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Chapter 28

HILARY HEARS THE CUCKOO SING


It was not left to Cecilia alone to remark how very white Mr. Stone looked in these days.

The wild force which every year visits the world, driving with its soft violence snowy clouds and their dark shadows, breaking through all crusts and sheaths, covering the earth in a fierce embrace; the wild force which turns form to form, and with its million leapings, swift as the flight of swallows and the arrow-darts of the rain, hurries everything on to sweet mingling--this great, wild force of universal life, so-called the Spring, had come to Mr. Stone, like new wine to some old bottle. And Hilary, to whom it had come, too, watching him every morning setting forth with a rough towel across his arm, wondered whether the old man would not this time leave his spirit swimming in the chill waters of the Serpentine--so near that spirit seemed to breaking through its fragile shell.

Four days had gone by since the interview at which he had sent away the little model, and life in his household--that quiet backwater choked with lilies--seemed to have resumed the tranquillity enjoyed before this intrusion of rude life. The paper whiteness of Mr. Stone was the only patent evidence that anything disturbing had occurred--that and certain feelings about which the strictest silence was preserved.

On the morning of the fifth day, seeing the old man stumble on the level flagstones of the garden, Hilary finished dressing hastily, and followed. He overtook him walking forward feebly beneath the candelabra of flowering chestnut-trees, with a hail-shower striking white on his high shoulders; and, placing himself alongside, without greeting--for forms were all one to Mr. Stone--he said:

"Surely you don't mean to bathe during a hail storm, sir! Make an exception this once. You're not looking quite yourself."

Mr. Stone shook his head; then, evidently following out a thought which Hilary had interrupted, he remarked:

"The sentiment that men call honour is of doubtful value. I have not as yet succeeded in relating it to universal brotherhood."

"How is that, sir?"

"In so far," said Mr. Stone, "as it consists in fidelity to principle, one might assume it worthy of conjunction. The difficulty arises when we consider the nature of the principle .... There is a family of young thrushes in the garden. If one of them finds a worm, I notice that his devotion to that principle of self-preservation which prevails in all low forms of life forbids his sharing it with any of the other little thrushes."

Mr. Stone had fixed his eyes on distance.

"So it is, I fear," he said, "with 'honour.' In those days men looked on women as thrushes look on worms."

He paused, evidently searching for a word; and Hilary, with a faint smile, said:

"And how did women look on men, sir?"

Mr. Stone observed him with surprise. "I did not perceive that it was you," he said. "I have to avoid brain action before bathing."

They had crossed the road dividing the Gardens from the Park, and, seeing that Mr. Stone had already seen the water where he was about to bathe, and would now see nothing else, Hilary stopped beside a little lonely birch-tree. This wild, small, graceful visitor, who had long bathed in winter, was already draping her bare limbs in a scarf of green. Hilary leaned against her cool, pearly body. Below were the chilly waters, now grey, now starch-blue, and the pale forms of fifteen or twenty bathers. While he stood shivering in the frozen wind, the sun, bursting through the hail-cloud, burned his cheeks and hands. And suddenly he heard, clear, but far off, the sound which, of all others, stirs the hearts of men: "Cuckoo, cuckoo!"

Four times over came the unexpected call. Whence had that ill-advised, indelicate grey bird flown into this great haunt of men and shadows? Why had it come with its arrowy flight and mocking cry to pierce the heart and set it aching? There were trees enough outside the town, cloud-swept hollows, tangled brakes of furze just coming into bloom, where it could preside over the process of Spring. What solemn freak was this which made it come and sing to one who had no longer any business with the Spring?

With a real spasm in his heart Hilary turned away from that distant bird, and went down to the water's edge. Mr. Stone was swimming, slower than man had ever swum before. His silver head and lean arms alone were visible, parting the water feebly; suddenly he disappeared. He was but a dozen yards from the shore; and Hilary, alarmed at not seeing him reappear, ran in. The water was not deep. Mr. Stone, seated at the bottom, was doing all he could to rise. Hilary took him by his bathing-dress, raised him to the surface, and supported him towards the land. By the time they reached the shore he could just stand on his legs. With the assistance of a policeman, Hilary enveloped him in garments and got him to a cab. He had regained some of his vitality, but did not seem aware of what had happened.

"I was not in as long as usual," he mused, as they passed out into the high road.

"Oh, I think so, sir."

Mr. Stone looked troubled.

"It is odd," he said. "I do not recollect leaving the water."

He did not speak again till he was being assisted from the cab.

"I wish to recompense the man. I have half a crown indoors."

"I will get it, sir," said Hilary.

Mr. Stone, who shivered violently now that he was on his feet, turned his face up to the cabman.

"Nothing is nobler than the horse," he said; "take care of him."

The cabman removed his hat. "I will, sir," he answered.

Walking by himself, but closely watched by Hilary, Mr. Stone reached his room. He groped about him as though not distinguishing objects too well through the crystal clearness of the fundamental flux.

"If I might advise you," said Hilary, "I would get back into bed for a few minutes. You seem a little chilly."

Mr. Stone, who was indeed shaking so that he could hardly stand, allowed Hilary to assist him into bed and tuck the blankets round him.

"I must be at work by ten o'clock," he said.

Hilary, who was also shivering, hastened to Bianca's room. She was just coming down, and exclaimed at seeing him all wet. When he had told her of the episode she touched his shoulder.

"What about you?"

"A hot bath and drink will set me right. You'd better go to him."

He turned towards the bathroom, where Miranda stood, lifting a white foot. Compressing her lips, Bianca ran downstairs. Startled by his tale, she would have taken his wet body in her arms; if the ghosts of innumerable moments had not stood between. So this moment passed too, and itself became a ghost.

Mr. Stone, greatly to his disgust, had not succeeded in resuming work at ten o'clock. Failing simply because he could not stand on his legs, he had announced his intention of waiting until half-past three, when he should get up, in preparation for the coming of the little girl. Having refused to see a doctor, or have his temperature taken, it was impossible to tell precisely what degree of fever he was in. In his cheeks, just visible over the blankets, there was more colour than there should have been; and his eyes, fixed on the ceiling, shone with suspicious brilliancy. To the dismay of Bianca--who sat as far out of sight as possible, lest he should see her, and fancy that she was doing him a service--he pursued his thoughts aloud:

"Words--words--they have taken away brotherhood!" Bianca shuddered, listening to that uncanny sound. "'In those days of words they called it death--pale death--mors pallida. They saw that word like a gigantic granite block suspended over them, and slowly coming down. Some, turning up their faces at the sight, trembled painfully, awaiting their obliteration. Others, unable, while they still lived, to face the thought of nothingness, inflated by some spiritual wind, and thinking always of their individual forms, called out unceasingly that those selves of theirs would and must survive this word--that in some fashion, which no man could understand, each self-conscious entity reaccumulated after distribution. Drunk with this thought, these, too, passed away. Some waited for it with grim, dry eyes, remarking that the process was molecular, and thus they also met their so-called death.'"

His voice ceased, and in place of it rose the sound of his tongue moistening his palate. Bianca, from behind, placed a glass of barley-water to his lips. He drank it with a slow, clucking noise; then, seeing that a hand held the glass, said: "Is that you? Are you ready for me? Follow. 'In those days no one leaped up to meet pale riding Death; no one saw in her face that she was brotherhood incarnate; no one with a heart as light as gossamer kissed her feet, and, smiling, passed into the Universe.'" His voice died away, and when next he spoke it was in a quick, husky whisper: "I must--I must--I must---" There was silence; then he added: "Give me my trousers."

Bianca placed them by his bed. The sight seemed to reassure him. He was once more silent.

For more than an hour after this he was so absolutely still that Bianca rose continually to look at him. Each time, his eyes, wide open, were fixed on a little dark mark across the ceiling; his face had a look of the most singular determination, as though his spirit were slowly, relentlessly, regaining mastery over his fevered body. He spoke suddenly:

"Who is there?"

"Bianca."

"Help me out of bed!"

The flush had left his face, the brilliance had faded from his eyes; he looked just like a ghost. With a sort of terror Bianca helped him out of bed. This weird display of mute white will-power was unearthly.

When he was dressed in his woollen gown and seated before the fire, she gave him a cup of strong beef-tea, with brandy. He swallowed it with great avidity.

"I should like some more of that," he said, and fell asleep.

While he was asleep Cecilia came, and the two sisters watched his slumber, and, watching it, felt nearer to each other than they had for many years. Before she went away Cecilia whispered--

"B. if he seems to want that little girl while he's like this, don't you think she ought to come?"

Bianca answered: "I don't know where she is."

"I do."

"Ah!" said Bianca; "of course!" And she turned her head away.

Disconcerted by that sarcastic little speech, Cecilia was silent; then, summoning all her courage, she said:

"Here's the address, B. I've written it down for you;" and, with puckers of anxiety in her face, she left the room.

Bianca sat on in the old golden chair, watching the deep hollows beneath the sleeper's temples, the puffs of breath stirring the silver round his mouth. Her ears burned crimson. Carried out of herself by the sight of that old form, dearer to her than she had thought, fighting its great battle for the sake of its idea, her spirit grew all tremulous and soft within her. With eagerness she embraced the thought of self-effacement. It did not seem to matter whether she were first with Hilary. Her spirit should so manifest its capacity for sacrifice that she would be first with him through sheer nobility. At this moment she could almost have taken that common little girl into her arms and kissed her. So would all disquiet end! Some harmonious messenger had fluttered to her for a second--the gold-winged bird of peace. In this sensuous exaltation her nerves vibrated like the strings of a violin.

When Mr. Stone woke it was past three o'clock and Bianca at once handed him another cup of strong beef-tea.

He swallowed it, and said: "What is this?"

"Beef-tea."

Mr. Stone looked at the empty cup.

"I must not drink it. The cow and the sheep are on the same plane as man."

"But how do you feel, dear?"

"I feel," said Mr. Stone, "able to dictate what I have already written--not more. Has she come?"

"Not yet; but I will go and find her if you like."

Mr. Stone looked at his daughter wistfully.

"That will be taking up your time," he said.

Bianca answered: "My time is of no consequence."

Mr. Stone stretched his hands out to the fire.

"I will not consent," he said, evidently to himself, "to be a drag on anyone. If that has come, then I must go!"

Bianca, placing herself beside him on her knees, pressed her hot cheek against his temple.

"But it has not come, Dad."

"I hope not," said Mr. Stone. "I wish to end my book first."

The sudden grim coherence of his last two sayings terrified Bianca more than all his feverish, utterances.

"I rely on your sitting quite still," she said, "while I go and find her." And with a feeling in her heart as though two hands had seized and were pulling it asunder, she went out.

Some half-hour later Hilary slipped quietly in, and stood watching at the door. Mr. Stone, seated on the very verge of his armchair, with his hands on its arms, was slowly rising to his feet, and slowly falling back again, not once, but many times, practising a standing posture. As Hilary came into his line of sight, he said:

"I have succeeded twice."

"I am very glad," said Hilary. "Won't you rest now, sir?"

"It is my knees," said Mr. Stone. "She has gone to find her."

Hilary heard those words with bewilderment, and, sitting down on the other chair, waited.

"I have fancied," said Mr. Stone, looking at him wistfully, "that when we pass away from life we may become the wind. Is that your opinion?"

"It is a new thought to me," said Hilary.

"It is not tenable," said Mr. Stone. "But it is restful. The wind is everywhere and nowhere, and nothing can be hidden from it. When I have missed that little girl, I have tried, in a sense, to become the wind; but I have found it difficult."

His eyes left Hilary's face, whose mournful smile he had not noticed, and fixed themselves on the bright fire. "'In those days,"' he said, "'men's relation to the eternal airs was the relation of a billion little separate draughts blowing against the south-west wind. They did not wish to merge themselves in that soft, moon-uttered sigh, but blew in its face through crevices, and cracks, and keyholes, and were borne away on the pellucid journey, whistling out their protests.'"

He again tried to stand, evidently wishing to get to his desk to record this thought, but, failing, looked painfully at Hilary. He seemed about to ask for something, but checked himself.

"If I practise hard," he murmured, "I shall master it."

Hilary rose and brought him paper and a pencil. In bending, he saw that Mr. Stone's eyes were dim with moisture. This sight affected him so that he was glad to turn away and fetch a book to form a writing-pad.

When Mr. Stone had finished, he sat back in his chair with closed eyes. A supreme silence reigned in the bare room above those two men of different generations and of such strange dissimilarity of character. Hilary broke that silence.

"I heard the cuckoo sing to-day," he said, almost in a whisper, lest Mr. Stone should be asleep.

"The cuckoo," replied Mr. Stone, "has no sense of brotherhood."

"I forgive him-for his song," murmured Hilary.

"His song," said Mr. Stone, "is alluring; it excites the sexual instinct."

Then to himself he added:

"She has not come, as yet!"

Even as he spoke there was heard by Hilary a faint tapping on the door. He rose and opened it. The little model stood outside.


John Galsworthy