When, about the same time that afternoon, Adrian entered his brother’s parish and traversed the mean street leading to the Vicarage of St. Augustine’s-inthe-Meads, English people were being almost too well illustrated six doors round the corner.
An ambulance stood in front of a house without a future, and all who had something better to do were watching it. Adrian made one of the party. From the miserable edifice two men and a nurse were bearing the stretched-out body of a child, followed by a wailing, middle-aged, red-faced woman and a growling, white-faced man with a drooping moustache.
“What’s up?” said Adrian to a policeman.
“The child’s got to have an operation. You’d think she was goin’ to be murdered, instead of havin’ the best that care can give her. There’s the Vicar. If he can’t quiet ’em, no one can.”
Adrian saw his brother come out of the house and join the white-faced man. The growling ceased, but the woman’s wails increased. The child was ensconced by now in the ambulance, and the mother made an unwieldly rush at its door.
“Where’s their sense?” said the policeman, stepping forward.
Adrian saw Hilary put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. She turned as if to deliver a wide-mouthed imprecation, but a mere whimper issued. Hilary put his arm through hers and drew her quietly back into the house. The ambulance drove away. Adrian moved up to the white-faced man and offered him a cigarette. He took it with a “Thanks, mister,” and followed his wife.
All was over. The little crowd had gone. The policeman stood there alone.
“The Vicar’s a wonder,” he said.
“My brother,” said Adrian.
The policeman looked at him more respectfully.
“A rare card, sir, the Vicar.”
“I quite agree. Was that child very bad?”
“Won’t live the day out, unless they operate. Seems as if they’d saved it up to make a close run. Just an accident the Vicar happening on it. Some people’d rather die than go into ‘ospitals, let alone their children.”
“Independence,” said Adrian. “I understand the feeling.”
“Well, if you put it that way, sir, so do I. Still, they’ve got a wretched home in there, and everything of the best in the ‘ospital.”
“‘Be it never so humble —’” quoted Adrian.
“That’s right. And in my opinion it’s responsible for these slums. Very slummy round these parts, but try and move the people, and don’t they let you know! The Vicar does good work, reconditionin’ the ‘ouses, as they call it. If you want him, I’ll go and tell him.”
“Oh! I’ll wait.”
“You’d be surprised,” said the policeman, “the things people’ll put up with sooner than be messed about. And you can call it what you like: Socialism, Communism, Government by the people for the people, all comes to that in the end, messin’ you about. Here! You move on! No hawkin’ in this street!”
A man with a barrow who had looked as if he had been going to cry ‘Winkles!’ altered the shape of his mouth.
Adrian, stirred by the confusion of the policeman’s philosophy, waited in hopes of more, but at this moment Hilary emerged and came towards them.
“It won’t be their fault if she lives,” he said, and, answering the policeman’s salute, added: “Are those petunias coming up, Bell?”
“They are, sir; my wife thinks no end of ’em.”
“Splendid! Look here! You’ll pass the hospital on your way home, you might ask about that child for me; and ring me if the news is bad.”
“I will, Vicar; pleased to do it.”
“Thanks, Bell. Now, old man, let’s go in and have some tea.”
Mrs. Hilary being at a meeting, the brothers had tea by themselves.
“I’ve come about Dinny,” said Adrian, and unfolded her story.
Hilary lighted a pipe. “That saying,” he said at last: “‘Judge not that ye be not judged,’ is extraordinarily comforting, until you’ve got to do something about it. After that it appears to amount to less than nothing; all action is based on judgments, tacit or not. Is Dinny very much in love?”
Adrian nodded. Hilary drew deeply at his pipe.
“I don’t like it a little bit, then. I’ve always wanted a clear sky for Dinny; and this looks to me like a sirocco. I suppose no amount of putting it to her from other people’s points of view is any good?”
“I should say none.”
“Is there anything you want me to do?”
Adrian shook his head. “I only wanted your reaction.”
“Just sorrow that Dinny’s going to have a bad time. As to that recantation, my cloth rises on me, but whether it rises because I’m a parson, or a public-school Englishman, I don’t know. I suspect the older Adam.”
“If Dinny means to stick to this,” said Adrian, “one must stick to her. I always feel that if a thing one hates has to happen to a person one loves, one can only help by swallowing the idea of it whole. I shall try to like him and see his point of view.”
“He probably hasn’t one,” said Hilary. “Au fond, you know, like ‘Lord Jim,’ he just jumped; and he almost certainly knows it at heart.”
“The more tragic for them both; and the more necessary to stand by.”
“Poor old Con will be badly hit. It gives such a chance to people to play the Pharisee. I can see the skirts being drawn aside.”
“Perhaps,” said Adrian, “modern scepticism will just shrug its shoulders and say: ‘Another little superstition gone west!’”
Hilary shook his head.
“Human nature, in the large, will take the view that he kowtowed to save his life. However sceptical people are nowadays about religion, patriotism, the Empire, the word gentleman, and all that, they still don’t like cowardice — to put it crudely. I don’t mean to say that a lot of them aren’t cowards, but they still don’t like it in other people; and if they can safely show their dislike, they will.”
“Perhaps the thing won’t come out.”
“Bound to, one way or another; and, for young Desert, the sooner the better. Give him a chance to captain his soul again. Poor little Dinny! This’ll test her sense of humour. Oh! dear me! I feel older. What does Michael say?”
“Haven’t seen him since.”
“Do Lawrence and Em know?”
“Otherwise it’s to be kept dark, eh?”
“Yes. Well, I must be getting on.”
“I,” said Hilary, “shall carve my feelings into my Roman galley; I shall get half an hour at it, unless that child has collapsed.”
Adrian strode on to Bloomsbury. And while he went he tried to put himself in the place of one threatened with sudden extinction. No future life, no chance of seeing again those he loved; no promise, assured or even vague, of future conscious experience analogous to that of this life!
‘It’s the sudden personal emergency coming out of the blue,’ he thought, ‘with no eyes on you, that’s the acid test. Who among us knows how he’ll come through it?’
His brothers, the soldier and the priest, would accept extinction as a matter of simple duty; even his brother the judge, though he would want to argue the point and might convert his executioner. ‘But I?’ he thought. ‘How rotten to die like that for a belief I haven’t got, in a remote corner of the earth, without even the satisfaction of knowing that my death was going to benefit anybody, or would ever even be known!’ Without professional or official prestige to preserve, faced by such an issue, requiring immediate decision, one would have no time to weigh and balance; would be thrown back on instinct. One’s temperament would decide. And if it were like young Desert’s, judging from his verse; if he were accustomed to being in opposition to his fellows, or at least out of touch with them; scornful of convention and matter-of-fact English bull-doggedness; secretly, perhaps, more in sympathy with Arabs than with his own countrymen, would he not almost infallibly decide as Desert had? ‘God knows how I should have acted,’ thought Adrian, ‘but I understand, and in a way I sympathise. Anyway, I’m with Dinny in this, and I’ll see her through; as she saw me through that Ferse business.’ And, having reached a conclusion, he felt better . . . .
But Hilary carved away at his Roman galley. Those classical studies he had so neglected had led up to his becoming a parson, and he could no longer understand why. What sort of young man could he have been to think he was fit for it? Why had he not taken to forestry, become a cowboy, or done almost anything that kept him out of doors instead of in the slummy heart of a dim city? Was he or was he not based on revelation? And, if not, on what was he based? Planing away at an after-deck such as that whence those early plumbers, the Romans, had caused so many foreigners to perspire freely, he thought: ‘I serve an idea, with a superstructure which doesn’t bear examination.’ Still, the good of mankind was worth working for! A doctor did it in the midst of humbug and ceremony. A statesman, though he knew that democracy, which made him a statesman, was ignorance personified. One used forms in which one didn’t believe, and even exhorted others to believe in them. Life was a practical matter of compromise. ‘We’re all Jesuits,’ he thought, ‘using doubtful means to good ends. I should have had to die for my cloth, as a soldier dies for his. But that’s neither here nor there!’
The telephone bell rang, and a voice said:
“The Vicar! . . . Yes, sir! . . . That girl. Too far gone to operate. So if you’d come, sir.”
Hilary put down the receiver, snatched his hat, and ran out of the house. Of all his many duties the deathbed was least to his taste, and, when he alighted from the taxi before the hospital, the lined mask of his face concealed real dread. Such a child! And nothing to be done except patter a few prayers and hold her hand. Criminal the way her parents had let it run on till it was too late. But to imprison them for it would be to imprison the whole British race, which never took steps to interfere with its independence till the last minute, and that too late!
“This way sir,” said a nurse.
In the whiteness and order of a small preliminary room Hilary saw the little figure, white-covered, collapsed, and with a deathly face. He sat down beside it, groping for words with which to warm the child’s last minutes.
‘Shan’t pray,’ he thought, ‘she’s too young.’
The child’s eyes, struggling out of their morphined immobility, flitted with terror round the room and fixed themselves, horror-stricken, first on the white figure of the nurse, then on the doctor in his overalls. Hilary raised his hand.
“D’you mind,” he said, “leaving her with me a moment?”
They passed into an adjoining room.
“Loo!” said Hilary softly.
Recalled by his voice from their terrified wandering, the child’s eyes rested on his smile.
“Isn’t this a nice clean place? Loo! What d’you like best in all the world?”
The answer came almost inaudibly from the white puckered lips: “Pictures.”
“That exactly what you’re going to have, every day — twice a day. Think of that. Shut your eyes and have a nice sleep, and when you wake the pictures will begin. Shut your eyes! And I’ll tell you a story. Nothing’s going to happen to you. See! I’m here.”
He thought she had closed her eyes, but pain gripped her suddenly again; she began whimpering and then screamed.
“God!” murmured Hilary. “Another touch, doctor, quick!”
The doctor injected morphia.
“Leave us alone again.”
The doctor slipped away, and the child’s eyes came slowly back to Hilary’s smile. He laid his fingers on her small emaciated hand.
“Now, Loo, listen!
“‘The Walrus and the Carpenter were walking hand in hand, They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand. “If seven maids with seven brooms could sweep for half a year, Do you suppose,” the Walrus said, “that they could get it clear?” “I doubt it,” said the Carpenter, and shed a bitter tear!’”
On and on went Hilary, reciting ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea-party.’ And, while he murmured, the child’s eyes closed, the small hand lost warmth.
He felt its cold penetrating his own hand and thought: ‘Now, God, if you are — give her pictures!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54