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Chapter 10

Pierson had passed nearly the whole night with the relics of his past, the records of his stewardship, the tokens of his short married life. The idea which had possessed him walking home in the moonlight sustained him in that melancholy task of docketing and destruction. There was not nearly so much to do as one would have supposed, for, with all his dreaminess, he had been oddly neat and businesslike in all parish matters. But a hundred times that night he stopped, overcome by memories. Every corner, drawer, photograph, paper was a thread in the long-spun web of his life in this house. Some phase of his work, some vision of his wife or daughters started forth from each bit of furniture, picture, doorway. Noiseless, in his slippers, he stole up and down between the study, diningroom, drawing-room, and anyone seeing him at his work in the dim light which visited the staircase from above the front door and the upper-passage window, would have thought: 'A ghost, a ghost gone into mourning for the condition of the world.' He had to make this reckoning to-night, while the exaltation of his new idea was on him; had to rummage out the very depths of old association, so that once for all he might know whether he had strength to close the door on the past. Five o'clock struck before he had finished, and, almost dropping from fatigue, sat down at his little piano in bright daylight. The last memory to beset him was the first of all; his honeymoon, before they came back to live in this house, already chosen, furnished, and waiting for them. They had spent it in Germany--the first days in Baden-baden, and each morning had been awakened by a Chorale played down in the gardens of the Kurhaus, a gentle, beautiful tune, to remind them that they were in heaven. And softly, so softly that the tunes seemed to be but dreams he began playing those old Chorales, one after another, so that the stilly sounds floated out, through the opened window, puzzling the early birds and cats and those few humans who were abroad as yet.....

He received the telegram from Noel in the afternoon of the same day, just as he was about to set out for Leila's to get news of her; and close on the top of it came Lavendie. He found the painter standing disconsolate in front of his picture.

"Mademoiselle has deserted me?"

"I'm afraid we shall all desert you soon, monsieur."

"You are going?"

"Yes, I am leaving here. I hope to go to France."

"And mademoiselle?"

"She is at the sea with my son-in-law."

The painter ran his hands through his hair, but stopped them half-way, as if aware that he was being guilty of ill-breeding.

"Mon dieu!" he said: "Is this not a calamity for you, monsieur le cure?" But his sense of the calamity was so patently limited to his unfinished picture that Pierson could not help a smile.

"Ah, monsieur!" said the painter, on whom nothing was lost. "Comme je suis egoiste! I show my feelings; it is deplorable. My disappointment must seem a bagatelle to you, who will be so distressed at leaving your old home. This must be a time of great trouble. Believe me; I understand. But to sympathise with a grief which is not shown would be an impertinence, would it not? You English gentlefolk do not let us share your griefs; you keep them to yourselves."

Pierson stared. "True," he said. "Quite true!"

"I am no judge of Christianity, monsieur, but for us artists the doors of the human heart stand open, our own and others. I suppose we have no pride--c'est tres-indelicat. Tell me, monsieur, you would not think it worthy of you to speak to me of your troubles, would you, as I have spoken of mine?"

Pierson bowed his head, abashed.

"You preach of universal charity and love," went on Lavendie; "but how can there be that when you teach also secretly the keeping of your troubles to yourselves? Man responds to example, not to teaching; you set the example of the stranger, not the brother. You expect from others what you do not give. Frankly, monsieur, do you not feel that with every revelation of your soul and feelings, virtue goes out of you? And I will tell you why, if you will not think it an offence. In opening your hearts you feel that you lose authority. You are officers, and must never forget that. Is it not so?"

Pierson grew red. "I hope there is another feeling too. I think we feel that to speak of our sufferings or, deeper feelings is to obtrude oneself, to make a fuss, to be self-concerned, when we might be concerned with others."

"Monsieur, au fond we are all concerned with self. To seem selfless is but your particular way of cultivating the perfection of self. You admit that not to obtrude self is the way to perfect yourself. Eh bien! What is that but a deeper concern with self? To be free of this, there is no way but to forget all about oneself in what one is doing, as I forget everything when I am painting. But," he added, with a sudden smile, "you would not wish to forget the perfecting of self--it would not be right in your profession. So I must take away this picture, must I not? It is one of my best works: I regret much not to have finished it."

"Some day, perhaps--"

"Some day! The picture will stand still, but mademoiselle will not. She will rush at something, and behold! this face will be gone. No; I prefer to keep it as it is. It has truth now." And lifting down the canvas, he stood it against the wall and folded up the easel. "Bon soir, monsieur, you have been very good to me." He wrung Pierson's hand; and his face for a moment seemed all eyes and spirit. "Adieu!"

"Good-bye," Pierson murmured. "God bless you!"

"I don't know if I have great confidence in Him," replied Lavendie, "but I shall ever remember that so good a man as you has wished it. To mademoiselle my distinguished salutations, if you please. If you will permit me, I will come back for my other things to-morrow." And carrying easel and canvas, he departed.

Pierson stayed in the old drawing-room, waiting for Gratian to come in, and thinking over the painter's words. Had his education and position really made it impossible for him to be brotherly? Was this the secret of the impotence which he sometimes felt; the reason why charity and love were not more alive in the hearts of his congregation? 'God knows I've no consciousness of having felt myself superior,' he thought; 'and yet I would be truly ashamed to tell people of my troubles and of my struggles. Can it be that Christ, if he were on earth, would count us Pharisees, believing ourselves not as other men? But surely it is not as Christians but rather as gentlemen that we keep ourselves to ourselves. Officers, he called us. I fear--I fear it is true.' Ah, well! There would not be many more days now. He would learn out there how to open the hearts of others, and his own. Suffering and death levelled all barriers, made all men brothers. He was still sitting there when Gratian came in; and taking her hand, he said:

"Noel has gone down to George, and I want you to get transferred and go to them, Gracie. I'm giving up the parish and asking for a chaplaincy."

"Giving up? After all this time? Is it because of Nollie?"

"No, I think not; I think the time has come. I feel my work here is barren."

"Oh, no! And even if it is, it's only because--"

Pierson smiled. "Because of what, Gracie?"

"Dad, it's what I've felt in myself. We want to think and decide things for ourselves, we want to own our consciences, we can't take things at second-hand any longer."

Pierson's face darkened. "Ah!" he said, "to have lost faith is a grievous thing."

"We're gaining charity," cried Gratian.

"The two things are not opposed, my dear."

"Not in theory; but in practice I think they often are. Oh, Dad! you look so tired. Have you really made up your mind? Won't you feel lost?"

"For a little. I shall find myself, out there."

But the look on his face was too much for Gratian's composure, and she turned away.

Pierson went down to his study to write his letter of resignation. Sitting before that blank sheet of paper, he realised to the full how strongly he had resented the public condemnation passed on his own flesh and blood, how much his action was the expression of a purely mundane championship of his daughter; of a mundane mortification. 'Pride,' he thought. 'Ought I to stay and conquer it?' Twice he set his pen down, twice took it up again. He could not conquer it. To stay where he was not wanted, on a sort of sufferance--never! And while he sat before that empty sheet of paper he tried to do the hardest thing a man can do--to see himself as others see him; and met with such success as one might expect--harking at once to the verdicts, not of others at all, but of his own conscience; and coming soon to that perpetual gnawing sense which had possessed him ever since the war began, that it was his duty to be dead. This feeling that to be alive was unworthy of him when so many of his flock had made the last sacrifice, was reinforced by his domestic tragedy and the bitter disillusionment it had brought. A sense of having lost caste weighed on him, while he sat there with his past receding from him, dusty and unreal. He had the queerest feeling of his old life falling from him, dropping round his feet like the outworn scales of a serpent, rung after rung of tasks and duties performed day after day, year after year. Had they ever been quite real? Well, he had shed them now, and was to move out into life illumined by the great reality-death! And taking up his pen, he wrote his resignation.

John Galsworthy