The Two Elsies by Martha Finley
"Gone before To that unknown and silent shore." CHARLES LAMB.
Mr. Leland, lying pale and languid on his couch, was listening intently for the approaching footsteps of his child.
As she stole softly in, fearful of disturbing him, he lifted his head slightly and greeted her with a tender, pitying smile and a feebly outstretched hand.
"My darling," he whispered, drawing her to him, "my poor darling; so they have told you? I have tried to spare you the bitter truth as long as I could; bitter to you, love, and to me for your sake; yet the will of God be done; He knows and will do what is best for us both."
Evelyn was making a determined effort at self-control for his dear sake, that she might not disturb him with the knowledge that her very heart was breaking.
"Papa," she said, with a vain endeavor to steady her tones, "dear, dearest papa, you will surely get well; for I will pray day and night to God to cure you; and have you not taught me that He is the hearer and answerer of prayer, that He loves us, and that He is able to do everything?"
"Yes, dear daughter; and it is all true, but His thoughts are not as our thoughts; He may see best to take me now to the heavenly home toward which you too, I hope, are traveling; best for you as well as for me."
"O papa, how can it be best for me, when you are such a help to me in going that road; the only help I have?"
"He is able to raise up other and better helpers for you, dearest, and He Himself will be the best of all. Perhaps it is to draw you nearer to Himself that He is taking away the earthly father upon whom you have been accustomed to lean."
Mr. Leland's voice faltered with the last words; the exertion of talking so much had exhausted his feeble frame, and closing his eyes, he lay lifting up silent petitions for his child.
Evelyn thought he slept, and lest she should disturb him, forcibly repressed her inclination to relieve her over-burdened heart by sobs and sighs.
She remained close at his side, gently fanning him, for the day was oppressively hot.
But presently he opened his eyes, and fixed them upon her face with a long look of tenderest love and sympathy--a look that impressed itself indelibly upon her memory and was often, in after years, dwelt upon with feelings of strangely mingled joy and grief.
"My darling," he murmured at length, so low that her quick ear scarce caught the words, "my precious child, I leave you to the care of Him who is a Father of the fatherless. I have been pleading with Him for you; pleading His promise to those who trust in Him--'I will be a God to thee and to thy seed after thee.' It is an everlasting covenant, and shall never fail. Seek Him, my darling, seek Him with all your heart, and He will be your God forever and ever: your Guide even unto death."
"I will, papa, I will," she whispered, pressing her quivering lips to his cheek.
The end did not come that day; for another week the loved sufferer lingered in pain and weakness, borne with Christian fortitude and resignation.
For the most part his mind was clear and calm, the joy of the Lord his strength and stay; yet were there moments when doubts and fears assailed him.
"What is it, dear brother?" Elsie asked one day, seeing a troubled look upon his face.
"'How many are mine iniquities and sins,'" he answered; "'mine iniquities are gone over mine head; as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.'"
"But 'He was wounded for our trangressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed,'" quoted Elsie.
"Oh, bless the Lord 'who forgiveth all thine iniquities.'"
"Yes," he said, "but I am so vile, so sinful--it seems utterly impossible that I ever can be pure in His sight who is 'of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity.'"
"'The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin,'" quoted Elsie in low tones of deepest sympathy.
"'Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins.'
"'This Man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.'
"'Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity.'
"'Let Israel hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.'"
"Blessed words!" he ejaculated, the cloud lifting from his brow, "blessed, blessed words! I will doubt and fear no more; I will trust His power to save; His imputed righteousness is mine, and covered with that spotless robe I need not fear to enter the presence of the King of kings."
Some hours later the messenger came, and whispering, "All is peace, peace, unclouded peace," the dying saint fell asleep in Jesus.
Gently, tenderly Lester closed the sightless eyes, saying in moved tones, "Farewell, brother beloved! Thank God the battle's fought, the victory won!"
And now Evelyn, who had been for hours close at her father's side, waiting upon him, smoothing his pillow, moistening his lips, gazing with yearning tenderness into his eyes, drinking in his every word and look while displaying a power of self-control wonderful to see in a child of her years, burst into a passion of tears and sobs, pressing her lips again and again to the brow, the cheek, the lips of the dead--those pale lips that for the first time failed to respond to her loving caresses.
But with a wild shriek the new-made widow went into strong hysterics; and, resuming her self-control, the little girl left the dead to wait upon and console the living parent.
"Mamma, dearest mamma," she said, in quivering tones, putting her arms about her mother, "think how blest he is; the angels are even now carrying him home with songs of gladness to be forever with the Lord; and he will never be sick or in pain any more."
"But what is to become of me?" sobbed her mother. "I cannot do without him, if you can. You couldn't have loved him half so well as I did or you would never take his loss so quietly."
"O Mamma!" cried the child, her tone speaking deeply wounded feeling, "if you could know how I loved him!--my dear, dear father! Oh, why am I left behind? why could I not go with him?"
"And leave your mother all alone!" was the reproachful rejoinder. "But you always loved him best; never cared particularly for me; and never will I suppose," she added, going into a stronger paroxysm than before.
"O mamma, don't!" cried Evelyn, in sore distress. "I love you dearly too; and you are all I have left." She threw an arm about her mother's neck as she spoke, but was thrust impatiently aside.
"You are suffocating me; can't you see it? Help me to bed in the next room, and call Hannah. She perhaps will have sense enough to apply restoratives."
But both Lester and Elsie had come to her aid, and the former, taking her in his arms, carried her to the bed, while Evelyn hastened to call the nurse who had for the past week or two assisted in the care of him who now no longer needed anything but the last sad offices.
Laura's grief continued to be very violent in its manifestations, yet did not hinder her from taking an absorbing interest in the preparation of her own and Evelyn's mourning garments. She was careful that they should be of the deepest black, the finest quality, the most fashionable cut; to all of which the bereaved child--a silent undemonstrative mourner--was supremely indifferent. Her mother noted it with surprise, for Evelyn was a child of decided opinions and wont to be fastidious about her attire.
"Flounces on this skirt, I suppose, Miss? how many?" asked the dressmaker.
"Just as mamma pleases; I do not care in the least," returned Evelyn.
"Why Eva, what has come over you?" queried her mother. "It is something new for you to be so indifferent in regard to your dress."
"You are the only one I care to please now, mamma," replied the little girl in tremulous tones. "I think there is no one else likely to be interested in the matter."
Laura was touched. "You are a good child," she said; "and I think you may well trust everything to my taste; it is considered excellent by my friends and acquaintance."
With thoughtfulness beyond her years Evelyn presently drew her mother aside, out of earshot of the dressmaker, and whispered, "Mamma dear, don't put too much expense on me; you know there is no one to earn money for us now."
"No, but he cannot have left us poor," rejoined the mother; "for I know his business has paid very well indeed for years past. And of course his wife and child inherit all he has left."
"I do not know! I do not care!" cried Evelyn, hot tears streaming from her eyes. "What is money without papa to help us enjoy it?"
"Something that it is very convenient, indeed absolutely necessary, to have in this practical world, as you will know when you are older and wiser," returned her mother, with some severity of tone; for Evelyn's words had seemed to her like a reproach, and an insinuation that Eric's daughter was a deeper and more sincere mourner for him than his widow.
Such was the fact, but she was by no means ready to admit it. And she had loved him, perhaps, as well as she was capable of loving any one but herself. Since her return home she had been too much occupied with his critical condition, and then his death, to give a thought to the state of his affairs or the disposition to be made of his property.
True, she had little cause for anxiety in regard to these things, knowing that he had no financial entanglements, and having heard him say on more than one occasion, that whatever he might possess at the time of his death would be left to his wife and child; yet had she been an unloving wife, queries, hopes and fears in regard to the amount he was leaving her would have found some place in her thoughts.
And now that Evelyn had in a manner opened the subject, they did so; she was no longer absorbed in her grief; it was present with her still, but her thoughts were divided between it on the one hand and her mourning and future prospects on the other.
It now occurred to her that Evelyn, being under age and heir to some property, must have a guardian.
"That should be left to me," she said to herself. "I am quite capable--her natural guardian too; and I trust he has not associated any one else with me. It would be too provoking, for he would be forever interfering in my plans and wishes for the child."
She waited till the day after that on which the body was laid away in its last resting-place, then finding herself alone with her brother-in-law, said to him, "I want a little talk with you, Lester, for it is time for me to be arranging my plans. As you were with your brother for some weeks before his death, I presume you can tell me all about his affairs. Did he make a will?"
"He did; leaving his entire estate to his wife and child," replied Lester, in a grave but kindly tone.
"One third to me and two to her, I suppose?"
"Yes; but I think he said you would be the richer of the two, having some property of your own."
"That is quite correct. I am appointed executrix, and guardian to Evelyn of course?"
"No," Lester replied, with some hesitation, for he saw that she would be ill-pleased with the arrangements Eric had made; "at the earnest solicitation of my brother, I consented to become his executor and the guardian of his child."
Laura did not speak for a moment, but her eyes flashed and her cheek paled with anger. "Ah, I might have known it," she hissed at length; "had I not been the most innocent and unsuspicious of women I should have known better than to leave him for weeks to the wiles of designing relatives; when, too, his mind was weakened by disease."
"His mind was perfectly clear and strong from first to last, Laura," returned Lester mildly, "and you greatly mistake in supposing I had anything to gain by agreeing to his wishes or that I was at all covetous of either office."
"Pardon me," she sneered, "but if you do not receive a percentage for your trouble, you will be the first executor I ever heard of who did not."
"I shall not accept a cent," he retorted, with some slight indignation in his tones.
"We shall see; men can change their minds as well as women. But surely I am associated with you in the guardianship of Evelyn?"
"According to her father's will I am sole guardian," said Lester.
"It is too much; I am the child's natural guardian, and shall contest my rights if necessary," returned Laura, defiantly; and with the last word she rose and left the room.
Elsie, entering the parlor a moment later, found her husband pacing to and fro with a very disturbed and anxious air.
"What is the matter?" she asked, and he answered with an account of his interview with Laura.
"How strange!" she exclaimed. "Her love for her husband cannot have been very deep and strong, if she is so ready to oppose the carrying out of his dying wishes. But do not let it trouble you, Lester; she is venting her anger in idle threats, and will never proceed to the length of contesting the will in a court of law."
"I trust not," he said sighing. "Ah me! if my poor brother had but made a wiser choice."
In the library, whither Mrs. Laura Leland bent her steps on her sudden exit from the parlor, Evelyn was sitting in her father's vacant chair, her elbow resting on the table, her cheek in her hand, her eyes on the carpet at her feet, while her sad thoughts travelled back over many an hour spent there in the loved companionship of the dear departed.
She looked up inquiringly on her mother's abrupt entrance, and noted with surprise the flush on her cheek and the angry light in her eyes.
"Ah, here you are!" said Laura. "Pray, were you let into the secret of the arrangements made in my absence?"
"What arrangements, mamma?" asked the little girl wonderingly.
"In regard to your guardianship, and the care of the property left by your father."
"No, mamma, I never knew or thought anything about those things. Must I have a guardian? Why should I be under the control of anyone but you?"
"Yes, why indeed? I would not have believed it of your father! but he has actually left you to the sole guardianship of your Uncle Lester. You may well look astonished," she added, noting the expression of Evelyn's face. "I feel that I am robbed of my natural right in my child."
"You need not, mamma; I shall obey you just the same of course, for nothing can release me from the obligation to keep the fifth commandment. So do not, I beg of you, blame papa."
With what a quiver of pain the young voice pronounced that loved name!
"No; I blame your uncle; for no doubt he used undue influence with Eric while his mind was enfeebled by illness. And I blame myself also for leaving my husband to that influence; but I little thought he was so ill--so near his end; nor did I suspect his brother of being so designing a man."
"Mamma, you quite mistake in regard to both," exclaimed Evelyn, in a pained, indignant tone; "Uncle Lester is not a designing person, and papa's mind was not in the least enfeebled by his illness."
"No, of course not; it can not be doubted that a child of your age is far more capable of judging than a woman of mine," was the sarcastic rejoinder.
"Mamma, please do not speak so unkindly to me," entreated the little girl, unbidden tears springing to her eyes; "you know you are all I have now."
"No, you have your dear Uncle Lester and Aunt Elsie, and I foresee that they will soon steal your heart entirely away from your mother."
"Mamma, how can you speak such cruel words to me?" cried Evelyn. "I would not hurt you so for all the world."