MRS. WARRINGTON bent lower over her embroidery frame, her pretty eyebrows drawing together petulant.
"Do go and play children," she said sharply, "there is Celeste down on the beach. Tell her I said for her to amuse you. I don't know what has come over Celeste," she added to her sister as the children trooped off lakeward. "Last summer she was simply perfect and now she is so moody and discontented. But then–these Creoles–what can one expect of them?
Down on the beach Celeste, gazing fixedly out over the sunny water, did not notice the approach of the children. "I b'lieve," she was saying wearily, "ze good God ees dead."
Tommy stopped short and turned a somersault on the soft sand. "Bully for him!" he cried with enthusiasm. "I never did think much of him anyway."
Agnes, two years his senior, looked down on Tommy's prostrate form reprovingly. "It is not the thing to speak so of God," she said in her severest tones. "What would Mamma say?"
"I don't care!" cried Tommy, unrepentant. "He's always peeking at us. Mamma said so herself, "Thou God seest me,' so there now!"
"Tell about Dod p'ease." Little Dorothy knelt down beside Celeste with troubled eyes. "Is he dood, Celeste? Does he peek?"
"I don't know much 'bout heem myself. I b'lieve eet ees two Gods somewhere. One ze priest's boss he say. He ees make angry if we do not pay ze priest."
"Is he the one that sends people to hell?" Tommy inquired cheerfully.
A spasm of pain crossed the girl's face, but the unheeding children pressed closer.
"Is he?" they asked.
"I b'lieve so, yes." She spoke low and bitterly.
"Now tell about the other one," they demanded.
"I don't know much 'bout zat one. I go two -t'ree time, to Sunday school an' a lady tol' me 'bout heem. He love everybody, she say. He love me. Maybe eet ees lies. Ze priest say eet ees lies."
The children pressed closer with their eager questions but Celeste shrank back with a sudden irrepressible gesture as though they were stifling her. Then she remembered and sprang to her feet.
"Eet ees hide and seek we will play," she said. "I my eyes will hide by ze big tree and youall will hide you selfs."
She ran across to the great live oak and leaned against it wearily. Ever since she could remember she had loved this tree; she had told it her secrets when a child. And standing there helpless, hopeless, her hot face pressed hard against the rough gray bark, she told it her secret now.
"He is dead," she whispered in the mother tongue she had spoken to it in her childhood. "He is dead, mon ami, mon cher ami! He is in purgatory–he will go to hell." She shuddered and leaned closer to the sheltering tree
When her turn came to hide she ran a long way down the beach and crept under the old wharf. Here for a little while she could be alone with no cold or curious eyes to sting her into stoicism. "She is little more than a child," Mrs. Warrington had said of her, but this was a woman's weeping.
"O blessed Virgin," she sobbed, "Mother of God! he has no mother–no father–on earth; no one to pay the priest. O Blessed Mother, he must burn forever because no one will pay the priest. Holy mother"–the girl's voice stopped suddenly. She lay motionless for a long time neither sobbing nor trembling. Then she spoke, in a hard, changed voice.
"I hate them both," she said. "I hate the priest and I hate God." She raised herself on her elbow and looked out over the sunny waters of the lake with something like a smile in her eyes.
"Now they will send me to hell, too," she said "I can stay there–with him.'
"Ha! I've found you at last, Celeste," cried Tommy's voice at the end of the wharf. "What are you talking French for? Come out of your hide. It's no fair to come so far. It's mean–so there now!"
In the early evening, Mrs. Warrington's family and servants gathered in the dining-room for "family worship"–a regular feature of grandpa's visits that had the charm of novelty for the children. Even Tommy listened this evening to the story of Dives and Lazarus.
"Say, grandpa," he interrupted in the midst of the scripture reading, "What is hell like?" Celeste leaned forward from her corner, listening eagerly for the answer. The old man's frown at the child's interruption passed as he noticed her interest. Here was an opportunity to save a soul, as a brand plucked from the burning.
"Hell," he said impressively, "is a lake of fire like a burning fiery furnace."
Across the girl's face flitted a strange, defiant smile. How gladly she would lie in the midst of it–with him.
"She is under conviction," the old man thought, "she is hardening her heart."
"Ain't there any land?" asked Tommy.
"Yes, but the land 'burns solid as the lake with liquid fire.' The torment, the pain is awful," he continued, trying to use simple words so the girl could understand. "But this torment must be suffered by all the enemies of God–all who hate God."
The girl's head lifted proudly. She met his stem gaze with a look of exultation.
Can you imagine," the old man went on, more sternly, "how it would feel to put your hand in the stove and hold it there till the flesh burned and shriveled and fell from the bones? Hell is like that, only worse. The whole body must burn–and forever. There can never, never be even one little moment of rest or happiness."
Celeste's wide eyes held a look of horror now, that touched even the gray old inquisitor's heart.
"If you will repent," he began in his kindest tone, but the girl sprang up suddenly and fled from the room.
"He is there, in torment now." The thought drove her up to the bare little attic room where, prone on the floor, shivering and moaning in tearless agony, she tried to think of some way to save him. She could go to him. This privilege no one could take from her; but she could bring him no moment of rest or happiness–not even a drop of water to cool his burning tongue. Would her kisses bring joy to him as they used to do? Could God make even her kisses bring pain to him and torment?
The old man's droning voice came up from the room below, praying for "all those who resist the leading of Thy spirit and walk with open eyes the path of destruction." Years afterwards that voice droned on in her ears like the sounds that haunt us in the delirium of fever.
"I must save him now!" she cried, "now, while the priest has power to pray him out of purgatory. There is only one way." She had thought of that way before, and had thrust it from her as a temptation of the devil, but now–"There is no other way," she said. "I will try," and a breath of hope came back into her heart.
* * * *
"It was such a shock to my nerves," Mrs. Warrington complained to her sister the next evening. "She seemed a really good girl, and to think of her stealing–actually stealing–and me! And Mr. Warrington will not prosecute her; he saw the way she looked when I caught her in the act. She did look doleful, of course, but that's no sign she won't do it again.
"Did I tell you that her father brought her back this morning? He was in a fearful rage, but I really believe he was angrier with me for not taking her back than he was with her for stealing. He had been collecting all her wages, you know. He gave her the most inhuman beating right here before our door. Mr. Warrington was not here and I did not attempt to stop him. I only hope she will profit by the lesson all her life. I would have felt sorry for her, but sympathy is wasted on such creatures. It's merely casting pearls before swine. They don't feel disgrace or anything–as we would."
"Oh no," agreed Mrs. Warrington's sister tranquilly, "of course not. How unfortunate, isn't it? I'm afraid your summer is spoiled entirely; it's so hard to get servants here."