In His Presence
At times I have wished to efface from my mind the memory of those last moments that Paula was with us. Yet as I think of the dwelling to which she has gone, and also the manner in which she went—in the path of duty—to the House of Glory, as a good soldier of the Cross, I bless God and kneel in gratitude to Him for having loaned her to us for those four precious years, when He used her to bring us all to the bleeding side of the Savior, and thus make us new creatures in Christ Jesus.
It was on the Wednesday after that Sunday when we had first attended church. It had been a day of terrible heat. The oppressive atmosphere seemed to promise an electric storm. Louis who had forgotten a study book when he went to school on Monday, had returned to get it. Paula had tried to study, but I could see she was having great difficulty.
Suddenly Teresa appeared and called Paula to take a letter which my father wished to send to a man who lived in the Rue Fourmi.
“Go quickly, Paula, there’s a storm brewing, but I think you can easily get back before it breaks. The Rue Fourmi is not far away.”
Paula had no time to answer before Teresa disappeared again to the other end of the house.
Paula turned to Louis, who was about to start out for his uncle’s house, where he stayed during the week in order to be near his school.
“Louis dear,” she said, “won’t you please take this letter on your way back to your uncle’s house?”
“No,” said Louis sharply; “I never go that way.”
“No, I know that; but it would only be a few steps out of your way to leave it there, and—well—you see—I have quite a headache.”
“Teresa told you to take the letter, not me. A fig for your headache! It’s only that you’re too lazy to stir!” said Louis.
“Louis!” I shouted, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! You know well enough Paula’s always willing to do anything for anybody! I’d go myself, but I simply can’t leave what I’m doing now. If Teresa had remembered, she would have given you the letter and you know it! If you don’t take it, I’ll tell Father!”
“Do as you please,” said Louis coolly. “I’ll not be bothered with it!”
I was furious and couldn’t keep back the angry tears that now began to roll down my cheeks.
“Never mind, Lisita,” said Paula, as she ran for her hat. Then as she went through the door she turned for a last look at Louis, “Won’t you please take it, Louis?” she said.
“No!” said Louis—“and that’s that!” and he turned his back to Paula.
“Goodbye, Louis dear!” she finally said without the least show of anger, as she left the house. “We’ll be seeing you again on Saturday.”
She ran down the street quickly in order to return before the gathering storm broke.
Louis followed shortly to return to his uncle’s, whistling cheerfully as he went; but his cheerfulness seemed to me to be a little too exaggerated to be real.
After I’d finished my task I sought out Teresa at the other end of the great house.
“Paula has a bad headache,” I said.
“Why didn’t she tell me that?” said Teresa. “I’d have sent Louis, but I didn’t think of it at the time.”
I opened my mouth to say something, and then I shut it again. I had begun slowly to learn from Paula’s example not to be a tattletale.
Meanwhile the sky grew darker. Suddenly Teresa said, “I don’t know what’s keeping Paula, Here, Lisita! Take this umbrella and go and meet her. I’m afraid she’ll be caught in the rain before she gets back.”
I soon found her as she turned in at the bottom of the Rue Darnetal. “We must hurry,” she said as the thunder began to mutter in the distance.
Hardly had she spoken when a flash of lightning almost blinded us. This was followed almost immediately by a great crash of thunder that seemed to shake the very ground under our feet. Then came a sound of confused shouts as if something had happened at the other end of a cross street that we were passing. Could it be a house had been struck by the lightning? No, the shouts increased and changed to cries of terror. Soon we guessed the cause, as we heard a rushing sound of galloping horses, which, frightened by the flash and the clap of thunder, came in sight around a bend in the street enveloped in a cloud of dust, dragging a heavy wagon behind them. Instinctively Paula retreated to a protecting doorway and I huddled in terror close beside her.
“Lisita!” she called suddenly. “Look! look!”
What I saw was something that seemed to freeze my blood! Directly in the pathway of the onrushing horses, totally unconscious of his danger, was a little boy of about three years old toddling along in the middle of the road. One instant more and it would have been all over! Suddenly Paula left our shelter like a shot from a gun. Then I heard a sharp cry that rent the air like a knife, and then—I can remember little more—just a confusion of people running hither and thither, and then for me all was darkness, but in that darkness I seemed to hear still that piercing cry of anguish.
When I came back to consciousness I found myself on the sofa in our dining room, with Catalina bathing my face and hands with cold water.
“Where’s Paula?” I cried, for I remembered at once that terrible scene in the Rue Darnetal.
“Paula is in her room,” said Catalina, turning her head to hide the tears that would come in spite of all her efforts.
I tried to rise and go to our room.
“Stay where you are, Lisita!” said Catalina. “You may go a bit later when you’re feeling stronger.”
But now a terrible suspicion crossed my mind. “Catalina,” I cried, almost beside myself with fear, “tell me the truth! Is Paula dead?”
“No, Lisita; Paula’s not dead,” as she tried in vain to detain me; “She is still breathing—and”—but I heard nothing more. My legs trembled strangely as I stumbled toward our bedroom. Once there, again that terrible darkness started to come over me, but it was only a momentary weakness. With an effort I steadied myself as I came near the bed where my dearest one lay so still—that lovely face so white, the lips slightly parted with just a faint stirring of the breath.
The room was full of people, some weeping silently, some trying to choke back their sobs. Others, like my father and Dr. Lebon, with an agony showing on their faces much more terrible than any tears.
All this I saw as in a horrible dream from which I hoped to awake at any moment. But, no!—I soon realized it was all too true. This was the first real grief of my life, and I had to sustain it alone, for I had not yet yielded to Him who sends comfort to His children in their time of anguish. He did take pity on me, however. In the next room I hid my grief in Teresa’s arms—Teresa, who more than anyone else, knew the love that had united me to Paula.
“Oh, Teresa,” I cried, when I found myself alone with her, “she must not die! She must not! I simply cannot live without her, you know that! Oh, pray for me, dear Teresa. God will hear your prayer. He probably wouldn’t hear mine. Tell Him! Oh, please tell Him, Paula must not die!”
“No, Lisita,” Teresa said as she dried my tears; “We must leave Paula in God’s hands. He loves her more than you and I could ever do. If you could see that poor, broken body as I’ve seen it you would not ask that she should live! Yes, indeed, she was happy with us. She was to us all like an angelic messenger sent from God to draw us to Him and to show us the way to heaven. And now He’s called her to Himself almost without suffering, for she appears to have become insensible from the instant that the horses struck her down. Listen to me, Lisita! Soon Paula will be in heaven at her Savior’s side—her Savior whom she loved so well; and in her dear father’s company of whom she spoke so often.
“We must think of her happiness, dear Lisita, not our own, from this day forward. Paula, you remember, never thought of herself. Her thought was always for others, and it was for another that she died. She gave her life to save that little boy. So she followed in the footsteps of her Savior, as a good soldier of the Lord Jesus who died to save all who repent and believe on His blessed name.”
The voice of our old servant, so tender, so motherly, seemed to heal my sorrow. When I became calmer she told me some of the details of the tragedy. Paula had, dashed in front of the horses just in time to throw the child out of danger but had been unable to escape herself. That much I understood; but from that day to this, I have never been able to bring myself to ask for any more details. It seems I had fainted, and they carried us both home.
Poor Teresa, I knew how ardently she, too, loved our Paula, but courageous and unselfish her only thought, as ever, was for us. In consoling me she forgot her own sorrow. As I looked at that strong calm face lighted up as from an inner brilliance, it seemed to take on a striking likeness to the dear one whose life was ebbing away in the next room. There came to my mind a verse from a Bible story that Paula had told us once. It was this: “The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha.” (2 Kings 2:15)
A stream of neighbors came in from everywhere. It was in those last moments as these humble friends passed before that unconscious form that we came to comprehend how many lives had been touched by the simple country girl from the Waldensian mountains. Some remembered her just from the smile with which she always greeted young and old as she passed up and down the long street at our end of the town. Others spoke of the loving adoration of the children whom she had protected and defended. Still others mentioned the kindness she had shown them, and poured out many stories of Paula’s universal love for all—of her visits to the poor and sick, and of how she had pointed them to the Savior who had died to take away their sin; bringing joy and hope and liberty into many a home where only discord and misery had reigned before.
So the tears of many of our humble, friendless neighbors mingled with our own as we waited for the end.
But there was one on whom the blow fell more terribly than on any one of the rest of us, for it was a bitter mixture of remorse and shame that Louis had to bear. When he arrived at the house after being summoned from our uncle’s place, and came to a full realization of what had happened, for an instant he seemed turned to stone. Then a sharp cry came from him. In that short moment he seemed to change from a careless, selfish boy to a man—a man awakened at last to his terrible need of a change and with a transforming purpose in his life from that day forward.
Louis demanded that I tell everybody present what had happened that afternoon. When I refused, he poured out the whole sorry, sordid story of his selfishness without one word of excuse, saying as he finished, “So you see, it was I who killed her, for there was no need of her stirring from the house.” Then he turned to my father imploring him to punish him severely. He said he could ask no pardon, for he had done what he considered unpardonable. For answer my father took him in his arms; and I knew that at that moment my father and Louis came to understand each other better than they had ever done in their lives before.
“No, my poor boy,” my father said; “you need no further punishment. Now go to your heavenly Father and ask Him to make you His child.” And I know that Louis did so.
In silence we waited. Paula was the bond of love that had united us all; not only to one another but now also to God. How wonderful, how beautiful, had been that short life, and how she had poured out her love upon us. Again the scene came back to me of that moonlight night at this same bedside, when at prayer she had seemed more like an angel talking with the One who had sent her to us, than merely the simple, honest-hearted country girl that she really was.
Suddenly the door opened slowly and a woman poorly dressed entered, leading a little boy of about three years old. When he saw us he stopped and turned to hide behind the folds of his mother’s dress.
“Come in, come in,” said Teresa kindly, as she led them both to the side of my dear one lying there so white and still.
“Oh, Carlito,” exclaimed the poor woman turning to her little son as she dropped upon her knees beside the bed. “How I wish you could understand! This is that lovely one who saved your life! She took your place there under the horses’ hoofs!” Then taking Paula’s two hands in her own she said, “Oh, Mademoiselle, oh, that you might hear me! Would that I might do something in return for what you have done for my boy! Oh, is there nothing I can do?”
“Yes, my dear woman,” said our old servant—and her eyes were streaming—“I’ll tell you what you can do. Nothing would have pleased Paula better than to have known that you had taken the Lord Jesus as your Savior. Also, you may take this dear child and dedicate and train him for God’s service in the days to come.”
“That,” said the poor woman, “I solemnly promise to do if you will show me how.”
Thus it was that our Teresa had the joy of pointing her first soul to the Savior.
Tenderly my father cut off two locks of that beautiful hair of our dear one, and as the woman went out he said. “Take this one and keep it always in remembrance of the rescuer of your little boy; and this other one,” and he held out the second to her also, “keep it for him until he’s old enough to understand.”
Taking them from my father’s hand she silently kissed them and placed them in the bosom of her dress as she and her little one glided through the outer door.
Louis had gone out on a special errand, and he soon returned, bringing with him from the factory the object of his search. The poor Breton, followed by his sons and all the other scholars of the night school, started to enter the room and then stopped abashed at the threshold. At the invitation of my father however, one by one they all came to the bedside, pale and shaken with emotion.
“I’m glad you were able to get here before the end came,” said my father. “Oh, if you could only know how she loved you all!”
The Breton suddenly broke down and cried like a child. When he could control himself he said, “It was but this very morning that I passed her on the street. She seemed just like a happy bird as she waved me ‘good day,’—and now—now—to find her dying here!”
“May the dear Lord’s will be done!” said Teresa.
The poor Breton had buried his face in his hands, but suddenly looking up, he said humbly, “You’re quite right, Mademoiselle Teresa—but, you see, Mademoiselle Paula was more to me than it seems she could mean to any one of you. I was a drunkard and a robber—a monster of iniquity! I was despised and hated and feared by everybody, and for good reason. But there in Celestina’s kitchen that day, Mademoiselle was not afraid to take these rough hands—these hands that had been so often stained with crime and violence—in her own pure white ones, to tell me she would help me! She it was who taught me to pray. She it was who had prayed for me while I was in prison. I have seen men ground to pieces in the gears of a machine in the factory. I’ve looked on death in many terrible forms without shedding a tear—but this one!—oh, Mademoiselle Paula! Would that I could have died in your place!” And again quivering with emotion, the Breton turned and leaned against the wall to hide his tears.
Suddenly a convulsion shook the form of my dear one and Dr. Lebon stepped forward and took her hand. “The end is coming,” he said.
My father dropped on his knees beside the bed. “Oh, Lord,” he said, “I, too, would be Thine own. Is it too late for me?”
At that moment a hand was laid on his shoulder. It was the same hand that years ago had been laid on his wife’s eyes to close them for the last time. That same hand had tended and cared faithfully for his children ever since.
“Monsieur! My good master!” said Teresa, in a tone of tender love and respect such as I had never heard her use before, “It is not too late! He has said, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’ (John 6:37) ”
My father looked up. “Well, then, Teresa—I come to Him.”
The dear old woman dropped on her knees and with folded hands simply said, “Thanks, dear Lord, for Thou hast answered my prayer, and Paula’s, too!”
The storm of wind and rain had passed. In the little gardens of the Red Cottages across the street, the flowers once again began to raise their heads and the birds began to sing as the sun came out once more.
Suddenly there came a soft sigh from the still form on the bed. Dr. Lebon nodded as he turned away. His task was ended. The Good Shepherd had taken His tired lamb in His arms.
Then the sound of a deep voice was heard, saying, “ “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” (John 12:24) ”
I recognized the voice at once—it was Celestina’s.