There was an exclamation, then silence, as a tall, beautiful girl with flushed face and shining grey eyes came forward and stopped, followed by a man whom Percy knew at once from his pictures. A little whimpering sounded from the bed, and the priest lifted his hand instinctively to silence it.
"Why," said Mabel; and then stared at the man with the young face and the white hair.
Oliver opened his lips and closed them again. He, too, had a strange excitement in his face. Then he spoke.
"Who is this?" he said deliberately.
"Oliver," cried the girl, turning to him abruptly, "this is the priest I saw—-"
"A priest!" said the other, and came forward a step. "Why, I thought—-"
Percy drew a breath to steady that maddening vibration in his throat.
"Yes, I am a priest," he said.
Again the whimpering broke out from the bed; and Percy, half turning again to silence it, saw the girl mechanically loosen the clasp of the thin dust cloak over her white dress.
"You sent for him, mother?" snapped the man, with a tremble in his voice, and with a sudden jerk forward of his whole body. But the girl put out her hand.
"Quietly, my dear," she said. "Now, sir—-"
"Yes, I am a priest," said Percy again, strung up now to a desperate resistance of will, hardly knowing what he said.
"And you come to my house!" exclaimed the man. He came a step nearer, and half recoiled. "You swear you are a priest?" he said. "You have been here all this evening?"
"And you are not—-" he stopped again.
Mabel stepped straight between them.
"Oliver," she said, still with that air of suppressed excitement, "we must not have a scene here. The poor dear is too ill. Will you come downstairs, sir?"
Percy took a step towards the door, and Oliver moved slightly aside. Then the priest stopped, turned and lifted his hand. "God bless you!" he said simply, to the muttering figure in the bed. Then he went out, and waited outside the door. He could hear a low talking within; then a compassionate murmur from the girl's voice; then Oliver was beside him, trembling all over, as white as ashes, and made a silent gesture as he went past him down the stairs.
* * * * *
The whole thing seemed to Percy like some incredible dream; it was all so unexpected, so untrue to life. He felt conscious of an enormous shame at the sordidness of the affair, and at the same time of a kind of hopeless recklessness. The worst had happened and the best—that was his sole comfort.
Oliver pushed a door open, touched a button, and went through into the suddenly lit room, followed by Percy. Still in silence, he pointed to a chair, Percy sat down, and Oliver stood before the fireplace, his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket, slightly turned away.
Percy's concentrated senses became aware of every detail of the room—the deep springy green carpet, smooth under his feet, the straight hanging thin silk curtains, the half-dozen low tables with a wealth of flowers upon them, and the books that lined the walls. The whole room was heavy with the scent of roses, although the windows were wide, and the night-breeze stirred the curtains continually. It was a woman's room, he told himself. Then he looked at the man's figure, lithe, tense, upright; the dark grey suit not unlike his own, the beautiful curve of the jaw, the clear pale complexion, the thin nose, the protruding curve of idealism over the eyes, and the dark hair. It was a poet's face, he told himself, and the whole personality was a living and vivid one. Then he turned a little and rose as the door opened, and Mabel came in, closing it behind her.
She came straight across to her husband, and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Sit down, my dear," she said. "We must talk a little. Please sit down, sir."
The three sat down, Percy on one side, and the husband and wife on a straight-backed settle opposite.
The girl began again.
"This must be arranged at once," she said, "but we must have no tragedy. Oliver, do you understand? You must not make a scene. Leave this to me." She spoke with a curious gaiety; and Percy to his astonishment saw that she was quite sincere: there was not the hint of cynicism.
"Oliver, my dear," she said again, "don't mouth like that! It is all perfectly right. I am going to manage this."
Percy saw a venomous look directed at him by the man; the girl saw it too, moving her strong humorous eyes from one to the other. She put her hand on his knee.
"Oliver, attend! Don't look at this gentleman so bitterly. He has done no harm."
"No harm!" whispered the other.
"No—no harm in the world. What does it matter what that poor dear upstairs thinks? Now, sir, would you mind telling us why you came here?"
Percy drew another breath. He had not expected this line.
"I came here to receive Mrs. Brand back into the Church," he said.
"And you have done so?"
"I have done so."
"Would you mind telling us your name? It makes it so much more convenient."
Percy hesitated. Then he determined to meet her on her own ground.
"Certainly. My name is Franklin."
"Father Franklin?" asked the girl, with just the faintest tinge of mocking emphasis on the first word.
"Yes. Father Percy Franklin, from Archbishop's House, Westminster," said the priest steadily.
"Well, then, Father Percy Franklin; can you tell us why you came here? I mean, who sent for you?"
"Mrs. Brand sent for me."
"Yes, but by what means?"
"That I must not say."
"Oh, very good…. May we know what good comes of being 'received into the Church?'"
"By being received into the Church, the soul is reconciled to God."
"Oh! (Oliver, be quiet.) And how do you do it, Father Franklin?"
Percy stood up abruptly.
"This is no good, madam," he said. "What is the use of these questions?"
The girl looked at him in open-eyed astonishment, still with her hand on her husband's knee.
"The use, Father Franklin! Why, we want to know. There is no church law against your telling us, is there?"
Percy hesitated again. He did not understand in the least what she was after. Then he saw that he would give them an advantage if he lost his head at all: so he sat down again.
"Certainly not. I will tell you if you wish to know. I heard Mrs. Brand's confession, and gave her absolution." "Oh! yes; and that does it, then? And what next?"
"She ought to receive Holy Communion, and anointing, if she is in danger of death."
Oliver twitched suddenly.
"Christ!" he said softly.
"Oliver!" cried the girl entreatingly. "Please leave this to me. It is much better so.—And then, I suppose, Father Franklin, you want to give those other things to my mother, too?"
"They are not absolutely necessary," said the priest, feeling, he did not know why, that he was somehow playing a losing game.
"Oh! they are not necessary? But you would like to?"
"I shall do so if possible. But I have done what is necessary."
It required all his will to keep quiet. He was as a man who had armed himself in steel, only to find that his enemy was in the form of a subtle vapour. He simply had not an idea what to do next. He would have given anything for the man to have risen and flown at his throat, for this girl was too much for them both.
"Yes," she said softly. "Well, it is hardly to be expected that my husband should give you leave to come here again. But I am very glad that you have done what you think necessary. No doubt it will be a satisfaction to you, Father Franklin, and to the poor old thing upstairs, too. While we—- we—" she pressed her husband's knee—"we do not mind at all. Oh!—but there is one thing more."
"If you please," said Percy, wondering what on earth was coming.
"You Christians—forgive me if I say anything rude—but, you know, you Christians have a reputation for counting heads, and making the most of converts. We shall be so much obliged, Father Franklin, if you will give us your word not to advertise this—this incident. It would distress my husband, and give him a great deal of trouble."
"Mrs. Brand—-" began the priest.
"One moment…. You see, we have not treated you badly. There has been no violence. We will promise not to make scenes with my mother. Will you promise us that?"
Percy had had time to consider, and he answered instantly.
"Certainly, I will promise that."
Mabel sighed contentedly.
"Well, that is all right. We are so much obliged…. And I think we may say this, that perhaps after consideration my husband may see his way to letting you come here again to do Communion and—and the other thing—-"
Again that spasm shook the man beside her.
"Well, we will see about that. At any rate, we know your address, and can let you know…. By the way, Father Franklin, are you going back to Westminster to-night?"
"Ah! I hope you will get through. You will find London very much excited. Perhaps you heard—-"
"Felsenburgh?" said Percy.
"Yes. Julian Felsenburgh," said the girl softly, again with that strange excitement suddenly alight in her eyes. "Julian Felsenburgh," she repeated. "He is there, you know. He will stay in England for the present."
Again Percy was conscious of that slight touch of fear at the mention of that name.
"I understand there is to be peace," he said.
The girl rose and her husband with her.
"Yes," she said, almost compassionately, "there is to be peace. Peace at last." (She moved half a step towards him, and her face glowed like a rose of fire. Her hand rose a little.) "Go back to London, Father Franklin, and use your eyes. You will see him, I dare say, and you will see more besides." (Her voice began to vibrate.) "And you will understand, perhaps, why we have treated you like this—why we are no longer afraid of you—why we are willing that my mother should do its she pleases. Oh! you will understand, Father Franklin if not to-night, to-morrow; or if not to-morrow, at least in a very short time."
"Mabel!" cried her husband.
The girl wheeled, and threw her arms round him, and kissed him on the mouth.
"Oh! I am not ashamed, Oliver, my dear. Let him go and see for himself. Good-night, Father Franklin." As he went towards the door, hearing the ping of the bell that some one touched in the room behind him, he turned once more, dazed and bewildered; and there were the two, husband and wife, standing in the soft, sunny light, as if transfigured. The girl had her arm round the man's shoulder, and stood upright and radiant as a pillar of fire; and even on the man's face there was no anger now—nothing but an almost supernatural pride and confidence. They were both smiling.
Then Percy passed out into the soft, summer night.
Percy understood nothing except that he was afraid, as he sat in the crowded car that whirled him up to London. He scarcely even heard the talk round him, although it was loud and continuous; and what he heard meant little to him. He understood only that there had been strange scenes, that London was said to have gone suddenly mad, that Felsenburgh had spoken that night in Paul's House.
He was afraid at the way in which he had been treated, and he asked himself dully again and again what it was that had inspired that treatment; it seemed that he had been in the presence of the supernatural; he was conscious of shivering a little, and of the symptoms of an intolerable sleepiness. It was scarcely strange to him that he should be sitting in a crowded car at two o'clock of a summer dawn.
Thrice the car stopped, and he stared out at the signs of confusion that were everywhere; at the figures that ran in the twilight between the tracks, at a couple of wrecked carriages, a tumble of tarpaulins; he listened mechanically to the hoots and cries that sounded everywhere.
As he stepped out at last on to the platform, he found it very much as he had left it two hours before. There was the same desperate rush as the car discharged its load, the same dead body beneath the seat; and above all, as he ran helplessly behind the crowd, scarcely knowing whither he ran or why, above him burned the same stupendous message beneath the clock. Then he found himself in the lift, and a minute later he was out on the steps behind the station.
There, too, was an astonishing sight. The lamps still burned overhead, but beyond them lay the first pale streaks of the false dawn. The street that ran now straight to the old royal palace, uniting there, as at the centre of a web, with those that came from Westminster, the Mall and Hyde Park, was one solid pavement of heads. On this side and that rose up the hotels and "Houses of Joy," the windows all ablaze with light, solemn and triumphant as if to welcome a king; while far ahead against the sky stood the monstrous palace outlined in fire, and alight from within like all other houses within view. The noise was bewildering. It was impossible to distinguish one sound from another. Voices, horns, drums, the tramp of a thousand footsteps on the rubber pavements, the sombre roll of wheels from the station behind—all united in one overwhelmingly solemn booming, overscored by shriller notes.
It was impossible to move.
He found himself standing in a position of extraordinary advantage, at the very top of the broad flight of steps that led down into the old station yard, now a wide space that united, on the left the broad road to the palace, and on the right Victoria Street, that showed like all else one vivid perspective of lights and heads. Against the sky on his right rose up the illuminated head of the Cathedral Campanile. It appeared to him as if he had known that in some previous existence.
He edged himself mechanically a foot or two to his left, till he clasped a pillar; then he waited, trying not to analyse his emotions, but to absorb them.
Gradually he became aware that this crowd was as no other that he had ever seen. To his psychical sense it seemed to him that it possessed a unity unlike any other. There was magnetism in the air. There was a sensation as if a creative act were in process, whereby thousands of individual cells were being welded more and more perfectly every instant into one huge sentient being with one will, one emotion, and one head. The crying of voices seemed significant only as the stirrings of this creative power which so expressed itself. Here rested this giant humanity, stretching to his sight in living limbs so far as he could see on every side, waiting, waiting for some consummation—stretching, too, as his tired brain began to guess, down every thoroughfare of the vast city.
He did not even ask himself for what they waited. He knew, yet he did not know. He knew it was for a revelation—for something that should crown their aspirations, and fix them so for ever.
He had a sense that he had seen all this before; and, like a child, he began to ask himself where it could have happened, until he remembered that it was so that he had once dreamt of the Judgment Day—of humanity gathered to meet Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ! Ah! how tiny that Figure seemed to him now—how far away—real indeed, but insignificant to himself—how hopelessly apart from this tremendous life! He glanced up at the Campanile. Yes; there was a piece of the True Cross there, was there not?—a little piece of the wood on which a Poor Man had died twenty centuries ago…. Well, well. It was a long way off….
He did not quite understand what was happening to him. "Sweet Jesus, be to me not a Judge but a Saviour," he whispered beneath his breath, gripping the granite of the pillar; and a moment later knew how futile was that prayer. It was gone like a breath in this vast, vivid atmosphere of man. He had said mass, had he not? this morning—in white vestments.—Yes; he had believed it all then—desperately, but truly; and now….
To look into the future was as useless as to look into the past. There was no future, and no past: it was all one eternal instant, present and final….
Then he let go of effort, and again began to see with his bodily eyes.
* * * * *
The dawn was coming up the sky now, a steady soft brightening that appeared in spite of its sovereignty to be as nothing compared with the brilliant light of the streets. "We need no sun," he whispered, smiling piteously; "no sun or light of a candle. We have our light on earth—the light that lighteneth every man…."
The Campanile seemed further away than ever now, in that ghostly glimmer of dawn—more and more helpless every moment, compared with the beautiful vivid shining of the streets.
Then he listened to the sounds, and it seemed to him as if somewhere, far down eastwards, there was a silence beginning. He jerked his head impatiently, as a man behind him began to talk rapidly and confusedly. Why would he not be silent, and let silence be heard?… The man stopped presently, and out of the distance there swelled up a roar, as soft as the roll of a summer tide; it passed up towards him from the right; it was about him, dinning in his ears. There was no longer any individual voice: it was the breathing of the giant that had been born; he was crying out too; he did not know what he said, but he could not be silent. His veins and nerves seemed alight with wine; and as he stared down the long street, hearing the huge cry ebb from him and move toward the palace, he knew why he had cried, and why he was now silent.
A slender, fish-shaped thing, as white as milk, as ghostly as a shadow, and as beautiful as the dawn, slid into sight half-a-mile away, turned and came towards him, floating, as it seemed, on the very wave of silence that it created, up, up the long curving street on outstretched wings, not twenty feet above the heads of the crowd. There was one great sigh, and then silence once more.
* * * * *
When Percy could think consciously again—for his will was only capable of efforts as a clock of ticks—the strange white thing was nearer. He told himself that he had seen a hundred such before; and at the same instant that this was different from all others.
Then it was nearer still, floating slowly, slowly, like a gull over the sea; he could make out its smooth nose, its low parapet beyond, the steersman's head motionless; he could even hear now the soft winnowing of the screw—and then he saw that for which he had waited.
High on the central deck there stood a chair, draped, too, in white, with some insignia visible above its back; and in the chair sat the figure of a man, motionless and lonely. He made no sign as he came; his dark dress showed vividedly against the whiteness; his head was raised, and he turned it gently now and again from side to side.
It came nearer still, in the profound stillness; the head turned, and for an instant the face was plainly visible in the soft, radiant light.
It was a pale face, strongly marked, as of a young man, with arched, black eyebrows, thin lips, and white hair.
Then the face turned once more, the steersman shifted his head, and the beautiful shape, wheeling a little, passed the corner, and moved up towards the palace.
There was an hysterical yelp somewhere, a cry, and again the tempestuous groan broke out.