Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match. Rickie and Mr. Pembroke were on the ground when the accident took place. It was no good torturing him by a drive to the hospital, and he was merely carried to the little pavilion and laid upon the floor. A doctor came, and so did a clergyman, but it seemed better to leave him for the last few minutes with Agnes, who had ridden down on her bicycle.
It was a strange lamentable interview. The girl was so accustomed to health, that for a time she could not understand. It must be a joke that he chose to lie there in the dust, with a rug over him and his knees bent up towards his chin. His arms were as she knew them, and their admirable muscles showed clear and clean beneath the jersey. The face, too, though a little flushed, was uninjured: it must be some curious joke.
"Gerald, what have you been doing?"
He replied, "I can't see you. It's too dark."
"Oh, I'll soon alter that," she said in her old brisk way. She opened the pavilion door. The people who were standing by it moved aside. She saw a deserted meadow, steaming and grey, and beyond it slateroofed cottages, row beside row, climbing a shapeless hill. Towards London the sky was yellow. "There. That's better." She sat down by him again, and drew his hand into her own. "Now we are all right, aren't we?"
"Where are you?"
This time she could not reply.
"What is it? Where am I going?"
"Wasn't the rector here?" said she after a silence.
"He explained heaven, and thinks that I--but--I couldn't tell a parson; but I don't seem to have any use for any of the things there."
"We are Christians," said Agnes shyly. "Dear love, we don't talk about these things, but we believe them. I think that you will get well and be as strong again as ever; but, in any case, there is a spiritual life, and we know that some day you and I--"
"I shan't do as a spirit," he interrupted, sighing pitifully. "I want you as I am, and it cannot be managed. The rector had to say so. I want--I don't want to talk. I can't see you. Shut that door."
She obeyed, and crept into his arms. Only this time her grasp was the stronger. Her heart beat louder and louder as the sound of his grew more faint. He was crying like a little frightened child, and her lips were wet with his tears. "Bear it bravely," she told him.
"I can't," he whispered. "It isn't to be done. I can't see you," and passed from her trembling with open eyes.
She rode home on her bicycle, leaving the others to follow. Some ladies who did not know what had happened bowed and smiled as she passed, and she returned their salute.
"Oh, miss, is it true?" cried the cook, her face streaming with tears.
Agnes nodded. Presumably it was true. Letters had just arrived: one was for Gerald from his mother. Life, which had given them no warning, seemed to make no comment now. The incident was outside nature, and would surely pass away like a dream. She felt slightly irritable, and the grief of the servants annoyed her.
They sobbed. "Ah, look at his marks! Ah, little he thought-- little he thought!" In the brown holland strip by the front door a heavy football boot had left its impress. They had not liked Gerald, but he was a man, they were women, he had died. Their mistress ordered them to leave her.
For many minutes she sat at the foot of the stairs, rubbing her eyes. An obscure spiritual crisis was going on.
Should she weep like the servants? Or should she bear up and trust in the consoler Time? Was the death of a man so terrible after all? As she invited herself to apathy there were steps on the gravel, and Rickie Elliot burst in. He was splashed with mud, his breath was gone, and his hair fell wildly over his meagre face. She thought, "These are the people who are left alive!" From the bottom of her soul she hated him.
"I came to see what you're doing," he cried.
He knelt beside her, and she said, "Would you please go away?"
"Yes, dear Agnes, of course; but I must see first that you mind." Her breath caught. Her eves moved to the treads, going outwards, so firmly, so irretrievably.
He panted, "It's the worst thing that can ever happen to you in all your life, and you've got to mind it you've got to mind it. They'll come saying, 'Bear up trust to time.' No, no; they're wrong. Mind it."
Through all her misery she knew that this boy was greater than they supposed. He rose to his feet, and with intense conviction cried: "But I know--I understand. It's your death as well as his. He's gone, Agnes, and his arms will never hold you again. In God's name, mind such a thing, and don't sit fencing with your soul. Don't stop being great; that's the one crime he'll never forgive you."
She faltered, "Who--who forgives?"
At the sound of his name she slid forward, and all her dishonesty left her. She acknowledged that life's meaning had vanished. Bending down, she kissed the footprint. "How can he forgive me?" she sobbed. "Where has he gone to? You could never dream such an awful thing. He couldn't see me though I opened the door--wide-- plenty of light; and then he could not remember the things that should comfort him. He wasn't a--he wasn't ever a great reader, and he couldn't remember the things. The rector tried, and he couldn't--I came, and I couldn't--" She could not speak for tears. Rickie did not check her. He let her accuse herself, and fate, and Herbert, who had postponed their marriage. She might have been a wife six months; but Herbert had spoken of self-control and of all life before them. He let her kiss the footprints till their marks gave way to the marks of her lips. She moaned. "He is gone--where is he?" and then he replied quite quietly, "He is in heaven."
She begged him not to comfort her; she could not bear it.
"I did not come to comfort you. I came to see that you mind. He is in heaven, Agnes. The greatest thing is over."
Her hatred was lulled. She murmured, "Dear Rickie!" and held up her hand to him. Through her tears his meagre face showed as a seraph's who spoke the truth and forbade her to juggle with her soul. "Dear Rickie--but for the rest of my life what am I to do?"
"Anything--if you remember that the greatest thing is over."
"I don't know you," she said tremulously. "You have grown up in a moment. You never talked to us, and yet you understand it all. Tell me again--I can only trust you--where he is."
"He is in heaven."
"You are sure?"
It puzzled her that Rickie, who could scarcely tell you the time without a saving clause, should be so certain about immortality.
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