The Little Children
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
It was Sabbath morning. Soft and silvery, like stray notes from the quivering chords of an archangel's harp, floated the clear, sweet voice of the church-bells through the hushed heart of the great metropolis, while old men and little children — youth in its hope, and manhood in its pride — came forth at their summons, setting a mighty human tide in the direction of the sanctuaries, beneath whose sacred droppings they should hear again the tidings which come to us over the waves of nearly two thousand years, fresh and full of exceeding melody, as when the Day-Star from on high first poured its blessed beams over the mountain heights of Judea, and the song, pealing over the hills of jasper, rolled down to the shepherds who kept their night-watches on her plains, "Peace on earth and good-will to men."
A child came forth with his ragged garments, unwashed face and uncombed hair, from one of those haunts of darkness and misery which fill the city with crime and suffering. He was a little child, and yet there was none of its peace on his brow, or its light in his eye, as he looked up with a strange, wistful earnestness at the strip of blue sky that looked down with its serene heaven-smile between the frowning and dilapidated pile of buildings which rose on either side of the alley. The sunshine flitted like the soft-caressing fingers of a spirit over his forehead, and the voice of the bells fell upon his spirit with a strange, subduing influence; and the child kept on his way until the alley terminated in a broad, pleasant street, with its crowd of church-goers, and still the boy kept on, unmindful of dainty robe and silken vesture that waved and rustled by him.
He stood at last within the broad shadow of the sanctuary, while far above him rose the tall spire, with the sunbeams coiling like a heaven-halo around it, pointing to the golden battlements of the far-off city, within whose blessed precincts nothing "which defiles shall ever enter." The massive church doors swung slowly open as one and another entered, and the child looked eagerly up the long, mysterious mid-aisle — but the silken garments rustled past — there was no hand outstretched to lead the ragged and wretched little one within its walls, and no one paused to tell him of the Great Father, within whose sight the rich and poor are alike. But while he stood there, an angel with golden hair and gleaming wings bent over him, holding precious heart-seed, gathered from the white plains of the spirit-land, and as the child drew nearer the church steps, the angel followed.
Suddenly the little dapper sexton, with his broad smile and bustling gait, came out of the church. His eyes rested a moment upon the young wistful face and on the ragged garments, and then he beckoned to the child.
"Shall I take you in here, my boy?" asked a voice kinder and pleasanter than any which the child had ever heard; and as he timidly bowed his head, the sexton took the little soiled hand in his own, and they passed in, and the angel followed them.
Seated in one corner of the church, the child's eyes wandered over the frescoed walls, with the sunshine flitting like the fringe of a spirit's robe across it, and up the dim aisle to the great marble pulpit, with a kind of bewildered awe, for he had seen nothing of the like before, unless it might be in some dim, half-forgotten dream; but when the heavy doors swung together and the Sabbath hush gathered over the church, and the hallelujahs of the organ filled the house of the Lord and thrilled the heart of the child; he bowed his head and wept sweet tears — he could not tell whence was their coming. Then the solemn prayer from the pulpit, "O, You who are the Father of the old and the young, the rich and the poor, and in whose sight they are alike precious, grant us Your blessing," came to the ears of the child, and a new cry awoke in his soul. 'Where' was this Father? It did not seem true that He could love him — a poor little, hungry, ragged beggar; that such a one could be his child. But, oh! it was just what his heart longed for, and if all others were 'precious' to this Great Father, he did not believe He would leave him out. If he could only find Him — no matter how long the road was, nor how cold and hungry he might be, he would keep straight on the way, until he reached Him, and then he would go right in and say, "Father, I am cold and hungry, and very wretched. There is no one to love me, none to care for me. May I be your child, Father?" And perhaps He would look kindly upon him, and whisper softly, as no human being had ever whispered to him, "My child!" and stronger and wilder from his heart came up that cry, "Oh, if I could only find Him!"
Again the tones of the deep-toned organ and the sweet-voiced choir floated on the Sabbath air, and crept, a strange, soft tide, into the silent places of the boy's heart, softening and subduing it; while during the long sermon, of which he heard little, and comprehended less, that spirit cry rolled continually up from the depths of his soul, "'Where' is the Father?"
The benediction had been pronounced, and the house was disgorged of most of its vast crowd of worshipers, and yet the boy lingered — he could not bear to return to his dark and dismal dwelling, to the harsh words and harsher usage of those who loved him not, without having that question, which his soul was so eagerly asking, answered. But that little timid heart lacked courage, and he knew the words would die in his throat if he attempted to speak them, and so he must go away without knowing the way to the Father — but his feet dragged unwillingly along, and his eyes searched earnestly the figures that, unwitting of his need, passed swiftly before him.
"What is it you want to know, little boy?" The voice was very musical, and the smile on the lips of the child-questioner very winning. The chestnut-brown curls floated over her silken robe, and the soft blue eyes that looked into the boy's, wore that unearthly purity of expression which is not the portion of the children of this world.
The boy looked into that fair, childish face, and his heart took courage, while very eagerly from his lips came the words, "Where is the Great Father?"
"God is in Heaven!" answered the little girl in solemn tones, while a sudden gravity gathered over her features.
From lips that burned with blasphemies, amid oaths from the vile, and revilings from the scoffer, had the boy first learned that name, and never before had it possessed anything of import for him. But now he knew it was the name of the Great Father that loved him, and again he asked very earnestly, "Where is the way to God in Heaven? I am going to Him now."
The child shook her head as she looked on the boy with a sort of pitying wonder at his ignorance, and again she answered, "You cannot go to Him — but He will come to you if you will call upon Him, and He will hear, though you whisper very low, for God is everywhere."
"Come, come, Miss Ellen, you must not stay here any longer," called the servant, who had been very intent at arranging the cushions in the pew, and who now hurried her little charge through the aisle, apprehensive that some evil might accrue from her contiguity with a "street-beggar."
But the words of the little girl had brought a new and precious light into the boy's heart. That the wondrous idea of the Deity, had found a voice in his soul, and the child went forth from the church, while the golden-winged angel followed him to the dark alley, and the darker home; and that night, before he laid himself on his miserable pallet in the corner, he bowed his head, and clasped his hands, and whispered so that none might hear him, "My Father, will you take care of me, and come and take me to yourself? for I love you." And the angel folded his bright wings above that scanty pallet, and bent in the silent watches of the night over the boy, and filled his heart with peace, and his dreams with brightness.
Six months had rolled their mighty burden of life-records into the pulseless ocean of the past. The pale stars of mid-winter were looking down with meek, seraph glances over the mighty metropolis along whose thousand thoroughfares lay the white carpet of the snow-king; and Boreas, loosed from his ice caverns on the frozen floor of the Arctic, was holding mad revels, and howling with demoniac glee along the streets, wrapped in the pall shadows of midnight.
Twelve o'clock pealed from the mighty tongue of the time-recorder, and then the white-robed angel of death knocked at the door of two young human hearts, in the great city.
The tide of golden hair flowed over the white pillows of crimson-draperied couch. Shaded lamps poured their dim, silvery glances upon bright flowers and circling vines, the cunning workmanship of fingers in far-off lands, which lay among the soft groundwork of the rich carpet, while small white fingers glided caressingly among the golden hair; and white faces, wild with sorrow, bent over the rigid features of the dying child, and tears, such only as flow from the heart's deepest and bitterest fountains, fell upon the cold forehead and paling lips, as the lids swept back for a moment from her blue eyes, and the light from her spirit broke for the last time into them; the lips upon which the death-seal was ready to be laid, opened; and clear and joyous through the hushed room, rang the words, "I am coming! I am coming!" and the next moment the cold, beautiful clay was all which was left to the mourners.
The other, at whose heart the death-angel knocked, lay in one corner of an old and dilapidated room, on a pallet of straw. No soft hand wandered caressingly among his dark locks, or cooled with its cold touch the fever of his forehead. The dim, flickering rays of the tallow candle wandered over the features now grown stark and rigid with the death-chill. No grief-printed face bent in anguish above him; no eye watched for the latest breath; no ear for the dying word; but through the half-open door, came to the ear of the dying boy the coarse laugh of the inebriate — the jest of the vile, and the frightful blasphemies of those whose way is the way of death.
None saw the last life-light, as it broke into the dark, spiritual eyes of the boy. None saw the smile that played like the light around the lips of a seraph, about his blue and cold lips, as they spoke exceeding joyfully, "Father! Father, I have called and you have heard me; I am coming to you, coming now; for the angels beckon me;" and the pale clay on that sunken pallet was all that remained of the boy.
Together they met, those two children who had stood together in the earthly courts of the Most High, and whom the angel had simultaneously called from the earth, beneath the shining battlements of "the city of God." The white wings of the warden-angels, who stood on its watch-towers, were slowly folded together, and back rolled the massive gates from the walls of jasper; and with the great "God-light" streaming outward, and amid the sound of archangel's harp and seraph's lyre, the ministering angels came forth.
They did not ask the child-spirits there, if their earthly homes had been among the high and the honorable; they did not ask them if broad lands had been their heritage, and sparkling coffers their portion; if their paths had lain by pleasant waters; but alike they led them — she, the daughter of wealth and earthly splendor, whose forehead the breezes might not visit too roughly, and whose pathway had been bordered with flowers and gilded with sunshine; and he, the heir of poverty, whose portion had been want, and his inalienable heritage, suffering; whose path had known no pleasant places; whose life had had no brightness within that glorious city. They placed bright crowns, alike woven from the fragrant branches of the far-spreading "Tree of Life," around their spirit-brows; they decked them alike in white robes, whose luster many ages shall not dim; alike they placed in their hands the harps whose music shall roll forever over the hills of jasper; and alike they pointed them to the gleaming battlements, to the still skies over whose surface the shadow of a cloud has never floated; to the "many mansions" which throw the shadow of their shining portals on the rippling waters of the "River of Life," and to far more of glory "which it has never entered into the heart of man to conceive of," and told them they should "no more go out forever."