The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Hot Burning Coals

by Alice Powell
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 167-175

An almost painful silence pervaded the house. There was an extra thickness of carpet on the stairs and corridors, that no sound might reach the room where the mistress of the house was lying dangerously ill. Life and death were equal in the scales; only a grain more in either balance, and the issue would be decided.

Those who stood round the bed of sickness were in the state of suppressed excitement which, out of courtesy to the surroundings, we call suspense, and because that word seems to be congruous at so solemn a time. When a person is hovering between life and death there is just a tinge of chance, fate--call it what you may--which keeps the feelings on the tiptoe of anticipation, and it is this that gives zest to nurses' work, making them as a class prefer a case with a crisis.  Medical skill had done its utmost; the issue was now felt to be in other hands. Of course all along it had been the same, but the best of us seldom realise how dependent we are upon God's will till we have reached the end of earthly resources.

Suddenly a change came over the face of the patient. The eyelids were slightly raised, and she saw the ashy paleness of her husband's face, the anxious look of the nurse, the tightly compressed lips of the doctor. Their voices, as they spoke low and hurriedly, sounded far away, though every word stood out with painful distinctness, notwithstanding the ringing sound in her ears. She felt her features become sharper; her fingers worked beneath the bedclothes; her mouth twitched; her head fell back. She was dead to all around.

We will leave her body lying white and still, for it is with her spirit, herself, we have to do.

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As she sank farther back on the pillows a great darkness fell upon her, and from out of the darkness came a voice, saying: "You have passed through 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death'; it is well. I am your Guardian Angel. You know me not? On earth your eyes were ever closed to me; now they are opened. So let it be. It is I who am appointed to watch over you, and to be present with you during the state of purgation through which you have to pass. Come. Together we will descend into the fire."

She faltered: "What is my sin that so awful a doom should be mine? I thought--I was good enough. None spoke evil of me. I what, alas! have I failed?"

"Poor misguided soul! You thought yourself good! How have you done your part towards the life which was given you to love and to cherish?" "My child," she answered. "I did very well by her. She needed nothing." "Only yourself, your love. For one instant I give you power to see yourself as you really were."

The mother rose up within the woman. The veil of selfishness was lifted from her eyes, and she saw all that had passed in the last eight years. She saw how she had quenched the love of her child by her indifference; how when the child was ill she had thought the sickness a terrible trouble because it interfered with her ease and her pleasures. She remembered how often she had stilled the little one's happy laughter because it disturbed her; how in a thousand ways she had been perfectly careless of her welfare, ignoring all duties of her motherhood, and happy so long as her child was well dressed and was admired above other children.

She saw all clearly in the glass that now faced her. She bewailed her past bitterly, as she said:

"It is true. I lived a false life; none but myself knew what an utter sham I was. I appeared fair and good to all around, while within I was filled with nothing but myself."

"The past has gone. Your life on earth has been a failure. The awakening has come. Now shall you pay the penalty of your wilful sins. All sin is black before God; but, to yourself, which sin think you is the blackest?"

She beat her breast as she cried: "My child, my child! I was no true mother."

"You have answered wisely. For that sin shall you first suffer. Be strong: the fire is full hot. On earth, you had as a mother a heart of stone. You heard not the cry of your child. You heeded not her many wants; her joys and sorrows found no echoing place in your heart; the pure soul which God gave into your keeping, you neglected. On your head shall her sins rest. Now, shall you have a heart of flesh exceeding tender; you shall see your child in her earthly home; you shall feel each pain, each sorrow, that befalls her a thousandfold. Come."

Together the spirits entered the chamber of death. There the mother saw herself lying still, motionless, upon her bed; she marked well the beauty of her face; never before had she looked so fair, so pure. The pallor of death took nothing from the classical outline of her features; the curls still clustered subtly round her forehead; the long eyelashes touched her cheek. In the distance she heard her husband's voice; he was telling his child that her mother was dead, that she had been so good, so beautiful, she must try and grow like her.

Presently the door opened; he entered, leading the little girl by the hand. She walked timidly by his side, with catching breath; then he took her up in his arms, and told her to kiss her mother.

"I can't. Mamma does not want me," and she turned her head away.

"Do what I tell you at once," he said sternly, as he held the child closer to her mother's face. She dared not disobey; her lips just touched her mother's forehead, when she started back with a piercing shriek as she felt the marble coldness for which she had not been prepared. Her father angrily unclasped the little hands that were round his neck, and, shuddering that his nerves should receive such an unpleasant shock, bade her go at once to the nursery, and keep there out of his sight.

The child ran breathlessly down the long corridor, the heavy spring-door banged loudly behind her.

"For shame, Miss Nora, to make such a noise, and your poor mamma lying dead. You are the most unnatural child I ever saw. Not a tear have I seen you shed."

"Oh! I am so frightened, I am so frightened!" she kept repeating, shaking all over, with her large eyes wide open, her lips parted, as she stood gasping for breath.

"There is nothing to frighten you if you are good," said the nurse, in a hard rasping voice; "but if you are naughty, those things will frighten you--just about."

So saying, Bridget left her charge, and descended to the servants' hall, where she remained for about an hour, discussing the weighty matter of "perquisites" attending a death in the family.

Nora, left to herself, was too terrified to think. At last Nature came to the rescue, and her fears were somewhat allayed by the sound of her own voice as she sobbed.

"Crying, are you? Well, I am glad to see you doing as you should," was Bridget's comforting remark, as she re-entered the nursery. All day the little child sat moping about, making every now and then a low moaning sound, but being otherwise so quiet Bridget was not troubled. At night her fears increased, and she begged Bridget to stay with her.

"Please, dear Bridget, do; I am so very frightened."

"Stuff and nonsense! I can't give way to them fancies, and I am sure your poor mamma would be the last to wish it. But if you are very good, and make no noise, I'll leave you a candle."

So saying, she put a light in a place particularly well suited to cast fearful shadows about the little bed.

Hours dragged on; at last, overcome with fatigue, with a flushed face, heated head, and a damp pillow, the child fell asleep. In the morning no one noticed the paleness of the little face, no one remarked the large black circles under the eyes, no one saw her shrinking, frightened look. There was no one who loved her enough to see these things. Days passed; the poor little girl suffered cruelly; but it was not before she became seriously ill that any one noticed there was anything the matter.

And now we return to the mother, who was, in spirit, hovering around her child. The first sharp pain she had ever felt in her heart cut deeply when her child did not wish to kiss her; it became keener still when the father spoke roughly and angrily to her, and so it increased in intensity, till the climax of her anguish was reached as she watched the terrible fears the child entertained, all the worse because suffered in silence.

"More pain! Give me more pain, my God--more pain still, but spare my child. Ah! this is pain--to see her so!"

"This is the fire which you have made for yourself. Your heart must be burnt through and through," replied the Angel sternly.

Then a wave of pity for the mother crossed his face, and he said: "See, God has shown His mercy towards your child."

The mother looked, and on the little bed Nora lay unconscious. The over-strained brain had given way.

For one instant there was a respite in the pain that pierced the mother's heart.

"Come," again said the Angel.

Six years have passed. The mother's spirit entered a large class-room in a fashionable London school. The gas was lit, for the fog without was at its densest, the atmosphere within was oppressive. All the girls but one were seated at their respective desks, and that one was standing at the top of the room, her eyes cast down, her fingers working nervously with the handkerchief she held in her hands. The mistress' voice was sharp as she said: "Well, for once your exercise is correct."

Nora glanced up timidly; her cheeks grew very red, as she held out her hand for the manuscript book. The "eagle eye" of the mistress fell upon her, and she said, "Stay. Mildred Green, bring me your last exercise." The girl addressed rose from her place and laid the book before the mistress, who rapidly glanced over it. Her countenance assumed an awful expression, only equalled by the severity of her voice, as she said, each word standing out clear and distinct:

"Copied, word for word. Deceitful child! This makes the twelfth time you have done this underhand, thief-like action. You have resided under my roof scarcely two months, but never during the many years of my scholastic career have I witnessed such a system of deception as you have practised. I cannot trust your word, your actions still less. There is now but one course open to me. I must expel you from my school. Go to your room and remain there; you are not a fit companion for honest girls."

The words fell apparently on dull ears; the girl seemed scarcely to realise their meaning, for she appeared cold and listless as she slowly opened the door and made her way to her small room. Scrupulously neat, painfully clean, it looked bare and empty. The room was well warmed by the lighted gas, there was nothing to complain of; but, as is well known, "The eye sees what it brings with it the power of seeing"; so to Nora, whose heart was very sore, whose spirit was broken, this room was as much a prison as a cell in Newgate is to the criminal.

Her listlessness was only surface deep; below she was seething with rebellious passion. She was full of hatred for the schoolmistress who caused her degradation, hatred towards the girls who were happy and good, hatred above all for her father, who did not care for her, and who she well knew would torture her with his cruel, bitter words, and then send her to another school where her troubled would begin afresh. The new mistress would receive her new pupil suspiciously, as had only too often happened, because her ill-fame went before her.

The girl sat and pondered. Then she opened a drawer and took out her purse. Alas! it was nearly empty, so many sixpences had gone in fines. Day by day her unhappiness had increased as she found it impossible to set herself right and begin again before eyes which ever watched her so suspiciously. No one, not the youngest girl in the school, trusted her, and above all she knew she was not unjustly blamed; the injustice rested solely with those who had never taught her to be good, who only frightened her into telling lies, and then punished her into telling more and more. Yes, no one in the whole world cared for her at all. Her mother, whom she liked to remember because she had been so beautiful, had thought her a trouble when she was a very little child, and now she was fourteen years old and entirely friendless.

She had read numbers of stories in which people ran away from their homes, or killed themselves, and none of them seemed to have been a bit more miserable than she was. She was terribly alarmed at the idea of being sent home again--anything but that. She would run away and hide. The idea was not fresh, she had often and often thought it over and arranged how she could manage it. To be out in the cold streets would be better than to lie awake all night trembling for the dreaded morrow. The "last straw" had come--this very night she would escape.

The mother cried aloud in her agony. "Oh! my child, my child! Mine is the sin--mine alone. On my head it rests. See! I come to save you."

"Too late, too late. Your power to help has long since passed away."

"It is not enough. My God--more fire, more coals, more thirst--oh! God, more pain--but save, oh, save my child."

"God is ever merciful, but you may not see His mercy," said the Angel. The mother's vision was darkened, she no longer saw her child.

The fire grew hotter and hotter.

"Come," said the Angel.

Lying flushed, in a horrible state of delirium, was a young girl of eighteen. Scarlet fever, in its most virulent form, was raging in a system over which it stood tyrant. The patient was so violent she had to be strapped to the bedstead to prevent her injuring herself. The father and his newly married wife had instantly fled for fear of contagion, and the poor girl was left to the care of a doctor, whose skill was not of the greatest, and to two nurses whom she had never seen before.

One terrible idea had seized her brain. She was drowning. Her father held a rope just out of her reach; he had a cruel smile on his lips as he played with it. Now letting her touch it with the tips of her fingers, now letting it rest on her head, but always drawing it back just as she was about to grasp it. In her delirium she cursed her father, she cursed her mother, she cursed every one. There was nothing but hatred and anger in her mind; no softening touch of cooling charity crossed her fevered brain. The delirium did not abate, the fever ran higher and higher. The distorted features, the rolling eyes, the dishevelled hair were in keeping with the fury of her passion.

"How dreadful," said the nurses, "that she should die cursing all men. There is ever some 'method in madness'; surely there must be some cause for this unnatural bitterness. Let us pray for her soul, poor child! And Heaven have mercy on those who come under her curse!"

"She curses me, she curses me!" shrieks the mother as she throws herself down, tearing her hair in a frenzy with the pain and torment she is undergoing. "Pain!--oh, my God! Is not this pain enough?"

"Can you bear more?" asked the angel.

"More--more; haste, haste. My God! more torture--more flames. Wrap me round in fire--more thirst--more, more. But spare, oh! spare my child!"

"It is enough; stay now thine hand," was heard in the midst of the great darkness.

Immediately all changed.

"You have borne it well," said the Angel. "Look!"

The mother opened her eyes; and saw her child in perfect health and happiness standing near. She held out her arms, calling "My child! my child!"

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The little grain had, after all, been placed in the balance of life. The mother found herself in her own room, in her own bed. Her husband and the nurse were there, and there, too, was little Nora.

She looked questioningly at the last.

"I will send her away now. We brought her because you called for her so often," said her husband.

"I want to kiss her. Let me kiss her." The nurse lifted the little girl up, who put out her arms, saying "Poor mamma."

Her mother burst into tears.

"Take the little one away now, please, sir," said the nurse. "She has done what was needed."

For a long time the mother lay sobbing; Nature sought to restore itself in that way.

Slowly, very slowly, the light which had so nearly gone out came back, for life and death had come in closest contact with each other.

"I thought I was dying. Surely I felt the first pangs of death?" asked the invalid, as she was getting better, and dared at last put into words a question that had long been on her lips.

"It was hysteria with delirium that you felt," answered the nurse. "It lasted for a short time; try and forget it."

But the mother never forgot those terrible minutes, and never believed but that she had tasted of the bitter cup, though she drank it not to the dregs. As she revived she felt as if she were born again, as if life were entirely new to her. All was different; everything seemed more delightful than before. The early morning air had never been so fresh, the sun had never shone so brightly, the flowers had never smelled so sweetly. The sheaves of golden grain were richer, quite unlike those other autumns had brought.

Then, too, within herself there was a feeling of ineffable peace. Her heart overflowed with love towards every one, everything.

Nothing annoyed, nothing troubled her, nothing disturbed the tranquility of her mind.

One change none could help remarking--she was never happy without her child by her side. No one could explain what had caused this change. She herself knew but indistinctly. But every now and then she caught a glimpse of that which she had seen in the glass into which she had looked in her delirium. She arose from her bed of sickness a better woman, a sweeter wife, a loving and utterly unselfish mother.

Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023