said Hannah, setting her lips together like a vise; "all lies are forbidden."
The Only Christian fidgeted impatiently in his chair. He went to attack this proposition, but he did not quite know how or where to begin. Finally he made a venture:
"Hester, wouldn't you tell a lie to shield a person from an undeserved injury or shame?"
"Not even a friend?"
"Not even your dearest friend?"
"No. I would not."
The doctor struggled in silence awhile with this situation; then he asked:
"Not even to save him from bitter pain and misery and grief?"
"No. Not even to save his life."
Another pause. Then:
"Nor his soul?"
There was a hush--a silence which endured a measurable interval-- then Hester answered, in a low voice, but with decision:
"Nor his soul?"
No one spoke for a while; then the doctor said:
"Is it with you the same, Hannah?"
"Yes," she answered.
"I ask you both--why?"
"Because to tell such a lie, or any lie, is a sin, and could cost us the loss of our own souls--would, indeed, if we died without time to repent."
"Strange . . . strange . . . it is past belief." Then he asked, roughly: "Is such a soul as that worth saving?" He rose up, mumbling and grumbling, and started for the door, stumping vigorously along. At the threshold he turned and rasped out an admonition: "Reform! Drop this mean and sordid and selfish devotion to the saving of your shabby little souls, and hunt up something to do that's got some dignity to it! Risk your souls! risk them in good causes; then if you lose them, why should you care? Reform!"
The good old gentlewomen sat paralyzed, pulverized, outraged, insulted, and brooded in bitterness and indignation over these blasphemies. They were hurt to the heart, poor old ladies, and said they could never forgive these injuries.
They kept repeating that word resentfully. "Reform--and learn to tell lies!"
Time slipped along, and in due course a change came over their spirits. They had completed the human being's first duty--which is to think about himself until he has exhausted the subject, then he is in a condition to take up minor interests and think of other people. This changes the complexion of his spirits--generally wholesomely. The minds of the two old ladies reverted to their beloved niece and the fearful disease which had smitten her; instantly they forgot the hurts their self-love had received, and a passionate desire rose in their hearts to go to the help of the sufferer and comfort her with their love, and minister to her, and labor for her the best they could with their weak hands, and joyfully and affectionately wear out their poor old bodies in her dear service if only they might have the privilege.
"And we shall have it!" said Hester, with the tears running down her face. "There are no nurses comparable to us, for there are no others that will stand their watch by that bed till they drop and die, and God knows we would do that."
"Amen," said Hannah, smiling approval and endorsement through the mist of moisture that blurred her glasses. "The doctor knows us, and knows we will not disobey again; and he will call no others. He will not dare!"
"Dare?" said Hester, with temper, and dashing the water from her eyes; "he will dare anything--that Christian devil! But it will do no good for him to try it this time--but, laws! Hannah! after all's said and done, he is gifted and wise and good, and he would not think of such a thing. . . . It is surely time for one of us to go to that room. What is keeping him? Why doesn't he come and say so?"
They caught the sound of his approaching step. He entered, sat down, and began to talk.
"Margaret is a sick woman," he said. "She is still sleeping, but she will wake presently; then one of you must go to her. She will be worse before she is better. Pretty soon a night-and-day watch must be set. How much of it can you two undertake?"
"All of it!" burst from both ladies at once.
The doctor's eyes flashed, and he said, with energy:
"You do ring true, you brave old relics! And you shall do all of the nursing you can, for there's none to match you in that divine office in this town; but you can't do all of it, and it would be a crime to let you." It was grand praise, golden praise, coming from such a source, and it took nearly all the resentment out of the aged twin's hearts. "Your Tilly and my old Nancy shall do the rest--good nurses both, white souls with black skins, watchful, loving, tender--just perfect nurses!--and competent liars from the cradle. . . . Look you! keep a little watch on Helen; she is sick, and is going to be sicker."
The ladies looked a little surprised, and not credulous; and Hester said:
"How is that? It isn't an hour since you said she was as sound as a nut."
The doctor answered, tranquilly:
"It was a lie."
The ladies turned upon him indignantly, and Hannah said:
"How can you make an odious confession like that, in so indifferent a tone, when you know how we feel about all forms of--"
"Hush! You are as ignorant as cats, both of you, and you don't know what you are talking about. You are like all the rest of the moral moles; you lie from morning till night, but because you don't do it with your mouths, but only with your lying eyes, your lying inflections, your deceptively misplaced emphasis, and your misleading gestures, you turn up your complacent noses and parade before God and the world as saintly and unsmirched Truth-Speakers, in whose cold-storage souls a lie would freeze to death if it got there! Why will you humbug yourselves with that foolish notion that no lie is a lie except a spoken one? What is the difference between lying with your eyes and lying with your mouth? There is none; and if you would reflect a moment you would see that it is so. There isn't a human being that doesn't tell a gross of lies every day of his life; and you--why, between you, you tell thirty thousand; yet you flare up here in a lurid hypocritical horror because I tell that child a benevolent and sinless lie to protect her from her imagination, which would get to work and warm up her blood to a fever in an hour, if I were disloyal enough to my duty to let it. Which I should probably do if I were interested in saving my soul by such disreputable means.
"Come, let us reason together. Let us examine details. When you two were in the sick-room raising that riot, what would you have done if you had known I was coming?"
"You would have slipped out and carried Helen with you--wouldn't you?"
The ladies were silent.
"What would be your object and intention?"
"To keep me from finding out your guilt; to beguile me to infer that Margaret's excitement proceeded from some cause not known to you. In a word, to tell me a lie--a silent lie. Moreover, a possibly harmful one."
The twins colored, but did not speak.
"You not only tell myriads of silent lies, but you tell lies with your mouths--you two."
"That is not so!"
"It is so. But only harmless ones. You never dream of uttering a harmful one. Do you know that that is a concession--and a confession?"
"How do you mean?"
"It is an unconscious concession that harmless lies are not criminal; it is a confession that you constantly make that discrimination. For instance, you declined old Mrs. Foster's invitation last week to meet those odious Higbies at supper--in a polite note in which you expressed regret and said you were very sorry you could not go. It was a lie. It was as unmitigated a lie as was ever uttered. Deny it, Hester--with another lie."
Hester replied with a toss of her head.
"That will not do. Answer. Was it a lie, or wasn't it?"
The color stole into the cheeks of both women, and with a struggle and an effort they got out their confession:
"It was a lie."
"Good--the reform is beginning; there is hope for you yet; you will not tell a lie to save your dearest friend's soul, but you will spew out one without a scruple to save yourself the discomfort of telling an unpleasant truth."
He rose. Hester, speaking for both, said; coldly:
"We have lied; we perceive it; it will occur no more. To lie is a sin. We shall never tell another one of any kind whatsoever, even lies of courtesy or benevolence, to save any one a pang or a sorrow decreed for him by God."
"Ah, how soon you will fall! In fact, you have fallen already; for what you have just uttered is a lie. Good-by. Reform! One of you go to the sick-room now."
Twelve days later.
Mother and child were lingering in the grip of the hideous disease. Of hope for either there was little. The aged sisters looked white and worn, but they would not give up their posts. Their hearts were breaking, poor old things, but their grit was steadfast and indestructible. All the twelve days the mother had pined for the child, and the child for the mother, but both knew that the prayer of these longings could not be granted. When the mother was told-- on the first day--that her disease was typhoid, she was frightened, and asked if there was danger that Helen could have contracted it the day before, when she was in the sick-chamber on that confession visit. Hester told her the doctor had poo-pooed the idea. It troubled Hester to say it, although it was true, for she had not believed the doctor; but when she saw the mother's joy in the news, the pain in her conscience lost something of its force--a result which made her ashamed of the constructive deception which she had practiced, though not ashamed enough to make her distinctly and definitely wish she had refrained from it. From that moment the sick woman understood that her daughter must remain away, and she said she would reconcile herself to the separation the best she could, for she would rather suffer death than have her child's health imperiled. That afternoon Helen had to take to her bed, ill. She grew worse during the night. In the morning her mother asked after her:
"Is she well?"
Hester turned cold; she opened her lips, but the words refused to come. The mother lay languidly looking, musing, waiting; suddenly she turned white and gasped out:
"Oh, my God! what is it? is she sick?"
Then the poor aunt's tortured heart rose in rebellion, and words came:
"No--be comforted; she is well."
The sick woman put all her happy heart in her gratitude:
"Thank God for those dear words! Kiss me. How I worship you for saying them!"
Hester told this incident to Hannah, who received it with a rebuking look, and said, coldly:
"Sister, it was a lie."
Hester's lips trembled piteously; she choked down a sob, and said:
"Oh, Hannah, it was a sin, but I could not help it. I could not endure the fright and the misery that were in her face."
"No matter. It was a lie. God will hold you to account for it."
"Oh, I know it, I know it," cried Hester, wringing her hands, "but even if it were now, I could not help it. I know I should do it again."
"Then take my place with Helen in the morning. I will make the report myself."
Hester clung to her sister, begging and imploring.
"Don't, Hannah, oh, don't--you will kill her."
"I will at least speak the truth."
In the morning she had a cruel report to bear to the mother, and she braced herself for the trial. When she returned from her mission, Hester was waiting, pale and trembling, in the hall. She whispered:
"Oh, how did she take it--that poor, desolate mother?"
Hannah's eyes were swimming in tears. She said:
"God forgive me, I told her the child was well!"
Hester gathered her to her heart, with a grateful "God bless you, Hannah!" and poured out her thankfulness in an inundation of worshiping praises.
After that, the two knew the limit of their strength, and accepted their fate. They surrendered humbly, and abandoned themselves to the hard requirements of the situation. Daily they told the morning lie, and confessed their sin in prayer; not asking forgiveness, as not being worthy of it, but only wishing to make record that they realized their wickedness and were not desiring to hide it or excuse it.
Daily, as the fair young idol of the house sank lower and lower, the sorrowful old aunts painted her glowing bloom and her fresh young beauty to the wan mother, and winced under the stabs her ecstasies of joy and gratitude gave them.
In the first days, while the child had strength to hold a pencil, she wrote fond little love-notes to her mother, in which she concealed her illness; and these the mother read and reread through happy eyes wet with thankful tears, and kissed them over and over again, and treasured them as precious things under her pillow.
Then came a day when the strength was gone from the hand, and the mind wandered, and the tongue babbled pathetic incoherences. this was a sore dilemma for the poor aunts. There were no love-notes for the mother. They did not know what to do. Hester began a carefully studied and plausible explanation, but lost the track of it and grew confused; suspicion began to show in the mother's face, then alarm. Hester saw it, recognized the imminence of the danger, and descended to the emergency, pulling herself resolutely together and plucking victor from the open jaws of defeat. In a placid and convincing voice she said:
"I thought it might distress you to know it, but Helen spent the night at the Sloanes'. There was a little party there, and, although she did not want to go, and you so sick, we persuaded her, she being young and needing the innocent pastimes of youth, and we believing you would approve. Be sure she will write the moment she comes."
"How good you are, and how dear and thoughtful for us both! Approve? Why, I thank you with all my heart. My poor little exile! Tell her I want her to have every pleasure she can--I would not rob her of one. Only let her keep her health, that is all I ask. Don't let that suffer; I could not bear it. How thankful I am that she escaped this infection--and what a narrow risk she ran, Aunt Hester! Think of that lovely face all dulled and burned with fever. I can't bear the thought of it. Keep her health. Keep her bloom! I can see her now, the dainty creature--with the big, blue, earnest eyes; and sweet, oh, so sweet and gentle and winning! Is she as beautiful as ever, dear Aunt Hester?"
"Oh, more beautiful and bright and charming than ever she was before, if such a thing can be"--and Hester turned away and fumbled with the medicine-bottles, to hide her shame and grief.
After a little, both aunts were laboring upon a difficult and baffling work in Helen's chamber. Patiently and earnestly, with their stiff old fingers, they were trying to forge the required note. They made failure after failure, but they improved little by little all the time. The pity of it all, the pathetic humor of it, there was none to see; they themselves were unconscious of it. Often their tears fell upon the notes and spoiled them; sometimes a single misformed word made a note risky which could have been ventured but for that; but at last Hannah produced one whose script was a good enough imitation of Helen's to pass any but a suspicious eye, and bountifully enriched it with the petting phrases and loving nicknames that had been familiar on the child's lips from her nursery days. She carried it to the mother, who took it with avidity, and kissed it, and fondled it, reading its precious words over and over again, and dwelling with deep contentment upon its closing paragraph:
"Mousie darling, if I could only see you, and kiss your eyes, and feel your arms about me! I am so glad my practicing does not disturb you. Get well soon. Everybody is good to me, but I am so lonesome without you, dear mamma."
"The poor child, I know just how she feels. She cannot be quite happy without me; and I--oh, I live in the light of her eyes! Tell her she must practice all she pleases; and, Aunt Hannah-- tell her I can't hear the piano this far, nor hear dear voice when she sings: God knows I wish I could. No one knows how sweet that voice is to me; and to think--some day it will be silent! What are you crying for?
"Only because--because--it was just a memory. When I came away she was singing, 'Loch Lomond.' The pathos of it! It always moves me so when she sings that."
"And me, too. How heartbreakingly beautiful it is when some youthful sorrow is brooding in her breast and she sings it for the mystic healing it brings. . . . Aunt Hannah?"
"I am very ill. Sometimes it comes over me that I shall never hear that dear voice again."
"Oh, don't--don't, Margaret! I can't bear it!"
Margaret was moved and distressed, and said, gently:
"There--there--let me put my arms around you. Don't cry. There--put your cheek to mine. Be comforted. I wish to live. I will live if I can. Ah, what could she do without me! . . . Does she often speak of me?--but I know she does."
"Oh, all the time--all the time!"
"My sweet child! She wrote the note the moment she came home?"
"Yes--the first moment. She would not wait to take off her things."
"I knew it. It is her dear, impulsive, affectionate way. I knew it without asking, but I wanted to hear you say it. The petted wife knows she is loved, but she makes her husband tell her so every day, just for the joy of hearing it. . . . She used the pen this time. That is better; the pencil-marks could rub out, and I should grieve for that. Did you suggest that she use the pen?"
"Y--no--she--it was her own idea.
The mother looked her pleasure, and said:
"I was hoping you would say that. There was never such a dear and thoughtful child! . . . Aunt Hannah?"
"Go and tell her I think of her all the time, and worship her. Why--you are crying again. Don't be so worried about me, dear; I think there is nothing to fear, yet."
The grieving messenger carried her message, and piously delivered it to unheeding ears. The girl babbled on unaware; looking up at her with wondering and startled eyes flaming with fever, eyes in which was no light of recognition:
"Are you--no, you are not my mother. I want her--oh, I want her! She was here a minute ago--I did not see her go. Will she come? will she come quickly? will she come now? . . . There are so many houses . . . and they oppress me so . . . and everything whirls and turns and whirls . . . oh, my head, my head!"--and so she wandered on and on, in her pain, flitting from one torturing fancy to another, and tossing her arms about in a weary and ceaseless persecution of unrest.
Poor old Hannah wetted the parched lips and softly stroked the hot brow, murmuring endearing and pitying words, and thanking the Father of all that the mother was happy and did not know.
Daily the child sank lower and steadily lower towards the grave, and daily the sorrowing old watchers carried gilded tidings of her radiant health and loveliness to the happy mother, whose pilgrimage was also now nearing its end. And daily they forged loving and cheery notes in the child's hand, and stood by with remorseful consciences and bleeding hearts, and wept to see the grateful mother devour them and adore them and treasure them away as things beyond price, because of their sweet source, and sacred because her child's hand had touched them.
At last came that kindly friend who brings healing and peace to all. The lights were burning low. In the solemn hush which precedes the dawn vague figures flitted soundless along the dim hall and gathered silent and awed in Helen's chamber, and grouped themselves about her bed, for a warning had gone forth, and they knew. The dying girl lay with closed lids, and unconscious, the drapery upon her breast faintly rising and falling as her wasting life ebbed away. At intervals a sigh or a muffled sob broke upon the stillness. The same haunting thought was in all minds there: the pity of this death, the going out into the great darkness, and the mother not here to help and hearten and bless.
Helen stirred; her hands began to grope wistfully about as if they sought something--she had been blind some hours. The end was come; all knew it. With a great sob Hester gathered her to her breast, crying, "Oh, my child, my darling!" A rapturous light broke in the dying girl's face, for it was mercifully vouchsafed her to mistake those sheltering arms for another's; and she went to her rest murmuring, "Oh, mamma, I am so happy--I longed for you--now I can die."
Two hours later Hester made her report. The mother asked:
"How is it with the child?"
"She is well."
A sheaf of white crape and black was hung upon the door of the house, and there it swayed and rustled in the wind and whispered its tidings. At noon the preparation of the dead was finished, and in the coffin lay the fair young form, beautiful, and in the sweet face a great peace. Two mourners sat by it, grieving and worshipping-- Hannah and the black woman Tilly. Hester came, and she was trembling, for a great trouble was upon her spirit. She said:
"She asks for a note."
Hannah's face blanched. She had not thought of this; it had seemed that that pathetic service was ended. But she realized now that that could not be. For a little while the two women stood looking into each other's face, with vacant eyes; then Hannah said:
"There is no way out of it--she must have it; she will suspect, else."
"And she would find out."
"Yes. It would break her heart." She looked at the dead face, and her eyes filled. "I will write it," she said.
Hester carried it. The closing line said:
"Darling Mousie, dear sweet mother, we shall soon be together again. Is not that good news? And it is true; they all say it is true."
The mother mourned, saying:
"Poor child, how will she bear it when she knows? I shall never see her again in life. It is hard, so hard. She does not suspect? You guard her from that?"
"She thinks you will soon be well."
"How good you are, and careful, dear Aunt Hester! None goes near herr who could carry the infection?"
"It would be a crime."
"But you see her?"
"With a distance between--yes."
"That is so good. Others one could not trust; but you two guardian angels--steel is not so true as you. Others would be unfaithful; and many would deceive, and lie."
Hester's eyes fell, and her poor old lips trembled.
"Let me kiss you for her, Aunt Hester; and when I am gone, and the danger is past, place the kiss upon her dear lips some day, and say her mother sent it, and all her mother's broken heart is in it."
Within the hour, Hester, raining tears upon the dead face, performed her pathetic mission.
Another day dawned, and grew, and spread its sunshine in the earth. Aunt Hannah brought comforting news to the failing mother, and a happy note, which said again, "We have but a little time to wait, darling mother, then se shall be together."
The deep note of a bell came moaning down the wind.
"Aunt Hannah, it is tolling. Some poor soul is at rest. As I shall be soon. You will not let her forget me?"
"Oh, God knows she never will!"
"Do not you hear strange noises, Aunt Hannah? It sounds like the shuffling of many feet."
"We hoped you would not hear it, dear. It is a little company gathering, for--for Helen's sake, poor little prisoner. There will be music--and she loves it so. We thought you would not mind."
"Mind? Oh no, no--oh, give her everything her dear heart can desire. How good you two are to her, and how good to me! God bless you both always!"
After a listening pause:
"How lovely! It is her organ. Is she playing it herself, do you think?" Faint and rich and inspiring the chords floating to her ears on the still air. "Yes, it is her touch, dear heart, I recognize it. They are singing. Why--it is a hymn! and the sacredest of all, the most touching, the most consoling. . . . It seems to open the gates of paradise to me. . . . If I could die now. . . ."
Faint and far the words rose out of the stillness:
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee,
E'en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.
With the closing of the hymn another soul passed to its rest, and they that had been one in life were not sundered in death. The sisters, mourning and rejoicing, said:
"How blessed it was that she never knew!"
At midnight they sat together, grieving, and the angel of the Lord appeared in the midst transfigured with a radiance not of earth; and speaking, said:
"For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!"
The bereaved fell upon their knees before him and clasped their hands and bowed their gray heads, adoring. But their tongues clove to the roof of their mouths, and they were dumb.
"Speak! that I may bear the message to the chancery of heaven and bring again the decree from which there is no appeal."
Then they bowed their heads yet lower, and one said:
"Our sin is great, and we suffer shame; but only perfect and final repentance can make us whole; and we are poor creatures who have learned our human weakness, and we know that if we were in those hard straits again our hearts would fail again, and we should sin as before. The strong could prevail, and so be saved, but we are lost."
They lifted their heads in supplication. The angel was gone. While they marveled and wept he came again; and bending low, he whispered the decree.
Was it Heaven? Or Hell?