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- The Old Stone House - 40/41 -
Where is death's sting, where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me."
A year had passed, and the colored leaves were dropping for the second time upon Hugh's grave. Aunt Faith and Bessie were in the sitting-room of the old stone house, and the voices of Tom and Gem sounded through the open hall-door from the back garden, where they were sitting under the oak-tree. Hugh's portrait stood upon an easel, with living ivy growing around it from the little bracket which he had made that last day of summer. The afternoon sun struck the picture, and gave it a vivid realistic expression; Bessie saw it, and laying down her work, looked lovingly into the bright face. "It is very like Hugh, is it not, Aunt Faith?" she said at last.
Aunt Faith put on her glasses, and drew nearer the easel. "It is indeed a wonderful likeness, especially the eyes," she replied. "How came you to succeed so well?"
"I had been working at it all summer, aunt, but the eyes I could not copy to my satisfaction, they varied so constantly. It was Hugh's last day at home; don't you remember how I begged for the morning? He was sitting in the old arm-chair by the window, looking out towards the lake, talking about the future; he was so full of life and hope that morning,--so sure of success,--so happy in the thought of the good he could accomplish, that his eyes fairly shone. Something came over me; I took the brush, and, by a sudden inspiration, I succeeded in copying the expression exactly."
"It is a comfort to have the picture," said Aunt Faith, "and a blessed thought that we shall see that dear face again, and know it when we see it."
"You believe so, aunt? So do I. I believe that we shall love each other there as here, only far, far better. To be with those we love, away from affliction, care, and temptation,--that is heaven."
"I often think of the meetings there, Bessie. Hugh found his father and his mother there. While we were mourning here, they were rejoicing there."
"I no longer mourn, Aunt Faith; I have found comfort."
"I know that, my dear, and am thankful for it; but you are sad at times."
"I feel sad over myself, aunt, over my loneliness, and my faults. I feel sorry for myself as one feels sorry for a child; I sympathize with myself as though I was another person. Sometimes it seems as if my soul sat apart peaceful and quiet, while all the rest of me gave way to deep despondency. But all the while I know that Hugh is safe; that I shall go to him, and that through the mercy of our Saviour we shall find eternal joy. And I always try to remember that Hugh disliked morbid grief; that he used to say the world was a beautiful place; that we had no right to despise it; that as long as we were in it, it was our duty to make others happy and be happy ourselves. Therefore I try to be cheerful, and when I think of Hugh, I am cheerful. It is only when I think of myself that despondency comes back to me."
"You have done well, dear," said Aunt Faith; "I have seen your struggles, and rejoiced over your victories. I have confidence in you, Bessie, and if I am called away, I can leave the children in your charge with an easy heart."
"They are no longer children, Aunt Faith."
"True! Gem is thirteen, but she will need watchful care for many years yet. And Tom, although tall and strong, is still a thorough boy at heart, and the next five or six years are full of danger for him."
"Tom is a fine fellow," said Bessie warmly; "he is full of generosity and courage."
"Yes, but there are corresponding dangers for his sanguine temperament. However, although still young, he has an earnest faith; Hugh's death was a lesson which he will never forget, and all though he may often go astray, I feel sure he will _come_ back again at the last. Gem, too, is one of the lambs of the flock; she has improved greatly the past year. I have had deep cause to be thankful, and I am thankful," said Aunt Faith, folding her hands reverently. "The children Thou gavest to me are all Thine; Thou hast cared for them and brought them to a knowledge of Thy goodness. One hast Thou taken, the dearest of all; taken him away from trouble to come. Lord, I thank Thee, for all Thy goodness." As Aunt Faith murmured these words, she leaned back in her chair and closed her own heart in silence.
After a few moments, Bessie went out on the piazza to welcome Mr. Leslie and Sibyl as they came up the walk.
"Aunt Faith is resting in her chair," she said, smiling; "we will sit out here, if you please. How well you look, Sibyl!"
Mrs. Leslie threw off her bonnet, and the light shone in her golden hair. She looked well, better than she had ever looked as Sibyl Warrington; for, although her skin had lost something of its extreme delicacy, her face had gained in animation, and her manners in cordiality, so that people who could not love her before, loved her now with sincere affection. Her beautiful hair was coiled gracefully around her head, and she was dressed with as much care as ever, for Sibyl was Sibyl still, and could no more change her love for harmony and taste than the leopard could change his spots. But everything _was_ simple, inexpensive, and fashioned by her own fingers, so that although all admired, not even the most censorious could find fault with the appearance of the pastor's wife.
Mr. Leslie, too, was somewhat altered; he looked well and vigorous, but his manner was more gentle. The poor said he was more compassionate, the sick said he was more gentle, his congregation said he was more eloquent; Hugh's death and Sibyl's sorrow had not been without their lessons for him, also.
The little chapel was still poor and struggling, but husband and wife worked together with heart and strength. Sibyl was invaluable; she threw her system, her energy, and her tact into the week-day work, and her husband found his Sunday labors doubly successful, because they were followed up and carried out during the six working days as well as on the day of rest.
"I have had a letter from Mrs. Stanly, to-day, Bessie," said Mr. Leslie; "she says little Hugh is beginning to talk, and already can say 'Aunt Bessie.' He associates you with the Noah's Ark you sent him. Here is his picture, enclosed in the letter." The photograph represented a chubby boy with large, wondering eyes and curly hair.
"Brave little man!" said Sibyl, looking over Bessie's shoulder. "What a wonder he lived through that night!"
"Oh, Hugh held him up out of the water most of the time," said Bessie quickly; "the mother told me that his little knitted shirt was scarcely wet at all. I must certainly go East to see the child next spring, now that his father is dead, I feel more at liberty to assist Mrs. Stanly, and, between us, we are going to give little Hugh the best education the country will allow."
"Is that you, Sibyl?" said Aunt Faith's voice within.
"Yes, aunt. Shall we come in?" said Mrs. Leslie, rising.
"No, dear, I will come out;" and Aunt Faith joined the group on the piazza, taking her seat in an arm-chair.
"What a beautiful afternoon!" she said, "and how brilliant those maple-leaves are! Have you seen the monument, John?"
"No," answered Mr. Leslie; "is it in place?"
"Yes, the work was all finished this morning, and Bessie and I went over to look at it. Why not walk over now? We can all go, and these lovely days cannot last long."
"I should like to go, John, if you have the time," said Sibyl.
"Yes; I can postpone the visit I intended to make. As Aunt Faith says, these warm, still days cannot last long."
The cemetery was about half a mile distant, a forest glade sloping to the lake, with a brook in a little ravine running through the centre. But few graves were there, for the land was but newly consecrated to its use, but the great forest-trees were old, and in the spring, wild flowers grew everywhere, and wild birds sang in the foliage. Now, the trees were dyed in scarlet and gold, and the colored leaves dropped slowly down upon the ground, for the air was still and hazy with the purple mists of Indian summer. Hugh's monument stood on a little eminence overlooking the lake. It was of marble, a slender shaft broken at the top, with a profusion of roses growing over the broken place, carved in the marble with life-like fidelity, so that the stone itself seemed to have blossomed. Below, on one side of the base was Hugh's name and age, and on the opposite face was the sentence, "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me."
"I like it;" said Mr. Leslie, standing with uncovered head beside the grassy mound; "it expresses the idea of the broken young life, and the roses of hope, faith, and even joy which have grown up to cover the place."
"It is appropriate that it stands here overlooking the lake," said Sibyl. "Hugh was so fond of the water, and, on this very lake he lost his life,--gave it up for the sake of others."
"And _I_ like the monument on account of the sentence," said Bessie, who sat by the side of the grave arranging a bunch of autumn leaves.
"The monument is only raised to Hugh's earthly memory," said Aunt Faith. "Hugh is not here; I never feel that I am nearer to him here than at home. But I like to honor the place where his mortal body lies, and I like to think when I die, those who love me will likewise honor my grave."
Bessie completed her wreath and laid it on the mound, and then they all went back to the old stone house, quiet and thoughtful, but not sad; the faith within their hearts was too earnest, and the hope too bright for sadness.
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