THE DAMSEL WHICH FELL SICK.
From within the great fortress, like the rough husk whence the green
lobe of a living tree was about to break forth, a lovely child-soul,
that knew neither of war nor ambition, knew indeed almost nothing
save love and pain, was gently rising as from the tomb. The bonds of
the earthly life that had for ever conferred upon it the rights and
privileges of humanity were giving way, and little, white-faced,
big-eyed Molly was leaving father and mother and grandfather and
spouting horse and all, to find--what?--To find what she wanted,
and wait a little for what she loved.
One sultry evening in the second week of June, the weather had again
got inside the inhabitants of the castle, forming different
combinations according to the local atmosphere it found in each.
Clouds had been slowly steaming up all day from several sides of the
horizon, and as the sun went down, they met in the zenith. Not a
wing seemed to be abroad under heaven, so still was the region of
storms. The air was hot and heavy and hard to breathe--whether from
lack of life, or too much of it, oppressing the narrow and weak
recipients thereof, as the sun oppresses and extinguishes earthly
fires, I at least cannot say. It was weather that made SOME dogs
bite their masters, made most of the maids quarrelsome, and all the
men but one or two more or less sullen, made Dorothy sad, Molly long
after she knew not what, her mother weep, her grandfather feel
himself growing old, and the hearts of all the lovers, within and
without the castle, throb for the comfort of each other's lonely
society. The fish lay still in the ponds, the pigeons sat motionless
on the roof-ridges, and the fountains did not play; for Dorothy's
heart was so heavy about Molly, that she had forgotten them.
The marquis, fond of all his grandchildren, had never taken special
notice of Molly beyond what she naturally claimed as youngest. But
when it appeared that she was one of the spring-flowers of the human
family, so soon withdrawing thither whence they come, he found that
she began to pull at his heart, not merely with the attraction
betwixt childhood and age, in which there is more than the poets
have yet sung, but with the dearness which the growing shadow of
death gives to all upon whom it gathers. The eyes of the child
seemed to nestle into his bosom. Every morning he paid her a visit,
and every morning it was clear that little Molly's big heart had
been waiting for him. The young as well as the old recognize that
they belong to each other, despite the unwelcome intervention of
wrinkles and baldness and toothlessness. Molly's eyes brightened
when she heard his steps at the door, and ere he had come within her
sight, where she lay half-dressed on her mother's bed, tented in its
tall carved posts and curtains of embroidered silk, the figures on
which gave her so much trouble all the half-delirious night long,
her arms would be stretched out to him, and the words would be
trembling on her lips, 'Prithee, tell me a tale, sir.'
'Which tale wouldst thou have, my Molly?' the grandsire would say:
it was the regular form of each day's fresh salutation; and the
little one would answer, 'Of the good Jesu,' generally adding, 'and
of the damsel which fell sick and died.'
Torn as the country was, all the good grandparents, catholic and
protestant, royalist and puritan, told their children the same tales
about the same man; and I suspect there was more then than there is
now of that kind of oral teaching, for which any amount of books
written for children is a sadly poor substitute.
Although Molly asked oftenest for the tale of the damsel who came
alive again at the word of the man who knew all about death, she did
not limit her desires to the repetition of what she knew already;
and in order to keep his treasure supplied with things new as well
as old, the marquis went the oftener to his Latin bible to refresh
his memory for Molly's use, and was in both ways, in receiving and
in giving, a gainer. When the old man came thus to pour out his
wealth to the child, lady Margaret then first became aware what a
depth both of religious knowledge and feeling there was in her
father-in-law. Neither sir Toby Mathews, nor Dr. Bayly, who also
visited her at times, ever, with the torch of their talk, lighted
the lamps behind those great eyes, whose glass was growing dull with
the vapours from the grave; but her grandfather's voice, the moment
he began to speak to her of the good Jesu, brought her soul to its
This sultry evening Molly was restless. 'Madam! madam!' she kept
calling to her mother--for, like so many of such children, her
manners and modes of speech resembled those of grown people, 'What
wouldst thou, chicken?' her mother would ask. 'Madam, I know not,'
the child would answer. Twenty times in an hour, as the evening went
on, almost the same words would pass between them. At length, once
more, 'Madam! madam!' cried the child. 'What would my heart's
treasure?' said the mother; and Molly answered, 'Madam, I would see
the white horse spout.'
With a glance and sign to her mistress. Dorothy rose and crept from
the room, crossed the court and the moat, and dragged her heavy
heart up the long stair to the top of the keep. Arrived there, she
looked down through a battlement, and fixed her eyes on a certain
window, whence presently she caught the wave of a
At the open window stood lady Margaret with Molly in her arms. The
night was so warm that the child could take no hurt; and indeed what
could hurt her, with the nameless fever-moth within, fretting a
passage for the new winged body which, in the pains of a second
birth, struggled to break from its dying chrysalis.
'Now, Molly, tell the horse to spout,' said lady Margaret, with such
well-simulated cheerfulness as only mothers can put on with hearts
ready to break.
'Mother Mary, tell the horse to spout,' said Molly; and up went the
The old flame of delight flushed the child's cheek, like the flush
in the heart of a white rose. But it died almost instantly, and
murmuring, 'Thanks, good madam!' whether to mother Mary or mother
Margaret little mattered, Molly turned towards the bed, and her
mother knew at her heart that the child sought her last sleep--as we
call it, God forgive us our little faith! 'Madam!' panted the child,
as she laid her down. 'Darling?' said the mother. 'Madam, I would
see my lord marquis.' 'I will send and ask him to come.' 'Let Robert
say that Molly is going--going--where is Molly going, madam?' 'Going
to mother Mary, child,' answered lady Margaret, choking back the
sobs that would have kept the tears company. 'And the good Jesu ?'
'Yes.'--'And the good God over all ?' 'Yes, yes.' 'I want to tell
my lord marquis. Pray, madam, let him come, and quickly.'
His lordship entered, pale and panting. He knew the end was
approaching. Molly stretched out to him one hand instead of two, as
if her hold upon earth were half yielded. He sat down by the
bedside, and wiped his forehead with a sigh.
'Thee tired too, marquis?' asked the odd little love-bird.
'Yes, I am tired, my Molly. Thou seest I am so fat.'
'Shall I ask the good mother, when I go to her, to make thee spare
'No, Molly, thou need'st not trouble her about that. Ask her to make
'Would it then be easier to make thee good than to make thee spare,
'No, child--much harder, alas!'
'Then why--?' began Molly; but the marquis perceiving her thought,
made haste to prevent it, for her breath was coming quick and weak.
'But it is so much better worth doing, you see. If she makes me
good, she will have another in heaven to be good to.'
'Then I know she will. But I will ask her. Mother Mary has so many
to mind, she might be forgetting.'
After this she lay very quiet with her hand in his. All the windows
of the room were open, and from the chapel came the mellow sounds of
the organ. Delaware had captured Tom Fool and got him to blow the
bellows, and through the heavy air the music surged in. Molly was
dozing a little, and she spoke as one that speaks in a dream.
'The white horse is spouting music,' she said. 'Look! See how it
goes up to mother Mary. She twists it round her distaff and spins it
with her spindle. See, marquis, see! Spout, horse, spout.'
She lay silent again for a long time. The old man sat holding her
hand; her mother sat on the farther side of the bed, leaning against
one of the foot-posts, and watching the white face of her darling
with eyes in which love ruled distraction. Dorothy sat in one of the
window-seats, and listened to the music, which still came surging
in, for still the fool blew the bellows, and the blind youth struck
the keys. And still the clouds gathered overhead and sunk towards
the earth; and still the horse, which Dorothy had left spouting,
threw up his twin-fountain, whose musical plash in the basin as it
fell mingled with the sounds of the organ.
'What is it?' said Molly, waking up. 'My head doth not ache, and my
heart doth not beat, and I am not affrighted. What is it? I am not
tired. Marquis, are you no longer tired? Ah, now I know! He cometh!
He is here!--Marquis, the good Jesu wants Molly's hand. Let him have
it, marquis. He is lifting me up. I am quite well--quite--'
The sentence remained broken. The hand which the marquis had
yielded, with the awe of one in bodily presence of the Holy, and
which he saw raised as if in the grasp of one invisible, fell back
on the bed, and little Molly was quite well.
But she left sick hearts behind. The mother threw herself on the
bed, and wailed aloud. The marquis burst into tears, left the room,
and sought his study. Mechanically he took his Confessio Amantis,
and sat down, but never opened it; rose again and took his
Shakespere, opened it, but could not read; rose once more, took his
Vulgate, and read:
'Quid turbamini, et ploratis? puella non est mortua, sed dormit.'
He laid that book also down, fell on his knees, and prayed for her
who was not dead but sleeping.
Dorothy, filled with awe, rather from the presence of the mother of
the dead than death itself, and feeling that the mother would rather
be alone with her dead, also left the room, and sought her chamber,
where she threw herself upon the bed. All was still save the
plashing of the fountain, for the music from the chapel had ceased.
The storm burst in a glare and a peal. The rain fell in straight
lines and huge drops, which came faster and faster, drowning the
noise of the fountain, till the sound of it on the many roofs of the
place was like the trampling of an army of horsemen, and every spout
was gurgling musically with full throat. The one court was filled
with a clashing upon its pavement, and the other with a soft singing
upon its grass, with which mingled a sound as of little castanets
from the broad leaves of the water-lilies in the moat. Ever and anon
came the lightning, and the great bass of the thunder to fill up the
At the first thunderclap lady Margaret fell on her knees and prayed
in an agony for the little soul that had gone forth into the midst
of the storm. Like many women she had a horror of lightning and
thunder, and it never came into her mind that she who had so loved
to see the horse spout was far more likely to be revelling in the
elemental tumult, with all the added ecstasy of newborn freedom and
health, than to be trembling like her mortal mother below.
Dorothy was not afraid, but she was heavy and weary; the thunder
seemed to stun her and the lightning to take the power of motion
from the shut eyelids through which it shone. She lay without
moving, and at length fell fast asleep.
To the marquis alone of the mourners the storm came as a relief to
his overcharged spirit. He had again opened his New Testament, and
tried to read; but if the truths which alone can comfort are not at
such a time present to the spirit, the words that embody them will
seldom be of much avail. When the thunder burst he closed the book
and went to the window, flung it wide, and looked out into the
court. Like a tide from the plains of innocent heaven through the
sultry passionate air of the world, came the coolness to his brow
and heart. Oxygen, ozone, nitrogen, water, carbonic acid, is it?
Doubtless--and other things, perhaps, which chemistry cannot
detect. Nevertheless, give its parts what names you will, its whole
is yet the wind of the living God to the bodies of men, his spirit
to their spirits, his breath to their hearts. When I learn that
there is no primal intent--only chance--in the unspeakable joy that
it gives, I shall cease to believe in poetry, in music, in woman, in
God. Nay, I must have already ceased to believe in God ere I could
believe that the wind that bloweth where it listeth is free because
God hath forgotten it, and that it bears from him no message to me.