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rain. The clock struck seven. A servant came to say the pony cart waited at the gate, and she gave orders for the groom to go and meet the train, for suddenly she felt that she could not go, must not go, that she could not bear her husband to come home this desolate evening and find the house empty.
She wanted to speak to him to-night, tell him that the sorrow and the suffering of these long, long weeks had not been all in vain, that she had found it possible to respect him more in his abasement, to love him more in his downfall than ever in the more prosperous days, She wanted to explain many things, to thank him for so much; but if, when he returned, she should find that as usual it was wiser not to break the silence, still she must let him see how perfectly she understood. She looked at the clock; he had been away already more than two hours, it was time for him to come back. She wanted him to come before Frank should arrive simple, loyal, true-hearted Frank, who had never given her a day's anxiety, who had always gone straight along the straightforward manly way.
The garden gate swung back, creaking noisily; it might have been the wind that drove it, it might have been her husband who returned. She listened, and presently it seemed to her that she heard the front door close. Rising from her chair she went to the window and looked out at the grey falling rain and the grey dusk. Still he did not come, and no other sound reached her straining ears until, after a while, it seemed to her that he was in the room. She did not question how he had come in with so little noise; she did not turn round, but so certain was she of his presence that she began to speak.
"Harry, I am so glad you have come. I have wanted you so badly. I used
not to mind being alone, but I have not liked it to-day."
He had moved near her, surely; he was standing, as he was so fond of doing, directly behind her.
"Harry, I have been thinking of so much while you were out, thinking of all that we can never say; but this I must say, that I believe it will all work out right in the end, that we shall make something great of life. I know,” her voice shook-"I know I shall live to be proud of my husband.”
She stopped, for the tears were dangerously near, and she was not a woman who cried often; also, it seemed to her as though the man behind her was strangely moved.
"Harry," she went on after a while, "it was dear of you to suggest my staying behind, for I know how you would hate going out alone; but I am sure I should hate staying behind. And I don't believe in partings; partings bring change and everything that is sad and irremediable, so we will stay together and make something good of life, side by side, until the one great change comes.”
No one answered her. "Am I not right, Harry? you are glad."
"What is the matter? Why don't you speak? Are you not glad?"
She turned sharply, a vague uneasiness possessing her; the room was empty, she was quite alone. She went to the door, opened it, and looked into the darkness of the hall, but that also was empty, and the front door was shut.
"Harry," she called, and again"Harry! Harry! I want you," and the sound mounted the shallow staircase and rang at the doors of the sleepingrooms, but no voice answered the call. She began to feel horribly, unreasonably afraid, craving instinctively for human fellowship, yet she went slowly
up the stairs and into the bedrooms above, then back to the drawing-room whence she had gone. For the first time in her recollection she experienced a sense of absolute hopeless solitude, and with it came the ice-cold fear of the soul that knows itself entirely alone.
She moved to the window and rested her forehead against the cold panes, and tried to reason herself into her wonted calm, but the rain splashed wet drops upon the thin glass and they seemed to penetrate into her blood until that also was chilled. She went to the fireplace and leaned by the mantelshelf and tried to think of simple, commonplace things, while every nerve was straining to hear the sound of returning footsteps. How long she waited, moving from the window to the fire and back again to the window, she never knew, but the room was almost dark and the fire was black when a ring at the front door made her start and steady her pulses by an effort. She did not need the servant's halting explanation that a man from the coastguard was at the door and would like to speak with her. It was quite natural. She had lived it all before.
The man wished her to go with him at once; there was no time to lose; they would not have far to go, only about a mile, to the coastguard cottages on the shore, where that which she was going to see awaited her.
They tramped together along the lanes heavy with mud and fallen rain, and it seemed to her that the man did not walk fast enough, and presently he began to speak. She wished he would not speak, he might go faster, perhaps, if he did not speak.
"He hadn't no call to go, but seemed as if he couldn't stand by and them goin' to their death so near by and never no time to send for the life-boat-why, she'd never ha' rounded the Bill against such a sea, and the boat breakin' up fast."
The way was never-ending, and there were pools of water in the ruts. Her foot slipped on a loose stone and splashed into the water, and the moisture penetrated her boot. And the rain' beat upon her face, and shivering, she drew her cloak tighter about her. "They do say as 'twas him as made 'em go. Lord! he shamed 'em all. 'Come along, men,' he says, 'we'll never know no peace if we don't go.' 'There's our wives to think on,' says one. "That's why we've got to go,' says he. 'Do you think it's good for the women who love us to remember all their lives that we shirked our duty, that, poor devils, we was afraid?' He stopped and faced 'em proud. 'Damn it all, I am afraid, damned afraid; so we are all, that's why we've got to go.' Ah! and then they went right enough, that fetched 'em; and got the man and boy off, and fought their ways back, and near shore a big wave struck and swamped her. A bad business, a bad business; but they all got to land, 'cept him, all on 'em, 'cept him. The ways of God is strange."
Occasionally the darkly looming hedge seemed to break off abruptly, hinting at stretches of unknown land beyond, and in the far distance a light burned steadily, growing brighter as they hurried along.
"They was 'tarmined to find him, so to say, and went as far as they could keep a footin' wi' the ropes, but, Lord! I minds 'twould ha' been kinder, maybe, to ha' let him be. "Twould ha' been sooner over. Dreadful broken he was when he was brought to shore, and mortal injuries he've got for certain; but there was life in him, they says, and Bill be gone for the doctor and me sent for you."
He talked on and on, but she heard no more; her eyes were piercing the black ragged line of hedge, her ears were listening to the labored breathing of a dying man.
Within the cottage the light from a candle flickered in the draught from the open door whereat a crowd was gathered. The people made room for her to pass, and she heard as in the vague distance murmurs of pity, and the expressed opinion that someone was a brave man. The doctor had arrived before her; he rose from the far corner of the room where he had been on his knees by the side of an improvised bed; he moved the candle away, leaving that corner in kindlier shadow. Question and answer were exchanged without many words, and he went towards the door to keep the people from pressing in.
She knelt by the bed and waited; there was nothing to do but wait, and count the shallow breathing and hold the cold hand in hers. And over by the door the doctor stood alert and still, looking now and again at his watch; and beyond him, set in a frame of glistening oilskins, were the awed faces of the waiting crowd.
They had not long to wait; life was in haste to go, and Nature, in all kindliness, now that the struggle was at an end, was pleased to still the pain. He opened his eyes and smiled faintly at his wife.
She alone heard the faltering words. He looked up into her face, and she saw how already the marks of age were passing away, how like a boy he looked, the boy she had first known and loved.
"Glad, Harry, and so proud."
He smiled again, and there followed a longer silence; only her fingers tightened on his that were growing so icily cold.
In the dead of night a woman went along the dark drenched lanes, and a man walked by her side and held her arm and tried to make her lean on him.
Behind could be heard faintly the shuffle of feet, striving, despite the swampy ground, to walk in accord. The rain swept stinging into their faces, and the wind lashed them and bade them pause, yet, stumbling and uncertain, they kept on their way through the desolate darkness.
At last they reached the shelter of the house, and the man led her into the lighted room, and drew off her wet cloak, and prepared to wait, dumb and helpless, until those who followed should arrive; but seeing her white tearless face, a sense of his impotence, and his man's clumsy ignorance of woman's ways surged within him.
"Min," he cried, trying to draw her to him, "don't take it in this way, you will make it so hard. Min, my little sister, why don't you cry? It would be easier for you, I am sure, if you would cry."
And his sister looked up at him and smiled.
"I do not want to cry," she said, "for he went. You cannot understand. He was afraid, he told me; he was afraid, but still he went."
"He was a brave man," said her brother, and his voice was unsteady. "Min, some day you will be proud."
"I am proud," she answered simply: and went out to the door to meet those who were carrying him home.
Her lips said "Go"; her shining eyes said "Stay." How tell which was her meaning, which her will? How read the riddle of her yea and nay,
And disentangle each, bewildered still? Hearing her chilling tone, all hope expired; Seeing her glowing eyes, despair took heart; One moment certain of the good desired; One moment turning, hopeless, to depart.
Then as she stood, with half-averted face,
From head to feet veiled from his ardent eyes, Sudden she changed, and with triumphant grace Flung off the mantle of her soul's disguise! Sweet hypocrite! how false was all her feigning, Turning for flight, yet, while she turned, remaining!
IN SLIPPERY PLACES.
"This is disgraceful, Simeon!" said the rector, when he had made sure in the darkness.
Simeon lurched across the narrow lane over the hardened snow and expletively invited the rector to "Come on!" while one star in a black sky twinkled through the trees at the entertainment.
It was wayward chance, for Simeon, latterly, seldom got drunk, and the rector seldom visited the village at that hour on a winter's night. It was unkind chance, for on bibulousness the rector waged righteous war, and Simeon not only lived in the shadow of the rectory and did odd jobs thereat, but cherished open aspirations towards the sextonship, presently vacant. It was perverse chance, for Simeon had encountered that human hornet of a Tom Kilby at the corner of Church VOL. LXXVIII. 486
Lane and Simeon yet smarted fierily. "He couldn't make out who I was," related Kilby next morning when strange rumors ran. "He reeled and spluttered all over the road. I made believe call the bobby, and he began to take his coat off. I threatened him with the rector, and he cursed all parsons up hill and down dale. He put up his hands and scraped a mark for me to tread on. Rich!" said Kilby.
The rector of course knew nothing. Recognition of the well-known little round figure hobbling deviously ahead shocked his faith in fair-spoken humanity. He felt he did well to be angry. Simeon's private mutterings ceased and the rector, with intense se verity, said, "Simeon, this is disgraceful!"
But one idea possessed Simeon's fuddled brain. He stopped, swung round,
swayed, tossed off his hat theatrically, and his fists revolved. "Got yer thish time!" he ejaculated viciously as he advanced.
The rector, amazed and reiterating "Disgraceful!" receded. Simeon, breathing slaughter against "Parshons," followed drunkenly. They
went backward and forward, hither and thither, across the lane. Simeon faced the village and barred the way to the church. At times he slipped, and the way he recovered himself was surprising; once or twice the hedge saved him. Suddenly, amid his oaths and gestures, the dim light of a half perception seemed to strike him. He dropped his hands and stood struggling with the immensity of a growing fact. The rector confronted him, buttoned to the jaws, very straight and stern.
"I believe it ish?" hazarded Simeon at length, inclining his head forward and aside. The rector very curtly assured him that it was.
Simeon straightened himself and touched his forehead with his forefinger. "I asks yer pardon, shir, I'm sure. I 'umbly asks yer pardon." The forefinger went to and fro briskly. “I—I -mishtook." His body swayed rhythmically. The wind scattered the scanty tufts of hair above his ears.
"You had better get your hat," the rector suggested coldly.
The hat lay by the hedge a few yards away. As Simeon stooped for it he lost his balance and fell in a heap. "Got me down," he remarked, looking up; "my rheumatish," he added in explanation.
The rector helped him up, and squeezed his hat upon his head. "I perceive I shall have to see you home, Simeon," he observed. "When you are sober again, you and I will have a talk together." The tone of this promise did not favor Simeon's chances for the sextonship.
They had some two hundred yards to go. On either hand, stretching dark against the snow, rose high hedges, whence trees sprang at irregular intervals. Ahead, through the bare branches, the rectory windows glowed, three or four of them; and slightly to the left and lower, lurking nearer to the earth in proper humility of station, glimmered one casement, that of Simeon's cottage. "Sh'd think th❜ole woman's gone to bed," remarked Simeon, interrogating the distant square bodingly.
The trodden snow became streaked with black bands where the children had made slides. Simeon's progress, in his canny endeavors to avoid these, grew more devious than ever He lurched against the rector heavily. "Rheumatish," was his apology; “gits in my legsh." At last his heels went from under him and he sat down suddenly with a sounding shock and a grunt. "D-dash it!" he exclaimed. He remained sitting, his legs wide and his hands, palms downwards, pressing the snow on each side of him.
"What, again, Simeon?" was the rector's comment. "This may prove lesson to you. Remember sinners stand in slippery places."
"They-beat-me," grunted Simeon after a pause,-"thish rheumatish!" He shook his head sadly. "Shlippy plaish," he repeated, stroking the slide on which he sat and looking down at it curiously. Then he peered away up the lane, seemingly in deep rumination. At length he deliberately sprawled out on hands and knees and began to draw himself along on all fours. The rector's somewhat cynical curiosity changed to amazement as he comprehended. Simeon's intention was to crawl home.
The primitive instinct of progression came out strong in him under emergency, and he made considerable speed, covering some ten yards while the rec