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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Survivor - Chapter 28. The Little Figure In Black
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The Survivor - Chapter 28. The Little Figure In Black Post by :erikhj Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1182

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The Survivor - Chapter 28. The Little Figure In Black

CHAPTER XXVIII. THE LITTLE FIGURE IN BLACK

A season of intense depression, almost of melancholia, came to Douglas. He grew more reserved than ever with his colleagues on the staff of the Courier, who regretted his aloofness and would gladly have drawn him into the ranks of their pleasant comradeship. He avoided the club, where his absence was commented upon, and where he was in a fair way to become a popular member. On the threshold of his ambitions, when the way seemed fair before him, life had suddenly become distasteful. With a fierce effort of concentration he continued to work at his novel, which yet progressed but slowly. He spent much time sitting alone, pondering upon subjects which, from such a standpoint as his present one, seemed terrible enough. He had seen a good deal of the underneath life of London, had himself suffered bitterly, and he began to think of the city which now sheltered him as a city of lost souls drifting onwards to a mysterious and awful goal. Though he had thrown away in the moment of his revolt the shackles of his creed, the religious sense was still strong in him. In those dark days it became almost a torment. He felt that he too was going under. The springs of his ambition, his lusty love of living and fighting grew weak, as physically his muscles grew flaccid. He thought often of Strong--broken on the wheel, a creature hopelessly lost. Was he drifting towards this? One night a strange, sickly excitement came over him while he sat with the pen in his hand. His head swam, and voices which he had almost forgotten rang in his ears. Little specks of red fire danced before his eyes--he lost hold upon his consciousness--he was doubtful even of his own identity. He had become a unit, a lost unit, and for a moment or two he babbled like a child. He set his teeth, walked swiftly up and down the room, struggled and recovered himself. Yet he felt as though a dark wave had broken over his head, and he were still amongst the tumbling waters. He stood before the window and cried out a passionate prayer--to what God he scarcely knew--yet it soothed him. He put on his hat hastily and walked out into the streets.

Afterwards he knew that he had stood that night in deadly danger. A wild craving to escape from himself and his solitude by some unusual means, beat against the walls of his heart. So far in life, from early boyhood to manhood, a vigorous love for things beautiful, an intense self-respect, an Epicureanism half instinctive, half inculcated by his country life and innate spirituality, had kept him from even the thought of things evil. Yet to-night the mainspring of his life was out of gear. It was distraction, instant and immediate, he craved for--of any kind, almost at any cost. He walked blindly, and a curious sense of irresponsibility possessed him. The lights of a little restaurant flared in his face--he entered, and called for wine. He sat at a small table with champagne before him, and the men and women who crowded the place looked at him curiously. Doggedly he filled his glass and drank. Some one came and spoke to him--from whom at another time he would have turned away, kindly enough, but as from a leper. He shared his wine, talked purposelessly, and listened. A luminous moment came, however; he paid his bill, and walked firmly from the place. In the Strand the church bells were ringing, for it was Sunday. He turned westwards and walked rapidly towards Westminster.

Even in the porch he hesitated. Since he had left he had never entered a church nor chapel. The sound of the organ came pealing out to him--others were passing in, in a little stream; soon he, too, found himself in one of the back seats.

* * * * *

Two hours later he walked out into the cool night air a new man, with head erect, his brain clear, swept clean of many sickly phantoms. His virility was renewed, he looked out once more upon life with eyes militant and brave heart. He was full of the sense of having passed through some purging and beneficent experience. It was not that his religious belief or disbeliefs had been affected, or even quickened by anything he had heard--yet, from first to last, those two hours had been full of delight to him. The vast, dimly-lit building, with its imposing array of statuary, shadowy figures of great statesmen, soldiers, and priests seen by him then, as it chanced, for the first time, woke him at once from his lethargy. Religion seemed brought in a single moment into touch with the great things of life. There were men there who had been creedless, but great; genius was honoured side by side with sanctity. The rolling music, the pure, fresh voices of the boys appealed to his sense of the beautiful, as those historical associations reawakened his ambition. The white-robed priest, who stood in the centre of the great building, yet whose voice without effort seemed able to penetrate to its furthest corner, seemed both in his personal self and in his scholarly diction exquisitely in accord with his great surroundings. Without a manuscript, with scarcely a note, he stood there, calm and imposing, the prototype of the modern priest, pleading against worldliness for the sake of beauty and of God. With delicately chosen words and exquisite imagery, the calm enthusiasm of the orator, always self-controlled and sweetly convincing, seemed to Douglas like the transmutation of a beautiful picture into a beautiful poem, instinct with life, vivid and thrilling. He stayed till the sermon was over and the solemn words of the benediction pronounced, till the deep, throbbing notes of the organ rang down the emptying aisles. Then he walked out into the streets a saner and a better man.

The life tingled in his veins as he walked slowly back into pagan London. Here the great restaurants, brilliantly lighted, reminded him that all day he had eaten nothing. He jumped into a hansom and was driven to his rooms, kept the man while he changed his clothes, and drove to Piccadilly. Here he entered a famous restaurant, known to him only by name, found a small table and ordered his dinner with care. He leaned back and looked out upon the throng with a kindly human interest. He had the feeling of having returned once more into touch with his kind. A faint smile was upon his lips, too long suppressed; as he ate and drank, the heavy barrier which had come between him and the garden of his imagination seemed to glide apart. He saw away into the future of the life-story which he was writing. New images sprang up and the old ones became once more pliant and supple. Difficulties fell away--a singular clearness of perception seemed to come to him in those few minutes. The joy of life was in his heart, the zest of it between his teeth. He felt the unaccustomed colour in his cheeks, and an acquaintance who paused to shake hands was astonished at his affability. The gay music sounded strangely to his ears after the great organ notes, but, in its way, it too was beautiful. Life was meant to be beautiful. He had never before felt so sure of it.

The men and women who dine in public at the restaurant of the moment are usually at their best. Douglas was astonished at the beauty of the women, their dresses and jewellery, and the flowers with which their tables were smothered. The gaiety of the place was infectious. He too began to desire a companion. He thought of Emily de Reuss--how well she would look at his table, with her matchless art of dressing and wonderful pearls; he fancied, too, without vanity, that she would approve of his companionship in his present mood. And from Emily de Reuss his thoughts wandered on to Cicely. They were the only two women who had ever held any place in his life. He contrasted them, and grew thoughtful.

Later, he paid his bill, lighted a cigar and strolled homewards. Already his brain was at work. The scenes of his story lay stretched invitingly before him--it seemed that he would only have to take up his pen and write until exhaustion came. He turned off the Strand, humming softly to himself, so wrapt in his world of teeming fancies that he did not notice the little figure in sober black, who looked eagerly into his face as she approached. He would have passed on but for her timid word of remonstrance.

"Douglas."

Then he stopped short. It was Cicely.

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