IN HEAVEN was high holiday. The angels danced and sang for very joy; their nimble feet sped so lightly over the blossoms in the the grass not one grain of pollen was scattered from the flower-cups. Hand in hand they swept along in a never-ending chain, and their song was as sweet as is the song of the birds or the murmur from the strings of a wind-swept harp. Each tone was a sunbeam awakening life. Wheresoe'er the rays of music fell there flowers sprang up, fresher and fairer than any that bloom on earth. 'Twas a blaze of rich color, such as one scarce may dream of here below.
And why, then, these rejoicings? Why this exultation? The tidings had but now gone forth that many new souls should enter heaven that day, and straightway all the angels flocked together to bid them welcome. From far and near in the transparent, sky-depths they gathered with smiling lips, and gazed with their sweet, child-like eyes, wondering for whom they should rejoice that day.
And behold a little band of youths and maidens drew near with faltering steps, and spoke, with mournful tones, "We have left behind us all our dear ones; none awaits us here."
One of these was a king's son; the next a poor girl who had known cold and hunger all her days on earth; the third a young lad whose short life had been spent in pain and sickness. Well did they see the splendor and the glorious angels, but deemed not these could tarry there for them, and their hearts sank within them. Then suddenly around them swayed the angels; their hands were clasped in those of the bright beings, who led them on across the flowery mead to heights more dazzling still, where forms as youthful as their own greeted them, exclaiming, "Long have we waited for you; welcome now at last!" And ere they were well aware they, too, were floating over the greensward; nor did their footsteps bend or break a single flower. And when they heard how passing sweet the strains, and saw the angels how they shone, they lifted up their own low, timid voices to join in the song. Then came upon them such contentment they thought no more how they had fared on earth, and had well nigh forgotten the very mother for whom erstwhile they longed so sorely.
"Thy mother will come soon!" said one of the fair beings; and therewith was their heartache stilled, and they grew calm and strong.
"Thy mother will soon come!" These were the angel's words, and they who heard them never paused to think if "soon" must needs import the same in heaven as on earth. How they rejoiced to learn that they might see the homestead and their dear ones; not merely from afar, but even hover round and strive to cheer the mourners amid their own blissful wanderings among the stars. They perceived the littleness of earth, the nothingness of time.
"I thought my pain intolerable," cried he who had been the poor sick lad; "I called heaven cruel that let me suffer thus since I had done no wrong. And now I see that it was all too little, all too light, for such reward."
"What, then, are all these angels coming toward us?" the king's son asked." And see, they carry little children's souls in their arms, to greet the mothers who have mourned for them so long."
They looked, and saw a poor young mother linger on the threshold, wringing her hands and gazing earthward with the bitter cry, "My children, my poor little ones! All, all, were taken from me!"
"Nay, not all," spoke a fair angel, gently placing in her arm the child that had reached heaven before her. She fell upon her knees and rocked her child and wept no more.
Close on her steps followed another, who, as heaven's glory burst upon her, cried, "Alas, here is no place for me! These surely are the mansions of the blest!"
"And therefore is thy place among them," said a radiant being, leading her forward; "just therefore art thou here that thou mayst forget all the ills laid upon thee in thy lifetime. Thou hast done with earth; life was but an evil dream that now lies far behind thee."
Then came along a pair of sister-souls clinging together and singing as they soared upward toward the light. They knew not they had passed the gates of death, but thought they still lived on as before, save that they felt no pain. With every step it seemed to them they grew lighter, more buoyant; and as they roamed at will throughout these unknown realms, recollection dawning made the place known to them again, and taught them this was their true home, whence they had been lent awhile to earth. Then was there eager recognition, as other souls drew round these, questioning, "How is it ye have passed so quickly your probation? What good deeds did ye then perform by means of which ye are already free?"
"Alas, we have no good deeds to boast of! All that we did was just to love our fellow-creatures."
"And thereby have you done the duty set you on earth. Love made all things easy."
Now entered side by side a woman, aged and trembling, and a young king. Both stood awestruck, and the king flung down his crown and let slip from his shoulders the purple mantle, meaningless here, where no wretchedness asks to be consoled. But the old woman, trembling still, turned to him, "I know thee! Thou didst once befriend me in my need! Befriend me now!"
"I have no power to help thee," said the king; "myself I tremble, for I know my own unworthiness. I fear there is some error."
"Fear not! Both of you are right welcome," murmured a musical voice; and a beauteous angel threw one arm about the king, whilst the poor woman took refuge in the shadow of the outspread wings. "Thy place, O King! has long stood waiting for thee. Thy course is run; in thy short span of life so much performed, no more is asked of thee. Go on now further, higher. Greater things await thee here, and better happiness than life could give."
From out the crystal depths an angel-mother came to welcome her own child. No human tongue can tell the rapture of that meeting; 'twas such an excess of joy as human hearts were all too weak to bear—they needs must break beneath it.
And still the heavenly hosts came streaming by, and there was room for all. Some took up the pilgrim staff again, preparing to return and aid poor suffering mortals; others strove with good words to cheer such of the newcomers as were sad and care-worn, having lost all faith in heaven. "I starve," spoke one of these, an old man worn and weary; but ere the words were fairly said the pangs of hunger left him, and in their place the strength, the grace and fire of youth came back to him.
* * * * * *
NO WORD here ever sounded loud or harsh, no tone discordant; all was harmony. Love reigned supreme, since here was no struggle for daily bread, for rank and riches, for place and power. Each had an equal claim to the self-same happiness, the self-same rest. Some asked for rest alone—rest and repose from all the toil and trouble of their lives. And perfect rest was granted them. Others begged that they might satisfy their thirst for learning. These, too, had their wish, yet only in such measure as they had earned it by the stores of knowledge acquired on earth. Now, without effort, they might drink from the very source of perfect wisdom, of eternal truth.
Sadly they saw the gates of heaven closed on many who in their self-righteousness felt sure of access. These spoke of their blameless lives; but when 'twas asked them what kindness they had ever done, what suffering borne, what wrong redressed, they had no answer ready. In vain they wept. The door swung to.
But heaven smiled on, reflected in the lips and eyes of countless happy beings, each of whom seemed to bear within his breast a little heaven, radiating light, and helping to increase the universal splendor. Each one of these, at peace within himself, gave peace and rest to others. The gifts of each made up the general gladness, for envy and discontent and pride and self-love have no place here. And many first began here in the after-life rightly to discern the beauty of the things of earth. Wistfully they recalled the marvels of the trees and flowers, the churches and cathedrals, pictures and music; they realized that these had been one and all portraits of heaven itself, which only their own folly failed to see.
New revelations followed. Cripples and such as seemed deformed on earth here lacked no beauty, since their souls were fair; the poor were just as rich as others, in that they felt no need. And they were justified whom an unthinking world had oft misjudged and persecuted; and childish hearts misunderstood and smarting 'neath unkindness or neglect were healed and comforted.
* * * * * *
BUT greatest and most perfect joy welcomed the souls that have long since strayed from the right path, when, after centuries of aimless wandering through abysses black as night, they struggle upward to the light at last, and stand weary and travel-stained before the heavenly portal, nor dare to enter the Great Presence. And when they learn how often God had sent one of his angels in human shape on earth to be their guide, but that they never knew these, and only mocked and scorned, and sometimes persecuted even to death, then such remorse is theirs they scarce will let themselves be comforted.
"Ah, no!" 'tis told them, "none ever came in vain; his mission is fulfilled, albeit many hundred years might pass ere it were recognized."
"And does not the angel know that he is one?"
"He forgets that while he dwells on earth. He simply feels that he can do no wrong, and that he is able to suffer all things, but he knows not wherefore."
"Then every one of us may once have been an angel?"
"Doubtless; for there are many who, rather than rest in heaven, chose to return and help the weak and weary."
Thus do they ask and ask, and thus is answer made to them, till it grows clear at last how all things in all times have worked together for good.
A little lad stood weeping in the gateway. A pitying angel bent down and asked what ailed him.
"My violin! What has become of it? My own dear little violin! What have they done with it? I held it under my arms at the last concert, when all the people clapped their hands so loud, and my poor head was aching so; and then I fell asleep—fast asleep, over there in the great far-off America! Oh, how tired I was! I played and played and played, and grew more tired with every concert; and my mother was not there, and not a creature who cared for me! I had to go on playing and earning money, however tired I might be! Where am I now? Tell me, I pray thee, if thou canst!"
"Dear child, thou art in heaven. Dost thou not feel how soft the air? And listen to the lovely music!"
* * * * * *
"BUT heaven is no good to me without my violin!" he cried, weeping anew.
"I will give thee mine!"
"Thine? Canst thou do so? And is it really a good one? I cannot tell thee how I had to work and work till I could buy mine; and now it is gone! They have taken it away, and when I wake out of this beautiful dream, then I shall be only a poor lost child, alone and strange, in the great big America! I shall have to go and beg!"
"No, no, child. Here are neither rich nor poor; none has to beg here; each has his heart's desire, and each and all may pray God with their music."
"And am I dead, then?"
"Thou art dead on earth, so that thou mayst be happy forevermore. See, here I have a violin for thee."
The boy gazed at it sorrowfully. "One cannot play on that. What is it made of?"
"Try it; thou soon wilt find out how to play it."
The violin was as transparent as crystal; the strings seemed made of sunshine, and the bow was like a flower-stalk. Doubting, and with a sigh, the lad raised to his shoulder the feather-weight, and drew the flower-stalk across the strings. A sound came forth of such divine sweetness he scarce could trust his ears, for never in a dream had he heard aught like this. He stood entranced.
* * * * * *
"BUT such an instrument was never meant for me! Even in heaven these cannot be given away!" he cried, handing back the violin reluctantly.
The angel smiled. "Soon thou shalt make such playthings for thyself; thou needst but will to do so."
"And then will God himself listen to my playing?"
"Yes, God himself."
"Ah, how I fear that I soon shall awake out of this beautiful dream and it will all be gone!"
"Nay, not so; this dream has no awakening. Thou shalt dream on forever!"
"And shall the violin always be mine?"
"Always thine own!"
"Then let me go at once to thank God for it."
"Ah, child, thou still hast far to go to reach his throne!"
"No matter; I will find the way."
And the lad started boldly, playing his best, while all the heavens were hushed upon his passage, to listen to him. On he went, ever further, deeper, higher, and knew not that a hundred years had past, and yet another, since he set out to reach the strongest light, where, as he thought, God's throne must be. And when he saw a glorious spirit, who seemed a king of the whole world, and round whom waves of music surged perpetually, then the boy said to himself, "Surely I have reached my journey's end."
But this was Beethoven, and further on was Mozart, shining like the sun. Again the lad thought, "This can be none other than God himself."
But Mozart smiled and taught him a new melody, and said, "Only think of music; 'tis all thou hast to do to be a greater composer than any of us."
Marveling, the young musician called up in his mind the noble "Mass in B minor," by the great master Bach, and answering to his thoughts the tones swelled round him, not marred by imperfections, as in our cathedrals, but with a fullness so divine the listener stood spellbound.
* * * * * *
"NOW, if I but dared to think some music of my own!" he cried, when the sweet sounds had ceased. Then of itself the violin began softly playing, and an unseen orchestra took up the melody; how it was the boy knew not, but all he thought passed straightway into music. "Now surely God himself will listen unto me," he spoke, proudly.
"Aye, he will hear thee." 'Twas as though the light made answer. He raised his eyes, but they were dazzled by the splendor, as ours are when we look straight at the midday sun. There he stood motionless, forgetting all things, forgetting even to play, for all the air was music, and the light was music, too—and ages passed, he took no heed—rapt in those wondrous harmonies.
An angel touched him lightly on the shoulder. "Enough! 'Tis now for thee to gladden others. Come!"
"But first I want to see God, so that I may thank him."
"Thou hast seen him face to face but now. More fully than to most of us has this been granted to thy childlike innocence. No need has thou to thank in words, as thou wouldst thank an earthly benefactor. He looks into thy heart and reads thy thoughts. Come now to those who wait for thee. Beethoven is there, deaf no longer, and Homer and Milton are no longer blind. Rather is theirs more perfect sight and hearing than others boast of, since they did ever see and hear with the soul's eyes and ears alone."
So he passed on, transfigured, but unconscious still of his high fortune. He only knew that all the spirits looked kindly at him, and that all rejoiced that he had come so early to stay among them. For not more earthly wanderings could be for one who had already stood in God's great presence.
* * * * * *
THERE came along, too, a poor little maid, hunchbacked and lame. She was amazed that such delight should welcome her, since none had ever taken delight in her on earth. She held her crutches tight, thinking she could not walk without them, and wondered much to feel her feet so light. And more and more she wondered as she found two snow-white wings spring from her poor misshapen shoulders, while her hair began to sparkle like rays of moonlight, and the long procession of angels passing by drew her on with them in their shining ranks.
"And what couldst thou do upon earth?" one of them questioned her, with laughing tone. "But little, surely."
"Why, yes, 'twas little," she replied. "I had learnt to embroider a little, and thus I could earn my daily bread."
"Then look before thee, and tell me what thou seest."
And as she looked the grass beneath her feet, and everywhere far as her eye could reach, became a rich, embroidered carpet, studded with silken flowers of varied hues.
"And now," the angel told her, "whenever thou dost want a gold thread for thy work, stretch out thy hand among the sunbeams and draw one forth. So shall gold never lack thee. We know thee for a skillful work-woman.
"Am I really in heaven?"
"Aye, in heaven, where thou hast so often longed to be."
"How was that known to thee?"
"All things concerning thee are known to me. I was thy guardian angel in thy lifetime, and whatsoever thought of gladness was ever thine 'twas I who whispered it."
"But how did I come here?" she asked, bewildered. "I am not good enough. I have done nothing to deserve reward."
"Nothing?" The angel's voice was low and tender. "I watched thee when thy little fingers stitched untiringly from morn till night, for thy poor old mother's sake. I saw thee bear the sharpest pain in silence that others might not grieve. I know that in thy direst poverty thou always hadst thy mite to spare for those yet poorer than thyself. If none else knew or understood, I at least know how well thou hast deserved."
A pale, sad woman stood one moment on the threshold, then turned to go. An angel stopped her. "Why dost thou turn away?"
"How can I stay? What is there here for me? I were strangely out of place amid this splendor, so poor am I. I have not even a seemly dress in which to come among you."
"Nay, look more closely; look again, and see, thy dress is like to ours. The garments that are given us here are those that we have woven for ourselves during our lifetime."
"Fair creature, whosoe'er thou art," she answered, "thou canst not understand the things of earth. I was not rich enough to weave myself a dress—I had no time, and I was far too sad. Since I lost my eldest girl, my one help and comfort, life has been only a burden to me. I thought to find her here; but if that hope he vain, then neither shall I stay."
* * * * * *
"MOTHER, look at me well!" the angel spoke; and with a cry of joy the mother folded in her arms the daughter she had loved and lost and mourned so long. She held her fast, as though afraid to lose her yet again. "How my poor heart has ached for thee!" she cried. "Let me look in thine eyes to satisfy this long, long yearning. And yet I fear me lest death step once more between us and leave me desolate indeed!"
"Nay, mother; here there is no death; here there is naught but light and life."
"Tell me again that all is well with thee. Art thou never hungry, never cold? Ah, when I think a little warmth, a little spark of fire, might have kept life in thee!"
"All that is over, mother dear; we want no fire to warm us here. The golden light is warmth enough, and all its radiance never tires our eyes! Come, lean on me; let us go further. There is still much for thee to see and learn."
"Stay, stay—the little ones; may we not first fetch them?"
"Not yet awhile."
"But they are cold and hungry still. I had gone out to beg for bread for them—it had come to that—and then, I felt my senses go—I fell—I knew no more till I awakened here. I thought surely I must have strayed into some rich man's palace, from which I should be driven away. Now it all comes back to me—and my poor little ones are waiting for me still, without bread to eat!"
"Nay, mother, they have all they want. There are kind souls on earth to care for them. All the time that thou were ill and helpless they were fed and clothed and tended. Thou shalt see it for thyself. We may watch over them together, for according to the measure of suffering thou hast borne so shall thy happiness be! This is but the beginning. Come!"
Thus they spoke, upward soaring, the mother scarcely daring yet to trust her wings, and all unconscious, too, that she had grown as young and fair as the fair young form she clung to. The trailing garments, light as gossamer, that floated around them were no hindrance to their flight, as meteor-like across the sky they flashed and seemed to melt into the eternal light, whose vivid splendor pales our noonday sun.
* * * * * *
ANOTHER angel, bearing in his arms a girl of wondrous beauty, hastened in. The angel's face was grave—sad, even, as angels may be sad when they have brushed too close against human misery. He laid the girl, whose eyes were closed in death, down gently on a bed of soft, green moss, among narcissus flowers shining like stars. The heavy eyelids opened slowly, and as the girl regained consciousness her tears flowed fast. But the pitying angel knelt beside her and fanned her with sweet-scented flowers, and sprinkled her with crystal dewdrops, until at last a smile stole over the poor, pale face. Then she wept again, exclaiming, "I could not save my father—my poor father! Where is he? He must have perished in the flames—he and the whole house! I shall never see him more!"
She lifted up her eyes and saw her father standing there. For one brief moment both were speechless—their hearts stood still—their joy was too deep for words. Then, as it ever is when mortal hearts torn asunder meet in eternity, all heaven resounded with triumphal echoes. It was as though the buds and blossoms danced for glee, and the stars all sang in chorus.
Then a man rushed in, haggard and breathless, and gazed around with desperate eyes, like some poor hunted animal fleeing for life.
"Where am I, and where, are my chains?" he gasped. "If I am discovered they will drag me back to prison!"
"Thou hast done forever with prison and with chains," replied with calm voice a stately angel. "I helped thee to escape, and brought thee here, where thou art safe, and none can harm thee."
"Dost thou know they called me murderer?"
"In heaven we judge not as men judge; we see more clearly, and can more finely distinguish right from wrong. See, there comes one who was in truth a criminal, but he, too, has suffered and has expiated his crime." And turning to the new-comer the angel said, "Thou art forgiven!"
The poor wretch shook from head to foot.
"Let me hear that blessed word again. Say it once more! And yet it cannot be for me! Did I not slay a fellow-creature in my blind fury, from hatred and revenge?"
"And didst thou not pine for thirty years in prison? Did not for thirty years the iron of thy chains eat into thy flesh, while the still sharper iron of remorse was entering thy soul? Hast thou not repented? God saw thy tears, shed in the long, dark, lonely nights when no human eye beheld thee. Such anguish may atone even for guilt like thine!" With words like these the angels cheer and comfort such poor outcasts, bidding them take heart, since God's mercy is infinite, and tempering heaven's unclouded light to the sad eyes grown weak and dim with long years of prison gloom.
A venerable woman of majestic aspect, but bending beneath the weight of the heavy crown she wore, dragged herself along with slow and weary steps. She groaned, struggling in vain to tear off the crown, which seemed riveted to her forehead. Then came the angels and removed it gently and fanned her aching brow with their cool breath, till the pain ceased and she sank into a refreshing sleep. This had been the penance for her useless life—to wander wearily, bearing as an insupportable burden the symbol of her former state, weighted with the memories of things left undone. Now, when she woke, her first thought was to make good to others the ill she had wrought, and she begged earnestly to be sent back to earth again to do some work, however humble, whereby to help them. Her prayer was granted; and none who saw the gentle sister of charity nursing the sick in hospital, soothing the dying, bringing solace to all affliction and distress—none could have guessed she had once been the imperious, haughty queen, without a care for others' weal or woe.
* * * * * *
TO THE same spot the angels brought a poor young mother, carrying her baby. Both had died in fever, and the poor woman could scarce believe the angels who assured her she might rest and be happy here forever. "Thine was a hard life on earth," they reminded her; "hast thou forgotten the blows thy drunken husband gave thee?"
"He did not mean to hurt me," she answered, quickly; "he was really fond of me; it was only when he drank he grew so violent. You would not shut him out of heaven for that!"
The angels looked at each other with a meaning smile, touched by her simple goodness in so soon forgetting the ill treatment she had undergone. Already she was darting from tree to tree, gathering the freshest fruits and holding them to her child's lips.
"See here, my darling, thou hast never tasted fruit like this! And look! There are the angels who came to thee in thy dreams, but far more beautiful; they smile more sweetly still, and their robes are still more white and shining! Look up, my baby; the fever has left us, and we are in heaven!"
Then a girl's voice was heard complaining bitterly. She railed at death for taking her from him whom she loved on earth. "Let me go back to him," she cried; "let me go back at once! He will forget me if I stay too long. I will not stay in heaven without him."
"Nor shalt thou stay in heaven," a calm, grave voice replied. "There is no place here for those who are thankless. How often didst thou not ask to die? And now thy prayer is granted."
"But not alone!" she moaned. "We would have died together! God is cruel and unjust to have torn our poor hearts asunder! Let me return!"
"Thou shalt indeed return," the calm voice went on, "but not to find him whom thou seekest. He has already been sent to another star, where he must also learn the lesson earth failed to teach—of patience and submission to God's will." At these words heaven's glory faded from her sight, and she sank through the starry heights down to earth again, there to begin a new existence as a little child, unconscious of the past.
* * * * * *
WHO and what we are none of us can tell, since we know not what we have been. One thing alone is clear to each and all of us—the duty that lies straight before us in the present life. So short-sighted are we that we often murmur at the hardships that beset us here, not knowing that these are merely stepping-stones whereby to reach our goal. And while we struggle on we should be ever ready to hold out a helping hand to others, to bring them, perchance, one step nearer heaven. It is in mercy that none are ever born into this world weighted with the memories of their former lives; but all alike, as innocent, helpless babes, each of whom is at once enfolded in soft, motherly arms and cradled to rest on a mother's warm heart.