Ester Ried Part 23

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"You poor kitten," said Ester, filled with very tender sympathy for this pretty young sister and feeling very glad indeed that she had come home, "Who would think of expecting a b.u.t.terfly to spin? You shall bring those dear books down from the attic to-morrow. In the meantime, where is the tea-bell?"

"Oh, we don't ring," said Sadie, rising as she spoke. "The noise disturbs Mr. Holland. Here comes my first lieutenant, who takes charge of that matter. My sister, Miss Ried, Dr. Dougla.s.s."

And Ester, as she returned the low, deferential bow bestowed upon her, felt anew the thrill of anxiety which had come to her of late when she thought of this dangerous stranger in connection with her beautiful, giddy, unchristian sister.

On the whole, Ester's home coming was pleasant. To be sure it was a wonderful change from her late life; and there was perhaps just the faintest bit of a sigh as she drew off her dainty cuffs and prepared to wipe the dishes which Sadie washed, while Maggie finished her interrupted ironing. What would John, the stylish waiter at Uncle Ralph's, think if he could see her now, and how funny Abbie would look engaged in such employment; but Sadie looked so bright and relieved and rested, and chatted so gayly, that presently Ester gave another little sigh and said:

"Poor Abbie! how very, _very_ lonely she must be to-night. I wish she were here for you to cheer her, Sadie."

Later, while she dipped into the flour preparatory to relieving Sadie of her fearful task of sponge setting, the kitchen clock struck seven.

This time she laughed at the contrast. They were just going down to dinner now at Uncle Ralph's. Only night before last she was there herself. She had been out that day with Aunt Helen, and so was attired in the lovely blue silk and the real laces, which were Aunt Helen's gift, fastened at the throat by a tiny pearl, Abbie's last offering.

Now they were sitting down to dinner without her, and she was in the great pantry five hundred miles away, a long, wide calico ap.r.o.n quite covering up her traveling dress, sleeves rolled above her elbows, and engaged in scooping flour out of the barrel into her great wooden bowl! But then how her mother's weary, careworn face had brightened, and glowed into pleased surprise as she caught the first glimpse of her; how lovingly she had folded her in those dear _motherly_ arms, and said, actually with lips all a tremble: "My _dear_ daughter! what an unexpected blessing, and what a kind providence, that you have come just now." Then Alfred and Julia had been as eager and jubilant in their greeting as though Ester had been always to them the very perfection of a sister; and hadn't little Minie crumpled her dainty collar into an unsightly rag, and given her "Scotch kisses," and "Dutch kisses," and "Yankee kisses," and genuine, sweet baby kisses, in her uncontrollable glee over dear "Auntie Essie."

And besides, oh besides! this Ester Ried who had come home was not the Ester Ried who had gone out from them only two months ago. A whole lifetime of experience and discipline seemed to her to have been crowded into those two months. Nothing of her past awakened more keen regret in this young girl's heart than the thought of her undutiful, unsisterly life. It was all to be different now. She thanked G.o.d that he had let her come back to that very kitchen and dining-room to undo her former work. The old sluggish, selfish spirit had gone from her.

Before this every thing had been done for Ester Ried, now it was to be done for Christ--_every thing_, even the mixing up of that flour and water; for was not the word given: "_Whatsoever_ ye do, do all to the glory of G.o.d?" How broad that word was, "whatsoever." Why that covered every movement--yes, and every word. How _could_ life have seemed to her dull and uninteresting and profitless?

Sadie hushed her busy tongue that evening as she saw in the moonlight Ester kneeling to pray; and a kind of awe stole over her for a moment as she saw that the kneeler seemed unconscious of any earthly presence. Somehow it struck Sadie as a different matter from any kneeling which she had ever watched in the moonlight before.

And Ester, as she rested her tired, happy head upon her own pillow, felt this word ringing sweetly in her heart: "And ye are Christ's, and Christ is G.o.d's."

CHAPTER XXI.

TESTED.

Ester was winding the last smooth coil of hair around her head when Sadie opened her eyes the next morning.

"My!" she said. "Do you know, Ester, it is perfectly delightful to me to lie here and look at you, and remember that I shall not be responsible for those cakes this morning? They shall want a pint of soda added to them for all that I shall need to know or care."

Ester laughed. "You will surely have _your_ pantry well stocked with soda," she said, gayly. "It seems to have made a very strong impression on your mind."

But the greeting had chimed with her previous thoughts and sounded pleasant to her. She had come home to be the helper; her mother and Sadie should feel and realize after this how very much of a helper she could be. That very day should be the commencement of her old, new life. It was baking day--her detestation heretofore, her pleasure now.

No more useful day could be chosen. How she would dispatch the pies and cakes and biscuits, to say nothing of the wonderful loaves of bread. She smiled brightly on her young sister, as she realized in a measure the weight of care which she was about to lift from her shoulders; and by the time she was ready for the duties of the day she had lived over in imagination the entire routine of duties connected with that busy, useful, happy day. She went out from her little clothes-press wrapped in armor--the pantry and kitchen were to be her battle-field, and a whole host of old temptations and trials were there to be met and vanquished. So Ester planned, and yet it so happened that she did not once enter the kitchen during all that long busy day, and Sadie's young shoulders bore more of the hundred little burdens of life that Sat.u.r.day than they had ever felt before.

Descending the stairs, Ester met Dr. Van Anden for the first time since her return. He greeted her with a hurried "good-morning," quite as if he had seen her only the day before, and at once pressed her into service:

"Miss Ester, will you go to Mr. Holland immediately? I can not find your mother. Send Mrs. Holland from the room, she excites him. Tell her _I_ say she must come immediately to the sitting-room; I wish to see her. Give Mr. Holland a half teaspoonful of the mixture in the wine-gla.s.s every ten minutes, and on no account leave him until I return, which will be as soon as possible."

And seeming to be certain that his directions would be followed, the doctor vanished.

For only about a quarter of a minute did Ester stand irresolute. Dr.

Van Anden's tone and manner were full of his usual authority--a habit with him which had always annoyed her. She shrank with a feeling amounting almost to terror from a dark, quiet room, and the position of nurse. Her base of operations, according to her own arrangements, had been the light, airy kitchen, where she felt herself needed at this very moment. But one can think of several things in a quarter of a minute. Ester had very lately taken up the habit of securing one Bible verse as part of her armor to go with her through the day. On this particular morning the verse was: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." Now if her hands had found work waiting for her down this first flight of stairs instead of down two, as she had planned, what was that to her? Ester turned and went swiftly to the sick room, dispatched the almost frantic wife according to the doctor's peremptory orders, gave the mixture as directed, waited patiently for the doctor's return, only to hear herself installed as head nurse for the day; given just time enough to take a very hurried second table meal with Sadie, listen to her half pitiful, half comic complainings, and learn that her mother was down with sick headache.

So it was that this first day at home drew toward its closing; and not one single thing that Ester had planned to do, and do so well, had she been able to accomplish. It had been very hard to sit patiently there and watch the low breathings of that almost motionless man on the bed before her, to rouse him at set intervals sufficiently to pour some mixture down his unwilling lips, to fan him occasionally, and that was all. It had been hard, but Ester had not chafed under it; she had recognized the necessity--no nurse to be found, her mother sick, and the young, frightened, as well as worn-out wife, not to be trusted.

Clearly she was at the post of duty. So as the red sun peeped in a good-night from a little corner of the closed curtain, it found Ester not angry, but _very_ sad. _Such_ a weary day! And this man on the bed was dying; both doctors had _looked_ that at each other at least a dozen times that day. How her life of late was being mixed up with death. She had just pa.s.sed through one sharp lesson, and here at the threshold awaited another. Different from that last though--oh, _very_ different--and herein lay some of the sadness. Mr. Foster had said "every thing was ready for the long journey, even should there be no return." Then she went back for a minute to the look of glory on that marble face, and heard again that wonderful sentence: "_So_ he giveth his beloved sleep." But this man here! every thing had not been made ready by him. So at least she feared. Yet she was conscious, professed Christian though she had been, living in the same house with him for so many years, that she knew very little about him. She had seen much of him, had talked much with him, but she had never mentioned to him the name of Christ, the name after which she called herself. The sun sank lower, it was almost gone; this weary day was nearly done; and very sad and heavy-hearted felt this young watcher--the day begun in brightness was closing in gloom. It was not all so clear a path as she had thought; there were some things that she could not undo. Those days of opportunity, in which she might at least have invited this man to Jesus, were gone; it seemed altogether probable that there would never come another. There was a little rustle of the drapery about the bed, and she turned suddenly, to meet the great searching eyes of the sick man, bent full upon her. Then he spoke in low, but wonderfully distinct and solemn tones. And the words he slowly uttered were yet more startling:

"Am I going to die?"

Oh, what _was_ Ester to say? How those great bright eyes searched her soul! Looking into them, feeling the awful solemnity of the question, she could not answer "No;" and it seemed almost equally impossible to tell him "Yes." So the silence was unbroken, while she trembled in every nerve, and felt her face blanch before the continued gaze of those mournful eyes. At length the silence seemed to answer him; for he turned his head suddenly from her, and half buried it in the pillow, and neither spoke nor moved.

That awful silence! That moment of opportunity, perhaps the last of earth for him, perhaps it was given to her to speak to him the last words that he would ever hear from mortal lips. What _could_ she say?

If she only knew how--only had words. Yet _something_ must be said.

Then there came to Ester one of those marked Bible verses which had of late grown so precious, and her voice, low and clear, filled the blank in the room.

"G.o.d is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."

No sound from the quiet figure on the bed. She could not even tell if he had heard, yet perhaps he might, and so she gathered them, a little string of wondrous pearls, and let them fall with soft and gentle cadence from her lips.

"Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pa.s.s."

"The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him--the Lord is gracious, and full of compa.s.sion."

"Thus saith the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins."

"Look unto me and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth; for I am G.o.d, and there is none else."

"Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live."

Silence for a moment, and then Ester repeated, in tones that were full of sweetness, that one little verse, which had become the embodiment to her of all that was tender, and soothing and wonderful: "What time I am afraid I will trust in thee." Was this man, moving toward the very verge of the river, afraid? Ester did not know, was not to know whether those gracious invitations from the Redeemer of the world had fallen once more on unheeding ears, or not; for with a little sigh, born partly of relief, and partly of sorrow, that the opportunity was gone, she turned to meet Dr. Van Anden, and was sent for a few moments out into the light and glory of the departing day, to catch a bit of its freshness.

It was as the last midnight stroke of that long, long day was being given, that they were gathered about the dying bed. Sadie was there, solemn and awe-stricken. Mrs. Ried had arisen from her couch of suffering, and nerved herself to be a support to the poor young wife.

Dr. Dougla.s.s, at the side of the sick man, kept anxious watch over the fluttering pulse. Ester, on the other side, looked on in helpless pity, and other friends of the Hollands were grouped about the room.

So they watched and waited for the swift down-coming of the angel of death The death damp had gathered on his brow, the pulse seemed but a faint tremble now and then, and those whose eyes were used to death thought that his lips would never frame mortal sound again, when suddenly the eyelids raised, and Mr. Holland, fixing a steady gaze upon the eyes bent on him from the foot of the bed, whither Ester had slipped to make more room for her mother and Mrs. Holland, said, in a clear, distinct tone, one unmistakable word--"Pray!"

Will Ester ever forget the start of terror which thrilled her frame as she felt that look and heard that word? She cast a quick, frightened glance around her of inquiry and appeal; but her mother and herself were the only ones present whom she had reason to think ever prayed.

Could she, _would_ she, that gentle, timid, shrinking mother? But Mrs.

Ried was supporting the now almost fainting form of Mrs. Holland, and giving anxious attention to her. "He says pray!" Sadie murmured, in low, frightened tones. "Oh, where is Dr. Van Anden?"

Ester knew he had been called in great haste to the house across the way, and ere he could return, this waiting spirit might be gone--gone without a word of prayer. Would Ester want to die so, with no voice to cry for her to that listening Savior? But then no human being had ever heard her pray. Could she?--must she? Oh, for Dr. Van Anden--a Christian doctor! Oh, if that infidel stood anywhere but there, with his steady hand clasping the fluttering pulse, with his cool, calm eyes bent curiously on her--but Mr. Holland was dying; perhaps the everlasting arms were not underneath him--and at this fearful thought, Ester dropped upon her knees, giving utterance to her deepest need in the first uttered words, "Oh, Holy Spirit, teach me just what to say!"

Her mother, listening with startled senses as the familiar voice fell on her ear, could but think that _that_ pet.i.tion was answered; and Ester felt it in her very soul, Dr. Dougla.s.s, her mother, Sadie, all of them were as nothing--there was only this dying man and Christ, and she pleading that the pa.s.sing soul might be met even now by the Angel of the covenant. There were those in the room who never forgot that prayer of Ester's. Dr. Van Anden, entering hastily, paused midway in the room, taking in the scene in an instant of time, and then was on his knees, uniting his silent pet.i.tions with hers. So fervent and persistent was the cry for help, that even the sobs of the stricken wife were hushed in awe, and only the watching doctor, with his finger on the pulse, knew when the last fluttering beat died out, and the death-angel pressed his triumphant seal on pallid lip and brow.

"Dr. Van Anden," Ester said, as they stood together for a moment the next morning, waiting in the chamber of death for Mrs. Ried's directions--. "Was--Did he," with an inclination of her head toward the silent occupant of the couch, "Did he ever think he was a Christian?"

The doctor bent on her a grave, sad look, and slowly shook his head.

"Oh, Doctor! you can not think that he--" and Ester stopped, her face blanching with the fearfulness of her thought.

"Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" This was the doctor's solemn answer. After a moment, he added: "Perhaps that one eagerly-spoken word, 'Pray,' said as much to the ears of Him whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, as did that old-time pet.i.tion--'Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.'"

Ester never forgot that and the following day, while the corpse of one whom she had known so well lay in the house; and when she followed him to the quiet grave, and watched the red and yellow autumn leaves flutter down around his coffin--dead leaves, dead flowers, dead hopes, death every-where--not just a going up higher, as Mr. Foster's death had been--this was solemn and inexorable death. More than ever she felt how impossible it was to call back the days that had slipped away while she slept, and do their neglected duties. She had come for this, full of hope; and now one of those whom she had met many times each day for years, and never said Jesus to, was at this moment being lowered into his narrow house, and, though G.o.d had graciously given her an inch of time, and strength to use it, it was as nothing compared with those wasted years, and she could never know, at least never until the call came for her, whether or not at the eleventh hour this "poor man cried, and the Lord heard him," and received him into Paradise.

Dr. Van Anden moved around to where she was standing, with tightly clasped hands and colorless lips. He had been watching her, and this was what he said: "Ester, shall you and I ever stand again beside a new-made grave, receiving one whom we have known ever so slightly, and have to settle with our consciences and our Savior, because we have not invited that one to come to Jesus?"

And Ester answered, with firmly-drawn lips "As that Savior hears me, and will help me _never_!"

Ester Ried Part 23

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Ester Ried Part 23 summary

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