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- Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood - 70/86 -
OLD MRS TOMKINS.
Very severe weather came, and much sickness followed, chiefly amongst the poorer people, who can so ill keep out the cold. Yet some of my well-to-do parishioners were laid up likewise--amongst others Mr Boulderstone, who had an attack of pleurisy. I had grown quite attached to Mr Boulderstone by this time, not because he was what is called interesting, for he was not; not because he was clever, for he was not; not because he was well-read, for he was not; not because he was possessed of influence in the parish, though he had that influence; but simply because he was true; he was what he appeared, felt what he professed, did what he said; appearing kind, and feeling and acting kindly. Such a man is rare and precious, were he as stupid as the Welsh giant in "Jack the Giant-Killer." I could never see Mr Boulderstone a mile off, but my heart felt the warmer for the sight.
Even in his great pain he seemed to forget himself as he received me, and to gain comfort from my mere presence. I could not help regarding him as a child of heaven, to be treated with the more reverence that he had the less aid to his goodness from his slow understanding. It seemed to me that the angels might gather with reverence around such a man, to watch the gradual and tardy awakening of the intellect in one in whom the heart and the conscience had been awake from the first. The latter safe, they at least would see well that there was no fear for the former. Intelligence is a consequence of love; nor is there any true intelligence without it.
But I could not help feeling keenly the contrast when I went from his warm, comfortable, well-defended chamber, in which every appliance that could alleviate suffering or aid recovery was at hand, like a castle well appointed with arms and engines against the inroads of winter and his yet colder ally Death,--when, I say, I went from his chamber to the cottage of the Tomkinses, and found it, as it were, lying open and bare to the enemy. What holes and cracks there were about the door, through which the fierce wind rushed at once into the room to attack the aged feet and hands and throats! There were no defences of threefold draperies, and no soft carpet on the brick floor,--only a small rug which my sister had carried them laid down before a weak-eyed little fire, that seemed to despair of making anything of it against the huge cold that beleaguered and invaded the place. True, we had had the little cottage patched up. The two Thomas Weirs had been at work upon it for a whole day and a half in the first of the cold weather this winter; but it was like putting the new cloth on the old garment, for fresh places had broken out, and although Mrs Tomkins had fought the cold well with what rags she could spare, and an old knife, yet such razor-edged winds are hard to keep out, and here she was now, lying in bed, and breathing hard, like the sore-pressed garrison which had retreated to its last defence, the keep of the castle. Poor old Tomkins sat shivering over the little fire.
"Come, come, Tomkins! this won't do," I said, as I caught up a broken shovel that would have let a lump as big as one's fist through a hole in the middle of it. "Why don't you burn your coals in weather like this? Where do you keep them?"
It made my heart ache to see the little heap in a box hardly bigger than the chest of tea my sister brought from London with her. I threw half of it on the fire at once.
"Deary me, Mr Walton! you ARE wasteful, sir. The Lord never sent His good coals to be used that way."
"He did though, Tomkins," I answered. "And He'll send you a little more this evening, after I get home. Keep yourself warm, man. This world's cold in winter, you know."
"Indeed, sir, I know that. And I'm like to know it worse afore long. She's going," he said, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb towards the bed where his wife lay.
I went to her. I had seen her several times within the last few weeks, but had observed nothing to make me consider her seriously ill. I now saw at a glance that Tomkins was right. She had not long to live.
"I am sorry to see you suffering so much, Mrs Tomkins," I said.
"I don't suffer so wery much, sir; though to be sure it be hard to get the breath into my body, sir. And I do feel cold-like, sir."
"I'm going home directly, and I'll send you down another blanket. It's much colder to-day than it was yesterday."
"It's not weather-cold, sir, wi' me. It's grave-cold, sir. Blankets won't do me no good, sir. I can't get it out of my head how perishing cold I shall be when I'm under the mould, sir; though I oughtn't to mind it when it's the will o' God. It's only till the resurrection, sir."
"But it's not the will of God, Mrs Tomkins."
"Ain't it, sir? Sure I thought it was."
"You believe in Jesus Christ, don't you, Mrs Tomkins?"
"That I do, sir, with all my heart and soul."
"Well, He says that whosoever liveth and believeth in Him shall never die."
"But, you know, sir, everybody dies. I MUST die, and be laid in the churchyard, sir. And that's what I don't like."
"But I say that is all a mistake. YOU won't die. Your body will die, and be laid away out of sight; but you will be awake, alive, more alive than you are now, a great deal."
And here let me interrupt the conversation to remark upon the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls. The consequence is, that they think of their souls as of something which is not themselves. For what a man HAS cannot be himself. Hence, when they are told that their souls go to heaven, they think of their SELVES as lying in the grave. They ought to be taught that they have bodies; and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on. Then they will not think, as old Mrs Tomkins did, that THEY will be laid in the grave. It is making altogether too much of the body, and is indicative of an evil tendency to materialism, that we talk as if we POSSESSED souls, instead of BEING souls. We should teach our children to think no more of their bodies when dead than they do of their hair when it is cut off, or of their old clothes when they have done with them.
"Do you really think so, sir?"
"Indeed I do. I don't know anything about where you will be. But you will be with God--in your Father's house, you know. And that is enough, is it not?"
"Yes, surely, sir. But I wish you was to be there by the bedside of me when I was a-dyin'. I can't help bein' summat skeered at it. It don't come nat'ral to me, like. I ha' got used to this old bed here, cold as it has been--many's the night--wi' my good man there by the side of me."
"Send for me, Mrs Tomkins, any moment, day or night, and I'll be with you directly."
"I think, sir, if I had a hold ov you i' the one hand, and my man there, the Lord bless him, i' the other, I could go comfortable."
"I'll come the minute you send for me--just to keep you in mind that a better friend than I am is holding you all the time, though you mayn't feel His hands. If it is some comfort to have hold of a human friend, think that a friend who is more than man, a divine friend, has a hold of you, who knows all your fears and pains, and sees how natural they are, and can just with a word, or a touch, or a look into your soul, keep them from going one hair's-breadth too far. He loves us up to all out need, just because we need it, and He is all love to give."
"But I can't help thinking, sir, that I wouldn't be troublesome. He has such a deal to look after! And I don't see how He can think of everybody, at every minute, like. I don't mean that He will let anything go wrong. But He might forget an old body like me for a minute, like."
"You would need to be as wise as He is before you could see how He does it. But you must believe more than you can understand. It is only common sense to do so. Think how nonsensical it would be to suppose that one who could make everything, and keep the whole going as He does, shouldn't be able to help forgetting. It would be unreasonable to think that He must forget because you couldn't understand how He could remember. I think it is as hard for Him to forget anything as it is for us to remember everything; for forgetting comes of weakness, and from our not being finished yet, and He is all strength and all perfection."
"Then you think, sir, He never forgets anything?"
I knew by the trouble that gathered on the old woman's brow what kind of thought was passing through her mind. But I let her go on, thinking so to help her the better. She paused for one moment only, and then resumed--much interrupted by the shortness of her breathing.
"When I was brought to bed first," she said, "it was o' twins, sir. And oh! sir, it was VERY hard. As I said to my man after I got my head up a bit, 'Tomkins,' says I, 'you don't know what it is to have TWO on 'em cryin' and cryin', and you next to nothin' to give 'em; till their cryin' sticks to your brain, and ye hear 'em when they're fast asleep, one on each side o' you.' Well, sir, I'm ashamed to confess it even to you; and what the Lord can think of me, I don't know."
"I would rather confess to Him than to the best friend I ever had," I said; "I am so sure that He will make every excuse for me that ought to be made. And a friend can't always do that. He can't know all about it. And you can't tell him all, because you don't know all yourself. He does."
"But I would like to tell YOU, sir. Would you believe it, sir, I wished 'em dead? Just to get the wailin' of them out o' my head, I
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