Ours, Loved, and "Gone Before"
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
You ask me to tell you of her — the sweet friend we have loved and lost. You impose on me a difficult task; I find it so harrowing to my feelings, and I also find that my pen is inadequate to the tribute my heart would pay.
I would that the privilege of knowing and loving her had been yours, for to know her was to love her.
In former letters, I told you something of her; how she came to us a lovely bride of just nineteen summers; how anxiously we looked for her first appearance in church, for they arrived late Saturday evening, and no one had seen her. I told you how my heart went out to her as I looked on her sweet, bright, yet somewhat timid face; there was a perfect witchery in her eyes. I felt that I could gaze into them forever; there was about them a spell, a fascination that I have never seen in others; they laughed as they looked at you, and yet they were not merely laughing eyes; perhaps the long, drooping lashes somewhat modified the expression, and helped to give them peculiarity so strikingly their own.
Her dress and whole appearance were captivating; the simple light straw hat, with the little illusion veil, and the pure white dress fitting so prettily the slender form. I could hardly wait for the next day, so anxious was I to see and speak with her, for I loved her already.
I had been prepared to love her, for our young pastor had told us much of his future bride. You know our house was one of his homes, and to us he had spoken often and enthusiastically of his Mary. It seemed to me that first Sabbath, that his prayers were particularly impressive, and his thanks to the Author and Giver of every perfect gift unusually appropriate; he seemed overpowered by a weight of gratitude and love.
How I admired the two as I glanced from one to the other! And I know that many prayers went up from that assembled congregation for long life and blessings on them.
It was a beautiful home that had been prepared for her. Her furniture had been sent on previous to their marriage, and our little band had vied with each other in arranging with a view both to taste and comfort. How we did wish for a peep into her own home, to get a hint with regard to arranging her things, so as to be 'home-like'!
You know there is often so much in association, and we would have loved the new strange place to have a familiar look to her at first sight. Oh! what visions we conjured up as we arranged the room which was to serve both as parlor and dining-room; for the house was small, and Mr. B.'s study must be on the first floor. 'There' was the best place for the piano between the windows, which looked into the garden; we heard in anticipation the sweet voice which was to fill the little room with melody, as the roses and flowers of June now filled the garden with fragrance. The pretty picture must stand in a conspicuous corner, for that spoke particularly of home, and of the hours delightfully passed in the dear family circle while tracing it stitch by stitch; and I imagined that into each bright flower which stood out so life-like from the canvas, some emotion of her heart had been indelibly wrought. How many lovely home associations will the pretty scene bring up!
How we arranged, and disarranged, and re-arranged, before all was agreeable to our minds; and how we hoped, when all was finished, that it would look as charming to her as it did to us! And we were not disappointed; for, on the following Monday, when we called to see her, nothing could exceed the enthusiasm of her expression and gratitude — everything was lovely, perfect; she saw all 'en couleur de rose'.
She had left kind parents, and a home of refinement and luxury, and we feared for her, the untried duties of her new position; but an intimate acquaintance proved her eminently qualified for the responsibility she had assumed. She adapted herself with charming grace and readiness to her present circumstances. She was a most delightful acquisition to our limited circle; a favorite with all; and she blended so beautifully the graces of true religion with those of her natural temperament — that she became our idol.
The "parsonage" seemed to me a paradise, surrounded by none but bright and holy influences. There the poor always found a welcome, a willing heart, a ready hand, and listening ear; however sad and desponding on entering, they invariably came out cheerful and hopeful. There seemed a magic spell cast around everyone who sought the presence of our dearly beloved pastor and his wife.
With what pleasure I used to watch for their steps as they took their morning walks together that bright first year of their married life! They seemed to have the life and vivacity of children. She always accompanied him in his walks, in his visits to the poor, in relief to the sick, by the bedside of the dying; she was like his shadow, and always haunted him for good. It might be said most emphatically of both, "When the ear heard them — it blessed them, and when the eye saw them — it gave witness to them, because they delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him; the blessing of him who was ready to perish came upon them, and they caused the widow's heart to sing for joy!"
Thus several years passed away; new cares and new duties devolved on them; but all were cheerfully met and delightfully performed; and they basked in the sunshine of God's love. Beautiful children sprang up around them, and we felt that "earth never owned a happier nest" than that which was placed in our midst.
How proud Mr. B. was of his family, and with what reason, too, for we all felt it with him; his wife so beautiful, so good, so in all respects fitted to make home happy, with her never-failing sunshine and light-heartedness; his two little girls, our impersonation of cherubs; and the youngest a noble boy, so dear to his mother's heart. Oh! how many attractions within that charmed circle!
I shall never forget an evening I passed in the nursery with that dear one surrounded by her happy little band. Willie, "the baby," as she called him, although more than two years old, was sitting in her lap, twirling one of her long, beautiful ringlets round his tiny fingers.
"Sing, mamma!" he said.
"Oh, do!" joined in Effie and Minnie, putting their bright innocent faces and soft brown curls close to hers; "sing The Dove, mamma, please."
She laughingly asked me to excuse her, saying, she always devoted the twilight hour to amusing and instructing the little ones. I begged her to allow my presence to be no restraint upon her usual custom. She then commenced, and I thought no seraph's voice could be sweeter, as she sang The Dove.
I joined heartily in the thanks and admiration the children expressed when she had finished.
As she laid them in their little beds, and kissed their rosy lips and dimpled cheeks, she said, "I can never thank God enough for these sweet children." She then added, "Oh! what an affliction it must be to lose a child; I think if one of mine would die — I would die too; but," she added, "I would not say so; could I not trust them with Him who does all things well." She little realized how soon she was to be put to the test. I called there a few days after. She was in the garden raising and tying up some drooping carnations which the rain of the preceding day had injured.
"Willie is not well," said she. "I have just sung him to sleep, and Mr. B. said I must take a little fresh air, for I was fatigued with holding him, and I thought I would confine myself to the garden, to be near, if he should wake."
Soon a cry from the nursery was heard; she sprang up the steps in nervous haste, while I quite chided her anxiety. I followed her into the room, and was surprised and shocked to find the dear boy in a high fever; his little arms tossing restlessly, and his lips dry and parched. Mr. B. sent immediately for the physician; we waited anxiously his arrival, hoping secretly that we were unnecessarily alarmed; but his coming did not reassure us; he saw dangerous symptoms; but still, he said, he hoped for the best. I went home, as Mr. and Mrs. B. both declined my services for the night, saying they would rather attend him alone. The next day I was pained to hear that his symptoms were more unfavorable; that the medicine had had no effect, and the physician was becoming discouraged. I flew over to the "parsonage;" the wildly anxious look of the mother distressed me. I begged her to lie down a little while, and allow me to take her place by the baby.
"Oh, no," she said, "I cannot leave him; who but his mother should be by his side?"
It seemed to me that I had never seen greater distress on any countenance. Mr. B. endeavored to soothe her, though his anguish was apparently as keen as her own.
"If our Savior would remove this little flower to his own garden, shall we refuse to give it up? Shall we not rather bless and thank him for allowing us to keep it so long?"
"Oh, yes!" she said, "He does all things well; I know that he does not willingly afflict nor grieve the children of men. I know that whom He loves — He chastens; and I can say, 'May Your will be done.' Nature is powerful — but my Savior feels for me, and will forgive the inward struggle."
All that night they watched his little life fast ebbing away. Towards morning his sufferings seemed to cease; he smiled upon his parents. Hope for a moment revived in their hearts — but soon to be displaced by bitter anguish. Daylight showed the marked change in his features and complexion that told too plainly the messenger was very near.
"Speak to me, Willie," she exclaimed, bending over him in an agony of grief.
"Mamma," he said, and, with the effort, his little spirit took its flight.
We saw no more of our precious friends until the day of the funeral. This was their first affliction, and none liked to intrude on the sanctity of their grief, though many tears were shed, and hearts went out to them; but we felt that they knew whom they had trusted, and that under the shadow of His wings they could rest securely until the storm was past.
A neighboring clergyman was to perform the last sad office for the dead child. Most lovely did little Willie look in his coffin. The child-like, beautiful expression still lingered. Rare flowers, the smallest and whitest, had been placed in the tiny hand, and shed their fragrance throughout the room.
Oh! how sad and sick appeared the mother, as she bent to take the last look at the little form she had loved and cherished so tenderly! Her nights of anxiety and watching had left their traces upon her face; her usually light and elastic step was feeble and slow, and she rested heavily upon the arm of her husband. His form also was bowed, and his countenance bore traces of the deepest grief.
One of those sudden changes which we so often experience in this our most changeful climate, took place that day. At noon it was very warm and bright — but before we returned from the funeral, it was cloudy and cold.
The next day Mrs. B. was quite sick with severe cold, and the effects of the past excitement and grief. We flattered ourselves that rest and quiet, with good nursing, would soon restore her; and you may judge of our dismay upon learning, the day after, that she was dangerously ill.
"Oh no," we thought and said a hundred times, "it cannot be so; she will surely be better tomorrow."
We could not have it otherwise. We could not for an instant admit the idea that she would not recover. The bare supposition was agony. Oh! how harrowing to me is the remembrance of those long summer days, and those wakeful moonlight nights, in which, prostrated by disease, lay that young and lovely being so idolized by us all — but whom, indeed, we were destined to see no more on earth.
The Divine fiat had gone forth, and hearts were agonized, and looks grew sadder and sadder, as day after day sounded like a knell in our ears the fearful words, "Not materially better." But we could not give her up; hope would linger. No one was permitted to see her but the family and nurses, for the doctor said all excitement must be carefully avoided. We said, "She will not die; God will raise her up." In our weakness and blindness, we could see no mercy nor wisdom in this terrible bereavement, this scorching desolation of the already heavily-stricken servant of the Most High. He was naturally of a most hopeful disposition, and this, notwithstanding the discouraging words of the physician, buoyed up his soul, and he with us hoped against hope. They could not persuade him to leave her for a moment. Whole nights he watched by the side of her he loved best on earth, anticipating every word and look, and administering to her comfort.
How you would have felt for us, dear Anna, had you been here! We would walk by the house, and look up at the windows or door, not daring to knock for fear of disturbing her — but hoping to see one of the physicians or someone of the family, of whom to make inquiries. Oh, the nervousness of those days! the restless, weary nights we passed, until our fears and apprehensions became a racking torment, and we felt almost that we must die ourselves ourselves, or be out of suspense; but when, on the evening of the tenth day after her illness, a messenger came with pallid face and almost wild look to say that she was 'dead' — we were stunned. I really think we were almost as much shocked as though we had not heard of her illness; for we felt that, at the eleventh hour, some favorable turn 'must' take place. I think we expected a miracle to be performed, so certain were we, or wished and tried to be, that she would recover.
But God's ways are not as our ways; truly, they are past finding out. We felt like putting our hands on our mouths, for fear of rebelling against 'His' most righteous decrees. "Be still, and know that I am God," was all that we could say. It was hard to realize that the sun was still shining behind the cloud, for this was a darkness that might be felt. There seemed a pall over the earth and sky. Oh, how unsatisfactory seemed all on earth! how dark and strange! how mysterious and unreal! We could not weep, we were stunned, and it seemed at the time that we could never come back to earth without her. But when the touching relation of her last hours was made to us, the fountains of grief were unsealed, and we wept, as it were, rivers of tears.
I can give you no idea on paper, of the beauty and sublimity of that death-scene as it was painted to me. We imagined that the heart must shrink, or at least draw back before the entrance into the dark valley. But all was peace; it flowed in upon her like a river, and she felt that underneath were the everlasting arms. Her husband and two remaining children stood by the bed. Oh, the bitterness of the cup he was called upon to drink! He shrank from it.
As he bent over her, she said, "Do not weep, my love. How good God has been to give us so many bright, happy years together! Surely the lines have fallen to us in pleasant places, and I" — raising her beautiful eyes to heaven, "have a goodly heritage. I go to my Savior. How would I feel at this moment, had I not a hope in him? Oh, I am going home! I will shortly sing the 'new song.' I do not love you nor these sweet darlings less — but I love the Savior more. I wish you could look in my heart and see the love I bear you. Thank you for all your indulgence, for all your kindness in bearing with my many infirmities. If I am permitted, I will be ever your guardian angel. Remember me with much and undying love to all the dear friends who have been so kind to me."
She appeared buoyed up with unnatural strength, though her end was so near. She broke into a sweet hymn; and it was, they said, as though the angel's voice had anticipated the few short moments before she should sing the "new song." She lay quiet for a little time, holding the hand of her husband in her own; then, opening her eyes and seeing the last rays of the departing sun, "I shall never look upon that bright orb again; but there is no need of the sun there. I draw near to heavenly habitations, and I would not retreat for all that the world can give. Dearest, be faithful to your trust." And, imprinting a kiss upon his lips, her pure spirit went peacefully home.
We draw a veil upon the feelings of that bereaved one; too sacred are they to be looked upon; his house was left unto him desolate. That form, which had been to his eye like the well in the desert, or the rainbow in the sky — was now cold in death.
Oh! thought we, why needed this affliction to be sent upon one so near 'perfection'? Surely, 'he', of all others, needed not this discipline; and then came to our minds, soft, sweet, and soothing, the words, "Every branch in me which bears fruit — He purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit."
We felt that it was hard to lay in the grave the form of our dear friend; it was hard to part with the casket which had enshrined the precious jewel. Beautiful in life — she was so in death. The departing spirit had left a ray of brightness on its earthly house, and, in looking at the calm brow and peaceful smile, death seemed divested of its terror. We had entwined the pure white flowers she loved, around and among the rich dark masses of wavy hair, and she looked like a beautiful bride, more than a tenant for the grave. The memory of that day will live ever in our minds. It was the last day of summer, and there seemed a beautiful appropriateness in the season; it seemed to us that the summer of our hearts had gone with her.
A sad and mournful procession, we followed her remains to the church so dear to her in life. It was but a few days since she entered it in her loveliness and bloom, and for the last time on earth commemorated a Savior's dying love. She will partake with us here no more. May we be counted worthy to sit down with her at our Father's table in Heaven! Mournful was the sight of the black pall which covered the coffin; mournful the drapery which shrouded her accustomed seat and enveloped the sanctuary; but, oh! most mournful and heart-rending was the sight of that husband and father leading by the hand on either side, all that remained to him of his beautiful family. It was difficult to recognize in him, the man of two short weeks before; twenty years seemed added to his life; the eyes, usually beaming with light, now cast down and swollen with weeping — the countenance, index of a heart full of peace and joy, now so sorrow-stricken. Truly, he seemed "smitten of God, and afflicted." We turned our eyes away as he stood by the grave which contained almost his earthly all.
It was a beautiful spot where they laid her to rest by the side of her baby. The sun was just going down in a golden flood of light, betokening a glorious morrow (beautiful emblem of the resurrection, when this perishing body should be raised in glory), and the shadows of the trees were lengthening on the grass. Every sound was in sweet accordance with the scene — the soft twittering of the birds as they sought their resting-places for the night, the quiet hum of the insects, and the sweet murmuring of the brook which flowed at a little distance.
A holy calm pervaded our minds as we wended our way between the trees and down the slope which bounded this lovely spot; and, as we left the gate, we involuntarily paused and looked back long and earnestly on the sweet view. Every object was bathed in that golden haze so peculiar to the last days of summer, and the beginning of autumn; but at this time it seemed to us that the flood of soft light had escaped from the gate of Heaven which we imagined had opened to receive the form lost to our sight.
Oh, we miss her more and more, everywhere! in our walks and visits; in the missionary circle, of which she was so ready and active a member; in the Sunday school; in her accustomed seat in church; and we miss the soft tones of her voice in prayer, and the rich outpourings of her melody in praise.
The poor of the parish have, indeed, lost a friend, as their tears and remembrance amply testify when they recount her kindnesses, her gentle words, her deeds of charity and love. "Flowers grew under her feet," said one wretchedly poor — an old woman, whose declining days, she had lightened of much of their weariness.
A track of glory seems that which she has left behind; and there was so much that was beautiful and consoling in her last hours — that it were selfishness to wish her back. She is with the Savior she loved; she has entered her "long home of bliss in Heaven."
Does not that death-scene speak volumes in attestation of the religion she professed, of the Savior she adored? That young fair being, surrounded by all that makes life happy; friends who loved, a husband who idolized, children who clung to her; with a heart full of love and sympathy for all, rejoicing with those who rejoiced, and weeping with those who wept; of rare beauty and rarer accomplishments — a sunbeam on the face of the earth. Yet she willingly left all — when her Father called her. Is not her faith worth striving after?
We have reason (blessed be God!) to see already some good effects from the contemplation of her life and death. The young have received a warning, thoughtlessness a check. We have realized that neither youth nor beauty is a security against the ravages of the spoiler.
God grant that our dear pastor may experience the truth of the words of the Psalmist: "Those who sow in tears, shall reap in joy." He feels that his treasure is laid up in Heaven — and we know that his heart is there. To see his dear one happy had ever been his chief desire, and he would not call her back, for he knows that she is now in the enjoyment of a bliss that the world cannot give.
Though cast down, he is not destroyed; he has come unscathed from this furnace of affliction because one like the Son of God was with him. With eyes turned heavenward, he waits his appointed time. The religion of the cross glistens like a gem on his dark-robed fortunes, and points him to fairer worlds, where the love that grew here amidst clouds will be made perfect in a light that knows no shadow, where he and his departed ones will again have one home, one altar, and one resting place.
Like his Divine Master, he goes about doing good. Oftener than ever, is he found among the sons and daughters of affliction; more than ever, are they objects of his special care. His precept is blessed by his example, and thus . . .
many a prodigal son has he recalled from his wanderings,
many an outcast has been gathered into the fold,
many a way-worn pilgrim has been pointed to his true rest,
many a mourner has been comforted.
They saw that the resignation he preached to others — he practiced himself; they saw that the hand of the Lord was heavy upon him — but that he did not turn backward. They saw that he went his way as a pilgrim pressing forward to a better country. Most brilliant will be the diadem which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give him in the last day, for are not these words of Holy Writ, "Those who turn many to righteousness — shall shine like the stars forever and ever!"