Read CHAPTER VII - CECILIA’S GOSPEL of Cecilia de Noel, free online book, by Lanoe Falconer, on ReadCentral.com.

The rain gradually ceased falling as we drove onward and upward to the station. It stood on high ground, overlooking a wide sweep of downland and fallow, bordered towards the west by close-set woodlands, purple that evening against a sky of limpid gold, which the storm-clouds discovered as they lifted.

I had not long to wait, for, punctual to its time, the train steamed into the station. From that part of the train to which I first looked, four or five passengers stepped out; not one of them certainly the lady that I waited for. Glancing from side to side I saw, standing at the far end of the platform, two women; one of them was tall; could this be Mrs. de Noel? And yet no, I reflected as I went towards them, for she held a baby in her arms a baby moreover swathed, not in white and laces, but in a tattered and discoloured shawl: while her companion, lifting out baskets and bundles from a third-class carriage, was poorly and evenly miserably clad. But again, as I drew nearer, I observed that the long fine hand which supported the child was delicately gloved, and that the cloak which swung back from the encircling arm was lined and bordered with very costly fur. This and something in the whole outline

“Mrs. de Noel?” I murmured inquiringly.

Then she turned towards me, and I saw her, as I often see her now in dreams, against that sunset background of aerial gold which the artist of circumstance had painted behind her, like a new Madonna, holding the child of poverty to her heart, pressing her cheek against its tiny head with a gesture whose exquisite tenderness, for at least that fleeting instant, seemed to bridge across the gulf which still yawns between Dives and Lazarus. So standing, she looked at me with two soft brown eyes, neither large nor beautiful, but in their outlook direct and simple as a child’s. Remembering as I met them what Mrs. Molyneux had said, I saw and comprehended as well what she meant. Benevolence is but faintly inscribed, on the faces of most men, even of the better sort. “I will love you, my neighbour,” we thereon decipher, “when I have attended to my own business, in the first place; if you are lovable, or at least likeable, in the second.” But in the transparent gaze that Cecilia de Noel turned upon her fellows beamed love poured forth without stint and without condition. It was as if every man, woman, and child who approached her became instantly to her more interesting than herself, their defects more tolerable, their wants more imperative, their sorrows more moving than her own. In this lay the source of that mysterious charm so many have felt, so few have understood, and yielding to which even those least capable of appreciating her confessed that, whatever her conduct might be, she herself was irresistibly lovable. A kind of dream-like haze seemed to envelop us as I introduced myself, as she smiled upon me, as she resigned the child to its mother and bid them tenderly farewell; but the clear air of the real became distinct again when there stood suddenly before us a fat elderly female, whose countenance was flushed with mingled anxiety and displeasure.

“Law bless me, mem!” said the newcomer, “I could not think wherever you could be. I have been looking up and down for you, all through the first-class carriages.”

“I am so sorry, Parkins,” said Mrs. de Noel penitently; “I ought to have let you know that I changed my carriage at Carchester. I wanted to nurse a baby whose mother was looking ill and tired. I saw them on the platform, and then they got into a third-class carriage, so I thought the best way would be to get in with them.”

“And where, if you please, mem,” inquired Parkins, in an icy tone and with a face stiffened by repressed displeasure “where do you think you have left your dressing-bag and humbrella?”

Mrs. de Noel fixed her sweet eyes upon the speaker, as if striving to recollect the answer to this question and then replied

“She told me she lived quite near the station. I wish I had asked her how far. She is much too weak to walk any distance. I might have found a fly for her, might I not?”

Upon which Parkins gave a snort of irrepressible exasperation, and, evidently renouncing her mistress as beyond hope, forthwith departed in search of the missing property. I accompanied her, and, with the aid of the guard, we speedily found and secured both bag and umbrella, and, as the train steamed off, returned with these treasures to Mrs. de Noel, still on the same spot and in the same attitude as we had left her, and all that she said was

“It was so stupid, so forgetful, so just like me not to have asked her more about it. She had been ill; the journey itself was more than she could stand; and then to have to carry the baby! She said it was not far, but perhaps she only said that to please me. Poor people are so afraid of distressing one; they often make themselves out better off than they really are, don’t they?”

I was embarrassed by this question, to which my own experience did not authorise me to answer yes; but I evaded the difficulty by consulting a porter, who fortunately knew the woman, and was able to assure us that her cottage was barely a stones throw from the station. When I had conveyed to Mrs. de Noel this information, which she received with an eager gratitude that the recovery of her bag and umbrella had failed to rouse, we left the station to go to the carriage, and then it was that, pausing suddenly, she cried out in dismay

“Ah, you are hurt! you

She stopped abruptly; she had divined the truth, and her eyes grew softer with such tender pity as not yet had shone for me motherless, sisterless on any woman’s face. As we drove home that evening she heard the story that never had been told before.

“You may have your faults, Cissy,” said Atherley, “but I will say this for you for smoothing people down when they have been rubbed the wrong way, you never had your equal.”

He lay back in a comfortable chair looking at his cousin, who, sitting on a low seat opposite the drawing-room fire, shaded her eyes from the glare with a little hand-screen.

“Mrs. Molyneux, I hear, has gone to sleep,” he went on; “and Mrs. Mallet is unpacking her boxes. The only person who does not seem altogether happy is my old friend Parkins. When I inquired after her health a few minutes ago her manner to me was barely civil.”

“Poor Parkins is rather put out,” said Mrs. de Noel in her slow gentle way. “It is all my fault. I forgot to pack up the bodice of my best evening gown, and Parkins says it is the only one I look fit to be seen in.”

“But, my dear Cecilia,” said Lady Atherley, looking up from the work which she pursued beside a shaded lamp, “why did not Parkins pack it up herself?”

“Oh, because she had some shopping of her own to do this forenoon, so she asked me to finish packing for her, and of course I said I would; and I promised to try and forget nothing; and then, after all, I went and left the bodice in a drawer. It is provoking! The fact is, James spoils me so when he is at home. He remembers everything for me, and when I do forget anything he never scolds me.”

“Ah, I expect he has a nice time of it,” said Atherley. “However, it is not my fault. I warned him how it would be when he was engaged. I said: ’I hope, for one thing, you can live on air, old chap for you will get nothing more for dinner if you trust to Cissy to order it.’”

“I don’t believe you said anything of the kind,” observed Lady Atherley.

“No, dear Jane; of course he did not. He was very much pleased with our marriage. He said James was the only man he ever knew who was fit to marry me.”

“So he was,” agreed Atherley; “the only man whose temper could stand all he would have to put up with. We had good proof of that even on the wedding-day, when you kept him kicking his heels for half an hour in the church while you were admiring the effect of your new finery in the glass.”

“What!” cried Lady Atherley incredulously.

“What really did happen, Jane,” said Mrs. de Noel, “was that when Edith Molyneux was trying on my wreath before a looking-glass over the fireplace, she unfortunately dropped it into the grate, and got it in such a mess. It took us a long time to get the black off, and some of the sprays were so spoiled, we had to take them out. And it was very unpleasant for Edith, as Aunt Henrietta was extremely angry, because the wreath was her present, you know, and it was very expensive; and as to Parkins, poor dear, she was so vexed she positively cried. She said I was the most trying lady she had ever waited upon. She often says so. I am afraid it is true.”

“Not a doubt of it,” said Atherley.

“Do not believe him, Cecilia,” said Lady Atherley: “he thinks there is no one in the world like you.”

“Fortunately for the world,” said Atherley; “any more of the sort would spoil it. But I am not going to stay here to be bullied by two women at once. Rather than that, I will go and write letters.”

He went, and soon afterwards Lady Atherley followed him.

Then the two little boys came in with Tip.

“We are not allowed to take him upstairs,” explained Harold, “so we thought he might stay with you and Mr. Lyndsay for a little, till Charles comes for him.”

“If you would let him lie upon your dress, Aunt Cissy,” suggested Denis; “he would like that.”

Accordingly he was carefully settled on the outspread folds of the serge gown; and after the little boys had condoled with him in tones so melancholy that he was affected almost to tears, they went off to supper and to bed.

Silence followed, broken only by the ticking of the clock and the wailing of the wind outside. Mrs. de Noel gazed into the fire with intent and unseeing eyes. Its warm red light softly illumined her whole face and figure, for in her abstraction she had let the hand-screen fall, and was stroking mechanically the little sleek head that nestled against her. Meantime I stared attentively at her, thinking I might do so without offence, seeing she had forgotten me and all else around her. Once, indeed, as if rising for a minute to the surface, with eyes that appeared to waken, she looked up and encountered my earnest gaze, but without shade of displeasure or discomfiture. She only smiled upon me, placidly as a sister might smile upon a brother, benignly as one might smile upon a child, and fell into her dream again. It was a wonderful look, especially from a woman, as unique in its complete unconsciousness as in its warm goodwill; it was as soothing as the touch of her fine soft fingers must have been on Tip’s hot head. I felt I could have curled myself up, as he did, at her feet and slept on for ever. But, alas! the clock was checking the flying minutes and chanting the departing quarters, and presently the dressing-bell rang, Mrs. de Noel stirred, gave a long sigh, and, plainly from the fulness of her heart and of the thoughts she had so long been following, said

“Mr. Lyndsay, is it not strange? So many people from the great world come and ask me if there is any God. Really good people, you know, so honourable, so generous, so self-sacrificing. It is just the same to me as if they should ask me whether the sun was shining, when all the time I saw the sunshine on their faces.”

“By the way,” said Atherley that night after dinner, when Mrs. Molyneux was not present, “where are you going to put Cissy to-night? Are you going to make a bachelor of her too?”

“Oh, such an uncomfortable arrangement!” said Lady Atherley. “But Lucinda has set her heart on having Cecilia near her; so they have put up a little bed in the dressing-room for her.”

“Cissy is to keep the ghost at bay, is she?” said Atherley. “I hope she may. I don’t want another night as lively as the last.”

“Who else has seen the ghost?” asked Mrs. de Noel, thoughtfully. “Has Mr. Lyndsay?”

“No, Lindy will never see the ghost; he is too much of a sceptic. Even if he saw it he would not believe in it, and there is nothing a ghost hates like that. But he has seen the people who saw the ghost, and he tells their several stories very well.”

“Would you tell me, Mr. Lyndsay?” asked Mrs. de Noel.

I could do nothing but obey her wish; still I secretly questioned the wisdom of doing so, especially when, as I went on, I observed stealing over her listening face the shadow of some disturbing thought.

“Well now, Cissy is thoroughly well frightened,” observed Atherley. “Perhaps we had better go to bed.”

“It is no good saying so to Lucinda,” said Lady Atherley, as we all rose, “because it only puts her out; but I shall always feel certain myself it was a mouse; because I remember in the house we had at Bournemouth two years ago there was a mouse in my room which often made such a noise knocking down the plaster inside the wall, it used to quite startle me.”

That night the storm finally subsided. When the morning came the rain fell no longer, the cry of the wind had ceased, and the cloud-curtain above us was growing lighter and softer as if penetrated and suffused by the growing sunshine behind it.

I was late for breakfast that day.

“Mr. Lyndsay, Tip is all right again,” cried Denis at sight of me. “Mrs. Mallet says it was chicken bones he stole from the cat’s dish.”

“Is that all?” observed Atherley sardonically; “I thought he must have seen the ghost. By the bye, Cissy, did you see it?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. de Noel simply, at which Atherley visibly started, and instantly began talking of something else.

Mrs. Molyneux was to leave by an afternoon train, but, to the relief of everybody, it was discovered that Mrs. Mallet had indefinitely postponed her departure. She remained in the mildest of humours and in the most philosophical of tempers, as I myself can testify; for, meeting her by accident in the hall, I was encouraged by the amiability of her simper to say that I hoped we should have no more trouble with the ghost, when she answered in words I have often since admiringly quoted

“Perhaps not, sir, but I don’t seem to care even if we do; for I had a dream last night, and a spirit seemed to whisper in my ear, ’Don’t be afraid; it is only a token of death.’”

After Mrs. Molyneux had started, with Mrs. de Noel as her companion as far as the station, and all the rest of the party had gone out to sun themselves in the brightness of the afternoon, I worked through a long arrears of correspondence: and I was just finishing a letter, when Atherley, whom I supposed to be far distant, came into the library.

“I thought you had gone to pay calls with Lady Atherley?”

“Is it likely? Look here, Lindy, it is quite hot out of doors. Come, and let me tug you up the hill to meet Cissy coming home from the station, and then I promise you a rare treat.”

Certainly to meet Mrs. de Noel anywhere might be so considered, but I did not ask if that was what he meant. It was milder; one felt it more at every step upward. The sun, low as it was, shone warmly as well as brilliantly between the clouds that he had thrust asunder and scattered in wild and beautiful disorder. It was one of those incredible days in early spring, balmy, tender, which our island summer cannot always match.

We went on till we reached Beggar’s Stile.

“Sit down,” said Atherley, tossing on to the wet step a coat he carried over his arm. “And there is a cigarette; you must smoke, if you please, or at least pretend to do so.”

“What does all this mean? What are you up to, George?”

“I am up to a delicate psychical investigation which requires the greatest care. The medium is made of such uncommon stuff; she has not a particle of brass in her composition. So she requires to be carefully isolated from all disturbing influences. I allow you to be present at the experiment, because discretion is one of your strongest points, and you always know when to hold your tongue. Besides, it will improve your mind. Cissy’s story is certain to be odd, like herself, and will illustrate what I am always saying that Here she is.”

He went forward to meet and to stop the carriage, out of which, at his suggestion, Mrs. de Noel readily came down to join us.

“Do not get up, Mr. Lyndsay,” she called out as she came towards us, “or I will go away. I don’t want to sit down.”

“Sit down, Lindy,” said Atherley sharply, “Cissy likes tobacco in the open air.”

She rested her arms upon the gate and looked downwards.

“The dear dear old river! It makes me feel young again to look at it.”

“Cissy,” said Atherley, his arms on the gate, his eyes staring straight towards the opposite horizon, “tell us about the ghost; were you frightened?”

There was a certain tension in the pause which followed. Would she tell us or not? I almost felt Atherley’s rebound of satisfaction as well as my own at the sound of her voice. It was uncertain and faint at first, but by degrees grew firm again, as timidity was lost in the interest of what she told:

“Last night I sat up with Mrs. Molyneux, holding her hand till she fell asleep, and that was very late, and then I went to the dressing-room, where I was to sleep; and as I undressed, I thought over what Mr. Lyndsay had told us about the ghost; and the more I thought, the more sad and strange it seemed that not one of those who saw it, not even Aunt Eleanour, who is so kind and thoughtful, had had one pitying thought for it. And we who heard about it were just the same, for it seemed to us quite natural and even right that everybody should shrink away from it because it was so horrible; though that should only make them the more kind; just as we feel we must be more tender and loving to any one who is deformed, and the more shocking his deformity the more tender and loving. And what, I thought, if this poor spirit had come by any chance to ask for something; if it were in pain and longed for relief, or sinful and longed for forgiveness? How dreadful then that other beings should turn from it, instead of going to meet it and comfort it so dreadful that I almost wished that I might see it, and have the strength to speak to it! And it came into my head that this might happen, for often and often when I have been very anxious to serve some one, the wish has been granted in a quite wonderful way. So when I said my prayers, I asked especially that if it should appear to me, I might have strength to forget all selfish fear and try only to know what it wanted. And as I prayed the foolish shrinking dread we have of such things seemed to fade away; just as when I have prayed for those towards whom I felt cold or unforgiving, the hardness has all melted away into love towards them. And after that came to me that lovely feeling which we all have sometimes in church, or when we are praying alone, or more often in the open air, on beautiful summer days when it is warm and still; as if one’s heart were beating and overflowing with love towards everything in this world and in all the worlds; as if the very grasses and the stones were clear, but dearest of all, the creatures that still suffer, so that to wipe away their tears forever, one feels that one would die oh die so gladly! And always as if this were something not our own, but part of that wonderful great Love above us, about us, everywhere, clasping us all so tenderly and safely!”

Here her voice trembled and failed; she waited a little and then went on, “Ah, I am too stupid to say rightly what I mean, but you who are clever will understand.

“It was so sweet that I knelt on, drinking it in for a long time; not praying, you know, but just resting, and feeling as if I were in heaven, till all at once, I cannot explain why, I moved and looked round. It was there at the other end of the room. It was ... much worse than I had dreaded it would be; as if it looked out of some great horror deeper than I could understand. The loving feeling was gone, and I was afraid so much afraid, I only wanted to get out of sight of it. And I think I would have gone, but it stretched out its hands to me as if it were asking for something, and then, of course, I could not go. So, though I was trembling a little, I went nearer and looked into its face. And after that I was not afraid any more, I was too sorry for it; its poor poor eyes were so full of anguish. I cried: ’Oh, why do you look at me like that? Tell me what I shall do.’

“And directly I spoke I heard it moan. Oh, George, oh, Mr. Lyndsay, how can I tell you what that moaning was like! Do you know how a little change in the face of some one you love, or a little tremble in his voice, can make you see quite clearly what nobody, not even the great poets, had been able to show you before?

“George, do you remember the day that grandmother died, when they all broke down and cried a little at dinner, all except Uncle Marmaduke? He sat up looking so white and stern at the end of the table. And I, foolish little child, thought he was not so grieved as the others that he did not love his mother so much. But next day, quite by chance, I heard him, all alone, sobbing over her coffin. I remember standing outside the door and listening, and each sob went through my heart with a little stab, and I knew for the first time what sorrow was. But even his sobs were not so pitiful as the moans of that poor spirit. While I listened I learnt that in another world there may be worse for us to bear than even here sorrow more hopeless, more lonely. For the strange thing was, the moaning seemed to come from so far far away; not only from somewhere millions and millions of miles away, but this is the strangest of all as if it came to me from time long since past, ages and ages ago. I know this sounds like nonsense, but indeed I am trying to put into words the weary long distance that seemed to stretch between us, like one I never should be able to cross. At last it spoke to me in a whisper which I could only just hear; at least it was more like a whisper than anything else I can think of, and it seemed to come like the moaning from far far away. It thanked me so meekly for looking at it and speaking to it. It told me that by sins committed against others when it was on earth it had broken the bond between itself and all other creatures. While it was what we call alive, it did not feel this, for the senses confuse us and hide many things from the good, and so still more from the wicked; but when it died and lost the body by which it seemed to be kept near to other beings, it found itself imprisoned in the most dreadful loneliness loneliness which no one in this world can even imagine. Even the pain of solitary confinement, so it told me, which drives men mad, is only like a shadow or type of this loneliness of spirits. Others there might be, but it knew nothing of them nothing besides this great empty darkness everywhere, except the place it had once lived in, and the people who were moving about it; and even those it could only perceive dimly as if looking through a mist, and always so unutterably away from them all. I am not giving its own words, you know, George, because I cannot remember them. I am not certain it did speak to me; the thoughts seemed to pass in some strange way into my mind; I cannot explain how, for the still far-away voice did not really speak. Sometimes, it told me, the loneliness became agony, and it longed for a word or a sign from some other being, just as Dives longed for the drop of cold water; and at such times it was able to make the living people see it. But that, alas! was useless, for it only alarmed them so much that the bravest and most benevolent rushed away in terror or would not let it come near them. But still it went on showing itself to one after another, always hoping that some one would take pity on it and speak to it, for it felt that if comfort ever came to it, it must be through a living soul, and it knew of none save those in this world and in this place. And I said: ‘Why did you not turn for help to God?’

“Then it gave a terrible answer: it said, ‘What is God?’

“And when I heard these words there came over me a wild kind of pity, such as I used to feel when I saw my little child struggling for breath when he was ill, and I held out my arms to this poor lonely thing, but it shrank back, crying:

“’Speak to me, but do not touch me, brave human creature. I am all death, and if you come too near me the Death in me may kill the life in you.’

“But I said: ’No Death can kill the life in me, even though it kill my body. Dear fellow-spirit, I cannot tell you what I know; but let me take you in my arms; rest for an instant on my heart, and perhaps I may make you feel what I feel all around us.’

“And as I spoke I threw my arms around the shadowy form and strained it to my breast. And I felt as if I were pressing to me only air, but air colder than any ice, so that my heart seemed to stop beating, and I could hardly breathe. But I still clasped it closer and closer, and as I grew colder it seemed to grow less chill.

“And at last it spoke, and the whisper was not far away, but near. It said:

“‘It is enough; now I know what God is!’

“After that I remember nothing more, till I woke up and found myself lying on the floor beside the bed. It was morning, and the spirit was not there; but I have a strong feeling that I have been able to help it, and that it will trouble you no more.

“Surely it is late! I must go at once. I promised to have tea with the children.”

Neither of us spoke; neither of us stirred; when the sound of her light footfall was heard no more, there was complete silence. Below, the mists had gathered so thickly that now they spread across the valley one dead white sea of vapour in which village and woods and stream were all buried all except the little church spire, that, still unsubmerged, pointed triumphantly to the sky; and what a sky! For that which yesterday had steeped us in cold and darkness, now, piled even to the zenith in mountainous cloud-masses, was dyed, every crest and summit of it, in crimson fire, pouring from a great fount of colour, where, to the west, the heavens opened to show that wonder-world whence saints and singers have drawn their loveliest images of the Rest to come.

But perhaps I saw all things irradiated by the light which had risen upon my darkness the light that never was on land or sea, but shines reflected in the human face.

“George, I am waiting for your interpretation.”

“It is very simple, Lindy,” he said.

But there was a tone in his voice I had heard once and only once before, when, through the first terrible hours that followed my accident, he sat patiently beside me in the darkened room, holding my hot hand in his broad cool palm.

“It is very simple. It is the most easily explained of all the accounts. It was a dream from beginning to end. She fell asleep praying, thinking, as she says; what was more natural or inevitable than that she should dream of the ghost? And it all confirms what I say: that visions are composed by the person who sees them. Nothing could be more characteristic of Cissy than the story she has just told us.”

“And let it be a dream,” I said. “It is of no consequence, for the dreamer remains, breathing and walking on this solid earth. I have touched her hand, I have looked into her face. Thank God! she is no vision, the woman who could dream this dream! George, how do you explain the miracle of her existence?”

But Atherley was silent.