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THE summer harvest was past, but not the remembrance of it. Benny and I were ever counting the months, and then the weeks, before another haying. We spent our holidays in the making of miniature rakes, and were garrulous the whole winter with our simple memories. No story-book could give us pleasure like going over the past summer's homely life. We talked much of little things: of the maimed lamb that limped at our call to his evening meal; the speckled trout in the deep old well; the play rock; the herds; the apple-trees; and much, very much, of the dear, trembling old man, who never seemed old to us, over whom the unreasoning love of childhood cast the glamour of immortal youth.
There was to be a jubilee, in anticipation of which I had exchanged my grandfather's dollars for bright ribbons, whilst Benny's had gone into the price of a pair of fine gaiters. The long-wished-for morning came. Benny's little jacket, with a white collar pinned to its neck, hung from a nail in the wall; his new gaiters stood upon the mantel. Benny could not wear them then. I entered into the sports of that day with all the buoyancy of childhood; and though I heard Benny's moans as I passed the half-opened door, I did not think at evening to bid him good-night or give him his wonted kiss. Giddy girl! That same sick Benny was the gay companion of haying-time.
Ever thus selfish is joy. What sympathy can gladness have with sorrow? If death has never entered your own household, you can carry little consolation to the mourner, — your words will be as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. Days passed away; long, weary days. The gaiters still kept their place on the mantel; the white collar had become yellow with smoke and dust, but still it stayed. Benny no longer asked about the jubilee, and I shrank from his darkened room. How anxiously I watched the doctor's face as he softly emerged from the sick-chamber! How my little heart beat if ever its wonted benignant smile returned!
One morning (Benny had been ill two weeks) I was awakened by the rumbling of a vehicle. There was no mistaking the sound; it was the old market-wagon. In a few minutes I was by my grandfather's side. There was no tremulous grasp of the hand, no gentle greeting, no fond pat on the head. His thoughts were with Benny, his namesake.
"Tread softly," whispered the doctor, as I led my grandfather to the side of the sickbed. He leaned heavily on his staff, and a tear trickled down his furrowed cheek.
" Benny will not help us hay another year," said the old man to me, in broken tones. How that death-knell fell on my soul! Was Benny, the good, the beautiful Benny, to die and be buried in the cold, damp earth! It could not be; and yet, as I looked at him the terrible conviction forced itself upon me. His little brown hands had become thin and white, his cheeks sunken. He opened his eyes.
"Benny, do you know me ?" asked grandfather, fondly.
He murmured incoherently something about haying-time, the big rock, and the mowing-field. Again my grandfather dropped a tear. It was more than my childish heart could bear. I ran to my chamber, and throwing myself upon the bed yielded to the first sharp agony of life. Oh, it is a fearful thing to pass for the first time through the gates of sorrow!
It was dark, very dark, when I was awakened by a light tap upon my shoulder. I knew the touch; it was my grandfather's hand. I asked no questions, but followed him instinctively to the sick-room. I knew that Benny, my loved Benny, was dying.
There was no shrinking from the mysterious threshold. In the agony of that moment I could not cry, but stood by the side of the dear boy as cold, calm, and still almost as himself. There was no look of recognition; no word from the palsied tongue. One gasp, one quiver of the thin lip, and the fragile chord which bound his pure soul to earth was broken, — there was no longer in that household a little Benny. It was a most solemn death-room. A mother wept for her lost one, and refused to be comforted; a father was bowed in agony for the child of his heart; and, more touching still, the silvered locks of decrepit age mingled with the golden curls of lifeless childhood.
Thus it is — the child sports a brief hour; manhood leagues with mammon a few short years; and only here and there is given a long life.
Rummaging not long since amongst some old letters, I came upon one directed in faded ink to my grandfather. It could hardly be deciphered, so worn and discolored was it by time. It was a summons to Benny's bedside. At the bottom of the page, in an old man's tremulous hand, was this postscript; "Benny died of brain fever the next day, at ten of the clock P.M. He was my best beloved grandchild."
For weeks I mourned for my lost playmate. His chair kept its place in the corner; the miniature rakes were fondly cherished; the collar was still unpinned. By chance one day the chair was moved; anon the rusty pin was drawn from the jacket, and one by one the little rakes disappeared. The next haying-time found me almost as blithe and gay as ever. Thus evanescent are the griefs of early childhood.
Little Benny was buried on the old farm. It was my grandfather's wish that he should be. People came from far and near to his funeral. They made a quaint throng, — hard-faced men and women, serious and sympathetic, and young men and maidens, with a curious awe at this, in the country, unusual presentment of the sublime beauty of a dead child. All along the farm-yard fence, as far as to the farther gate, stood the homely teams of these people, who had left their tasks to show their respect and sympathy for their neighbor. This congregating of wagons about a country house was a sure token of woe, more significant and touching than any bands of crape; so also was the decorous going in and out of the silent throng. Seen from a distance, they made a solemn pageant contrasted with the usual quiet of a country home.
Benny lay in his coffin between the windows of the "fore room," — that room which was never used save for some memorial purpose. Its doors and windows were flung wide open now, and the bright sunshine streamed athwart the child's face and kindled it into a marvellous life likeness. He had few flowers about him; but from the garden and the fields outside came the scent of blossoms he had loved, and sweet-smelling things were clasped in the hands of the women. He seemed not to be dead, but asleep; and most tenderly did nature caress this clay image of her child-lover with her best summer gifts. The mourners, with their dearest friends, sat about the boy, thus holding fast to him to the last. The preacher stood upon the threshold of the fore room, talking mostly to them, and praying for them with a painful personality. He did not, however, forget the application of his text and the lesson of the day to the people in the other rooms. His voice pervaded every corner of the house, and the breeze caught it up and carried it to the traveller on the highway, — a solemn sound. When he had finished Farmer Brown, in his homely way, but with a voice tender with sorrow, said, "The mourners can now look at the child."
Did you ever respond to such a call? What measure is there to the agony of this last silent interview with the unresponsive dead; this unanswered greeting of one who, for time, is lost in the most irrevocable sense; this unheeded letting-out of the affections to what is already going back to dust?
Next to the mourners, the neighbors were invited to take a last look at the departed. Keenly, as if it were but yesterday, do I remember the sweet speech of this unpolished man; the instinctive shrinking of this tenderhearted rustic from thrusting a cruel fact upon those whom it most concerned. The relatives were asked to look upon their child as upon one who slept; the neighbors, for the last time, upon the dead. They all — men, women, and children — took their turn over the little coffin. They were greatly moved, even the hardest featured of them. Men drew their horny hands over their eyes, and women sobbed aloud over this child, whom many of them had never seen while living, but who, dead, wrought from their suppressed natures this miracle of emotion.
He lay there, his golden curls and long lashes sun-gilded, and clinging to his marble image with strange brightness. He was to them a new and beautiful revelation. He was as unlike their own children as if he had belonged to another race. Death could not chisel the best of their own into his likeness. They saw, but could not comprehend, the rare quality of this child, and so they looked upon him and wept in wonder. He was too beautiful, they said, to be put out of sight; and nature seemed to rebuke them while she smiled upon all the stages of this his last and little journey. The sun sank towards the west, and from beyond the woodland and pasture it streamed across the open grave, and filled the thing itself with a waiting glory. The child was covered and carried across the green field, and let down into it; and in a little while all there was left of the sad pageant of that summer's day was a small brown mound in sight of the west room window.
It seems to me, as I look back, a sweet burial without dread, that carrying out of the lovely child from the old farm-house, amidst sunshine and tender mourning, and laying him down in the green field which he had made jocund the summer before with his delight. We talked of this boy as having been cut off, but after all his little life had been full and complete and well rounded; and when his short journey had come to an end, the sunshine which he had brought with him flooded and followed him. His burial on it glorified the farm. He was always there, not as under the mound with its lettered stone, but as a true little Benny, who, unresponsive to touch or speech, did yet roam about the place. He has never grown old, but has grown grand with years. The capacity of this child has been perfected by loving memory to the measure of the whole universe. He roams at large. I shall never know him here again, by sight or speech or touch, but one day we shall, I trust, know each other, not as we were, but as we are to be.
Thus the watchers and waiters, whose going away from us tore our hearts, are to take the sting of death from us. They compelled us to shut them out of our earthly homes that they might welcome us into a heavenly. Dear children, you of earlier and you of later days, how will the mystery of your brief lives be unravelled when you shall come down resplendent to the shore of the shining river, that you may help over the old, the infirm, and the weary, who stayed behind and mourned for you!