The old Director of the 'Yew Trees' Cemetery walked slowly across from his house, to see that all was ready.
He had seen pass into the square of earth committed to his charge so many to whom he had been in the habit of nodding, so many whose faces even he had not known. To him it was the everyday event; yet this funeral, one more in the countless tale, disturbed him—a sharp reminder of the passage of time.
For twenty years had gone by since the death of Septimus Godwin, the cynical, romantic doctor who had been his greatest friend; by whose cleverness all had sworn, of whose powers of fascination all had gossiped! And now they were burying his son!
He had not seen the widow since, for she had left the town at once; but he recollected her distinctly, a tall, dark woman with bright brown eyes, much younger than her husband, and only married to him eighteen months before he died. He remembered her slim figure standing by the grave, at that long-past funeral, and the look on her face which had puzzled him so terribly—a look of—a most peculiar look!
He thought of it even now, walking along the narrow path towards his old friend's grave—the handsomest in the cemetery, commanding from the topmost point the whitened slope and river that lay beyond. He came to its little private garden. Spring flowers were blossoming; the railings had been freshly painted; and by the door of the grave wreaths awaited the new arrival. All was in order.
The old Director opened the mausoleum with his key. Below, seen through a thick glass floor, lay the shining coffin of the father; beneath, on the lower tier, would rest the coffin of the son.
A gentle voice, close behind him, said:
"Can you tell me, sir, what they are doing to my old doctor's grave?"
The old Director turned, and saw before him a lady well past middle age. He did not know her face, but it was pleasant, with faded rose-leaf cheeks, and silvered hair under a shady hat.
"Madam, there is a funeral here this afternoon."
"Ah! Can it be his wife?"
"Madam, his son; a young man of only twenty."
"His son! At what time did you say?"
"At two o'clock."
"Thank you; you are very kind."
With uplifted hat, he watched her walk away. It worried him to see a face he did not know.
All went off beautifully; but, dining that same evening with his friend, a certain doctor, the old Director asked:
"Did you see a lady with grey hair hovering about this afternoon?"
The doctor, a tall man, with a beard still yellow, drew his guest's chair nearer to the fire.
"Did you remark her face? A very odd expression—a sort of—what shall I call it?—Very odd indeed! Who is she? I saw her at the grave this morning."
The doctor shook his head.
"Not so very odd, I think."
"Come! What do you mean by that?"
The doctor hesitated. Then, taking the decanter, he filled his old friend's glass, and answered:
"Well, sir, you were Godwin's greatest chum—I will tell you, if you like, the story of his death. You were away at the time, if you remember."
"It is safe with me," said the old Director.
"Septimus Godwin," began the doctor slowly, "died on a Thursday about three o'clock, and I was only called in to see him at two. I found him far gone, but conscious now and then. It was a case of—but you know the details, so I needn't go into that. His wife was in the room, and on the bed at his feet lay his pet dog—a terrier; you may recollect, perhaps, he had a special breed. I hadn't been there ten minutes, when a maid came in and whispered something to her mistress. Mrs. Godwin answered angrily, 'See him? Go down and say she ought to know better than to come here at such a time!' The maid went, but soon came back. Could the lady see Mrs. Godwin for just a moment? Mrs. Godwin answered that she could not leave her husband. The maid looked frightened, and went away again. She came back for the third time. The lady had said she must see Dr. Godwin; it was a matter of life and death! 'Death—indeed!' exclaimed Mrs. Godwin: 'Shameful! Go down and tell her, if she doesn't go immediately, I will send for the police!'
"The poor maid looked at me. I offered to go down and see the visitor myself. I found her in the dining room, and knew her at once. Never mind her name, but she belongs to a county family not a hundred miles from here. A beautiful woman she was then; but her face that day was quite distorted.
"'For God's sake, Doctor,' she said, 'is there any hope?'
"I was obliged to tell her there was none.
"'Then I must see him,' she said.
"I begged her to consider what she was asking. But she held me out a signet ring. Just like Godwin—wasn't it—that sort of Byronism, eh?
"'He sent me this,' she said, 'an hour ago. It was agreed between us that if ever he sent that, I must come. If it were only myself I could bear it—a woman can bear anything; but he'll die thinking I wouldn't come, thinking I didn't care—and I would give my life for him this minute!'
"Now, a dying man's request is sacred. I told her she should see him. I made her follow me upstairs, and wait outside his room. I promised to let her know if he recovered consciousness. I have never been thanked like that, before or since.
"I went back into the bedroom. He was still unconscious, and the terrier whining. In the next room a child was crying—the very same young man we buried to-day. Mrs. Godwin was still standing by the bed.
"'Have you sent her away?'
"I had to say that Godwin really wished to see her. At that she broke out:
"'I won't have her here—the wretch!'
"I begged her to control herself, and remember that her husband was a dying man.
"'But I'm his wife,' she said, and flew out of the room."
The doctor paused, staring at the fire. He shrugged his shoulders, and went on: "I'd have stopped her fury if I could! A dying man is not the same as the live animal, that he must needs be wrangled over! And suffering's sacred, even to us doctors. I could hear their voices outside. Heaven knows what they said to each other. And there lay Godwin with his white face and his black hair—deathly still—fine-looking fellow he always was! Then I saw that he was coming to! The women had begun again outside—first, the wife, sharp and scornful; then the other, hushed and slow. I saw Godwin lift his finger and point it at the door. I went out, and said to the woman, 'Dr. Godwin wishes to see you; please control yourself.'
"We went back into the room. The wife followed. But Godwin had lost consciousness again. They sat down, those two, and hid their faces. I can see them now, one on each side of the bed, their eyes covered with their hands, each with her claim on him, all murdered by the other's presence; each with her torn love. H'm! What they must have suffered, then! And all the time the child crying—the child of one of them, that might have been the other's!"
The doctor was silent, and the old Director turned towards him his white-bearded, ruddy face, with a look as if he were groping in the dark.
"Just then, I remember," the doctor went on suddenly, "the bells of St. Jude's close by began to peal out for the finish of a wedding. That brought Godwin back to life. He just looked from one woman to the other with a queer, miserable sort of smile, enough to make your heart break. And they both looked at him. The face of the wife—poor thing!—was as bitter hard as a cut stone, but she sat there, without ever stirring a finger. As for the other woman—I couldn't look at her. He beckoned to me; but I couldn't catch his words, the bells drowned them. A minute later he was dead.
"Life's a funny thing! You wake in the morning with your foot firm on the ladder—One touch, and down you go! You snuff out like a candle. And it's lucky when your flame goes out, if only one woman's flame goes out too.
"Neither of those women cried. The wife stayed there by the bed. I got the other one away to her carriage, down the street.—And so she was there to-day! That explains, I think, the look you saw."
The doctor ceased, and in the silence the old Director nodded. Yes! That explained the look he had seen on the face of that unknown woman, the deep, unseizable, weird look. That explained the look he had seen on the wife's face at the funeral twenty years ago!
And peering wistfully, he said:
"They looked—they looked—almost triumphant!"
Then, slowly, he rubbed his hands over his knees, with the secret craving of the old for warmth.
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