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XIII

CALLED HOME

The spring that Hugh and Letty moved into their new house, Floyd Halket went abroad; of the subsequent developments in which Stewart Lee was concerned he knew nothing. The purpose of his trip was to establish if possible a foreign market for the company's steel and to pick up in England and Germany fresh ideas about the manufacture. He spent a month of hard work in Birmingham, and then, feeling that he had accomplished all that was possible, he declared a vacation and joined three of his college friends on a walking trip through the Lake Country; then they went on up into Scotland; and after two weeks there, Floyd's companions insisted that he should not desert them, but should go with them to Paris, and then through Touraine and Brittany. They were over for three months to have a good time; and Floyd, who had hardly taken a vacation since leaving college, yielded to their entreaties. He had almost forgotten what fun it was to be an irresponsible young fellow with congenial idle companions, and he surprised his old friends by his spontaneous gayety. "You're more of a boy than you used to be," one of them said to him seriously. He stayed with the party until October, and then went to Southampton to see them off on the steamer; they had a tremendous dinner together, at the end of which Floyd sang "Fair Harvard" many times over and declared his belief that nothing but prejudice and personal animosity had kept him off the Glee Club in college.

A week later he was in Germany, visiting iron mills and gun factories, studying methods, making notes; for a month he was traveling from one establishment to another. At a beam-mill in Frankfort he observed that the piles made ready for the heating-furnaoe contained more than twice as much steel scrap as it was the custom to use at New Rome. He made a memorandum and a sketch of one of the piles; and if his trip had produced nothing else, this casual discovery would, as it afterwards turned out, have justified it. For when Floyd returned and tried the new method, he found that it effected a saving in manufacture of nearly a hundred dollars a day.

He had been in Berlin a little more than two weeks when a cablegram came from his grandfather saying that Mrs. Halket was desperately ill and summoning him home at once.

Floyd caught the Bremen boat the next morning; the pilot boat that met the steamer in New York harbor a week later brought him a letter edged with black. His grandmother had died the day he sailed. "It was pneumonia," Colonel Halket wrote. "She did not suffer much—after the first; she was unconscious and spoke only once, an hour before the end, when she murmured something—asking for you, I think. The funeral service will take place as soon as you arrive. I shall be very glad to see you, Floyd."

There was no word to betray his emotion. Floyd had an equal power of repression. He folded the letter and put it quietly into his pocket, and no one of those standing by would have guessed that he had just read the saddest news that could come to him. But when he had landed and was sitting in the friendly obscurity and loneliness of a cab, he dropped his face forward in his hands and tears trickled through his fingers. He felt miserably forlorn and alone. How much brightness and sweetness and unselfish, gentle wisdom had gone out of life when his grandmother had died! Even though in the nature of things this could not have been many years distant, Floyd had never really looked forward to life without her. The affection between the two had been so intimate, the sympathy uniting them so understanding and acute, that now in her loss he felt as if something vital to his own character had been withdrawn. Who would supply him now and fortify him with her humor and imagination, her appreciative praise and blame, her courageous, hopeful spirit? Yet at least he had a dear and very vivid memory that should shine for him always as his star. It was something she could never have known or dreamed—that her waving him at the steamer that bright and brave farewell should always be an incentive toward nobility.

And then, less selfish, his thought turned to his grandfather. Poor old man, with what pride of restraint he had written unemotional statements! What a week it must have been for him! Colonel Halket had never, to Floyd's mind, shown any subtle understanding of his wife; sometimes, even, his obtuseness had engendered in Floyd a sense of resentment; yet he had loved her with constancy and devotion for half a century, and to Floyd his dependence on her had been even more marked than her dependence on him. Floyd suddenly began to appreciate what a cruel thing it must be to be old and alone; in comparison with that, the pathos of being young and alone, on which in his black moments he had sometimes dwelt, was indeed trivial.

It was the middle of a gray November morning when Floyd drove up to his grandfather's house; Colonel Halket had been sitting by a window awaiting him and met him in the hall. He took Floyd's hand silently and holding it walked with him into his study, off the library, and closed the door.

"I'm glad you are here at last, my boy," he said; there was an unaccustomed softness in his voice; his lean brown face, surmounted by the waving plume of white hair, youthful still with its dashing white mustache and imperial, seemed to Floyd only the more handsome and dignified in its expression of grief, and betrayed no evidence of a man broken and overwhelmed—rather it seemed that of one who, utterly sad, was master of himself. "Sit down, Floyd; it has been a hard trip for you. Here is something that you will like to keep."

He opened a drawer of his desk and took out a sheet of paper, half filled with his wife's handwriting.

"It is a letter to you that she began just before she was taken ill—and was never able to finish," said Colonel Halket, and as he gave it to Floyd there were tears in his eyes. "She left it lying on her desk; I found it there and put it away for her—and—and then I put it away for you." Floyd looked up from reading it with wet eyes.

"Thank you, Grandfather," he said. "Have you read what she has written?"

His grandfather nodded. "Yes. I thought you would n't mind."

"She speaks of the weather and of having caught a little cold, and makes light of it," said Floyd. "And passes on from that to warning me to be careful." He smiled sadly. She never thought of herself for longer than a moment, did she?"

"And all the more reason why some one else should have thought for her," Colonel Halket said. "But I never noticed—I never realized—if I only had!—"

"She was ill only a few days?" Floyd asked.

"Longer than that, I think—if I had only noticed," replied Colonel Halket, with bitter self-reproach. "She had been interested in organizing a Women's Club out at New Rome—she had given money for a building where they should have reading-rooms and gymnasium and everything the men have—your friend Lee is to build it; she made three trips down from Canada during the summer about it, as perhaps you know. And all the fall she had been very busy interesting the women in it and explaining it to them and trying to provide some place as a substitute until the new house should be built. She used to go out to New Rome three or four times a week and spend the day visiting the women who seemed most capable and interested, and arranging matters with them—often spending the whole day and coming back at night tired out. But I never noticed. One morning—it was a cold, rainy day—she told me at breakfast she had a sore throat and laughed about it, saying she hoped her voice would hold out, as she had called a mass meeting of all the women and was to give them an address about the purpose of her scheme; I advised her not to go, but she said she could n't disappoint them. They kept her talking nearly all that afternoon, answering questions, organizing the club; and when she came home she went at once to bed—and never got up from it again. I feel, Floyd, that if I had only been a little more watchful I might have saved her."

"You must n't blame yourself," Floyd answered. "It was in her spirit to do things that way."

"Those women—you must see the letters they have sent me. You will see how they loved her. They sent a wreath—but it's the letters from the poor women that count. Well, they could n't have helped loving her—though I never thought how much. For years she made it a duty to visit every one who had been widowed, every one in affliction—and when it was money that was needed, she knew how to give without hurting any one's pride. And the cases of little crippled children that she'd had treated at her expense—that was always her special charity—and she was so modest and shy about such things she never told even me the way the people felt and expressed themselves; going through her papers, I found some letters from women whose children she'd helped; she kept the letters—but she never showed them to me."

He handed a packet to Floyd.

"I don't know why," he said, and for the first time his voice broke, "but—if it's possible—I love her more for knowing how much others that I never dreamed of loved her."

So he sat talking with Floyd for a long time, recalling little memories of his wife with a simplicity and vividness that made Floyd's eyes fill with tears. "He understood her better than I ever guessed," Floyd thought, remorseful that in his heart he had reproached his grandfather for lack of sympathy. Never before had he come so near to his grandfather's heart; he was to come yet nearer that evening. When the funeral service was over and he and Colonel Halket had returned to the house, they sat in the dark before the small yellow spots of the gas-fire. And suddenly the Colonel leaned over and, resting his arm and head on Floyd's shoulder, sobbed aloud. He had broken down for the first time in the ten days.

Floyd reached up and pressed his hand silently.

"Oh, Floyd," said the old man in a faltering voice, "I don't know what I shall do. We'd been together for fifty years—your grandmother and I—and now—what am I to do!"

"She'd want you to live and work the way you've always done," Floyd answered.

"Yes, that's something. But it's the lonely hours—when the brain can't work or sleep—I have them often now. It 's the moments through the day when some little thing reminds me—and I stop and stare and think of her. I've never thought much of death; a few days ago I was going on as unconscious of it as if I had all of life before me. And now I don't care much about life; I feel that I'm through."

"She would n't have you feel that way, Grandfather."

"No; you're right, she would n't. It was nothing but her faith that kept me going when your father died. She pulled me through that. But—I 'm older now—and I have n't got her.—'When with the morn those angel faces smile'—they sang that at your father's funeral too, Floyd. If one could only believe it!"

"I thought you did," Floyd said.

"I've tried hard. I've gone to church—and heard all they could say, and tried to believe. But here's the thing I could never get out of the way—and if I only could! If my soul is immortal, why did it have a beginning? If I'm to know eternal life, why don't I reach out to infinity behind as well as before? How can a thing be immortal that has its moment of birth? I've asked; they tell me I've always existed—in the consciousness of God. But I don't know it—and according to that theory I may go out of this existence into another with no recollection of this, no recognition of the angel faces that are dear to me—no, they can't answer that question, Floyd, they can't answer it—they have to fall back on quibbles. It's a beautiful, beautiful myth—that God might have made true. It's done a great work in the world; it's made men better and kinder to one another—but it's only a beautiful myth. And I'd rather have it so; rather than believe that I'm to be transmuted from one personality to another, never allowed to see again the two faces that I love—rather than that I'd ask for everlasting sleep."

Floyd was silent for a while. "I've never thought much about it," he said at last. "Until now, nothing has ever brought it home to me personally. But it seems to me that that line of the hymn—'When with the morn those angel faces smile'—illustrates the most beautiful thought that the human race has ever worked out. It's just as you say—you have the feeling that nothing could be more beautiful than that—if it were a fact. Now why shouldn't the Supreme Power of the universe actually achieve the thing that we grasp as most beautiful in our thoughts? It seems to me unlikely that He should fall short of our own highest conception; it's more probable that He's worked out an arrangement that's even better and more beautiful. Of course if you deny the existence of a Supreme Power, it's different—but I have n't got to that. As for an immortal soul—a thing that's to have no end—having a definite beginning, that's an inconsistency I can't fathom. But just the same I fall back on my argument; if there is a Supreme Power,—and I suppose there is,—the mind of man can't conceive anything too beautiful or desirable for Him to execute. That's probably not orthodox, but it satisfies me."

Colonel Halket stroked the young man's hand. "There's a good deal of your grandmother in you, Floyd," he said. "I can almost imagine that would be the way she'd talk. You have the right idea in one way anyhow,—for it means courage and hope; and there's no doubt about it, a man must have those qualities if he's to make anything of life. Only—it's a good deal harder for an old and lonely man to have them than for a young fellow starting in. But I'll try, Floyd; I'll try." He patted his grandson on the shoulder with affection and respect.

They fell then to talking quite cheerfully of more practical things—cheerfully yet with reverence, for that which they discussed was the fulfillment of what they had reason to believe would have been Mrs. Halket's wishes and the carrying out of her plans. Colonel Halket had in the days before Floyd came drawn up a schedule of her charities and subscriptions, so far as he could find records of them; he and Floyd sat together till late that evening following clues that were indicated by hasty memoranda, tabulating, and planning for the systematic development of her unfinished personal work.