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An essay by T. S. Arthur

A Plea For Soft Words

Title:     A Plea For Soft Words
Author: T. S. Arthur [More Titles by Arthur]

STRANGE and subtle are the influences which affect the spirit and touch the heart. Are there bodiless creatures around us, moulding our thoughts into darkness or brightness, as they will? Whence, otherwise, come the shadow and the sunshine, for which we can discern no mortal agency?

Oftener, As we grow older, come the shadows; less frequently the sunshine. Ere I took up my pen, I was sitting with a pleasant company of friends, listening to music, and speaking, with the rest, light words.

Suddenly, I knew not why, my heart was wrapt away in an atmosphere of sorrow. A sense of weakness and unworthiness weighed me down, and I felt the moisture gather to my eyes and my lips tremble, though they kept the smile.

All my past life rose up before me, and all my short-comings--all, my mistakes, and all my wilful wickedness, seemed pleading trumpet-tongued against me.

I saw her before me whose feet trod with mine the green holts and meadows, when the childish thought strayed not beyond the near or the possible. I saw her through the long blue distances, clothed in the white beauty of an angel; but, alas! she drew her golden hair across her face to veil from her vision the sin-darkened creature whose eyes dropped heavily to the hem of her robe!

O pure and beautiful one, taken to peace ere the weak temptation had lifted itself up beyond thy stature, and compelled thee to listen, to oppose thy weakness to its strength, and to fall--sometimes, at least, let thy face shine on me from between the clouds. Fresh from the springs of Paradise, shake from thy wings the dew against my forehead. We two were coming up together through the sweet land of poesy and dreams, where the senses believe what the heart hopes; our hands were full of green boughs, and our laps of cowslips and violets, white and purple. We were talking of that more beautiful world into which childhood was opening out, when that spectre met us, feared and dreaded alike by the strong man and the little child, and one was taken, and the other left.

One was caught away sinless to the bosom of the Good Shepherd, and one was left to weep pitiless tears, to eat the bread of toil, and to think the bitter thoughts of misery,--left "to clasp a phantom and to find it air." For often has the adversary pressed me sore, and out of my arms has slid ever that which my soul pronounced good: slid out of my arms and coiled about my feet like a serpent, dragging me back and holding me down from all that is high and great.

Pity me, dear one, if thy sweet sympathies can come out of the glory, if the lovelight of thy beautiful life can press through the cloud and the evil, and fold me again as a garment; pity and plead for me with the maiden mother whose arms in human sorrow and human love cradled our blessed Redeemer.

She hath known our mortal pain and passion--our more than mortal triumph--she hath heard the "blessed art thou among women." My unavailing prayers goldenly syllabled by her whose name sounds from the manger through all the world, may find acceptance with Him who, though our sins be as scarlet, can wash them white as wool.

Our hearts grew together as one, and along the headlands and the valleys one shadow went before us, and one shadow followed us, till the grave gaped hungry and terrible, and I was alone. Faltering in fear, but lingering in love, I knelt by the deathbed--it was the middle night, and the first moans of the autumn came down from the hills, for the frost specks glinted on her golden robes, and the wind blew chill in her bosom. Heaven was full of stars, and the half-moon scattered abroad her beauty like a silver rain. Many have been the middle nights since then, for years lie between me and that fearfulest of all watches; but a shadow, a sound, or a thought, turns the key of the dim chamber, and the scene is reproduced.

I see the long locks on the pillow, the smile on the ashen lips, the thin, cold fingers faintly pressing my own, and hear the broken voice saying, "I am going now. I am not afraid. Why weep ye? Though I were to live the full time allotted to man, I should not be more ready, nor more willing than now." But over this there comes a shudder and a groan that all the mirthfulness of the careless was impotent to drown.

Three days previous to the death-night, three days previous to the transit of the soul from the clayey tabernacle to the house not; made with hands--from dishonour to glory--let me turn theme over as so many leaves.

The first of the November mornings, but the summer had tarried late, and the wood to the south of our homestead lifted itself like a painted wall against the sky--the squirrel was leaping nimbly and chattering gayly among the fiery tops of the oaks or the dun foliage of the hickory, that shot up its shelving trunk and spread its forked branches far over the smooth, moss-spotted boles of the beeches, and the limber boughs of the elms. Lithe and blithe he was, for his harvest was come.

From the cracked beech-burs was dropping the sweet, angular fruit, and down from the hickory boughs with every gust fell a shower of nuts--shelling clean and silvery from their thick black hulls.

Now and then, across the stubble-field, with long cars erect, leaped the gray hare, but for the most part he kept close in his burrow, for rude huntsmen were on the hills with their dogs, and only when the sharp report of a rifle rung through the forest, or the hungry yelping of some trailing hound startled his harmless slumber, might you see at the mouth of his burrow the quivering lip and great timid eyes.

Along the margin of the creek, shrunken now away from the blue and gray and yellowish stones that made its cool pavement, and projected in thick layers from the shelving banks, the white columns of gigantic sycamores leaped earthward, their bases driven, as it seemed, deep into the ground--all their convolutions of roots buried out, of view. Dropping into the stagnant waters below, came one by one the broad, rose-tinted leaves, breaking the shadows of the silver limbs.

Ruffling and widening to the edges of the pools went the circles, as the pale, yellow walnuts plashed into their midst; for here, too, grew the parent trees, their black bark cut and jagged and broken into rough diamond work.

That beautiful season was come when

"Rustic girls in hoods Go gleaning through the woods."

Two days after this, we said, my dear mate and I, we shall have a holiday, and from sunrise till sunset, with our laps full of ripe nuts and orchard fruits, we shall make pleasant pastime.

Rosalie, for so I may call her, was older than I, with a face of beauty and a spirit that never flagged. But to-day there was heaviness in her eyes, and a flushing in her cheek that was deeper than had been there before.

Still she spoke gayly, and smiled the old smile, for the gaunt form of sickness had never been among us children, and we knew not how his touch made the head sick and the heart faint.

The day looked forward to so anxiously dawned at last; but in the dim chamber of Rosalie the light fell sad. I must go alone.

We had always been together before, at work and in play, asleep and awake, and I lingered long ere I would be persuaded to leave her; but when she smiled and said the fresh-gathered nuts and shining apples would make her glad, I wiped her forehead, and turning quickly away that she might not see my tears, was speedily wading through winrows of dead leaves.

The sensations of that day I shall never forget; a vague and trembling fear of some coming evil, I knew not what, made me often start as the shadows drifted past me, or a bough crackled beneath my feet.

From the low, shrubby hawthorns, I gathered the small red apples, and from beneath the maples, picked by their slim golden stems the notched and gorgeous leaves. The wind fingered playfully my hair, and clouds of birds went whirring through the tree-tops; but no sight nor sound could divide my thoughts from her whose voice had so often filled with music these solitary places.

I remember when first the fear distinctly defined itself. I was seated on a mossy log, counting the treasures which I had been gathering, when the clatter of hoof-strokes on the clayey and hard-beaten road arrested my attention, and, looking up--for the wood thinned off in the direction of the highway, and left it distinctly in view--I saw Doctor H----, the physician, in attendance upon my sick companion. The visit was an unseasonable one. She, whom I loved so, might never come with me to the woods any more.

Where the hill sloped to the roadside, and the trees, as I said, were but few, was the village graveyard. No friend of mine, no one whom I had ever known or loved, was buried there--yet with a child's instinctive dread of death, I had ever passed its shaggy solitude (for shrubs and trees grew there wild and unattended) with a hurried step and averted face.

Now, for the first time in my life, I walked voluntarily thitherward, and climbing on a log by the fence-side, gazed long and earnestly within. I stood beneath a tall locust-tree, and the small, round leaves; yellow now as the long cloud-bar across the sunset, kept dropping, and dropping at my feet, till all the faded grass was covered up. There the mattock had never been struck; but in fancy I saw the small Heaves falling and drifting about a new and smooth-shaped mound--and, choking with the turbulent outcry in my heart, I glided stealthily homeward--alas! to find the boding shape I had seen through mists and, shadows awfully palpable. I did not ask about Rosalie. I was afraid; but with my rural gleanings in my lap, opened the door of her chamber. The physician had preceded me but a moment, and, standing by the bedside, was turning toward the lessening light the little wasted hand, the one on which I had noticed in the morning a small purple spot. "Mortification!" he said, abruptly, and moved away, as though his work were done.

There was a groan expressive of the sudden and terrible consciousness which had in it the agony of agonies--the giving up of all. The gift I had brought fell from my relaxed grasp, and, hiding my face in the pillow, I gave way to the passionate sorrow of an undisciplined nature.

When at last I looked up, there was a smile on her lips that no faintest moan ever displaced again.

A good man and a skilful physician was Dr. H----, but his infirmity was a love of strong drink; and, therefore, was it that he softened not the terrible blow which must soon have fallen. I link with his memory no reproaches now, for all this is away down in the past; and that foe that sooner or later biteth like a serpent, soon did his work; but then my breaking heart judged him, hardly. Often yet, for in all that is saddest memory is faithfulest, I wake suddenly out of sleep, and live over that first and bitterest sorrow of my life; and there is no house of gladness in the world that with a whisper will not echo the moan of lips pale with the kisses of death.

Sometimes, when life is gayest about me, an unseen hand leads me apart, and opening the door of that still chambers I go in--the yellow leaves are at my feet again, and that white band between me and the light.

I see the blue flames quivering and curling close and the smouldering embers on the hearth. I hear soft footsteps and sobbing voices and see the clasped hands and placid smile of her who, alone among us all, was untroubled; and over the darkness and the pain I hear voice, saying, "She is not dead, but sleepeth." Would, dear reader, that you might remember, and I too all ways, the importance of soft and careful words. One harsh or even thoughtlessly chosen epithet, may bear with it a weight which shall weigh down some heart through all life. There are for us all nights of sorrow, in which we feel their value. Help us, our Father, to remember it!

[The end]
T. S. Arthur's essay: Plea For Soft Words