‘You jolly well take care, my fine young fellow, or one of these days you’ll find yourself in the street.’
Philip longed to give him a punch on the nose, but he restrained himself. After all it could not possibly last much longer, and then he would he done with all these people for ever. Sometimes in comic desperation he cried out that his uncle must be made of iron. What a constitution! The ills he suffered from would have killed any decent person twelve months before. When at last the news came that the Vicar was dying Philip, who had been thinking of other things, was taken by surprise. It was in July, and in another fortnight he was to have gone for his holiday. He received a letter from Mrs. Foster to say the doctor did not give Mr. Carey many days to live, and if Philip wished to see him again he must come at once. Philip went to the buyer and told him he wanted to leave. Mr. Sampson was a decent fellow, and when he knew the circumstances made no difficulties. Philip said good-bye to the people in his department; the reason of his leaving had spread among them in an exaggerated form, and they thought he had come into a fortune. Mrs. Hodges had tears in her eyes when she shook hands with him.
‘I suppose we shan’t often see you again,’ she said.
‘I’m glad to get away from Lynn’s,’ he answered.
It was strange, but he was actually sorry to leave these people whom he thought he had loathed, and when he drove away from the house in Harrington Street it was with no exultation. He had so anticipated the emotions he would experience on this occasion that now he felt nothing: he was as unconcerned as though he were going for a few days’ holiday.
‘I’ve got a rotten nature,’ he said to himself. ‘I look forward to things awfully, and then when they come I’m always disappointed.’
He reached Blackstable early in the afternoon. Mrs. Foster met him at the door, and her face told him that his uncle was not yet dead.
‘He’s a little better today,’ she said. ‘He’s got a wonderful constitution.’
She led him into the bed-room where Mr. Carey lay on his back. He gave Philip a slight smile, in which was a trace of satisfied cunning at having circumvented his enemy once more.
‘I thought it was all up with me yesterday,’ he said, in an exhausted voice. ‘They’d all given me up, hadn’t you, Mrs. Foster?’
‘You’ve got a wonderful constitution, there’s no denying that.’
‘There’s life in the old dog yet.’
Mrs. Foster said that the Vicar must not talk, it would tire him; she treated him like a child, with kindly despotism; and there was something childish in the old man’s satisfaction at having cheated all their expectations. It struck him at once that Philip had been sent for, and he was amused that he had been brought on a fool’s errand. If he could only avoid another of his heart attacks he would get well enough in a week or two; and he had had the attacks several times before; he always felt as if he were going to die, but he never did. They all talked of his constitution, but they none of them knew how strong it was.
‘Are you going to stay a day or two?’ He asked Philip, pretending to believe he had come down for a holiday.
‘I was thinking of it,’ Philip answered cheerfully.
‘A breath of sea-air will do you good.’
Presently Dr. Wigram came, and after he had seen the Vicar talked with Philip. He adopted an appropriate manner.
‘I’m afraid it is the end this time, Philip,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a great loss to all of us. I’ve known him for five-and-thirty years.’
‘He seems well enough now,’ said Philip.
‘I’m keeping him alive on drugs, but it can’t last. It was dreadful these last two days, I thought he was dead half a dozen times.’
The doctor was silent for a minute or two, but at the gate he said suddenly to Philip:
‘Has Mrs. Foster said anything to you?’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘They’re very superstitious, these people: she’s got hold of an idea that he’s got something on his mind, and he can’t die till he gets rid of it; and he can’t bring himself to confess it.’
Philip did not answer, and the doctor went on.
‘Of course it’s nonsense. He’s led a very good life, he’s done his duty, he’s been a good parish priest, and I’m sure we shall all miss him; he can’t have anything to reproach himself with. I very much doubt whether the next vicar will suit us half so well.’
For several days Mr. Carey continued without change. His appetite which had been excellent left him, and he could eat little. Dr. Wigram did not hesitate now to still the pain of the neuritis which tormented him; and that, with the constant shaking of his palsied limbs, was gradually exhausting him. His mind remained clear. Philip and Mrs. Foster nursed him between them. She was so tired by the many months during which she had been attentive to all his wants that Philip insisted on sitting up with the patient so that she might have her night’s rest. He passed the long hours in an arm-chair so that he should not sleep soundly, and read by the light of shaded candles The Thousand and One Nights. He had not read them since he was a little boy, and they brought back his childhood to him. Sometimes he sat and listened to the silence of the night. When the effects of the opiate wore off Mr. Carey grew restless and kept him constantly busy.
At last, early one morning, when the birds were chattering noisily in the trees, he heard his name called. He went up to the bed. Mr. Carey was lying on his back, with his eyes looking at the ceiling; he did not turn them on Philip. Philip saw that sweat was on his forehead, and he took a towel and wiped it.
‘Is that you, Philip?’ the old man asked.
Philip was startled because the voice was suddenly changed. It was hoarse and low. So would a man speak if he was cold with fear.
‘Yes, d’you want anything?’
There was a pause, and still the unseeing eyes stared at the ceiling. Then a twitch passed over the face.
‘I think I’m going to die,’ he said.
‘Oh, what nonsense!’ cried Philip. ‘You’re not going to die for years.’
Two tears were wrung from the old man’s eyes. They moved Philip horribly. His uncle had never betrayed any particular emotion in the affairs of life; and it was dreadful to see them now, for they signified a terror that was unspeakable.
‘Send for Mr. Simmonds,’ he said. ‘I want to take the Communion.’
Mr. Simmonds was the curate.
‘Now?’ asked Philip.
‘Soon, or else it’ll be too late.’
Philip went to awake Mrs. Foster, but it was later than he thought and she was up already. He told her to send the gardener with a message, and he went back to his uncle’s room.
‘Have you sent for Mr. Simmonds?’
There was a silence. Philip sat by the bed-side, and occasionally wiped the sweating forehead.
‘Let me hold your hand, Philip,’ the old man said at last.
Philip gave him his hand and he clung to it as to life, for comfort in his extremity. Perhaps he had never really loved anyone in all his days, but now he turned instinctively to a human being. His hand was wet and cold. It grasped Philip’s with feeble, despairing energy. The old man was fighting with the fear of death. And Philip thought that all must go through that. Oh, how monstrous it was, and they could believe in a God that allowed his creatures to suffer such a cruel torture! He had never cared for his uncle, and for two years he had longed every day for his death; but now he could not overcome the compassion that filled his heart. What a price it was to pay for being other than the beasts!
They remained in silence broken only once by a low inquiry from Mr. Carey.
‘Hasn’t he come yet?’
At last the housekeeper came in softly to say that Mr. Simmonds was there. He carried a bag in which were his surplice and his hood. Mrs. Foster brought the communion plate. Mr. Simmonds shook hands silently with Philip, and then with professional gravity went to the sick man’s side. Philip and the maid went out of the room.
Philip walked round the garden all fresh and dewy in the morning. The birds were singing gaily. The sky was blue, but the air, salt-laden, was sweet and cool. The roses were in full bloom. The green of the trees, the green of the lawns, was eager and brilliant. Philip walked, and as he walked he thought of the mystery which was proceeding in that bedroom. It gave him a peculiar emotion. Presently Mrs. Foster came out to him and said that his uncle wished to see him. The curate was putting his things back into the black bag. The sick man turned his head a little and greeted him with a smile. Philip was astonished, for there was a change in him, an extraordinary change; his eyes had no longer the terror-stricken look, and the pinching of his face had gone: he looked happy and serene.
‘I’m quite prepared now,’ he said, and his voice had a different tone in it. ‘When the Lord sees fit to call me I am ready to give my soul into his hands.’
Philip did not speak. He could see that his uncle was sincere. It was almost a miracle. He had taken the body and blood of his Savior, and they had given him strength so that he no longer feared the inevitable passage into the night. He knew he was going to die: he was resigned. He only said one thing more:
‘I shall rejoin my dear wife.’
It startled Philip. He remembered with what a callous selfishness his uncle had treated her, how obtuse he had been to her humble, devoted love. The curate, deeply moved, went away and Mrs. Foster, weeping, accompanied him to the door. Mr. Carey, exhausted by his effort, fell into a light doze, and Philip sat down by the bed and waited for the end. The morning wore on, and the old man’s breathing grew stertorous. The doctor came and said he was dying. He was unconscious and he pecked feebly at the sheets; he was restless and he cried out. Dr. Wigram gave him a hypodermic injection.
‘It can’t do any good now, he may die at any moment.’
The doctor looked at his watch and then at the patient. Philip saw that it was one o’clock. Dr. Wigram was thinking of his dinner.
‘It’s no use your waiting,’ he said.
‘There’s nothing I can do,’ said the doctor.
When he was gone Mrs. Foster asked Philip if he would go to the carpenter, who was also the undertaker, and tell him to send up a woman to lay out the body.
‘You want a little fresh air,’ she said, ‘it’ll do you good.’
The undertaker lived half a mile away. When Philip gave him his message, he said:
‘When did the poor old gentleman die?’
Philip hesitated. It occurred to him that it would seem brutal to fetch a woman to wash the body while his uncle still lived, and he wondered why Mrs. Foster had asked him to come. They would think he was in a great hurry to kill the old man off. He thought the undertaker looked at him oddly. He repeated the question. It irritated Philip. It was no business of his.
‘When did the Vicar pass away?’
Philip’s first impulse was to say that it had just happened, but then it would seem inexplicable if the sick man lingered for several hours. He reddened and answered awkwardly.
‘Oh, he isn’t exactly dead yet.’
The undertaker looked at him in perplexity, and he hurried to explain.
‘Mrs. Foster is all alone and she wants a woman there. You understood, don’t you? He may be dead by now.’
The undertaker nodded.
‘Oh, yes, I see. I’ll send someone up at once.’
When Philip got back to the vicarage he went up to the bed-room. Mrs. Foster rose from her chair by the bed-side.
‘He’s just as he was when you left,’ she said.
She went down to get herself something to eat, and Philip watched curiously the process of death. There was nothing human now in the unconscious being that struggled feebly. Sometimes a muttered ejaculation issued from the loose mouth. The sun beat down hotly from a cloudless sky, but the trees in the garden were pleasant and cool. It was a lovely day. A bluebottle buzzed against the windowpane. Suddenly there was a loud rattle, it made Philip start, it was horribly frightening; a movement passed through the limbs and the old man was dead. The machine had run down. The bluebottle buzzed, buzzed noisily against the windowpane.