"NO hope, doctor?"
"Nothing but a miracle can save her now."
Donald turned away without a word, and slipped quietly back into the sickroom. When the depths of a strong man's emotions are stirred words become an empty mockery. The doctor, following, found him kneeling by the bedside, silent, dry-eyed, but with a face like granite and a gaze that never left the features of the unconscious woman—features that suffering had been unable to rob of their character and beauty.
Long hours the silent vigil lasted. Physician and nurse held whispered consultations from time to time, but the man by the bedside fought his battle alone. When, with the coming of the first grey streaks of dawn, the woman stirred, whispered “Donald” very faintly, and went down into the Valley of Shadows for the last time, Mackenzie rose and turned to the physician.
“The housekeeper will get you some hot coffee and a bite to eat, Doctor,” he said, mechanically, as though the words were not his own—and went out.
A moment later they heard the study door close behind him. The doctor was an intimate friend, but Donald’s nature made him walk the pathway of shadows alone.
WHEN the news of the death at the Manse reached Grey’s Crossing there were few who did not find in their hearts great pity for the bereaved husband, and for themselves a very definite sense of loss. The Rev. Donald Mackenzie had been with them now for close on six years, and his unfailing courtesy, his ready sympathy and, above all, his kindly ministrations to those in any need, whoever or whatever they might be, had won for him the respect and love not only of his own people but of a very much more extensive circle. In his wife, too, they had found a woman of unusual strength and loveliness of character, so that in the few months since he had brought his bride to Gray’s Crossing, she had won a place in the affections of the people second only to his own. While none could enter with him its secret depths, Donald Mackenzie was not alone in his sorrow.
As quickly as the word could travel Mrs. Mackenzie’s death became the chief topic of conversation for the countryside.
“He’s takin’ it awful hard,” confided Euphemia Griggs, the lady-of-all-work, to her friend, Paulina Abbott, who kept the Notions Store near the Post Office. Euphemia’s boast was that for fifteen years, rain and shine, and through four different pastorates, she had never failed to be on hand twice a week to "set the Manse to rights."
Miss Abbott nodded her sympathy.
"They do say—" she began.
“Not as what he shouldn’t,” interposed Mrs. Griggs, hastily, lest the reins of conversation should slip from her, “for a finer young woman never walked this mortal earth. Well do I mind the time he brought her home—a blushin’ bride as the sayin’ is. That was—let me see—that was just nine months ago—all but three days—because Mary Jones’ youngest was took bad with the croup the night before—and it his birthday, and me with a frosted cake and candles all made and ready. Mary Jones always was a fool about bringin’ up children. If there was anythin’ worth catchin’ within a score of miles you could bank your money on their gettin’ it. ‘Mary’, I sez to her once — ”
“Yes, yes,” Miss Abbott broke in impatiently, effectually damming Mrs. Griggs’ flow of reminiscence, which invariably flooded its banks and wandered at will through devious channels, “but we were discussing the minister’s wife and not Mary Jones. You was saying about the time he brought her home.”
“Well, it wasn’t my regular day, but you may depend upon it I contrived to be on hand. Paulina”—Mrs. Griggs leaned over the counter and spoke impressively— “believe it or not as you will, but I sez to myself as soon as I laid eyes on her, ‘Euphemia,’ I sez, ‘there’s as proper a young lady as ever was. But,’ I sez, 'I misdoubt if she’s very strong.’ Only a month later she come in from visitin’ the sick—you know as well as I do what a one she was for that kind of thing—and she looked so poorly I took the minister aside that evenin’. ‘Pardon the liberty, Mr. Mackenzie,’ I sez, ‘but you want to look out for the missus. She’s working too hard at her Christianity,’ I sez, ‘and the good Lord don’t expect us to wear out these here bodies he’s give us.’ He laughed at the time but later I heard him tellin’ her she must rest up more. ‘If anything should happen to you, dear,’ he sez, 'I think I should go mad.’
“Yes,” concluded Euphemia, picking up her shopping basket preparatory to taking her leave, “he’s takin’ it hard. If he’d only break down—but he don’t. He’s one of the quiet kind and sorrow is always hard on them. It’s a sad case.” Mrs. Griggs sighed ponderously, put her basket on her arm and made for the street. “Of course you’ll be at the funeral to-morrow,” she called back, her big form framed in the doorway. “It’s goin’ to be a perfectly grand one. I do like to see well-conducted funerals. It’s always been a great comfort to me that my Griggs had such a fine send-off, although, as I sez to Mrs. Simkins at the time: 'I hope,’ I sez, ‘if, as some folks tells us, our dear departed can look down at us, my Henry won’t think I’ve been too extravagant with the fixin’s. He always was a bit on the cautious side where money was concerned.’ Well I must really run along; they’re expectin’ me up at the Manse.”
IT was a full week after the funeral before Mrs. Griggs sought out her confidante again.
“I’m worried, Pauline, fair worried,” she declared. “And so’s Janet, the housekeeper. That man’s settin’ up there and as far as I can make out he don’t eat, or sleep, or anythin’ else. Just sits and sits by the hour in his study, or walks the floor hour on hour at night, so Janet tells me. I met him sudden-like yesterday cornin’ out of his study, an’ he looked straight at me, yet I’ll take my oath, Paulina, that he never so much as saw me. His eyes looked right through me, my dear. It’s uncanny, that’s what it is. I hope he aint goin’ off his head.
“There was Sam Mosewell, him that was second husband to the Potter girl—though how she ever come to get two beats me; certainly it weren’t her looks that attracted them, though they do say she’s a middlin’ good cook—but where was I?”
“You was speakin’ of Sam Mosewell.”
“Oh, yes, Well, Sam’s wife up and died sudden-like, and Sam went clean nuts. Had to be took to an asylum—and there he is to this day. Although some says it wasn’t his wife’s death so much as the loss of his barn when it got struck by lightnin’ just after the harvest that sent him off. Oh, Paulina, you don’t suppose poor Mr. Mackenzie would go like that?”
Miss Abbott opined that it was a possibility, whereupon the conversation turned upon the general topic of insanity and its manifestations, and proved fruitful material for a lengthy chat.
DONALD MACKENZIE, while aware of the stir that his wife’s death had caused in the community and not insensible to the many Expressions of sympathy that reached him, felt absolutely detached from the life about him. For the first time since he gave himself to the ministry the social impulses that had meant so much to the success of his work were dormant. His life was a thing apart. Seclusion only he sought—particularly the seclusion of his own study, that he might think things through and wrestle with the grief that was undermining not only his physical but his spiritual and mental well-being.
When the first numbing shock had passed his thoughts turned to the subject of life beyond the grave. Perhaps the bright promise of the future would help dispel the shadows that had settled so thickly upon him. He thought over the many times when he had spoken to his people of these things—spoken in all sincerity, too. Now, somehow he seemed to have lost his grip. In the crisis of his own experience he began to wonder if, after all, he had not been entertaining—and propounding—a comfortable delusion. Was there such a thing as immortality of the soul? More important still, was there reunion in the new life—a continuance of the close affinities of earth?
It was at this point that he turned to his library. His eye ran along the neat line of volumes under the general heading of “Eschatology,” but one seemed in a singular way to challenge his attention. He took it down. It was a recent addition—the leaves as yet uncut. Quite insignificant in size, its title held him. “Immortality—in the Light of Reason.”
He opened the book at random, and an italicized paragraph caught his eye. He read :
“Men believe, or delude themselves into believing, those things which they most desire. Their ideas are determined largely by environment and social standards. The Indian, filled with the joys of the chase, seeks his heaven in the ‘Happy Hunting Grounds’. The Buddhist, with the cares of life heavy upon him, finds comfort in the thought of Nirvana. The Hindoo hopes that successive reincarnations will not reduce him to too low a form of life. The Christian, with the highest development socially, builds in his imagination a wonderful future life—differing greatly with varying types of mind and varying desires—in which a better social order and a continuance of the more intimate relationships of life, on a spiritual plane, predominate. Reason demands something more than this; it challenges those who do not fear to face the truth to set aside such vain delusions and face the facts.”
In a normal state Mackenzie would have tossed the book aside with a laugh. But just now he was not normal. Doubts that at the outset had been vague were speedily becoming an obsession. And now this random paragraph of some self-appointed amateur theologian threatened to complete his undoing. The words seemed to burn themselves into his brain.
“Men believe, or delude themselves into believing, those thing which they most desire.” He caught himself repeating the words. And again—“Reason demands something more than this.” They became like an unbreakable strand that ran through all his thinking—until his mind seemed as if it would snap with very weariness.
EX-SERGEANT PROUDFOOT, dropping in to see the minister just at this stage, was a most opportune visitor. Anxious as he was to avoid all intercourse with his fellows, Donald hailed this interruption of his thoughts with something akin to gratitude.
Once he had overcome his natural embarrassment, Mr. Proudfoot proved himself a man of tact. He omitted all direct reference to the tragedy overshadowing the minister’s life and got down to business.
“You must excuse my breaking in on you like this, sir,” he apologized, “but I have come to you for a little help."
“I shall be very happy if I can help you,” Mackenzie returned courteously.
“Well, it’s just this way, Mr. Mackenzie, Proudfoot said twisting his tweed cap with nervous fingers. “Some of us fellows who’ve been overseas got thinking how it would be nice to have another service this Easter for all the boys who went from hereabouts and—didn’t come back. It’ll be held in the town hall, and the authorities are willing we should parade there, and the churches have agreed to back us up. It’ll be at three o’clock in the afternoon."
“I see. A very commendable idea. And — ”
“And so they made me chairman of the committee in charge, Mr. Mackenzie, only Lord knows why they done it, for I’m no good at this kind of thing. Anyhow the boys told me I must come and see you and get you to be the speaker.”
Donald shook his head.
“I’m more than grateful for the honor, but I’m sorry—”
“Mr. Mackenzie!”—Proudfoot’s tone was obstinate. “The boys said to tell you it was you or no one. Besides”—his voice lowered a little—“we all think it’ll do you good. Nothing like action to keep a man’s mind off his troubles.”
WHEN his visitor was gone Donald roundly upbraided himself for finally giving his consent to speak at the service. The more he considered it the more appalled was he at the very thought of it. A memorial service! Easter Sunday afternoon! For the first time the real significance of it struck him. What a silly fool he was! His eyes lighted on the still open book. “Men believe, or delude themselves into believing those things which they most desire.” He closed the book and threw it across the room—but the words continued to haunt him.
Presently he rang the bell, and the housekeeper appeared.
“Tell the boy to get ready to take a message to Mr. Proudfoot at the village.”
“Yes, Mr. Mackenzie.” Janet turned to go.
He called after her: “Never mind, Janet, I’ve changed my mind.”
As the door closed behind her he muttered almost fiercely: “I’ve never failed in an appointment yet, and I shan’t commence now. The work will lift me out of myself, but”—his laugh was a little bitter—“they’ll have to chance what I’ll give them.”
From that time Donald commenced to walk abroad again—and Janet and Euphemia, watching him with almost maternal devotion, smiled at each other and declared the crisis was past. But then they did not know that his course invariably lay not towards the haunts of his fellows but up, across rolling pasture land, and through the thick woods where the snow still lay in crevices and hollows untouched by the spring sunshine, and where bypaths were many and the passers-by few.
Many a mile he covered in those days—striding along in silence with a set face, and ears that were no longer attuned to the music of nature, even as his eyes were blind to the messages that the changing seasons had always brought him.
Nor did any human eye see him on that night before the memorable service when, just at sunset, he climbed to a height of land nearby, and looked out upon the countryside—a favorite view of his—and watched the sun sink down behind the distant line of hills. For, kneeling there for one brief moment, he prayed, as many a man has done in such a time, for a sign—for some outward evidence of the things he had lost his grip on—the things concerning which he would be expected to speak to the people on the morrow. It was a cry of bitterest anguish of soul—the cry of a strong man at the end of his own resources. And then, in the gloaming, he slowly retraced his steps to where the lights of the Manse in the distance no longer held any homelike meaning for him.
EASTER Sunday dawned bright—which put heart into those who sought to ape the city folk by a parade of new clothes and millinery; but later developed one of those not uncommon snowstorms by which means the weather seeks to get the last of winter out of its system— which threw them out of countenance again and back upon the comforting protection of their winter apparel.
But mere weather could not daunt the good folk of the countryside—or keep them away from Gray’s Crossing that Sunday afternoon. Quite early in the morning they began to drive in, bringing, in cases where it was not safe to rely upon the hospitality of resident friends, their lunches with them. By one o’clock the town hall—an unusually commodious and pretentious structure for such a place—was comfortably filled; by two it was difficult to find seats even at the back; by three, when the service was scheduled to start, not another man, woman or child could they have packed into the building. Up at the front the returned men—feeling and looking uncomfortable under the double burden of undesired publicity and Sunday clothes—filled two or three full rows. Immediately behind were the relatives or intimate friends of those in whose memory the service was being held. The other seats were open to the public.
Euphemia Griggs was early in her place, proudly conscious of a new hat that resembled nothing so much as the unexpected results of one of those “Surprise Packets of Wild Garden Seed,” that enterprising and imaginative seed merchants offer. With her came the inevitable Miss Abbott, her spare, angular figure a notable contrast to Euphemia’s formidable dimensions. Janet, the minister’s housekeeper, made a third.
PRECISELY at three a little procession filed out from an ante-room and took seats on the bunting-covered platform. The clergy was well to the fore with representatives from each of the churches, not forgetting Father O’Shea, white of head and good-humored of face. The Mayor appeared in the capacity of chairman. Last but not least came ex-Sergt. Proudfoot, perspiring freely, but playing his part to the end with the same determined spirit that had won him distinction “out there."
Just to the right of the Mayor sat Donald Mackenzie. This was his first public appearance since his wife’s death, and he shrank from the ordeal. Men noted with pleasure his return to their midst, exchanging nods of satisfaction; but the women—with keener insight— whispered much of his haggard look and the depths of tragedy that the lines of his face revealed.
Euphemia Griggs whispered to Janet that Donald looked even more poorly than usual.
“It’s a shame they should make him speak,” was her indignant protest, “and him so tired out.”
A little old lady who sat just in front of Miss Abbott was heard to remark:
“Yon laddie’s troubled with something mair than the sorrow for his lassie.”
Prom his seat on the platform Donald felt that all eyes were focussed upon him, but again he experienced a sense of detachment from his surroundings. He knew that in twenty minutes or less he would be called upon to speak, but just what he would say he left to the inspiration of the moment. His brain was too confused to think clearly. And yet be longed for the time to come. His thoughts ran to the oft-used simile of men “going over the top.” Would the “zero hour” never arrive?
His sense of detachment lasted all through the opening exercises. How heartily the great crowd sang—lifting their voices without restraint, as country congregations do—and yet he felt no thrill as the well-known lines told their Easter message.
In a vague way he heard his name spoken by the chairman, and some delicate reference made to his recent bereavement. Then he found himself on his feet, and the audience waiting, hushed, for him to speak. Then, with the coming of that strange thrill of nervous exultation that comes to some speakers at such a time, something seemed to snap within him, and his old power as a speaker surged upon him.
LATER, when men gathered in groups to talk it all over, they agreed that never was Donald Mackenzie in better form than in the first twenty minutes of his address. With burning words he told of the response of the nation to duty’s call, of the great and worthy part Canada had played in the struggle. An oft-told tale, it took on new meaning as he pictured it. And then men and women lived with him again those early days of war—soul-stirring, heartrending days, never to be forgotten—when sons, and husbands, and brothers and lovers had laid down the peaceful implements of their calling, and gone forth to “do their bit.” He spoke tenderly of their home life, their affectionate natures, the high promise of their young manhood. And then, very reverently, very vividly, he traced their footsteps up to the very altar of sacrifice.
And then a strange thing happened. A wave of indecision seemed to strike the speaker. Men saw his face grow whiter than his accustomed pallor. His fingers toyed nervously with an open hymn-book on the table. The chairman motioned to the glass of water ready at his hand, but Donald waved it away and regained his self-possession with evident effort.
When he spoke again his voice was steady.
“But what of those who played the no less heroic part of waiting—and watching?
“ ‘Reading the lists as posted, after the silent hours,
Hoping the golden names we scan may still be none of ours.’ ”
“That was the harder part, and then there came a day when among the ‘golden names’ was one of theirs. Our hearts go out to them to-day—mine in these feeble words, yours in a silent tribute much more potent.
“It is fitting, friends, that we should hold this service on Easter Sunday, not only because of its historic associations and memories, but because of the message it brings. Immortality—what a wealth of meaning in the word! Life after death—life more abundant—a reunion with the dear ones gone before—these are the things that men hold most precious. In them we find a comfort for troubled hearts. We believe—”
Donald stopped abruptly. Like a flash he was back again in his study wrestling with these very problems, and like a mockery the haunting words recurred to his mind: “Men believe, or delude themselves into believing, those things which they most desire. Reason demands more than this—" Dark, crushing in their influence, the shadows of the past few weeks gathered about him again.
How to continue—that was the problem. Should he employ words and phrases that had become meaningless to him, or express ideas to which he could not with conviction subscribe? The inherent honesty of his nature rejected the thought as quickly as it was conceived. The crowd, not yet realizing the significance of his silence, was waiting tensely. He looked down at the little gathering of bereaved ones waiting for some word of consolation. With a sudden gesture of resignation he faced the audience.
“My friends,” he said, brokenly, “I am sorry I cannot continue. I—I—God give you—give us all—the message of comfort we need.”
Like one in physical darkness he groped his way to a chair, and buried his face in his hands.
In the intensity of this emotional crisis Donald did not for a moment realize that Proudfoot’s hand was on his shoulder, in an effort to secure his attention. Then he heard him say:
“Mr. Mackenzie, sir, read ’em this.” Mechanically he took the crumpled sheets of paper the other proffered. His eye caught the familiar Red Triangle in the corner. Grimy, blurred, badly worn at the creases, the sheets were yet legible. Proudfoot whispered a brief explanation— then strangely hesitant yet feeling impelled to it by some force beyond his control—Mackenzie rose again and faced the waiting congregation.
“My friends,” he said, “Mr. Proudfoot here, whom we all know and honor as one who has served his country with distinction, has handed me this. It is a letter— unaddressed—the letter of a soldier lad to his best friend on earth—his mother—written on the verge of battle and picked up by Mr. Proudfoot from the mud of a front-line trench. Either the boy had not the opportunity or forgot to mail it. Mr. Proudfoot tells me it is quite probable it was dropped by some lad from this section of the country, although he has not yet been able to locate the mother. He has asked me, and I think fittingly, to read it to you now. Such a letter bears a sacredness all its own.”
In clear, sympathetic tones—for his voice was steady again—Donald began to read:
Somewhere in France, April 20,1915.
When I wrote you yesterday I thought I was out of the big stuff for a little while. To-day I find I am to go up the line again on special duty, and I have a feeling that I would like to write you before I go. Not that I am worrying but just—in case. I don’t believe in premonitions and yet I have a feeling that something unusual is ahead of me.
Mother, dear—if anything should happen I want you always to remember that I’ve done my best to “play the game,” and I think I can face the Big Adventure without fear.
Do you remember, mother, the little talks we used to have together when we got alone—just we two—about the deeper things of life? Well, somehow out here I am finding them greater realities every day. A fellow can’t see so many of his pals drop out of the ranks without wondering—what’s on the other side of the Great Divide. Just the other day one of the boys I was quite pally with “went West.” He was only a lad and had been delicate and coddled all his life, but somehow he got over here and the way he “carried on” was a triumph of spirit over body. Always cheerful—the very life of the bunch—and yet we knew that physically he just made the grind and no more. I was beside him when he got it—shrapnel in the side—bad case—and he just turned over with a queer little smile though his face was twisted with pain: “Cheerio, old man,” he said, “I wish I could have done more for.... my country.... and all,” and died. You can’t tell me a spirit like that hasn’t something still bigger ahead.
“Gone West”—I like that, mother. Do you remember how we used to sit in the verandah porch in the old days, with the honeysuckle climbing up and sweetening the air with its fragrance, and watched the sun setting over the creek in the West Meadow? I’ve always liked the sunset and the gloaming more than almost any time of day. Mother, if it should—happen to me—just remember that I’ve gone West—West into the glorious sunset that gives promise of a new day. Yes, a new day and a better day—where there will be no parting—and we’ll have so much to tell each other when we meet, won’t we, mother dearest?
I don’t know why I write like this—but it’s the mood I’m in, and I know you’ll understand.
There goes the “Fall In” now. Good-bye, dearest little mother of all.
With all the love in the world from your son whom you always like to call your your own
A DEEP hush had fallen upon the gathering. Some of the women were weeping, and if tears stood in the eyes of not a few of the men it was no shame to their manhood. As Donald’s deep, rich voice ceased, a woman sobbed audibly.
Donald sat down—and all eyes were turned towards the chairman. For a moment he seemed lost, then, evidently realizing that something was expected of him, he half rose, but sank back into the chair with his gaze focussed on the far side of the building. Others, following his glance, saw a little, white-haired woman pushing past those who sat between her and the aisle and, with evident determination of/purpose, making her way to the platform.
The quiet was broken with eager whispers.
“It’s Mrs. Warrington—the widow who lives over to Black’s Creek. Her son’s been missing since the first gas attack. He was officially declared killed only a few months back. She’s been failing badly of late, and got out of bed this afternoon to come here. The neighbors who have been tending her tried to stop her but come she would.” Such was the gist of the comment.
And now the little woman was by the platform, and Father O’Shea’s kindly arm was helping her up. People noted with wonder the strange expression of her face. The rays of spring sunshine—for the storm was over now—flooding through the western windows, shone full upon her, revealing a face of wonderful sweetness—but the radiance that seemed to shine from her whole countenance came from within. Those nearest noted that she breathed with seeming difficulty as she clung for support to the priest’s arm.
“Mr. Mayor”—her voice was of a quality that evidenced refinement and breeding. “I’m sorry—sorry to intrude—like this—but I must have that letter. It’s mine—mine from my own Laddie.”
She took the letter Mackenzie held out, and laid it on her breast, crooningly, then turned to go.
Suddenly she stumbled, and would have fallen but for the willing arms that upheld her. Her whole being seemed aglow with an unearthly passion.
“God is good,” they heard her say. “He has given me back my son. I knew He would. I knew”—She broke off abruptly, and a still more exultant note entered her voice. “Look!” she cried, “It’s Laddie, my own Laddie. Yes, Laddie, I’m coming dear—coming—” Her arms were outstretched, her eyes held the look of one who sees the invisible, she nearly broke from those who supported her. Then, with a wonderful smile on her lips, she fell back into the arms of Father O’Shea.
* * *
THEY buried her out in Greenwood—the pretty local cemetery not far from her old home, and close by the little creek that gurgled and burbled its way in joyous satisfaction over its release from Winter’s clutch.
By special request it was Donald Mackenzie who conducted the simple service, and men could not fail to note the exultant tones with which he read the triumphant words of faith: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality,” ending with the challenge of Paul: “Oh death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory?”
As the little gathering of neighbors and other friends wound down the road from the cemetery, Donald lingered. The Doctor, stopping to accompany his friend, found the minister kneeling by the side of his wife’s grave, a little distance from the newly-raised mound. Moved with sudden sympathy he laid his hand tenderly on Donald’s shoulder.
Mackenzie looked up and smiled.
“They have eyes but they see not,” he said. “Doctor, we are always asking for signs and wonders to aid our faith, but it isn’t the signs and wonders that are lacking—it is eyes to see and understand. Look, Doctor.” Donald’s outstretched arm indicated the glories of the setting sun.
The Doctor nodded.
“Gone West,” he murmured. “The promise of a new day.”
Donald touched his arm.
“Look again, Doctor.”
This time his friend saw him kneel and very tenderly touch a tiny object in the ground. The recent snowfall still covered the earth with a mantle of white, but thrusting its way triumphantly through the snow, unharmed by the long, cold burial of winter, was a little spring flower.
For several moments they stood in silence. Then, arm in arm, and with a strange glow in their hearts they went down the path with their faces towards the sunset.