Chapter Twentieth.
 
"Before
We end our pilgrimage, 'tis fit that we
Should leave corruption, and foul sin behind us.
But with washed feet and hands, the heathen dared not
Enter their profane temples: and for me
To hope my passage to eternity
Can be made easy, till I have shook off
The burthen of my sins in free confession,
Aided with sorrow and repentance for them,
Is against reason."
--MASSINGER.

It began to be noticed that Wilkins Foster also had disappeared. It was said that he had not been seen since the raid upon Fairview, and the general supposition was that he had taken part in the outrage, received a wound in the affray and, on the advent of the troops, had fled the country.

His mother and sisters led a very retired life seldom going from home except to attend church and even there they had been frequently missing of late.

Elsie had been much engaged in efforts to comfort her old friend, Mrs. Carrington, and to entertain Mr. Lilburn, who was still at Ion; little excursions to points of interest in the vicinity, and visits to the plantations of the different families of the connection, who vied with each other in doing him honor, filled up the time to the exclusion of almost everything else, except the home duties which she would never allow herself to neglect.

Baskets of fruit and game, accompanied by kind messages, had found their way now and again from Ion to the cottage home of the Fosters, but weeks had passed since the sweet face of Ion's mistress had been seen within its walls.

Elsie's tender conscience reproached her for this, when after an absence of several Sabbaths Mrs. Foster again occupied her pew in the church of which both were members.

The poor lady was clad in rusty black, seemed to be aging fast, and the pale, thin face had a weary, heart-broken expression that brought the tears to Elsie's eyes.

When the service closed she took pains to intercept Mrs. Foster, who was trying to slip away unnoticed, and taking her hand in a warm clasp, kindly inquired concerning the health of herself and family.

"About as usual, Mrs. Travilla," was the reply.

"I am glad to hear it. I feared you were ill. You are looking weary; and no wonder after your long walk. You must let us take you home. There is plenty of room in the carriage, as the gentlemen came on horseback; and it will be a real pleasure to me to have your company."

The sincere, earnest, kindly tone and manner quite disarmed the pride of the fallen gentlewoman, and a momentary glow of grateful pleasure lighted up her sad face.

"But it will take you fully a mile out of your way," she said, hesitating to accept the proffered kindness.

"Ah, that is no objection; it is so lovely a day for a drive," said Elsie, leading the way to the carriage.

"This seems like a return of the good old times before the war!" sighed Mrs. Foster leaning back upon the softly cushioned seat, as they bowled rapidly along. "Ah Mrs. Travilla, if we could but have been content to let well enough alone! I have grown weary, inexpressibly weary of all this hate, bitterness and contention; and the poverty--Ah well, I will not complain!" and she closed her lips resolutely.

"It was a sad mistake," Elsie answered; echoing the sigh, "and it will take many years to recover from it."

"Yes, I shall not live to see it."

"Nor I, perhaps; not here, but yonder in the better land," Elsie answered with a smile of hope and gladness.

Mrs. Foster nodded assent; her heart too full for utterance, nor did she speak again till the carriage drew up before her own door.

Then repeating her thanks, "You have not been here for a long time, Mrs. Travilla," she said, "I know I have not returned your calls, but--" she paused seemingly again overcome with emotion.

"Ah, that shall not keep me away, if you wish me to come," returned Elsie.

"We would be very glad; hardly any one else so welcome."

"I fear I have neglected you, but shall try to come soon. And shall be pleased at any time to see you at Ion," Elsie answered as the carriage drove on.

A day or two afterward she fulfilled her promise, and was admitted by Annie, the eldest daughter.

She, too, looked pale and careworn, and had evidently been weeping.

"O, Mrs. Travilla!" she exclaimed, and burst into a fresh flood of tears.

Elsie, her own eyes filling with sympathetic drops, put her arm about her, whispering, "My poor dear child! what can I do to comfort you?"

"Nothing! nothing!" sobbed the girl, resting her head for a moment on Elsie's shoulder; "But come into the parlor, dear Mrs. Travilla, and let me call mamma."

"Ah, stay a moment," Elsie said, detaining her, "are you sure, quite sure that I can do nothing to help you?"

Annie shook her head. "This trouble is beyond human help. Yes, yes, you can pray for us, and for him."

The last words were almost inaudible from emotion, and she hurried away, leaving the guest sole occupant of the room.

Involuntarily Elsie glanced about her, and a pang went to her heart as she noticed that every article of luxury, almost of comfort, had disappeared; the pictures were gone from the walls, the pretty ornaments from mantel and centre-table; coarse cheap matting covered the floor in lieu of the costly carpet of other days, and rosewood and damask had given place to cottage furniture of the simplest and most inexpensive kind.

"How they must feel the change!" she thought within herself, "and yet perhaps not just now; these minor trials are probably swallowed up in a greater one."

Mrs. Foster came in looking shabbier and more heart-broken than at their last interview.

"My dear Mrs. Travilla, this is kind!" she said making a strong effort to speak with composure but failing utterly as she met the tender sympathizing look in the sweet soft eyes of her visitor.

Elsie put her arms about her and wept with her. "Some one is ill, I fear?" she said at length.

"Yes--my son. O Mrs. Travilla, I am going to lose him!" and she was well nigh convulsed with bitter, choking sobs.

"While there is life there is hope," whispered Elsie, "who can say what God may do for us in answer to our prayers?"

The mother shook her head in sad hopelessness.

"The doctor has given him up; says nothing more can be done."

"Dr. Barton?"

"No, no, Savage. Oh if we could but have had Barton at first the result might have been different. I have no confidence in Savage, even when sober, and he's drunk nearly all the time now."

"Oh then things may not be so bad as he represents them. Let me send over for Dr. Barton at once."

"Thank you, but I must ask Wilkins first. He was wounded some weeks ago; injured internally, and has been suffering agonies of pain ever since. I wanted Dr. Barton sent for at once, but he would not hear of it, said the risk was too great and he must trust to Savage. But now--" she paused, overcome with grief.

"But now the greater risk is in doing without him," suggested Elsie. "May I not send immediately?"

"Excuse me one moment, and I will ask," the mother said, leaving the room.

She returned shortly to say that Wilkins had consented that Dr. Barton should be summoned; accepted Mrs. Travilla's kind offer with thanks.

Elsie at once sent her servant and carriage upon the errand, and meanwhile engaged in conversation with her hostess. It was principally an account by the latter of her son's illness.

His sufferings, she said, had been intense: at first borne with fierce impatience and muttered imprecations upon the hand that had inflicted the wound. He had likened himself to a caged tiger, so unbearable was the confinement to him,--almost more so than the torturing pain--but of late a great change had come over him; he had grown quiet and submissive, and the bitter hate seemed to have died out of his heart.

"As it has out of mine, I hope," continued the mother, the big tears rolling down her cheeks.

"I am now sensible that the feelings I have indulged against some persons--the Lelands principally--were most unchristian, and I hope the Lord has helped me to put them away. It has been hard for us to see strangers occupying our dear old home; and yet it was certainly no fault of theirs that we were compelled to give it up."

"That is all true," Elsie said, "I think I can understand both your feelings and theirs, but they are dear good Christian people, and I assure you bear you no ill-will."

"Ah, is that so? I am told Leland has not really gone North, as was supposed, but has returned to the plantation since--since the coming of the troops."

"He has, and is nearly recovered from his wound."

"He was wounded, then?"

"Yes, pretty badly."

"And was in hiding somewhere; and his wife staying on alone with her children and servants? I wonder she had the courage."

"She put her trust in the Lord, as I believe both you and I do, my dear Mrs. Foster; and he has not failed her."

Mrs. Foster mused sadly for a moment. "I have felt hard to her," she murmured at length, in low, trembling tones; "and she a Christian, whom I should love for the Master's sake, and it was quite natural for her to--defend her husband and children. I should have done the same for mine."

She had not mentioned when or where Wilkins had received his wound, but Elsie knew now that it was at Fairview and that Mrs. Leland's or Archie's hand had sped the bullet that had done such fearful work.

Dr. Barton came: Mrs. Foster went with him to the sick-room and Elsie lingered, anxious to hear his opinion of the case.

But Annie came hurrying in with her tear-swollen face. "Dear Mrs. Travilla, won't you come too?" she sobbed. "Mamma will be so glad; and--and Wilkins begs you will come."

Elsie rose and put her arm about the waist of the weeping girl. "I will gladly do all I can for him, your mamma or any of you," she whispered.

There was no want of comfort or luxury in the sick-room. Mother and sisters had sacrificed every such thing to this idol of their hearts, this only son and brother. He lay propped up with pillows, his face pale as that of a corpse, and breathing with great difficulty.

Dr. Barton sat at the bedside with his finger on the patient's pulse while he asked a few brief questions, then relapsed into a thoughtful silence.

All eyes were turned upon him with intense anxiety, waiting in almost breathless suspense for his verdict; but his countenance betrayed nothing.

"O doctor!" sighed the mother at length, "have you no word of hope to speak?"

"Let us have none of false hope, doctor," gasped the sufferer, "I would know--the--worst."

"My poor lad," said the kind-hearted old physician, in tender, fatherly tones, "I will not deceive you. Whatever preparation you have to make for your last long journey, let it be made at once."

With a burst of uncontrollable anguish the mother and sisters fell upon their knees at the bedside.

"How--long--doctor?" faltered the sick man.

"You will hardly see the rising of another sun."

The low, gently-spoken words pierced more than one heart as with a dagger's point.

"Was--this--wound--mortal in the--first place?" asked Wilkins.

"I think not if it had had prompt and proper attention. But that is a question of little importance now: you are beyond human skill. Is there anything in which I can assist you?"

"Yes--yes--pray for--my guilty soul."

It was no new thing for Dr. Barton to do: an earnest Christian, he ministered to the souls as well as the bodies of his patients. He knelt and offered up a fervent prayer for the dying one, that repentance and remission of sins might be given him, that he might have a saving faith in the Lord Jesus, and trusting only in His imputed righteousness, be granted an abundant entrance into His kingdom and glory.

"Thanks--doctor," gasped Wilkins, "I--I've been a bad man; a--very bad, wicked--man; can there be any hope for--me?"

"'Whosoever will let him take the water of life freely.' 'Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.'"

"Isn't it--too--late?" The hollow eyes gazed despairingly into the doctor's face.

"'Whosoever will': you may come if you will; so long as death has not fixed your eternal state."

"I will! Lord, help--save me! me a poor--lost--vile--helpless--sinner!" he cried, lifting his eyes and clasped hands to heaven, while great tears coursed down his sunken cheeks. "I cast myself--at--thy feet; oh pardon, save me or--I am--lost--lost forever."

The eyes closed, the hands dropped, and for a moment they thought he had passed away with that agonized cry for mercy and forgiveness; but a deep sigh heaved his breast, his lips moved, and his mother bent over him to catch the words.

"Leland; send--for--him."

With streaming eyes she turned to Elsie and repeated the words, adding, "Do you think he would come?"

"I am quite sure of it. I will go for him at once."

The white lips were moving again.

The mother explained, amid her choking sobs. "He says the wife too, and--and your husband and father. Oh, will they come? Tell them my boy is dying and would go at peace with all the world."

"I will; and they will come," Elsie answered, weeping, and hurried away.

She drove directly to Fairview and was so fortunate as to find her husband and father there conversing with Mr. and Mrs. Leland.

Her sad story was quickly told, and listened to by all with deep commiseration for the impoverished and afflicted family.

"You will not refuse the poor dying man's request, papa? Edward?" she said in conclusion.

"Certainly not!" they answered, speaking both together, "we will set out immediately. And you, Leland?"

"Will gladly accompany you. I bear the poor man no malice, and would rejoice to do him any good in my power. What do you say, Mary?"

She looked at him a little anxiously, "Is it quite safe for you?"

"Quite, I think," he replied, appealing to the other gentlemen for their opinion.

They agreed with him, Mr. Dinsmore adding, "I have no doubt the man is sincere; and I have still more confidence in his mother, whom I have long looked upon as a truly Christian woman."

"Besides," remarked Mr. Travilla, "the Ku Klux would hardly dare venture an outrage now. The most desperate have fled the country, and the rest stand in wholesome awe of the troops."

"I am quite, quite sure there is no risk in going," said Elsie earnestly, "but whatever is done must be done quickly, for Wilkins is evidently very near his end; may, perhaps, expire before we arrive, even though we make all haste."

At that there was a general, hurried movement, and in less time than it takes to tell it, they were on their way; Mrs. Leland in the carriage with Elsie, and the gentlemen on horseback.

Under the influence of restoratives administered by Dr. Barton, great apparent improvement had taken place in Wilkins' condition; he was in less pain, breathed more freely, and spoke with less difficulty.

At sight of his visitors his pale face flushed slightly, and an expression of regret and mortification swept over his features.

"Thank you all for coming;" he said feebly. "Please be seated. I am at the very brink of the grave, and--and I would go at peace with all men. I--I've hated you every one. And you--Leland, I would have killed if I could. It was in the attempt to do so that I--received my own death wound at the hands of your wife."

Mrs. Leland started, trembled and burst into tears. That part of the story Elsie had omitted, and she now heard it for the first time.

"Don't be disturbed," he said, "you were doing right--in defending yourself, husband and children."

"Yes, yes," she sobbed, "but oh, I would save you now if I could! Can nothing be done?"

He shook his head sadly. "Will you, can you all forgive me?" he asked in tones so faint and low, that only the death-like silence of the room made the words audible.

"With all my heart, my poor fellow, as I hope to be forgiven my infinitely greater debt to my Lord," Mr. Leland answered with emotion, taking the wasted hand and clasping it warmly in his.

Foster was deeply touched. "God bless you for the words," he whispered. "How I've been mistaken in you, sir!"

His eyes sought the faces of Dinsmore and Travilla, and drawing near the bed, each took his hand in turn and gave him the same assurance he had already received from Leland.

Then the last named said, "I ask your forgiveness, Foster, for any exasperating word I may have spoken, or anything else I have done to rouse unkind feelings toward me."

In reply the dying man pressed Leland's hand in moved silence.

Mrs. Leland rose impetuously and dropped on her knees at the bedside. "And me!" she cried, with a gush of tears, "will you forgive me your death? I cannot bear to think it was my work, even though done in lawful self-defense, and to save my dear ones."

"It is--all--right between us," he murmured, and relapsed into unconsciousness.

"We are too many here," said the physician, dismissing all but the mother.

Elsie remained in an adjoining room, trying to comfort the sisters, while Mrs. Leland and the gentlemen repaired to the veranda, where they found Mr. Wood, who had just arrived; having been sent for to converse and pray with the dying man.

"How does he seem?" he asked, "can I go at once to the room?"

"Not now; he is unconscious," said Mr. Dinsmore and went on to describe Foster's condition, mental, moral, and physical, as evidenced in his interview with them and the earlier one with Dr. Barton; of which Elsie had given them an account.

"Ah, God grant he may indeed find mercy, and be enabled to lay hold upon Christ to the saving of his soul, even at this eleventh hour!" ejaculated the pastor. "A death-bed repentance is poor ground for hope. I have seen many of them in my fifty years ministry, but of all those who recovered from what had seemed mortal illness, but one held fast to his profession.

"The others all went back to their former evil ways, showing conclusively that they had been self-deceived and theirs but the hope of the hypocrite which 'shall perish: whose hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be a spider's web.'

"Yet with our God all things are possible, and the invitation is to all who are yet on praying ground; 'Whosoever will.'"

At this moment Elsie glided into their midst, and putting her hand into that of her pastor, said in low, tearful tones, "I am so glad you have come! He is conscious again, and asking for you."

He went with her to the bedside.

The glazing eyes grew bright for an instant.

"You have--come: oh tell me--what--I must--do--to--be saved!"

"I can only point you to 'the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,'" returned the pastor, deeply moved: "only repeat his invitation, 'Look unto me, and be ye saved all ye ends of the earth.'"

"I--am--trying--trying," came faintly from the pale lips, while the hands moved slowly, feebly, from side to side as if groping in the dark, "Lord save--"

A deep hush filled the room, broken presently by the mother's wail as she fell on her knees at the bedside, and taking the cold hand in hers covered it with kisses and tears.

With the last word the spirit had taken its flight; to him time should be no longer, eternity had begun.

Few and evil had been his days; he was not yet thirty, and, possessed of a fine constitution and vigorous health, had every prospect of long life had he been content to live at peace with his fellow-men; but by violent dealing he had passed away in the midst of his years.

"Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days." "The wages of sin is death."