LAURA TAKES A HAND
ON her return to Persepolis, Laura found herself immersed in the same gay whirl of society she had left. On the faces of some of her father's associates she detected traces of the same anxious pre-occupation that was plain on his, but she could find no suspicion on the part of people in general of any definite impending danger. There was a vague sense of uneasiness and restlessness which, no doubt, sprang from a subtle communication of unexpressed thought, but nothing more definite than that. Her uncle held no communication with her, and there was no sign of the activity on which he and Harold had embarked, unless it were a religious revival which involved the presence of ministers and preachers from the most distant regions.
One day she met Harold.
"It's hard," she said, "to do nothing, but I have have not spoken a word."
"That is right."
"Do they believe in uncle's ideas?"
"They think any hope is better than none."
"But you, Harold, what do you think?"
"It is not my part to think. The government has caused the construction of huge excavations all over the land under various pretexts that shows what they think. For my part to follow your uncle is better than to die like a rat in a hole. This very day at the palace of the Orbian pontiff all the clergy of every denomination meet for consultation."
"Harold, that isn't possible
"Wonderful, but true."
"Have all those different people laid their opposition aside?"
"We shall see. Keep silent a little longer."
"But Harold, what will it all come to? As soon as the preachers begin explaining to the people, my father will let loose a flood of ridicule. It will all come to nothing."
"They can educate public opinion, Laura."
"You are only telling me the same thing over again. Speak me true, Harold," she answered, flashing on him imperiously.
"It looks as if there were no way out."
"Harold, you ought to persuade the army; if they were determined on a thing nothing could resist them."
"I know my fellow soldiers pretty well, Laura, your uncle's theories would be mere unintelligible words to them. And even if they believed the strong men would not stir. It's bred in our bone, Laura, that we are the servants of the State. I could move a few miserables, but without heart, Laura, without heart. Do you think any of us would break our oath for all your uncle could say?"
"Oh, Harold, what is to become of us?"
"Laura, in the presence of that danger without, incalculable forces are stirring within—neither you nor I know them, they lie outside all your father has scanned with his wary eye. I feel something rising within me alert and ready to seize the moment. And I am preparing the ground. It's not men that would be wanting for any desperate errand I sent them on—but it is weight, force, mass, that I must get. Go home and rest in confidence because I tell you to, and always remember whatever they say of me in after time, that I was simple and true—your soldier whom you enlisted "
"Harold," she said, "are you very careful? Have you warned my uncle not to say anything to my father?"
"I have asked him not to say anything about me—your father attaches very little importance to his power of persuasion; he has tried to meet your father, I know, to argue the case with him."
"If papa does talk to him, he will find out everything he wants. I must go and make uncle remember how important it is not to say anything about you."
Laura found her uncle so abstracted in thought that she had to speak to him again and again; at last she said: "Uncle, how can you busy yourself so, you ought to be using all your power in persuading people."
"I cannot help thinking," he replied, "that there must be some other way of acting on this alongside being other than by the obscure processes of our minds. I am trying to frame a conception of what the structure of our matter really is."
"Surely it is better to use what you do know, than try to find out something new now."
"Yes," he replied, "for me, yes—though for the young who will grow up in the thought I have laboured to acquire—why, they will laugh to see how I passed over the obvious."
"Then you can attend to me."
"Have you talked to my father about your plans?"
"Yes, I have."
"But you know how prejudiced he is."
"I know, of course we must expect resistance, but truth and straight-forwardness find a path when all other means fail."
"Have you told him of Harold's plans?"
"Harold has no plans except to gain me a hearing."
"But did you tell him you were working with Harold?"
"I may have done, I talked to him freely and he went away expressing the greatest goodwill."
Laura saw very plainly that her uncle was the last person in the world for a conspirator, and she was not reassured by his account of her father's amiability. She resolved to defy Harold and take part herself, but to qualify herself she must understand what her uncle's theory was. Her recollection of it was very misty, but she nerved herself for the strongest intellectual exertion of her life and said, "Now, Uncle, tell me about your ideas, but simply, plainly, so that I can repeat what you say."
Suddenly a rumbling sound beat upon them, the house rocked, Laura seized hold of him in terror.
"It is only what we must expect," he said, "the new direction of attraction has disturbed the balance of the earth's crust, which after all is very delicately poised—there will be many earthquakes of this kind," and unmoved, amidst the rocking of the house and the sound of distant crashes, he took the utmost pains to explain everything to her.
But on her way home through the streets of the city she found a scene of the utmost agitation and confusion. The shock had frightened some of those who knew the secret into the impression that the end had come, and destroyed their reticence. The news spread and soon everyone from one end of the land to the other would know all. The actual damage was slight, but the effect on the populace was overwhelming, an indescribable panic reigned.
Laura found her father agitated beyond description at her absence.
"My daughter," he said, "I have long been intending to speak to you on a very important subject, but have put it off. I must not let this occasion pass."
Laura told him she knew everything.
"It makes my task the shorter," he replied, "I have decided that the time has come for you to take a husband."
"Not now!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, my girl, some few of us may expect to survive. I have prepared subterranean chambers, which will be stored with all necessary provision, there some of you canpass the time of transition, and emerge to the new order of things.
"Papa, I'd rather die than be shut up like that."
"It is not what you wish. We must strive that some of the best of us, those most fitted to carry on the destiny of our race, shall survive. It is not your part to question—the decision lies altogether beyond your power to alter. And I can easily remove any hesitation you feel. I know you were attracted to that man Harold Wall. Whatever you may have felt for him cannot remain alive a moment longer when I tell you he is making use of this approaching calamity to stir up sedition. He is consumed by a reckless, unscrupulous ambition. He has taken hold of the fantastic moonings of your poor uncle and, using them as a lever, has tried to persuade a number of weak-minded sentimentalists that there is some way of avoiding the danger. He is trying to make this world-peril the occasion of promoting disorder and securing his own ambitions. He has been unceasingly active in drawing closer his relations with his fellow-officers, trying to make them traitors to their oath."
"Yes. So well has he chosen his confidants that we have had no direct evidence, but the army is penetrated with the knowledge of what I tried to keep secret. The panic that reigns has enabled us to pass special measures. Before nightfall he will be arrested, if he resists, he will be killed on the spot, no mercy will be shown him,—he will be sent to Septentraea—not as leader as he might have been—but a convict. You can understand the wickedness of the man when I tell you that we have decided to employ a company of Scythian soldiers. We cannot tell to what extent his machinations have gone with the regular troops.”
Her father turned on her the full force of his implacable regard. She felt the iron resolution and the unyielding purpose by which he had won his way and beaten down
every opponent. In her powerlessness her only thought was of some means of warning Harold.
He took her silence for submission. "One who has long loved you and who, I believe, has not been without encouragement, is here to-day to urge his suit. You will listen to the dictates of your own heart and of my wish if you accept him."
"But, Papa, I have given encouragement, as you call it, to so many."
"You must know who I mean—Mr. Forest."
"I like Mr. Forest very much."
"Let's have no beating about the bush, my girl. You agree to accept Mr. Forest?"
"How can I say before he asks me."
"No nonsense, girl."
Laura's heart quailed, she was desperate, she must send word to Harold at once. What if she bound herself for life if only she could save Harold now!
"Yes, father," she said.
"Understand me clearly, Laura, you were seen talking to this Wall only to-day. I will not have you implicated. You will not be allowed out of my sight, or away from someone equally competent to guard you till you leave my house for good."
"You don't place much confidence in me, Father."
"How can I with a tell-tale face like yours—no, Laura, you will thank me someday." And he left her.
When she looked up, Edward Forest was before her. "Since you have consented to see me I begin to hope. You have known that my love is yours, will you accept my life-long devotion?"
Her silence gave him courage. He kissed her pallid unresponsive lips. It was too much—what was all her assent, her submission for if she could not save Harold. just because her father had taken prudent precautions to prevent her betraying him she felt outraged.
She pushed him away and said, "I wish I were dead."
"Laura, how have I offended you? Your father told me that you did not dislike me."
For a moment she struggled—he looked so forlorn, and a word from her would bring such joy into his face, lie would do anything for her—she was sure she could cajole him into taking her message for her. But into her mind came Farmer's words, "Truth and straight-forwardness find a way when all other means fail."
She laughed merrily—" Don't look so dejected, Edward," she said, "Papa tricked me, I said I would marry you just to get a chance of speaking to you alone. I suppose if you insist on it you can have me, but there's something much more important than that."
"Nothing to me," he said, "if the world came to an end to-morrow."
"But it isn't coming to an end, we are all going to live happily ever after and you can help, help more than any one man living—you don't know the good tidings and the hope, do you?"
"No, Laura, I've heard that there can't be any."
"Then, Edward, you believe that God made this beautiful world just to be destroyed like that!"
"It makes me not believe in God."
"Edward, I will tell you all about it. You know that in old times men had messages from God that told what His will was."
Yes, I've heard so."
"And did you ever wonder why it was always through men, not by some great being appearing as big as the sky?"
"No, I have always taken those things on faith."
"Well, I will tell you why. What do you think you are really, your very soul? Don't you think it is something like your body, only filmy and shadowy, not exactly real, but shaped just like your body?"
"Yes, I suppose that is how I think of it, if I think of it at all."
"But that's all wrong. I'll tell you what my uncle says. He has found out that what we call all of space is only a little bit of it. And we are curiously confined in all the movements our bodies make. There are really three dimensions not only two. The real world is a world of higher space. If we want to think about ourselves in a world of higher space we must go the other way first, and think about a being in a world of lower space. Think of a little creature that is confined to living in a straight line. Such a being would not think of its support at all, but would think what was in front of it; and behind it made up all space, and would not recognise that it was on something. So we, in the threefold world, are supported in a direction we do not know. And just as the line being must really have some thickness, so we have a thickness in a way we cannot point to.
"Now you know that we are told that our souls have come into a world of matter and have taken on themselves the limitations of it. The case really is this: Our souls, which are these higher beings, have come into a part of the universe where the work to be done is in this twofold space of ours. It is as if one of us went into a very narrow tunnel where there was only one direction.
"What this work is we do not know yet, but the beginning of it is to conquer the difficulties of the world, and to live all together unitedly, so that when we know we can act together. And the souls that come into this world form united bands, a great many of all degrees join together and animate a body, but all of them are under one soul which is one's real self. And this real self soul directs all the others in the body, like a captain directs a lot of men in a ship, each has its work. And the directing soul that has the business of directing our actions, this soul almost forgets its true being; it is very faithful to its work, and is absorbed in it. It thinks it has only two dimensions, and nothing it can see reminds it of its true existence. We are hidden away from all the other souls of the universe, like a man in a narrow tunnel would be from us. If the other souls want to speak to us they have to enter into our conditions, they have to put on one of our limited bodies—that is why the voice of God has always come through men. And now God knows that there is a great danger which will spoil all the work He has sent us here for, so He has sent a soul with a message of what our real condition is, so that recognising our own true way of acting, not the body's but the soul's, we can have quite new ideas of working, and save ourselves."
"But, Laura," said Edward Forest, "what a curious idea you have about the soul; the business of the soul is to do right, to grow good and improve itself."
"No, that is a very poor kind of soul that thinks that," said Laura, "all the men with big souls try to do something in the world—like my father does. He has a big soul but a very mistaken one; of course, good souls would not demean themselves by doing wrong things, if they can't get what they want honourably, they would rather give up and let another try. There are plenty more. But, Edward, say you believe me, your soul must feel that what I say is true."
"I don't see that it has anything to do with the collision with Ardaea," said he.
"Ah, that is exactly what it has, for we have never thought of that support we are on, we are against something and there is a way of holding on to it so that we can alter the way the earth is going."
"Are you sure of this, Laura?"
"Yes, I am so sure, Edward, and I want to do something to help it on."
"How do you mean?"
"Oh, Edward don't you understand, my father is going to stop it all, and I trust to you."
On Forest's face came an expression so enigmatic that Laura stopped—
"What is the matter, Edward, are you angry?"
"No," he said, it was a conflict of feelings that made me frown. I do not quite know where I am."
"Here, and ready to help me," she said.
"Yes, of course, Laura," he said, "but there's something else."
"Do you not think," he went on, "that your talents would be thrown away in the domestic circle? There is the making of a most eloquent professor in you."
"Oh, don't say that," she replied.
"When I come home I shall have to call up all my knowledge of mathematics, ghosts, astronomy, and theology too, Laura, I think it would be very exhausting."
She looked at him in alarm.
"I made a proposition to you just now," he continued, but I did not know your talents. I wonder if you could be induced to allow me to withdraw my proposal."
She looked at him puzzled, a strange mixture of relief and consternation came over her. To have no power over him at all! To have shrivelled up all his long devotion just by a few words! She couldn't bear it—and yet, not to be bound at all!
"I am waiting for your answer, Laura, may I withdraw?
"Upon conditions," she replied.
"Yes," he said, "on conditions—I will tell you what they are—that I shall be your very best friend, and that I shall help you in every way I can. What is it you want me to do now, at once?"
"Oh, Edward," she said, with tears of gratitude flowing, "I shall never forget how you understand me."
"Laura," he said, "you are wonderful, you remind me of the prophetesses and sybils of old times. You have a great career before you."
"Now, tell me," he went on in a business-like tone, "I judge there is something very pressing—something you want me to do at once."
"Yes, Edward," she said, "it all depends on you. My uncle knows how to save the world, but gave it up as hopeless to make others join with him till Harold Wall came to him, and told him what to do. And Harold has gained him a hearing. Now my father does not believe in any of it. He thinks that Harold is taking advantage of people's terror to prepare a revolution. He has an order for his arrest, and is going to send a company of Scythians to arrest him. Now you must warn Harold."
Edward Forest frowned. "With all his judgment, your father is in fatal error. I told him this enrolling of those barbarians as a special regiment was a mistake. There is no doubt of the loyalty of the army, and if there were, such a sign of mistrust would be most foolish. I'll go and tell Wall what you say, but your father is not the man to threaten before he strikes, the blow has probably already fallen."
"No, Edward," she said, "Not yet; I know not yet. For he is keeping me a prisoner here."
"I'll go at once," he replied, " don't be too much alarmed."