Part 5 out of 6
"Why, of course I will," he said. "And won't you give Miss Falbe
another cup of tea?"
Lady Ashbridge hesitated a moment.
"Yes, I'll do that," she said. "And by the time I've done that you
will be back again, won't you?"
Michael followed the nurse from the room, who closed the door
without shutting it.
"There's something I don't like about her this evening," she said.
"All day I have been rather anxious. She must be watched very
carefully. Now I want you to get her to come upstairs, and I'll
try to make her go to bed."
Michael felt his mouth go suddenly dry.
"What do you expect?" he said.
"I don't expect anything, but we must be prepared. A change comes
Michael nodded, and they went back together.
"Now, mother darling," he said, "up you go with Nurse Baker.
You've been out all day, and you must have a good rest before
dinner. Shall I come up and see you soon?"
A curious, sly look came into Lady Ashbridge's face.
"Yes, but where am I going to?" she said. "How do I know Nurse
Baker will take me to my own room?"
"Because I promise you she will," said Michael.
That instantly reassured her. Mood after mood, as Michael saw,
were passing like shadows over her mind.
"Ah, that's enough!" she said. "Good-bye, Miss--there! the name's
gone again! But won't you sit here and have a talk to Michael, and
let him show you over the house to see if you like it against the
time-- Oh, Michael said I mustn't worry you about that. And won't
you stop and have dinner with us, and afterwards we can sing."
Michael put his arm around her.
"We'll talk about that while you're resting," he said. "Don't keep
Nurse Baker waiting any longer, mother."
She nodded and smiled.
"No, no; mustn't keep anybody waiting," she said. "Your father
taught me to be punctual."
When they had left the room together, Sylvia turned to Michael.
"Michael, my dear," she said, "I think you are--well, I think you
She saw that at the moment he was not thinking of her at all, and
her heart honoured him for that.
"I'm anxious about my mother to-night," he said. "She has been so--
I suppose you must call it--well all day, but the nurse isn't easy
Suddenly all his fears and his fatigue and his trouble looked out
of his eyes.
"I'm frightened," he said, "and it's so unutterably feeble of me.
And I'm tired: you don't know how tired, and try as I may I feel
that all the time it is no use. My mother is slipping, slipping
"But, my dear, no wonder you are tired," she said. "Michael, can't
anybody help? It isn't right you should do everything."
He shook his head, smiling.
"They can't help," he said. "I'm the only person who can help her.
He stood up, bracing mind and body.
"And I'm so brutally proud of it," he said. "She wants me. Well,
that's a lot for a son to be able to say. Sylvia, I would give
anything to keep her."
Still he was not thinking of her, and knowing that, she came close
to him and put her arm in his. She longed to give him some feeling
of comradeship. She could be sisterly to him over this without
suggesting to him what she could not be to him. Her instinct had
divined right, and she felt the answering pressure of his elbow
that acknowledged her sympathy, welcomed it, and thought no more
"You are giving everything to keep her," she said. "You are giving
yourself. What further gift is there, Michael?"
He kept her arm close pressed by him, and she knew by the frankness
of that holding caress he was thinking of her still either not at
all, or, she hoped, as a comrade who could perhaps be of assistance
to courage and clear-sightedness in difficult hours. She wanted to
be no more than that to him just now; it was the most she could do
for him, but with a desire, the most acute she had ever felt for
him, she wanted him to accept that--to take her comradeship as he
would have surely taken her brother's. Once, in the last intimate
moments they had had together, he had refused to accept that
attitude from her--had felt it a relationship altogether
impossible. She had seen his point of view, and recognised the
justice of the embarrassment. Now, very simply but very eagerly,
she hoped, as with some tugging strain, that he would not reject
it. She knew she had missed this brother, who had refused to be
brother to her. But he had been about his own business, and he had
been doing his own business, with a quiet splendour that drew her
eyes to him, and as they stood there, thus linked, she wondered if
her heart was following. . . . She had seen, last December, how
reasonable it was of him to refuse this domestic sort of intimacy
with her; now, she found herself intensely longing that he would
not persist in his refusal.
Suddenly Michael awoke to the fact of her presence, and abruptly he
moved away from her.
"Thanks, Sylvia," he said. "I know I have your--your good wishes.
But--well, I am sure you understand."
She understood perfectly well. And the understanding of it cut her
to the quick.
"Have you got any right to behave like that to me, Michael?" she
asked. "What have I done that you should treat me quite like
He looked at her, completely recalled in mind to her alone. All
the hopes and desires of the autumn smote him with encompassing
"Yes, every right," he said. "I wasn't heeding you. I only
thought of my mother, and the fact that there was a very dear
friend by me. And then I came to myself: I remembered who the
They stood there in silence, apart, for a moment. Then Michael
came closer. The desire for human sympathy, and that the sympathy
he most longed for, gripped him again.
"I'm a brute," he said. "It was awfully nice of you to--to offer
me that. I accept it so gladly. I'm wretchedly anxious."
He looked up at her.
"Take my arm again," he said.
She felt the crook of his elbow tighten again on her wrist. She
had not known before how much she prized that.
"But are you sure you are right in being anxious, Mike?" she asked.
"Isn't it perhaps your own tired nerves that make you anxious?"
"I don't think so," he said. "I've been tired a long time, you
see, and I never felt about my mother like this. She has been so
bright and content all day, and yet there were little lapses, if
you understand. It was as if she knew: she said good-bye to the
lake and the jolly moor-hens and the grass. And her nurse thinks
so, too. She called me out of the room just now to tell me
that. . . . I don't know why I should tell you these depressing
"Don't you?" she asked. "But I do. It's because you know I care.
Otherwise you wouldn't tell me: you couldn't."
For a moment the balance quavered in his mind between Sylvia the
beloved and Sylvia the friend. It inclined to the friend.
"Yes, that's why," he said. "And I reproach myself, you know. All
these years I might, if I had tried harder, have been something to
my mother. I might have managed it. I thought--at least I felt--
that she didn't encourage me. But I was a beast to have been
discouraged. And now her wanting me has come just when it isn't
her unclouded self that wants me. It's as if--as if it had been
raining all day, and just on sunset there comes a gleam in the
west. And so soon after it's night."
"You made the gleam," said Sylvia.
"But so late; so awfully late."
Suddenly he stood stiff, listening to some sound which at present
she did not hear. It sounded a little louder, and her ears caught
the running of footsteps on the stairs outside. Next moment the
door opened, and Lady Ashbridge's maid put in a pale face.
"Will you go to her ladyship, my lord?" she said. "Her nurse wants
you. She told me to telephone to Sir James."
Sylvia moved with him, not disengaging her arm, towards the door.
"Michael, may I wait?" she said. "You might want me, you know.
Please let me wait."
Lady Ashbridge's room was on the floor above, and Michael ran up
the intervening stairs three at a time. He knocked and entered and
wondered why he had been sent for, for she was sitting quietly on
her sofa near the window. But he noticed that Nurse Baker stood
very close to her. Otherwise there was nothing that was in any way
out of the ordinary.
"And here he is," said the nurse reassuringly as he entered.
Lady Ashbridge turned towards the door as Michael came in, and when
he met her eyes he knew why he had been sent for, why at this
moment Sir James was being summoned. For she looked at him not
with the clouded eyes of affection, not with the mother-spirit
striving to break through the shrouding trouble of her brain, but
with eyes of blank non-recognition. She saw him with the bodily
organs of her vision, but the picture of him was conveyed no
further: there was a blank wall behind her eyes.
Michael did not hesitate. It was possible that he still might be
something to her, that he, his presence, might penetrate.
"But you are not resting, mother," he said. "Why are you sitting
up? I came to talk to you, as I said I would, while you rested."
Suddenly into those blank, irresponsive eyes there leaped
recognition. He saw the pupils contract as they focused themselves
on him, and hand in hand with recognition there leaped into them
hate. Instantly that was veiled again. But it had been there, and
now it was not banished; it lurked behind in the shadows, crouching
She answered him at once, but in a voice that was quite toneless.
It seemed like that of a child repeating a lesson which it had
learned by heart, and could be pronounced while it was thinking of
something quite different.
"I was waiting till you came, my dear," she said. "Now I will lie
down. Come and sit by me, Michael."
She watched him narrowly while she spoke, then gave a quick glance
at her nurse, as if to see that they were not making signals to
each other. There was an easy chair just behind her head, and as
Michael wheeled it up near her sofa, he looked at the nurse. She
moved her hand slightly towards the left, and interpreting this, he
moved the chair a little to the left, so that he would not sit, as
he had intended, quite close to the sofa.
"And you enjoyed your day in the country, mother?" asked Michael.
She looked at him sideways and slowly. Then again, as if
recollecting a task she had committed to memory, she answered.
"Yes, so much," she said. "All the trees and the birds and the
sunshine. I enjoyed them so much."
She paused a moment.
"Bring your chair a little closer, my darling," she said. "You are
so far off. And why do you wait, nurse? I will call you if I want
Michael felt one moment of sickening spiritual terror. He
understood quite plainly why Nurse Baker did not want him to go
near to his mother, and the reason of it gave him this pang, not of
nervousness but of black horror, that the sane and the sensitive
must always feel when they are brought intimately in contact with
some blind derangement of instinct in those most nearly allied to
them. Physically, on the material plane, he had no fear at all.
He made a movement, grasping the arm of his chair, as if to wheel
it closer, but he came actually no nearer her.
"Why don't you go away, nurse?" said Lady Ashbridge, "and leave my
son and me to talk about our nice day in the country?"
Nurse Baker answered quite naturally.
"I want to talk, too, my lady," she said. "I went with you and
Lord Comber. We all enjoyed it together."
It seemed to Michael that his mother made some violent effort
towards self-control. He saw one of her hands that were lying on
her knee clench itself, so that the knuckles stood out white.
"Yes, we will all talk together, then," she said. "Or--er--shall I
have a little doze first? I am rather sleepy with so much pleasant
air. And you are sleepy, too, are you not, Michael? Yes, I see
you look sleepy. Shall we have a little nap, as I often do after
tea? Then, when I am fresh again, you shall come back, nurse, and
we will talk over our pleasant day."
When he entered the room, Michael had not quite closed the door,
and now, as half an hour before, he heard steps on the stairs. A
moment afterwards his mother heard them too.
"What is that?" she said. "Who is coming now to disturb me, just
when I wanted to have a nap?"
There came a knock at the door. Nurse Baker did not move her head,
but continued watching her patient, with hands ready to act.
"Come in," she said, not looking round.
Lady Ashbridge's face was towards the door. As Sir James entered,
she suddenly sprang up, and in her right hand that lay beside her
was a knife, which she had no doubt taken from the tea-table when
she came upstairs. She turned swiftly towards Michael, and stabbed
at him with it.
"It's a trap," she cried. "You've led me into a trap. They are
going to take me away."
Michael had thrown up his arm to shield his head. The blow fell
between shoulder and elbow, and he felt the edge of the knife grate
on his bone.
And from deep in his heart sprang the leaping fountains of
compassion and love and yearning pity.
Michael was sitting in the big studio at the Falbes' house late one
afternoon at the end of June, and the warmth and murmur of the
full-blown summer filled the air. The day had so far declined that
the rays of the sun, level in its setting, poured slantingly in
through the big window to the north, and shining through the
foliage of the plane-trees outside made a diaper of rosy
illuminated spots and angled shadows on the whitewashed wall. As
the leaves stirred in the evening breeze, this pattern shifted and
twinkled; now, as the wind blew aside a bunch of foliage, a lake of
rosy gold would spring up on the wall; then, as the breath of
movement died, the green shadows grew thicker again faintly
stirring. Through the window to the south, which Hermann had
caused to be cut there, since the studio was not used for painting
purposes, Michael could see into the patch of high-walled garden,
where Mrs. Falbe was sitting in a low basket chair, completely
absorbed in a book of high-born and ludicrous adventures. She had
made a mild attempt when she found that Michael intended to wait
for Sylvia's return to entertain him till she came; but, with a
little oblique encouragement, remarking on the beauty and warmth of
the evening, and the pleasure of sitting out of doors, Michael had
induced her to go out again, and leave him alone in the studio,
free to live over again that which, twenty-four hours ago, had
changed life for him.
He reconstructed it as he sat on the sofa and dwelt on the pearl-
moments of it. Just this time yesterday he had come in and found
Sylvia alone. She had got up, he remembered, to give him greeting,
and just opposite the fireplace they had come face to face. She
held in her hand a small white rose which she had plucked in the
tiny garden here in the middle of London. It was not a very fine
specimen, but it was a rose, and she had said in answer to his
depreciatory glance: "But you must see it when I have washed it.
One has to wash London flowers."
Then . . . the miracle happened. Michael, with the hand that had
just taken hers, stroked a petal of this prized vegetable, with no
thought in his mind stronger than the thoughts that had been
indigenous there since Christmas. As his finger first touched the
rim of the town-bred petals, undersized yet not quite lacking in
"rose-quality," he had intended nothing more than to salute the
flower, as Sylvia made her apology for it. "One has to wash London
flowers." But as he touched it he looked up at her, and the quiet,
usual song of his thoughts towards her grew suddenly loud and
stupefyingly sweet. It was as if from the vacant hive-door the
bees swarmed. In her eyes, as they met his, he thought he saw an
expectancy, a welcome, and his hand, instead of stroking the rose-
petals, closed on the rose and on the hand that held it, and kept
them close imprisoned and strongly gripped. He could not remember
if he had spoken any word, but he had seen that in her face which
rendered all speech unnecessary, and, knowing in the bones and the
blood of him that he was right, he kissed her. And then she had
said, "Yes, Michael."
His hand still was tight on hers that held the crumpled rose, and
when he opened it, lover-like, to stroke and kiss it, there was a
spot of blood in the palm of it, where a rose-thorn had pricked
her, just one drop of Sylvia's blood. As he kissed it, he had
wiped it away with the tip of his tongue between his lips, and she
smiling had said, "Oh, Michael, how silly!"
They had sat together on the sofa where this afternoon he sat alone
waiting for her. Every moment of that half hour was as distinct as
the outline of trees and hills just before a storm, and yet it was
still entirely dream-like. He knew it had happened, for nothing
but the happening of it would account now for the fact of himself;
but, though there was nothing in the world so true, there was
nothing so incredible. Yet it was all as clean-cut in his mind as
etched lines, and round each line sprang flowers and singing birds.
For a long space there was silence after they had sat down, and
then she said, "I think I always loved you, Michael, only I didn't
know it. . . ." Thereafter, foolish love talk: he had claimed a
superiority there, for he had always loved her and had always known
it. Much time had been wasted owing to her ignorance . . . she
ought to have known. But all the time that existed was theirs now.
In all the world there was no more time than what they had. The
crumpled rose had its petals rehabilitated, the thorn that had
pricked her was peeled off. They wondered if Hermann had come in
yet. Then, by some vague process of locomotion, they found
themselves at the piano, and with her arm around his neck Sylvia
has whispered half a verse of the song of herself. . . .
They became a little more definite over lover-confessions. Michael
had, so to speak, nothing to confess: he had loved all along--he
had wanted her all along; there never had been the least pretence
or nonsense about it. Her path was a little more difficult to
trace, but once it had been traversed it was clear enough. She had
liked him always; she had felt sister-like from the moment when
Hermann brought him to the house, and sister-like she had continued
to feel, even when Michael had definitely declared there was "no
thoroughfare" there. She had missed that relationship when it
stopped: she did not mind telling him that now, since it was
abandoned by them both; but not for the world would she have
confessed before that she had missed it. She had loved being asked
to come and see his mother, and it was during those visits that she
had helped to pile the barricade across the "sister-thoroughfare"
with her own hands. She began to share Michael's sense of the
impossibility of that road. They could not walk down it together,
for they had to be either more or less to each other than that.
And, during these visits, she had begun to understand (and her face
a little hid itself) what Michael's love meant. She saw it
manifested towards his mother; she was taught by it; she learned
it; and, she supposed, she loved it. Anyhow, having seen it, she
could not want Michael as a brother any longer, and if he still
wanted anything else, she supposed (so she supposed) that some time
he would mention that fact. Yes: she began to hope that he would
not be very long about it. . . .
Michael went over this very deliberately as he sat waiting for her
twenty-four hours later. He rehearsed this moment and that over
and over again: in mind he followed himself and Sylvia across to
the piano, not hurrying their steps, and going through the verse of
the song she sang at the pace at which she actually sang it. And,
as he dreamed and recollected, he heard a little stir in the quiet
house, and Sylvia came.
They met just as they met yesterday in front of the fireplace.
"Oh, Michael, have you been waiting long?" she said.
"Yes, hours, or perhaps a couple of minutes. I don't know."
"Ah, but which? If hours, I shall apologise, and then excuse
myself by saying that you must have come earlier than you intended.
If minutes I shall praise myself for being so exceedingly
"Minutes, then," said he. "I'll praise you instead. Praise is
more convincing if somebody else does it."
"Yes, but you aren't somebody else. Now be sensible. Have you
done all the things you told me you were going to do?"
Sylvia released her hands from his.
"Tell me, then," she said. "You've seen your father?"
There was no cloud on Michael's face. There was such sunlight
where his soul sat that no shadow could fall across it.
"Oh, yes, I saw him," he said.
He captured Sylvia's hand again.
"And what is more he saw me, so to speak," he said. "He realised
that I had an existence independent of him. I used to be a--a sort
of clock to him; he could put its hands to point to any hour he
chose. Well, he has realised--he has really--that I am ticking
along on my own account. He was quite respectful, not only to me,
which doesn't matter, but to you--which does." Michael laughed, as
he plaited his fingers in with hers.
"My father is so comic," he said, "and unlike most great humourists
his humour is absolutely unconscious. He was perfectly well aware
that I meant to marry you, for I told him that last Christmas,
adding that you did not mean to marry me. So since then I think
he's got used to you. Used to you--fancy getting used to you!"
"Especially since he had never seen me," said the girl.
"That makes it less odd. Getting used to you after seeing you
would be much more incredible. I was saying that in a way he had
got used to you, just as he's got used to my being a person, and
not a clock on his chimney-piece, and what seems to have made so
much difference is what Aunt Barbara told him last night, namely,
that your mother was a Tracy. Sylvia, don't let it be too much for
you, but in a certain far-away manner he realises that you are 'one
of us.' Isn't he a comic? He's going to make the best of you, it
appears. To make the best of you! You can't beat that, you know.
In fact, he told me to ask if he might come and pay his respects to
your mother to-morrow.
"And what about my singing, my career?" she asked.
Michael laughed again.
"He was funny about that also," he said. "My father took it
absolutely for granted that having made this tremendous social
advance, you would bury your past, all but the Tracy part of it, as
if it had been something disgraceful which the exalted Comber
family agreed to overlook."
"And what did you say?"
"I? Oh, I told him that, of course, you would do as you pleased
about that, but that for my part I should urge you most strongly to
do nothing of the kind."
"He got four inches taller. What is so odd is that as long as I
never opposed my father's wishes, as long as I was the clock on the
chimney piece, I was terrified at him. The thought of opposing
myself to him made my knees quake. But the moment I began doing
so, I found there was nothing to be frightened at."
Sylvia got up and began walking up and down the long room.
"But what am I to do about it, Michael?" she asked. "Oh, I blush
when I think of a conversation I had with Hermann about you, just
before Christmas, when I knew you were going to propose to me. I
said that I could never give up my singing. Can you picture the
self-importance of that? Why, it doesn't seem to me to matter two
straws whether I do or not. Naturally, I don't want to earn my
living by it any more, but whether I sing or not doesn't matter.
And even as the words are in my mouth I try to imagine myself not
singing any more, and I can't. It's become part of me, and while I
blush to think of what I said to Hermann, I wonder whether it's not
She came and sat down by him again.
"I believe you have got enough artistic instinct to understand
that, Michael," she said, "and to know what a tremendous help it is
to one's art to be a professional, and to be judged seriously. I
suppose that, ideally, if one loves music as I do one ought to be
able to do one's very best, whether one is singing professionally
or not, but it is hardly possible. Why, the whole difference
between amateurs and professionals is that amateurs sing charmingly
and professionals just sing. Only they sing as well as they
possibly can, not only because they love it, but because if they
don't they will be dropped on to, and if they continue not singing
their best, will lose their place which they have so hardly won. I
can see myself, perhaps, not singing at all, literally never
opening my lips in song again, but I can't see myself coming down
to the Drill Hall at Brixton, extremely beautifully dressed, with
rows of pearls, and arriving rather late, and just singing
charmingly. It's such a spur to know that serious musicians judge
one's performance by the highest possible standard. It's so
relaxing to think that one can easily sing well enough, that one
can delight ninety-nine hundredths of the audience without any real
effort. I could sing 'The Lost Chord' and move the whole Drill
Hall at Brixton to tears. But there might be one man there who
knew, you or Hermann or some other, and at the end he would just
shrug his shoulders ever so slightly, and I would wish I had never
She paused a moment.
"I'll not sing any more at all, ever," she said, "or I must sing to
those who will take me seriously and judge me ruthlessly. To sing
just well enough to please isn't possible. I'll do either you
Mrs. Falbe strayed in at this moment with her finger in her book,
but otherwise as purposeless as a wandering mist.
"I was afraid it might be going to get chilly," she remarked.
"After a hot day there is often a cool evening. Will you stop and
dine, Lord--I mean, Michael?"
"Please; certainly!" said Michael.
"Then I hope there will be something for you to eat. Sylvia, is
there something to eat? No doubt you will see to that, darling. I
shall just rest upstairs for a little before dinner, and perhaps
finish my book. So pleased you are stopping."
She drifted towards the studio door, in thistledown fashion
catching at corners a little, and then moving smoothly on again,
talking gently half to herself, half to the others.
"And Hermann's not in yet, but if Lord--I mean, Michael, is going
to stop here till dinnertime, it won't matter whether Hermann comes
in in time to dress or not, as Michael is not dressed either. Oh,
there is the postman's knock! What a noise! I am not expecting
The knock in question, however, proved to be Hermann, who, as was
generally the case, had forgotten his latchkey. He ran into his
mother at the studio door, and came and sat down, regardless of
whether he was wanted or not, between the two on the sofa, and took
an arm of each.
"I probably intrude," he said, "but such is my intention. I've
just seen Lady Barbara, who says that the shock has not been too
much for Mike's father. That is a good thing; she says he is
taking nourishment much as usual. I suppose I oughtn't to jest on
so serious a subject, but I took my cue from Lady Barbara. It
appears that we have blue blood too, Sylvia, and we must behave
more like aristocrats. A Tracy in the time of King John flirted,
if no more, with a Comber. And what about your career, Sylvia?
Are you going to continue to urge your wild career, or not? I ask
with a purpose, as Blackiston proposes we should give a concert
together in the third week in July. The Queen's Hall is vacant one
afternoon, and he thinks we might sing and play to them. I'm on if
you are. It will be about the last concert of the season, too, so
we shall have to do our best. Otherwise we, or I, anyhow, will
start again in the autumn with a black mark. By the way, are you
going to start again in the autumn? It wouldn't surprise me one
bit to hear that you and Mike had been talking about just that."
"Don't be too clever to live, Hermann," said Sylvia.
"I don't propose to die, if you mean that. Oh, Blackiston had
another suggestion also. He wanted to know if we would consider
making a short tour in Germany in the autumn. He says that the
beloved Fatherland is rather disposed to be interested in us. He
thinks we should have good audiences at Leipzig, and so on.
There's a tendency, he says, to recognise poor England, a cordial
intention, anyhow. I said that in your case there might be
domestic considerations which-- But I think I shall go in any
case. Lord, fancy playing in Germany to Germans again. Fancy
being listened to by a German audience; fancy if they approved."
Michael leaned forward, putting his elbow into Hermann's chest.
Early December had already been mentioned as a date for their
marriage, and as a pre-nuptial journey, this seemed to him a plan
"Yes, Sylvia," he said. "The answer is yes. I shall come with
you, you know. I can see it; a triumphal procession, you two
making noises, and me listening. A month's tour, Hermann. Middle
of October till middle of November. Yes, yes."
All his tremendous pride in her singing, dormant for the moment
under the wonder of his love, rose to the surface. He knew what
her singing meant to her, and, from their conversation together
just now, how keen was her eagerness for the strict judgment of
those who knew, how she loved that austere pinnacle of daylight.
Here was an ideal opportunity; never yet, since she had won her
place as a singer, had she sung in Germany, that Mecca of the
musical artist, and in her case, the land from which she sprung.
Had the scheme implied a postponement of their marriage, he would
still have declared himself for it, for he unerringly felt for her
in this; he knew intuitively what delicious beckoning this held for
"Yes, yes," he repeated, "I must have you do that, Sylvia. I don't
care what Hermann wants or what you want. I want it."
"Yes, but who's to do the playing and the singing?" asked Hermann.
"Isn't it a question, perhaps, for--"
Michael felt quite secure about the feelings of the other two, and
"No," he said. "It's a question for me. When the Fatherland hears
that I am there it will no doubt ask me to play and sing instead of
you two. Lord! Fancy marrying into such a distinguished family.
I burst with pride!"
It required, then, little debate, since all three were agreed,
before Hermann was empowered with authority to make arrangements,
and they remained simultaneously talking till Mrs. Falbe, again
drifting in, announced that the bell for dinner had sounded some
minutes before. She had her finger in the last chapter of "Lady
Ursula's Ordeal," and laid it face downwards on the table to resume
again at the earliest possible moment. This opportunity was
granted her when, at the close of dinner, coffee and the evening
paper came in together. This Hermann opened at the middle page.
"Hallo!" he said. "That's horrible! The Heir Apparent of the
Austrian Emperor has been murdered at Serajevo. Servian plot,
"Oh, what a dreadful thing," said Mrs. Falbe, opening her book.
"Poor man, what had he done?"
Hermann took a cigarette, frowning.
"It may be a match--" he began.
Mrs. Falbe diverted her attention from "Lady Ursula" for a moment.
"They are on the chimney-piece, dear," she said, thinking he spoke
of material matches.
Michael felt that Hermann saw something, or conjectured something
ominous in this news, for he sat with knitted brow reading, and
letting the match burn down.
"Yes; it seems that Servian officers are implicated," he said.
"And there are materials enough already for a row between Austria
and Servia without this."
"Those tiresome Balkan States," said Mrs. Falbe, slowly immersing
herself like a diving submarine in her book. "They are always
quarrelling. Why doesn't Austria conquer them all and have done
This simple and striking solution of the whole Balkan question was
her final contribution to the topic, for at this moment she became
completely submerged, and cut off, so to speak, from the outer
world, in the lucent depths of Lady Ursula.
Hermann glanced through the other pages, and let the paper slide to
"What will Austria do?" he said. "Supposing she threatens Servia
in some outrageous way and Russia says she won't stand it? What
Michael looked across to Sylvia; he was much more interested in the
way she dabbled the tips of her hands in the cool water of her
finger bowl than in what Hermann was saying. Her fingers had an
extraordinary life of their own; just now they were like a group of
maidens by a fountain. . . . But Hermann repeated the question to
"Oh, I suppose there will be a lot of telegraphing," he said, "and
perhaps a board of arbitration. After all, one expected a European
conflagration over the war in the Balkan States, and again over
their row with Turkey. I don't believe in European conflagrations.
We are all too much afraid of each other. We walk round each other
like collie dogs on the tips of their toes, gently growling, and
then quietly get back to our own territories and lie down again."
"Thank God, there's that wonderful fire-engine in Germany ready to
turn the hose on conflagrations."
"What fire-engine?" asked Michael.
"The Emperor, of course. We should have been at war ten times over
but for him."
Sylvia dried her finger-tips one by one.
"Lady Barbara doesn't quite take that view of him, does she, Mike?"
Michael suddenly remembered how one night in the flat Aunt Barbara
had suddenly turned the conversation from the discussion of cognate
topics, on hearing that the Falbes were Germans, only to resume it
again when they had gone.
"I don't fancy she does," he said. "But then, as you know, Aunt
Barbara has original views on every subject."
Hermann did not take the possible hint here conveyed to drop the
"Well, then, what do you think about him?" he asked.
"My dear Hermann," he said, "how often have you told me that we
English don't pay the smallest attention to international politics.
I am aware that I don't; I know nothing whatever about them."
Hermann shook off the cloud of preoccupation that so unaccountably,
to Michael's thinking, had descended on him, and walked across to
"Well, long may ignorance be bliss," he said. "Lord, what a divine
evening! 'Uber allen gipfeln ist Ruhe.' At least, there is peace
on the only summits visible, which are house roofs. There's not a
breath of wind in the trees and chimney-pots; and it's hot, it's
"I was afraid there was going to be a chill at sunset," remarked
Mrs. Falbe subaqueously.
"Then you were afraid even where no fear was, mother darling," said
he, "and if you would like to sit out in the garden I'll take a
chair out for you, and a table and candles. Let's all sit out;
it's a divine hour, this hour after sunset. There are but a score
of days in the whole year when the hour after sunset is warm like
this. It's such a pity to waste one indoors. The young people"--
and he pointed to Sylvia and Michael--"will gaze into each other's
hearts, and Mamma's will beat in unison with Lady Ursula's, and I
will sit and look at the sky and become profoundly sentimental,
like a good German."
Hermann and Michael bestirred themselves, and presently the whole
little party had encamped on chairs placed in an oasis of rugs
(this was done at the special request of Mrs. Falbe, since Lady
Ursula had caught a chill that developed into consumption) in the
small, high-walled garden. Beyond at the bottom lay the road along
the embankment and the grey-blue Thames, and the dim woods of
Battersea Park across the river. When they came out, sparrows were
still chirping in the ivy on the studio wall and in the tall angle-
leaved planes at the bottom of the little plot, discussing, no
doubt, the domestic arrangements for their comfort during the
night. But presently a sudden hush fell upon them, and their
shrillness was sharp no more against the drowsy hum of the city.
The sky overhead was of veiled blue, growing gradually more
toneless as the light faded, and was unflecked by any cloud, except
where, high in the zenith, a fleece of rosy vapour still caught the
light of the sunken sun, and flamed with the soft radiance of some
snow-summit. Near it there burned a molten planet, growing
momentarily brighter as the night gathered and presently beginning
to be dimmed again as a tawny moon three days past the full rose in
the east above the low river horizon. Occasionally a steamer
hooted from the Thames and the noise of churned waters sounded, or
the crunch of a motor's wheels, or the tapping of the heels of a
foot passenger on the pavement below the garden wall. But such
evidence of outside seemed but to accentuate the perfect peace of
this secluded little garden where the four sat: the hour and the
place were cut off from all turmoil and activities: for a moment
the stream of all their lives had flowed into a backwater, where it
rested immobile before the travel that was yet to come. So it
seemed to Michael then, and so years afterwards it seemed to him,
as vividly as on this evening when the tawny moon grew golden as it
climbed the empty heavens, dimming the stars around it.
What they talked of, even though it was Sylvia who spoke, seemed
external to the spirit of the hour. They seemed to have reached a
point, some momentary halting-place, where speech and thought even
lay outside, and the need of the spirit was merely to exist and be
conscious of its existence. Sometimes for a moment his past life
with its self-repression, its mute yearnings, its chrysalis
stirrings, formed a mist that dispersed again, sometimes for a
moment in wonder at what the future held, what joys and troubles,
what achings, perhaps, and anguishes, the unknown knocked
stealthily at the door of his mind, but then stole away unanswered
and unwelcome, and for that hour, while Mrs. Falbe finished with
Lady Ursula, while Hermann smoked and sighed like a sentimental
German, and while he and Sylvia sat, speaking occasionally, but
more often silent, he was in some kind of Nirvana for which its own
existence was everything. Movement had ceased: he held his breath
while that divine pause lasted.
When it was broken, there was no shattering of it: it simply died
away like a long-drawn chord as Mrs. Falbe closed her book.
"She died," she said, "I knew she would."
Hermann gave a great shout of laughter.
"Darling mother, I'm ever so much obliged," he said. "We had to
return to earth somehow. Where has everybody else been?"
Michael stirred in his chair.
"I've been here," he said.
"How dull! Oh, I suppose that's not polite to Sylvia. I've been
in Leipzig and in Frankfort and in Munich. You and Sylvia have
been there, too, I may tell you. But I've also been here: it's
His sentimentalism had apparently not quite passed from him.
"Ah, we've stolen this hour!" he said. "We've taken it out of the
hurly-burly and had it to ourselves. It's been ripping. But I'm
back from the rim of the world. Oh, I've been there, too, and
looked out over the immortal sea. Lieber Gott, what a sea, where
we all come from, and where we all go to! We're just playing on
the sand where the waves have cast us up for one little hour. Oh,
the pleasant warm sand and the play! How I love it."
He got out of his chair stretching himself, as Mrs. Falbe passed
into the house, and gave a hand on each side to Michael and Sylvia.
"Ah, it was a good thing I just caught that train at Victoria
nearly a year ago," he said. "If I had been five seconds later, I
should have missed it, and so I should have missed my friend, and
Sylvia would have missed hers, and Mike would have missed his. As
it is, here we all are. Behold the last remnant of my German
sentimentality evaporates, but I am filled with a German desire for
beer. Let us come into the studio, liebe Kinder, and have beer and
music and laughter. We cannot recapture this hour or prolong it.
But it was good, oh, so good! I thank God for this hour."
Sylvia put her hand on her brother's arm, looking at him with just
a shade of anxiety.
"Nothing wrong, Hermann?" she asked.
"Wrong? There is nothing wrong unless it is wrong to be happy.
But we have to go forward: my only quarrel with life is that. I
would stop it now if I could, so that time should not run on, and
we should stay just as we are. Ah, what does the future hold? I
am glad I do not know."
"The immediate future holds beer apparently," she said. "It also
hold a great deal of work for you and me, if it is to hold Leipzig
and Frankfort and Munich. Oh, Hermann, what glorious days!"
They walked together into the studio, and as they entered Hermann
looked back over her into the dim garden. Then he pulled down the
blind with a rattle.
"'Move on there!' said the policeman," he remarked. "And so they
The news about the murder of the Austrian Grand Duke, which, for
that moment at dinner, had caused Hermann to peer with apprehension
into the veil of the future, was taken quietly enough by the public
in general in England. It was a nasty incident, no doubt, and the
murder having been committed on Servian soil, the pundits of the
Press gave themselves an opportunity for subsequently saying that
they were right, by conjecturing that Austria might insist on a
strict inquiry into the circumstances, and the due punishment of
not only the actual culprits but of those also who perhaps were
privy to the plot. But three days afterwards there was but little
uneasiness; the Stock Exchanges of the European capitals--those
highly sensitive barometers of coming storm--were but slightly
affected for the moment, and within a week had steadied themselves
again. From Austria there came no sign of any unreasonable demand
which might lead to trouble with Servia, and so with Slavonic
feeling generally, and by degrees that threatening of storm, that
sudden lightning on the horizon passed out of the mind of the
public. There had been that one flash, no more, and even that had
not been answered by any growl of thunder; the storm did not at
once move up and the heavens above were still clear and sunny by
day, and starry-kirtled at night. But here and there were those
who, like Hermann on the first announcement of the catastrophe,
scented trouble, and Michael, going to see Aunt Barbara one
afternoon early in the second week of July, found that she was one
"I distrust it all, my dear," she said to him. "I am full of
uneasiness. And what makes me more uneasy is that they are taking
it so quietly at the Austrian Embassy and at the German. I dined
at one Embassy last night and at the other only a few nights ago,
and I can't get anybody--not even the most indiscreet of the
Secretaries--to say a word about it."
"But perhaps there isn't a word to be said," suggested Michael.
"I can't believe that. Austria cannot possibly let an incident of
that sort pass. There is mischief brewing. If she was merely
intending to insist--as she has every right to do--on an inquiry
being held that should satisfy reasonable demands for justice, she
would have insisted on that long ago. But a fortnight has passed
now, and still she makes no sign. I feel sure that something is
being arranged. Dear me, I quite forgot, Tony asked me not to talk
about it. But it doesn't matter with you."
"But what do you mean by something being arranged?" asked Michael.
She looked round as if to assure herself that she and Michael were
"I mean this: that Austria is being persuaded to make some
outrageous demand, some demand that no independent country could
"But who is persuading her?" asked Michael.
"My dear, you--like all the rest of England--are fast asleep. Who
but Germany, and that dangerous monomaniac who rules Germany? She
has long been wanting war, and she has only been delaying the
dawning of Der Tag, till all her preparations were complete, and
she was ready to hurl her armies, and her fleet too, east and west
and north. Mark my words! She is about ready now, and I believe
she is going to take advantage of her opportunity."
She leaned forward in her chair.
"It is such an opportunity as has never occurred before," she said,
"and in a hundred years none so fit may occur again. Here are we--
England--on the brink of civil war with Ireland and the Home
Rulers; our hands are tied, or, rather, are occupied with our own
troubles. Anyhow, Germany thinks so: that I know for a fact among
so much that is only conjecture. And perhaps she is right. Who
knows whether she may not be right, and that if she forces on war
whether we shall range ourselves with our allies?"
"But aren't you piling up a European conflagration rather in a
hurry, Aunt Barbara?" he asked.
"There will be hurry enough for us, for France and Russia and
perhaps England, but not for Germany. She is never in a hurry: she
waits till she is ready."
A servant brought in tea and Lady Barbara waited till he had left
the room again.
"It is as simple as an addition sum," she said, "if you grant the
first step, that Austria is going to make some outrageous demand of
Servia. What follows? Servia refuses that demand, and Austria
begins mobilisation in order to enforce it. Servia appeals to
Russia, invokes the bond of blood, and Russia remonstrates with
Austria. Her representations will be of no use: you may stake all
you have on that; and eventually, since she will be unable to draw
back she, too, will begin in her slow, cumbrous manner, hampered by
those immense distances and her imperfect railway system, to
mobilise also. Then will Germany, already quite prepared, show her
hand. She will demand that Russia shall cease mobilisation, and
again will Russia refuse. That will set the military machinery of
France going. All the time the governments of Europe will be
working for peace, all, that is, except one, which is situated at
Michael felt inclined to laugh at this rapid and disastrous
sequence of ominous forebodings; it was so completely
characteristic of Aunt Barbara to take the most violent possible
view of the situation, which no doubt had its dangers. And what
Michael felt was felt by the enormous majority of English people.
"Dear Aunt Barbara, you do get on quick," he said.
"It will happen quickly," she said. "There is that little cloud in
the east like a man's hand today, and rather like that mailed fist
which our sweet peaceful friend in Germany is so fond of talking
about. But it will spread over the sky, I tell you, like some
tropical storm. France is unready, Russia is unready; only Germany
and her marionette, Austria, the strings of which she pulls, is
"Go on prophesying," said Michael.
"I wish I could. Ever since that Sarajevo murder I have thought of
nothing else day and night. But how events will develop then I
can't imagine. What will England do? Who knows? I only know what
Germany thinks she will do, and that is, stand aside because she
can't stir, with this Irish mill-stone round her neck. If Germany
thought otherwise, she is perfectly capable of sending a dozen
submarines over to our naval manoeuvres and torpedoing our
battleships right and left."
Michael laughed outright at this.
"While a fleet of Zeppelins hovers over London, and drops bombs on
the War Office and the Admiralty," he suggested.
But Aunt Barbara was not in the least diverted by this.
"And if England stands aside," she said, "Der Tag will only dawn a
little later, when Germany has settled with France and Russia. We
shall live to see Der Tag, Michael, unless we are run over by
motor-buses, and pray God we shall see it soon, for the sooner the
better. Your adorable Falbes, now, Sylvia and Hermann. What do
they think of it?"
"Hermann was certainly rather--rather upset when he read of the
Sarajevo murders," he said. "But he pins his faith on the German
Emperor, whom he alluded to as a fire-engine which would put out
Aunt Barbara rose in violent incredulity.
"Pish and bosh!" she remarked. "If he had alluded to him as an
incendiary bomb, there would have been more sense in his simile."
"Anyhow, he and Sylvia are planning a musical tour in Germany in
the autumn," said Michael.
"'It's a long, long way to Tipperary,'" remarked Aunt Barbara
"Why Tipperary?" asked Michael.
"Oh, it's just a song I heard at a music-hall the other night.
There's a jolly catchy tune to it, which has rung in my head ever
since. That's the sort of music I like, something you can carry
away with you. And your music, Michael?"
"Rather in abeyance. There are--other things to think about."
Aunt Barbara got up.
"Ah, tell me more about them," she said. "I want to get this
nightmare out of my head. Sylvia, now. Sylvia is a good cure for
the nightmare. Is she kind as she is fair, Michael?"
Michael was silent for a moment. Then he turned a quiet, radiant
face to her.
"I can't talk about it," he said. "I can't get accustomed to the
wonder of it."
"That will do. That's a completely satisfactory account. But go
"How can I?" he asked. "There's no end and no beginning. I can't
'go on' as you order me about a thing like that. There is Sylvia;
there is me."
"I must be content with that, then," she said, smiling.
"We are," said Michael.
Lady Barbara waited a moment without speaking.
"And your mother?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"She still refuses to see me," he said. "She still thinks it was I
who made the plot to take her away and shut her up. She is often
angry with me, poor darling, but--but you see it isn't she who is
angry: it's just her malady."
"Yes, my dear," said Lady Barbara. "I am so glad you see it like
"How else could I see it? It was my real mother whom I began to
know last Christmas, and whom I was with in town for the three
months that followed. That's how I think of her: I can't think of
her as anything else."
"And how is she otherwise?"
Again he shook his head.
"She is wretched, though they say that all she feels is dim and
veiled, that we mustn't think of her as actually unhappy.
Sometimes there are good days, when she takes a certain pleasure in
her walks and in looking after a little plot of ground where she
gardens. And, thank God, that sudden outburst when she tried to
kill me seems to have entirely passed from her mind. They don't
think she remembers it at all. But then the good days are rare,
and are growing rarer, and often now she sits doing nothing at all
Aunt Barbara laid her hand on him.
"Oh, my dear," she said.
Michael paused for a moment, his brown eyes shining.
"If only she could come back just for a little to what she was in
January," he said. "She was happier then, I think, than she ever
was before. I can't help wondering if anyhow I could have
prolonged those days, by giving myself up to her more completely."
"My dear, you needn't wonder about that," said Aunt Barbara. "Sir
James told me that it was your love and nothing else at all that
gave her those days."
Michael's lips quivered.
"I can't tell you what they were to me," he said, "for she and I
found each other then, and we both felt we had missed each other so
much and so long. She was happy then, and I, too. And now
everything has been taken from her, and still, in spite of that, my
cup is full to overflowing."
"That's how she would have it, Michael," said Barbara.
"Yes, I know that. I remind myself of that."
Again he paused.
"They don't think she will live very long," he said. "She is
getting physically much weaker. But during this last week or two
she has been less unhappy, they think. They say some new change
may come any time: it may be only the great change--I mean her
death; but it is possible before that that her mind will clear
again. Sir James told me that occasionally happened, like--like a
ray of sunlight after a stormy day. It would be good if that
happened. I would give almost anything to feel that she and I were
together again, as we were."
Barbara, childless, felt something of motherhood. Michael's
simplicity and his sincerity were already known to her, but she had
never yet known the strength of him. You could lean on Michael.
In his quiet, undemonstrative way he supported you completely, as a
son should; there was no possibility of insecurity. . . .
"God bless you, my dear," she said.
One close thundery morning about a week later, Michael was sitting
at his piano in his shirtsleeves, busy practising. He was aware
that at the other end of the room the telephone was calling for
him, but it seemed to be of far greater importance at the minute to
finish the last page of one of the Bach fugues, than to attend to
what anybody else might have to say to him. Then it suddenly
flashed across him that it might be Sylvia who wanted to speak to
him, or that there might be news about his mother, and his fingers
leaped from the piano in the middle of a bar, and he ran and slid
across the parquet floor.
But it was neither of these, and compared to them it was a case of
"only" Hermann who wanted to see him. But Hermann, it appeared,
wanted to see him urgently, and, if he was in (which he was) would
be with him in ten minutes.
But the Bach thread was broken, and Michael, since it was not worth
while trying to mend it for the sake of these few minutes, sat down
by the open window, and idly took up the morning paper, which as
yet he had not opened, since he had hurried over breakfast in order
to get to his piano. The music announcements on the outside page
first detained him, and seeing that the concert by the Falbes,
which was to take place in five or six days, was advertised, he
wondered vaguely whether it was about that that Hermann wanted to
see him, and, if so, why he could not have said whatever he had to
say on the telephone, instead of cutting things short with the curt
statement that he wished to see him urgently, and would come round
at once. Then remembering that Francis had been playing cricket
for the Guards yesterday, he turned briskly over to the last page
of sporting news, and found that his cousin had distinguished
himself by making no runs at all, but by missing two expensive
catches in the deep field. From there, after a slight inspection
of a couple of advertisement columns, he worked back to the middle
leaf, where were leaders and the news of nations and the movements
of kings. All this last week he had scanned such items with a
growing sense of amusement in the recollection of Hermann's
disquiet over the Sarajevo murders, and Aunt Barbara's more
detailed and vivid prognostications of coming danger, for nothing
more had happened, and he supposed--vaguely only, since the affair
had begun to fade from his mind--that Austria had made inquiries,
and that since she was satisfied there was no public pronouncement
to be made.
The hot breeze from the window made the paper a little unmanageable
for a moment, but presently he got it satisfactorily folded, and a
big black headline met his eye. A half-column below it contained
the demands which Austria had made in the Note addressed to the
Servian Government. A glance was sufficient to show that they were
framed in the most truculent and threatening manner possible to
imagine. They were not the reasonable proposals that one State had
a perfect right to make of another on whose soil and with the
connivance of whose subjects the murders had been committed; they
were a piece of arbitrary dictation, a threat levelled against a
dependent and an inferior.
Michael had read them through twice with a growing sense of
uneasiness at the thought of how Lady Barbara's first anticipations
had been fulfilled, when Hermann came in. He pointed to the paper
"Ah, you have seen it," he said. "Perhaps you can guess what I
wanted to see you about."
"Connected with the Austrian Note?" asked Michael.
"I have not the vaguest idea."
Hermann sat down on the arm of his chair.
"Mike, I'm going back to Germany to-day," he said. "Now do you
understand? I'm German."
"You mean that Germany is at the back of this?"
"It is obvious, isn't it? Those demands couldn't have been made
without the consent of Austria's ally. And they won't be granted.
Servia will appeal to Russia. And . . . and then God knows what
may happen. In the event of that happening, I must be in my
Fatherland ready to serve, if necessary."
"You mean you think it possible you will go to war with Russia?"
"Yes, I think it possible, and, if I am right, if there is that
possibility, I can't be away from my country."
"But the Emperor, the fire-engine whom you said would quench any
"He is away yachting. He went off after the visit of the British
fleet to Kiel. Who knows whether before he gets back, things may
have gone too far? Can't you see that I must go? Wouldn't you go
if you were me? Suppose you were in Germany now, wouldn't you
Michael was silent, and Hermann spoke again.
"And if there is trouble with Russia, France, I take it, is bound
to join her. And if France joins her, what will England do?"
The great shadow of the approaching storm fell over Michael, even
as outside the sultry stillness of the morning grew darker.
"Ah, you think that?" asked Michael.
Hermann put his hand on Michael's shoulder.
"Mike, you're the best friend I have," he said, "and soon, please
God, you are going to marry the girl who is everything else in the
world to me. You two make up my world really--you two and my
mother, anyhow. No other individual counts, or is in the same
class. You know that, I expect. But there is one other thing, and
that's my nationality. It counts first. Nothing, nobody, not even
Sylvia or my mother or you can stand between me and that. I expect
you know that also, for you saw, nearly a year ago, what Germany is
to me. Perhaps I may be quite wrong about it all--about the
gravity, I mean, of the situation, and perhaps in a few days I may
come racing home again. Yes, I said 'home,' didn't I? Well, that
shows you just how I am torn in two. But I can't help going."
Hermann's hand remained on his shoulder gently patting it. To
Michael the world, life, the whole spirit of things had suddenly
grown sinister, of the quality of nightmare. It was true that all
the ground of this ominous depression which had darkened round him,
was conjectural and speculative, that diplomacy, backed by the
horror of war which surely all civilised nations and responsible
govermnents must share, had, so far from saying its last, not yet
said its first word; that the wits of all the Cabinets of Europe
were at this moment only just beginning to stir themselves so as to
secure a peaceful solution; but, in spite of this, the darkness and
the nightmare grew in intensity. But as to Hermann's determination
to go to Germany, which made this so terribly real, since it was
beginning to enter into practical everyday life, he had neither
means nor indeed desire to combat it. He saw perfectly clearly
that Hermann must go.
"I don't want to dissuade you," he said, "not only because it would
be useless, but because I am with you. You couldn't do otherwise,
"I don't see that I could. Sylvia agrees too."
A terrible conjecture flashed through Michael's mind.
"And she?" he asked.
"She can't leave my mother, of course," said Hermann, "and, after
all, I may be on a wild goose chase. But I can't risk being unable
to get to Germany, if--if the worst happens."
The ghost of a smile played round his mouth for a moment.
"And I'm not sure that she could leave you, Mike," he added.
Somehow this, though it gave Michael a moment of intensest relief
to know that Sylvia remained, made the shadow grow deeper,
accentuated the lines of the storm which had begun to spread over
the sky. He began to see as nightmare no longer, but as stern and
possible realities, something of the unutterable woe, the
divisions, the heart-breaks which menaced.
"Hermann, what do you think will happen?" he said. "It is
The gentle patting on his shoulder, that suddenly and poignantly
reminded him of when Sylvia's hand was there, ceased for a moment,
and then was resumed.
"Mike, old boy," said Hermann, "we've got to face the unfaceable,
and believe that the incredible is possible. I may be all wrong
about it, and, as I say, in a few days' time I may come racing
back. But, on the other hand, this may be our last talk together,
for I go off this afternoon. So let's face it."
He paused a moment.
"It may be that before long I shall be fighting for my Fatherland,"
he said. "And if there is to be fighting, it may be that Germany
will before long be fighting England. There I shall be on one
side, and, since naturally you will go back into the Guards, you
will be fighting on the other. I shall be doing my best to kill
Englishmen, whom I love, and they will be doing their best to kill
me and those of my blood. There's the horror of it, and it's that
we must face. If we met in a bayonet charge, Mike, I should have
to do my best to run you through, and yet I shouldn't love you one
bit the less, and you must know that. Or, if you ran me through, I
shall have to die loving you just the same as before, and hoping
you would live happy, for ever and ever, as the story-books say,
"Hermann, don't go," said Michael suddenly.
"Mike, you didn't mean that," he said.
Michael looked at him for a moment in silence.
"No, it is unsaid," he replied.
Hermann looked round as the clock on the chimney-piece chimed.
"I must be going," he said, "I needn't say anything to you about
Sylvia, because all I could say is in your heart already. Well,
we've met in this jolly world, Mike, and we've been great friends.
Neither you nor I could find a greater friend than we've been to
each other. I bless God for this last year. It's been the
happiest in my life. Now what else is there? Your music: don't
ever be lazy about your music. It's worth while taking all the
pains you can about it. Lord! do you remember the evening when I
first tried your Variations? . . . Let me play the last one now.
I want something jubilant. Let's see, how does it go?"
He held his hands, those long, slim-fingered hands, poised for a
moment above the keys, then plunged into the glorious riot of the
full chords and scales, till the room rang with it. The last chord
he held for a moment, and then sprang up.
"Ah, that's good," he said. "And now I'm going to say good-bye,
and go without looking round."
"But might I see you off this afternoon?" asked Michael.
"No, please don't. Station partings are fussy and disagreeable. I
want to say good-bye to you here in your quiet room, just as I
shall say goodbye to Sylvia at home. Ah, Mike, yes, both hands and
smiling. May God give us other meetings and talks and
companionship and years of love, my best of friends. Good-bye."
Then, as he had said, he walked to the door without looking round,
and next moment it had closed behind him.
Throughout the next week the tension of the situation grew ever
greater, strained towards the snapping-point, while the little
cloud, the man's hand, which had arisen above the eastern horizon
grew and overspread the heavens in a pall that became ever more
black and threatening. For a few days yet it seemed that perhaps
even now the cataclysm might be averted, but gradually, in spite of
all the efforts of diplomacy to loosen the knot, it became clear
that the ends of the cord were held in hands that did not mean to
release their hold till it was pulled tight. Servia yielded to
such demands as it was possible for her to grant as an independent
State; but the inflexible fingers never abated one jot of their
strangling pressure. She appealed to Russia, and Russia's
remonstrance fell on deaf ears, or, rather, on ears that had
determined not to hear. From London and Paris came proposals for
conference, for arbitration, with welcome for any suggestion from
the other side which might lead to a peaceful solution of the
disputed demands, already recognised by Europe as a firebrand
wantonly flung into the midst of dangerous and inflammable
material. Over that burning firebrand, preventing and warding off
all the eager hands that were stretched to put it out, stood the
figure of the nation at whose bidding it had been flung there.
Gradually, out of the thunder-clouds and gathering darkness,
vaguely at first and then in definite and menacing outline, emerged
the inexorable, flint-like face of Germany, whose figure was clad
in the shining armour so well known in the flamboyant utterances of
her War Lord, which had been treated hitherto as mere irresponsible
utterances to be greeted with a laugh and a shrugged shoulder.
Deep and patient she had always been, and now she believed that the
time had come for her patience to do its perfect work. She had
bided long for the time when she could best fling that lighted
brand into the midst of civilisation, and she believed she had
calculated well. She cared nothing for Servia nor for her ally.
On both her frontiers she was ready, and now on the East she heeded
not the remonstrance of Russia, nor her sincere and cordial
invitation to friendly discussion. She but waited for the step
that she had made inevitable, and on the first sign of Russian
mobilisation she, with her mobilisation ready to be completed in a
few days, peremptorily demanded that it should cease. On the
Western frontier behind the Rhine she was ready also; her armies
were prepared, cannon fodder in uncountable store of shells and
cartridges was prepared, and in endless battalions of men, waiting
to be discharged in one bull-like rush, to overrun France, and
holding the French armies, shattered and dispersed, with a mere
handful of her troops, to hurl the rest at Russia.
The whole campaign was mathematically thought out. In a few months
at the outside France would be lying trampled down and bleeding;
Russia would be overrun; already she would be mistress of Europe,
and prepared to attack the only country that stood between her and
world-wide dominion, whose allies she would already have reduced to
impotence. Here she staked on an uncertainty: she could not
absolutely tell what England's attitude would be, but she had the
strongest reason for hoping that, distracted by the imminence of
civil strife, she would be unable to come to the help of her allies
until the allies were past helping.
For a moment only were seen those set stern features mad for war;
then, with a snap, Germany shut down her visor and stood with sword
unsheathed, waiting for the horror of the stupendous bloodshed
which she had made inevitable. Her legions gathered on the Eastern
front threatening war on Russia, and thus pulling France into the
spreading conflagration and into the midst of the flame she stood
ready to cast the torn-up fragments of the treaty that bound her to
respect the neutrality of Belgium.
All this week, while the flames of the flung fire-brand began to
spread, the English public waited, incredulous of the inevitable.
Michael, among them, found himself unable to believe even then that
the bugles were already sounding, and that the piles of shells in
their wicker-baskets were being loaded on to the military
ammunition trains. But all the ordinary interests in life, all the
things that busily and contentedly occupied his day, one only
excepted, had become without savour. A dozen times in the morning
he would sit down to his piano, only to find that he could not
think it worth while to make his hands produce these meaningless
tinkling sounds, and he would jump up to read the paper over again,
or watch for fresh headlines to appear on the boards of news-
vendors in the street, and send out for any fresh edition. Or he
would walk round to his club and spend an hour reading the tape
news and waiting for fresh slips to be pinned up. But, through all
the nightmare of suspense and slowly-dying hope, Sylvia remained
real, and after he had received his daily report from the
establishment where his mother was, with the invariable message
that there was no marked change of any kind, and that it was
useless for him to think of coming to see her, he would go off to
Maidstone Crescent and spend the greater part of the day with the
Once during this week he had received a note from Hermann, written
at Munich, and on the same day she also had heard from him. He had
gone back to his regiment, which was mobilised, as a private, and
was very busy with drill and duties. Feeling in Germany, he said,
was elated and triumphant: it was considered certain that England
would stand aside, as the quarrel was none of hers, and the nation
generally looked forward to a short and brilliant campaign, with
the occupation of Paris to be made in September at the latest. But
as a postscript in his note to Sylvia he had added:
"You don't think there is the faintest chance of England coming in,
do you? Please write to me fully, and get Mike to write. I have
heard from neither of you, and as I am sure you must have written,
I conclude that letters are stopped. I went to the theatre last
night: there was a tremendous scene of patriotism. The people are
Since then nothing had been heard from him, and to-day, as Michael
drove down to see Sylvia, he saw on the news-boards that Belgium
had appealed to England against the violation of her territory by
the German armies en route for France. Overtures had been made,
asking for leave to pass through the neutral territory: these
Belgium had rejected. This was given as official news. There came
also the report that the Belgian remonstrances would be
disregarded. Should she refuse passage to the German battalions,
that could make no difference, since it was a matter of life and
death to invade France by that route.
Sylvia was out in the garden, where, hardly a month ago, they had
spent that evening of silent peace, and she got up quickly as
Michael came out.
"Ah, my dear," she said, "I am glad you have come. I have got the
horrors. You saw the latest news? Yes? And have you heard again
from Hermann? No, I have not had a word."
He kissed her and sat down.
"No, I have not heard either," he said. "I expect he is right.
Letters have been stopped."
"And what do you think will be the result of Belgium's appeal?" she
"Who can tell? The Prime Minister is going to make a statement on
Monday. There have been Cabinet meetings going on all day."
She looked at him in silence.
"And what do you think?" she asked.
Quite suddenly, at her question, Michael found himself facing it,
even as, when the final catastrophe was more remote, he had faced
it with Falbe. All this week he knew he had been looking away from
it, telling himself that it was incredible. Now he discovered that
the one thing he dreaded more than that England should go to war,
was that she should not. The consciousness of national honour, the
thing which, with religion, Englishmen are most shy of speaking
about, suddenly asserted itself, and he found on the moment that it
was bigger than anything else in the world.
"I think we shall go to war," he said. "I don't see personally how
we can exist any more as a nation if we don't. We--we shall be
damned if we don't, damned for ever and ever. It's moral
extinction not to."
She kindled at that.
"Yes, I know," she said, "that's what I have been telling myself;
but, oh, Mike, there's some dreadful cowardly part of me that won't
listen when I think of Hermann, and . . ."
She broke off a moment.
"Michael," she said, "what will you do, if there is war?"
He took up her hand that lay on the arm of his chair.
"My darling, how can you ask?" he said. "Of course I shall go back
to the army."
For one moment she gave way.
"No, no," she said. "You mustn't do that."
And then suddenly she stopped.
"My dear, I ask your pardon," she said. "Of course you will. I
know that really. It's only this stupid cowardly part of me that--
that interrupted. I am ashamed of it. I'm not as bad as that all
through. I don't make excuses for myself, but, ah, Mike, when I
think of what Germany is to me, and what Hermann is, and when I
think what England is to me, and what you are! It shan't appear
again, or if it does, you will make allowance, won't you? At least
I can agree with you utterly, utterly. It's the flesh that's weak,
or, rather, that is so strong. But I've got it under."
She sat there in silence a little, mopping her eyes.
"How I hate girls who cry!" she said. "It is so dreadfully feeble!
Look, Mike, there are some roses on that tree from which I plucked
the one you didn't think much of. Do you remember? You crushed it
up in my hand and made it bleed."
"I have got some faint recollection of it," he said.
Sylvia had got hold of her courage again.
"Have you?" she asked. "What a wonderful memory. And that quiet
evening out here next day. Perhaps you remember that too. That
was real: that was a possession that we shan't ever part with."
She pointed with her finger.
"You and I sat there, and Hermann there," she said. "And mother
sat--why, there she is. Mother darling, let's have tea out here,
shall we? I will go and tell them."
Mrs. Falbe had drifted out in her usual thistledown style, and
shook hands with Michael.
"What an upset it all is," she said, "with all these dreadful
rumours going about that we shall be at war. I fell asleep, I
think, a little after lunch, when I could not attend to my book for
thinking about war."
"Isn't the book interesting?" asked Michael.
"No, not very. It is rather painful. I do not know why people
write about painful things when there are so many pleasant and
interesting things to write about. It seems to me very morbid."
Michael heard something cried in the streets, and at the same
moment he heard Sylvia's step quickly crossing the studio to the
side door that opened on to it. In a minute she returned with a
fresh edition of an evening paper.
"They are preparing to cross the Rhine," she said.
Mrs. Falbe gave a little sigh.
"I don't know, I am sure," she said, "what you are in such a state
about, Sylvia. Of course the Germans want to get into France the
easiest and quickest way, at least I'm sure I should. It is very
foolish of Belgium not to give them leave, as they are so much the
"Mother darling, you don't understand one syllable about it," said
"Very likely not, dear, but I am very glad we are an island, and
that nobody can come marching here. But it is all a dreadful
upset, Lord--I mean Michael, what with Hermann in Germany, and the
concert tour abandoned. Still, if everything is quiet again by the
middle of October, as I daresay it will be, it might come off after
all. He will be on the spot, and you and Michael can join him,
though I'm not quite sure if that would be proper. But we might
arrange something: he might meet you at Ostend."
"I'm afraid it doesn't look very likely," remarked Michael mildly.
"Oh, and are you pessimistic too, like Sylvia? Pray don't be
pessimistic. There is a dreadful pessimist in my book, who always
thinks the worst is going to happen."
"And does it?" asked Michael.
"As far as I have got, it does, which makes it all the worse. Of
course I am very anxious about Hermann, but I feel sure he will
come back safe to us. I daresay France will give in when she sees
Germany is in earnest."
Mrs. Falbe pulled the shattered remnants of her mind together. In
her heart of hearts she knew she did not care one atom what might
happen to armies and navies and nations, provided only that she had
a quantity of novels to read, and meals at regular hours. The fact
of being on an island was an immense consolation to her, since it
was quite certain that, whatever happened, German armies (or French
or Soudanese, for that matter) could not march here and enter her
sitting-room and take her books away from her. For years past she
had asked nothing more of the world than that she should be
comfortable in it, and it really seemed not an unreasonable
request, considering at how small an outlay of money all the
comfort she wanted could be secured to her. The thought of war had
upset her a good deal already: she had been unable to attend to her
book when she awoke from her after-lunch nap; and now, when she
hoped to have her tea in peace, and find her attention restored by
it, she found the general atmosphere of her two companions vaguely
disquieting. She became a little more loquacious than usual, with
the idea of talking herself back into a tranquil frame of mind, and
reassuring to herself the promise of a peaceful future.
"Such a blessing we have a good fleet," she said. "That will make
us safe, won't it? I declare I almost hate the Germans, though my
dear husband was one himself, for making such a disturbance. The
papers all say it is Germany's fault, so I suppose it must be. The
papers know better than anybody, don't they, because they have
foreign correspondents. That must be a great expense!"
Sylvia felt she could not endure this any longer. It was like
having a raw wound stroked. . . .
"Mother, you don't understand," she said. "You don't appreciate
what is happening. In a day or two England will be at war with
Mrs. Falbe's book had slipped from her knee. She picked it up and
flapped the cover once or twice to get rid of dust that might have
"But what then?" she said. "It is very dreadful, no doubt, to
think of dear Hermann being with the German army, but we are
getting used to that, are we not? Besides, he told me it was his
duty to go. I do not think for a moment that France will be able
to stand against Germany. Germany will be in Paris in no time, and
I daresay Hermann's next letter will be to say that he has been
walking down the boulevards. Of course war is very dreadful, I
know that. And then Germany will be at war with Russia, too, but
she will have Austria to help her. And as for Germany being at war
with England, that does not make me nervous. Think of our fleet,
and how safe we feel with that! I see that we have twice as many
boats as the Germans. With two to one we must win, and they won't
be able to send any of their armies here. I feel quite comfortable
again now that I have talked it over."
Sylvia caught Michael's eye for a moment over the tea-urn. She
felt he acquiesced in what she was intending to say.
"That is good, then," she said. "I am glad you feel comfortable
about it, mother dear. Now, will you read your book out here? Why
not, if I fetch you a shawl in case you feel cold?"
Mrs. Falbe turned a questioning eye to the motionless trees and the
"I don't think I shall even want a shawl, dear," she said.
"Listen, how the newsboys are calling! is it something fresh, do
A moment's listening attention was sufficient to make it known that
the news shouted outside was concerned only with the result of a
county cricket match, and Michael, as well as Sylvia, was conscious
of a certain relief to know that at the immediate present there was
no fresh clang of the bell that was beating out the seconds of
peace that still remained. Just for now, for this hour on Saturday
afternoon, there was a respite: no new link was forged in the
intolerable sequence of events. But, even as he drew breath in
that knowledge, there came the counter-stroke in the sense that
those whose business it was to disseminate the news that would
cause their papers to sell, had just a cricket match to advertise
their wares. Now, when the country and when Europe were on the
brink of a bloodier war than all the annals of history contained,
they, who presumably knew what the public desired to be informed
on, thought that the news which would sell best was that concerned
with wooden bats and leather balls, and strong young men in
flannels. Michael had heard with a sort of tender incredulity Mrs.
Falbe's optimistic reflections, and had been more than content to
let her rest secure in them; but was the country, the heart of
England, like her? Did it care more for cricket matches, as she
for her book, than for the maintenance of the nation's honour,
whatever that championship might cost? . . . And the cry went on
past the garden-walk. "Fine innings by Horsfield! Result of the
And yet he had just had his tea as usual, and eaten a slice of
cake, and was now smoking a cigarette. It was natural to do that,
not to make a fuss and refuse food and drink, and it was natural
that people should still be interested in cricket. And at the
moment his attitude towards Mrs. Falbe changed. Instead of pity
and irritation at her normality, he was suddenly taken with a sense
of gratitude to her. It was restful to suspense and jangled nerves
to see someone who went on as usual. The sun shone, the leaves of
the plane-trees did not wither, Mrs. Falbe read her book, the
evening paper was full of cricket news. . . . And then the
reaction from that seized him again. Supposing all the nation was
like that. Supposing nobody cared. . . . And the tension of
suspense strained more tightly than ever.
For the next forty-eight hours, while day and night the telegraph
wires of Europe tingled with momentous questions and grave replies,
while Ministers and Ambassadors met and parted and met again,
rumours flew this way and that like flocks of wild-fowl driven
backwards and forwards, settling for a moment with a stir and
splash, and then with rush of wings speeding back and on again. A
huge coal strike in the northern counties, fostered and financed by
German gold, was supposed to be imminent, and this would put out of
the country's power the ability to interfere. The Irish Home Rule
party, under the same suasion, was said to have refused to call a
truce. A letter had been received in high quarters from the German
Emperor avowing his fixed determination to preserve peace, and this
was honey to Lord Ashbridge. Then in turn each of these was
contradicted. All thought of the coal strike in this crisis of
national affairs was abandoned; the Irish party, as well as the
Conservatives, were of one mind in backing up the Government, no
matter what postponement of questions that were vital a month ago,
their cohesion entailed; the Emperor had written no letter at all.
But through the nebulous mists of hearsay, there fell solid the
first drops of the imminent storm. Even before Michael had left
Sylvia that afternoon, Germany had declared war on Russia, on
Sunday Belgium received a Note from Berlin definitely stating that
should their Government not grant the passage to the German
battalions, a way should be forced for them. On Monday, finally,
Germany declared war on France also.
The country held its breath in suspense at what the decision of the
Government, which should be announced that afternoon, should be.
One fact only was publicly known, and that was that the English
fleet, only lately dismissed from its manoeuvres and naval review,
had vanished. There were guard ships, old cruisers and what not,
at certain ports, torpedo-boats roamed the horizons of Deal and
Portsmouth, but the great fleet, the swift forts of sea-power, had
gone, disappearing no one knew where, into the fine weather haze
that brooded over the midsummer sea. There perhaps was an
indication of what the decision would be, yet there was no
certainty. At home there was official silence, and from abroad,
apart from the three vital facts, came but the quacking of rumour,
report after report, each contradicting the other.
Then suddenly came certainty, a rainbow set in the intolerable
cloud. On Monday afternoon, when the House of Commons met, all
parties were known to have sunk their private differences and to be
agreed on one point that should take precedence of all other
questions. Germany should not, with England's consent, violate the
neutrality of Belgium. As far as England was concerned, all
negotiations were at an end, diplomacy had said its last word, and
Germany was given twenty-four hours in which to reply. Should a
satisfactory answer not be forthcoming, England would uphold the
neutrality she with others had sworn to respect by force of arms.
And at that one immense sigh of relief went up from the whole
country. Whatever now might happen, in whatever horrors of long-
drawn and bloody war the nation might be involved, the nightmare of
possible neutrality, of England's repudiating the debt of honour,
was removed. The one thing worse than war need no longer be
dreaded, and for the moment the future, hideous and heart-rending
though it would surely be, smiled like a land of promise.
Michael woke on the morning of Tuesday, the fourth of August, with
the feeling of something having suddenly roused him, and in a few
seconds he knew that this was so, for the telephone bell in the
room next door sent out another summons. He got straight out of
bed and went to it, with a hundred vague shadows of expectation
crossing his mind. Then he learned that his mother was gravely
ill, and that he was wanted at once. And in less than half an hour
he was on his way, driving swiftly through the serene warmth of the
early morning to the private asylum where she had been removed
after her sudden homicidal outburst in March.
Michael was sitting that same afternoon by his mother's bedside.
He had learned the little there was to be told him on his arrival
in the morning; how that half an hour before he had been summoned,
she had had an attack of heart failure, and since then, after
recovering from the acute and immediate danger, she had lain there
all day with closed eyes in a state of but semi-conscious
exhaustion. Once or twice only, and that but for a moment she had
shown signs of increasing vitality, and then sank back into this
stupor again. But in those rare short intervals she had opened her
eyes, and had seemed to see and recognise him, and Michael thought
that once she had smiled at him. But at present she had spoken no
word. All the morning Lord Ashbridge had waited there too, but
since there was no change he had gone away, saying that he would
return again later, and asking to be telephoned for if his wife
regained consciousness. So, but for the nurse and the occasional
visits of the doctor, Michael was alone with his mother.
In this long period of inactive waiting, when there was nothing to
be done, Michael did not seem to himself to be feeling very
vividly, and but for one desire, namely, that before the end his
mother would come back to him, even if only for a moment, his mind
felt drugged and stupefied. Sometimes for a little it would
sluggishly turn over thoughts about his father, wondering with a
sort of blunt, remote contempt how it was possible for him not to
be here too; but, except for the one great longing that his mother
should cleave to him once more in conscious mind, he observed
rather than felt. The thought of Sylvia even was dim. He knew
that she was somewhere in the world, but she had become for the
present like some picture painted in his mind, without reality.
Dim, too, was the tension of those last days. Somewhere in Europe
was a country called Germany, where was his best friend, drilling
in the ranks to which he had returned, or perhaps already on his
way to bloodier battlefields than the world had ever dreamed of;
and somewhere set in the seas was Germany's arch-foe, who already
stood in her path with open cannon mouths pointing. But all this
had no real connection with him. From the moment when he had come
into this quiet, orderly room and saw his mother lying on the bed,
nothing beyond those four walls really concerned him.
But though the emotional side of his mind lay drugged and
insensitive to anything outside, he found himself observing the
details of the room where he waited with a curious vividness.
There was a big window opening down to the ground in the manner of
a door on to the garden outside, where a smooth lawn, set with
croquet hoops and edged with bright flower-beds, dozed in the haze
of the August heat. Beyond was a row of tall elms, against which a
copper beech glowed metallically, and somewhere out of sight a
mowing-machine was being used, for Michael heard the click of its
cropping journey, growing fainter as it receded, followed by the
pause as it turned, and its gradual crescendo as it approached
again. Otherwise everything outside was strangely silent; as the
hot hours of midday and early afternoon went by there was no note
of bird-music, nor any sound of wind in the elm-tops. Just a
little breeze stirred from time to time, enough to make the slats
of the half-drawn Venetian blind rattle faintly. Earlier in the
day there had come in from the window the smell of dew-damp earth,
but now that had been sucked up by the sun.
Close beside the window, with her back to the light and facing the
bed, which projected from one of the side walls out into the room,
sat Lady Ashbridge's nurse. She was reading, and the rustle of the
turned page was regular; but regular and constant also were her
glances towards the bed where her patient lay. At intervals she
put down her book, marking the place with a slip of paper, and came
to watch by the bed for a moment, looking at Lady Ashbridge's face
and listening to her breathing. Her eye met Michael's always as
she did this, and in answer to his mute question, each time she
gave him a little head-shake, or perhaps a whispered word or two,
that told him there was no change. Opposite the bed was the empty
fireplace, and at the foot of it a table, on which stood a vase of
roses. Michael was conscious of the scent of these every now and
then, and at intervals of the faint, rather sickly smell of ether.
A Japan screen, ornamented with storks in gold thread, stood near
the door and half-concealed the washing-stand. There was a chest
of drawers on one side of the fireplace, a wardrobe with a looking-
glass door on the other, a dressing-table to one side of the
window, a few prints on the plain blue walls, and a dark blue
drugget carpet on the floor; and all these ordinary appurtenances
of a bedroom etched themselves into Michael's mind, biting their
way into it by the acid of his own suspense.
Finally there was the bed where his mother lay. The coverlet of
blue silk upon it he knew was somehow familiar to him, and after
fitful gropings in his mind to establish the association, he
remembered that it had been on the bed in her room in Curzon
Street, and supposed that it had been brought here with others of
her personal belongings. A little core of light, focused on one of
the brass balls at the head of the bed, caught his eye, and he saw
that the sun, beginning to decline, came in under the Venetian
blind. The nurse, sitting in the window, noticed this also, and
lowered it. The thought of Sylvia crossed his brain for a moment;
then he thought of his father; but every train of reflection
dissolved almost as soon as it was formed, and he came back again
and again to his mother's face.
It was perfectly peaceful and strangely young-looking, as if the
cool, soothing hand of death, which presently would quiet all
trouble for her, had been already at work there erasing the marks
that the years had graven upon it. And yet it was not so much
young as ageless; it seemed to have passed beyond the register and
limitations of time. Sometimes for a moment it was like the face
of a stranger, and then suddenly it would become beloved and
familiar again. It was just so she had looked when she came so
timidly into his room one night at Ashbridge, asking him if it
would be troublesome to him if she sat and talked with him for a
little. The mouth was a little parted for her slow, even
breathing; the corners of it smiled; and yet he was not sure if
they smiled. It was hard to tell, for she lay there quite flat,
without pillows, and he looked at her from an unusual angle.
Sometimes he felt as if he had been sitting there watching for
uncounted years; and then again the hours that he had been here
appeared to have lasted but for a moment, as if he had but looked
once at her.
As the day declined the breeze of evening awoke, rattling the
blind. By now the sun had swung farther west, and the nurse pulled
the blind up. Outside in the bushes in the garden the call of
birds to each other had begun, and a thrush came close to the
window and sang a liquid phrase, and then repeated it. Michael
glanced there and saw the bird, speckle-breasted, with throat that
throbbed with the notes; and then, looking back to the bed, he saw
that his mother's eyes were open.
She looked vaguely about the room for a moment, as if she had awoke
from some deep sleep and found herself in an unfamiliar place.
Then, turning her head slightly, she saw him, and there was no
longer any question as to whether her mouth smiled, for all her
face was flooded with deep, serene joy.
He bent towards her and her lips parted.
"Michael, my dear," she said gently.
Michael heard the rustle of the nurse's dress as she got up and
came to the bedside. He slipped from his chair on to his knees, so