Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
It struck a quarter-past six from the little clock on the mantel-shelf as she laid down her pen. Then she took up the closely written sheets, leaned back in her deep chair, and began to read.
“Home of Rest,
“NO 3A MANCHESTER WEST.
“MY DEAR: I am very sorry, but it has come back to me. I really cannot go on any longer, so I am going to escape in the only way left, as I once told you. I have had a very quiet and happy time here; they have been most kind and considerate. You see, of course, from the heading on this paper, what I mean....
“Well, you have always been very dear to me; you are still, even at this moment. So you have a right to know my reasons so far as I know them myself. It is very difficult to understand myself; but it seems to me that I am not strong enough to live. So long as I was pleased and excited it was all very well–especially when He came. But I think I had expected it to be different; I did not understand as I do now how it must come to this–how it is all quite logical and right. I could bear it, when I thought that they had acted through passion, but this is deliberate. I did not realise that Peace must have its laws, and must protect itself. And, somehow, that Peace is not what I want. It is being alive at all that is wrong.
“Then there is this difficulty. I know how absolutely in agreement you are with this new state of affairs; of course you are, because you are so much stronger and more logical than I am. But if you have a wife she must be of one mind with you. And I am not, any more, at least not with my heart, though I see you are right.... Do you understand, my dear?
“If we had had a child, it might have been different. I might have liked to go on living for his sake. But Humanity, somehow–Oh! Oliver! I can’t–I can’t.
“I know I am wrong, and that you are right–but there it is; I cannot change myself. So I am quite sure that I must go.
“Then I want to tell you this–that I am not at all frightened. I never can understand why people are–unless, of course, they are Christians. I should be horribly frightened if I was one of them. But, you see, we both know that there is nothing beyond. It is life that I am frightened of–not death. Of course, I should be frightened if there was any pain; but the doctors tell me there is absolutely none. It is simply going to sleep. The nerves are dead before the brain. I am going to do it myself. I don’t want any one else in the room. In a few minutes the nurse here–Sister Anne, with whom I have made great friends–will bring in the thing, and then she will leave me.
“As regards what happens afterwards, I do not mind at all. Please do exactly what you wish. The cremation will take place to-morrow morning at noon, so that you can be here if you like. Or you can send directions, and they will send on the urn to you. I know you liked to have your mother’s urn in the garden; so perhaps you will like mine. Please do exactly what you like. And with all my things too. Of course I leave them to you.
“Now, my dear, I want to say this–that I am very sorry indeed now that I was so tiresome and stupid. I think I did really believe your arguments all along. But I did not want to believe them. Do you see now why I was so tiresome?
“Oliver, my darling, you have been extraordinarily good to me.... Yes, I know I am crying, but I am really very happy. This is such a lovely ending. I wish I hadn’t been obliged to make you so anxious during this last week: but I had to–I knew you would persuade me against it, if you found me, and that would have been worse than ever. I am sorry I told you that lie, too. Indeed, it is the first I ever did tell you.
“Well, I don’t think there is much more to say. Oliver, my dear, good-bye. I send you my love with all my heart.
* * * * *
She sat still when she had read it through, and her eyes were still wet with tears. Yet it was all perfectly true. She was far happier than she could be if she had still the prospect of going back. Life seemed entirely blank: death was so obvious an escape; her soul ached for it, as a body for sleep.
She directed the envelope, still with a perfectly steady hand, laid it on the table, and leaned back once more, glancing again at her untasted breakfast.
Then she suddenly began to think of her conversation with Mr. Francis; and, by a strange association of ideas, remembered the fall of the volor in Brighton, the busy-ness of the priest, and the Euthanasia boxes....
When Sister Anne came in a few minutes later, she was astonished at what she saw. The girl crouched at the window, her hands on the sill, staring out at the sky in an attitude of unmistakable horror.
Sister Anne came across the room quickly, setting down something on the table as she passed. She touched the girl on the shoulder.
“My dear, what is it?”
There was a long sobbing breath, and Mabel turned, rising as she turned, and clutched the nurse with one shaking hand, pointing out with the other.
“There!” she said. “There–look!”
“Well, my dear, what is it? I see nothing. It is a little dark!”
“Dark!” said the other. “You call that dark! Why, why, it is black–black!”
The nurse drew her softly backwards to the chair, turning her from the window. She recognised nervous fear; but no more than that. But Mabel tore herself free, and wheeled again.
“You call that a little dark,” she said. “Why, look, sister, look!”
Yet there was nothing remarkable to be seen. In front rose up the feathery hand of an elm, then the shuttered windows across the court, the roof, and above that the morning sky, a little heavy and dusky as before a storm; but no more than that.
“Well, what is it, my dear? What do you see?”
“Why, why ... look! look!–There, listen to that.”
A faint far-away rumble sounded as the rolling of a waggon–so faint that it might almost be an aural delusion. But the girl’s hands were at her ears, and her face was one white wide-eyed mask of terror. The nurse threw her arms round her.
“My dear,” she said, “you are not yourself. That is nothing but a little heat-thunder. Sit down quietly.”
She could feel the girl’s body shaking beneath her hands, but there was no resistance as she drew her to the chair.
“The lights! the lights!” sobbed Mabel.
“Will you promise me to sit quietly, then?”
She nodded; and the nurse went across to the door, smiling tenderly; she had seen such things before. A moment later the room was full of exquisite sunlight, as she switched the handle. As she turned, she saw that Mabel had wheeled herself round in the chair, and with clasped hands was still staring out at the sky above the roofs; but she was plainly quieter again now. The nurse came back, and put her hand on her shoulder.
“You are overwrought, my dear.... Now you must believe me. There is nothing to be frightened of. It is just nervous excitement.... Shall I pull down the blind?”
Mabel turned her face.... Yes, certainly the light had reassured her. Her face was still white and bewildered, but the steady look was coming back to her eyes, though, even as she spoke, they wandered back more than once to the window.
“Nurse,” she said more quietly, “please look again and tell me if you see nothing. If you say there is nothing I will believe that I am going mad. No; you must not touch the blind.”
No; there was nothing. The sky was a little dark, as if a blight were coming on; but there was hardly more than a veil of cloud, and the light was scarcely more than tinged with gloom. It was just such a sky as precedes a spring thunderstorm. She said so, clearly and firmly.
Mabel’s face steadied still more.
“Very well, nurse.... Then–-”
She turned to the little table by the side on which Sister Anne had set down what she had brought into the room.
“Show me, please.”
The nurse still hesitated.
“Are you sure you are not too frightened, my dear? Shall I get you anything?”
“I have no more to say,” said Mabel firmly. “Show me, please.”
Sister Anne turned resolutely to the table.
There rested upon it a white-enamelled box, delicately painted with flowers. From this box emerged a white flexible tube with a broad mouthpiece, fitted with two leather-covered steel clasps. From the side of the box nearest the chair protruded a little china handle.
“Now, my dear,” began the nurse quietly, watching the other’s eyes turn once again to the window, and then back–"now, my dear, you sit there, as you are now. Your head right back, please. When you are ready, you put this over your mouth, and clasp the springs behind your head.... So.... it works quite easily. Then you turn this handle, round that way, as far as it will go. And that is all.”
Mabel nodded. She had regained her self-command, and understood plainly enough, though even as she spoke once again her eyes strayed away to the window.
“That is all,” she said. “And what then?”
The nurse eyed her doubtfully for a moment.
“I understand perfectly,” said Mabel. “And what then?”
“There is nothing more. Breathe naturally. You will feel sleepy almost directly. Then you close your eyes, and that is all.”
Mabel laid the tube on the table and stood up. She was completely herself now.
“Give me a kiss, sister,” she said.
The nurse nodded and smiled to her once more at the door. But Mabel hardly noticed it; again she was looking towards the window.
“I shall come back in half-an-hour,” said Sister Anne.
Then her eyes caught a square of white upon the centre table. “Ah! that letter!” she said.
“Yes,” said the girl absently. “Please take it.”
The nurse took it up, glanced at the address, and again at Mabel. Still she hesitated.
“In half-an-hour,” she repeated. “There is no hurry at all. It doesn’t take five minutes.... Good-bye, my dear.”
But Mabel was still looking out of the window, and made no answer.