Was it Heaven? Or Hell? 4

That afternoon Helen had to take to her bed, ill. She grew worse during the night.

In the morning her mother asked after her:

"Is she well?"

Hester turned cold; she opened her lips, but the words refused to come.

The mother lay languidly looking, musing, waiting; suddenly she turned white and gasped out:

"Oh, my God! what is it? is she sick?"

Then the poor aunt's tortured heart rose in rebellion, and words came:

"No -- be comforted; she is well."

The sick woman put all her happy heart in her gratitude:

"Thank God for those dear words! Kiss me. How I worship you for saying them!"

Hester told this incident to Hannah, who received it with a rebuking (指责的) look, and said, coldly:

"Sister, it was a lie."

Hester's lips trembled (发抖) piteously; she choked down a sob, and said:

"Oh, Hannah, it was a sin, but I could not help it.

"I could not endure the fright and the misery that were in her face."

"No matter. It was a lie. God will hold you to account for it."

"Oh, I know it, I know it," cried Hester, wringing her hands, "but even if it were now, I could not help it. I know I should do it again."

"Then take my place with Helen in the morning. I will make the report myself."

Hester clung to her sister, begging and imploring.

"Don't, Hannah, oh, don't -- you will kill her."

"I will at least speak the truth."

In the morning she had a cruel report to bear to the mother, and she braced herself for the trial.

When she returned from her mission, Hester was waiting, pale and trembling, in the hall. She whispered:

"Oh, how did she take it -- that poor, desolate (可怜的) mother?" Hannah's eyes were swimming in tears. She said:

"God forgive me, I told her the child was well!"

Hester gathered her to her heart, with a grateful "God bless you, Hannah!" and poured out her thankfulness in that inundation of worshiping praises.

After that, the two knew the limit of their strength, and accepted their fate.

They surrendered humbly, and abandoned themselves to the hard requirements of the situation.

Daily they told the morning lie, and confessed their sin in prayer;

not asking forgiveness, as not being worthy of it, but only wishing to make record that they realized their wickedness (不道德) and were not desiring to hide it or excuse it. {1}

Daily, as the fair young idol of the house sank lower and lower, the sorrowful old aunts painted her glowing bloom and her fresh young beauty to the wan (苍白的) mother, and winced (畏缩) under the stabs her ecstasies (狂喜) of joy and gratitude gave them. {2}

In the first days, while the child had strength to hold a pencil, she wrote fond little love-notes to her mother, in which she concealed (隐瞒) her illness;

and these the mother read and reread through happy eyes wet with thankful tears, and kissed them over and over again, and treasured them as precious things under her pillow.

Then came a day when the strength was gone from the hand, and the mind wandered, and the tongue babbled pathetic (微弱的) incoherences.

This was a sore dilemma (困境) for the poor aunts.

There were no love-notes for the mother. They did not know what to do.

Hester began a carefully studied and plausible (表面上讲得通的) explanation, but lost the track of it and grew confused; suspicion began to show in the mother's face, then alarm.

Hester saw it, recognized the imminence (迫切) of the danger, and descended to the emergency, pulling herself resolutely together and plucking victor from the open jaws of defeat. {3}

In a placid and convincing voice she said:

"I thought it might distress (使焦急) you to know it, but Helen spent the night at the Sloanes'.

"There was a little party there, and, although she did not want to go, and you so sick, we persuaded her, she being young and needing the innocent pastimes of youth, and we believing you would approve.

"Be sure she will write the moment she comes."

"How good you are, and how dear and thoughtful for us both! Approve? Why, I thank you with all my heart.

"My poor little exile! Tell her I want her to have every pleasure she can -- I would not rob her of one.

"Only let her keep her health, that is all I ask. Don't let that suffer; I could not bear it.

"How thankful I am that she escaped this infection -- and what a narrow risk she ran, Aunt Hester! Think of that lovely face all dulled and burned with fever.

"I can't bear the thought of it. Keep her health. Keep her bloom!

"I can see her now, the dainty creature -- with the big, blue, earnest eyes; and sweet, oh, so sweet and gentle and winning!

"Is she as beautiful as ever, dear Aunt Hester?"

"Oh, more beautiful and bright and charming than ever she was before, if such a thing can be" -- and Hester turned away and fumbled (笨手笨脚地做) with the medicine-bottles, to hide her shame and grief.

CHAPTER V

After a little, both aunts were laboring upon a difficult and baffling (挫败的) work in Helen's chamber.

Patiently and earnestly, with their stiff old fingers, they were trying to forge the required note.

They made failure after failure, but they improved little by little all the time.

The pity of it all, the pathetic humor of it, there was none to see; they themselves were unconscious of it.

Often their tears fell upon the notes and spoiled them; sometimes a single misformed word made a note risky which could have been ventured but for that;

but at last Hannah produced one whose script was a good enough imitation (模仿) of Helen's to pass any but a suspicious eye,

and bountifully enriched it with the petting phrases and loving nicknames that had been familiar on the child's lips from her nursery days.

She carried it to the mother, who took it with avidity (渴望), and kissed it, and fondled it,

reading its precious words over and over again, and dwelling with deep contentment upon its closing paragraph:

"Mousie darling, if I could only see you, and kiss your eyes, and feel your arms about me!

"I am so glad my practicing does not disturb you. Get well soon. Everybody is good to me, but I am so lonesome without you, dear mamma."

"The poor child, I know just how she feels. She cannot be quite happy without me; and I -- oh, I live in the light of her eyes!

"Tell her she must practice all she pleases; and, Aunt Hannah --tell her I can't hear the piano this far, nor hear dear voice when she sings: God knows I wish I could.

"No one knows how sweet that voice is to me; and to think -- some day it will be silent! What are you crying for?"

"Only because -- because -- it was just a memory. When I came away she was singing, 'Loch Lomond.' The pathos (痛苦) of it! It always moves me so when she sings that."

"And me, too. How heartbreakingly beautiful it is when some youthful sorrow is brooding in her breast and she sings it for the mystic healing it brings … Aunt Hannah?"

"Dear Margaret?"

"I am very ill. Sometimes it comes over me that I shall never hear that dear voice again."

"Oh, don't -- don't, Margaret! I can't bear it!"

Margaret was moved and distressed, and said, gently:

"There -- there -- let me put my arms around you. Don't cry. There -- put your cheek to mine.

"Be comforted. I wish to live. I will live if I can. Oh, what could she do without me! ...

"Does she often speak of me? -- but I know she does."

"Oh, all the time -- all the time!"

"My sweet child! She wrote the note the moment she came home?"

"Yes -- the first moment. She would not wait to take off her things."

"I knew it. It is her dear, impulsive, affectionate way. I knew it without asking, but I wanted to hear you say it.

"The petted wife knows she is loved, but she makes her husband tell her so every day, just for the joy of hearing it …

"She used the pen this time. That is better; the pencil-marks could rub out, and I should grieve for that. Did you suggest that she use the pen?"

"Y-no-she-it was her own idea."

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