ONE hour later I departed from the Colossus Trust Company with instructions not to return. Oh, no, I had not been ruthlessly discharged by the outraged vice president. The inhibition covered the balance of the day only, and, as Mr. Terne put it: “A few hours’ quiet will give you a clearer view of the situation, Barbour. I honor you for feeling as you do. It was Richard, I believe, who obtained you a position here. Just for your consolation when Mr. Vansittart has — er — cooled off somewhat, I intend making a small plea in Richard’s behalf. Now, go home and come back fresh in the morning. You look as though all the cares of the world had been dumped on your shoulders. Take an older man’s advice and shake off those that aren’t yours, boy!”
He was a kindly, good man, the second vice president of the Colossus. But his kindliness didn’t console me. In fact, I felt rather the worse for it. I went home, wishing that he had kicked me clean around the block instead of — of liking, and petting, and by inference, praising me for being such a contrast in character to poor, reckless, loose-living, heroic Van!
When I left, the latter was still in his father’s office. Though I might have waited for him outside, I didn’t. He was not the kind to meet me with even a glance of reproach; but just the same I did not feel eager to meet him.
I had resolved, however, that unless Van pulled through scatheless, I would myself “make a small plea in Richard’s behalf,” and next time not all the smooth, smiling devils from the place-that’s-no-longer-believed-in should persuade me to crumple.
On the train — I commuted, of course — I deliberately shut my eyes, and waited for the vision to appear. If it could talk to me by moving its lips, there must be some way in which I could express my opinion to it. I burned to do that. Like a sneak, it had taken me unawares in a crucial moment. I had a few thoughts of the Fifth Presence which should make even that smug vision curl up and die.
I closed my eyes — and was asleep in five minutes. I was tired, you see, and, now that I wanted it, the Fifth Presence kept discreetly invisible. The conductor, who knew me, called my station and me at the same time, and I blundered off the train, half-awake, but thoroughly miserable.
There was no one at home but my mother. Of late dad’s sight had failed till it was not safe for him to be on the street alone. As he liked to walk, however, Cathy had gone out with him.
I found mother lying down in her darkened bedroom, in the preparatory stage of a headache. Having explained that Mr. Terne had given me an unexpected half-holiday, I turned to leave her, but checked on a sudden impulse.
“Mother,” I said softly, “why did you name me Ser — why was I given my uncle’s name instead of just dad’s?”
“What an odd question”
Mother sat up so energetically that two cushions fell off the couch. I picked them up and tried to reestablish her comfortably, but she wouldn’t have it. “Tell me at once why you asked that extraordinary question, Clay!”
I said there was nothing extraordinary about it that I could see. My uncle’s name itself was extraordinary, or at least unusual, and the question happened to come into my mind just then. Besides, she had spoken a good deal of him lately. Maybe that had made me think of it.
Mother drew a deep breath.
“He told me — can you believe this? — he told me that some day you would ask that question! This is too wonderful! And I’ve seemed to feel a protecting influence about us — this house that was his — and your good position at the bank!”
“Mother, will you kindly explain what you are talking about?” My heart had begun a muffled throbbing.
“Be patient! I have a wonderful story to tell you. I’ve doubted, and hoped, and dared say nothing, but, Clayton, dear, in these last miserable weeks I have felt his presence like the overshadowing wings of a protecting angel. If it is true — if it only could be true-”
“Mother — please!”
“Sit down, dear. Your father never liked dear Serapion, and — why, how wonderful this all is! Your coming home early, I mean, and asking me the question just at the one time when your father, who disliked him, is away, and we have the whole house — his house! — to ourselves. Can’t you feel his influence in that, dear?”
“What have you to tell me, mother?”
“I shall begin at the very first-”
“If you make the story too long,” I objected craftily, “dad and Cathy will be back.”
“That is true. Then I’ll just tell the part he particularly wished you to know. Dear Serapion was universally loved, and I could go on by the hour about his friendships, and the faculty he had for making people happy. Physically, he had little strength, and your father was very unjust to him-”
“Can’t we leave dad out of this, mother?”
“You are so like your uncle! Serapion could never bear to hear anyone criticized, no matter how the person had treated him, ‘My happiness,’ he would say, ‘is in living at harmony with all. Clayton,’ your father, he meant, of course, ‘Clayton is a splendid man, whom I admire. His own fine energy and capacities make him unduly hard, perhaps, toward those less gifted. I try to console myself with the thought that life has several sides. Love — kindliness — good humor — I am at least fortunate in rousing the gentlest qualities in most of those about me. Who knows? From the beginning, that may have been my mission in life, and I was given a delicate constitution that I might have leisure merely to live, love, and be loved in return!’
“Of course, he wouldn’t have expressed that beautiful thought to everyone, but Serapion knew that I would understand — yes, dear I shall come to your part in the story directly.
“Serapion passed to his reward before you were born, my son. He went from as us in January, and you came into the world the April following. The doctors had told him that only a few hours were left him of life. When Serapion learned that he asked to be left alone with me for a little while. I remember every word of that beautiful conversation. I remember how he laid his hand on mine and pressed it feebly.
“‘Do as I ask, Evelyn,’ he said. ‘If the child is a boy, give him my name. I only ask second place. Clayton has first right; but let the boy have my name, as well as his father’s. I’ve been too happy in my life — too happy in my loves and friendships. I can’t bear to die utterly out of this good old world. I haven’t a child of my own, but if you’d just give your boy — my name. Some day he will ask why, and then you are to tell him that — it’s because — I was so happy.”
Mother was sobbing, but after a moment she regained self-control to continue. “You may think it weak in me to cry over my brother, who passed long ago. But he has lived in my memory. And he said: ‘Some people only talk of life after death, but I believe in it. It is really true that we go out to go on. I know it. There is something bright and strong in me, Evelyn, that only grows stronger as I feel the body dying from about me. Bright, strong, and clear-sighted. I have never been quite like other men. Not even you have understood me, and perhaps that is for the best.’
“With his hand on mine he smiled, and, oh, Clayton, I have wondered many times since what that smile meant. It was so beautiful that — that it was almost terrible!
“‘I love life,’ he went on, ‘and I shall live beyond this perishing clay. Soon or late, a day will come when you will feel my living presence in the house, and it will be in that time that your son will ask of me. Then you will tell him all I have said, and also this:
“‘That I promised to return — to watch over him — to guard him.
“‘Name him for me, that I may have the power. There’s power in a name! And I am not as other men. Be very sure that — your son — Serapion — shall be — as happy — shall have all that I’ve had — of life. Believe — promise!’ And I promised.
“The strangest look came into his eyes. A look of — ” my mother’s voice sank to a hushed whisper-“I can only describe it as holy Exultation. It was too vivid and triumphant to have been of this world. And he died in my arms — Clayton, why do you look at me like that? What is the matter, child?”
“Nothing. You told the story so well that for a moment I seemed to — to see him — or Something. Never mind me. Mother, haven’t you any picture of my uncle?”
“Only one of him as he was in his latter years. I have kept it locked away, for fear it might be destroyed or injured.” Mother rose and started looking in a bureau drawer. “I am so glad that you take this seriously, Clayton, you feel nearly as deeply about it as I, don’t you, dear?”
I wished to see that picture. At the same time I dreaded unspeakably the moment when doubt might become certainty.
My mother took out a flat package, wrapped in yellowed tissue paper. She began to undo the silk cord tied around it. I turned my back suddenly. Then I felt something thrust into my hand. With all my will I forced myself to bring the thing around before my eyes.
What face would stare back at me, eye to eye, amused, pleasant-?
The window-shades were still drawn, and the light dim. It was a moment before I realized that what I held was not a picture at all — but some kind of printed pamphlet.
“Raise the shade,” said my mother. “I wish you to read that. It is a little memorial of your uncle, written by one of his friends, a Mr. Hazlett. The words are so touching! Almost as beautiful as the thoughts Serapion himself often expressed.”
“Would you mind” — I controlled my voice by an effort — “would you mind letting me see the picture first?”
This time she had handed me the unmistakable, polished, bescrolled oblong of an old-fashioned photographer’s mounting.
Defiance, last resource of the hard pressed, drove me in two bold strides to the window, where I jerked the shade up.
Daylight beat in. This was the middle of November and the light was gray, filtered through gray clouds. A few scattered particles of snow flickered past the window.
In my fingers the polished face of a cardboard mount felt smooth, almost soft to the touch. I watched the snow.
“Isn’t his face beautiful, dear?” demanded a voice at my shoulder.
“I-I— yes, I’m afraid — of course, mother!”
“But you are not looking at it!”
“I did look,” I lied. “I— this has all been a little too much for me. Take it — put it away. No, I’ll read the memorial another time. Happy! Did he promise to — to come back and make me happy?”
“Practically that. How like him you are, dear son! He was sensitive, too; and your eyes! You have the Barbour nose and forehead, but your eyes-”
She let me go at last, and in the quiet of refuge behind the locked door of my bedroom, I, who after all had not dared to look upon the picture of Serapion, scrutinized thoroughly every feature of my own face in the mirror.
Like him! She had often said so in the past, but the statement had failed to make any particular impression.
Yes, she was right about the eyes. They were the same clear, light blue as his — what? Never. Not as his. For all I knew by actual observation, Serapion’s eyes might have been sea-green or shell-pink. I had never seen him. Let me keep that fact firmly in mind.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00