The Bishop of Porthminster was sinking fast; they had sent for his four nephews, his two nieces and their one husband. It was not thought that he would last the night.
He who had been ‘Cuffs’ Cherrell (for so the name Charwell is pronounced) to his cronies at Harrow and Cambridge in the ‘sixties, the Reverend Cuthbert Cherrell in his two London parishes, Canon Cherrell in the days of his efflorescence as a preacher, and Cuthbert Porthminster for the last eighteen years, had never married. For eighty-two years he had lived and for fifty-five, having been ordained rather late, had represented God upon certain portions of the earth. This and the control of his normal instincts since the age of twenty-six had given to his face a repressed dignity which the approach of death did not disturb. He awaited it almost quizzically, judging from the twist of his eyebrow and the tone in which he said so faintly to his nurse:
“You will get a good sleep tomorrow, nurse. I shall be punctual, no robes to put on.”
The best wearer of robes in the whole episcopacy, the most distinguished in face and figure, maintaining to the end the dandyism which had procured him the nickname ‘Cuffs,’ lay quite still, his grey hair brushed and his face like ivory. He had been a bishop so long that no one knew now what he thought about death, or indeed about anything, except the prayer book, any change in which he had deprecated with determination. In one never remarkable for expressing his feelings the ceremony of life had overlaid the natural reticence, as embroidery and jewels will disguise the foundation stuff of vestment.
He lay in a room with mullion windows, an ascetic room in a sixteenth-century house, close to the Cathedral, whose scent of age was tempered but imperfectly by the September air coming in. Some zinnias in an old vase on the window-sill made the only splash of colour, and it was noticed by the nurse that his eyes scarcely left it, except to dose from time to time. About six o’clock they informed him that all the family of his long-dead elder brother had arrived.
“Ah! See that they are comfortable. I should like to see Adrian.”
When an hour later he opened his eyes again, they fell on his nephew Adrian seated at the foot of the bed. For some minutes he contemplated the lean and wrinkled brownness of a thin bearded face, topped with grizzling hair, with a sort of faint astonishment, as though finding his nephew older than he had expected. Then, with lifted eyebrows and the same just quizzical tone in his faint voice, he said:
“My dear Adrian! Good of you! Would you mind coming closer? Ah! I haven’t much strength, but what I have I wanted you to have the benefit of; or perhaps, as you may think, the reverse. I must speak to the point or not at all. You are not a Churchman, so what I have to say I will put in the words of a man of the world, which once I was myself, perhaps have always been. I have heard that you have an affection, or may I say infatuation, for a lady who is not in a position to marry you — is that so?”
The face of his nephew, kindly and wrinkled, was gentle with an expression of concern.
“It is, Uncle Cuthbert. I am sorry if it troubles you.”
“A mutual affection?”
His nephew shrugged.
“My dear Adrian, the world has changed in its judgments since my young days, but there is still a halo around marriage. That, however, is a matter for your conscience and is not my point. Give me a little water.”
When he had drunk from the glass held out, he went on more feebly:
“Since your father died I have been somewhat in loco parentis to you all, and the chief repository, I suppose, of such traditions as attach to our name. I wanted to say to you that our name goes back very far and very honourably. A certain inherited sense of duty is all that is left to old families now; what is sometimes excused to a young man is not excused to those of mature age and a certain position like your own. I should be sorry to be leaving this life knowing that our name was likely to be taken in vain by the Press, or bandied about. Forgive me for intruding on your privacy, and let me now say good-bye to you all. It will be less painful if you will give the others my blessing for what it is worth — very little, I’m afraid. Good-bye, my dear Adrian, good-bye!”
The voice dropped to a whisper. The speaker closed his eyes, and Adrian, after standing a minute looking down at the carved waxen face, stole, tall and a little stooping, to the door, opened it gently and was gone.
The nurse came back. The Bishop’s lips moved and his eyebrows twitched now and then, but he spoke only once:
“I shall be glad if you will kindly see that my neck is straight, and my teeth in place. Forgive these details, but I do not wish to offend the sight . . .”
Adrian went down to the long panelled room where the family was waiting.
“Sinking. He sent his blessing to you all.”
Sir Conway cleared his throat. Hilary pressed Adrian’s arm. Lionel went to the window. Emily Mont took out a tiny handkerchief and passed her other hand into Sir Lawrence’s. Wilmet alone spoke:
“How does he look, Adrian?”
“Like the ghost of a warrior on his shield.”
Again Sir Conway cleared his throat.
“Fine old boy!” said Sir Lawrence, softly.
“Ah!” said Adrian.
They remained, silently sitting and standing in the compulsory discomfort of a house where death is visiting. Tea was brought in, but, as if by tacit agreement, no one touched it. And, suddenly, the bell tolled. The seven in that room looked up. At one blank spot in the air their glances met and crossed, as though fixed on something there and yet not there.
A voice from the doorway said:
“Now please, if you wish to see him.”
Sir Conway, the eldest, followed the bishop’s chaplain; the others followed Sir Conway.
In his narrow bed jutting from the centre of the wall opposite the mullion windows the bishop lay, white and straight and narrow, with just the added dignity of death. He graced his last state even more than he had graced existence. None of those present, not even his chaplain, who made the eighth spectator, knew whether Cuthbert Porthminster had really had faith, except in that temporal dignity of the Church which he had so faithfully served. They looked at him now with all the different feelings death produces in varying temperaments, and with only one feeling in common, aesthetic pleasure at the sight of such memorable dignity,
Conway — General Sir Conway Cherrell — had seen much death. He stood with his hands crossed before him, as if once more at Sandhurst in the old-time attitude of ‘stand at ease.’ His face was thin-templed and ascetic, for a soldier’s; the darkened furrowed cheeks ran from wide cheek-bones to the point of a firm chin, the dark eyes were steady, the nose and lips thin; he wore a little close grizzly dark moustache — his face was perhaps the stillest of the eight faces, the face of the taller Adrian beside him, the least still. Sir Lawrence Mont had his arm through that of Emily his wife, the expression on his thin twisting countenance was as of one saying: “A very beautiful performance — don’t cry, my dear.”
The faces of Hilary and Lionel, one on each side of Wilmet, a seamed race and a smooth face, both long and thin and decisive, wore a sort of sorry scepticism, as if expecting those eyes to open. Wilmet had flushed deep pink; her lips were pursed. She was a tall thin woman. The chaplain stood with bent head, moving his lips as though telling over internal beads. They stayed thus perhaps three minutes, then as it were with a single indrawn breath filed to the door. They went each to the room assigned.
They met again at dinner, thinking and speaking once more in terms of life. Uncle Cuthbert, except as a family figure-head, had never been very near to any one of them. The question whether he was to be buried with his fathers at Condaford or here in the Cathedral was debated. Probably his Will would decide. All but the General and Lionel, who were the executors, returned to London the same evening.
The two brothers, having read through the Will, which was short, for there was nothing much to leave, sat on in the library, silent, till the General said:
“I want to consult you, Lionel. It’s about my boy, Hubert. Did you read that attack made on him in the House before it rose?”
Lionel, sparing of words, and now on the eve of a Judgeship, nodded.
“I saw there was a question asked, but I don’t know Hubert’s version of the affair.”
“I can give it you. The whole thing is damnable. The boy’s got a temper, of course, but he’s straight as a die. What he says you can rely on. And all I can say is that if I’d been in his place, I should probably have done the same.”
Lionel nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Well, as you know, he went straight from Harrow into the War, and had one year in the R.A.F. under age, got wounded, went back and stayed on in the army after the war. He was out in Mespot, then went on to Egypt and India. He got malaria badly, and last October had a year’s sick leave given him, which will be up on October first. He was recommended for a long voyage. He got leave for it and went out through the Panama Canal to Lima. There he met that American professor, Hallorsen, who came over here some time ago and gave some lectures, it appears, about some queer remains in Bolivia; he was going to take an expedition there. This expedition was just starting when Hubert got to Lima, and Hallorsen wanted a transport officer. Hubert was fit enough after his voyage and jumped at the chance. He can’t bear idleness. Hallorsen took him on; that was in December last. After a bit Hallorsen left him in charge of his base camp with a lot of half-caste Indian mule men. Hubert was the only white man, and he got fever badly. Some of those half-caste Indian fellows are devils, according to his account; no sense of discipline and perfect brutes with animals. Hubert got wrong with them — he’s a hot-tempered chap, as I told you, and, as it happens, particularly fond of animals. The half-castes got more and more out of hand, till finally one of them, whom he’d had to have flogged for ill-treating mules and who was stirring up mutiny, attacked him with a knife. Luckily Hubert had his revolver handy and shot him dead. And on that the whole blessed lot of them, except three, cleared out, taking the mules with them. Mind you, he’d been left there alone for nearly three months without support or news of any kind from Hallorsen. Well, he hung on somehow, half dead, with his remaining men. At last Hallorsen came back, and instead of trying to understand his difficulties, pitched into him. Hubert wouldn’t stand for it; gave him as good as he got, and left. He came straight home, and is down with us at Condaford. He’s lost the fever, luckily, but he’s pretty well worn out, even now. And now that fellow Hallorsen has attacked him in his book; practically thrown the blame of failure on him, implies he was tyrannical and no good at handling men, calls him a hot-tempered aristocrat — all that bunkum that goes down these days. Well, some Service member got hold of this and asked that question about it in Parliament. One expects Socialists to make themselves unpleasant, but when it comes to a Service member alluding to conduct unbecoming to a British officer, it’s another matter altogether. Hallorsen’s in the States. There’s nobody to bring an action against: besides, Hubert could get no witnesses. It looks to me as if the thing has cut right across his career.”
Lionel Cherrell’s long face lengthened.
“Has he tried Headquarters?”
“Yes, he went up on Wednesday. They were chilly. Any popular gup about high-handedness scares them nowadays. I daresay they’d come round if no more were said, but how’s that possible? He’s been publicly criticised in that book, and practically accused in Parliament of violent conduct unbecoming to an officer and gentleman. He can’t sit down under that; and yet — what can he do?”
Lionel drew deeply at his pipe.
“D’you know,” he said, “I think he’d better take no notice.”
The General clenched his fist. “Damn it, Lionel, I don’t see that!”
“But he admits the shooting and the flogging. The public has no imagination, Con — they’ll never see his side of the thing. All they’ll swallow is that on a civilian expedition he shot one man and flogged others. You can’t expect them to understand the conditions or the pressure there was.”
“Then you seriously advise him to take it lying down?”
“As a man, no; as a man of the world, yes.”
“Good Lord! What’s England coming to? I wonder what old Uncle Cuffs would have said? He thought a lot of our name.”
“So do I. But how is Hubert to get even with them?”
The General was silent for a little while and then said:
“This charge is a slur on the Service, and yet his hands seem tied. If he handed in his Commission he could stand up to it, but his whole heart’s in the Army. It’s a bad business. By the way, Lawrence has been talking to me about Adrian. Diana Ferse was Diana Montjoy, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, second cousin to Lawrence — very pretty woman, Con. Ever see her?”
“As a girl, yes. What’s her position now, then?”
“Married widow — two children, and a husband in a Mental Home.”
“That’s lively. Incurable?”
Lionel nodded. “They say so. But of course, you never know.”
“That’s just about it. She’s poor and Adrian’s poorer; it’s a very old affection on Adrian’s part, dates from before her marriage. If he does anything foolish, he’ll lose his curatorship.”
“Go off with her, you mean? Why, he must be fifty!”
“No fool like an — She’s an attractive creature. Those Montjoys are celebrated for their charm. Would he listen to you, Con?”
The General shook his head.
“More likely to Hilary.”
“Poor old Adrian — one of the best men on earth. I’ll talk to Hilary, but his hands are always full.”
The General rose. “I’m going to bed. We don’t smell of age at the Grange like this place — though the Grange is older.”
“Too much original wood here. Good-night, old man.”
The brothers shook hands, and, grasping each a candle, sought their rooms.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08