After the emotions of those last three days Pierson woke with the feeling a ship must have when it makes landfall. Such reliefs are natural, and as a rule delusive; for events are as much the parents of the future as they were the children of the past. To be at home with both his girls, and resting--for his holiday would not be over for ten days--was like old times. Now George was going on so well Gratian would be herself again; now Cyril Morland was gone Noel would lose that sudden youthful love fever. Perhaps in two or three days if George continued to progress, one might go off with Noel somewhere for one's last week. In the meantime the old house, wherein was gathered so much remembrance of happiness and pain, was just as restful as anywhere else, and the companionship of his girls would be as sweet as on any of their past rambling holidays in Wales or Ireland. And that first morning of perfect idleness--for no one knew he was back in London--pottering, and playing the piano in the homely drawing-room where nothing to speak of was changed since his wife's day, was very pleasant. He had not yet seen the girls, for Noel did not come down to breakfast, and Gratian was with George.
Discovery that there was still a barrier between him and them came but slowly in the next two days. He would not acknowledge it, yet it was there, in their voices, in their movements--rather an absence of something old than the presence of something new. It was as if each had said to him: "We love you, but you are not in our secrets--and you must not be, for you would try to destroy them." They showed no fear of him, but seemed to be pushing him unconsciously away, lest he should restrain or alter what was very dear to them. They were both fond of him, but their natures had set foot on definitely diverging paths. The closer the affection, the more watchful they were against interference by that affection. Noel had a look on her face, half dazed, half proud, which touched, yet vexed him. What had he done to forfeit her confidence--surely she must see how natural and right his opposition had been! He made one great effort to show the real sympathy he felt for her. But she only said: "I can't talk of Cyril, Daddy; I simply can't!" And he, who easily shrank into his shell, could not but acquiesce in her reserve.
With Gratian it was different. He knew that an encounter was before him; a struggle between him and her husband--for characteristically he set the change in her, the defection of her faith, down to George, not to spontaneous thought and feeling in herself. He dreaded and yet looked forward to this encounter. It came on the third day, when Laird was up, lying on that very sofa where Pierson had sat listening to Gratian's confession of disbelief. Except for putting in his head to say good morning, he had not yet seen his son-in-law: The young doctor could not look fragile, the build of his face, with that law and those heavy cheekbones was too much against it, but there was about him enough of the look of having come through a hard fight to give Pierson's heart a squeeze.
"Well, George," he said, "you gave us a dreadful fright! I thank God's mercy." With that half-mechanical phrase he had flung an unconscious challenge. Laird looked up whimsically.
"So you really think God merciful, sir?"
"Don't let us argue, George; you're not strong enough."
"Oh! I'm pining for something to bite on."
Pierson looked at Gratian, and said softly:
"God's mercy is infinite, and you know it is."
Laird also looked at Gratian, before he answered:
"God's mercy is surely the amount of mercy man has succeeded in arriving at. How much that is, this war tells you, sir."
Pierson flushed. "I don't follow you," he said painfully. "How can you say such things, when you yourself are only just--No; I refuse to argue, George; I refuse."
Laird stretched out his hand to his wife, who came to him, and stood clasping it with her own. "Well, I'm going to argue," he said; "I'm simply bursting with it. I challenge you, sir, to show me where there's any sign of altruistic pity, except in man. Mother love doesn't count--mother and child are too much one."
The curious smile had come already, on both their faces.
"My dear George, is not man the highest work of God, and mercy the highest quality in man?"
"Not a bit. If geological time be taken as twenty-four hours, man's existence on earth so far equals just two seconds of it; after a few more seconds, when man has been frozen off the earth, geological time will stretch for as long again, before the earth bumps into something, and becomes nebula once more. God's hands haven't been particularly full, sir, have they--two seconds out of twenty-four hours--if man is His pet concern? And as to mercy being the highest quality in, man, that's only a modern fashion of talking. Man's highest quality is the sense of proportion, for that's what keeps him alive; and mercy, logically pursued, would kill him off. It's a sort of a luxury or by-product."
"George! You can have no music in your soul! Science is such a little thing, if you could only see."
"Show me a bigger, sir."
"In what has been revealed to us."
"Ah! There it is again! By whom--how?
"By God Himself--through our Lord."
A faint flush rose in Laird's yellow face, and his eyes brightened.
"Christ," he said; "if He existed, which some people, as you know, doubt, was a very beautiful character; there have been others. But to ask us to believe in His supernaturalness or divinity at this time of day is to ask us to walk through the world blindfold. And that's what you do, don't you?"
Again Pierson looked at his daughter's face. She was standing quite still, with her eyes fixed on her husband. Somehow he was aware that all these words of the sick man's were for her benefit. Anger, and a sort of despair rose within him, and he said painfully:
"I cannot explain. There are things that I can't make clear, because you are wilfully blind to all that I believe in. For what do you imagine we are fighting this great war, if it is not to reestablish the belief in love as the guiding principle of life?"
Laird shook his head. "We are fighting to redress a balance, which was in danger of being lost."
"The balance of power?"
"Heavens!--no! The balance of philosophy."
Pierson smiled. "That sounds very clever, George; but again, I don't follow you."
"The balance between the sayings: 'Might is Right,' and 'Right is Might.' They're both half-truth, but the first was beating the other out of the field. All the rest of it is cant, you know. And by the way, sir, your Church is solid for punishment of the evildoer. Where's mercy there? Either its God is not merciful, or else it doesn't believe in its God."
"Just punishment does not preclude mercy, George."
"It does in Nature."
"Ah! Nature, George--always Nature. God transcends Nature."
"Then why does He give it a free rein? A man too fond of drink, or women--how much mercy does he get from Nature? His overindulgence brings its exact equivalent of penalty; let him pray to God as much as he likes--unless he alters his ways he gets no mercy. If he does alter his ways, he gets no mercy either; he just gets Nature's due reward. We English who have neglected brain and education--how much mercy are we getting in this war? Mercy's a man-made ornament, disease, or luxury--call it what you will. Except that, I've nothing to say against it. On the contrary, I am all for it."
Once more Pierson looked at his daughter. Something in her face hurt him--the silent intensity with which she was hanging on her husband's words, the eager search of her eyes. And he turned to the door, saying:
"This is bad for you, George."
He saw Gratian put her hand on her husband's forehead, and thought--jealously: 'How can I save my poor girl from this infidelity? Are my twenty years of care to go for nothing, against this modern spirit?'
Down in his study, the words went through his mind: "Holy, holy, holy, Merciful and Mighty!" And going to the little piano in the corner, he opened it, and began playing the hymn. He played it softly on the shabby keys of this thirty-year old friend, which had been with him since College days; and sang it softly in his worn voice.
A sound made him look up. Gratian had come in. She put her hand on his shoulder, and said:
"I know it hurts you, Dad. But we've got to find out for ourselves, haven't we? All the time you and George were talking, I felt that you didn't see that it's I who've changed. It's not what he thinks, but what I've come to think of my own accord. I wish you'd understand that I've got a mind of my own, Dad."
Pierson looked up with amazement.
"Of course you have a mind."
Gratian shook her head. "No, you thought my mind was yours; and now you think it's George's. But it's my own. When you were my age weren't you trying hard to find the truth yourself, and differing from your father?"
Pierson did not answer. He could not remember. It was like stirring a stick amongst a drift of last year's leaves, to awaken but a dry rustling, a vague sense of unsubstantiality. Searched? No doubt he had searched, but the process had brought him nothing. Knowledge was all smoke! Emotional faith alone was truth--reality!
"Ah, Gracie!" he said, "search if you must, but where will you find bottom? The well is too deep for us. You will come back to God, my child, when you're tired out; the only rest is there."
"I don't want to rest. Some people search all their lives, and die searching. Why shouldn't I.
"You will be most unhappy, my child."
"If I'm unhappy, Dad, it'll be because the world's unhappy. I don't believe it ought to be; I think it only is, because it shuts its eyes."
Pierson got up. "You think I shut my eyes?"
"If I do, it is because there is no other way to happiness."
"Are you happy; Dad?"
"As happy as my nature will let me be. I miss your mother. If I lose you and Noel--"
"Oh, but we won't let you!"
Pierson smiled. "My dear," he said, "I think I have!"
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