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Miracle in the rain.


Miss Ullman believed that a miracle had happened, because she was certain that Saint Andrew had saved her friend from death. A miracle thus entering the little bookkeeper's life, which heretofore had been barren even of events, overwhelmed all her days. As the one who had led the grieving girl to the cathedral, Miss Ullman felt a proprietary interest in the miracle. Her dried little face shone with the great secret, and her heart was filled with joy. Although the miracle had not been for her, she was so thrilled by her nearness to the wonder that even the musty office in which she had toiled so monotonously for 20 years became a place of enchantment. And there were great riches in the musty room that looked out on the brick wall, for here she sat frantically hugging the knowledge of grace that had come from heaven.

In the office Miss Ullman managed to remain a little bookkeeper with a steady eye for the profundities of her ledgers. But after hours she flew from bookstore to bookstore, inquiring for books about the first friend of Christ. "We ought to know something about him," she explained to Ruth, "because he's doing so much."

But they could find out nothing. Apparently, no books had ever been written about this man, famed so long ago for his self-effacement. There were many books about other saints, whole shelves of them, but store after store reported that no information existed about Saint Andrew. This pleased Ruth. She preferred her saint unattended and uncelebrated, as he had been the evening she had found him standing in the shadows. That was why she could talk to him, because he knew, without her explaining anything, how it felt to be hidden in a dark corner.

In her room one evening, Miss Ullman spoke to her friend about taking their long-deferred vacation together. All summer Ruth had refused to leave Saint Andrew.

"I couldn't go away," Ruth said. "I really can't."

"You mean about the candles," said Miss Ullman.

Ruth nodded.

"We could arrange to have someone else put them there," Miss Ullman said.

"You go first"--Ruth shook her head--"and when you come back maybe I'll go somewhere. But I don't want to, really. I want to stay here."

She looked out of the window at the brick wall with so rapt a smile Miss Ullman knew this was best.

When the little bookkeeper had boarded the train for the country a few weeks later, she was worried about her friend, who had caught cold. It was a chilly October day, and Ruth was sneezing a great deal.

"Take care of yourself," Miss Ullman cautioned, "because you mustn't get sick while I'm away."

"I won't, don't worry," said Ruth, and then, in a low voice, added, "Write me; don't forget."

The train started and Ruth watched it with a dizzy head. Her temples throbbed and her hands felt hot. She came into the street where a gloomy afternoon hung like a cold cloud. It was Saturday and her work was done. She took a bus to the cathedral.

Inside she procured fresh candles and placed them in in front of her saint. She knelt, whispering for a long time, and the glowing statue swam before her. Her body felt watery, her mouth was dry and her words became mixed up. But despite all these things, she felt happy and continued relating to Saint Andrew the manner in which her soldier had said good-bye to her. "He was very unhappy," she whispered, "just as I was. And I don't know how long he held me in his arms. But it was a very long time, and then he said, 'Write me letters, lots of letters,' and he said he loved me."

It was night when she was done telling of these matters to Saint Andrew and whispering her last words, "Oh, please take care of him." She felt so warm and dizzy that she was almost unable to walk down the steps outside the cathedral.

After supper she went to bed and her moth sat beside her. She fell asleep with her mother's hand on her forehead. On Sunday, Ruth stayed in bed till the afternoon. Her mother watched her with sad, faraway eyes when she got up and dressed.

"I'll be back soon," she said, and hurried off to the cathedral. Here there were many people at worship, and the organ was playing. Ruth was aware of none of these things. She stood in the back of the great, hollow room for a time until her legs grew strong enough to walk. Then she made her way unsteadily down the aisle to Saint Andrew. She put new candles in place and knelt before the shrine. But she was too dizzy to whisper. After many minutes she looked up at the glowing face of her friend and said, "Darling, please write me a letter."

Then she fell forward. One of the priests who had often seen her kneeling at the shrine came to her and lif ted her up. Her purse yielded her name and address and a doctor was called. She was taken home and put to bed. The doctor said she had pneumonia of an active sort and must remain in bed for several weeks.

Ruth lay for five days, attended at intervals by the doctor. On the night of the fifth day she opened her eyes and looked weakly around her. Her mother was sitting in the dark, staring out of the bedroom window. Ruth heard a sound that confused her. She listened a long time and recognized the rain falling. Too weak to move, she lay with her eyes open and gleaming and listened to the wild hammer of the rain in the dark.

Suddenly an anxiety came to her. There was something wrong, something she could not find in her dim mind. She tried to think what it was. After a long time it came to her. She saw the dark niche and the statue, unfestive and unattended. There were no candles around her saint. He was standing in the shadows.

The sick girl pushed herself upright in her bed. Her body felt made of paper, but she found strength with which to dress. She dressed slowly, careful not to tumble over. Her mother watched her in silence and Ruth smiled. This time she was pleased that her mother never spoke, for she would have said something wrong. She would have said, "Don't go out, Ruth. You're very sick and it's raining hard. You can't walk. You have a fever. You mustn't go."

The words grew faint in the girl's mind and she stood fully dressed. The pains and discomforts had all left her. There remained only a lightness, as if wings were moving her out of the dark apartment into the rain-bounding street.

The night exploded around her. Cold wind and sharp rain roared in the dark. Heedless of the storm, the sick girl moved through the splashing street and saw only a shadowed figure waiting for her candles. She continued onward, down streets filled with storm, and she no longer knew where she was going. She could see the place in her mind--the hushed, high room, the shadows beating like wings under the vaulted ceiling, the shrines glowing with red and yellow cups. It seemed so close and so real that she smiled into the downpour and continued moving through it, dreaming that each step must bring her into the vision before her eyes.

The dream grew brighter, and she no longer knew if she were still moving in the rain or already standing in the cathedral. She paused, bewildered by a burst of thunder, and the storm beat her against a dark wall. Here a voice suddenly spoke to her. She turned and looked into the wild night.

"Ruthie," said the voice. "Good heavens, I'm glad I caught you. Come in here and let me look at you. Oh, Ruthie, let me look at your face."

It was Private Hugenon, grinning from ear to ear.

"Art!" she said. "Oh, Art, is it really you?"

"It isn't the king of England," said the solider, and he stood beaming at her until she thought she must faint for joy.

"You've come back," she whispered.

"Of course I've come back," Private Hungenon laughed. "What did you think--I'd stay away? Ruthie, I'm so glad to see you I'm going to start yelling like an Indian."

"You didn't write me," Ruth whispered.

"You can't send letters when there are no mailmen," said Private Hugenon. "What this war needs is more mailmen at the front."

"Oh, Art," Ruth said with a gasp, "you've come back!" Her eyes stayed on him hungrily. "You're just the same," she whispered. "Tell me, is everything else still the same as it was?"

"Infinitely worse." Private Hugenon's smoky eyes smiled on her. "I love you so much I can't sleep or eat or anything. It was like living cast away in a jungle, without you. Come here: I want to hold you. Remember, it was raining like this when I saw you the first time? Remember?"

"Oh, yes," said Ruth.

"I got all your letters," said Private Hugenon, with his arms around her. "And look." He removed an object that hung from his neck. "Remember this?" "It's the lucky piece I gave You," said Ruth.

"The genuine old Roman coin," Private Art Hugenon said softly. "Here, you keep it now, I don't need it any more."

"You're not going back?" Ruth's hands clung to him.

"No, nevermore," said the soldier. "I'm here to stay. Like this--With you in my arms forever and ever."

She raised her face, glowing as if many candles were burning about her head, and Private Hugenon pressed his lips against hers.

Two days later Miss Ullman came back to her office. She had been worried over not hearing from Ruth. She looked nervously at the girl's empty desk and went directly into Mr. Jalonick's office.

Mr. Jalonick looked very serious. He told her that the police had called him an hour ago and notified him that Ruth Wood was dead. A priest had identified her. She had been lying in the morgue unclaimed since Wednesday.

Miss Ullman stared a long time at her employer and then said slowly, "It can't be." She was thinking of Saint Andrew.

The heart of the little bookkeeper was heavy and dark as she entered the long, boxlike building of the morgue. She wandered through the half-lit corridors of this terminus until she came to a door marked BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS.

The police lieutenant nodded at the small gray-haired woman weeping beside his desk.

"Yes," he said kindly, "we found her in the street the morning after the big storm. I guess she must have been out of her head, because she had pneumonia and evidently got up out of bed while delirious and tried to go somewhere."

"Yes, I know," said Miss Ullman. "Could I see her just once, please?"

"Sure," said the policeman.

Miss Ullman was led into the room of the dead. The lieutenant pulled back the sheet on one of the slabs. Ruth's face, thin and white, looked up at them. The wasted cheeks and the fever-thinned mouth of the young woman were fixed as if she were in a deep, childlike sleep.

"She has something in her hand," said Miss Ullman, after a long pause. "Look, she's holding something."

"That's right," said the lieutenant. "I hadn't noticed."

He uncurled the clenched fingers and removed a small object.

"What is it? Do you know?" He held it up in front of her.

Miss Ullman stood staring at the thing in his hand. She was unable to speak, because something very much like fright pounded in her heart. Staring and with her mouth opened, Miss Ullman managed to take one, small step nearer to the lieutenant.

"Oh, my!" she moaned. "Oh, look at it! Oh, my!"

She was looking at a coin--and old roman coin with a hole in its top. Printed on its edge in crude letters was the Latin phrase for "The Era of Vespasian."

"Do you know what it is?" the lieutenant repeated.

"Yes," said the little bookkeeper in a whispher. "It's a genuine Roman coin. It belonged to somebody who--"

But Miss Ullman did not finish her statement. Her face grew radiant. She smiled wildly at the coin and at the gentle face of her dead friend. Then she fell to her knees and began praying, and her squeaky little voice, rapt and joyous, filled the room of the dead.
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Title Annotation:short story; conclusion
Author:Hecht, Ben
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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