In the dining-room of her father's house in that old London Square between East and West, Gratian Laird, in the outdoor garb of a nurse, was writing a telegram: "Reverend Edward Pierson, Kestrel, Tintern, Monmouthshire. George terribly ill. Please come if you can. Gratian." Giving it to a maid, she took off her long coat and sat down for a moment. She had been travelling all night, after a full day's work, and had only just arrived, to find her husband between life and death. She was very different from Noel; not quite so tall, but of a stronger build; with dark chestnut-coloured hair, clear hazel eyes, and a broad brow. The expression of her face was earnest, with a sort of constant spiritual enquiry; and a singularly truthful look: She was just twenty; and of the year that she had been married, had only spent six weeks with her husband; they had not even a house of their own as yet. After resting five minutes, she passed her hand vigorously over her face, threw back her head, and walked up stairs to the room where he lay. He was not conscious, and there was nothing to be done but sit and watch him.
'If he dies,' she thought, 'I shall hate God for His cruelty. I have had six weeks with George; some people have sixty years.' She fixed her eyes on his face, short and broad, with bumps of "observation" on the brows. He had been sunburnt. The dark lashes of his closed eyes lay on deathly yellow cheeks; his thick hair grew rather low on his broad forehead. The lips were just open and showed strong white teeth. He had a little clipped moustache, and hair had grown on his clean-cut jaw. His pyjama jacket had fallen open. Gratian drew it close. It was curiously still, for a London day, though the window was wide open. Anything to break this heavy stupor, which was not only George's, but her own, and the very world's! The cruelty of it--when she might be going to lose him for ever, in a few hours or days! She thought of their last parting. It had not been very loving, had come too soon after one of those arguments they were inclined to have, in which they could not as yet disagree with suavity. George had said there was no future life for the individual; she had maintained there was. They had grown hot and impatient. Even in the cab on the way to his train they had pursued the wretched discussion, and the last kiss had been from lips on lips yet warm from disagreement.
Ever since, as if in compunction, she had been wavering towards his point of view; and now, when he was perhaps to solve the problem--find out for certain--she had come to feel that if he died, she would never see him after. It was cruel that such a blight should have come on her belief at this, of all moments.
She laid her hand on his. It was warm, felt strong, although so motionless and helpless. George was so vigorous, so alive, and strong-willed; it seemed impossible that life might be going to play him false. She recalled the unflinching look of his steel-bright eyes, his deep, queerly vibrating voice, which had no trace of self-consciousness or pretence. She slipped her hand on to his heart, and began very slowly, gently rubbing it. He, as doctor, and she, as nurse, had both seen so much of death these last two years! Yet it seemed suddenly as if she had never seen death, and that the young faces she had seen, empty and white, in the hospital wards, had just been a show. Death would appear to her for the first time, if this face which she loved were to be drained for ever of light and colour and movement and meaning.
A humblebee from the Square Garden boomed in and buzzed idly round the room. She caught her breath in a little sob....
Pierson received that telegram at midday, returning from a lonely walk after his talk with Thirza. Coming from Gratian so self-reliant--it meant the worst. He prepared at once to catch the next train. Noel was out, no one knew where: so with a sick feeling he wrote:
"I am going up to Gratian; poor George is desperately ill. If it goes badly you should be with your sister. I will wire to-morrow morning early. I leave you in your aunt's hands, my dear. Be reasonable and patient. God bless you.
He was alone in his third-class compartment, and, leaning forward, watched the ruined Abbey across the river till it was out of sight. Those old monks had lived in an age surely not so sad as this. They must have had peaceful lives, remote down here, in days when the Church was great and lovely, and men laid down their lives for their belief in her, and built everlasting fanes to the glory of God! What a change to this age of rush and hurry, of science, trade, material profit, and this terrible war! He tried to read his paper, but it was full of horrors and hate. 'When will it end?' he thought. And the train with its rhythmic jolting seemed grinding out the answer: "Never--never!"
At Chepstow a soldier got in, followed by a woman with a very flushed face and curious, swimmy eyes; her hair was in disorder, and her lip bleeding, as if she had bitten it through. The soldier, too, looked strained and desperate. They sat down, far apart, on the seat opposite. Pierson, feeling that he was in their way, tried to hide himself behind his paper; when he looked again, the soldier had taken off his tunic and cap and was leaning out of the window. The woman, on the seat's edge, sniffing and wiping her face, met his glance with resentful eyes, then, getting up, she pulled the man's sleeve.
"Sit dahn; don't 'ang out o' there."
The soldier flung himself back on the seat and looked at Pierson.
"The wife an' me's 'ad a bit of a row," he said companionably. "Gits on me nerves; I'm not used to it. She was in a raid, and 'er nerves are all gone funny; ain't they, old girl? Makes me feel me 'ead. I've been wounded there, you know; can't stand much now. I might do somethin' if she was to go on like this for long."
Pierson looked at the woman, but her eyes still met his resentfully. The soldier held out a packet of cigarettes. "Take one," he said. Pierson took one and, feeling that the soldier wanted him to speak, murmured: "We all have these troubles with those we're fond of; the fonder we are of people, the more we feel them, don't we? I had one with my daughter last night."
"Ah!" said the soldier; "that's right. The wife and me'll make it up. 'Ere, come orf it, old girl."
From behind his paper he soon became conscious of the sounds of reconciliation--reproaches because someone had been offered a drink, kisses mixed with mild slappings, and abuse. When they got out at Bristol the soldier shook his hand warmly, but the woman still gave him her resentful stare, and he thought dreamily: 'The war! How it affects everyone!' His carriage was invaded by a swarm of soldiers, and the rest of the journey was passed in making himself small. When at last he reached home, Gratian met him in the hall.
"Just the same. The doctor says we shall know in a few hours now. How sweet of you to come! You must be tired, in this heat. It was dreadful to spoil your holiday."
"My dear! As if--May I go up and see him?"
George Laird was still lying in that stupor. And Pierson stood gazing down at him compassionately. Like most parsons, he had a wide acquaintance with the sick and dying; and one remorseless fellowship with death. Death! The commonest thing in the world, now--commoner than life! This young doctor must have seen many die in these last two years, saved many from death; and there he lay, not able to lift a finger to save himself. Pierson looked at his daughter; what a strong, promising young couple they were! And putting his arm round her, he led her away to the sofa, whence they could see the sick man.
"If he dies, Dad--" she whispered.
"He will have died for the Country, my love, as much as ever our soldiers do."
"I know; but that's no comfort. I've been watching here all day; I've been thinking; men will be just as brutal afterwards--more brutal. The world will go on the same."
"We must hope not. Shall we pray, Gracie?"
Gratian shook her head.
"If I could believe that the world--if I could believe anything! I've lost the power, Dad; I don't even believe in a future life. If George dies, we shall never meet again."
Pierson stared at her without a word.
Gratian went on: "The last time we talked, I was angry with George because he laughed at my belief; now that I really want belief, I feel that he was right."
Pierson said tremulously:
"No, no, my dear; it's only that you're overwrought. God in His mercy will give you back belief."
"There is no God, Dad"
"My darling child, what are you saying?"
"No God who can help us; I feel it. If there were any God who could take part in our lives, alter anything without our will, knew or cared what we did--He wouldn't let the world go on as it does."
"But, my dear, His purposes are inscrutable. We dare not say He should not do this or that, or try to fathom to what ends He is working."
"Then He's no good to us. It's the same as if He didn't exist. Why should I pray for George's life to One whose ends are just His own? I know George oughtn't to die. If there's a God who can help, it will be a wicked shame if George dies; if there's a God who can help, it's a wicked shame when babies die, and all these millions of poor boys. I would rather think there's no God than a helpless or a wicked God--"
Her father had suddenly thrown up his hands to his ears. She moved closer, and put her arm round him.
"Dad dear, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Pierson pressed her face down to his shoulder; and said in a dull voice:
"What do you think would have happened to me, Gracie, if I had lost belief when your mother died? I have never lost belief. Pray God I never shall!"
"George would not wish me to pretend I believe--he would want me to be honest. If I'm not honest, I shan't deserve that he should live. I don't believe, and I can't pray."
"My darling, you're overtired."
"No, Dad." She raised her head from his shoulder and, clasping her hands round her knees, looked straight before her. "We can only help ourselves; and I can only bear it if I rebel."
Pierson sat with trembling lips, feeling that nothing he could say would touch her just then. The sick man's face was hardly visible now in the twilight, and Gratian went over to his bed. She stood looking down at him a long time.
"Go and rest, Dad; the doctor's coming again at eleven. I'll call you if I want anything. I shall lie down a little, beside him."
Pierson kissed her, and went out. To lie there beside him would be the greatest comfort she could get. He went to the bare narrow little room he had occupied ever since his wife died; and, taking off his boots, walked up and down, with a feeling of almost crushing loneliness. Both his daughters in such trouble, and he of no use to them! It was as if Life were pushing him utterly aside! He felt confused, helpless, bewildered. Surely if Gratian loved George, she had not left God's side, whatever she might say. Then, conscious of the profound heresy of this thought, he stood still at the open window.
Earthly love--heavenly love; was there any analogy between them?
From the Square Gardens the indifferent whisper of the leaves answered; and a newsvendor at the far end, bawling his nightly tale of murder.
George Laird passed the crisis of his illness that night, and in the morning was pronounced out of danger. He had a splendid constitution, and--Scotsman on his father's side--a fighting character. He came back to life very weak, but avid of recovery; and his first words were: "I've been hanging over the edge, Gracie!"
A very high cliff, and his body half over, balancing; one inch, the merest fraction of an inch more, and over he would have gone. Deuced rum sensation! But not so horrible as it would have been in real life. With the slip of that last inch he felt he would have passed at once into oblivion, without the long horror of a fall. So this was what it was for all the poor fellows he had seen slip in the past two years! Mercifully, at the end, one was not alive enough to be conscious of what one was leaving, not alive enough even to care. If he had been able to take in the presence of his young wife, able to realise that he was looking at her face, touching her for the last time--it would have been hell; if he had been up to realising sunlight, moonlight, the sound of the world's life outside, the softness of the bed he lay on--it would have meant the most poignant anguish of defraudment. Life was a rare good thing, and to be squashed out of it with your powers at full, a wretched mistake in Nature's arrangements, a wretched villainy on the part of Man--for his own death, like all those other millions of premature deaths, would have been due to the idiocy and brutality of men! He could smile now, with Gratian looking down at him, but the experience had heaped fuel on a fire which had always smouldered in his doctor's soul against that half emancipated breed of apes, the human race. Well, now he would get a few days off from his death-carnival! And he lay, feasting his returning senses on his wife. She made a pretty nurse, and his practised eye judged her a good one--firm and quiet.
George Laird was thirty. At the opening of the war he was in an East-End practice, and had volunteered at once for service with the Army. For the first nine months he had been right up in the thick of it. A poisoned arm; rather than the authorities, had sent him home. During that leave he married Gratian. He had known the Piersons some time; and, made conscious of the instability of life, had resolved to marry her at the first chance he got. For his father-in-law he had respect and liking, ever mixed with what was not quite contempt and not quite pity. The blend of authority with humility, cleric with dreamer, monk with artist, mystic with man of action, in Pierson, excited in him an interested, but often irritated, wonder. He saw things so differently himself, and had little of the humorous curiosity which enjoys what is strange simply because it is strange. They could never talk together without soon reaching a point when he wanted to say: "If we're not to trust our reason and our senses for what they're worth, sir--will you kindly tell me what we are to trust? How can we exert them to the utmost in some matters, and in others suddenly turn our backs on them?" Once, in one of their discussions, which often bordered on acrimony, he had expounded himself at length.
"I grant," he had said, "that there's a great ultimate Mystery, that we shall never know anything for certain about the origin of life and the principle of the Universe; but why should we suddenly shut up our enquiring apparatus and deny all the evidence of our reason--say, about the story of Christ, or the question of a future life, or our moral code? If you want me to enter a temple of little mysteries, leaving my reason and senses behind--as a Mohammedan leaves his shoes--it won't do to say to me simply: 'There it is! Enter!' You must show me the door; and you can't! And I'll tell you why, sir. Because in your brain there's a little twist which is not in mine, or the lack of a little twist which is in mine. Nothing more than that divides us into the two main species of mankind, one of whom worships, and one of whom doesn't. Oh, yes! I know; you won't admit that, because it makes your religions natural instead of what you call supernatural. But I assure you there's nothing more to it. Your eyes look up or they look down--they never look straight before them. Well, mine do just the opposite."
That day Pierson had been feeling very tired, and though to meet this attack was vital, he had been unable to meet it. His brain had stammered. He had turned a little away, leaning his cheek on his hand, as if to cover that momentary break in his defences. Some days later he had said:
"I am able now to answer your questions, George. I think I can make you understand."
Laird had answered: "All right, sir; go ahead."
"You begin by assuming that the human reason is the final test of all things. What right have you to assume that? Suppose you were an ant. You would take your ant's reason as the final test, wouldn't you? Would that be the truth?" And a smile had fixed itself on his lips above his little grave beard.
George Laird also had smiled.
"That seems a good point, sir," he said, "until you recognise that I don't take, the human reason as final test in any absolute sense. I only say it's the highest test we can apply; and that, behind that test all is quite dark and unknowable."
"Revelation, then, means nothing to you?"
"I don't think we can usefully go on, George."
"I don't think we can, sir. In talking with you, I always feel like fighting a man with one hand tied behind his back."
"And I, perhaps, feel that I am arguing with one who was blind from birth."
For all that, they had often argued since; but never without those peculiar smiles coming on their faces. Still, they respected each other, and Pierson had not opposed his daughter's marriage to this heretic, whom he knew to be an honest and trustworthy man. It had taken place before Laird's arm was well, and the two had snatched a month's honeymoon before he went back to France, and she to her hospital in Manchester. Since then, just one February fortnight by the sea had been all their time together....
In the afternoon he had asked for beef tea, and, having drunk a cup, said:
"I've got something to tell your father."
But warned by the pallor of his smiling lips, Gratian answered:
"Tell me first, George."
"Our last talk, Gracie; well--there's nothing--on the other side. I looked over; it's as black as your hat."
"I know. While you were lying here last night, I told father."
He squeezed her hand, and said: "I also want to tell him."
"Dad will say the motive for life is gone."
"I say it leaps out all the more, Gracie. What a mess we make of it--we angel-apes! When shall we be men, I wonder? You and I, Gracie, will fight for a decent life for everybody. No hands-upping about that! Bend down! It's good to touch you again; everything's good. I'm going to have a sleep...."
After the relief of the doctor's report in the early morning Pierson had gone through a hard struggle. What should he wire to Noel? He longed to get her back home, away from temptation to the burning indiscretion of this marriage. But ought he to suppress reference to George's progress? Would that be honest? At last he sent this telegram: "George out of danger but very weak. Come up." By the afternoon post, however, he received a letter from Thirza:
"I have had two long talks with Noel and Cyril. It is impossible to budge them. And I really think, dear Edward, that it will be a mistake to oppose it rigidly. He may not go out as soon as we think. How would it be to consent to their having banns published?--that would mean another three weeks anyway, and in absence from each other they might be influenced to put it off. I'm afraid this is the only chance, for if you simply forbid it, I feel they will run off and get married somewhere at a registrar's."
Pierson took this letter out with him into the Square Garden, for painful cogitation. No man can hold a position of spiritual authority for long years without developing the habit of judgment. He judged Noel's conduct to be headlong and undisciplined, and the vein of stubbornness in his character fortified the father and the priest within him. Thirza disappointed him; she did not seem to see the irretrievable gravity of this hasty marriage. She seemed to look on it as something much lighter than it was, to consider that it might be left to Chance, and that if Chance turned out unfavourable, there would still be a way out. To him there would be no way out. He looked up at the sky, as if for inspiration. It was such a beautiful day, and so bitter to hurt his child, even for her good! What would her mother have advised? Surely Agnes had felt at least as deeply as himself the utter solemnity of marriage! And, sitting there in the sunlight, he painfully hardened his heart. He must do what he thought right, no matter what the consequences. So he went in and wrote that he could not agree, and wished Noel to come back home at once.
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