The Wonderful Visit/Chapter 26
The Last Day of the Visit.
On the morning of the next day the Angel, after he had breakfasted, went out towards the moor, and Mrs. Hinijer had an interview with the Vicar. What happened need not concern us now. The Vicar was visibly disconcerted. "He must go," he said; "certainly he must go," and straightway he forgot the particular accusation in the general trouble. He spent the morning in hazy meditation, interspersed by a spasmodic study of Skiff and Waterlow's price list, and the catalogue of the Medical, Scholastic, and Clerical Stores. A schedule grew slowly on a sheet of paper that lay on the desk before him. He cut out a self-measurement form from the tailoring department of the Stores and pinned it to the study curtains. This was the kind of document he was making:
"1 Black Melton Frock Coat, patts? ₤3, 10s.
"? Trousers. 2 pairs or one.
"1 Cheviot Tweed Suit (write for patterns. Self-meas.?)"
The Vicar spent some time studying a pleasing army of model gentlemen. They were all very nice-looking, but he found it hard to imagine the Angel so transfigured. For, although six days had passed, the Angel remained without any suit of his own. The Vicar had vacillated between a project of driving the Angel into Portburdock and getting him measured for a suit, and his absolute horror of the insinuating manners of the tailor he employed. He knew that tailor would demand an exhaustive explanation. Besides which, one never knew when the Angel might leave. So the six days had passed, and the Angel had grown steadily in the wisdom of this world and shrouded his brightness still in the ample retirement of the Vicar's newest clothes.
"1 Soft Felt Hat, No. G. 7 (say), 8s 6d.
"1 Silk Hat, 14s 6d. Hatbox?"
("I suppose he ought to have a silk hat," said the Vicar; "it's the correct thing up there. Shape No. 3 seems best suited to his style. But it's dreadful to think of him all alone in that great city. Everyone will misunderstand him, and he will misunderstand everybody. However, I suppose it must be. Where was I?")
"1 Toothbrush. 1 Brush and Comb. Razor?
" ½ doz. Shirts (? measure his neck), 6s ea.
"2 suits Pyjamas. Price? Say 15s.
"1 doz. Collars ('The Life Guardsman'), 8s.
"Braces. Oxon Patent Versatile, 1s 11½d." ("But how will he get them on?" said the Vicar.)
"1 Rubber Stamp, T. Angel, and Marking Ink in box complete, 9d.
"Those washerwomen are certain to steal all his things."
"1 Single-blade Penknife with Corkscrew, say 1s6d.
"N.B.—Don't forget Cuff Links, Collar Stud, &c." (The Vicar loved "&c.", it gave things such a precise and business-like air.)
"1 Leather Portmanteau (had better see these)."
And so forth—meanderingly. It kept the Vicar busy until lunch time, though his heart ached.
The Angel did not return to lunch. This was not so very remarkable—once before he had missed the midday meal. Yet, considering how short was the time they would have together now, he might perhaps have come back. Doubtless he has excellent reasons, though, for his absence. The Vicar made an indifferent lunch. In the afternoon he rested in his usual manner, and did a little more to the list of requirements. He did not begin to feel nervous about the Angel till tea-time. He waited, perhaps, half an hour before he took tea. "Odd," said the Vicar, feeling still more lonely as he drank his tea.
As the time for dinner crept on and no Angel appeared the Vicar's imagination began to trouble him. "He will come in to dinner, surely," said the Vicar, caressing his chin, and beginning to fret about the house upon inconsiderable errands, as his habit was when anything occurred to break his routine. The sun set, a gorgeous spectacle, amidst tumbled masses of purple cloud. The gold and red faded into twilight; the evening star gathered her robe of light together from out the brightness of the sky in the West. Breaking the silence of evening that crept over the outer world, a corncrake began his whirring chant. The Vicar's face grew troubled; twice he went and stared at the darkening hillside, and then fretted back to the house again. Mrs. Hinijer served dinner. "Your dinner's ready," she announced for the second time, with a reproachful intonation. "Yes, yes," said the Vicar, fussing off upstairs.
He came down and went into his study and lit his reading lamp, a patent affair with an incandescent wick, dropping the match into his waste-paper basket without stopping to see if it was extinguished. Then he fretted into the dining-room and began a desultory attack on the cooling dinner …
(Dear Reader, the time is almost ripe to say farewell to this little Vicar of ours.)
The Last Day of the Visit—continued.
Sir John Gotch (still smarting over the business of the barbed wire) was riding along one of the grassy ways through the preserves by the Bidder, when he saw, strolling slowly through the trees beyond the undergrowth, the one particular human being he did not want to see.
"I'm damned," said Sir John Gotch, with immense emphasis; "if this isn't altogether too much."
He raised himself in the stirrups. "Hi!" he shouted. "You there!"
The Angel turned smiling.
"Get out of this wood!" said Sir John Gotch.
"Why?" said the Angel.
"I'm———," said Sir John Gotch, meditating some cataclysmal expletive. But he could think of nothing more than "damned." "Get out of this wood," he said.
The Angel's smile vanished. "Why should I get out of this wood?" he said, and stood still.
Neither spoke for a full half minute perhaps, and then Sir John Gotch dropped out of his saddle and stood by the horse.
(Now you must remember—lest the Angelic Hosts be discredited hereby—that this Angel had been breathing the poisonous air of this Struggle for Existence of ours for more than a week. It was not only his wings and the brightness of his face that suffered. He had eaten and slept and learnt the lesson of pain—had travelled so far on the road to humanity. All the length of his Visit he had been meeting more and more of the harshness and conflict of this world, and losing touch with the glorious altitudes of his own.)
"You won't go, eigh!" said Gotch, and began to lead his horse through the bushes towards the Angel. The Angel stood, all his muscles tight and his nerves quivering, watching his antagonist approach.
"Get out of this wood," said Gotch, stopping three yards away, his face white with rage, his bridle in one hand and his riding whip in the other.
Strange floods of emotion were running through the Angel. "Who are you," he said, in a low quivering voice; "who am I—that you should order me out of this place? What has the World done that men like you …"
"You're the fool who cut my barbed wire," said Gotch, threatening, "if you want to know!"
"Your barbed wire," said the Angel. "Was that your barbed wire? Are you the man who put down that barbed wire? What right have you …"
"Don't you go talking Socialist rot," said Gotch in short gasps. "This wood's mine, and I've a right to protect it how I can. I know your kind of muck. Talking rot and stirring up discontent. And if you don't get out of it jolly sharp …"
"Well!" said the Angel, a brimming reservoir of unaccountable energy.
"Get out of this damned wood!" said Gotch, flashing into the bully out of sheer alarm at the light in the Angel's face.
He made one step towards him, with the whip raised, and then something happened that neither he nor the Angel properly understood. The Angel seemed to leap into the air, a pair of grey wings flashed out at the Squire, he saw a face bearing down upon him, full of the wild beauty of passionate anger. His riding whip was torn out of his hand. His horse reared behind him, pulled him over, gained his bridle and fled.
The whip cut across his face as he fell back, stung across his face again as he sat on the ground. He saw the Angel, radiant with anger, in the act to strike again. Gotch flung up his hands, pitched himself forward to save his eyes, and rolled on the ground under the pitiless fury of the blows that rained down upon him.
"You brute," cried the Angel, striking wherever he saw flesh to feel. "You bestial thing of pride and lies! You who have overshadowed the souls of other men. You shallow fool with your horses and dogs! To lift your face against any living thing! Learn! Learn! Learn!"
Gotch began screaming for help. Twice he tried to clamber to his feet, got to his knees, and went headlong again under the ferocious anger of the Angel. Presently he made a strange noise in his throat, and ceased even to writhe under his punishment.
Then suddenly the Angel awakened from his wrath, and found himself standing, panting and trembling, one foot on a motionless figure, under the green stillness of the sunlit woods.
He stared about him, then down at his feet where, among the tangled dead leaves, the hair was matted with blood. The whip dropped from his hands, the hot colour fled from his face. "Pain!" he said. "Why does he lie so still?"
He took his foot off Gotch's shoulder, bent down towards the prostrate figure, stood listening, knelt—shook him. "Awake!" said the Angel. Then still more softly, "Awake!"
He remained listening some minutes or more, stood up sharply, and looked round him at the silent trees. A feeling of profound horror descended upon him, wrapped him round about. With an abrupt gesture he turned. "What has happened to me?" he said, in an awe-stricken whisper.
He started back from the motionless figure. "Dead!" he said suddenly, and turning, panic stricken, fled headlong through the wood.
The Last Day of the Visit—continued.
So the Angel, thinking that Gotch was dead, went wandering off in a passion of remorse and fear through the brakes and copses along the Sidder. You can scarcely imagine how appalled he was at this last and overwhelming proof of his encroaching humanity. All the darkness, passion and pain of life seemed closing in upon him, inexorably, becoming part of him, chaining him to all that a week ago he had found strange and pitiful in men.
"Truly, this is no world for an Angel!" said the Angel. "It is a World of War, a World of Pain, a World of Death. Anger comes upon one … I, who know not pain and anger, stand here with blood stains on my hands. I have fallen. To come into this world is to fall. One must hunger and thirst and be tormented with a thousand desires. One must fight for foothold, be angry and strike———"
He lifted up his hands to Heaven, the ultimate bitterness of helpless remorse in his face, and then flung them down with a gesture of despair. The prison walls of this narrow passionate life seemed creeping in upon him, certainly and steadily, to crush him presently altogether. He felt what all we poor mortals have to feel sooner or later—the pitiless force of the Things that Must Be, not only without us but (where the real trouble lies) within, all the inevitable tormenting of one's high resolves, those inevitable seasons when the better self is forgotten. But with us it is a gentle descent, made by imperceptible degrees over a long space of years; with him it was the horrible discovery of one short week. He felt he was being crippled, caked over, blinded, stupefied in the wrappings of this life, he felt as a man might feel who has taken some horrible poison, and feels destruction spreading within him.
He took no account of hunger or fatigue or the flight of time. On and on he went, avoiding houses and roads, turning away from the sight and sound of a human being in a wordless desperate argument with Fate. His thoughts did not flow but stood banked back in inarticulate remonstrance against his degradation. Chance directed his footsteps homeward and, at last, after nightfall, he found himself faint and weary and wretched, stumbling along over the moor at the back of Siddermorton. He heard the rats run and squeal in the heather, and once a noiseless big bird came out of the darkness, passed, and vanished again. And he saw without noticing it a dull red glow in the sky before him.
The Last Day of the Visit—continued.
But when he came over the brow of the moor, a vivid light sprang up before him and refused to be ignored. He came on down the hill and speedily saw more distinctly what the glare was. It came from darting and trembling tongues of fire, golden and red, that shot from the windows and a hole in the roof of the Vicarage. A cluster of black heads, all the village in fact, except the fire-brigade—who were down at Aylmer's Cottage trying to find the key of the machine-house—came out in silhouette against the blaze. There was a roaring sound, and a humming of voices, and presently a furious outcry. There was a shouting of "No! No!"—"Come back!" and an inarticulate roar.
He began to run towards the burning house. He stumbled and almost fell, but he ran on. He found black figures running about him. The flaring fire blew gustily this way and that, and he smelt the smell of burning.
"She went in," said one voice, "she went in."
"The mad girl!" said another.
"Stand back! Stand back!" cried others.
He found himself thrusting through an excited, swaying crowd, all staring at the flames, and with the red reflection in their eyes.
"Stand back!" said a labourer, clutching him.
"What is it?" said the Angel. "What does this mean?"
"There's a girl in the house, and she can't get out!"
"Went in after a fiddle," said another.
"'Tas hopeless," he heard someone else say.
"I was standing near her. I heerd her. Says she: 'I can get his fiddle.' I heerd her—Just like that! 'I can get his fiddle.'"
For a moment the Angel stood staring. Then in a flash he saw it all, saw this grim little world of battle and cruelty, transfigured in a splendour that outshone the Angelic Land, suffused suddenly and insupportably glorious with the wonderful light of Love and Self-Sacrifice. He gave a strange cry, and before anyone could stop him, was running towards the burning building. There were cries of "The Hunchback! The Fowener!"
The Vicar, whose scalded hand was being tied up, turned his head, and he and Crump saw the Angel, a black outline against the intense, red glare of the doorway. It was the sensation of the tenth of a second, yet both men could not have remembered that transitory attitude more vividly had it been a picture they had studied for hours together. Then the Angel was hidden by something massive (no one knew what) that fell, incandescent, across the doorway.
There was a cry of "Delia" and no more. But suddenly the flames spurted out in a blinding glare that shot upward to an immense height a blinding brilliance broken by a thousand flickering gleams like the waving of swords. And a gust of sparks, flashing in a thousand colours whirled up and vanished. Just then, and for a moment by some strange accident, a rush of music like the swell of an organ, wove into the roaring of the flames.
The whole village standing in black knots heard the sound, except Gaffer Siddons who is deaf—strange and beautiful it was, and then gone again. Lumpy Durgan, the idiot boy from Sidderford, said it began and ended like the opening and shutting of a door.
But little Hetty Penzance had a pretty fancy of two figures with wings, that flashed up and vanished among the flames.(And after that it was she began to pine for the things she saw in her dreams, and was abstracted and strange. It grieved her mother sorely at the time. She grew fragile, as though she was fading out of the world, and her eyes had a strange, far-away look. She talked of Angels and rainbow colours and golden wings, and was for ever singing an unmeaning fragment of an air that nobody knew. Until Crump took her in hand and cured her with fattening dietary, syrup of hypophosphites and cod liver oil.)
The Last Day of the Visit—continued.
It was some minutes after the footsteps of the Angel had died away in the distance that Gotch raised himself on his hand. "By Jove!" he said. "Crump's right.
"Cut at the head, too!"
He put his hand to his face and felt the two weals running across it, hot and fat. "I'll think twice before I lift my hand against a lunatic again," said Sir John Gotch.
"He may be a person of weak intellect, but I'm damned if he hasn't a pretty strong arm. Phew! He's cut a bit clean off the top of my ear with that infernal lash.
"That infernal horse will go galloping to the house in the approved dramatic style. Little Madam'll be scared out of her wits. And I … I shall have to explain how it all happened. While she vivisects me with questions.
"I'm a jolly good mind to have spring guns and man-traps put in this preserve. Confound the Law!"