But by no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father's death.
The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop's hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.
His face was still buried in the clothes when the door of the bedroom opened noiselessly and Mr. Harding entered with a velvet step. Mr. Harding's attendance at that bedside had been nearly as constant as that of the archdeacon, and his ingress and egress was as much a matter of course as that of his son-in-law. He was standing close beside the archdeacon before he was perceived, and would also have knelt in prayer had he not feared that his doing so might have caused some sudden start and have disturbed the dying man. Dr. Grantly, however, instantly perceived him and rose from his knees. As he did so Mr. Harding took both his hands and pressed them warmly. There was more fellowship between them at that moment than there had ever been before, and it so happened that after circumstances greatly preserved the feeling. As they stood there pressing each other's hands, the tears rolled freely down their cheeks.
"God bless you, my dears," said the bishop with feeble voice as he woke. "God bless you—may God bless you both, my dear children." And so he died.
There was no loud rattle in the throat, no dreadful struggle, no palpable sign of death, but the lower jaw fell a little from its place, and the eyes which had been so constantly closed in sleep now remained fixed and open. Neither Mr. Harding nor Dr. Grantly knew that life was gone, though both suspected it.
"I believe it's all over," said Mr. Harding, still pressing the other's hands. "I think—nay, I hope it is."
"I will ring the bell," said the other, speaking all but in a whisper. "Mrs. Phillips should be here."
Mrs. Phillips, the nurse, was soon in the room, and immediately, with practised hand, closed those staring eyes.
"It's all over, Mrs. Phillips?" asked Mr. Harding.
"My lord's no more," said Mrs. Phillips, turning round and curtseying low with solemn face; "his lordship's gone more like a sleeping babby than any that I ever saw."
"It's a great relief, Archdeacon," said Mr. Harding, "a great relief—dear, good, excellent old man. Oh that our last moments may be as innocent and as peaceful as his!"
"Surely," said Mrs. Phillips. "The Lord be praised for all his mercies; but, for a meek, mild, gentle-spoken Christian, his lordship was—" and Mrs. Phillips, with unaffected but easy grief, put up her white apron to her flowing eyes.
"You cannot but rejoice that it is over," said Mr. Harding, still consoling his friend. The archdeacon's mind, however, had already travelled from the death chamber to the closet of the prime minister. He had brought himself to pray for his father's life, but now that that life was done, minutes were too precious to be lost. It was now useless to dally with the fact of the bishop's death—useless to lose perhaps everything for the pretence of a foolish sentiment.
But how was he to act while his father-in-law stood there holding his hand? How, without appearing unfeeling, was he to forget his father in the bishop—to overlook what he had lost, and think only of what he might possibly gain?
"No, I suppose not," said he, at last, in answer to Mr. Harding. "We have all expected it so long."
Mr. Harding took him by the arm and led him from the room. "We will see him again to-morrow morning," said he; "we had better leave the room now to the women." And so they went downstairs.
It was already evening and nearly dark. It was most important that the prime minister should know that night that the diocese was vacant. Everything might depend on it; and so, in answer to Mr. Harding's further consolation, the archdeacon suggested that a telegraph message should be immediately sent off to London. Mr. Harding, who had really been somewhat surprised to find Dr. Grantly, as he thought, so much affected, was rather taken aback, but he made no objection. He knew that the archdeacon had some hope of succeeding to his father's place, though he by no means knew how highly raised that hope had been.
"Yes," said Dr. Grantly, collecting himself and shaking off his weakness, "we must send a message at once; we don't know what might be the consequence of delay. Will you do it?'
"I! Oh, yes; certainly. I'll do anything, only I don't know exactly what it is you want."
Dr. Grantly sat down before a writing-table and, taking pen and ink, wrote on a slip of paper as follows:—