The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter XVI

October 17.

“The Lord God a’mighty help us! but His ways are past finding out. What with one thing and another thing, that child without a mother, and you with the crape not yet rusty for Mr. Roy’l, it doos seem to me as if His manner of treating folks beats all! But I tell you this, Miss Mary, my dear; you jest say your prayers reg’lar and stick to Him, and He’ll pull you through, sure!”

This was what Phœbe said when I told her.

November 8.

To-night, for the first time, Auntie fairly gave up trying to put Faith to bed. She had insisted on it until now, crawling up by the banisters like a wounded thing. This time she tottered and sank upon the second step. She cried out, feebly; “I am afraid I must give it up to Cousin Mary. Faith!”—the child clung with both hands to her,—“Faith, Faith! Mother’s little girl!”

It was the last dear care of motherhood yielded; the last link snapped. It seemed to be the very bitterness of parting.

I turned away, that they might bear it together, they two alone.


Yet I think that took away the sting.

The days are slipping away now very quietly, and—to her I am sure, and to me for her sake—very happily.

She suffers less than I had feared, and she lies upon the bed and smiles, and Faith comes in and plays about, and the cheery morning sunshine falls on everything, and when her strong hours come, we have long talks together, hand clasped in hand.

Such pleasant talks! We are quite brave to speak of anything, since we know that what is to be is best just so, and since we fear no parting. I tell her that Faith and I will soon learn to shut our eyes and think we see her, and try to make it almost the same, for she will never be very far away, will she? And then she shakes her head smiling, for it pleases her, and she kisses me softly. Then we dream of how it will all be, and how we shall love and try to please each other quite as much as now.

“It will be like going around a corner, don’t you see?” she says. “You will know that I am there all the while, though hidden, and that if you call me I shall hear.” Then we talk of Faith, and of how I shall comfort her; that I shall teach her this, and guard her from that, and how I shall talk with her about heaven and her mother. Sometimes Faith comes up and wants to know what we are saying, and lays poor Mary Ann, sawdust and all, upon the pillow, and wants “her toof-ache kissed away.” So Auntie kisses away the dolly’s “toof-ache”; and kisses the dolly’s little mother, sometimes with a quiver on her lips, but more often with a smile in her eyes, and Faith runs back to play, and her laugh ripples out, and her mother listens—listens—

Sometimes, too, we talk of some of the people for whom she cares; of her husband’s friends; of her scholars, or Dr. Bland, or Clo, or poor ’Bin Quirk, or of somebody down town whom she was planning to help this winter. Little Clo comes in as often as she is strong enough to see her, and sends over untold jellies and blanc-manges, which Faith and I have to eat. “But don’t let the child know that,” Auntie says.

But more often we talk of the life which she is so soon to begin; of her husband and Roy; of what she will try to say to Christ; how much dearer He has grown to her since she has lain here in pain at His bidding, and how He helps her, at morning and at eventide and in the night-watches.

We talk of the trees and the mountains and the lilies in the garden, on which the glory of the light that is not the light of the sun may shine; of the “little brooks” by which she longs to sit and sing to Faith; of the treasures of art which she may fancy to have about her; of the home in which her husband may be making ready for her coming, and wonder what he has there, and if he knows how near the time is now.

But I notice lately that she more often and more quickly wearies of these things; that she comes back, and comes back again to some loving thought—as loving as a child’s—of Jesus Christ. He seems to be—as she once said she tried that He should be to Faith—her “best friend.”

Sometimes, too, we wonder what it means to pass out of the body, and what one will be first conscious of.

“I used to have a very human, and by no means slight, dread of the physical pain of death,” she said to-day; “but, for some reason or other, that is slowly leaving me. I imagine that the suffering of any fatal sickness is worse than the immediate process of dissolution. Then there is so much beyond it to occupy one’s thoughts. One thing I have thought much about; it is that, whatever may be our first experience after leaving the body, it is not likely to be a revolutionary one. It is more in analogy with God’s dealings that a quiet process, a gentle accustoming, should open our eyes on the light that would blind if it came in a flash. Perhaps we shall not see Him,—perhaps we could not bear it to see Him at once. It may be that the faces of familiar human friends will be the first to greet us; it may be that the touch of the human hand dearer than any but His own shall lead us, as we are able, behind the veil, till we are a little used to the glory and the wonder, and lead us so to Him.

“Be that as it may, and be heaven where it may, I am not afraid. With all my guessing and my studying and my dreaming over these things, I am only a child in the dark. ‘Nevertheless, I am not afraid of the dark.’ God bless Mr. Robertson for saying that! I’m going to bless him when I see him. How pleasant it will be to see him, and some other friends whose faces I never saw in this world. David, for instance, or Paul, or Cowper, or President Lincoln, or Mrs. Browning. The only trouble is that I am nobody to them! However, I fancy that they will let me shake hands with them.

“No, I am quite willing to trust all these things to God.

‘And what if much be still unknown?
Thy Lord shall teach thee that,
When thou shalt stand before His throne,
Or sit as Mary sat.’

I may find them very different from what I have supposed. I know that I shall find them infinitely more satisfying than I have supposed. As Schiller said of his philosophy, ‘Perhaps I may be ashamed of my raw design, at sight of the true original. This may happen; I expect it; but then, if reality bears no resemblance to my dreams, it will be a more majestic, a more delightful surprise.’

“I believe nothing that God denies. I cannot overrate the beauty of his promise. So it surely can have done no harm for me to take the comfort of my fancying till I am there; and what a comfort it has been to me, God only knows. I could scarcely have borne some things without it.”

“You are never afraid that anything proving a little different from what you expect might—”

“Might disappoint me? No; I have settled that in my heart with God. I do not think I shall be disappointed. The truth is, he has obviously not opened the gates which bar heaven from our sight, but he has as obviously not shut them; they stand ajar, with the Bible and reason in the way, to keep them from closing; surely we should look in as far as we can, and surely, if we look with reverence, our eyes will be holden, that we may not cheat ourselves with mirages. And, as the little Swedish girl said, the first time she saw the stars: ‘O father, if the wrong side of heaven is so beautiful, what must the right side be?’”


I write little now, for I am living too much. The days are stealing away and lessening one by one, and still Faith plays about the room, though very softly now, and still the cheery sunshine shimmers in, and still we talk with clasping hands, less often and more pleasantly. Morning and noon and evening come and go; the snow drifts down and the rain falls softly; clouds form and break and hurry past the windows; shadows melt and lights are shattered, and little rainbows are prisoned by the icicles that hang from the eaves.

I sit and watch them, and watch the sick-lamp flicker in the night, and watch the blue morning crawl over the hills; and the old words are stealing down my thought: That is the substance, this the shadow; that the reality, this the dream.

I watch her face upon the pillow; the happy secret on its lips; the smile within its eyes. It is nearly a year now since God sent the face to me. What it has done for me He knows; what the next year and all the years are to be without it, He knows, too.

It is slipping away,—slipping. And I—must—lose it.

Perhaps I should not have said what I said to-night; but being weak from watching, and seeing how glad she was to go, seeing how all the peace was for her, all the pain for us, I cried, “O Auntie, Auntie, why can’t we go too? Why can’t Faith and I go with you?”

But she answered me only, “Mary, He knows.”

We will be brave again to-morrow. A little more sunshine in the room! A little more of Faith and the dolly!

The Sabbath.

She asked for the child at bedtime to-night, and I laid her down in her night-dress on her mother’s arm. She kissed her, and said her prayers, and talked a bit about Mary Ann, and to-morrow, and her snow man. I sat over by the window in the dusk, and watched a little creamy cloud that was folding in the moon. Presently their voices grew low, and at last Faith’s stopped altogether. Then I heard in fragments this:—

“Sleepy, dear? But you won’t have many more talks with mamma. Keep awake just a minute, Faith, and hear—can you hear? Mamma will never, never forget her little girl; she won’t go away very far; she will always love you. Will you remember as long as you live? She will always see you, though you can’t see her, perhaps. Hush, my darling, don’t cry! Isn’t God naughty? No, God is good; God is always good. He won’t take mamma a great way off. One more kiss? There! now you may go to sleep. One more! Come, Cousin Mary.”

June 6. It is a long time since I have written here. I did not want to open the book till I was sure that I could open it quietly, and could speak as she would like to have me speak, of what remains to be written.

But a very few words will tell it all.

It happened so naturally and so happily, she was so glad when the time came, and she made me so glad for her sake, that I cannot grieve. I say it from my honest heart, I cannot grieve. In the place out of which she has gone, she has left me peace. I think of something that Miss Procter said about the opening of that golden gate,

“round which the kneeling spirits wait. The halo seems to linger round those kneeling closest to the door: The joy that lightened from that place shines still upon the watcher’s face.” I think more often of some things that she herself said in the very last of those pleasant talks, when, turning a leaf in her little Bible, she pointed out to me the words:—

“It is expedient for you that I go away; for, if I go not away, the Comforter will not come.”

It was one spring-like night,—the twenty-ninth of March.

She had been in less pain, and had chatted and laughed more with us than for many a day. She begged that Faith might stay till dark, and might bring her Noah’s ark and play down upon the foot of the bed where she could see her. I sat in the rocking-chair with my face to the window. We did not light the lamps.

The night came on slowly. Showery clouds flitted by, but there was a blaze of golden color behind them. It broke through and scattered them; it burned them, and melted them; it shot great pink and purple jets up to the zenith; it fell and lay in amber mist upon the hills. A soft wind swept by, and darted now and then into the glow, and shifted it about, color away from color, and back again.

“See, Faith!” she said softly; “put down the little camel a minute, and look!” and added after, but neither to the child nor to me, it seemed: “At eventide there shall be light.” Phœbe knocked presently, and I went out to see what was wanted, and planned a little for Auntie’s breakfast, and came back.

Faith, with her little ark, was still playing quietly upon the bed. I sat down again in my rocking-chair with my face to the window. Now and then the child’s voice broke the silence, asking Where should she put the elephant, and was there room there for the yellow bird? and now and then her mother answered her, and so presently the skies had faded, and so the night came on.

I was thinking that it was Faith’s bedtime, and that I had better light the lamp, when a few distinct, hurried words from the bed attracted my attention.

“Faith, I think you had better kiss mamma now, and get down.”

There was a change in the voice. I was there in a moment, and lifted the child from the pillow, where she had crept. But she said, “Wait a minute, Mary; wait a minute,”—for Faith clung to her, with one hand upon her cheek, softly patting it.

I went over and stood by the window.

It was her mother herself who gently put the little fingers away at last.

“Mother’s own little girl! Good night, my darling, my darling.”

So I took the child away to Phœbe, and came back, and shut the door.

“I thought you might have some message for Roy,” she said.


“Now, I think.”

We had often talked of this, and she had promised to remember it, whatever it might be. So I told her—But I will not write what I told her.

I saw that she was playing weakly with her wedding-ring, which hung very loosely below its little worn guard.

“Take the little guard,” she said, “and keep it for Faith; but bury the other with me: he put it on; nobody else must take it—”

The sentence dropped, unfinished.

I crept up on the bed beside her, for she seemed to wish it. I asked if I should light the lamp, but she shook her head. The room seemed light, she said, quite light. She wondered then if Faith were asleep, and if she would waken early in the morning.

After that I kissed her, and then we said nothing more, only presently she asked me to hold her hand.

It was quite dark when she turned her face at last towards the window.

“John!” she said,—“why, John!”

* * * * *

They came in, with heads uncovered and voices hushed, to see her, in the days while she was lying down stairs among the flowers.

Once when I thought that she was alone, I went in,—it was at twilight,—and turned, startled by a figure that was crouched sobbing on the floor.

“O, I want to go too, I want to go too!” it cried.

“She’s ben there all day long,” said Phœbe, wiping her eyes, “and she won’t go home for a mouthful of victuals, poor creetur! but she jest sets there and cries and cries, an’ there’s no stoppin’ of her!”

It was little Clo.

At another time, I was there with fresh flowers, when the door opened, creaking a little, and ’Bin Quirk came in on tiptoe, trying in vain to still the noise of his new boots. His eyes were red and wet, and he held out to me timidly a single white carnation.

“Could you put it somewhere, where it wouldn’t do any harm? I walked way over{247} to Worcester and back to get it. If you could jest hide it under the others out of sight, seems to me it would do me a sight of good to feel it was there, you know.”

I motioned to him to lay it himself between her fingers.

“O, I darsn’t. I’m not fit, I’m not. She’d rether have you.”

But I told him that I knew she would be as pleased that he should give it to her himself as she was when he gave her the China pinks on that distant summer day. So the great awkward fellow bent down, as simply as a child, as tenderly as a woman, and left the flower in its place.

“She liked ’em,” he faltered; “maybe, if what she used to say is all so, she’ll like ’em now. She liked ’em better than she did machines. I’ve just got my carpet-sweeper through; I was thinking how pleased she’d be; I wanted to tell her. If I should go to the good place,—if ever I do go, it will be just her doin’s,—I’ll tell her then, maybe, I—”

He forgot that anybody was there, and, sobbing, hid his face in his great hands.

So we are waiting for the morning when the gates shall open,—Faith and I. I, from my stiller watches, am not saddened by the music of her life. I feel sure that her mother wishes it to be a cheery life. I feel sure that she is showing me, who will have no motherhood by which to show myself, how to help her little girl.

And Roy,—ah, well, and Roy,—he knows. Our hour is not yet come. If the Master will that we should be about His Father’s business, what is that to us?


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