Old Mrs. Brand and Mabel were seated at a window of the new Admiralty Offices in Trafalgar Square to see Oliver deliver his speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Poor Laws Reform.
It was an inspiriting sight, this bright June morning, to see the crowds gathering round Braithwaite's statue. That politician, dead fifteen years before, was represented in his famous attitude, with arms outstretched and down dropped, his head up and one foot slightly advanced, and to-day was decked, as was becoming more and more usual on such occasions, in his Masonic insignia. It was he who had given immense impetus to that secret movement by his declaration in the House that the key of future progress and brotherhood of nations was in the hands of the Order. It was through this alone that the false unity of the Church with its fantastic spiritual fraternity could be counteracted. St. Paul had been right, he declared, in his desire to break down the partition-walls between nations, and wrong only in his exaltation of Jesus Christ. Thus he had preluded his speech on the Poor Law question, pointing to the true charity that existed among Masons apart from religious motive, and appealing to the famous benefactions on the Continent; and in the enthusiasm of the Bill's success the Order had received a great accession of members.
Old Mrs. Brand was in her best to-day, and looked out with considerable excitement at the huge throng gathered to hear her son speak. A platform was erected round the bronze statue at such a height that the statesman appeared to be one of the speakers, though at a slightly higher elevation, and this platform was hung with roses, surmounted by a sounding-board, and set with a chair and table.
The whole square round about was paved with heads and resonant with sound, the murmurs of thousands of voices, overpowered now and again by the crash of brass and thunder of drums as the Benefit Societies and democratic Guilds, each headed by a banner, deployed from North, South, East and West, and converged towards the wide railed space about the platform where room was reserved for them. The windows on every side were packed with faces; tall stands were erected along the front of the National Gallery and St. Martin's Church, garden-beds of colour behind the mute, white statues that faced outwards round the square; from Braithwaite in front, past the Victorians—John Davidson, John Burns, and the rest—round to Hampden and de Montfort towards the north. The old column was gone, with its lions. Nelson had not been found advantageous to the Entente Cordiale, nor the lions to the new art; and in their place stretched a wide pavement broken by slopes of steps that led up to the National Gallery.
Overhead the roofs showed crowded friezes of heads against the blue summer sky. Not less than one hundred thousand persons, it was estimated in the evening papers, were collected within sight and sound of the platform by noon.
As the clocks began to tell the hour, two figures appeared from behind the statue and came forward, and, in an instant, the murmurs of talk rose into cheering.
Old Lord Pemberton came first, a grey-haired, upright man, whose father had been active in denouncing the House of which he was a member on the occasion of its fall over seventy years ago, and his son had succeeded him worthily. This man was now a member of the Government, and sat for Manchester (3); and it was he who was to be chairman on this auspicious occasion. Behind him came Oliver, bareheaded and spruce, and even at that distance his mother and wife could see his brisk movement, his sudden smile and nod as his name emerged from the storm of sound that surged round the platform. Lord Pemberton came forward, lifted his hand and made a signal; and in a moment the thin cheering died under the sudden roll of drums beneath that preluded the Masonic Hymn.
There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:
"The Lord that dwells in earth and sea." …
She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ's, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.
She glanced at Mabel, and saw that the girl was singing with all her might, with her eyes fixed on her husband's dark figure a hundred yards away, and her soul pouring through them. So the mother, too, began to move her lips in chorus with that vast volume of sound.
As the hymn died away, and before the cheering could begin again, old Lord Pemberton was standing forward on the edge of the platform, and his thin, metallic voice piped a sentence or two across the tinkling splash of the fountains behind him. Then he stepped back, and Oliver came forward.
* * * * *
It was too far for the two to hear what was said, but Mabel slipped a paper, smiling tremulously, into the old lady's hand, and herself bent forward to listen.
Old Mrs. Brand looked at that, too, knowing that it was an analysis of her son's speech, and aware that she would not be able to hear his words.
There was an exordium first, congratulating all who were present to do honour to the great man who presided from his pedestal on the occasion of this great anniversary. Then there came a retrospect, comparing the old state of England with the present. Fifty years ago, the speaker said, poverty was still a disgrace, now it was so no longer. It was in the causes that led to poverty that the disgrace or the merit lay. Who would not honour a man worn out in the service of his country, or overcome at last by circumstances against which his efforts could not prevail?… He enumerated the reforms passed fifty years before on this very day, by which the nation once and for all declared the glory of poverty and man's sympathy with the unfortunate.
So he had told them he was to sing the praise of patient poverty and its reward, and that, he supposed, together with a few periods on the reform of the prison laws, would form the first half of his speech.
The second part was to be a panegyric of Braithwaite, treating him as the Precursor of a movement that even now had begun.
Old Mrs. Brand leaned back in her seat, and looked about her.
The window where they sat had been reserved for them; two arm-chairs filled the space, but immediately behind there were others, standing very silent now, craning forward, watching, too, with parted lips: a couple of women with an old man directly behind, and other faces visible again behind them. Their obvious absorption made the old lady a little ashamed of her distraction, and she turned resolutely once more to the square.
Ah! he was working up now to his panegyric! The tiny dark figure was back, a yard nearer the statue, and as she looked, his hand went up and he wheeled, pointing, as a murmur of applause drowned for an instant the minute, resonant voice. Then again he was forward, half crouching—for he was a born actor—and a storm of laughter rippled round the throng of heads. She heard an indrawn hiss behind her chair, and the next instant an exclamation from Mabel…. What was that?
There was a sharp crack, and the tiny gesticulating figure staggered back a step. The old man at the table was up in a moment, and simultaneously a violent commotion bubbled and heaved like water about a rock at a point in the crowd immediately outside the railed space where the bands were massed, and directly opposite the front of the platform.
Mrs. Brand, bewildered and dazed, found herself standing up, clutching the window rail, while the girl gripped her, crying out something she could not understand. A great roaring filled the square, the heads tossed this way and that, like corn under a squall of wind. Then Oliver was forward again, pointing and crying out, for she could see his gestures; and she sank back quickly, the blood racing through her old veins, and her heart hammering at the base of her throat.
"My dear, my dear, what is it?" she sobbed.
But Mabel was up, too, staring out at her husband; and a quick babble of talk and exclamations from behind made itself audible in spite of the roaring tumult of the square.
Oliver told them the explanation of the whole affair that evening at home, leaning back in his chair, with one arm bandaged and in a sling.
They had not been able to get near him at the time; the excitement in the square had been too fierce; but a messenger had come to his wife with the news that her husband was only slightly wounded, and was in the hands of the doctors.
"He was a Catholic," explained the drawn-faced Oliver. "He must have come ready, for his repeater was found loaded. Well, there was no chance for a priest this time."
Mabel nodded slowly: she had read of the man's fate on the placards.
"He was killed—trampled and strangled instantly," said Oliver. "I did what I could: you saw me. But—well, I dare say it was more merciful."
"But you did what you could, my dear?" said the old lady, anxiously, from her corner.
"I called out to them, mother, but they wouldn't hear me."
Mabel leaned forward—-
"Oliver, I know this sounds stupid of me; but—but I wish they had not killed him."
Oliver smiled at her. He knew this tender trait in her.
"It would have been more perfect if they had not," she said. Then she broke off and sat back.
"Why did he shoot just then?" she asked.
Oliver turned his eyes for an instant towards his mother, but she was knitting tranquilly.
Then he answered with a curious deliberateness.
"I said that Braithwaite had done more for the world by one speech than Jesus and all His saints put together." He was aware that the knitting-needles stopped for a second; then they went on again as before.
"But he must have meant to do it anyhow," continued Oliver.
"How do they know he was a Catholic?" asked the girl again.
"There was a rosary on him; and then he just had time to call on his God." "And nothing more is known?"
"Nothing more. He was well dressed, though."
Oliver leaned back a little wearily and closed his eyes; his arm still throbbed intolerably. But he was very happy at heart. It was true that he had been wounded by a fanatic, but he was not sorry to bear pain in such a cause, and it was obvious that the sympathy of England was with him. Mr. Phillips even now was busy in the next room, answering the telegrams that poured in every moment. Caldecott, the Prime Minister, Maxwell, Snowford and a dozen others had wired instantly their congratulations, and from every part of England streamed in message after message. It was an immense stroke for the Communists; their spokesman had been assaulted during the discharge of his duty, speaking in defence of his principles; it was an incalculable gain for them, and loss for the Individualists, that confessors were not all on one side after all. The huge electric placards over London had winked out the facts in Esperanto as Oliver stepped into the train at twilight.
"Oliver Brand wounded…. Catholic assailant…. Indignation of the country…. Well-deserved fate of assassin."
He was pleased, too, that he honestly had done his best to save the man. Even in that moment of sudden and acute pain he had cried out for a fair trial; but he had been too late. He had seen the starting eyes roll up in the crimson face, and the horrid grin come and go as the hands had clutched and torn at his throat. Then the face had vanished and a heavy trampling began where it had disappeared. Oh! there was some passion and loyalty left in England!
His mother got up presently and went out, still without a word; and Mabel turned to him, laying a hand on his knee. "Are you too tired to talk, my dear?"
He opened his eyes.
"Of course not, my darling. What is it?"
"What do you think will be the effect?"
He raised himself a little, looking out as usual through the darkening windows on to that astonishing view. Everywhere now lights were glowing, a sea of mellow moons just above the houses, and above the mysterious heavy blue of a summer evening.
"The effect?" he said. "It can be nothing but good. It was time that something happened. My dear, I feel very downcast sometimes, as you know. Well, I do not think I shall be again. I have been afraid sometimes that we were losing all our spirit, and that the old Tories were partly right when they prophesied what Communism would do. But after this—-"
"Well; we have shown that we can shed our blood too. It is in the nick of time, too, just at the crisis. I don't want to exaggerate; it is only a scratch—but it was so deliberate, and—and so dramatic. The poor devil could not have chosen a worse moment. People won't forget it."
Mabel's eyes shone with pleasure.
"You poor dear!" she said. "Are you in pain?"
"Not much. Besides, Christ! what do I care? If only this infernal Eastern affair would end!" He knew he was feverish and irritable, and made a great effort to drive it down.
"Oh, my dear!" he went on, flushed a little. "If they would not be such heavy fools: they don't understand; they don't understand."
"They don't understand what a glorious thing it all is Humanity, Life, Truth at last, and the death of Folly! But haven't I told them a hundred times?"
She looked at him with kindling eyes. She loved to see him like this, his confident, flushed face, the enthusiasm in his blue eyes; and the knowledge of his pain pricked her feeling with passion. She bent forward and kissed him suddenly.
"My dear, I am so proud of you. Oh, Oliver!"
He said nothing; but she could see what she loved to see, that response to her own heart; and so they sat in silence while the sky darkened yet more, and the click of the writer in the next room told them that the world was alive and that they had a share in its affairs.
Oliver stirred presently.
"Did you notice anything just now, sweetheart—when I said that about Jesus Christ?" "She stopped knitting for a moment," said the girl.
"You saw that too, then…. Mabel, do you think she is falling back?"
"Oh! she is getting old," said the girl lightly. "Of course she looks back a little."
"But you don't think—it would be too awful!"
She shook her head.
"No, no, my dear; you're excited and tired. It's just a little sentiment…. Oliver, I don't think I would say that kind of thing before her."
"But she hears it everywhere now."
"No, she doesn't. Remember she hardly ever goes out. Besides, she hates it. After all, she was brought up a Catholic."
Oliver nodded, and lay back again, looking dreamily out.
"Isn't it astonishing the way in which suggestion lasts? She can't get it out of her head, even after fifty years. Well, watch her, won't you?… By the way …"
"There's a little more news from the East. They say Felsenburgh's running the whole thing now. The Empire is sending him everywhere— Tobolsk, Benares, Yakutsk—everywhere; and he's been to Australia."
Mabel sat up briskly.
"Isn't that very hopeful?"
"I suppose so. There's no doubt that the Sufis are winning; but for how long is another question. Besides, the troops don't disperse."
"Europe is arming as fast as possible. I hear we are to meet the Powers next week at Paris. I must go."
"Your arm, my dear?"
"My arm must get well. It will have to go with me, anyhow."
"Tell me some more."
"There is no more. But it is just as certain as it can be that this is the crisis. If the East can be persuaded to hold its hand now, it will never be likely to raise it again. It will mean free trade all over the world, I suppose, and all that kind of thing. But if not—-"
"If not, there will be a catastrophe such as never has been even imagined. The whole human race will be at war, and either East or West will be simply wiped out. These new Benninschein explosives will make certain of that."
"But is it absolutely certain that the East has got them?"
"Absolutely. Benninschein sold them simultaneously to East and West; then he died, luckily for him."
Mabel had heard this kind of talk before, but her imagination simply refused to grasp it. A duel of East and West under these new conditions was an unthinkable thing. There had been no European war within living memory, and the Eastern wars of the last century had been under the old conditions. Now, if tales were true, entire towns would be destroyed with a single shell. The new conditions were unimaginable. Military experts prophesied extravagantly, contradicting one another on vital points; the whole procedure of war was a matter of theory; there were no precedents with which to compare it. It was as if archers disputed as to the results of cordite. Only one thing was certain—that the East had every modern engine, and, as regards male population, half as much again as the rest of the world put together; and the conclusion to be drawn from these premisses was not reassuring to England.
But imagination simply refused to speak. The daily papers had a short, careful leading article every day, founded upon the scraps of news that stole out from the conferences on the other side of the world; Felsenburgh's name appeared more frequently than ever: otherwise there seemed to be a kind of hush. Nothing suffered very much; trade went on; European stocks were not appreciably lower than usual; men still built houses, married wives, begat sons and daughters, did their business and went to the theatre, for the mere reason that there was no good in anything else. They could neither save nor precipitate the situation; it was on too large a scale. Occasionally people went mad—people who had succeeded in goading their imagination to a height whence a glimpse of reality could be obtained; and there was a diffused atmosphere of tenseness. But that was all. Not many speeches were made on the subject; it had been found inadvisable. After all, there was nothing to do but to wait.
Mabel remembered her husband's advice to watch, and for a few days did her best. But there was nothing that alarmed her. The old lady was a little quiet, perhaps, but went about her minute affairs as usual. She asked the girl to read to her sometimes, and listened unblenching to whatever was offered her; she attended in the kitchen daily, organised varieties of food, and appeared interested in all that concerned her son. She packed his bag with her own hands, set out his furs for the swift flight to Paris, and waved to him from the window as he went down the little path towards the junction. He would be gone three days, he said.
It was on the evening of the second day that she fell ill; and Mabel, running upstairs, in alarm at the message of the servant, found her rather flushed and agitated in her chair.
"It is nothing, my dear," said the old lady tremulously; and she added the description of a symptom or two.
Mabel got her to bed, sent for the doctor, and sat down to wait.
She was sincerely fond of the old lady, and had always found her presence in the house a quiet sort of delight. The effect of her upon the mind was as that of an easy-chair upon the body. The old lady was so tranquil and human, so absorbed in small external matters, so reminiscent now and then of the days of her youth, so utterly without resentment or peevishness. It seemed curiously pathetic to the girl to watch that quiet old spirit approach its extinction, or rather, as Mabel believed, its loss of personality in the reabsorption into the Spirit of Life which informed the world. She found less difficulty in contemplating the end of a vigorous soul, for in that case she imagined a kind of energetic rush of force back into the origin of things; but in this peaceful old lady there was so little energy; her whole point, so to speak, lay in the delicate little fabric of personality, built out of fragile things into an entity far more significant than the sum of its component parts: the death of a flower, reflected Mabel, is sadder than the death of a lion; the breaking of a piece of china more irreparable than the ruin of a palace.
"It is syncope," said the doctor when he came in. "She may die at any time; she may live ten years."
"There is no need to telegraph for Mr. Brand?"
He made a little deprecating movement with his hands.
"It is not certain that she will die—it is not imminent?" she asked.
"No, no; she may live ten years, I said."
He added a word or two of advice as to the use of the oxygen injector, and went away.
* * * * *
The old lady was lying quietly in bed, when the girl went up, and put out a wrinkled hand.
"Well, my dear?" she asked.
"It is just a little weakness, mother. You must lie quiet and do nothing. Shall I read to you?"
"No, my dear; I will think a little."
It was no part of Mabel's idea to duty to tell her that she was in danger, for there was no past to set straight, no Judge to be confronted. Death was an ending, not a beginning. It was a peaceful Gospel; at least, it became peaceful as soon as the end had come.
So the girl went downstairs once more, with a quiet little ache at her heart that refused to be still.
What a strange and beautiful thing death was, she told herself—this resolution of a chord that had hung suspended for thirty, fifty or seventy years—back again into the stillness of the huge Instrument that was all in all to itself. Those same notes would be struck again, were being struck again even now all over the world, though with an infinite delicacy of difference in the touch; but that particular emotion was gone: it was foolish to think that it was sounding eternally elsewhere, for there was no elsewhere. She, too, herself would cease one day, let her see to it that the tone was pure and lovely.
* * * * *
Mr. Phillips arrived the next morning as usual, just as Mabel had left the old lady's room, and asked news of her.
"She is a little better, I think," said Mabel. "She must be very quiet all day."
The secretary bowed and turned aside into Oliver's room, where a heap of letters lay to be answered.
A couple of hours later, as Mabel went upstairs once more, she met Mr. Phillips coming down. He looked a little flushed under his sallow skin. "Mrs. Brand sent for me," he said. "She wished to know whether Mr. Oliver would be back to-night." "He will, will he not? You have not heard?"
"Mr. Brand said he would be here for a late dinner. He will reach London at nineteen."
"And is there any other news?"
He compressed his lips.
"There are rumours," he said. "Mr. Brand wired to me an hour ago."
He seemed moved at something, and Mabel looked at him in astonishment.
"It is not Eastern news?" she asked.
His eyebrows wrinkled a little.
"You must forgive me, Mrs. Brand," he said. "I am not at liberty to say anything."
She was not offended, for she trusted her husband too well; but she went on into the sick-room with her heart beating.
The old lady, too, seemed excited. She lay in bed with a clear flush in her white cheeks, and hardly smiled at all to the girl's greeting.
"Well, you have seen Mr. Phillips, then?" said Mabel.
Old Mrs. Brand looked at her sharply an instant, but said nothing.
"Don't excite yourself, mother. Oliver will be back to-night."
The old lady drew a long breath.
"Don't trouble about me, my dear," she said. "I shall do very well now. He will be back to dinner, will he not?" "If the volor is not late. Now, mother, are you ready for breakfast?"
* * * * *
Mabel passed an afternoon of considerable agitation. It was certain that something had happened. The secretary, who breakfasted with her in the parlour looking on to the garden, had appeared strangely excited. He had told her that he would be away the rest of the day: Mr. Oliver had given him his instructions. He had refrained from all discussion of the Eastern question, and he had given her no news of the Paris Convention; he only repeated that Mr. Oliver would be back that night. Then he had gone of in a hurry half-an-hour later.
The old lady seemed asleep when the girl went up afterwards, and Mabel did not like to disturb her. Neither did she like to leave the house; so she walked by herself in the garden, thinking and hoping and fearing, till the long shadow lay across the path, and the tumbled platform of roofs was bathed in a dusty green haze from the west.
As she came in she took up the evening paper, but there was no news there except to the effect that the Convention would close that afternoon.
* * * * *
Twenty o'clock came, but there was no sign of Oliver. The Paris volor should have arrived an hour before, but Mabel, staring out into the darkening heavens had seen the stars come out like jewels one by one, but no slender winged fish pass overhead. Of course she might have missed it; there was no depending on its exact course; but she had seen it a hundred times before, and wondered unreasonably why she had not seen it now. But she would not sit down to dinner, and paced up and down in her white dress, turning again and again to the window, listening to the soft rush of the trains, the faint hoots from the track, and the musical chords from the junction a mile away. The lights were up by now, and the vast sweep of the towns looked like fairyland between the earthly light and the heavenly darkness. Why did not Oliver come, or at least let her know why he did not?
Once she went upstairs, miserably anxious herself, to reassure the old lady, and found her again very drowsy.
"He is not come," she said. "I dare say he may be kept in Paris."
The old face on the pillow nodded and murmured, and Mabel went down again. It was now an hour after dinner-time.
Oh! there were a hundred things that might have kept him. He had often been later than this: he might have missed the volor he meant to catch; the Convention might have been prolonged; he might be exhausted, and think it better to sleep in Paris after all, and have forgotten to wire. He might even have wired to Mr. Phillips, and the secretary have forgotten to pass on the message.
She went at last, hopelessly, to the telephone, and looked at it. There it was, that round silent month, that little row of labelled buttons. She half decided to touch them one by one, and inquire whether anything had been heard of her husband: there was his club, his office in Whitehall, Mr. Phillips's house, Parliament-house, and the rest. But she hesitated, telling herself to be patient. Oliver hated interference, and he would surely soon remember and relieve her anxiety.
Then, even as she turned away, the bell rang sharply, and a white label flashed into sight.—WHITEHALL.
She pressed the corresponding button, and, her hand shaking so much that she could scarcely hold the receiver to her ear, she listened.
"Who is there?"
Her heart leaped at the sound of her husband's voice, tiny and minute across the miles of wire.
"I—Mabel," she said. "Alone here."
"Oh! Mabel. Very well. I am back: all is well. Now listen. Can you hear?"
"The best has happened. It is all over in the East. Felsenburgh has done it. Now listen. I cannot come home to-night. It will be announced in Paul's House in two hours from now. We are communicating with the Press. Come up here to me at once. You must be present…. Can you hear?" "Oh, yes."
"Come then at once. It will be the greatest thing in history. Tell no one. Come before the rush begins. In half-an-hour the way will be stopped."
"Mother is ill. Shall I leave her?"
"Oh, no immediate danger. The doctor has seen her."
There was silence for a moment.
"Yes; come then. We will go back to-night anyhow, then. Tell her we shall be late."
"… Yes, you must come. Felsenburgh will be there."