SIDNEY LEE came out from that experience of death and dawn with an absolute conviction. She did not attempt to justify herself by reasons. She knew ; that was all, but it was enough.
She had left Miss Sally’s room with a face which shone ; even the grief which veiled it — while yet that silent Presence dominated the household — could not hide the solemn light in her eyes. Grief and pity and regret moved across the peace which she had found, but did not disturb it; even as the winds, engraving themselves upon the sensitive sea in a thousand intricate and flying paths, do not stir the quiet of the deeps below.
With Sidney, there was perhaps less grief than regret. She was feeling, even in her exaltation, the misery of the lost opportunity; she was realizing that it is impossible to atone to the dead for indifference to their small interests, carelessness of their daily cares, — in a word, for unexpressed love, — and that such a realization is always pain Sidney had never known before. But it was that pain, mingling with her strange gladness, which brought into her face a new look, — at once wistful anxiety and calm desire. Major Lee saw it, and, remembering his daughter’s words on that night when Miss Sally had died, — “Father, I have found God,” — said to himself that this changed expression was only part of the same nervous excitement. Sidney had come to him that next day, and tried to tell him, briefly, what those words had meant; not that she courted discussion, — only that, with the gladness of the woman of old, who, after lighting her candle and searching diligently, called in her friends and neighbors and said, “ Rejoice with me,” Sidney desired to share her certainty.
But her broken words, with no attempt at argument, indicated only a physical condition to her father. As soon as this strain was over, her common sense would assert itself. He was sorry and perhaps a little disappointed, — Sidney had been so different from the ordinary hysterical young woman; but he would let it pass; it was of no importance.
Even Mrs. Paul noticed the change in the girl, and she was annoyed by it; it made her uncomfortable, as anything which she did not understand was apt to do. “ Poor, dear Sally is dead and buried,” she said to Katherine, “ and crying won’t bring her back again. Sidney should look pleasanter, or keep her room. Red eyes belong to one’s bedchamber ; they are too personal to be modest. You never see me with red eyes.”
“ Because you are too modest ? ” said Katherine, with great simplicity. She was sitting in the drawing-room with her prospective mother-in-law, behind bowed shutters. It was very hot; all the sounds which crept into the shadowy room were hot, — the droning of the bees in the honeysuckle around the west window, the rattle of heavy drays down in the scorching street, and the pant of a steam-drill a block away.
Katherine looked white and languid, but Mrs. Paul, fresh from Scarlett’s cool fingers, was alert and comfortable. Her thin black silk had a frost of delicate lace about the neck and wrists, and she swung lightly, back and forth upon her arm, a green taffeta fan. On a table by her side was an India china bowl crowded with roses, and near it a tall silver tumbler full of sangaree, which was so cold that the polish of the silver was dimmed with beaded mist. Katherine had declined the claret and the fan, and everything, in fact, except a little cushion in a white lavender-scented linen cover, which Scarlett had placed behind her head.
“Still,” Mrs. Paul conceded, “I have no objection to your declining things, because you don’t annoy me by looking uncomfortable. Poor Sally used to distract me by declining, — I suppose out of some foolish idea of politeness, — and then looking like a martyr. Really, you know, Kate, not that I would talk against the dead,— I don’t approve of it, — but poor Sally was very trying at times ? ”
“ I never found her so,” Katherine answered. “ I think it was the instinct of unselfishness which made her decline a pleasure. Oh, how good she was! (It is strange how quickly we learn to say ‘ was ’ instead of ‘ is ’! ”)
“Of course she was good,” returned Mrs. Paul. “I never said she was n’t good. But really, you can’t say she was entertaining. Now, I never pretended to any remarkable goodness, but I am not uninteresting, I think ? ”
“ Oh, far from it,” said Katherine. “You are interesting, most interesting. And Miss Sally, as you say, was not; but she was good and lovable.”
Mrs. Paul looked blank for a moment, but Katherine’s frank and confidential air reassured her.
“ It was her goodness,” she announced, clinking the bits of ice in the silver tumbler, “which made your cousin propose to her. Katherine, my dear, the only thing I don’t like about you is your cousin.”
“ Poor cousin Robert! ” said Katherine sadly. “Yet I am sure, I am quite sure, that he did not realize that he was dishonorable.”
“ He was only dishonorable because he was a fool,” returned Mrs. Paul, with a shrug. “ He should have made Sally break the engagement. A man of the world engaged to a prude would easily have arranged that. It was hard, though, that Sally should die. It was merely coincidence, of course, but the young man gets the credit of it, and people think she died of a broken heart. (As though Sally could die of a broken heart ! Between ourselves, my dear, a good woman is not capable of a great passion. Did that ever occur to you ?) No, to my mind, your Steele is unpleasant rather than dishonorable, — most unpleasant. And what do you think I heard yesterday ? That the very day of the funeral he was found in his hotel drunk ! Now, I am not a temperance fanatic. I have seen a gentleman overcome after a dinner. for instance, and thought none the worse of him ; but — after a funeral! Really, the occasion should be considered.”
“ Oh! ” said Katherine, the tears starting to her eyes.
“ He is a mass of inconsistencies,” Mrs. Paul continued, tapping her fan thoughtfully upon the edge of the table. “ Some one told me — Scarlett, I believe it was — that those last nights he hung about the house all night long. He gave Scarlett quite a start, when she came upon him in the darkness. Yes, I have no doubt he was unhappy ; and yet — to be intoxicated ! Did you know Alan had taken him back to live with him again ? Alan has not very much backbone. Men with faces like his have no depth nor persistency. I only hope his passion for Sidney will last.”
“ But if she does not return it, that is hard upon him.”
“ I was not thinking of Alan,” Mrs. Paul answered. “ I was thinking — of Mortimer Lee ! ”
Katherine looked at her with wondering interest. “ You really have no heart, have you, Mrs. Paul ? ” she said.
“ My dear,” explained the older woman, “ I am all heart, only I have some head, too. I believe in justice. Mortimer Lee has been a wicked atheist, and he ought to be punished. And you know — ridiculous as it is — what it would be to him if Sidney fell in love with any one. But of course my chief desire is to benefit Sidney. It has always been my habit to try to help others. Lord! how annoyed I was that your cousin did not fall in love with Sidney! I could forgive his conduct about his mother’s money and the breaking of his engagement, but — to propose to Sally ! I can forgive wickedness; but that was worse than wickedness, — it was stupidity.”
“ It seems to me a matter of imagination,” Katherine observed. “ We can forgive a condition which we can imagine for ourselves ; but what we can’t fancy ourselves capable of, we despise.”
“Exactly,” said Mrs. Paul. “You have a great deal of sense, Kate. Now, I could not be a fool.”
“ No, indeed,” answered Katherine warmly. “ But what an inference you make one draw ! ”
“ Very true ! ” cried the other, in high good humor. She was distinctly flattered, and loved Katherine more than ever. “ As for Sidney and Alan,”she continued, “ unless I am very much mistaken, — and I never am mistaken in such matters ; I’ve lived myself, — Sidney has come to her senses at last, and Mortimer Lee is to learn a lesson.”
“ What do you mean ? ”
“I mean that Sidney is in love with Alan. Such a change does not come into a woman’s face as has come into hers, for nothing.”
“ Mrs. Paul,” said Katherine, sitting up and looking at her with sudden attention, “ there is a change, but ” —
“ Well ? ” demanded Mrs. Paul. “ Don’t grow commonplace, Kate, and hesitate over a sentence.”
“ It is not because of Dr. Crossan, — I am sure of that. It is because (yes, I don’t see why I should not speak of it. Sidney told me, and I think she would be glad to have it known), — it is because Sidney is not what she was.”
“ Go on,” said Mrs. Paul.
“ I think the change in her face is from some deeper reason than that she has fallen in love. (If she has, which does n’t seem to me probable.) But she told me — that she believed.”
“ Believed ? ” repeated the other, frowning. “ Believed what ? ”
“ She said she had ‘ found God.’ ” Katherine lowered her voice. “ I tell you only because I am sure that as we all knew what her old thought was, she would wish us to know her new thought.”
“ What! ” cried Mrs. Paul. “ Sidney says she’s ‘ found God ’ ? (though I am sure I think the expression very irreverent. I suppose she means she’s been converted ?) Lord ! what does Mortimer Lee say ? Well, I am glad! ”
“ Oh, Mrs. Paul! ” said Katherine, shocked into remonstrance.
“ But how has it come about ? ” persisted the older woman. “ Has Mr. Brown seen her ? I did n’t suppose Sidney had been to church for years.” She paused, lifting in her delicate old hand a little silver vinaigrette, made like a fish, with glittering scales, and curiously flexible. Her face was full of the keenest interest and pleasure. “ Mr. Brown was never allowed to try to convert her, you know. Well, I am very thankful, of course. It has always been a grief to me to have Sidney out of the Church. She was never even baptized, —did you know that? I expected to be her godmother ; but Mortimer Lee would not have the child christened. Shocking, was n’t it ? ”
“ How careful you are of your creed! ” commented Katherine, with delightful deference ; “ and yet I notice you do not often intrude your religion ? ”
“ I hope not, indeed ! Conversation about one’s spiritual condition leads to horrible self-consciousness; and thank Heaven, I never had any need to talk about it. I never had a doubt in my life.”
“You mastered the eternal verities with your catechism, I suppose ?" said Katherine.
But Mrs. Paul did not notice the remark. “ As for Sidney, with her antecedents her unbelief did not reflect upon her socially, although it was unbecoming, — most unbecoming. I’m sure I’m rejoiced that she has come to her senses. I suppose she’ll be confirmed at Easter?”
Katherine shook her head. “ 1 don’t know, but think not. I spoke of it, but she looked at me in the blankest way; and when I said something about seeing Miss Sally again, you know, and all that, she apparently did n’t understand for a moment, and then she said, ‘ That expression of the Eternal is gone, but He remains.’ I don’t know what she meant,” proceeded Katherine doubtfully. “ I asked her if she did not believe in immortality, and she said she did not know anything about it, but ‘ God was.’ ”
“ She does n’t know what she is talking about! ” cried Mrs. Paul impatiently.
“ At least she is convinced,” Katherine answered.
“ Convinced ! ” returned the other. “ My dear Kate, anything so positive as a conviction is scarcely modest in a wellbred young woman. And there is too much talk about convictions in these days, and too little good behavior. Sidney should have been confirmed ten years ago, with convictions or without them, if I had had my way.”
“ I wonder if her — change of opinion will make any difference in Major Lee ?" Katherine asked.
“ Certainly not. The day when the infant converts his grandfather is past, my friend; and as for saying she believes, but not in immortality, and that she won’t be confirmed, — I never heard such nonsense! Really, Kate, I would n’t encourage her to talk in that way; it is quite improper. I hoped, when you first spoke, that she had become — well — you know what I mean — a change of heart, you know — a Churchwoman.”
Katherine did not pursue the subject; she had been awed by Sidney’s uplifted look, and she had vaguely understood it ; but as she tried to explain it the idea melted away.
Sidney had chosen to name “ God,” that tireless, eternal activity which constitutes the universe ; that energy which is in all and through all, pulsing in every atom, recognizing itself in the conscious instant of a man’s life, creating and destroying, working towards its own infinite end. With this naming (or let us say this perception), and the devout submission to and trust in the laws of nature which it implies, there had come to her, not happiness, but blessedness, and that peace which, truly, the world can neither give nor take away. But the process by which she had reached peace must be personal before it can commend itself to the understanding, and for that reason she could not show it to Katherine.
In a direct and simple way, Katherine felt that Sidney would wish that others might know her present attitude, and so had told Mrs. Paul, whose absolute inability to understand the situation made her uncertain as to her own grasp of it. She did not want to speak of it any further, and she was glad that at that moment Sidney entered ; not that she meant to question the girl, but she wanted to watch her.
Mrs. Paul looked up impatiently. Sidney, in her black gown, her face marked by some deeper pain and meaning than merely grief for Miss Sally’s death, confused and annoyed the older woman : beside, with that curious vanity which leads one to confess a fault, she had been just about to tell Kate a story — Lord ! why could not Sidney have stayed at home ? Innocence is a great nuisance at times.
“Well? What? Dear me, Sidney, the heat has made you white; pray go and ask Scarlett for some rose-water, and bathe your face. It is very unpleasant to see any one look fagged.”
“ I came over,” Sidney answered, with an absent air, which did not acknowledge the fault-finding, “to ask you — I was putting away her things, and I thought you might like something which belonged to her — and I came to ask you if you would care to have this piece of lace ? ”
“ Do sit down, and don’t look so white. Lace ? Let me see it. Yes, I ‘ll take it; but I am sure I don’t see why in the world you should bring me lace. I have more now than I know what to do with. I mean to give Katherine some superb lace when she is married. Do you hear that, Kate ? ”
Katherine was looking anxiously at Sidney. “ My dear,” she said gently, “ you really are worn out; you should not have crossed the garden in this blazing sun. I shall have to ask Dr. Crossan about you.”
In an instant Sidney’s face flushed to the forehead. Katherine smiled and glanced at Mrs. Paul, who asked, “ Does Alan still call every day ? Really, poor, dear Sally’s sickness was an opportunity for Alan! I saw him yesterday,” she continued, swinging her fan lazily. “ He is looking shockingly. I don’t believe he will live long.” Katherine gave her a warning look, but Mrs. Paul ended her sentence. “ He is really ill, you know.”
Sidney drew a quivering breath ; her eyes dimmed with a flying terror. “ Is Alan going to die ? ”
“Well, some time, I suppose,” returned Mrs. Paul. (“ You see, Kate ? I said so ! ”)
“ Is he?” Sidney repeated, standing before Mrs. Paul, and trembling very much.
“ Oh, Lord, Sidney, don’t glare so! No, of course not. But he was ill a little while ago, you remember ; and poor Sally told me that Mr. Steele had told her — But what is it to you, my dear ? ”
Sidney did not answer. She scarcely heard Mrs. Paul say, in a perfunctory manner, that Katherine had told her something she was very glad to hear, and she hoped Sidney would try to live a consistent life, and be sensible about confirmation ; and then, —
“ Just arrange, will you, to come in when Katherine is n’t here ? I don’t need anybody else if she is here. Oh, and give the lace to Scarlett, will you ? ”
Sidney would not let Katherine go home with her; she shut herself out of the cool darkness of the hall, and then went slowly back through the blazing garden. She had left that inevitable task of “ putting away ” to bring Mrs. Paul the piece of lace, but she forgot how much yet remained to be done. Alan had been ill! She walked over to the evergreen circle, where the sun-dial stood among the shadows, and sat down on the curved bench. It was here Alan had told her that she needed love in her life, — it seemed to Sidney that her life dated from that day ; then, afterwards, he had said he loved her, and she had declared that she did not, and never would, love him. “ Oh, but I do, — I do,” she said quietly, aloud. She looked up between the dark points of the firs into the cloudless and dazzling sky; her eyes overflowed with tears, but her lips smiled.
She forgot everything but joy. She was as entirely glad as the soul can be which has one moment without memory. She put out her hands as though to meet the hands she loved ; her face was wet with tears, but it was illumined. Suddenly it changed. Love ? No, she must not love him. Her heart was bounding, her lips breaking into smiles, her joy overflowing in words, when this old habit of thought asserted itself. With it came the memory of that experience of dawn and death, the strange unreasoning conviction, the solemn instinct, that her life was to be an expression of the Eternal Life. Yes, that was all true, all true ; and she would be good ; and it was well to be alive, though she did not know why. She would do her work ; she would try to help any one who needed her, — but she would not know sorrow; why need she ? She could do her part in the world as well, and better, unhampered by the horrible fear of death ; she would not love Alan. Yet inescapable joy shone in her eyes; she only knew that she loved, while, mechanically, she asserted that she would escape from love. The long z-z-ing of insects stabbed the silence of noon ; the hot scent of flowers wandered in among the shadows; and on the old sun-dial a bird perched, and plumed itself, looking at her with fearless interest.
In a numb, helpless way Sidney was struggling to be obedient to the heavenly vision, and yet to save herself. At last it seemed to her that she was incapable of meeting this crisis, and, with that power which comes at rare moments into every life, she put aside the truth which had been revealed to her, and took up again the small details of death and life. “ I will finish putting the things away, and then I will think,” she said to herself.
She went into the house, so intent upon thrusting this new greatness aside, until she could find an hour which should be all its own, that she was really only aware of the work she at once began to do ; she did not think of Alan. Her eyes blurred again and again as she folded Miss Sally’s little wardrobe away : the pathos of the small darns, the carefully brushed, and turned, and turned again gowns, the bits of ribbon, the treasured pieces of lace, struck upon Sidney’s heart with a pain which was part of her new experience of life. “ Oh, if I had only been kinder ! ” she said over and over to herself.
If we could but take our possessions with us when we leave this world, life would be less terrible to those who love us, whom we leave. The many small things, which are so useless to every one except the owner, suddenly become sacred. They cannot be destroyed ; to give them away is a confession that they are cumbersome, and is another unkindness to the dead. This thought came to Sidney, on her knees before the lower drawer of Miss Sally’s bureau. Of what use to any one was the little ugly mosaic pin ? But Miss Sally’s fingers had touched it; it was her pride and joy; it must be kept. The black silk aprons which Sidney had always disliked, the small bags of rose leaves which would so soon crumble into dust, — none of these could be thrown away. The collection grew as the girl’s tenderness and remorse grew. There was a little faded pincushion, which with a pang she recognized as one of her youthful gifts to her aunt, which Miss Sally had cherished through Sidney’s indifferent years. There were daguerreotypes ; and some photography of Sidney, on which were written, “My darling Sidney,” and “ Dear little Sidney,” and the child’s age. One thin, square book gave her a shock of memory, as she unfolded the white paper in which it was wrapped, and saw the familiar gilt cherubs on the brown cover of Reading without Tears. Sidney sat down on the floor, and leaned her head against the old dressing-case, with the book open in her lap. How it all came back to her! — the time when she learned her letters standing at Miss Sally’s knee, while her aunt’s gentle voice alternately implored and encouraged her, as might be the condition of Sidney’s temper. Never out of patience, never unjust, what matter if sometimes unwise ? “ Oh, if I had only been kinder ! ” she sobbed. It was not reading without tears now. And so the book was added to the “ things to be kept; ” memory of that old tenderness made it sacred. Almost all these forlorn little treasures were connected with Sidney or her father, in some way, and so made the sting of her remorse sharper.
These voiceless possessions of Miss Sally’s raised such an outcry of regret and self-abasement in Sidney’s mind that, at last, she could not hear it, and rose, the pathetic task still unfinished. Her conscience clamored that she must do some kind act. Miss Sally’s poor seemed to entreat her, and it was to them she fled. Down, in the fading afternoon, to one miserable tenement after another, and then coming shuddering back again. “ No, it is all too awful! Oh, I cannot live ! I cannot bear it.
It is not enough to know that there is a Meaning, and I will not love Alan.”
The blue July day grew sullen with heat towards evening, and the skies blackened along the west. There was no wind, but the trees shivered. That night the major’s tea-table was very quiet; Sidney could not talk, and her father desired only to listen. He knew that she was troubled, and longed for deeper understanding of her pain, but he asked no questions ; he waited for her to know that she needed him before he should try to help her. Unless, indeed, she did not need him ? The remembrance of that hysterical experience, he thought, might now be only a painful mortification, and she would prefer that they should both forget it.
But as they sat at tea, in the half darkness of the long, octagonal room, — it was too hot for lights, — he was aware of a hopeless depression in her face that filled him with an aching pity. “ If Sarah had not died! ” he said to himself. The major had never recognized his affection for his sister until she was dead ; but it was not of his own loss that he thought, as he saw Sidney’s pain. He was almost angry at Miss Sally because she had died, and so his darling suffered. He spoke only of commonplace things, however: of the mutter of thunder, retreating and retreating, in the west ; of the heavy sweetness of the white phlox beneath the window ; or some query concerning Katherine and John.
Sidney scarcely heard him ; the tumult in her mind shut out everything else ; it seemed to her almost as though her father must hear it, too. Once she lifted her eyes and found him looking at her with a face full of troubled love. She started, and smiled. “ Did you speak to me ? ”
“No,” he answered ; and then, as they rose to leave the room, he rested his hand for a moment upon her shoulder. “ Sidney, what is it ? ”
She put her hands up to her face. “Oh,” she said sharply, “I do not know — I thought I knew — and yet — and yet " —
“ Yes? ” the major queried, in a mild voice. He was already less anxious; she was going to tell him, and it was inconceivable to him that his child could have any trouble that he could not lighten. He already saw himself explaining that of course he had attached no meaning to those confused words of hers, and she must not feel the slightest embarrassment; that such a nervous condition was most natural under the circumstances. The major readily appreciated that she suffered as she remembered her foolish excitement. The patience and sweetness in his worn old face made the tears spring to Sidney’s eyes. “ Oh, I have not even thought of him ! He wants to help me, and I have shut him out for fear he would not understand.”
“ I cannot seem to make it right,” she said; “ what shall I do ? ” They had come into the library, and the major, sitting down in his big leather chair, still kept her hand in his.
“ Make what right ? ” he asked.
“ That there should be suffering,” she answered, with a cry in her voice. She dropped her head upon her father’s knee, and he felt her tears against his hand. “ I thought God was enough ; but when I see pain, when I feel it, myself, then it seems to me that the Meaning must be understood before the pain can be borne; and yet a Meaning ought to be enough.”
“Sidney,” he said, “ my darling, I had not meant to refer to this ; I had hoped that you were better, if I may be allowed the expression. Surely, you are not serious in speaking as though this were a reasonable subject ? ”
She lifted her head, but still knelt beside him, looking at him with miserable eyes. “ It is the only subject there is, it seems to me ; there is nothing but the Eternal. Suffering and death are part of it; only — only I do not want pain, father ? ”
For a moment Major Lee was too amazed for words ; then he said gently, “ Let me understand you. I fear I have not followed you intelligently, — the fault is mine. But do I understand that you have ” — he stopped and smiled — " have become a Christian ? ” He was troubled at the condition which this conversation indicated, but he was amused. He wondered if it were worth while to treat it seriously.
“ A Christian ? ” the girl repeated vaguely. “ Oh, no, I am not that. That means to believe Christ is — God ? ” She paused a moment, and then said eagerly, “ Except as God is in all things, in every one; in Him preëminently. And, father, He felt that it was worth while to suffer, to lend His life to the End.”
“ I beg that you will be more clear,” the major said. “ I still do not follow you?”
Sidney had risen, and was sitting near him ; she had an open fan in her hand, and in the dusk it looked like a great white moth swaying upon a flower. Her face had grown clearer as she spoke, but her voice was unsteady. “ Oh, it is not that my truth is not true, and that it is not enough ; it is only that I do not want to suffer. But that is equivalent to saying that I do not want to do my part! ” she ended, with a hopeless sigh.
“ You will have to explain what you mean, Sidney,” said her father patiently. “ What is enough ? ”
“ The — the Meaning,” she answered, almost in a whisper. “ Eternal, I call it to myself.”
The major leaned forward in his chair and looked at her. “ If you were quite strong, my darling, instead of being worn out by your aunt’s illness, it would be worth while to discuss this with you. But then, if you were yourself, you would never personify an emotion, or name Force God. I should as soon expect you to take the next logical step and become a Roman Catholic ! ”
“ Let me tell you about it,” she entreated, and then began to speak with the deliberation of one who fears to lose the thread of his discourse, as, step by step, he advances along some intricate path of argument. She did not even look at her father ; she pressed her lips together once or twice as she proceeded, as though to insist upon calmness. It had been so real to her, that one great moment of her life, that she could not understand, as she tried to tell the story of Miss Sally’s death and the beginning of her own life, how impossible it is to bound an experience by words, or by an explanation define the unutterable God. Once the major made an impatient movement, and said something under his breath, but she did not seem to hear him. “ And so,” she ended, “ the Meaning in the universe is the Refuge, — is what aunt Sally called God ; and oneness with that Intelligence, it seems to me, makes life bearable, —and it ought to make it beautiful.”
“ Is that all ? ” said the major.
“ Yes,” she answered.
He looked at her with puzzled tenderness ; he was so grieved that she should suffer, so anxious because of her white face, so incapable of treating her convictions seriously or entering into an argument upon this fantastic idea which she chose to regard as the solution of life, that he did not know what to say. It occurred to him to beg her to go and rest, and yet he would not hurt her by dismissing her convictions lightly.
“ Your proposition,” he began, with the gentlest courtesy, “ is of course gained without the assistance of reason. And you will forgive me if I say that I am sure your calmer thought will show you its inadequacy. Sidney did not answer. “ And its inevitable conclusion : you now call the universe God, just as one creates a name for a hitherto unapprehended fact; but you might as well have called it Devil. You invest it with no personality, I observe, but you regard it with that poetic fervor which is, I am inclined to think, a phase of intellectual growth, which expresses itself in art, or religion, or love. Do you mean ” — he smiled, with tender amusement — “ do you mean to have a garland of roses and a goat with gilded horns, and to sing hymns to the great god Pan ? For you see just what you have evolved, — pantheism.”
She tried to say that her conviction was without a name.
“ If I were not assured of your intelligence,” her father said, “ I should fear lest you might go a step further, and say that this ‘ Meaning ’ was good, and that it was Love” ("Love is God,”Sidney said, under her breath), “ and then all the rest of it,” proceeded the major lightly, but with that sweet concern for her in his voice that would spare her the pang of mortification, — “ the coining down to the earth, the vicarious atonement, heaven, hell, even prayer, perhaps.”
Sidney leaned forward, resting her cheek in her hand. “ Why not prayer? ” she said slowly. “ That impulse is the Eternal. Is not prayer just claiming one’s self, in a way? Oh, father, everything is of Him ! ” She was so absorbed that, for the first time, her father felt a thrill of real anxiety. “ But as for heaven and hell, I cannot see that a wish or a fear, — and that is what heaven and hell are, it seems to me, — I cannot see that they can create facts. And to call the Eternal good is almost presumption; or that I should say that I love — It. But still — good ? Yes, I suppose so, if that means the process by which an end is attained. What the end may be we may not know ; but that there is an end, a meaning, is enough.”
“ So, then,” questioned the major, “you construe that sin, misery, — in a word, life, — is for your good ? ”
“ My good ? Oh, no, not mine ; only they must be for good, in some way. I don’t think it need make any difference to us what the good is, do you ? See, father, the clay in the brickyard: it is pounded, and burned, and made into bricks, and great, warm houses are built and streets paved. Well, that is good, is n’t it? Not the clay’s good, — but what of that ? There is a reason why the clay should be tortured, and if it could only just dimly know that there was a cause for its pain, it would be content; yes, and do its part. Well, I’ve seen that there is a meaning, for us. I don’t know what, but that does not matter.”
Major Lee looked at his daughter, in silence. Was this the result of twentyfour years’ training to exact thought, — the poetical fancy of a tired girl!
“Yes,” Sidney proceeded, “life is worth while when one sees that the Eternal Purpose is a refuge ! Do you remember that little church we saw the summer we went to the seashore, made of stones from the beach, — stones covered with barnacles ? Well, the barnacles were killed, but the church was built. Oh, father, life is surely less hard to bear if there is a meaning in it!" She rose as she spoke, her face radiant, and with an uplifted look in her eyes.
The major took her hands in his, and drew her down beside him. “ Come, be your reasonable self, Sidney! My dear, I detect traces of the Calvinism of your maternal grandfather. You have practically announced your willingness to be damned for the glory of God ! But, seriously, you have nothing more than you had before; you have not even personified the Unknowable, as an attempt at comfort.”
“ No, I trust Him, — that is all,” she answered eagerly; “ and I don’t say Unknowable any more. Unknown, perhaps, but, oh, in my soul I know God ! It limits Him to say Unknowable, and have we a right to do that ? One has but to give one’s self to the purpose of life, I think, — so far as one can see it, — and then, wait.”
For heaven ? ” inquired the major. He was torn between derision and anxiety, but tenderness dominated each.
“ Waiting means trust, it seems to me,” she said slowly. “ No, I have not thought we were immortal. Somehow, that seems unimportant, father. But have we any right to dogmatize either way? It may be so. We used to say love needed the illusion of immortality as an excuse for being. But ” — she stopped — “ but the Eternal is enough.”
“Sidney,” said Major Lee, “has Alan Crossan told you that he loves you?”
“ Yes,” she said, in a whisper.
“ Well ? ” questioned her father, sternly.
“ I told him I did not love him.” Major Lee breathed again. “ But I do. Only I — cannot! ”
It must have been eight o’clock when this talk of theirs began, but it was two in the morning when Sidney, without the good-night kiss which had been hers for all her unmothered years, left her father and went up to her room. After that acknowledgment that she loved Alan, Major Lee paused, as though to gather all his forces of love and sympathy and wisdom to meet this crisis. That breathless “ I — cannot! ” meant nothing to him. She loved, and love is at least as immortal as the lover. He saw now, clearly enough, what had blinded Sidney’s reason. The theory of a God was only the first step ; he was confident that she would follow it by that assertion of a belief in immortality with which Love, venturing into the same world with Death, excuses its own existence. So he must first demonstrate the folly of this extraordinary fancy of hers, which denied personality, but declared a person.
It seemed simple enough to Major Lee ; he would go over again the old conclusive arguments. He knew perfectly well that the girl’s knowledge, which was only his knowledge, could not possibly stand against him. How could she fence with weapons he had given her, which were pointed against herself ? She did not attempt to. Again and again he stopped, courteously, for “ her reasons,” and she responded, “ I do not reason, father ; I know.” “ You feel,” he corrected her, and the anxiety in his voice seemed to her contempt. Once she attempted to say that one fact which, to her mind, proved the morality, as humanity thought of morality, —the morality of the Eternal Purpose, — was the awful pain of remorse for sin. It was in violation of the Purpose ; —not the palpable inexpediency; something deeper, — the thwarted God ! That Major Lee brushed this assertion away with a word produced not the slightest effect.
“ The Eternal is in us,” she said gently, but with a voice as determined as his own.
“ You play with words, Sidney,” he affirmed. “ You have not moved one whit; you stand exactly where you have always stood ; you know — nothing! Only you wish to find an excuse for choosing sorrow, and you declare yourself satisfied with — what ? A Great Nothing in Particular ; a universe which is a differentiated God. Is it not better, instead, to have a noble acceptance of necessity, and silence? And you say you love ? Let me tell you what love has made my life.” He paused, and looked at her. “ I am astounded that this should be necessary; that I, who have lived the folly of love before your eyes, should yet have to assert its misery in words ! ”
His surprise was so genuine that for a moment, in the half darkness of the room, they stared at each other like two strangers.
The wind twisted the flame of the lamp into a blue whirl, and a moment later the storm broke, and the rain went trampling through the garden. For a moment the silence in the room could be felt, and then Mortimer Lee began to say that love was the curse of life, and life itself was only free from misery in proportion as it was free from happiness. As Sidney listened, she lived over with him his days and months of hideous anxiety and inescapable dread. She saw that the joy of his marriage walked by the side of fear. She watched his fierce struggle with death, the hand-tohand conflict with fate, while he held a dying woman in his arms, — a woman who besought him not “ to let her go.” And then she listened to his life afterwards, — empty, black, hopeless; lived only to teach her how to live that she might escape such suffering.
“ And now,” he ended, holding out trembling and entreating hands, “you tell me you love Alan Crossan! Oh, child, if I could only see you dead instead ! ”
“ I love him,” she said, her breath coming as though she sobbed, though her eyes were without tears, “ but I cannot bear it, father. Yet we are wrong, you and I.”
“ No! ” he cried, and it seemed to Sidney that his voice was suddenly that of an old, old man, “ we are right; and you shall not love him, — you shall not suffer! ”
“ You cannot save me from myself, ’ she said.
“ I will,” he answered. He put his trembling hands on either side of her face, and looked at her as she had never seen him look before. Then he said very gently, “ Go, Sidney.”
She dared not intrude upon that look by a word, or by the familiar good-night. She turned, and softly went away.
When his daughter left him, Mortimer Lee began to walk up and down his library. Long after Sidney was faintly smiling in her sleep, as her dreams opened the doors of resolution and bade joy enter, — even after the lamp burned white in the gray of dawn, — he still kept pacing back and forth, thinking. He did not tell Sidney the conclusion of his deliberations, when, in the morning, as usual, hanging upon his arm, she walked with him to the iron gate to say good-by ; there was a conscious tenderness in her manner, the major thought, which made his dim eyes burn at the very pity of it, for her and for him. When he left her, he went at once to Alan Crossan’s house.
There were one or two people waiting for the doctor, and the major took his place among them. His white head was bowed a little, and the fingers upon his stick were tremulous, but that was all; there was no anger in his face, only the patient habit of sorrow. When Alan, opening the office door, caught sight of the old man, he started with surprise, and went to him at once with extended hand. “ What is it ? ” he said hastily.
The major looked at the hand, and then at Alan’s face. “I wish to see you,” he answered.
Alan was confused and puzzled. “ If you will come up to my library,” he said, aside, “ these people can wait ? ”
“ I will wait.”
Alan went into his office, his face tingling. “It is about Sidney, — but why ? ” The wild thought even occurred to him that she had sent her father to say “ Yes.” His two poor people were somewhat ruffled, as is the habit of non-paying patients, that the doctor did not give them the attention and interest which they felt assured their cases demanded. Instead, he hurried them away, and then begged Major Lee to come into his library.
“Very well,” the major answered, and followed him through the hall and up the stairs to the pleasant room, with its sunshine, and chemicals, and stacks of music. There, when they had seated themselves, the two men looked at each other in a silence which Alan was the first to break. “ I was afraid some one was ill, but I hope I can be of service in some other way than by pills and powders.” He attempted to speak lightly, but it was evident that he was excited.
“You are very good,” returned the other, by force of habit. “ I have come to ask a favor, namely, will you kindly refrain from coming to my house ? ” As he spoke his voice began to tremble with anger. Alan, instantly, was calm and joyous.
“ I am sure,” he said, “ that you would not say such a thing unless I had offended you, and I beg that you will tell me in what way I have been so unfortunate ? ”
“I have made no complaint, merely a request. If it needs an explanation, you will, I think, find it in your own conscience.”
Alan felt his face growing hard and impatient. “ You are displeased because I love Sidney ? ”
“Pray be exact,” answered the major. “ I regret that you love my daughter, but I have no right to be displeased ; although, indeed, had I the time and inclination for personal feeling, I might be displeased that you had told her of your love. You observe the difference? It is, however, unnecessary to discuss it further.” He rose as he spoke; he was an old man, and the restraint and grief told upon him. His whole body was trembling.
“But you cannot leave me in this way, said Alan hotly. “ I do not admit for a moment that it was wrong to love Sidney, or to tell her so. I will not be thrust out of your house, Major Lee, without an explanation, as though I were a rogue ! She has refused me : is not that enough ? ” Alan’s hurried breath showed that this agitation was not good for him.
“ Can you not perceive that it might be”—Major Lee paused; he was not used to deception — “ it might be displeasing to my daughter to see you, under such circumstances? But you admit nothing wrong ? Very possibly, — very possibly. Yet when your father and I were young men, Alan, we would not have considered it honorable to have endeavored to win the regard of a woman without the consent of her father. What, then, would have been our opinion of a man who won it — who tried to win it — against the known wishes of her father? ” His sad eyes had in them something beside personal injury; it was the son of his friend who had done this thing.
Alan’s face flushed, but he was angry at himself that he should feel ashamed. “ I cannot agree with you, Major Lee. And you have no right to suggest dishonor. We must not argue now about the wisdom of love ; of course I know your ideas. But will you not grant that if it were my honest conviction that you were wrong and all the world was right, that love was good and worth the cost, then I had a right to speak of it to your daughter ? Granting my conviction, you cannot speak of dishonor.”
Mortimer Lee hesitated. “ It was not my purpose to accuse you; I merely wished to request ” —
“ You have accused me, however,” interposed the young man quietly.
“ If you insist,” returned the major, “ upon pursuing this subject, yes, I do consider such conduct dishonorable. You have no right to decide upon my views, unless you investigate them, which, if I mistake not, you are entirely incapable of doing.”
“ Then I am to understand,” said Alan slowly, “ that you make this request because you do not consider me an honorable man ? ”
Major Lee looked straight into the stern, beautiful eyes. His own were suddenly filled with entreaty. “ If you loved her, your first thought would be to spare her ! ”
Alan’s indignation vanished with the confession of those words, — he forgot everything except that Sidney loved him, and her father knew it; and then came the tender desire to shield the major from himself, — he must not guess that his pretense at anger had betrayed his fear. (How that look in his face brushed the years aside, and showed Sidney’s entreating and disdaining eyes!) As that thought came to Alan, he smiled, and the major, watching him, said to himself, “ No wonder, — no wonder ; but it shall not be.”
“It is strange,” he began to say, “ that you do not see the reasonableness of my position, Alan ” (he did not know that his voice had softened), “ even without the investigation of which I spoke ; for I should suppose that even the most superficial observer of life must at some time be struck by the sorrow of love ? Every school-boy will remember his Plato, and the wisdom of moderation ; and you, a man, you surely know that love is not moderation; it is the highest height and the deepest depth. And you wonder that I would protect her! ”
“ To gain the heights once, a man would walk in the depths afterwards ! ” cried the other.
“ But you ” — Mortimer Lee had nothing but entreaty now — “you have not the hope of a very long life before you, I have been told ! Is it possible that you do not see ” —
“ I think I see what you mean,” Alan answered gently. “ I suppose I shall not live very long, but ” —
The major looked at him, with a strange simplicity in his worn face. “Is — is the time short? May it not be — quite far off ? ” The hint of hope in his face was so unmistakable that it touched Alan into a smile ; but there was a mist of pity in his happy eyes.
“Well, you know,” he said, “dying is not one of those things which can be arranged by date.” He bit his lip to hide his smile. It was an unusual experience, the frank intimation that his early exit from the world would give pleasure. “ Sidney has refused me,” he added encouragingly. “ So you must not be anxious. Yes, I know what you mean. I do love Sidney, and because I love her she shall not love me. I had made up my mind to that. But if you think that she — that — I mean, if you think it would be best, I will go away from Mercer. But ” — He stopped ; a quick determination came into his face. “ Look here,” he said ; “ I want to say something right here.” He rose, and stood looking down at his companion. “ You are an old man, Major Lee, and I am only a young fellow — but I — I am going to tell you something, sir, and I beg your pardon in advance. I think you ought to hear it; I think some healthy-minded person ought to show you how preposterous, how absurd, this idea of yours is. Why, I assure you, I can’t take it seriously,” protested Alan, frowning and gesticulating. “ It is perfectly fantastic! ”
Mortimer Lee was too much astonished for words. This boy, this lightheaded boy, who knew no more of life than a frolicsome puppy, to whom love and death were only words, was going to “ show ” him that logic was not to be applied to life.
“ If Sidney,” proceeded the young man, “ could just get away from this one-sided habit of thought, this dealing with death as an isolated fact; if she could fall in love,” — the dignity of reserve came into his face, but his voice was gentle and his words simple, — " if she could fall in love in a natural, wholesome, human way, it would be far better for her than the egotism of the avoidance of pain which you inculcate. I trust, sir, that I have not offended you, but it has seemed to me that this should be said.”
“Sir,” returned the major, “you have a right to express your opinion; the more so that you have done me the favor of assuring me that you will leave Mercer.”
Alan flushed. “Major Lee, you know that I did not mean to take advantage of — of that. I shall go away, but I thought it proper that you should know my going was no concession to your views. It is only because I have not a man’s ordinary chances of life. If I had ! — But I will go away.” A man, however, cannot doff his character as he would his coat, and Alan added, “for a time.”
The major was very much moved, — too moved to resent the folly of the youth who had attempted to instruct him, or to discuss his own position ; he did not try to conceal his relief at Alan’s acknowledgment of ill health, nor his joy that he was going away. “Young man,” he said tremulously, “there is, in this distracted world, one certain thing, — compensation. You spare Sidney, and you are yourself spared the pain of leaving her.” He put out his hand, and Alan took it in his brave young grasp ; neither of them spoke. It was not a time for thanks or for protestations.
A moment later he had gone, and Alan was alone.
No one can contemplate the two realities of life and remain unchanged ; he must be either narrower or nobler. Alan Crossan, looking into the eyes of Love and Death, in these last few weeks, had gained a point where he was not aware of himself. This talk with Major Lee was not, as it would have been six months ago, a “situation,” a “scene,” to be observed with interest ; instead, it was felt.
“I will go away,” he determined. And this solemn joy of renunciation made him decide that he would not even say good-by to Sidney. That very day he began his arrangements for departure.
The first thing to be thought of was Robert. Robert needed him. “Yet,” Alan had grumbled to himself, only the day before, “the fellow does n’t want me. How the deuce am I to get at him ? ” But after that promise to the major, he had the inspiration which is so common in friendship that the wonder is it is not commonplace and futile, — Robert must feel that he was needed. (The curious part of this plan is that both sides regard it as subtile.)
As soon as this suggested itself to Alan, he went in search of his friend. “Bob, I wish you’d do me a favor,” he began, as he entered Robert’s room; and then he unfolded his plan that they should travel together for a time. “I am not up to going by myself,” he admitted ; and Robert was eager and grateful for the chance to be of use.
“See here, old man,” Alan said, as he rose to go, “I ‘ll have to prescribe for you; you’ve let up on morphine too suddenly ? ”
“No,” answered the other, “it had to he done at a blow. I made up my mind to that when I made up my mind about the Church.”
“The Church ? ”
Robert smiled faintly. “Yes. I can’t manage my own life ; I’ve made a failure of it; but I can put it where it won’t do any more harm, and perhaps — I dare to hope, some good. I have entered the Catholic Church, — my mother’s church, you know.”
“Good Lord ! ” said Alan.
“She forgave me,” proceeded the other, “but I cannot forgive myself; I do not mean for telling her, — that was right, —but for misleading her, in the first place. I cannot trust myself. The church which directs, and governs, and obliterates the individual is the place for a man like me. When you are well and strong again, I shall enter some brotherhood—and — and I shall at least be harmless.”
“ You will be crazy,” Alan assured him. “Man alive! how can you be a Catholic ? What are you going to do with your reason ? ”
“ Have I used it so well that I can rely upon it, do you think?” returned the other. And later, when the two men talked much of this matter, Alan reluctantly admitted that his friend was wise.
They hastened their arrangements for departure, and, without discussion or apparent agreement, it came about that they left Mercer the day before John and Katherine were married. The doctor was sorry for this, but he felt Robert’s pain at the remembrance of what that day was to have been to him and to Miss Sally, and made no protest. He called to say good-by to Mrs. Paul the night before they went away, but she was too happily excited to regret very deeply his absence from the wedding, or to think of mentioning it to Sidney. So the girl went to the little church, that pleasant August afternoon, full of strange fear and hope. She was willing to see Alan, she had said to herself a dozen times ; with too little understanding of love to know that she was selfish.
Since the night when she had talked with her father, Sidney had changed from one opinion to another as to the expediency of love, — even when one’s soul rested in the assurance of God. But she never wavered in her old conviction that love meant sorrow. She was like a flower swaying into the sunshine and into the shadow, but rooted all the while in the earth from which it sprang. Sometimes it seemed to her that she would tear love out of her heart; then, that she would love Alan a little, but he should never know it; then, that he might know it, and they would both forget it; and, again, that love should end. But, no matter what temporary opinion she might hold, she never swerved from the determination not to marry him. There was, however, no reason, she said to herself, that she should not meet him, sometimes, and she was confused and a little troubled that he no longer came to see her.
Of course she should see him at the wedding, she thought. She was to have gone to church with Mrs. Paul, but Mrs. Paul had forgotten her ; so Sidney found her way to Miss Sally’s seat, which was in the shadow of a pillar and beside a blue window, that was tipped half-way open, so that she could see the glimmering line of the river across the meadows, and beyond, the hills, misty with August sunshine ; nearer were the dusty roofs of the brick-kilns, and long rows of sun-baked bricks; and nearer yet was the frame of ivy leaves about the little window. With the singing murmur of the organ John and Katherine entered. Sidney had never seen a wedding before. She sat in the dark corner, leaning forward, nervously grasping the back of the pew in front of her; she listened with an intensity which made her breath come hurriedly, and her eyes blur, so that she could scarcely see the bunch of white August lilies which some one had placed in the bookrack, behind Miss Sally’s small shabby Prayer-Book. Not a month ago, what a different scene the little gray church had witnessed! It had been Death, then, which had moved up the aisle to the chancel ; and now, Love followed, joyously, in Death’s very steps, — forgetting !
Perhaps the words which remained in Sidney’s heart, out of all the stately and beautiful marriage service, were those least thought of in the daily careless life of husband and wife, — “till death us do part.”
“ Part! ” she thought. “ If they believe what they say they believe, that death does not end all, why is it not ‘ till death us do join ’ ? ”
“ O Eternal God,” she heard Mr. Brown say, “Creator and Preserver of all mankind, Giver of all spiritual grace ” — and Sidney knelt with the rest, but with a certain terror. To presume to address the Unknown! — oh, would not silence be better ?
Death had not been so solemn to Sidney as was this crown of life, — solemn and terrible ; an entering into the Eternal, a yielding up of God to God. It was neither joy nor sorrow, but an acceptance of life as part of the Purpose of the universe.
She dared not look into the faces of the man and woman thus glorified, as they turned to leave the church. Still kneeling, she hid her eyes in the bunch of white lilies, and waited. Yet she might have looked. It is conceivable that Moses could have come down from the mount, good and glad, but with no glory in his countenance that need be hidden from awestricken eyes. No one saw Sidney in the dark corner; and after the gay little company had gone, she still sat there by the blue window. Some birds twittered in the ivy, rustling the leaves as they moved; the organist in the dusky loft pushed in the stops and shut the organ, and a muffled echo crept along the arches of the ceiling. A rosy finger of light from the west window pointed up the aisle and into the chancel; the shadows of the leaves moved across it like living things.
“ Why do they have words,” Sidney was thinking, “ and why were we here ? We had no right to see them. A wedding is love and God ; it was profane to see it.”
The sexton, old and wrinkled, went limping up into the chancel to take away the flowers; he sang to himself in a soft falsetto, which cracked into unexpected bass.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green, He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.”
He did not seem to be aware that he was treading upon holy ground. Back and forth he went, carrying the flowers in his lean old arms ; then, still singing, he came with a long pole to shut the windows, set deep in the gray walls. Sidney startled him, as she rose and went away.
Oh, how terrible life was; how unbearable without the Eternal Refuge of the enfolding understanding of it all! Yet, how foolish to invite sorrow as these two had done ! She would not do that.
But her heart was full of Alan, as she walked home ; not with any weakening of resolution, but with the human joy of love, which is not to be destroyed by reason, or time, or death itself ; so that when she came into the library, and saw, leaning against the crystal ball on the oak table, a letter addressed to her in Alan’s hand, her face flushed with happiness. She opened it with smiling haste; and then stood, in the yellow dusk of sunset, reading its brief and friendly words.
DEAR SIDNEY, — I am sorry to go away — and for an indefinitely long time — so hastily that I may not say good-by to you ; but I must leave Mercer tonight. [Sidney, her face settling into white calm, mechanically looked back ; it was dated the day before.] Sincerely yours, ALAN CROSSAN.
The yellow light faded and faded ; the sparkle of the crystal ball trembled into gray; the shadows stretched themselves about the room. There was the click of the iron gate in the courtyard, and Major Lee’s step upon the porch.
“ It is better so,” she said, lifting her head. “ I am glad that he has gone ; this decides it. It is better for him.”