The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter XII

July 22.

Aunt Winifred has connected herself with our church. I think it was rather hard for her, breaking the last tie that bound her to her husband’s people; but she had a feeling, that, if her work is to be done and her days ended here, she had better take up all such little threads of influence to make herself one with us.


To-day what should Deacon Quirk do but make a solemn call on Mrs. Forceythe, for the purpose of asking—and this with a hint that he wished he had asked before she became a member of the Homer First Congregational Church—whether there were truth in the rumors, now rife about town, that she was a Swedenborgian!

Aunt Winifred broke out laughing, and laughed merrily. The Deacon frowned.

“I used to fancy that I believed in Swedenborg,” she said, as soon as she could sober down a little.

The Deacon pricked up his ears, with visions of excommunications and councils reflected on every feature.

“Until I read his books,” she finished.

“Oh!” said the Deacon. He waited for more, but she seemed to consider the conversation at an end.

“So then you—if I understand—are not a Swedenborgian, ma’am?”

“If I were, I certainly should have had no inducement to join myself to your church,” she replied, with gentle dignity. “I believe, with all my heart, in the same Bible and the same creed that you believe in, Deacon Quirk.”

“And you live your creed, which all such genial Christians do not find it necessary to do,” I thought, as the Deacon in some perplexity took his departure, and she returned with a smile to her sewing.

I suppose the call came about in this way. We had the sewing-circle here last week, and just before the lamps were lighted, and when people had dropped their work to group and talk in the corners, Meta Tripp came up with one or two other girls to Aunt Winifred, and begged “to hear some of those queer things people said she believed about heaven.” Auntie is never obtrusive with her views on this or any other matter, but, being thus urged, she answered a few questions that they put to her, to the extreme scandal of one or two old ladies, and the secret delight of the rest.

“Well,” said little Mrs. Bland, squeezing and kissing her youngest, who was at that moment vigorously employed in sticking very long darning-needles into his mother’s waterfall, “I hope there’ll be a great many babies there. I should be perfectly happy if I always could have babies to play with!”

The look that Aunt Winifred shot over at me was worth seeing.

She merely replied, however, that she supposed all our “highest aspirations,”—with an indescribable accent to which Mrs. Bland was safely deaf,—if good ones, would be realized; and added, laughing, that Swedenborg said that the babies in heaven—who outnumber the grown people—will be given into the charge of those women especially fond of them.

“Swedenborg is suggestive, even if you can’t accept what seem to the uninitiated to be his natural impossibilities,” she said, after we had discussed Deacon Quirk awhile. “He says a pretty thing, too, occasionally. Did I ever read you about the houses?”

She had not, and I wished to hear, so she found the book on Heaven and Hell, and read:—

“As often as I have spoken with the angels mouth to mouth, so often I have been with them in their habitations: their habitations are altogether like the habitations on earth which are called houses, but more beautiful; in them are parlors, rooms, and chambers in great numbers; there are also courts, and round about are gardens, shrubberies, and fields. Palaces of heaven have been seen, which were so magnificent that they could not be described; above, they glittered as if they were of pure gold, and below, as if they were of precious stones; one palace was more splendid than another; within, it was the same the rooms were ornamented with such decorations as neither words nor sciences are sufficient to describe. On the side which looked to the south there were paradises, where all things in like manner glittered, and in some places the leaves were as of silver, and the fruits as of gold; and the flowers on their beds presented by colors as it were rainbows; at the boundaries again were palaces, in which the view terminated.”

Aunt Winifred says that our hymns, taken all together, contain the worst and the best pictures of heaven that we have in any branch of literature.

“It seems to me incredible,” she says, “that the Christian Church should have allowed that beautiful ‘Jerusalem’ in its hymnology so long, with the ghastly couplet,—

‘Where congregations ne’er break up, And Sabbaths have no end.’

The dullest preachers are sure to give it out, and that when there are the greatest number of restless children wondering when it will be time to go home. It is only within ten years that modern hymn books have altered it, returning in part to the original.

“I do not think we have chosen the best parts of that hymn for our ‘service of song.’ You never read the whole of it? You don’t know how pretty it is! It is a relief from the customary palms and choirs. One’s whole heart is glad of the outlet of its sweet refrain,—

‘Would God that I were there!’

before one has half read it. You are quite ready to believe that

‘There is no hunger, heat, nor cold, But pleasure every way.’ Listen to this:—

‘Thy houses are of ivory,
Thy windows crystal clear,
Thy tiles are made of beaten gold;
O God, that I were there!
‘We that are here in banishment
Continually do moan.
. . . . . . . . . .
‘Our sweet is mixed with bitter gall,
Our pleasure is but pain,
Our joys scarce last the looking on,
Our sorrows still remain.
‘But there they live in such delight,
Such pleasure and such play,
As that to them a thousand years
Doth seem as yesterday.’

And this:—

‘Thy gardens and thy gallant walks
Continually are green;
There grow such sweet and pleasant flowers
As nowhere else are seen.
‘There cinnamon, there sugar grows,
There nard and balm abound,
What tongue can tell, or heart conceive
The joys that there are found?
‘Quite through the streets, with silver sound,
The flood of life doth flow,
Upon whose banks, on every side,
The wood of life doth grow.’

I tell you we may learn something from that grand old Catholic singer. He is far nearer to the Bible than the innovators on his MSS. Do you not notice how like his images are to the inspired ones, and yet how pleasant and natural is the effect of the entire poem?

“There is nobody like Bonar, though, to sing about heaven. There is one of his, ‘We shall meet and rest,’—do you know it?”

I shook my head, and knelt down beside her and watched her face,—it was quite unconscious of me, the musing face,—while she repeated dreamily:—

“Where the faded flower shall freshen,—
Freshen nevermore to fade;
Where the shaded sky shall brighten,—
Brighten nevermore to shade;
Where the sun-blaze never scorches;
Where the star-beams cease to chill;
Where no tempest stirs the echoes
Of the wood, or wave, or hill;....
Where no shadow shall bewilder;
Where life’s vain parade is o’er;
Where the sleep of sin is broken,
And the dreamer dreams no more;
Where the bond is never severed,—
Partings, claspings, sob and moan,
Midnight waking, twilight weeping,
Heavy noontide,—all are done;
Where the child has found its mother;
Where the mother finds the child;
Where dear families are gathered,
That were scattered on the wild;....
Where the hidden wound is healed;
Where the blighted life reblooms;
Where the smitten heart the freshness
Of its buoyant youth resumes;....
Where we find the joy of loving,
As we never loved before,—
Loving on, unchilled, unhindered,
Loving once, forevermore.” ...


Aunt Winifred was weeding her day-lilies this morning, when the gate creaked timidly, and then swung noisily, and in walked Abinadab Quirk, with a bouquet of China pinks in the button-hole of his green-gray linen coat. He had taken evident pains to smarten himself up a little, for his hair was combed into two horizontal dabs over his ears, and the green-gray coat and blue-checked shirt-sleeves were quite clean; but he certainly is the most uncouth specimen of six feet five that it has ever been my privilege to behold. I feel sorry for him, though. I heard Meta Tripp laughing at him in Sunday school the other day,—“Quadrangular Quirk,” she called him, a little too loud, and the poor fellow heard her. He half turned, blushing fiercely; then slunk down in his corner with as pitiable a look as is often seen upon a man’s face.

He came up to Auntie awkwardly,—a part of the scene I saw from the window, and the rest she told me,—head hanging, and the tiny bouquet held out.

“Clo sent these to you,” he stammered out,—“my cousin Clo. I was coming ’long, and she thought, you know,—she’d get me, you see, to—to—that is, to—bring them. She sent her—that is—let me see. She sent her respect—ful—respectful—no, her love; that was it. She sent her love ’long with ’em.”

Mrs. Forceythe dropped her weeds, and held out her white, shapely hands, wet with the heavy dew, to take the flowers.

“O, thank you! Clo knows my fancy for pinks. How kind in you to bring them! Won’t you sit down a few moments? I was just going to rest a little. Do you like flowers?”

Abinadab eyed the white hands, as his huge fingers just touched them, with a sort of awe; and, sighing, sat down on the very edge of the garden bench beside her. After a singular variety of efforts to take the most uncomfortable position of which he was capable, he succeeded to his satisfaction, and, growing then somewhat more at his ease, answered her question.

“Flowers are sech gassy things. They just blow out and that’s the end of ’em. I like machine-shops best.”

“Ah! well, that is a very useful liking. Do you ever invent machinery yourself?”

“Sometimes,” said Abinadab, with a bashful smile. “There’s a little improvement of mine for carpet-sweepers up before the patent-office now. Don’t know whether they’ll run it through. Some of the chaps I saw in Boston told me they thought they would do’t in time; it takes an awful sight of time. I’m alwers fussing over something of the kind; alwers did, sence I was a baby; had my little windmills and carts and things; used to sell ’em to the other young uns. Father don’t like it. He wants me to stick to the farm. I don’t like farming. I feel like a fish out of water.—Mrs. Forceythe, marm!”

He turned on her with an abrupt change of tone, so funny that she could with difficulty retain her gravity.{179}

“I heard you saying a sight of queer things the other day about heaven. Clo, she’s been telling me a sight more. Now, I never believed in heaven!”


“Because I don’t believe,” said the poor fellow, with sullen decision, “that a benevolent God ever would ha’ made sech a derned awkward chap as I am!”

Aunt Winifred replied by stepping into the house, and bringing out a fine photograph of one of the best of the St. Georges,—a rapt, yet very manly face, in which the saint and the hero are wonderfully blended.

“I suppose,” she said, putting it into his hands, “that if you should go to heaven, you would be as much fairer than that picture as that picture is fairer than you are now.”

“No! Why, would I, though? Jim-miny! Why, it would be worth going for, wouldn’t it?”

The words were no less reverently spoken than the vague rhapsodies of his father; for the sullenness left his face, and his eyes—which are pleasant, and not unmanly, when one fairly sees them—sparkled softly, like a child’s.{180}

“Make it all up there, maybe?” musing,—“the girls laughing at you all your life, and all? That would be the bigger heft of the two then, wouldn’t it? for they say there ain’t any end to things up there. Why, so it might be fair in Him after all; more’n fair, perhaps. See here, Mrs. Forceythe, I’m not a church-member, you know, and father, he’s dreadful troubled about me; prays over me like a span of ministers, the old gentleman does, every Sunday night. Now, I don’t want to go to the other place any more than the next man, and I’ve had my times, too, of thinking I’d keep steady and say my prayers reg’lar,—it makes a chap feel on a sight better terms with himself,—but I don’t see how I’m going to wear white frocks and stand up in a choir,—never could sing no more’n a frog with a cold in his head,—it tires me more now, honest, to think of it, than it does to do a week’s mowing. Look at me! Do you s’pose I’m fit for it? Father, he’s always talking about the thrones, and the wings, and the praises, and the palms, and having new names in your foreheads, (shouldn’t object to that, though, by any means), till he drives me into the tool-house, or off on a spree. I tell him if God hain’t got{181} a place where chaps like me can do something He’s fitted ’em to do in this world, there’s no use thinking about it anyhow.”

So Auntie took the honest fellow into her most earnest thought for half an hour, and argued, and suggested, and reproved, and helped him, as only she could do; and at the end of it seemed to have worked into his mind some distinct and not unwelcome ideas of what a Christ-like life must mean to him, and of the coming heaven which is so much more real to her than any life outside of it.

“And then,” she told him, “I imagine that your fancy for machinery will be employed in some way. Perhaps you will do a great deal more successful inventing there than you ever will here.”

“You don’t say so!” said radiant Abinadab.

“God will give you something to do, certainly, and something that you will like.”

“I might turn it to some religious purpose, you know!” said Abinadab, looking bright. “Perhaps I could help ’em build a church, or hist some of their pearl gates, or something like!”

Upon that he said that it was time to be at{182} home and see to the oxen, and shambled awkwardly away.

Clo told us this afternoon that he begged the errand and the flowers from her. She says: “‘Bin thinks there never was anybody like you, Mrs. Forceythe, and ’Bin isn’t the only one, either.” At which Mrs. Forceythe smiles absently, thinking—I wonder of what.

Monday night. I saw as funny and as pretty a bit of a drama this afternoon as I have seen for a long time.

Faith had been rolling out in the hot hay ever since three o’clock, with one of the little Blands, and when the shadows grew long they came in with flushed cheeks and tumbled hair, to rest and cool upon the door-steps. I was sitting in the parlor, sewing energetically on some sun-bonnets for some of Aunt Winifred’s people down town,—I found the heat to be more bearable if I kept busy,—and could see, unseen, all the little tableaux into which the two children grouped themselves; a new one every instant; in the shadow now,—now in a quiver of golden glow; the wind tossing their hair about, and their chatter chiming down the hall like bells.

“O what a funny little sunset there’s going to be behind the maple-tree,” said the blond-haired Bland, in a pause.

“Funny enough,” observed Faith, with her superior smile, “but it’s going to be a great deal funnier up in heaven, I tell you, Molly Bland.”

“Funny in heaven? Why, Faith!” Molly drew herself up with a religious air, and looked the image of her father.

“Yes, to be sure. I’m going to have some little pink blocks made out of it when I go; pink and yellow and green and purple and—O, so many blocks! I’m going to have a little red cloud to sail round in, like that one up over the house, too, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Molly opened her eyes.

“O, I don’t believe it!”

“You don’t know much!” said Miss Faith, superbly. “I shouldn’t s’pose you would believe it. P’r’aps I’ll have some strawberries too, and some ginger-snaps,—I’m not going to have any old bread and butter up there,—O, and some little gold apples, and a lot of playthings; nicer playthings—why, nicer than they have in the shops in Boston, Molly Bland! God’s keeping ’em up there a purpose.{184}”

“Dear me!” said incredulous Molly, “I should just like to know who told you that much. My mother never told it at me. Did your mother tell it at you?”

“O, she told me some of it, and the rest I thinked out myself.”

“Let’s go and play One Old Cat,” said Molly, with an uncomfortable jump; “I wish I hadn’t got to go to heaven!”

“Why, Molly Bland! why, I think heaven’s splendid! I’ve got my papa up there, you know. ‘Here’s my little girl!’ That’s what he’s going to say. Mamma, she’ll be there, too, and we’re all going to live in the prettiest house. I have dreadful hurries to go this afternoon sometimes when Phœbe’s cross and won’t give me sugar. They don’t let you in, though, ’nless you’re a good girl.”

“Who gets it all up?” asked puzzled Molly.

“Jesus Christ will give me all these beautiful fings,” said Faith, evidently repeating her mother’s words,—the only catechism that she has been taught.

“And what will he do when he sees you?” asked her mother, coming down the stairs and stepping up behind her.

“Take me up in His arms and kiss me.{185}”

“And what will Faith say?”

“Fank—you!” said the child, softly.

In another minute she was absorbed, body and soul, in the mysteries of One Old Cat.

“But I don’t think she will feel much like being naughty for half an hour to come,” her mother said; “hear how pleasantly her words drop! Such a talk quiets her, like a hand laid on her head. Mary, sometimes I think it is His very hand, as much as when He touched those other little children. I wish Faith to feel at home with Him and His home. Little thing! I really do not think that she is conscious of any fear of dying; I do not think it means anything to her but Christ, and her father, and pink blocks, and a nice time, and never disobeying me, or being cross. Many a time she wakes me up in the morning talking away to herself, and when I turn and look at her, she says: ‘O mamma, won’t we go to heaven to-day, you fink? When will we go, mamma?’”

“If there had been any pink blocks and ginger-snaps for me when I was at her age, I should not have prayed every night to ‘die out.’ I think the horrors of death that children live through, unguessed and unrelieved,{186} are awful. Faith may thank you all her life that she has escaped them.”

“I should feel answerable to God for the child’s soul, if I had not prevented that. I always wanted to know what sort of mother that poor little thing had, who asked, if she were very good up in heaven, whether they wouldn’t let her go down to hell Saturday afternoons, and play a little while!”

“I know. But think of it,—blocks and ginger-snaps!”

“I treat Faith just as the Bible treats us, by dealing in pictures of truth that she can understand. I can make Clo and Abinadab Quirk comprehend that their pianos and machinery may not be made of literal rosewood and steel, but will be some synonyme of the thing, which will answer just such wants of their changed natures as rosewood and steel must answer now. There will be machinery and pianos in the same sense in which there will be pearl gates and harps. Whatever enjoyment any or all of them represent now, something will represent then.

“But Faith, if I told her that her heavenly ginger-snaps would not be made of molasses and flour, would have a cry, for fear that she{187} was not going to have any ginger-snaps at all; so, until she is older, I give her unqualified ginger-snaps. The principal joy of a child’s life consists in eating. Faith begins, as soon as the light wanes, to dream of that gum-drop which she is to have at bedtime. I don’t suppose she can outgrow that at once by passing out of her little round body. She must begin where she left off,—nothing but a baby, though it will be as holy and happy a baby as Christ can make it. When she says: “Mamma, I shall be hungery and want my dinner, up there,” I never hesitate to tell her that she shall have her dinner. She would never, in her secret heart, though she might not have the honesty to say so, expect to be otherwise than miserable in a dinnerless eternity.”

“You are not afraid of misleading the child’s fancy?”

“Not so long as I can keep the two ideas—that Christ is her best friend, and that heaven is not meant for naughty girls—pre-eminent in her mind. And I sincerely believe that He would give her the very pink blocks which she anticipates, no less than He would give back a poet his lost dreams, or you your brother. He has been a child; perhaps, incidentally{188} to the unsolved mysteries of atonement, for this very reason,—that He may know how to ‘prepare their places’ for them, whose angels do always behold His Father. Ah, you may be sure that, if of such is the happy Kingdom, He will not scorn to stoop and fit it to their little needs.

“There was that poor little fellow whose guinea-pig died,—do you remember?”

“Only half; what was it?”

“‘O mamma,’ he sobbed out, behind his handkerchief, ‘don’t great big elephants have souls?’

“‘No, my son.’

“‘Nor camels, mamma?’


“‘Nor bears, nor alligators, nor chickens?’

“‘O no, dear.’

“‘O mamma, mamma! Don’t little CLEAN—white—guinea-pigs have souls?’

“I never should have had the heart to say no to that; especially as we have no positive proof to the contrary.

“Then that scrap of a boy who lost his little red balloon the morning he bought it, and, broken-hearted, wanted to know whether it had gone to heaven. Don’t I suppose if he{189} had been taken there himself that very minute, that he would have found a little balloon in waiting for him? How can I help it?”

“It has a pretty sound. If people would not think it so material and shocking—”

“Let people read Martin Luther’s letter to his little boy. There is the testimony of a pillar in good and regular standing! I don’t think you need be afraid of my balloon, after that.”

I remembered that there was a letter of his on heaven, but, not recalling it distinctly, I hunted for it to-night, and read it over. I shall copy it, the better to retain it in mind.

“Grace and peace in Christ, my dear little son. I see with pleasure that thou learnest well, and prayed diligently. Do so, my son, and continue. When I come home I will bring thee a pretty fairing.

“I know a pretty, merry garden wherein are many children. They have little golden coats, and they gather beautiful apples under the trees, and pears, cherries, plums, and wheat-plums;—they sing, and jump, and are merry. They have beautiful little horses, too, with gold bits and silver saddles. And I asked the man to whom the garden belongs, whose children{190} they were. And he said: ‘They are the children that love to pray and to learn, and are good.’ Then said I: ‘Dear man, I have a son, too; his name is Johnny Luther. May he not also come into this garden and eat these beautiful apples and pears, and ride these fine horses?’ Then the man said: ‘If he loves to pray and to learn, and is good, he shall come into this garden, and Lippus and Jost too; and when they all come together, they shall have fifes and trumpets, lutes and all sorts of music, and they shall dance, and shoot with little cross-bows.’

“And he showed me a fine meadow there in the garden, made for dancing. There hung nothing but golden fifes, trumpets, and fine silver cross-bows. But it was early, and the children had not yet eaten; therefore I could not wait the dance, and I said to the man: ‘Ah, dear sir! I will immediately go and write all this to my little son Johnny, and tell him to pray diligently, and to learn well, and to be good, so that he also may come to this garden. But he has an Aunt Lehne, he must bring her with him.’ Then the man said: ‘It shall be so; go, and write him so.’

“Therefore, my dear little son Johnny, learn{191} and pray away! and tell Lippus and Jost, too that they must learn and pray. And then you shall come to the garden together. Herewith I commend thee to Almighty God. And greet Aunt Lehne, and give her a kiss for my sake.

“Thy dear Father,
“Martinus Luther.

Anno 1530.

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