THE two men went slowly down the garden-path together: the one rather short and thickset, but light enough in his movements; the other in clerical dress, tall and spare, stooping a little in his walk, his head dropped forward on his chest. At the gate they paused.
‘Well, good-bye,’ the shorter man said heartily, holding out his hand. ‘Good-bye, old man. It was a real inspiration of mine to stop over between trains, and talk my perplexities out with you. You’ve cleared the whole atmosphere for me. It’s wonderful to come into your old friend’s garden out of all this welter of a world at war, and find him just the same — still believing in God, and standing for righteousness. You always did put heart and the fear of the Lord into your friends.’
A deeper shade passed over the Reverend Thomas McCord’s face, and he turned his eyes hastily away; but his friend, full of his own thoughts, went on unheeding.
‘You know,’ he said, with an embarrassed laugh, ‘I would n’t say this if I did n’t know I was just running for my train, but for more of the old crowd than you ever suspect, you stand for a sort of rock of Gibraltar that we anchor on. When we’re up against some particular bit of life’s devilishness, we say, “Well, anyhow, there’s old Tom — he’s still standing firm; he still believes in the eternal verities.” Now I’m off,’ he ended, with a final hand-clasp, and turned quickly to go; then, struck for the first time by a gray, stunned look on the other’s face, he turned back again, startled.
‘But, I say, you don’t look very fit yourself,’ he said. ‘Here I’ve been so full of my own difficulties, I never asked how things are going with you. How’s young Tom? Doing great things over there, I bet. Good God, what have I said!’
He broke off, aghast; aware the moment the careless words were out of his mouth, t hat he had uncovered a bottomless pit of grief.
‘Tom was killed on the twelfth,’ the other said in a dead voice. ‘I heard two weeks ago. I — I knew you had n’t heard, Jim,’ — he touched his friend’s shoulder for an instant with a shaken but forgiving hand, — ‘but I — I could n’t speak of it.’
Then he turned, and fled with hurrying strides away up the garden-path.
The other man looked after him appalled. ‘Good Lord! Young Tom killed!’ he whispered. ‘Why, that will be the end of the world for his father!’
But he did not try to follow. He knew that what he had seen on his friend’s face was past all consolation he had to offer, and the world was at war, and he was due in Washington; and so, shocked and distressed, he turned and made his way sadly to the station.
As Thomas McCord left his friend and went up the garden-path with those long, hurrying strides, a terrible door in his brain opened, and a cry rushed out in a young, horrified voice: ‘My God! I’m blind — I can’t see a thing!’
The garden and the path swam before him, as giddily he made his way to the little summerhouse, and there sat heavily down. It was an early spring after a hard winter, and the climbing roses on the summerhouse were out in full leaf; spring bulbs also were in bloom, and many of the flowering shrubs as well; while from his perch on the top of the rectory chimney the mocking-bird poured forth a stream of golden joy.
Three weeks ago these would all have been things to write to young Tom about. ‘You know,’ the boy had written in one of his letters, ‘when I have a little breathing space, I run away in my mind from all this filth and awfulness, to you and the rectory garden, and we walk about it together, and tell the towers thereof; so be sure and write me all about it.’ But now the boy who had loved it would never see the garden again.
This little secluded summerhouse, the vines of which hid one from the rest of the garden, while its open sides looked out over a steep declivity down on the broad, sunlit valley below, had always been a favorite retreat with Thomas McCord. Here he had dreamed of young Tom’s future; here thought out many a sermon; and here time and again the Great Companion had seemed to come to him. He would not come now. ‘I’m blind — I can’t see a thing! ’ His son — all that he had in the world — had died in France, blind and among strangers, and his father had not been there to take the boy’s hands, to hold them fast, to speak to him of the Light beyond. Was there a good God after all? Had he given his whole life to his service, to be taunted so terribly in his old age? And to-morrow was Easter, and he must preach to his people about God’s love and promises, about the Everlasting Arms, and ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’
On the little rustic table of the summerhouse, he stretched out his arms and bowed his head upon them. He did not groan. There was no groan deep enough to plumb the depth of his agony. His only child had been snatched from him, and his faith in God was cut from under his feet.
The brief official notice of the boy’s death had come two weeks ago. This morning there had followed a letter, with further particulars, from the nurse who had been with him at the end. She had opened her letter very kindly, evidently intent upon giving him all the details. Tom had been unconscious at first, it seemed, but after a little he had come to.
‘I must tell you all for the sake of the end,’ the letter ran. ‘He stirred and reached out his hand, and when I took it, he asked, “Where am I?” I told him. “Why is n’t there any light?’ he said; and then in a moment he guessed. “My God!” he cried, “ I’m blind — I can’t, see a thing!”’
Thomas McCord folded the letter hastily here, and put it away. That had been the crashing climax of his grief.
For two weeks the blow of his son’s death had gone with him hour by hour, all through the cruel days and the more cruel nights. He had not slept save for brief periods of sheer exhaustion, and then it was always to wake again into the dark nightmare. He had somehow managed to get through the daily Lenten services; he had managed the Good Friday ones of yesterday; but all the time he had had no sense of God to sustain him, and he had felt his old faith slipping and slipping from under him. This morning the climax of his suffering and despair had come with the letter. His boy was gone, and he was in a waste place from which his God had gone also; and with the blankness that was in his heart, how could he go into the pulpit to-morrow and preach of love, and faith, and Easter promises?
Though Thomas McCord had always tried to be patient and understanding with those whose faith had deserted them, when grief struck at their own hearts, nevertheless, he had always in the back of his mind a secret contempt for such weakness. Yet here he was, now, in the same plight. In vain he tried to reassure himself with the thought that most of this awful blankness was due to physical exhaustion. It was not real unbelief, he told himself, it was only that his grief-stricken, confused mind was too stunned to find its way into that assurance of God which had been his for so long. Thus he had managed to keep himself together through the terrible days, holding on desperately, and waiting for the light to return. But today the letter had come, and he found himself in the depths of a black despair, from which all the old sense of an enfolding presence had been swept into nothingness.
In these later years of his life there had come a superstructure to the foundation of his old faith, that had been infinitely wonderful. God had seemed to become his very friend. Before his study fire, in his church, working in his garden, and, most often of all, at night just as he dropped off to sleep, he had experienced, again and again, that enfolding sense of the Great Friendship. But now that was all gone, and in the blackness of his thought, he wondered if it could ever have been more than his own imagination, built up out of good health and the happiness of his life with his boy.
And to-morrow, with the big German drive on, and soldiers giving up their lives by the thousands, there was an Easter sermon to be preached to a congregation from which many of its young men had gone over the seas to France, or were very soon to go.
That was the immediate and most terrible part of it all for Thomas McCord. He was very truly a pastor — for years he had suffered with his flock, rejoiced with them, and been their leader; and he knew without any vanity that what his friend had said about people resting on his faith was true. For years his congregation had rested on him; and now at this grim war Easter, when they needed him more than ever, he was to fail them. He knew also that much more than Thomas McCord would be weighed in the balance tomorrow and found wanting. If he, who had always proclaimed God so triumphantly to them, could not now, in the face of his own grief, stand up in the pulpit before them and steadfastly reaffirm his faith, then there would be plenty who would not think religion worth bothering with. To-morrow the church would be filled with flowers and triumphal music; but to complete the picture, to bring home the hope of all these things, their rector, in spite of his son dead in France, must be there in his pulpit with a message of hope and faith for his people.
With his head still buried deep in his arms, he prayed into that blank space within, which heretofore had been filled and overflowing with the presence of God. ‘Lord and Life-giver,’ he whispered, ‘help me, help me!’
He straightened up wearily then, and looked out over the wide stretches of the valley, seeking to rest his aching eyes with its spring effulgence. Below him was the sprawling village, and the prosperous farm-lands of his people, with white roads wriggling in every direction. For a time he watched the scattered traffic of these roads, unseeingly; and then, far away on the Winston Pike, he was attracted by a motor moving very fast. Drearily he fell to watching it. There was something swift and inexorable in the way it came on, passing team after team, and slower motors, on the way. To his distorted mind it seemed to visualize the coming of the letter. Nothing had stopped it either; nothing had turned it aside until it found the destination of his heart, and stabbed its message home.
Very smoothly and affluently the motor came, winking now and again in the sunlight. If it turned off to the right, it was going to Beckly and not his village. It did not turn, it kept straight on into the village main street. If it kept down the street to the end, then it was bound either for the rectory or for Williams’s farm on the left.
He began to dread the thing moving so swiftly and so surely. It must not come to him. This terrible Easter Even must not distil any more people out of the world’s tragedy seeking strength and refuge in his garden. But the car came straight down to the end of the street; at Williams’s farm it did not turn, and in a moment more it was rushing up his drive, it was stopping at his gate.
It was a handsome car, all its appointments speaking of wealth and luxury. Two women got out of it. One was all in gray — long gray cloak, gray veil, and gray sad face. The other, much younger, helped the gray-clad figure to descend, with a certain air of professional solicitude. She would have taken her arm and entered with her, but the gray woman waved her aside, and came through the little gate alone.
Thomas McCord forced himself to rise and go forth to meet this fresh demand.
‘Mr. McCord?’ she questioned as he came down the path; and at his bow of assent, she went on in a small breathless voice, ‘May I see you? May I talk to you for a few minutes? I am Mrs. Seldon. I’ve come from Winston to see you.’
‘Let us come into the summerhouse; it is pleasant there and we shall not be disturbed,’ he said.
When they were seated, she went on again, still hesitating a little, still a little breathless.
‘ I heard you preach once at Winston — in St. John’s Church there. It was soon after Richard — after my son — was killed.’
‘Your son?’ he breathed.
Her face quivered.
‘Yes, my only boy,’ she answered. ‘He was killed early in the war — more than two years ago. And — and I’ve come to you,’ she went on presently, ‘ because, after I heard you preach that day, I knew if anybody could ever help me it would be you. Your faith is so strong — you seemed inspired.’
A shudder of revulsion went through him. He remembered that day at St. John’s well. He had seemed to himself inspired then — but now? Yet the habit of service was so strong upon him, that she was conscious of no faltering in his manner. She only felt the presence of one who would completely understand — one to whom she might tell her uttermost trouble.
He waited quietly, not looking at her, looking down instead at his own clasped hands. But the few glances he had bestowed upon her had enabled his trained perceptions to build up some idea of her character. She gave him the impression of a small personality, a childishly undeveloped woman, stunted by ease and money; yet under it all there was something else that was poignantly appealing. There was a certain surprising air of courage and steadfastness, the impression of a child facing something terrible, and yet trying desperately hard to be good. He guessed, moreover, that she was very ill.
She had drawn her gray gloves feverishly from her hands, and folded and unfolded them as she talked.
‘You see, I’m dying,’ she began abruptly, ‘and so I’ve come to you to hear you say again, as you did that day, that there is a God who cares.’
He raised his eyes quickly, and would have spoken; but once started, she rushed on unheeding.
‘ One does come to clergymen in trouble, doesn’t one?’ she asked with that pathetic air of an uncertain child.
‘Certainly,’ he forced himself to answer, as he would have answered in the past, ‘ that is what we are here for.’
‘ I thought so, but I was n’t sure. You see, I know so very little about clergymen, or religious things — it’s all an uncharted sea to me. I don’t seem to have any natural faith, either; I just grope about in the dark.’
‘ Your husband ? ’ he questioned, fencing for time, to put off as long as possible the moment when she would call upon him to declare his faith.
‘My husband is always so kind,’ she answered. ‘He has given me — he has always given me everything that money could buy.’
He did not say the words that trembled on his lips; but she answered his unspoken thought.
‘Yes, I know now that that is very little,’ she assented. ‘But I used not to think so. It was all I wanted at first — all I really cared about. But since the war—’ Again he did not speak; but again she seemed to glimpse his thought. ‘Yes, the war has put money in its proper place for a lot of us,’ she said. ‘ It did n’t keep my boy from being killed, and it can’t keep me from dying a dreadful death. Life is bigger than money.’ She stated the fact as if it had come to her as a real discovery. ‘ I know that now, but there were a lot in my set who did n’t know it before the war.’
‘Your son — tell me about him,’ he said gently. He was still fencing for time.
‘He wanted to go at once, in 1914. He seemed somehow to see things straight from the very first. But we did n’t. We said it was n’t any of our business. My husband said —’ But she caught herself up, hastily and loyally, and changed it to, ‘We said — God forgive us!—“Let them kill one another; what do we care? There’re too many of them over there anyway.” So he ran away to Canada, and enlisted, and — and was gassed. And I don’t know whether he ever got any of our letters. He may have died thinking we were still angry with him. And now,’ she went on after a moment, ‘ I shall never see him again. I don’t believe in survival of the personality — I don’t think I do, I never have. But — but,’ she said stumblingly, ‘I think, if you would help me, I could believe in a God who cared.’
Suddenly she began to beg piteously, as if to coax him into giving her the faith she needed. ‘Please! oh, please!’ she implored. ‘I want so little. I don’t need any of the extra frills of belief. I don’t need to believe in heaven or hell, or that I survive — I should like to, but I. don’t think I can, and that is not necessary. All I need,’ she reiterated passionately, ‘is just a God who cares. And you need n’t bother about arguments out of books, and dogmas — I should n’t understand them, they would n’t convince me. But I thought, if I could just hear you proclaim God once more, and look the way you did that day at St. John’s, that would be all I should need. — Please, please—’
Her fingers were twisted together and her tragic eyes implored him. He put his steadying hand over hers and made himself speak quietly.
‘Try to tell me exactly what you mean,’ he said.
They were just two tragic souls groping together through the dark.
‘Forgive me,’ she apologized, making an effort to control herself, again with that pathetic suggestion of a child trying to be good. ‘ It’s — it’s this way, ’ she went on in her hurrying nervous voice. ‘I know I can’t live, — I made them tell me, — and soon now, — very soon, — I shall have weeks and weeks, and perhaps even months and months, of supreme suffering, and all that goes with it — despair, and disintegration of character. Oh! I know what it will be like! I’ve had twinges already. The drugs give out after a time — they don’t tell me, of course, but I know they do. I knew a man who had — who had this disease, and every day for three weeks he begged the doctor to kill him. And the doctor would n’t, of course he would n’t. But I would n’t leave it to the doctor, I’d do it myself. Why should I suffer so if there is no big plan of things — if there is no God who cares what we do? They could n’t keep me from it. They would leave me alone once too often, or someone would drop asleep when they should have watched, and — and why shouldn’t I do it?’ she reiterated violently; ‘why should n’t I find release and nothingness if it makes no difference whether we are good or not — if there is no big plan being worked out through humanity? Some people,’ she went on at a different angle, ‘would think I was justified in doing it anyway, would think I had a right to put an end to hopeless suffering.’
‘Would you think so?’ he asked, to test her.
‘No,’ she said simply, ‘I wouldn’t. I’ve always considered suicide wrong, and I always shall. I have n’t been much, perhaps, but I’ve never been a coward. And to wriggle out at the end like that would be cowardly, to my mind, and going against all my moral code.’
‘Tell me exactly what you need to believe to keep you from this terrible thing, and to help you through your agony,’ he urged.
She rose like one making a confession of faith, and stood, a gray little figure, looking out across the wide valley beginning now to dim in the late afternoon light.
‘I do not need heaven, and I do not fear hell,’ she said. ‘But there must be a great plan moving through it all. Life must not be a fantastic chaos, and it must make a difference what we do. Something must be served. There must be some great scheme running through it all, something which we cannot grasp, perhaps, but which we may serve. And there must be a God who cares, who wants our help in this great game. Righteousness, and self-sacrifice, and courage, and oh, all the little bits of plain everyday goodness, must not be wasted: they must be gathered up into a great whole, must become part of something permanent. Oh! oh!’ she broke down suddenly, ‘why do I put it in this cold way? What I really need to believe is that what my son did served some great magnificent purpose — not just the immediate one of beating back the Germans — but something beyond even that. That it did make a difference to God, and to his plan, that Dickie — that my boy — should so willingly have offered up his joyous young life for what he thought was right — should have been willing to die so frightfully on the battle-field, instead of living out all the beautiful days that might have been his. I must believe that there is a God who cares for the unspeakably precious gift that my son offered, or else I shall turn my back upon what I consider to be right — I will not serve out my term.’
He had risen and was standing beside her; and now the dark barrier within him was beginning to break up, and a luminous emotion was beating in upon him. Yet he still persisted; he had to have it stated in so many words.
‘Then,’ he said, ‘with, as you say, no fear of hell, and no hope of heaven, if you believed that you were taking part in a great plan, directed by God who appreciated the help humanity tried to offer Him, you would be willing to endure these days of agony, — some of the torture of which you have already experienced,—even though you have no belief in the slightest personal reward for it, and no hope of ever seeing your son again?’
‘Yes,’ she answered simply, and he knew she spoke the absolute truth; ‘I should be willing to do it then — I should be almost glad to do it. I should be walking where my son walked, and serving as he had served.’
Her simple declaration swept away the last walls of his despair and doubt, and great waves of illumination surged in upon him. All unconsciously she had rediscovered God for him. She had revealed Him at work in the heart of the race. Her stumbling words had seemed to uncover the very soul of humanity, to reveal all its aching, passionate, heroic desire for service in the great cause of righteousness, no matter at what cost of personal agony. And if this amazing, this transcendent and unselfish thing was there in the depths of humanity, then God was the only thing that could account for it. If a little woman, ordinary enough according to her own confession, could be strengthened to face weeks of extreme suffering by the thought that her loyalty served some great cause, then there must surely be the God he had always trusted and labored for — only He could inspire flesh to such amazing heroism. And only God was big enough to receive the gifts offered to Him; only He was tender and understanding enough to appreciate all that stumbling, pathetic, heroic humanity held out to Him again and again. And it was God alone who knew how to gather up every least little drop of this poured-out offering into something big, and everlasting, and beautiful beyond any dreams to conceive.
‘Sometimes,’ she went on again falteringly, ‘I seem to get a glimpse of what I want. I seem to feel something bigger, and more tender, and infinitely more understanding than anything I could ever have thought of. Something — Someone — who appreciated and loved Dickie, and his gift, more, far more than even I did. Someone to whom you would want to give your whole self, even though it did mean weeks and weeks of agony. That is what I seem to glimpse,’— she was crying now, — ‘and that is what I want you to say is true.’
‘It is true! It is true!’ He almost shouted the words. It was the triumphant cry of a great revelation. ‘And infinitely more than that is true.’
He poured out a torrent of words, of assurance, of faith, of hope and joy. His face shone with conviction, and he spoke as he had not spoken even in St. John’s that day; and all the time, he felt that it was not himself speaking, it was the infinite tenderness of the God who cared, striving to break through for her consolation and help.
‘Yes, and far, far more than I can possibly tell you is true,’ he reiterated passionately. ‘And when your brave service is over, your son will take you into the presence of the God who cares.’
‘My son!’ she caught eagerly at his words. ‘ Oh, do you really believe that? Really believe I shall ever see him again?’
‘I do not believe it, I know you will see your boy, as I shall see mine,’ he answered. And, as he spoke, he knew that Tom was there beside him in the garden, his very self, alive with tenderness, with joy, with mirth even, and affection.
They rose at last and went down the path together.
‘You have given me so much more than I ever hoped for,’ she said, tremulous with gratitude and happiness.
‘But you have made a greater gift to me,’ he answered solemnly.
She looked up astonished, but she was too exhausted now to try to understand further.
‘It does not seem possible that I could ever have given you anything,’ she said simply; ‘but if I did, it was only what my son gave to me.’
‘You gave to me, and your son gave to you, as mine gives to me,’ he returned. ‘We are all making extraordinary gifts to one another in these great and terrible days. It is the flaming gift of humanity, that God inspires mankind to make to mankind.’
She did not understand; but he had given her what she needed, and much more, and she went away content, and deeply fortified. Presently, back in the little summerhouse, Thomas McCord saw her car dart away down the white road, and speed off and off again into the distance. But now, for him, the whole world was changed. It was filled once more, replete and overflowing with the great Presence, and there was, as well, the infinitely dear and close companionship of his boy.
For a time he sat still, swept away on great tides of love and joy and healing. Then at length he drew forth the letter once more. In this moment of exaltation he could bear to face the full details of his son’s death. His eye ran hastily down the lines, until they came at last to the cry, ‘My God! I’m blind! I can’t see a thing!’ ‘I would not tell you this,’ the letter continued, ‘if it were not for what came afterwards. Your son was very brave, and presently he got himself together, and began to talk about you, and how you had been everything to him, father and mother both. He wanted to dictate a letter to you; but before I could get back with the writing materials, he had gone to you himself. They said his mind wandered, but I knew it was n’t wandering — it was just where it wanted to be. He was going with you all about the old places, the village, the church, and the garden — most of all, the garden. Have you a mocking-bird that sits up on the chimney and sings? He heard him all the time, and kept laughing and calling to you to listen. And is there an especial clump of daffodils that he called his?’ (There was! there was! They were blooming now, not ten feet from the summerhouse.) ‘He said, “Look, dad, my daffies always bloom first.” But he kept wondering why it was so dark. And then all at once he saw something, — I don’t know what, — but he flung out his arms wide and cried, “The light! the light, father! Look at the light!” I never in my life heard such joy and triumph in any voice — it rang through the whole ward. And that is really all. He was quiet soon after that, and just slept away.’
Thomas McCord laid down the letter, and the great relieving tears — the first he had shed — rushed down his cheeks and shook him all over.
The light! The light! Yes, he would look at it where it had been freshly revealed to him in this flaming hour, there in the heart of great, suffering, heroic humanity. The heroism of all the world — glorious young humanity standing firm on the battlefields, and little gray unnoticed humanity being steadfast at home. Only God could have awakened it, only God, to whom all hearts are open, and all desires known, could ever comprehend it all. Alone in his garden, yet not alone, he seemed to feel the outpouring of mankind going up in waves of devotion and self-surrender, to be received by an infinite understanding, an infinite compassion and love; the offering and the response — the great antiphonal of the world.
He rose up and stood in the fading light, his face raised in adoration. ‘There is nothing, nothing of any of us that is ever lost to Thee, my Lord,’ he whispered. ‘Every drop of our being — every smallest offering that we ever make— is known of Thee and gathered up into thy everlasting treasuries; and Thou — the Gift of all our hearts — art worthy beyond all power to express, of the uttermost that a man may offer. And to-morrow, my Lord, if it is acceptable unto Thee, and if Thou wilt give me the strength, I will speak to my people, not from any of the old texts, but from the new Book of Revelation, which, freshly inspired by Thee in these transcendent days, is being written page by page, by mankind, for mankind. And with thy help, the words of my text shall be the words of my son: “The light! The light, Father! Lookat the light!”’