XV. The State of Araminta's Soul
 

The Reverend Austin Thorpe was in his room at Miss Mehitable's, with a pencil held loosely in his wrinkled hand. On the table before him was a pile of rough copy paper, and at the top of the first sheet was written, in capitals, the one word: "Hell." It was underlined, and around it he had drawn sundry fantastic flourishes and shadings, but the rest of the sheet was blank.

For more than an hour the old man had sat there, his blue, near-sighted eyes wandering about the room. A self-appointed committee from his congregation had visited him and requested him to preach a sermon on the future abode of the wicked. The wicked, as the minister gathered from the frank talk of the committee, included all who did not belong to their own sect.

Try as he might, the minister could find in his heart nothing save charity. Anger and resentment were outside of his nature. He told himself that he knew the world, and had experienced his share of injustice, that he had seen sin in all of its hideous phases. Yet, even for the unrepentant sinner, Thorpe had only kindness.

Of one sin only, Thorpe failed in comprehension. As he had said to Anthony Dexter, he could excuse a liar, pardon a thief, and pity a murderer, but he had only contempt for a shirk.

Persistently, he analysed and questioned himself, but got no further. To him, all sin resolved itself at last into injustice, and he did not believe that any one was ever intentionally unjust. But the congregation desired to hear of hell--"as if," thought Thorpe, whimsically, "I received daily reports."

With a sigh, he turned to his blank sheet. "In the earlier stages of our belief," he wrote, "we conceived of hell as literally a place of fire and brimstone, of eternal suffering and torture. In the light which has come to us later, we perceive that hell is a spiritual state, and realise that the consciousness of a sin is its punishment."

Then he tore the sheet into bits, for this was not what his congregation wanted; yet it was his sincere belief. He could not stultify himself to please his audience--they must take him as he was, or let him go.

Yet the thought of leaving was unpleasant, for he had found work to do in a field where, as it seemed to him, he was sorely needed. His parishioners had heard much of punishment, but very little of mercy and love. They were tangled in doctrinal meshes, distraught by quibbles, and at swords' points with each other.

He felt that he must in some way temporise, and hold his place until he had led his flock to a loftier height. He had no desire to force his opinions upon any one else, but he wished to make clear his own strong, simple faith, and spread abroad, if he might, his own perfect trust.

A commanding rap resounded upon his door. "Come," he called, and Miss Mehitable entered.

Thorpe was not subtle, but he felt that this errand was of deeper import than usual. The rustle of her stiffly-starched garments was portentous, and there was a set look about her mouth which boded no good to anybody.

"Will you sit down?" he asked, offering her his own chair.

"No," snapped Miss Mehitable, "I won't. What I've got to say, I can say standin'. I come," she announced, solemnly, "from the Ladies' Aid Society."

"Yes?" Thorpe's tone was interrogative, but he was evidently not particularly interested.

"I'm appointed a committee of one," she resumed, "to say that the Ladies' Aid Society have voted unanimously that they want you to preach on hell. The Church is goin' to rack and ruin, and we ain't goin' to stand it no longer. Even the disreputable characters will walk right in and stay all through the sermon--Andy Rogers and the rest. And I was particularly requested to ask whether you wished to have us understand that you approve of Andy Rogers and his goin's on."

"What," temporised Thorpe, "does Andy Rogers do?"

"For the lands sake!" ejaculated Miss Mehitable. "Wasn't he drunk four months ago and wasn't he caught stealing the Deacon's chickens? You don't mean to tell me you never heard of that?"

"I believe I did hear," returned the minister, in polite recognition of the fact that it had been Miss Mehitable's sole conversational topic at the time. "He stole the chickens because he was hungry, and he got drunk because he didn't know any better. I talked with him, and he promised me that he would neither steal nor drink any more. Moreover, he earned the money and paid full price for the chickens. Have you heard that he has broken his promise?"

"No I dunno's I have, but he'll do it again if he gets the chance--you just see!"

Thorpe drummed idly on the table with his pencil, wishing that Miss Mehitable would go. He had for his fellow-men that deep and abiding love which enables one to let other people alone. He was a humanitarian in a broad and admirable sense.

"I was told," said Miss Mehitable, "to get a definite answer."

Thorpe bowed his white head ever so slightly. "You may tell the Ladies' Aid Society, for me, that next Sunday morning I will give my congregation a sermon on hell."

"I thought I could make you see the reason in it," remarked Miss Mehitable, piously taking credit to herself, "and now that it's settled, I want to speak of Araminta."

"She's getting well all right, isn't she?" queried Thorpe, anxiously. He had a tender place in his heart for the child.

"That's what I don't know, not bein' allowed to speak to her or touch her. What I do know is that her immortal soul is in peril, now that she's taken away from my influence. I want you to get a permit from that black-mailing play-doctor that's curing her, or pretending to, and go up and see her. I guess her pastor has a right to see her, even if her poor old aunt ain't. I want you to find out when she'll be able to be moved, and talk to her about her soul, dwellin' particularly on hell."

Thorpe bowed again. "I will be very glad to do anything I can for Araminta."

Shortly afterward, he made an errand to Doctor Dexter's and saw Ralph, who readily gave him permission to visit his entire clientele.

"I've got another patient," laughed the boy. "My practice is increasing at the rate of one case a month. If I weren't too high-minded to dump a batch of germs into the water supply, I'd have a lot more."

"How is Araminta?" asked Thorpe, passing by Ralph's frivolity.

"She's all right," he answered, his sunny face clouding. "She can go home almost any time now. I hate to send her back into her cage--bless her little heart."

It was late afternoon when Thorpe started up the hill, to observe and report upon the state of Araminta's soul. He had struggled vainly with his own problem, and had at last decided to read a fiery sermon by one of the early evangelists, from a volume which he happened to have. The sermon was lurid with flame, and he thought it would satisfy his congregation. He would preface it with the statement that it was not his, but he hoped they would regard it as a privilege to hear the views of a man who was, without doubt, wiser and better than he.

Miss Evelina came to the door when he rapped, and at the sight of her veiled face, a flood of pity overwhelmed him. He introduced himself and asked whether he might see Araminta.

When he was ushered into the invalid's room, he found her propped up by pillows, and her hair was rioting in waves about her flushed face. A small maltese kitten, curled into a fluffy ball, slept on the snowy counterpane beside her. Araminta had been reading the "story book" which Doctor Ralph had brought her.

"Little maid," asked the minister, "how is the ankle?"

"It's well, and to-morrow I'm to walk on it for the first time. Doctor Ralph has been so good to me--everybody's been good."

Thorpe picked up the book, which lay face downward, and held it close to his near-sighted eyes. Araminta trembled; she was afraid he would take it away from her.

All that day, she had lived in a new land, where men were brave and women were fair. Castle towers loomed darkly purple in the sunset, or shone whitely at noon. Kings and queens, knights and ladies, moved sedately across the tapestry, mounted on white chargers with trappings of scarlet and gold. Long lances shimmered in the sun and the armour of the knights gave back the light an hundred fold. Strange music sounded in Araminta's ears--love songs and serenades, hymns of battle and bugle calls. She felt the rush of conflict, knew the anguish of the wounded, and heard the exultant strains of victory.

And all of it--Araminta had greatly marvelled at this--was done for love, the love of man and woman.

A knight in the book had asked the lady of his heart to marry him, and she had not seen that she was insulted, nor guessed that he was offering her disgrace. Araminta wondered that the beautiful lady could be so stupid, but, of course, she had no Aunt Hitty to set her right. Far from feeling shame, the lady's heart had sung for joy, but secretly, since she was proud. Further on, the same beautiful lady had humbled her pride for the sake of her love and had asked the gallant knight to marry her, since she had once refused to marry him.

"Why, Araminta!" exclaimed Mr. Thorpe, greatly surprised. "I thought Miss Mehitable did not allow you to read novels."

"A novel! Why, no, Mr. Thorpe, it isn't a novel! It's just a story book. Doctor Ralph told me so."

Austin Thorpe laughed indulgently. "A rose by any other name," he said, "is--none the less a rose. Doctor Ralph was right--it is a story book, and I am right, too, for it is also a novel."

Araminta turned very pale and her eyes filled with tears.

"Mr. Thorpe," she said, in an anguished whisper, "will I be burned?"

"Why, child, what do you mean?"

"I didn't know it was a novel," sobbed Araminta. "I thought it was a story book. Aunt Hitty says people who read novels get burned--they writhe in hell forever in the lake of fire."

The Reverend Austin Thorpe went to the door and looked out into the hall. No one was in sight. He closed the door very gently and came back to Araminta's bed. He drew his chair nearer and leaned over her, speaking in a low voice, that he might not be heard.

"Araminta, my poor child," he said, "perhaps I am a heretic. I don't know. But I do not believe that a being divine enough to be a God could be human enough to cherish so fiendish a passion as revenge. Look up, dear child, look up!"

Araminta turned toward him obediently, but she was still sobbing.

"It is a world of mystery," he went on. "We do not know why we come nor where we go--we only know that we come and that eventually, we go. Yet I do not think that any one of us nor any number of us have the right to say what the rest of us shall believe.

"I cannot think of Heaven as a place sparsely populated by my own sect, with a world of sinners languishing in flames below. I think of Heaven as a sunny field, where clover blooms and birds sing all day. There are trees, with long, cool shadows where the weary may rest; there is a crystal stream where they may forget their thirst. I do not think of Heaven as a place of judgment, but rather of pardon and love.

"Punishment there is, undoubtedly, but it has seemed to me that we are sufficiently punished here for all we do that is wrong. We don't intend to do wrong, Araminta--we get tired, and things and people worry us, and we are unjust. We are like children afraid in the dark; we live in a world of doubting, we are made the slaves of our own fears, and so we shirk."

"But the burning," said Araminta, wiping her eyes. "Is nobody ever to be burned?"

"The God I worship," answered Thorpe, passionately, "never could be cruel, but there are many gods, it seems, and many strange beliefs. Listen, Araminta. Whom do you love most?"

"Aunt Hitty?" she questioned.

"No, you don't have to say that if it isn't so. You can be honest with me. Who, of all the world, is nearest to you? Whom would you choose to be with you always, if you could have only one?"

"Doctor Ralph!" cried Araminta, her eyes shining.

"I thought so," replied Thorpe. "I don't know that I blame you. Now suppose Doctor Ralph did things that hurt you; that there was continual misunderstanding and distrust. Suppose he wronged you, cruelly, and apparently did everything he could to distress you and make you miserable. Could you condemn him to a lake of fire?"

"Why, no!" she cried. "I'd know he never meant to do it!"

"Suppose you knew he meant it?" persisted Thorpe, looking at her keenly.

"Then," said Araminta, tenderly, "I'd feel very, very sorry."

"Exactly, and why? Because, as you say, you love him. And God is love, Araminta. Do you understand?"

Upon the cramped and imprisoned soul of the child, the light slowly dawned. "God is love," she repeated, "and nobody would burn people they loved."

There was an illuminating silence, then Thorpe spoke again. He told Araminta of a love so vast and deep that it could not be measured by finite standards; of infinite pity and infinite pardon. This love was everywhere; it was impossible to conceive of a place where it was not--it enveloped not only the whole world, but all the shining worlds beyond. And this love, in itself and of itself, was God.

"This," said Araminta, touching the book timidly; "is it bad?"

"Nothing is bad," explained Thorpe, carefully, "which does not harm you or some one else. Of the two, it is better to harm yourself than another. How does the book make you feel?"

"It makes me feel as if the world was a beautiful place, and as if I ought to be better, so I could make it still more beautiful by living in it."

"Then, Araminta, it is a good book."

Thorpe went down-stairs strangely uplifted. To him, Truth was not a creed, but a light which illumined all creeds. His soul was aflame with eagerness to help and comfort the whole world. Miss Evelina was waiting in the hall, veiled and silent, as always.

She opened the door, but Thorpe lingered, striving vainly for the right word. He could not find it, but he had to speak.

"Miss Evelina," he stammered, the high colour mounting to his temples, "if there should ever be anything I can do for you, will you let me know?"

She seemed to shrink back into her veil. "Yes," she said, at length, "I will." Then, fearing she had been ungracious, she added: "Thank you."

His mood of exaltation was still upon him, and he wandered long in the woods before going home. His spirit dwelt in the high places, and from the height he gained the broad view.

When he entered the house. Miss Mehitable was waiting for him with a torrent of questions. When he had an opportunity to reply he reported that he had seen Doctor Ralph and Araminta could come home almost any time, now. Yes, he had talked with Araminta about her soul, and she had cried. He thought he had done her good by going, and was greatly indebted to Miss Mehitable for the suggestion.