The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter XIV

August 15.

I asked the other day, wondering whether all ministers were like Dr. Bland, what Uncle Forceythe used to believe about heaven.

“Very much what I do,” she said. “These questions were brought home to him, early in life, by the death of a very dear sister; he had thought much about them. I think one of the things that so much attached his people to him was the way he had of weaving their future life in with this, till it grew naturally and pleasantly into their frequent thought. O yes, your uncle supplied me with half of my proof-texts.”

Aunt Winifred has not looked quite well of late, I fancy; though it may be only fancy. She has not spoken of it, except one day when I told her that she looked pale. It was the heat, she said.


Little Clo came over to-night. I believe she thinks Aunt Winifred the best friend she has in the world. Auntie has become much attached to all her scholars, and has a rare power of winning her way into their confidence. They come to her with all their little interests,—everything, from saving their souls to trimming a bonnet. Clo, however, is the favorite, as I predicted.

She looked a bit blue to-night, as girls will look; in fact, her face always has a tinge of sadness about it. Aunt Winifred, understanding at a glance that the child was not in a mood to talk before a third, led her away into the garden, and they were gone a long time. When it grew dark, I saw them coming up the path, Clo’s hand locked in her teacher’s, and her face, which was wet, upturned like a child’s. They strolled to the gate, lingered a little to talk, and then Clo said good night without coming in.

Auntie sat for a while after she had gone, thinking her over, I could see.

“Poor thing!” she said at last, half to herself, half to me,—“poor little foolish thing! This is where the dreadful individuality of a human soul irks me. There comes a point, beyond which you can’t help people.”

“What has happened to Clo?”

“Nothing, lately. It has been happening for two years. Two miserable years are an eternity, at Clo’s age. It is the old story,—a summer boarder; a little flirting; a little dreaming; a little pain; then autumn, and the nuts dropping on the leaves, and he was gone,—and knew not what he did,—and the child waked up. There was the future; to bake and sweep, to go to sewing-circles, and sing in the choir, and bear the moonlight nights,—and she loved him. She has lived through two years of it, and she loves him now. Reason will not reach such a passion in a girl like Clo. I did not tell her that she would put it away with other girlish things, and laugh at it herself some happy day, as women have laughed at their young fancies before her; partly because that would be a certain way of repelling her confidence,—she does not believe it, and my believing could not make her; partly because I am not quite sure about it myself. Clo has a good deal of the woman about her; her introspective life is intense. She may cherish this sweet misery as she does her musical tastes, till it has struck deep root. There is nothing in the excellent Mrs. Bentley’s household, nor in Homer anywhere, to draw the girl out from herself in time to prevent the dream from becoming a reality.”

“Poor little thing! What did you say to her?”

“You ought to have heard what she said to me! I wish I were at liberty to tell you the whole story. What troubles her most is that it is not going to help the matter any to die. ‘O Mrs. Forceythe,’ she says, in a tone that is enough to give the heart-ache, even to such an old woman as Mrs. Forceythe, ‘O Mrs. Forceythe, what is going to become of me up there? He never loved me, you see, and he never, never will, and he will have some beautiful, good wife of his own, and I won’t have anybody! For I can’t love anybody else,—I’ve tried; I tried just as hard as I could to love my cousin ’Bin; he’s real good, and—I’m—afraid ’Bin likes me, though I guess he likes his carpet-sweepers better. O, sometimes I think, and think, till it seems as if I could not bear it! I don’t see how God can make me happy. I wish I could be buried up and go to sleep, and never have any heaven!’”

“And you told her—?”

“That she should have him there. That is, if not himself, something,—somebody who would so much more than fill his place, that she would never have a lonely or unloved minute. Her eyes brightened, and shaded, and pondered, doubting. She ‘didn’t see how it could ever be.’ I told her not to try and see how, but to leave it to Christ. He knew all about this little trouble of hers, and he would make it right.

“‘Will he?’ she questioned, sighing; ‘but there are so many of us! There’s ’Bin, and a plenty more, and I don’t see how it’s going to be smoothed out. Everything is in a jumble, Mrs. Forceythe, don’t you see? for some people can’t like and keep liking so many times.’ Something came into my mind about the rough places that shall be made plain, and the crooked things straight. I tried to explain to her, and at last I kissed away her tears, and sent her home, if not exactly comforted, a little less miserable, I think, than when she came. Ah, well,—I wonder myself sometimes about these ‘crooked things’; but, though I wonder, I never doubt.”

She finished her sentence somewhat hurriedly, and half started from her chair, raising both hands with a quick, involuntary motion that attracted my notice. The lights came in just then, and, unless I am much mistaken, her face showed paler than usual; but when I asked her if she felt faint, she said, “O no, I believe I am a little tired, and will go to bed.”

September 1.

I am glad that the summer is over. This heat has certainly worn on Aunt Winifred, with that kind of wear which slides people into confirmed invalidism. I suppose she would bear it in her saintly way, as she bears everything, but it would be a bitter cup for her. I know she was always pale, but this is a paleness which—


A dreadful thing has happened!

I was in the middle of my sentence, when I heard a commotion in the street, and a child’s voice shouting incoherently something about the doctor, and “mother’s killed! O, mother’s killed! mother’s burnt to death!” I was at the window in time to see a blond-haired girl running wildly past the house, and to see that it was Molly Bland.

At the same moment I saw Aunt Winifred snatching her hat from its nail in the entry. She beckoned to me to follow, and we were half-way over to the parsonage before I had a distinct thought of what I was about.

We came upon a horrible scene. Dr. Bland was trying to do everything alone; there was not a woman in the house to help him, for they have never been able to keep a servant, and none of the neighbors had had time to be there before us. The poor husband was growing faint, I think. Aunt Winifred saw by a look that he could not bear much more, sent him after Molly for the doctor, and took everything meantime into her own charge.

I shall not write down a word of it. It was a sight that, once seen, will never leave me as long as I live. My nerves are thoroughly shaken by it, and it must be put out of thought as far as possible.

It seems that the little boy—the baby—crept into the kitchen by himself, and began to throw the contents of the match-box on the stove, “to make a bonfire,” the poor little fellow said. In five minutes his apron was ablaze. His mother was on the spot at his first cry, and smothered the little apron, and saved the child, but her dress was muslin, and everybody was too far off to hear her at first,—and by the time her husband came in from the garden it was too late.

She is living yet. Her husband, pacing the room back and forth, and crouching on his knees by the hour, is praying God to let her die before the morning.


There is no chance of life, the doctor says. But he has been able to find something that has lessened her sufferings. She lies partially unconscious.

Wednesday night. Aunt Winifred and I were over at the parsonage to-night, when she roused a little from her stupor and recognized us. She spoke to her husband, and kissed me good by, and asked for the children. They were playing softly in the next room; we sent for them, and they came in,—the four unconscious, motherless little things,—with the sunlight in their hair.

The bitterness of death came into her marred face at sight of them, and she raised her hands to Auntie—to the only other mother there—with a sudden helpless cry: “I could bear it, I could bear it, if it weren’t for them. Without any mother all their lives,—such little things,—and to go away where I can’t do a single thing for them!”

Aunt Winifred stooped down and spoke low, but decidedly.

“You will do for them. God knows all about it. He will not send you away from them. You shall be just as much their mother, every day of their lives, as you have been here. Perhaps there is something to do for them which you never could have done here. He sees. He loves them. He loves you.”

If I could paint, I might paint the look that struck through and through that woman’s dying face; but words cannot touch it. If I were Aunt Winifred, I should bless God on my knees to-night for having shown me how to give such ease to a soul in death.

Thursday morning. God is merciful. Mrs. Bland died at five o’clock.


How such a voice from the heavens shocks one out of the repose of calm sorrows and of calm joys. This has come and gone so suddenly that I cannot adjust it to any quiet and trustful thinking yet.

The whole parish mourns excitedly; for, though they worked their minister’s wife hard, they loved her well. I cannot talk it over with the rest. It jars. Horror should never be dissected. Besides, my heart is too full of those four little children with the sunlight in their hair and the unconsciousness in their eyes.


Mrs. Quirk came over to-day in great perplexity. She had just come from the minister’s.

“I don’t know what we’re a goin’ to do with him!” she exclaimed in a gush of impatient, uncomprehending sympathy; “you can’t let a man take on that way much longer. He’ll worry himself sick, and then we shall either lose him or have to pay his bills to Europe! Why, he jest stops in the house, and walks his study up and down, day and night; or else he jest sets and sets and don’t notice nobody but the children. Now I’ve jest ben over makin’ him some chicken-pie,—he used to set a sight by my chicken-pie,—and he made believe to eat it, ’cause I’d ben at the trouble, I suppose, but how much do you suppose he swallowed? Jest three mouthfuls! Thinks says I, I won’t spend my time over chicken-pie for the afflicted agin, and on ironing-day, too! When I knocked at the study door, he said, ‘Come in, and stopped his walkin’ and turned as quick.

“‘O,’ says he, ‘good morning. I thought it was Mrs. Forceythe.’

“I told him no, I wasn’t Mrs. Forceythe, but I’d come to comfort him in his sorrer all the same. But that’s the only thing I have agin our minister. He won’t be comforted. Mary Ann Jacobs, who’s ben there kind of looking after the children and things for him, you know, sence the funeral—she says he’s asked three or four times for you, Mrs. Forceythe. There’s ben plenty of his people in to see him, but you haven’t ben nigh him, Mary Ann says.”

“I stayed away because I thought the presence of friends at this time would be an intrusion,” Auntie said; “but if he would like to see me, that alters the case. I will go, certainly.”

“I don’t know,” suggested Mrs. Quirk, looking over the tops of her spectacles,—“I s’pose it’s proper enough, but you bein’ a widow, you know, and his wife—”

Aunt Winifred’s eyes shot fire. She stood up and turned upon Mrs. Quirk with a look the like of which I presume that worthy lady had never seen before, and is not likely to see soon again (it gave the beautiful scorn of a Zenobia to her fair, slight face), moved her lips slightly, but said nothing, put on her bonnet, and went straight to Dr. Bland’s.

The minister, they told her, was in his study. She knocked lightly at the door, and was bidden in a lifeless voice to enter.

Shades and blinds were drawn, and the glare of the sun quite shut out. Dr. Bland sat by his study-table, with his face upon his hands. A Bible lay open before him. It had been lately used; the leaves were wet.

He raised his head dejectedly, but smiled when he saw who it was. He had been thinking about her, he said, and was glad that she had come.

I do not know all that passed between them, but I gather, from such hints as Auntie in her unconsciousness throws out, that she had things to say which touched some comfortless places in the man’s heart. No Greek and Hebrew “original,” no polished dogma, no link in his stereotyped logic, not one of his eloquent sermons on the future state, came to his relief.

These were meant for happy days. They rang cold as steel upon the warm needs of an afflicted man. Brought face to face, and{218} sharply, with the blank heaven of his belief, he stood up from before his dead, and groped about it, and cried out against it in the bitterness of his soul.

“I had no chance to prepare myself to bow to the will of God,” he said, his reserved ministerial manner in curious contrast with the caged way in which he was pacing the room,—“I had no chance. I am taken by surprise, as by a thief in the night. I had a great deal to say to her, and there was no time. She could tell me what to do with my poor little children. I wanted to tell her other things. I wanted to tell her—Perhaps we all of us have our regrets when the Lord removes our friends; we may have done or left undone many things; we might have made them happier. My mind does not rest with assurance in its conceptions of the heavenly state. If I never can tell her—”

He stopped abruptly, and paced into the darkest shadows of the shadowed room, his face turned away.

“You said once some pleasant things about heaven?” he said at last, half appealingly, stopping in front of her, hesitating; like a man and like a minister, hardly ready to come with all the learning of his schools and commentators and sit at the feet of a woman.

She talked with him for a time in her unobtrusive way, deferring, when she honestly could, to his clerical judgment, and careful not to wound him by any word; but frankly and clearly, as she always talks.

When she rose to go he thanked her quietly.

“This is a somewhat novel train of thought to me,” he said; “I hope it may not prove an unscriptural one. I have been reading the book of Revelation to-day with these questions especially in mind. We are never too old to learn. Some passages may be capable of other interpretations than I have formerly given them. No matter what I wish, you see, I must be guided by the Word of my God.”

Auntie says that she never respected the man so much as she did when, hearing those words, she looked up into his haggard face, convulsed with its human pain and longing.

“I hope you do not think that I am not guided by the Word of God,” she answered. “I mean to be.”

“I know you mean to be,” he said cordially. “I do not say that you are not. I may come to see that you are, and that you are right. It will be a peaceful day for me if I can ever quite agree with your methods of reasoning. But I must think these things over. I thank you once more for coming. Your sympathy is grateful to me.”

Just as she closed the door he called her back.

“See,” he said, with a saddened smile. “At least I shall never preach this again. It seems to me that life is always undoing for us something that we have just laboriously done.”

He held up before her a mass of old blue manuscript, and threw it, as he spoke, upon the embers left in his grate. It smoked and blazed up and burned out.

It was that sermon on heaven of which there is an abstract in this journal.


Aunt Winifred hired Mr. Tripp’s gray this afternoon, and drove to East Homer on some unexplained errand. She did not invite me to go with her, and Faith, though she teased impressively, was left at home. Her mother was gone till late,—so late that I had begun to be anxious about her, and heard through the dark the first sound of the buggy wheels, with great relief. She looked very tired when I met her at the gate. She had not been able, she said, to accomplish her errand at East Homer, and from there had gone to Worcester by railroad, leaving Old Gray at the East Homer Eagle till her return. She told me nothing more, and I asked no questions.


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