It has often been in my mind to tell of John Whitney’s death. You will say it is too sad and serious for a paper. But it is well to have serious thoughts brought before us at certain seasons. This is one of them: seeing that it’s the beginning of a new year, and that every year takes us nearer to another life whether we are old or whether we are young.3
3 Written for the January number of The Argosy, 1872.
Some of them thought his illness might never have come on but for an accident that happened. It is quite a mistake. The accident had nothing to do with the later illness. Sir John and Lady Whitney could tell you so as well as I. John was always one of those sensitive, thoughtful, religious boys that somehow don’t seem so fit for earth as heaven.
“Now mind, you boys,” cried Sir John to us at breakfast. “There’s just a thin coating of ice on the lake and ponds, but it won’t bear. Don’t any of you venture on it.”
“We will not, sir,” replied John, who was the most obedient son living.
There’s not much to be done in the way of out-door sports when snow lies on the ground. Crowding round the children’s play-room window later, all the lot of us, we looked out on a white landscape. Snow lodged on the trees, hid the grass in the fields, covered the hills in the distance.
“It’s an awful sell,” cried Bill Whitney and Tod nearly in a breath. “No hunting, no shooting, and no nothing. The ponds won’t bear; snowballing’s common. One might as well lie in bed.”
“And what sort of a ‘sell’ do you suppose it is for the poor men who are thrown out of work?” asked Sir John, who had come in, reading a newspaper, and was airing his back at the fire. “Their work and wages are stopped, and they can’t earn bread for their children. You boys are dreadfully to be pitied, you are!”
He tilted his steel spectacles up on his good old red nose, and nodded to us. Harry, the pert one of the family, answered.
“Well, papa, and it is a settler for us boys to have our fun spoiled. As to the working-men — oh, they are used to it.”
Sir John stared at him for a full minute. “If I thought you said that from your heart, Mr. Harry, I’d order you from my presence. No son of mine shall get into the habit of making unfeeling speeches, even in jest.”
Sir John meant it. We saw that Harry’s words had really vexed him. John broke the silence.
“Papa, if I should live to be ever in your place,” he said, in his quiet voice, that somehow always had a tone of thoughtfulness in it, even when at play with the rest of us at old Frost’s, “I shall make a point of paying my labourers’ wages in full this wintry time, just the same as though they worked. It is not their fault that they are idle.”
Sir John started at him now. “What d’ye mean by ‘if you live,’ lad?”
John considered. The words had slipped from him without any special thought at all. People use such figures of speech. It was odd though, when we came to remember it a long while afterwards, that he should have said it just that one day.
“I recollect a frost that lasted fourteen weeks, boys,” said Sir John. “That was in 1814. They held a fair on the Thames, we heard, and roasted an ox whole on it. Get a frost to last all that time, and you’d soon tire of paying wages for nothing, John.”
“But, father, what else could I do — or ought I to do? I could not let them starve — or break up their poor homes by going into the workhouse. I should fear that some time, in return, God might break up mine.”
Sir John smiled. John was so very earnest always when he took up a serious matter. Letting the question drop, Sir John lowered his spectacles, and went out with his newspaper. Presently we saw him going round to the farm-yard in his great-coat and beaver gaiters. John sat down near the fire and took up a book he was fond of —“Sintram.”
This was Old Christmas Day. Tod and I had come over to Whitney Hall for a week, and two days of it were already gone. We liked being there, and the time seemed to fly. Tod and Bill still stood staring and grumbling at the snow, wishing the frost would get worse, or go. Harry went out whistling; Helen sat down with a yawn.
“Anna, there’s a skein of blue silk in that workbag behind you. Get it out and hold it for me to wind.”
Anna, who was more like John in disposition than any of them, always good and gentle, got the silk; and they began to wind it. In the midst of it, Harry burst in with a terrific shout, dressed up as a bear, and trying to upset every one. In the confusion Anna dropped the silk on the carpet, and Helen boxed her ears.
John looked up from his book. “You should not do that, Helen.”
“What does she drop the silk for, then — careless thing!” retorted Helen, who was quick in temper. “Once soil that light shade of blue, and it can’t be used. You mind yourself John.”
John looked at them both. At Helen, taking up the silk from the floor; at Anna, who was struggling to keep down her tears under the infliction, because Tod was present. She wouldn’t have minded me. John said no more. He had a very nice face without much colour in it; dark hair, and large grey-blue eyes that seemed to be always looking out for something they did not see. He was sixteen then, upright and slender. All the world liked John Whitney.
Later on in the day we were running races in the broad walk, that was so shady in summer. The whole of us. The high laurel hedges on either side had kept the snow from drifting, and it hardly lay there at all. We gave the girls a third of the run, and they generally beat us. After an hour of this, tired and hot, we gave in, and dispersed different ways. John and I went towards the lake to see whether the ice was getting thicker, talking of school and school interests as we went along. Old Frost’s grounds were in view, which naturally put us in mind of the past: and especially of the great event of the half year — the sad fate of Archie Hearn.
“Poor little Hearn!” he exclaimed. “I did feel his death, and no mistake. That is, I felt for his mother. I think, Johnny, if I could have had the chance offered me, I would have died myself to let him live.”
“That’s easier said than done — if it came to the offer, Whitney.”
“Well, yes it is. She had no one but him, you see. And to think of her coming into the school that time and saying she forgave the fellow — whoever it was. I’ve often wondered whether Barrington had cause to feel it.”
“She is just like her face, Whitney — good. I’ve hardly ever seen a face I like as much as Mrs. Hearn’s.”
John Whitney laughed a little. They all did at my likes and dislikes of faces. “I was reading a book the other day, Johnny —— See that poor little robin!” he broke off. “It looks starved, and it must have its nest somewhere. I have some biscuit in my pocket.”
It came into my head, as he dived into his pocket and scattered the crumbs, that he had brought the supply out for these stray birds. But if I write for ever I could not make you understand the thoughtfulness of John Whitney.
“Hark, Johnny! What’s that?”
Cries, screams, sobs. We were near the end of the walk then and rushed out. Anna met us in a dreadful state of agitation. Charley was in the lake! Whitney caught the truth before I did, and was off like a shot.
The nurse, Willis, was dancing frantically about at the water’s edge; the children roared. Willis said Master Charles had slipped on to the ice “surrepstitiously” when her back was turned, and had gone souse in. John Whitney had already plunged in after his little brother; his coat, jacket, and waistcoat were lying on the bank. William Whitney and Tod, hearing the noise, came rushing up.
“Mamma sent me to tell nurse they had been out long enough, and were to come in,” sobbed Anna, shaking like a leaf. “While I was giving her the message, Charley fell in. Oh, what will be done?”
That was just like Anna. Helen would have been cool as a cucumber. Done? Why, John had already saved him. The ice, not much thicker than a shilling, and breaking whenever touched, hardly impeded him at all. Bill and Tod knelt down and lent hands, and they were landed like a couple of drowned rats, Charley howling with all his might. John, always thoughtful, wrapped his great-coat round the lad, and the other two went off with him to the house.
John caught a cold. Not very much of one. He was hot, you see, when he plunged in; and he had only his jacket to put on over his wet clothes to walk home in. Not much of a cold, I say; but he never seemed to be quite the same after that day: and when all was over they would date his illness back from it. Old Featherstone physicked him; and the days passed on.
“I can’t think why John should be so feverish,” Lady Whitney would remark. His hands would be hot, and his cheeks scarlet, and he did not eat. Featherstone failed to alter the state of things; so one day Sir John took him into Worcester to Mr. Carden.
Mr. Carden did not seem to think much of it — as we heard over at Dyke Manor. There was nothing wrong with the lungs or any other vital part. He changed the medicine that Featherstone had been giving, and said he saw no present reason why John should not go back to school. Sir John, standing by in his old spectacles, listening and looking, caught up the words “at present” and asked Mr. Carden whether he had any particular meaning in saying it. But Mr. Carden would not say. Sending his pleasant blue eyes straight into Sir John’s, he assured him that he did not anticipate mischief, or see reason to fear it. He thought, he hoped, that, once John was back with his studies and his companions, he would recover tone and be as well as ever.
And Mr. Carden’s physic did good; for when Whitney came back after the holidays, he seemed himself again. Lady Whitney gave five hundred directions to Mrs. Frost about the extras he was to eat and drink, Hall being had in to assist at the conference. The rest of us rather wished for fevers ourselves, if they entailed beaten-up eggs and wine and jelly between meals. He did his lessons; and he came out in the playground, though he did not often join in play, especially rough play: and he went for walks with us or stayed in as inclination led him, for he was allowed liberty in all things. By Easter he had grown thinner and weaker: and yet there was no specific disease. Mr. Carden came over to Whitney Hall and brought Dr. Hastings, and they could not discover any: but they said he was not strong and wanted care. It was left to John to decide whether he would go back to school after Easter, or not: and he said he should like to go. And so the weeks went on again.
We could not see any change at all in him. It was too gradual, I suppose. He seemed very quiet, strangely thoughtful always, as though he were inwardly puzzling over some knotty question hard to solve. Any quarrel or fight would put him out beyond belief: he’d come up with his gentle voice, and stretch out his hands to part the disputants, and did not rest until he had made peace. Wolfe Barrington, with one of his sneers, said Whitney’s nerves were out of joint. Once or twice we saw him reading a pocket-Bible. It’s quite true. And there was something in his calm face and in his blue-grey eyes that hushed those who would have ridiculed.
“I say, Whitney, have you heard?” I asked. “The Doctor means to have the playground enlarged for next half. Part of the field is to be taken in.”
“Does he?” returned Whitney. It was the twenty-ninth of May, and a half-holiday. The rest had gone in for Hare-and-Hounds. I stayed with Whitney, because he’d be dull alone. We were leaning over the playground gate.
“Blair let it out this morning at mathematics. By the way, Whitney, you did not come in to them.”
“I did not feel quite up to mathematics today, Johnny.”
“I am glad it’s going to be done, though. Are not you?”
“It won’t make much difference to me, I expect. I shall not be here.”
“I don’t think so.”
His chin rested on his hands above the gate. His eyes were gazing out straight before him; looking — as I said before — for something they did not see.
“Do you think you shall be too ill to come next half, Whitney?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you feeling worse?” I asked after a minute or two, taken up with staring at the sky.
“That’s what they are always asking me indoors?” he remarked. “It’s just this, Johnny; I don’t feel worse from day to day; I could not say any one morning that I feel a shade worse than I did the previous one: but when I look back a few weeks or months; say, for example, to the beginning of the half, or at Easter, and remember how very well I was then, compared with what I am now, I know that I must be a great deal worse. I could not do now what I did then. Why! I quite believe I might have gone in for Hare-and-Hounds then, if I had chosen. Fancy my trying it now!”
“But you don’t have any pain.”
“None. I’m only weak and tired; always feeling to want to lie down and rest. Every bit of strength and energy has gone out of me, Johnny.”
“You’ll get well,” I said hastily.
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to?” It was his cool answer made me ask it.
“Why, of course I do.”
“I’ll tell you, Johnny Ludlow; there is a feeling within me, and I can’t say why it’s there or whence it comes, that’s always saying to me I shall not get well. At least, whenever I think about it. It seems just as though it were telling me that instead of getting well it will be-be just the opposite.”
“What a dreadful thing to have, Whitney! It must be like a fellow going about with a skeleton!”
“Not at all dreadful. It never frightens me, or worries me. Just as the rest of you look forward naturally to coming back here, and living out your lives to be men, and all that, so I seem not to look to it. The feeling has nothing bad at all about it. If it had, I dare say it would not be there.”
I stood on the small gate and took a swing. It pained me to hear him say this.
“I suppose you mean, Whitney, that you may be going to die?”
“That’s about it, Johnny. I don’t know it; I may get well, after all.”
“But you don’t think you will?”
“No, I don’t. Little Hearn first; I next. Another ought to follow, to make the third.”
“You speak as easily as if it were only going out to tea, Whitney!”
“Well, I feel easy. I do, indeed.”
“Most of us would be daunted, at any rate.”
“Exactly. Because you are not going to die. Johnny Ludlow, I am getting to think a great deal; to have a sort of insight that I never had before; and I see how very wisely and kindly all things are ordered.”
If he had gone in for a bout of tumbling like the mountebanks, I could not have been as much surprised as to hear him say this. It was more in Mrs. Frost’s line than in ours. It laid hold on me at once; and from that moment, I believed that John Whitney would die.
“Look here, Whitney. It is evident by what you say about failing strength, that you must be getting worse. Why don’t you tell them at home, and go there and be nursed?”
“I don’t want to be nursed. I am not ill enough for it. I’m better as I am: here, amongst you fellows. As to telling them — time enough for that. And what is there to tell? They see for themselves I am not as strong as I was: there’s nothing else to tell.”
“There’s this feeling that you say lies upon you.”
“What, and alarm them for nothing? I dare say. There would be a hullabaloo. I should be rattled home in the old family coach, and Carden would be sent for, post haste, Hastings also, and — well, you are a muff, Johnny. I’ve told you this because I like you, and because I thought you would understand me; which is more than the other fellows would. Mind you keep counsel.”
“Well, you ought to be at home.”
“I am better here, while I am as I am. The holidays will be upon us soon. I expect I shall not come back afterwards.”
Now, if you ask me till next week, I could not give a better account of the earlier part of John Whitney’s illness than this. He was ill; and yet no one could find out why he should be ill, or what was the matter with him. Just about this time, Featherstone took up the notion that it was “liver,” and dosed him for it. For one thing, he said Whitney must ride out daily, good hard riding. So a horse would be brought over from the Hall by the old groom, and they would go out together. During the Whitsun week, when Sir John was away from Parliament, he came also and rode with him. But no matter whether they went slow or fast, Whitney would come back ready to die from the exertion. Upon that, Featherstone changed his opinion, and said riding must be given up.
By the time the Midsummer holidays came, any one might see the change in Whitney. It struck Mrs. Frost particularly when he went in to say good-bye to her.
“For the last time, I think,” he said in a low tone, but with a smiling countenance, as she stood holding his hand.
Mrs. Frost knew what he meant, and her face, always so pale, and delicate, went red.
“I trust not,” she answered. “But — God knows what is best.”
“Oh yes, and we do not. Farewell, dear Mrs. Frost. Thank you truly for all your care and kindness.”
The tears stood in her eyes. She was to be the next one to go from us, after John Whitney.
Wolfe Barrington stood at the door as he passed. “Good luck to you, Whitney,” said he, carelessly. “I’d throw all those nerves of yours over, if I were you, before I came back again.”
Whitney turned back and held out his hand. “Thank you, Barrington,” he replied in his kind, truthful voice; “you wish me well, I know. Good luck to you, in all ways; and I mean it with my whole heart. As to nerves, I do not think I possess any, though some of you have been pleased to joke about it.”
They shook hands, these two, little thinking that, in one sense, the life of both would soon be blighted. In a short time, only a few weeks, Wolfe was to be brought nearer to immediate death than even John Whitney.
Not until he was at home and had settled down among them, did his people notice the great change in him. Lady Whitney, flurried and anxious, sent for Sir John from London. Mr. Carden was summoned, and old Featherstone met him often in consultation. Dr. Hastings came once or twice, but he was an invalid himself then; and Mr. Carden, as every one knew, was equal to anything. Still — it was a positive fact — there was no palpable disease to grapple with in John, only weakness and wasting away. No cough, no damaged lungs. “If only it were gout or dropsy, one would know what to do,” grumbled Featherstone; but Mr. Carden kept his own counsel. They decided that John should go to the seaside for change.
“As if it could do me any good!” he remonstrated. “Change won’t make any difference to me. And I’d a great deal rather stay quietly at home.”
“Why do you say it will not do you good?” cried Lady Whitney, who happened to hear him.
“Because, mother, I feel nearly sure that it will not.”
“Oh dear!” cried she, flurried out of her senses, “John’s going to turn rebellious now.”
“No, I am not,” said John, smiling at her. “I mean to go without any rebellion at all.”
“There’s my best lad,” said she fondly. “Change of scene is all pleasure, John. It’s not like going through a course of pills and powders.”
Well, they all went to the seaside, and at the end of five weeks they all came back again. John had to be assisted out of the carriage, from fatigue. There could be no mistake now.
After that, it was just a gradual decay. The sinking was so imperceptible that he seemed to be always at a stand-still, and some days he was as well as any one need be. His folk did not give up hope of him: no one does in such cases. John was cheerful, and often merry.
“It can’t be consumption,” Sir John would say. “We’ve nothing of the kind in our family; neither on his mother’s side nor on mine. A younger sister of hers died of a sort of decline: but what can that have to do with John?”
Why, clearly nothing. As every one agreed.
In one of Mr. Carden’s visits, Sir John tackled him as he was going away, asking what it was. The two were shut up together talking for a quarter-of-an-hour, Mr. Carden’s horses — he generally came over in his carriage — growing rampant the while. Sir John did not seem much wiser when the sitting was over. He only shuffled his spectacles about on his old red nose — as he used to do when perplexed. Talking of noses: you never saw two so much alike as his and the Squire’s, particularly when they went into a temper.
Not very long after they were back from the seaside, and directly after school met, the accident occurred to Barrington. You have heard of it before: and it has nothing to do with the present paper. John Whitney took it to heart.
“He is not fit to die,” Bill heard him say. “He is not fit to die.”
One morning John walked over to see him, resting on stiles and gates between whiles. It was not very far; but he was good for very little now. Barrington was lying flat on his bed, Mrs. Hearn waiting on him. Wolfe was not tamed then.
“It’s going to be a race between us, I suppose, Whitney,” said he. “You look like a shadow.”
“A race?” replied Whitney, not taking him.
“In that black-plumed slow coach that carries dead men to their graves, and leaves them there. A race which of us two will have the honour of starting first. What a nice prospect! I always hated clayey soil. Fancy lying in it for ever and a day!”
“Fancy, rather, being borne on angels’ wings, and living with God in heaven for ever and ever!” cried Whitney earnestly. “Oh Barrington, fancy that.”
“You’d do for a parson,” retorted Barrington.
The interview was not satisfactory: Whitney so solemnly earnest, Wolfe so mockingly sarcastic: but they parted good friends. It was the last time they ever saw each other in life.
And thus a few more weeks went on.
Now old Frost had one most barbarous custom. And that was, letting the boys take the few days of Michaelmas holiday, or not, as the parents pleased. Naturally, very few did please. I and Tod used to go home: but that was no rule for the rest. We did not go home this year. A day or two before the time, Sir John Whitney rode over to Dyke Manor.
“You had better let the two boys come to us for Michaelmas,” he said to the Squire. “John wants to see them, and they’ll cheer us up. It’s anything but a lively house, I can tell you, Todhetley, with the poor lad lying as he is.”
“I can’t see why he should not get well,” said the Squire.
“I’m sure I can’t. Carden ought to be able to bring him round.”
“So he ought,” assented the Squire. “It would be quite a feather in his cap, after all these months of illness. As to the boys, you may be troubled with ’em, and welcome, Sir John, if you care to be.”
And so, we went to Whitney Hall that year, instead of home.
John had the best rooms, the two that opened into one another. Sometimes he would be on the bed in one, sometimes on the sofa in the other. Then he would walk about on some one’s arm; or sit in the easy-chair at the west window, the setting sun full on his wasted face. Barrington had called him a shadow: you should have seen him now. John had talked to Barrington of angels: he was just like an angel in the house himself. And — will you believe it? — they had not given up hope of his getting well again. I wondered the doctors did not tell Lady Whitney the plain truth, and have done with it: but to tell more professional truth than they can help, is what doctors rarely put themselves out of the way to do.
And still — the shadow of the coming death lay on the house. In the hushed voices and soft tread of the servants, in the subdued countenances of Sir John and Lady Whitney, and in the serious spirit that prevailed, the shadow might be seen. It is good to be in such a house as this: for the lessons learnt may take fast hold of the heart. It was good to hear John Whitney talk: and I never quite made out whether he was telling of dreams or realities.
Tod was out of his element: as much so as a fish is out of water. He had plenty of sympathy with John, would have made him well at any sacrifice to himself: but he could not do with the hushed house, in which all things seemed to give way to that shadow of the coming presence. Tod, in his way, was religious enough; more so than some fellows are; but dying beds he did not understand, and would a great deal rather have been shooting partridges than be near one. He and Bill Whitney — who was just as uncomfortable as Tod — used to get off anywhere whenever they could. They did not forget John. They would bring him all kinds of things; flowers, fruit, blackberries as big as Willis’s thimble, and the finest nuts off the trees; but they did not care to sit long with him.
John was awake one afternoon, and I was sitting beside him. He sat in his easy-chair at the window — as he liked to do at this hour when the evening was drawing on. The intensely serene look that for some time now had taken possession of his face, I had never seen surpassed in boy or man.
“How quiet the house is, Johnny!” he said, touching my hand. “Where are they all?”
“Helen and Anna went out to ask after Mrs. Frost and Barrington. And the boys — but I think you know it — have gone with Sir John to Evesham. You wouldn’t call the house quiet, John, if you could hear the row going on in the nursery.”
He smiled a little. “Charley’s a dreadful Turk: none of us elder ones were ever half as bad. Where’s the mother?”
“Half-an-hour ago she was shut up with some visitors in the drawing-room. It’s those Miss Clutterbucks, John: they always stay long enough to hold a county meeting.”
“Is Mrs. Frost worse — that the girls have gone to ask after her?” he resumed.
“I think so. Harry said Dr. Frost shook his head about her, when they saw him this morning.”
“She’ll never be strong,” remarked John. “And perhaps the bother of the school is too much for her.”
“Hall takes a good deal of that, you know.”
“But Hall cannot take the responsibility; the true care of the school. That must lie on Mrs. Frost.”
What a beautiful sky it was! The sun was nearing the horizon; small clouds, gold and red and purple, lay in the west, line above line. John Whitney sat gazing in silence. There was nothing he liked so much as looking at these beautiful sunsets.
“Go and play for me, will you, Johnny?”
The piano was at the far end of the room in the shade. My playing is really nothing. It was nothing to speak of then, it is nothing to speak of now: but it is soft and soothing; and some people like it. John could play a little himself, but it was too much exertion for him now. They had tried to teach Bill. He was kept hammering at it for half a year, and then the music master told Sir John that he’d rather teach a post. So Bill was released.
“The same thing that you played the evening before last, Johnny. Play that.”
“But I can’t. It was only some rubbish out of my own head, made up as I went along.”
“Make up some more then, old fellow.”
I had hardly sat down, when Lady Whitney came in, stirred the fire — if they kept up much, he felt the room too warm — and took one of the elbow-chairs in front of it.
“Go on, my dear,” she said. “It is very pleasant to hear you.”
But it was not so pleasant to play before her — not that, as I believed, her ears could distinguish the difference between an Irish Jig and the Dead March in Saul — and I soon left off. The playing or the fire had sent Lady Whitney into a doze. I crossed the room and sat down by John.
He was still looking at the sunset, which had not much changed. The hues were deeper, and streaks of gold shot upwards in the sky. Toward the north there was a broad horizon of green, fading into gold, and pale blue. Never was anything more beautiful. John’s eyes fixed on it.
“If it is so beautiful here, Johnny, what will it be there?” he breathed, scarcely above a whisper. “It makes one long to go.”
Sometimes, when he said these things, I hardly knew how to answer, and would let his words die off into silence.
“The picture of heaven is getting realized in my mind, Johnny — though I know how poor an idea of it it must needs be. A wide, illimitable space; the great white throne, and the saints in their white robes falling down before it, and the harpists singing to their harps.”
“You must think of it often.”
“Very often. The other night in bed, when I was between sleep and waking, I seemed to see the end — to go through it. I suppose it was one part thought, and three parts dream. I was dead, Johnny: I had already my white robe on, and angels were carrying me up to heaven. The crystal river was flowing along, beautiful flowers on its banks, and the Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. I seemed to see it all, Johnny. Such flowers! such hues; brighter than any jewels ever seen. These colours are lovely”— pointing to the sky —“but they are tame compared with those I saw. Myriads of happy people were flitting about in white, redeemed as I was; the atmosphere shone with a soft light, the most delicious music floated in it. Oh, Johnny, think of this world with its troubles and disappointments and pains; and then think of that other one!”
The sunset was fading. The pale colours of the north were blending together like the changing hues of the opal.
“There are two things I have more than loved here,” he went on. “Colours and music. Not the clashing of many instruments, or the mere mechanical playing, however classically correct, of one who has acquired his art by hard labour: but the soft, sweet, dreamy touch that stirs the heart. Such as yours, Johnny. Stop, old fellow. I know what you would say. That your playing is no playing at all, compared with that of a skilled hand; that the generality of people would wonder what there is in it: but for myself, I could listen to you from night till morning.”
It was very foolish of him to say this; but I liked to hear it.
“It is the sort of music, as I have always fancied, that we shall hear in heaven. It was the sort I seemed to hear the other night in my dream; soft, low, full of melody. That sort, you know, Johnny; not the same. That was this earth’s sweetest music etherealized.”
Hearing him talk like this, the idea struck me that it might be better for us all generally if we turned our thoughts more on heaven and on the life we may find there. It would not make us do our duty any the less earnestly in this world.
“Then take colours,” he went on. “No one knows the intense delight I have felt in them. On high days and holidays, my mother wears that big diamond ring of hers — you know it well, Johnny. Often and often have I stolen it from her finger, to let the light flash upon it, and lost myself for half-an-hour — ay, and more — gazing entranced on its changing hues. I love to see the rays in the drops of the chandeliers; I love to watch the ever-varying shades on a wide expanse of sea. Now these two things that I have so enjoyed here, bright colours and music, we have the promise of finding in heaven.”
“Ay. The Bible tells us so.”
“And I saw the harpers harping with their harps,” he repeated to himself — and then fell into silence. “Johnny, look at the opal in the sky now.”
It was very soft and beautiful.
“And there’s the evening star.”
I turned my head. Yes, there it was, and it trembled in the sky like a point of liquid silver.
“Sometimes I think I shall see the Holy City before I die,” he continued. “See its picture as in a mirror — the New Jerusalem. Oh, Johnny, I should have to shade my eyes. Not a beautiful colour or shade but will be there; and her light like unto a jasper stone, clear as crystal. When I was a little boy — four, perhaps — papa brought me home a kaleidoscope from London. It was really a good one, and its bits of glass were unusually brilliant. Johnny, if I lived to be an old man, I could never describe the intense joy those colours gave me — any more than I can describe the joy I seemed to feel the other night in that dream of heaven.”
He was saying all this in a tender tone of reverence that thrilled through one.
“I remember another thing about colours. The year that papa was pricked for High Sheriff, mamma went over with him to Worcester for the March Assize-time, and she took me. I was seven, I think. On the Sunday morning we went with the crowd to service in the cathedral. It was all very grand and imposing to my young mind. The crashing organ, the long procession of white-robed clergy and college boys, the two majestic beings in scarlet gowns, their trains held up by gentlemen, and the wigs that frightened me! I had been told I was going to college to see the judge. In my astonished mind I don’t think I knew which was judge and which was organ. Papa was in attendance on the judges; the only one who seemed to be in plain clothes in the procession. An impression remained on me that he had a white wand in his hand; but I suppose I was wrong. Attending papa, walked his black-robed chaplain who was to preach; looking like a crow amongst gay-plumaged birds. And, lining the way all along the body of the cathedral from the north entrance to the gates of the choir, were papa’s livery men with their glittering javelins. You’ve seen it all, Johnny, and know what the show is to a child such as I was. But now, will you believe that it was all as nothing to me, compared with the sight of the many-coloured, beautiful east window?4 I sat in full view of it. We had gone in rather late, and so were only part of the throng. Mamma with me in her hand — I remember I wore purple velvet, Johnny — was stepping into the choir after the judges and clergy had taken their places, when one of the black-gowned beadsmen would have rudely shut the gates upon her. Upon that, a verger pushed out his silver mace to stop him. ‘Hist,’ says he, ‘it’s the High Sheriff’s lady — my Lady Whitney;’ and the beadsman bowed and let us pass. We were put into the pew under the sub-dean’s stall. It was Winnington–Ingram, I think, who was sub-dean then, but I am not sure. Whoever it was did not sit in the sub-dean’s stall, but in the next to it, for he had given that up, as was customary, to one of the judges. With the great wig flowing down right upon my head, as it seemed, and the sub-dean’s trencher sticking over the cushion close to it, I was in a state of bewilderment; and they were some way through the Litany — the cathedral service at Worcester began with the Litany then, you remember, as they had early morning prayers — before I ventured to look up at all. As I did so, the colours of the distant east window flashed upon my dazzled sight. Not dazzled with the light, Johnny, though it was a sunny day, but with the charm of the colours. What it was to me in that moment I could never describe. That window has been abused enough by people who call themselves connoisseurs in art; but I know that to me it seemed as the very incarnation of celestial beauty. What with the organ, and the chanting, and the show that had gone before, and now this sight to illuminate it, I seemed to be in Paradise. I sat entranced; unable to take my fascinated eyes from the window: the pew faces it, you know; and were I to live for ever, I can never forget that day, or what it was to me. This will show you what colours have been to me here, Johnny. What, then, will they be to me in heaven?”
4 The old East window: not the new one.
“How well you remember things!”
“I always did — things that make an impression on me,” he answered. “A quiet, thoughtful child does so. You were thoughtful yourself.”
True. Or I don’t suppose I could have written these papers. The light in the sky faded out as we sat in silence. John recurred to his dream.
“I thought I saw the Saviour,” he whispered. “I did indeed. Over the crystal river, and beyond the white figures and the harps, was a great light. There stood in it One different from the rest. He had a grand, noble countenance, exquisite in sweetness, and it was turned upon me with a loving smile of welcome. Johnny, I know it was Jesus. Oh, it will be good to be there!”
No doubt of it. Very good for him.
“The strange thing was, that I felt no fear. None. Just as securely as I seemed to lie in the arms of the angels, so did I seem secure in the happiness awaiting me. A great many of us fear death, Johnny; I see now that all fear will cease with this world, to those who die in Christ.”
A sudden burst of subdued sobbing broke the stillness of the room and startled us beyond everything. Lady Whitney had wakened up and was listening.
“Oh, John, my darling boy, don’t talk so!” she said, coming forward and laying her cheek upon his shoulder. “We can’t spare you; we can’t indeed.”
His eyes were full of tears: so were mine. He took his mother’s hand and stroked it.
“But it must be, mother dear?” he gently whispered. “God will temper the loss to you all.”
“Any of them but you, John! You were ever my best and dearest son.”
“It’s all for the best, mother: it must be. The others are not ready to go.”
“And don’t you care to leave us?” she said, breaking down again.
“I did care; very much; but lately I seem to have looked only to the time when we shall meet again. Mother, I do not think now I would live if the chance were offered me.”
“Well, it’s the first time I ever heard of young people wanting to die!” cried Lady Whitney.
“Mother, I think we must be very close on death before we want it,” he gently answered. “Don’t you see the mercy? — that when this world is passing from us, we are led insensibly to long for the next?”
She sat down in the chair that I had got up from, and drew it closer to him. A more simple-minded woman than Lady Whitney never lived. She sobbed gently. He kept her hand between his.
“It will be a great blow to me; I know that; and to your father. He feels it now more than he shows, John. You have been so good and obedient, you see; never naughty and giving us trouble like the rest.”
There was another silence. His quiet voice broke it.
“Mother, dear, the thought has crossed me lately, that it must be good to have one, whom we love very much, taken on to heaven. It must make it seem more like our final home; it must, I think, make us more desirous of getting there. ‘John’s gone on to it,’ you and papa will be thinking; ‘we shall see him again when the end comes.’ And it will cause you to look for the end, instead of turning away from it, as too many do. Don’t grieve, mother! Had it been God’s will, I should have lived. But it was not; and He is taking me to a better home. A little sooner, a little later; it cannot make much difference which, if we are only ready for it when it comes.”
The distant church bells, which always rang on a Friday night, broke upon the air. John asked to have the window opened. I threw it up, and we sat listening. The remembrance of that hour is upon me now, just as vividly as he remembered the moment when he first saw the old east window in the cathedral. The melody of the bells; the sweet scent of the mignonette in the garden; the fading sky: I close my eyes and realize it all.
The girls returned, bringing word that Mrs. Frost was very ill, but not much more so than usual. Directly afterwards we heard Sir John come home.
“They are afraid Barrington’s worse,” observed Helen; “and of course it is worrying Mrs. Frost. Mr. Carden has not been there today either, though he was expected: they hope he will be over the first thing in the morning.”
In they trooped, Sir John and the boys; all eagerly talking of the pleasant afternoon they had had, and what they had seen and done at Evesham. But the room, as they said later, seemed to have a strange hush upon it, and John’s face an altered look: and the eager voices died away again.
John was the one to read the chapter that night. He asked to do so; and chose the twenty-first of Revelation. His voice was low, but quite distinct and clear. Without pausing at the end, he went on to the next chapter, which concludes the Bible.
“Only think what it will be, Johnny!” he said to me later, following up our previous conversation. “All manner of precious stones! all sorts of glorious colours! Better even” (with a smile) “than the great east window.”
I don’t know whether it surprised me, or not, to find the house in commotion when I woke the next morning, and to hear that John Whitney was dying. A remarkable change had certainly taken place in him. He lay in bed; not insensible, but almost speechless.
Breakfast was scarcely over when Mr. Carden’s carriage drove in. He had been with Barrington, having started from Worcester at day-dawn. John knew him, and took his hand and smiled.
“What’s to be done for him?” questioned Sir John, pointing to his son.
Mr. Carden gave one meaning look at Sir John, and that was all. Nothing more of any kind could be done for John Whitney.
“Good-bye, Mr. Carden; good-bye,” said John, as the surgeon was leaving. “You have been very kind.”
“Good-bye, my boy.”
“It is so sudden; so soon, you know, Carden,” cried poor Sir John, as they walked downstairs together. “You ought to have warned me that it was coming.”
“I did not know it would be quite so soon as this,” was Mr. Carden’s answer — and I heard him say it.
John had visitors that day, and saw them. Some of the fellows from Frost’s, who came over when they heard how it was; Dr. Frost himself; and the clergyman. At dusk, when he had been lying quietly for some time, except for the restlessness that often ushers in death, he opened his eyes and began speaking in a whisper. Lady Whitney, thinking he wanted something, bent down her ear. But he was only repeating a verse from the Bible.
“And there shall be no night there: and they need no candle, neither light of the sun, for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”
Bill, who had his head on the bolster on the other side, broke into a hushed sob. It did not disturb the dying. They were John’s last words.
Quite a crowd went to his funeral. It took place on the following Thursday. Dr. Frost and Mr. Carden (and it’s not so often he wasted his time going to a funeral!) and Featherstone and the Squire amongst them. Poor Sir John sobbed over the grave, and did not mind who saw and heard him, while they cast the earth on the coffin.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.”
That the solemn promise was applicable to John Whitney, and that he had most assuredly entered on that glorious life, I knew as well then as I know now. The corruptible had put on incorruption, the mortal immortality.
Not much of a story, you will say. But I might have told a worse. And I hope, seeing we must all go out at the same gate, that we shall be as ready for it as he was.
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55