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Hocking Joseph
The Everlasting Arms

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER I
A Woman's Face

"There may be a great deal in it."

"Undoubtedly there is. Imagination, superstition, credulity," said Dick Faversham a little cynically.

"Well, I can't dismiss it in that fashion," replied the other. "Where there's smoke there's fire, and you can't get men from various parts of the world testifying that they saw the Angels at Mons unless there is some foundation of truth in it."

"Again I say imagination. Imagination can do a great deal. Imagination can people a churchyard with ghosts; it can make dreams come true, and it can also make clever men foolish."

"Admit that. You still haven't got to the bottom of it. There's more than mere imagination in the stories of the Angels at Mons, and at other places. Less than three weeks ago I was at a hospital in London. I was talking with a wounded sergeant, and this man told me in so many words that he saw the Angels. He said there were three of them, and that they remained visible for more than an hour. Not only did he see them, but others saw them. He also said that what appeared like a great calamity was averted by their appearance."

There was a silence after this somewhat lengthy speech, and something like an uncanny feeling possessed the listeners.

The conversation took place in the smoke-room of a steamship bound for Australia, and at least a dozen men were taking part in it. The subject of the discussion was the alleged appearance of the Angels at Mons, and at other places in France and Belgium, and although at least half of the little party was not convinced that those who accepted the stories had a good case, they could not help being affected by the numerous instances that were adduced of the actual appearance of spiritual visitants. The subject, as all the world knows, had been much discussed in England and elsewhere, and so it was not unnatural that it should form the topic of conversation in the smoke-room of the outgoing vessel.

One of the strongest opponents to the supernatural theory was a young man of perhaps twenty-seven years of age. From the first he had taken up an antagonistic attitude, and would not admit that the cases given proved anything.

"Excuse me," he urged, "but, really, it won't do. You see, the whole thing, if it is true, is miraculous, and miracles, according to Matthew Arnold, don't happen."

"And who is Matthew Arnold, or any other man, to say that what we called miracles don't happen?" urged Mr. Bennett, the clergyman, warmly. "In spite of Matthew Arnold and men of his school, the world still believes in the miracles of our Lord; why, then, should miracles happen in Palestine and not in France?"

"If they did happen," interpolated Faversham.

"Either they happened, or the greatest movement, the mightiest and noblest enthusiasms the world has ever known, were founded on a lie," said the clergyman solemnly.

"That may be," retorted Faversham, "but don't you see where you are leading us? If, as you say, we accept the New Testament stories, there is no reason why we may not accept the Angels at Mons and elsewhere. But that opens up all sorts of questions. The New Testament tells of people being possessed by devils; it tells of one at least being tempted by a personal devil. Would you assert that a personal devil tempts men to-day?"

"I believe that either the devil or his agents tempt men to-day," replied the clergyman.

"Then you would, I suppose, also assert that the old myth of guardian angels is also true."

"Accepting the New Testament, I do," replied Mr. Bennett.

Dick Faversham laughed rather uneasily.

"Think," went on the clergyman; "suppose someone who loved you very dearly in life died, and went into the great spirit world. Do you not think it natural that that person should seek to watch over you? Is it not natural that he or she who loved you in life should love you after what we call death? A mother will give her life for her child in life. Why should she not seek to guard that same child even although she has gone to the world of spirits?"

"But the whole thing seems so unreal, so unnatural," urged Faversham.

"That is because we live in a materialistic age. The truth is, in giving up the idea of guardian angels and similar beliefs we have given up some of the greatest comforts in life. Because we have become so materialistic, we have lost that grand triumphant conviction that there is no death. Why – why – " – and Mr. Bennett rose to his feet excitedly – "there is not one of those splendid lads who has fallen in battle, who is dead. God still cares for them all, and not one is outside His protection. I can't explain it, but I know."

"You know?"

"Yes, I know. And I'll tell you why I know. My son Jack was killed at Mons, but he's near me even now. Say it's unreal if you like, say it's unnatural if you will, but it's one of the great glories of life to me."

"I don't like to cast a doubt upon a sacred conviction," ventured Faversham after a silence that was almost painful, "but is not this clearly a case of imagination? Mr. Bennett has lost a son in the war. We are all very sorry for him, and we are all glad that he gets comfort from the feeling that his son is near him. But even admitting the truth of this, admitting the doctrine that a man's spirit does not die because of the death of the body, you have proved nothing. The appearance of the Angels in France and Belgium means something more than this. It declares that these spirits appear in visible, tangible forms; that they take an interest in our mundane doings; that they take sides; that they help some and hinder others."

"Exactly," assented Mr. Bennett.

"You believe that?"

"I believe it most fervently," was the clergyman's solemn answer. "I am anything but a spiritualist, as the word is usually understood; but I see no reason why my boy may not communicate with me, why he may not help me. I, of course, do not understand the mysterious ways of the Almighty, but I believe in the words of Holy Writ. 'Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?' says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. While our Lord Himself, when speaking of little children, said, 'I say unto you that their angels do always behold the face of My Father who is in heaven.'"

Again there was a silence which was again broken by Dick Faversham turning and speaking to a man who had not spoken during the whole discussion, but who, with a sardonic, cynical smile upon his face, had been listening intently.

"What is your opinion, Count Romanoff?" asked Faversham.

"I am afraid I must be ruled out of court," he replied. "These stories smack too much of the nursery."

"You believe that they are worn-out superstitions?"

"I should shock you all if I told you what I believe."

"Shock us by all means."

"No, I will spare you. I remember that we have a clergyman present."

"Pray do not mind me," urged Mr. Bennett eagerly.

"Then surely you do not accept the fables recorded in the New Testament?"

"I do not admit your description. What you call fables are the greatest power for righteousness the world has ever known. They have stood the test of ages, they have comforted and inspired millions of lives, they stand upon eternal truth."

Count Romanoff shrugged his shoulders, and a smile of derision and contempt passed over his features.

"All right," he replied, and again lapsed into silence.

The man had spoken only a very few commonplace words, and yet he had changed the atmosphere of the room. Perhaps this was because all felt him utterly antagonistic to the subject of discussion. He was different from Dick Faversham, who in a frank, schoolboy way had declared his scepticism. He had been a marked man ever since the boat had left England. There were several reasons for this. One was his personal appearance. He was an exceedingly handsome man of perhaps forty years of age, and yet there was something repellent in his features. He was greatly admired for his fine physique and courtly bearing, and yet but few sought his acquaintance. He looked as though he were the repository of dark secrets. His smile was cynical, and suggested a kind of contemptuous pity for the person to whom he spoke. His eyes were deeply set, his mouth suggested cruelty.

And yet he could be fascinating. Dick Faversham, who had struck up an acquaintance with him, had found him vastly entertaining. He held unconventional ideas, and was widely read in the literature of more than one country. Moreover, he held strong views on men and movements, and his criticisms told of a man of more than ordinary intellectual acumen.

"You refuse to discuss the matter?"

"There is but little use for an astronomer to discuss the stars with an astrologer. A chemist would regard it as waste of time to discuss his science with an alchemist. The two live in different worlds, speak a different language, belong to different times."

"Of course, you will call me a fanatic," cried the clergyman; "but I believe. I believe in God, and in His Son Jesus Christ who died for our sins, and who rose from the dead. On that foundation I build all the rest."

A change passed over the Count's face. It might be a spasm of pain, and his somewhat pale face became paler; but he did not speak. For some seconds he seemed fighting with a strong emotion; then, conquering himself, his face resumed its former aspect, and a cynical smile again passed over his features.

"The gentleman is too earnest for me," he remarked, taking another cigar from his case.

Dick Faversham did not see the change that passed over the Count's face. Indeed, he had ceased to take interest in the discussion. The truth was that the young man was startled by what was an unusual occurrence. The room, as may be imagined, bearing in mind that for a long time a number of men had been burning incense to My Lady Nicotine, was in a haze of tobacco smoke, and objects were not altogether clearly visible; but not far from the door he saw a woman standing. This would not have been remarkable had not the lady passengers, for some reason known to themselves, up to the present altogether avoided the smoke-room. More than this, Dick did not recognise her. He had met, or thought he had met during the voyage, every lady passenger on the boat; but certainly he had never seen this one before. He was perfectly sure of that, for her face was so remarkable that he knew he could not have forgotten her.

She was young, perhaps twenty-four. At first Dick thought of her as only a girl in her teens, but as, through the thick smoky haze he watched her face, he felt that she had passed her early girlhood. What struck him most forcibly were her wonderful eyes. It seemed to him as though, while they were large and piercing, they were at the same time melting with an infinite tenderness and pity.

Dick Faversham looked at her like a man entranced. In his interest in her he forgot the other occupants of the room, forgot the discussion, forgot everything. The yearning solicitude in the woman's eyes, the infinite pity on her face, chained him and drove all other thoughts away.

"I say, Faversham."

He came to himself at the mention of his name and turned to the speaker.

"Are you good for a stroll on deck for half an hour before turning in?"

It was the Count who spoke, and Dick noticed that nearly all the occupants of the room seemed on the point of leaving.

"Thank you," he replied, "but I think I'll turn in."

He looked again towards the door where he had seen the woman, but she was gone.

"By the way," and he touched the sleeve of a man's coat as he spoke, "who was that woman?"

"What woman?"

"The woman standing by the door."

"I saw no woman. There was none there."

"But there was, I tell you. I saw her plainly."

"You were wool-gathering, old man. I was sitting near the door and saw no one."

Dick was puzzled. He was certain as to what he had seen.

The smoke-room steward appeared at that moment, to whom he propounded the same question.

"There was no lady, sir."

"But – are you sure?"

"Certainly, sir. I've been here all the evening, and saw everyone who came in."

Dick made his way to his berth like a man in a dream. He was puzzled, bewildered.

"I am sure I saw a woman," he said to himself.

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