by Louisa May Alcott

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They had been together for an hour, the husband and the wife. The first excitement was now over, and Sylvia stood behind him tearless and tranquil, while Moor, looking like a man out of whom the sea had drenched both strength and spirit, leaned his weary head against her, trying to accept the great loss, enjoy the great gain which had befallen him. Hitherto all their talk had been of Warwick, and as Moor concluded the history of the months so tragically ended, for the first time he ventured to express wonder at the calmness with which his hearer received the sad story.

"How quietly you listen to words which it wrings my heart to utter. Have you wept your tears dry, or do you still cling to hope?"

"No, I feel that we shall never see him any more; but I have no desire to weep, for tears and lamentations do not belong to him. He died a beautiful, a noble death; the sea is a fitting grave for him, and it is pleasant to think of him asleep there, quiet at last."

"I cannot feel so; I find it hard to think of him as dead; he was so full of life, so fit to live."

"And therefore fit to die. Imagine him as I do, enjoying the larger life he longed for, and growing to be the strong, sweet soul whose foreshadowing we saw and loved so here."

"Sylvia, I have told you of the beautiful change which befell him in those last days, and now I see the same in you. Are you, too, about to leave me when I have just recovered you?"

"I shall stay with you all my life."

"Then Adam was less to you than you believed, and I am more?"

"Nothing is changed. Adam is all he ever was to me, you are all you ever can be; but I--"

"Then why send for me? Why say you will stay with me all your life? Sylvia, for God's sake, let there be no more delusion or deceit!"

"Never again! I will tell you; I meant to do it at once, but it is so hard--"

She turned her face away, and for a moment neither stirred. Then drawing his head to its former resting-place she touched it very tenderly, seeing how many white threads shone among the brown; and as her hand went to and fro with an inexpressibly soothing gesture, she said, in a tone whose quietude controlled his agitation like a spell--

"Long ago, in my great trouble, Faith told me that for every human effort or affliction there were two friendly helpers, Time and Death. The first has taught me more gently than I deserved; has made me humble, and given me hope that through my errors I may draw virtue from repentance. But while I have been learning the lessons time can teach, that other helper has told me to be ready for its coming. Geoffrey, I sent for you because I knew you would love to see me again before we must say the long good by."

"Oh, Sylvia! not that; anything but that. I cannot bear it now!"

"Dear heart, be patient; lean on me, and let me help you bear it, for it is inevitable."

"It shall not be! There must be some help, some hope. God would not be so pitiless as to take both."

"I shall not leave you yet. He does not take me; it is I, who, by wasting life, have lost the right to live."

"But is it so? I cannot make it true. You look so beautiful, so blooming, and the future seemed so sure. Sylvia, show it to me, if it must be."

She only turned her face to him, only held up her transparent hand, and let him read the heavy truth. He did so, for now he saw that the beauty and the bloom were transitory as the glow of leaves that frost makes fairest as they fall, and felt the full significance of the great change which had come. He clung to her with a desperate yet despairing hold, and she could only let the first passion of his grief have way, soothing and sustaining, while her heart bled and the draught was very bitter to her lips.

"Hush, love; be quiet for a little; and when you can bear it better, I will tell you how it is with me."

"Tell me now; let me hear everything at once. When did you know? How are you sure? Why keep it from me all this time?"

"I have only known it for a little while, but I am very sure, and I kept it from you that you might come happily home, for knowledge of it would have lengthened every mile, and made the journey one long anxiety. I could not know that Adam would go first, and so make my task doubly hard."

"Come to me, Sylvia; let me keep you while I may. I will not be violent; I will listen patiently, and through everything remember you."

He did remember her, so thoughtfully, so tenderly, that her little story flowed on uninterrupted by sigh or sob; and while he held his grief in check, the balm of submission comforted his sore heart. Sitting by him, sustaining and sustained, she told the history of the last six months, till just before the sending of the letter. She paused there a moment, then hurried on, gradually losing the consciousness of present emotion in the vivid memory of the past.

"You have no faith in dreams; I have; and to a dream I owe my sudden awakening to the truth. Thank and respect it, for without its warning I might have remained in ignorance of my state until it was too late to find and bring you home."

"God bless the dream and keep the dreamer!"

"This was a strange and solemn vision; one to remember and to love for its beautiful interpretation of the prophecy that used to awe and sadden me, but never can again. I dreamed that the last day of the world had come. I stood on a shadowy house-top in a shadowy city, and all around me far as eye could reach thronged myriads of people, till the earth seemed white with human faces. All were mute and motionless, as if fixed in a trance of expectation, for none knew how the end would come. Utter silence filled the world, and across the sky a vast curtain of the blackest cloud was falling, blotting out face after face and leaving the world a blank. In that universal gloom and stillness, far above me in the heavens I saw the pale outlines of a word stretching from horizon to horizon. Letter after letter came out full and clear, till all across the sky, burning with a ruddy glory stronger than the sun, shone the great word Amen. As the last letter reached its bright perfection, a long waft of wind broke over me like a universal sigh of hope from human hearts. For far away on the horizon's edge all saw a line of light that widened as they looked, and through that rift, between the dark earth and the darker sky, rolled in a softly flowing sea. Wave after wave came on, so wide, so cool, so still. None trembled at their approach, none shrunk from their embrace, but all turned toward that ocean with a mighty rush, all faces glowed in its splendor, and million after million vanished with longing eyes fixed on the arch of light through which the ebbing sea would float them when its work was done. I felt no fear, only the deepest awe, for I seemed such an infinitesimal atom of the countless host that I forgot myself. Nearer and nearer came the flood, till its breath blew on my cheeks, and I, too, leaned to meet it, longing to be taken. A great wave rolled up before me, and through its soft glimmer I saw a beautiful, benignant face regarding me. Then I knew that each and all had seen the same, and losing fear in love were glad to go. The joyful yearning woke me as the wave seemed to break at my feet, and ebbing leave me still alive."

"And that is all? Only a dream, a foreboding fancy, Sylvia?"

"When I woke my hair was damp on my forehead, my breath quite still, my heart so cold I felt as if death had indeed been near me and left its chill behind. So strong was the impression of the dream, so perfect was the similitude between the sensations I had experienced then, and more than once awake, that I felt that something was seriously wrong with me."

"You had been ill then?"

"Not consciously, not suffering any pain, but consumed with an inward fever that would not burn itself away. I used to have a touch of it in the evenings, you remember; but now it burned all day, making me look strong and rosy, yet leaving me so worn out at night that no sleep seemed to restore me. A few weak and weary hours, then the fire was rekindled and the false strength, color, spirits, returned to deceive myself, and those about me, for another day."

"Did you tell no one of this, Sylvia?"

"Not at first, because I fancied it a mental ill. I had thought so much, so deeply, it seemed but natural that I should be tired. I tried to rest myself by laying all my cares and sorrows in God's hand, and waiting patiently to be shown the end. I see it now, but for a time I could only sit and wait; and while I did so my soul grew strong but my ill-used body failed. The dream came, and in the stillness of that night I felt a strange assurance that I should see my mother soon."

"Dear, what did you do?"

"I determined to discover if I had deceived myself with a superstitious fancy, or learned a fateful fact in my own mysterious way. If it were false, no one would be made anxious by it; if true, possessing the first knowledge of it would enable me to comfort others. I went privately to town and consulted the famous physician who has grown gray in the study of disease."

"Did you go alone, Sylvia?"

"Yes, alone. I am braver than I used to be, and have learned never to feel quite alone. I found a grave, stern-looking man; I told him that I wished to know the entire truth whatever it might be, and that he need not fear to tell me because I was prepared for it. He asked many questions, thought a little, and was very slow to speak. Then I saw how it would be, but urged him to set my mind at rest. His stern old face grew very pitiful as he took my hand and answered gently--'My child, go home and prepare to die.'"

"Good God, how cruel! Sylvia, how did you bear it?"

"At first the earth seemed to slip away from under me, and time to stand still. Then I was myself again, and could listen steadily to all he said. It was only this,--I had been born with a strong nature in a feeble frame, had lived too fast, wasted health ignorantly, and was past help."

"Could he do nothing for you?"

"Nothing but tell me how to husband my remaining strength, and make the end easy by the care that would have kept me longer had I known this sooner."

"And no one saw your danger; no one warned you of it; and I was away!"

"Father could not see it, for I looked well and tried to think I felt so. Mark and Jessie were absorbed in baby Sylvia, and Prue was gone. You might have seen and helped me, for you have the intuitions of a woman in many things, but I could not send for you then because I could not give you what you asked. Was it wrong to call you when I did, and try to make the hard fact easier to bear by telling it myself?"

"Heaven bless you for it, Sylvia. It was truly generous and kind. I never could have forgiven you had you denied me the happiness of seeing you again, and you have robbed the truth of half its bitter pain by telling it yourself."

A restful expression came into her face, and a sigh of satisfaction proved how great was the relief of feeling that for once her heart had prompted her aright. Moor let her rest a little, then asked with a look more pathetic than his words--

"What am I to you now? Where is my home to be?"

"My friend forever, no more, no less; and your home is here with us until I leave my father to your care. All this pain and separation were in vain if we have not learned that love can neither be forced nor feigned. While I endeavored to do so, God did not help me, and I went deeper and deeper into sorrow and wrong doing. When I dropped all self-delusion and desperate striving, and stood still, asking to be shown the right, then he put out his hand and through much tribulation led me to convictions that I dare not disobey. Our friendship may be a happy one if we accept and use it as we should. Let it be so, and for the little while that I remain, let us live honestly before heaven and take no thought for the world's opinion."

Adam might have owned the glance she bent upon her husband, so clear, so steadfast was it; but the earnestness was all her own, and blended with it a new strength that seemed a late compensation for lost love and waning life. Remembering the price both had paid for it, Moor gratefully accepted the costly friendship offered him, and soon acknowledged both its beauty and its worth.

"One question more; Sylvia, how long?"

It was very hard to answer, but folding the sharp fact in the gentlest fancy that appeared to her she gave him the whole truth.

"I shall not see the spring again, but it will be a pleasant time to lay me underneath the flowers."

Sylvia had not known how to live, but now she proved that she did know how to die. So beautifully were the two made one, the winning girl, the deep-hearted woman, that she seemed the same beloved Sylvia, yet Sylvia strengthened, purified, and perfected by the hard past, the solemn present. Those about her felt and owned the unconscious power, which we call the influence of character, and which is the noblest that gives sovereignty to man or woman.

So cheerfully did she speak of it, so tranquilly did she prepare to meet it, that death soon ceased to be an image of grief or fear to those about her, and became a benignant friend, who, when the mortal wearies, blesses it with a brief sleep, that it may wake immortal. She would have no sad sick-chamber, no mournful faces, no cessation of the wholesome household cares and joys, that do so much to make hearts strong and spirits happy. While strength remained, she went her round of daily duties, doing each so lovingly, that the most trivial became a delight, and taking unsuspected thought for the comfort or the pleasure of those soon to be left behind, so tenderly, that she could not seem lost to them, even when she was gone.

Faith came to her, and as her hands became too weak for anything but patient folding, every care slipped so quietly into Faith's, that few perceived how fast she was laying down the things of this world, and making ready to take up those of the world to come. Her father was her faithful shadow; bent and white-haired now, but growing young at heart in spite of sorrow, for his daughter had in truth become the blessing of his life. Mark and Jessie brought their offering of love in little Sylvia's shape, and the innocent consoler did her sweet work by making sunshine in a shady place. But Moor was all in all to Sylvia, and their friendship proved an abiding strength, for sorrow made it very tender, sincerity ennobled it, and the coming change sanctified it to them both.

April came; and on her birthday, with a grateful heart, Moor gathered the first snow-drops of the year. All day they stood beside her couch, as fragile and as pale as she, and many eyes had filled as loving fancies likened her to the slender, transparent vase, the very spirit of a shape, and the white flowers that had blossomed beautifully through the snow. When the evening lamp was lighted, she took the little posy in her hand, and lay with her eyes upon it, listening to the book Moor read, for this hour always soothed the unrest of the day. Very quiet was the pleasant room, with no sounds in it but the soft flicker of the fire, the rustle of Faith's needle, and the subdued music of the voice that patiently went reading on, long after Sylvia's eyes had closed, lest she should miss its murmur. For an hour she seemed to sleep, so motionless, so colorless, that her father, always sitting at her side, bent down at last to listen at her lips. The lips smiled, the eyes unclosed, and she looked up at him, with an expression as tender as tranquil.

"A long sleep and pleasant dreams that wake you smiling?" he asked.

"Beautiful and happy thoughts, father; let me tell you some of them. As I lay here, I fell to thinking of my life, and at first it seemed the sorrowfullest failure I had ever known. Whom had I made happy? What had I done worth the doing? Where was the humble satisfaction that should come hand in hand with death? At first I could find no answers to my questions, and though my one and twenty years do not seem long to live, I felt as if it would have been better for us all if I had died, a new-born baby in my mother's arms."

"My child, say anything but that, because it is I who have made your life a failure."

"Wait a little father, and you will see that it is a beautiful success. I _have_ given happiness, _have_ done something worth the doing; now I see a compensation for all seeming loss, and heartily thank God that I did not die till I had learned the true purpose of all lives. He knows that I say these things humbly, that I claim no virtue for myself, and have been a blind instrument in His hand, to illustrate truths that will endure when I am forgotten. I have helped Mark and Jessie, for, remembering me, they will feel how blest they are in truly loving one another. They will keep little Sylvia from making mistakes like mine, and the household joys and sorrows we have known together, will teach Mark to make his talent a delight to many, by letting art interpret nature."

Her brother standing behind her stooped and kissed her, saying through his tears--

"I shall remember, dear."

"I have helped Geoffrey, I believe. He lived too much in the affections, till through me he learned that none may live for love alone. Genius will be born of grief, and he will put his sorrow into song to touch and teach other hearts more gently than his own has been, so growing a nobler and a richer man for the great cross of his life."

Calm, with the calmness of a grief too deep for tears, and strong in a devout belief, Moor gave his testimony as she paused.

"I shall endeavor, and now I am as grateful for the pain as for the joy, because together they will show me how to live, and when I have learned that I shall be ready to come to you."

"I think I have served Adam. He needed gentleness as Geoffrey needed strength, and I, unworthy as I am, woke that deep heart of his and made it a fitter mate for his great soul. To us it seems as if he had left his work unfinished, but God knew best, and when he was needed for a better work he went to find it. Yet I am sure that he was worthier of eternal life for having known the discipline of love."

There was no voice to answer now, but Sylvia felt that she would receive it very soon and was content.

"Have you no lesson for your father? The old man needs it most."

She laid her thin hand tenderly on his, that if her words should bring reproach, she might seem to share it with him.

"Yes, father, this. That if the chief desire of the heart is for the right, it is possible for any human being, through all trials, temptations, and mistakes, to bring good out of evil, hope from despair, success from defeat, and come at last to know an hour as beautiful and blest as this."

Who could doubt that _she_ had learned the lesson, when from the ruins of the perishable body the imperishable soul rose steadfast and serene, proving that after the long bewilderment of life and love it had attained the eternal peace.

The room grew very still, and while those about her pondered her words with natural tears, Sylvia lay looking up at a lovely picture that seemed leaning down to offer her again the happiest memory of her youth. It was a painting of the moonlight voyage down the river. Mark had given it that day, and now when the longer, sadder voyage was nearly over, she regarded it with a tender pleasure. The moon shone full on Warwick, looking out straight and strong before him with the vigilant expression native to his face; a fit helmsman to guide the boat along that rapid stream. Mark seemed pausing to watch the oars silvered by the light, and their reflections wavy with the current. Moor, seen in shadow, leaned upon his hand, as if watching Sylvia, a quiet figure, full of grace and color, couched under the green arch. On either hand the summer woods made vernal gloom, behind the cliffs rose sharply up against the blue, and all before wound a shining road, along which the boat seemed floating like a bird on slender wings between two skies.

So long she lay forgetful of herself and all about her, that Moor saw she needed rest, for the breath fluttered on her lips, the flowers had fallen one by one, and her face wore the weary yet happy look of some patient child waiting for its lullaby.

"Dear, you have talked enough; let me take you up now, lest the pleasant day be spoiled by a sleepless night."

"I am ready, yet I love to stay among you all, for in my sleep I seem to drift so far away I never quite come back. Good night, good night; I shall see you in the morning."

With a smile, a kiss for all, they saw her fold her arms about her husband's neck, and lay down her head as if she never cared to lift it up again. The little journey was both a pleasure and pain to them, for each night the way seemed longer to Sylvia, and though the burden lightened the bearer grew more heavy-hearted. It was a silent passage now, for neither spoke, except when one asked tenderly, "Are you easy, love?" and the other answered, with a breath that chilled his cheek, "Quite happy, quite content."

So, cradled on the heart that loved her best, Sylvia was gently carried to the end of her short pilgrimage, and when her husband laid her down the morning had already dawned.

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