A Watch in the Night
Emily stood quite still and looked up at Ellen’s broad, red face–as still as if she had been suddenly turned to stone. She felt as if she had. She was as stunned as if Ellen had struck her a physical blow. The colour faded out of her little face and her pupils dilated until they swallowed up the irises and turned her eyes into pools of blackness. The effect was so startling that even Ellen Greene felt uncomfortable.
“I’m telling you this because I think it’s high time you was told,” she said. “I’ve been at your pa for months to tell you, but he’s kept putting it off and off. I says to him, says I, ‘You know how hard she takes things, and if you drop off suddent some day it’ll most kill her if she hasn’t been prepared. It’s your duty to prepare her,’ and he says, says he, ‘There’s time enough yet, Ellen.’ But he’s never said a word, and when the doctor told me last night that the end might come any time now, I just made up my mind that I’d do what was right and drop a hint to prepare you. Laws-a-massy, child, don’t look like that! You’ll be looked after. Your ma’s people will see to that–on account of the Murray pride, if for no other reason. They won’t let one of their own blood starve or go to strangers–even if they have always hated your pa like p’isen. You’ll have a good home–better’n you’ve ever had here. You needn’t worry a mite. As for your pa, you ought to be thankful to see him at rest. He’s been dying by inches for the last five years. He’s kept it from you, but he’s been a great sufferer. Folks say his heart broke when your ma died–it came on him so suddent-like–she was only sick three days. That’s why I want you to know what’s coming, so’s you won’t be all upset when it happens. For mercy’s sake, Emily Byrd Starr, don’t stand there staring like that! You give me the creeps! You ain’t the first child that’s been left an orphan and you won’t be the last. Try and be sensible. And don’t go pestering your pa about what I’ve told you, mind that. Come you in now, out of the damp, and I’ll give you a cooky ‘fore you go to bed.”
Ellen stepped ‘down as if to take the child’s hand. The power of motion returned to Emily–she must scream if Ellen even touched her now. With one sudden, sharp, bitter little cry she avoided Ellen’s hand, darted through the door and fled up the dark staircase.
Ellen shook her head and waddled back to her kitchen. “Anyhow, I’ve done my duty,” she reflected. “He’d have just kept saying ‘time enough’ and put it off till he was dead and then there’d have been no managing her. She’ll have time now to get used to it, and she’ll brace up in a day or two. I will say for her she’s got spunk–which is lucky, from all I’ve heard of the Murrays. They won’t find it easy to overcrow her. She’s got a streak of their pride, too, and that’ll help her through. I wish I dared send some of the Murrays word that he’s dying, but I don’t dast go that far. There’s no telling what he’d do. Well, I’ve stuck on here to the last and I ain’t sorry. Not many women would ‘a’ done it, living as they do here. It’s a shame the way that child’s been brought up–never even sent to school. Well, I’ve told him often enough what I’ve thought of it–it ain’t on my conscience, that’s one comfort. Here, you Sal-thing, you git out! Where’s Mike, too?”
Ellen could not find Mike for the very good reason that he was upstairs with Emily, held tightly in her arms, as she sat in the darkness on her little cot-bed. Amid her agony and desolation there was a certain comfort in the feel of his soft fur and round velvety head.
Emily was not crying; she stared straight into the darkness, trying to face the awful thing Ellen had told her. She did not doubt it–something told her it was true. Why couldn’t she die, too? She couldn’t go on living without Father.
“If I was God I wouldn’t let things like this happen,” she said.
She felt it was very wicked of her to say such a thing–Ellen had told her once that it was the wickest thing any one could do to find fault with God. But she didn’t care. Perhaps if she were wicked enough God would strike her dead and then she and Father could keep on being together.
But nothing happened–only Mike got tired of being held so tightly and squirmed away. She was all alone now, with this terrible burning pain that seemed all over her and yet was not of the body. She could never get rid of it. She couldn’t help it by writing about it in the old yellow account-book. She had written there about her Sunday-school teacher going away, and of being hungry when she went to bed, and Ellen telling her she must be half-crazy to talk of Wind Women and flashes; and after she had written down all about them these things hadn’t hurt her any more. But this couldn’t be written about. She could not even go to Father for comfort, as she had gone when she burned her hand so badly, picking up the red-hot poker by mistake. Father had held her in his arms all that night and told her stories and helped her to bear the pain. But Father, so Ellen had said, was going to die in a week or two. Emily felt as if Ellen had told her this years and years ago. It surely couldn’t be less than an hour since she had been playing with the Wind Woman in the barrens and looking at the new moon in the pinky-green sky.
“The flash will never come again–it can’t,” she thought.
But Emily had inherited certain things from her fine old ancestors–the power to fight–to suffer,–to pity–to love very deeply–to rejoice–to endure. These things were all in her and looked out at you through her purplish-grey eyes. Her heritage of endurance came to her aid now and bore her up. She must not let Father know what Ellen had told her–it might hurt him. She must keep it all to herself and love Father, oh, so much, in the little while she could yet have him. She heard him cough in the room below: she must be in bed when he came up; she undressed as swiftly as her cold fingers permitted and crept into the little cot-bed which stood across the open window. The voices of the gentle spring night called to her all unheeded–unheard the Wind Woman whistled by the eaves. For the fairies dwell only in the kingdom of Happiness; having no souls they cannot enter the kingdom of Sorrow.
She lay there cold and tearless and motionless when her father came into the room. How very slowly he walked–how very slowly he took off his clothes. How was it she had never noticed these things before? But he was not coughing at all. Oh, what if Ellen were mistaken?–what if–a wild hope shot through her aching heart. She gave a little gasp.
Douglas Starr came over to her bed. She felt his dear nearness as he sat down on the chair beside her, in his old red dressing-gown. Oh, how she loved him! There was no other Father like him in all the world–there never could have been–so tender, so understanding, so wonderful! They had always been such chums–they had loved each other so much–it couldn’t be that they were to be separated.
“Winkums, are you asleep?”
“No,” whispered Emily.
“Are you sleepy, small dear?”
Douglas Starr took her hand and held it tightly.
“Then we’ll have our talk, honey. I can’t sleep either. I want to tell you something.”
“Oh–I know it–I know it!” burst out Emily. “Oh, Father, I know it! Ellen told me.”
Douglas Starr was silent for a moment. Then he said under his breath, “The old fool–the fat old fool!”–as if Ellen’s fatness was an added aggravation of her folly. Again, for the last time, Emily hoped. Perhaps it was all a dreadful mistake–just some more of Ellen’s fat foolishness.
“It–it isn’t true, is it, Father?” she whispered.
“Emily, child,” said her father, “I can’t lift you up–I haven’t the strength–but climb up and sit on my knee–in the old way.”
Emily slipped out of bed and got on her father’s knee. He wrapped the old dressing-gown about her and held her close with his face against hers.
“Dear little child–little beloved Emilykin, it is quite true,” he said. “I meant to tell you myself to-night. And now the old absurdity of an Ellen has told you–brutally I suppose–and hurt you dreadfully. She has the brain of a hen and the sensibility of a cow. May jackals sit on her grandmother’s grave! I wouldn’t have hurt you, dear.”
Emily fought something down that wanted to choke her.
“Father, I can’t–I can’t bear it.”
“Yes, you can and will. You will live because there is something for you to do, I think. You have my gift–along with something I never had. You will succeed where I failed, Emily. I haven’t been able to do much for you, sweetheart, but I’ve done what I could. I’ve taught you something, I think–in spite of Ellen Greene. Emily, do you remember your mother?”
“Just a little–here and there–like lovely bits of dreams.”
“You were only four when she died. I’ve never talked much to you about her–I couldn’t. But I’m going to tell you all about her to-night. It doesn’t hurt me to talk of her now–I’ll see her so soon again. You don’t look like her, Emily–only when you smile. For the rest, you’re like your namesake, my mother. When you were born I wanted to call you Juliet, too. But your mother wouldn’t. She said if we called you Juliet then I’d soon take to calling her ‘Mother’ to distinguish between you, and she couldn’t endure that. She said her Aunt Nancy had once said to her, ‘The first time your husband calls you “Mother” the romance of life is over.’ So we called you after my mother–her maiden name was Emily Byrd. Your mother thought Emily the prettiest name in the world–it was quaint and arch and delightful, she said. Emily, your mother was the sweetest woman ever made.”
His voice trembled and Emily snuggled close.
“I met her twelve years ago, when I was sub-editor of the Enterprise up in Charlottetown and she was in her last year at Queen’s. She was tall and fair and blue-eyed. She looked a little like your Aunt Laura, but Laura was never so pretty. Their eyes were very much alike–and their voices. She was one of the Murrays from Blair Water. I’ve never told you much about your mother’s people, Emily. They live up on the old north shore at Blair Water on New Moon Farm–always have lived there since the first Murray came out from the Old Country in 1790. The ship he came on was called the New Moon and he named his farm after her.”
“It’s a nice name–the new moon is such a pretty thing,” said Emily, interested for a moment.
“There’s been a Murray ever since at New Moon Farm. They’re a proud family–the Murray pride is a byword along the north shore, Emily. Well, they had some things to be proud of, that cannot be denied–but they carried it too far. Folks call them ‘the chosen people’ up there.
“They increased and multiplied and scattered all over, but the old stock at New Moon Farm is pretty well run out. Only your aunts, Elizabeth and Laura, live there now, and their cousin, Jimmy Murray. They never married–could not find any one good enough for a Murray, so it used to be said. Your Uncle Oliver and your Uncle Wallace live in Summerside, your Aunt Ruth in Shrewsbury, and your Great-Aunt Nancy at Priest Pond.”
“Priest Pond–that’s an interesting name–not a pretty name like New Moon and Blair Water–but interesting,” said Emily. Feeling Father’s arm around her the horror had momentarily shrunk away. For just a little while she ceased to believe it.
Douglas Starr tucked the dressing-gown a little more closely around her, kissed her black head, and went on.
“Elizabeth and Laura and Wallace and Oliver and Ruth were old Archibald Murray’s children. His first wife was their mother. When he was sixty he married again–a young slip of a girl–who died when your mother was born. Juliet was twenty years younger than her half-family, as she used to call them. She was very pretty and charming and they all loved and petted her and were very proud of her. When she fell in love with me, a poor young journalist, with nothing in the world but his pen and his ambition, there was a family earthquake. The Murray pride couldn’t tolerate the thing at all. I won’t rake it all up–but things were said I could never forget or forgive. Your mother married me, Emily–and the New Moon people would have nothing more to do with her. Can you believe that, in spite of it, she was never sorry for marrying me?”
Emily put up her hand and patted her father’s hollow cheek.
“Of course she wouldn’t be sorry. Of course she’d rather have you than all the Murrays of any kind of a moon.”
Father laughed a little–and there was just a note of triumph in his laugh.
“Yes, she seemed to feel that way about it. And we were so happy–oh, Emilykin, there never were two happier people in the world. You were the child of that happiness. I remember the night you were born in the little house in Charlottetown. It was in May and a west wind was blowing silvery clouds over the moon. There was a star or two here and there. In our tiny garden–everything we had was small except our love and our happiness–it was dark and blossomy. I walked up and down the path between the beds of violets your mother had planted–and prayed. The pale east was just beginning to glow like a rosy pearl when someone came and told me I had a little daughter. I went in–and your mother, white and weak, smiled just that dear, slow, wonderful smile I loved, and said, ‘We’ve–got–the–only–baby–of any importance–in–the–world, dear. Just–think–of that!'”
“I wish people could remember from the very moment they’re born,” said Emily. “It would be so very interesting.”
“I dare say we’d have a lot of uncomfortable memories,” said her father, laughing a little. “It can’t be very pleasant getting used to living–no pleasanter than getting used to stopping it. But you didn’t seem to find it hard, for you were a good wee kidlet, Emily. We had four more happy years, and then–do you remember the time your mother died, Emily?”
“I remember the funeral, Father–I remember it distinctly. You were standing in the middle of a room, holding me in your arms, and Mother was lying just before us in a long, black box. And you were crying–and I couldn’t think why–and I wondered why Mother looked so white and wouldn’t open her eyes. And I leaned down and touched her cheek–and oh, it was so cold. It made me shiver. And somebody in the room said, ‘Poor little thing!’ and I was frightened and put my face down on your shoulder.”
“Yes, I recall that. Your mother died very suddenly. I don’t think we’ll talk about it. The Murrays all came to her funeral. The Murrays have certain traditions and they live up to them very strictly. One of them is that nothing but candles shall be burned for light at New Moon–and another is that no quarrel must be carried past the grave. They came when she was dead–they would have come when she was ill if they had known, I will say that much for them. And they behaved very well–oh, very well indeed. They were not the Murrays of New Moon for nothing. Your Aunt Elizabeth wore her best black satin dress to the funeral. For any funeral but a Murray’s the second best one would have done; and they made no serious objection when I said your mother would be buried in the Starr plot in Charlottetown cemetery. They would have liked to take her back to the old Murray burying-ground in Blair Water–they had their own private burying-ground, you know–no indiscriminate graveyard for them. But your Uncle Wallace handsomely admitted that a woman should belong to her husband’s family in death as in life. And then they offered to take you and bring you up–to ‘give you your mother’s place.’ I refused to let them have you–then. Did I do right, Emily?”
“Yes–yes–yes!” whispered Emily, with a hug at every “yes.”
“I told Oliver Murray–it was he who spoke to me about you–that as long as I lived I would not be parted from my child. He said, ‘If you ever change your mind, let us know.’ But I did not change my mind–not even three years later when my doctor told me I must give up work. ‘If you don’t, I give you a year,’ he said, ‘if you do, and live out-of-doors all you can, I give you three–or possibly four.’ He was a good prophet. I came out here and we’ve had four lovely years together, haven’t we, small dear one?”
“Those years and what I’ve taught you in them are the only legacy I can leave you, Emily. We’ve been living on a tiny income I have from a life interest that was left me in an old uncle’s estate–an uncle who died before I was married. The estate goes to a charity now, and this little house is only a rented one. From a worldly point of view I’ve certainly been a failure. But your mother’s people will care for you–I know that. The Murray pride will guarantee so much, if nothing else. And they can’t help loving you. Perhaps I should have sent for them before–perhaps I ought to do it yet. But I have pride of a kind, too–the Starrs are not entirely traditionless–and the Murrays said some very bitter things to me when I married your mother. Will I send to New Moon and ask them to come, Emily?”
“No!” said Emily, almost fiercely.
She did not want any one to come between her and Father for the few precious days left. The thought was horrible to her. It would be bad enough if they had to come–afterwards. But she would not mind anything much–then.
“We’ll stay together to the very end, then, little Emily-child. We won’t be parted for a minute. And I want you to be brave. You mustn’t be afraid of anything, Emily. Death isn’t terrible. The universe is full of love–and spring comes everywhere–and in death you open and shut a door. There are beautiful things on the other side of the door. I’ll find your mother there–I’ve doubted many things, but I’ve never doubted that. Sometimes I’ve been afraid that she would get so far ahead of me in the ways of eternity that I’d never catch up. But I feel now that she’s waiting for me. And we’ll wait for you–we won’t hurry–we’ll loiter and linger till you catch up with us.”
“I wish you–could take me right through the door with you,” whispered Emily.
“After a little while you won’t wish that. You have yet to learn how kind time is. And life has something for you–I feel it. Go forward to meet it fearlessly, dear. I know you don’t feel like that just now–but you will remember my words by and by.”
“I feel just now,” said Emily, who couldn’t bear to hide anything from Father, “that I don’t like God any more.”
Douglas Starr laughed–the laugh Emily liked best. It was such a dear laugh–she caught her breath over the dearness of it. She felt his arms tightening round her.
“Yes, you do, honey. You can’t help liking God. He is Love itself, you know. You mustn’t mix Him up with Ellen Greene’s God, of course.”
Emily didn’t know exactly what Father meant. But all at once she found that she wasn’t afraid any longer–and the bitterness had gone out of her sorrow, and the unbearable pain out of her heart. She felt as if love was all about her and around her, breathed out from some great, invisible, hovering Tenderness. One couldn’t be afraid or bitter where love was–and love was everywhere. Father was going through the door–no, he was going to lift a curtain–she liked that thought better, because a curtain wasn’t as hard and fast as a door–and he would slip into that world of which the flash had given her glimpses. He would be there in its beauty–never very far away from her. She could bear anything if she could only feel that Father wasn’t very far away from her–just beyond that wavering curtain.
Douglas Starr held her until she fell asleep; and then in spite of his weakness he managed to lay her down in her little bed.
“She will love deeply–she will suffer terribly–she will have glorious moments to compensate–as I have had. As her mother’s people deal with her, so may God deal with them,” he murmured brokenly.