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   Chapter 15 THE WIDOWER

The Second Class Passenger: Fifteen Stories By Perceval Gibbon Characters: 10733

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

In the evening they sat together, John Morrison and his mother, with the curtains drawn, and the clear fire glowing on the red bricks of the fireplace. The old lady, after her custom, was prone to silence. Since Hilda's death she had said little, sparing the occasion the triviality of useless words. That afternoon she had ridden with her son to the funeral, holding him up with her strength, fortifying him with her courage. But now that his wife was gone for ever, and the pleasant house was overcast with its haunting emptiness, it seemed that her power was gone.

She had a piece of knitting to occupy her fingers, and over it she watched her son. He had been stunned when Hilda died, bewildered and uncomprehending; for no young man fully grasps the meaning of death. Now, as he sat, he seemed to be convincing himself. He had brought down his dead wife's work-basket and a drawer from her dressing- table. He sat in a low arm-chair, and had them beside him on the floor, and fingered deliberately among their contents for definite things, little landmarks of lost days that stabbed him with their associations. But what stirred his mother was not the sorrow of his loss so much as the uncertainty of parted lips and knitted brows that softened his thin, aquiline face, so strongly in contrast with his habit of brisk assurance.

She spoke at last. "John, dear, you should go to bed now," she said.

"It's past eleven, my boy; and I'm afraid you'll wear yourself out."

He had a small silver-backed hand-mirror in his hands. He had been staring into the glass of it for ten minutes. He looked up now and shook his head. "I couldn't," he answered. "I couldn't, mother. There's no sleep in me."

"But John--" began the mother again.

"Please don't bother about me," he interrupted. "I couldn't sleep, really. And I couldn't bear to lie awake-alone." His eyes dropped toward the mirror again. "You know," he said, "it's only now, mother, that I realize that Hilda is really gone. I can't explain it very well, but before this evening it seemed-well, it seemed idiotic to think that my wife was dead. It felt impossible, somehow."

"My poor boy!" said the old lady gently.

"And even now," he went on, with bowed head, "I have fancies."

"What fancies, John?" asked Mrs. Morrison.

He laid the mirror down on the floor, and glanced over his shoulder toward the door of the room before he answered. Then he looked at his mother squarely.

"I'll tell you," he said. And then he sat for some seconds in thought. "You know, mother, how close together we lived-Hilda and I. I suppose it's the same with all husbands and wives who are young and love one another. We had a world of familiar little household jokes and tricks of our own. There was one in particular. Whenever I was in here, and Hilda came in, she'd tiptoe through the door and try to get close and surprise me before I heard her. Does it sound foolish to you, mother? If it does, you don't understand at all."

Mrs. Morrison picked up her knitting and worked a dozen quick stitches. "No; it doesn't seem foolish. I understand it all, my dear," she replied.

He nodded. "Well," he said, "that's what my fancies are about. There are moments when I seem to hear something; and I feel quite sure- absolutely, utterly certain-that if I turn round I shall see her there, coming up behind me, all sparkling with laughter. But I've looked, and--"

He dropped his head into his hands, and his shoulders heaved.

Mrs. Morrison laid her knitting down and went over to him. "John, dear," she said, laying a hand lightly on his arm-"John, dear, this won't do at all. I want to help you, my boy. You know that, don't you? But I can't let you comfort yourself with these dreams, dear. They're bad-very bad for you. It's not that way that we shall see our Hilda again, John."

"Oh, I know," he answered. "I know, mother." He sat up again, and put her hand away with a warm pressure of thanks.

The old lady went back to her chair with a grave face, and for a while they sat again in silence. The fire was burning now a little dull, and about the room were sober shadows. John fell again to handling trifles from the work-basket and the drawer, lifting each to look at it carefully, and laying it aside again.

"Are you looking for something, dear?" asked Mrs. Morrison at last.

"Eh? Oh no," he answered absently. "But I was thinking."

"Don't think too much, my boy," she said.

"It was nothing much," he said, frowning. "But, mother, what horrible things these are!" He pointed with a sharp thrust of his finger to the trinkets on the floor. "She used them, mother. She had them about her every day. She handled them, and used them for her momentary purposes and necessities and there is no trace of her on any one of them."

"John, John!" Mrs. Morrison appealed to him with an outstretched hand, for he spoke with a kind of passion that hurt her like an impropriety.

He went on as though he had heard nothing. "Look at this thing," he said. "It was the silver mirror. She used it a dozen times a day. Her face was bright in it a thousand times-when she put up her hair, and when she let it down in a cascade over her shoulders. She was beautiful, and it was the companion of her beauty. And-yet it's empty now, as empty as her bed, as empty as all this stricken house. As

though she had never lived, mother-as though there had been no Hilda."

He dropped the mirror beside him, and rose from his chair, to pace up and down the room with quick, nervous strides.

Mrs. Morrison rose too. "John, dear," she said, stopping him with outstretched hands, "don't talk like that. We know better-you and I. The mirror can tell us nothing, nor any of those things you are torturing yourself with. She gave them nothing, my boy; it was for us she lived, not them. Our love, dear, and the pain of our loss, and all our memories; these are Hilda's witnesses. They remain to prove her to us and fulfil the beauty and goodness of her life. Don't speak as though Hilda had been wasted on us, dear."

"Wasted!" He started at the word. "Wasted! Oh God!"

She took him by the arm and drew him back to his chair by the fire. But even as he sat down he glanced again over his shoulder at the door. To all her entreaties to go to bed he remained obdurate.

"Do you know that I am very tired, John?" she said at last.

He looked up quickly. "Then you go to bed, mother," he urged. "I-I wish you would. I'd like to be alone for a little.

"If I leave you, will you promise you will not stay long?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. "All right. I'll promise, mother."

When she had left him he stood for a while in the centre of the floor, hands in pockets, his head drooping, in deep thought. He was a spare man, lean and tall, bred to composure, and serenity. Thus when there came a tragedy to overwhelm his training, he had few reserves; his propriety of demeanor lost, his soul was raw. His very attitude, as he stood, was eloquent of pain and helplessness. He had been married a little more than a year, and it seemed now as though that year stood vignetted on a broad border of sadness.

The fire rustled and clicked as the coals spent themselves. He had a feeling of chill and faintness, and he went back slowly to his chair. Seated there again, the silver toys were all round him, gleaming slyly at him with a sort of suggestiveness. He packed up the mirror, once more, and looked into the oval glass at it. He was feeling a little dizzy, these last days had burdened him heavily, and the afternoon had been a long stress of emotion. Thus, for a space of minutes he sat, the glass before him, his eyes half closed.

It seemed to him that he must have dozed, for he sat up with the start of a man who arrests himself on the brink of sleep. The mirror was in his hand. He stared at it with wide eyes, thrusting it at arm's length before him. For in it he saw-not a flicker of the firelight swaying on the wall, but a face that moved across from the door-the face of his dead wife.

He saw it cross the field of the little mirror, reflected in profile, and pass beyond it. He sat yet a moment, enthralled in senseless amazement, then let the glass fall from his outstretched hand, and turned where he sat.

He sprang to his feet. "Hilda!" he cried. "Hilda!"

Her face welcomed him with a little smile, sober and kind.

"Yes, dear," she said gently; "it is Hilda!"

He did not go to her, but stood staring, and groping for the key to his understanding. She was about five paces from him-Hilda undeniably, to the soft contour of her cheek and the shaded gold of her hair.

He found words: "Are you here with me, Hilda? Or have I gone mad? Or perhaps I've been mad all along!"

She smiled again, and through the fog of his bewilderment and wonder he recognized the smile.

"Not mad, dear," she was saying. "Not mad. But it is very strange and wonderful at first, isn't it?"

"Strange and wonderful?" He put an uncertain hand to his face and passed it over his eyes. "Something has happened to me," he said. "To my eyes, I think. Things look strange. And-and there is Hilda!" He paused. "I'd been longing for Hilda."

She came a step nearer to him then. "I know," she murmured softly. "I know, dear. But that is past now."

There was an infinite tenderness in her tone, the tenderness of a mother who uplifts her child through a season of pain. He felt it, and it seemed to help him to clear away some of the dimness that besieged his senses.

"Then--" he began, but stayed himself. "You know," he said haltingly, "you died. Hilda died. I saw it: my arms were round her."

"Yes, dear," she answered. "Hilda died. But don't you understand?"

"No," he replied, but none the less understanding was dawning upon him. "How-how did you come here?" he asked.

"I came by the same way as you, John, dear," she said. As again she seemed to take one step toward him. "There is no other way."

"No other way!" He repeated the words twice.

"Hilda," he said, and went to her.

"Yes, dear?"

He took her hand; it lay close and familiarly in his palm.

"Everything seems to be far away from me-except you," he said. "I see you; I hear you speak. What does it mean, my darling?"

Her eyes were full of love. "Don't you know yet, John?" she asked.

"No," he answered slowly; "unless-unless--Hilda, am I dead?"

She did not speak to answer him, but nodded thrice, very slowly.

They found him in his chair before the ashes of the fire. At his feet the mirror was broken across, where it had dropped from his hand. And the lips were parted in a sort of uncertainty.

Cahill & Co., Ltd., London, Dublin and Drogheda.

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