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George Delany Deceased







From: The Crack Of Doom

"It is a good thing to be alive," Natalie Brande repeated slowly,
gazing, as it were, far off through her half-closed eyelids. Then
turning to me and looking at me full, wide-eyed, she asked: "A good
thing for how many?"

"For all; for everything that is alive."

"Faugh! For few things that are alive. For hardly anything. You say it
is a good thing to be alive. How often have you said that in your life?"

"All my life through," I answered stoutly. My constitution was a good
one, and I had lived healthily, if hardily. I voiced the superfluous
vitality of a well nourished body.

"Then you do not know what it is to feel for others."

There was a scream in the underwood near us. It ended in a short,
choking squeak. The girl paled, but she went on with outward calm.

"That hawk or cat feels as you do. I wonder what that young rabbit
thinks of life's problem?"

"But we are neither hawks nor cats, nor even young rabbits," I answered
warmly. "We can not bear the burthens of the whole animal world. Our own
are sufficient for us."

"You are right. They are more than sufficient."

I had made a false move, and so tried to recover my lost ground. She
would not permit me. The conversation which had run in pleasant channels
for two happy hours was ended. Thenceforth, in spite of my obstructive
efforts, subjects were introduced which could not be conversed on but
must be discussed. On every one Miss Brande took the part of the weak
against the strong, oblivious of every consideration of policy and even
ethics, careful only that she championed the weak because of their
weakness. Miss Metford abetted her in this, and went further in their
joint revolt against common sense. Miss Brande was argumentative,
pleading. Miss Metford was defiant. Between the two I fared ill.

Of course the Woman question was soon introduced, and in this I made the
best defence of time-honoured customs of which I was capable. But my
outworks fell down as promptly before the voices of these young women as
did the walls of Jericho before the blast of a ram's horn. Nothing that
I had cherished was left to me. Woman no longer wanted man's protection.
("Enslavement" they called it.) Why should she, when in the evolution of
society there was not now, or presently would not be, anything from
which to protect her? ("Competing slaveowners" was what they said.) When
you wish to behold protectors you must postulate dangers. The first are
valueless save as a preventive of the second. Both evils will be
conveniently dispensed with. All this was new to me, most of my thinking
life having been passed in distant lands, where the science of ethics is
codified into a simple statute--the will of the strongest.

When my dialectical humiliation was within one point of completion, Miss
Metford came to my rescue. For some time she had looked on at my
discomfiture with a good-natured neutrality, and when I was
metaphorically in my last ditch, she arose, stretched her shapely
figure, flicked some clinging grass blades from her suit, and declared
it was time to return. Brande was a man of science, but as such he was
still amenable to punctuality in the matter of dinner.

On the way back I was discreetly silent. When we reached the house I
went to look for Herbert Brande. He was engaged in his study, and I
could not intrude upon him there. To do so would be to infringe the only
rigid rule in his household. Nor had I an opportunity of speaking to him
alone until after dinner, when I induced him to take a turn with me
round the lake. I smoked strong cigars, and made one of these my excuse.

The sun was setting when we started, and as we walked slowly the
twilight shadows were deepening fast by the time we reached the further
shore. Brande was in high spirits. Some new scientific experiment, I
assumed, had come off successfully. He was beside himself. His
conversation was volcanic. Now it rumbled and roared with suppressed
fires. Anon, it burst forth in scintillating flashes and shot out
streams of quickening wit. I have been his auditor in the three great
epochs of his life, but I do not think that anything that I have
recollected of his utterances equals the bold impromptus, the masterly
handling of his favourite subject, the Universe, which fell from him on
that evening. I could not answer him. I could not even follow him, much
less suppress him. But I had come forth with a specific object in view,
and I would not be gainsaid. And so, as my business had to be done
better that it should be done quickly. Taking advantage of a pause which
he made, literally for breath, I commenced abruptly:

"I want to speak to you about your sister."

He turned on me surprised. Then his look changed to one of such complete
contempt, and withal his bearing suggested so plainly that he knew
beforehand what I was going to say, that I blurted out defiantly, and
without stopping to choose my words:

"I think it an infernal shame that you, her brother, should allow her to
masquerade about with this good-natured but eccentric Metford girl--I
should say Miss Metford."

"Why so?" he asked coldly.

"Because it is absurd; and because it isn't decent."

"My dear Abraham," Brande said quietly, "or is your period so recent as
that of Isaac or Jacob? My sister pleases herself in these matters, and
has every right to do so."

"She has not. You are her brother."

"Very well, I am her brother. She has no right to think for herself; no
right to live save by my permission. Then I graciously permit her to
think, and I allow her to live."

"You'll be sorry for this nonsense sooner or later--and don't say I
didn't warn you." The absolute futility of my last clause struck me
painfully at the moment, but I could not think of any way to better it.
It was hard to reason with such a man, one who denied the fundamental
principles of family life. I was thinking over what to say next, when
Brande stopped and put his hand, in a kindly way, upon my shoulder.

"My good fellow," he said, "what does it matter? What do the actions of
my sister signify more than the actions of any other man's sister? And
what about the Society? Have you made up your mind about joining?"

"I have. I made it up twice to-day," I answered. "I made it up in the
morning that I would see yourself and your Society to the devil before I
would join it. Excuse my bluntness; but you are so extremely candid
yourself you will not mind."

"Certainly, I do not mind bluntness. Rudeness is superfluous."

"And I made it up this evening," I said, a little less aggressively,
"that I would join it if the devil himself were already in it, as I half
suspect he is."

"I like that," Brande said gravely. "That is the spirit I want in the
man who joins me."

To which I replied: "What under the sun is the object of this Society of
yours?"

"Proximately to complete our investigations--already far advanced--into
the origin of the Universe."

"And ultimately?"

"I cannot tell you now. You will not know that until you join us."

"And if your ultimate object does not suit me, I can withdraw?"

"No, it would then be too late."

"How so? I am not morally bound by an oath which I swear without full
knowledge of its consequences and responsibilities."

"Oath! The oath you swear! You swear no oath. Do you fancy you are
joining a society of Rechabites or Carmelites, or mediaeval rubbish of
that kind. Don't keep so painstakingly behind the age."

I thought for a moment over what this mysterious man had said, over the
hidden dangers in which his mad chimeras might involve the most innocent
accomplice. Then I thought of that dark-eyed, sweet-voiced, young girl,
as she lay on the green grass under the beech-tree in the wood and
out-argued me on every point. Very suddenly, and, perhaps, in a manner
somewhat grandiose, I answered him:

"I will join your Society for my own purpose, and I will quit it when I
choose."

"You have every right," Brande said carelessly. "Many have done the same
before you."

"Can you introduce me to any one who has done so?" I asked, with an
eagerness that could not be dissembled.

"I am afraid I can not."

"Or give me an address?"

"Oh yes, that is simple." He turned over a note-book until he found a
blank page. Then he drew the pencil from its loop, put the point to his
lips, and paused. He was standing with his back to the failing light, so
I could not see the expression of his mobile face. When he paused, I
knew that no ordinary doubt beset him. He stood thus for nearly a
minute. While he waited, I watched a pair of swans flit ghost-like over
the silken surface of the lake. Between us and a dark bank of wood the
lights of the house flamed red. The melancholy even-song of a blackbird
wailed out from a shrubbery beside us. Then Herbert Brande wrote in his
note-book, and tearing out the page, he handed it to me, saying: "That
is the address of the last man who quitted us."

The light was now so dim I had to hold the paper close to my eyes in
order to read the lines. They were these--

GEORGE DELANY,
Near Saint Anne's Chapel,
Woking Cemetery.





Next: The Murder Club

Previous: It Is Good To Be Alive



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