Read THE AGE OF FAITH : CHAPTER XV of The Seeker, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on ReadCentral.com.

THE WOMAN AT THE END OF THE PATH

He stopped, noticing that the chairs were pushed back.  There was an unmistakeable air of boredom, though one or two of the men still smoked thoughtfully.  One of these, indeed ­the high church rector ­even came back with a question, to the undisguised apprehension of several brothers.

“You have formulated a certain fashion of belief, Mr. Linford, one I dare say appealing to minds that have not yet learned that even reason must submit to authority; but you must admit that this revelation of God in the human heart carries no authoritative assurance of immortality.”

Bernal had been sitting in some embarrassment, dismayed at his own vehemence, but this challenge stirred him.

“True,” he answered, “but let us thank God for uncertainty, if it take the place of Christian belief in a sparsely peopled heaven and a crowded hell.”

“Really, you know ­”

“I know nothing of a future life; but I prefer ignorance to a belief that the most heinous baby that ever died in sin is to languish in a state of damnation ­even ‘in a wide sense’ as our good friend puts it.”

“But, surely, that is the first great question of all people in all ages ­’If a man die shall he live again?’

“Because there has never been any dignified conception of a Supreme Being.  I have tried to tell you what my own faith is ­faith in a God wiser and more loving than I am, who, being so, has devised no mean little scheme of revenge such as you preach.  A God more loving than my own human father, a God whose plan is perfect whether it involve my living or dying.  Whether I shall die to life or to death is not within my knowledge; but since I know of a truth that the God I believe in must have a scheme of worth and dignity, I am unconcerned.  Whether his plan demand extinction or immortality, I worship him for it, not holding him to any trivial fancy of mine.  God himself can be no surer of his plan’s perfection than I am.  I call this faith ­faith the more perfect that it is without condition, asking neither sign nor miracle.”

“And life is so good that I’ve no time to whine.  If this ego of mine is presently to become unnecessary in the great Plan, my faith is still triumphant.  It would be interesting to know the end, but it’s not so important as to know that I am no better ­only a little wiser in certain ways ­than yesterday’s murderer.  Living under the perfect plan of a perfect Creator, I need not trouble about hidden details when so many not hidden are more vital.  When, in some far-off future, we learn to live here as fully and beautifully as we have power to, I doubt not that in the natural ways of growth we shall learn more of this detail of life we call ’death’ ­but I can imagine nothing of less consequence to one who has faith.

“I saw a stanza the other day that tells it well: 

  “’We know not whence is life, nor whither death,
  Know not the Power that circumscribes our breath. 
  But yet we do not fear; what made us men,
  What gave us love, shall we not trust again?’”

While quoting the lines his eyes had been straight ahead, absently dwelling upon the space between the slightly parted doors that gave into the next room.  But even as he spoke, the last line faltered and halted.  His glance slowly stiffened out of widening eyes to the face it had caught there ­a face new, strange, mesmeric, that all at once enchained him soul and body.  With a splendid, reckless might it assailed him ­left him dazed, deaf, speechless.

It was the face of Nancy, for the first time all its guards down.  Full upon him flamed the illumined eyes that made the face a yielding radiance; lifted a little was the chin of gentle curves, the under lip caught as if in that quivering eagerness she no longer breathed ­the face of Nancy, no longer wondering, Nancy at last compelled and compelling.  A moment the warm light flashed from each to each.

He stopped in a sudden bewilderment, looking blankly, questioningly at the faces about him.  Then out of the first chaos came the sense of having awakened from some long, quiet sleep ­of having suddenly opened his eyes upon a world from which the morning mists had lifted, to see himself ­and the woman who stood always at the end of that upward path ­face to face for the first time.  One by one his outer sensations returned.  At first he heard a blurred murmuring, then he became aware that some of the men were looking at him curiously, that one of them had addressed him.  He smiled apologetically.

“I beg your pardon.  I ­I couldn’t have been listening.”

“I merely asked,” repeated Floud, “how you expect to satisfy humanity with the vague hope that you would substitute for the Christian promise of eternal life.”

He stared stupidly at the questioner.

“I ­I don’t know.”  He passed a hand slowly upward over his forehead.  “Really I can hardly trouble about those matters ­there’s so much life to live.  I think I knew a moment ago, but I seem to have forgotten, though it’s doubtless no great loss.  I dare say it’s more important to be unafraid of life than to be unafraid of death.”

“You were full of reasons a moment ago,” reminded Whittaker ­“some of them not uninteresting.”

“Was I?  Oh, well, it’s a small matter ­I’ve somehow lost hold of it.”  He laughed awkwardly.  “It seems to have come to me just now that those who study an apple until it falls from its stem and rots are even more foolish than those who pluck and eat.”

Again he was silent, with a great hidden impatience for them to be gone.  But Whittaker, the wicked Unitarian, detained them still a moment longer.

“How hardly we should believe in a God who saved every one!” he breathed softly to the remains of his cigar.

“Humph!  Such a God would be a mere mush of concession!” retorted Floud, the Baptist.

“And how true,” pursued the unruffled Unitarian, “that we cannot worship a ’mere mush of concession’ ­how true that our God must hate what we hate, and punish what we would punish.  We might stomach a God who would save orthodox burglars along with orthodox bishops, but not one who saved unbaptised infants and adults of unsound doctrine.  Dear, dear, yes!  We must have a God with a little human spite in Him or He seems to be spineless.”

“A hopeless cynic,” declared the soft voice of the Catholic ­“it’s the Unitarianism working out of him, mind you!”

“So glad to have met you!” continued the same good man to Bernal.  “Your words are conducive to thought ­you’re an earnest, decent lad at all events.”

But Bernal scarcely heard them or identified the speakers.  They were to him but so many noisy wheels of the vast machine, each revolving as it must.  His whole body seemed to send electric sparks of repulsion out to them to drive them away as quickly as might be.  All his energies were centred to one mighty impulse.

At last the door closed and he stood alone with the disordered table and the pushed back chairs, doggedly gathering himself.  Then he went to the doors and with a hand to each, pushed them swiftly apart.

She stood at the farther side of the room.  She seemed to have fled there, and yet she leaned toward him breathless, again with the under lip caught fast in its quivering ­helpless, piteously helpless.  It was this that stayed him.  Had she utterly shrunk away, even had he found her denying, defiant ­the aroused man had prevailed.  But seeing her so, he caught at the back of a chair as if to hold himself.  Then he gazed long and exultingly into the eyes yielded so abjectly to his.  For a moment it filled him to see and know, to be certain that she knew and did not deny.  But the man in him was not yet a reasoning man ­too lately had he come to life.

He stepped eagerly toward her, to halt only when one weak white hand faltered up with absurd pretension of a power to ward him off.  Nor was it her hand that made him stop then.  That barrier confessed its frailness in every drooping line.  Again it was the involuntary submission of her whole poise ­she had actually leaned a little further toward him when he started, even as her hand went up.  But the helpless misery in her eyes was still a defense, passive but sufficient.

Then she spoke and his tension relaxed a little, the note of helpless suffering in her voice making him wince and fall back a step.

“Bernal, Bernal, Bernal!  It hurts me so, hurts me so!  It’s the Gratcher ­isn’t it hurting you, too?  Oh, it must be!”

He retreated a little, again grasping the back of the chair with one hand, but there was no restraint in his voice.

“Laugh, Nance, laugh!  You know what laughing does to them!”

“Not to this one, Bernal ­oh, not to this one!”

“But it’s only a Gratcher, Nance!  I’ve been asleep all these years.  Now I’m awake.  I’m in the world again ­here, do you understand, before you.  And it’s a glad, good world.  I’m full of its life ­and I’ve money ­think of that!  Yesterday I didn’t know what money was.  I was going to throw it away ­throw it away as lightly as I threw away all those good, precious years.  How much it seems now, and what fine, powerful stuff it is!  And I, like a sleeping fool, was about to let it go at a mere suggestion from Allan.”

He stopped, as if under the thrust of a cold, keen blade.

“Allan ­Allan!” he repeated dazedly while the look of pain deepened in the woman’s eyes.  He stared back at her dumbly.  Then another awakening became visible in him and he laughed awkwardly.

“It’s funny, Nance ­funny ­and awful!  Do you know that not until I spoke his name then had a thought of Allan come to me?  Can you comprehend it?  I can’t now.  But it’s the truth.  I woke up too suddenly.  Allan ­Allan .”  It sounded as if he were trying to recall some forgotten personality.  “Oh, Allan!”

The last was more like a cry.  He fell into the chair by which he had stood.  And now the woman erected herself, coming forward to stand before him, her head bowed, her hands convulsively interlocked.

“Do you see it all, Bernal?  Is it plain now?  Oh, how it tortured me ­that last Gratcher ­the one we make in our own image and yet make to be perfect.  It never hurt me before, but now I know why.  It couldn’t hurt me so long as I looked it straight in the eye ­but just now my eyes had to fall before it, and all in a second it was tearing me to pieces.  That’s the only defense against this last Gratcher, Bernal, to look it in the eyes unafraid.  And oh, it hurts so ­and it’s all my own miserable fault!”

“No, it’s your goodness, Nance.”  He spoke very quietly now.  “Only the good have a Gratcher that can’t be laughed away.  My own was late in coming.  Your Gratcher has saved us.”

He stood up and took her unresisting hands in both his own.  They rested there in peace, yielding themselves like tired children to caring arms.

“Now I shall be healed,” she said.

“It will take me longer, Nance.  My hurt is more stubborn, more complicated.  I can’t help it.  Something in me resists.  I see now that I know too much ­too much of you, too much of ­”

She saw that he must have suffered some illumination upon Allan.  There was a look of bitter comprehension in his face as he broke off.  She turned away from it.

When, an hour later, Allan came in, he found them chatting easily of the few people of St. Antipas that Bernal had met.  At the moment, they were discussing Mrs. Wyeth, whose face, Bernal declared, was of a rare perfection.  Nance turned to her husband.

“You must thank Bernal,” she said, “for entertaining your guests this afternoon.”

“He wouldn’t if he knew what I said ­or how it must have bored them.  One thing, Nance, they won’t meet here again until you swear I’ve gone!”

“Bernal’s heart is right, even if his theology doesn’t always please me,” said his brother graciously, examining some cards that lay on the table.  “I see Mrs. Wyeth has called,” he continued to Nancy, looking up from these.

“Yes.  She wanted me to see her sister, poor Mrs. Eversley, who is ill at her house.  I promised to look in to-morrow.”

“I’ve just been telling Nance how beautiful I think Mrs. Wyeth is,” said Bernal.  “She’s rare, with that face of the low-browed Greek.  It’s one of the memories I shall take back to my Eve-less Eden.”

“She is beautiful,” said Nancy.  “Of course her nose is the least bit thin and long, but it rather adds zest to her face.  Now I must dress for dinner.”

When Nancy had gone, Bernal, who had been speaking with a marked lightness of tone, turned to Allan with an equally marked seriousness.

“Old chap, you know about that money of mine ­of Grandfather’s?”

Allan instantly became attentive.

“Of course, there’s no hurry about that ­you must take time to think it over,” he answered.

“But there is hurry!  I shouldn’t have waited so long to make up my mind.

“Then you have made up your mind?” questioned his brother, with guarded eagerness.

“Definitely.  It’s all yours, Allan.  It will help you in what you want to do.  And not having it will help me to do what I want to do ­make it simpler, easier.  Take it ­and for God’s sake be good to Nancy.”

“I can’t tell you how you please me, Bernal.  Not that I’m avid for money, but it truly seems more in accord with what must have been grandfather’s real wish.  And Nancy ­of course I shall be good to her ­though at times she seems unable to please me.”

There was a sanctified displeasure in his tone, as he spoke of Nancy.  It caused Bernal to turn upon him a keen, speculative eye, but only for a moment.  And his next words had to do with matters tangible.  “To-morrow I’ll do some of the business that can be done here.  Then I’ll go up to Edom and finish the transfers that have to be made there.”  After a brief hesitation, he added:  “Try to please her a bit, Allan.  That’s all.”