Read CHAPTER XXIII of The Return of Peter Grimm Novelised From the Play , free online book, by David Belasco, on ReadCentral.com.

THE DAWNING

Night had given place to red dawn, and red dawn to white day.

Dr. McPherson came out of the Grimm house and sat down on the edge of the vine-bordered stoop. He was very tired. He had had a hard and trying night. In his ears were still ringing the sobs of old Marta, hastily awakened to learn of her only grandson’s death; Kathrien’s quiet grief; Mrs. Batholommey’s excited, high-pitched questionings that jangled on the death hush as horribly as breaks the Venus music through the Pilgrims’ Chorus.

It had been a night of stark wakefulness, of a myriad details. And McPherson had borne the brunt of it all. Now, under an opiate, Marta was asleep. Mrs. Batholommey had trotted ponderously home to bear the black tidings of a prisoned child’s Release to her husband. And Kathrien had gone to her own room under the doctor’s gruff command to snatch an hour’s rest. McPherson himself had come out into the cool and freshness of the new-born world for a breathing space, and to think.

The June day was young. Very young. Under the early sun the grass was afire with dew diamonds. The flowers, dripping and fragrant, held up their cups to the light. The town still lay asleep. Over the suburb brooded the Hush of the primal Wilderness, creeping back furtively and momentarily to its long-lost domain.

And presently the quiet was broken by the swift recurring click of heels on the sidewalk. Some one was coming along the slumbrous Main street; and coming with nervous haste. The steps turned in at the Grimm gate. McPherson raised his blood-shot, sleep-robbed eyes and stared crossly toward the newcomer.

It was Frederik Grimm. And, recognising him, McPherson’s frown deepened into a scowl.

“Is it true?” asked Frederik as he stopped in front of the doctor. “I met Mrs. Batholommey. She was just passing the hotel on her way home. I hadn’t been able to sleep, so I was starting out for a walk. She told me ”

“That Willem’s dead?” finished McPherson, with brutal frankness. “Yes, it’s true. Did you suppose that it was a new vaudeville joke?”

Frederik stood blinking, blank-faced, apparently failing to grasp the sense of the doctor’s words. The younger man’s aspect dully irritated McPherson.

“Yes,” he reiterated, “the boy’s dead. The problem of supporting him needn’t bother you now. Not that it ever did. He’s dead. And it’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to him.”

Frederik raised one hand in instinctive protest. But he might as well have sought to stem Niagara with a straw.

The doctor’s strained nerves, his genuine grief, his dislike for the dapper young man before him, combined to open wide the floodgates of honest Scottish wrath. And he saw no cause to exercise self-control.

“You’re in luck!” he growled. “The law could have compelled you to pay some such munificent sum as four dollars a week for his maintenance. You’re safe from that now. And I congratulate you. It’ll mean an extra weekly quart of champagne or a brace of musical comedy seats for you. The law is stringent and I was going to invoke it in your case. You smashed a decent girl’s life. You helped bring a nameless boy into a world that would have made his life a hell as long as he lived. Just because his father happened to be a yellow cur. And, in penalty for that sin, the power and majesty of an outraged law would have assessed you about one per cent of your yearly income. You’re lucky.”

Frederik winced as though he had been lashed across the face.

“I sometimes wonder,” continued McPherson, urged to fresh vehemence by sight of the effect he was scoring, “if hell holds a worse criminal or a more mercilessly punished one than the man or woman who lets a little child suffer needlessly who makes it suffer. And of all the suffering that can be heaped upon a child, everything else is like a feather’s weight compared to sending it out in life with a name such as Willem would have borne. Oh, but God’s merciful when He finds little children crying in the dark and leads them Home! Batholommey and the rest of them sneer at me for sticking to the old hell-fire Calvin doctrines in these days of pew-cushion religion. But I tell you, in all reverence, if there’s no hell for the people who torture children, then it’s time the Almighty turned awhile from pardoning sinners and built one.”

“Don’t worry,” said Frederik shortly. “There is one. I know. I am in it.”

“‘Mourner’s bench talk,’ eh? It’s cheap. Penitence is always on the free list. And in your case, as in most, it comes too late to do any good, except to salve the penitent’s feelings. Willem lived in the same house with you for three years. All around him was Love. Except from the one person whose sacred duty it was to give that Love. We pitied him. We knew what he’d be facing if he lived. We made his childhood as happy as we could, so that he’d have at least one bright thing to look back on afterward. He was nothing to any of us. Except that he was a child crippled and maimed and fore-damned for life in the worst way any Unfortunate could be. We pitied him and we loved him. Did he ever hear a harsh word or see a forbidding face? Yes; he did. From one person alone. From you, his father. Even last night when he crept downstairs parched with thirst, and begged you for a drink of water ”

“Don’t!” cried Frederik, in sharp agony. “Do you suppose you can tell me anything about that? Do you suppose I haven’t gone over it all yes, and over all the three years a hundred times since I heard he was dead? Do you think you can make me feel it any more damnably than I do? If so, go ahead and try. You spoke of the need for a hell. You can spare your advice to the Almighty. He has made one. And I can’t even wait until I’m dead before I walk through it.”

“Through it,” assented McPherson sardonically. “Through it with many a lamentable groan and a beating of the breast, and with squeaky little wails of remorse and on through it, out onto the pleasant slopes of forgetfulness and new mischief. Take my condolences on your fearful passage through your purgatory. I fear me it will take you the best part of a week to pass entirely out of it. It’s only a man-built hell, that of yours. And, according to the modern theologians, God has no worse one for you later on.”

With twitching, pallid face, and anguished eyes, Frederik Grimm looked dumbly at his tormentor. Even in his agony, he felt, subconsciously, far down in his atrophied soul, that the doctor’s forecast as to the duration of his remorse’s torture was little exaggerated.

Yet, for the moment, his “man-built hell” was grilling and racking the stricken penitent to a point that the Spanish Inquisition’s ingenuity could never have devised.

McPherson, with a sombre satisfaction, noted the younger man’s misery. Then a wistful look flitted across his gnarled, bearded face.

“I wonder,” he mused, his angry voice sinking to a rumble, “I wonder if you can guess and of course you can’t what a prize you spent eight years in throwing away. You had a son. And you disowned him and turned your back on him. I’ve had no son. I shall never have a son. And when I go out into the dark, there’ll be no man-child to carry on my name. No lad to inherit this brute body of mine with all its strength and giant endurance; this brain of mine, that has tried so hard to perfect itself and to give its possible successor the faculty for thought and work and self-mastery. My father was a strong man, a great man. And much of the little power and goodness and worthiness that exist in me, I owe to him. No man in future years can say that of me. It must be something that no childless man can understand or dream of, to feel the fingers of one’s little son tugging at one. To, Lord! What would Mother Batholommey say if she could hear me maundering and havering away like this! It means nothing to you, either. Except that you’ve had, and hated, and thrown away what many a better man would give half his life for.”

There was a short silence. McPherson, ashamed of blurting his sacred heart secrets to a fellow he detested, sat gnawing angrily at his ragged grey moustache. Frederik, to whom the last part of the doctor’s tirade had passed unheard, stood gazing sightlessly at the ground before him. And for a space, neither of them spoke.

At length Frederik looked up, almost timidly.

“Could might I see him?” he asked.

“H’m?” grunted McPherson, starting from the maze of his own unhappy thoughts.

“I say, may I go in and see ?”

“Had three years to see him in, didn’t you?” demanded McPherson. “I can’t recall now that I ever saw you glance at him when you could help it. Why should you go in and see him now? You can’t frighten him any more.”

He checked himself.

“That last was a rotten thing for me to say,” he muttered grudgingly. “I’m sorry.”

But Frederik showed no signs of resentment. He was looking moodily at the ground once more, apparently engrossed in the fruitless efforts of a red ant on the walk’s edge to lug away a dead caterpillar forty times its size. The doctor peered at him almost apologetically from under his grey thatch of eyebrow. The younger man’s face still wore that same blank, dazed mask, as though horror had wiped it clean of expression. Again it was Frederik who broke the silence.

“I remember once,” said he, in a dreary monotone, “when he was four years old. He saw a woolly lamb in a shop window and wanted it. I’d lost ninety dollars that day at the races and I was sore. He begged me to buy him the lamb. It cost only a quarter. I wouldn’t. I told him he ought to be content to sponge on me for food and clothes without wanting presents, too. I remember he cried when I pulled him away from the shop window. And I hit him. I wish I wish I’d ”

“If there’s anything worse than a hardened criminal,” snorted McPherson, “it’s a silly, sentimental one. You say you want to go in and see him? Go ahead then. You don’t have to ask my leave. It’s your own house, isn’t it?”

“No,” answered Frederik, “it isn’t.”

“Huh? Oh, I remember now. You said last night you were going to give it to Kathrien. Don’t worry. A promise like that isn’t binding in law. And you’ll repent of it almost as soon as you’ll stop repenting for Willem.”

“Perhaps so,” agreed Frederik. “But it will be too late then. Here,” he went on, pulling a long envelope from his pocket, “take charge of this, will you, and give it to Kathrien for her signature in case I don’t see her?”

“What is it?” asked McPherson, mechanically taking the envelope as Frederik thrust it into his hand.

“Before I went to the hotel for a room last night,” answered the other, “I called on Colonel Lawton and got him to draw it up. All it lacks is her signature.”

“What ?”

“It is a deed for the house and the twelve-acre ‘home plot’ it stands on. That includes the two cottages over on McIntyre Street. They’re both rented and in good condition. They’ll bring her in nearly eight hundred a year. It’s less than my uncle would have left her if he’d known ”

“He knew,” interrupted McPherson decisively. “And that’s why you did it. As you said last night, ’somebody has been doing your thinking for you.’”

“I’m glad for your own peace of mind that you aren’t forced to give me credit for it,” said Frederik in lifeless irony. “I’ll go in now, if I may. I shall not stay long. And then for New York. It’s the best place I know of for hastening one’s journey through and out of the ’man-built hell’ you spoke about. Oh, and I gave Lawton directions about Anne Marie, too. She can come home now if she wants to without being dependent upon any one for her support. You’re quite right, Doctor. Somebody has been doing my thinking. I’m glad it stopped before I went broke.”

With something of his old jaunty air he mounted the steps and went into the house. McPherson stared after him with a glower that somehow would not remain ferocious. Then he got up, stretched his great shaggy bulk, yawned, and started homeward for breakfast.

On the way he met Mr. Batholommey, hastily awakened and hurrying to the house of mourning.

“Doctor!” exclaimed the clergyman in agitation. “This is very distressing. Very.

“As usual,” drawled McPherson, “I find I can’t agree with you. To me it seems a blessed release.”

“And on Kathrien’s wedding day, too!” went on Mr. Batholommey, to whom McPherson’s eternal disagreement had become so chronic he scarce noticed it. “At least, on the day that was to have been her wedding day! Young Hartmann waked me out of a sound sleep last night to tell me she had promised to marry him to-day. And he asked me to be at the house promptly at eleven. But, of course, now ”

“Of course, now,” put in the doctor, “the wedding is going to take place just the same.”

“But !”

“I argued with Kathrien a whole half-hour this morning before she would agree to it,” went on the doctor. “But at last I persuaded her it was the only thing to do. If ever she needs a husband’s help and advice, now is the time. And at last I made her understand that. So, she and James will be married to-day. Just as they planned to. The only difference will be that they’ll come to the rectory for the ceremony.”

“It seems almost shall I say indecorous?” protested Mr. Batholommey.

“The real things of life generally do,” replied the doctor. “Good-morning. I’m going to be so indecorous as to hurry home for a bath and a breakfast instead of catching cold standing out here on a wet street discussing other people’s business.”

He strode on. Mr. Batholommey, murmuring dazedly to himself, took up his own journey.