Emily's Quest

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Aunt Elizabeth wakened her at two. She had been sent for. Mr. Carpenter was asking for her.

"Is he—worse?" asked Emily, slipping out of her high, black bed with its carved posts.

"Dying," said Aunt Elizabeth briefly. "Dr. Burnley says he can't last till morning."

Something in Emily's face touched Aunt Elizabeth.

"Isn't it better for him, Emily," she said with an unusual gentleness. "He is old and tired. His wife has gone—they will not give him the school another year. His old age would be very lonely. Death is his best friend."

"I am thinking of myself," choked Emily.

She went down to Mr. Carpenter's house, through the dark, beautiful spring night. Aunt Louisa was crying but Emily did not cry. Mr. Carpenter opened his eyes and smiled at her—the same old, sly smile.

"No tears," he murmured. "I forbid tears at my deathbed. Let Louisa Drummond do the crying out in the kitchen. She might as well earn her money that way as another. There's nothing more she can do for me."

"Is there anything I can do?" asked Emily.

"Just sit here where I can see you till I'm gone, that's all. One doesn't like to go out—alone. Never liked the thought of dying alone. How many old she-weasels are out in the kitchen waiting for me to die?"

"There are only Aunt Louisa and Aunt Elizabeth," said Emily, unable to repress a smile.

"Don't mind my not—talking much. I've been talking—all my life. Through now. No breath—left. But if I think of anything—like you to be here."

Mr. Carpenter closed his eyes and relapsed into silence. Emily sat quietly, her head a soft blur of darkness against the window that was beginning to whiten with dawn. The ghostly hands of a fitful wind played with her hair. The perfume of June lilies stole in from the bed under the open window—a haunting odour, sweeter than music, like all the lost perfumes of old, unutterably dear years. Far off, two beautiful, slender, black firs, of exactly the same height, came out against the silver dawn-lit sky like the twin spires of some Gothic cathedral rising out of a bank of silver mist. Just between them hung a dim old moon, as beautiful as the evening crescent. Their beauty was a comfort and stimulant to Emily under the stress of this strange vigil. Whatever passed—whatever came—beauty like this was eternal.

Now and then Aunt Louisa came in and looked at the old man. Mr. Carpenter seemed unconscious of these visitations but always when she went out he opened his eyes and winked at Emily. Emily found herself winking back, somewhat to her own horror—for she had sufficient Murray in her to be slightly scandalized over deathbed winks. Fancy what Aunt Elizabeth would say.

"Good little sport," muttered Mr. Carpenter after the second exchange of winks. "Glad—you're there."

At three o'clock he grew rather restless. Aunt Louisa came in again.

"He can't die till the tide goes out, you know," she explained to Emily in a solemn whisper.

"Get out of this with your superstitious blather," said Mr. Carpenter loudly and clearly. "I'll die when I'm d—n well ready, tide or no tide."

Horrified Aunt Louisa excused him to Emily on the ground that he was wandering in his mind and slipped out.

"Excuse my common way, won't you?" said Mr. Carpenter. "I had to shock her out. Couldn't have that elderly female person—round watching me die. Given her—a good yarn to tell—the rest of her—life. Awful—warning. And yet—she's a good soul. So good—she bores me. No evil in her. Somehow—one needs—a spice—of evil—in every personality. It's the—pinch of—salt—that brings out—the flavour."

Another silence. Then he added gravely,

"Trouble is—the Cook—makes the pinch—too large—in most cases. Inexperienced Cook—wiser after—a few eternities."

Emily thought he really was "wandering" now but he smiled at her.

"Glad you're here—little pal. Don't mind being—here—do you?"

"No," said Emily.

"When a Murray says—no—she means it."

After another silence Mr. Carpenter began again, this time more to himself, as it seemed, than anyone else.

"Going out—out beyond the dawn. Past the morning star. Used to think I'd be frightened. Not frightened. Funny. Think how much I'm going to know—in just a few more minutes, Emily. Wiser than anybody else living. Always wanted to know—to know.Never liked guesses. Done with curiosity—about life. Just curious now—about death. I'll know the truth, Emily—just a few more minutes and I'll know the—truth. No more guessing. And if—it's as I think—I'll be—young again. You can't know what—it means. You—who are young—can't have—the least idea—what it means—to be young—again."

His voice sank into restless muttering for a time, then rose clearly,

"Emily, promise me—that you'll never write—to please anybody—but yourself."

Emily hesitated a moment. Just what did such a promise mean?

"Promise," whispered Mr. Carpenter insistently.

Emily promised.

"That's right," said Mr. Carpenter with a sigh of relief. "Keep that—and you'll be—all right. No use trying to please everybody. No use trying to please—critics. Live under your own hat. Don't be—led away—by those howls about realism. Remember—pine woods are just as real as—pigsties—and a darn sight pleasanter to be in. You'll get there—sometime—you have the root—of the matter—in you. And don't—tell the world—everything. That's what's the—matter—with our—literature. Lost the charm of mystery—and reserve. There's something else I wanted to say—some caution—I can't—seem to remember—"

"Don't try," said Emily gently. "Don't tire yourself."

"Not—tired. Feel quite through—with being tired. I'm dying—I'm a failure—poor as a rat. But after all, Emily—I've had a—darned interesting time."

Mr. Carpenter shut his eyes and looked so deathlike that Emily made an involuntary movement of alarm. He lifted a bleached hand.

"No—don't call her. Don't call that weeping lady back. Just yourself, little Emily of New Moon. Clever little girl, Emily. What was it—I wanted to say to her?"

A moment or two later he opened his eyes and said in a loud, clear voice, "Open the door—open the door. Death must not be kept waiting."

Emily ran to the little door and set it wide. A strong wind of the grey sea rushed in. Aunt Louisa ran in from the kitchen.

"The tide has turned—he's going out with it—he's gone."

Not quite. As Emily bent over him the keen, shaggy-brown eyes opened for the last time. Mr. Carpenter essayed a wink but could not compass it.

"I've—thought of it," he whispered. "Beware—of—italics."

Was there a little impish chuckle at the end of the words? Aunt Louisa always declared there was. Graceless old Mr. Carpenter had died laughing—saying something about Italians. Of course he was delirious. But Aunt Louisa always felt it had been a very unedifying deathbed. She was thankful that few such had come in her experience.

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