The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter XV


Faith has behaved like a witch all day. She knocked down three crickets and six hymn-books in church this morning, and this afternoon horrified the assembled and devout congregation by turning round in the middle of the long prayer, and, in a loud and distinct voice, asking Mrs. Quirk for “‘nother those pepp’mints such as you gave me one Sunday a good many years ago, you ’member.” After church, her mother tried a few Bible questions to keep her still.

“Faith, who was Christ’s father?”

“Jerusalem!” said Faith, promptly.

“Where did his parents take Jesus when they fled from Herod?”

“O, to Europe. Of course I knew that! Everybody goes to Europe.”

To-night, when her mother had put her to bed, she came down laughing.

“Faith does seem to have a hard time with the Lord’s Prayer. To-night, being very sleepy and in a hurry to finish, she proceeded with great solemnity:—‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, and—Oh!’

“I was just thinking how amused her father must be.”

Auntie says many such things. I cannot explain how pleasantly they strike me, nor how they help me.


Dr. Bland gave us a good sermon yesterday. There is an indescribable change in all his sermons. There is a change, too, in the man, and that something more than the haggardness of grief. I not only respect him and am sorry for him, but I feel more ready to be taught by him than ever before. A certain indefinable humanness softens his eyes and tones, and seems to be creeping into everything that he says. Yet, on the other hand, his people say that they have never heard him speak such pleasant, helpful things concerning his and their relations to God. I met him the other night, coming away from his wife’s grave, and was struck by the expression of his face. I wondered if he were not slowly finding the “peaceful day,” of which he told Aunt Winifred.

She, by the way, has taken another of her mysterious trips to Worcester.


We were wondering to-day where it will be,—I mean heaven.

“It is impossible to do more than wonder,” Auntie said, “though we are explicitly told that there will be new heavens and a new earth, which seems, if anything can be taken literally in the Bible, to point to this world as the future home of at least some of us.”

“Not for all of us, of course?”

“I don’t feel sure. I know that somebody spent his valuable time in estimating that all the people who have lived and died upon the earth would cover it, alive or buried, twice over; but I know that somebody else claims with equal solemnity to have discovered that they could all be buried in the State of Pennsylvania! But it would be of little consequence if we could not all find room here, since there must be other provision for us.”


“Certainly there is ‘a place’ in which we are promised that we shall be ‘with Christ,’ this world being yet the great theatre of human life and battle-ground of Satan; no place, certainly, in which to confine a happy soul without prospect of release. The Spiritualistic notion of ‘circles’ of dead friends revolving over us is to me intolerable. I want my husband with me when I need him, but I hope he has a place to be happy in, which is out of this woful world.

“The old astronomical idea, stars around a sun, and systems around a centre, and that centre the Throne of God, is not an unreasonable one. Isaac Taylor, among his various conjectures, inclines, I fancy, to suppose that the sun of each system is the heaven of that system. Though the glory of God may be more directly and impressively exhibited in one place than in another, we may live in different planets, and some of us, after its destruction and renovation, on this same dear old, happy and miserable, loved and maltreated earth. I hope I shall be one of them. I should like to come back and build me a beautiful home in Kansas,—I mean in what was Kansas,—among the happy people and the familiar, transfigured spots where John and I worked for God so long together. That—with my dear Lord to see and speak with every day—would be ‘Heaven our Home.’”

“There will be no days, then?”

“There will be succession of time. There may not be alternations of twenty-four hours dark or light, but ‘I use with thee an earthly language,’ as the wife said in that beautiful little ‘Awakening,’ of Therrmin’s. Do you remember it? Do read it over, if you haven’t read it lately.

“As to our coming back here, there is an echo to Peter’s assertion, in the idea of a world under a curse, destroyed and regenerated,—the atonement of Christ reaching, with something more than poetic force, the very sands of the earth which he trod with bleeding feet to make himself its Saviour. That makes me feel—don’t you see?—what a taint there is in sin. If dumb dust is to have such awful cleansing, what must be needed for you and me?

“How many pleasant talks we have had about these things, Mary! Well, it cannot be long, at the longest, before we know, even as we are known.”

I looked at her smiling white face,—it is always very white now,—and something struck slowly through me, like a chill.

October 16, midnight.

There is no such thing as sleep at present. Writing is better than thinking.

Aunt Winifred went again to Worcester to-day. She said that she had to buy trimming for Faith’s sack.

She went alone, as usual, and Faith and I kept each other company through the afternoon,—she on the floor with Mary Ann, I in the easy-chair with Macaulay. As the light began to fall level on the floor, I threw the book aside,—being at the end of a volume,—and, Mary Ann having exhausted her attractions, I surrendered unconditionally to the little maiden.

She took me up garret, and down cellar, on lop of the wood-pile, and into the apple-trees; I fathomed the mysteries of Old Man’s Castle and Still Palm; I was her grandmother, I was her baby, I was a rabbit, I was a chestnut horse, I was a watch-dog, I was a mild-tempered giant, I was a bear “warranted not to eat little girls,” I was a roaring hippopotamus and a canary bird, I was Jeff Davis and I was Moses in the bulrushes, and of what I was, the time faileth me to tell.

It comes over me with a curious, mingled sense of the ludicrous and the horrible, that I should have spent the afternoon like a baby and almost as happily, laughing out with the child, past and future forgotten, the tremendous risks of “I spy” absorbing all my present; while what was happening was happening, and what was to come was coming. Not an echo in the air, not a prophecy in the sunshine, not a note of warning in the song of the robins that watched me from the apple-boughs!

As the long, golden afternoon slid away, we came out by the front gate to watch for the child’s mother. I was tired, and, lying back on the grass, gave Faith some pink and purple larkspurs, that she might amuse herself in making a chain of them. The picture that she made sitting there on the short, dying grass—the light which broke all about her and over her at the first, creeping slowly down and away to the west, her little fingers linking the rich, bright flowers tube into tube, the dimple on her cheek and the love in her eyes—has photographed itself into my thinking.

How her voice rang out, when the wheels sounded at last, and the carriage, somewhat slowly driven, stopped!

“Mamma, mamma! see what I’ve got for you, mamma!”

Auntie tried to step from the carriage, and called me: “Mary, can you help me a little? I am—tired.”

I went to her, and she leaned heavily on my arm, and we came up the path.

“Such a pretty little chain, all for you, mamma,” began Faith, and stopped, struck by her mother’s look.

“It has been a long ride, and I am in pain. I believe I will lie right down on the parlor sofa. Mary, would you be kind enough to give Faith her supper and put her to bed?”

Faith’s lip grieved.

“Cousin Mary isn’t you, mamma. I want to be kissed. You haven’t kissed me.”

Her mother hesitated for a moment; then kissed her once, twice; put both arms about her neck; and turned her face to the wall without a word.

“Mamma is tired, dear,” I said; “come away.”

She was lying quite still when I had done what was to be done for the child, and had come back. The room was nearly dark. I sat down on my cricket by her sofa.

“Shall Phœbe light the lamp?”

“Not just yet.”

“Can’t you drink a cup of tea if I bring it?”

“Not just yet.”

“Did you find the sack-trimming?” I ventured, after a pause.

“I believe so,—yes.”

She drew a little package from her pocket, held it a moment, then let it roll to the floor forgotten. When I picked it up, the soft, tissue-paper wrapper was wet and hot with tears.



“I never thought of the little trimming till the last minute. I had another errand.”

I waited.

“I thought at first I would not tell you just yet. But I suppose the time has come; it will be no more easy to put it off. I have been to Worcester all these times to see a doctor.”

I bent my head in the dark, and listened for the rest.

“He has his reputation; they said he could help me if anybody could. He thought at first he could. But to-day—Mary, see here.”

She walked feebly towards the window, where a faint, gray light struggled in, and opened the bosom of her dress....

There was silence between us for a long while after that; she went back to the sofa, and I took her hand and bowed my face over it, and so we sat.

The leaves rustled out of doors. Faith, up stairs, was singing herself to sleep with a droning sound.

“He talked of risking an operation,” she said, at length, “but decided to-day that it was quite useless. I suppose I must give up and be sick now; I am feeling the reaction from having kept up so long. He thinks I shall not suffer a very great deal. He thinks he can relieve me, and that it may be soon over.”

“There is no chance?”

“No chance.”

I took both of her hands, and cried out, I believe, as I did that first night when she spoke to me of Roy,—“Auntie, Auntie, Auntie!” and tried to think what I was doing, but only cried out the more.

“Why, Mary!” she said,—“why, Mary!” and again, as before, she passed her soft hand to and fro across my hair, till by and by I began to think, as I had thought before, that I could bear anything which God who loved us all—who surely loved us all—should send.

So then, after I had grown still, she began to tell me about it in her quiet voice, and the leaves rustled, and Faith had sung herself to sleep, and I listened wondering. For there was no pain in the quiet voice,—no pain, nor tone of fear. Indeed, it seemed to me that I detected, through its subdued sadness, a secret, suppressed buoyancy of satisfaction, with which something struggled.

“And you?” I asked, turning quickly upon her.

“I should thank God with all my heart, Mary, if it were not for Faith and you. But it is for Faith and you. That’s all.”

When I had locked the front door, and was creeping up here to my room, my foot crushed something, and a faint, wounded perfume came up. It was the little pink and purple chain.

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