Ester Ried Part 20

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"It is as I feared, Mr. Ried. The pulse has ceased."

"It is not possible!" And the hollow, awestruck tone in which Mr. Ried spoke can not be described.

And then Ester saw stretched on that sofa a perfectly motionless form, a perfectly pale and quiet face, rapidly settling into the strange solemn calm of death, and that face and form were Mr. Foster's! And she stood as if riveted to the spot; stood in speechless, moveless horror and amaze--and then the swift-coming thoughts shaped themselves into two woe-charged words: "Oh Abbie!"

What a household was this into which death had so swiftly and silently entered! The very rooms in which the quiet form lay sleeping, all decked in festive beauty in honor of the bridal morning; but oh! there was to come no bridal.

Ester shrank back in awful terror from the pet.i.tion that she would go to Abbie.

"I can not--I _can not_!" she repeated again and again. "It will kill her; and oh! it would kill me to tell her."

Mrs. Ried was even more hopeless a dependence than Ester; and Mr. Ried cried out in the very agony of despair: "What _shall_ we do? Is there _n.o.body_ to help us?"

Then Ralph came forward, grave almost to sternness, but very calm.

"Dr. Downing," he said, addressing the gentleman who had withdrawn a little from the family group. "It seems to me that you are our only hope in this time of trial. My sister and you are sustained, I verily believe, by the same power. The rest of us seem to _have_ no sustaining power. Would you go to my sister, sir?"

Dr. Downing turned his eyes slowly away from the calm, moveless face which seemed to have fascinated him, and said simply: "I will do what I can for Abbie. It is blessed to think what a Helper she has. One who never faileth. G.o.d pity those who have no such friend."

So they showed him up to the brightly-lighted library, and sent a message to the unconscious Abbie.

"Dr. Downing," she said, turning briskly from the window in answer to Maggie's summons. "Whatever does he want of me do you suppose, Maggie?

I'm half afraid of him tonight. However, I'll endeavor to brave the ordeal. Tell Miss Ester to come up to me as soon as she can, and be ready to defend me if I am to receive a lecture."

This, as she flitted by toward the door; and a pitying cloud just then hid the face of the August moon, and vailed from the glance of the poor young creature the white, frightened face of Maggie.

With what unutterable agony of fear did the family below wait and long for and dread the return of Dr. Downing, or some message from that dreadful room. The moments that seemed hours to them dragged on, and no sound came to them.

"She has not fainted then," muttered Ralph at last, "or he would have rung. Ester, you know what Maggie said. Could you not go to her?"

Ester cowered and shrunk. "Oh, Ralph, don't ask me. I _can not_."

Then they waited again in silence; and at last s.h.i.+vered with fear as Dr. Downing softly opened the door. There were traces of deep emotion on his face, but just now it was wonderful for its calmness.

"She knows all," he said, addressing Mr. Ried. "And the widow's G.o.d is hers. Mrs. Ried, she makes special request that she need see no living soul to-night; and, indeed, I think it will be best. And now, my friends, may I pray with you in this hour of trial."

So while quick, skillful fingers prepared the sleeper in that front parlor for his long, long rest, a group such as had never bowed the knee together before, knelt in the room just across the hall, and amid tears and moans they were commended to the care of Him who waits to help us all.

By and by a solemn quiet settled down upon that strangely stricken household. In the front parlor the folding doors were closed, and the angel of death kept guard over his quiet victim. From the chamber overhead came forth no sound, and none knew save G.o.d how fared the struggle between despair and submission in that young heart. In the sitting-room Ester waited breathlessly while Ralph gave the particulars, which she had not until now been able to hear.

"We were crossing just above the store; had nearly got across; he was just saying that his preparations were entirely perfected for a long absence. 'It is a long journey,' he added, 'and if I never come back I have the satisfaction of thinking that I have left everything ready even for that. It is well to be ready even for death, Ralph,' he said, with one of his glorious smiles; 'it makes life pleasanter.' I don't know how I can tell you the rest." And Ralph's lips grew white and tremulous. "Indeed, I hardly know how it was. There was an old bent woman crossing just behind us, and there was a carriage, and a wretch of a drunken driver pus.h.i.+ng his way through. I don't know how Foster came to look around, but he did, and said, 'There is my dear old lady behind us, Ralph; she ought not to be out with a mere child for a companion.' And then he uttered an exclamation of terror, and sprang forward--and I know nothing clearly that followed. I saw him drag that old woman fairly from under the horses' feet. I heard the driver curse, and saw him strike his frightened horses, and they reared and plunged, and I saw him fall; but it all seemed to happen in one second of time--and how I got him home, and got Dr. Archer, and kept it from Abbie, I don't seem to know. Oh G.o.d help my poor little fair darling."

And Ralph choked and stopped, and wiped from his eyes great burning tears.

"Oh Ralph!" said Ester, as soon as she could speak. "Then all this misery comes because that driver was intoxicated."

"Yes," said Ralph, with compressed lips and flas.h.i.+ng eyes.

"And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed."

Rom. 13: 11.

CHAPTER XVIII.

LIGHT OUT OF DARKNESS.

Slowly, slowly, the night wore away, and the eastern sky grew rosy with the blush of a new morning--the bridal morning! How strangely unreal, how even impossible did it seem to Ester, as she raised the curtains and looked drearily out upon the dawn, that this was actually the day upon which her thoughts had centered during the last three weeks What a sudden shutting down had there been to all their plans and preparations! How strangely the house looked--here a room bedecked in festive beauty for the wedding; there one with shrouded mirrors, and floating folds of c.r.a.pe! Life and death, a wedding and a funeral--they had never either of them touched so close to her before; and now the one had suddenly glided backward, and left her heart heavy with the coming of the other. Mechanically, she turned to look upon the silvery garment gleaming among the white furnis.h.i.+ngs of the bed, for she was that very morning to have a.s.sisted in arraying the bride in those robes of beauty. Her own careful fingers had laid out all the bewildering paraphernalia of the dressing-room--sash and gloves, and handkerchief and laces. Just in that very spot had she stood only yesterday, and talking the while with Abbie; had altered a knot of ribbons, and given the ends a more graceful droop, and just at that moment Abbie had been summoned below stairs to see Mr. Foster--and now he was waiting down there, not for Abbie, but for the coffin and the grave, and Abbie was----. And here Ester gave a low, shuddering moan, and covered her eyes with her hands. Why had she come into that room at all? And why was all this fearful time allowed to come to Abbie?

Poor, poor Abbie she had been so bright and so good, and Mr. Foster had been so entirely her guide--how could she ever endure it? Ester doubted much whether Abbie could ever bear to see _her_ again, she had been so closely connected with all these bright days, over which so fearful a pall had fallen. It would be very natural if she should refuse even to _see_ her--and, indeed, Ester almost hoped she would.

It seemed to her that this was a woe too deep to be spoken of or endured, only she said with a kind of desperation, "Things _must_ be endured;" and there was a wild thought in her heart, that if she could but have the ordering of events, all this bitter sorrow should never be. There came a low, tremulous knock as an interruption to her thoughts, and Maggie's swollen eyes and tear-stained face appeared at the door with a message.

"If you please, Miss Ester, she wants you."

"Who?" asked Ester, with trembling lips and a sinking at her heart.

"Miss Abbie, ma'am; she asked for you, and said would you come to her as soon as you could."

But it was hours after that before Ester brought herself to feel that she _could_ go to her. Nothing had ever seemed so hard to her to do.

How to look, how to act, what to say, and above all, what _not_ to say to this poor, widowed bride. These questions were by no means answered, when she suddenly, in desperate haste, decided that if it must be done, the sooner it was over the better, and she made all speed to prepare herself for the visit; and yet there was enough of Ester's personal self left, even on that morning, to send a little quiver of complacency through her veins, as she bathed her tear-stained face, and smoothed her disordered hair. Abbie had sent for _her_. Abbie wanted her; she had sent twice. Evidently she had turned to her for help. Miserably unable as she felt herself to give it, still it was a comfort to feel that she was the one selected from the household for companions.h.i.+p. Ester knew that Mrs. Ried had been with her daughter for a few moments, and that Ralph had rushed in and out again, too overcome to stay, but Ester had asked no questions, and received no information concerning her. She pictured her lying on the bed, with disordered hair and swollen eyes, given over to the abandonment of grief, or else the image of stony despair; and it was with a very trembling hand that at last she softly turned the k.n.o.b and let herself into the morning room, which she and Abbie had enjoyed together; and just as she pushed open the door, a neighboring clock counted out twelve strokes, and it was at twelve o'clock that Abbie was to become a wife! Midway in the room Ester paused, and, as her eyes rested on Abbie, a look of bewildering astonishment gathered on her face. In the little easy chair by the open window, one hand keeping the place in the partly closed book, sat the young creature, whose life had so suddenly darkened around her. The morning robe of soft pure white was perfect in its neatness and simplicity, the brown curls cl.u.s.tered around her brow with their wonted grace and beauty, and while under her eyes indeed there were heavy rings of black, yet the eyes themselves were large and full and tender. As she held out the disengaged hand, there came the soft and gentle likeness of a smile over her face; and Ester, bewildered, amazed, frightened, stood almost as transfixed as if she had been one of those who saw the angel sitting at the door of the empty tomb. Stood a moment, then a sudden revulsion of feeling overcoming her, hurried forward, and dropping on her knees, bowed her head over the white hand and the half-open Bible, and burst into a pa.s.sion of tears.

"_Dear_ Ester!" This said Abbie in the softest, most soothing of tones. The mourner turned comforter!

"Oh Abbie, Abbie, how can you bear it--how _can_ you live?" burst forth from the heart of this friend who had come to comfort this afflicted one!

There was a little bit of silence now, and a touching tremble to the voice when it was heard again.

"'The Lord knoweth them that are his.' I try to remember that. Christ knows it all, and he loves me, and he is all-powerful; and yet he leads me through this dark road; therefore it _must_ be right."

"But," said Ester, raising her eyes and staying her tears for very amazement, "I do not understand--I do not see. How _can_ you be so calm, so submissive, at least just now--so soon--and you were to have been married to-day?"

The blood rolled in great purple waves over neck and cheek and brow, and then receded, leaving a strange, almost death-like, pallor behind it. The small hands were tightly clasped, with a strange mixture of pain and devotion in the movement, and the white lips moved for a moment, forming words that met no mortal ear--then the sweet, low, tender voice sounded again.

"Dear Ester, I pray. There is no other way. I pray all the time. I keep right by my Savior. There is just a little, oh, a very little, vale of flesh between him and between my--my husband and myself. Jesus loves me, Ester. I know it now just as well as I did yesterday. I do not and can not doubt him."

A mixture of awe and pain and astonishment kept Ester moveless and silent, and Abbie spoke no more for some moments. Then it was a changed, almost bright voice.

"Ester do you remember we stood together alone for a moment yesterday?

I will tell you what he said, the last words that were intended for just me only, that I shall hear for a little while; they are _my_ words, you know, but I shall tell them to you so you may see how tender Christ is, even in his most solemn chastenings. 'See here,' he said, 'I will give you a word to keep until we meet in the morning: The Lord watch between thee and me while we are absent one from another.' I have been thinking, while I sat here this morning, watching the coming of this new day, which you know is his first day in heaven, that perhaps it will be on some such morning of beauty as this that my long, long day will dawn, and that I will say to him, as soon as ever I see his face again: 'The word was a good one; the Lord has watched between us, and the night is gone.' Think of it, Ester. I shall _surely_ say that some day--'some summer morning.'"

The essence of sweetness and the sublimity of faith which this young Christian threw into these jubilant words can not be repeated on paper; but, thank G.o.d, they can in the heart--they are but the echo of those sure and everlasting words: "My grace is sufficient for thee."

As for Ester, who had spent her years groveling in the dust of earth, it was the recital of such an experience as she had not deemed it possible for humanity to reach. And still she knelt immovable and silent, and Abbie broke the silence yet again.

"Dear Ester, do you know I have not seen him yet, and I want to.

Ester Ried Part 20

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Ester Ried Part 20 summary

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