Chapter XXYI. Friend and Saviour
 

Knowing of no other source of help than an earthly one, her thoughts reverted to the old Scotch people whom she had recently visited. Their sunlighted garden, and happy, homely life, their simple faith, seemed the best antidote for her present morbid tendencies.

"If the worst comes to the worst, I think they would take us in for a little while, till some way opened," she thought. "Oh that I had their belief in a better life! Then it wouldn't seem so dreadful to suffer in this one. Why have I never read the 'Gude Book,' as they call it? But I never seemed to understand it; still, I must say, that I never really tried to. Perhaps God is angry with us, and is punishing us for so forgetting Him. I would rather think that than to feel so forgotten and lost sight of. It seems as if God didn't see or care. It seems as if I could cling to the harshest father in the world, if he would only protect and help me. A God of wrath, that I have heard clergymen preach of, is not so dreadful to me as a God who forgets, and leaves His creatures to struggle alone. Our minister was so cold and philosophical, and presented a God that seemed so far off, that I felt there could never be anything between Him and me. He talked about a holy, infinite Being, who dwelt alone in unapproachable majesty; and I want some one to stoop down and love and help poor little me. He talked about a religion of purity and good works, and love to our fellow-men. I don't know how to work for myself, much less for others, and it seems as if nearly all my fellow-creatures hated and scorned me, and I am afraid of them; so I don't see what chance there is for such as we. If we had only remained rich, and lived on the avenue, such a religion wouldn't be so hard. It seems strange that the Bible should teach him and old Malcom so differently. But I suppose he is wiser, and understands it better. Perhaps it's the flowers that teach Malcom, for he always seems drawing lessons from them."

Then came the impulse to get the Bible and read it for herself. "The impulse!" whence did it come?

When Edith felt so orphaned and alone, forgotten even of God, then the Divine Father was nearest his child. When, in her bitter extremity, at this lonely midnight hour she realized her need and helplessness as never before, her great Elder Brother was waiting beside her.

The impulse was divine. The Spirit of God was leading her as He is seeking to lead so many. It only remained for her to follow these gentle impulses, not to be pushed into the black gulf that despairing Laura dreaded, but to be led into the deep peace of a loving faith.

She went down into the parlor to get the Bible that in her hands had revealed the falseness and baseness of Gus Elliot, and the thought flashed through her mind like a good omen, "This book stood between me and evil once before." She took it to the light and rapidly turned its pages, trying to find some clew, some place of hope, for she was sadly unfamiliar with it.

Was it her trembling fingers alone that turned the pages? No; He who inspired the guide she consulted guided her, for soon her eyes fell upon the sentence--

"Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

The words came with such vivid power and meaning that she was startled, and looked around as if some one had spoken to her. They so perfectly met her need that it seemed they must be addressed directly to her.

"Who was it that said these words, and what right had he to say them?" she queried eagerly, and keeping her finger on the passage as if it might be a clew out of some fatal labyrinth, she turned the leaves backward and read more of Him with the breathless interest that some poor burdened soul might have felt eighteen centuries ago in listening to a rumor of the great Prophet who had suddenly appeared with signs and wonders in Palestine. Then she turned and read again and again the sweet words that first arrested her attention. They seemed more luminous and hope-inspiring every moment, as their significance dawned upon her like the coming of day after night.

Her clear, positive mind could never take a vague, dubious impression of anything, and with a long-drawn breath she said, with the emphasis of perfect conviction:

"If He were a mere man, as I have been taught to believe, He had no right to say these words. It would be a bitter, wicked mockery for man or angel to speak them. Oh, can it be that it was God Himself in human guise? I could trust such a God."

With glowing cheeks and parted lips, she resumed her reading, and in her eyes was the growing light of a great hope.

The upper room of that poor little cottage was becoming a grand and sacred place. Heaven, that honors the deathless soul above all localities, was near. The God who was not in the vast and gold- incrusted temple on Mount Moriah sat in humble guise at "Jacob's well," and said to one of His poor guilty creatures: "I that speak unto thee am He." Cathedral domes and cross-tipped spires indicated the Divine presence on every hand in superstitious Rome, but it would seem that He was near only to a poor monk creeping up Pilate's staircase. Though the wealth of the world should combine to build a colossal church, filling it with every sacred emblem and symbol, and causing its fretted roof to resound with unceasing choral service, it would not be such a claim upon the great Father's heart as a weak, pitiful cry to Him from the least of His children. Though Edith knew it not, that Presence without which all temples are vain had come to her as freely, as closely, as truly as when it entered the cottage at Bethany, and Mary "sat at Jesus' feet and heard His word." Even to her, in this night of trouble, in this stony wilderness of care and fear, as to God's trembling servant of old, a ladder of light was let down from heaven, and on it her faith would climb up to the peace and rest that are above, and therefore undisturbed by the storms that rage on earth.

But it is God's way to make us free through truth. Christ, when on earth, did not deal with men's souls as with their bodies. The latter He touched into instantaneous cure; to the former He appealed with patient instruction and entreaty, revealing Himself by word and deed, and saying: In view of what I prove myself to be will you trust me? Will you follow me?

In words which, though spoken so long ago, are still the living utterances of the Spirit to every seeking soul, He was now speaking to Edith, and she listened with the wonder and hope that might have stirred the heart of some sorrowing maiden like herself, when His voice was accompanied by the musical chime of waves breaking on the shores of Galilee, or the rustle of winds through the gray olive leaves.

Edith came to the source of all truth with a mind as fresh and unprejudiced as that of one who saw and heard Jesus for the first time, as, in his mission journeys, he entered some little town of the Holy Land. She had never thought much about Him, and had no strong preconceived opinions. She was almost utterly ignorant of the creeds and symbols of men, and Christ was not to her, as He is to so many, the embodiment of a system and the incarnation of a doctrine--a vague, half-realized truth. When she thought of Him at all, it had been as a great, good man, the most famous religious teacher in the past, whose life had nobly "adorned a tale and pointed a moral." But this would not answer anymore. "What could a man, dead and buried centuries ago, do for me now?" she asked, bitterly.

"I want one who can with right speak these words--

"'Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'"

And as, with finger still clinging to this passage, she read of miracle and parable, now trembling almost under the "Sermon on the Mount," now tearful under the tender story of the prodigal, the feeling came in upon her soul like the rising tide, "This was not mere man."

Then, with an awe she had never felt before, she followed him to Gethsemane, to the High Priest's palace, to Pilate's judgment-hall, and thence to Golgotha, and it seemed to her one long "Via Dolorosa." With white lips she murmured, with the centurion, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

She was reading the wonderful story for the first time in its true connection, and the Spirit of God was her guide and teacher. When she came to Mary "weeping without at the sepulchre," her own eyes were streaming, and it seemed as if she were weeping there herself.

But when Jesus said, in a tone perhaps never heard before or since in this world, "Mary," it seemed that to herself He was speaking, and her heart responded, "Rabboni--Master."

She started up and paced the little room, thrilling with excitement.

"How blind I have been!" she exclaimed--"how utterly blind! Here I have been struggling alone all these weary weeks, with scarcely hope for this world and none for the next, when I might have had such a friend and helper all the time. Can I be deceived? Can this sweet way of light out of our thick darkness be a delusion?"

She went to where her little Bible lay open at the passage, "Come unto me," and bowing her head upon it, pleaded as simply and sincerely as the Syro-Phoenician mother pleaded for her child in the very presence of the human Saviour--

"O Jesus, I am heavily laden. I labor under burdens greater than I can bear. Divine Saviour, help me."

In answer she expected some vague exaltation of soul, of an exquisite sense of peace, as the burden was rolled away.

There was nothing of the kind, but only an impulse to go to Laura. She was deeply disappointed. She seemed to have climbed such a lofty height that she might almost look into heaven and confirm her faith forever, and only a simple earthly duty was revealed to her. Her excited mind, that had been expanding with the divinest mysteries, was reacting into quietness, and the impression was so strong that she must go to Laura, that she thought her sister had been calling her, and she, in her intense preoccupation, had heard her as in a dream.

Still keeping the little Bible in her hand, she went to Laura's room. Through the partially open door she saw, with a sudden chill of fear, that the bed had not been slept in. Pushing the door open, she looked eagerly around with a strange dread growing upon her. Laura was writing at a table with her back toward the entrance. There was a strong odor of laudanum in the room, and a horrible thought blanched Edith's cheek. Stealing with noiseless tread across the intervening space, with hand pressed upon her heart to still its wild throbbings, she looked over her sister's shoulder, and followed the tracings of her pen with dilating eyes.

"Mother, Edith, farewell! When you read these sad words I shall be dead. I fear death--I cannot tell you how I fear it, but I fear more that dreadful gulf which daily grows nearer. I must die. There is no other resource for a poor, weak woman like me. If I were only strong-- if I had only been taught something--but I am helpless. Do not be too hard upon poor little Zell. Her eyes were blinded by a false love; she did not see the black gulf as I see it. If God cares for what such poor forlorn creatures as I do, may He forgive. I have thought till my brain reels. I have tried to pray, but hardly knew what I was praying to. I don't understand God--He is far off. The world scorns us. There is none to help. There is no other remedy save the drug at my side, which will soon bring sleep which I hope will be dreamless. Farewell!

"Your poor, trembling, despairing LAURA."

Every sentence was written with a sigh that seemed as if it might be the last that the burdened soul could, give, and every line was blotted with tears. Edith saw that the poor, thin face was pinched and wan with misery, and that the pallor of death had already blanched even her lips, and, with a shudder of horror, her eyes fell on a phial of laudanum at Laura's left hand, from which she was partially turned away, in the act of writing.

With an ecstatic thrill of joy, she now understood how her prayer had been answered. How could there have been rest--how could there have been peace--if this awful tragedy had been consummated?

With one devout, grateful glance upward, she silently took away the fatal drug, and laid her Bible down in its place.

Laura finished her letter, leaned back, and murmured a long, trembling, "Farewell!" that was like a low, mournful vibration of an Aeolian harp, when the night-breeze breathes upon it. Then she pressed her right hand over her eyes, shuddered, and tremblingly put out her left for that which would end all. But, instead of the phial which she had placed there but a little before, her hand rested upon a book. Startled, she opened her eyes, and saw not the dreaded poison, but in golden letters that seemed luminous to her dazzled sight:

HOLY BIBLE.

Though all had lasted but a brief moment, Edith's power of self- control was gone. Dashing the bottle on the floor, where it broke into many fragments, she threw herself on her sister's neck and sobbed:

"O Laura, Laura! your hand is on a better remedy. It has saved me--it can save you. It has shown me the Friend we need. He sent me to you;" and she clung to her sister in a rapture of joy, murmuring, with every breath:

"Thanks, thanks, eternal gratitude! I see how my prayer is answered now."

Laura, in her shattered condition, was too bewildered and feeble to do more than cling to Edith, with a blessed sense of being rescued from some great peril. A horrid spell seemed broken, and for some reason, she knew not why, life and hope were still possible. A torrent of tears seemed to relieve her of the dreadful oppression that had so long rested on her, and at last she faltered:

"Who is this strange friend?"

"His name is Jesus--Saviour," said Edith, in a low, reverential tone.

"I don't quite understand," said Laura, hesitatingly. "I can only cling to you till I know Him."

"He knows you, Laura, and loves you. He has never forgotten us. It was we who forgot Him. He sent me to you, just in time. Now put your hand on this book, and promise me you will never think of such an awful thing again."

"I promise," said Laura, solemnly; "not if I am in my right mind. I don't understand myself. You seem to have awakened me from a fearful dream. I will do just what you tell me to."

"Oh, Laura, let us both try to do just what our Divine Friend tells us to do."

"Perhaps, through you, I shall learn to know Him. I can only cling to you to-night," said Laura, wearily, "I am so tired," and her eyes drooped as she spoke.

With a sense of security came a strong reaction in her overtaxed nature. Edith helped her to bed as if she were a child, and soon she was sleeping as peacefully as one.