HER eyes, dark and troubled, opened suddenly. The immaculate nurse, sitting beside her, near the shaded lamp, waiting for some such sign, nodded almost imperceptibly to the doctor, who appeared at once — she could feel his hand on her wrist, see a shape between her and the light. Somewhere, from the depth of her consciousness, she knew she could summon a smile for him, if only it did n’t hurt so damnably where the smiles came from. She managed it feebly, and caught her breath, the agony of making her muscles meet her will was so great.
The doctor patted her hand and turned to speak to the nurse; almost at once, she felt something cold on her arm, smelled alcohol, followed by the swift prick of a needle. Was it a needle, or all her pain plunged into one tiny segment of her flesh, to be withdrawn — presently ?
When the pain left her, or, rather, when she left the pain (she knew from experience it was always there; without the wings which the morphine lent her, she could not hope to sustain her consciousness above it), she would be able to think, and she wanted desperately to think. She wondered vaguely why she had never thought more when her body had been well and whole — when thinking would have proved no effort, and she would not have had to hurry so horribly. She supposed because her body, her beautiful, strong body, was always suggesting so many delightful. charming things to do, that her brain had to work and plan for it, like a mother planning and arranging for an adored and pampered child.
The drug lifted her higher from the pain-racked thing on the bed which interfered with her thoughts — a frightened, hurt child now, who wanted all her time and patience. Perhaps it was asleep; at least, it had stopped fretting, and she was free of it for a little.
While it slept, she must think, against the time of its waking, when it would claim her, clasp her in its hot embrace, and carry her with it into that deep, dreamless sleep from which neither of them would ever awake. Or would she awake, freed from the tired, broken body forever; would Death accomplish the miracle finally, which morphine temporized with — permanently divorce her mind and body? Death could n’t be that, — life after death could n’t mean the continuance of one half the life she had before, — a floating, disembodied consciousness, with no purpose, nothing to direct.
She was getting at things wrong — she had best go back — not very far back; there was n’t time—but back to the morning she and Peter had gone hunting. Somewhere, between then and now, there had been herself, her complete, whole self, which she doubted ever could be again. Even if she lived (and she knew living was extremely improbable) it would be herself maimed, altered, separate from the energy, the joy of living, which had been so a part of her; and in dying she could not hope to find the whole.
No; she, as she knew herself, as her world knew her, had ceased to be, had disintegrated, as it were, when, hounds in full cry, the fox in view, Live Wire had jumped into the gravel-pit.
The tiniest fraction of time before he had landed, — on his back and on hers, — they had both been there, themselves; then he was not any more; there was no more of him, Live Wire, her big thoroughbred, except his body, which, worth thousands before that jump, was now worth so little that it was decaying somewhere in the earth, and in time would be earth; and she — had begun to go out, to become extinguished; life had consumed her, and after this last flicker she would become ashes.
She had been asleep that morning before she and Peter had gone hunting, sound asleep — dead asleep, she would have said then, not knowing what Death meant. The alarm-clock had gone off suddenly, in angry spasms, as if it resented being asked to render service before daylight. With that sound she had come together swiftly, leaped into being aware of herself, awake. She remembered that she had reveled for a moment in the warmth and comfort of her bed, dreading to exchange it for the cold room, cold water, and the bother of dressing — boots and an ascot. And then Peter had come in, half-shaved, to shut her windows, light her light, and tell her what a bully morning it was.
They had had coffee, hot from a thermos bottle, left overnight in the library, and had pretended to be burglars, moving stealthily about their own dark house and out into the frosty air. They had raced to the stables, to get their blood going; and, arrived there, had delighted in the mysterious look of the familiar place — the artificial light, the bustle of the sleepy, half-clad grooms, the perfection of their horses.
Mounted, Peter on Philanthropist, and she on Live Wire, they had gone out to meet the early light, see the air whiten and flush as the first band of red showed on their horizon. She had been conscious of being laved in happiness, of soaking it up, of being afraid that some bit of it would escape, that there was n’t enough of her to absorb all the beauty and pleasure and thrills which immersed her on every side — she and Peter hacking to the meet, owning this clean, fresh, wonderful world, which they must shortly share with the day and the workers.
It had grown lighter, whiter; the river had seemed to be returning to the clouds, so thick was the smoky mist arising from it, as if some long-heralded genius had actually succeeded in setting it on fire. There was sun enough to catch the frost; the early rays were so level with their eyes that they almost hurt; things took on color, the darkness receded, concentrated, formed shadows. Peter had improvised something: —
The fox of darkness from the fields of light’;
and she had given a little cry of appreciative pleasure, and tried, very shyly (for their few months of marriage had not familiarized them with sentiment), to convey to him how happy she was and how much she liked new days and Live Wire — him and his parody. And they had reminded each other that they must continue their reading and educate themselves. (They had begun Mr. H. G. Wells’s Outline of the World’s History in Two Volumes, as she always called it, delighted that the author’s verbosity could be meted out to such length; but they had not read very far; first, because they had become involved in a discussion as to whether the acceptance of the theory of evolution did not tend to a belief in a world-made God rather than a God-made world, and second, because it had been such fun to plan a hunt on the prehistoric animals, Peter riding a Brontosaurus and she a Diplodocus.)
The day, putting on light, became familiar, was recognizable though new, when they reached the meet; the private wonder of it disappeared with their cheery greetings to the field. But those had been nice, too, and so were the restless horses, and the darling hounds straining at their couplings, sure it was half-past six and time to go into cover. Somewhere near her a man smoked a pipe, and she had been glad, glad of the sweet smell of the tobacco and the little drifts of blue smoke. Infinitely happy, she had sat her horse, watching the hounds work, with ears strained and expectant for the first whimper when they found.
‘ That’s Soubrette,’ she had whispered wisely to Peter, when the sound reached them; ‘the others are going to her; hark — they’ve got it.’
A moment of suspense, then the music of the pack’s voice poured over them, became fainter, and the huntsman sounded, ‘Gone away.’
Ten — twenty minutes of supreme joy followed; then, choosing her own line, she had put Live Wire at the big wall which separated them from a roadway, seen the yawning pit of raw earth too late to check him, and thought, — not word by word but in one flash, — ‘The Garrisons must have taken gravel from this bank for their new avenue’; and had known no more — the light she had watched grow was blotted out.
That had been the end of life as she had known it: pain, and the brief respites from it which the morphine granted her, and which she employed to sum up what she had taken from her few years of living — these were not life, saturate with adventure, the joy of things seen and unseen. It was the end of a day for a merchant who takes account of stock before he puts up the shutters and goes home. And the commodities she had dealt in? Happiness — she had had so much, and hoped she had meted out fair measure. Goodness — she was a little vague as to what goodness was and doubted if she had dealt much in it; in her sheltered, carefree existence there had been too few temptations to measure her resistance, no demand on her capacity for sacrifice. What she had given of herself — her time, her strength — had been given gladly, freely, because she loved giving and gave gayly.
There were people — her Aunt Carrie, for instance — who thought some of the things she did were wicked: fox-hunting and smoking cigarettes and playing cards for money and the red stuff she put on her lips (only she did n’t any more because Peter had hated it so). But her Aunt Carrie’s idea of goodness was so negative that her ideas of badness could never be very convincing: it consisted of being kind and superior, and never getting any fun out of things or trying to see the other person’s point of view. As when she visited the hospital, which was kind, and treated the beautiful, clean nurses with amiable condescension, and told the patients how comfortable and contented they were. When she herself visited the hospitals, she had felt humble and insignificant before the splendid women who could alleviate pain, and before the courage that could withstand it. Aunt Carrie had told her that, whenever she entered a ward, it was always with the thought, ‘His will be done’; but she could never help thinking, ‘What rotten luck!' And now, in her own hour, she was sure that she did not want a Lord who had willed Live Wire to jump the one panel that led to the gravel-pit, but One who said, ‘ Bad luck,’ and was sorry.
She wished she had had children. If Death was the complete annihilation which it appeared, one’s hope of immortality seemed to depend on one’s children — they alone were the open avenues to the future; and those like herself, the result of generation after generation, from the very beginning of things, who died without having had a child, proved to be blind alleys, which Nature had run into, after all these æteons of time.
The wings were drooping a little; she came nearer, became almost one with the body on the bed. She was aware that Peter was beside her now, her hand in his, and she would have given all the little time which remained to her to have been able to present it, palm uppermost, to his grasp. How silly the spiritualists were, she thought, to think she could come back to Peter after she had really gone away, through clumsy tables and foolish rappings, when even now, when they were so close to one another, she could not force one little sign, through the medium of her body. Was that all it had ever been, the medium through which she had been known and loved, had expressed her knowledge and her loving? She hoped that was it, it assured her that, for anyone who had known and loved her, she would live forever — on beautiful, happy memories, words said — to children not yet thought of, Peter’s children, perhaps — things done, because she had once lived.
The wings failed her. What did it matter, she thought, if the little spark of consciousness she called herself went out or upward? And in reunion with her body, she gave a little sigh to find it free from pain.