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To Him That Hath, Page 2

Leroy Scott



  The Reverend Philip Morton, head of St. Christopher's Mission, had oftensaid that, in event of death or serious accident, he wished DavidAldrich to be placed in charge of his personal affairs; so when at teno'clock of a September morning the janitor, at order of the frightenedhousekeeper, broke into the bath-room and found Morton's body lyingwhite and dead in the tub, the housekeeper's first clear thought was ofa telegram to David.

  The message came to David while he was doggedly working over a novelthat had just come back from a third publisher. He glanced at thetelegram, then his tall figure sank back into his chair and he stared atthe yellow sheet. Never before had Death struck him so heavy a blow. Thewound of his mother's death had been dealt in quick-healing childhood;and though his father, a Western mining engineer, had died but sevenyears before, David had known him hardly otherwise than as a remotelyplaced giver of an allowance. Morton had for years been his bestfriend--latterly almost his only friend. For a space the blow renderedhim stupid; then the agony of his personal loss entered him, and wrunghim; and then in beside his personal sorrow there crept a sense of theappalling loss of the people about St. Christopher's.

  But there was no time for inactive grief. He quickly threw a black suitand a week's linen into a travelling bag, and within an hour after theNew York train pulled out of his New Jersey suburb, he paused across thestreet from St. Christopher's Mission--a chapel of red brick, with ashort spire rising above the tenements' flat heads, and adjoining it afour-story club-house in whose windows greened forth boxes of ivy andgeraniums. The doors of the chapel stood wide, as they always did forwhoso desired to rest or pray, but the doors of the club-house, usuallyopen, were closed against the casual visitor by the ribboned seal ofdeath.

  David held his eyes on the fourth-story windows, behind which he knewhis friend lay. Minutes passed before he could cross the street and ringthe bell. He was admitted into the large hallway, cut with numerousdoors leading into club-rooms, and hung with prints of Raphaels,Murillos, Angelicos and other holy master-painters. Overwhelmed thoughall his senses were, he was at once struck by the emptiness, thesilence, of the great house--by its strange childlessness.

  As he started up the stairway he saw at its top a tall young womandressed in black. His mounting steps quickened. "Miss Chambers!" hesaid.

  She came down the stairway with effortless grace, her hand outheld, hersubdued smile warm with friendship. He quivered within as he heard hisname in her rich voice, as he clasped her hand, as he looked into thesincerity, the dignity, the rare beauty of her face.

  There were none of those personal questions with which long-partedfriends bridge the chasm of their separation. Death made self trivial.At first they could only breathe awed interjections upon the disasterthat so suddenly had fallen. Then David asked the question that had beenforemost in his mind for the last two hours:

  "What caused his death? I've had only a bare announcement."

  She gave him the details. "His doctor told me he had a weak heart," sheadded. "'In all likelihood,' the doctor said, 'the shock of the coldbath had caused heart failure. Perhaps the seizure itself was fatal;perhaps on the other hand the seizure was recoverable but while helplesshe drowned.'

  "As soon as I learned of his death I hurried here--I happened to be intown for a few days," she went on, after a moment. "I thought I mightpossibly be of service. But Bishop Harper has sent a Dr. Thorn, and Mrs.Humphrey told me you were coming, so it seems I can be of noassistance. But if there's anything I can do, please let me know."

  David promised. They spoke of the great misfortune to the Mission--whichshe felt even more keenly than he, for her interest in St. Christopher'shad been more active, so was deeper; then she bade him good-bye andcontinued down the stairway. He followed her with his eyes. This was butthe second time he had seen her since her mother's death, six monthsbefore; and her beauty, all in black, was still a fresh marvel to him.

  When the door had closed upon her, he mounted stairs and passed throughhallways, likewise hung with brown prints and opening into club-rooms,till he came to the door of Morton's quarters. Mrs. Humphrey answeredhis ring, and the housekeeper's swollen eyes flowed fresh grief as shetook his hand and led him into the sitting-room, walled with Morton'sbooks.

  "The noblest, ablest, kindest man on earth--gone--and only thirty-five!"she said, between her sobs. "Millions might have been called, and nodifference; but he was the one man we couldn't spare. And yet God tookhim!"

  The same cry against God's injustice had been springing from David's owngrief. Mrs. Humphrey continued her lamentations, but they were sooninterrupted by the entrance of a clergyman, of most pronounced clericalcut, whom she introduced as Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn explained that BishopHarper, knowing Morton had no relatives, had sent him to take charge ofthe funeral arrangements; and he went on to say that if David had anyrequests, he'd be glad to carry them out. It was a relief to David to befreed of the business details of his friend's funeral. He replied thathe had no wishes, and Dr. Thorn withdrew, taking with him Mrs. Humphrey.

  Alone, memories of his friend lying in the next room rushed upon him.Morton had been some kind of distant cousin--so distant that the exactfraction of their kinship was beyond computation. After the death ofDavid's mother, Morton's father had stood in place of David's far-absentparent; and Morton himself, though David's senior by hardly ten years,had succeeded to the guardianship on his own father's death nine yearsbefore.

  This formal relation had grown, with David's growth into manhood, intowarmest friendship. David had given Morton the admiring love a youngerbrother gives his brilliant elder, and had received the affection suchas an older brother would give a younger, who was not alone brother buta youth of sympathy and promise. It had been Morton who had insistedthat he had a literary future, Morton who had tried to cheer him throughhis five years of struggling unsuccess. And so the memories and griefthat now flooded David were not less keen than if Morton's blood and hishad indeed been the same.

  After a time David moved to a window and looked out over the geraniumsand ivy into the narrow street, with its dingy, red-faced tenementszig-zagged with fire-escapes. His mind slipped back six years to whenMorton had taken charge of St. Christopher's, which then occupiedmerely an old dwelling, and when he, a boy of twenty, had first visitedthe neighbourhood. The neighbourhood was then a crowded districtforgotten by those who called themselves good and just, remembered onlyby landlords, politicians and saloonkeepers--grimy, quarrelsome,profane, ignorant of how to live. Now decency was here. There was stillpoverty, but it was a respectable poverty. Men brought home their pay,and fought less often. Shawled wives went less frequently with tin pailsto the side entrances of saloons. It was becoming uncommon to hear achild swear.

  David's mind ran over the efforts by which this change had been wrought:Morton's forcing the police to close disorderly resorts; his eloquentappeals to the public for fair treatment of such neighbourhoods as his;his unwearied visiting of the sick, and his ready assumption of thetroubles of others; his perfect good-fellowship, which made all approachhim freely, yet none with disrespectful familiarity; his wonderfulsermons, so simple, direct and appealing that there was never an emptyseat. He was sympathetic--magnetic--devoted--brilliant. Thus he had wonthe neighbourhood; not all, for the evil forces he had fought, led bythe boss of the ward, held him in bitter enmity. But in three or fourhundred families, he was God.

  David turned from the window. Mrs. Humphrey had asked if she should nottake him in to see Morton, but he had shrunk from having eyes upon himwhen he entered the presence of his dead friend. He now moved to thedoor of Morton's chamber, paused chokingly, then stepped into thedarkened room. On the bed lay a slender, sheeted figure. For the firstmoment, awe at the mystery of life rose above all other feelings: Mondayhe had seen Morton, strangely depressed to be sure, but in his usualhealth; this was Saturday, and there he lay!

  His emotions trembling upon eruption, David crossed slo
wly to the bed.With fearing hand he drew the sheet from the face, and for a long spacegazed down at the fine straight nose, at the deeply-set eyes, and at thehigh broad forehead, the most splendid he had ever seen, with the softhair falling away from it against the pillow. Then suddenly he sank to achair, and his grief broke from him.

  Soon his mind began to dwell upon the contrast between Morton andhimself--what a great light was this that had been stricken out, what apitiable candle flame was this left burning. In the presence of thesedead powers he felt how small was his literary achievement, how smallhis chance of future success, how comparatively trivial that successwould be even if gained. David had felt to its full the responsibilityof life; he had longed, with a keenness that was at times actualphysical pain, that his life might count some little what in advancingthe general good. But he realised now, as he gazed at the white face onthe pillow, that in the field of humanitarianism, as in the field ofliterature, his achievement was nothing.

  He burnt with a sudden rush of shame that he was alive, and he clenchedhis hands and in tense whispers cried out against the injustice of Godin taking so useful a man as Morton and leaving so useless a cumbranceas himself. But this defiance soon passed into a different mood. Heslipped to his knees, and a wish sobbed up from his heart that he mightchange places with the figure on the bed.

  This wish was present in his thoughts all that evening and the next twodays as he did his share in the sad routine of the funeral arrangements.The service was set for the evening so that the people of theneighbourhood could be present without difficulty or financial loss. Atthe hour of beginning the chapel was packed to the doors, and Davidlearned afterwards that as large a crowd stood without and that manynotables who had come at the appointed time were unable to gain anynearer the chapel than the middle of the street.

  Bishop Harper himself was in charge, and about him were gathered thebest-known clergymen of his persuasion in the city--a tribute to hisfriend that quickened both David's pride and grief. Bishop Harper wasordinarily a pompous speaker of sonorous platitudes, ever conscious ofhis high office. But to-night he had a simple, touching subject; heforgot himself and spoke simply, touchingly. When he used an adjectiveit was a superlative, and yet the superlative did not seem to reach theheight of Morton's worth. Morton was "the most gifted, the most devoted"man of the Bishop's acquaintance, and the other clergymen by their looksshowed complete and unjealous approval of all the Bishop's praise.

  David's eyes flowed at the tribute paid Morton by his peers. Yet he wasmoved far more by the inarticulate tribute of the simple people whocrowded the chapel. Whatever was good in their lives, Morton had broughtthem; and now, mixed with their sense of loss, was an unshaped fear ofhow hard it was going to be to hold fast to that good without his aid.Never before had David seen anything so affecting; and even in afterdays, when he saw Morton's death with new eyes, the picture of the loveand grief of this audience remained with him, unsoiled, as thestrongest, sincerest scene he had ever witnessed. The women--factorygirls, scrub-women, hard-working wives--wept with their souls in theirtears and in their spasmodic moans; and the men--labourers, teamsters,and the like--let the strange tears stream openly down their cheeks,unashamed. The chapel was one great sob, choked down at times, at timesstopping the Bishop's words. It was as if they were all orphaned.

  All through the service, one cry rose from David's heart, and continuedto repeat itself while the audience, and after them the crowd from thestreet, filed by the open casket--and still rose as, later, he sat withbowed head in a front pew beside the coffin:

  "If only I could change places, and give him back to them!"