The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter X

June 11.

I was in her room this afternoon while she was dressing. I like to watch her brush her beautiful gray hair; it quite alters her face to have it down; it seems to shrine her in like a cloud, and the outlines of her cheeks round out, and she grows young.

“I used to be proud of my hair when I was a girl,” she said with a slight blush, as she saw me looking at her; “it was all I had to be vain of, and I made the most of it. Ah well! I was dark-haired three years ago.

“O you regular old woman!” she added, smiling at herself in the mirror, as she twisted the silver coils flashing through her fingers. “Well, when I am in heaven, I shall have my pretty brown hair again.”

It seemed odd enough to hear that; then the next minute it did not seem odd at all, but the most natural thing in the world.

June 14. She said nothing to me about the anniversary, and, though it has been in my thoughts{132} all the time, I said nothing to her. I thought that she would shut herself up for the day, and was rather surprised that she was about as usual, busily at work, chatting with me, and playing with Faith. Just after tea, she went away alone for a time, and came back a little quiet, but that was all. I was for some reason impressed with the feeling that she kept the day in memory, not so much as the day of her mourning, as of his release.

Longing to do something for her, yet not knowing what to do, I went into the garden while she was away, and, finding some carnations, that shone like stars in the dying light, I gathered them all, and took them to her room, and, filling my tiny porphyry vase, left them on the bracket, under the photograph of Uncle Forceythe that hangs by the window.

When she found them, she called me, and kissed me.

“Thank you, dear,” she said, “and thank God too, Mary, for me. That he should have been happy,—happy and out of pain, for three long beautiful years! O, think of that!”

When I was in her room with the flowers, I passed the table on which her little Bible lay open. A mark of rich ribbon—a black ribbon—fell across the pages; it bore in silver text these words:—

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”


“I thank thee, my God, the river of Lethe may indeed flow through the Elysian Fields,—it does not water the Christian’s Paradise.”

Aunt Winifred was saying that over to herself in a dreamy undertone this morning, and I happened to hear her.

“Just a quotation, dear,” she said, smiling, in answer to my look of inquiry, “I couldn’t originate so pretty a thing. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Very; but I am not sure that I understand it.”

“You thought that forgetfulness would be necessary to happiness?”

“Why,—yes; as far as I had ever thought about it; that is, after our last ties with this world are broken. It does not seem to me that I could be happy to remember all that I have suffered and all that I have sinned here.”

“But the last of all the sins will be as if it had never been. Christ takes care of that. No shadow of a sense of guilt can dog you, or affect your relations to Him or your other{134} friends. The last pain borne, the last tear, the last sigh, the last lonely hour, the last unsatisfied dream, forever gone by; why should not the dead past bury its dead?”

“Then why remember it?”

“‘Save but to swell the sense of being blest.’ Besides, forgetfulness of the disagreeable things of this life implies forgetfulness of the pleasant ones. They are all tangled together.”

“To be sure. I don’t know that I should like that.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. Imagine yourself in a state of being where you and Roy had lost your past; all that you had borne and enjoyed, and hoped and feared, together; the pretty little memories of your babyhood, and first ‘half-days’ at school, when he used to trudge along beside you,—little fellow! how many times I have watched him!—holding you tight by the apron-sleeve or hat-string, or bits of fat fingers, lest you should run away or fall. Then the old Academy pranks, out of which you used to help each other; his little chivalry and elder-brotherly advice; the mischief in his eyes; some of the ‘Sunday-night talks’; the first novel that you read and dreamed over together; the college stories; the chats over the corn-popper by firelight; the earliest, earnest looking-on into life together, its temptations conquered, its lessons learned, its disappointments faced together,—always you two,—would you like to, are you likely to, forget all this?

“Roy might as well be not Roy, but a strange angel, if you should. Heaven will be not less heaven, but more, for this pleasant remembering. So many other and greater and happier memories will fill up the time then, that after years these things may—probably will—seem smaller than it seems to us now they can ever be; but they will, I think, be always dear; just as we look back to our baby-selves with a pitying sort of fondness, and, though the little creatures are of small enough use to us now, yet we like to keep good friends with them for old times’ sake.

“I have no doubt that you and I shall sit down some summer afternoon in heaven and talk over what we have been saying to-day, and laugh perhaps at all the poor little dreams we have been dreaming of what has not entered into the heart of man. You see it is certain to be so much better than anything that I can think of; which is the comfort of it. And Roy—”

“Yes; some more about Roy, please.”

“Supposing he were to come right into the room now,—and I slipped out,—and you had him all to yourself again—Now, dear, don’t cry, but wait a minute!” Her caressing hand fell on my hair. “I did not mean to hurt you, but to say that your first talk with him, after you stand face to face, may be like that.

“Remembering this life is going to help us amazingly, I fancy, to appreciate the next,” she added, by way of period. “Christ seems to have thought so, when he called to the minds of those happy people what, in that unconscious ministering of lowly faith which may never reap its sheaf in the field where the seed was sown, they had not had the comfort of finding out before,—‘I was sick and in prison, and ye visited me.’ And to come again to Abraham in the parable, did he not say, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime hadst good things and Lazarus evil’?”

“I wonder what it is going to look like,” I said, as soon as I could put poor Dives out of my mind.

“Heaven? Eye hath not seen, but I have my fancies. I think I want some mountains, and very many trees.”

“Mountains and trees!”

“Yes; mountains as we see them at sunset and sunrise, or when the maples are on fire and there are clouds enough to make great purple shadows chase each other into lakes of light, over the tops and down the sides,—the ideal of mountains which we catch in rare glimpses, as we catch the ideal of everything. Trees as they look when the wind cooes through them on a June afternoon; elms or lindens or pines as cool as frost, and yellow sunshine trickling through on moss. Trees in a forest so thick that it shuts out the world, and you walk like one in a sanctuary. Trees pierced by stars, and trees in a bath of summer moons to which the thrill of ‘Love’s young dream’ shall cling forever—But there is no end to one’s fancies. Some water, too, I would like.”

“There shall be no more sea.”

“Perhaps not; though, as the sea is the great type of separation and of destruction, that may be only figurative. But I’m not particular about the sea, if I can have rivers and little brooks, and fountains of just the right sort; the fountains of this world don’t please me generally. I want a little brook to sit and sing to Faith by. O, I forgot! she will be a large girl probably, won’t she?”

“Never too large to like to hear your mother sing, will you, Faith?”

“O no,” said Faith, who bobbed in and out again like a canary, just then,—“not unless I’m dreadful big, with long dresses and a waterfall, you know. I s’pose, maybe, I’d have to have little girls myself to sing to, then. I hope they’ll behave better’n Mary Ann does. She’s lost her other arm, and all her sawdust is just running out. Besides, Kitty thought she was a mouse, and ran down cellar with her, and she’s all shooken up, somehow. She don’t look very pretty.”

“Flowers, too,” her mother went on, after the interruption. “Not all amaranth and asphodel, but of variety and color and beauty unimagined; glorified lilies of the valley, heavenly tea-rose buds, and spiritual harebells among them. O, how your poor mother used to say,—you know flowers were her poetry,—coming in weak and worn from her garden in the early part of her sickness, hands and lap and basket full: ‘Winifred, if I only supposed I could have some flowers in heaven I shouldn’t be half so afraid to go!’ I had not thought as much about these things then as I have now, or I should have known better how to answer her. I should like, if I had my choice, to have day-lilies and carnations fresh under my windows all the time.”

“Under your windows?”

“Yes. I hope to have a home of my own.”

“Not a house?”

“Something not unlike it. In the Father’s house are many mansions. Sometimes I fancy that those words have a literal meaning which the simple men who heard them may have understood better than we, and that Christ is truly ‘preparing’ my home for me. He must be there, too, you see,—I mean John.”

I believe that gave me some thoughts that I ought not to have, and so I made no reply.

“If we have trees and mountains and flowers and books,” she went on, smiling, “I don’t see why not have houses as well. Indeed, they seem to me as supposable as anything can be which is guess-work at the best; for what a homeless, desolate sort of sensation it gives one to think of people wandering over the ‘sweet fields beyond the flood’ without a local habitation and a name. What could be done with the millions who, from the time of Adam, have been gathering there, unless they lived under the conditions of organized society? Organized society involves homes, not unlike the homes of this world.

“What other arrangement could be as pleasant, or could be pleasant at all? Robertson’s definition of a church exactly fits. ‘More united in each other, because more united in God.’ A happy home is the happiest thing in the world. I do not see why it should not be in any world. I do not believe that all the little tendernesses of family ties are thrown by and lost with this life. In fact, Mary, I cannot think that anything which has in it the elements of permanency is to be lost, but sin. Eternity cannot be—it cannot be the great blank ocean which most of us have somehow or other been brought up to feel that it is, which shall swallow up, in a pitiless, glorified way, all the little brooks of our delight. So I expect to have my beautiful home, and my husband, and Faith, as I had them here; with many differences and great ones, but mine just the same. Unless Faith goes into a home of her own,—the little creature! I suppose she can’t always be a baby.

“Do you remember what a pretty little wistful way Charles Lamb has of wondering about all this?

“‘Shall I enjoy friendships there, wanting the smiling indications which point me to them here,—the “sweet assurance of a look”? Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fish, and society, ... and candle-light and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself,—do these things go out with life?’”

“Now, Aunt Winifred!” I said, sitting up straight, “what am I to do with these beautiful heresies? If Deacon Quirk should hear!”

“I do not see where the heresy lies. As I hold fast by the Bible, I cannot be in much danger.”

“But you don’t glean your conjectures from the Bible.”

“I conjecture nothing that the Bible contradicts. I do not believe as truth indisputable anything that the Bible does not give me. But I reason from analogy about this, as we all do about other matters. Why should we not have pretty things in heaven? If this ‘bright and beautiful economy’ of skies and rivers, of grass and sunshine, of hills and valleys, is not too good for such a place as this world, will there be any less variety of the bright and beautiful in the next? There is no reason for supposing that the voice of God will speak to us in thunder-claps, or that it will not take to itself the thousand gentle, suggestive tongues of a nature built on the ruins of this, an unmarred system of beneficence.

“There is a pretty argument in the fact that just such sunrises, such opening of buds, such fragrant dropping of fruit, such bells in the brooks, such dreams at twilight, and such hush of stars, were fit for Adam and Eve, made holy man and woman. How do we know that the abstract idea of a heaven needs imply anything very much unlike Eden? There is some reason as well as poetry in the conception of a ‘Paradise Regained.’ A ‘new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.’”

“But how far is it safe to trust to this kind of argument?”

“Bishop Butler will answer you better than I. Let me see,—Isaac Taylor says something about that.”

She went to the bookcase for his “Physical Theory of Another Life,” and, finding her place, showed me this passage:—

“If this often repeated argument from analogy is to be termed, as to the conclusions it involves, a conjecture merely, we ought then to abandon altogether every kind of abstract reasoning; nor will it be easy afterwards to make good any principle of natural theology. In truth, the very basis of reasoning is shaken by a scepticism so sweeping as this.”

And in another place:—

“None need fear the consequences of such endeavors who have well learned the prime principle of sound philosophy, namely, not to allow the most plausible and pleasing conjectures to unsettle our convictions of truth ... resting upon positive evidence. If there be any who frown upon all such attempts, ... they would do well to consider, that although individually, and from the constitution of their minds, they may find it very easy to abstain from every path of excursive meditation, it is not so with others who almost irresistibly are borne forward to the vast field of universal contemplation,—a field from which the human mind is not to be barred, and which is better taken possession of by those who reverently bow to the authority of Christianity, than left open to impiety.”

“Very good,” I said, laying down the book. “But about those trees and houses, and the rest of your ‘pretty things’? Are they to be like these?”

“I don’t suppose that the houses will be made of oak and pine and nailed together, for instance. But I hope for heavenly types of nature and of art. Something that will be to us then what these are now. That is the amount of it. They may be as ‘spiritual’ as you please; they will answer all the purpose to us. As we are not spiritual beings yet, however, I am under the necessity of calling them by their earthly names. You remember Plato’s old theory, that the ideal of everything exists eternally in the mind of God. If that is so,—and I do not see how it can be otherwise,—then whatever of God is expressed to us in this world by flower, or blade of grass, or human face, why should not that be expressed forever in heaven by something corresponding to flower, or grass, or human face? I do not mean that the heavenly creation will be less real than these, but more so. Their ‘spirituality is of such a sort that our gardens and forests and homes are but shadows of them.

“You don’t know how I amuse myself at night thinking this all over before I go to sleep; wondering what one thing will be like, and another thing; planning what I should like; thinking that John has seen it all, and wondering if he is laughing at me because I know so little about it! I tell you, Mary, there’s a ‘deal o’ comfort in ’t’ as Phœbe says about her cup of tea.”

July 5.

Aunt Winifred has been hunting up a Sunday school class for herself and one for me; which is a venture that I never was persuaded into undertaking before. She herself is fast becoming acquainted with the poorer people of the town.

I find that she is a thoroughly busy Christian, with a certain “week-day holiness” that is strong and refreshing, like a west wind. Church-going, and conversations on heaven, by no means exhaust her vitality.

She told me a pretty thing about her class; it happened the first Sabbath that she took it. Her scholars are young girls of from fourteen to eighteen years of age, children of church-members, most of them. She seemed to have taken their hearts by storm. She says, “They treated me very prettily, and made me love them at once.”

Clo Bentley is in the class; Clo is a pretty, soft-eyed little creature, with a shrinking mouth, and an absorbing passion for music, which she has always been too poor to gratify. I suspect that her teacher will make a pet of her. She says that in the course of her lesson, or, in her words,—

“While we were all talking together, somebody pulled my sleeve, and there was Clo in the corner, with her great brown eyes fixed on me. ‘See here!’ she said in a whisper, ‘I can’t be good! I would be good if I could only just have a piano!’ ‘Well, Clo,’ I said, ‘if you will be a good girl, and go to heaven, I think you will have a piano there, and play just as much as you care to.’

“You ought to have seen the look the child gave me! Delight and fear and incredulous bewilderment tumbled over each other, as if I had proposed taking her into a forbidden fairy-land.

“‘Why, Mrs. Forceythe! Why, they won’t let anybody have a piano up there! not in heaven?{147}’

“I laid down the question-book, and asked what kind of place she supposed that heaven was going to be.

“‘O,’ she said, with a dreary sigh, ‘I never think about it when I can help it. I suppose we shall all just stand there!’

“And you?” I asked of the next, a bright girl with snapping eyes.

“‘Do you want me to talk good, or tell the truth?’ she answered me. Having been given to understand that she was not expected to ‘talk good’ in my class, she said, with an approving, decided nod: ‘Well, then! I don’t think it’s going to be anything nice anyway. No, I don’t! I told my last teacher so, and she looked just as shocked, and said I never should go there as long as I felt so. That made me mad, and I told her I didn’t see but I should be as well off in one place as another, except for the fire.’

“A silent girl in the corner began at this point to look interested. ‘I always supposed,’ said she, ‘that you just floated round in heaven—you know—all together—something like ju-jube paste!’

“Whereupon I shut the question-book entirely, and took the talking to myself for a while.{148}

“‘But I never thought it was anything like that,’ interrupted little Clo, presently, her cheeks flushed with excitement. ‘Why, I should like to go, if it is like that! I never supposed people talked, unless it was about converting people, and saying your prayers, and all that.’

“Now, weren’t those ideas[B] alluring and comforting for young girls in the blossom of warm human life? They were trying with all their little hearts to ‘be good,’ too, some of them, and had all of them been to church and Sunday school all their lives. Never, never, if Jesus Christ had been Teacher and Preacher to them, would He have pictured their blessed endless years with Him in such bleak colors. They are not the hues of His Bible.”

(B) - Facts.

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