Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/The Backsliding of Harriet Blake
THE BACKSLIDING OF HARRIET BLAKE
THE BACKSLIDING OF
THE Rev. Mr. Freeland looked down the long, narrow poorhouse table, and then glanced inquiringly at the matron.
"What has become of Harriet Blake, Mrs. Markham?" he asked. "I thought she sat at this table—I hope she's not ill?"
"Harriet's backslid," announced the Widow Sheldon laconically. She was a Baptist, of the variety sometimes known as hard-shelled, and made nothing of interrupting the discourse of any representative of a denomination unpleasing to her.
"Backslid?" repeated the reverend guest, dropping his napkin.
"She don't believe in——"
"Harriet," interrupted the matron, somewhat crossly, and with an unconcealed frown for the Widow Sheldon, "Harriet is taking her dinner alone. She—she is not quite well, I think. I will speak to you about her later," she added as the pastor's eyes grew round at her. The widow Sheldon sniffed loudly.
"A person who has ter have her vittles carried up ter the bed-chamber on account o' losing any little faith she might 'a had," she began, but old Uncle Peterson broke in with his gentle drawl:
"Oh, come on, Mis' Sheldon, don't go and spile a good biled dinner with words o' bitterness," he urged. "Harriet's a good woman, as is known to all, and if she's travellin' through dark ways just now——"
The pastor looked puzzled, but he saw that the subject was better left alone: previous visits to the poorhouse had led him to dread the Widow Sheldon's tongue. He nodded approvingly at Uncle Peterson.
"Quite right, quite right," he said quickly. "That's the spirit for us all to have. Shall I ask the blessing, Mrs. Markham?" And the meal went on.
But there was something in the air that hot Sunday noon; something that lent variety to the usual monotony of the querulous meal-times. There was less comment on the food than was usual, and the Widow Sheldon's resentful silence was more impressive than her ordinary vindictive volubility. It appeared that something had actually happened.
Once in her private sitting-room the matron began, low-voiced, with an occasional glance at the closed door, as if to make certain that no curious inmate lurked behind it:
"If Harriet Blake doesn't grow more sensible very soon I shall certainly go crazy; I invited you, Mr. Freeland, to dinner to-day because Harriet used to like your prayers in the afternoon, and it may help her to talk to you—but I don't know. She's a very obstinate old lady. The whole house talks about nothing else, and she's just morbid enough to like it. They gossip about her and fight about her till the air is blue with it. It was bad enough at election time, but religion is worse than politics."
The pastor made as if he would interrupt, but she overbore him.
"If you can't stop her she must go home to her niece, though she can't really afford to keep her and oughtn't to be asked——"
"Do I understand that Harriet is in doubt—has lost her Christian faith?"
"Oh, well—no; but in a way I suppose she has. She says that she—she can't see—in fact, she doesn't believe any more in the Holy Ghost!"
"Doesn't believe in h—in it?" Mr. Freeland was absolutely unprepared for precisely this form of agnosticism, and showed it.
"She says she doesn't see any sense in it," responded Mrs. Markham, briefly.
"Oh—ah, yes!" The pastor looked vaguely over her head. There was a pause, and then he gathered himself together.
"But this—this is all wrong!" he said forcibly.
"So we tell her," replied the matron.
"It is sinful—it is extremely dangerous!" he repeated, still more forcibly.
"That's what the Widow Sheldon says," replied the matron. "She lectures her about it every meal, and Harriet can't stand it. She says she can't help what she believes, and I can't blame her for that."
"She's been so for two weeks now, and she gets worse and worse. I had the Methodist minister—Harriet used to attend that church—up to talk to her about it, to see if she'd feel better, and he talked for four hours. Harriet sat as still as a stone, he said, and never moved or paid the least attention to him. Finally he asked her why she didn't answer, and she said he hadn't asked her opinion that she could see. So he asked her what it was, and she said that the Lord Almighty created the earth and that his Son, the Redeemer, saved it, and she didn't see anything more for the Holy Ghost to do. And everything that he told her she said one or the other could do perfectly well alone! And the angrier Mr. Dent got, the calmer Harriet was, I suppose, for he left in a rage, almost—I suppose it was trying, even for a minister—and when I went up to Harriet she seemed very calm. She told me triumphantly that the last thing she did was to show him that big Bible of hers with the picture in the front, where she's crossed out the figure of the dove with ink, and to tell him that she was no Papist, to worship graven images of birds!"
Mr. Freeland shook his head gravely. "Dear, dear, dear!" he said.
"And then I got Dr. Henshawe from St. Mary's, in the city, you know, who's out here this summer, to come in. He's a very fine man, and very interesting. He stayed a while with Harriet, and told her not to mind, but to go on, and pray, and do the best she could, and she couldn't be blamed. He told me afterwards that he was far from considering her religious condition a safe one, but that she would soon be ill, and was growing morbid, and he tried to soothe her. She fell into a dreadful passion, and called him a lukewarm Jesuit, and told him that she was going to hell just because she couldn't believe in the Holy Ghost! He was very polite and quiet, and picked a rose when he went—he complimented the house—but Harriet wouldn't eat any dinner nor tea, she was so angry. Of course it excites the others—they haven't much to think about, you know—and I'm really growing nervous. Old William Peterson, that gentle old man, preached a revivalist sermon day before yesterday, and got them all stirred up, so that Mrs. Sheldon groaned and cried all night, and kept Sarah Waters awake. And when Sarah stays awake all night, there's no living with her—none!"
Mr. Freeland looked frankly puzzled. He was not a particularly able man, and very far from originality of any sort. His doctrinal position, though always considered very solid, was somewhat stereotyped, and he had never happened to run against this peculiar form of apostasy. But he was a kindly man, and very honestly convinced of the responsibility of his position; moreover, he remembered Harriet pleasantly; he had thought her a very nice old lady. So he took his little Bible out of his pocket, and hoped that a desire to succeed where Mr. Dent and Dr. Henshawe had failed would not be accounted to him for unrighteousness.
Mrs. Markham led the way across the hall and up the stairs. Before a door she paused to say, "As long as Harriet is upset in this way she has the room alone, because Mary Smith scolds her all night for being so sinful, and it makes them both cross. Mary is in the hall-room, and talks in her sleep so that nobody can rest very well. It doesn't disturb Harriet at all, she's such a sound sleeper, and I wish she could go back! You don't know how this disturbs us! Remember that we have prayer-meeting at half-past four," and she left him alone before the door.
Mr. Freeland knocked loudly and entered. Before him in the clean, bare room, with its rag-carpets, mats, and pine furnishings, sat a little old woman, her hands folded in her lap, her head erect, her eyes fixed uncompromisingly on the door. He started as he saw her face; it was so changed from the time, two weeks or more ago, when he had delivered that admirable prayer for charity and loving kindness on the occasion when the Widow Sheldon had thrown the butter-plate at old Mis' Landers. Thin and sunken, with dark serried hollows under her still bright eyes—she had aged ten years in those weeks.
"My sister, my poor, suffering, misled sister," began the pastor; but Harriet's eyes flashed ominously.
"If you come to talk to me about that Holy Ghost, I ain't got nothin' to say," she declared, "an' if you think I'm goin' to say another word myself, you're mistaken. I'm a pore sinful woman, but I ain't goin' to be pestered t' death! I'm doin' the best I can 'bout it, an' I've prayed 'bout it, an' Mr. Dent an' a Papist, they both talked 'bout it till I nearly died. I don't see any more sense in it than I did before—not a morsel. So if that's what brought you, you might just as well start back this minute!"
Her reverend guest stared at her dumfounded. Was this the little woman who had pressed his hand at the prayer-meeting and thanked him so piously, so meekly, for such "beautiful prayin'?"
"You are greatly changed since I saw you last. Miss Blake," he said gravely. "Your spirit was gentler, your mind was more religiously inclined. I found you——"
"You didn't find me pestered t' death," said Harriet briefly, somewhat mollified by his "Miss Blake."
"I was led to believe that you were suffering, that you were in trouble," hazarded the pastor.
Never in his somewhat self-sufficient life had he felt such difficulty in giving spiritual advice. Even to his thick-skinned personality it was deeply evident that this sharp-tongued little woman was in great trouble. Ordinarily, a certain facility for quotation and application made him a confident speaker, but to-day he felt impeded, held back by the self-control and patience of his listener. For he saw that she was patient; that she could say much more if she chose; that she was, beneath all her sharpness, alarmed and worried.
His somewhat perplexed air, his evident memory of her earlier estate, his startled recognition of her changed appearance had the effect that nothing else could have had. Her hands twisted nervously in her lap, her mouth twitched, she dropped her eyes, and opened her lips once or twice without speaking. Suddenly, with a little gasp, she began:
"If you think I don't care, you're mistaken. I'm just about sick. I been a Christian and a good believer all my life, and now I ain't. Maybe I don't care about that? They just pester me t' death, and Mis' Markham, she can't stop 'em. They'll send me back to Sarah's, that's my niece, and they can't keep me there. They ain't good to me there, and I get fever 'n ague every day o' my life there. But I can't help it—I can't help it! I gotter go!"
Some good angel held Mr. Freeland silent, and after a moment she went on.
"I'm sixty-two years old, and I never was anything but a churchgoer an' a believer. Two weeks ago to-day I set in this chair an' looked out the winder, an' I see the birds pickin' in the front yard."
He followed her eyes and watched for a moment the poor house pigeons preening and posing in the noon sun. Hiey whitened the summer grass, and their clucking and cooing formed the undertone of the old woman's confession.
"I see 'em there, and I got thinkin' about the dove in my Bible an' the Holy Ghost. And it just come into my mind like a shot—what's the good of it? What'd it ever done for me? What's the sense of a bird, anyhow? An' I worked over it, and I worried over it, an' I got to talkin' with Mis' Sheldon about it while we was workin' together, and she just made me hate it more. She said I'd go to hell—me, a believer for sixty-two years! An' I've cried till I can't cry any more, an' I've prayed till I'm tired of prayin', and nothin' happens to me exceptin' I hate it more. An' if they send me back to Sarah's I'll die, that's the truth. But I'll have t' go— I'll have t' go!"
She rocked back and forth, dry-eyed, but in an agony of grief. The pastor remembered the time when he had wrestled with certain damnation in the form of terrible religious doubt, and experienced again that peculiar helplessness, that isolation, that terror of hope gone from him that had dignified even his commonplace life. His vocabulary forsook him, his periods and phrases receded from his mind like the tide from the beach, and left it bare of suggestion. He looked at her for a moment, and as she bent her tired old head over her arm and sobbed the dry, creaking sob of the ageing spirit that looks forward to no long and gayer future, he felt that the time was short and kindness not too lenient for the sinner.
"I will send my wife over," he said, suddenly. "Would—would you want to see her?"
Harriet had stiffened again and got herself in hand. "I don't want that any one should put 'emselves out for me," she said dryly. "I guess I'll get along. I'd just as lief see Mis' Freeland if it ain't any trouble to any one. But I don't know as anybody c'n do anything. I ain't very pleasant comp'ny. An' I dunno as the room 's cleared up enough. I ain't swept it sence day before yesterday."
Her guest had risen and moved toward the door. He felt curiously cold and dull. Was this the help he had come to give? His tongue was tied; his lips refused to utter even one text.
"Good-afternoon, Miss Blake," he said.
"Good-afternoon," said Harriet, and he went out.
She shut the door behind him, and stood for a moment looking at the pigeons. Emotion had shaken her too often of late, and she was too tired to bear more confusion of feeling. She only knew that she was very tired, and that she should like to get away from the scene of so many struggles. Suddenly she took her gingham sunbonnet from the wall, and left the room. She went softly down the hall, and slipping through the screen door near the lower end crept down the back stairs and through the deserted kitchen.
A Sunday stillness reigned there, and no one was near to see her. She got a piece of bread from the large pantry, and noticed with disgust that the shelves were dusty and the bread-tin full of pieces and crusts. To keep this neat was her work, but she had been excused for the last three days, since she was far too weak to manage it. Out through the last blind-door, and she was in the field behind the barn. She walked feverishly to the little wood close by and sank down exhausted under a large chestnut-tree.
"I'm tired—I'm dead tired out!" she whispered to herself. "I'll just stay here a minute 'fore I go on."
Had Mr. Freeland seen her then he would have been more startled than before, for two red spots burned in her sunken cheeks and her eyes glittered unnaturally. She had not eaten since breakfast, for the boiled dinner had sickened her, and though she was weak for want of food she had not strength to munch the great piece of rye bread. Her head swam a little and strange tunes seemed to sound all about her. Her mother's voice, almost in her ear, sang her to sleep with the Old Hundred Doxology, and for a moment she listened entranced, but as the phantom voice reached the last line she opened her eyes.
"No, no!" she screamed. "No, no! I won't sing to a bird! I won't! I'll go to Sarah's first!" A stillness that frightened her followed. Something pattered beside her, and she looked apprehensively at the sky through a rift in the branches.
"Don't say it's rain!" she whispered, nervously. "I'm fearful scairt o' thunder-storms!"
The sky was rapidly clouding over, and a growl of thunder answered her. She started up, but fell helplessly back.
"O Lord, I can't move! I can't move a step! I'm too heavy!" she cried in terror. The storm came on fast; the branches shook under a sudden wind, and the birds grew still. She was too weak to realise fully her situation, but what consciousness she owned was swallowed up in terror. A sudden flash, and she shrank together with a moan.
"I'm out o' my head—I'm not really here—I'm in the house—I wouldn't be here f'r anything!" she whispered. A heavy clap, and she screamed with fear. The time when she left the house was far away and misty in her mind. She could not remember coming. The drops struck her in quick succession and the muttering grew more frequent, the flashes brighter. Sick with fright, she cowered under the tree. Her childhood unfolded before her, her girlhood; her poor pinched life assumed a glory and fulness it had never had. So warm, so sheltered, so contented it seemed to her.
A great harsh clap shook the little wood and a vivid glare wrapped her about. With a wail she fell back against the tree-trunk. Her mind was clear again, she recalled everything. She had been led out here to die. She was summoned forth to meet the judgment of God. Heretic, infidel, blasphemer that she was, she was to go before Him that day!
Her clothes were soaked with rain, she shivered with cold, she was too weak to take a step, but she staggered to her knees and folded her hands. The tree swayed above her, the wood was dark as night, the rain to her weak nerves was deafening; the powers of darkness raged about her. She tried to pray for forgiveness, for peace at the last, but in her mind, all too clear, was the remembrance of her life for two weeks past. She set her teeth to keep them from chattering so, and shivering at each clap and gasping at each flash, she prayed:
"O Lord, if you are sendin' this storm to punish me, I can't help it. I've believed in you all my life, and I'm sixty-two and I'm going to die in a thunder-storm. If it'll save me to believe in the Holy Ghost, then I'll have to be damned eternally as the Widder Sheldon says you'll do, for I can't, I can't, I can't! I' been a believer all my life, and I' only been this way two weeks, and if that counts against all the rest, I'll just haf to go to hell, that's all. Feelin' as I do, you can't expect me to change for a thunder-storm, Lord, scairt as I be. It don't make no difference that I'm scairt, I feel just the same. I' been a sinful woman, an' I pray to be forgiven, but I can't change. Lord, I can't, an' you wouldn't respect me if I was ter. Amen."
A glare that seemed to brighten the wood for minutes and a terrific burst of thunder answered her. With a little gasp she fell backward and lay unconscious. The storm raged about her, but she knew nothing of it. A little withered old woman, she lay in a heap in the lap of all the elements, and they beat upon her like a leaf.
If it were hours or minutes she did not know, but she opened her eyes with pain upon a quiet world. The storm had passed, the leaves were dripping, the sun was just beginning to brighten the blue, the birds were twittering again. She got up heavily, but with a certain fitful strength. She turned around and dragged herself further into the wood. Then, in dread of the thicker foliage, she struck off uncertainly to the right. To her the vengeance of God was only delayed; there was only a momentary escape, but it was precious. She was confused, terrified, beaten. She had no notion in what direction the house lay. She felt her legs tottering and reached painfully down to pick up a large, gnarled, broken bough. The effort all but stretched her beside it. But she leaned on it, and turned her shaking head from one side to another. All was thick, wet, glistening, confusing. Only the twitter of the birds and the drip, drip of the wet leaves broke the deadly stillness. A nameless horror caught her. She felt alone in the world.
"O Lord, O dear Lord, show me the way home!" she prayed. "Let me die at home, Lord; don't let me die out here—a, poor old woman like me! Sixty-two, Lord, an' a believer all my life! Send me home!"
There was a little rustling noise in the tree near the tiny clearing just before her; a low, soft heavenly sound.
"I know I'm goin' to die, Lord, only let me die at home! Don't do it here! I'm scairt, an' I'm weak, an' I'm too old to die in the woods! Jus' send me home. Lord; show me where the house is!"
The great sun suddenly sent a long, bright ray down across the open space, and as she looked at it, silver dove. With wings outspread, motionless, too bright to look at with steady eyes, it hovered there. It never fluttered its wings; it made no sound; in a ray from heaven it held its quiet position serenely and glistened from every tiniest feather.
The old woman's knees tottered beneath her. She held with both hands to the gnarled staff, and shuddered as she gazed.
"The Holy Ghost! The Holy Ghost!" she panted. The bird's eyes met hers, and she could not take her own away. To her blurred, smarting vision it seemed that an aureole of glory outlined its head. She had no thoughts; only a confused sensation of immediate and inescapable doom. Death, death here, with this grave and moveless vision was her part. She closed her eyes and waited. A second, and she opened them, to see the vision changed; the bird had turned around, and was slowly guiding down the little clearing before her. Just above her head it flew, with steady pace, and with it went all the brightness of the sun.
Her lips moved. She took a step forward, and the bird advanced. "Glory be to God!" she whispered, "It'll show me the way!"
She never took her aching eyes for one second from the wonderful white thing. She scorned to watch the ground. With a magnificent faith she walked, her head lifted, her heart too full to know if she stumbled. In the clear places, always where there were no branches, the white guide flew and Harriet walked after with her staff. A few moments took them out of the wood, but she never looked for the house. In the full glare of day, against the blue, the bird looked only snowier, and to her dazzled, burning eyes the aureole grew only brighter and bigger. She could not see its wings move; it hovered steadily and floated serenely upon the clear air, and the old woman saw it, and it only.
She did not see the anxious crowd on the porch, she did not hear their exclamations, she did not know that her lips were moving, that her voice, low, husky, but distinguishable, repeated over and over, almost mechanically: "Forgive me, Lord! forgive me, Lord! O Lord, forgive me!"
She only followed, followed with all her heart and soul and strength, up the little hill, up the path, up to the porch, a strange, shaking pilgrim, leaning heavily on her staff, guided by the white pigeon.
On the steps they received her, and as she sank on the lowest, they caught her, falling. Her almost sightless eyes were yet uplifted, and while to their view the dove dropped down among its mates, a patch among the white, to her it was mingled with the summer blue, and vanished in the sky whence it came.
Her body was utterly exhausted, but her spirit could not yet lose its consciousness. On the wave of her exaltation she rose higher and higher. She looked at them with a look they had never seen in any human being.
"I'm saved! I'm saved!" she cried.
They watched her, silent, terrified, awed beyond words at this redemption they could only feel but could not understand. But as they stared, her eyes glazed, her head fell back against the matron's arm.
"Pray! pray!" she whispered. The pastor looked at her and steadied himself. Wonder and a sense of strength flowed in on him suddenly. But there was scant time for prayer. Though the light in her face had not yet died away, her breath was scarcely moving. He came near her and repeated gently the hymn she had in the time of her trouble disowned, but which she had always loved:
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly host——"
Her eyes opened and looked wide into the blue; what she saw there they did not know, but she smiled faintly.
"Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!"
"Oh, yes! Oh, yes!" the matron guessed that she murmured; and with the cooing and clucking of pigeons sounding through the summer air, she died.
A white, arrow-swift creature whirred through the stillness, up, up, and out in a great proud curve; their eyes were too dim to know if it turned again to the earth.