Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XXIV. Death.
 

I need not recount the proceedings of the Belgian police; how they interrogated Robert concerning a letter from Mary St. John which they found in an inner pocket; how they looked doubtful over a copy of Horace that lay in his coat, and put evidently a momentous question about some algebraical calculations on the fly-leaf of it. Fortunately or unfortunately--I do not know which--Robert did not understand a word they said to him. He was locked up, and left to fret for nearly a week; though what he could have done had he been at liberty, he knew as little as I know. At last, long after it was useless to make any inquiry about Miss Lindsay, he was set at liberty. He could just pay for a steerage passage to London, whence he wrote to Dr. Anderson for a supply, and was in Aberdeen a few days after.

This was Robert's first cosmopolitan experience. He confided the whole affair to the doctor, who approved of all, saying it could have been of no use, but he had done right. He advised him to go home at once, for he had had letters inquiring after him. Ericson was growing steadily worse--in fact, he feared Robert might not see him alive.

If this news struck Robert to the heart, his pain was yet not without some poor alleviation:--he need not tell Ericson about Mysie, but might leave him to find out the truth when, free of a dying body, he would be better able to bear it. That very night he set off on foot for Rothieden. There was no coach from Aberdeen till eight the following morning, and before that he would be there.

It was a dreary journey without Ericson. Every turn of the road reminded him of him. And Ericson too was going a lonely unknown way.

Did ever two go together upon that way? Might not two die together and not lose hold of each other all the time, even when the sense of the clasping hands was gone, and the soul had withdrawn itself from the touch? Happy they who prefer the will of God to their own even in this, and would, as the best friend, have him near who can be near--him who made the fourth in the fiery furnace! Fable or fact, reader, I do not care. The One I mean is, and in him I hope.

Very weary was Robert when he walked into his grandmother's house.

Betty came out of the kitchen at the sound of his entrance.

'Is Mr. Ericson--?'

'Na; he's nae deid,' she answered. 'He'll maybe live a day or twa, they say.'

'Thank God!' said Robert, and went to his grandmother.

'Eh, laddie!' said Mrs. Falconer, the first greetings over, 'ane 's ta'en an' anither 's left! but what for 's mair nor I can faddom. There's that fine young man, Maister Ericson, at deith's door; an' here am I, an auld runklet wife, left to cry upo' deith, an' he winna hear me.'

'Cry upo' God, grannie, an' no upo' deith,' said Robert, catching at the word as his grandmother herself might have done. He had no such unfair habit when I knew him, and always spoke to one's meaning, not one's words. But then he had a wonderful gift of knowing what one's meaning was.

He did not sit down, but, tired as he was, went straight to The Boar's Head. He met no one in the archway, and walked up to Ericson's room. When he opened the door, he found the large screen on the other side, and hearing a painful cough, lingered behind it, for he could not control his feelings sufficiently. Then he heard a voice--Ericson's voice; but oh, how changed!--He had no idea that he ought not to listen.

'Mary,' the voice said, 'do not look like that. I am not suffering. It is only my body. Your arm round me makes me so strong! Let me lay my head on your shoulder.'

A brief pause followed.

'But, Eric,' said Mary's voice, 'there is one that loves you better than I do.'

'If there is,' returned Ericson, feebly, 'he has sent his angel to deliver me.'

'But you do believe in him, Eric?'

The voice expressed anxiety no less than love.

'I am going to see. There is no other way. When I find him, I shall believe in him. I shall love him with all my heart, I know. I love the thought of him now.'

'But that's not himself, my--darling!' she said.

'No. But I cannot love himself till I find him. Perhaps there is no Jesus.'

'Oh, don't say that. I can't bear to hear you talk so,'

'But, dear heart, if you're so sure of him, do you think he would turn me away because I don't do what I can't do? I would if I could with all my heart. If I were to say I believed in him, and then didn't trust him, I could understand it. But when it's only that I'm not sure about what I never saw, or had enough of proof to satisfy me of, how can he be vexed at that? You seem to me to do him great wrong, Mary. Would you now banish me for ever, if I should, when my brain is wrapped in the clouds of death, forget you along with everything else for a moment?'

'No, no, no. Don't talk like that, Eric, dear. There may be reasons, you know.'

'I know what they say well enough. But I expect Him, if there is a Him, to be better even than you, my beautiful--and I don't know a fault in you, but that you believe in a God you can't trust. If I believed in a God, wouldn't I trust him just? And I do hope in him. We'll see, my darling. When we meet again I think you'll say I was right.'

Robert stood like one turned into marble. Deep called unto deep in his soul. The waves and the billows went over him.

Mary St. John answered not a word. I think she must have been conscience-stricken. Surely the Son of Man saw nearly as much faith in Ericson as in her. Only she clung to the word as a bond that the Lord had given her: she would rather have his bond.

Ericson had another fit of coughing. Robert heard the rustling of ministration. But in a moment the dying man again took up the word. He seemed almost as anxious about Mary's faith as she was about his.

'There's Robert,' he said: 'I do believe that boy would die for me, and I never did anything to deserve it. Now Jesus Christ must be as good as Robert at least. I think he must be a great deal better, if he's Jesus Christ at all. Now Robert might be hurt if I didn't believe in him. But I've never seen Jesus Christ. It's all in an old book, over which the people that say they believe in it the most, fight like dogs and cats. I beg your pardon, my Mary; but they do, though the words are ugly.'

'Ah! but if you had tried it as I've tried it, you would know better, Eric.'

'I think I should, dear. But it's too late now. I must just go and see. There's no other way left.'

The terrible cough came again. As soon as the fit was over, with a grand despair in his heart, Robert went from behind the screen.

Ericson was on a couch. His head lay on Mary St. John's bosom. Neither saw him.

'Perhaps,' said Ericson, panting with death, 'a kiss in heaven may be as good as being married on earth, Mary.'

She saw Robert and did not answer. Then Eric saw him. He smiled; but Mary grew very pale.

Robert came forward, stooped and kissed Ericson's forehead, kneeled and kissed Mary's hand, rose and went out.

From that moment they were both dead to him. Dead, I say--not lost, not estranged, but dead--that is, awful and holy. He wept for Eric. He did not weep for Mary yet. But he found a time.

Ericson died two days after.

Here endeth Robert's youth.