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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Tried in the Fire

by Alice Powell
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 427-437


Part I.

"While there is life there is hope," said the doctor in the hard, dry voice with which a strong man speaks when his feelings are deeply stirred. He had turned away from the lady whom he addresses, that his face might not betray the utter emptiness of the formula he had used.

"There is no hope," replied the mother, who was standing by the small white bed on which her only child was lying unconscious.

He was surprised--and doctors are seldom surprised, for they see too much of human nature to be taken unawares by any phase it may exhibit--at the strength and calmness she had all along displayed. Rapidly taking every point into consideration he, for the first time in his life, said to a mother, "No, there is none." No sooner had the words left his lips than he knew he had also, for that once, made a fatal mistake. He thought the "iron" had already entered so deeply into her heart, that she had too thoroughly realized the truth of her own words, for it to be seemly to repeat the fallacy, or wise to fan a spark which must be so soon extinguished. His words were merely the echo of her own it was true, only the expression of a thought which had long been hers, simply the ratification of a knowledge to which she had for days tacitly assented, and about which she had at last steeled herself to speak.

But it is a strange fact, and one which Dr. Scott felt very forcibly at this time, that people may be intimately acquainted with some great evil which threatens them, that they may watch its progress with stoical calmness, being perfectly aware of its fatal conclusion; that they may even speak of it so composedly as to deceive others and themselves into thinking that they are so thoroughly cognizant of what lies before them that nothing can make them feel it more keenly; and yet, when the fact is mentioned by another, the truth comes home to them like a horrible and fresh revelation. The bare statement cuts straight down into the heart, and the heart is found to be very tender, notwithstanding all the self-torture to which it has been subjected.

So it was with Constance Greville. It was just hearing her own thoughts put into words and spoken be another that sent such a bitter pang through her heart; and the terrible pain they caused revealed to her how little she had really realised the agonising truth. And it was the piercing cry she uttered, as she fell forwards fainting, by which Dr. Scott was apprised that she had deceived him as well as herself.

On recovering consciousness the acuteness of her anguish had passed, giving place to the more lasting ache of a blank despair. She looked wistfully at the doctor as she took the reviving draught from his hand, and he, divining her unspoken question, said:

"Your husband is with the little one now. I will call him."

No plainer words could have conveyed his meaning more clearly. In an instant the mother shook off the languor which oppressed her, and when her husband hurriedly entered the room he found her smoothing her tumbled hair, ready to return to the death-bed of her child.

"Can you bear it, darling?" her asked her tenderly.

"One's heart cannot be broken twice," she answered, in a hard, cold voice. Then, in bitter lamentation, "Why, oh, why was I so weak, wasting these precious moments?"

"He has not opened his eyes. He has not missed you," her husband answered.

"No, but I have missed him. Is not that enough?"

Together the parents entered the darkened room where the doctor and nurse were waiting for what was, alas! but too plainly visible on the beautiful little white face, so blissfully unconscious of the deep misery around.

For a moment a dizziness came over the mother and she nearly fell, but, with the extraordinary strength she had all along maintained, she made a mighty effort, and leaning over the little child scanned his features with her dry, burning eyes to see how much further he had gone on his homeward journey. Not that she thought of his death as going home. No, there could be no home away from his tender mother's arms, no joy away from his mother's eyes, no tender love apart from his mother's heart. So she thought bitterly and hardly of his future, which she could only believe would bring him a cessation of pain, added thereto perhaps a feeling of loss.

An hour later and the tiny life had passed away. But not before God, in His infinite tenderness, had given the little child strength to lift the heavy eyelids, and look up once again in his mother's face as he lay in her arms for the last time.

A few days later, and "all was over!"

Those three heartrending words seemed in this instance to apply more to the mother who was left behind, than to the child whom they had laid in the grave. For the light of her life had gone out, her heart was broken, as she grieved with a grief of no ordinary intensity.

Other mothers living near might be heard to say:

"We should feel the same. Are we not mothers, too?"

But they were mostly of that class of beings with which the world is so largely peopled, who sorrow and weep, wear crape, and in a few months' time laugh and are happy again. Not that they absolutely forget the lost one; but other interests take possession of their thoughts, and they are unknowingly very philosophical, and practise a system of bowing to the inevitable with a cheerful grace.

Constance Greville's grief at the loss of her child could not be gauged by that which an ordinary mother would feel, under like circumstances, for her feelings in this respect were extraordinary.

An only child, taught to respect and obey her parents, who had, however, failed to inspire her with much love, she grew up to be dutiful and calmly contented.

When Reginald Greville asked her if she loved him, she had answered with perfect truth:

"I do not understand what is meant by 'love.' I have never experienced that feeling which one reads about in novels. But I like you very much, and I respect you more than any one I know. My parents wish me to marry you, so, if you like, I will."

A man who is passionately in love does not stop to weigh words and Reginald Greville was so carried away by his own feelings that he was willing to make Constance his wife on that very meagre encouragement.

They were married; they were happy--after a fashion. But as time wore away, Reginald discovered that he did not possess the power to rouse Constance's love--if, indeed, she were capable of such a sentiment. He was, however, a thoroughly good fellow, and too loyal to allow even himself that she was cold and irresponsive.

At the birth of her son it seemed that the faculty of loving came to her for the first time, with a force like that of water hitherto restrained by a dam. The flood-gates were opened, and thereout flowed all the pent-up love of which a heart is capable for this one wee bit of humanity. Upon her baby it rested; but its radiance was cast around.

For five years the child had been the idol of his mother. He was a perfect child, with his exquisitely clear-cut features, his large, violet eyes and golden curls, his bewitching little ways and his loving little heart. Delicately organised and precocious, he had, so far, been reared solely by his mother's unremitting care. But the slender thread on which his life hung could no longer bear the strain, and, as we have seen, it broke; and with it broke his mother's heart. The love which had made her gentler and sweeter to all the world, now made her hard and bitter.

Her husband found himself quite powerless to soothe or comfort her. She was ill, and he feared for her life.

"Will she die?" he asked the doctor anxiously.

"No, she will not die. Grief does not kill, and Mrs. Greville is strongly constituted. But what can be done for her only you can do."

Reginald was a true Englishman, and, generally, would have died before betraying his feelings; but now he bent his head on his folded arms, and broke down utterly, as he answered:

"That is--impossible."

Doctor Scott felt very keenly for the life-trouble of this single-hearted man, and did not immediately answer.

Presently he said: "Have patience. All things come to him who can wait, and what you want will come. Not at once; not perhaps for years, but wait--do not hurry--and it will surely come."

Reginald bit his lips, and, drawing himself up proudly, replied coldly, "Thanks."

So the doctor left. But, notwithstanding appearances, his words struck deep down into the man's heart, and were oftentimes the only comfort he had in the long years to come. He was sorry that he had been angry and annoyed at the time; but it did not signify. Doctors are accustomed to cross looks and scanty thanks for the immeasurable trouble they take to serve their fellow-creatures.

As time passed away, Constance Greville became simply passive in her likes and dislikes. She cared for no one, and nothing. Not anything in the world roused or interested her; she would say "yes" or "no" to suggestions made to her in a perfectly wayward, capricious manner. At last, in desperation, her husband proposed they should travel, and she tacitly consented to tear herself away from the scene of her sorrows, from the little empty bed by which she spent so many tearless, hopeless hours.

Before leaving home and order was given to an eminent sculptor to make a marble statue of the late little heir, which was to be placed, when completed, in the church. The design was submitted to the rector to receive his sanction. It was a very beautiful one.

The little child was lying at full length on one side, so that the exquisitely refined outline of his profile might be ably treated. One arm supported his head, the other rested on the elbow, and in the hand was a small cross, at which he was looking up. The perfect little face was thin, but that rather emphasised the beauty of the delicately chiselled features, surrounded by the long curling hair. Above him was suspended an Angel, with a sweet, round, baby face, seeming to say: "Come with me, and your face shall become as mine, radiant with life and health."

Mr. Brooks could not fail to be much impresses by the design. The inscription at the base was simply:

"Reginald Constantine Greville,

Born May 12, 18--

Died December 22, 18--"

"No text, my dear Greville?" said the rector.

"No, my wife likes the simplicity of this, and does not wish for anything more."

"Let me find you a text. A verse from a hymn, something suggestive of Christian hope would be suitable."

"My wife does not wish it," repeated Reginald, decisively.

So Mr. Brooks could say no more. He only regretted the lack of Christian resignation that poor Mrs. Greville evinced.

Before the Grevilles left home, which was to be for an indefinite period, Dr. Scott came to bid them farewell. In wishing Constance good-bye he said:

"It is terribly hard for you. No one knows how hard. But remember it is best for him, far best--he could never have grown to be strong and healthy. Life would always have been a burden to him--always. For yourself--stay away. Do not hurry back. When you feel yourself compelled to return, do so; for then--not before--the time will have come."

Part II.

"Reginald, I should like to go--home," Constance Greville suddenly said one December day, as she and her husband were coming out of the Roman Catholic Church at Lourdes, at which place they had been staying for some days. Years had passed since they had left their home, and during that time they had wandered far and wide. But Constance had not become resigned to her loss; she still hungered for the little son; she was still cold and bitter to all the world. Reginald too had, after a while, fallen into much the same mood, and cared little what happened so long as he was constantly on the move. Novelty they both needed, but so far nothing fresh had eased that dull sense of loss, that ceaseless ache of an embittered heart.

They chanced to go to Lourdes, and there Constance had been roused to take some interest in the people who came in such throngs to the waters--so full of faith, so certain that "what is, is best."

One little child, drawn about in a bed-chair, who was suffering from curvature of the spine, had been brought there for three successive years without any cure being wrought, and now, for a fourth time, the parents' hopes were frustrated. Nevertheless the father and mother, sorrowfully it is true, but with the resignation born of a large faith, simply said, "Le Bon Dieu" did not see well to answer their prayers yet, but He would surely do so in His own good time.

Passing the small fragile invalid in their daily walks, Constance had been strangely attracted by the pale, beautiful little face, till at last she said, almost in spite of herself;

"Reginald, do you not think that little child is like------?" but her voice trembled, and her lips refused to pronounce the name which had not passed them for so long.

Her husband bent his head, and said, very softly: "Yes, darling, I thought so from the first."

They walked on in silence. Reginald felt a great bound of happiness that at last--after, oh! such a weary waiting--the barrier was broken down, and that his wife had mentioned their child. Dr. Scott's words returned to him, for was not the reward in sight for which he had waited, patiently and silently, so long? He also remembered that he must "wait"--he must not anticipate. If her heart would open to him, it must do so of itself.

For Constance, too, this seemed a crisis. Suddenly she felt, "He was Reginald's child, too--and he loved him. I have forgotten that all this time."

This little incident--small in itself, yet, like many insignificant things, great in their consequences--happened some days before Constance expressed a wish to return home.

"Very well," Reginald had replied. "When shall we start?"

Constance looked away as she replied, "I should like to be there for Christmas."

"So should I," was all her husband answered.

Accordingly in a few days they left Lourdes, and, staying here and there on the journey, they arrived home late on the evening of the twenty-second.

Late on Christmas Eve, when all was still and peaceful, Constance met her husband in the hall.

"I am going to the church," she said, with an effort. "I sent word to have the lights lit."

"I went this morning," Reginald replied. Then, after a moment's pause: "It is very beautiful; perfect, I think. Shall I walk with you?"

A few months back Constance would have said "No," or "As you like." Now she answered, "Yes, only leave me at the door. I want to be alone."

Together they crossed the park in silence. I was quite dark, excepting for the light caused by the freshly fallen snow.

At the porch Reginald said, "Kiss me, Constance."

She let him kiss her; and a lump rose in his throat as he thought what a strange irony it was that that which should have brought husband and wife into closest sympathy had in this case caused them to drift so very far apart.

Constance opened the heavy old oak door. A rush of warm air met her, and the scent of the flowers with which the church was decorated bore down upon her, and for a moment almost overpowered her. She leaned against a pillar, and looking, with thought of the long, sad years which had passed since their (she less often said her now) baby boy had been baptised. Oh, how happy she had been then! What a strange, overwhelming joy filled her heart as she held that little one in her arms! She shut her eyes, trying to recall all that had been in her mind at the time. She had a vague recollection of having hoped the child would grow up to be a good man, to be all that a mother could wish. But in the midst of all the happy pride she had experienced in possessing that sweet, infant life, had she been especially grateful for that greatest of earthly treasures? She could not remember. She supposed so, and yet she could not recollect lifting up her heart in praises and thanksgiving. Perhaps, after all, she had forgotten to do so.

Slowly she walked up the church, and opened the screen gates leading into the chancel.

Could she bear the sight of the child's face? Must she steel her heart to look again upon that beloved little form? Oh, how hard it was to see it only in the cold, hard, irresponsive, colourless stone! She covered her face with her hands, as a low, pitiful wail escaped through the closed lips. Perhaps it was a wordless petition for strength; for, after a moment's pause, she uncovered her eyes, and glanced towards the right, and once again she beheld the face of her child.

The likeness was so perfect--it was a masterpiece of art--it seemed to soothe her as she looked at it. Presently she went up to it, kissed the little face, and then, throwing herself sown on the cold pavement, wept long and bitterly. The tears she shed were not altogether for herself. She wept, too, for the child who was away from her, who was cold and dead, who was--she did not know what he was. Her creed, never definite, had long ago failed her, and she only thought of the little body which had been taken from her arms; and his childish spirit - that immortal something--must it not still need the mother's presence?

Tired out with the previous day's long journey, her mind harassed with all she had passed through in anticipation of this home-coming, she had felt so sad and weary that, as her sobs ceased, she fell asleep.

She slept resting against the statue, and as she slept she dreamed a dream.

It was Christmas Eve. Others, who had assisted in the decorations, had left the church, but Constance Greville had stayed behind to fasten wreaths to the altar rails. Suddenly high above the altar there appeared a shining light, so brilliant in itself as to extinguish the lustre shed around by the many candles with which the chancel was lit; yet not so dazzlingly bright as to hurt the eye. Slowly, as she looked she divined a shadowy something appear from out of the clear radiance, which by degrees took shape, till at last she beheld the form of a little child--at first indistinct and fashionless, but as she continued to gaze upon it the mist which enveloped it gradually cleared away, and the child's figure stood out plain and distinct as the light faded away into the distance, making a soft background, against which the little form rested. The face, which was turned towards her, was one of exquisite beauty. The large eyes looked at her beseechingly; the full red lips were parted; but the expression was too sorrowful for such a baby-face to wear. The little heart seemed filled with a sympathetic sadness, with a trouble not its own.

The truly childlike nature is ever one of sympathy. It is the centre of so small a world that the surrounding joys and sorrows within its little circle touch it very keenly.

The mother's heart grew very tender as she beheld that face so fair, with no gladdening smile playing about the little mouth. She unreasoningly rebuked herself, as if she were the cause of its grief; and as she continued to look the child's face grew more and more wistful, till her heart was pierced with the terrible pain of a great remorse.

In the sharpness and depth of her misery the child spoke, in childlike tones:

"Sorrow not. Your little child lacks nothing in the presence of the Father."

"He misses the soft arms which wrapped him round?" replied the mother questioningly.

"He is safe within the Everlasting Arms."

Then the mother, still dissatisfied, continued falteringly:

"No one can understand the heart of a child but his mother. No one but she can rejoice in his little joys, can sympathise with his little sorrows. Ah! he must need me sorely still."

"You err. He that gave the heart to the child, does He not know full well?"

Her face brightened, and, bending her head still lower, she asked:

"Tell me one thing yet. Is he, my son, perfectly happy? Has he no pain as on earth? Is there no void in his existence?"

The voice of the child was altered as he answered:

"He needs nothing. He is in the presence of the Father. But ever and again a shadow crosses the brightness of his face. He sees you wish him back. It is you, his mother, who alone mar the perfection of his existence. Look, and your eyes shall behold."

She raised herself, and as she glanced upwards she for the first time noticed that a halo surrounded the head of the child and then she knew it was the Lord Himself.

She bent her head still lower as the Voice continued:

"I am come, once more upon earth, as a little child to show that to little children I too am always a child. I come to the suffering to show that I too am always a suffered; and I come to the glad to show that I too can always rejoice. Believe, and ye shall know. The depths of hell are not too deep for Me. Be comforted. Thy little one is with Me. Arise from thy hell, and thy child himself shall lead thee home."

The light vanished; the altar resumed its original form.

Constance opened her eyes. That sweet, sorrowful face seemed still present; those comforting words still sounded in her ears.

"Ah! at last peace has come to me. My son needs not my sorrow. He would have me rejoice that he is with the Father. Never again shall my doubting heart cast a shadow over the brightness of his face. I will arise, and he shall lead me on."

Then she again kissed the cold, irresponsive marble; but in the calm happiness which had come to her she no longer felt repelled at the touch of the chilly stone. "It is well with thee, my little one." She murmured.

Extinguishing the lights, she opened the church-door, and there she found her husband waiting for her.

Putting her hand on his arm she said:

"I have had a wonderful dream, a vision. I cannot tell you about it yet, but--I am satisfied that it is best for our darling."

"Thanks God!" her husband answered reverently.

"And," Constance continued, "I have learned that all this time I have been - wrong--and selfish in shutting my heart to your love and sympathy."

Before the new year dawned the following words were engraved on the memorial beneath the inscription: "Is it well with the child? It is well."

Many noticed the addition, but only her husband and Dr. Scott knew how the heart of Constance Greville had been tried in the fire, and had come out purified, even as silver is tried.