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   Chapter 4 THE DEATH OF RUTH

The Scapegoat By Sir Hall Caine Characters: 15536

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


For all her joy and all her prettiness, Naomi was a burden which only love could bear. To think of the girl by day, and to dream of her by night, never to sit by her without pity of her helplessness, and never to leave her without dread of the mischances that might so easily befall, to see for her, to hear for her, to speak for her, truly the tyranny of the burden was terrible.

Ruth sank under it. Through seven years she was eyes of the child's eyes, and ears of her ears, and tongue of her tongue. After that her own sight became dim, and her hearing faint. It was almost as if she had spent them on Naomi in the yearning of dove and pity. Soon afterwards her bodily strength failed her also, and then she knew that her time had come, and that she was to lay down her burden for ever. But her burden had become dear, and she clung to it. She could not look upon the child and think it, that she, who had spent her strength for her from the first, must leave her now to other love and tending. So she betook herself to an upper room, and gave strict orders to Fatimah and Habeebah that Naomi was to be kept from her altogether, that sight of the child's helpless happy face might tempt her soul no more.

And there in her death-chamber Israel sat with her constantly, settling his countenance steadfastly, and coming and going softly. He was more constant than a slave, and more tender than a woman. His love was great, but also he was eating out his big heart with remorse. The root of his trouble was the child. He never talked of her, and neither did Ruth dwell upon her name. Yet they thought of little else while they sat together.

And even if they had been minded to talk of the child, what had they to say of her? They had no memories to recall, no sweet childish sayings, no simple broken speech, no pretty lisp-they had nothing to bring back out of any harvest of the past of all the dear delicious wealth that lies stored in the treasure-houses of the hearts of happy parents. That way everything was a waste. Always, as Israel entered her room, Ruth would say, "How is the child?" And always Israel would answer, "She is well." But, if at that moment Naomi's laughter came up to them from the patio, where she played with Ali, they would cover their faces and be silent.

It was a melancholy parting. No one came near them-neither Moor nor Jew, neither Rabbi nor elder. The idle women of the Mellah would sometimes stand outside in the street and look up at their house, knowing that the black camel of death was kneeling at their gate. Other company they had none. In such solitude they passed four weeks, and when the time of the end seemed near, Israel himself read aloud the prayer for the dying, the prayer Shema' Yisrael, and Ruth repeated the words of it after him.

Meantime, while Ruth lay in the upper chamber little Naomi sported and played in the patio with Ali, but she missed her mother constantly. This she made plain by many silent acts of helpless love that knew no way to speak aloud. Thus she would lay flowers on the seats where her mother had used to sit, and, if at night she found them untouched where she had left them, her little face would fall, and her laughter die off her lips; but if they had withered and some one had cast them into the oven, she would laugh again and fetch other flowers from the fields, until the house would be full of the odour of the meadow and the scent of the hill.

And well they knew, who looked upon her then, whom she missed, and what the question was that halted on her tongue; yet how could they answer her? There was no way to do that until she herself knew how to ask.

But this she did on a day near to the end. It was evening, and she was being put to bed by Habeebah, and had just risen from her innocent pantomime of prayer beside Ali, when Israel, coming from Ruth's chamber, entered the children's room. Then, touching with her hand the seat whereon Ruth had used to sit, Naomi laid down her head on the pillow, and then rose and lay down again, and rose yet again and rose yet again lay down, and then came to where Israel was and stood before him. And at that Israel knew that the soul of his helpless child had asked him, as plainly as words of the tongue can speak, how often she should lie to sleep at night and rise to play in the morning before her mother came to her again.

The tears gushed into his eyes, and he left the children and returned to his wife's chamber.

"Ruth," he cried, "call the child to you, I beseech you!"

"No, no, no!" cried Ruth.

"Let her come to you and touch you and kiss you, and be with you before it is too late," said Israel. "She misses you, and fills the house with flowers for you. It breaks my heart to see her."

"It will break mine also," said Ruth.

But she consented that Naomi should be called, and Fatimah was sent to fetch her.

The sun was setting, and through the window which looked out to the west, over the river and the orange orchards and the palpitating plains beyond, its dying rays came into the room in a bar of golden light. It fell at that instant on Ruth's face, and she was white and wasted. And through the other window of the room, which looked out over the Mellah into the town, and across the market-place to the mosque and to the battery on the hill, there came up from the darkening streets below the shuffle of the feet of a crowd and the sound of many voices. The Jews of Tetuan were trooping back to their own little quarter, that their Moorish masters might lock them into it for the night.

Naomi was already in bed, and Fatimah brought her away in her nightdress. She seemed to know where she was to be taken, for she laughed as Fatimah held her by the hand, and danced as she was led to her mother's chamber. But when she was come to the door of it, suddenly her laughter ceased, and her little face sobered, as if something in the close abode of pain had troubled the senses that were left to her.

It is, perhaps, the most touching experience of the deaf and blind that no greeting can ever welcome them. When Naomi stood like a little white vision at the threshold of the room, Israel took her hand in silence, and drew her up to the pillow of the bed where her mother rested, and in silence Ruth brought the child to her bosom.

For a moment Naomi seemed to be perplexed. She touched her mother's fingers, and they were changed, for they had grown thin and long. Then she felt her face, and that was changed also, for it was become withered and cold. And, missing the grasp of one and the smile of the other, she first turned her little head aside as one that listens closely, and then gently withdrew herself from the arms that held her.

Ruth had watched her with eyes that overflowed, and now she burst into sobs outright.

"The child does not know me!" she cried. "Did I not tell you it would break my heart?"

"Try her again," said Israel; "try her again."

Ruth devoured her tears, and called on Fatimah to bring the child back to her side. Then, loosening the necklace that was about her own neck, she bound it about the neck of Naomi, and also the bracelets that were on her wrists she unclasped and clasped them on the wrists of the child. This she did that Naomi might remember the hands that had been kind to her always. But when the child felt the ornaments she seemed only to know, by the quick instinct of a girl, that she was decked out bravely, and giving no thought to Ruth, who waited and watched for the grasp of recognition and the kiss of joy, she withdrew herself again from her mother's arms, and bounded into the middle of the room, and suddenly began to laugh and to dance.

The sun's dying light, which had rested on Ruth's wasted

face, now glistened and sparkled on the jewels of the child, and glowed on her blind eyes, and gleamed on her fair hair, and reddened her white nightdress, while she danced and laughed to her mother's death. Nothing did the child know of death, any more than Adam himself before Abel was slain, and it was almost as if a devil out of hell had entered into her innocent heart and possessed it, that she might make a mock of the dying of the dearest friend she had known on earth.

On and on she danced, to no measure and no time, and not with a child's uncertain step which breaks down at motion as its tongue breaks down at speech, but wildly and deliriously. The room was darkening fast, but still across the nether end, by the foot of the bed, streamed the dull red bar of sunlight with the little red figure leaping and prancing and laughing in the midst of it.

With an awful cry Ruth fell back on the pillow and turned her eyes to the wall. The black woman dropped her head that she might not see. And Israel covered his face and groaned in his tearless agony, "O Lord God, long hast Thou chastised me with whips, and now I am chastised with scorpions!"

Ruth recovered herself quickly. "Bring her to me again!" she faltered; and once more Fatimah brought Naomi back to the bedside. Then, embracing and kissing the child, and seeming to forget in the torment of her trouble that Naomi could not hear her, she cried, "It's your mother, Naomi! your mother, darling, though so sick and changed! Don't you know her, Naomi? Your mother, your own mother, sweet one, your dear mother who loves you so, and must leave you now and see you no more!"

Now what it was in that wild plea that touched the consciousness of the child at last, only God Himself can say. But first Naomi's cheeks grew pale at the embrace of the arms that held her, and then they reddened, and then her little nervous fingers grasped at Ruth's hands again, and then her little lips trembled, and then, at length, she flung herself along Ruth's bosom and nestled close in her embrace.

Ruth fell back on her pillow now with a cry of Joy; the black woman stood and wept by the wall and Israel, unable to bear up his heart any longer was melted and unmanned. The sun had gone down, and the room was darkening rapidly, for the twilight in that land is short; the streets were quiet, and the mooddin of the neighbouring minaret was chanting in the silence, "God is great, God is great!"

After awhile the little one fell asleep at her mother's bosom, and, seeing this, Fatimah would have lifted her away and carried her back to her own bed; but Ruth said, "No; leave her, let me have her with me while I may."

"No one shall take her from you," said Israel.

Then she gazed down at the child's face and said, "It is hard to leave her and never once to have heard her voice."

"That is the bitterest cup of all," said Israel.

"I shall not return to her," said Ruth, "but she shall come to me, and then, perhaps-who knows?-perhaps in the resurrection I shall hear it."

Israel made no answer.

Ruth gazed down at the child again, and said, "My helpless darling! Who will care for you when I am gone?"

"Rest, rest, and sleep!" said Israel.

"Ah, yes, I know," said Ruth. "How foolish of me! You are her father, and you love her also. Yet promise me-promise-"

"For love and tending she shall never lack," said Israel. "And now lie you still, my dearest; lie still and sleep."

She stretched out her hand to him. "Yes, that was what I meant," she said, and smiled. Then a shadow crossed her face in the gloom. "But when I am gone," she said, "will Naomi ever know that her mother who is dead had wronged her?"

"You have never wronged her," said Israel. "Have done, oh, have done!"

"God punished us for our prayer, my husband," said Ruth.

"Peace, peace!" said Israel.

"But God is good," said Ruth, "and surely He will not afflict our child much longer."

"Hush! Hush! You will awaken her," said Israel, not thinking what he said. "Now lie still and sleep, dearest. You are tired also."

She lay quiet for a time, gazing, while the light remained, into the face of the sleeping child, and listening, when the light failed, to her gentle breathing. Then she babbled and crooned over her with a childish joy. "Yes, yes, father is right, and mother must lie quiet-very quiet, and so her little Naomi will sleep long-very long, and wake happy and well in the morning. How bonny she will look! How fresh and rosy!"

She paused a moment. Her laboured breathing came quick and fast. "But shall I be here to see her? shall I?"

She paused again, and then, as though to banish thought, she began to sing in a low voice that was like a moan. Presently her singing ceased, and she spoke again, but this time in broken whispers.

"How soft and glossy her hair is! I wonder if Fatimah will remember to wash it every day. She should twist it around her fingers to keep it in pretty curls. . . . Oh, why did God make my child so beautiful?. . . . Dear me, her morning frock wanted stitching at the sleeves, it's a chance if Habeebah has seen to it. Then there's her underclothing. . . . Will she be deaf and blind and dumb always? I wonder if I shall see her when I. . . . They say that angels are sent. . . . Yes, yes, that's it, when I am there-there-I will go to God and say, 'O Lord! my little girl whom I have left behind, she is. . . . You would never think, O Lord, how many things may happen to one like her. Let me go-only let me watch over her-O Lord, let me be her guar-'"

Her weakness had conquered her, and she was quiet at last. Israel sat in silence by the post of the bed. His heart was surging itself out of his choking breast. The black woman stood somewhere by the wall. After a time Ruth seemed to awake as from sleep. She was in great excitement.

"Israel, Israel!" she cried in a voice of joy, "I have seen a vision. It was Naomi. She was no longer deaf and blind and dumb. She was grown to be a woman, but I knew her instantly. Not a woman either, but a young maiden, and so beautiful, so beautiful! Yes, and she could see and hear and speak."

Israel thought Ruth had become delirious, and he tried to soothe her, but her agitation was not to be overcome. "The Lord hath seen our tears at last," she cried. "He has put our sin beneath His feet. We are forgiven. It will be well with the child yet."

Israel did not try to gainsay her, and at sight and sound of her joy, seeing it so beautiful, yet thinking it so vain, he could not help at last but weep. Presently she became quiet again, and then again, after a little while, she woke as from a sleep.

"I am ready now," she said in a whisper, "quite ready, sweet Heaven, quite, quite ready now."

Then with her one free hand she felt in the darkness for Israel, where he sat beside her, and touching his forehead she smoothed it, and said very softly, "Farewell, my husband!"

And Israel answered her, "Farewell!"

"Good-night!" she whispered.

And Israel drew down her hand from his forehead to his lips and sobbed, and said, "Good-night, beloved!"

Then she put her white lips to the child's blind eyes, and at that moment the spirit of the Lord came to her, and the Lord took her, and she died.

When lamps had been brought into the room, and Fatimah saw that the end had come, she would have lifted Naomi from Ruth's bosom, but the child awoke as she was being moved, and clasped her little fingers about the dead mother's neck and covered the mouth with kisses. And when she felt that the lips did not answer to her lips, and that the arms which had held her did not hold her any longer, but fell away useless, she clung the closer, and tears started to her eyes.

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