"Did he speak? I am glad of that," said Erica, brightening. "I expect Mr. Pogson's conduct will stir up a good many liberal Christians into showing their disapproval of bigotry and injustice. Ah! Here is the dear old square! The statue looks ten degrees moldier than when I left!"
In fact everything looked, as Erica expressed it, "moldier!" "Persecution Alley," the lodging house, the very chairs and tables seemed to obtrude their shabbiness upon her. Not that she cared in the least; for, however shabby, it was home the home that she had longed for again and again in the luxury and ease of Greyshot.
Raeburn looked up from a huge law book as she opened the door of his study.
"Why, little son Eric!" he exclaimed. "You came so quietly that I never heard you. Glad to have you home again, my child! The room looks as if it needed you, doesn't it?"
Erica laughed for the study was indeed in a state of chaos. Books were stacked up on the floor, on the mantel piece, on the chairs, on the very steps of the book ladder. The writing table was a sea of papers, periodicals, proofs, and manuscripts, upon which there floated with much difficulty Raeburn's writing desk and the book he was reading, some slight depression in the surrounding mass of papers showing where his elbows had been.
"About equal to Teufelsdroch's room, isn't it?" he said, smiling. "Everything united in a common element of dust.' But, really, after the first terrible day of your absence, when I wasted at least an hour in hunting for things which the tidy domestic had carefully hidden, I could stand it no longer, and gave orders that no one was to bring brush or duster or spirit of tidiness within the place."
"We really must try to get you a larger room," said Erica, looking round. "How little and poky everything looks."
"Has Greyshot made you discontented?"
"Only for you," she replied, laughing. "I was thinking of Mr. Fane-Smith's great study; it seems such a pity that five foot three, with few books and nothing to do, should have all that space, and six foot four, with much work and many books, be cramped up in this little room."
"What would you say to a move?"
"It will be such an expensive year, and there's that dreadful Mr. Pogson always in the background."
"But if a house were given to us? Where's Tom? I've a letter here which concerns you both. Do either of you remember anything about an old Mr. Woodward who lived at 16 Guilford Square?"
"Why, yes! Don't you remember, Tom? The old gentleman whose greenhouse we smashed."
"Rather!" said Tom. "I've the marks of the beastly thing now."
"What was it? Let me hear the story," said Raeburn, leaning back in his chair with a look of amusement flickering about his rather stern face.
"Why, father, it was years ago; you were on your first tour in America, I must have been about twelve, and Tom fourteen. We had only just settled in here, you know; and one unlucky Saturday we were playing in the garden at 'King of the Castle.'"
"What's that?" asked Raeburn.
"Why, Tom was king, and I was the Republican Army; and Tom was standing on the top of the wall trying to push me down. He had to sing:
"'I'm the king of the castle! Get down, you dirty rascal!'
And somehow I don't know how it was instead of climbing up, I pushed him backward by mistake, and he went down with an awful crash into the next garden. We knew it was the garden belonging to No. 16 quite a large one it is for the hospital hasn't any. And when at last I managed to scramble on to the wall, there was Tom, head downward, with his feet sticking up through the roof of a greenhouse, and the rest of him all among the flower pots."
Raeburn laughed heartily.
"There was a brute of a cactus jammed against my face, too," said Tom. "How I ever got out alive was a marvel!"
"Well, what happened?" asked Raeburn.
"Why, we went round to tell the No. 16 people. Tom waited outside, because he was so frightfully cut about, and I went in and saw an old, old man a sort of Methusaleh who would ask my name, and whether I had anything to do with you."
"What did you say to him?"
"I can't remember except that I asked him to let us pay for the glass by installments, and tried to assure him that secularists were not in the habit of smashing other people's property. He was a very jolly old man, and of course he wouldn't let us pay for the glass though he frightened me dreadfully by muttering that he shouldn't wonder if the glass and the honesty combined cost him a pretty penny."
"Did you ever see him again?"
"Not to speak to, but we always nodded to each other when we passed in the square. I've not seen him for ages. I thought he must be dead."
"He is dead," said Raeburn; "and he has left you three hundred pounds, and he has left me his furnished house, with the sole proviso that I live in it."
"What a brick!" cried Tom and Erica, in a breath. "Now fancy, if we hadn't played at 'King of the Castle' that day!"
"And if Erica had not been such a zealous little Republican?" said Raeburn, smiling.
"Why, father, the very greenhouse will belong to you; and such a nice piece of garden! Oh, when can we go and see it, and choose a nice room for your study?"
"I will see Mr. Woodward's executor tomorrow morning," said Raeburn. "The sooner we move in the better for there are rocks ahead."
"The 'we' refers only to you and Erica," said Aunt Jean, who had joined them. "Tom and I shall of course stay on here."
"Oh, no, auntie!" cried Erica in such genuine dismay that Aunt Jean was touched.
"I don't want you to feel at all bound to have us," she said. "Now that the worst of the poverty is over, there is no necessity for clubbing together."
"And after you have shared all the discomforts with us, you think we should go off in such a dog-in-the-mangerish way as that!" cried Erica. "Besides, it really was chiefly owing to Tom, who was the one to get hurt into the bargain. If you won't come, I shall—" she paused to think of a threat terrible enough, "I shall think again about living with the Fane-Smiths."
This led the conversation back to Greyshot, and they lingered so long round the fire talking that Raeburn was for once unpunctual, and kept an audience at least ten minutes waiting for him.
No. 16 Guilford Square proved to be much better inside than a casual passer in the street would have imagined. Outside, it was certainly a grim-looking house, but within it was roomy and comfortable. The lower rooms were wainscoted in a sort of yellowish-brown color, the upper wainscoted in olive-green. There was no such thing as a wall paper in the whole house, and indeed it was hard to imagine, when once inside it, that you were in nineteenth-century London at all.
Raeburn, going over it with Erica the following evening, was a little amused to think of himself domiciled in such an old-world house. Mr. Woodward's housekeeper, who was still taking care of the place, assured them that one of the leaden pipes outside bore the date of the seventeenth century, though the two last figures were so illegible that they might very possibly have stood for 1699.
Erica was delighted with it all, and went on private voyages of discovery, while her father talked to the housekeeper, taking stock of the furniture, imagining how she would rearrange the rooms, and planning many purchases to be made with her three hundred pounds. She was singing to herself for very lightness of heart when her father called her from below. She rand down again, checking her inclination to sing as she remembered the old housekeeper, who had but recently lost her master.
"I've rather set my affections on this room," said Raeburn, leading her into what had formerly been the dining room.
"The very place where I came in fear and trembling to make my confession," said Erica, laughing. "This would make a capital study."
"Yes, the good woman has gone to fetch an inch tape; I want to measure for the book shelves. How many of my books could I comfortably house in here, do you think?"
"A good many. The room is high, you see; and those two long, unbroken walls would take several hundred. Ah! Here is the measuring tape. Now we can calculate."
They were hard at work measuring when the door bell rang, and Tom's voice was heard in the passage, asking for Raeburn.
"This way, Tom!" called Erica. "Come and help us!"
But a laughing reference to the day of their childish disaster died on her lips when she caught sight of him for she knew that something was wrong. Accustomed all her life to live in the region of storms, she had learned to a nicety the tokens of rough weather.
"Hazeldine wishes to speak to you," said Tom, turning to Raeburn. "I brought him round here to save time."
"Oh! All right," said Raeburn, too much absorbed in planning the arrangement of his treasures to notice the unusual graveness of Tom's face. "Ask him in here. Good evening, Hazeldine. You are the first to see us in our new quarters."
Hazeldine bore traces of having lived from his childhood a hard but sedentary life. He was under-sized and narrow chested. But the face was a very striking one, the forehead finely developed, the features clearly cut, and the bright, dark eyes looking out on the world with an almost defiant honesty, a clearness bordering on hardness.
Raeburn, entirely putting aside for the time his own affairs, and giving to his visitor his whole and undivided attention, saw in an instant that the man was in trouble.
"Out of work again?" he asked. "Anything gone wrong?"
"No sir," replied Hazeldine; "but I came round to ask if you'd seen that circular letter. 'Twas sent me this morning by a mate of mine who's lately gone to Longstaff, and he says that this Pogson is sowing them broadcast among the hands right through all the workshops in the place, and in all England, too, for aught he knows. I wouldn't so much as touch the dirty thing, only I thought maybe you hadn't heard of it."
Without a word, Raeburn held out his hand for the printed letter. Erica, standing at a little distance, watched the faces of the three men Tom, grave, yet somewhat flushed; Hazeldine, with a scornful glitter in his dark eyes; her father? Last of all she looked at him and looking, learned the full gravity of this new trouble. For, as he read, Raeburn grew white, with the marble whiteness which means that intense anger has interfered with the action of the heart. As he hastily perused the lines, his eyes seemed to flash fire; the hand which still held the measuring tape was clinched so tightly that the knuckle looked like polished ivory.
Erica could not ask what was the matter, but she came close to him. When he had finished reading, the first thing his eye fell upon was her face turned up to his with a mute appeal which, in spite of the anxiety in it, made her look almost like a child. He shrank back as she held out her hand for the letter; it was so foul a libel that it seemed intolerable to him that his own child should so much as read a line of it.
"What is it?" she asked at length, speaking with difficulty.
"A filthy libel circulated by that liar Pogson! A string of lies invented by his own evil brain! Why should I keep it from you? It is impossible! The poisonous thing is sown broadcast through the land. You are of age there read it, and see how vile a Christian can be!"
He was writhing under the insult, and was too furious to measure his words. It was only when he saw Erica's brave lip quiver that he felt with remorse that he had doubled her pain.
She had turned a little away from him, ostensibly to be nearer to the gas, but in reality that he might not see the crimson color which surged up into her face as she read. Mr. Pogson was as unscrupulous as fanatics invariably are. With a view of warning the public and inducing them to help him in crushing the false doctrine he abhorred, he had tried to stimulate them by publishing a sketch of Raeburn's personal character and life, drawn chiefly from his imagination, or from distorted and misquoted anecdotes which had for years been bandied about among his opponents, losing nothing in the process. Hatred of the man Luke Raeburn was his own great stimulus, and we are apt to judge others by ourselves. The publication of this letter really seemed to him likely to do great good, and the evil passions of hatred and bigotry had so inflamed his mind, that it was perfectly easy for him to persuade himself that the statements were true. Indeed, he only followed with the multitude to do evil in this instance, for not one in a thousand took the trouble to verify their facts, or even their quotations, when speaking of, or quoting Raeburn. The libel, to put it briefly, represented Raeburn as a man who had broken every one of the ten commandments.
Erica read steadily on, though every pulse in her beat at double time. It was long before she finished it, for a three-fold chorus was going on in her brain Mr. Pogson's libelous charges; the talk between her father and Hazeldine, which revealed all too plainly the harm already done to the cause of Christianity by this one unscrupulous man; and her own almost despairing cry to the Unseen: "Oh, Father! How is he ever to learn to know Thee, when such things as these are done in Thy name?"
That little sheet of paper had fallen among them like a thunderbolt.
"I have passed over a great deal," Raeburn was saying when Erica looked up once more. "But I shall not pass over this! Pogson shall pay dearly for it! Many thanks, Hazeldine, for bringing me word; I shall take steps about it at once."
He left the room quickly, and in another minute they heard the street door close behind him.
"That means an action for libel," said Tom, knitting his brows. "And goodness only knows what fearful work and worry for the chieftain."
"But good to the cause in the long run," said Hazeldine. "And as for Mr. Raeburn, he only rises the higher the more they try to crush him. He's like the bird that rises out of its own ashes the phenix, don't they call it?"
Erica smiled a little at the comparison, but sadly.
"Don't judge Christianity by this one bad specimen," she said, as she shook hands with Hazeldine.
"How do Christians judge us, Miss Erica?" he replied, sternly.
"Then be more just than you think they are as generous as you would have them be."
"It's but a working-day world, miss, and I'm but a working-day man. I can't set up to be generous to them who treat a man as though he was the dirt in the street. And if you will excuse me mentioning it, miss, I could wish that this shameful treatment would show to you what a delusion it is you've taken up of late."
"Mr. Pogson can hurt me very much, but not so fatally as that," said Erica, as much to herself as to Hazeldine.
When he had gone she picked up the measure once more, and turned to Tom.
"Help me just to finish this, Tom," she said. "We must try to move in as quickly as may be."
Tom silently took the other end of the tape, and they set to work again; but all the enjoyment in the new house seemed quenched and destroyed by that blast of calumny. They knew only too well that this was but the beginning of troubles.
Raeburn, remembering his hasty speech, called Erica into the study the moment he heard her return. He was still very pale, and with a curiously rigid look about his face.
"I was right, you see, in my prophecy of rocks ahead," he exclaimed, throwing down his pen. "You have come home to a rough time, Erica, and to an overharassed father."
"The more harassed the father, the more reason that he should have a child to help him," said Erica, sitting down on the arm of his chair, and putting back the masses of white hair which hung over his forehead.
"Oh, child!" he said, with a sigh, "if I can but keep a cool head and a broad heart through the years of trouble before us!"
"Years!" exclaimed Erica, dismayed.
"This affair may drag on almost indefinitely, and a personal strife is apt to be lowering."
"Yes," said Erica, musingly, "to be libeled does set one's back up dreadfully, and to be much praised humbles one to the very dust."
"What will the Fane-Smiths say to this? Will they believe it of me?"
"I can't tell," said Erica, hesitatingly.
"'He that's evil deemed is half hanged,'" said Raeburn bitterly. "Never was there a truer saying than that."
"'Blaw the wind ne'er so fast, it will lown at the last'" quoted Erica, smiling. "Equally true, PADRE MIO."
"Yes, dear," he said quietly, "but not in my life time. You see if I let this pass, the lies will be circulated, and they'll say I can't contradict them. If I bring an action against the fellow, people will say I do it to flaunt my opinions in the face of the public. As your hero Livingstone once remarked, 'Isn't it interesting to get blamed for everything?' However, we must make the best of it. How about the new house? When can we settle in? I feel a longing for that study with its twenty-two feet o' length for pacing!"
"What are your engagements?" she asked, taking up a book from the table. "Eleventh, Newcastle; 12th, Nottingham; 13th and 14th, Plymouth. Let me see, that will bring you home on Monday, the 15th, and will leave us three clear days to get things straight; that will do capitally."
"And you'll be sure to see that the books are carefully moved," said Raeburn. "I can't have the markers displaced."
Erica laughed. Her father had a habit of putting candle lighters in his books to mark places for references, and the appearance of the book shelves all bristling with them had long been a family joke, more especially as, if a candle lighter happened to be wanted for its proper purpose, there was never one to be found.
"I will pack them myself," she said.
CHAPTER XXXI. Brian as Avenger
A paleness took the poet's cheek; "Must I drink here?" he seemed to seek The lady's will with utterance meek.
"Ay, ay," she said, "it so must be," (And this time she spake cheerfully) "Behooves thee know world's cruelty." E. B. Browning
The trial of Luke Raeburn, on the charge of having published a blasphemous libel in a pamphlet entitled "Bible Miracles," came on in the Court of Queen's Bench early in December. It excited a great deal of interest. Some people hoped that the revival of an almost obsolete law would really help to check the spread of heterodox views, and praised Mr. Pogson for his energy and religious zeal. These were chiefly well-meaning folks, not much given to the study of precedents. Some people of a more liberal turn read the pamphlet in question, and were surprised to see that matter quite as heterodox might be found in many high-class reviews which lay about on drawing room tables, the only difference being that the articles in the reviews were written in somewhat ambiguous language by fashionable agnostics, and that "Bible Miracles" was a plain, blunt, sixpenny tract, avowedly written for the people by the people's tribune.
This general interest and attention, once excited, gave rise to the following results: to an indiscriminate and wholesale condemnation of "that odious Raeburn who was always seeking notoriety;" to an immense demand for "Bible Miracles," which in three months reached its fiftieth thousand; and to a considerable crowd in Westminster Hall on the first day of the trial, to watch the entrance and exit of the celebrities.
Erica had been all day in the court. She had written her article for the "Daily Review: in pencil during the break for luncheon; but, as time wore on, the heated atmosphere of the place, which was crammed to suffocation, became intolerable to her. She grew whiter and whiter, began to hear the voices indistinctly, and to feel as if her arms did not belong to her. It would never do to faint in court, and vexed as she was to leave, she took the first opportunity of speaking to her father.
"I think I must go," she whispered, "I can't stand this heat."
"Come now, then," said Raeburn, "and I can see you out. This witness has nothing worth listening to. Take notes for me, Tom. I'll be back directly."
They had only just passed the door leading into Westminster Hall, however, when Tom sent a messenger hurrying after them. An important witness had that minute been called, and Raeburn, who was, as usual, conducting his own case, could not possibly miss the evidence.
"I can go alone," said Erica. "Don't stop."
But even in his haste, Raeburn, glancing at the crowd of curious faces, was thoughtful for his child.
"No," he said, hurriedly. "Wait a moment, and I'll send some one to you."
She would have been wiser if she had followed him back into the court; but, having once escaped from the intolerable atmosphere, she was not at all inclined to return to it. She waited where he had left her, just within Westminster Hall, at the top of the steps leading from the entrance to the court. The grandeur of the place, its magnificent proportions, terminating in the great, upward sweep of steps, and the mellow stained window, struck her more than ever after coming from the crowded and inconvenient little court within. The vaulted roof, with its quaintly carved angels, was for the most part dim and shadowy, but here and there a ray of sunshine, slanting in through the clerestory windows, changed the sombre tones to a golden splendor. Erica, very susceptible to all high influences, was more conscious of the ennobling influence of light, and space, and beauty than of the curious eyes which were watching her from below. But all at once her attention was drawn to a group of men who stood near her, and her thoughts were suddenly brought back to the hard, every-day world, from which for a brief moment she had escaped. With a quick, apprehensive glance, she noted that among them was a certain Sir Algernon Wyte, a man who never lost an opportunity of insulting her father.
"Did you see the fellow?" said one of the group. "He came to the door just now."
"And left his fair daughter to be a spectacle to men and angels?" said Sir Algernon.
Then followed words so monstrous, so intolerable, that Erica, accustomed as she was to discourtesies, broke down altogether. It was so heartless, so cruelly false, and she was so perfectly defenseless! A wave of burning color swept over her face. If she could but have gone away have hidden herself from those cruel eyes. But her knees trembled so fearfully that, had she tried to move, she must have fallen. Sick and giddy, the flights of steps looked to her like a precipice. She could only lean for support against the gray-stone moldings of the door way, while tears, which for once she could not restrain, rushed to her eyes. Oh! If Tom or the professor, or some one would but come to her! Such moments as those are not measured by earthly time; the misery seemed to her agelong though it was in reality brief enough for Brian, coming into Westminster Hall, had actually heard Sir Algernon's shameful slander, and pushing his way through the crowd, was beside her almost immediately.
The sight of his face checked her tears. It positively frightened her by its restrained yet intense passion.
"Miss Raeburn," he said, in a clear, distinct voice, plainly heard by the group below, "this is not a fit place for you. Let me take you home."
He spoke much more formally than was his wont, yet in his actions he used a sort of authority, drawing her hand within his arm, leading her rapidly through the crowd, which opened before them. For that one bitter-sweet moment she belonged to him. He was her sole, and therefore her rightful, protector. A minute more, and they stood in Palace Yard. He hastily called a hansom.
In the pause she looked up at him, and would have spoken her thanks, but something in his manner checked her. He had treated her so exactly as if she belonged to him, that, to thank him seemed almost as absurd as it would have done to thank her father. Then a sudden fear made her say instead:
"Are you coming home?"
"I will come to see that you are safely back presently," he said, in a voice unlike his own. "But I must see that man first."
"No, no," she said, beginning to tremble again. "Don't go back. Please, please don't go!"
"I must," he said, putting her into the hansom. Then, speaking very gently. "Don't be afraid; I will be with you almost directly."
He closed the doors, gave the address to the driver, and turned away.
Erica was conscious of a vague relief as the fresh winter wind blew upon her. She shut her eyes, that she might not see the passers-by, only longing to get away right away, somewhere beyond the reach of staring eyes and cruel tongues. One evening years ago, she remembered coming out of St. James's Hall with Tom, and having heard a woman in Regent Street insulted in precisely the same language that had been used to her today. She remembered how the shrill, passionate cry had rung down the street: "How dare you insult me!" And remembered, too, how she had wondered whether perfect innocence would have been able to give that retort. She knew now that her surmise had been correct. The insult had struck her dumb for the time. Even now, as the words returned to her with a pain intolerable, her tears rained down. It seemed to her that for once she could no more help crying than she could have helped bleeding when cut.
Then once more her thoughts returned to Brian with a warmth of gratitude which in itself relieved her. He was a man worth knowing, a friend worth having. Yet how awful his face had looked as he came toward her. Only once in her whole life had she seen such a look on a man's face. She had seen it in her childhood on her father's face, when he had first heard of a shameful libel which affected those nearest and dearest to him. She had been far too young to understand the meaning of it, but she well remembered that silent, consuming wrath; she remembered running away by herself with the sort of half-fearful delight of a child's new discovery "Now I know how men look when they KILL!"
All at once, in the light of that old recollection, the truth dashed upon her. She smiled through her tears, a soft glow stole over her face, a warmth found its way to her aching heart. For at last the love of seven years had found its way to her.
She felt all in a glad tumult as that perception came to her. It had, in truth, been an afternoon of revelations. She had never until now in the least understood Brian's character, never in the least appreciated him. And as to dreaming that his friendship had been love from the very first, it had never occurred to her.
The revelation did not bring her unalloyed happiness for there came a sharp pang as she recollected what he had gone back to do. What if he should get into trouble on her behalf? What if he should be hurt? Accustomed always to fear for her father actual physical injury, her thoughts at once flew to the same danger for Brian. But, however sick with anxiety, she was obliged, on reaching home, to try and copy out her article, which must be in type and upon thousands of breakfast tables by the next morning whether her heart ached or not, whether her life were rough or smooth.
In the meantime, Brian, having watched her cab drive off, turned back into Westminster Hall. He could see nothing but the one vision which filled his brain the face of the girl he loved, a lovely, pure face suffused with tears. He could hear nothing but that intolerable slander which filled his heart with a burning, raging indignation. Straight as an arrow and as if by instinct, he made his way to the place where Sir Algernon and three or four companions were pacing to and fro. He confronted them, bringing their walk to an enforced pause.
"I am here to demand an apology for the words you spoke just now about Miss Raeburn," he said, speaking in a voice which was none the less impressive because it trembled slightly as with a wrath restrained only by a great effort.
Sir Algernon, a florid, light-haired man of about thirty, coolly stared at him for a moment.
"Who may you be, sir, who take up the cudgels so warmly in Miss Raeburn's defense?"
"A man who will not hear a defenseless girl insulted," said Brian, his voice rising. "Apologize!"
"Defenseless girl!" repeated the other in a tone so insufferable that Brian's passion leaped up like wild fire.
"You vile blackguard!" he cried, "what you said was an infernal lie, and if you don't retract it this moment, I'll thrash you within an inch of your life."
Sir Algernon laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"'Pon my life!" he exclaimed, turning to one of his companions, "if I'd know that Miss Raeburn—"
But the sentence was never ended for, with a look of fury, Brian sprung at him, seized him by the collar of his coat, and holding him like a vise with one hand, with the other brought down his cane upon the slanderer's shoulders with such energy that the wretch writhed beneath it.
The on-lookers, being gentlemen and fully aware that Sir Algernon deserved all he was getting, stood by, not offering to interfere, perhaps in their hearts rather sympathizing with the stranger whose righteous indignation had about it a manliness that appealed to them. Presently Sir Algernon ceased to kick, his struggles grew fainter. Brian let his right arm pause then, and with his left flung his foe into the corner as if he had been a mere chattel.
"There!" he exclaimed, "summons me for that when you please." And, handing his card to one of Sir Algernon's companions, he strode out of the hall.
By the time he reached Guilford Square he was almost himself again, a little paler than usual but outwardly quite calm. He went at once to No. 16. The Raeburns had now been settled in their new quarters for some weeks, and the house was familiar enough to him; he went up to the drawing room or, as it was usually called, the green room. The gas was not lighted, but a little reading lamp stood upon a table in one of the windows, and the fire light made the paneled walls shine here and there though the corners and recesses were all in dusky shadow. Erica had made this the most home-like room in the house; it had the most beguiling easy chairs, it had all Mr. Woodward's best pictures, it had fascinating little tables, and a tempting set of books. There was something in the sight of the familiar room which made Brian's wrath flame up once more. Erica's guileless life seemed to rise before him the years of patient study, the beautiful filial love, the pathetic endeavor to restrain her child-like impatience of conventionalities lest scandalmongers should have even a shadow of excuse for slandering Luke Raeburn's daughter. The brutality of the insult struck him more than ever. Erica, glancing up from her writing table, saw that his face again bore that look of intolerable pain which had so greatly startled her in Westminster Hall.
She had more than half dreaded his arrival, had been wondering how they should meet after the strange revelation of the afternoon, had been thinking of the most trite and commonplace remark with which she might greet him. But when it actually came to the point, she could not say a word, only looked up at him with eyes full of anxious questioning.
"It is all right," he said, answering the mute question, a great joy thrilling him as he saw that she had been anxious about him. "You should not have been afraid."
"I couldn't help it," she said, coloring, "he is such a hateful man! A man who might do anything. Tell me what happened."
"I gave him a thrashing which he'll not soon forget," said Brian. "But don't let us speak of him any more."
"Perhaps he'll summons you!" said Erica.
"He won't dare to. He knows that he deserved it. What are you writing? You ought to be resting."
"Only copying out my article. The boy will be here before long."
"I am your doctor," he said, feeling her pulse, and again assuming his authoritative manner; "I shall order you to rest on your couch at once. I will copy this for you. What is it on?"
"Cremation," said Erica, smiling a little. "A nice funereal subject for a dreary day. Generally, if I'm in wild spirits, Mr. Bircham sends me the very gloomiest subject to write on, and if I'm particularly blue, he asks for a bright, lively article."
"Oh! He tells you what to write on?"
"Yes, did you think I had the luxury of choosing for myself? Every day, about eleven o'clock a small boy brings me my fate on a slip of paper. Let me dictate this to you. I'm sure you can't read that penciled scribble."
"Yes, I can," said Brian. "You go and rest."
She obeyed him, thankful enough to have a moment's pause in which to think out the questions that came crowding into her mind. She hardly dared to think what Brian might be to her, for just now she needed him so sorely as friend and adviser, that to admit that other perception, which made her feel shy and constrained with him, would have left her still in her isolation. After all, he was a seven years' friend, no mere acquaintance, but an actual friend to whom she was her unreserved and perfectly natural self.
"Brian," she said presently when he had finished her copying, "you don't think I'm bound to tell my father about this afternoon, do you?"
A burning, painful blush, the sort of blush that she never ought to have known, never could have known but for that shameful slander, spread over her face and neck as she spoke.
"Perhaps not," said Brian, "since the man has been properly punished."
"I think I hope it need never get round to him in any other way," said Erica. "He would be so fearfully angry, and just now scarcely a day passes without bringing him some fresh worry."
"When will the Pogson affair come on?"
"Oh! I don't know. Not just yet, I'm afraid. Things in the legal world always move at the rate of a fly in a glue pot."
"What sort of man is Mr. Pogson?"
"He was in court today, a little, sleek, narrow-headed man with cold, gray eyes. I have been trying to put myself in his place, and realize the view he takes of things; but it is very, very hard. You don't know what it is to live in this house and see the awful harm his intolerance is bringing about."
"In what way did you specially mean?"
"Oh! In a thousand ways. It is bringing Christianity into discredit, it is making them more bitter against it, and who can wonder. It is bringing hundreds of men to atheism, it is enormously increasing the demand for all my father's books, and already even in these few months it has doubled the sale of the 'Idol-Breakers.' In old times that would have been my consolation. Oh! It is heart-breaking to see how religious people injure their own cause. Surely they might have learned by this time that punishment for opinion is never right, that it brings only bitterness, and misery, and more error! How is one to believe that this is right that God means all this bigotry and injustice to go on producing evil?"
"Surely it will teach the sharp lesson that all pain teaches," said Brian. "We Christians have broken His order, have lost the true idea of brotherly love, and from this arises pain and evil, which at last, when it touches our own selfish natures, will rouse us, wake us up sharply, drive us back of necessity to the true Christ-following. Then persecution and injustice will die. But we are so terribly asleep that the evil must grow desperate before we become conscious of it. It seems to me that bigotry has at least one mortal foe, though. You are always here; you must show them by your life what the Father is THAT is being a Christian!"
"I know," said Erica, a look of almost passionate longing dawning in her eyes. "Oh! What a thing it is to be crammed full of faults that hinder one from serving! And all these worries do try one's temper fearfully. If they had but a Donovan to live with them now! But, as for me, I can't do much, except love them."
Brian loved her too truly to speak words of praise and commendation at such a time.
"Is not the love the crux of the whole?" he said quietly.
"I suppose it is," said Erica, pushing back her hair from her forehead in the way she always did when anything perplexed her. "But just at present my life is a sort of fugue on Browning's line
'How very hard it is to be a Christian?'
Sometimes I can't help laughing to think that there was a time when I thought the teaching of Christ unpractical! Do you mind ringing the bell for me; the others will be in directly, and will be glad of tea after that headachy place."
"Is there nothing else I can do for you?" asked Brian.
"Yes, one thing more help me to remember the levers of the second order. It's my physiology class tonight, and I feel, as Tom would express it, like a 'boiled owl.'"
"Let me take the class for you."
"Oh, no, thank you," she replied. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
It was not till Brian had left that Erica, taking up the article on cremation, was struck by some resemblance in the handwriting. She must have seen Brian's writing before, but only this afternoon did she make that fresh discovery. Crossing the room she took from one of the book shelves a dark blue morocco volume, and compared the writing on the fly leaf with her MS.
"From another admirer of 'Hiawatha.'" There could be no doubt that Brian had written that. Had he cared for her so long? Had he indeed loved her all these years? She was interrupted by the maid bringing in the tea.
"Mr. Bircham's boy is here, miss, and if you please, can cook speak to you a minute?"
Erica put down the Longfellow and rolled up "Cremation."
"I'm sure she's going to give warning!" she thought to herself. "What a day to choose for it! That's what I call an anti-climax."
Her forebodings proved all too true. In a minute more in walked the cook, with the sort of conscious dignity of bearing which means "I am no longer in your service."
"If you please, miss, I wish to leave this day month."
"I shall be sorry to lose you," said Erica; "what are your reasons for leaving?"
"I've not been used, miss, to families as is in the law courts. I've been used to the best West End private families."
"I don't see how it can affect you," said Erica, feeling, in spite of her annoyance, much inclined to laugh.
"Indeed, miss, and it do. There's not a tradesman's boy but has his joke or his word about Mr. Raeburn," said the cook in an injured voice. "And last Sunday when I went to the minister to show my lines, he said a member ought to be ashamed to take service with a hatheist and that I was in an 'ouse of 'ell. Those was his very words, miss, an 'ouse of 'ell, he said."
"Then it was exceedingly impertinent of him," said Erica, "for he knew nothing whatever about it."
After that there was nothing for it but to accept the resignation, and to begin once more the weary search for that rara avis, "a good plain cook."
Her interview had only just ended when she heard the front door open. She listened intently, but apparently it was only Tom; he came upstairs singing a refrain with which just then she quite agreed:
"LAW, law Rhymes very well with jaw, If you're fond of litigation, And sweet procrastination, Latin and botheration, I advise you to go to law."
"Halloo!" he exclaimed. "So you did get home all right? I like your way of acting Casabianca! The chieftain sent me tearing out after you, and when I got there, you had vanished!"
"Brian came up just then," said Erica, "and I thought it better not to wait. Oh, here comes father."
Raeburn entered as she spoke. No one who saw him would have guessed that he was an overworked, overworried man, for his face was a singularly peaceful one, serene with the serenity of a strong nature convinced of its own integrity.
"Got some tea for us, Eric?" he asked, throwing himself back in a chair beside the fire.
Some shade of trouble in her face, invisible to any eye but that of a parent, made him watch her intently, while a new hope which made his heart beat more quickly sprang up within him. Christians had not shown up well that day; prosecuting and persecuting Christians are the most repulsive beings on earth! Did she begin to feel a flaw in the system she had professed belief in? Might she by this injustice come to realize that she had unconsciously cheated herself into a belief? If such things might win her back to him, might bridge over that miserable gulf between them, then welcome any trouble, any persecution, welcome even ruin itself.
But had he been able to see into Erica's heart, he would have learned that the grief which had left its traces on her face was the grief of knowing that such days as these strengthened and confirmed him in his atheism. Erica was indeed ever confronted with one of the most baffling of all baffling mysteries. How was it that a man of such grand capacities, a man with so many noble qualities, yet remained in the darkness? One day she put that question sadly enough to Charles Osmond.
"Not darkness, child, none of your honest secularists who live up to their creed are in darkness," he replied. "However mistakenly, they do try to promote what they consider the general good. Were you in such absolute blackness before last summer?"
"There was the love of Humanity," said Erica musingly.
"Yes, and what is that but a ray of the light of life promised to all who, to any extent, follow Christ? It is only the absolutely selfish who are in the black shadow. The honest atheist is in the penumbra, and in his twilight sees a little bit of the true sun, though he calls it Humanity instead of Christ."
"Oh, if the shadows would but go!" exclaimed Erica.
"Would!" he said, laughing gently. "Why, child, they will, they must!"
"But now, I mean! 'Here down,' as Mazzini would have said."
"You were ever an impatient little mortal."
"How can one help being impatient for this," she said with a quick sigh.
"That is what I used to say myself seven years ago over you," he said smiling. "But I learned that the Father knew best, and that if we would work with Him we must wait with Him too. You musn't waste your strength in impatience, child, you need every bit of it for the life before you."
But patience did not come by nature to a Raeburn, and Erica did not gain it in a day even by grace.
CHAPTER XXXII. Fiesole
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain From that same love this vindicating grace, To live on still in love, and yet in vain, To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face. E. B. Browning.
Much has been said and written about the monotony of unalloyed pleasure, and the necessity of shadows and dark places in life as well as in pictured landscape. And certainly there can be but few in this world of stern realities who would dispute the fact that pleasure is doubled by its contrast with preceding pain. Perhaps it was the vividness of this contrast that made Raeburn and Erica enjoy, with a perfect rapture of enjoyment, a beautiful view and a beautiful spring day in Italy. Behind them lay a very sombre past; they had escaped for a brief moment from the atmosphere of strife, from the world of controversy, from the scorching breath of slander, from the baleful influences of persecution and injustice. Before them lay the fairest of all the cities of Italy. They were sitting in the Boboli gardens, and from wooded heights looked down upon that loveliest of Italian valleys.
The silver Arno wound its way between the green encircling hills; then between the old houses of Florence, its waters spanned now by a light suspension bridge token of modern times now by old brown arches strengthened and restored, now by the most venerable looking of all the bridges, the Ponte Vecchio, with its double row of little shops. Into the cloudless blue sky rose the pinnacles of Santa Croce, the domes of San Spirito, of the Baptistery, of the Cathedral; sharply defined in the clear atmosphere were the airy, light Campanile of Giotto, the more slender brown tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, the spire of Santa Maria Novella. Northward beyond the city rose the heights of Fiesole, and to the east the green hills dotted all over with white houses, swept away into the unseen distance.
Raeburn had been selected as the English delegate to attend a certain political gathering held that year at Florence. He had at first hesitated to accept the post for his work at home had enormously increased; but the long months of wearing anxiety had so told upon him that his friends had at length persuaded him to go, fully aware that the only chance of inducing him to take any rest was to get him out of the region of work.
The "Miracles" trial was at length over, but Mr. Pogson had not obtained the desire of his heart, namely, the imprisonment and fining of Luke Raeburn. The only results of the trial were the extensive advertisement of the pamphlet in question, a great increase of bitterness on each side, and a great waste of money. Erica's sole consolation lay in the fact that a few of the more liberal thinkers were beginning to see the evil and to agitate for a repeal of the Blasphemy Laws. As for the action for libel, there was no chance of its coming on before June, and in the meantime Mr. Pogson's letter was obtaining a wider circulation, and perhaps, on the whole, Luke Raeburn was just at that time the best-abused man in all England.
There had been a long silence between the father and daughter who understood each other far too well to need many words at such a time; but at length a sudden ejaculation from Raeburn made Erica turn her eye from Fiesole to the shady walk in the garden down which he was looking.
"Does any Italian walk at such a pace?" he exclaimed. "That must surely be Brian Osmond or his double in the shape of an English tourist."
"Oh, impossible!" said Erica, coloring a little and looking intently at the pedestrian who was still at some little distance.
"But it is," said Raeburn "height, way of walking, everything! My dear Eric, don't tell me I can't recognize the man who saved my life. I should know him a mile off!"
"What can have brought him here?" said Erica, a certain joyous tumult in her heart checked by the dread of evil tidings a dread which was but natural to one who had lived her life.
"Come and meet him," said Raeburn. "Ha, Brian, I recognized you ever so far off, and couldn't persuade this child of your identity."
Brian, a little flushed with quick walking, looked into Erica's face searchingly, and was satisfied with what he read there satisfied with the soft glow of color that came to her cheeks, and with the bright look of happiness that came into her eyes which, as a rule, were grave, and when in repose even sad in expression.
"I owe this to a most considerate patient who thought fit to be taken ill at Genoa and to telegraph for me," he said in explanation; "and being in Italy, I thought I might as well take my yearly outing now."
"Capital idea!" said Raeburn. "You are the very man we wanted. What with the meetings and interviews, I don't get much peace even here, and Erica is much in need of an escort sometimes. How did you find us?"
"They told me at the hotel that I should probably find you here, though, if I had known what a wilderness of a place it is I should have been rather hopeless."
Erica left most of the talking to her father; just then she felt no wish to put a single thought into words. She wanted only to enjoy the blissful dream-like happiness which was so new, and rare, and wonderful that it brought with it the feeling that any very definite thought or word must bring it to an end. Perfect harmony with your surroundings. Yes, that was indeed a very true definition of happiness; and of late the surroundings had been so grim and stormy. She seemed to tread upon air as they roamed about the lovely walks. The long, green vistas were to her a veritable paradise. Her father looked so happy, too, and had so entirely shaken off his cares, and Brian, who was usually rather silent, seemed today a perfect fountain of talk.
Since that December day in Westminster Hall a great change had come over Erica. Not a soul besides Brian and herself knew anything about the scene with Sir Algernon Wyte. Not a word had passed between them since upon the subject; but perhaps because of the silence, that day was all the more in the thoughts of each. The revelation of Brian's love revealed also to Erica much in his character which had hitherto perplexed her simply because she had not seen it in the true light. There had always been about him a wistfulness bordering on sadness which had sometimes almost angered her. For so little do even intimate friends know each other, that lives, which seem all peaceful and full of everything calculated to bring happiness, are often the ones which are preyed upon by some grievous trouble or anxiety unknown to any outsider. If he had indeed loved her all those seven years he must have suffered fearfully. What the suffering had been Erica could, from her present position, understand well enough. The thought of it touched her inexpressibly, seemed to her, as indeed it was, the shadow of that Divine Love which had loved her eternally had waited for her through long years had served her and shielded her, though she never recognized its existence till at length, in one flash of light, the revelation had come to her, and she had learned the glory of Love, the murky gloom of those past misunderstandings.
Those were wonderful days that they spent together at Florence, the sort of days that come but once in a life time; for the joy of dawn is quite distinct from the bright noon day or the calm evening, distinct, too, from that second and grander dawn which awaits us in the Unseen when the night of life is over. Together they wandered through the long corridors of the Uffizzi; together they returned again and again to the Tribune, or traversed that interminable passage across the river which leads to the Pitti Gallery, or roamed about among the old squares and palaces which are haunted by so many memories. And every day Brian meant to speak, but could not because the peace, and restfulness, and glamour of the present was so perfect, and perhaps because, unconsciously, he felt that these were "halcyon days."
On Sunday he made up his mind that he certainly would speak before the day was over. He went with Erica to see the old monastery of San Marco before morning service at the English church. But, though they were alone together, he could not bring himself to speak there. They wandered from cell to cell, looking at those wonderful frescoes of the Crucifixion in each of which Fra Angelico seemed to gain some fresh thought, some new view of his inexhaustible subject. And Brian, watching Erica, thought how that old master would have delighted in the pure face and perfect coloring, in the short auburn hair which was in itself a halo, but could not somehow just then draw her thoughts away from the frescoes. Together they stood in the little cells occupied once by Savonarola; looked at the strange, stern face which Bastianini chiseled so effectively; stood by the old wooden desk where Savonarola had written and read, saying very little to one another, but each conscious that the silence was one of perfect understanding and sympathy. Then came the service in a hideous church, which yet seemed beautiful to them, with indifferent singing, which was somehow sweeter to them than the singing of a trained choir elsewhere.
But, on returning to the hotel, Brian found that his chances for that day were over for all the afternoon Erica had to receive a constant succession of visitors who, as she said, turned her father for the time being into the "British lion." In the evening, too, when they walked in the Cascine, they were no longer alone. Raeburn went with then, and as they paced along the broad avenue with the Arno gleaming through the fresh green of the trees, talking of the discussions of the past week, he inadvertently touched the note of pain in an otherwise cloudless day.
"The work is practically over now," he said. "But I think I must take a day or two to see a little of Florence. I must be at Salsburg to meet Hasenbalg by Wednesday week. Can you be ready to leave here on Wednesday, Eric?"
"Oh, yes, father," she said without hesitation or comment but with something in her voice which told Brian that she, too, felt a pang of regret at the thought that their days in that city of golden dreams were so soon to be ended.
The Monday morning, however, proved so perfect a day that it dispelled the shadow that had fallen on them. Raeburn wished to go to Fiesole, and early in the morning Brian, having secured a carriage and settled the terms with the crafty-looking Italian driver, they set off together. The sunny streets looked sunnier than ever; the Tornabuoni was as usual lively and bustling; the flower market at the base of the Palazza Strozzi was gay with pinks and carnations and early roses. They drove out of the city, passed innumerable villas, out into the open country where the only blot upon the fair landscape was a funeral train, the coffin borne by those gruesome beings, the Brothers of the Misericordia, with their black robes and black face cloths pierced only with holes for the eyes.
"Is it necessary to make death so repulsive?" said Raeburn. "Our own black hearses are bad enough, but upon my word, I should be sorry to be carried to my grave by such grim beings!"
He took off his hat, however, as they passed, and that not merely out of deference to the custom of the country but because of the deep reverence with which he invariably regarded the dead a reverence which in his own country was marked by the involuntary softening of his voice when he alluded to the death of others, the token of a nature which, though strangely twisted, was in truth deeply reverential.
Then began the long ascent, the road, as usual, being lined with beggars who importunately followed the carriage; while, no sooner had they reached the village itself than they were besieged by at least a dozen women selling the straw baskets which are the specialty of Fiesole.
"Ecco, signor! Ecco signorina! Vary sheep! Vary sheep!" resounded on all sides, each vendor thrusting her wares forward so that progress was impossible.
"What a plague this is!" said Raeburn. "They'll never leave you in peace, Erica; they are too well used to the soft hearted signorina Inglese."
"Well, then, I shall leave you to settle them," said Erica, laughing, "and see if I can't sketch a little in the amphitheatre. They can't torment us there because there is an entrance fee."
"All right, and I will try this bird's eye view of Florence," said Raeburn, establishing himself upon the seat which stands on the verge of the hill looking southward. He was very fond of making pen-and-ink sketches, and by his determined, though perfectly courteous manner, he at last succeeded in dismissing the basket women.
Erica and Brian, in the meantime, walked down the steep little path which leads back to the village, on their way encountering a second procession of Brothers bearing a coffin. In a few minutes they had found their way to a quiet garden at the remote end of which, far from the houses of Fiesole and sheltered on all sides by the green Apennines, was an old Roman amphitheatre. Grass and flowers had sprung up now on the arena where in olden times had been fearful struggles between men and beasts. Wild roses and honeysuckle drooped over the gray old building, and in between the great blocks of stone which formed the tiers of seats for the spectators sprung the yellow celandine and the white star of Bethlehem.
Erica sat down upon one of the stony seats and began to sketch the outline of the hills and roughly to draw in the foreground the further side of the amphitheatre and broken column which lay in the middle.
"Would you mind fetching me some water?" she said to Brian.
There was a little trickling stream close by, half hidden by bramble bushes. Brian filled her glass and watched her brush as she washed in the sky.
"Is that too blue, do you think?" she asked, glancing up at him with one of her bright looks.
"Nothing could be too deep for such a sky as this," he replied, half absently. Then, with a sudden change of tone, "Erica, do you remember the first day you spoke to me?"
"Under murky London skies very unlike these," she said, laughing a little, but nervously. "You mean the day when our umbrellas collided!"
"You mustn't abuse the murky skies," said Brian, smiling. "If the sun had been shining, the collision would never have occurred. Oh, Erica! What a life time it seems since that day in Gower Street! I little thought then that I should have to wait more than seven years to tell you of my love, or that at last I should tell you in a Roman amphitheatre under these blue skies. Erica, I think you have known it of late. Have you, my darling? Have you known how I loved you?"
"Yes," she said, looking down at her sketch book with glowing cheeks.
"Oh! If you knew what a paradise of hope you opened to me that day last December and how different life has been ever since! Those were gray years, Erica, when I dared not even hope to gain your love. But lately, darling, I have hoped. Was I wrong?"
"No," she said with a little quiver in her voice.
"You will love me?"
She looked up at him for a moment in silence, a glorious light in her eyes, her whole face radiant with joy.
"I do love you," she said softly.
He drew nearer to her, held both her hands in his, waiting only for the promise which would make her indeed his own.
"Will you be my wife, darling?"
But the words had scarcely passed his lips when a look of anguish swept over Erica's face; she snatched away her hands.
"Oh! God help me!" she cried. "What have I done? I've been living in a dream! It's impossible, Brian! Impossible!"
A gray look came over Brian's face.
"How impossible?" he asked in a choked voice.
"I can't leave home," she said, clasping her hands tightly together. "I never can leave my father."
"I will wait," said Brian, recovering his voice. "I will wait any time for you only give me hope."
"I can't," she sobbed. "I daren't!"
"But you have given it me!" he exclaimed. "You have said you loved me!"
"I do! I do!" she cried passionately. "But, oh, Brian! Have pity on me don't make me say it again I must not think of it I can never be your wife."
Her words were broken with sobs which she could not restrain.
"My darling," he said growing calm and strong again at the sight of her agitation, and once more possessing himself of her hand, "you have had a great many troubles lately, and I can quite understand that just now you could not leave your father. But I will wait till less troubled times; then surely you will come to me?"
"No," she said quickly as if not daring to pause, "It will always be the same; there never will be quiet times for us. I can't leave my father. It isn't as if he had other children I am the only one, and must stay."
"Is this then to be the end of it all?" cried Brian. "My darling, you can not be so cruel to me. It can not be the end there is no end to love and we know that we love each other. Erica, give me some future to look to some hope."
The terrible pain expressed in every line of his face wrung her heart.
"Oh, wait," she exclaimed. "Give me one moment to think."
She buried her face in her hands, shutting out the sunny Italian landscape, the very beauty of which seemed to weaken her powers of endurance. Truly she had been living lately in a golden dream, and the waking was anguish. Oh, if she had but realized before the meaning of it all, then she would have hidden her love so that he never would have guessed it. She would have been to him the Erica of a year ago, just a friend and nothing more. But now she must give him the worst of pain, perhaps ruin his whole life. If she might but give him some promise. What was the right? How were love and duty to be reconciled?
As she sat crouched up in her misery, fighting the hardest battle of her life, the bell in the campanile of the village church began to ring. It was twelve o'clock. All through the land, in remembrance of the hour when the true meaning of love and sacrifice was revealed to the human race, there swept now the music of church bells, bidding the people to pause in their work and pray. Many a peasant raised his thoughts for a moment from sordid cares or hard labor, and realized that there was an unseen world. And here in the Roman amphitheatre, where a conflict more painful than those physical conflicts of old time was going on, a soul prayed in agony for the wisdom to see the right and the strength to do it.
When at length Erica lifted her face she found that Brian was no longer beside her, he was pacing to and fro in the arena; waiting had grown unbearable to him. She went down to him, moving neither quickly nor hurriedly, but at the steady "right onward" pace which suited her whole aspect.
"Brian," she said in a low voice, "do you remember telling me that day that I must try to show them what the Father is? You must help me now, not hinder. You will help me just because you do indeed love me?"
"You will give me no promise even for the most distant future?"
"I can't," she replied, faltering a little as she saw him turn deadly white. "If there were any engagement between us, I should have to tell my father of it; and that would only make our trouble his and defeat my whole object. Oh, Brian, forgive me, and just leave me. I can have given you nothing but pain all these years. Don't let me spoil your whole life!"
His face caught something of the noble purpose which made hers shine in spite of the sadness.
"Darling," he said quickly, "I can thank God for you though you are never to be mine. God bless you, Erica."
There was a moment's pause; he still kept her hands in his.
"Tell your father I've gone for a walk over to those hills that I shall not be home till evening." He felt her hands tremble, and knew that he only tortured her by staying. "Will you kiss me once, Erica?" he said.
She lifted a pale steadfast face and quivering lips to his, and after that one long embrace they parted. When he turned away Erica stood quite still for a minute in the arena listening to his retreating footsteps. Her heart, which had throbbed painfully, seemed now only to echo his steps, to beat more faintly as they grew less audible. At last came silence, and then she crept up to the place where she had left her sketch book and paint box.
The whole world seemed sliding away aching desolation overwhelmed her. Brian's face with its passion and pain rose before her dry, burning eyes. Then darkness came, blotting out the sunshine; the little stream trickling into its stony basin seemed to grow into a roaring cataract, the waters to rush into her ears with a horrid gurgling; while the stones of the amphitheatre seemed to change into blocks of ice and to freeze her as she lay.
A few minutes later she gasped her way painfully back to life. All was very peaceful now; the water fell with its soft tinkling sound, there was a low hum of insects; beside her stony pillow grew some stars of Bethlehem, and in between their delicate white and green she could see the arena and the tiers of seats opposite, and out beyond the green encircling hills. Golden sunshine lighted up the dark pines and spirelike cypresses; in the distance there was an olive garden, its soft, gray-green foliage touched into silvery brightness.
The beauty of the scene, which in her struggle had seemed to weaken and unnerve her, stole now into her heart and comforted her; and all the time there rang in her ears the message that the bells had brought her "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross."
"Taking a siesta?" said a voice above her. She looked up and saw her father.
"I've rather a headache," she replied.
"Enough to give you one, my child, to lie there in the sun without an umbrella," he said, putting up his own to shelter her. "Such a May noonday in Italy might give you a sunstroke. What was your doctor thinking of to allow it?"
"Brian? Oh, he has gone over to those hills; we are not to wait for him, he wanted a walk."
"Quite right," said Raeburn. "I don't think he ought to waste his holiday in Italian cities, he wants fresh air and exercise after his London life. Where's your handkerchief?"
He took it to the little stream, put aside the overhanging bushes, dipped it in the water, and bringing it back laid it on her burning forehead.
"How you spoil me, PADRE MIO," she said with a little laugh that was sadder than tears; and as she spoke she slipped down to a lower step and rested her head on his knee, drawing down one of his strong hands to shade her eyes. He talked of his sketch, of his word-skirmish with the basket women, of the view from the amphitheatre; but she did not much hear what he said, she was looking at the hand that shaded her eyes. That strong hand which had toiled for her when she was a helpless baby, the hand to which she had clung when every out her support had been wrenched away by death, the hand which she had held in hers when she thought he was dying, and the children had sung of "Life's long day and death's dark night."
All at once she drew it down and pressed it to her lips with a child's loving reverence. Then she sat up with a sudden return of energy.
"There, now, let us go home," she exclaimed. "My head aches a little still, but we won't let it spoil our last day but one in Florence. Didn't we talk of San Miniato for this afternoon?"
It was something of a relief to find, on returning, an invitation to dinner for that evening which Raeburn could not well refuse. Erica kept up bravely through the afternoon, but when she was once more alone her physical powers gave way. She was lying on her bed sick and faint and weary, and with the peculiarly desolate feeling which comes to most people when they are ill in a hotel with all the unheeding bustle going on around them. Then came a knock at her door.
"Entrate," she said quickly, welcoming any fresh voice which would divert her mind from the weary longing for her mother. A sort of wild hope sprung up within her that some woman friend would be sent to her, that Gladys Farrant, or old Mrs. Osmond, or her secularist friend Mrs. MacNaughton, whom she loved best of all, would suddenly find themselves in Florence and come to her in her need.
There entered a tall, overworked waiter. He looked first at her, then at the note in his hand, spelling out the direction with a puzzled face.
"Mess Rabi Rabi Rabi Rabi an?" he asked hesitatingly.
"Grazie," she replied, almost snatching it from him. The color rushed to her cheeks as she saw the writing was Brian's, and the instant the waiter had closed the door she tore open the envelope with trembling hands.
It was a last appeal, written after he had returned from wandering among the Apennines, worn out in body and shaken from the noble fortitude of the morning. The strong passionate words woke an answering thrill in Erica's heart. He asked her to think it all over once more, he had gone away too hastily. If she could change her mind, could see any possible hope for the future, would she write to him? If he heard nothing from her, he would understand what the silence meant. This was in brief the substance of the letter, but the words had a passionate, unrestrained intensity which showed they had been written by a man of strong nature overwrought by suffering and excitement.
He was here, in the very hotel. Might she not write to him? Might she not send him some sort of message write just a word of indefinite hope which would comfort and relieve herself as well as him? "If I do not hear from you, I shall understand what your silence means." Ah! But would he understand? What had she said this morning to him? Scarcely anything the merest broken bits of sentences, the poorest, coldest confession of love.
Her writing case lay open on the table beside the bed with an unfinished letter to Aunt Jean, begun before they had started for Fiesole. She snatched up paper and pen, and trembling so much that she could scarcely support herself she wrote two brief lines.
"Darling, I love you, and always must love you, first and best."
Then she lay back again exhausted, looking at the poor little weak words which would not contain a thousandth part of the love in heart. Yet, though the words were true, would they perhaps convey a wrong meaning to him? Ought she to send them? On the other hand would he indeed understand the silence the silence which seemed now intolerable to her? She folded the note and directed it, the tumult in her heart growing wilder as she did so. Once more there raged the battle which she had fought in the amphitheatre that morning, and she was not so strong now; she was weakened by physical pain, and to endure was far harder. It seemed to her that her whole life would be unbearable if she did not send him that message. And to send it was so fatally easy; she had merely to ring, and then in a few minutes the note would be in his hands.
It was a little narrow slip of a room; all her life long she could vividly recall it. The single bed pushed close to the wall, the writing table with its gay-patterned cloth, the hanging wardrobe with glass doors, the walls trellised with roses, and on the ceiling a painting of some white swans eternally swimming in an ultra-marine lake. The window, unshuttered, but veiled by muslin curtains, looked out upon the Arno; from her bed she could see the lights on the further bank. On the wall close beside her was a little round wooden projection. If it had been a rattlesnake she could not have gazed at it more fixedly. Then she looked at the printed card above, and the words written in French and English, German, and Italian, seemed to fall mechanically on her brain, though burning thoughts seethed there, too.
"Ring once for hot water, twice for the chamber maid, three times for the waiter."
Merely to touch that ivory knob, and then by the lightest pressure of the finger tips a whole world of love and happiness and rest might open for her, and life would be changed forever.
Again and again she was on the point of yielding, but each time she resisted, and each resistance made her stronger. At length, with a fearful effort, she turned her face away and buried it in the pillow, clinging with all her might to the ironwork of the bed.
For at least an hour the most frightful hour of her life she did not dare to stir. At last when her hands were stiff and sore with that rigid grasping, when it seemed as if her heart had been wrenched out of her and had left nothing but an aching void, she sat up and tore both Brian's note and her reply into a thousand pieces; then, in a weary, lifeless way, made her preparations for the night.
But sleep was impossible. The struggle was over forever, but the pain was but just begun, and she was still a young girl with the best part of her life stretching out before her. She did not toss about restlessly, but lay very still, just enduring her misery, while all the every-day sounds came to her from without laughter in the next room from two talkative American girls, doors opening and shutting, boots thrown down, electric bells rung, presently her father's step and voice.
"Has Miss Raeburn been up long?"
"Sairtenlee, sair, yes," replied the English-speaking waiter. "The signorina sleeps, doubtless."
Then came a pause, and in another minute her father's door was closed and locked.
Noisy parties of men shouting out some chorus sung at one of the theatres passed along the Lung' Arno, and twanging mandolins wandered up and down in the moonlight. The sound of that harshest and most jarring of all musical instruments was every after hateful to her. She could not hear one played without a shudder.
Slowly and wearily the night wore on. Sometimes she stole to the window, and looked out on the sleeping city, on the peaceful Arno which was bathed in silvery moonlight, and on the old, irregular houses, thinking what struggles and agonies this place had witnessed in past times, and realizing what an infinitesimal bit of the world's sufferings she was called to bear. Sometimes she lighted a candle and read, sometimes prayed, but for the most part just lay still, silently enduring, learning, though she did not think it, the true meaning of pain.
Somewhat later than usual she joined her father the next morning in the coffee room.
"Brian tells me he is off today," was Raeburn's greeting. "It seems that he must see that patient at Genoa again, and he wants to get a clear fortnight in Switzerland."
"Is it nor rather early for Switzerland?"
"I should have thought so, but he knows more about it than I do. He has written to try to persuade your friend, Mr. Farrant, to join him in the Whitsuntide recess."
"Oh, I am glad of that," said Erica, greatly relieved.
Directly after breakfast she went out with her father, going first of all to French's bank, where Raeburn had to change a circular note.
"It is upstairs," he said as they reached the house. "Don't you trouble to come up; you'll have stairs enough presently at the Uffizzi."
"Very well," she replied, "I will wait for you here."
She stood in the doorway looking out thoughtfully at the busy Tornabuoni and its gay shops; but in a minute a step she knew sounded on the staircase, and the color rushed to her cheeks.
"I have just said goodbye to your father," said Brian. "I am leaving Florence this morning. You must forgive me for having written last night. I ought not to have done it, and I understood your silence."
He spoke calmly, in the repressed voice of a man who holds "passion in a leash." Erica was thankful to have the last sight of him thus calm and strong and self-restrained. It was a nobler side of love than that which had inspired his letter nobler because freer from thought of self.
"I am so glad you will have Donovan," she said. "Goodbye."
He took her hand in his, pressed it, and turned away without a word.
CHAPTER XXXIII. "Right Onward"
Therefore my Hope arose From out her swound and gazed upon Thy face. And, meeting there that soft subduing look Which Peter's spirit shook Sunk downward in a rapture to embrace Thy pierced hands and feet with kisses close, And prayed Thee to assist her evermore To "reach the things before." E. B. Browning
"I'm really thankful it is the last time I shall have to get this abominable paper money," said Raeburn, coming down the stairs. "Just count these twos and fives for me, dear; fifteen of each there should be."
At that moment Brian had just passed the tall, white column disappearing into the street which leads to the Borgo Ogni Santi. Erica turned to begin her new chapter of life heavily handicapped in the race for once more that deadly faintness crept over her, a numbing, stifling pressure, as if Pain in physical form had seized her heart in his cold clasp. But with all her strength she fought against it, forcing herself to count the hateful little bits of paper, and thankful that her father was too much taken up with the arrangement of his purse to notice her.
"I am glad we happened to meet Brian," he remarked; "he goes by an earlier train that I thought. Now, little son Eric, where shall we go? We'll have a day of unmitigated pleasure and throw care to the winds. I'll even forswear Vieusseux; there won't be much news today."
"Let us take the Pitti Palace first," said Erica, knowing that the fresh air and the walk would be the only chance for her.
She walked very quickly with the feeling that, if she were still for a single moment, she should fall down. And, luckily, Raeburn thought her paleness accounted for by yesterday's headache and the wakeful night, and never suspected the true state of the case. On they went, past fascinating marble shops and jewelers' windows filled with Florentine mosaics, across the Ponte Vecchio, down a shady street, and into the rough-hewn, grim-looking palace. It was to Erica like a dream of pain, the surroundings were so lovely, the sunshine so perfect, and her own heart so sore.
But within that old palace she found the true cure for sore hearts. She remembered having looked with Brian at an "Ecce Home," by Carlo Dolci and thought she would like to see it again. It was not a picture her father would have cared for, and she left him looking at Raphael's "Three Ages of Man," and went by herself into the little room which is called the "Hall of Ulysses." The picture was a small one and had what are considered the usual faults of the painter, but it was the first "Ecce Homo" that Erica had ever cared for; and, whatever the shortcomings of the execution, the ideal was a most beautiful one. The traces of physical pain were not brought into undue prominence, appearing not at all in the face, which was full of unutterable calm and dignity. The deep, brown eyes had the strange power which belongs to some pictures; they followed you all over the room there was no escaping them. They were hauntingly sad eyes, eyes in which there lurked grief unspeakable; not the grief which attends bodily pain, but the grief which grieves for others the grief which grieves for humanity, for its thousand ills and ignorances, its doubts and denials, its sins and sufferings. There was no bitterness in it, no restlessness, no questioning. It was the grief of a noble strong man whose heart is torn by the thought of the sin and misery of his brothers, but who knows that the Father can, and will, turn the evil into the means of glorious gain.
As Erica looked, the true meaning of pain seemed to flash upon her. Dimly she had apprehended it in the days of her atheism, had clung to the hope that the pain of the few brought the gain of the many; but now the hope became certainty, the faith became open vision. For was it not all here, written in clearest characters, in the life of the Ideal Man? And is not what was true for him, true for us too? We talk much about "Christ our example," and struggle painfully along the uphill road of the "Imitation of Christ," meaning by that too often a vague endeavor to be "good," to be patient, to be not entirely absorbed in the things which are seen. But when pain comes, when the immense misery and evil in the world are borne in upon us, we too often stumble, or fail utterly, just because we do not understand our sonship; because we forget that Christians must be sin-bearers like their Master, pain bearers like their Master; because we will let ourselves be blinded by the mystery of evil and the mystery of pain, instead of fixing our eyes as Christ did, on the joy that those mysteries are sure to bring. "Lo, I come to do Thy will." And what is the will of even a good earthly father but the best possible for all his children?
Erica saw for the first time that no pain she had ever suffered had been a wasted thing, nor had it merely taught her personally some needful lesson; it had been rather her allotted service, her share of pain-bearing, sin-bearing, Christ-following; her opportunity of doing the "Will" not self-chosen, but given to her as one of the best of gifts by the Father Himself.
"Oh, what a little fool I've been!" she thought to herself with the strange pang of joy which comes when we make some discovery which sweetens the whole of life, and which seems so self-evident that we can but wonder and wonder at our dense stupidity in not seeing it sooner. "I've been grudging Brian what God sees he most wants! I've been groaning over the libels and injustices which seem to bring so much pain and evil when, after all, they will be, in the long run, the very things to show people the need of tolerance, and to establish freedom of speech."
Even this pain of renunciation seemed to gain a new meaning for her though she could not in the least fathom it; even the unspeakable grief of feeling that her father was devoting much of his life to the propagation of error, lost its bitterness though it retained its depth. For with the true realization of Fatherhood and Sonship impatience and bitterness die, and in their place rises the peace which "passeth understanding."
"We will have a day of unmitigated pleasure," her father had said to her, and the words had at the time been like a sharp stab. But, after all, might not this pain, this unseen and dimly understood work for humanity, be in very truth the truest pleasure? What artist is there who would not gratefully receive from the Master an order to attempt the loftiest of subjects? What poet is there whose heart would not bound when he knew he was called to write on the noblest of themes? All the struggles, all the weary days of failure, all the misery of conscious incompleteness, all the agony of soul these were but means to the end, and so inseparably bound up with the end that they were no more evil, but good, their darkness over flooded with the light of the work achieved.
Raeburn, coming into the room, saw what she was looking at, and turned away. Little as he could understand her thoughts, he was not the sort of man to wound unnecessarily one who differed from him. His words in public were sharp and uncompromising; in debate he did not much care how he hit as long as he hit hard. But, apart from the excitement of such sword play, he was, when convinced that his hearers were honest Christians, genuinely sorry to give them pain.
Erica found him looking at a Sevres china vase in which he could not by any possibility have been interested.
"I feel Mr. Ruskin's wrathful eye upon me," she said, laughing. "Now after spending all that time before a Carlo Dolci, we must really go to the Uffizzi and look at Botticelli's 'Fortitude'. Brian and I nearly quarreled over it the last time we were there."
So they wandered away together through the long galleries, Erica pointing out her favorite pictures and hearing his opinion about them. And indeed Raeburn was as good a companion as could be wished for in a picture gallery. The intense development of the critical faculty, which had really been the bane of his existence, came here to his aid for he had a quick eye for all that was beautiful both in art and nature, and wonderfully keen powers of observation. The refreshment, too, of leaving for a moment his life of excessive toil was great; Erica hoped that he really did find the day, for once, "unmitigated pleasure."
They went to Santa Croce, they walked through the crowded market, they had a merry dispute about ascending the campanile.
"Just this one you really must let me try," said Erica, "they say it is very easy."
"To people without spines perhaps it may be," said Raeburn.
"But think of the view from the top," said Erica, "and it really won't hurt me. Now, padre mio, I'm sure it's for the greatest happiness of the greatest number that I should go up!"
"It's the old story," said Raeburn, smiling,
'Vain is the hope, by any force or skill, To stem the current of a woman's will; For if she will, she will, you may depend on't, And if she won't, she won't, and there's an end on't.'
However, since this is probably the last time in our lives that we shall have the chance, perhaps, I'll not do the tyrannical father."
They had soon climbed the steep staircase and were quite rewarded by the magnificent view from the top, a grand panorama of city and river and green Apennines. Erica looked northward to Fiesole with a fast-throbbing heart. Yet it seemed as if half a life time lay between the passion-tossed yesterday and the sad yet peaceful present. Nor was the feeling a mere delusion; she had indeed in those brief hours lived years of the spirit life.
She did not stay long at that northern parapet; thoughts of her own life or even of Brian's would not do just then. She had to think of her father, to devote herself to him. And somehow, though her heart was sad, yet her happiness was real as they tried together to make out the various buildings; and her talk was unrestrained, and even her laughter natural, not forced; for it is possible to those who really love to throw themselves altogether into the life of another, and to lay aside all thought of self.
Once or twice that day she half feared that her father must guess all that had happened. He was so very careful of her, so considerate; and for Raeburn to be more considerate meant a great deal for in private he was always the most gentle man imaginable. His opponents, who often regarded him as a sort of "fiend in human shape," were strangely mistaken in their estimate of his character. When treated with discourtesy or unfairness in public, it was true that he hit back again, and hit hard; and, since even in the nineteenth century we are so foolish as to use these weapons against the expression of opinions we deem mischievous, Raeburn had had a great deal of practice in this retaliation. He was a very proud and a very sensitive man, not blessed with overmuch patience. But he held his opinions honestly and had suffered much for them; he had a real love for humanity and an almost passionate desire to better his generation. To such a man it was no light thing to be deemed everything that is vile; like poor Shelley, he found it exceedingly bitter to let "murderers and traitors take precedence of him in public opinion." People in general took into account all his harsh utterances (and some of them were very harsh), but they rarely thought anything about the provocation received, the excessively hard life that this man had lived, the gross personal insults which he had had to put up with, the galling injustice he had had to fight against. Upon this side of the question they just turned their backs, pooh-poohed it, or, when it was forced upon their notice, said (unanswerable argument!): "It wouldn't be so!"
When, as they were making the descent, Erica found the strong hand stretched out for hers the moment the way grew dark, when she was warned of the slightest difficulty by, "Take care, little one, a narrow step," or, "'Tis rather broken here," she almost trembled to think that, in spite of all her efforts, he might have learned how matters really were. But by and by his serenity reassured her; had he thought that she was in trouble his face would not have been so cloudless.
And in truth Raeburn, spite of his keen observation, never thought for a moment of the true state of the case. He was a very literal unimaginative man, and having once learned to regard Brian as an old family friend and as his doctor, he never dreamed of regarding him in the light of his daughter's lover. Also, as is not unfrequently the case when a man has only one child, he never could take in the fact that she was quite grown up. Even when he read her articles in the "Daily Review," or discussed the most weighty topics with her, she was always "little son Eric," or his "little one." And Erica's unquenchable high spirits served to keep up the delusion. She would as often as not end a conversation on Darwinism by a romp with Friskarina, or write a very thoughtful article on "Scrutin de Liste," and then spring up from her desk and play like any child with an India-rubber ball nominally kept for children visitors.
She managed to tide over those days bravely and even cheerfully for her father's sake. It was easier when they had left Florence with its overbright and oversad memories. Peaceful old Verona was more in accordance with her state of mind; and from thence they went to Trento, and over the Brenner, passing Botzen and Brixen in their lovely valley, gaining a brief glimpse of the spire-like Dolomito, and gradually ascending the pass, leaving the river and its yellow reeds, and passing through the rich pasture land where the fields were bright with buttercups and daisies gold and silver of the people's property as Raeburn called them. Then on once more between crimson and purple porphyry mountains, nearer and nearer to the snowy mountain peaks; and at last, as the day drew to an end, they descended again, and saw down below them in the loveliest of valleys a little town, its white houses suffused by a crimson sunset glow.
"Innsbruck, madame, Innsbruck!" said a fat old Tyrolean man who had been showing them all the beauties of his beloved country throughout the journey.
And, though nothing could ever again have for Erica the sweet glamour of an Italian city, yet she was glad now to have seen the last of that sunny land, and welcomed the homely little place with its matter-of-fact houses and prosperous comfort. She felt somehow that it would be easier to endure now that she was fairly out of Italy.
The day after their arrival at Innsbruck was Sunday. There was no English service as yet for the season had not begun, but Erica went to the little Lutheran church, and Raeburn, who had never been to a Lutheran service, went with her for the sake of studying the congregation, the preacher, and the doctrine. Also, perhaps, because he did not want her to feel lonely in a foreign place.