WARCHESTER, St. Andrew's Parish House, October 8th.
You'll never see me again? You'll see me in three days unless you stop me with a telegram.
I have a curious feeling that all this has happened before—my sitting here in front of the fire writing to you at one o'clock in the morning. They say it's one part of the brain working a shade ahead of the rest. I don't believe that. I do not believe my brain is working at all. It's spinning around. For days I've been living in the Fourth Dimension—something like that. It changes the values to have a new universe whirl up around one. New heavens and a new earth—that's it. I have given up trying to analyze it. Even if I didn't want to tell you I couldn't help it. I'm beyond that now, and—helpless. I never dreamed of its being like this. I never thought much about it, except vaguely, as anybody does, and here it's come and snatched away the world.
I don't know how this is going to get itself said. But I can't stop it. That frightens me, rather; I've been used to ordering myself about or, at least, to feeling that I could. But that seems to be over. I don't pretend that I didn't foresee it, or rather that I didn't recognize it right at the beginning. What I did was to put off reckoning with it.
I see that I'm going to say things wrong. You have got to overlook that; I can't help it. I told you my brain wasn't working. For days I've been in a maze. Then your letter came, late this afternoon, and that settled it. Do you know what you said? Do you? You said: "If you were a real man, I wouldn't have exploded like this." A real man—what do you think I am? That's what I want to know. You'll find out I'm real enough before you and I are done. Do you suppose that I have been reading your letters all these weeks—those letters in which you said yourself you put your soul—as though they were stock quotations? Did you think you were a numbered "case," that I was keeping notes about you in that neat filing-cabinet down in the office? Well, it hasn't been exactly that way.
Do you remember that day you were here? How it rained—how dark it was? Why, I've never seen you, really. I'm always trying to imagine your face.
I've got to talk to you—some things can't be written. You won't stop me. Do you suppose you can? You've got to give me a chance to talk—that's only square. No, I don't mean all that. I don't quite know what I'm saying. I mean, you will let me come, won't you? I'll go away again after; you needn't be afraid. That's fair, isn't it?
You see, it's been strange from the start, and so quick. You, in the middle of the storm that day—the things you said—the fearful tangle you were in. And then the letters—the wonderful letters! And we thought we were keeping it all impersonal. You, with your blazing individuality—you, impersonal! I can't imagine your face, but you've stripped the masks and conventions off your soul for me—I've looked at that. I couldn't help it, could I? I couldn't stop. I can't now. I can't look at anything else. There isn't anything else—it fills my world—it's blotted out what used to be reality.
You're hundreds of miles away—what are you doing? Sitting, with your white dress a rosy blur in the lamplight, reading, thinking, afraid—frightened at the doctors—shrinking at the thought of that damned, pawing beast? We'll drop that last—this isn't the time for that—not yet. Miles away you are—and yet you're here—the real you that you've sent me in the letters. Always you are here. I listen to your voice—I've got that—your voice, singing through my days—here in the silence and the firelight, outside in the night under the stars, always, everywhere, I hear you—calling me.
You see, my head's gone. Don't think though, that I don't know the risk this is. But there isn't any other way. Those four weeks you didn't write, when I thought you had gone under—that was when I began to see how it was with me. Since then I've gone on, living on your letters, until now I can't imagine living without them—and more. And yet I know this may be the end. That's the risk. But I can't go on like that any more. It's everything now, or nothing. I want to know what you are going to do about it. What are you thinking—what must you think—what will you say to me when I see you in your still garden of miracles? I've got to know. If you meant it—you said I was the centre of your world—it can't be true that you meant that. I the centre of your great, clean, wind-swept world of hill-tops and of visions? I, who haven't got the decent strength to hold my tongue, and keep my hands. But you did say that—you did! When I come, will you say it to me again, out loud, that? I can't imagine it—such a thing couldn't happen to me. But if you shouldn't—if you should tell me not to come—no, I can't face that. Where is the solution? I see perfectly that you can't care—why should you?—I see also that you must be made to. That's just it. I know what I must have and that I can never have it. No, that isn't so. I know that I shall come and take you away from what you fear and hate, out of the world we both know is not real, into reality. I shall tell you why I want you, why you must come. You will listen and you will answer. You will say why it's madness and insanity. I shall have to hear all your obvious reasons, but I shall know that you know they are lies—Do you think—do you dream, that they can stand between me and you? You can't stop me. Because I have seen your soul—you said so—you've held it out, in your two hands, for me to look at. You can't keep me away from you. I know how you'll fight against it. You won't win—don't count on it.
This isn't insolence—it's the thing that's got me. I can't help it. A man is that way. I don't half know what I've said; I don't dare read it. You have got to make it out yourself, somehow.
You've asked me questions. You're troubled, frightened—I know, it's—hell. Do you think I can sit here any longer and let you go through that alone? I've been over the whole thing—I've done nothing else, and out of the maze of it all I'm forced to come to this. It's the old way and the only one—the answer to it all. What can you do with your life—your life that is going to be, that is now, all glorious with loveliness and light? Give it away—that's it—give it to me, and then we two will set it to music and send it singing through the world. The old way. You to come home to when the day is done—your face, your hands, your eyes——
You'll have to overlook this. It's mad to go on. It's mad anyway. If you knew how I've lied to myself, how I've struggled and fought and twisted to keep this back from you! And here it is, confused and grotesque and contradictory and wrong. If I could look at you and say it, I could get it right. If I could look at you—if I could see you. Give me a chance. Then I'll go away again—if you say so. I had to give you warning—it didn't seem square not. And I've bungled it like this! I tell you I can't help it. It's what you've done to me. I tried to spare you this, but I waited too long—now it's almighty.
Give me my man's chance—Oh I know I'm not worth it—who is? Afterwards—
Telegram received by the Reverend Geoffrey McBirney, St. Andrews Parish House, Warchester:
You must not come. Leaving Forest Gate. Sailing for Germany Saturday. Letter.
The son of the under-gardener was a steady ten-year-old three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, and his Scottish blood commended him to Robert Halarkenden and inspired a confidence not justified on the three hundred and sixty-fifth day.
"Angus," said Halarkenden, regarding the boy with a blue glance like a blow, "the young mistress wishes this letter posted to catch the noon train. The master has sent for me and I canna take it. You will"—the bony hand fished in the deep pocket and brought out a nickel—"you will hurry with this letter and post it immediately." "Yes, sir," said Angus, and Robert Halarkenden turned to go to the master of the great house, ill in his great room, with no doubt about the United States mails. While Angus, being in the power of the three hundred and sixty-fifth day, trotted demurely into the meshes of Fate.
Fate was posing as another lad, a lad of charm and adventure. "C'm on, Ang," proposed Fate in nasal American; "Evans's chauffeur's havin' a rooster-fight in the garage. Hurry up—c'm on—lots of fun." And while Angus, stirred by the prospect, struggled with a Scotch conscience, the footman from next door sauntered up, a good-natured youth, and, stopping, caught the question.
"Get along to your chicken-fight," he adjured Angus, and took the letter from his hand. "I'm on my way to the post-office now. I'll mail it as good as you, ain't it?" And Angus fled up the street along with Fate. While Tom Mullins thrust the letter casually into a coat-pocket and dropped in to see his best girl, and, in a bit of horse-play with that lady, lost the letter. "Sure, I mailed it," he answered Angus's inquiries that afternoon, and Angus passed along the assurance, not going into details, and every one concerned was satisfied.
While, in a Parish House many miles down the railed roads that measure the country, a man waited. And waited, ever with a sicker restlessness, a more unendurable longing. Saturday came, and the man hoped, till the hour for any boat's sailing was long past, for a letter, another telegram. Then, "She has had it mailed after she left," he reasoned, and all of Monday and Tuesday he waited and watched and invented reasons why it might come to-morrow or even later—even from the other side—from Germany. Two weeks, three, and then four, he held to varying fictions about the letter, which Arline Baker, the lady of Tom Mullins's heart, had picked up from the floor that day in October and tucked into a bureau drawer to give to Tom—tucked under a summer blouse. And the weather had turned chilly, helping along Fate as weather will at times, and the summer blouse had not been worn, and the letter had been forgotten.
Then there came a day when he took measures with himself, because suspense and misery were eating his strength. He faced the situation; he had poured his heart, keeping back nothing, at her feet. And she had not answered, except with a few words of a telegram. He knew, by that, that she had got his letter, the first love-letter of his life. But she had not cared enough to answer it. Or else, his faith in her argued, something had happened, there had been some unimaginable reason to prevent her answering. That the letter had been lost was so commonplace a solution that it did not occur to him. One does not think of mice setting off gunpowder magazines. At all events he was facing a stone wall; there was no further step to take; she must be in Germany; he did not know her address; if he did, how could he write again? A man may not hound a woman with his love. Yet he was all but mad with anxiety about her, beyond this other suffering. Why had she suddenly gone to Germany? What did that mean? In his black struggles for enlightenment, he believed sometimes that, in a fantastic attack of noblesse oblige, she had married the other man and gone to Germany with him. That thought drove him near insanity. So he gathered up, alone before his fire, all these imaginings and doubts, and sat with them into the night, and made a packet of them, and locked them away, as well as he might, into a chamber of his memory. And the next day he flung himself into his work as he had not been able ever to do before; he made it his world, and resolutely shut out the buoyant voice and the personality so intimately known, so unknown. He tried to be so tired, at night, that he could not think of her; and he succeeded far enough to make living a possibility, which is all that any of us can do sometimes. Often the thought of her, of her words, of her letters, of the gay voice telling of a hideous future, stabbed him suddenly in the night, in the crowded day. But he put it aside with a mighty effort each time, and each time gained control.
And then it was May, and in June he was to have his vacation. And once more the doubt of his fitness for his work was upon him. The stress of the tremendous gait of the big parish, and the way he had thrown his strength by handfuls into the work, had told. If a healthy and happy man uses brain and heart and body carefully it is perhaps true that he cannot overwork. But if a high-strung man gives himself out all day long, every day, recklessly, and is at the same time under a mental strain, he is likely to be ill. Geoffrey McBirney was close to an illness; his attitude toward life was warped; he was reasoning that he had made the girl a test case and that the case had failed; that it was now his duty to stand by the test and give up his work. And then, one day, the letter came. The weather had turned warm in Forest Gate and Arline Baker had got out her summer blouses.
October 10th [it was dated].
This morning, after I had read your letter it was as if I were being beaten to earth by alternate blows, like thunder, like lightning, fierce and beautiful and terrible, of joy and of grief.
For I care—I care—I can't wait to tell you—I'm so glad, so triumphant, so wretched that I care—that it's in me to care, desperately, as much as any woman or man since the foundation of the world. It's in me—once you said it wasn't—and you have brought it to life, and I care—I love you. I want to let you come so that it left me blind and shaking to send that telegram. But there isn't any question. If I let you come I would be wicked. I, with my handful of broken life, to let you manacle your splendid years to a lump of stone? Could you think I would do that? Don't you see that, because I care, I'm so much more eager not to let you? I'm selfish and my first answer to that letter was a rush of happiness. I forgot there was anything in time or space except the flood which carried me out on a sea of just you—the sweeping, overwhelming many waters of—you. I wonder if you'd think me brazen if I told you how it seemed? As if your arms were around me, and the world reeling. Some of those clever psychologists, James or Lodge, I can't remember who, have a theory that to higher beings the past and present and future are all one; no divisions in eternity. It seemed like that. Questions and life and right and wrong all dissolved in the white heat of one fact. I didn't see or hear or know. I put my head on the table, on your writing, in my locked room, and simply felt—your arms.
If this were to be a happy love-affair I couldn't write this; I would have decent reserve—I hope; I would wait, maybe, and let you find out things slowly. But there isn't time—oh, there isn't any time. I have to tell you now because this is the last. You can't write again; I won't let you throw away your life; I'm not worth much, generally speaking, but I'm worth your salvation just now if I have the strength to give it to you. And I'm staggering under the effort, but I'm going to give it to you. I'm going to keep you away.
It was realizing that I must do this which beat me to earth with those terrible, bright, sharp swords. You see I'm starting off suddenly with Uncle Ted. He is very ill, with heart trouble, and the doctors think his chance is to get to Nauheim at once. It was decided last night, and we had passage engaged for Saturday within an hour, and then this morning the letter came. As soon as I could pull myself together a little I began to see how things were, and it looked to me as if somebody—God maybe—had put down a specific hand to punish my useless life and arrange your salvation. My going away is the means He is using.
For you are such a headstrong unknown quantity, that if I had seen you, I couldn't have held you, and how could I have fought the exquisite sweetness and glamour that is through even your written words, that would make me wax in your hands, if you had been here and I had heard your voice and seen your eyes and felt your touch; oh, I would have done it—I must do it—but it would have killed me I think. It's more possible this way.
For I'm going indefinitely and all I have to do is to suppress my address. Just that. You can't find it out, for Robin is going away too; he is to do some work of mine while I am gone; and you can't come here and inquire for "August First," can you, now? So this is all—the end. Suddenly I feel inadequate and leaden. It is all over—the one chance for real happiness which I have had in my butterfly days—over. But you have changed earth and heaven—I want you to know it. I can't even now say that if Uncle Ted shouldn't need me; if the hideous, creeping monster should begin its work visibly on me, that I might not some day use the pistol. But I do say that because of you I will try to make any living that I may do count for something, for somebody. I am trying. You are to know about that in time.
And now the color is going out of my life—you are going. Some day you will care for some one else more than you think now you care for me. I'm leaving you free for that—but it's all I can do. Why must my life be wreck and suffering? Why may I not have the common happinesses? Why may I not love you—be there for you "at the end of the day"? The blows are raining hard; I'm beaten close to earth. Has God forsaken me? I can only cling tight to the thin line of my duty to Uncle Ted; I can't see any further than that. Good-by.
The man shook as if in an ague. He laid the letter on a table and fastened it open with weights so that the May breeze, frolicking through the top of the Parish House, might not blow it away. Standing over it, bending to it, sitting down, he read it and re-read it, and paced the room and came back and bent over it. He groaned as he looked at the date. Seven months ago if he had had it—what could have held him? She loved him—what on earth could have kept him from her, knowing that? Not illness nor oceans or her will. No, not her will, if she cared; and she had said it. He would have swept down her will like a tidal wave, knowing that.
Seven months ago! He would have followed her to Germany. He laughed at the thought that she believed herself hidden from him. The world was not big enough to hide her. What was a trip to Germany—to Madagascar? But now—where might she not be—what might not have happened? She might be dead. Worse—and this thought stopped his pulse—she might be married.
That was the big, underlying terror of his mind. In his restless pacing he stopped suddenly as if frozen. His brain was working this way and that, searching for light. In a moment he knew what he would do. He dashed down the familiar steep stairs; in four minutes more he had raced across the street to the rectory, and brought up, breathless, in the rector's study.
"What's the matter—a train to catch?" the rector demanded, regarding him.
"Just that, doctor. Could I be spared for three days?"
The rector had not failed to have his theories about this brilliant, hard-working, unaccountable, highly useful subaltern of his. His heart had one of its warmest spots for McBirney. Something was wrong with him, it had been evident for months; one must help him in the dark if better could not be done.
"Surely," said the rector.
There was a fast train west in an hour; the man and his bag were on it, and twenty-four hours later he was stumbling off a car at the solid, vine-covered, red brick station at Forest Gate. An inquiry or two, and then he had crossed the wide, short street, the single business street of the rich suburb, facing the railway and the station, and was in the post-office. He asked about one Robert Halarkenden. The postmaster regarded him suspiciously. His affair was to sort letters, not to answer questions. He did the first badly; he did not mean to do the other at all.
"No such person ever been in town," he answered coldly, after a moment's staring. The man who had hurried a thousand miles to ask the question, set his bag on the floor and faced the postmaster grimly.
"He must have been," he stated. "I sent a lot of letters to him last year, and they reached him."
"Oh—last year," the official answered stonily. "He might 'a' been here last year. I only came January." And he turned with insulted gloom to his labors.
McBirney leaned as far as he might into the little window. "Look here," he adjured the man inside, "do be a Christian about this. I've come from the East, a thousand miles, to find Halarkenden, and I know he was here seven months ago. It's awfully important. Won't you treat me like a white man and help me a little?"
Few people ever resisted Geoffrey McBirney when he pleaded with them. The stolid potentate turned back wondering, and did not know that what he felt stirring the dried veins within him was charm. "Why, sure," he answered slowly, astonished at his own words, "I'll help you if I can. Glad t' help anybody."
There was a cock-sure assistant in the back of the dirty sanctum, and to him the friend of mankind applied.
"Halarkenden—Robert," the assistant snapped out. "'Course. I remember. Gardener up to the Edward Reidses," and McBirney thrilled as if an event had happened. "Uncle Ted" was "the Edward Reidses." It might be her name—Reid.
"He went away six or seven months ago, I think," McBirney suggested, breathing a bit fast. "I thought he might be back by now."
"Nawp," said the cock-sure one. "I remember. 'Course. Family broke Up. Old man died."
"No, he didn't," the parson interrupted tartly. "He went to Germany."
"Aw well, then, 'f you know mor'n I do, maybe he did go to Germany. Anyhow, the girl got married. And Halarkenden, he ain't been around since. Leastaways, ain't had no letters for him." There was an undue silence, it appeared to the officials inside the window. "That all?" demanded Cocksure, thirsting to get back to work.
"What 'girl' do you speak of—who was married?" McBirney asked slowly.
"Old man's niece. Miss——"
But the name never got out. McBirney cut across the nasal speech. He would not learn that name in this way. "That's all," he said quickly. "Thank you. Good-by."
So Geoffrey McBirney went back to St. Andrews. And the last state of him was worse than the first.
WARCHESTER, St. Andrew's Parish House, May 26th.
RICHARD MARSTON, ESQ. C/r Marston & Brooks, Consulting Engineers, Boston.
Of course I'll go, unless something happens, as per usual. I've got the last three weeks of June, and nowhere in particular to waste them at. Shall I come to Boston, or where do we meet? Let me know when we're to start; likewise what I am to bring. Do you take a trunk, or do we send the things ahead by express? I've never been on a long motor trip before. I'm mighty glad to go; it's just what I would have wanted to do, if I'd wanted to do anything. Doesn't sound eager, does it? What I mean is, it will be out-of-doors and I need that a good deal; and it will be with you, which I need more.
The chances are you won't find me gay. It's been a rotten winter, mostly, and it's left me not up to much. Not up to anything, in fact. Things have happened, and the bottom dropped out last autumn.
The fact is, I'm going to clear out. Try something else. I want to talk to you about that—I mean about the new job. I'd thought, maybe, of a school up in the country. I like youngsters. You remember that Scotch lad—the one with the money? I wrote you—I tutored him in Latin. That's where I got the notion. I had luck with him, And I've missed him a lot since. So maybe that's the thing. I don't know. We'll talk. Anyhow, this is ended.
I never let out what I thought about your being so decent, that night at college, when I said I was going to be a parson; the chances are I never will. But that's largely why I'm telling you this. I'm flunking my job—I have flunked it; the letter to the rector is written—he's to get it at the end of his holiday. I think I've stopped caring what other people will say, but I hate to hurt him. But you see, I thought it through, and it's the only thing to do—just to get out. I picked one definite job, for a sort of test, and it fell through. That settled it.
I wanted to tell you for old sake's sake. Besides, I somehow needed to have you know. And so now I'm going motoring with you. Write me about the trunk, and about when and where.
As ever, MAC.
P. S. We needn't see people, need we?
The automobile with the two young men in the front seat sped smoothly over June roads. For a week they had been covering ground day after day; to-night they were due at Dick Marston's cousin's country house to stop for three days before the return trip through the mountains.
"Dick," reflected Geoffrey McBirney aloud, "consider again about dropping me in Boston. I'll be as much good at a house-party as a crape veil at a dance. You're an awful ass to take me."
"That's up to me," remarked Dick. "Get your feet out of the gears, will you? The Emorys are keen for you and I said I'd bring you, and I will if I have to do it by the scruff of the neck. Don Emory is away but will be back to-morrow."
"Splendid!" said McBirney, and then, "I won't kick and scream, you know. I'll merely whine and sulk," he went on consideringly. "I'll hate it, and I'll be ugly-tempered, and they'll detest me. Up to you, however."
"It is," responded Marston, and no more was said. So that at twilight they were speeding down the long, empty ocean drive with good salt air in their faces, and lights of cottages spotting the opal night with orange blurs. It was a large, gay house-party, and the person who had been called, it was told from one to another, "the young Phillips Brooks," a person who brought among them certain piquant qualities, was a lion ready to their hand. With the general friendliness of a good man of the world, there was something beyond; there was reality in the friendliness, yet impersonality—a detached attitude; the man had no axes to grind for himself; one felt at every turn that this important universe of the haute monde was unimportant to him. Through his civility there was an outcropping of savage honesty which made the house-party sit up straight, more than once. Emerson says, in a better-made sentence, that the world is at the feet of him who does not want it. Geoffrey McBirney had taken a long jump, years back, and cleared the childishness, lifelong in most of us, of wanting the world. There is an attraction in a person who has done this and yet has kept a love of humanity. Witness St. Francis of Assisi and other notables of his ilk.
The people at Sea-Acres felt the attraction and tried to lionize the dark, tall parson with the glowing, indifferent eyes. But the lion would not roar and gambol; the lion was a reserved beast, it seemed, with a suggestion of unbelievable, yet genuine, distaste under attentions. That point was alluring. One tried harder to soften a brute so worth while, so difficult. Three or four girls tried. The lion was outwardly a gentle lion, pleasant when cornered, but seldom cornered. He managed to get off on a long walk alone when Angela, of nineteen, meant him to have played tennis, on the second day.
The June afternoon was softening to a rosy dimness as he came in, very tired physically, hot and grimy, and sick of soul. "Glory be, tea-time's over, and they'll be dressing for dinner," he murmured, and turned a corner on eight of "them." A glance at the gay group showed two or three new faces. More guests! McBirney set his teeth. But he had no space to take note of the arrivals, for Angela spoke.
"Just in time, Mr. McBirney," Angela greeted him. "Don Emory's coming—see!" A car was spinning up the drive.
"Is he?" he answered perfunctorily. And the two words were clipped from history even as they were spoken, by a cry that rang from the group of people. Tod Winthrop ought to have been in bed. It was six-thirty, and he was four years old, but his mother had forgotten him, and his nurse had a weakness for the Emorys' second man; it was also certain that if a storm-centre could be found, he would be its nucleus. Out he tumbled from the shrubbery, exactly in front of the incoming automobile, as unpleasant a spoiled infant as could be imagined, yet a human being with a life to save. McBirney, standing in the drive, whirled, saw the small figure, ten feet down the drive, the machine close upon it; there was time for a man to spring aside; there was no time to rescue a child. A lightning wave of repulsion flooded him. "Have I got to throw myself down there and get maimed—for a fool child whom everybody detests?" Without words the thought flooded him, and then in a strong defiance, the utter honesty of his soul caught him. "I won't! I won't!" he shouted, and was conscious of the clamor of many voices, of a rushing movement, of a man's scream across the tumult: "It's too late—for God's sake don't!"
It was a day later when he opened his eyes. Dick Marston sat there.
"Shut up," ordered Dick.
"No, and you won't—you're not to talk. Shut up. That's what you're to do."
The eyes closed; he was inadequate to argument. In five minutes they opened again.
"None of your eloquence now," warned Dick.
"But, Dick, it's torturing me. Was the child killed?"
Dick Marston's face looked curious. "Great Scott! don't you know what you——"
McBirney groaned inwardly. "Yes, I know. I was a coward. But I've got to know if—the kid—was killed."
"Coward!" gasped Dick—and Geoffrey put out his shaking hand.
"In mercy, Dick"—he was catching his breath, flushing, laboring with each word—"don't—talk about—Was the boy—killed?"
"Killed, no, sound as a nut—but you——"
"That's all," said McBirney, and his eyes closed, and he turned his face to the wall. But he did not go to sleep. He was trying to meet life with self-respect gone. The last thing he remembered was that second of utter rebellion against wrecking his strength, his good muscles—he had not thought of his life—to save the child. There had been no time to choose; his past, his character, had chosen for him, and they had branded him as that impossible thing, a coward. He put up his hand and felt bandages on his head; he must have got a whack after all in saving his precious skin. He remembered now. "Didn't jump quick enough, I suppose," he thought, with a sneer at the man in whose body he lived, the man who was himself, the man who was a coward. After a while he heard Dick Marston stir. He was bending over him.
"Got to go to dinner, old man," Dick said. "I wish you'd let me tell you what they all think about you."
McBirney shook his head impatiently, and Dick sighed heavily, and then in a moment the door shut softly.
Things were vague to him for hours longer, and a sleeping powder kept the next morning drowsy, but in the afternoon, when Marston came for his hourly look at the patient, "Dick," said the patient, "I want to talk to you."
"All right, old man," Dick answered, "but first just a word. I hate to bother you, but somebody's after you on long-distance. The fellow has telephoned three times—I was here the last time. He says——"
The man with the bandages on his head groaned. "Don't," he begged and tossed his hand out. "I know what he's wanting. I can't talk to him. I don't want to hear. It's no use. Shut him off, Dick, can't you?"
"Sure, old man," Marston agreed soothingly. "Only, he says——"
"Oh, don't—I know what it is—don't let him say it," pleaded the invalid, quite unreasonable, entirely obstinate.
A committee from the vestry of a city church had, unknown to him at the moment, come to Warchester to hear him preach the Sunday before he had left on his trip. A letter from the rector since had warned him that they were full of enthusiasm about his sermon and himself and that a call to the rectorship of the church was imminent. This was a preliminary of the call; there was no doubt in his mind about that. And knowing as he did how he was going to give up his work, writhing as he was under the last proof, as he felt it, of his unfitness, the thought of facing suave vestrymen even over a telephone, was a horror not to be borne.
"Tell 'em I'm dead, Dick, there's a good boy. I won't talk to anybody—to-day or to-morrow, anyhow."
"All right," Dick agreed. The patient was flushed and excited—it would not do to go on. "But the chap said he might run down here," he added, thinking aloud.
The patient started up on his elbow and glared. "Great Scott—don't let him do that; you won't let him get at me, Dick? I'm sorry to be such a poor fool, but—just now—to-day—two or three days—Dick, I can't"—he stammered out, his hands shaking, his face twisting. And Dick Marston, as gently as a woman might, took in charge this friend whom he loved.
"Don't you worry, Geoffie; the bears shan't eat you this trip. I'll settle the chap next time he calls up."
And McBirney fell back, with closed eyelids, relieved, secure in Dick's strength. He lay, breathing quickly, a moment or two, and then opened his eyes.
"When can I get away, Dick?"
"We'll start to-morrow if you're strong enough."
"You needn't go, Dicky. I'll get a train. I'm——"
"None of that," said Marston. "Whither thou goest, for the present, I'll trot. But—Hope Stuart's anxious to—meet you."
"Who's Hope Stuart?"
Dick Marston hesitated, looked embarrassed. "Why—just a girl," he said. "But an uncommon sort of girl. She's done some—big things. Cousin of Don Emory's, you know. Came yesterday—just before your party. She—she's—well, she's different from the ruck of 'em—and she—said she'd like to meet you. I half promised she could."
McBirney flushed. "I can't see people, Dick," he threw back nervously. "They're kind—it's decent of them. I suppose, as long as the boy wasn't killed—" he stopped.
"Geoff, you've got some bizarre idea in your head about this episode, and I can't fathom it," spoke Dick Marston. "What do you think happened anyway?" he demanded. And stopped, horrified at the look on the other's face.
"Dick, you mean to be kind, but you're being cruel—as death," whispered Geoffrey McBirney. "I simply—can't bear any conversation—about that. I've got to cut loose and get off somewhere and—and—arrange."
His voice broke. Dick Marston's big hand was on his. "Old man," Dick said, "you're all wrong, but if you won't let me talk about it I won't—now. Look here—we'll sneak to-morrow. Everybody's going off in cars for an all-day drive, and I'll start, and pull out half-way on some excuse, and come back here, and you'll be packed, and we'll get out. I'll square it with Nanny Emory. She'll understand. I'll tell her you're crazy in the head, and won't be hero-worshipped."
"Hero-worshipped!" McBirney laughed bitterly to himself when Dick was gone. These good people, because he was a parson, because the child's blood, by some accident, was not on his head, were banded to keep his self-respect for him, to cover over his cowardice with some distorted theory of courage. Perhaps they did not know, but he knew, about that last thought of determined egotism, that shout of "I won't! I won't!" before the car caught him. He knew, and never as long as he lived could he look the world in the eyes again, with that shame in his soul. What would she have thought, had she been there to see? She would not have been deceived; her clear eyes would have seen the truth.
So he felt; so he went over and over the five minutes of the accident till all covering seemed to be stripped from his strained nerves.
"You'd better dress now and go down in the garden and sit there," suggested Dick the next morning. "Take a book, and wait for me there. The place will be empty in twenty minutes. I'll be along before lunch."
The garden rioted with color. The listless black figure strayed through the sunshine down a walk between a mass of scarlet Oriental poppies on one side and a border of swaying white lilies on the other.
Ranks of tall larkspur lifted blue spires beyond. The air was heavy with sweet smells, mignonette and alyssum and the fragrance of a thousand of roses, white and pink and red, over by the hedge. The hedge ran on four sides of the garden, giving a comforting sense of privacy. In spite of the suffering he had gone through, the raw nerves of the man felt a healing pressure settling over them, resting on them, out of the scented stillness. There were no voices from the house; bees were humming somewhere near the rose-bushes; the first cricket of summer sang his sudden, drowsy song and was as suddenly quiet.
The black figure strayed on, down the long walk between the flowers, to a rustic summer-house, deep in vines, at the end of the path. There were seats there, and a table. He sat down in the coolness and stared out at the bright garden. He tried manfully to pull himself together; he reminded himself that he could still work, could still serve the world, and that, after all, was what he was in the world for. There was a reason for living, then; there was hope, he reasoned. And then, the hopelessness, the helplessness of under-vitality, which is often the real name for despair, had caught him again. His arms were thrown out on the rough table and his head lay on them.
There was a sound in the vine-darkened little summer-house. McBirney lifted his head sharply; a girl stood there, a slim figure in black clothes. McBirney sprang to his feet astonished, angry. Then the girl put out her hand and held to the upright of the opening as if to hold herself steady, and began talking in a hurried tone, as if she were reciting.
"I had to come to tell you that you were not a coward, but a hero, and that you saved Toddy Winthrop's life, and it's so, and Dick Marston says you don't know it and won't let him tell you and I've got to have you know it, and it's so and you have to believe it, for it's so." The girl was gasping, clutching the side of the summer-house with her face turned away, frightened yet determined.
"Who are you?" demanded McBirney, sternly, staring at her. There was something surging up inside of him, unknown, unreasonable; heart's blood was rushing about his system inconveniently; his pulse was hammering—why? He knew why; this sudden vision of a girl reminded him—took him back—he cut through that idea swiftly; he was ill, unbalanced, obsessed with one memory, but he would not allow himself to go mad.
"Who are you?" he repeated sternly. And the girl turned and faced him and looked up into his grim, tortured face, half shy, half laughing, all glad.
She spoke softly. "Hope," she said. "You needed me"—she said, "and I came."
With that, with the unreasonable certainty that happens at times in affairs which go beyond reason, he was certain. Yet he did not dare to be certain.
"Who are you?" he threw at her for the third time, and his eyes flamed down into the changing face, the face which he had never known, which he seemed to have known since time began. The laughter left it then and she gazed at him with a look which he had not seen in a woman's eyes before. "I think you know," she said. "Toddy Winthrop isn't the only one. You saved me—Oh, you've saved me too." Every inflection of the voice brought certainty to him; the buoyant, soft voice which he remembered. "I am Hope Stuart," she said. "I am August First."
"Ah!" He caught her hands, but she drew them away. "Not yet," she said, and the promise in the denial thrilled him. "You've got to know—things."
"Don't think, don't dream that I'll let you go, if you still care," he threw at her hotly. And with that the thought of two days before stabbed into him. "Ah!" he cried, and stood before his happiness miserably.
"What?" asked the girl.
"I'm not fit to speak to you. I'm disgraced; I'm a coward; you don't know, but I let—that child be killed as much as if he had not been saved by a miracle. It wasn't my fault he was saved. I didn't mean to save him. I meant to save myself," he went on with savage accusation.
"Tell me," commanded the girl, and he told her.
"It's what I thought," she answered him then. "I told the doctor what Dick said, this morning. The doctor said it was the commonest thing in the world, after a blow on the head, to forget the last minutes before. You'll never remember them. You did save him. Your past—your character decided for you"—here was his own bitter thought turned to heavenly sweetness!—"You did the brave thing whether you would or not. You've got to take my word—all of our words—that you were a hero. Just that. You jumped straight down and threw Toddy into the bushes and then fell, and the chauffeur couldn't turn fast enough and he hit you—and your head was hurt."
She spoke, and looked into his eyes.
"Is that the truth?" he shot at her. It was vital to know where he stood, whether with decent men or with cowards.
"So help me God," the girl said quietly.
As when a gate is opened into a lock the water begins to pour in with a steady rush and covers the slimy walls and ugly fissures, so peace poured into the discolored emptiness of his mind. Suddenly the gate was shut again. What difference did anything make—anything?
"You are married," he stated miserably, and stood before her. The moments had rushed upon his strained consciousness so overladen, the joy of seeing her had been so intense, that there had been no place for another thought. He had forgotten. The thought which meant the failure of happiness had been crowded out. "You are married," he repeated, and the old grayness shadowed again a universe without hope.
And then the girl whose name was Hope smiled up at him through a rainbow, for there were tears in her eyes. "No," she answered, "no." And with that he caught her in his arms: her smile, her slim shoulders, her head, they were all there, close, crushed against him. The bees hummed over the roses in the sunshiny garden; the locust sang his staccato song and stopped suddenly; petals of a rose floated against the black dress; but the two figures did not appear to breathe. Time and space, as the girl had said once, were fused. Then she stirred, pushed away his arms, and stood erect and looked at him with a flushed, radiant face.
"Do you think I'd let you—marry—a cripple, a lump of stone?" she demanded, and something in the buoyant tone made him laugh unreasonably.
"I think—you've got to," he answered, his head swimming a bit.
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong," and she shook her finger at him triumphantly. "I'm—going—to—get—well."
"I knew it all along," the man said, smiling.
"That's a lie!" she announced, so prettily, in the soft, buoyant voice, that he laughed with sheer pleasure. "You never knew. Do you know where I've been?"
"I haven't been in Germany a minute." The bright face grew grave and again the quick, rainbow tears flashed. "You never heard," she said. "Uncle Ted died, the day before we were to sail." She stopped a moment. "It left me alone and—and pretty desperate. I—I almost telegraphed you."
"Why didn't you?" he groaned.
"Because—what I said. I wouldn't sacrifice you." She paid no attention to the look in his eyes. "Robin was going to my place in Georgia—I told you I had a place? My father's old shooting-box. I'd arranged for him to do that. With some people who needed it. So—I went too. I took two trained nurses and some old souls—old sick people. Yes, I did. Wasn't it queer of me? I'm always sorrier for old people than for children. They realize, the old people. So I scraped up a few astonished old parties, and they groaned and wheezed and found fault, but had a wonderful winter. The first time I was ever any good to anybody in my life. I thought I might as well do one job before I petrified. And all winter Robin was talking about that bone-ologist from France who had been in Forest Gate, and whom I wouldn't see. Till at last he got me inspired, and I said I'd go to France and see him. And I've just been. And he says—" suddenly the bright, changing face was buried in her hands and she was sobbing as if her heart would break.
McBirney's pulse stopped; he was terrified. "What?" he demanded. "Never mind what he said, dear. I'll take care of you. Don't trouble, my own—" And then again the sunshine flashed through the storm and she looked up, all tears and laughter.
"He said I'd get well," she threw at him. "In time. With care. And if you don't understand that I've got to cry when I'm glad, then we can never be happy together."
"I'll get to understand," he promised, with a thrill as he thought how the lesson would be learned. And went on: "There's another conundrum. Of course—that man—he's not on earth—but how did you—kill him?"
The girl looked bewildered a moment. "Who? Oh! Alec. My dear—" and she slid her hand into his as if they had lived together for years—"the most glorious thing—he jilted me. He eloped with Natalie Minturn—the California girl—the heiress. She had"—the girl laughed again—"more money than I. And unimpeachable bones. She's a nice thing," she went on regretfully. "I'm afraid she's too good for Alec. But she liked him; I hope she'll go on liking him. It was a great thing for me to get jilted. Any more questions in the Catechism? Will the High-Mightiness take me now? Or have I got to beg and explain a little more?"
"You're a very untruthful character," said "the High-Mightiness" unsteadily. "It wasn't I who hid away, and turned last winter into hell for a well-meaning parson. Will—I take you? Come."
Again eternal things brooded over the bright, quiet garden and the larkspur spires swayed unnoticed and the bees droned casually about them and dived into deep cups of the lilies, and peace and sunshine and lovely things growing were everywhere. But the two did not notice.
After a time: "What about Halarkenden?" asked the man, holding a slim hand tight as if he held to a life-preserver.
"That's the last question in the Catechism," said Hope Stuart. "And the answer is the longest. One of your letters did it."
"One of my letters?"
"Just the other day. I went to Forest Gate, as soon as I came home from France—to tell Robin that I was going to get well. I was in the garden. With—I hate to tell you—but with—all your letters." The man flushed. "And—and Robin came and—and I talked a little to him about you, and then, to show him what you were like, I read him—some."
"You did?" McBirney looked troubled.
"Oh, I selected. I read about the boy, Theodore—'the Gift.'"
Then she went on to tell how, as she sat in a deep chair at the end of a long pergola where small, juicy leaves of Dorothy Perkins rose-vines and of crimson ramblers made a green May mist over the line of arches, Halarkenden had come down under them to her.
"I believe I shall never be in a garden without expecting to see him stalk down a path," she said. She told him how she had read to him about the boy Theodore with his charm and his naughtiness and his Scotch name. How there had been no word from Robert Halarkenden when she finished, and how, suddenly, she had been aware of a quality in the silence which startled her, and she had looked up sharply. How, as she looked, the high-featured, lean, grave face was transformed with a color which she had never seen there before, a painful, slow-coming color; how the muscles about his mouth were twisting. How she had cried out, frightened, and Robert Halarkenden, who had not fought with the beasts for nothing, had controlled himself once again and, after a moment, had spoken steadily. "It was the boy's name, lassie," he had said. "He comes of folk whom I knew—back home." How at that, with his big clippers in his hand, he had turned quietly and gone working again among his flowers.
"But is that all?" demanded McBirney, interested. "Didn't he tell you any more? Could Theodore be any kin to him, do you suppose? It would be wonderful to have a man like that who took an interest. I'll write the young devil. He's been away all winter, but he should be back by now. I wonder just where he is."
And with that, as cues are taken on the stage, there was a scurrying down the gravel and out of the sunshine a bare-headed, tall lad was leaping toward them.
"By all that's uncanny!" gasped McBirney.
"Yes, me," agreed the apparition. "I trailed you. Why"—he interrupted himself—"didn't you get my telephones? Why, somebody took the message—twice. Cost three dollars—had to pawn stuff to pay it. Then I trailed you. The rector had your address. We're going to Scotland bang off and I had to see you. We're sailing from Boston. To-morrow."
"Who's 'we'?" demanded McBirney.
"My family and—oh gosh, you don't know!" He threw back his handsome head and broke into a great shout of young laughter. With that he whirled and flung out an arm. "There he comes. My family." The pride and joy in the boy's voice were so charged with years of loneliness past that the two who listened felt an answering thrill.
They looked. Down the gravel, through the sunshine, strayed, between flower borders, a gaunt and grizzled man who bent, here and there, over a blossom, and touched it with tender, wise fingers and gazed this way and that, scrutinizing, absorbed, across the masses of living color.
"I told you," the girl said, as if out of a dream, and her arm, too, was stretched and her hand pointed out the figure to her lover. "I told you there never would be a garden but he would be in it. It's Robin."
SATURDAY NIGHT LATE. WARCHESTER, St. Andrew's Parish House.
There wasn't time to leave you a note even. I barely caught the train. Dick was to tell you. I wonder if he got it straight. He motored me to the station, early this morning—a thousand years ago. You see the rector suddenly wired for me to come back for over Sunday. It's Sunday morning now—at least by the clock.
There's still such a lot to tell you. There always will be. One really can't say much in only eight or nine hours, and I don't believe we talked a minute longer. That's why I didn't want to catch trains. Well, there were other reasons too, now I go into it.
Do you know, I keep thinking of Dick Marston's face when he poked it in at the door of that summer-house yesterday on you and "Robin" and Theodore and me. I think likely Dick's brain is sprained.
Curious, isn't it—this being knocked back into the necessity of writing letters—and so soon. But I can say anything now, can't I? It doesn't seem true, but it is—it is! When I think of that other letter, that last one, and all the months that I didn't know even where you were! And now here's the world transfigured. It is true, isn't it? I won't wake up into that awful emptiness again? So many times I've done that. I'd made up my mind nothing was any use. I told Dick, just before we started on the motor trip. The stellar system had gone to pieces. But to-night I tore up the letter I'd got ready to send to the rector. All those preparations, and then to walk down a gravel path into heaven. It isn't the slightest trouble for you to rebuild people's worlds, is it? As for instance, Theodore's. I must tell you that some incoherences have come in from that Gift of God, by way of the pilot, after they'd sailed. Mostly regarding Cousin Robin. Even that has worked out. And there's Halarkenden—mustn't I say McGregor, though?—going back home to wander at large in paradise. Three new worlds you set up in half an hour. I think you said once that you'd never done anything for anybody? Well, you've begun your job; didn't I tell you it might be just around the corner? Besides "Cousin Robin," two things stuck out in Theodore's epistle; he's going to turn himself loose for the benefit of those working people in his factories, and he's going to have "The Cairns" swept and garnished for you and me when—when we get there.
This is all true. I am sitting here, writing to her. She is going to be there when I get back. I am to have her for my own, to look at and to listen to and to love. She has said that she wanted it like that—I heard her say it. Oh my dear darling, there aren't any words to tell you—you are like listening to music—you are the spirit of all the exquisite wonders that have ever been—you are the fragrant silence of shut gardens sleeping in the moonlight. What if I had missed you? What if I'd never found you? You will be there when I come back—you won't vanish—you are real? Think of the life opening out for you and me; this world now; afterwards the next. Oh my very dear, suppose you hadn't waited—suppose you'd cut into God's big pattern because some dark threads had to be woven into it! We shall look at the whole of it some day—all that mighty, living tapestry of His weaving, and we shall understand, then, and smile as we remember and know that no one can have a sense of light without the shadows. Suppose you hadn't waited? But you did wait—you did—to let me love you.
SEA-ACRES, MONDAY, June 24th.
I can't say but three words. Don Emory is waiting to post this in town. I do just want to tell you that if you write any more letters like that I am not going to break the engagement. You'll get the rest of this to-morrow. I thought I'd warn you. I am, for sure, yours,