‘You’ll find him changed since you was here last, sir; but you’ll pretend you don’t notice anything, won’t you, sir? He’s that nervous about himself.’
Philip nodded, and she led him into the dining-room.
‘Here’s Mr. Philip, sir.’
The Vicar of Blackstable was a dying man. There was no mistaking that when you looked at the hollow cheeks and the shrunken body. He sat huddled in the arm-chair, with his head strangely thrown back, and a shawl over his shoulders. He could not walk now without the help of sticks, and his hands trembled so that he could only feed himself with difficulty.
‘He can’t last long now,’ thought Philip, as he looked at him.
‘How d’you think I’m looking?’ asked the Vicar. ‘D’you think I’ve changed since you were here last?’
‘I think you look stronger than you did last summer.’
‘It was the heat. That always upsets me.’
Mr. Carey’s history of the last few months consisted in the number of weeks he had spent in his bed-room and the number of weeks he had spent downstairs. He had a hand-bell by his side and while he talked he rang it for Mrs. Foster, who sat in the next room ready to attend to his wants, to ask on what day of the month he had first left his room.
‘On the seventh of November, sir.’
Mr. Carey looked at Philip to see how he took the information.
‘But I eat well still, don’t I, Mrs. Foster?’
‘Yes, sir, you’ve got a wonderful appetite.’
‘I don’t seem to put on flesh though.’
Nothing interested him now but his health. He was set upon one thing indomitably and that was living, just living, notwithstanding the monotony of his life and the constant pain which allowed him to sleep only when he was under the influence of morphia.
‘It’s terrible, the amount of money I have to spend on doctor’s bills.’ He tinkled his bell again. ‘Mrs. Foster, show Master Philip the chemist’s bill.’
Patiently she took it off the chimney-piece and handed it to Philip.
‘That’s only one month. I was wondering if as you’re doctoring yourself you couldn’t get me the drugs cheaper. I thought of getting them down from the stores, but then there’s the postage.’
Though apparently taking so little interest in him that he did not trouble to inquire what Phil was doing, he seemed glad to have him there. He asked how long he could stay, and when Philip told him he must leave on Tuesday morning, expressed a wish that the visit might have been longer. He told him minutely all his symptoms and repeated what the doctor had said of him. He broke off to ring his bell, and when Mrs. Foster came in, said:
‘Oh, I wasn’t sure if you were there. I only rang to see if you were.’
When she had gone he explained to Philip that it made him uneasy if he was not certain that Mrs. Foster was within earshot; she knew exactly what to do with him if anything happened. Philip, seeing that she was tired and that her eyes were heavy from want of sleep, suggested that he was working her too hard.
‘Oh, nonsense,’ said the Vicar, ‘she’s as strong as a horse.’ And when next she came in to give him his medicine he said to her:
‘Master Philip says you’ve got too much to do, Mrs. Foster. You like looking after me, don’t you?’
‘Oh, I don’t mind, sir. I want to do everything I can.’
Presently the medicine took effect and Mr. Carey fell asleep. Philip went into the kitchen and asked Mrs. Foster whether she could stand the work. He saw that for some months she had had little peace.
‘Well, sir, what can I do?’ she answered. ‘The poor old gentleman’s so dependent on me, and, although he is troublesome sometimes, you can’t help liking him, can you? I’ve been here so many years now, I don’t know what I shall do when he comes to go.’
Philip saw that she was really fond of the old man. She washed and dressed him, gave him his food, and was up half a dozen times in the night; for she slept in the next room to his and whenever he awoke he tinkled his little bell till she came in. He might die at any moment, but he might live for months. It was wonderful that she should look after a stranger with such patient tenderness, and it was tragic and pitiful that she should be alone in the world to care for him.
It seemed to Philip that the religion which his uncle had preached all his life was now of no more than formal importance to him: every Sunday the curate came and administered to him Holy Communion, and he often read his Bible; but it was clear that he looked upon death with horror. He believed that it was the gateway to life everlasting, but he did not want to enter upon that life. In constant pain, chained to his chair and having given up the hope of ever getting out into the open again, like a child in the hands of a woman to whom he paid wages, he clung to the world he knew.
In Philip’s head was a question he could not ask, because he was aware that his uncle would never give any but a conventional answer: he wondered whether at the very end, now that the machine was painfully wearing itself out, the clergyman still believed in immortality; perhaps at the bottom of his soul, not allowed to shape itself into words in case it became urgent, was the conviction that there was no God and after this life nothing.
On the evening of Boxing Day Philip sat in the dining-room with his uncle. He had to start very early next morning in order to get to the shop by nine, and he was to say good-night to Mr. Carey then. The Vicar of Blackstable was dozing and Philip, lying on the sofa by the window, let his book fall on his knees and looked idly round the room. He asked himself how much the furniture would fetch. He had walked round the house and looked at the things he had known from his childhood; there were a few pieces of china which might go for a decent price and Philip wondered if it would be worth while to take them up to London; but the furniture was of the Victorian order, of mahogany, solid and ugly; it would go for nothing at an auction. There were three or four thousand books, but everyone knew how badly they sold, and it was not probable that they would fetch more than a hundred pounds. Philip did not know how much his uncle would leave, and he reckoned out for the hundredth time what was the least sum upon which he could finish the curriculum at the hospital, take his degree, and live during the time he wished to spend on hospital appointments. He looked at the old man, sleeping restlessly: there was no humanity left in that shrivelled face; it was the face of some queer animal. Philip thought how easy it would be to finish that useless life. He had thought it each evening when Mrs. Foster prepared for his uncle the medicine which was to give him an easy night. There were two bottles: one contained a drug which he took regularly, and the other an opiate if the pain grew unendurable. This was poured out for him and left by his bed-side. He generally took it at three or four in the morning. It would be a simple thing to double the dose; he would die in the night, and no one would suspect anything; for that was how Doctor Wigram expected him to die. The end would be painless. Philip clenched his hands as he thought of the money he wanted so badly. A few more months of that wretched life could matter nothing to the old man, but the few more months meant everything to him: he was getting to the end of his endurance, and when he thought of going back to work in the morning he shuddered with horror. His heart beat quickly at the thought which obsessed him, and though he made an effort to put it out of his mind he could not. It would be so easy, so desperately easy. He had no feeling for the old man, he had never liked him; he had been selfish all his life, selfish to his wife who adored him, indifferent to the boy who had been put in his charge; he was not a cruel man, but a stupid, hard man, eaten up with a small sensuality. It would be easy, desperately easy. Philip did not dare. He was afraid of remorse; it would be no good having the money if he regretted all his life what he had done. Though he had told himself so often that regret was futile, there were certain things that came back to him occasionally and worried him. He wished they were not on his conscience.
His uncle opened his eyes; Philip was glad, for he looked a little more human then. He was frankly horrified at the idea that had come to him, it was murder that he was meditating; and he wondered if other people had such thoughts or whether he was abnormal and depraved. He supposed he could not have done it when it came to the point, but there the thought was, constantly recurring: if he held his hand it was from fear. His uncle spoke.
‘You’re not looking forward to my death, Philip?’ Philip felt his heart beat against his chest.
‘Good heavens, no.’
‘That’s a good boy. I shouldn’t like you to do that. You’ll get a little bit of money when I pass away, but you mustn’t look forward to it. It wouldn’t profit you if you did.’
He spoke in a low voice, and there was a curious anxiety in his tone. It sent a pang into Philip’s heart. He wondered what strange insight might have led the old man to surmise what strange desires were in Philip’s mind.
‘I hope you’ll live for another twenty years,’ he said.
‘Oh, well, I can’t expect to do that, but if I take care of myself I don’t see why I shouldn’t last another three or four.’
He was silent for a while, and Philip found nothing to say. Then, as if he had been thinking it all over, the old man spoke again.
‘Everyone has the right to live as long as he can.’
Philip wanted to distract his mind.
‘By the way, I suppose you never hear from Miss Wilkinson now?’
‘Yes, I had a letter some time this year. She’s married, you know.’
‘Yes, she married a widower. I believe they’re quite comfortable.’