Life and Death

Rousing ourselves as we left the shadows of the Mauvaise Terre, we put spurs to our horses, and ere the sun was half-way up the sky, rode into the town of Little Sandy. This on a day like that upon which I left it years before, but now how changed! The Dragon, once the center of so much stir, stood forlorn and empty, its sign hanging half obliterated in the morning air, as if in shame of its abandonment. About the town, the houses once so full of life and sprightly gayety were now for the most part empty and fast falling to pieces for lack of care. The busy streets, too, were overgrown with grasses and sprouting trees, so that the footfall of our horses could scarce be heard as we rode slowly forward. No need to tell the reason of this decay, and that some new place was luring the people to other homes.
Sorrowing over what I saw, we rode at a walk through the dying town into the country beyond. Here, nearing my aunt’s house, we turned into a quiet path, and doing so, came full upon the lawyer Moth. He, keeping his horse at a gallop, raised his hat and saluted us with every show of kindness and good will as he passed, but without stopping or speech of any kind. Returning his salutation, we went on, and now more soberly, until presently our path brought us to the little churchyard where my father and mother lay buried. Here, giving my horse to Fox, I went forward alone, gathering as I crossed the intervening space the grasses and wild flowers my mother had loved when she was yet alive. Coming presently to the graves with throbbing heart, I found them not as I had thought, but covered with sweet verdure and such profusion of flowers that I could scarce believe my eyes. Seeing this, and being overwrought, I burst into a flood of tears, and throwing myself down upon the ground, rested my face upon my mother’s grave. Calling to her aloud in agony of grief, as a child might have done, I repeated again her prayers and those that she had taught me kneeling at her side. At last, quieted in some measure, I yet lay still, and doing so, lived over my childhood days, tasted its sweet cares and blissful sorrows, heard again the voices of those I loved, called up anew their forms and smiling faces. Thus dreaming and mourning, I lingered, loath to leave, until the sun was high in the heavens. Nor would I yet have gone had not Fox come to draw me away. Then kneeling and kissing the mounds that covered the dear forms, I arose and followed him. Passing Wild Plum, I did not stay, except to note with throbbing heart that in everything it was as we had left it. Here again I saw Aunt Jane’s loving hand, as in the flower-strewn graves, and seeing it, blessed her for her love and tender care.
With my heart thus stirred with grateful thoughts, we spurred on to her home, and coming to the gate, there was no sign of bustle or life of any kind, but such quietness as no one had ever known in the olden time. For in those days the very trees and plants, so it was thought, meditated on the crops and the prospect of gain; but now how changed! Standing upright and staring, they seemed without life and as if awaiting some sad event which they had long foreknown. Thinking my aunt was dead, and yet believing Moth would have told me had this been so, I gave my horse to Fox, and going forward, knocked at the door. Scarce had I done this, when it opened, and the servant, knowing me before I spoke, took my hand, and kissing it, led me through the hall and up the winding stairs to my aunt’s room. Here, opening the door, she motioned me to enter, and when I had done so closed it again and went away without having vouchsafed me a word. Gazing about in the dimly lighted room, I presently made out my aunt propped up in her bed, and intent, as if breathing a prayer. Surprised at her worn and altered look, I neither moved nor spoke. For of the robust form and commanding face of other days there lay before me only a shrunken body, with features worn and wasted so as to be scarce recognized as hers. Only the eyes retained something of the old look, but now lighted as if by some hidden and destructive fire. While I stood thus gazing upon her, my mind filled with sad thoughts, she turned toward the door, and catching sight of my form, gave a start, and stretching out her arms, cried, in a frenzy of fear and haste:
“Gilbert! Gilbert! is it you? Come, come to me, quick! quick!”
At this I ran to her, and she, clasping my neck, trembling and sobbing, drew me down upon her bosom. Thus we lay in each other’s arms, my heart too full for speech and hers beating against my breast as if it would burst with the strain put upon it. When she had somewhat recovered herself, she did not speak, but murmuring half-articulate words of endearment, fell to stroking my hair and face as if I were a babe nursing at her breast. Having in this way in some measure satisfied her heart’s longing, she took hold of my shoulders, and holding me off, fell to studying my face, as if she would read there all that it had to tell and more. Then softly, and oh, so differently from other days, she spoke:
“Oh, my child, my sweet one, how it gladdens my tired heart to see you, and so soon, for I scarce expected you yet, if indeed you came at all.”
“I hope you did not think so badly of me as that, dear aunt, for I lost not a moment after getting your letter.”
“Yes, child, I thought you would come; and it was like your father to act quickly. In looks, though, how like you are to your sweet mother! Her color and face and eyes and hair! It is as if she stood beside me in life, so much do you resemble her.”
“I am glad to hear you say that,” I answered, kissing her, pleased beyond everything at the gentle way in which she spoke of my dear mother.
“Yes, child; and I hope you will be like her in temper and sweetness of life.”
“No one can be that; but what you say makes me very happy, aunt,” I answered, caressing her hand.
“You started right away, then, when you got my letter?” she asked, toying with my hair.
“Yes, within an hour; but I can never forgive myself for going away as I did, giving you no chance to speak, and on my knees, dear aunt, I ask you to forgive me,” I answered, slipping down beside her bed and wetting it with my tears, so sorrowing was my heart at her forlorn state.
“Don’t kneel to me, dear one,” she exclaimed, lifting me up. “We were all mistaken, you least of all; but my whole life has been a mistake, and from the very beginning. Wrapped up in my strivings, I thought not of my acts, nor heeded how they appeared to others, only knowing that I loved you all and labored that you might some day be the better for it. How mistakenly, though, and oh, how bitterly God has punished me, till at last my prayer is answered, and He has led you back to me.”
“We were to blame, dear aunt, and should have read your heart better. Now how happy my mother must be, can she but hear your words and know your heart, for all her life long she wanted to win your love.”
“I know it, and she had it above all others on earth; and yet, oh, God, forgive my pride and wayward moods! I would make no sign. Not even when she was about to die—but of that, merciful heaven, I did not dream!” she cried in agony, pressing her hands against her tear-stained face. Recovering after a while, she went on, but now more gently: “Tell me, sweet child, how it is that you who were once so slight, yet have your height and strength at scarce sixteen?”
“I don’t know, dear aunt, unless, as I have heard, all our people were the same.”
“Yes, your father had his growth at your age, and went about the world as if he were thirty.” Then, as if hastening, she went on: “I hope your Uncle Job is well and happy. We greatly mistook him, and had you stayed with me, as I wanted, you would perhaps not have been the better for it. For you must know that all you have done, and all that has happened to you, I have known about as well as if I had been with you. This you will wonder at, but I have followed your wanderings as if you were my own son. My estrangement from your father and mother was all my fault, but I loved them none the less. When they died I thought to make some reparation by the care with which I would watch over your young life, but this failed, and unhappily, like all else. Then as I could not have you with me, I thought to watch over you and be near should you need my aid—not forcing myself upon you, but without your knowledge; and so your life since you left Wild Plum is known to me better than to any one save yourself.”
“I never dreamed of that, dear aunt, nor was I worthy of it!” I answered, greatly affected by what she said.
“Yes, you were; and I have grown to love you better because of your simple ways. For believing you were alone in the world, you yet kept on, not complaining nor going astray in any serious way.”
“I had help in that, dear aunt, of which you do not know,” I answered, thinking of Constance.
“Yes, the help that comes from companionship with a gentle and pure heart; from Constance’s sympathy and love for you. You see, I know all about her and your love for each other, you dear child. Yes, even while you were yet at Wild Plum, and children; and I shall die the happier for it, Gilbert, for she is worthy of your love though you were a thousand times better than you are.”
“Oh, aunt, how good of you to speak in that way; but you will not die, for no one of our family, save my father, was ever stricken down so young.”
“I am sorry if it grieves you, dear child, but in a little while, you cannot dream how soon, I shall be laid beside your sweet mother. Put me there, Gilbert, and when you place flowers on their graves, spare some for me. It is all I ask, save that you will remember me as kindly as you can when I am gone.”
5“Don’t talk that way, dear aunt, for you know I will love you always, and I loved you before I saw you, when I found the graves covered with flowers, and at Wild Plum, where everything was as it used to be.”
“Did you come that way, child? It was affectionate of you, and as it should be. When I am gone you can do as I have, if you wish, for I shall leave you enough for that, and much more to spend as you like.”
“Don’t speak so, dear aunt, for you are not going to die,” I answered, melted anew to tears by the sad pathos of her voice.
“I must speak, and about your future, for I have but a little time left me. I shall leave you all I have, my sweet child, and it is much more than any one dreams of, save Moth. Of him, too, Gilbert, I want to speak before it is too late. Everything he did was by my direction, save that his zeal for me made him sometimes forget what was due to others. That was only an excess of virtue, for in all things, great and small, he has been true to me; and much of my great fortune, and it is truly great, is due to his advice and never-failing friendship. Treasure him when I am gone, sweet one, for no matter what you have thought, he is a man to trust; pure gold tried over and over again in the furnace of life. It was he who reconciled me, in my heart, to your Uncle Job. For after the trial he came and confessed to me, almost on his knees, how grievously he had been mistaken, and that in all things Mr. Throckmorton’s honor and good intentions were what they should be. Thus it has proven; for if you have struggled on seemingly alone, it was for your good, and has built you up as I could not have done, nor your uncle, had you looked to him. In this he has been wise, as you will see more plainly as the years pass.”
“He would have aided me more than he has had I let him,” I answered, anxious to do him justice.
“I know; and you have been a little headstrong, Gilbert, but only that you might provide for yourself. I don’t treasure it against you, for only good has come of it, and I love you all the more. Now, Gilbert, let me say a word about other things, for I have but little strength, and may never be able to speak to you again. All my life, as you know, I have occupied myself with business. What else could I do? Had I married, as I might, and happily, it would have been different. Determining otherwise, and most unwisely, I set out to build up our fortune, and for your good, hoping to transmit our name, not as it is known in this distracted country, but as it was in another and more peaceful land. In this I have succeeded beyond all my hopes, but much of my success has been due to Moth. Wild Plum I redeemed, as I could under your father’s deed, and you will treasure it, and keep this place too, I hope, in remembrance of me. Beneath these farms, and underlying all the many thousand acres I leave you, there lie boundless fields of coal, the worth of which no one dreams of now. For in a little while our young state will have filled with people, and with them will come factories, and the furnaces of these you will help to feed. These lands I leave to you, and other things for your present wants, so that you may spend all your life and still be rich; but do this in moderation, Gilbert. Others will come after you. Leave something for them. Do not be idle, but occupy yourself not less fully now that you will be rich. For idleness is like a foul distemper that destroys the mind and saps the character of men, leaving only shreds and patches not worth any one’s respect. Remember always that the greatest of God’s gifts is the opportunity to occupy our minds and bodies in the attainment of honorable ends. Thus busied, men never grow old, but remain buoyant and fresh to the very end.”
“What am I, dear aunt, that you should have planned like this? Surely, men are but little children compared with you.”
“No; the most foolish among them have been wiser than I, for their lives have had some ray of sunshine, while mine has not had one gleam to brighten it.”
“Oh, aunt, Constance and I will make your life happy if our love will be enough, for we will love you as if you were our mother.”
“It is too late, Gilbert,” she answered, with a sad smile; “but I shall die happy in being reconciled to you and in thinking you will grow to love me when I am gone. Kiss me again, sweet one, and may the good Lord have you in His keeping, and forgive me all my sins.”
“Oh, aunt! we will be more to you than you can think; and Constance will come, and you will love her and she will love you! Don’t speak again of dying,” I cried, my heart filled to overflowing.
At this her face brightened as with some ray of happiness, but she made no response save to pull me to her and kiss me, sobs filling her throat as she pressed me in her arms. Then, faint and gasping, she fell back on her pillow, and in a little while, as if comforted, fell into a sweet and restful sleep. Sorrowing over her sad life and on all she had told me, I sat beside her, her hand clasped in mine, not moving lest she should awake. This till the shadows of the night were gathering in the room, and then, she not stirring, I arose and leaned over her bed, and doing so gave a startled cry. For while I had sat thus unconscious, her spirit, so great and so unhappy, had taken its flight to the good Lord whose forgiveness she had asked with her last breath.
* * * * *
Thus this most unhappy lady, so capable of love, passed away with a smile on her sad face and a prayer upon her lips. I, following her wishes, lovingly and with tears placed her beside the other two, and spreading flowers over all their graves, knelt beside them and prayed that the lives and hearts of the dear ones so long separated might be thus reunited in heaven above.