Consolation

I

THE door-bell rang in the night. It was toward morning, and cold. We sat up and listened.

It rang again.

The children were asleep across the hall. Their father went downstairs quietly and opened the door.

Leaning over the rail, I heard him talking to a messenger. Then he came back upstairs, shaking violently, as with a heavy chill, and handed me a telegram.

It read, ‘Margaret is very ill. Come at once.’

We looked at each other in terror and bewilderment. She had gone away, a few days before, so radiant, and seemingly in perfect health. We had letters telling of her happy visit, and the plans for the wedding at which she was to be bridesmaid. In her letters there was no hint of illness or weakness. It seemed impossible that in such a short time she could be seriously ill. Had there been an accident? Could there be a mistake?

I wondered and reasoned, unable to accept the message, but weighed down with dread forebodings. Her father could say nothing, but he looked gray and broken, as if the telegram had brought news of her death. He told me, afterward, that he was convinced that was what it meant.

‘Let us pray for her to be well,’ I said, after we had turned the heartbreaking puzzle over and over. ‘That is all we can do. We have always prayed, and the children always get well. Perhaps we may get another telegram by morning, saying she is better.’

And so I actually hoped; and, at last, praying, fell asleep. But her father could not sleep. I think he lay awake till morning, when, in the chill, early gray dawn, we made his preparations, and he left to take the first train.

Later, I woke the children and told them what had happened. They were distressed with vague fears, watching me with anxious little faces.

I went about in a strange, unhappy daze, feeling a cold hand clutching my heart, imagining her in pain, in fever, wondering what the physicians were doing for her, longing, in an agony of desire and grief, to be with her. I was hoping every minute for a telegram that would say she was better.

After some hours a telegram came. It announced her death.

Holding it with trembling fingers, I reread it with blurred vision, doubting my sight. It brought no conviction, simply more bewilderment. It was impossible. It was unthinkable. She to die! I did not believe it. I had never known anyone so vividly alive. Her lithe, slender body, her face, alight and radiant with thought, seemed to be only an expression of her spirit. ' Spirit, fire, and dew’ — so I had often thought of her.

I sat and stared at the telegram, stupidly, as one might look at a heavy club that had smitten one on the head. I know now that the effect it had was that of a physical blow. I could not think coherently, but one idea kept rising insistently. There was some mistake. It might be a trance. I sent a hasty telegram by telephone, and then another, more explicit and urgent. I waited in a state of suspended life. At last the answer came back: —

‘There was no mistake. Five physicians were called.’

There was no mistake. Then —

I could not frame the thought. It was like another, heavier blow. My brain reeled. Thought seemed to stagger, to faint, to rouse and fall, exactly as it does when recovering from an anæsthetic or a blow. I recalled the feeling of the surgeon’s knife, the stabs of pain, dulled and then sharp, as consciousness returns.

That impression of the anæsthetic persisted for days — the feeling of dull stupor, with sudden sharp stabs of pain, as realization came at times. It is a merciful result of such a blow that the stupor prevails.

Then, all at once, a clear thought came to me: ’Now she is with God. Now she knows what we two have so often wondered about.’

I was overpowered by the wonder, the beauty, and the glory of that thought. I rose and stood by the inner door. Suddenly, it seemed to me that Margaret was with me. She seemed to take my hand and draw me up, a step higher, while she stood close to me, a little higher, still holding my hand.

Then it seemed as if, while we stood thus together, a great brilliant sun rose from the horizon, with rays spreading to the zenith, while an ineffable glory spread over the world.

I do not know how long we stood. It was so wonderful that I found myself smiling, though I stood there, at last, alone.

’She is not dead,’ I said to myself. ‘She is more vitally, strongly alive than ever before, and she is with God. She is happy.’

The beauty and glory of that experience stayed with me. It left an exaltation that lasted for months. It left, too, a deep conviction that Margaret was in a realm of love and happiness and beauty, infinitely transcending ours.

Because I am not a spiritualist, and would not seek or credit any of their ‘communications,’ I want to make it plain that there was no appearance, no voice, no touch, no thrill of contact. There was no illusion. The experience did not seem in the least supernatural, but most natural. It seemed to be of the texture of thought, as if I had a strong thought of her being with me. It was a manifestation of her love, I feel sure. It gave me unspeakable comfort and assurance.

II

‘When she comes home,’ I thought, with throbbing heart,
That danced a measure to my mind’s refrain.
Again from out the door I leaned and looked,
Where she should come along the leafy lane.
And then she came — I heard the measured sound
Of slow, oncoming feet, whose heavy tread
Seemed trampling out my life. I saw her face.
Then through my brain a sudden numbness spread.
The earth seemed spun away, the sun was gone,
And time, and place, and thought. There was no thing
In all the universe, save one who lay
So still and cold and white, unanswering,
Save by a graven smile, my broken moan.
She had come home, yet there I knelt alone.

Years ago I had written that poem, after reading Riley’s ‘When she comes Home.’ Was it a prophecy?

It was some days before they brought her home from that distant state. It seemed like months. I must not dwell on the agony of those days, or anything they held for all of us.

And then she came — I heard the measured sound
Of slow, oncoming feet —

I had looked forward, with a great eagerness, to seeing her again. I went into the room. There, amid a bower of flowers, dressed in glistening, delicate white, lay a beautiful girl. ‘So still and cold and white, unanswering’ —

I felt a distinct shock of disappointment. This was not Margaret. There was some mistake, after all. But the clear-cut, cameo features were the same, the hair, the hands. I touched them. Who can forget that icy cold! It was marble. It was not Margaret.

I stood, disappointed and puzzled. She was not lying there. I was sure of it. She was alive, and was both with me and in heaven. The flood of triumphant conviction swept over me again. I looked about the room, in a kind of wonder at the funeral flowers — for her, who was not dead! There were pallid white roses. But among them were some splendid rich red roses, full of life and vigor. Yes, they were suitable. And there were her favorite pink ones. Then my eye caught a great wreath of sweet peas, white, rose-pink, and lavender. It seemed to express my thought of her present life and surroundings. I caught it up and laid it over the feet of the beautiful, still figure.

Later in the day someone came and spoke to me about a dress — a black dress. The thought filled me with horror. Black! They wear black for the dead. She was not dead. To wear black would seem to proclaim her dead. I showed them the wreath. ‘If it were possible, I should like to wear white, embroidered with rose and lavender, and threads of gold, like light,’ I said. ‘That is the glorious way I think of her.’ But I felt that no one could understand.

They spoke of cards, black-edged, and of kerchiefs, black-edged. It seemed childish to me, even though one were dead. How wide should the border be, to express one’s grief? It would be all black, would it not? But it would seem to say that she was dead. I could not bear it, and ordered only white.

Another day passed while the beautiful form lay among the flowers. I need not tell anyone who has experienced it, what those days were to the grief-stricken household.

Then the time came when we stood on the hillside, while light snow-flakes fell, beside the open grave. It almost seemed true, then, what they all said. Dazed, in bewilderment and dumb pain, I saw the blanket of roses laid over the grave. But as we turned heavily away, I knew that Margaret was with us.

As we entered the door of the home there came that piercing, crushing thought that she would never come back, as she had before. But she was alive. She was ‘just away,’ as she had been on the visit, as her sister had been at school. Farther? No, nearer, very near. I was sure of it. And we would be going to her.

From that time I have looked forward to that meeting, and I can hardly wait.

III

It was a comfort, that first night, to feel that she was with my father and those others we loved. There comes to us all at such times, at first, — and especially at night, — an overwhelming, instinctive fear of the loneliness and darkness and cold. It is as if those who have gone from us had set forth alone, in a tiny boat, upon a misty sea. Are they frightened? Are they lonely? Are they cold? We can think and feel only in terms of the senses, and we torture ourselves with these unreasoning thoughts. We try to reach out human hands of helpfulness to them; and then we realize with relief that others, like them, can touch and help them, when we cannot.

The thought makes the flesh seem unreal. It makes God seem more real. We are turned back on the thought of God, and of his promises. The Twentythird Psalm is a refuge. We sink into the comfort of the thought, ‘Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.’ We hold to the promise of Christ, ‘Lo, I am with you always.’ It is unspeakably comforting to realize that ‘If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.'

Why, they could not be away from Him anywhere in the universe. They could not grope a single step in darkness or bewilderment.

Then I began to realize that we are just as entirely dependent on God in the flesh, as we are after we leave it. How helpless are mortals, before the power of the aroused elements, in flood or fire, earthquake or hurricane! How helpless in pestilence! How little human hands can do to protect us! And we are as helpless to provide for our needs, if provision is not made first by Nature.

I realize how God’s care anticipates our human needs, provides light for the eye, sound for the ear, adjusts our physical frame to the pressure of the atmosphere, maintains the thermoequilibrium of the body these and thousands of other provisions. And does He not provide as generously for our souls, even while they are imprisoned in the flesh? In how many ways does He minister to the soul — through the eye, the ear, the intellect, and by spiritual communion.

The study, not only of the human body and mind, but also of physical nature, convinces one of open heart of the care of God.

‘Consider the lilies of the field.’ ‘Behold the fowls of the air. . . . Your heavenly Father feedeth them.’

Many a time, since then, have I stood, as the golden sunset deepened into twilight, and listened to the robins singing their happy vespers among the orchard trees. As it sank to a soft twitter, blending with the contented hum of insects, and the far-off, peaceful sounds of flock and herd, there has swept over me an overwhelming consciousness of the care of the All-Father for his creatures.

Something of this came to me that first night, and I prayed for her who had gone out into what seemed at first to be the great Darkness. It was not that she needed my prayers, for her faith was as deep as mine; but that seemed the only way I could bear her company. Gradually the darkness became luminous, and the horror of cold and loneliness melted away in the warm consciousness of the love and light of God.

The next day a friend brought me a copy of the beautiful prayer that his church uses. It was so comforting that I want to give it to others.

‘O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, in whose embrace all creatures live, in whatsoever world or condition they be; I beseech Thee for her whose name and dwelling-place and every need Thou knowest.

‘Lord, vouchsafe her light and rest, peace and refreshment, joy and consolation, in Paradise, in the companionship of saints, in the presence of Christ, in the ample folds of thy great love. Grant that her life (so troubled here) may unfold itself in thy sight and find a sweet employment in the spacious fields of eternity. If she hath ever been hurt or maimed by any unhappy word or deed of mine, I pray Thee, of thy great pity, to heal and restore her, that she may serve Thee without hindrance.

‘Tell her, O gracious Lord, if it may be, how much I love her and miss her and long to see her again; and, if there be ways in which she may come, vouchsafe her to me as a guide and guard, and grant us a sense of her nearness, in such degree as thy laws permit.

‘If in aught I can minister to her peace, be pleased, of thy love, to let this be; and mercifully keep me from every act which may deprive me of the sight of her as soon as our trial time is over, or mar the fullness of our joy when the end of the days hath come.

‘Pardon, O gracious Lord and Father, whatsoever is amiss in this my prayer, and let thy will be done; for my will is blind and erring, but thine is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

‘Light and rest, peace and refreshment, joy and consolation.’ What could I pray for her that she would not have? I prayed God to give her all these, and some special, shining joy, because of her mother’s prayer. I prayed for Him to give her my love, and to tell her how deeply we missed her; for, though I lifted my thought to her constantly, I felt that she was more sure to receive the message in that way. I prayed, too, that I might have communion with her, and that my thought might go to her. I feel now that it does. And then I taught the children to pray, ‘Please, God, give her our love.’ But most of all I prayed that she might be kept as close to Christ as possible. That means all safety, all care, all beatitude.

IV

The pink roses left, in the home breathed of her. While they lasted they gave me a kind of faint happiness. When they were gone, I brought more to put by her picture and in her room. She seemed to be there, in a way. But when I went back to the cemetery, I felt that she was not there. There was no satisfaction in going, or in taking flowers. It seemed better to put them in her room, as if she would know.

Her room, all rose-pink and white, had been closed. Some weeks later, I took it for mine, seeming to be nearer to her. Standing before her mirror, I thought how often there had ‘glowed the clear perfection of her face.’ It seemed as if she must enter through that mirrored door, and smile over my shoulder. The feeling persisted that she would be returning at any time.

Our lives and our thoughts had been much interwoven, and we had much in common. It seemed to me that now, in a peculiar way, I had come to see with her eyes. As I unfolded the delicate gowns she wore, I could not help thinking, ‘How coarse and common these must seem to her, compared to the glorious raiment she can choose and fashion now.’ Suddenly, I had a thought, almost a feeling, of filmy garments, not woven, but of the texture of a flower-petal. How coarse the finest fabric is, compared to that!

Putting away her trinkets, I thought what childish toys they must seem to her now, compared with the wonders of heaven. But I laid my treasures away with reverent care, for they were all I had, and inexpressibly dear. The thought was satisfying rather than disquieting, for it left a stronger impression of her exalted state, and made me seem more attuned to her spirit.

I felt this, too, when I noticed suddenly the unusual effect of sad or minor strains on my ear. I used to love them, and they are generally supposed to be peculiarly acceptable to those in sorrow. Now they smote on my ear as gratingly as a discord. I realized that this was not the kind of music that Margaret was hearing. It should be happy and triumphant.

I saw the grime and dirt of the city with new vision, and with an overpowering thought of the immaculate purity of those streets, ’like unto molten glass,’and of the incorruptible beauty of that fair country, that real ‘Place’ that Christ promised to prepare for us. It was good to think of her there.

When someone laid before me that beautiful sonnet of Richard Watson Gilder, ‘Call me not Dead,’it came to me with new meaning: —

Call me not dead when I, indeed, have gone
Into the company of the ever-living
High and most glorious poets. Let thanksgiving
Rather be made. Say: ‘He at last hath won
Rest and release, converse supreme and wise,
Music and song and light of immortal faces;
To-day, perhaps, wandering in starry places,
He hath met Keats, and known him by his eyes.
To-morrow (who can say?) Shakespeare may pass,
And our lost friend just catch one syllable
Of that three-centuried wit that kept so well;
Or Milton; or Dante, looking on the grass
Thinking of Beatrice, and listening still
To chanted hymns that sound from the heavenly hill.

I had thought of her meeting others. Perhaps she, too, had met Keats and others of those beautiful spirits gone from us, whose books she had loved to read, those masters of music and painting that she enjoyed most. It was a comfort to know that she had always delighted in new places and in making new friends. I pictured her amid groups and companies, amid love and light and harmonies of wonderful music. I could see her conversing, with her bright sparkle and vivacity, with these new friends. How she would enjoy them; and, I could not help thinking, how they would enjoy her!

Then I began to think of her, with a most persistent imagining, as moving in some free, swift, happy motion, almost as if swept along by light clouds, or by electric currents. Not with the old idea of wings! As I saw her, in thought, she was always smiling, almost always laughing, with that light, joyous laugh of hers. And whenever I lifted my eyes, it seemed that, framed among the trees, wreathed in rainbow colors, there was a vanishing vision of her smiling face.

It took nothing from my comfort to think that memory and imagination each had its part in this strong new visualizing. Accustomed to analyze thought, I was aware of a new, strong element, which I believed to be divine.

Many things about the home have helped to make her, not a memory, but a living part of our daily lives. She seems immanent in all beauty, as a living part of it — in sunset or moonlight, in garden walks or woodland paths. And in all holy communion, being nearer to God, I feel nearer to her who is with God.

Most of all, the thought of her comes at sunrise, in the beauty of the quiet dawn, with the words of her best-loved hymn. The air is Mendelssohn’s, but there always awakens at the same time the unearthly music of Grieg’s ‘Morning,’which she often played. It, too, has in it the faint, growing light of the dawn and the stir of awakening birds.

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness — I am with Thee.
So shall it be at last, in that bright morning
When the soul waketh, and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought — I am with Thee.

To that dawning I lift my eyes.