The Garden of Survival, by Algernon Blackwood

3

THERE was, then, you will remember, but an interval of minutes between the accident and the temporary recovery of consciousness, between that recovery again and the moment when the head fell forward on my knee and she was gone. That “recovery” of consciousness I feel bound to question, as you shall shortly hear. Among such curious things I am at sea admittedly, yet I must doubt for ever that the eyes which peered so strangely into mine were those of Marion herself — as I had always known her. You will, at any rate, allow the confession, and believe it true, that I— did not recognize her quite. Consciousness there was, indubitably, but whether it was “recovery” of consciousness is another matter, and a problem that I must for ever question though I cannot ever set it confidently at rest. It almost seemed as though a larger, grander, yet somehow a less personal, soul looked forth through the fading eyes and used the troubled breath.

In those brief minutes, at any rate, the mind was clear as day, the faculties not only unobscured, but marvellously enhanced. In the eyes at first shone unveiled fire; she smiled, gazing into my own with love and eager yearning too. There was a radiance in her face I must call glory. Her head was in my lap upon the bed of rugs we had improvised inside the field: the broken motor posed in a monstrous heap ten yards away; and the doctor, summoned by a passing stranger, was in the act of administrating the anaesthetic, so that we might bear her without pain to the nearest hospital — when, suddenly, she held up a warning finger, beckoning to me that I should listen closely.

I bent my head to catch the words. There was such authority in the gesture, and in the eyes an expression so extraordinarily appealing, and yet so touched with the awe of a final privacy beyond language, that the doctor stepped backwards on the instant, the needle shaking in his hand — while I bent down to catch the whispered words that at once began to pass her lips.

The wind in the poplar overhead mingled with the little sentences, as though the breath of the clear blue sky, calmly shining, was mingled with her own.

But the words I heard both troubled and amazed me:

“Help me! For I am in the dark still!” went through me like a sword. “And I do not know how long.”

I took her face in both my hands; I kissed her. “You are with friends,” I said. “You are safe with us, with me — Marion!” And I apparently tried to put into my smile the tenderness that clumsy words forswore. Her next words shocked me inexpressibly: “You laugh,” she said, “but I——” she sighed —“I weep.”

I stroked her face and hair. No words came to me.

“You call me Marion,” she went on in an eager tone that surely belied her pain and weakness, “but I do not remember that. I have forgotten names.” Then, as I kissed her, I heard her add in the clearest whisper possible, as though no cloud lay upon her mind: “Yet Marion will do — if by that you know me now.”

There came a pause then, but after it such singular words that I could hardly believe I heard aright, although each syllable sank into my brain as with pointed steel:

“You come to me again when I lie dying. Even in the dark I hear — how long I do not know — I hear your words.”

She gave me suddenly then a most piercing look, raising her face a little towards my own. I saw earnest entreaty in them. “Tell me,” I murmured; “you are nearer, closer to me than ever before. Tell me what it is?”

“Music,” she whispered, “I want music ——”

I knew not what to answer, what to say. Can you blame me that, in my troubled, aching heart, I found but commonplaces? For I thought of the harp, or of some stringed instrument that seemed part of her.

“You shall have it,” I said gently, “and very soon. We shall carry you now into comfort, safety. You shall have no pain. Another moment and ——”

“Music,” she repeated, interrupting, “music as of long ago.”

It was terrible. I said such stupid things. My mind seemed frozen.

“I would hear music,” she whispered, “before I go again.”

“Marion, you shall,” I stammered. “Beethoven, Schumann — what would please you most? You shall have all.”

“Yes, play to me. But those names”— she shook her head —“I do not know.”

I remember that my face was streaming, my hands so hot that her head seemed more than I could hold. I shifted my knees so that she might lie more easily a little.

“God’s music!” she cried aloud with startling abruptness; then, lowering her voice again and smiling sadly as though something came back to her that she would fain forget, she added slowly, with something of mournful emphasis:

“I was a singer . . . ”

As though a flash of light had passed, some inner darkness was cleft asunder in me. Some heaviness shifted from my brain. It seemed the years, the centuries, turned over like a wind-blown page. And out of some hidden inmost part of me involuntary words rose instantly:

“You sang God’s music then . . . ”

The strange, unbidden sentence stirred her. Her head moved slightly; she smiled. Gazing into my eyes intently, as though to dispel a mist that shrouded both our minds, she went on in a whisper that yet was startlingly distinct, though with little pauses drawn out between the phrases: “I was a singer . . . in the Temple. I sang — men — into evil. You . . . I sang into . . . evil.”

There was a moment’s pause, as a spasm of inexplicable pain passed through my heart like fire, and a sense of haunting things whereof no conscious memory remained came over me. The scene about me wavered before my eyes as if it would disappear.

“Yet you came to me when I lay dying at the last,” I caught her thin clear whisper. “You said, ‘Turn to God!’”

The whisper died away. The darkness flowed back upon my mind and thought. A silence followed. I heard the wind in the poplar overhead. The doctor moved impatiently, coming a few steps nearer, then turning away again. I heard the sounds of tinkering with metal that the driver made ten yards behind us. I turned angrily to make a sign — when Marion’s low voice, again more like the murmur of the wind than a living voice, rose into the still evening air:

“I have failed. And I shall try again.”

She gazed up at me with that patient, generous love that seemed inexhaustible, and hardly knowing what to answer, nor how to comfort her in that afflicting moment, I bent lower — or, rather, she drew my ear closer to her lips. I think her great desire just then was to utter her own thought more fully before she passed. Certainly it was no avowal or consolation from myself she sought.

“Your forgiveness,” I heard distinctly, “I need your full forgiveness.”

It was for me a terrible and poignant moment. The emptiness of my pity betrayed itself too mercilessly for me to bear; yet, before my bewilderment enabled me to frame an answer, she went on hurriedly, though with a faultless certainty: the meaning to her was clear as day:

“Born of love . . . the only true forgiveness . . . ”

A film formed slowly. Her eyes began to close, her breath died off into a sigh; she smiled, but her head sank lower with her fading strength. And her final words went by me in that sigh:

“Yet love in you lies unawakened still . . . and I must try again. . . . ”

There was one more effort, painful with unexpressed fulfilment. A flicker of awful yearning took her paling eyes. Life seemed to stammer, pause, then flush as with this last deep impulse to yield a secret she discerned for the first time fully, in the very act of passing out. The face, with its soft loveliness, turned grey in death. Upon the edge of a great disclosure — she was gone.

I remember that for a space of time there was silence all about us. The doctor still kept his back to us, the driver had ceased his wretched hammering, I heard the wind in the poplar and the hum of insects. A bird sang loudly on a branch above; it seemed miles away, across an empty world. . . . Then, of a sudden, I became aware that the weight of the head and shoulders had dreadfully increased. I dared not turn my face lest I should look upon her whom I had deeply wronged — the forsaken tenement of this woman whose matchless love now begged with her dying breath for my forgiveness!

A cowardly desire to lose consciousness ran through me, to forget myself, to hide my shame with her in death; yet, even while this was so, I sought most desperately through the depths of my anguished pity to find some hint, if only the tiniest seed, of love — and found it not. . . . The rest belonged to things unrealized. . . .

I remember a hand being laid upon me. I lifted my head which had fallen close against her cheek. The doctor stood beside me, his grave and kindly face bent low. He spoke some gentle words. I saw him replacing the needle in its little leathern case, unused.

Marion was dead, her deep secret undisclosed. That which she yearned to tell me was something which, in her brief period of devotion, she had lived, had faithfully acted out, yet herself only dimly aware of why it had to be. The solution of this problem of unrequited love lay at last within her grasp; of a love that only asked to give of its unquenched and unquenchable store, undismayed by the total absence of response.

She passed from the world of speech and action with this intense desire unsatisfied, and at the very moment — as with a drowning man who sees his past — when the solution lay ready to her hand. She saw clearly, she understood, she burned to tell me. Upon the edge of full disclosure, she was gone, leaving me alone with my aching pity and with my shame of unawakened love.

“I have failed, but I shall try again. . . . ”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31