The Sisters

Miller’s doorbell rang loudly, insistently, as though demanding a response. Absorbed in his own grief, into which he had relapsed upon Carteret’s departure, the sound was an unwelcome intrusion. Surely the man could not be coming back! If it were someone else⁠—What else might happen to the doomed town concerned him not. His child was dead⁠—his distracted wife could not be left alone.

The doorbell rang⁠—clamorously⁠—appealingly. Through the long hall and the closed door of the room where he sat, he could hear someone knocking, and a faint voice calling.

“Open, for God’s sake, open!”

It was a woman’s voice⁠—the voice of a woman in distress. Slowly Miller rose and went to the door, which he opened mechanically.

A lady stood there, so near the image of his own wife, whom he had just left, that for a moment he was well-nigh startled. A little older, perhaps, a little fairer of complexion, but with the same form, the same features, marked by the same wild grief. She wore a loose wrapper, which clothed her like the drapery of a statue. Her long dark hair, the counterpart of his wife’s, had fallen down, and hung disheveled about her shoulders. There was blood upon her knuckles, where she had beaten with them upon the door. “Dr. Miller,” she panted, breathless from her flight and laying her hand upon his arm appealingly⁠—when he shrank from the contact she still held it there⁠—“Dr. Miller, you will come and save my child? You know what it is to lose a child! I am so sorry about your little boy! You will come to mine!”

“Your sorrow comes too late, madam,” he said harshly. “My child is dead. I charged your husband with his murder, and he could not deny it. Why should I save your husband’s child?”

“Ah, Dr. Miller!” she cried, with his wife’s voice⁠—she never knew how much, in that dark hour, she owed to that resemblance⁠—“it is my child, and I have never injured you. It is my child, Dr. Miller, my only child. I brought it into the world at the risk of my own life! I have nursed it, I have watched over it, I have prayed for it⁠—and it now lies dying! Oh, Dr. Miller, dear Dr. Miller, if you have a heart, come and save my child!”

“Madam,” he answered more gently, moved in spite of himself, “my heart is broken. My people lie dead upon the streets, at the hands of yours. The work of my life is in ashes⁠—and, yonder, stretched out in death, lies my own child! God! woman, you ask too much of human nature! Love, duty, sorrow, justice, call me here. I cannot go!”

She rose to her full height. “Then you are a murderer,” she cried wildly. “His blood be on your head, and a mother’s curse beside!”

The next moment, with a sudden revulsion of feeling, she had thrown herself at his feet⁠—at the feet of a negro, this proud white woman⁠—and was clasping his knees wildly.

“O God!” she prayed, in tones which quivered with anguish, “pardon my husband’s sins, and my own, and move this man’s hard heart, by the blood of thy Son, who died to save us all!”

It was the last appeal of poor humanity. When the pride of intellect and caste is broken; when we grovel in the dust of humiliation; when sickness and sorrow come, and the shadow of death falls upon us, and there is no hope elsewhere⁠—we turn to God, who sometimes swallows the insult, and answers the appeal.

Miller raised the lady to her feet. He had been deeply moved⁠—but he had been more deeply injured. This was his wife’s sister⁠—ah, yes! but a sister who had scorned and slighted and ignored the existence of his wife for all her life. Only Miller, of all the world, could have guessed what this had meant to Janet, and he had merely divined it through the clairvoyant sympathy of love. This woman could have no claim upon him because of this unacknowledged relationship. Yet, after all, she was his wife’s sister, his child’s kinswoman. She was a fellow creature, too, and in distress.

“Rise, madam,” he said, with a sudden inspiration, lifting her gently. “I will listen to you on one condition. My child lies dead in the adjoining room, his mother by his side. Go in there, and make your request of her. I will abide by her decision.”

The two women stood confronting each other across the body of the dead child, mute witness of this first meeting between two children of the same father. Standing thus face to face, each under the stress of the deepest emotions, the resemblance between them was even more striking than it had seemed to Miller when he had admitted Mrs. Carteret to the house. But Death, the great leveler, striking upon the one hand and threatening upon the other, had wrought a marvelous transformation in the bearing of the two women. The sad-eyed Janet towered erect, with menacing aspect, like an avenging goddess. The other, whose pride had been her life, stood in the attitude of a trembling suppliant.

You have come here,” cried Janet, pointing with a tragic gesture to the dead child⁠—“you, to gloat over your husband’s work. All my life you have hated and scorned and despised me. Your presence here insults me and my dead. What are you doing here?”

Mrs. Miller,” returned Mrs. Carteret tremulously, dazed for a moment by this outburst, and clasping her hands with an imploring gesture, “my child, my only child, is dying, and your husband alone can save his life. Ah, let me have my child,” she moaned, heart-rendingly. “It is my only one⁠—my sweet child⁠—my ewe lamb!”

“This was my only child!” replied the other mother; “and yours is no better to die than mine!”

“You are young,” said Mrs. Carteret, “and may yet have many children⁠—this is my only hope! If you have a human heart, tell your husband to come with me. He leaves it to you; he will do as you command.”

“Ah,” cried Janet, “I have a human heart, and therefore I will not let him go. My child is dead⁠—O God, my child, my child!”

She threw herself down by the bedside, sobbing hysterically. The other woman knelt beside her, and put her arm about her neck. For a moment Janet, absorbed in her grief, did not repulse her. “Listen,” pleaded Mrs. Carteret. “You will not let my baby die? You are my sister;⁠—the child is your own near kin!”

“My child was nearer,” returned Janet, rising again to her feet and shaking off the other woman’s arm. “He was my son, and I have seen him die. I have been your sister for twenty-five years, and you have only now, for the first time, called me so!”

“Listen⁠—sister,” returned Mrs. Carteret. Was there no way to move this woman? Her child lay dying, if he were not dead already. She would tell everything, and leave the rest to God. If it would save her child, she would shrink at no sacrifice. Whether the truth would still further incense Janet, or move her to mercy, she could not tell; she would leave the issue to God.

“Listen, sister!” she said. “I have a confession to make. You are my lawful sister. My father was married to your mother. You are entitled to his name, and to half his estate.”

Janet’s eyes flashed with bitter scorn.

“And you have robbed me all these years, and now tell me that as a reason why I should forgive the murder of my child?”

“No, no!” cried the other wildly, fearing the worst. “I have known of it only a few weeks⁠—since my Aunt Polly’s death. I had not meant to rob you⁠—I had meant to make restitution. Sister! for our father’s sake, who did you no wrong, give me my child’s life!”

Janet’s eyes slowly filled with tears⁠—bitter tears⁠—burning tears. For a moment even her grief at her child’s loss dropped to second place in her thoughts. This, then, was the recognition for which, all her life, she had longed in secret. It had come, after many days, and in larger measure than she had dreamed; but it had come, not with frank kindliness and sisterly love, but in a storm of blood and tears; not freely given, from an open heart, but extorted from a reluctant conscience by the agony of a mother’s fears. Janet had obtained her heart’s desire, and now that it was at her lips, found it but apples of Sodom, filled with dust and ashes!

“Listen!” she cried, dashing her tears aside. “I have but one word for you⁠—one last word⁠—and then I hope never to see your face again! My mother died of want, and I was brought up by the hand of charity. Now, when I have married a man who can supply my needs, you offer me back the money which you and your friends have robbed me of! You imagined that the shame of being a negro swallowed up every other ignominy⁠—and in your eyes I am a negro, though I am your sister, and you are white, and people have taken me for you on the streets⁠—and you, therefore, left me nameless all my life! Now, when an honest man has given me a name of which I can be proud, you offer me the one of which you robbed me, and of which I can make no use. For twenty-five years I, poor, despicable fool, would have kissed your feet for a word, a nod, a smile. Now, when this tardy recognition comes, for which I have waited so long, it is tainted with fraud and crime and blood, and I must pay for it with my child’s life!”

“And I must forfeit that of mine, it seems, for withholding it so long,” sobbed the other, as, tottering, she turned to go. “It is but just.”

“Stay⁠—do not go yet!” commanded Janet imperiously, her pride still keeping back her tears. “I have not done. I throw you back your father’s name, your father’s wealth, your sisterly recognition. I want none of them⁠—they are bought too dear! ah, God, they are bought too dear! But that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her, you may have your child’s life, if my husband can save it! Will,” she said, throwing open the door into the next room, “go with her!”

“God will bless you for a noble woman!” exclaimed Mrs. Carteret. “You do not mean all the cruel things you have said⁠—ah, no! I will see you again, and make you take them back; I cannot thank you now! Oh, doctor, let us go! I pray God we may not be too late!”

Together they went out into the night. Mrs. Carteret tottered under the stress of her emotions, and would have fallen, had not Miller caught and sustained her with his arm until they reached the house, where he turned over her fainting form to Carteret at the door.

“Is the child still alive?” asked Miller.

“Yes, thank God,” answered the father, “but nearly gone.”

“Come on up, Dr. Miller,” called Evans from the head of the stairs. “There’s time enough, but none to spare.”