Not possible to conceive of rarer beauty than that which clung about the summer day three years ago when first we had the news of the poor Herds. Loveliness was a net of golden filaments in which the world was caught. It was gravity itself, so tranquil; and it was a sort of intoxicating laughter. From the top field that we crossed to go down to their cottage, all the far sweep of those outstretched wings of beauty could be seen. Very wonderful was the poise of the sacred bird, that moved nowhere but in our hearts. The lime-tree scent was just stealing out into air for some days already bereft of the scent of hay; and the sun was falling to his evening home behind our pines and beeches. It was no more than radiant warm. And, as we went, we wondered why we had not been told before that Mrs. Herd was so very ill. It was foolish to wonder--these people do not speak of suffering till it is late. To speak, when it means what this meant loss of wife and mother--was to flatter reality too much. To be healthy, or--die! That is their creed. To go on till they drop--then very soon pass away! What room for states between--on their poor wage, in their poor cottages?
We crossed the mill-stream in the hollow--to their white, thatched dwelling; silent, already awed, almost resentful of this so-varying Scheme of Things. At the gateway Herd himself was standing, just in from his work. For work in the country does not wait on illness--even death claims from its onlookers but a few hours, birth none at all, and it is as well; for what must be must, and in work alone man rests from grief. Sorrow and anxiety had made strange alteration already in Herd's face. Through every crevice of the rough, stolid mask the spirit was peeping, a sort of quivering suppliant, that seemed to ask all the time: "Is it true?" A regular cottager's figure, this of Herd's--a labourer of these parts--strong, slow, but active, with just a touch of the untamed somewhere, about the swing and carriage of him, about the strong jaw, and wide thick-lipped mouth; just that something independent, which, in great variety, clings to the natives of these still remote, half-pagan valleys by the moor.
We all moved silently to the lee of the outer wall, so that our voices might not carry up to the sick woman lying there under the eaves, almost within hand reach. "Yes, sir." "No, sir." "Yes, ma'am." This, and the constant, unforgettable supplication of his eyes, was all that came from him; yet he seemed loath to let us go, as though he thought we had some mysterious power to help him--the magic, perhaps, of money, to those who have none. Grateful at our promise of another doctor, a specialist, he yet seemed with his eyes to say that he knew that such were only embroideries of Fate. And when we had wrung his hand and gone, we heard him coming after us: His wife had said she would like to see us, please. Would we come up?
An old woman and Mrs. Herd's sister were in the sitting-room; they showed us to the crazy, narrow stairway. Though we lived distant but four hundred yards of a crow's flight, we had never seen Mrs. Herd before, for that is the way of things in this land of minding one's own business--a slight, dark, girlish-looking woman, almost quite refined away, and with those eyes of the dying, where the spirit is coming through, as it only does when it knows that all is over except just the passing. She lay in a double bed, with clean white sheets. A white-washed room, so low that the ceiling almost touched our heads, some flowers in a bowl, the small lattice window open. Though it was hot in there, it was better far than the rooms of most families in towns, living on a wage of twice as much; for here was no sign of defeat in decency or cleanliness. In her face, as in poor Herd's, was that same strange mingling of resigned despair and almost eager appeal, so terrible to disappoint. Yet, trying not to disappoint it, one felt guilty of treachery: What was the good, the kindness, in making this poor bird flutter still with hope against the bars, when fast prison had so surely closed in round her? But what else could we do? We could not give her those glib assurances that naive souls make so easily to others concerning their after state.
Secretly, I think, we knew that her philosophy of calm reality, that queer and unbidden growing tranquillity which precedes death, was nearer to our own belief, than would be any gilt-edged orthodoxy; but nevertheless (such is the strength of what is expected), we felt it dreadful that we could not console her with the ordinary presumptions.
"You mustn't give up hope," we kept on saying: "The new doctor will do a lot for you; he's a specialist--a very clever man."
And she kept on answering: "Yes, sir." "Yes, ma'am." But still her eyes went on asking, as if there were something else she wanted. And then to one of us came an inspiration:
"You mustn't let your husband worry about expense. That will be all right."
She smiled then, as if the chief cloud on her soul had been the thought of the arrears her illness and death would leave weighing on him with whom she had shared this bed ten years and more. And with that smile warming the memory of those spirit-haunted eyes, we crept down-stairs again, and out into the fields.
It was more beautiful than ever, just touched already with evening mystery--it was better than ever to be alive. And the immortal wonder that has haunted man since first he became man, and haunts, I think, even the animals--the unanswerable question,--why joy and beauty must ever be walking hand in hand with ugliness and pain haunted us across those fields of life and loveliness. It was all right, no doubt, even reasonable, since without dark there is no light. It was part of that unending sum whose answer is not given; the merest little swing of the great pendulum! And yet----! To accept this violent contrast without a sigh of revolt, without a question! No sirs, it was not so jolly as all that! That she should be dying there at thirty, of a creeping malady which she might have checked, perhaps, if she had not had too many things to do for the children and husband, to do anything for herself--if she had not been forced to hold the creed: Be healthy, or die! This was no doubt perfectly explicable and in accordance with the Supreme Equation; yet we, enjoying life, and health, and ease of money, felt horror and revolt on, this evening of such beauty. Nor at the moment did we derive great comfort from the thought that life slips in and out of sheath, like sun-sparks on water, and that of all the cloud of summer midges dancing in the last gleam, not one would be alive to-morrow.
It was three evenings later that we heard uncertain footfalls on the flagstones of the verandah, then a sort of brushing sound against the wood of the long, open window. Drawing aside the curtain, one of us looked out. Herd was standing there in the bright moonlight, bareheaded, with roughened hair. He came in, and seeming not to know quite where he went, took stand by the hearth, and putting up his dark hand, gripped the mantelshelf. Then, as if recollecting himself, he said: "Gude evenin', sir; beg pardon, M'm." No more for a full minute; but his hand, taking some little china thing, turned it over and over without ceasing, and down his broken face tears ran. Then, very suddenly, he said: "She's gone." And his hand turned over and over that little china thing, and the tears went on rolling down. Then, stumbling, and swaying like a man in drink, he made his way out again into the moonlight. We watched him across the lawn and path, and through the gate, till his footfalls died out there in the field, and his figure was lost in the black shadow of the holly hedge.
And the night was so beautiful, so utterly, glamourously beautiful, with its star-flowers, and its silence, and its trees clothed in moonlight. All was tranquil as a dream of sleep. But it was long before our hearts, wandering with poor Herd, would let us remember that she had slipped away into so beautiful a dream.
The dead do not suffer from their rest in beauty. But the living---!