The World Beyond
The old woman was dying. There could be no doubt of it now. Surely she would not last through the night. In the dim quiet bedroom he sat watching her, his young face grim and awed. Pathetic business, this ending of earthly life, this passing on. In the silence, from the living room downstairs the gay laughter of the young people at the birthday party came floating up. His birthday--Lee Anthony, twenty-one years old today. He had thought he would feel very different, becoming--legally--a man. But the only difference now, was that old Anna Green who had been always so good to him, who had taken care of him almost all his life, now was dying.
Terrible business. But old age is queer. Anna knew what was happening. The doctor, who had given Lee the medicines and said he would be back in the morning, hadn’t fooled her. And she had only smiled.
Lee tensed as he saw that she was smiling now; and she opened her eyes. His hand went to hers where it lay, so white, blue-veined on the white bedspread.
“I’m here, Anna. Feel better?”
“Oh, yes. I’m all right.” Her faint voice, gently tired, mingled with the sounds from the party downstairs. She heard the laughter. “You should be down there, Lee. I’m all right.”
“I should have postponed it,” he said. “And what you did, preparing for it--”
She interrupted him, raising her thin arm, which must have seemed so heavy that at once she let it fall again. “Lee--I guess I am glad you’re here--want to talk to you--and I guess it better be now.”
“Tomorrow--you’re too tired now--”
“For me,” she said with her gentle smile, “there may not be any tomorrow--not here. Your grandfather, Lee--you really don’t remember him?”
“I was only four or five.”
“Yes. That was when your father and mother died in the aero accident and your grandfather brought you to me.”
Very vaguely he could remember it. He had always understood that Anna Green had loved his grandfather, who had died that same year.
“What I want to tell you, Lee--” She seemed summoning all her last remaining strength. “Your grandfather didn’t die. He just went away. What you’ve never known--he was a scientist. But he was a lot more than that. He had--dreams. Dreams of what we mortals might be--what we ought to be--but are not. And so he--went away.”
This dying old woman; her mind was wandering?...
“Oh--yes,” Lee said. “But you’re much too tired now, Anna dear--”
“Please let me tell you. He had--some scientific apparatus. I didn’t see it--I don’t know where he went. I think he didn’t know either, where he was going. But he was a very good man, Lee. I think he had an intuition--an inspiration. Yes, it must have been that. A man--inspired. And so he went. I’ve never seen or heard from him since. Yet--what he promised me--if he could accomplish it--tonight--almost now, Lee, would be the time--”
Just a desperately sick old woman whose blurred mind was seeing visions. The thin wrinkled face, like crumpled white parchment, was transfigured as though by a vision. Her sunken eyes were bright with it. A wonderment stirred within Lee Anthony. Why was his heart pounding? It seemed suddenly as though he must be sharing this unknown thing of science--and mysticism. As though something within him--his grandfather’s blood perhaps--was responding ... He felt suddenly wildly excited.
“Tonight?” he murmured.
“Your grandfather was a very good man, Lee--”
“And you, Anna--all my life I have known how good you are. Not like most women--you’re just all gentleness--just kindness--”
“That was maybe--just an inspiration from him.” Her face was bright with it. “I’ve tried to bring you up--the way he told me. And what I must tell you now--about tonight, I mean--because I may not live to see it--”
Her breath gave out so that her faint tired voice trailed away.
“What?” he urged. “What is it, Anna? About tonight--”
What a tumult of weird excitement was within him! Surely this was something momentous. His twenty-first birthday. Different, surely, for Lee Anthony than any similar event had ever been for anyone else.
“He promised me--when you were twenty-one--just then--at this time, if he could manage it--that he would come back--”
“Come back, Anna? Here?”
“Yes. To you and me. Because you would be a man--brought up, the best I could do to make you be--like him--because you would be a man who would know the value of love--and kindness--those things that ought to rule this world--but really do not.”
This wild, unreasoning excitement within him... ! “You think he will come--tonight, Anna?”
“I really do. I want to live to see him. But now--I don’t know--”
He could only sit in silence, gripping her hand. And again the gay voices of his guests downstairs came up like a roar of intrusion. They didn’t know that she was more than indisposed. She had made him promise not to tell them.
Her eyes had closed, and now she opened them again. “They’re having a good time, aren’t they, Lee? That’s what I wanted--for you and them both. You see, I’ve had to be careful--not to isolate you from life--life as it is. Because your grandfather wanted you to be normal--a healthy, happy--regular young man. Not queer--even though I’ve tried to show you--”
“If he--he’s coming tonight, Anna--we shouldn’t have guests here.”
“When they have had their fun--”
“They have. We’re about finished down there. I’ll get rid of them--tell them you’re not very well--”
She nodded. “Perhaps that’s best--now--”
He was hardly aware of how he broke up the party and sent them away. Then in the sudden heavy silence of the little cottage, here in the grove of trees near the edge of the town, he went quietly back upstairs.
Her eyes were closed. Her white face was placid. Her faint breath was barely discernible. Failing fast now. Quietly he sat beside her. There was nothing that he could do. The doctor had said that very probably she could not live through the night. Poor old Anna. His mind rehearsed the life that she had given him. Always she had been so gentle, so wise, ruling him with kindness.
He remembered some of the things she had reiterated so often that his childish mind had come to realize their inevitable truth. The greatest instinctive desire of every living creature is happiness. And the way to get it was not by depriving others of it. It seemed now as though this old woman had had something of goodness inherent to her--as though she were inspired? And tonight she had said, with her gentle smile as she lay dying, that if that were so--it had been an inspiration from his grandfather.
Something of science which his grandfather had devised, and which had enabled him to--go away. What could that mean? Go where? And why had he gone? To seek an ideal? Because he was dissatisfied with life here? Her half incoherent words had seemed to imply that. And now, because Lee was twenty-one--a man--his grandfather was coming back. Because he had thought that Lee would be able to help him? ... Help him to do--what?
He stirred in his chair. It was nearly midnight now. The little cottage--this little second floor bedroom where death was hovering--was heavy with brooding silence. It was awesome; almost frightening. He bent closer to the bed. Was she dead? No, there was still a faint fluttering breath, but it seemed now that there would be no strength for her to speak to him again.
Mysterious business, this passing on. Her eyelids were closed, a symbol of drawn blinds of the crumbling old house in which she had lived for so long. It was almost a tenantless house now. And yet she was somewhere down there behind those drawn blinds. Reluctant perhaps to leave, still she lingered, with the fires going out so that it must be cold ... cold and silent where she huddled. Or was she hearing now the great organ of the Beyond with its sweep of harmonies summoning her to come--welcoming her...
A shiver ran through young Lee Anthony as he saw that the pallid bloodless lips of the white wrinkled face had stirred into a smile. Down there somewhere her spirit--awed and a little frightened doubtless--had opened some door to let the sound of the organ in--and to let in the great riot of color which must have been outside ... And then she had not been frightened, but eager...
He realized suddenly that he was staring at an empty shell and that old Anna Green had gone...
A sound abruptly brought Lee out of his awed thoughts. It was outside the house--the crunching of wheels in the gravel of the driveway--the squeal of grinding brakes. A car had stopped. He sat erect in his chair, stiffened, listening, with his heart pounding so that the beat of it seemed to shake his tense body. His grandfather--returning?
An automobile horn honked. Footsteps sounded on the verandah. The front doorbell rang.
There were voices outside as he crossed the living room--a man’s voice, and then a girl’s laugh. He flung open the door. It was a young man in dinner clothes and a tall blonde girl. Tom Franklin, and a vivid, theatrical-looking girl, whom Lee had never seen before. She was inches taller than her companion. She stood clinging to his arm; her beautiful face, with beaded lashes and heavily rouged lips, was laughing. She was swaying; her companion steadied her, but he was swaying himself.
“Easy, Viv,” he warned. “We made it--tol’ you we would ... Hello there, Lee ol’ man--your birthday--think I’d forget a thing like that, not on your life. So we come t’celebrate--meet Vivian Lamotte--frien’ o’ mine. Nice kid, Viv--you’ll like her.”
“Hello,” the girl said. She stared up at Lee. He towered above her, and beside him the undersized and stoop-shouldered Franklin was swaying happily. Admiration leaped into the girl’s eyes.
“Say,” she murmured, “you sure are a swell looker for a fact. He said you were--but my Gawd--”
“And his birthday too,” Frank agreed, “so we’re gonna celebrate--” His slack-jawed, weak-chinned face radiated happiness and triumph. “Came fas’ to get here in time. I tol’ Viv I could make it--we never hit a thing--”
“Why, yes--come in,” Lee agreed awkwardly. He had only met young Tom Franklin once or twice, a year ago now, and Lee had completely forgotten it. The son of a rich man, with more money than was good for him ... With old Anna lying there upstairs--surely he did not want these happy inebriated guests here now...
He stood with them just inside the threshold. “I--I’m awfully sorry,” he began. “My birthday--yes, but you see--old Mrs. Green--my guardian--just all the family I’ve got--she died, just a few minutes ago--upstairs here--I’ve been here alone with her--”
It sobered them. They stared blankly. “Say, my Gawd, that’s tough,” the girl murmured. “Your birthday too. Tommy listen, we gotta get goin’--can’t celebrate--”
It seemed that there was just a shadow out on the dark verandah. A tall figure in a dark cloak.
“Why--what the hell,” Franklin muttered.
A group of gliding soundless figures were out there in the darkness. And across the living room the window sash went up with a thump. A black shape was there, huddled in a great loose cloak which was over the head so that the thing inside was shapeless.
For an instant Lee and his two companions stood stricken. The shapes seemed babbling with weird unintelligible words. Then from the window came words of English:
“We--want--“ Slow words, strangely intoned. Young Tom Franklin broke in on them.
“Say--what the devil--who do you people think you are, comin’ in here--” He took a swaying step over the threshold. There was a sudden sharp command from one of the shapes. Lee jumped in front of the girl. On the verandah the gliding figures were engulfing Franklin; he had fallen.
Lee went through the door with a leap, his fist driving at the cowled head of one of the figures--a solid shape that staggered backward from his blow. But the others were on him, dropping down before his rush, gripping his legs and ankles. He went down, fighting. And then something struck his face--something that was like a hand, or a paw with claws that scratched him. His head suddenly was reeling; his senses fading...
How long he fought Lee did not know. He was aware that the girl was screaming--and that he was hurling clutching figures away--figures that came pouncing back. Then the roaring in his head was a vast uproar. The fighting, scrambling dark shapes all seemed dwindling until they were tiny points of white light--like stars in the great abyss of nothingness...
He knew--as though it were a blurred dream--that he was lying inert on the verandah, with Franklin and the girl lying beside him ... The house was being searched ... Then the muttering shapes were standing here. Lee felt himself being picked up. And then he was carried silently out into the darkness. The motion seemed to waft him off so that he knew nothing more.