So they walked over the crackling leaves in the garden, between the lines of box breathing its fragrance of eternity;—for this is one of the odors which carry us out of time into the abysses of the unbeginning past; if we ever lived on another ball of stone than this, it must be that there was box growing on it. So they walked, finding their way softly to each other’s sorrows and sympathies, each matching some counterpart to the other’s experience of life, and startled to see how the different, yet parallel, lessons they had been taught by suffering had led them step by step to the same serene acquiescence in the orderings of that Supreme Wisdom which they both devoutly recognized.
Old Sophy was at the window and saw them walking up and down the garden-alleys. She watched them as her grandfather the savage watched the figures that moved among the trees when a hostile tribe was lurking about his mountain.
“There’ll be a weddin’ in the ol house,” she said, “before there’s roses on them bushes ag’in. But it won’ be my poor Elsie’s weddin’, ‘n’ ol’ Sophy won’ be there.”
When Helen prayed in the silence of her soul that evening, it was not that Elsie’s life might be spared. She dared not ask that as a favor of Heaven. What could life be to her but a perpetual anguish, and to those about her but an ever-present terror? Might she but be so influenced by divine grace, that what in her was most truly human, most purely woman-like, should overcome the dark, cold, unmentionable instinct which had pervaded her being like a subtile poison that was all she could ask, and the rest she left to a higher wisdom and tenderer love than her own.
The white ash.
When Helen returned to Elsie’s bedside, it was with a new and still deeper feeling of sympathy, such as the story told by Old Sophy might well awaken. She understood, as never before, the singular fascination and as singular repulsion which she had long felt in Elsie’s presence. It had not been without a great effort that she had forced herself to become the almost constant attendant of the sick girl; and now she was learning, but not for the first time, the blessed truth which so many good women have found out for themselves, that the hardest duty bravely performed soon becomes a habit, and tends in due time to transform itself into a pleasure.
The old Doctor was beginning to look graver, in spite of himself. The fever, if such it was, went gently forward, wasting the young girl’s powers of resistance from day to day; yet she showed no disposition to take nourishment, and seemed literally to be living on air. It was remarkable that with all this her look was almost natural, and her features were hardly sharpened so as to suggest that her life was burning away. He did not like this, nor various other unobtrusive signs of danger which his practised eye detected. A very small matter might turn the balance which held life and death poised against each other. He surrounded her with precautions, that Nature might have every opportunity of cunningly shifting the weights from the scale of death to the scale of life, as she will often do if not rudely disturbed or interfered with.