Of that extraordinary place I shall not attempt to speak with any order or indeed with any coherence. It must ever remain one of the supreme gratifications of travel for any American aware of the ancient pieties of race. The impression it produces, the emotions it kindles in the mind of such a visitor, are too rich and various to be expressed in the halting rhythm of prose. Passing through the small oblique streets in which the long grey battered public face of the colleges seems to watch jealously for sounds that may break upon the stillness of study, you feel it the most dignified and most educated of cities. Over and through it all the great corporate fact of the University slowly throbs after the fashion of some steady bass in a concerted piece or that of the mediaeval mystical presence of the Empire in the old States of Germany. The plain perpendicular of the so mildly conventual fronts, masking blest seraglios of culture and leisure, irritates the imagination scarce less than the harem-walls of Eastern towns. Within their arching portals, however, you discover more sacred and sunless courts, and the dark verdure soothing and cooling to bookish eyes. The grey-green quadrangles stand for ever open with a trustful hospitality. The seat of the humanities is stronger in her own good manners than in a marshalled host of wardens and beadles. Directly after our arrival my friend and I wandered forth in the luminous early dusk. We reached the bridge that under-spans the walls of Magdalen and saw the eight-spired tower, delicately fluted and embossed, rise in temperate beauty — the perfect prose of Gothic — wooing the eyes to the sky that was slowly drained of day. We entered the low monkish doorway and stood in the dim little court that nestles beneath the tower, where the swallows niche more lovingly in the tangled ivy than elsewhere in Oxford, and passed into the quiet cloister and studied the small sculptured monsters on the entablature of the arcade. I rejoiced in every one of my unhappy friend’s responsive vibrations, even while feeling that they might as direfully multiply as those that had preceded them. I may say that from this time forward I found it difficult to distinguish in his company between the riot of fancy and the labour of thought, or to fix the balance between what he saw and what he imagined. He had already begun playfully to exchange his identity for that of the earlier Clement Searle, and he now delivered himself almost wholly in the character of his old-time kinsman.
“THIS was my college, you know,” he would almost anywhere break out, applying the words wherever we stood —“the sweetest and noblest in the whole place. How often have I strolled in this cloister with my intimates of the other world! They are all dead and buried, but many a young fellow as we meet him, dark or fair, tall or short, reminds me of the past age and the early attachment. Even as we stand here, they say, the whole thing feels about its massive base the murmurs of the tide of time; some of the foundation-stones are loosened, some of the breaches will have to be repaired. Mine was the old unregenerate Oxford, the home of rank abuses, of distinctions and privileges the most delicious and invidious. What cared I, who was a perfect gentleman and with my pockets full of money? I had an allowance of a thousand a year.”
It was at once plain to me that he had lost the little that remained of his direct grasp on life and was unequal to any effort of seeing things in their order. He read my apprehension in my eyes and took pains to assure me I was right. “I’m going straight down hill. Thank heaven it’s an easy slope, coated with English turf and with an English churchyard at the foot.” The hysterical emotion produced by our late dire misadventure had given place to an unruffled calm in which the scene about us was reflected as in an old-fashioned mirror. We took an afternoon walk through Christ–Church meadow and at the river-bank procured a boat which I pulled down the stream to Iffley and to the slanting woods of Nuneham — the sweetest flattest reediest stream-side landscape that could be desired. Here of course we encountered the scattered phalanx of the young, the happy generation, clad in white flannel and blue, muscular fair-haired magnificent fresh, whether floated down the current by idle punts and lounging in friendly couples when not in a singleness that nursed ambitions, or straining together in rhythmic crews and hoarsely exhorted from the near bank. When to the exhibition of so much of the clearest joy of wind and limb we added the great sense of perfumed protection shed by all the enclosed lawns and groves and bowers, we felt that to be young in such scholastic shades must be a double, an infinite blessing. As my companion found himself less and less able to walk we repaired in turn to a series of gardens and spent long hours sitting in their greenest places. They struck us as the fairest things in England and the ripest and sweetest fruit of the English system. Locked in their antique verdure, guarded, as in the case of New College, by gentle battlements of silver-grey, outshouldering the matted leafage of undisseverable plants, filled with nightingales and memories, a sort of chorus of tradition; with vaguely-generous youths sprawling bookishly on the turf as if to spare it the injury of their boot-heels, and with the great conservative college countenance appealing gravely from the restless outer world, they seem places to lie down on the grass in for ever, in the happy faith that life is all a green old English garden and time an endless summer afternoon. This charmed seclusion was especially grateful to my friend, and his sense of it reached its climax, I remember, on one of the last of such occasions and while we sat in fascinated flanerie over against the sturdy back of Saint John’s. The wide discreetly-windowed wall here perhaps broods upon the lawn with a more effective air of property than elsewhere. Searle dropped into fitful talk and spun his humour into golden figures. Any passing undergraduate was a peg to hang a fable, every feature of the place a pretext for more embroidery.
“Isn’t it all a delightful lie?” he wanted to know. “Mightn’t one fancy this the very central point of the world’s heart, where all the echoes of the general life arrive but to falter and die? Doesn’t one feel the air just thick with arrested voices? It’s well there should be such places, shaped in the interest of factitious needs, invented to minister to the book-begotten longing for a medium in which one may dream unwaked and believe unconfuted; to foster the sweet illusion that all’s well in a world where so much is so damnable, all right and rounded, smooth and fair, in this sphere of the rough and ragged, the pitiful unachieved especially, and the dreadful uncommenced. The world’s made — work’s over. Now for leisure! England’s safe — now for Theocritus and Horace, for lawn and sky! What a sense it all gives one of the composite life of the country and of the essential furniture of its luckier minds! Thank heaven they had the wit to send me here in the other time. I’m not much visibly the braver perhaps, but think how I’m the happier! The misty spires and towers, seen far off on the level, have been all these years one of the constant things of memory. Seriously, what do the spires and towers do for these people? Are they wiser, gentler, finer, cleverer? My diminished dignity reverts in any case at moments to the naked background of our own education, the deadly dry air in which we gasp for impressions and comparisons. I assent to it all with a sort of desperate calmness; I accept it with a dogged pride. We’re nursed at the opposite pole. Naked come we into a naked world. There’s a certain grandeur in the lack of decorations, a certain heroic strain in that young imagination of ours which finds nothing made to its hands, which has to invent its own traditions and raise high into our morning-air, with a ringing hammer and nails, the castles in which we dwell. Noblesse oblige — Oxford must damnably do so. What a horrible thing not to rise to such examples! If you pay the pious debt to the last farthing of interest you may go through life with her blessing; but if you let it stand unhonoured you’re a worse barbarian than we! But for the better or worse, in a myriad private hearts, think how she must be loved! How the youthful sentiment of mankind seems visibly to brood upon her! Think of the young lives now taking colour in her cloisters and halls. Think of the centuries’ tale of dead lads — dead alike with the end of the young days to which these haunts were a present world, and the close of the larger lives which the general mother-scene has dropped into less bottomless traps. What are those two young fellows kicking their heels over on the grass there? One of them has the Saturday Review; the other — upon my soul — the other has Artemus Ward! Where do they live, how do they live, to what end do they live? Miserable boys! How can they read Artemus Ward under those windows of Elizabeth? What do you think loveliest in all Oxford? The poetry of certain windows. Do you see that one yonder, the second of those lesser bays, with the broken cornice and the lattice? That used to be the window of my bosom friend a hundred years ago. Remind me to tell you the story of that broken cornice. Don’t pretend it’s not a common thing to have one’s bosom friend at another college. Pray was I committed to common things? He was a charming fellow. By the way, he was a good deal like you. Of course his cocked hat, his long hair in a black ribbon, his cinnamon velvet suit and his flowered waistcoat made a difference. We gentlemen used to wear swords.”
There was really the touch of grace in my poor friend’s divagations — the disheartened dandy had so positively turned rhapsodist and seer. I was particularly struck with his having laid aside the diffidence and self-consciousness of the first days of our acquaintance. He had become by this time a disembodied observer and critic; the shell of sense, growing daily thinner and more transparent, transmitted the tremor of his quickened spirit. He seemed to pick up acquaintances, in the course of our contemplations, merely by putting out his hand. If I left him for ten minutes I was sure to find him on my return in earnest conversation with some affable wandering scholar. Several young men with whom he had thus established relations invited him to their rooms and entertained him, as I gathered, with rather rash hospitality. For myself, I chose not to be present at these symposia; I shrank partly from being held in any degree responsible for his extravagance, partly from the pang of seeing him yield to champagne and an admiring circle. He reported such adventures with less keen a complacency than I had supposed he might use, but a certain method in his madness, a certain dignity in his desire to fraternise, appeared to save him from mischance. If they didn’t think him a harmless lunatic they certainly thought him a celebrity of the Occident. Two things, however, grew evident — that he drank deeper than was good for him and that the flagrant freshness of his young patrons rather interfered with his predetermined sense of the element of finer romance. At the same time it completed his knowledge of the place. Making the acquaintance of several tutors and fellows, he dined in hall in half a dozen colleges, alluding afterwards to these banquets with religious unction. One evening after a participation indiscreetly prolonged he came back to the hotel in a cab, accompanied by a friendly undergraduate and a physician and looking deadly pale. He had swooned away on leaving table and remained so rigidly unconscious as much to agitate his banqueters. The following twenty-four hours he of course spent in bed, but on the third day declared himself strong enough to begin afresh. On his reaching the street his strength once more forsook him, so that I insisted on his returning to his room. He besought me with tears in his eyes not to shut him up. “It’s my last chance — I want to go back for an hour to that garden of Saint John’s. Let me eat and drink — tomorrow I die.” It seemed to me possible that with a Bath-chair the expedition might be accomplished. The hotel, it appeared, possessed such a convenience, which was immediately produced. It became necessary hereupon that we should have a person to propel the chair. As there was no one on the spot at liberty I was about to perform the office; but just as my patient had got seated and wrapped — he now had a perpetual chill — an elderly man emerged from a lurking-place near the door and, with a formal salute, offered to wait upon the gentleman. We assented, and he proceeded solemnly to trundle the chair before him. I recognised him as a vague personage whom I had observed to lounge shyly about the doors of the hotels, at intervals during our stay, with a depressed air of wanting employment and a poor semblance of finding it. He had once indeed in a half-hearted way proposed himself as an amateur cicerone for a tour through the colleges; and I now, as I looked at him, remembered with a pang that I had too curtly declined his ministrations. Since then his shyness, apparently, had grown less or his misery greater, for it was with a strange grim avidity that he now attached himself to our service. He was a pitiful image of shabby gentility and the dinginess of “reduced circumstances.” He would have been, I suppose, some fifty years of age; but his pale haggard unwholesome visage, his plaintive drooping carriage and the irremediable disarray of his apparel seemed to add to the burden of his days and tribulations. His eyes were weak and bloodshot, his bold nose was sadly compromised, and his reddish beard, largely streaked with grey, bristled under a month’s neglect of the razor. In all this rusty forlornness lurked a visible assurance of our friend’s having known better days. Obviously he was the victim of some fatal depreciation in the market value of pure gentility. There had been something terribly affecting in the way he substituted for the attempt to touch the greasy rim of his antiquated hat some such bow as one man of the world might make another. Exchanging a few words with him as we went I was struck with the decorum of his accent. His fine whole voice should have been congruously cracked.
“Take me by some long roundabout way,” said Searle, “so that I may see as many college-walls as possible.”
“You know,” I asked of our attendant, “all these wonderful ins and outs?”
“I ought to, sir,” he said, after a moment, with pregnant gravity. And as we were passing one of the colleges, “That used to be my place,” he added.
At these words Searle desired him to stop and come round within sight. “You say that’s YOUR college?”
“The place might deny me, sir; but heaven forbid I should seem to take it ill of her. If you’ll allow me to wheel you into the quad I’ll show you my windows of thirty years ago.”
Searle sat staring, his huge pale eyes, which now left nothing else worth mentioning in his wasted face, filled with wonder and pity. “If you’ll be so kind,” he said with great deference. But just as this perverted product of a liberal education was about to propel him across the threshold of the court he turned about, disengaged the mercenary hands, with one of his own, from the back of the chair, drew their owner alongside and turned to me. “While we’re here, my dear fellow,” he said, “be so good as to perform this service. You understand?” I gave our companion a glance of intelligence and we resumed our way. The latter showed us his window of the better time, where a rosy youth in a scarlet smoking-fez now puffed a cigarette at the open casement. Thence we proceeded into the small garden, the smallest, I believe, and certainly the sweetest, of all the planted places of Oxford. I pushed the chair along to a bench on the lawn, turned it round, toward the front of the college and sat down by it on the grass. Our attendant shifted mournfully from one foot to the other, his patron eyeing him open-mouthed. At length Searle broke out: “God bless my soul, sir, you don’t suppose I expect you to stand! There’s an empty bench.”
“Thank you,” said our friend, who bent his joints to sit.
“You English are really fabulous! I don’t know whether I most admire or most abominate you! Now tell me: who are you? what are you? what brought you to this?”
The poor fellow blushed up to his eyes, took off his hat and wiped his forehead with an indescribable fabric drawn from his pocket. “My name’s Rawson, sir. Beyond that it’s a long story.”
“I ask out of sympathy,” said Searle. “I’ve a fellow-feeling. If you’re a poor devil I’m a poor devil as well.”
“I’m the poorer devil of the two,” said the stranger with an assurance for once presumptuous.
“Possibly. I suppose an English poor devil’s the poorest of all poor devils. And then you’ve fallen from a height. From a gentleman commoner — is that what they called you? — to a propeller of Bath-chairs. Good heavens, man, the fall’s enough to kill you!”
“I didn’t take it all at once, sir. I dropped a bit one time and a bit another.”
“That’s me, that’s me!” cried Searle with all his seriousness.
“And now,” said our friend, “I believe I can’t drop any further.”
“My dear fellow”— and Searle clasped his hand and shook it —“I too am at the very bottom of the hole.”
Mr. Rawson lifted his eyebrows. “Well, sir, there’s a difference between sitting in such a pleasant convenience and just trudging behind it!”
“Yes — there’s a shade. But I’m at my last gasp, Mr. Rawson.”
“I’m at my last penny, sir.”
“Literally, Mr. Rawson?”
Mr. Rawson shook his head with large loose bitterness. “I’ve almost come to the point of drinking my beer and buttoning my coat figuratively; but I don’t talk in figures.”
Fearing the conversation might appear to achieve something like gaiety at the expense of Mr. Rawson’s troubles, I took the liberty of asking him, with all consideration, how he made a living.
“I don’t make a living,” he answered with tearful eyes; “I can’t make a living. I’ve a wife and three children — and all starving, sir. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve come to. I sent my wife to her mother’s, who can ill afford to keep her, and came to Oxford a week ago, thinking I might pick up a few half-crowns by showing people about the colleges. But it’s no use. I haven’t the assurance. I don’t look decent. They want a nice little old man with black gloves and a clean shirt and a silver-headed stick. What do I look as if I knew about Oxford, sir?”
“Mercy on us,” cried Searle, “why didn’t you speak to us before?”
“I wanted to; half a dozen times I’ve been on the point of it. I knew you were Americans.”
“And Americans are rich!” cried Searle, laughing. “My dear Mr. Rawson, American as I am I’m living on charity.”
“And I’m exactly not, sir! There it is. I’m dying for the lack of that same. You say you’re a pauper, but it takes an American pauper to go bowling about in a Bath-chair. America’s an easy country.”
“Ah me!” groaned Searle. “Have I come to the most delicious corner of the ancient world to hear the praise of Yankeeland?”
“Delicious corners are very well, and so is the ancient world,” said Mr. Rawson; “but one may sit here hungry and shabby, so long as one isn’t too shabby, as well as elsewhere. You’ll not persuade me that it’s not an easier thing to keep afloat yonder than here. I wish I were in Yankeeland, that’s all!” he added with feeble force. Then brooding for a moment on his wrongs: “Have you a bloated brother? or you, sir? It matters little to you. But it has mattered to me with a vengeance! Shabby as I sit here I can boast that advantage — as he his five thousand a year. Being but a twelvemonth my elder he swaggers while I go thus. There’s old England for you! A very pretty place for HIM!”
“Poor old England!” said Searle softly.
“Has your brother never helped you?” I asked.
“A five-pound note now and then! Oh I don’t say there haven’t been times when I haven’t inspired an irresistible sympathy. I’ve not been what I should. I married dreadfully out of the way. But the devil of it is that he started fair and I started foul; with the tastes, the desires, the needs, the sensibilities of a gentleman — and not another blessed ‘tip.’ I can’t afford to live in England.”
“THIS poor gentleman fancied a couple of months ago that he couldn’t afford to live in America,” I fondly explained.
“I’d ‘swap’— do you call it? — chances with him!” And Mr. Rawson looked quaintly rueful over his freedom of speech.
Searle sat supported there with his eyes closed and his face twitching for violent emotion, and then of a sudden had a glare of gravity. “My friend, you’re a dead failure! Be judged! Don’t talk about ‘swapping.’ Don’t talk about chances. Don’t talk about fair starts and false starts. I’m at that point myself that I’ve a right to speak. It lies neither in one’s chance nor one’s start to make one a success; nor in anything one’s brother — however bloated — can do or can undo. It lies in one’s character. You and I, sir, have HAD no character — that’s very plain. We’ve been weak, sir; as weak as water. Here we are for it — sitting staring in each other’s faces and reading our weakness in each other’s eyes. We’re of no importance whatever, Mr. Rawson!”
Mr. Rawson received this sally with a countenance in which abject submission to the particular affirmed truth struggled with the comparative propriety of his general rebellion against fate. In the course of a minute a due self-respect yielded to the warm comfortable sense of his being relieved of the cares of an attitude. “Go on, sir, go on,” he said. “It’s wholesome doctrine.” And he wiped his eyes with what seemed his sole remnant of linen.
“Dear, dear,” sighed Searle, “I’ve made you cry! Well, we speak as from man to man. I should be glad to think you had felt for a moment the side-light of that great undarkening of the spirit which precedes — which precedes the grand illumination of death.”
Mr. Rawson sat silent a little, his eyes fixed on the ground and his well-cut nose but the more deeply dyed by his agitation. Then at last looking up: “You’re a very good-natured man, sir, and you’ll never persuade me you don’t come of a kindly race. Say what you please about a chance; when a man’s fifty — degraded, penniless, a husband and father — a chance to get on his legs again is not to be despised. Something tells me that my luck may be in your country — which has brought luck to so many. I can come on the parish here of course, but I don’t want to come on the parish. Hang it, sir, I want to hold up my head. I see thirty years of life before me yet. If only by God’s help I could have a real change of air! It’s a fixed idea of mine. I’ve had it for the last ten years. It’s not that I’m a low radical. Oh I’ve no vulgar opinions. Old England’s good enough for me, but I’m not good enough for old England. I’m a shabby man that wants to get out of a room full of staring gentlefolk. I’m for ever put to the blush. It’s a perfect agony of spirit; everything reminds me of my younger and better self. The thing for me would be a cooling cleansing plunge into the unknowing and the unknown! I lie awake thinking of it.”
Searle closed his eyes, shivering with a long-drawn tremor which I hardly knew whether to take for an expression of physical or of mental pain. In a moment I saw it was neither. “Oh my country, my country, my country!” he murmured in a broken voice; and then sat for some time abstracted and lost. I signalled our companion that it was time we should bring our small session to a close, and he, without hesitating, possessed himself of the handle of the Bath-chair and pushed it before him. We had got halfway home before Searle spoke or moved. Suddenly in the High Street, as we passed a chop-house from whose open doors we caught a waft of old-fashioned cookery and other restorative elements, he motioned us to halt. “This is my last five pounds”— and he drew a note from his pocket-book. “Do me the favour, Mr. Rawson, to accept it. Go in there and order the best dinner they can give you. Call for a bottle of Burgundy and drink it to my eternal rest!”
Mr. Rawson stiffened himself up and received the gift with fingers momentarily irresponsive. But Mr. Rawson had the nerves of a gentleman. I measured the spasm with which his poor dispossessed hand closed upon the crisp paper, I observed his empurpled nostril convulsive under the other solicitation. He crushed the crackling note in his palm with a passionate pressure and jerked a spasmodic bow. “I shall not do you the wrong, sir, of anything but the best!” The next moment the door swung behind him.
Searle sank again into his apathy, and on reaching the hotel I helped him to get to bed. For the rest of the day he lay without motion or sound and beyond reach of any appeal. The doctor, whom I had constantly in attendance, was sure his end was near. He expressed great surprise that he should have lasted so long; he must have been living for a month on the very dregs of his strength. Toward evening, as I sat by his bedside in the deepening dusk, he roused himself with a purpose I had vaguely felt gathering beneath his stupor. “My cousin, my cousin,” he said confusedly. “Is she here?” It was the first time he had spoken of Miss Searle since our retreat from her brother’s house, and he continued to ramble. “I was to have married her. What a dream! That day was like a string of verses — rhymed hours. But the last verse is bad measure. What’s the rhyme to ‘love’? ABOVE! Was she a simple woman, a kind sweet woman? Or have I only dreamed it? She had the healing gift; her touch would have cured my madness. I want you to do something. Write three lines, three words: ‘Good-bye; remember me; be happy.’” And then after a long pause: “It’s strange a person in my state should have a wish. Why should one eat one’s breakfast the day one’s hanged? What a creature is man! What a farce is life! Here I lie, worn down to a mere throbbing fever-point; I breathe and nothing more, and yet I DESIRE! My desire lives. If I could see her! Help me out with it and let me die.”
Half an hour later, at a venture, I dispatched by post a note to Miss Searle: “Your cousin is rapidly sinking. He asks to see you.” I was conscious of a certain want of consideration in this act, since it would bring her great trouble and yet no power to face the trouble; but out of her distress I fondly hoped a sufficient force might be born. On the following day my friend’s exhaustion had become so great that I began to fear his intelligence altogether broken up. But toward evening he briefly rallied, to maunder about many things, confounding in a sinister jumble the memories of the past weeks and those of bygone years. “By the way,” he said suddenly, “I’ve made no will. I haven’t much to bequeath. Yet I have something.” He had been playing listlessly with a large signet-ring on his left hand, which he now tried to draw off. “I leave you this”— working it round and round vainly —“if you can get it off. What enormous knuckles! There must be such knuckles in the mummies of the Pharaohs. Well, when I’m gone —! No, I leave you something more precious than gold — the sense of a great kindness. But I’ve a little gold left. Bring me those trinkets.” I placed on the bed before him several articles of jewellery, relics of early foppery: his watch and chain, of great value, a locket and seal, some odds and ends of goldsmith’s work. He trifled with them feebly for some moments, murmuring various names and dates associated with them. At last, looking up with clearer interest, “What has become,” he asked, “of Mr. Rawson?”
“You want to see him?”
“How much are these things worth?” he went on without heeding me. “How much would they bring?” And he weighed them in his weak hands. “They’re pretty heavy. Some hundred or so? Oh I’m richer than I thought! Rawson — Rawson — you want to get out of this awful England?”
I stepped to the door and requested the servant whom I kept in constant attendance in our adjacent sitting-room to send and ascertain if Mr. Rawson were on the premises. He returned in a few moments, introducing our dismal friend. Mr. Rawson was pale even to his nose and derived from his unaffectedly concerned state an air of some distinction. I led him up to the bed. In Searle’s eyes, as they fell on him, there shone for a moment the light of a human message.
“Lord have mercy!” gasped Mr. Rawson.
“My friend,” said Searle, “there’s to be one American the less — so let there be at the same time one the more. At the worst you’ll be as good a one as I. Foolish me! Take these battered relics; you can sell them; let them help you on your way. They’re gifts and mementoes, but this is a better use. Heaven speed you! May America be kind to you. Be kind, at the last, to your own country!”
“Really this is too much; I can’t,” the poor man protested, almost scared and with tears in his eyes. “Do come round and get well and I’ll stop here. I’ll stay with you and wait on you.”
“No, I’m booked for my journey, you for yours. I hope you don’t mind the voyage.”
Mr. Rawson exhaled a groan of helpless gratitude, appealing piteously from so strange a windfall. “It’s like the angel of the Lord who bids people in the Bible to rise and flee!”
Searle had sunk back upon his pillow, quite used up; I led Mr. Rawson back into the sitting-room, where in three words I proposed to him a rough valuation of our friend’s trinkets. He assented with perfect good-breeding; they passed into my possession and a second bank-note into his.
From the collapse into which this wondrous exercise of his imagination had plunged him my charge then gave few signs of being likely to emerge. He breathed, as he had said, and nothing more. The twilight deepened; I lighted the night-lamp. The doctor sat silent and official at the foot of the bed; I resumed my constant place near the head. Suddenly our patient opened his eyes wide. “She’ll not come,” he murmured. “Amen! she’s an English sister.” Five minutes passed; he started forward. “She’s come, she’s here!” he confidently quavered. His words conveyed to my mind so absolute an assurance that I lightly rose and passed into the sitting-room. At the same moment, through the opposite door, the servant introduced a lady. A lady, I say; for an instant she was simply such — tall pale dressed in deep mourning. The next instant I had uttered her name —“Miss Searle!” She looked ten years older.
She met me with both hands extended and an immense question in her face. “He has just announced you,” I said. And then with a fuller consciousness of the change in her dress and countenance: “What has happened?”
“Oh death, death!” she wailed. “You and I are left.”
There came to me with her words a sickening shock, the sense of poetic justice somehow cheated, defeated. “Your brother?” I panted.
She laid her hand on my arm and I felt its pressure deepen as she spoke. “He was thrown from his horse in the park. He died on the spot. Six days have passed. Six months!”
She accepted my support and a moment later we had entered the room and approached the bedside, from which the doctor withdrew. Searle opened his eyes and looked at her from head to foot. Suddenly he seemed to make out her mourning. “Already!” he cried audibly and with a smile, as I felt, of pleasure.
She dropped on her knees and took his hand. “Not for you, cousin,” she whispered. “For my poor brother.”
He started, in all his deathly longitude, as with a galvanic shock. “Dead! HE dead! Life itself!” And then after a moment and with a slight rising inflexion: “You’re free?”
“Free, cousin. Too sadly free. And now — NOW— with what use for freedom?”
He looked steadily into her eyes, dark in the heavy shadow of her musty mourning-veil. “For me wear colours!”
In a moment more death had come, the doctor had silently attested it, and she had burst into sobs.
We buried him in the little churchyard in which he had expressed the wish to lie; beneath one of the blackest and widest of English yews and the little tower than which none in all England has a softer and hoarier grey. A year has passed; Miss Searle, I believe, has begun to wear colours.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10