I could not speak when I reached the village. They gave me water.
I had in any case to wait a moment till the postmaster was free, for I could not use the telephone myself. My mother had a horror of our touching the public one. She had spoken with disgust of the mouthpiece that everybody breathed into. "Full of germs!" Then it must be bad for other people we said. "Other people must take their chance." I remember that as I leaned against the counter, panting, while the postmaster wrote out a telegram. We were "taking the chance" now. Such a little thing--my not knowing how to telephone. Yet it might cost my mother her life.
The postmaster rang up Brighton.
The doctor was out.
What could be done but leave a message!
I would go to the Helmstones and ask for a motor-car. Why had I not thought of that before?
Then the postmaster said that the Helmstones had all left for London that morning. He had seen them go by. Two motors full. Her recommended the doctor at Littlecombe. If I waited a while, the baker's cart would come back from its rounds, and I could send, or go myself with the driver to Littlecombe.
"Wait"? There was that at Duncombe that would not wait. For me, too, waiting was the one impossible thing. I cast about in my distracted mind.
That new acquaintance of the Helmstone's! Was he not a sort of a doctor? "The scientific chap," as his lordship called the man who had taken rooms at Big Klaus's farm. Lord Helmstone had complained of his Scotch arrogance--"frankly astonished if a Southron makes a decent drive." We had not seen him--at least, not to distinguish an arrogant Scot from other golfers.
I ran most of the way to the farm.
As I stood waiting for the door to open, a man came up the path with golf clubs. Tallish. In careless clothes, otherwise of a very un-careless aspect. In those seconds of watching the figure come up the pathway with a sort of rigidity of
gait, I received an impression of something so restrained and chilling that I hoped he was not the man I had come for. In any case this was not a person before whom one would care to show emotion. I asked if he were Mr. Annan. Yes, his name was Annan. His tone asked: and what business was it of mine? But he halted there, below me, as I stood on the step explaining very briefly my errand.
He did not want to come; I could see that.
He made some excuse about not being a general practitioner.
I was sorry I had spoken in that self-possessed way. I saw I had given him no idea of the urgency of our heed. I had to explain that all we asked of him was to give some help at once. And only for once. Our regular doctor would be with us very soon.
He seemed slow-witted, for he stood there several seconds, with one free hand pulling at his rough moustache of reddish brown.
"We mustn't lose time," I said.
As I led the way, I heard the door open behind me, and the sound of golf clubs thrown down in a stone passage.
He caught up with me at the gate, and we walked rapidly across Big Klaus's fields. While we were going by the pond, in the lower meadow, a moorhen scuttled to her nest in the tangle on the bank. Her creaking cry had always sounded so cheerful since my mother pointed out that the mechanic "click! click!" was like a Christmas toy. To-day I knew it for a warning.
The man had caught up a stick. He struck sharply with it, as he passed, at the tall nettles growing in the ditch.
What was happening at home all this time? I began to walk faster, with a great misery at my heart. What was the good of this man who wasn't a general practitioner? He was too like all the other broad-shouldered young golfers in Norfolk jackets--far too like them, to help in so dire a need as ours.
I tried to hearten myself by recalling what Lord Helmstone had said of him. That "the bigwigs in the world of science spoke of Annan with enthusiasm." "An original mind." "A demon for work" (that was, perhaps, why he hadn't wanted to come with me). Odds and ends came back. "Annan would go far." He had gone too
far in the direction of overwork. He had been urged to come down here and play golf. Still, he worked long hours. . . .
And while I recalled these things, in the back of my head, I kept repeating: "Mother, mother! I am bringing help."
We did not talk, except for my turning suddenly to warn him that my younger sister was not to know if my mother--
"Yes, yes!" he said. I felt he understood. I walked faster--almost at a run. He did not seem to notice. His long strides kept him near me without an effort.
Oh, how wildly the birds were singing! She had said that only we ever noticed the special quality in the vesper song. Something the morning never heard. The air was filled with a passion of that belated singing. "Good-night," I heard her say, "is better than good-morning."
Oh, mother! if that is so for you, think of your children.
Did the stranger object to jumping ditches and climbing stiles?
"I am taking you the short cut," I said.
We were coming to the copse on the edge of the heath. The hawthorn foamed along the outer fringe. This was where we met Colonel Dover all those years ago. Every inch of the way I saw pictures of my mother. All that gentleness and beauty--
What a richness had been lavished on our lives!
I had never begun to understand it before this evening--never once had thanked her.
The copse was full of her. Her figure went before me between the bare larch boles, taking care not to tread on flowers. The ground was a sheet of blue when we had last come here. The time of wild hyacinths was nearly over now. And her time-- Was that nearly over too? Where would she be when the foxgloves stood tall here among the bracken? The larch stems wavered and the hazels shivered. The man was on in front now, the first to cross the outermost stile. As I hurried after him, he looked back. I did not know until I met his eyes that mine were wet . . . and that I was walking not quite steadily. I had run a long way that evening.
"Rest a moment," he said; and he looked away from me and up at the flowering may. "The scent is very heavy," he said. "I knew a woman once who was always made faint by it."
He did not look at me again.
But I had seen that those hard eyes could look kind.
* * *
Now we could see the red tile roof.
Underneath it what was happening? I had been long gone, for all my running.
As we came across the links, the sun went down behind the wall of Duncombe garden.
Oh, sun! I prayed, do not go down for ever.
* * *
Before I entered the house a strange thing happened.
A great peace fell on me.
I knew, without asking, that all was well.
Was that a blackcap singing? And had I seen the sun go down? What magic light was this, then, that was shining on the world?
* * *
He saw my mother, and told us what to do.
Bettina stayed with her, while I came down with Mr. Annan to hear his verdict.
As we stood in the lower hall, I looked up to find his eyes on me--eyes suddenly so gentle that terror fell on me afresh.
"You don't think she is going to die?"
"Good nursing," he said, "will make a difference. One must always hope--"
"Oh, you must save us!" I said incoherently; and then corrected: "My mother! . . . "
He seemed to accept the charge. He would come back early in the morning.
* * *
I never found the bridge between that passion of dread about my mother's life--and the strange new passion that took possession of me, body and soul.
Like the dart of a kingfisher out of the shade of a thicket into intensest sunshine, the new thing flashed across my life, all emerald and red-gold and azure--a blinding iridescence, and a quickness that was like the quickness of God.
End Chapter VIII
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