The Open Door
AT last the jangling freight train came to a standstill, and, as the voices and lanterns of the train hands died away in the distance, Finnister prepared to crawl out. Through the loosened bar of the half-cleaned cattle car he crept, and dropped heavily down into the snowy darkness. His numbed body could scarce feel the reality of solid earth ; but he plunged forward across innumerable tracks toward the bridge which led over into the city proper. A tramp? Yes, and worse ; as they are worse who, having known better things, are not able to keep them. A penniless gentleman, he had thought bitterly, is poorer than the veriest beggar. But now he was almost past thinking, though what he did was done from the kind of instinct which follows upon much thought. Cold, unwashed, smelling of the foul gunny sack in which he had wrapped himself in the cattle car, Finnister pushed on because there was still one place to push to. At the Friendly Inn he could get food, a bath, a night’s lodging, in return for some wood sawing, if the malign fever, the crown of his misfortunes, had left him strength to do it. Moreover, until all else was swallowed up in this sense of gnawing, nauseating hunger, he had felt that his cup of misery was not quite full, that there was some excitement still in seeing how much more it would hold, and how much more bitter the drops might be. Motion, however, was requickening the power to suffer and to think. He was like a man whose tormentors had left him for a time that the necessary recuperation might take place which should make further torment all the keener. The softness under his feet, the cold, feathery air all about him, — why not lie down here and end it thus ? Lethe’s cup holds many potions; why not drink his off, and give up an unequal strife ? Though grievous enough, it was not so much bodily distress that affected him as that dire mental pain which comes when a man looks into the future and sees a blank. He remembered a miner who told him of a torture by some Indians, how they tied a ligature round a man’s arm, skillfully stopped the circulation, then waited and jeered their victim as he went slowly mad.
Finnister felt that something had stopped in him the circulation of Hope, the most healthful current in man’s whole nature, and he wondered what madness might be like. Should he lie down, then ? No, not yet; he would at least prove a gallant player, would give Life the odds even, would wait till the cup brimmed over. Then, if there were nothing else, why then he would pass through what had been so aptly called the open door. Strange, he thought, that Life which plays such tricks with men should, as by an oversight, have placed the power to leave Life’s presence in man’s own weak hand.
He pushed and stumbled on in the semi-darkness, for the lights were here so far apart that if the snow thickened there was danger of losing the way.
The bridge once gained, he paused to draw breath. From end to end it was a blaze of lights, and light in itself is friendly. Yet the bridge was solitary save for a single figure ahead but dimly seen in the distance. It must have been very late, and in that case there was small chance of his getting in even at the Friendly Inn ; moreover, he did not know just where the inn was, and wished to ask. So he quickened his steps till abreast of the figure. As the stranger turned, the light fell full on his face, and he looked at Finnister from under cavernous brows with the pale, phosphor escent-rimmed eyes of a great age.
“ Good-evening, mate,” said Finnister recklessly.
“ Good - evening, sir,” returned the old man.
Poverty and wealth, which have many points in common, are alike in this, that they cruelly centre the possessor of either upon himself. But the old man’s tone and manner so belied his appearance that Finnister’s attention was involuntarily aroused, and he stared curiously at the speaker. Once the old man must have been unusually tall and correspondingly strong, but now his clothes and an ample cloak hung oddly upon the gaunt, shrunken frame. Yet his voice was anything but old. Strangely soft, low, and clear, he spoke upon a single note, a flutelike monotone, as if every other quality of the voice had gone ; and he ended his words with a long, gentle sigh. The voice seemed disembodied, an articulate sound, and Finnister wondered whether he had really heard, or whether a sense of speech had come to him from the old man’s mind and will. The aged eyes continued fixed upon him, however, and he felt he had never seen eyes at once so old, and yet so alive in their expression.
“ You are a stranger,” said Finnister, unconsciously speaking his thoughts, and half realizing that this momentary getting away from himself was, in itself, refreshment.
“ I am always a stranger, and yet have I been this way before.”
“ I thought you might be able to tell me just where the Friendly Inn is,” said Finnister after a slight pause.
“ It is two squares above the levee on South Clyde Street.”
“ Perhaps you, too, are going there,” suggested Finnister, with some wistfulness in his tone.
“ No, I lodge elsewhere; but I will go with you and show you the exact way,” responded the old man.
“ I would not for the world on a night like this take an old man out of his way.”
“ I am never taken out of my way; and I am not permitted to go out of it,” said the stranger, smiling. His smile, like his voice, was exquisite, but seemed to be of the same strange unchanging quality. Unconsciously Finnister drew closer to him. The old man carried a staff which, however, he did not use, yet kept briskly apace with the younger man. Finnister was surprised.
“Time has been good to you, sir,” he said wonderingly; “ there is no shuffle in your feet, no lack of muscular activity in your limbs and body.”
“ And time will be good to you,” instantly replied the other, “ if you will give time and yourself the chance.”
Finnister started. “ Why do you say that ? ” he demanded.
“ Because you are unfortunate, not guilty. Time is true to all; but only to the innocent can time appear good and kind.”
Finnister gave a mirthless laugh. “That’s hackneyed!” he exclaimed. “ But how did you guess I am unfortunate ? ”
“ I did not guess ; I saw.”
“That’s easily seen,” said Finnister bitterly, “ for no one goes to the Friendly Inn who has anywhere else to go.”
“ The inn will be closed ; it is long past the hour ; and you must go with me.” The stranger spoke gently, yet with a certainty that gave Finnister a thrill.
“Unfortunate? Yes!” he cried scornfully. “ How unfortunate you may well see when I am forced to accept charity from a chance stranger.”
“ You speak as one not knowing Life,” answered the old man in his singular, soft voice, a voice which seemed aloof from time and space and their interests. “ There is no such thing as charity, as you use the word. Mine is the privilege.”
There was that in his tone and manner which carried conviction.
“You are kind to put it so,” said Finnister more gently. “ But — not know Life ? Man, I have drunk its cup to the dregs ! ”
“ Ay, and think you can see the bottom of the cup below the dregs,” returned the stranger calmly. “ You are going to the Friendly Inn, but neither thought nor intention rests there; they are forging beyond, toward the open door.”
Again Finnister started. “ And what then ? ” he asked defiantly.
“ Do you think Life so simple that so easy a turn may end it ? You will admit that you did not give yourself Life ; do you think you can take Life ? ”
“I might at least try,” hazarded Finnister moodily. “ There is room, too, for expectation in the thought of possibly seeing what comes next.”
The stranger made no immediate reply. There was no wind, and the fine dry snow fell straight about them with always increasing swiftness. The old man drew closer to Finnister. “ I, who am the least of the King’s servants, know all too little of his laws. But I know that they dare too much who go unsummoned into his presence ; they may not have held out to them the golden sceptre.”
A fanatic, thought Finnister. “Well,”said he, “ suppose, going unbidden, we are sent to the other place, — is n’t it likely to be warm there, and light, and at least not hungry ? ” And again he gave that hard, jarring laugh.
“ It depends on what you find there,” said the stranger quietly. “ If you know anything of Life, you know there is no worm so gnawing as the worm regret ; no fire so tormenting as unsatisfied desire.”
“ Well,” said Finnister less harshly, “ let us hope that on the other side there is neither worm nor fire, but only oblivion ; that, passing through the open door, we step off into nothingness again.”
Without pausing, and with a bare turn of the wrist, the stranger drew with his staff a figure in the snow. It suggested to Finnister the figure eight.
“The earth is round,” said the old man, “ and we may not step off anywhere. There is no end. There is choice of action and of masters, or we may deceive ourselves by thinking we are free ; that is all. The open door! On the other side there is indeed manifold ” — He paused.
“ You speak as if you, yourself, had at least looked through the open door,” said Finnister, half smiling.
“ I have,” returned the old man with stern simplicity, “ even though it be but a lure, a snare. For to those who know something of the truth, the door does truly stand at times ajar, and through it one may catch glimpses. I am old. I have traveled long to and fro upon the earth, and I have now and then looked through that door.”
“ How — when ? ” cried Finnister, in surprise.
“ As to-night, through you, and with your eyes,” replied the old man gravely. “ The bridge is long,” he continued. “ It waxes colder. Put your hand in my arm under my cloak, and let me warm you. Never mind my years ; they no longer count. Enough that I am still here upon the service of the King.”
Wondering, and willing to humor his companion, Finnister did as he was bid, and found decided warmth, and greater ease in walking, by reason of this nearness.
“ They that are overcome with misery are as they that are overcome with wine, — the truth drops from their lips,” continued the stranger. “ You think if I did but know your story I should be forced to admit that you know to the full Life’s ill. But relief does not that way lie where your thoughts point. Believe me, on this side the open door you still have choice ; on the other, choice is forfeited. Here, you are what men call free; there, you are a captive, and you little dream who would be your keeper and leader.”
“ My story ? ” cried Finnister, somewhat sobered from his recklessness, and looking wonderingly into the strange old eyes so near his own. “ A few minutes ago my story seemed the whole of life ; but now, hearing your voice, your words, it seems lessening, falling away from me, like something outgrown, outlived.”
“ The man is greater than any story he may have to tell, greater than any of Life’s mere happenings, — you had forgotten that,” said the old man gently.
“ I never felt it, never knew it, till now,” returned Finnister quickly. “ But — I will tell you my story. I am thirty-six, the high noon of life. From my twenty-second year I served a man here in this very city, a wealthy man and one noted for his business capacity. He paid me fair wages, and I did my best. Yet there is no trading blood in me. I come of slaveholding stock, easy-going men, gentlemen of the horse, dog, and gun. At the back of my mind, through all I did and tried to do, there was a yearning sense of green, moist woods, sun-swept fields, blue skies, and fair running streams. It was like having an opaline, October haze in my mind, an inheritance from generations which had never been compelled to do anything.” Finnister was silent for a few minutes, and then said : “ Do you know where the curse of slavery really falls ? Not on the slave, but on his master. The man who owns another man never gets the full good of his own manhood, the full use of himself. My employer more than hinted that I should never make a really shrewd business man, that I had no real business capacity. I served him for a dozen years though, and during all that time he never commended me once. Of blame there was no stint, but of praise nothing. Never once did he say that I had done even approximately well. Yet in faithfulness and uprightness I served him as with my heart’s blood. Do you know what it is to serve in an atmosphere of chilling disapproval ? It means to have every sense numbed, physical and mental; it means to be kept on the edge of apprehension lest you should inadvertently transgress beyond all bounds; it means to fear, to doubt your own self till you feel yourself becoming the incapable thing you are charged with being. You are afraid to hold on; you are afraid to let go. Yet my employer himself, strange to say, was a man eager for every kind of approbation. He who withheld all encouragement from me shrank from a breath of blame as a delicate woman might shrink from blows. As time went on the dull pain of my daily life throbbed gradually into torture. My place became a hell, — I never expect to know a worse. I had saved money, however, and finally, in desperation, I threw up my position, and went South to try for myself in the open market. My employer predicted that I should fail, that I could n’t cope with the men I should have to deal with. Do you know what it is to buy cotton ? I did fairly well at first until I was deceived in certain grades. Yet these losses were comparatively small, my margin was all right, and, as I never speculated, I thought to make a tolerable living.” He drew a deep breath. " From people supposed to be perfectly trustworthy, I bought a large and costly order of high grade cotton. The samples were perfect ; but the whole consignment was thrown back upon my hands as being terribly inferior. I had been consummately cheated. The mill-owner’s loss I made good, of course; but this swept away nearly all I had. What was left I put into a cotton for which I knew there was a special demand. The cotton was to lie in the warehouse a single night. That very night a fire broke out. I had not been able to insure ; and my cotton was the first to go. I was not only ruined, but penniless.”
His voice choked in the white stillness. “ I tried for first one thing and then another, and finally got a porter’s place in a large store. I had had the place a month when I was stricken with typhoid fever, and was sixteen weeks in the hospital. On coming out, after looking about in vain, I determined to come back here where I have some friends so called who, if I can bring myself to ask them, may possibly help me. But this is a world in which if you have five dollars you can borrow five ; yet if you have n’t five cents you can’t borrow five to save your life ! ” The passion in his voice seemed to make the air more tingling. “ Well, I worked and beat my way back, and stole a ride for the last hundred miles in an overlooked cattle car. Here I am. But for your kindness I should this night in all probability have frozen in the street. Do you think you have done well to keep life in me ? ”
“ I have done well,” said the stranger in the voice that suggested starlight. “ And now that your story is, so far, behind you, — what do you think of it, how does it affect you ? Granted that, in the human sense, it has been hard, nevertheless, it has brought you to the truth, it has made you true. You know your own nature, your employer’s nature, your place in Life. You have put your finger on the eternal weakness and inadequacy of slavery. You are just, therefore necessarily sympathetic; you can divine and relieve men’s needs. What are the gold, and purple, and fine linen of life in comparison with this facing, this knowledge, of the living truth ? Do you count it gain or loss ? ”
There was a long silence.
“ Gain,” answered Finnister slowly.
“ And yet you were going to drop Life not at the moment of defeat, but of victory.”
“ Yes, but it is you who have made me see ! ” cried Finnister brokenly.
“ Never mind how sight comes, provided we do see. Never again mistake men for trees walking. It is the man who has consciousness and will, who has power, — not the tree.”
Finnister clung instinctively to the arm of his aged companion.
“ Could n’t you give me work ? Let me go with you ! ” he exclaimed.
“ That is forbidden,” said the stranger gently. “ The judgment is that I must go on alone.”
Finnister was awed; for there was such certainty in the old man’s tone that there was no gainsaying.
“ And your story ? ” he ventured to ask presently.
“It is so old as to be forgotten,” was the reply. “ My name, too, is gone with the lips that once knew and uttered it.”
Finnister gazed into his face with wonder. “ You are wise; you must have seen much of Life, have known much, — surely you might tell me something of yourself,” he entreated.
“ Will you believe ? ” replied the old man, smiling. “ I was one who once came to the Master, asking what good thing I should do to inherit eternal life. I wanted more life, not less, and wanted it for myself, for I had great possessions. The man who thinks Life purchasable is as far wrong as he who thinks Life worthless and to be thrown away. Grieved at the answer made me, I turned and went away. And I wander, as long as there is Life of men upon the earth, to work out for myself the answer to my question. For not until the Master shall have made the circle of humanity will He come to me again. So, as I turned from Him once, I must await His coming now. But my life, though solitary, is not apart. It is bound up with your life, with all lives. Whenever I am permitted to do what is called a good deed, a deed that increases Life, my probation is shortened. For every good deed is a privilege, because a special service to the King. You will know me by my sign, the double circles of time and of eternity.” And again the old man made in the snow the outline of the figure eight.
A great awe fell upon Finnister. He scarce dared think who his strange companion might be.
But they had now left the bridge and were making their way through the city streets.
“We are here,” said the old man at last, and stopped. It was in one of the poorest parts of the city, almost unknown to Finnister, and the door they paused before stood partly open. The old man knocked quickly, and presently an elderly woman, holding a lantern high above her head, came down the steep flight of black, narrow stairs upon which the door opened. Without a word the two followed her up the steps, and she showed them into a clean, almost bare room. The stranger and Finnister seated themselves at a table, and, without delay, the woman ministered to them. Warmth and drowsiness together stole soothingly through Finnister, yet while sensible of them his whole attention was fixed upon his preserver.
“ Tell me,” he said, taking his lips from a cup of hot broth, and resting his arm on the table, “ tell me, if I had passed through the open door, where should I have been ? Who would have been my keeper ? ”
The air seemed to be growing heavy as well as hot, and the voice of the old man was like a tinkling, far-off bell. With eyes fixed upon Finnister’s he said : —
“ No gift of Heaven is ever taken back. Men may change the use of it, but it is never withdrawn. It was promised to the disciples of the Master that they should sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And yet one was a devil, one was the traitor who fordid himself, and went to his own place. Yet has he his throne, his kingdom. All who kill belong to him and are his followers. He is keeper and leader of them all, and of those who betray. To pass the open door, therefore, is to stand face to face with the great betrayer. On his throne, in chains, if you can understand what that means, he rules a kingdom in chains ; and woe betide the soul which finds itself in his power and presence ! It is where hope ends, and remorse begins. But you have been spared. What you would have destroyed is not your life, but your power of choice in life. Your hardest trial is over. Your employer, too, has learned his lesson. After you left him, he took a young man, brilliantly capable, indeed, but unworthy. The firm has suffered heavy loss. But your employer has, in his turn, learned that faithful service, truth, and honesty are priceless. You will go back to him, and will serve under conditions better for you both. And I,” he said, smiling, " I shall go on — on — on — on.” The voice appeared to die away in the distance, and Finnister slept.
When he came to himself again it was at the sound of a voice which did not seem his own, a voice saying: “ Is it morning? Have I slept long?”
The question brought quickly to his side a young woman in hospital dress, and a tall, elderly man with a fine face, who looked down at Finnister with speculative eyes.
“You have slept well; and it’s broad day,” said the nurse cheerily.
“ Young man, you’ve had a close call, and must n’t talk,” said the doctor briefly. “ Miss Merton, give him his draught.” And the doctor slipped a hand under Finnister’s pillows, while the nurse held a glass to his lips. Something winey went down his throat. He wanted to ask another question, but before he could frame it he seemed to be caught up, under the wing of a gigantic white swan, — white as snow, warm as life, — into aerial space, where all desire was lost in an ecstatic sense of effortless motion.
When he next awoke it must have been late in the afternoon. Dusk had gathered in the corners of the unfamiliar room, and what light there was, like a pale fountain, streamed upward to the ceiling. In the semi-twilight he saw a woman sitting near the foot of his bed.
“ Did he go on ? ” asked Finnister eagerly.
The nurse started, and rose promptly.
“ Mr. Empley ? Yes ; but we thought you did n’t know him ; you seemed asleep.”
“ Empley —has he been here? ” asked Finnister wonderingly. For Empley was his grudging employer.
“ It was he who had you put in this room,” answered the nurse kindly. “ He said he could n’t stand having you in the common ward. You see, there was an account published of your being found, and of the address and letters in your pocket; that’s the way Mr. Empley knew.”
Even in the dim light the nurse saw something more than bewilderment in her patient’s face. He evidently tried to raise himself to look about him.
“ Where am I ? ” he demanded, as if frightened.
“ In one of the emergency rooms of the hospital,” said the nurse gently.
“ And the — the old man, the woman who took me in, and fed me ? ” demanded Finnister anxiously.
“ Oh, it’s all right,” answered the nurse soothingly ; “you must n’t worry. There was no one with you when you were found, though.”
“ Found ! Where was I found ? ” asked Finnister amazedly.
For a moment the nurse hesitated. “You must have staggered into an open door in a part of the city where some Jews live,” she said gently. “ The man has a poor little second-hand clothing store which he lives over. He and his wife thought they heard a knocking. The man went down to the street door, found it open, and you lying at the bottom of the steps. The people in the house got you upstairs, and worked over you, and in the morning the man looked up a policeman. He got an ambulance, and you were brought here. As I said, the papers in your pockets showed who you were. Mr. Empley came at once. He said he was sure you were on your way back to him, because he had been trying to make connections with you for the last eight weeks. The clerk who was in your place was dishonest, and gave no end of trouble. That’s all. Now you must rest easy, please, and get over this touch of fever.” For the wondering awe in Finnister’s face half frightened the nurse.
“ But the woman,” he persisted, “ the woman who waited on me, and gave me the hot broth just such as my mother used to make when I was a child, sick; and the homemade fruity wine like that at my grandfather’s years ago ? ”
The nurse looked troubled. “ I would n’t talk any more,” she said coaxingly. “You must have been a little delirious from the cold and exposure. The night was bitter. You couldn’t possibly have had any broth or wine. I believe the Jews did manage to get a little hot tea down your throat, but that was about all. Now do try to sleep.”
“ The door was open ; I’m sure of that,” insisted Finnister. “ And the old man knocked quickly four times, a double knock.”
“ Oh yes ; the door was open,” admitted the nurse kindly.
“ And he took me there; he saved me,” said Finnister solemnly.
“Well, he hasn’t reappeared upon the scene, then,” returned the nurse briskly, and with evident skepticism. “ So please don’t think any more about it. Think only of getting well, and of going back to Mr. Empley.”
“ He told me that, too,” said Finnister slowly.
The nurse eyed him, and laid her fingers on his wrist. “ If you talk any more, I’m afraid I ’ll have to call Miss Merton,” she said warningly. “ It’s all right; rest on that, and be satisfied.”
Finnister obediently closed his eyes and kept silence ; for he knew that there are some convictions which are for one’s self alone. What he could not know was that when the kindly Jew found him lying at the bottom of the steps, the snow had already begun to drift in upon him in something like the figure eight.