The "last lap" was not a very long one; it grew in distress as the days went on. The worn-out heart that the Edinburgh doctor had graphically described as a frail glass bubble, in his attempt to make Andrew Lashcairn nurse his weakness, played cruel tricks with its owner. It choked him so that he could not lie down; it weakened him so that he could not stand up. He would gasp and struggle out of bed, leaning on Marcella so heavily that she felt she could not bear his weight for more than another instant. But the weight would go on, and somehow from somewhere she would summon strength to bear it. But after a while his frail strength would be exhausted, and he would have to fall back on the bed, fighting for breath and with every struggle increasing the sense of suffocation. But all the time, when his breath would let him, he would pray for courage—as time went on he prayed more for courage to bear his burden than for alleviation of it, though sometimes a Gethsemane prayer would be wrung from him.
"O Lord," he would whisper, his trembling hand gripping the girl's arm until it bruised the flesh, "I am the work of Thy hands. Break me if Thou wilt. But give me courage not to cry out at the breaking."
One night when it became impossible, because of the stiffness and heaviness of his swollen legs, for him to walk about, he prayed for death, and Marcella, forced to her knees by his passionately pleading eyes, sobbed at his words.
"Lord, I am trying hard to be patient with Thee," he gasped. "But I am man and Thou art God. I cannot match Thy patience with mine. I am trying so hard not to cry out beneath Thy hand. But give me more courage—more courage, O Lord, or I must play the coward. Take Thy cup from me until to-morrow, when I shall have more strength to lift it to my lips—or let me die, Lord, rather than crack like this."
Then, after a pause, words were wrung from his lips.
"Justice—not mercy. I would not take mercy even from Thee. The full rigour of Thy law—"
There was no alleviation, and Marcella, kneeling there, wished that she and her father could die together. The horror of helplessness was searing her soul.
Next day came agonizing pain which made every movement a death. But the Edinburgh doctor who came brought relief for the pain, and, talking with Dr. Angus, the Carlossie doctor, mentioned, among other technicalities, the name of a drug—"digitalis." That afternoon Marcella went back in the doctor's trap to get the new medicine, and it gave relief. Whenever, after that, the choking came back, Andrew would cry out for digitalis, which seemed to him the elixir of life. Sometimes he would pray for courage; sometimes, cracking suddenly, he would pray for digitalis and send Marcella often at midnight with a pleading note to the doctor to give him the drug and a little soothing for his heart that was running away with him.
Now that he could not move about he still thought of the souls of the people in the village, and sent a message to them, pleading with them to come and see him. And they, remembering him as the laird, with a sort of feudal obedience, came and stood about his bed, to be stormed at or prayed with according to Andrew's mood. But always after one of these missionary efforts he would suffer agonies of suffocation when he had forgotten, for a while, that his heart was a bubble of glass.
It was an unreal world, this shadowed world of the old farm. It centred round Andrew Lashcairn's bed—he was its sun, its king, its autocrat still. But things material had slipped from him—or rather, material interests were all centralized in his tortured body. At first during his illness he had worried about the farm, sending messages to Duncan much more than he had done during the days when he was shut behind the green baize door. But now all the farm had slipped from him. He was alone with his body and his soul and God. Most often his soul cried out. Sometimes his body broke through and showed its pains and the strength of old desires.
As he grew weaker he tried to grasp out at strength. Aunt Janet, who had "ruled herself" to nervelessness, had nothing of the mother, the nurse in her make-up; there was no tenderness in what she did for him. It was not that she had any spirit of getting her own back on Andrew for his tyranny, his impoverishment, his ill-usage of her in the past. She would have given him her last crumb of food if she had thought of it. But a thing atrophied as she was could not think or feel, and so he went without the small tendernesses that would have come to him had Rose, the soft little Englishwoman, lived. She sat up with him night after night patiently. She gave him milk, and she and Marcella went without it that he should have enough. She gave him the inevitable porridge and broth, but he turned away from the things he had eaten all his life in disgust.
"Is there any sort of thing I could have to put a little grip into me, doctor?" he asked, and was ordered beef-tea, various patent foods and eggs, all things very difficult to come by on the stern hillside.
"It seems to me, Janet, if I could have some of these foods and drugs they advertise so much I might get some strength to bear it," he said. So she got him half a dozen of the different well-advertised things to try. He had them arrayed on a table by his bed, and took immense pleasure in reminding her or Marcella when it was time for them. The doctor, who guessed that money was scarce, suggested that Aunt Janet should sell some of the old oak furniture, and to her surprise a man from London thought it worth while, from her description, to come all the way to Lashnagar to look at it. She loved it because it enshrined the family story; the scratches on the refectory table showed where heavy-clad feet had been planted as Lashcairns of old had pledged each other in fiery bowls. The heavy oak chairs had each a name and a history, but until the man from London came Aunt Janet had not realized their value. So they went away, taken quietly and stealthily out of the house for fear Andrew should know. In the book-room only a few books were left to keep the dusty pennant a melancholy companionship.
But the patent foods and drugs did no good; they reminded Marcella irresistibly of the soil and water she had laid hopefully round the bursting apple tree. As he lay once, with all the wheels of life running at half rate after a sedative, he said to Marcella, who had been reading to him:
"I feel as if I'm not in my body, Marcella. Oh, Marcella, help me to get a grip on my body! I can't make it do what I'm tellin' it to do! Look!" and he held up one gaunt arm feebly, to let it drop a minute later. "Look! Marcella—once I could break men with my hands!"
She stared at him, choking. There was nothing she could think to say. In her mother's weakness her lips had overflowed with tendernesses; for her father she could only feel a terrified, inarticulate pity. It was not sympathy. She could not understand enough to sympathize. It was the same sort of hungry, brooding pity she used to feel for the hungry beasts on the farm.
"Marcella, do you think if I were to eat a lot of meat I'd be stronger?" he asked hopefully. "Oh, make me stronger!—give me something," and suddenly raising himself in bed, he threw his arms about her and, with his grey head on her shoulder, sobbed desolately. She held him, stroking his head, aching to find words, but utterly dumb with terror. And when, later, they got him the food he craved, he could not eat it. Turning from it in disgust, he prayed:
"There is nothing left, but only Thou, O Lord. No longer art Thou my shield and buckler, for no longer can I fight. Thou hast laid me very low, O Lord. Thou hast made me too weak to fight longer; Thou hast bruised me so that I cannot live save in pain; Thou hast laid me very low."
There was a long silence. His eyes, faded from the bright blue-grey that used to flash with fire, were dull and almost colourless as he lay looking at the faded tapestry of the bed canopy.
"When I pray for courage, Lord, Thou givest pain—Thou givest weakness. When I pray for strength Thou givest a great hunger and a sinking into the depths. And then in Thy loving kindness Thou givest Thy body and blood—for my comfort."
The room grew darker. The fire flickered and spurted as the salt dried out of the driftwood and burnt in blue tongues of flame. Marcella shivered, listening to the distant beat of the sea. The house was very silent, with that dead silence that falls on houses where many of the rooms are unfurnished. The stir and clamour of the beasts outside had gone forever. Outside now was only one old cow, kept to give milk for Andrew. The barren fields lay untended, for Duncan went to the fishing to bring a little handful of coins to the master he feared and loved, and Jean went softly about the kitchen in the shadows.
Suddenly Andrew spoke, and Marcella started, drawing a little nearer to him.
"Do ye mind, Marcella, when we read yon books from Edinburgh—and you used to be such an idiot, and make me so mad?"
"I mind it," she nodded, thinking painfully of those hard books.
"There was something in one of them that I seized on with a bitter scorn. It was explaining how the idea of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ had grown up. It said how savages, when they saw one of the tribe better than themselves, would kill him and eat him to make themselves as good as he. I liked that fine, Marcella. I was bitter in those days."
"Horrible!" said Marcella with a shiver. "I like to think of the Last Supper, and the Holy Grail—mother used to read about it all to me—she used to tell me all about Parsifal and the Love Feast."
"Yes, little Rose was wiser than those books. Ye see, Marcella, it seems to me there is a time when ye're led by something inside ye to do things. Like Christ was led to preach, though perhaps he didn't quite know why. The word was taken out of his mouth—and like I was led to yon barrel. Things come out of you, right out of deep inside you. Maybe they're God, maybe they're a beast deep down." He paused, and moved impatiently. "It's hard to piece thoughts together when you're weak. Can you finish my thought for me, Marcella? It's getting muddled—down under sand and stones like Castle Lashcairn under Lashnagar."
Marcella hesitated. Then she told him Wullie's idea about the path.
"He says other things beside God walk along our lives, but in the end God's footmarks burn out all the rest."
Andrew nodded again and again.
"I suppose Christ was a pathway. I remember reading something about that. 'My humanity is the path whereby men must travel to God,' but I'm too tired to piece it all out."
"Yes. It says that in the Bible, of course. 'I am the Way—' Only I suppose there comes a time when God has got to the end of you, and then you're not a path any longer. And all that's left then is to give your body and blood and get out of the way of others."
"Yes. I can grasp that. I feel that God has walked along me and all the other footmarks have gone. Now, when I am weak, and hungering for strength, He gives His body and blood. Yes, I think I understand that—in a glass darkly. Some day I'll come to it more clearly."
That night, when he held out his hand for a cup of milk, Marcella noticed that it was swollen like his feet; the left hand was bony and flexible and still a little brown. The right hand was thick and puffed and very white. When he stretched his fingers to take the cup she saw that they were stiff and difficult to move. He shook his head and dropped his hand on to the sheet, looking at it reflectively.
"The last lap is nearly done, Marcella. This poor old heart of mine will be drowned very soon, now."
Marcella began to cry and her father looked at her as though surprised. Suddenly he leaned over and stroked her hair. She cried all the more; it was the first tender thing she could remember his doing to her, the first caress he had ever given her.
"I wish I'd been good to ye, Marcella—I think often, now, of that poor wee broken arm, and how ye used to cower away from me! I wish I'd got a grip on myself sooner."
"Oh, if you make me love you any more, father, I'll be torn in bits," she cried, and sobbed, and could not be comforted. It was her only break from inarticulateness—it surprised herself and her father almost as though she had said something indecent.
When he knew, quite definitely, that he was dying and need not conserve his strength, some of the old tyranny came back to Andrew Lashcairn. But it was a kindly, rather splendid tyranny, the sort of tyranny that makes religious zealots send unbelievers to the stake, killing the body for the soul's sake. Much of the evangelism the little white-faced cousin had superimposed upon his mind that night of wild passions had gone now, burnt up as he drew nearer to simple, beautiful, essential things.
As the Feast of All Souls, the time when ghosts thronged on Lashnagar, drew near he brooded in silence for hours. Through one of his choking attacks he lay passive, scarcely fighting for breath; only once did he turn supplicating eyes on Aunt Janet, mutely demanding the drug that soothed. And when he was able to speak again, he told them what he had been thinking.
"I want to tell people," he said, speaking very rapidly. "The mantle of prophecy has fallen upon me."
"Ye've tauld us, Andrew—and that's enough," said Aunt Janet, who had no patience with his frequent swift rushes towards a climax.
"I'm going to tell the others. I'm going to testify to the power of His might," he said just as grimly, gripping his stiff, cold hands together.
"Yell be getting upset, Andrew, an' then we'll be having a time with ye," said Aunt Janet.
"I'll not be getting upset. I'll just be dying," he said gravely, and, calling Marcella, sent her to the village, summoning all the people to come up to the farm on All Souls' Night at seven o'clock.
"I must tell them, Marcella," he said passionately, pleading for her understanding which she could not give, for she could not understand in the least. "I have never done anything for anyone. I must do something."
"I'm afraid you'll be worse for it, father," she said, hesitant. "And so is Aunt Janet—poor Aunt Janet. She's so anxious about you, and she's so tired, you know."
He shook that thought off impatiently.
"I'll be master in my own house," he cried, with some little return to the old Andrew. "I know it will make me worse! I know I'm dying! There, I ought not to frighten you, Marcella! I've frightened you enough in my life. But surely when I've lived for myself I can die for others."
And she knew that it was no use talking to him. Indeed, she would not have dared to cross his will. In the night he prayed about it.
"Lord, I must tell these others how I set beasts in Thy way when Thou wouldn't have made my life Thy path. I must tell them how I never knew liberty till Thou hadst made me Thy slave, how I never knew lightness till I carried Thy cross, how I was hungering and thirsting until I was fed with Thy Body and Blood—"
He broke off and talked to Marcella, words that seemed eerie and terrible to her.
"To-morrow, Marcella, is the day when the ruin came on Lashnagar. To-morrow I shall die—"
"Oh, father!" she cried helplessly.
"I was once His enemy, Marcella. I must let them see me at His feet now, kissing His hand—His man—the King's man—"
He brooded for an hour, gasping for breath. Marcella felt worn out mentally and physically. Her eyes ached for want of sleep, she felt the oppression and burden of the atmosphere that seemed full of ghosts and fears, and to add to her misery she was having her first taste of pain in a crazing attack of neuralgia. Anniversaries, to a mind stored with legend and superstition, have immense signification. She felt that her father's prediction of his death on All Souls' Day was quite reasonable. But none the less fear was penetrating through her mists of weariness and fatalism, hand in hand with overwhelming pity.
"I shall die to-morrow, Marcella. He gave His body and blood. In the end that is all one can do."
In the afternoon she went to bed, worn out. Jean had made some sort of burning plaster with brown paper and something that smelt pleasantly aromatic. It eased the pain of her face and sent her to sleep. Her father had told her calmly that he was going to be dressed and meet the villagers downstairs. He seemed almost himself as he ordered her to take his old worn clothes from the press and lay them on a chair by his bed. She did not expostulate; no one thought of expostulating with Andrew Lashcairn.
It was dark when she wakened and dressed hurriedly. Running down to the kitchen to tell Jean the pleasant effects of her plaster she found it was half-past six.
"Andrew Lashcairn's doon," said Jean, looking scared.
"Who helped him?" asked Marcella, lifting the lid of the teapot that stood on the hearth. She poured into it some water from the singing kettle, and after a minute poured a cup of weak tea, which she drank thirstily.
"He wasna helpit—not with han's. The mistress was frettin', wonderin' what she'd be tellin' him aboot the furniture i' th' book-room. An' he juist cam' in, luikit roond, and laught. I lighted a fire i' there for him, for it's cauld. But he went off doon the passage, gruppin' his stick."
"Is he lying down? Oh dear, I wish I hadn't slept so long! It would have been better for him if I'd been there with him."
"No, he isna to his bed. He's gone through the green baize door. An' it's a' that dusty! I havena bin in tae clean sin' the day he tuik tae his bed. Always the mistress has said I maun leav' it. An' noo the master's gaun in."
"Never mind, Jean, he won't notice," said Marcella, feeling a little incredulous that Jean should be caring about dust now. It seemed as much out of place as her worrying about the mark the plaster had made on her face. "I'm going to get him out. He'll be frozen in there."
"He cam' in tae me and said that the folks was tae have meat and drink! Meat and drink! An' whaur's it tae come frae?" asked Jean in despair.
Marcella flushed a little then and said quickly:
"I expect he was back in the past, Jean. But perhaps he's more for the folks than meat and drink, really."
But as she ran along the gusty passage to the green baize door all her pride rose savagely to think that guests should come, bidden autocratically to the house, and go away unfed. And that the servant, the one poor staunch, unpaid servant, should grieve about it. But she soon lost that thought as she knocked at the green baize door and could get no answer.
"Father! Yell be cold in there. Do come out!"
She waited, and at last he answered her steadily and clearly.
"I'm coming at the right time, Marcella. I have my watch."
"But you'll be so cold," she protested.
"I'll be colder yet, soon," he said calmly, and she was forced to go away. She guessed that Andrew's sense of dramatic fitness made him wish to make his last entry on the stage alone. So she went back to her room and stood looking out over Lashnagar, where the autumn mists stalked and mowed at each other and fluttered and jostled and fought.
Before seven o'clock the book-room was full of people, soaked through with the mist. They were the people Marcella had known all her life—fisher-folk, farm labourers, crofters—and she felt a momentary exultant pride to think that, at a word from her father, they had thronged to his house. There seemed something fitting in their coming on All Souls' Night into this bare room with the tattered pennant and the crackling wood fire that flickered on their weather-beaten faces. Their coming obediently to be talked to by her father for the good of their souls gave her a sense of savage exaltation for the moment. Then she saw Hunchback Wullie and Tammas and Jock, and went across to talk to them.
"Is the Lashcairn better, then?" asked Wullie. She shook her head.
"He says he's going to die to-night, Wullie—All Souls' Night," she said in a low voice.
Wullie nodded comprehension.
Aunt Janet came into the room, her thin face set and grim, her rusty dress of old black satin all cracking, and her great cairngorm brooch marking her from the rest in capes and homespun. They drew away from her; she had never tried to associate with them; in her detachment she had never been human to them as Andrew had been in his wildness and his weakness, and now she walked silently across the room and sat down. The firelight shone out fiercely as she savagely poked the logs, and with a motion ordered young Jock, who stood near, to throw more wood to the flames. It shone on gnarled hands gripping gnarled sticks, on rugged, ruddy faces, on white and sandy hair, on bright blue eyes, old and young. And then the door opened sharply and Andrew Lashcairn stood there, leaning on his stick.
Everyone but Aunt Janet stared at him as the firelight flamed up to blue and purple flame, lighting his gaunt face. But Aunt Janet, like a fate, sat gazing up the misty side of Lashnagar through the uncovered window. Andrew stood still, looking from one to the other. Then he took two steps forward.
"Jamie Mactavish and Andrew Gray are not here," he said sternly, as though he were a schoolmaster calling the roll. Explanations of the absence murmured out and he came inside, pushing the door to.
Marcella, standing by Wullie, was shivering with nervous dread, and suddenly noting his red-rimmed eyes, blazing and wild, she clutched Wullie's arm.
"Wullie—look at him!" she whispered.
"He's been at the bar'l," muttered Wullie, and with a cry she started forward. But Wullie caught her back gently.
"He knows what he's daein', lassie," he whispered, watching Andrew's face expectantly, and the girl stood petrified beside him. It came to her very certainly that her father had realized he had not strength to make what he called his allegiance to God, and that at the last he had sought the momentary strength of the whisky that he knew would shatter his glass heart.
"That's why he knew he would die to-day," her voice whispered, choked in tears. She felt that she was in the grip of things that were bending and breaking her life as they liked.
And then her father spoke, letting his stick clatter to the ground, and lifting his swollen white hands.
"Friends," he said loudly, "ye have all known me in the old days. I asked ye here to-night to tell ye how I went along the Damascus road and cast my burden on the Lord.... He is not hard to deal with.... There's beasts in us, all of us. They lift their heads out of us and jabber and clamour at us; they tear at us with their claws, but if we throw ourselves on God's strength He crushes the life out of the beasts. We can do nothing till we stop fighting and lean on Him. He is kinder than all our hopes, kinder than all our fears—"
His voice stopped with shot-like suddenness and his hands fell to his side as he swayed. Marcella, Wullie and several others rushed to his side. He fell, dragging the hunchback with him. His eyes, not blazing now, but dimming as quickly as though veils had been drawn across them, sought Marcella as he struggled for breath.
"Father—dear," she said, putting her arm under his grey head as Aunt Janet walked across the room. "Dear—" she whispered, almost shyly, for it was a word that she never used except in whispers to her mother.
"I knew we'd have a doing with ye, Andrew," said Aunt Janet, bending stiffly in her satin frock. He could not hear. He looked at her and turned to Marcella again.
"If ye—" he began, and suddenly felt very heavy on the girl's supporting arm.
The people crept away talking quietly then. It seemed right that Andrew Lashcairn had died in the midst of them all on All Souls' Night.