FUNERAL OF A BABY
Following out the instinct planted so deeply in human nature for treating with the utmost care and at great expense when dead those, who, when alive, have been served with careless parsimony, there started from the door of No. 1 in Hound Street a funeral procession of three four-wheeled cabs. The first bore the little coffin, on which lay a great white wreath (gift of Cecilia and Thyme). The second bore Mrs. Hughs, her son Stanley, and Joshua Creed. The third bore Martin Stone. In the first cab Silence was presiding with the scent of lilies over him who in his short life had made so little noise, the small grey shadow which had crept so quietly into being, and, taking his chance when he was not noticed, had crept so quietly out again. Never had he felt so restful, so much at home, as in that little common coffin, washed as he was to an unnatural whiteness, and wrapped in his mother's only spare sheet. Away from all the strife of men he was Journeying to a greater peace. His little aloe-plant had flowered; and, between the open windows of the only carriage he had ever been inside, the wind--which, who knows? he had perhaps become--stirred the fronds of fern and the flowers of his funeral wreath. Thus he was going from that world where all men were his brothers.
From the second cab the same wind was rigidly excluded, and there was silence, broken by the aged butler's breathing. Dressed in his Newmarket coat, he was recalling with a certain sense of luxury past, journeys in four-wheeled cabs--occasions when, seated beside a box corded and secured with sealing-wax, he had taken his master's plate for safety to the bank; occasions when, under a roof piled up with guns and boxes, he had sat holding the "Honorable Bateson's" dog; occasions when, with some young person by his side, he had driven at the tail of a baptismal, nuptial, or funeral cortege. These memories of past grandeur came back to him with curious poignancy, and for some reason the words kept rising in his mind: 'For richer or poorer, for better or worser, in health and in sick places, till death do us part.' But in the midst of the exaltation of these recollections the old heart beneath his old red flannel chest-protector--that companion of his exile--twittering faintly at short intervals, made him look at the woman by his side. He longed to convey to her some little of the satisfaction he felt in the fact that this was by no means the low class of funeral it might have been. He doubted whether, with her woman's mind, she was getting all the comfort she could out of three four-wheeled cabs and a wreath of lilies. The seamstress's thin face, with its pinched, passive look, was indeed thinner, quieter, than ever. What she was thinking of he could not tell. There were so many things she might be thinking of. She, too, no doubt, had seen her grandeur, if but in the solitary drive away from the church where, eight years ago, she and Hughs had listened to the words now haunting Creed. Was she thinking of that; of her lost youth and comeliness, and her man's dead love; of the long descent to shadowland; of the other children she had buried; of Hughs in prison; of the girl that had "put a spell on him"; or only of the last precious tugs the tiny lips at rest in the first four-wheeled cab had given at her breast? Or was she, with a nicer feeling for proportion, reflecting that, had not people been so kind, she might have had to walk behind a funeral provided by the parish?
The old butler could not tell, but he--whose one desire now, coupled with the wish to die outside a workhouse, was to save enough to bury his own body without the interference of other people--was inclined to think she must be dwelling on the brighter side of things; and, designing to encourage her, he said: "Wonderful improvement in these 'ere four-wheel cabs! Oh dear, yes! I remember of them when they were the shadders of what they are at the present time of speakin'."
The seamstress answered in her quiet voice: "Very comfortable this is. Sit still, Stanley!" Her little son, whose feet did not reach the floor, was drumming his heels against the seat. He stopped and looked at her, and the old butler addressed him.
"You'll a-remember of this occasion," he said, "when you gets older."
The little boy turned his black eyes from his mother to him who had spoken last.
"It's a beautiful wreath," continued Creed. "I could smell of it all the way up the stairs. There's been no expense spared; there's white laylock in it--that's a class of flower that's very extravagant."
A train of thought having been roused too strong for his discretion, he added: "I saw that young girl yesterday. She came interrogatin' of me in the street."
On Mrs. Hughs' face, where till now expression had been buried, came such a look as one may see on the face of an owl-hard, watchful, cruel; harder, more cruel, for the softness of the big dark eyes.
"She'd show a better feeling," she said, "to keep a quiet tongue. Sit still, Stanley!"
Once more the little boy stopped drumming his heels, and shifted his stare from the old butler back to her who spoke. The cab, which had seemed to hesitate and start, as though jibbing at something in the road, resumed its ambling pace. Creed looked through the well-closed window. There before him, so long that it seemed to have no end, like a building in a nightmare, stretched that place where he did not mean to end his days. He faced towards the horse again. The colour had deepened in his nose. He spoke:
"If they'd a-give me my last edition earlier, 'stead of sending of it down after that low-class feller's taken all my customers, that'd make a difference to me o' two shillin's at the utmost in the week, and all clear savin's." To these words, dark with hidden meaning, he received no answer save the drumming of the small boy's heels; and, reverting to the subject he had been distracted from, he murmured: "She was a-wearin' of new clothes."
He was startled by the fierce tone of a voice he hardly knew. "I don't want to hear about her; she's not for decent folk to talk of."
The old butler looked round askance. The seamstress was trembling violently. Her fierceness at such a moment shocked him. "'Dust to dust,'" he thought.
"Don't you be considerate of it," he said at last, summoning all his knowledge of the world; "she'll come to her own place." And at the sight of a slow tear trickling over her burning cheek, he added hurriedly: "Think of your baby--I'll see yer through. Sit still, little boy--sit still! Ye're disturbin' of your mother."
Once more the little boy stayed the drumming of his heels to look at him who spoke; and the closed cab rolled on with its slow, jingling sound.
In the third four-wheeled cab, where the windows again were wide open, Martin Stone, with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his coat, and his long legs crossed, sat staring at the roof, with a sort of twisted scorn on his pale face.
Just inside the gate, through which had passed in their time so many dead and living shadows, Hilary stood waiting. He could probably not have explained why he had come to see this tiny shade committed to the earth--in memory, perhaps, of those two minutes when the baby's eyes had held parley with his own, or in the wish to pay a mute respect to her on whom life had weighed so hard of late. For whatever reason he had come, he was keeping quietly to one side. And unobserved, he, too, had his watcher--the little model, sheltering behind a tall grave.
Two men in rusty black bore the little coffin; then came the white-robed chaplain; then Mrs. Hughs and her little son; close behind, his head thrust forward with trembling movements from side to side, old Creed; and, last of all, young Martin Stone. Hilary joined the young doctor. So the five mourners walked.
Before a small dark hole in a corner of the cemetery they stopped. On this forest of unflowered graves the sun was falling; the east wind, with its faint reek, touched the old butler's plastered hair, and brought moisture to the corners of his eyes, fixed with absorption on the chaplain. Words and thoughts hunted in his mind.
'He's gettin' Christian burial. Who gives this woman away? I do. Ashes to ashes. I never suspected him of livin'.' The conning of the burial service, shortened to fit the passing of that tiny shade, gave him pleasurable sensation; films came down on his eyes; he listened like some old parrot on its perch, his head a little to one side.
'Them as dies young,' he thought, 'goes straight to heaven. We trusts in God--all mortal men; his godfathers and his godmothers in his baptism. Well, so it is! I'm not afeared o' death!'
Seeing the little coffin tremble above the hole, he craned his head still further forward. It sank; a smothered sobbing rose. The old butler touched the arm in front of him with shaking fingers.
"Don't 'e," he whispered; "he's a-gone to glory."
But, hearing the dry rattle of the earth, he took out his own handkerchief and put it to his nose.
'Yes, he's a-gone,' he thought; 'another little baby. Old men an' maidens, young men an' little children; it's a-goin' on all the time. Where 'e is now there'll be no marryin', no, nor givin' out in marriage; till death do us part.'
The wind, sweeping across the filled-in hole, carried the rustle of his husky breathing, the dry, smothered sobbing of the seamstress, out across the shadows' graves, to those places, to those streets....
From the baby's funeral Hilary and Martin walked away together, and far behind them, across the road, the little model followed. For some time neither spoke; then Hilary, stretching out his hand towards a squalid alley, said:
"They haunt us and drag us down. A long, dark passage. Is there a light at the far end, Martin?"
"Yes," said Martin gruffly.
"I don't see it."
Martin looked at him.
Hilary did not reply.
The young man watched him sideways. "It's a disease to smile like that!"
Hilary ceased to smile. "Cure me, then," he said, with sudden anger, "you man of health!"
The young "Sanitist's" sallow cheeks flushed. "Atrophy of the nerve of action," he muttered; "there's no cure for that!"
"Ah!" said Hilary: "All kinds of us want social progress in our different ways. You, your grandfather, my brother, myself; there are four types for you. Will you tell me any one of us is the right man for the job? For instance, action's not natural to me."
"Any act," answered Martin, "is better than no act."
"And myopia is natural to you, Martin. Your prescription in this case has not been too successful, has it?"
"I can't help it if people will be d---d fools."
"There you hit it. But answer me this question: Isn't a social conscience, broadly speaking, the result of comfort and security?"
Martin shrugged his shoulders.
"And doesn't comfort also destroy the power of action?"
Again Martin shrugged.
"Then, if those who have the social conscience and can see what is wrong have lost their power of action, how can you say there is any light at the end of this dark passage?"
Martin took his pipe out, filled it, and pressed the filling with his thumb.
"There is light," he said at last, "in spite of all invertebrates. Good-bye! I've wasted enough time," and he abruptly strode away.
"And in spite of myopia?" muttered Hilary.
A few minutes later, coming out from Messrs. Rose and Thorn's, where he had gone to buy tobacco, he came suddenly on the little model, evidently waiting.
"I was at the funeral," she, said; and her face added plainly: 'I've followed you.' Uninvited, she walked on at his side.
'This is not the same girl,' he thought, 'that I sent away five days ago. She has lost something, gained something. I don't know her.'
There seemed such a stubborn purpose in her face and manner. It was like the look in a dog's eyes that says: 'Master, you thought to shut me up away from you; I know now what that is like. Do what you will, I mean in future to be near you.'
This look, by its simplicity, frightened one to whom the primitive was strange. Desiring to free himself of his companion, yet not knowing how, Hilary sat down in Kensington Gardens on the first bench they came to. The little model sat down beside him. The quiet siege laid to him by this girl was quite uncanny. It was as though someone were binding him with toy threads, swelling slowly into rope before his eyes. In this fear of Hilary's there was at first much irritation. His fastidiousness and sense of the ridiculous were roused. What did this little creature with whom he had no thoughts and no ideas in common, whose spirit and his could never hope to meet, think that she could get from him? Was she trying to weave a spell over him too, with her mute, stubborn adoration? Was she trying to change his protective weakness for her to another sort of weakness? He turned and looked; she dropped her eyes at once, and sat still as a stone figure.
As in her spirit, so in her body, she was different; her limbs looked freer, rounder; her breath seemed stirring her more deeply; like a flower of early June she was opening before his very eyes. This, though it gave him pleasure, also added to his fear. The strange silence, in its utter naturalness--for what could he talk about with her?--brought home to him more vividly than anything before, the barriers of class. All he thought of was how not to be ridiculous! She was inviting him in some strange, unconscious, subtle way to treat her as a woman, as though in spirit she had linked her round young arms about his neck, and through her half-closed lips were whispering the eternal call of sex to sex. And he, a middle-aged and cultivated man, conscious of everything, could not even speak for fear of breaking through his shell of delicacy. He hardly breathed, disturbed to his very depths by the young figure sitting by his side, and by the dread of showing that disturbance.
Beside the cultivated plant the self-sown poppy rears itself; round the stem of a smooth tree the honeysuckle twines; to a trim wall the ivy clings.
In her new-found form and purpose this girl had gained a strange, still power; she no longer felt it mattered whether he spoke or looked at her; her instinct, piercing through his shell, was certain of the throbbing of his pulses, the sweet poison in his blood.
The perception of this still power, more than all else, brought fear to Hilary. He need not speak; she would not care! He need not even look at her; she had but to sit there silent, motionless, with the breath of youth coming through her parted lips, and the light of youth stealing through her half-closed eyes.
And abruptly he got up and walked away.
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