"And what of the hundred unseen workings that will result from it?" said Donovan, smiling. "In the first shock of horror one can not even glimpse the larger view, but later on—"
He paused for a minute; they were down in the valley close to the little church; he opened the gate and led the way to a bench under the great yew tree. Sitting here, they could see the recumbent white cross with its ever-fresh crown of white flowers. Erica knew something of the story it told.
"Shall I tell you what turned me from an anti-theist to an atheist?" said Donovan. "It was the horror of knowing that a little child's life had been ruined by carelessness. I had been taught to believe in a terrific phantom who was severely just; but when it seemed that the one quality of justice was gone, then I took refuge in the conviction that there could be no God at all. That WAS a refuge for the time, for it is better to believe in no God than to believe in an immoral God and it was long years before a better refuge found me. Yet, looking back now over these seven-and-twenty years, I see how that one little child's suffering has influenced countless lives! How it was just the most beautiful thing that could have happened to her!"
Erica did not speak for a moment, she read half dreamily the words engraved on the tombstone. Nearly sixteen years since that short, uneventful life had passed into the unseen, and yet little Dot was at this moment influencing the world's history.
She was quite cheerful again as they walked home, and, indeed, her relief about her father's recovery was so great that she could not be unhappy for long about anything. They found Raeburn on the terrace with Ralph and Dolly at his heels, and the two-year-old baby, who went by the name of Pickle, on his shoulder.
"I shall quite miss these bairnies," he said as Donovan joined them.
"Gee up, horsey! Gee up!" shouted Pickle from his lofty perch.
"And oh, daddy, may we go into Gleyshot wiv you?" said Dolly, coaxingly. "Elica's father's going to give me a playcat."
"And me a whip," interposed Ralph. "We may come with you, father, mayn't we?"
"Oh! Yes," said Donovan, smiling; "if Mr. Raeburn doesn't mind a crowded carriage."
Erica had gone into the house.
"I don't know how to let you go," said Gladys, "We have so much enjoyed having you. I think you had much better stay here will Monday and leave those two to take care of themselves at Ashborough."
"Oh, no," said Erica, smiling, "that would never do! You don't realize what an event this is to me. It is the first time father has spoken since his illness. Besides, I have not yet quite learned to think him well enough to look after himself though, of course, he is getting quite strong again."
"Well, since you will go, come and choose a book for your journey," said Gladys.
"Oh, I should like that," said Erica; "a nice homish sort of book, please, where the people lived in Arcadia and never heard of law courts!"
Early in the afternoon they drove to Greyshot, stopping first of all at the toy shop. Raeburn, who was in excellent spirits, fully entered into the difficulties of Dolly's choice. At length a huge toy cat was produced.
"Oh, I should like that one!" said Dolly, clapping her hands. "What a 'normous, gleat big cat it is!"
"I shouldn't have known what it was meant for," said Raeburn, scrutinizing the rather shapeless furry quadruped. "How is it that you can't make them more like cats than this?"
"I don't know, sir, how it is," said the shopwoman; "we get very good dogs and rabbits, and donkeys, but they don't seem to have attained to the making of cats."
This view of the matter so tickled Raeburn that he left Ralph and Dolly to see the "'normous gleat big cat" wrapped up, and went out of the shop laughing.
But just outside, a haggard, wild-looking man came up to him and began to address him in excited tones.
"You are the vile atheist, Luke Raeburn!" he cried, "Oh, I know you well enough. I tell you, you have lost my son's soul; do you hear, wretched infidel, you destroyed my son's soul! His guilt is upon you! And I will have vengeance! Vengeance!"
"My friend," said Raeburn quietly, "supposing your son had what you call a soul, do you think that I, a man, should be able to destroy it?"
"You have made him what you are yourself," cried the man, "an accursed infidel, an incarnate devil! But I tell you I will have vengeance, vengeance!"
"Have the goodness not to come so near my daughter," said Raeburn for the man was pushing up roughly against Erica, who had just come out of the shop. The words were spoken in such an authoritative manner that the man shrunk back awed, and in another minute the children had rejoined them, and they drove off to the station.
"What was that man saying?" asked Erica.
"Apparently his son has become a secularist, and he means to revenge himself on me," said Raeburn. "If it wouldn't have lost me this train, I would have given him in charge for using threatening language. But no doubt the poor fellow was half-witted."
Donovan had walked on to the station and so had missed this incident, and though for the time it saddened Erica, yet she speedily forgot it in talking to the children. The arrival at Ashborough, too, was exciting, and she was so delighted to see her father once more in the enjoyment of full health and strength that she could not long be disquieted about anything else. It was a great happiness to her to hear him speak upon any subject on which they were agreed, and his reception that evening at the Ashborough Town Hall was certainly a most magnificent one. The ringing cheers made the tears start to her eyes. The people had been roused by his late illness and, though many of them disliked his theological views, they felt that in political matters he was a man whom they could very ill spare. His speech was a remarkably powerful one, and calculated to do great good. Erica's spirits rose to their very highest pitch and, as they went back together to their hotel, she kept both Raeburn and Donovan in fits of laughter. It was long months since her father had seen her so brilliant and witty.
"You are 'fey,' little one," he said. "I prophesy a headache for you tomorrow."
And the prophecy came true for Erica awoke the next morning with a sense of miserable oppression. The day, too, was gray and dreary-looking, it seemed like a different world altogether. Raeburn was none the worse for his exertions; he took a quiet day, however, went for a walk with Donovan in the afternoon, and set off in good time for his evening lecture. It was Sunday evening, Erica was going to church with Donovan, and had her walking things on when her father looked into the room to say goodbye.
"What, going out?" he said. "You don't look fit for it, Eric."
"Oh!" she said, "it is no use to give way to this sort of headache; it's only one's wretched nerves."
"Well, take carte of yourself," he said, kissing her. "I believe you are worn out with all these weeks of attendance on a cantankerous old father."
She laughed and brightened up, going out with him to the head of the stairs, and returning to watch him from the window. Just as he left the door of the hotel, a small child fell face downward on the pavement on the opposite side of the road and began to cry bitterly. Raeburn crossed over and picked up the small elf; they could hear him saying: "There, there, more frightened than hurt, I think," as he brushed the dust from the little thing's clothes.
"How exactly like father!" said Erica, smiling; "he never would let us think ourselves hurt. I believe it is thanks to him that Tom has grown up such a Stoic, and that I'm not a very lachrymose sort of being."
A little later they started for church, but toward the end of the Psalms Donovan felt a touch on his arm. He turned to Erica; she was a white as death, and with a strange, glassy look in her eyes.
"Come," she said in a hoarse whisper, "come out with me."
He thought she felt faint, but she walked steadily down the aisle. When they were outside she grasped his arm and seemed to make a great effort to speak naturally.
"Forgive me for disturbing you," she said, "but I have such a dreadful feeling that something is going to happen. I feel that I must go to my father."
Donovan thought that she was probably laboring under a delusion. He knew that she was always very anxious about her father and that Ashborough, owing to various memories, was exactly the place where this anxiety would be likely to weigh upon her. He thought, too, that Raeburn was very likely right and that she was rather overdone by the strain of those long weeks of solitary attendance. But he was much too wise to attempt to reason away her fears; he knew that nothing but her father's presence would set her at rest, and they walked as fast as they could to the Town Hall. He was just turning down a street which led into the High Street when Erica drew him instead in the direction of a narrow byway.
"Down here," she said, walking straight on as though she held some guiding clew in her hand.
He was astonished as she could not possibly have been in this part of the town before. Moreover, her whole bearing was very strange; she was still pale and trembling, and her ungloved hands felt as cold as ice while, although he had given her his arm, he felt all the time that she was leading him.
At length a sound of many voices was heard in the distance. Donovan felt a sort of thrill pass through the hand that rested on his arm, and Erica began to walk more quickly than ever. A minute more, and the little byway led them out into the market place. It was lighted with the electric light, and tonight the light was concentrated at one end, the end at which stood the Town Hall. Instinctively Donovan's eyes were turned at once toward that brightest point and also toward the sound, the subdued roar of the multitude which they had heard on their way. There was another sound, too a man's ringing voice, a stentorian voice which reached them clearly even at that distance. Raeburn stood alone, facing an angry, tumultuous throng, with his back to the closed door of the building and his tawny eyes scanning the mass of hostile faces below.
"Every Englishman has a right to freedom of speech. You shall not rob me or any other man of a right. I have fought for this all my life, and I will fight as long as I've breath."
"That shall not be long!" shouted another speaker. "Forward, brothers! Down with the infidel! Vengeance, vengeance."
The haggard, wild-looking man who had addressed Raeburn the day before at Greyshot now sprang forward; there was a surging movement in the crowd like wind in a corn field. Donovan and Erica, hurrying forward, saw Raeburn surrounded on every side, forced away from the door, and at length half stunned by a heavy blow from the fanatical leader; then, taken thus at a disadvantage, he was pushed backward. They saw him fall heavily down the stone steps.
With a low cry Erica rushed toward him, breaking away from Donovan and forcing a way through that rough crowd as if by magic. Donovan, though so much taller and stronger, was longer in reaching the foot of the steps, and when at length he had pushed his way through the thickest part of the throng he was hindered for the haggard-looking man who had been the ringleader in the assault ran into his very arms. He was evidently struck with horror at the result of his mad enterprise and now meditated flight. But Donovan stopped him.
"You must come with me, my friend," he exclaimed, seizing the fanatic by the collar.
Nor did he pause till he had handed him over to a policeman. Then once more he forced a passage through the hushed crowd and at last reached the foot of the steps. He found Erica on the ground with her father's head raised on her knees. He was perfectly unconscious, but it seemed as if his spirit and energy had been transmitted to his child. Erica was giving orders so clearly and authoritatively that Donovan could only marvel at her strength and composure.
"Stand back!" she was saying as he approached. "How can he come to while you are shutting out the air? Some one go quickly and fetch a door or a litter. You go, and you."
She indicated two or three more respectable-looking men, and they at once obeyed her. She looked relieved to see Donovan.
"Won't you go inside and speak to the people?" she said. "I have sent for a doctor. If some one doesn't go soon, they will come out, and then there might be a riot. Tell them if they have any feeling for my father to separate quietly. Don't let them all out upon these people; there is sure to be fighting if they meet."
Donovan could not bear to leave her in such a position, but just then a doctor came up, and the police began to drive back the crowd; and since the people were rather awed by what had happened, they dispersed meekly enough. Donovan went into the Town Hall then, and gradually learned what had taken place. It seemed that soon after the beginning of Raeburn's lecture, a large crowd had gathered outside, headed by a man named Drosser, a street preacher, well-known in Ashborough and the neighborhood. This crowd had stormed the doors of the hall and had created such an uproar that it was impossible to proceed with the lecture. The doors had been quite unequal to the immense pressure from without, and Raeburn, foreseeing that they would give way and knowing that, if the insurgents met his audience, there would be serious risk to the lives of many, had insisted on trying to dismiss the crowd without, or, at any rate, to secure some sort of order. Several had offered to go with him, but he had begged the audience to keep still and had gone out alone the crowd being so astonished by this unexpected move that they fell back for a moment before him. Apparently his plan would have succeeded very well had it not been for Drosser's deliberate assault. He had gained a hearing from the people and would probably have dispersed them had he not been borne down by brute force.
It was no easy task to tell the audience what had happened; but Donovan was popular and greatly respected and, thanks to his tact, their wrath, though very great, was restrained. In fact, Raeburn was so well known to disapprove of any sort of violence that Donovan's appeal to them to preserve order for his sake met with a deep, suppressed murmur of assent. When all was safe he hurried back to the hotel where they were glad enough of his services. Raeburn had recovered his senses for a minute but only to sink almost immediately into another swoon. For many hours this went on; he would partly revive, even speak a few words, and then sink back once more. Every time Erica thought it would end in death, nor could she gather comfort from the looks of either of the doctors or of Donovan.
"This is not the first time I've been knocked down and trampled on," said Raeburn, faintly, in one of his intervals of consciousness, "but it will be the last time."
And though the words were spoken with a touch of his native humor and might have borne more than one interpretation, yet they answered painfully to the conviction which lay deep in Erica's heart.
"Then let me send a telegram from the 'Ashborough Times' office," said Donovan to her in one of the momentary pauses. "I have sent for your cousin and Mrs. Craigie and for Brian."
For the first time Erica's outward composure gave way. Her mouth began to quiver and her eyes to fill.
"Oh! Thank you," she said; and there was something in her voice that went to Donovan's heart.
CHAPTER XL. Mors Janua Vitae
Therefore to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name? Builder and maker Thou, of houses not made with hands! What, have fear of change from Thee who art ever the same? Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that Thy power expands?
And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence For the fullness of the days? Have we withered or agonized? Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence? Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized? R. Browning
Early on the Monday morning three anxious-looking travelers arrived by the first train from London, and drove as fast as might be to the Park Hotel at Ashborough. They were evidently expected for the moment their cab stopped a door on one of the upper floors was opened, and some one ran quickly down the stairs to meet them.
"Is he better?" asked Aunt Jean.
Erica shook her head and, indeed, her face told them much more than the brief words of the telegram. She was deathly white, and had that weighed-down look which people wear when they have watched all night beside one who is hovering between life and death. She seemed to recover herself a little as her hand rested for a moment in Brian's.
"He has been asking for you," she said. "Do go to him. The faintness has quite passed off, and they say inflammation has set in; he is in frightful pain."
Her lips grew a shade whiter as she spoke and, with an effort, she seemed to turn away from some horrible recollection.
"There is some breakfast ready for you in here," she said to her aunt. "You must have something before you see him. Oh, I am so glad you have come, auntie!"
Aunt Jean kissed her and cried a little; trouble always brought these two together however much they disagreed at other times. Tom did not say a word, but began to cut a loaf to pieces as though they had the very largest appetites; the great pile of slices lay untouched on the trencher, but the cutting had served its purpose of a relief to his pent-up feelings.
Later on there was a consultation of doctors; their verdict was perhaps a little more hopeful than Erica had dared to expect. Her father had received a fearful internal injury and was in the greatest danger, but there was still a chance that he might recover, it was just possible; and knowing how his constitution had rallied when every one had thought him dying three years before, she grew very hopeful. Without hope she could hardly have got through those days for the suffering was terrible. She hardly knew which she dreaded most, the nights of fever and delirium when groans of anguish came from the writhing lips, or the days with their clear consciousness when her father never uttered a word of complaint but just silently endured the torture, replying always, if questioned as to the pain, "It's bearable."
His great strength and vigor made it seem all the more piteous that he should now be lying in the very extremity of suffering, unable to bear even the weight of the bed clothes. But all through that weary time his fortitude never gave way, and the vein of humor which had stood him in such good stead all his life did not fail him even now. On the Monday when he was suffering torments, they tried the application of leeches. One leech escaped, and they had a great hunt for it, Raeburn astonishing them all by coming out with one of his quaint flashes of wit and positively making them laugh in spite of their anxiety and sorrow.
The weary days dragged on, the torture grew worse, opium failed to deaden the pain, and sleep, except in the very briefest snatches, was impossible. But at last on the Thursday morning a change set in, the suffering became less intense; they knew, however, that it was only because the end was drawing near and the life energy failing.
For the second time Sir John Larkom came down from London to see the patient, but every one knew that there was nothing to be done. Even Erica began to understand that the time left was to be measured only by hours. She learned it in a few words which Sir John Larkom said to Donovan on the stairs. She was in her own room with the door partly open, eagerly waiting for permission to go back to her father.
"Oh, it's all up with the poor fellow," she heard the London doctor say. "A wonderful constitution; most men would not have held out so long."
At the time the words did not convey any very clear meaning to Erica; she felt no very sharp pang as she repeated the sentence to herself; there was only a curious numb feeling at her heart and a sort of dull consciousness that she must move, must get away somewhere, do something active. It was at first almost a relief to her when Donovan returned and knocked at her door.
"I am afraid we ought to come to the court," he said. "They will, I am sure, take your evidence as quickly as possible."
She remembered then that the man Drosser was to be brought up before the magistrates that morning; she and Donovan had to appear as witnesses of the assault. She went into her father's room before she started; he had specially asked to see her. He was quite clear-minded and calm, and began to speak in a voice which, though weak and low, had the old musical ring about it.
"You are going to give evidence, Eric," he said, holding her hand in his. "Now, I don't forgive that fellow for having robbed me of life, but one must be just even to one's foes. They will ask you if you ever saw Drosser before; you will have to tell them of that scene at Greyshot, and you must be sure to say that I said, as we drove off: 'No doubt the poor fellow is half-witted.' Those were my words, do you remember?"
"Yes," she said, repeating the words after him at his request. "I remember quite well."
"Those words may affect Drosser's case very much, and I don't wish any man to swing for me I have always disapproved of the death penalty. Probably, though, it will be brought in as manslaughter yes, almost certainly. There go, my child, and come back to me as soon as you can."
But the examination proved too much for Erica's physical powers; she was greatly exhausted by the terrible strain of the long days and nights of nursing, and when she found herself in a hot and crowded court, pitilessly stared at, confronted by the man who was in fact her father's murderer, and closely questioned by the magistrate about all the details of that Sunday evening, her overtasked strength gave way suddenly.
She had told clearly and distinctly about the meeting at Greyshot, and had stated positively that in the Ashborough market place she had seen Drosser give her father a heavy blow and then push him down the Town Hall steps.
"Can you recollect whether others pushed your father at the same time?" asked the magistrate. "Don't answer hurriedly; this is an important matter."
All at once the whole scene came vividly before Erica the huge crowd, the glare of the lights, her father standing straight and tall, as she should never see him again, his thick white hair stirred by the wind, his whole attitude that of indignant protest; then the haggard face of the fanatic, the surging movement in the black mass of people, and that awful struggle and fall. Was it he who was falling? If so she was surely with him, falling down, down, endlessly down.
There was a sudden stir and commotion in the court, a murmur of pity, for Luke Raeburn's daughter had fallen back senseless.
When she came to herself, she was lying on the floor of an office-like room, with her head on Mrs. MacNaughton's lap. Brian was bending over her, chafing her hands. A clock in the building struck one, and the sound seemed to recall things to her mind. She started up.
"Oh!" she cried, "why am I not with my father? Where have you taken me to?"
"It's all right, dear," said Mrs. MacNaughton soothingly; "you shall come back directly you are well enough."
"I remember it all now," she said; "did I finish? Must I go back there?"
It was some relief to know that Donovan had been able to supplement her evidence, and that the examination was in fact over, Drosser having been remanded for a week. She insisted on going back to the hotel at once, and spent the whole of the afternoon and evening with her father. He was not in great pain now, but very restless, and growing weaker every hour. He was able, however, to see several of his friends, and though the farewells evidently tried him, he would not refuse to see those who had come hundreds of miles for that last glimpse.
"What does it matter if I am exhausted?" he said when some one remonstrated with him. "It will make no difference at all as far as I am concerned, and it will be a happiness to them for the rest of their lives. Besides, I shall not die today, perhaps not tomorrow; depend upon it, I shall die hard."
They persuaded Erica to rest for the first part of the night. She left Tom and Brian to watch, and went to her room, making them promise to call her if there were any signs of change.
At last the full realization had come to her; though she hated leaving her father, it was yet a sort of relief to get away into the dark, to be able to give way for a moment.
"Anything but this, oh, God," she sobbed, "anything but this!"
All else would have been easy enough to bear, but that he should be killed by the violence and bigotry of one who at any rate called himself a Christian, this seemed to her not tolerable. The hope of years had received its death blow, the life she most loved was sinking away in darkness, the work which she had so bravely taken as her life work was all but over, and she had failed. Yes, in spite of all her efforts, all her longings, all her love, she had failed, or at any rate apparently failed, and in moments of great agony we do not in fact can not distinguish between the real and the apparent. Christ Himself could not do it.
She did not dare to let her sobs rise for it was one of the trials of that time that they were not in their own home but in a busy hotel where the partitions were thin and every sound could be heard in the adjoining rooms. Moreover, Aunt Jean was sleeping with her and must not be disturbed. But as she lay on the floor, trying to stifle the restrained sobs which shook her from head to foot trying to check the bitter tears which would come, her thoughts were somehow lifted quite away from the present; strange little memories of her childish days returned to her, days when her father had been to her the living incarnation of all that was noble and good. Often it is not the great events of a child's life which are so vividly remembered; memory seems to be strangely capricious and will single out some special word or deed, some trifling sign of love which has stamped itself indelibly upon the grain to bear its golden harvest of responding love through a life time. Vividly there came back to her now the eager happiness with which she had awaited a long promised treat, as a little thing of seven years old. Her father was to take her on some special excursion, she had long ago forgotten what the particular occasion was, only it was something that could come but once, the day lost, the treat would be lost. But the evening before, when she was on the very tiptoe of expectation, a celebrated action for libel had come to an end much sooner than was expected, and when her father returned in the evening he had to tell her that his case was to come on the next day, and that he could not possibly take her. Even now she could recall the bitterness of the disappointment, but not so vividly as the look in her father's face as he lifted her off the floor where she had thrown herself in the abandonment of her grief. He had not said a word then about the enormity of crying, he had just held her closely in his arms, feeling the disappointment a thousand times more than she felt it herself, and fully realizing that the loss of such a long-looked-for happiness was to a child what the loss of thousands of pounds would be to a man. He had been patient with her though she had entirely failed to see why he could not put off the case just for that day.
"You'll understand one day, little one," he had said, "and be glad that you have had your share of pain in a day that will advance the cause of liberty."
She remembered protesting that that was impossible, that she should always be miserable; at which he had only smiled.
Then it came to Erica that the life upon earth was, after all, as compared with the eternal life, what the day is in the life of a child. It seemed everything at the time, but was in truth such a fragment. And as she lay there in the immeasurably greater agony of later life, once more sobbing: "I had hoped, I had planned, this is more than I can bear!" a Comforter infinitely grater, a Father whose love was infinitely stronger, drew her so near that the word "near" was but a mockery, and told her, as the earthly father had told her with such perfect truth: "One day you will understand, child; one day you will be glad to have shared the pain!"
In the next room there was for some time quiet. Poor Tom, heavy with grief and weariness, fell asleep beside the fire; Raeburn was for the most part very still as if wrapped in thought. At length a heavy sigh made Brian ask if he were in pain.
"Pain of mind," he said, "not of body. Don't misunderstand me," he said after a pause, with the natural fear least Brian should fancy his secularism failed him at the near approach of death. "For myself I am content; I have had a very full life, and I have tried always yes, I think I may say always—to work entirely for the good of Humanity. But I am wretched about Erica. I do not see how the home can be a very happy one for her when I am gone."
For a minute Brian hesitated; but it seemed to him when he thought out the matter, that a father so loving as Raeburn would find no jealousy at the thought that the love he had deemed exclusively his own might, after all, have been given to another.
"I do not know whether I am right to tell you," he said. "Would it make you happier to know that I love Erica that I have loved her for nearly nine years?"
Raeburn gave an ejaculation of astonishment. There was a long silence; for the idea, once suggested to him, he began to see what a likely thing it was and to wonder that he had not thought of it before.
"I think you are well suited to each other," he said at last. "Now I understand your visit to Florence. What took you away again so suddenly?"
Brian told him all about the day at Fiesole. He seemed greatly touched; all the little proofs and coincidences which had never struck him at the time were so plain now. They were still discussing it when, at about five o'clock, Erica returned. She was pale and sad, but the worn, harassed, miserable look had quite gone. It was a strange time and place for a betrothal.
"Brian has been telling me about the day at Fiesole," said Raeburn, letting his weak, nerveless hands play about in her hair as she knelt beside the bed. "You have been a leal bairn to me, Eric; I don't think I could have spared you then even though Brian so well deserved you. But now it makes me very happy to leave you to him; it takes away my only care."
Erica had colored faintly, but there was an absence of responsiveness in her manner which troubled Raeburn.
"You do still feel as you did at Fiesole?" he asked. "You are sure of your own mind? You think you will be happy?"
"I love Brian," she said in a low voice. "But, oh, I can't think now about being happy!" She broke off suddenly and hid her face in the bed clothes.
There was silence in the room. In a minute she raised herself and turned to Brian who stood beside her.
"You will understand," she said, looking right into his eyes. "There is only one thing that I can feel just now. You do understand, I know."
With a sudden impulse she threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.
And Brian did understand. He knew, too, that she wanted to have her father to herself. Even in the very fulfillment of his desire he was obliged to stand aside, obliged even yet to be patient. Never surely had an impulsive, impetuous man a longer training.
When he had gone Raeburn talked for some time of Erica's future, talked for so long, indeed, that she grew impatient. How trifling now seemed the sacrifice she had made at Fiesole to which he kept on referring.
"Oh, why do you waste the time in talking of me?" she said at last.
"Why?" he said smiling. "Because you are my bairn of what else should I speak or think? For myself, I am very content, dear, though I should have liked a few more years of work. It was not to be, you see; and, in the end, no doubt this will work good to the cause of—" he broke off, unwilling to pain her.
"Ah, child!" he said after a pause, "How miserable you and I might have been for these two years if we had not loved each other. You are not to think, little one, that I have not known what your wishes have been for me. You, and Brian, and Osmond, and of late that noble fellow Farrant, have often made me see that Christianity need not necessarily warp the intellect and cripple the life. I believe that for you, and such as you, the system is not rooted in selfishness. But, dear, you are but the exceptions, the rare exceptions. I know that you have wished with all your heart that I should come to think as you do, while I have been wishing you back into the ranks of secularism. Well! It wasn't to be. We each of us lost our wish. But there is this left, that we each know the other to be honest; each deem it a case of honest mistake. I've felt that all along. We've a common love of truth and a common love of humanity. Oh, my child! Spite of all the creeds, we are very near to each other!"
"Very near," she whispered. And words which Charles Osmond had spoken years ago returned to her memory. "I think death will be your gate of life. You will wake up and exclaim: 'Who'd have thought it?'"
After all, death would in a sense make them yet nearer! But human nature is weak, and it is hard for us to realize the Unseen. She could not then feel that it was anything but hard, bitter, heart-breaking that he should be leaving her in this way.
The pain had now almost entirely ceased, and Raeburn, though very restless, was better able to talk than on the previous day. He asked for the first time what was passing in the world, showed special interest in the accounts of the late colliery accident, and was greatly touched by the gallant efforts of the rescuers who had to some extent been successful. He insisted, too, on hearing what the various papers had to say about his own case, listening sometimes with a quiet smile, sometimes with a gleam of anger in his eyes. After a very abusive article, which he had specially desired to hear, he leaned back with an air of weariness.
"I'm rather tired of this sort of thing!" he said with a sigh. "What will the 'Herald' do when it no longer has me to abuse?"
Of Drosser and of the events of that Sunday evening he spoke strangely little. What he did say was, for the most part, said to Professor Gosse.
"You say I was rash to go alone," he replied when the professor had opened the subject. "Well, that may be. It is not, perhaps, the first time that in personal matters I've been lacking in due caution. But I thought it would prevent a riot. I still think it did so."
"And what is your feeling about the whole matter?" asked the professor. "Do you forgive Drosser for having given you this mortal injury?"
"One must bow to necessity," said Raeburn quietly. "When you speak of forgiving I don't quite understand you; but I don't intend to hand down a legacy of revenge to my successors. The law will duly punish the man, and future atheists will reap the benefit of my death. There is, after all, you know, a certain satisfaction in feeling that I died as I have lived, in defending the right of free speech. I can't say that I could not have wished that Drosser had made an end of me at nine-and-seventy rather than at nine-and-forty. I shall live on in their hearts, and that is a glorious immortality! The only immortality I have ever looked for."
In the afternoon to the astonishment of all, Mr. Fane-Smith came over from Greyshot, horrified to hear that the man who he had once treated with scant justice and actual discourtesy was lying on his death bed, a victim to religious fanaticism. Spite of his very hard words to her, Erica had always respected Mr. Fane-Smith, and she was glad that he had come at the last. Her aunt had not come; she had hesitated long, but in the end the recollection that Greyshot would be greatly scandalized, and that, too, on the very eve of her daughter's wedding turned the scale. She sent affectionate messages and a small devotional book, but stayed at home.
Mr. Fane-Smith apologized frankly and fully to Raeburn for his former discourtesy and then plunged at once into eager questions and eager arguments. He could not endure the thought that the man in whom at the last he was able to recognize a certain nobility of character, should be sinking down into what he considered everlasting darkness. Bitterly did he now regret the indifference of former years, and the actual uncharitableness in which he had of late indulged.
Raeburn lay very passively listening to an impassioned setting forth of the gospel, his hands wandering about restlessly, picking up little bits of the coverlet in that strange way so often noticed in dying people.
"You are mistaken," he said when at length Mr. Fane-Smith ceased. "Had you argued with me in former years, you would never have convinced me, your books and tracts could never have altered my firm convictions. All my life I have had tracts and leaflets showered down upon me with letters from pious folks desiring my conversion. I have had innumerable letters telling me that the writers were praying for me. Well, I think they would have done better to pray for some of my orthodox opponents who are leading immoral lives; but, insofar as prayers show a certain amount of human interest, I am very willing that they should pray for me though they would have shown better taste if they had not informed me of their supplications. But don't mistake me; it is not in this way that you will ever prove the truth of your religion. You must show justice to your opponents first. You must put a different spirit into your pet word, 'Charity.' I don't think you can do it. I think your religion false. I consider that it is rooted in selfishness and superstition. Being convinced of this when I was still young, I had to find some other system to take its place. That system I found in secularism. For thirty years I have lived as a secularist and have been perfectly content notwithstanding that my life has been a very hard one. As a secularist I now die content."
Mr. Fane-Smith shuddered. This was of course inexpressibly painful to him. He could not see that what had disgusted Raeburn with religion had been the distortion of Christ's teaching, and that in truth the secularist creed embodied much of the truest and loftiest Christianity.
Once more he reiterated his arguments, striving hard to show by words the beauty of his religion. But Christianity can only be vindicated by deeds, can only be truly shown forth in lives. The country, the "Christian Country," as it was fond of styling itself, had had thirty years in which to show to Raeburn the loving kindness, the brotherhood, the lofty generosity which each professed follower of Christ ought to show in his life. Now the time was over, and it was too late.
The dying man bent forward, and a hard look came into his eyes, and a sternness overspread his calm face.
"What has Christianity done for me?" he asked. "Look at my life. See how I have been treated."
And Mr. Fane-Smith was speechless. Conscience-stricken, he knew that to this there was no reply that HE could honestly make, and a question dawned upon his mind Was his own "Christianity" really that of Christ?
As evening drew on, Raeburn's life was slowly ebbing away. Very slowly, for to the last he fought for breath. All his nearest friends were gathered round him, and to the end he was clearly conscious and, as in life, calmly philosophical.
"I have been well 'friended' all my life," he said once, looking round at the faces by his bedside.
They were all too broken-hearted to respond, and there were long silences, broken only by the laboring breath and restless movements of the dying man.
Toward midnight there was a low roll of distant thunder, and gradually the storm drew nearer and nearer. Raeburn asked to be raised in bed that he might watch the lightning which was unusually beautiful. It was a strange, weird scene the plainly furnished hotel room, sparsely lighted by candles, the sad group of watchers, the pale, beautiful face of the young girl bending over the pillow, and the strong, rugged Scotchman with his white hair and keen brown eyes, upon whose face death had already set his pale tokens. From the uncurtained window could be seen the dark outline of the adjacent houses and the lights lower down the hill scattered here and there throughout the sleeping city. Upon all this the vivid lightning played, and the distant thunder followed with its mighty crash, rolling and echoing away among the surrounding hills.
"I am glad to have seen one more storm," said Raeburn.
But soon he grew weary, tired just with the slight exertion of looking and listening. He sighed. To a strong, healthy man in the very prime of life, this failing of the powers was hard to bear. Death was very near; he knew it well enough knew it by this slow, sure, painless sinking.
He held Erica's hand more closely, and after that lay very still, once or twice asking for more coverings over his feet. The night wore on. After a long silence, he looked up once more and said to Tom:
"I promised Hazeldine a sovereign toward the fund for—" he broke off with a look of intense weariness, adding after an interval "He'll tell you. See that it's paid."
The storm had passed, and the golden-red dawn was just breaking when once more the silence was broken.
"Come nearer, Eric," he whispered "nearer!"
Then came a long pause.
There was stillness that fearful stillness when the watchers begin to hush their very breath, that they may catch the last faint breathings. Poor Tom could stand it no longer; he just buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Perhaps Erica envied him. Violent grief would surely have been more endurable than this terrible sinking, this dread of not keeping up to the end. Was she falling with him down those horrible steps? Was she sinking with him beneath the cold, green waves? Oh, death cruel death! Why had he not taken them together on that summer day?
Yet what was she saying? The death angel was but God's messenger, and her father could never, never be beyond the care of One who loved him infinitely eternally. If He the Father were taking him from her, why, she would trust Him, though it should crush her whole world.
"Nearer, Eric nearer." How those last words rang in her ears as she waited there with her hands in his. She knew they would be the last for he was sinking away into a dreamily passive state just dying because too tired to live.
"Nearer, nearer!" Was this agony indeed to heal the terrible division between them? Ah, mystery of evil, mystery of pain, mystery of death! Only the love of the Infinitely Loving can fathom you only the trust in that Love give us a glimpse of your meaning.
She felt a tightening of the fingers that clasped hers. He was still conscious; he smiled just such a smile as he used to give her when, as a little thing, she had fretted about his leaving home.
She pressed her quivering lips to his, clung to him, and kissed him again and again. There was a sigh. A long interval, and another sigh. After that, silence.
CHAPTER XLI. Results Closely Following
But that one man should die ignorant who had capacity for knowledge, this I call a tragedy. Carlyle
Not what I think, but what Thou art, makes sure. George MacDonald
A wave of strangely varied feeling swept through the country in the next four-and-twenty hours.
From the Raeburnites came a burst of mingled wrath and grief, and a bitter outcry against the religion which inevitably they thought tended to produce such fanatics as Drosser. From the poor and oppressed came a murmur of blank despair; they had looked upon Raeburn as the deliverer from so much that now weighed upon them, and were so perfectly conscious that he understood their wants and difficulties in a way which others failed to do, that his death in the very prime of manhood simply stunned them. The liberal-minded felt a thrill of horror and indignation at the thought that such deeds as this could take place in the nineteenth century; realizing, however, with a shudder that the rash act of the ignorant fanatic was, in truth, no worse than the murder of hatred, the perpetual calumny and injustice which thousands of professing Christians had meted out to Raeburn. In nothing had the un-Christlikeness of the age been more conspicuous than in the way in which Raeburn had all his life been treated.
The fashionable world felt a sort of uncomfortableness. The news reached them at their laziest time of year; they came in from shooting parties to read the account in the papers; they discussed it in ball rooms and at evening parties at Brighton and Greyshot and the other autumnal resorts. "So he was dead! Well, really they were tired of hearing his name! It was rather horrible, certainly, that his daughter should have seen it all, but such infamous creatures as Raeburn had no business to have daughters. No doubt she would stand it very well anything, you know, for a little notoriety. Such people lived for notoriety. Of course the papers had put in a lot of twaddle that he had said on his death bed 'always had tried to work entirely for the good of humanity,' and that sort of nonsense. This coffee ice is excellent. Let me get you another," after which the subject would be dropped, and the speakers would return to the ball room to improve upon Raeburn's life, which they presumed so severely to criticize, by a trois temps enlivened by a broad flirtation.
Here and there a gleam of good was effected inasmuch as some of the excessively narrow began to see what narrowness leads to. Mr. Cuthbert, coming home from his annual Swiss tour, was leaning back sleepily in a first-class carriage at the Folkestone station when the voice of a newsboy recalled him to the every-day world with a slight shock. There was the usual list of papers; he was sleepy and thought he would not get one, but then came the loud voice, not a couple of yards from his ear, "Death of Mr. Raeburn! Death of Luke Raeburn this da-ay!"
Mr. Cuthbert had his head out of the window in a moment.
"These boys will call anything to sell their papers," he remarked to his companion; "I dare say it's nothing more than a rumor."
"Precious good thing for the country if it was true," replied the other, a young fellow of two-and-twenty who dawdled through life upon an income of 5,000 pounds a year, and found it quite possible to combine the enjoyment of lax living with the due expression of very orthodox sentiments.
Mr. Cuthbert did not answer; his eye was traveling down a column of the newspaper, and he felt a curious pricking of remorse as he read. He had once been rude to Erica Raeburn; he had all his life retailed dubious stories about her father, knowing all the time that had any one believed such stories of himself upon such shaky evidence, he would have used very strong language about them. And now this fellow was dead! Curiously enough, Mr. Cuthbert, who had many times remarked that "Raeburn ought to be shut up, or better still, hung," was now the one to wish him alive again. Ugh! It was a horrible story. He quite shivered as he read the account of those days of torture.
But in a room at the Park Hotel, Ashborough, two very different men were discussing the same subject. Mr. Fane-Smith, with all his faults, had always been well-intentioned, and though frightful harm may be done by people with good intentions, they can never stand upon the same level as those who wilfully and maliciously offend. All too plainly now he saw how grievously he had failed with regard to Raeburn, and patiently did he listen to Donovan's account of the really good work which Raeburn had effected in many instances.
"Much as you may hate his views, you must at least see that, as some one has well expressed it, 'It takes a high-souled man to move the masses even to a cleaner sty.' And I say that a man who worked as he worked, striving hard to teach the people to live for the general good, advocating temperance, promoting the spread of education, and somehow winning those whom no one else had ever touched to take an intelligent interest in politics, in science, and in the future of the race, that such a man claims our respect however much we may disagree with him."
"But that he should have died ignorant like this!" exclaimed Mr. Fane-Smith with a shudder.
"'Tis in truth a tragedy," said Donovan, sighing. "But I can well believe that in another world the barriers which he allowed to distort his vision will be removed; the very continuance of existence would surely be sufficient."
"You are a universalist?" said Mr. Fane-Smith, not in the condemnatory tone he would once have assumed, but humbly, anxiously, like one who gropes his way in a dark place.
"Yes," replied Donovan. "Believing in a universal Father, I am naturally that. Upon any other system, what do you make of the good which exists in so many of those who deny all in which you believe? Where does the good go to? I stood beside the death bed of that noble man this morning. At the very last I saw most touching proofs of his strong sense of justice, his honesty, his desire to promote the good of others, his devotion to his child. Can you believe that all that goodness, which of necessity comes from God, is to go down into what you call everlasting punishment? Don't mistake me. Thank God there is a punishment which no one would wish to forego, such punishment, such drawing forth of the native good, such careful help in the rooting out of what is evil as all good fathers give to their children."
They were interrupted by the opening of the door. Mr. Fane-Smith started and almost trembled when, on turning round, he saw Erica. She was pale, but preternaturally calm looking, however, they all felt, as if in her father's death, she had received her own death blow.
"I thought I heard you," she said in that strangely "gravened" voice which is sometimes one of the consequences of great and sudden trouble. "Has Donovan taken you into the next room? Will you come?"
For his life Mr. Fane-Smith could not have refused anything which she asked him; there was something in her manner that made the tears rush to his eyes though he was not, as a rule, easily moved.
He followed her obediently though with a sort of reluctance; but when he was once there he was glad. Ever since the previous day he had not been able to rid himself of that stern, hard look with which Raeburn had so terribly rebuked him; it had persistently haunted him. There was nothing stern in this dead face. It was still and passionless, bearing the look of repose which, spite of a harassed life, it had always borne in moments of leisure. He hardly looked as though he were dead. Erica could almost have fancied that he was but resting after the toils of a hard day, having fallen asleep for a few minutes, as she had often seen him in his arm chair on a Sunday evening.
Mr. Fane-Smith did not say a word, his eyes wandered from the calm face to the still hands which clasped some sprigs of his native heather, the heather which Donovan's children had sent only the day before, but just in time to win one of his last smiles. Donovan and Erica spoke together in low tones, but something in the sound of that "gravened" voice arrested Mr. Fane-Smith's attention. He had not heard what had passed before, and there was nothing special in the words that fell now upon his ear; it was rather that his own soul was in a state of receptivity, and so through the first channel that came to hand he was able to receive a new truth.
"I am only his child; God is his Father."
And there, by the lifeless body of Luke Raeburn, one, who during his life had judged him with the very hardest judgment, learned for the first time what Fatherhood means.
As long as there was anything to be done, Erica struggled on although the days were terribly hard and were rendered infinitely harder by the sort of publicity which attended them. There was the necessity of appearing at the inquest; there was the necessity of reading every word that was written about her father. She could not help reading the papers, could not keep her hands off them, though even now most cruel things were said. There was the necessity of attending the great public funeral in London, of seeing the thousands of grief-stricken people, of listening to the professor's words so broken with sobs that they could hardly be heard. A week later there was the necessity of going down to the Ashborough assizes to appear as a witness in the trial of Drosser.
"What do you feel toward this man?" some one asked her once.
"A great pity," she replied. "It is not nearly so hard for me to forgive this poor fanatic as to forgive those who have taught him his dark creed, or to forgive those who, while calling themselves Christians, have hated my father with the hatred that is quite as bad as murder."
But when the trial was over and there was no longer any necessity to do anything, Erica suddenly broke down. She had never till now yielded though not a night had passed in which she had not been haunted by the frightful recollections of that Sunday evening and the days following. But the evening she returned from Ashborough she could hold out no longer.
Very quietly she bore that sad return to the empty house, going into all the familiar rooms and showing no sign of grief, because those she loved were with her, watching her with the anxious solicitude which people cannot help showing at such a time though it is usually more of a trial than a comfort. Erica longed inexpressibly to be alone, and when at length, deceived by her unnatural calm, they were persuaded to leave her, she crept down to the study and shut herself in, and no longer tried to resist the inevitable, the mere surroundings were quite sufficient to open the flood gates of her grief; the books which her father had loved, the table, the empty chair, the curious cactus which they had brought back from Italy, and in the growth of which they had taken such an interest! the desk at which her father had toiled for so many long years. She hid her face from the light and broke into a passionate fit of weeping. Then exhausted, nerveless, powerless, she could no longer cope with that anguish of remembrance which was her nightly torment. Once more there rose before her that horrible scene in the Ashborough market place; once more she could see the glare of light, the huge crowd, the sudden treacherous movement, the fall; once more she heard the crash, the hushed murmur; once more felt the wild struggle to get through that pushing, jostling throng that she might somehow reach him. That nightmare recollection only gave place to a yet more painful one, to the memory of days of such agony that to recall them was almost to risk her reason. She had struggled bravely not to dwell upon these things, but this night her strength was gone, she could do nothing, and Brian, coming at last to seek her, found that the climax he had long foreseen had come.
"Oh," she sobbed, "if you love me, Brian, be willing to let me go! Don't pray for me to live! Promise that you will not!"
A shade came over Brian's face. Was the dead father still to absorb all her love? Must he even now resign all to him? Lose Erica at last after these long years of waiting! There was a look of agony in his eyes, but he answered quietly and firmly:
"I will pray only that God's will may be done, darling."
A sort of relief was apparent in Erica's flushed, tear-stained face as though he had given her leave to be ill.
After that, for long, weary weeks, she lay at the very gate of death, and those who watched by her had not the heart to wish her back to life again.
CHAPTER XLII. A New Year's Dawn
And the murky planets, I perceived, were but cradles for the infant spirits of the universe of light.... And in sight of this immeasurability of life no sadness could endure.... And I exclaimed, Oh! How beautiful is death, seeing that we die in a world of life and of creation without end! And I blessed God for my life upon earth, but much more for the life in those unseen depths of the universe which are comprised of all but the Supreme Reality, and where no earthly life or perishable hope can enter. Richter
For many weeks Erica had scarcely a conscious interval. Now and then she had been dimly aware that Brian was in the room, or that Aunt Jean, and Mrs. MacNaughton, and her many secularist friends were nursing her; but all had been vague, dream-like, seen through the distorting fever-mist. On night, however, she woke after a sleep of many hours to see things once more as they really were. There was her little room with its green-paneled walls, and its familiar pictures, and familiar books. There was Aunt Jean sitting beside the fire, turning over the pages of an "Idol-Breaker," while all the air seemed to be ringing and echoing with the sound of church bells.
"Auntie," she said, "what day is it?"
Aunt Jean came at once to her bedside.
"It is New Year's day," she said; "it struck twelve about five minutes ago, dear."
Erica made no comment though the words brought back to her the sense of her desolation brought back to her, too, the remembrance of another New Year's day long ago when she had stood beside her father on the deck of the steamer, and the bells of Calais had gayly pealed in spite of her grief. She took the food her aunt brought her, and promised to go to sleep once more.
"I shall have to wake up again in this misery!" she thought to herself. "Oh, if one could only sleep right on!"
But God sometimes saves us from what we have most dreaded; and when at sunrise Erica woke once more, before any recollection returned to her mind, she became conscious of One who said to her, "Lo, I am with you always! Behold, I make all things new!"
Streaks of golden light were stealing in between the window curtains. She lay quite still, able to face life once more in the strength of that Inner Presence; able to endure the well-known sights and sounds because she could once more realize that there was One who made even "the wrath of man to praise" Him; who, out of blackest evil and cruelest pain, could at length bring good. Presently, passing from the restfulness of that conscious communion, she remembered a strange dream she had had that night.
She had dreamed that she was sitting with Donovan in the little church yard at Oakdene; in her hand she held a Greek Testament, but upon the page had only been able to see one sentence. It ran thus, "Until the times of the Restitution of all things." Donovan had insisted that the word should rightly be "restoration." She had clung to the old rendering. While they discussed the distinction between the words, a beautiful girl had all at once stood before them. Erica knew in an instant who it must be by the light which shone in her companion's face.
"You are quite right," she had said, turning her beautiful eyes upon him. "It is not the mere giving back of things that were, it is the perfecting of that which was here only in ideal; it is the carrying out of what might have been. All the time there has been progress, all the time growth, and so restoration is better, wider, grander than anything we could dream of here!"
And, as she left them, there had come to both a sort of vision of the Infinite, in sight of which the whole of earthly existence was but as an hour, and the sum of human suffering but as the pin prick to a strong man, and yet both human suffering and human existence were infinitely worth while. And over them stole a wonderful peace as they realized the greatness of God's universe, and that in it was no wasted thing, no wasted pain, but order where there seemed confusion, and a soul of goodness where there seemed evil.
And, after all, what was this dream compared with the reality which she knew to exist? Well, it was perhaps a little fragment, a dim shadow, a seeing through the glass darkly; but mostly it was a comfort because she was all the time conscious that there was an infinitely Better which it has not entered into the heart of man to conceive.
Brian came in for his morning visit with a face so worn and anxious that it made her smile.
"Oh!" she said, looking up at him with quiet, shining eyes, "how I have been troubling you all these weeks! But you are not to be troubled any more, darling. I am going to get better."
And with a sort of grateful, loving tenderness, she drew his face down to hers and kissed him.
"Where is Tom?" she asked presently, beginning for the first time to take an interest in the world again.
"Tom has gone to Oakdene for a day or two," said Brian. "He is going to be Donovan's private secretary."
"How glad I am!" she said. "Dear old Tom, he does so deserve to be happy!"
"They want you to go there as soon as you are well enough to be moved," said Brian.
"I should like that," she said with a touch of her old eagerness of manner. "I want to get well quickly; there is so much work for us to do you know. Oh, Brian! I feel that there is work which HE would wish me to do, and I'm so glad, so glad to be left to do it!"
Brian thought of the enormous impetus given to the cause of secularism by Raeburn's martyrdom. The momentary triumph of bigotry and intolerance had, as in all other ages, been followed by this inevitable consequence a dead loss to the persecuting side. Would people at length learn the lesson? Would the reign of justice at length dawn? Would the majority at length believe that the All Father needs not to be supported by persecuting laws and unjust restrictions?
Yet it was not these thoughts which brought the tears to his eyes it was the rapture caused by Erica's words.
"My darling will live, and is glad to live!" he thought. "Who could bear witness to the truth so well? Who be so sweet a reconciler?"
"Why, Brian! Brian!" exclaimed Erica as the great drops fell on her hand lying clasped in his.
And there was that in tone and look and touch which made Brian more than content.