The last struggle is before me. But I have passed already through so many valleys of death itself, where the darkness was not only palpable, but choking and stinging, that I cannot greatly fear that which holds but the shadow of death. For what men call death, is but its shadow. Death never comes near us; it lies behind the back of God; he is between it and us. If he were to turn his back upon us, the death which no imagination can shadow forth, would lap itself around us, and we should be—we should not know what.
At night I lie wondering how it will feel; and, but that God will be with me, I would rather be slain suddenly, than lie still and await the change. The growing weakness, ushered in, it may be, by long agony; the alienation from things about me, while I am yet amidst them; the slow rending of the bonds which make this body a home, so that it turns half alien, while yet some bonds unsevered hold the live thing fluttering in its worm-eaten cage—but God knows me and my house, and I need not speculate or forebode. When it comes, death will prove as natural as birth. Bethink thee, Lord—nay, thou never forgettest. It is because thou thinkest and feelest that I think and feel; it is on thy deeper consciousness that mine ever floats; thou knowest my frame, and rememberest that I am dust: do with me as thou wilt. Let me take centuries to die if so thou willest, for thou wilt be with me. Only if an hour should come when thou must seem to forsake me, watch me all the time, lest self-pity should awake, and I should cry that thou wast dealing hardly with me. For when thou hidest thy face, the world is a corpse, and I am a live soul fainting within it.
* * * * *
Thus far had I written, and was about to close with certain words of Job, which are to me like the trumpet of the resurrection, when the news reached me that Sir Geoffrey Brotherton was dead. He leaves no children, and the property is expected to pass to a distant branch of the family. Mary will have to leave Moldwarp Hall.
* * * * *
I have been up to London to my friend Marston—for it is years since Mr Coningham died. I have laid everything before him, and left the affair in his hands. He is so confident in my cause, that he offers, in case my means should fail me, to find what is necessary himself; but he is almost as confident of a speedy settlement.
And now, for the first time in my life, I am about—shall I say, to court society? At least I am going to London, about to give and receive invitations, and cultivate the acquaintance of those whose appearance and conversation attract me.
I have not a single relative, to my knowledge, in the world, and I am free, beyond question, to leave whatever property I have, or may have, to whomsoever I please.
My design is this: if I succeed in my suit, I will offer Moldwarp to Mary for her lifetime. She is greatly beloved in the county, and has done much for the labourers, nor upon her own lands only. If she had the full power she would do yet better. But of course it is very doubtful whether she will accept it. Should she decline it, I shall try to manage it myself—leaving it to her, with reversion to the man, whoever he may be, whom I shall choose to succeed her.
What sort of man I shall endeavour to find, I think my reader will understand. I will not describe him, beyond saying that he must above all things be just, generous, and free from the petty prejudices of the country gentleman. He must understand that property involves service to every human soul that lives or labours upon it—the service of the elder brother to his less burdened yet more enduring and more helpless brothers and sisters; that for the lives of all such he has in his degree to render account. For surely God never meant to uplift any man at the expense of his fellows; but to uplift him that he might be strong to minister, as a wise friend and ruler, to their highest and best needs—first of all by giving them the justice which will be recognized as such by him before whom a man is his brother's keeper, and becomes a Cain in denying it.
Lest Lady Brotherton, however, should like to have something to give away, I leave my former will as it was. It is in Marston's hands.
* * * * *
Would I marry her now, if I might? I cannot tell. The thought rouses no passionate flood within me. Mighty spaces of endless possibility and endless result open before me. Death is knocking at my door.—
No—no; I will be honest, and lay it to no half reasons, however wise.—I would rather meet her then first, when she is clothed in that new garment called by St Paul the spiritual body. That, Geoffrey has never touched; over that he has no claim.
But if the loveliness of her character should have purified his, and drawn and bound his soul to hers?
Father, fold me in thyself. The storm, so long still, awakes; once more it flutters its fierce pinions. Let it not swing itself aloft in the air of my spirit. I dare not think, not merely lest thought should kindle into agony, but lest I should fail to rejoice over the lost and found. But my heart is in thy hand. Need I school myself to bow to an imagined decree of thine? Is it not enough that, when I shall know a thing for thy will, I shall then be able to say: Thy will be done? It is not enough; I need more. School thou my heart so to love thy will that in all calmness I leave to think what may or may not be its choice, and rest in its holy self.
* * * * *
She has sent for me. I go to her. I will not think beforehand what I shall say.
Something within tells me that a word from her would explain all that sometimes even now seems so inexplicable as hers. Will she speak that word? Shall I pray her for that word? I know nothing. The pure Will be done!