The Forerunner

MRS. Vane laid down her pen and leaned back in her chair with a little sigh of weariness. A restful look dawned into her eyes,—blue and tender still, though there were many lines, fine-etched, about their corners, — as they sought the vinehung gallery which overlooked the inner courts; the glass doors giving upon it were swung wide, a breath of perfume from the climbing jessamine floated into the high-ceilinged study; the sound of a child’s voice, shrill, infantine, came with it; and now and again a tiny white-clad figure fluttered into view, pursued by a turbaned bonne. The windows at the other end of the study were also open, and the multitudinous noises of the street — the clang of car-bells, the rattle of wagonwheels, the cries of fruit and street venders — mounted to the accustomed ears of the chatelaine. For the Vane mansion stood in the very heart of the Old Town, — a witness to the departed grandeur of the sometime Quarter of the Aristocrats. Its fellows along the narrow street were turned into shops, or replaced by staring structures in keeping with a Progressive Age. It looked — the Vane house, with its steep roof, its balconied windows, its massive street door and marble steps — like the embodied spirit of a half-forgotten past. But “a Tom Vane never sells his birthright,” said the Vanes; “a Tom Vane could neither live nor die in any other house.” And the present Vane held to the family tradition.

Mrs. Vane resumed her pen and bent again to the closely written leaf. She glanced rapidly over the unfinished paragraph. “Yes,” it asserted, in small but bold chirography, “I had, as you suggest, thought—really, this time! — of slipping out of the seething whirlpool in which I have lived so long, and of dropping my wearied body down upon some grassgrown slope; there to lie, steeping soul and mind in tranquil do-nothing ease. But, somehow, I find my hands and my heart fuller than ever this summer. First and foremost — after Tom, of course — there is Ned’s little boy, my grandson (he is going, ‘ lame and lovely,’ like the child in Elia’s Dream, on the inner gallery, as I write!). He is a bonnie wee thing, but he looms large in the picture of my future. I have let myself—again, somehow! — be thrust into the chairmanship of the Church Guild, — which means, to say the least, activity. I have my old pensioners, whose ranks, instead of thinning with the passing years, seem to multiply; then, there are the girls, my nieces, Lucie and ’Toinette, — you remember them ? — with whose education and life-equipment I have charged myself. I have promised ” — here the writer had paused; now she added, “ But I will not weary you with the tale of things — duties and pleasures — which lie before me. Tom and I have planned, besides, a flying trip abroad in the early fall; and this means crowding in many things” —

The clang of the iron knocker on the street-door, echoing insistent through the house, arrested the nervous movement of the pen, and gave it a quiver which resulted in a heavy ink-blot on the white page.

The footfalls which had sounded, even and firm, along the hall, were softened suddenly by the thick rug at the study door; the colored maid, with a deprecatory glance at her mistress, was ushering in a visitor. It was an unheard-of hour for a visitor! barely seven of the clock on a July morning, when the domestic machinery of the vieux carré had hardly yet been put in motion.

Mrs. Vane arose. She was a tall woman, past middle age; her erect form had an emaciated look in the flowing white robe. There was a plentiful sprinkling of gray in the soft brown hair loosely coiled on her shapely head. But her face retained that curiously youthful look which women of a certain temperament keep to extreme age.

The visitor, a young man, advanced, meeting the involuntary question in her eyes with an engaging smile. “Mrs. Vane,” he affirmed rather than asked. She bowed silently.

“I am the bearer of a message” —

“Pray be seated,” interrupted Mrs. Vane, indicating a chair and resuming her own. He sat down, facing her with boyish confidence, one hand resting on his knee; the other, which held his straw hat, dropped to his side.

Mrs. Vane regarded him curiously — and pleasantly. He was very young, — a slender, well-knit, graceful figure, which, she told herself whimsically, fitted well into the early morning. His fine face was open and ingenuous; the limpid gray eyes, set wide apart, had an expression of buoyant frankness; the broad white brow was shaded by wavy bronze-gold locks.

“In the beginning,” he began abruptly, — the tones of his voice were round and full,— “it was always thus. We who are entrusted were sent forth; and it was so that no one was called who had not first been forewarned. After a time — why, I know not, for the Wisdom sees not fit to disclose His reasons — the order was changed, and we were set to other service. Now — and again I know not wherefore — the old order is restored ” —

Mrs. Vane smiled, wondering whither this garrulous flow of words was leading. But her smile was indulgent, — the rare sweetness of that tolerant smile was one of the things which had made her blessed among women! — for she loved all young things, and the face before her was so heartsomely young. And —

What was it, this teasing half-memory which began to stir in her mind as she gazed on the boyish face ? She leaned forward unconsciously, vaguely troubled, and searching her brain for the clue to a fleeting resemblance which eluded her grasp. Suddenly she knew! and the knowledge, she could not have said why, caught at her heart like an ice-cold hand. The Mercury in that little Tanagra group which she had seen but lately in a great museum, —that Messenger who has brought to Charon, standing unmoved by his bark, the young girl who hangs so pathetically limp on his arm, and upon whom he looks with a compassion so unmortal ! This boy, this fair-haired stranger, was like that Mercury ! It seemed to her, now, that he was regarding herself with the same compassionate immortal eyes ; and that his rambling talk was a kindly impulse to give her time — for what ?

She breathed a little heavily, and pushed her chair back, as if she sought to escape. But the smile on those young lips reassured her; her own smile came back.

“And so, I come,” he was saying, when she forced herself to listen once more. “ If it were mine to judge, I should think it were best, thus. For there must always be somewhat which one would wish to set in order, before departing. One at least might desire a little time for” —

A light leaped into her brain; for an instant it blinded her, blotting out the Messenger, the familiar objects in the room; even the little white figure flitting past the open door on the sunlit gallery. The visitor continued to speak, but his words seemed to come from an immeasurable distance, and conveyed no meaning to her ears.

Slowly she regained possession of her faculties. “Then,” she faltered, “you are — ?”

“Yes,” he returned gently; and now she saw that his face was not a boy’s face; it had but the calm youth of immortality; “yes, I am one of the Messengers of Death.”

She gazed at him with widening, incredulous eyes. He laughed,—a low, musical laugh, which steadied rather than jarred her tense nerves. “You imagined that such a messenger must needs be a fleshless horror ? With grisly wings and lidless eyes ? Nay, but why ? Since Death himself is noble, and lovely of aspect, — one of the foremost Angels of the Highest, for love and tenderness.”

She scarcely heard. “And am I to go — now?” she asked, her lips trembling, her hand vainly striving to quell the terrified beating of her heart.

“No. Oh, no,” he said. “I am but a Messenger, a Forerunner. We come — like this,” — he indicated by a glance the garments he wore, which differed in no wise from those familiar to the everyday life about, — “always in the guise and seeming of the time or the country whither we are sent, that our coming may excite no curiosity, or alarm. We bring the warning, — that a Mightier One has set a seal upon you, or another; and then we go on our appointed way.”

“ But — will it be soon — the call of that — Other ?” she whispered.

“That, dear lady, is not given us to know. It may be to-morrow, to-day; or you may have time in which to come to believe that this visit of mine — and my message — were but dreams; the fancy of a summer’s morning.”

Again she interrupted. “I — I wonder what it will be like — my going” she murmured wistfully; “peaceful ? sudden ? terrible, perhaps!”

He stood up. “Nay, I know not,” he declared again. “But of this I feel assured; however it be, peaceful or terrible, prolonged or sudden, you will be brave to meet it.”

She covered her face with her hands, and sat for a moment, shivering like one exposed, naked, to sudden cold. When she looked up the Forerunner was gone.

“Oh, stay!” she called, stretching out impotent arms. “Do not leave me. There is so much I would know! Oh, why did I not ask him if I might speak of it — this warning! ” Even as the words left her lips the conviction came that, if she might, she would not share this secret, — not even with that dear Heart which for thirty years had beat in unison with her own, — “not even with Tom,” she breathed, dreamily. She sat with hands folded in her lap, weak, as if spent with fatigue; while confused thoughts drifted in and out of her consciousness. The thought that Tom might also have received the warning startled her; but instantly and intuitively she knew that this was a vain fear — or hope. She wondered idly whether anything in the faces of those summoned, like herself, would give them understanding each of each; she pictured to herself the bright-faced Forerunner passing — perhaps even now — along the crowded street below, touching this one, or that, with a light finger, and pausing to deliver his message, in that low clear voice of his. . . . She came back, with an inarticulate cry, to herself. To leave — everything! To cease from — everything! To go away forever! Forever! Suppose it should be to-morrow, to-day! Oh, for time to do, and to undo; above all, to undo! She sprang up and stumbled blindly towards the inner gallery; then turned and fled back to the place she had quitted, and fell on her knees beside the chair. . . . When she arose, her blue eyes were wet, but tranquil; a baptism of comfort had descended upon her soul.

Her glance fell upon the letter — all but finished — lying on her desk. She took up her pen, hesitated, then wrote with a firm hand at the end of the uncompleted paragraph: “—many things which I may not be able to accomplish. But I shall keep my hand to the plough as long as God grants me the blessing of life.

“ With increased love, dear Amélie,

“ Yours,

“ MARY VANE.”