Gritli's Children by Johanna Spyri
Chapter VIII. At Sunset.
Elsli continued to go daily to the little invalid, and, from the first visit, she had been a dear friend and companion to the sick girl, who would not hear of her going on errands, but kept her by her own side from the moment she came, till it was time to go home. Mrs. Stanhope, whose only object in life was her little girl's happiness, was more than pleased with this arrangement; and watched with delight as Nora grew, from day to day, more cheerful and even lively in the companionship of a girl of her own age. And Elsli, too, profited by the intercourse; she was of a yielding nature and easily took new impressions, and now that she passed all her time in refined society, she insensibly grew into its likeness; and her voice, her manners, her way of speaking, all seemed assimilated to those of a very different way of life from that to which she had been accustomed. Was it that this new way was really more suited to her nature than the old?
The two girls studied together every day Elsli's lessons for the morrow, greatly to the pleasure and advantage of both. To Elsli especially, it was a new and delightful sensation to go to her class with a perfectly prepared lesson, and to hear the praises which the teacher daily bestowed upon her improvement; while Nora, whose invalidism had long cut her off from her books, found a fresh zest in resuming her studies with her eager friend. After lessons came supper, and then the evening with its long talks. These were generally about the beautiful country, to which Nora hoped soon to go, and where Elsli followed her in sympathetic thought. One regret began to dim Nora's satisfaction at the prospect; the thought that they couldn't go together; and Elsli would say, sadly, "If you should go and leave me here alone, how could I bear it?"
At last September came, with its cool but sunny days. One evening, as the children sat at the window looking across the meadows towards the setting sun; from a dark cloud that hung in the western sky, a great flood of shining light suddenly poured down across the valley, illuminating the trees, the grass, and the shrubs with its dazzling radiance.
"Look! look!" cried Nora, "that is the crystal stream! there it comes rolling toward me! Oh, I wish I could go there now! It is certainly the promised land, where we all shall be so happy. Come nearer to me, Elsli. I feel so weak I cannot sit up alone."
Elsli sat close by her, and drew the tired head to rest upon her shoulder; and so the two friends sat, silently gazing at the wonderful sight, until at last the sun disappeared behind the woods, and slowly the mists of evening filled the valley, and all the glory was over.
But for Nora it had only just begun. When her mother came in from the next room, she thought her little girl was asleep on Elsli's shoulder. She was asleep, indeed; but she would never awaken on earth. Mrs. Stanhope took her in her arms, and burst into tears.
"Run, Elsli, for the doctor, as fast as you can!" cried she, and Elsli ran. The doctor was not at home, but Mrs. Stein soon saw the truth, from Elsli's answers to her many questions.
"Dear little Nora!" she said sadly. "Her sufferings are over forever. She has gone to heaven to be at rest."
Elsli stood as if struck by lightning.
"Is she gone? Is Nora really gone to heaven?" she exclaimed, and then she burst into tears, and trembled so that she could scarcely stand.
"My dear child," said the doctor's wife tenderly, taking Elsli by the hand, "come and sit down with me a little while, till you feel better."
But Elsli could not. She covered her face with her apron, and ran out of the house, crying bitterly.
"Oh, how could she go and leave me behind?" she kept saying to herself as she hurried back to Oak-ridge. She found Mrs. Stanhope still bending over Nora, and sobbing as when she left her. Elsli seated herself on Nora's footstool, and wept in silence. It was not long before the doctor came. He bent over the child's form a moment, and then turned to the mother.
"Mrs. Stanhope," he said, and his tones were very tender, "I can do nothing. Your little girl is gone. I will send my wife to you."
Mrs. Stein came, but her words brought no comfort to the bereaved mother. She heard nothing; she saw nothing but the quiet little form that lay lifeless before her. When Mrs. Stein was convinced that she could be of no use to her, she went across the room to Elsli, who sat weeping on the footstool by the window, and taking her by the hand, she led her out of the room, saying gently:--
"Now it is best for you to go home, my dear. We will not forget you, and remember that our Father in heaven never forgets his children. Think how well and happy Nora is! She will never be ill again, in that land where the weary are at rest."
"If she had only taken me with her," moaned poor Elsli, and when Mrs. Stein left her, as their ways parted, she could hear the sobbing child for a long time as she slowly walked, with her apron over her eyes, along the lane that led to her home.
At home, Mrs. Stein found the children grouped about their aunt, who was telling them about Nora. Fred had many questions to ask about death, and how people can die and come to life again. Emma was much depressed, for she felt, now that it was too late, that she had not done anything to make Nora's illness more cheerful.
That evening Mrs. Stein and her sister were full of anxious thought. They felt keen sympathy with the sorrowing mother at Oak-ridge, and they talked a great deal about the blow that had fallen upon poor little Elsli. She had not only lost a friend whose companionship had brought her new life, but she must now go back to the hard and uncongenial labor from which she had had a brief and blessed respite. Fani too, the only bright spot in her dark lot, was away now, and who could tell when she would have him again? Indeed, Fani's fate was also a source of anxiety, especially on account of Emma's share in his disappearance. Would all turn out right for the boy? Would he get a suitable education, and what sort of a future lay before him? The information they had obtained from Basel had not proved perfectly satisfactory. The scene-painter had, to be sure, taken Fani into his service, but the boy had nothing to do with the painting but to clean up the brushes and palettes, and grind the colors; and, although he had his board and lodging from his master, he must pay for his clothes himself. It was not a very promising outlook for Fani. His parents were willing to have him stay away from home, but they expected him at least to support himself, if not to send them some money occasionally. Mrs. Stein could not decide what ought to be done, and all this new care would have been a very heavy burden to bear, if her sister had not lightened it by her sympathy and encouragement. Aunty's cheerful spirit always inspired hope and confidence.
* * * * *
The next morning, Emma, with a downcast air, asked leave to take some flowers over to lay upon the bed by Nora. Her mother was glad to let her go, and glad too that Fred offered to accompany his sister. The children were admitted to the house, and shown into the room where Nora lay upon a snow-white bed; herself as white and cold as marble.
Mrs. Stanhope was kneeling by the bedside, her face buried in the coverlet. Emma laid her flowers upon the bed, and, with fast flowing tears, looked upon the peaceful face, and remembered sadly that she had not done a friendly act for the little invalid, nor helped to wile away her lonely hours. She left the room sorry and ashamed, regretting her selfishness, when it was too late to do any good.
A little while after, Mrs, Stein came softly into the quiet room. Mrs. Stanhope raised her head, and, as she returned the kindly greeting, her grief broke out, and she exclaimed with sobs:--
"Oh, if you knew how miserable I am! Why--ah, why! does God take from me my only child? Fortune and lands, everything else he might have taken, if he would only have left me my child! This is the very hardest fate that could have befallen me! Why must I suffer more than any one else in the world?"
"Dear Mrs. Stanhope," said the doctor's wife, as she took the poor lady's hand and pressed it tenderly in her own; "I feel for your sorrow, but I beg you to think of what your child has gained. God has taken her to himself, and she is free from pain and weariness forevermore, in his sheltering arms. You do not know what poverty means! Think of the many mothers who only see their children grow up to hard labor, and suffer for want of food and clothing. Take the sorrow that God has sent you; do not try to measure it with that of others; the sorrow that comes to each seems the heaviest for each to bear. But our Father knows why he has given each row, and the road he leads us is the one best for us to follow."
Mrs. Stanhope became more tranquil as these words fell on her ear, but her face still wore an expression of inconsolable grief. She was silent a few moments, and then she told Mrs. Stein that she meant to take Nora home and lay her beside the little boy in the garden by the Rhine, and that she should send to her true friend and house-keeper Clarissa to come at once to Oak-ridge to make the preparations for their return, and accompany her on her painful journey. This arrangement was a great relief to Mrs. Stein, who returned home with an easier mind, and hastened to impart this bit of good news to her sister. But aunty was nowhere to be found, and Emma, who was sitting alone in an unusually subdued mood, told her mother that she was probably with Fred, who had been looking for her, "to show her a beetle or some such thing," she supposed! So Mrs. Stein sat down with her little girl, who wanted to ask her questions about Nora. Emma longed to hear that Nora had not suffered from her neglect, and had been contented and happy without her; for she had been feeling more and more how selfish she had been in never repeating her first visit, merely because she had not herself enjoyed it, never thinking what she might have done for poor sick Nora.
Fred had sought his aunt for a long time, and when he found her he carried her off to a remote part of the garden, where stood a lonely summer-house. There he drew her down beside him on a bench, and said he had something to say to her alone.
"Do you know, aunty, I saw Nora to-day, and she is dead; and I cannot see how she can come to life again, and go to heaven."
"You cannot understand that, Fred? Neither can I. But the good God does many things which we cannot understand, and yet we know they are. And as we are told by One whom we can trust that we shall live again after our body dies, we must believe it. I believe it, Fred, with all my heart."
"But," argued Fred, "I have always thought that life is the same in men as in animals, and when an animal dies, it can never be made alive again. I have noticed that myself."
At this moment, the conversation was interrupted, for they saw the doctor in the garden, and aunty hastened to join him, as she had promised to visit his cauliflowers with him this evening.
Fred sat still lost in thought; he did not care for cauliflowers.