World Without End

THE body of Mrs. Sarah Pennefather lay on the bed, and her spirit lingered, considering it. ‘Curious fashion!’ mused the spirit. ‘I wonder I could have worn it all these years !'

The spirit was only this moment disencumbered. It floated above its late habiliments, wavered, and loitered still.

‘I remember being proud of it when it was new — comparatively new. The colors I thought were pretty. They have n’t worn well. And how it has wrinkled! It looks incredibly clumsy. One sees these things so much more clearly, getting a little away. It’s been extremely uncomfortable lately — very ill-fitting. I wonder I put up with it so long. You patch and mend and freshen one way and another, and try to make it do for another season — put off as long as you can throwing it aside and getting something new — ’

The spirit drifted, eddied, not quite yielding yet to the breeze between the worlds that, impelled it away.

‘I suppose there’s really nothing I can do for them — nothing more. They’ll all sleep until morning, and it’s really much better they should. I’m glad to be going this way, without any fuss. Dear children! I hope they won’t be unhappy. Miss me, but not be unhappy. They have their lives — and I must go on with mine.’

The wind that blows between the worlds blew stronger, filled space and overfilled it, surged over its little boundaries, obliterating them, and swept on, mighty and resistless; and thespirit that was Mrs. Pennefather’s floated out and out upon it and away to the Uttermost, beyond the reach of thinking — drifted, drifted, with peace flowing about it like currents of smooth air —drifted, drifted, deep in æons of unconsciousness — drifted, drifted, through sunrise colors and the sparkle of adventure, and waked in the World to Come.

Heaven lay all about, and the spirit of Mrs. Pennefather sat sipping her afternoon nectar in deep contentment, nibbling the crisp edge of a bit of admirable ambrosia, and exchanging ideas with a group of spirit ladies similarly refreshing themselves — congenial spirits. One of them paused in the observation she was about to make. Mrs. Pennefather lowered her poised cup, looked, and saw the courteous attendant waiting deferentially.

‘Ouija for Mrs. Pennefather,’ he said.

The slightest possible shade crossed Mrs. Pennefather’s face. She rose, and excused herself.

‘Don’t keep the tray for me,’ she said. ‘I may be some time. I really had finished.’

She moved away toward the ouija booths and closed the door of the one where the call was waiting.

‘It’s just a shame!’ said one of the remaining ladies explosively. ‘She’s the sweetest thing that ever drew the breath of heaven, and I know she never will say a word to them; but I wish she would! They’ve kept her stirred up one way and another ever since she got here. She is n’t getting her rest at all. And now if they have n’t begun on the ouija!’

‘I really sometimes wish,’ said another, ‘— it seems a little harsh, and perhaps selfish, — but I do almost wish they had n’t put in the ouija connections. It was so much more peaceful before.’

‘Oh, that kind of people! If it were n’t the ouija, it would be something else! They ’re always clamoring for attention. Why don’t we just systematically refuse it?’

‘Some of us would,’ said a third speaker. ‘I would do so myself—at least , I think I would; but this has been my home for so long, there is no one who would now be at all likely to call me, and you cannot be perfectly sure what you would do till the emergency arises.’

There was a subtle suggestion of Revolutionary times about her, deepening as she talked on. You could scarcely say it was a matter of costume, for, of course, this was not a material universe; but in some indescribable, ethereal way she conveyed it. It may have been personality. She impressed one increasingly as a Martha Washington kind of lady, though, of course, not Martha Washington.

‘Still, I think I myself should refuse,’ she went on. ‘But a lady like Mrs. Pennefather, with her soft, warm heart, and her sense of responsibility and lifelong habit of regarding others rather than herself, — so lately come away, too, and loving her children so tenderly, — you can see she really could not. I can scarcely imagine her refusing any claim that might be put upon her.’

The gentle spirit who had deplored the ouija connections ‘ hemmed’ apologetically and was about to speak again. She might have been from Cranford. There was something in her manner that made one feel it, vaguely — like the perfume emanating from the spirit of a sprig of lavender.

‘Oh, I suppose you can’t refuse,’ said the vehement first speaker, breaking in upon the other’s hesitation. ’It just is n’t done. Whatever way they take of calling you, you’ve just got to go, ouija or anything else, if they can get across with it. But I’d like to get hold of that ouija line myself and scamper round the board a little for Mrs. Pennefather’s family. I know some things I’d say!’

The gentle presence reminiscent of Cranford tried it again.

‘There are other ways so much more delicate,’ she said. ‘One does n’t find any fault with the silent outreachings of the heart, not employing instruments; though, of course, even those are engrossing, and one questions if they are quite — quite—kind, if I may say so. Still, they are sensitive, and refined, and — and very natural. One can’t wonder that the lonely feelings cry out to us and keep calling us back. But the ouija is quite unlike that. It seems so — so indelicate. I don’t know how to say what I can’t help feeling about it. It has a bold way that offends one’s — is it only one’s taste, I wonder? As if it were not — perhaps — altogether — respectful. It — it insists so! Perhaps it is only because we were not brought up to it. I can’t help feeling that it is a little humiliating, like playing tricks on a lady and putting her in an undignified position; and I wonder if dear Mrs. Pennefather does n’t feel the same way.’

The door of the ouija booth opened and Mrs. Pennefather came back. Her expression was troubled, and she did not resume her place among her friends.

‘It’s Harriet’s daughter,’ she said. ‘She does n’t know whether to run off with Jack or not. Her mother does n’t like him, and she’s quite right. Sara won’t herself after a while. But the child is so young! There’s a sort of jolly, reckless, all-for-a-good-time flow of spirits about him that she can’t resist. And he’s after her so hard! He’s begging her to go to-night, and she wants to and does n’t want to. She’s a good child and can’t bear to distress her father and mother, but she does n’t know what to do. She’s in a whirl. I ’ll just have to go and talk it over with her and calm her down. She’s reasonable, if you can get her quiet. She always did care what her grandmother thinks. Just now she can’t listen to her mother because she thinks her mother is prejudiced, and she won’t talk to her father. Poor little girl! She’s having a hard fight. She does n’t know anyone to turn to excepting her old grandmother, to help her make up her mind.’

‘What will it matter, after a while?’ said a quiet voice that had not been lifted in the ouija discussion.

‘Yes, of course,’ said Mrs. Pennefather. ‘I suppose we all see that here. But this is n’t after a while to Harriet’s little girl. It’s now. I’ll have to go help her.’

Again the well-mannered attendant was at their side.

‘The ouija, Mrs. Pennefather,’ he said.

One of the lesser executives was talking to somebody else, but I think not to the greatest.

‘Mrs. Pennefather really is n’t doing the least, good here, you know.’

‘What’s the matter? Is n’t she happy? “Blessed damosel leaned out” — is it that kind of case?’

‘No. Oh, no! Oh, she would be, if they’d let her alone. She has imagination enough to see what there is in it. It went like great music through her when she first caught a glimpse of it — the possibilities. She longs to be up and about it. It’s those in the World Before bothering around all the time, dragging her back. They call it loving her! You know. I don’t need to tell you.’

‘Mediums? Do they go as far down as that?’

‘Oh, yes, and worse. All the ways. They’ve even a ouija lately. It’s one of the aggravated cases.'

‘Well?’

‘It is n’t her fault at all, you know. She really is n’t here. They won’t let her be. They keep pulling her back and back, and making her stay with them. She is having to spend her whole time in the World Before — that’s what it amounts to. She has n’t had a chance, the way they keep interrupting her. She knows it’s like being in a swarm of gnats, but she hasn’t the heart to brush them away — all her family’s calls and calls to her. She loved them, you know, and her heart is so tender.’

‘And yet we don’t want to keep this life from shining through. One hesitates to thicken the barriers.’

‘Of course, that is true. But how to keep them from abusing it on the other side? Now, here’s this case of Mrs. Pennefather. It’s one of any number. You could duplicate it all over this life and the other, I’d hate to say how many times. Her little grandson has a temper. Many boys have; it’s not uncommon. Well, one day, out it flies, and another small boy gets knocked down and goes home crying. What docs his mother do? “Ambrose,”she says, very gently, “don’t you remember how Grandmother hated to see you give way to your temper? You don’t like to do what pained Grandmother so, do you?”

‘Now, that’s all very well; sweet and loyal and loving, and appeals to what’s fine in the boy — all very well, if she’d stop there. But does she? Not she! She goes on. Just listen to what she says to the youngster — and, as I said, it’s not just Mrs. Pennefather’s daughter-in-law. It’s happening every day, all over Christendom.

‘“Grandmother has n’t gone away from us,” she says. “We don’t see her any more, but she’s always near us — nearer than she ever was before! When you feel your bad temper coming up you just stop and think of Grandmother, and she’ll help you get the best of it.”

‘Well! There it is! So Mrs. Pennefather has to drop all the big things she might be doing and go back and stay around and help Ambrose take care of his temper, which his mother ought to be perfectly equal to doing herself. Mrs. Pennefather did it for Ambrose’s father, and a big job it was and took years of patience; but she did it, and now it’s Ambrose’s mother’s turn to do it for Ambrose.

‘And even that is n’t so bad. One could forgive that. There’s something fine in it too, of course. But the ones who ’re just lonesome! No other excuse in the world, but just lonesome! What are they thinking about? Do they think these Dead have n’t anything else to do than to keep hanging about their poor little lives forever and ever? Don’t they know they have their own great place in the marvelous universe and can’t be playing at midges’ work any longer? What do they think they died for?

‘Excuse me. It does make one immoderate. But the foolishness of it! The lack of imagination! The belittling the whole scheme!'

There are thoughts that demand expression before the ultimate authority. It is not quite honest to say them to anyone else, or to leave them unspoken.

Mrs. Pennefather went to find the very oldest residents. They might know. Their aspect was stately and somewhat awesome, because they were from the most remote antiquity, but their eyes were kind and wise.

‘Can anyone see Him?’ she asked.

‘The Maker of Plans?’

‘The Thinker of Everything,’she said.

‘You might try,’ they answered. ‘We don’t know whether you could; only whether we could.’

There was a great, quiet space, and in it a veil like a misty cloud hanging, stirring — like a breath on waters.

Mrs. Pennefather began to say what she had to say. She thought it was the one she had come to speak to, listening. It could n’t be anyone else. She had no hesitation, and said what was in her mind.

‘God, O God, it is n’t in the least what I expected. I did n’t think it of you, God! Can’t you ever let us off from living? Frittering away death — like this! They don’t understand, back there, but why can’t you make them let us alone? I was your faithful servant there, O God — you know I was! I did the very best I knew how. I did n’t shirk or complain — much. I tried hard! And I was so tired! I thought I could go away and rest. And ever since I came, every minute, they keep calling me to help them do things. Just the way it always was — only worse: for then they used to try to spare me and not let me overdo, and now they think they’re being kind to me. Kind! They really think that! I don’t mean to blame them, God. It’s just because they don’t know any better; but really they do. The more they call me, the more they think they’re being kind and loving to me. O God, I’m so disappointed in dying! Is n’t there something else? Something bigger ? Because if there is n’t, if it’s just going on living the same things over and over, with a kind of a veil between, then I can’t see what’s the good of dying, you know. Because they’re all such little things. One does n’t see that at the time. You think they matter, and so you ’re willing to pour your soul into them. But to see how little they are and how little they matter, and just when you’ve drawn a long breath, then to feel them reaching, reaching, clinging to you, holding you back — when you see it does n’t matter! O God, how can you let them interrupt great beautiful Death like that?’

Again the wind that blows between the worlds lifted the spirit of Mrs. Pennefather and swirled it away and away — high into ecstasies — deep into unconsciousness — far and far through the unthinkable realms that lie between the worlds. After the æons, emerged from the spaces, she lifted eyelids from tired eyes and looked at the light of the windows of her familiar bedroom and her daughter’s face bending over her.

‘Am I dead?’ said the living Mrs. Pennefather, slowly moving the lips of her body.

‘No, dear — oh, no!’ said her daughter. ‘You’ve been sleeping a long time. It’s quite late.’

‘I knew it could n’t be like that,’said Mrs. Pennefather after long seconds; ‘God would n’t fool anybody so.’

She turned her head, and her eyelids closed sleepily.

‘Now,’ she murmured, the words a light breath scarcely moving her lips, ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’