There was mourning in the house, sorrow in every heart. The youngest child, a boy four years old, the joy and hope of his parents, had died. There still remained to them two daughters, the elder of whom was about to be confirmed—good, charming girls both; but the child that one has lost always seems the dearest; and here it was the youngest, and a son. It was a heavy trial. The sisters mourned as young hearts can, and were especially moved at the sight of their parents’ sorrow.
The father was bowed down, and the mother completely struck down by the great grief. Day and night she had been busy about the sick child, and had tended, lifted, and carried it; she had felt how it was a part of herself. She could not realize that the child was dead, and that it must be laid in a coffin and sleep in the ground. She thought God could not take this child from her; and when it was so, nevertheless, and there could be no more doubt on the subject, she said in her feverish pain:
“God did not know it. He has heartless servants here on earth, who do according to their own liking, and hear not the prayers of a mother.”
In her grief she fell away from God, and then there came dark thoughts, thoughts of death, of everlasting death, that man was but dust in the dust, and that with this life all was ended. But these thoughts gave her no stay, nothing on which she could take hold; and she sank into the fathomless abyss of despair.
In her heaviest hours she could weep no more, and she thought not of the young daughters who were still left to her. The tears of her husband fell upon her forehead, but she did not look at him. Her thoughts were with the dead child; her whole thought and being were fixed upon it, to call back every remembrance of the little one, every innocent childish word it had uttered.
The day of the funeral came. For nights before the mother had not slept; but in the morning twilight she now slept, overcome by weariness; and in the meantime the coffin was carried into a distant room, and there nailed down, that she might not hear the blows of the hammer.
When she awoke, and wanted to see her child, the husband said,
“We have nailed down the coffin. It was necessary to do so.”
“When God is hard towards me, how should men be better?” she said, with sobs and groans.
The coffin was carried to the grave. The disconsolate mother sat with her young daughters. She looked at her daughters, and yet did not see them, for her thoughts were no longer busy at the domestic hearth. She gave herself up to her grief, and grief tossed her to and fro as the sea tosses a ship without compass or rudder. So the day of the funeral passed away, and similar days followed, of dark, wearying pain. With moist eyes and mournful glances, the sorrowing daughters and the afflicted husband looked upon her who would not hear their words of comfort; and, indeed, what words of comfort could they speak to her, when they themselves were heavily bowed down?
It seemed as though she knew sleep no more; and yet he would now have been her best friend, who would have strengthened her body, and poured peace into her soul. They persuaded her to seek her couch, and she lay still there, like one who slept. One night her husband was listening, as he often did, to her breathing, and fully believed that she had now found rest and relief. He folded his arms and prayed, and soon sank into a deep healthy sleep; and thus he did not notice that his wife rose, threw on her clothes, and silently glided from the house, to go where her thoughts always lingered—to the grave which held her child. She stepped through the garden of the house, and over the fields, where a path led to the churchyard. No one saw her on her walk—she had seen nobody, for her eyes were fixed upon the one goal of her journey.
It was a lovely starlight night; the air was still mild; it was in the beginning of September. She entered the churchyard, and stood by the little grave, which looked like a great nosegay of fragrant flowers. She sat down, and bowed her head low over the grave, as if she could have seen her child through the intervening earth, her little boy, whose smile rose so vividly before her—the gentle expression of whose eyes, even on the sick bed, she could never forget. How eloquent had that glance been, when she had bent over him, and seized his delicate hand, which he had no longer strength to raise! As she had sat by his crib, so she now sat by his grave, but here her tears had free course, and fell thick upon the grave.
“Thou wouldst gladly go down and be with thy child,” said a voice quite close to her, a voice that sounded so clear and deep, it went straight to her heart. She looked up; and near her stood a man wrapped in a black cloak, with a hood drawn closely down over his face. But she glanced keenly up, and saw his face under his hood. It was stern, but yet awakened confidence, and his eyes beamed with the radiance of youth.
“Down to my child!” she repeated; and a despairing supplication spoke out of her words.
“Darest thou follow me?” asked the form. “I am Death.”
And she bowed her head in acquiescence. Then suddenly it seemed as though all the stars were shining with the radiance of the full moon; she saw the varied colours of the flowers on the grave, and the covering of earth was gradually withdrawn like a floating drapery; and she sank down, and the apparition covered her with a black cloak; night closed around her, the night of death, and she sank deeper than the sexton’s spade can penetrate; and the churchyard was as a roof over her head.
A corner of the cloak was removed, and she stood in a great hall which spread wide and pleasantly around. It was twilight. But in a moment her child appeared, and was pressed to her heart, smiling at her in greater beauty than he had ever possessed. She uttered a cry, but it was inaudible. A glorious swelling strain of music sounded in the distance, and then near to her, and then again in the distance: never had such tones fallen on her ear; they came from beyond the great dark curtain which separated the hall from the great land of eternity beyond.
“My sweet darling mother,” she heard her child say. It was the well-known, much-loved voice, and kiss followed kiss in boundless felicity; and the child pointed to the dark curtain.
“It is not so beautiful on earth. Do you see, mother—do you see them all? Oh, that is happiness!”
But the mother saw nothing which the child pointed out—nothing but the dark night. She looked with earthly eyes, and could not see as the child saw, which God had called to Himself. She could hear the sounds of the music, but she heard not the word—the Word in which she was to believe.
“Now I can fly, mother—I can fly with all the other happy children into the presence of the Almighty. I would fain fly; but, if you weep as you are weeping now, I might be lost to you—and yet I would go so gladly. May I not fly? And you will come to me soon—will you not, dear mother?”
“Oh, stay! stay!” entreated the mother. “Only one moment more—only once more I should wish to look at thee, and kiss thee, and press thee in my arms.”
And she kissed and fondled the child. Then her name was called from above—called in a plaintive voice. What might this mean?
“Hearest thou?” asked the child. “It is my father who calls thee.”
And in a few moments deep sighs were heard, as of weeping children.
“They are my sisters,” said the child. “Mother, you surely have not forgotten them?”
And then she remembered those she had left behind. A great terror came upon her. She looked out into the night, and above her dim forms were flitting past. She seemed to recognize a few more of these. They floated through the Hall of Death towards the dark curtain, and there they vanished. Would her husband and her daughter thus flit past? No, their sighs and lamentations still sounded from above:—and she had been nearly forgetting them for the sake of him who was dead!
“Mother, now the bells of heaven are ringing,” said the child. “Mother, now the sun is going to rise.”
And an overpowering light streamed in upon her. The child had vanished, and she was borne upwards. It became cold round about her, and she lifted up her head, and saw that she was lying in the churchyard, on the grave of her child.
But the Lord had been a stay unto her feet, in a dream, and a light to her spirit; and she bowed her knees and prayed for forgiveness that she had wished to keep back a soul from its immortal flight, and that she had forgotten her duties towards the living who were left to her.
And when she had spoken those words, it was as if her heart were lightened. Then the sun burst forth, and over her head a little bird sang out, and the church bells sounded for early service. Everything was holy around her, and her heart was chastened. She acknowledged the goodness of God, she acknowledged the duties she had to perform, and eagerly she went home. She bent over her husband, who still slept; her warm devoted kiss awakened him, and heart-felt words of love came from the lips of both. And she was gentle and strong, as a wife can be; and from her came the consoling words,
“God’s will is always the best.”
Then her husband asked her,
“From whence hast thou all at once derived this strength—this feeling of consolation?”
And she kissed him, and kissed her children, and said, “They came from God, through the child in the grave.”