The New Arcadia/Chapter 34
THE LIVING DEAD.
"She is not dead, and she is not wed!
But she loves me now, and she loved me then!
And the very first words that her sweet lips said,
My heart grew youthful again.
And I think, in the lives of most women and men,
There's a moment when all would go smooth and even,
If only the dead could find out when
To come back and be forgiven."—Lytton.
"Ah, God, for a man with heart, head, hand,
Like some of the simple great ones gone
For ever and ever by,
One still strong man in a blatant land,
Whatever they call him, what care I,
Aristocrat, democrat, autocrat—one
Who can rule and dare not lie."—Tennyson.
Never had Mrs. Courtenay been quite in sympathy with her husband's enterprise. Now that he was gone, however, her one aim was to conserve the interests of his people.
The advances of Elms she regarded with detestation. Never could she unite herself with him. The hallucinations of her friend, Mrs. Dowling, haunted her. Nightly she dreamed of his return, and awoke to know it impossible. She could not marry another; least of all this man she loathed.
But the poor women and children who clung to her, while the men implored her intervention! They knew, and hinted at, the terms upon which she might purchase their emancipation. Should she not sacrifice herself for them? It could not be for long. Under stress of sorrow and anxiety, her heart had troubled her again of late. At any time the end might come. Would she not sleep well, at last, with the consciousness of having sacrificed herself for others?
At one time, the distracted woman went so far as to permit Elms to have a deed of settlement prepared, whereby the rights of the villagers would be secured to them. This document was in her possession. That very evening Elms was coming to learn finally whether she would accept him and his terms.
The man was intoxicated with success. Always vain and covetous, he had set before him, as the height of his ambition, occupancy of the White House, alliance with the family of his deceased master, and an assured position in society.
His daughter should yet have the rights to which, by birth on her mother's side, and by talents on his, as he liked to think, she was entitled.
Mrs. Courtenay was sitting in the garden as the day closed, that was to decide the fate of those whose destinies hung on her work. It was a terrible thought! a gruesome position! She started as the straight, slim form of the Sergeant appeared. He wore a close-buttoned frock-coat, and tall hat. A cane was in his hand.
"Good-evening, madam," he said, as he approached, touching his hat stiffly, as to a superior officer. His was the demeanour of one who had power, and intended to use it. "May I ask," he continued, leaning lightly on his cane, "whether you have perused the document I submitted to you, and approve it?"
"The settlement is satisfactory," replied the lady, looking him steadily in the face, "so far as the people are concerned. Can you not, I implore you to consider, give effect to it without the conditions imposed?"
"Why should I yield all without receiving anything?"
"Because, by your showing, all was given to you on such terms."
"Was it, by Jove!" exclaimed the man, lashing, without moving from his position, at a poppy-head. "Who, I should like to know, devised this scheme for the social redemption of the people, and made this place all it is?"
"My husband," responded the lady, shortly and significantly.
"One who may be your husband, madam," was the reply, "if you are wise, and care for the people as much as you profess."
"That can never be. It is out of the question," was the prompt reply. Then, more persuasively—"Let me, Mr. Elms, as a friend, beg you, as one in whom my husband reposed much confidence, to give these people their rights. Think of the opportunity of doing good that presents itself. Be magnanimous; sign this document to-night, and for ever I will be indebted to you. I will bless your name; and," she urged, "your daughter might come and stay with us in town. We could take her about as the child of a good man who, when he had the power of doing otherwise to his own profit, secured his friends in their lawful possession. John Elms," she continued, with emotion, "think what this threatened eviction means to those poor women and children, to the men who have toiled here so hard and so long! You cannot, you will not, I am sure, cast them out."
She might as well have appealed to the gnarled gumtree beside her.
"What of myself, madam?" was the almost insolent reply. "A man must think of that sometimes. What should I have? Nothing. I give away all my property to a useless set of folk who would, to-morrow, laugh at me for my pains. No, madam. If assured of the position, in every respect, your late husband occupied, I should be willing to yield all you ask; but, be sure, Mrs. Courtenay, on no other conditions. Dear madam, good lady," he continued, in more softened tones, "there is a soft side to my nature. I am devotedly attached to yourself. I sorrow deeply, I assure you, for your bereaved condition. Let me try to fill, humbly, the good doctor's place. I can manage; I can command. This vast property so richly improved would be the envy of all beholders. You could live mostly in town, where I should be only when the House sits. You can enjoy. yourself, and grace society," he added, with a grim smile, "with the sense of having made this little world of ours and, may I add, plain John Elms himself, for ever happy."
The Sergeant bent on his knee in the moonlight, and sought to take the lady's hand. Mrs. Courtenay withdrew it hurriedly. She rose from her seat, and turned towards the house.
"Mr. Elms," she said, with decision, "that, I say, can never be. You must not humiliate yourself and me. I could never, for any consideration, marry again."
The man sprang to his feet. He, the dictator of Mimosa Vale, had humbled himself in vain! had been spurned! Seizing the document that lay on the bench, he passionately tore it into a dozen pieces and cast them to the winds.
"Madam," he almost shouted, "you will rue this decision. This night your precious crew get their notice to quit on the morrow. I'll set people here that I can depend upon. As for you, proud woman"—he scowled upon her and shook his fist—"when you hear the children cry and see the women weep, when you think of men cursing your husband for lending them wild impossible hopes, you can remember that you did it; that you sacrificed them to a morbid sentiment; that one word from you would have saved them. And you would not say it. Now, good-night, madam, and thank you for nothing." The Sergeant strode off, cursing the misguided woman who could refuse John Elms.
Mrs. Courtenay, trembling, seated herself again on the bench. A pang shot to her heart. A cold moisture suffused her brow.
"My God!" she exclaimed, with panting breath, "my hour surely has come. What have I said? What should I do? Oh, my husband! His poor people! The children that clung about his knees! Ought I—God, tell me—to sacrifice myself for them?"
And so, while her heart beat tumultuously with an ominous thud, and then almost seemed to stop, the distracted woman sat, in the cold, unsympathetic moonlight, and wondered and wished herself dead—"Save for them," she gasped, "for his work!"
Passing from Larry's grave on the hill-side, the white-haired visitor moved unobserved along the line of cottages. Opposite the church, he was almost startled by the sudden leaping and gambolling of a dog about his feet and knees. It was his own "Collie"—the one thing that recognized and greeted him in all the valley. Stooping down, he caressed with trembling hand the faithful creature, while it licked furtive kisses on his cheek.
"Dear old Collie!" exclaimed the visitor, fairly hugging the animal that whined with delight.
"Good God, what's this?" exclaimed Alec, shuffling up. "The dog's never noticed a soul for nigh two years. Maybe you knowed his master, sir, the good doctor that went away and died. Collie thinks you're some'ut to do wi' he. He's as 'cute as a Christian."
At that moment the dog, seeking to lick the face of the visitor, knocked the slouched hat off. The head and brow on which the moonlight streamed, revealed to the old man what love had told the dog.
"My God! it's the doctor himself, or his ghost," exclaimed Alec, clasping one of the visitor's hands in both of his, and gazing into his face. "Ah, it is you, master. I can see you now, spite of the white beard. Them eyes! And that look! There's no mistaking the voice."
The doctor stood hesitating. He had desired that none should recognize him as yet. The strong moonlight shed an unearthly glamour upon the tattered garments and thin bare arms of the wanderer as he still embraced the dog, while a wealth of grey hair fell, like a cloud, about the nestling companion of former days.
Alec, wiping his moist brow, drew back. There was something uncanny about the ghostly apparition that uttered no voice.
"Alec, good soul," exclaimed the doctor, putting down the dog and placing both hands tenderly on the old man's shoulders, "I did not mean any should know me, but the dog and you, cleverer than all the crowd, have found me out."
Voices of men approaching recalled the excited pair.
"Quick, others are coming," whispered the doctor; "let us out of the way."
They crept into a back room of the dark school beside them. In a few words the doctor explained how he had survived. A meeting, he learned, was to be held that night, when the question of the eviction was to be finally settled.
"That man, he is not married again?" inquired the doctor, as though he could not trust himself to ask.
"Not exactly, sir. But he hopes to be," replied the old man, significantly; "all depends on to-night."
His companion understood and shuddered.
"Thank God! thank God!" he murmured.
In the course of their hurried conversation. Alec alluded to the tin box containing torn paper that he had secured. Requested to do so, he speedily brought it from his house. The doctor, recognizing the pieces, procured some gum and a sheet of foolscap in the schoolroom, and proceeded, as the two conversed, to gum the severed pieces side by side. In a short time the Will was restored.
Elms entered the great hall and pushed his way through the assembled company, rage and mortification in his heart, and a black scowl on his face.
"It's all up," whispered some, "she'll have nowt to say to him. You see. Plague on her!"
Elms explained that from the first he had done what he could for them. They, however, had been ungrateful and indolent. He had resolved to fill their places with persons better calculated to carry a communal experiment to a successful issue. He had hoped that another turn might have been given to events. Mrs. Courtenay had it in her power to arrange an amicable settlement, if she cared to do so. At a last interview, however, she had finally refused to intervene in any way. "She leaves you to your fate."
"Thank God!" cried a deep voice from behind.
"You wouldn't say that, gov'nor," called one standing near the grey-haired visitor, "if you knowed what hangs on 't. She's as unnateral as her husband afore her. What's we to the likes of them? Dirt! Drat 'em all!"
From under his slouched hat the stranger's eyes flashed, but he said nothing. With arms akimbo, he seemed to be holding himself together, restraining himself.
"Now I've done with you all," continued Elms. "To-morrow at noon you all clear out. A posse of police will render any assistance needed," he added, significantly; "indeed," jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "they're now enjoying themselves at euchre in the room hard by."
The poor men argued and implored, threatened and raved in turns. Elms was imperturbable, gratuitously insolent—that was all. The women and children who were gathered about the doors, hearing the dreaded edict, sobbed aloud.
At this juncture Frank Brown leaped on the platform.
"Elms," he cried indignantly, "I have sought by all means to appeal to your sense of justice, to your better feelings. But all in vain! Now, I tell you that you shall not be permitted to alienate these people from their lawful and hard won possessions. Cast them out tomorrow," he cried with energy, "and I will raise such a tempest of righteous indignation from end to end of the country as shall render it impossible for you to persevere in your policy of spoliation. These people shall have their rights, and you your deserts, if I speak and labour to my dying day to secure them."
Stolidly, with something between a smile and a scowl on his darkening features, the dictator stepped towards the clergyman.
"We want none of your meddling, young man," he said. "What has parsons to do with social questions? Go and pray with the women. That's what the likes of you's fit for." And he rudely jostled the young man with his shoulder, as though he would push him from the platform.
In another moment the Sergeant was high in the air. The cleric seized him round the waist, and, lifting him like a kitten, stalked with his struggling tormentor across the platform, depositing him with a thud in the chair, that groaned again with the impact.
"Don't you dare lay hands on me," cried the clergyman, in his excitement shaking his fist in the bully's face. "You are one of those I have met with before," he continued, "who think they can insult a clergyman or a woman with impunity, imagining that the one will not and the other cannot resist the indignity. You made a mistake this time, however. We may have dealings with one another yet, John Elms. For you are not going to do as you would with these people. Don't you, as you value your skin, have resort to physical methods. I do not want to thrash you. I ought not to do it, but when I think of the insults heaped on the wife of my dead friend, and these brave fellows here, I feel I should welcome an opportunity of thrashing you within an inch of your life."
At a sign from Elms the constable at the door had summoned his comrades from the building adjoining. A score or two of white helmets were now visible amongst the shock heads of the company.
"Sergeant," cried the dictator, "remove this disturber of the meeting. He has just assaulted me."
As the police approached the chair the settlers gathered in threatening attitude about their champion, daring the constable to lay hands on their parson.
"We're three hundred to thirty, old man," cried one of the residents to the sergeant in charge. "Don't you make no manner of mistake. We're not a-going to see he touched or walked off."
Speedily all became confusion. Elms tried in vain to make himself heard. At more than one point the police were in conflict with the settlers. After a while, Frank Brown managed by signs of deprecation to secure silence.
"You have not the right," he cried to the constables, "to remove me. Nor have you," he continued, glancing round at his supporters, "the power. Men, sit down," he urged, "let us finish this wretched business. Only beware. Elms, how you act. I have another shot in my locker." And he said very deliberately, gazing scrutinizingly at his adversary, "God alone knows what happened on that desert isle, but I can surmise."
It was but a desperate, haphazard suggestion, intended, if possible, as a last resort to deter the man.
The shaft, however, struck home. Elms winced and drew back in his chair. Then, as if resolving to set at rest for ever the doubts that had been more than once hinted at—suggestions that the doctor might not have had fair play—the man, coming to the edge of the platform, said, with some trepidation—
"I know what you mean to imply, that I am in some way responsible for my predecessor's sad fate. That is a lie! If the dead arose from his watery grave to-day he would exonerate me. He would acknowledge frantic efforts to save him at the risk of my own life. I call the dead, whom I served, to acquit me of your foul slander." The man spoke impassionedly. A solemn silence followed.
"The dead, John Elms," exclaimed a voice, almost sepulchral, from the back of the assemblage; "the dead do rise and denounce you as traitor and murderer."
All turned and looked in the direction whence the sound proceeded. Elms became ashen pale. Then, seeing only the white-haired visitor, of whom he had heard, pushing his way determinedly through the crowd, he heaved a sigh of relief, and, recovering himself, called out, waving the man back with his hand—
"Strangers are not permitted to take part in these proceedings. You, old man, have no voice here."
"Only the voice of the dead," exclaimed the doctor, gaining the platform and removing his hat. Simultaneously all recognized the old ring of the well-known voice and the outlines of the lofty, massive brow. Seized by a strange superstitious dread, the rough men, whose nerves were already highly strung by excitement, fell aside in fear and awe. Elms staggered back towards the chair, clutching it with one hand and passing his hand over his brow with the other, as though he were in a dream and would remove a terrible apparition from his sight. Had high Heaven indeed heard his blasphemous words? Had the dead indeed come back to accuse him? The room reeled round him. Those eyes he knew so well! Dumbly they had implored him, when he hurled his friend to destruction. Those eyes, that voice, had found him out! Quailing before the terrible gaze of the injured man, the culprit sank into the chair he had lately occupied with such nonchalance, covered his ashen face with his hands, and cowered before the silent condemnation of that worn, wrinkled countenance.
"He who was dead has come back at your summons, John Elms," exclaimed the stranger slowly. "He whom you cast to destruction has returned to convict you."
The would-be murderer neither spoke nor moved. A deadly silence lay upon all. Women outside fled away screaming—"The doctor's riz from the grave and come back." Children scampered down the avenue crying, "A ghost!—a real, live ghost!"
Police pushed their way into the assemblage, their faces almost as white as their helmets.
"Take that man," cried the doctor in unmistakable accents. "I am a magistrate, as you know; I will sign the charge-sheet later. Arrest him on my information for attempt to commit murder. You came here to witness the eviction of honest owners of the soil. You can take with you the spoiler and wrongful possessor."
The doctor's manner was commanding. The guardians of the peace made their way through the bewildered company, mounted the platform, and laid hands on the abject creature almost slipping from the chair.
"Come on, Mr Elms," they said. The wretched man, still hiding his face in his hands, writhed in the chair and groaned. They raised him, supported him across the platform, down the room, his face still covered in his trembling hands. He verily believed he had looked upon the dead. All night in the log-house he moaned to himself—"The face from the grave! The voice of the dead!"
Not a word was spoken as the self-convicted culprit was removed. Then Brown seized and wrung the doctor's hands. One by one the men plucked up courage, and with some shame-facedness approached him they had cursed so hard and so long. He received them quietly. He was the same, there was no mistaking him now—but changed.
The anathemas he had heard had eaten into his soul. He could never, he felt, be the same man again. Instinctively the audience apprehended the fact. The men on their part were self-convicted, self-condemned. The mere presence, without one word of extenuation, of those we have misjudged often tacitly acquits the wronged, and condemns the hasty accuser. Some sought to explain and excuse. Not unkindly, but firmly, the doctor waived them off. He explained in a few words his almost miraculous preservation.
"Now," he said, "I have come to establish you, to finish the work, and to depart for ever. You will have the land; that is all you want," he added, with some bitterness. "When my death seemed to come between it and you, you cursed me, as you thought, in my grave. I ought never to have expected more. I told you at the outset that lack of confidence between man and man, selfishness of purpose, readiness to believe the first lie concerning those who would befriend you, is your failing—the failing of the race. That is not your fault personally. The conditions in which you have been reared are responsible for it. See, at least, that your children, whose lot, please God, shall be a happier one, believe in man, stand close together, and learn to be true till death. I forgive you. You knew not what you did. But my heart can never forget."
At this juncture a voice sounded from the body of the hall—"It's all bunkum; I happen to know that he never made no Will but the one what old Elms had. He never left the place to us as he promised. Where's the Will he blows about? Let him produce it if he can."
The doctor recognized the voice.
"That is your last shot, Malduke, is it, you arch-scoundrel?" he replied. "You and Elms, I happen to know, made away with that Will, as you thought you had done with me. Here it is, however, preserved to confound you—as by the providence of God I have been."
The doctor handed the restored document to one who stood near.
As they read its provisions and discovered them more favourable and liberal than ever the doctor had indicated of old, the sense of their ingratitude unmanned them. They felt as the citizens of Rome when Anthony read the depositions of "Great Caesar." They were filled with remorse. They tried to express contrition.
The doctor seemed as though he heard not.
"It is easy to trust me now," he said calmly. "Would to God you had done so when appearances were against me!"
Some of the company in their rage sought Malduke. He had disappeared.
The doctor, whose thoughts were of another, slipped away, leaving the excited company to pore over the recovered Will, and discuss the unexpected turn events had taken.
"It is she," the doctor murmured, as moving towards the White House he drew near the bench upon which his wife was seated.
"I could not do it—even for their sakes," she was saying. "I dare not dishonour the dead, even to serve those for whom he died."
She pressed her hand to her heart as though to stay its wild, tumultuous beating.
She heard a step approaching.
"That man again!" she exclaimed, springing up. She trembled from head to foot, pressed her hand to her side. "My husband, thank God, my husband!" she exclaimed.
She would have fallen. The strong arms embraced her and set her on the bench again.
The long waiting was over. She opened her eyes, and beamed on the face of him who was dead. "I did what was right!" she murmured; her arm clasped his neck.
"God has rewarded me!" The wearied head fell on his breast.
The shock, the revulsion of feeling was too great!
The smile the moonlight illuminated settled into a fixed expression of peace and rest.
The doctor's wife was Dead!