The Dying Child
Timothy Shay Arthur
We take from "Household Words" the touching conclusion of a story entitled "The Three Sisters." The youngest sister, Gabrielle, has been cast off by her two elder sisters, Joanna and Bertha, hard, stern women — because she clung to her mother, who had disgraced them. Years go by, and Joanna had just died. The story proceeds:
It was a burial in a village churchyard, and standing by an open grave there was one mourner only, a woman — Bertha Vaux. Alone, in sadness and silence, with few tears — for she was little used to weep — she stood and looked upon her sister's funeral; stood and saw the coffin lowered, and heard the first handful of earth fall rattling on the coffin lid; then turned away, slowly, to seek her solitary house. The few spectators thought her cold and heartless; perhaps, if they could have raised that black veil, they would have seen such sorrow in her face as might have moved the hearts of most of them.
The sun shone warmly over hill and valley that summer's day, but Bertha Vaux shivered as she stepped within the shadow of her lonely house. It was so cold there; so cold and damp and dark, as if the shadow of that death that had entered it was still lingering around. The stunted evergreens, on which, since they first grew, no sunlight had ever fallen, no single ray of golden light to brighten their dark, sad leaves for years, looked gloomier, darker, sadder, than they had ever looked before; the very house, with its closed shutters — all closed, except one in the room where the dead had lain — seemed mourning for the stern mistress it had lost. A lonely woman now, lonely and sad, was Bertha Vaux.
She sat in the summer evening in her silent, cheerless room. It was so very still, not even a breath of wind to stir the trees; no voice of living thing to break upon her solitude; no sound even of a single footstep on the dusty road; but in the solitude that was around her, countless thoughts seemed springing into life; things long forgotten; feelings long smothered; hopes once bright — bright as the opening of her life had been, that had faded and been buried long ago.
She thought of the time when she and her sister, fifteen years ago, had first come to the lonely house where now she was; of a few years later — two or three — when another younger sister had joined them there; and it seemed to Bertha, looking back, as if the house had sometimes then been filled with sunlight. The dark room in which she sat had once been lighted up — was it with the light from Gabrielle's bright eyes? In these long sad fifteen years, that little time stood out so clearly, so hopefully; it brought the tears to Bertha's eyes, thinking of it in her solitude. And how had it ended? For ten years nearly, now — for ten long years — the name of Gabrielle had never been spoken in that house. The light was gone — extinguished in a moment, suddenly; a darkness deeper than before had ever since fallen on the lonely house.
The thought of the years that had passed since then — of their eventlessness and weary sorrow; and then the thought of the last scene of all — that scene which still was like a living presence to her — her sister's death.
Joanna Vaux had been cold, stern, and unforgiving to the last; meeting death unmoved; repenting of no hard thing that she had done throughout her sad, stern life; entering the valley of the shadow of death fearlessly. But that cold death-bed struck upon the heart of the solitary woman who watched beside it, and awakened thoughts and doubts there, which would not rest. She wept now as she thought of it, sadly and quietly, and some murmured words burst from her lips, which sounded like a prayer — not for herself only.
Then, from her sister's death-bed, she went far, far back — to her own childhood — and a scene rose up before her; one that she had closed her eyes on many a time before, thinking vainly that she could crush it from her heart; but now she did not try to force it back. The dark room where she sat, the gloomy, sunless house, seemed fading from her sight; the long, long years, with their weary train of shame and suffering — all were forgotten. She was in her old lost home again — the home where she was born; she saw a sunny lawn, embowered with trees, each tree familiar to her and remembered well, and she herself, a happy child, was standing there; and by her side — with soft arms entwining around her, with tender voice, and gentle, loving eyes, and bright hair glittering in the sunlight — there was one!
Oh, Bertha! hide your face and weep. She was so lovely and so loving, so good and true, so patient and so tender, then. Oh! how could you forget it all, and steel your heart against her, and vow the cruel vow never to forgive her sin? Your mother — your own mother, Bertha, think of it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Just then, a shadow fell across the window beside which she sat, and through her blinding tears Bertha looked up, and saw a woman standing there, holding by the hand a little child. Her face was very pale and worn, with sunken eyes and cheeks; her dress was torn and poor. She looked haggard and weary, and weak and ill; but Bertha knew that it was Gabrielle come back. She could not speak, for such a sudden rush of joy came to her softened heart that all words seemed swallowed up in it; such deep thankfulness for the forgiveness that seemed given her, that her first thought was not a welcome, but a prayer.
Gabrielle stood outside, looking at her with her sad eyes.
"We are all alone," said she, "and very poor; will you take us in?"
Sobbing with pity and with joy, Bertha rose from her seat and hurried to the door. Trembling, she drew the wanderers in; then falling on her sister's neck, her whole heart melted, and she cried, with gushing tears, "Gabrielle, dear sister Gabrielle, I, too, am all alone!"
The tale that Gabrielle had to tell was full enough of sadness. They had lived together, she and her mother, for about a year, very peacefully, almost happily; and then the mother died, and Gabrielle soon after married one who had little to give her but his love. And after that the years passed on with many cares and griefs — for they were very poor, and he not strong — but with a great love ever between them, which softened the pain of all they had to bear. At last, after being long ill, he died, and poor Gabrielle and her child were left to struggle on alone.
"I think I would have died," she said, as, weeping, she told her story to her sister, "if it had not been for my boy; and I could so well have borne to die; but, Bertha, I could not leave him to starve! It pierced my heart with a pang so bitter that I cannot speak of it, to see his little face grow daily paler; his little feeble form become daily feebler and thinner; to watch the sad, unchildlike look fixing itself deeper in his sweet eyes — so mournful, so uncomplaining, so full of misery. The sight killed me day by day; and then at last, in my despair, I said to myself that I would come again to you. I thought, sister — I hoped — that you would take my darling home, and then I could have gone away and died. But God bless you! — God bless you for the greater thing that you have done, my kind sister Bertha! Yes — kiss me, sister dear; it is so sweet. I never thought to feel a sister's kiss again."
Then kneeling down by Gabrielle's side, with a low voice Bertha said, "I have thought of many things, today. Before you came, Gabrielle, my heart was very full; for in the still evening, as I sat alone, the memories of many years came back to me as they have not done for very long. I thought of my two sisters; how the one had ever been to good and loving and true-hearted; the other — though she was just, or believed herself to be so — so hard, and stern, and harsh — as, God forgive me, Gabrielle, I, too, have been. I thought of this, and understood it clearly, as I had never done before; and then my thoughts went back, and rested on my mother — on our old home — on all the things that I had loved so well, long ago, and that for years had been crushed down in my heart and smothered there. Oh, Gabrielle, such things rushed back upon me; such thoughts of her whom we have scorned so many years; such dreams of happy by-gone days; such passionate regrets; such hope, awakening from its long, long sleep — no, sister, let me weep — do not wipe the tears away; let me tell you of my penitence and grief — it does me good; my heart is so full — so full that I must speak now, or it would burst!"
"Then you shall speak to me, and tell me all, dear sister. Ah! we have both suffered — we will weep together. Lie down beside me; see, there is room here for both. Yes; lay your head upon me; rest it upon my shoulder. Give me your hand now — ah! how thin it is — almost as thin as mine. Poor sister Bertha! poor, kind sister!"
So gently Gabrielle soothed her, forgetting her own grief and weariness in Bertha's more bitter suffering and remorse. It was very beautiful to see how tenderly and patiently she did it, and how her gentle words calmed down the other's passionate sorrow. So different from one another, their grief was. Gabrielle's was a slow, weary pain, which, day by day, had gradually withered her, eating its way into her heart; then resting there, fixing itself there forever. Bertha's was like the quick, sudden piercing of a knife — a violent sorrow, that did its work in hours instead of years, convulsing body and soul for a little while, purifying them as with a sharp fire, then passing away and leaving no aching pain behind, but a new cleansed spirit.
In the long summer twilight — the beautiful summer twilight that never sinks into perfect night — these two women lay side by side together; she that was oldest in suffering still comforting the other, until Bertha's tears were dried, and, exhausted with the grief that was so new to her, she lay silent in Gabrielle's arms — both silent, looking into the summer night, and thinking of the days that were forever past. And sleeping at their feet lay Gabrielle's child, not forgotten by her watchful love, though the night had deepened so that she could not see him where he lay.
"We will not stay here, sister," Bertha had said. "This gloomy house will always make us sad. It is so dark and cold here, and Willie, more than any of us, needs the sunlight to strengthen and cheer him, poor boy."
"And I, too, shall be glad to leave it," Gabrielle answered.
So they went. They did not leave the village; it was a pretty, quiet place, and was full of old recollections to them — more bitter than sweet, perhaps, most of them — but still such as it would have been pain to separate themselves from entirely, as, indeed, it is always sad to part from things and places which years, either of joy or sorrow, have made us accustomed to. So they did not leave it, but chose a little cottage, a mile or so from their former house — a pleasant little cottage in a dell, looking to the south, with honeysuckle and ivy entwining together over it, up to the thatched roof. A cheerful little nook it was, not over bright or mirthful, but shaded with large trees all round it, through whose green branches the sunlight came, softened and mellowed, into the quiet rooms. A peaceful garden, too, there was, closed in all round with elm-trees — a peaceful, quiet place, where one would love to wander, or to lie for hours upon the grass, looking through the green leaves upwards to the calm blue sky.
To Gabrielle, wearied with her sorrow, this place was like an oasis in the desert. It was so new a thing to her to find rest anywhere; to find one little spot where she could lay her down, feeling no care for the morrow. Like one exhausted with long watching, she seemed now for a time to fall asleep.
The summer faded into autumn; the autumn into winter. A long, cold winter it was, the snow lying for weeks together on the frozen ground; the bitter, withering east wind moaning day and night, through the great branches of the bare old elms, swaying them to and fro, and strewing the snowy earth with broken boughs; a cold and bitter winter, withering not only trees and shrubs, but sapping out the life from human hearts.
He was a little delicate boy, that child of Gabrielle's. To look at him, it seemed a wonder how he ever could have lived through all their poverty and daily struggles to get bread; how that little, feeble body had not sunk into its grave long ago. In the bright summer's days a ray of sunlight had seemed to pierce to the little frozen heart, and, warming the chilled blood once more, had sent it flowing through his veins, tinging the pale cheek with rose; but the rose faded as the summer passed away, and the little marble face was as pale as ever when the winter snow began to fall; the large dark eyes, which had reflected the sunbeams for a few short months, were heavy and dim again. And then presently there came another change. A spot of crimson, not pale and delicate like the last, glowed often on each hollow cheek; a dark light burned in the feverish, restless eye; a hollow, painful cough shook the little emaciated frame. So thin he was, so feeble, so soon wearied. Day by day the small, thin hand grew thinner and more transparent; the gentle voice and childish laugh lower and feebler; the sweet smile sweeter, and fainter, and sadder.
And Gabrielle saw it all, and, bowing to the earth in bitter mourning, prepared herself for this last great sorrow.
The spring came slowly on — slowly, very slowly. The green leaves opened themselves, struggling in their birth with the cold wind. It was very clear and bright; the sun shone all day long; but for many weeks there had been no rain, and the ground was quite parched up.
"No, Willie, dear," Gabrielle said, "you mustn't go out today. It is too cold for you yet, dear boy."
"But, indeed, it isn't cold, mother. Feel here, where the sun is falling, how warm it is; put your hand upon it. Oh, mother, let me go out!" poor Willie said, imploringly. "I am so weary of the hours. I won't try to run about, only let me go and lie in the sunlight!"
"Not today, my darling, wait another day; perhaps the warm winds will come. Willie, dear child, it would make you ill, you must not go."
"You say so every day, mother," Willie said, sadly, "and my head is aching so with staying in the house."
And at last, he praying so much for it, one day they took him out. It was a very sunny day, with scarcely a cloud in the bright, blue sky; and Bertha and Gabrielle made a couch for him in a warm, sheltered corner, and laid him on it. Poor child, he was so glad to feel himself in the open air again. It made him so happy, that he laughed and talked as he had not done for months before; lying with his mother's hand in his, supported in her arms, she kneeling so lovingly beside him, listening with a strange, passionate mingling of joy and misery, to the feeble but merry little voice that, scarcely ever ceasing, talked to her.
Poor Gabrielle, it seemed to her such a fearful mockery of the happiness that she knew could never be hers any more forever; but, forcing back her grief upon her own sad heart, she laughed and talked gayly with him, showing by no sign how sorrowful she was.
"Mother, mother!" he cried, suddenly clapping his little, wasted hands, "I see a violet — a pure white violet, in the dark leaves there. Oh, fetch it to me! It's the first spring flower. The very first violet of all! Oh, mother, dear, I love them — the little, sweet-smelling flowers!"
"Your eyes are quicker than mine, Willie; I wouldn't have seen it, it is such a little thing. There it is, dear boy. I wish there were more for you."
"Ah, they will soon come, now! I am so glad I have seen the first. Mother, do you remember how I used to gather them at home, and bring them to papa when he was ill? He liked them, too — just as I do now."
"I remember it well, dear," Gabrielle answered, softly.
"How long ago that time seems now!" Willie said; then, after a moment's pause, he asked, a little sadly, "Mother, what makes me so different now from what I used to be? I was so strong and well once, and could run about the whole day long; mother, dear, when shall I run about again?"
"You are very weak, dear child, just now. We mustn't talk of running about for a little time to come."
"No, not for a little time — but when do you think, mother?" The little voice trembled suddenly: "I feel sometimes so weak — so weak, as if I never could get strong again."
Hush, Gabrielle! Press back that bitter sob into your sorrowful heart, lest the dying child hear it!
"Do not fear, my darling, do not fear. You will be quite well very soon, now."
He looked into her tearful eye, as she tried to smile on him, with a strange, unchildlike look, as if he partly guessed the meaning in her words, but did not answer her, nor could she speak again, just then.
"Mother, sing to me," he said, "sing one of the old songs I used to love. I haven't heard you sing for — oh, so long!"
Pressing her hand upon her bosom, to still her heart's unquiet beating, Gabrielle tried to sing one of the old childish songs with which, in days long past, she had been accustomed to nurse her child asleep. The long silent voice — silent here so many years — awoke again, ringing through the still air with all its former sweetness. Though fainter than it was of old, Bertha heard it moving through the house; and came to the open window to stand there and listen, smiling to herself to think that Gabrielle could sing again, and half weeping at some other thoughts which the long-unheard voice recalled to her.
"Oh, mother, I like that!" Willie murmured, softly, as the song died away. "It's like long ago, to hear you sing."
They looked into one another's eyes, both filling fast with tears; then Willie, with childish sympathy, though knowing little why she grieved, laid his arm around her neck, trying with his feeble strength to draw her towards him. She bent forward to kiss him; then hid her face upon his neck, that he might not see how bitterly she wept, and he, stroking her soft hair with his little hand, murmured the while some gentle words that only made her tears flow faster. So they lay — she growing calmer, presently — for a long while.
"Now, darling, you have stayed here long enough," Gabrielle said, at last; "you must let me carry you into the house again."
"Must I go so soon, mother? See how bright the sun is still."
"But see, too, how long and deep the shadows are getting, Willie. No, my dear one, you must come in, now."
"Mother, dear, I am so happy, today — so happy, and so much better than I have been for a long time, and I know it is only because you let me come out here, and lie in the sunlight. You will let me come again — every day, dear mother?"
How could she refuse the pleading voice its last request? How could she look upon the little shrunken figure, upon the little face, with its beseeching, gentle eyes, and deny him what he asked — that she might keep him to herself a few short days longer?
"You shall come, my darling, if it makes you so happy," she said, very softly; then she took him in her arms, and bore him to the house, kissing him with a wild passion that she could not hide.
And so, for two or three weeks, in the bright, sunny morning, Willie was always laid on his couch, in the sheltered corner, near the elm-tree; but though he was very happy, lying there, and would often talk gayly of the time when he would be well again, he never got strong any more.
Day by day Gabrielle watched him, knowing that the end was coming very near; but, with her strong mother's love, hiding her sorrow from him. She never told him that he was dying; but sometimes they spoke together of death, and often — for he liked to hear it — she would sing sweet hymns to him, which told of the Heaven he was so soon going to.
For two or three weeks it went on thus, and then the last day came. He had been suffering very much with the terrible cough, each paroxysm of which shook the wasted frame with a pain that pierced to Gabrielle's heart: and all day he had had no rest. It was a day in May — a soft, warm day. But the couch beneath the trees was empty. He was too weak even to be carried there, but lay restlessly turning on his little bed, through the long hours, showing, by his burning cheek, and heavy eye, how ill and full of pain he was. And by his side, as ever, Gabrielle knelt, soothing him with tender words; bathing the little hands, and moistening the lips; bending over him, and gazing on him with all her passionate love beaming in her tearful eye. But she was wonderfully calm — watching, like a gentle angel, over him.
Through the long day, and far into the night — and still no rest or ease. Gabrielle never moved from beside him; she could feel no fatigue; her sorrow seemed to bear her up with an unusual strength. At last, he was so weak that he could not raise his head from the pillow.
He lay very still, with his mother's hand in his; the flush gradually passing away from his cheek, until it became quite pale, like marble; the weary eye half closed.
"You are not suffering much, my child?"
"Oh, no, mother, not now! I am so much better."
So much better! How deep the words went down into her heart!
"I am so sleepy," said the little, plaintive voice, again. "If I go to sleep, wouldn't you sleep, too? You must be so tired, mother!"
"See, my darling, I will lie down here by you; let me raise your head a moment — there — lay it upon me. Can you sleep so?"
"Ah, yes, mother; that is very good."
He was closing his eyes, when a strong impulse that Gabrielle could not resist, made her arouse him for a moment, for she knew that he was dying.
"Willie, before you sleep, have you strength to say your evening prayer?"
Meekly folding the little, thin, white hands, he offered up his simple thanksgiving; then said "Our Father." The little voice, towards the end, was very faint and weak; and as he finished, his head, which he had feebly tried to bend forward, fell back more heavily on Gabrielle's bosom."
"Good-night, mother, dear. Go to sleep."
"Good-night, my darling. God bless you, Willie, my child!"
They never spoke to one another any more. One sweet look upwards, to his mother's face, and the gentle eyes closed forever.
As he fell asleep, through the parted curtains the morning light stole faintly in. Another day was breaking; but before the sun arose, Gabrielle's child was dead. Softly in his sleep, he had died. When Bertha came in, after a few hours' rest that she had snatched, she found the chamber all quiet, and Gabrielle still holding, folded in her arms, the lifeless form that had been so very dear to her.
There was no violent grief in her. His death had been so peaceful and so holy that at first she did not even shed tears. Quite calmly she knelt down by his side, when they had laid him in his white dress on the bed, and kissed his pale brow and lips, looking almost reproachfully on Bertha, as, standing by her side, she sobbed aloud; quite calmly, too, she let them lead her from the room; and, as they bade her, she lay down upon her bed, and closed her eyes, as if to sleep. And then in her solitude, in the darkened room, she wept quite silently, stretching out her arms, and crying for her child.
For many years two gentle, quiet women lived alone, in the little cottage in the dell; moving among the dwellers in that country village like two ministering angels; nursing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, helping the needy, soothing many a death-bed with their gentle, holy words, spreading peace around them wherever their footsteps went. And often, in the summer evening, one of them, the youngest and most beautiful, would wend her quiet way to the old churchyard; and there, in a green, sunny spot, would calmly sit and work for hours, while the lime-trees waved their leaves above her, and the sunlight shining through them, danced and sparkled on a little grave.