Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/The Twilight Guests
THE TWILIGHT GUESTS
THE TWILIGHT GUESTS
WHEN they left him, in the warm, late afternoon, lying listless on his couch in the porch, they thought he would stay alone there till they came again. His little granddaughter, indeed, felt so sad at deserting him that she ran back and kissed him twice. "To leave Grandpapa alone!" she said. But he was not alone; there came to him strange guests and sweet. And this was the manner of their coming.
As he watched the shadow creeping up the steps, he thought how often he had marked the time by it in the far away days. He remembered how he had tried to keep in the broad sunbeam that lay along the walk, when he used to run home to supper tired and hungry, shouting to his mother that his school was over and out and that he had come—"So hungry, mother dear!" And as he thought of her, slow tears crept from under his old eyelids, and he raised his hand feebly to wipe them away. When he saw clearly again, he started slightly, for up the path, walking in the sunbeam came a boy. He smiled sweetly, cheerily at the old man, and sat down confidingly, close to the couch. "It is so warm in the sun!" he said.
The old man turned uneasily and looked at him. "Are you Arthur's son?" he asked doubtfully. "My eyes are so dim—I cannot always tell you apart, at first. Are you Arthur's son?"
"No," said the child.
"Are you——" but then the boy looked full in his face and the old man could not take his eyes from that searching smile. And as he looked, there grew around his heart the sweet faint breath of lilac trees, though it was early autumn and not at all the spring. And deep in the child's eyes was so strange a soul—yet so familiar! As he looked yet deeper the lilac scent grew stronger and he dared not turn away his eyes, lest he should lose it. So he listened to the child, who spoke brightly yet gravely, with his head resting against the old man's knee.
"See!" he said, "the lilacs are all out! I took a bunch to school, and the teacher wore them in her dress. Oh, but I grow tired of the school in the mornings, when the birds sing under the window! The brook is all full with the flood water, do you know?"
"Yes," said the old man dreamily, "yes, I know."
"There are pickerel there—I saw one, anyway!" said the boy. "The old one—he lives under the stone all alone. If I could get him, I'd be proud enough! But I never can—I can only catch him on a Friday night when the moon is full, and then I'm not allowed out! The man that weeds the garden told me that. Do you remember?"
"Yes, I remember," said the old man.
"But if I don't fish, I don't care so much," said the boy happily. "For I get so wet and dirty, and Rachel doesn't like me then. I can't look on her book. She is so dear! She never spots the ink on her apron, like the other girls. And she never eats fish, either. She thinks it hurts them too much to kill them. I don't think so—do you? But girls are different."
"Where are you going to-night?" said the old man, quietly, yet his voice trembled.
"I'm going to sing to Rachel's grandfather. He's blind, you know."
"Yes," said the old man, "and old. His hair is white. He walks with a cane. But he loves the singing."
"Then to-morrow I must go to church," said the boy. "The minister talks and prays and I get so sleepy. But mother keeps a peppermint for me, just before the second hymn. Then I have it for the long prayer. And I can sing the hymns. Rachel never looks at me she sits so still in church. And she won't play on Sunday. I can have my whip and two of the largest marbles. Do you think that is wrong?"
"No," said the old man, "I don't think that is wrong."
"And we have gingerbread on the porch in the afternoon," said the boy, "and Rachel comes. Mother says children must not be vexed at the Lord's Day."
"Yes," said the old man, "mother is so good to us—so good——" and when he saw clearly again, the child was gone. Only the shadow lay upon the upper step of the porch, and the sunbeam was shrunken to a narrow path of light.
He stretched out his trembling hands and called sorrowfully to the boy. "Come back! O come back! I had forgotten so much! And the lilacs——" but he was alone. And his hair was almost white. He covered his face with his hands and shivered. For the shadow was creeping up the porch.
And then over his chilled heart there came the breath of roses—summer roses. The air struck warm and soft upon his cheeks. And when he dropped his hands there stood in the sun-ray a straight tall youth. His eyes were shining with strength; his smile was happiness itself. In his firm brown hands he held roses—summer roses. The old man forgot to be afraid and raised himself on the cushions.
"Give them to me—give them!" he cried. The young man laughed low and laid the red flowers softly up against the withered cheeks. Then he sat down and took the cold, dry hands in his.
"What do they make you remember?" he said.
The old man sighed for pure joy. "Ah, how sweet—how heavenly sweet! Did they come from the garden behind her father's house?"
"Yes," said the youth, "from the old bush near the wall. It was moonlight, and we picked them together. I reached the highest ones, because Rachel is not tall. She wore——"
"She wore the white gown with the big shade hat," said the old man eagerly. "And I made a wreath for her shoulders. I called her—what did I call her? The queen—the queen"—
"The queen of roses," said the youth.
"Ah, yes, the queen of roses!" said the old man. "Her mouth was like the pink, young buds. We went up and down the long paths, and I wanted her to take my arm."
"But she would not," laughed the young man. "She said that old folks might lean, but she could run as well as any man!"
"So she ran through the garden, and I after!" cried the old man, crushing the roses till they filled the porch with sweetness. "She hid behind the old elm and let me call and call. And I had to find her in the moonshadows. You know she grew afraid and cried out when I caught her? And yet she knew I would. But women are so. Her mother knew I was with her, so she let us stay till it was late. Rachel's mother was kind to me, you know?"
"Yes," said the young man. "But she knew that Rachel——"
"Ah!" said the old man quickly, "it seems they all knew! All but Rachel and me! Now that is so strange. For we should have known it first. But Rachel laughed so when I tried to tell her, she said—what was it she said?"
"That you were too young to know how you would think of it later," said the youth.
"And I said, 'I'm old enough to know I love you, Rachel, now and for ever!'" said the old man softly, clasping his hands together so that the roses dropped to the ground. "And then she did not laugh at all, but only held her head down so I could not see her eyes, and would not speak."
"It was so still," said the youth. "There was no breeze, and everything in the garden listened, listened, for what she would say."
But nothing in the garden could hear," said the old man eagerly, because she only whispered!"
"Was it then that her mother called?" asked the youth.
"Yes," said the old man, and he smiled. But we did not come, for Rachel was afraid to go. She thought her mother would not like to have her leave the old home. And she feared to tell her that she wanted to go. So we sat like silly children in the dark. You see, I was afraid, too. Her father and mother were old and old people cannot know how we feel when love first comes to us—and yet they loved, once!"
"Yes, they loved once," said the youth, "but they forget. They think of lands and money and the most prudent course—they cannot fed their heart's blood rushing through their veins, surging in their ears, 'She loves me!' They cannot feel that one hour with her is dearer than years with the others of the world!"
"And then we went in!" said the old man softly. "Then we went in! And her mother stood waiting for us. Rachel would not look up and I had to lead her by the hand. She feared that we could not make it plain, that her mother would scold us——"
The youth laughed aloud. "But did she?" he said.
And the old man laughed too.
"No. She came to me and kissed me and then she held Rachel and cried. But not that she was sorry. Older people feel strange when the younger ones start away, you see."
The young man picked up the roses and laid them again by the side of the couch. "Sleep," he said softly, "and dream of her!" And the old man's eyelids drooped and the hands that held the roses relaxed in quiet sleep.
When he awoke the sun had almost set. The path of rays had faded and the creeping shadow had covered the highest step and lay along the porch. He felt feebly for the roses, but they were gone. And the sweet warm scent of them was only in his dim memory. But there sat in the shadow a man.
Threads of grey were in his hair and lines around his firm mouth. But in his eyes shone yet a sweet strength, and he held his head high as he spoke.
"Do you know where I have been?" he said.
The old man shook his head.
"Think!" said the other.
Then while he looked into the stranger's eyes, there stole across his heart the wind that blows through the orchard when the fruit is ripe. He drew in great breaths of it, in doubt, and at last he said in a whisper so low that he hardly heard himself, "You have been to his grave—his little grave!"
"Yes," said the man, "I have. His mother goes there alone—not even I go with her. She goes alone."
"No," said the old man solemnly, "no. God goes with her. I thought that she would have died—why did she live?"
"Because," said the other, "because you would have been alone. And you could not have kept yourself a man, if she had gone, too."
"Ah, yes!" said the old man softly, "that is it. She is an angel! When he was born I was almost afraid. I said, ^My son! I have a son! If I should die to-night, he would live and I should live in him!" And when she brought him herself into the orchard—I see her now—I see her now!"
He could not lift his head from the pillow, he was so tired and weak, but with his eyes he begged the other to come nearer. The man came close to the couch and looked down tenderly at the old man. "She wore the white trailing gown," he said.
"Yes," whispered the old man, "and the great wide hat. And she held him up under the brim and said that if it should rain, she and he could keep dry together, but I must stay in the rain!"
"Do you remember," said the other, "how when he could just say words, you played with him under the apple tree?"
"Can I ever forget?" said the old man. "But now the angels teach him a better language, so that he had but one to learn!"
"Do you remember how she left him with her mother and went away with you?" said the other.
The old man smiled a little. "Ah, yes! Well enough!" he said. "We thought we would be young again, and leave him to his grandmother and his sisters. He had enough care! It was not lack of that——"
"And when you had gone only a few miles she grew anxious——"
"Yes, yes!" said the old man. "She said, 'Suppose he is sick? Suppose he falls into the brook? He walks about so brave and strong—and he is our only son!' So we came back."
"You were good to her," said the other. "You did always just as she wished."
"I loved her," said the old man simply.
The stranger's eyes grew moist and his voice shook as he said, "When he grew sick——"
"Ah, when he grew sick!" cried the old man bitterly. "Almost I lost my trust in the Giver of my child, and dared not give him back! How I begged! How I prayed!—you know!"
"Yes," whispered the stranger, "I know."
"Then she left me for the first time," said the old man slowly. "For the first time. She went alone and prayed. Oh Rachel, my dear, dear wife, I could not go with you to God! I think even we go best alone! I said 'It cannot be! He cannot let it come! I have done all my life as best I knew how, and is this my reward?' And I heard her crying, and I wished I had never lived."
"But not for long?" said the other.
The old man smiled through his tears.
"No, no, not for long!" he said. "When Rachel saw that I was weak she grew strong. It is strange, but women are the strongest then. And she showed me the folly and wickedness of throwing away my faith because the Most Faithful had taken away my child. And she brought me my little daughters and set them on my knees and put her arms around my neck. So I grew comforted. And there have come other sons—Arthur and John. But he—ah, Rachel! Little we thought when we laid him on the grass under the tree and measured him with goldenrod, that he would so soon lie there for all our lives!"
"And he lies there now," said the stranger.
"Yes," said the old man softly, "he lies there now. Under the apple tree where he lay and laughed that day, he lies there now. For Rachel wanted it so. 'I carried him out there the first time,' she said, 'and he always loved it there. I used to walk there before he came, and plan for him, how he should grow so great and famous and good; and now I want him to be there, while he is asleep. And I think that all the fields are God's—the orchard as well as the graveyard.' So we laid him there, and she goes there often, and I."
"You miss her?" said the stranger.
"Miss her?" said the old man, staring at the visitor, "miss her? Why, she is here! She is my wife!——" but he was alone, on the couch, with the faint breath of ripening apples dying on the air.
And as he turned wearily, the shadow crept softly and covered the porch and the couch where he lay. The sun dropped behind the hills and the air struck cold on his uncovered shoulders. He was too tired to cry, too old and weak to question or find fault, but he dimly felt that to be left alone was hard. His memory grew suddenly untrustworthy; had they come or not? It was all so plain to him now. He was not with Rachel, he was neither in the church nor in the garden nor in the orchard. He was an old man, strangely weak and confused, left alone.
"Ah, Rachel," he murmured, "only come again, while I go! Come to take me—not that it will be long to wait before I see you, dear! We have been so happy, you and I! But it was so cold——"
And then while he shivered helplessly and half afraid, there came the scent of spring lilac-bushes, and by his bed stood the bright-eyed child.
"Come! come and sit by me!" cried the old man. But the boy only smiled. "Take my hands—they are so cold!" he begged. Still the boy smiled. And as the old man looked, the child's eyes filled him with half hope, half fear. "Are you—are you——" he tried to speak, but no sound came from his lips.
"If I come and touch you," said the boy, "it will be the end. Shall I come?" The old man's face lighted softly.
"Yes," he said in his heart, for he could not speak aloud, "yes, come now!" The boy laughed and stepped to the couch and lay down beside him, putting his cheek close to the white hair.
Into the heart of the old man rushed a quick, new life. "Ah, Rachel, Rachel," he said strong and clear, "sit on the step and eat your cake with me? Here is the flag-root I promised you—it's quite clean. I took off all the mud! And here is the red marble"—but the child kissed him and he went to sleep, holding to his heart his happy youth.
And when they found him in the evening, they were not too grieved, for on his face was a great content.