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Chapter 25

MR. STONE IN WAITING


That same afternoon, while Mr. Stone was writing, he heard a voice saying:

"Dad, stop writing just a minute, and talk to me."

Recognition came into his eyes. It was his younger daughter.

"My dear," he said, "are you unwell?"

Keeping his hand, fragile and veined and chill, under her own warm grasp, Bianca answered: "Lonely."

Mr. Stone looked straight before him.

"Loneliness," he said, "is man's chief fault"; and seeing his pen lying on the desk, he tried to lift his hand. Bianca held it down. At that hot clasp something seemed to stir in Mr. Stone. His cheeks grew pink.

"Kiss me, Dad."

Mr. Stone hesitated. Then his lips resolutely touched her eye. "It is wet," he said. He seemed for a moment struggling to grasp the meaning of moisture in connection with the human eye. Soon his face again became serene. "The heart," he said, "is a dark well; its depth unknown. I have lived eighty years. I am still drawing water."

"Draw a little for me, Dad."

This time Mr. Stone looked at his daughter anxiously, and suddenly spoke, as if afraid that if he waited he might forget.

"You are unhappy!"

Bianca put her face down to his tweed sleeve. "How nice your coat smells!" she murmured.

"You are unhappy," repeated Mr. Stone.

Bianca dropped his hand, and moved away.

Mr. Stone followed her. "Why?" he said. Then, grasping his brow, he added: "If it would do you any good, my dear, to hear a page or two, I could read to you."

Bianca shook her head.

"No; talk to me!"

Mr. Stone answered simply: "I have forgotten."

"You talk to that little girl," murmured Bianca.

Mr. Stone seemed to lose himself in reverie.

"If that is true," he said, following out his thoughts, "it must be due to the sex instinct not yet quite extinct. It is stated that the blackcock will dance before his females to a great age, though I have never seen it."

"If you dance before her," said Bianca, with her face averted, "can't you even talk to me?"

"I do not dance, my dear," said Mr. Stone; "I will do my best to talk to you."

There was a silence, and he began to pace the room. Bianca, by the empty fireplace, watched a shower of rain driving past the open window.

"This is the time of year," said Mr. Stone suddenly; "when lambs leap off the ground with all four legs at a time." He paused as though for an answer; then, out of the silence, his voice rose again--it sounded different: "There is nothing in Nature more symptomatic of that principle which should underlie all life. Live in the future; regret nothing; leap! A lamb which has left earth with all four legs at once is the symbol of true life. That she must come down again is but an inevitable accident. 'In those days men were living on their pasts. They leaped with one, or, at the most, two legs at a time; they never left the ground, or in leaving, they wished to know the reason why. It was this paralysis'"--Mr. Stone did not pause, but, finding himself close beside his desk, took up his pen--"'it was this paralysis of the leaping nerve which undermined their progress. Instead of millions of leaping lambs, ignorant of why they leaped, they were a flock of sheep lifting up one leg and asking whether it was or was not worth their while to lift another.'"

The words were followed by a silence, broken only by the scratching of the quill with which Mr. Stone was writing.

Having finished, he again began to pace the room, and coming suddenly on his daughter, stopped short. Touching her shoulder timidly, he said: "I was talking to you, I think, my dear; where were we?"

Bianca rubbed her cheek against his hand.

"In the air, I think."

"Yes, yes," said Mr. Stone, "I remember. You must not let me wander from the point again."

"No, dear."

"Lambs," said Mr. Stone, "remind me at times of that young girl who comes to copy for me. I make her skip to promote her circulation before tea. I myself do this exercise." Leaning against the wall, with his feet twelve inches from it, he rose slowly on his toes. "Do you know that exercise? It is excellent for the calves of the legs, and for the lumbar regions." So saying, Mr. Stone left the wall, and began again to pace the room; the whitewash had also left the wall, and clung in a large square patch on his shaggy coat. "I have seen sheep in Spring," he said, "actually imitate their lambs in rising from the ground with all four legs at once." He stood still. A thought had evidently struck him.

"If Life is not all Spring, it is of no value whatsoever; better to die, and to begin again. Life is a tree putting on a new green gown; it is a young moon rising--no, that is not so, we do not see the young moon rising--it is a young moon setting, never younger than when we are about to die--"

Bianca cried out sharply: "Don't, Father! Don't talk like that; it's so untrue! Life is all autumn, it seems to me!"

Mr. Stone's eyes grew very blue.

"That is a foul heresy," he stammered; "I cannot listen to it. Life is the cuckoo's song; it is a hill-side bursting into leaf; it is the wind; I feel it in me every day!"

He was trembling like a leaf in the wind he spoke of, and Bianca moved hastily towards him, holding out her arms. Suddenly his lips began to move; she heard him mutter: "I have lost force; I will boil some milk. I must be ready when she comes." And at those words her heart felt like a lump of ice.

Always that girl! And without again attracting his attention she went away. As she passed out through the garden she saw him at the window holding a cup of milk, from which the steam was rising.


John Galsworthy