That night I could not study my lessons. In fact, I could do nothing but think about Paula! I was not a student and was always at the bottom of the class. Louis, in the matter of study, was no better than I; but in the school, thanks to his brilliancy of mind, he always seemed to skin through somehow. Rosa was not a bit like us, being a model of patience, application, and obedience. I was very proud of my sister Rosa, and I loved and admired her, but I never had the slightest desire to imitate her.
After my father had gone, nothing was talked of except our cousin Paula. When would she come? What would she be like? Would she be content to be here among us? All these were questions which we could not answer as we knew very little about her. They had told me that Paula lived in the Waldensian Valley—a country where the inhabitants fed on black bread and lived in homes that were like stables. I had no idea just exactly where the mountains of Piedmont were. I had searched the map without being able to find the region, but I supposed it must be somewhere between France, Italy and Switzerland.
There was another thing I had found out; namely, that Paula was about my own age. What happiness! This fact I repeated over and over until Louis told me to keep quiet. This attitude on his part I put down as discontent because Paula wasn’t a boy, so I kept repeating, “Paula’s the same as me!”
“For mercy’s sake, will you keep quiet, Lisita? Besides you have your grammar twisted as usual. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that you’re always at the foot of the class, if that’s the way you study.”
“You can talk to me as you like,” I answered, “but when Paula gets here I’ll never speak to you again, and I’ll tell her not to say a word to you either. I am mighty glad that Paula’s a girl, and not a disagreeable boy like you.”
“Oh, keep your Paula, much do I care!” replied Louis.
“Come, come,” exclaimed Rosa, “what’s the good of fighting over this poor girl Paula whom neither of you have ever seen!”
“It’s Louis’ fault!”
“No, it’s Lisita’s!”
“It’s the two of you! If Paula could see the way you quarrel I’m sure she would not want to come. I hope she will love us all and we must all of us love her also, because she’s not only an orphan, but she’s a niece of our poor dear, dead mother.”
Rosa knew well how to bring about peace. One word about our mother was enough.
“See here, Lisita,” and Rosa drew me toward her, “I see that you haven’t the slightest desire to study tonight, so close your book, and if you get up early tomorrow morning I’ll help you. Do you know what I would do now if I were you.”
“I’d go and see Catalina, You know that she does not like to be alone all of the afternoon, and I think Teresa has gone out. If I didn’t have so much to do I’d see her myself. Now, look out you don’t make too much noise. Catalina has a terrible headache today.”
“All right. I’m off!” I said.
The idea of visiting my oldest sister never made me very happy in those days. In fact, I hardly ever entered her room because it bored me terribly to be in the company of such a disagreeable invalid.
I remembered the time when Catalina was the liveliest and happiest person in the whole house, but unfortunately all this had changed in an instant. One day, three years before, Catalina had fallen from the top of a high cherry-tree which she had climbed against the advice of Teresa. She was unconscious when we picked her up, and it seemed at first as if she would die as a result of the fall. After six months of cruel suffering, however, her youth had triumphed over death. But the big sister who had always been as happy and as lively as a bird was gone from us, and in her place remained a forlorn, unhappy girl with a poor, twisted body, who at rare intervals sallied from her room a few steps with the aid of her crutches. Unfortunately, her character had also suffered severely, for in spite of the tenderness and solicitude of my father, who sought to satisfy her slightest desire, and in spite of the untiring care of Teresa, and the patience and sweetness of Rosa, Catalina’s life was one long complaint. Her room, with its white bed adorned with blue curtains and its magnificent view of the fields and mountains, was the most beautiful in the whole house. A pair of canaries sang for her in their respective corners; the finest fruits were always for her; and, as she was a great reader, new books were continually brought in. But nothing seemed to have power to put a smile of satisfaction on her thin, wasted face.
Poor Catalina! It was certainly true—I didn’t love her very much. I was so accustomed to see my sister in her invalid state that her pitiful condition didn’t seem to move me, and she was always in such a bad humor that I only went to see her on rare occasions.
However, on this particular afternoon, I had, of course, a great desire to carry her the news of our cousin’s coming, and so I gladly went to visit her. But, forgetting all the warnings of Rosa, I burst open the door like a gust of wind.
Catalina was lying with her face toward the wall with the curtains of the bed partly drawn, and a green shade had been placed over the cages of the two birds in order to stop their singing. Under other circumstances I would have prudently retired, thinking that Catalina, more irritated or sicker than usual, was endeavoring to sleep. Doubtless our old servant had come in to speak to her regarding Paula, and finding her apparently asleep had arranged things as I found them. She turned her head on hearing me come in and in a sharp tone exclaimed, “What a noise, Lisita! Can’t you give me a single quiet moment!”
“You know I haven’t been here all day!” I answered impatiently. “In fact, I haven’t been here since yesterday morning, and besides, I forgot that Rosa told me that you had a headache.”
“Well, you know it now!”
“So you wouldn’t care to have me tell you the big news!”
“Well, I am going to tell you anyhow, because I can’t keep it to myself any longer! Uncle John is dead!”
“Uncle John! Dead?”
“Yes, and I’m happy!”
“What do you mean, you’re happy!”
“Well, I am happy!—not because Uncle John is dead, but because his little girl, Paula, who is just my age, is coming to live with us, so, of course, why shouldn’t I be happy?”
“Well, you can just forget your ‘happiness,’ because Paula is not going to live with us. I can tell you that right now!”
“And why not? Father said she was coming! You can ask Teresa, or Rosa, or Louis!”
“I am not going to ask anyone, but I tell you that Paula is not coming here! No! and indeed, no! I’ve got enough to put up with, with Louis and you! It seems as if you tear my head apart, for you quarrel from morning till night; and when you play it seems as if the house is coming down; and now suppose another bad-mannered little girl should come among us! But I tell you it never shall happen!”
“You’re not the one who orders things here!”
“Neither do you, you impertinent little thing.”
“Now, don’t get mad, Catalina!” I cried, as I burst into tears. “You don’t know what you are talking about. You do not realize that Paula has no one in the world to care for her. Teresa read us the letter out loud. I know I’m not a good girl and I’m almost as disagreeable as you are, but I am going to be good when Paula comes. You shall see. She will be my dearly beloved sister and she is almost exactly my age. Oh, I certainly shall love her so, and we shall always be together and we—we—”
“Keep quiet, Lisita. Your tongue runs like a mill-wheel. Besides, where did you get all these details?”
“It was this afternoon, just as we finished tea. They wrote to father, and father gave the letter to Teresa, and Teresa said that a little extra work didn’t bother her, and so father said, ‘All right, let her come!’ ”
“And I? Father said nothing about me?”
“Not that I remember.”
“Oh,” sobbed Catalina, “everything is done without me now! Because I am nothing more than an invalid, everything is arranged without consulting me! What difference does it make to you—who are able to laugh and run and play—if I suffer here without having a thing to say about what goes on in the house! How would you like to be in my place? Father never came to say one single word to me about the matter, and now without consulting me as to whether it would disturb me, they wish to bring another trouble to torment me more! But it shall not be, and the day that she comes I shall go to a hospital, because they do not want me here any more!”
Poor Catalina! She had passed a very bad day, and always on such days she would weep on the slightest pretext. I didn’t care for her very much, but that day I pitied her with all my heart and I did what I could to calm her; for once her nerves were excited, nothing could console the poor, unhappy girl. Besides, I was very much afraid that she would be able to change my father’s purpose in regard to Paula. He, generally so severe, so cold, and insensible in his attitude toward us, obeyed the slightest wish of his eldest daughter. And if—if!—she succeeded in preventing Paula’s coming I felt that I would never, never pardon Catalina! But now I tried to embrace her.
“Listen,” I said; “Father had to go out, but when he returns he will tell you the same thing that I have told you!”
But Catalina would not hear me. With her head hidden in the pillows, she continued crying.
I was desperate! As a rule it took a lot less than this to make Catalina worse. Catalina worse! And all my fault! What would my father say! And yet I had had no bad intentions. How could I have known that she would have received my good news in this way? Suddenly I had a brilliant idea. Leaving Catalina I ran to the kitchen where Teresa was preparing the vegetables for supper. “Teresa, come quickly,” I cried with my eyes full of tears; “Catalina is making herself sick with crying.”
“And why? I left her sleeping only a short time ago.”
“Oh, yes, I know; but please come at once, Teresa! It’s all my fault! I told her that Paula was coming and she is beside herself! But, really and truly, I had no idea that she would take it that way!”
Teresa jumped up quickly, saying under her breath, “What next?” and then to me, “You certainly are a troublesome youngster, my poor Lisita!”
“But Teresa, I vow to you—”
“Be quiet, and go back to Catalina’s room! I’ll be there as soon as I can!”
I left the kitchen well content. Teresa was not full of pretty phrases, but she had a heart of gold, and I knew that somehow or other she would be able to fix things with Catalina. I found Rosa already in Catalina’s room on my return, trying in vain to calm her. She turned to me.
“What on earth has happened? I heard Catalina sobbing, clear at the other end of the house. Are you responsible for this?”
“No, no, it wasn’t I; it was Paula.”
I tried to explain, but at this minute Teresa entered, bringing with her a plateful of delicious apples.
“Come, come, Catalina!” and her deep, sonorous voice seemed like soothing balm, as her presence appeared to fill the room. “What on earth are you crying about? It is but a short moment ago that I secured permission from your papa to read you a letter which he has just received from Italy, and I went out to pick up some of your favorite apples, the first of the season, and here I come to find you crying!”
Catalina became a little calmer hearing the word “letter,” for, to the poor, confined invalid, a letter from abroad was a great event. Nevertheless, between her sobs she remarked, “Is it a letter about this terrible ‘Paula’ that they are talking about?”
“Yes,” answered Teresa, with that soothing voice of hers. “It’s a letter that tells us a bit about a niece of your poor mother.”
Catalina calmed down completely. If the memory of our mother still lived in the heart of her other daughters, it had first place above all else with Catalina.
“Now, read it to me, Catalina,” said Teresa. “You can do so much better than I can in the reading line, and it will sound so much better from your lips than from my poor, stumbling ones. Wait till I fix up the pillows, and don’t cry any more. And now your headache is better, isn’t it?”
“It still pains terribly, Teresa. Let Rosa read it.”
Rosa took the letter, and read in her clear, sweet voice the lines that had so stirred us all.
There were but few details. Our Uncle John had died; so wrote the pastor of the little church in that far-off Waldensian Valley. He had died as he had lived—a real Christian. He had no near relatives, it appeared; and the rest of the family had gone to America two years before. Paula, therefore, was alone. Just before breathing his last, my uncle had expressed the desire to leave his daughter in the care of our father whom he had never known, but of whom he had heard nothing but good. Beside all this he had left his daughter in the hands of God, the loving Father of all orphans, praying Him to guide and direct in the whole affair. His last prayer had been for us; asking God to bless our family that we might all be guided into the straight and narrow Way that leadeth unto life eternal. Then followed certain details relative to a small inheritance that Paula possessed, and the prayer of the pastor himself that the temporal and spiritual happiness of the little orphan might be maintained.
“Is that all?” asked Catalina.
“Yes,” said Rosa; “that is the end of the letter.”
“Poor little thing!”
There was a long silence. I think Catalina was thinking of her mother, for her face had softened for once.
Teresa sat with her large, agile fingers flying—those strong fingers that were never idle—the metallic sound of her needles alternating with the happy song of the canaries, from whose cages the curtains had again been removed.
Never in my life had I lingered very long to observe Catalina, but this afternoon I could not help but notice how pale and delicate she really was. Propped up on her pillows with her golden hair falling around her shoulders, one would not have guessed her to be more than fourteen years old, instead of eighteen. Seeing her thus after her day of sufferings, I pardoned all her bad humor and hardness of heart toward Paula; and I had a great desire to take her in my arms but I did not dare do such a thing—fearing she would refuse my caresses.
“Teresa,” she said suddenly, closing her eyes to keep back the tears, “do you think that it hurts very much when one dies?”
“Why do you ask that?” and Teresa looked at her quite surprised.
“I was thinking of Uncle John.”
“That depends, Catalina, that depends. There are some persons who die tranquilly in their sleep with no pain at all, but in the case of others it is quite the contrary.”
“But afterward, Teresa! How about afterward? What happens to us after death?”
“Afterward?” Teresa looked puzzled. “Nobody knows what happens to us afterward. When I was a little girl, my mother, who was a very pious woman, told us that if we were very good we would go to heaven, but if we were bad we went to hell. I believe she was right, poor woman, but it is sometime since I have thought of religious things, and your father does not like to have us talk about it.”
“I know that, Teresa, but I can’t help thinking about it often and often. Was our mother a ‘pious woman?’ ”
“Not exactly—at least, not before she became ill. Her relatives in Villar—your aunt and your Uncle John—used to write lovely letters to her, that spoke of God and heaven and prayer. Your mother used to sigh after reading them, and sometimes she would read me a page or two from those letters, and would say to me, ‘My good Teresa, we both ought to think about these things! My sister is far more happy in her hut on the mountainside in Waldensia than we are here in the midst of abundance. It must be wonderful not to fear death and to love God with all our heart.’ When she spoke thus to your father, he laughed at her and said, ‘Now, don’t you worry about that, darling, you couldn’t be any better than you are now; and I am glad that you are not like these pious ladies who try to tell you what will happen to you after death. You’ll have plenty of time to think about those things when you come to your last days; but now with your good health and robust constitution you can count on a good old age.’ ”
“But father was mistaken, Teresa!”
“Yes, he certainly was mistaken, poor man. Nobody could have believed that when on that Monday afternoon she complained of a little pain in her throat, she would die on the following Thursday.”
“Was it diphtheria, Teresa?”
All that poor Teresa could say amid her tears was, “Poor, poor little, beloved one! Never shall I forget her last moments or the desperation of your father. From his very first visit the doctor said that there was no hope. I thought I would go insane when he said that! How I remember her the day before she was taken ill, in all her youth and beauty—singing as she worked, and then suddenly came that terrible pressure in her throat.”
“Then, Teresa, you remember, she could not kiss us goodbye.”
“No, poor lady, that was her greatest pain when they told her that her sickness was very contagious. But—there! there! Catalina, I did not mean to make you cry, and I have told you this story so many times, and now here I am telling it over again like the foolish woman I am!”
“No, no, Teresa, go on,” answered Catalina between her sobs. “I am always happy when I hear you speak of our beloved Mamma.”
And now, I, too, could not keep back my tears as I knelt beside the old servant, who left her work to pass her hand over my head.
“Thou didst not know her, dear Lisita. How many times during her sickness she told me especially to take care of thee, and love thee as if I were thine own mother. Yes, and correct thee also…. At times I ask myself whether I have obeyed her.”
“Oh, Teresa,” exclaimed Rosa, interrupting her, and closing with a bang the book which she had not read. “Indeed, you have done your duty. What would we have done without you? Of course, I can’t say,” and Rosa smiled, “that your punishments have been very numerous, but Father has taken care of that. Father corrects us and you do the loving part.”
“Now, see here, your father loves you also, and it’s only the pain of having lost your mother that makes him appear more severe than he really is. Open the window, Rosa, I can hardly see, and I must finish this stocking before I quit tonight.”
Rosa obeyed, and a soft breeze entered, laden with the perfume of the garden, and Teresa resumed. “After the doctor had gone that afternoon your mother called me and said, ‘Teresa, tell me the truth. The doctor believes I am going to die; does he not?’ I didn’t know what to answer her. Your father hoped in spite of the doctor’s opinion that she’d pull through, and did not wish me to let your poor mother know that there was any danger. But here she lay praying me with her joined hands that I should tell her the truth. She spoke with great difficulty and I feared that soon she would not be able to speak at all, and therefore, weeping, told her the whole truth.”
“Then she said to me, ‘Teresa, I’m certainly afraid to die! I’m afraid! I’m afraid!’
“ ‘But,’ said I, ‘Madame, why should you be afraid? You have always been so good to everybody. The good God will take you to heaven.’ But she could not be calm.
“ ‘According to the world’s standard perhaps, yes, Teresa—but before God! To think that in a few hours I shall be face to face with the Lord Jesus, and I am not prepared!—No, no, let me speak, Teresa! I have done my duty by my husband and by my children, but I have forgotten God. I have not loved Him, neither have I prayed to Him, and therefore I’m afraid to meet Him. Oh, Teresa, I’m afraid to die.”
“I could only repeat, ‘The good God will pardon you, Madame. He is so good and kind. He will have pity on you, for you have never done any harm to anybody.’
“ ‘Ah,’ she answered, if I had but listened to my sister and brother-in-law! How many times they urged me in their letters to surrender to the Lord Jesus, but I always put it off… and now I’m dying! Oh, Teresa, Teresa, can you not help me?’ ”
“But I thought Mamma died in peace?” suddenly questioned Rosa. “I remember toward the end that she was anxious to go, and at last said that she was going to heaven.”
“Yes, my beloved madame did indeed die in peace. Sometime after she had asked me whether I could help her she said, ‘Teresa, read again that last letter from my sister. I have it here under my pillow.’ I read it to her as best I could, and as I finished she said to me, ‘Read it again, Teresa. Oh, if only my dear sister were here this minute!’ Twice again I read the letter, but still she was not satisfied. ‘Those last words, Teresa, Read them again to me, please.’ And again I read them.”
“Do you remember those last words, Teresa?” Catalina asked as she listened with rapt attention to the story she had heard so often from the lips of our old servant.
“I don’t remember all. I would have liked to have kept the letter. It was such a letter that would help any one to die, for it was certainly a treasure. But my poor madame wished to carry it to the tomb with her, and no doubt it is there yet in her hands, poor little angel. As I remember it, the letter concluded thus: ‘He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life, and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out!’ [John 6:37,47] ”
“I read these, the last words of the letter, a dozen times over to her and she seemed to take hold of them as a drowning man would grasp a board that floated by him—then without movement, with her eyes shut, she seemed to be sleeping, but every once in a while she appeared to be talking with someone.”
“Do you think she was praying, Teresa?” I asked in a trembling voice.
“Yes, Lisita, she was praying. And I am sure that the good God heard her, for she said to me after a long silence, ‘Teresa, I believe my Savior has taken me for His own—I am a poor, guilty, and ungrateful sinner—I have waited until the last moment, and I know my sins are great, but my Savior’s love is greater. But oh, my husband!—and my children! I have done nothing to attract them to God. Oh, Teresa, take care of them! Take care of them! I have put them in the hands of the Lord that He may save them also. I can do nothing and—it is too late!’
“She asked me to call your father who was resting in the next room, for he had watched all the previous night and had worked as usual all day. She could hardly speak, but as best she could she prayed him to be reconciled to God and to teach their children to know the way of salvation.”
“The strange thing to me, Teresa,” said Rosa thoughtfully, “is that our father who loved our mother so much, has not taught us this Christian religion according to our dear mother’s last wish.”
“That is the terrible part,” Teresa answered. “An awful change came on him at the death of your mother. He loved her desperately and when she died it seemed as if his heart turned to stone, and when I tried to console him he cried out bitterly, ‘Don’t speak to me of God, and don’t try to tell me He is a God of love. He took away my most precious treasure and tore my heart and my very life to pieces.’
“About a week after the death of my poor madame he called me to him and said, ‘Teresa, you are a good woman. You’ve brought up my dear Maria, carried her in your arms when she was small, and in your arms she drew her last breath. She commended her poor children into your hands, and I want you to remain forever at their side, but on one condition, remember—that you never speak to them again on the subject of religion, neither of prayer, nor of church, nor anything of the kind. Hear me well, Teresa! Hear me! I have prayed very little in my life, but on that last night when my dear wife passed away, if anyone prayed with all his heart and all his strength, I did so. Kneeling beside her bed, I promised God to serve Him, to bring up my children for Him, if He would only leave me my treasure. But He didn’t do it. Then why should I serve Him?’
“When I saw that it was useless to argue with him I promised what he asked. Just think, if I had been obliged to abandon you to a strange servant!” and Teresa viewed the three of us with those great blue eyes of hers full of affection for us.
“Oh,” I cried, trying to take her great fat body in my arms, “What would we have done without you!”
But Teresa, wanting very much to cry and yet trying hard not to show it, put me gently aside, saying, “There, there! You are making me lose a lot of time. Stand up, stand up! You have been on the floor at my feet for over half-an-hour like a little, purring kitten, and wearing out your stockings besides.”
And then continuing without awaiting my reply, “Well, I am only a poor, ignorant servant. If I can read, it is because my poor madame taught me. Nevertheless it has nearly broken my heart to see all three of you, and Louis besides, growing up like a bunch of heathen. And, what happiness prayer does bring one!”
“Do you pray, Teresa?” asked the wondering Rosa.
“Oh, at times. But see now, servants must do what they see their masters do. After the death of my poor madame I prayed often, but little by little I seemed to lose the habit. Your father hardly ever spoke to me, and excepting Catalina, you were all too small to understand important things, and the neighbors!—Oh, you know among our neighbors one never hears any prayers at their houses either. I would be so happy before I die to see the day when my poor madame’s prayers be heard regarding us.”
“It’s a shame,” said Rosa, “that Paula is so small. If she were only a few years older perhaps she could”—“I’ll tell you what’s a shame, and that is that she is coming at all,” interrupted Catalina with the return of her bad humor.
“Oh,” sighed Teresa, “poor little thing! What could she do at her age! A child of ten years will never be able to change your father’s ideas. The more you speak to him the worse he is. No, the one who has to change will be the child herself! She must learn to do as we do. I do hope she may not have to suffer too much. Of course, at her age she will adapt herself quickly to her surroundings, and after all, your father is a good-hearted man. There! At last the sock is done! It was time, for I cannot see any more. What a lovely day it has been! The fruit ought to ripen quickly with a few more days like this.”
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… it was the great clock of Darnetal that recalled us to the present.
“Nine o’clock!” exclaimed Teresa, “how the time has passed! Lisita! Off to bed!”
“Please, Teresa, let me stay a few minutes more; it’s lovely here by the open window.”
“Yes, it won’t be so lovely tomorrow morning when you must rise early to be in class on time. Isn’t that so? Now go, Lisita! No more nonsense!”
“Here, take this,” said Catalina, handing me a lovely orange that she had received; “You can have it if you go to bed immediately!”
“Oh,” I exclaimed beamingly; “I do love you so, dear Catalina.”
“Is it me or the orange that you love?”
“It’s you, and the orange, and Teresa, and Papa, and Rosa, and Louis, and Paula.”
“There, there! Go to bed,” said Catalina, disentangling herself from my arms. “If you don’t go to bed at once I will take away your orange.”
Laughing, I embraced her again, and Rosa, too, and then rushed off to my room, but not without slamming Catalina’s door with a noise that shook the whole house.