I followed him up the narrow carpeted stairs; he opened the door of the back drawing-room, and left me there. For a moment I sat down on the nearest chair to subdue the quick beating of my heart. I then looked about me, and examined Alice's room. It was furnished just as most rooms in London are furnished, where no particular care has been taken to superintend their arrangement. There were blue striped sofas and chairs, a large table and a little table, blue and muslin curtains, and that was all. Everything was in the nicest order possible. On the small table which was placed near the window, with a chair before it, were laid, one upon the other, the same Bible and Prayer Book which I had seen in the closet at Bridman; in a bookcase between the chimney and the window were ranged the same books which had stood there on the wooden shelf; on the round table were a few flowers in a glass, and a basket containing some hemming. There was no fire in the chimney, and the room felt rather cold.
After a few minutes had elapsed, the door opened and Alice came in. As she came up to me, her perfect calmness gave me at once that self-possession which I had vainly struggled for before-hand. As I kissed her, and sat down by her side, it felt to me like entering a church on a hot and dusty summer's day; like leaving behind me the glare and the noise of the busy world without; like plunging into those
"Arched retreats, where passion's thirst is calmed, And care's unthankful gloom." *
[* Lyra Apostolica.]
She was simply dressed in a brown silk gown. As she took off her straw bonnet, and laid it, and a handful of daisies by it, on the table, she turned to me with one of those grave smiles which were peculiar to her, and said—
"I have longed to see you again, I am so glad you are come. It seemed to me as if the trees would never get their leaves in London; but they are growing at last, and you are come. But you are looking pale. You are not ill, I hope?"
"No; only very tired, Alice. I am unused to London, and the noise stuns and bewilders me. You look just as you did a year ago at Bridman."
A slight colour rose in her cheek at the name of Bridman. "I was a child then, though an old one, and now—"
As she paused I said, "Now a woman, and a happy one I hope, dear Alice."
She turned her large blue eyes full upon me, something like a sigh rose in her throat, and she only said, in so low a voice that I could hardly catch the sound, "God is everywhere!"
After this answer I did not feel courage to speak to her of Henry, of her own relations, of the circumstances attending her marriage, of anything, in short, that could cause her pain or disturbance, and I therefore asked her how she spent her time in London.
"That will be easily described," she said; "for in London one day exactly resembles another,—in its employment, at least."
"Does it really?" I exclaimed; for this was certainly not my idea of a London life.
"Yes," she replied. "I get up every day at six o'clock; and, after attending to some of my household concerns, I walk to Church, at St. Margaret's, where there is a service every morning. It feels almost like the country to walk at that hour."
"You must have found it piercingly cold in the winter?"
"It was cold enough sometimes; but lately it has been so mild that I walk slowly by the balconies to smell longer the mignonette which fills them. After Church comes breakfast; and then I go to the square."
"To walk there?"
"Yes; a kind of a walk."
"Oh, no; I have plenty of companions—but never mind that. I will tell it you all another time."
"No; tell it me now; it interests me so much."
"It will make you think me a child still, though we said I was a woman just now. Well, then, first there are the birds,—the black, starved, unhappy-looking London birds; you cannot think how pleased they are with the seed and the crumbs which I take them every morning. I have chosen a particular old thorn-tree for our meeting-place; its leaves are beginning now to peep out, and it will be a great day for the birds and me when its white blossoms appear. As it is, they flock to it quick enough when I come into the square, and seem almost to call to me to make haste."
"You love them, Alice, as you used to love your Passion Flower?"
"Not exactly; I loved my Passion Flower because it did me good; my birds I love because I do them good. But I have greater friends than these in the square; friends that run to me too when I come in—the darling children."
"How do you love them, Alice?"
"Oh, as God's own chosen ones, whose Angels behold his face in Heaven. They seem so very near Heaven. Will you come some day into the square with me, Miss Middleton?"
"Call me Ellen, and I will go with you wherever you like."
"Well, then, dear Ellen, you must come and see those I love best. There is one so like Johnny!" (her eyes filled with tears as she said this) "only that he looks as if he belonged to some noble race, like those that the verses talk about; and another looks like the picture in my prayer-book of young David going to fight Goliath. I am so happy with them that I sometimes forget myself, and stay longer in the square than I ought."
"Why, what have you to do afterwards?"
"Oh, then, it is time to go to the hospital."
"What do you mean? What hospital?"
"The hospital in—Place. I go there every day for five or six hours."
"What to do?"
"Whatever they give me to do."
"I don't understand you, Alice."
"You mean how I got leave to go there? I will tell you;—one of the nurses, sisters they call them now, knew me when we lived at Bromley, and two or three times I had met her in the street, and talked with her. She took me one day with her into the hospital to see a poor woman who had broken her leg; she was in sad distress of mind, and could not bear to be left alone, and, as the sisters had too much to do to sit much by her bed-side, they were glad enough to leave me with her. Ever since, I have gone there almost every day, and they always find something or other for me to do."
"And when you leave the hospital, what do you do?"
"Generally I go to the square again for an hour, and then to evening prayers; but sometimes, if Mr. Henry is at home, he walks with me for a little while."
"And does Mr. Henry," I said with a smile, "approve of your long visits to the hospital, and your walks in the square, and all your solitary proceedings? He must be rather lonely at home all the morning without you?"
"He gets up late," answered Alice, "and always goes out immediately after breakfast."
"And then at dinner, or in the evening, I suppose, you give him an account of the proceedings of the day?"
"No, Mr. Henry does not care for birds and flowers, or children. He is very kind to poor people; twice, when I have asked him, he has given me some money for them, but he does not like to hear about them."
"Mrs. Middleton wishes very much to see you to-day, Alice."
"Does she? I shall be so glad to see her. When may I go to her? Is she like Mr. Henry?"
"In some ways she is, but you will find that she does care for birds and flowers" (I was going to add children, but something at my heart stopped me). "Come, dear Alice, put on your bonnet, and we will go to her immediately if you will come with me."
While she was tying on her bonnet, I went up to the book-case, and, looking over it said, "I do not see any new books here. I should have thought you would have added to your stock in London?"
"Mr. Henry has plenty of books in his study," answered Alice; "and when I was first married, as he had given me leave to take them when I liked, I read some of them."
"And liked them?"
"Some not enough—some too much."
When we were in the carriage I aske Alice which of the books that she had read she liked too much.
"Some books of verses," she answered. "I do love verses so much. They give me the same sort of feeling as a fine day, or like the birds when they sing more sweetly than usual, or when in a storm the thunder is very loud."
"Whose poems are you speaking of?"
"Lord Byron's; and as I read them, I felt all this more than I had ever done before, and it was very pleasant. He writes such beautiful things about the sky and the fields, and the country and children, that it made me quite happy to read them and think about them. But then I found that he wrote too of terrible and wicked things, things that made one tremble and shudder to think of, so I put that book away, and read it no more."
"And what did you try next?"
"Some long stories written by Sir Walter Scott."
"You must have liked them?"
"Yes, indeed I did; they are full of good and right things; and I spent many pleasant hours in reading them. But then, Ellen, somehow they made me think too much. They gave me thoughts that were not wrong perhaps, but which were not good for me. Thoughts that did not help to make me, what St. Paul says we ought to be, 'content with that state of life in which God has put us.'"
"So then you left off reading altogether?"
"No, I read my own old books again; I picked out verses and stories for the happy children in the square, and hymns and chapters in the Bible for the sick people at the hospital, and all was right again."
As we drove into Brook-street, I told Alice that we were now close to Mrs. Middleton's house; but I did not see in her the least sign of nervousness or agitation at the idea of the approaching interview. I felt calmer myself than I had expected, for it seemed to me that, in her presence, Henry must forget the past; that her husband could not be the Henry I had known, and whom I so much dreaded to meet again; and yet, at the same time, I hardly felt as if she was his wife. As it generally happens when one has speculated much before-hand, on a person's probable conduct and appearance under certain circumstances, Alice, as a wife, though exactly like herself, was quite unlike the various pictures which my imagination had drawn of her during the last few months. At times I had fancied her beaming with happiness, loving and beloved, and in the full enjoyment of those early days of bliss which a young wife so often dreams away in enviable unconsciousness of its transient nature. At other times, and oftener, I had feared that her cheek might be pale, and her spirits broken; that disappointment might have fastened its poisonous fang in her heart; and that I should read in her eyes the fatal secret of an unhappy marriage. But I had found her calm as the surface of a summer sea; and no Virgin Martyr walking with a firm step to the fiery trial: no dying saint closing his eyes in the joyful hope of a certain resurrection, ever seemed more free from earthly passions, earthly cares, or earthly hopes, than the beautiful bride of eighteen who sat by my side.
When we entered the drawing-room in Brook-street, Henry was sitting by his sister. She got up hastily, came up to Alice, and kissing her affectionately, drew her to a couch at the end of the room, and entered into conversation with her, in that kind and eager manner which was peculiar to her. Henry made a step towards them, and then turned back; and, holding out his hand to me, said in a low voice, "You are very kind to her, and so you ought to be."
I returned the pressure of his hand, and answered in the same tone, "Who in the world could be otherwise than kind to her?"
"Poor Alice!" he said, and drew his hand across his brow, as if in pain.
He was pale, and he had grown very thin since I last had seen him. He drew me to the furthest window by some insignificant question, and then told me that his father was expected in town the next day; and now that his sister had seen Alice, he supposed that he would do so too.
"I am glad, very glad of it, Henry; I am not sure if he will appreciate her thoroughly; but I know she will," I said looking at Mrs. Middleton.
"She will do her harm," he muttered.
"Yes, as she has done you harm."
"What harm has she ever done me?"
"Made you what you are,—too good to be bad, and ..."
"Too bad to be good? True; but that has not been her doing."
"Has it not?" he retorted, and fixed his eyes upon me, as if he would have read into my soul.
After a pause, he said, glancing at Alice, "Take care what you do with her. She lives in a dream; and if you show her but once life as it is—as it ought to have been for her,—she will wake, break her heart, if she has one, or that of someone else, if she has not."
I could hardly command myself sufficiently to speak; but, laying my head against the window pane, and without looking at him, I said in a low voice, "Surely, Henry, you try to make her happy—you must feel affection for her?"
"Enough to wish, with all my soul, that I had never set eyes on her, or on you.—Don't go—don't stir from where you are. Once for all, hear it—you must listen to whatever I may choose to say to you. Once you would not believe me, when I told you that, by your obstinacy, you would sacrifice the happiness of three persons. You have done it; for mine" (he said this with a bitter laugh) "and your own and hers hang upon a thread. If you think to brave me, do so; go away now, and never speak to me again; but then, by Heaven, the thread snaps; and you will believe me this time, I hope!"
I did not stir; and that mute ackowledgment of Henry's secret power, which my soul rebelled against, but dared not defy, humbled me more bitterly than anything I had yet gone through.
After a few minutes of this speaking silence,—for, alas! how much the compliance of that hour revealed,—he himself walked away, joined his sister and his wife; and, after a few moments' conversation, he took his leave, and Alice went home in our carriage.
It was settled before they went, that on the next day they should dine in Brook-street; and Mrs. Middleton told me afterwards that she had arranged with Henry to use her best endeavours to persuade Mr. Lovell to meet them. He had charged her not to say before Alice that there would be any difficulty in obtaining this, as she had not the slightest idea that their marriage had been disapproved of by his family.
"Nothing seems to me so useless," added Mr. Middleton, "as to reproach, to remonstrate, or even to wonder, over an act which is past recall; but it is impossible to see Henry look so miserable, to hear him speak so coldly of that beautiful young wife of his, and at the same time conceal from her with nervous anxiety that it was a step which nothing but the most violent passion could justify, without feeling bewildered at the strangeness of the whole affair."
"What has he said to you, Ellen? and what impression has your visit to her left upon your mind?"
"I think," was my answer, "what I always have thought of her; that she is more like an angel, in spirit as well as in face, than any other human being I ever saw; she seems happy, but it is hardly the happiness of this world which she seems to enjoy; but, whether it is that of the saint who has built upon a rock, or that of a child which a breath can destroy, I hardly know."
"I felt," said Mrs. Middleton, "while I was talking to her, as if she hardly belonged to this world. Do you know, Ellen," she continued, with a smile, "I could not have asked her if she was in love with Henry. I should have feared to see her vanish away like that beautiful apparition in the German Legend, which dissolved into air, if a word of mortal love reached her ears. But this is all nonsense," she said with a sigh; "I hope they are happy; yet, after having looked forward so much to seeing them, I now have a more vague feeling of discomfort about them than I had before."
My uncle came in just then; and I was glad to leave the room, and thus escape a repetition of the question which I bad left unanswered with respect to Henry's conversation with me.
"I do not love her, nor will strive to do it."
What course was I to pursue? Should I take the first opportunity that would offer of approaching Henry, and, by charging him solemnly to tell me at once the meaning of his hints and threats, relieve myself from the tormenting uncertainty under which I suffered, and obtain from him some promise which would, comparatively at least, set my mind at ease? These questions I asked myself over and over again during the rest of that day and the succeeding night, till, towards morning, I fell asleep without having come to any decision. Day after day passed on, and still no explanation occurred between us. The projected dinner had taken place; Mr. Middleton and Mr. Lovell had both been captivated and touched by the beauty, simplicity, and sweetness of Alice's face and manner. They seemed instinctively to feel that there was something holy about her,—something that forbade one to doubt or distrust her, had appearances been even twenty times more against her than they were; and both were now still more indignant with Henry for the coldness and indifference with which he seemed to regard her, than they had previously been at his marriage. I admired Alice from the bottom of my soul; she was, to me, the very type of purity,—the ideal of perfection; but I did not seek her much. Obliged to see Henry often at home, I shrank from going to his house; and her life was so full of holy duties; the tone of her mind, the character of her conversation, breathed a spirit of such earnest faith, of such religious peace, that after awhile my troubled spirit chafed in the presence of what formed such a contrast to its own restless waywardness. When bewildered with passion—when lost in the mazes of sin and error, we may feel repose for an instant in prostrating ourselves at the foot of the cross; we may wander into a church, and for a moment cool our burning foreheads against the cold marble; but the deep silence of the sanctuary soon grows oppressive.
"There's a tone in its voice which we fain would shun, For it asks what the secret soul has done." *
[* From "The Revellers," by Mrs. Hemans.]
Thus it was with me with respect to Alice; and other causes also contributed to the same effect. Henry was often in Brookstreet, but she seldom came. Either he discouraged a frequent intercourse between us, and threw impediments in its way, which effectually checked it, or else it never occurred to Alice herself to interrupt the uniform course of her daily employments and pursuits, in order to accommodate herself to our totally different mode of life.
We had begun going out a great deal in society, and Mrs. Middleton proposed to Henry that Alice should do so too, and offered to take her with us wherever we went; but he declined this offer in the most positive manner; and when his sister almost indignantly pressed him to explain his refusal, he said that Alice had peculiar notions on the subject which he did not wish to thwart.
"But we could persuade her out of those notions," persisted Mrs. Middleton; "for surely it is a great pity for you and for herself that she should remain a stranger to your friends and acquaintances, while you associate with them as much as before your marriage."
"It may be a pity, Mary," was his impatient answer, "but it is inevitable, and you only torment me by urging me on the subject."
Mrs. Middleton, who was not easily put down, after vainly remonstrating with him upon it, entered on the question with Alice one morning that we were calling upon her, and tried to explain to her that for her husband's sake she should endeavour to make friends with his friends, and to go where he went.
Alice looked at her with surprise, and assured her that she was perfectly ready to make acquaintance with any of Henry's friends, or to comply with any request of his.
"Then, my dear child," replied Mrs. Middleton, "why does your husband object to your going out with us of an evening? You ought not to shut yourself up;—you should endeavour to assimilate your tastes to his."
"I do not known what his tastes are," said Alice, "nor where he is while I am at home."
"He is," said Mrs. Middleton, "among his friends and his acquaintance. He is where I want to take you,—where he will see you amused and admired, and love you all the better for it."
"Not for going against his wishes?" said Alice, gently.
"He must have misunderstood you, my dear child."
"No, he has not," she answered with firmness; the colour in her cheek was slightly heightened; and after a pause she said earnestly—"I think I understand you now, dear Mrs. Middleton, and I feel your kindness; but do not urge me on this subject: you would give me more pain than pleasure, and do me more harm than good."
She rose suddenly, went to the table, and took from it a bunch of violets, which she gave me. When she sat down again, her face was as calm as usual.
On our way home, Mrs. Middleton seemed absorbed in thought; and her manner to Henry, whom we found waiting for us in Brook-street, was unusually cold.
Whenever we went into society we met him, and he still contrived never to lose sight of me; and by looks, by words quickly uttered, by sudden changes of tone and manner, to convey to me the knowledge of his secret feelings. The tone of those feelings, and his mode of conversation, varied from day to day. Sometimes he was moody and almost savage in his manner, and every word he uttered bordered on a threat. At other times he seemed only anxious to re-establish between us a footing of confidence and intimacy. On one of these occasions, I met him at a ball at Lady Wyndham's, my Dorsetshire acquaintance. I had been dancing with him, and afterwards had walked into a room which was cool, compared with those that preceded it. Several people were standing about a round table covered with prints, albums, and caricatures. We sat down on a small couch by the window; and after some trifling conversation, in which he incidentally named his wife, I told him that I could not understand his line of conduct with regard to her. "I am not speaking, now, of your feelings or your affections," I added hastily; "although God knows there would be enough to wonder over on that score; but of your way of going on as a married man. There may be excuses for what is involuntary in our feelings, but surely none for determined and systematic neglect."
"Neglect," he replied, "is a word easily uttered; but could you as easily prescribe to me a line of conduct to follow?"
"Of that, your conscience, if you have one," I answered impatiently, "ought to inform you."
"Would you wish me," he returned with a sneer, "to feed birds in the square half the day, and nurse sick people during the other half? Shall I learn to make lint and choose baby-clothes?"
"Oh no!" I exclaimed; "I never supposed for a single instant that you could equal Alice, or do, in all your life, the good that she does in one day; but if you showed her confidence and kindness,—if you treated her as she ought to be treated..."
"She would love me,—which she does not now!"
"I am persuaded she does."
"No she does not," he answered, with some vehemence. "I do not call that love which never made the voice tremble, or the heart beat. Is that love which never betrays itself by emotion, Ellen? Can love leave the soul calm, and the spirits unruffled?"
"Not yours—not mine, perhaps, Henry; but oh, let us not judge purer and higher natures than ours, by the tests of our own wayward and ill-governed minds. Indeed—indeed, Alice loves you."
"She loves me as she loves her grandmother, her brother Johnny, and half the children and the beggars in the square. You must excuse me if that is not my notion of love. Do not look so indignantly at me, Ellen; I speak bitterly, but it is not against her that I am bitter. I would give all I possess at this moment that I could set her free, and send her out into life once more, unshackled by hateful ties, and at liberty to choose another destiny. But the die is cast; and she and I must drag on existence together through the dreary journey of life."
"But, Henry—dear Henry," I exclaimed, "why will you not try to gain her love? If you do not think she loves you now, she might—she would, if you sought it."
"And if she did? If that calm nature was roused into something like feeling; if a spark of passion lighted on that frozen surface; if, following my sister's blind advice, I sent out that ignorant child into the world and society, to learn what it is to love and to be loved; to hear that she is beautiful; to be told that her husband ought to live in the light of her eyes; ought to carry her in his heart, and prize each hair of her head as a treasure of countless price. If she was to be told all this, and then at home find his eyes averted, his voice cold, his spirits gone, and the sight of her beauty as much lost upon him as if he had been born blind; could she bear this, Ellen? Do you think she could? Would she not curse the day of her birth, and the day of her marriage? Would she not perhaps enter upon a course which would end in shame and misery; or if her religion kept her from that, would she not return to her poor people, to her flowers and her birds, with a breaking heart and a wounded spirit? You are crying, Ellen? Do not cry for her; she is calm and happy now, and I pray God she may long remain so; but if you are grieving for me—if you have ever felt the least affection for me, then cry on; for God only knows how miserable I am!"
My tears were indeed falling fast; and it was with a voice, hardly articulate, that I addressed to Henry the question which for so many days had trembled on my lips, and never jet found utterance.
"Why did you marry her?"
He looked at me steadily for a few moments, and then said,
"Ellen, the day will come when I shall answer that question—and another, which you wish to ask—but cannot find words or courage for. There is much that we must say to each other—something, perhaps, that we may do for each other; but then there must be no reserve, no coldness, no false pride, or affected prudery in our intercourse. You must trust me completely, as I will trust you; we have both of us secrets which have weighed upon our souls, and made silence and solitude dreadful to us. Judge then what I have suffered! Ellen, I will tell you my secret—I know yours."
"Hush, hush!" I exclaimed wildly, and looked about me with terror, but I saw we were alone; the people who were in the room when we had entered it had all gradually withdrawn, and the sound of music and of voices reached us faintly, where we sat. I covered my face with my hands and murmured, "Speak on."
"Ellen," continued Henry, "Ellen, I have threatened, I have tormented, I have tortured you; but each time I have done so I have writhed myself under the sense of what I was doing; and when you know all—when you know under what constraints, with what hopes, with what fears, I have acted—"
He stopped suddenly short; I raised my head abruptly, and in the door-way before us stood Sir Charles Wyndham and Edward Middleton. Never in my life did I act from a more sudden impulse than at that moment. I started forward, and in one minute was at Edward's side. My cheeks were flushed, and my eyes swelled with crying. I pushed by Sir Charles, and seizing on Edward's arm, I whispered to him, "Take me where I can speak to you—don't judge me—don't condemn me."
He did not say a single word, but gave me his arm, and walked with me through all the crowded rooms to the one where Mrs. Middleton was sitting. He almost thrust me into a chair by her side, and disappeared without one word or look.
After an hour of talking and dancing, both of which it seemed to me that I accomplished by some mechanical power, I prevailed on Mrs. Middleton to go home. While we were looking for our cloaks in the ante-room, Henry joined us again. He was holding mine, when Edward rapidly approached us, and in a quiet but imperious manner took it from him, and put it on me himself; on which Sir Charles Wyndham remarked, "That's right, Mr. Middleton—you should never allow married men to play the gallants with young ladies." I don't know if any of us smiled at that observation. If there was a smile, it must have been a strange one.
As we were driving home, after a few moments of silence, I asked Mrs. Middleton if she had been aware that Edward was arrived in London.
"We expected him in a day or two," she answered; "but I believe he came up to town to-day, only to return into the country to-morrow."
"Has he seen my uncle?" I inquired.
"No," she replied; "he breakfasts with us to-morrow."
There was joy in that as far as it went, though what I was to say to him, and how I was to explain the state of emotion in which he had found me that evening when alone with Henry, was more than I could devise, and, as usual, before the moment arrived, I had come to the conclusion that to say nothing was the safest course to pursue.
When, at eleven o'clock the next day, I came into the breakfast-room, Edward was just arrived. He shook hands with me kindly; but his countenance was still more grave than usual.
As I was pouring out some tea, my hand trembled—Mrs. Middleton observed it, and said with a smile, "The effects of dissipation, Ellen. We really must pull up, or we shall have you regularly nervous."
"How did you like your ball last night, Ellen?" asked Mr. Middleton.
"Not at all," I answered, and felt my cheeks grow crimson.
"Edward," said Mrs. Middleton, "you renewed your acquaintance with Mrs. Ernsley last night; did you not?"
"Yes, I had not seen her since my return."
As he said these insignificant words, he sighed deeply. I could not help instantly connecting in my mind this sigh of his with something which I fancied Mrs. Ernsley might have told him of, that had fallen under her observation at Brandon; and I said in a tone of irritation, "I know nobody whom I would not talk to rather than to Mrs. Ernsley. She invariably takes a wrong view of people and of things."
Edward looked at me steadily, and again I felt my cheeks flushing; and, in my embarrassment, I exclaimed that the fire was very hot, and got up to place a screen before it. He helped me to carry it, and said in a whisper as he did so, "Do not be ashamed of blushing; there is truth in that at least." After this, I did not open my lips again while breakfast lasted.
When my aunt had left the room, and my uncle was completely engrossed by the newspaper, Edward walked to the chimney, leant his back against it, and, taking hold of my gloves, which were lying on the slab, he twisted them in his hand; and then, as by a sudden effort, said, "Ellen, come here."
I obeyed, and in a voice which I felt was humble, though it tried to be careless and gay, I said—"Give me back my gloves, Edward; you are spoiling them."
He detained them an instant, as I took hold of them, and said half sternly, half tenderly—"Have you nothing to say to me? I thought last night—"
"Oh, last night, I was quite beside myself," I interrupted, with a nervous attempt at a laugh. "I talked nonsense to everybody, and you must not call me to account for what I may have said or done."
"I am afraid not," he answered coldly; and, taking up a newspaper, he sat down again at the table.
I remained standing where he had left me, with my eyes fixed upon him, vainly endeavouring to find out some means of appeasing him. Nothing but openness and frankness could reinstate me in his favour: and how could I be open and frank? What could I tell him that would justify my intimacy with Henry? or account for the agitation which his words had caused me? Nothing; nothing short of the truth; and that—oh! how wearied I was with that eternal combat with myself—with that everlasting question, so often asked, and so often answered by my own mind. I absolutely shrunk from discussing it with myself again.
I walked impatiently up and down the room, and when Mrs. Middleton came in with a note in her hand, which she gave me to read, I felt glad of anything which would break the course of these harassing thoughts. The note was from Henry, to tell his sister that Alice was poorly, and would be glad to see herself or me.
"Shall you go?" I asked.
"Will you, my love?" she answered. "I expect my father at twelve, and your visit will, I have no doubt, be more acceptable to Alice than mine."
"Is the carriage at the door?" I inquired, and, having ascertained that it was, I ran up-stairs to put on my bonnet.
On my way down, I opened the door of the breakfast-room, to see if Edward was gone. He was alone; and as I came in, he said, "Are you going to see Mrs. Lovell?"
"Yes; she is not well, I hear, and wishes to see me."
"Do you like her as much as you once told me that you did?"
"I do like her, and admire her, as you would too, if you knew her. Oh, how you would approve of her! she is so unlike me!" I added, with a deep sigh.
Edward coloured, and said, "Is she happy with Henry?"
"I do not exactly know if she is happy with him; happy at least in the sense which I attach to the word; but I do know that I ardently wish her to be so, and there is truth in this, Edward."
"I believe you," he answered, and held out his hand to me; "I believe you in spite of myself." He hesitated, and seemed to wish to say something more, but just at that moment my uncle called him from the next room; again pressing my hand, he took leave of me, and I got into the carriage, and drove off to — street.
When I behold a genius bright and base, Of towering talents, and terrestrial alms, Methinks I see, as thrown from her high sphere, The glorious fragments of a soul immortal With rubbish mixed, and glittering in the dust.
YOUNG'S NIGHT THOUGHTS.
When I arrived, and was shown into the drawing-room, I found, for the first time, Alice and Henry sitting together; she was looking very pale, and her head was resting on her hand; but when I came in, she smiled, and asked me to sit by her. She said her head ached very much, but that it did not signify; it would be better soon.
I advised her not to keep near her a large nosegay of lilacs and seringa, the odour of which was overpowering.
"I do not think they hurt me," she said; "and it was so kind of him" (looking at Henry) "to get them for me this morning, that it is a pleasure to look at them."
He coloured slightly, as she said this; and taking the jug in which they were, he carried it to the open window.
"I was not aware that they were bad for you, Alice," he said; "but if they are, you must keep them at a distance."
"She is really very unwell," he continued, turning to me; "she has overtired herself completely. Ellen, you must persuade her to give up going to that horrid hospital; she stayed there so many hours yesterday, that it has brought on this feverish attack. The doctor saw her this morning, and says that it comes from nervous exhaustion. You will give it up, Alice; won't you?"
"If you wish it," she answered, in a tone of voice which had a note of sadness in it.
"She stayed there till twelve o'clock last night," (he whispered to me; and there was some emotion in his voice;) "in a little close room, with a dying woman."
"While we were at the ball," I thought to myself; and taking Alice's hand, I kissed it with a feeling like remorse; though, God knows, I had not wronged her, in word or in thought.
After a few minutes, during which she made a few languid attempts at conversation, her head sunk back on the pillow of the couch, and she fell asleep. Her hands were joined together, and supported her cheek; the transparent paleness of her complexion made her delicately-chiselled features appear as if they were carved out of the purest marble, and in that attitude of perfect repose she looked more beautiful than I had ever yet seen her.
Henry and I sat silently for some time, by the side of her couch. When her regular breathing and her divided lips showed that she had fallen into a deep slumber, he got up and partly closed the shutters; then opening the door of the back sitting-room, he beckoned to me to follow him. I did so; but, putting on my bonnet and shawl at the same time, I prepared to go away immediately.
On which he said to me in a low voice, "Now, Ellen, for once I can speak to you alone, and without interruption, and you must listen to me."
I answered in the same tone, but with the most determined accent, "This tyranny is intolerable, and I cannot submit to it; if, as you have often hinted to me, you have the power and the will to make me miserable,—to destroy the small remnant of happiness which I can ever enjoy,—do so! I am at your mercy."
"At my mercy!" he exclaimed, "at my mercy! Ellen, the time is come when everything must be revealed to you, when there must be no secrets between us; and all I implore is, that you will hear me. It is of the utmost importance to you, even more than for me, that you should do so. I saw by your manner yesterday, and by Edward Middleton's also, that subjects of such vital importance as those we have to discuss together cannot be carried on in common conversation, without conveying an impression which might be injurious to your reputation; and you cannot imagine how much this idea has tormented me. Your peace of mind, your reputation, Ellen, are dearer to me than life itself; and such love as mine cannot be selfish—"
"Henry, Henry, your very words belie you. I am indeed fallen low in your eyes, since you, the husband of another, dare to speak of love to me."
"Not of such love as mine. You do not think, Ellen, you cannot believe that I am such a wretch as here, in my own house, with my wife ill in that next room, to speak to you of my love with any object but that of proving to you, that to the uttermost of my power I will guard you from the evils which hang over your head. Be calm, Ellen; be reasonable, I implore you (he continued, as I wrung my hands, and then clasped them in an attitude of despair;) Alice did not close her eyes last night. After undergoing great fatigue, she is now fallen asleep, and will probably slumber on for some hours. We may never have another such opportunity of speaking without restraint or interruption; and nothing can seem more natural than that you should remain here, and be ready to comfort and amuse her when she does wake."
"Deceit! deceit! everlasting deceit!" I exclaimed, as I sunk down on a chair which he had placed for me near the window. "How my soul loathes it, how I hate and despise myself!"
"But will it not be some comfort to you, Ellen, to open your heart to me? Have I not been a friend to you? You see how guarded I am—how careful to choose words that can neither shock nor offend you. Show me confidence, show me kindness, and you can obtain from me every effort that a man can make, every sacrifice which a woman can require from one whose whole soul is bound up in her, whose existence but one long dream of her... But this is not what I meant to say," he exclaimed, abruptly, and getting up, he walked up and down the room, and passed his hand over his eyes: then sitting down again, he said, "I had better begin by giving you an account of the circumstances of my life, which will explain the difficulties I have been entangled in, the sufferings I have endured, aggravated by remorse, and by the consciousness that I had brought them on myself."
"Have you suffered in this way, Henry? Oh, then, speak on, for I shall understand you, I shall feel for you though no one else in the world should."
"I know it, Ellen; I am persuaded of it. Circumstances have raised a barrier between us, which ought never to have existed; but there must always be a bond of sympathy in our feelings which nothing ever can or will annihilate. Do you remember that when I left college I went to Elmsley, and spent three or four weeks there?"
"Yes, I do: it was then that you and Edward began to treat me as a grown up woman, and that we took those long walks in the country which first made me feel intimate with you both."
"It was," he resumed; "and those days were the last that I ever spent free from care and anxiety. I sometimes look back to them and live them over again in thought, till I long to blot out from my life and my memory all that has intervened between that time and this. But the one is not more impossible than the other," he added with a sigh, and for a moment leant his face on his hand, and remained silent. "Well," he resumed after a pause, "I left Elmsley, and went to London; there I immediately plunged into the wildest dissipation, and led a life, the details of which I am ashamed to describe in speaking to you. With an income scarcely sufficient to enable me to live as a gentleman, I indulged in every species of extravagance and lavish expenditure; but, above all, my passion for gambling was at that time such, that it seemed to me as if life was not worth having, without the means of gratifying it. For weeks I lived in a state of continual fever; my nights were turned into days; and, during the few hours of sleep—but not of repose—which gave me strength to return to the gaming-table, the rattling of the dice and the shuffling of the cards haunted me in my dreams, with alternations of exultation and despair, as vivid though not as distinct, as in my waking hours. At first, (the old history of all such cases,) I won immensely, and this encouraged me to play higher and higher stakes, which, when the tide of fortune turned, involved me, almost before I was conscious of it, in debts of honour, far exceeding in amount what I could even contemplate ever having the power to discharge. Still I played on; a gleam of success now and then giving me a feverish hope that I might regain at least a part of what I had lost. I played on till the case grew so desperate, that I dared no longer look it in the face; and I lived under a sort of perpetual nightmare.
"As long as I had any money left, I paid what I lost; then I ran into debt to the masters of the different clubs, and borrowed money of such of my acquaintance as were kind or imprudent enough to lend it. To others I lost large sums on credit, under promises to pay them on a future day. When the day arrived and found me unable to meet my engagements, I was induced to give bills to my creditors for other and distant days. Again those days came, and again they found me insolvent. I will not, I need not, go through all the miserable details of the difficulties in which I was entangled, of the humiliating excuses I had to make, and the more humiliating threats and reproaches I had to endure. It is enough to say that, with desperate infatuation, I made a solemn promise to my creditors to satisfy them all on the first day of the ensuing month, and on the fulfilment of that promise it depended, whether my character as a gentleman was still preserved or irretrievably lost. Ellen, I cannot attempt to describe to you what I suffered at that time. The wrestling with an impossibility, the struggle after what was unattainable, the incapability of resigning myself to what seemed inevitable, the powerless rage, the smarting pride, the agonised self-reproach; it was dreadful, and no one to speak to, or turn to..."
"And why, in the name of Heaven, why did you not appeal to my uncle? Why did you not speak to Edward Middleton?"
An expression of sudden pain and a burning flush spread over Henry's countenance at this question. After a moment's hesitation he said, "I must tell you all, though to tell you this gives me a pang which would almost atone for any degree of guilt. You must know, then, that it was at Oxford that I acquired a taste for gambling, and that there, I ran in some measure the same course of imprudence, and went through the same suffering that I have just described to you, except that the sums which I lost amounted to hundreds instead of thousands. Edward, at that time, observed that something weighed on my spirits, and easily drew from me a confession of my folly, and my embarrassments. After lecturing me for some days on the subject, he brought me a draught for the amount of what I had lost, which he had obtained for me from Mr. Middleton, but only on the condition that I would give them both my most solemn word of honour that I would never play again. Mr. Middleton's letter was not only stern, it was also contemptuous; and had I then been able to devise any mode of extricating myself from my difficulties, I would have refused the money and the promise exacted from me; but it was vain to seek for any such; and with feelings more wounded than grateful, I gave the promise required. How I kept it, you have seen; and now you can understand that I would sooner have fled to America, and never shown my face in England again, than have turned to Mr. Middleton for aid or assistance. To my father it would have been useless to apply; he has, as you know, no income but what he derives from the Navy Pay Office—"
Here Henry paused, and drew a long breath as if to gain courage to proceed. He went to the door of the next room to ascertain if Alice was still fast asleep; and, having done so, he again sat down by my side, and went on with his history:—
"At about six o'clock on the day on which I had pledged myself to pay my debts, after several hours of weary pacing up and down the dusty and sultry streets, in which I had met with several acquaintances, who had turned their heads away when they saw me coming, I walked into my father's office and found him dressed for dinner, with his hat and his gloves in his hand, and a strong expression of impatience in his countenance.
"'Oh, how-do-you-do, Henry, my boy,' he said as I came in, 'Do you know, my dear fellow, you could do me a great kindness. I had appointed the chief clerk to be here at half-past six upon business, quite forgetting that I was engaged to dine and sleep at Percy Cross. Now, if you have nothing particular to do and could wait for him here, I should still be in time for dinner.'
"'But what is the business to be done?' I asked, and threw myself at full length on one of the benches of the office. 'Am I competent to perform it?'
"'It only consists in unlocking that drawer,' he replied, 'and putting into his hands bank-notes to the amount of L5,000, which are wanted for some payments to be made to-morrow morning. There is nobody here at this moment with whom I should like to leave this key; but if you can stay—'
"'Oh I can stay; I have nothing to do.'
"'I held out my hand for the key, put it in my pocket, wished my father good-night, and returned to my pleasant meditations. I had been alone for about a quarter of an hour, when the porter of the office came in and told me, as he handed me a card, that a gentleman was without and wished to speak to me. As I glanced at the name on the card, a disagreeable sort of feeling came over me; and as I desired the porter to show the gentleman into my father's private room, and followed him there, I mentally resolved to pick a quarrel with this individual, and to give him an opportunity of blowing my brains out—about the best thing that could happen to me, as I thought, at that moment.
"Mr. Escourt, the person in question, had been one of my intimates on my first arrival in London, and more than any one else had encouraged me in every species of extravagance, and especially in my passion for gambling. Often, when I was on the point of checking myself in the insane course I was pursuing, he had urged me on by a few dexterous words, and laughed at those fears which the desperate condition of my affairs suggested. Latterly he had won from me large sums of money; and I now owed him between three and four thousand pounds. He had always kept on good terms with me; but I had reason to know that he was one of those who had been most active in circulating reports against my character; and that he had secretly, and in the unfairest manner, used his influence with my other creditors to deter them from granting me any further indulgence. Possessed with this idea, I walked into the room where he was waiting. I cannot exactly describe to you what passed between us; that it drove me mad for the time is all I can say. He did not utter one word for which I could personally call him to account; he even maintained the character of my friend throughout; but he contrived at the same time to wound, insult, and exasperate me into a state bordering on frenzy. He informed me that, in spite of his efforts to prevent it, my creditors had come to the resolution of taking no more excuses; and if their claims were not satisfied on that very day, to make my conduct known to the world, and to take such measures as should lead to my expulsion from the clubs of which I was a member. He ended by expressing his pity for me, and his willingness, as far as his own case went, to forego all claim for what I owed him. How can I describe to you the insulting sneer that pierced through the hypocritical sympathy of his countenance? How shall I tell you—how will you understand—what passed through me in that moment? I drew up haughtily; I desired him to spare his pity, to reserve his forbearance for another occasion; that if he would wait five minutes I would satisfy him that his friends had been over-hasty in their conclusions; and that, having so satisfied him, I hoped he would take the opportunity of stating to them that very evening, that, as far as his case was concerned, there was nothing to complain of in my conduct as a man of honour. I said all this in a calmer tone than I now repeat it to you, and I walked out of the room with a steady step. Do you guess where I went? I went to the drawer in the office, unlocked it, counted out the money that I wanted, L3,500, and said to myself while I did it, 'At twelve o'clock to-night I shall shoot myself.' I locked the drawer again, put the key in my pocket, went back to Escourt, and handed to him the bank-notes. He bowed, offered to shake hands with me, hoped I did full justice to his good intentions, would make a point of stating at —'s that very evening what had passed between us, and walked away. I walked away too; but, as I was opening the door of the office to take away my hat and stick, I met Harding, who I must tell you (if you do not know it already) is a half-brother of Mrs. Tracy, and consequently her uncle," he said, pointing to the next room. "He bowed, and told me that, having met my father in Piccadilly, who had stopped in his gig to inform him I was waiting at the office for him, he had come on as fast as he could in case I was in a hurry. I looked at him in a strange manner I suppose, for he seemed puzzled and said, 'I'm afraid you are not well, Sir.'
"'Not very well,' I stammered out, and walked towards the door.
"He followed me and said, 'I had understood Mr. Lovell to say, Sir, that he had left with you the key of———'
"'Oh, the key,—yes, I have the key at my lodgings; my father called on me, and left it there. Can you come and fetch it to-morrow morning?'
"'Why, Sir, if it suited you as well,' he began.
"'I am not going home at present, and as it comes to the same—' I rejoined.
"'I must come early then, Sir?'
"'As early as you please,' I said, and walked into the street, where the air appeared to me to have grown ten times more sultry than it was an hour before. The pavement seemed literally to burn under my feet: and the sky had that heavy leaden look, 'dark as if the day of doom hung o'er Nature's shrinking head;' which produces a feeling of intolerable oppression. When I reached my lodgings it was beginning to rain. I threw open the window of my room, and then flung myself on my bed in a state which baffles all description. The prisoner in Newgate, who has just had his sentence read to him, cannot feel himself more inevitably condemned to death than I did at that moment. If before the next morning I did not destroy myself, I was nothing but a common thief. I knew that the only circumstance which distinguished the act I had committed from other crimes of the same sort, was, that detection was so inevitable, the evidence against me so indisputable, that it could only have been the act of a man who had made up his mind to die.
"I was to die, then, and by my own hand. Ellen, I do not believe that I am a coward; I know I am not, and yet I trembled dreadfully when death, real, actual, bloody death, stood before me in unavoidable, almost tangible, shape; a deadly sickness crept over my heart, and such a feebleness into my limbs, that a worse terror seized me lest I should faint and not recover till the moment when Harding should arrive; that perhaps I should not have strength to load and discharge the pistol; then a horrible vision passed before me of arrest, trial, execution; of scenes to which all that had tortured me some hours ago seemed but as child's play. I started wildly from my bed, and flung my arms about to prove to myself that I had yet life and strength enough to kill myself. A racking pain shot across my head; I ground my teeth, and then I felt a sudden impulse to laugh and to make mouths, which felt very like going mad. I saw a bottle of laudanum on the chimney-piece, and seized hold of it with desperate eagerness; had it been full, I should have drunk every drop in it; but as it was, there was only a small quantity, which quieted me. I sat down by the window shivering with cold. The heavy rain was driven in by sudden gusts of wind, and I remained there till gradually, as the night grew darker and the sedative began to take effect, I sunk into a heavy, stupid kind of calmness. I started when the clock struck ten; and, groping about the room, I found the match-box and struck a light. I then went to my bureau; and, taking out of the drawer my pistol-case, I placed it on the table, and then sat down to write a few lines to my father. I gave him a short and tolerably coherent account of what I had done, and begged him to avert inquiry until he had procured the means of replacing the sum I had taken. Mr. Middleton will not refuse (I added) to save my name from public disgrace; for Mary's sake—
"When I wrote that last sentence—when I came to my sister's name, I threw down the pen, and gave myself up for a few minutes to a burst of grief, in which I forgot everything but the misery I was going to bring upon her. As I was searching a drawer for some sealing-wax, my hand touched a book which had lain there for many a day unopened. It was a small New Testament, which she had given me before I went to Oxford. I must hurry on with my story, Ellen, or I would tell you how this accidental circumstance gave a new turn to my thoughts; how I suddenly remembered that when I was a child I had believed what that book taught, and that since, I had never once thought whether I did believe it or not. I knew I was going to die; and there was a certain phrase in that book which seemed very plain to me at that moment, 'It is appointed to all men once to die, and after that the judgment.' I don't know how it happened that I recollected it so well, for it was years since I had read it; but somehow I did; and again I thought that my brain would give way, for kill myself I must; and if that was true, it would not do to think any more; and so I got up and walked to the table. Now, Ellen, listen to me quietly; don't agitate yourself in this manner; for God's sake be calm. If Alice should wake, what would she think?"
I struggled with myself, conquered my agitation, and made a sign to him to go on.
"Just as I was loading the pistol," he said, "some one knocked at the door; I instinctively seized on the case; and putting it into the bureau locked it up, and went to the door. I had expected to see the housemaid or my own servant, and almost staggered back when, on opening it, I saw Mrs. Tracy, Alice's grandmother. Her coming took me so entirely by surprise that I did not attempt at first to send her away, or to conceal from her that I was in a state of mental agitation. I sat down on the nearest chair, and stared at her in silence. She locked the door; and, sitting down opposite to me, said in a calm and perfectly resolute tone of voice:
"'Mr. Henry, you have done something dreadful to-night, and now you intend to do something worse; but you shall not.'
"I tried to rouse myself. I stammered out that she was out of her mind—beside herself; that I was busy, worried; that I begged she would go; that I insisted upon it; and I tried to work myself into a passion. She got up; and looking me full in the face, said sternly,
"'Don 't lie to me, Henry. I know you; I know what you have done; I know what you mean to do, but God has sent me to save you.'
"'None of your cant, Tracy,' I now exclaimed in a violent passion; 'leave me; this moment leave me.'
"'Mr. Henry,' she said, 'do you remember this?' and she put something into my hands.
"What a strange change is sometimes wrought in us in an instant, Ellen! It was a small picture of my mother—of her who died in giving me birth—of her whose image had often stood between me and temptation, and delayed the ruin it could not avert. I had given this miniature to Tracy, and had charged her to keep it for me on the day when I first left home for school. It brought back to my mind a train of childish recollections, and vague reminiscences, which completely overcame me. I pressed the picture to my lips. My pride gave way; tears burst from my eyes; and in that moment of emotion I confessed the whole truth to her. She had guessed it all before.
"Her brother had been aware for some time past how deeply I was involved in debt. He knew the state of my affairs, and that I neither possessed, nor had the means of raising a single shilling. Escourt, with whom he had some previous acquaintance, had informed him, as they met at the door of the office, that I had just paid him the large sum of L3,500. These facts, coupled with my paleness and incoherence; my pretending that the key was at my lodgings, while he perfectly knew that my father had given it me a moment before in the office; above all, my telling him that I was not going home, and appointing him for the next morning, while, by dodging me in the streets, he ascertained that I had gone straight home;—all this had left no doubt in his mind as to the state of the case; and his sister happening to be in town, and at his house, he had imparted to her his surmises. All this she repeated to me; and then, crossing her arms and standing before mo, she said, 'And now what is to be done?'
"Upon this followed a conversation, all the details of which I need not give you. It began by her suggesting a variety of plans for extricating me from my difficulties, each one more hopeless and more unfeasible than the other. It ended by her proposing an arrangement, which she had long previously had in contemplation, and which the events of that evening had only hurried into maturity.
"And now that I am arrived at this point in my history, Ellen, it is necessary that I should explain to you some circumstances which can alone account for this strange proposal. My sister has told you, I believe, that I owed my life as a child to this woman's unwearied devotion. The kind of passionate attachment which she showed me, and the influence of a strong though uncultivated mind, kept up in me an habitual regard for her which lasted beyond my childish years. When a boy at Eton, and even when I was at Oxford, I used often to write to her, and always to visit her whenever I went through London. On these occasions I always saw her beautiful little grand-daughter, whom she brought up in the strictest seclusion, and with the most anxious care. Even then, I detected the dawning of a scheme which she had evidently formed, and dwelt upon, and cherished, till it had grown into a passionate desire to see Alice married to me. She used occasionally to throw out hints on the subject, which I treated as jokes; and when she confided to me, two years before the time which I am speaking of, that her brother-in-law, an old miserly grocer at—, had left Alice L1,500, she looked anxiously into my face, and seemed disappointed at the indifference with which I received this communication, which she charged me to keep a secret. She lived so much alone, and the nature of her character was such, that whatever idea suggested itself strongly to her mind, took by degrees such a hold of it, that it absorbed all other considerations, and acquired a disproportionate magnitude. She admitted to herself no possibility of happiness for Alice but in a marriage with me. She had a superstitions conviction that such an event was predestined: she had dreamt dreams and had visions on the subject, and would gladly, I believe, have sacrificed her life to accomplish it.
"When, therefore, by a singular train of circumstances, she found me in a situation of hopeless difficulty and danger, from which nothing but the immediate possession of a large sum of money could rescue me, she offered me Alice's fortune and hand; but annexed to this proposal the following conditions. She said—
"'Give me a written promise, signed by yourself, and witnessed by two persons whom I shall bring with me here, that you will marry her, when I call upon you to do so. Give me, besides that, a written statement of all the circumstances which have led to this arrangement between us. Let it be signed and witnessed in the same manner. Execute a deed, by which, in the event of your dying before this marriage takes place, Alice will be entitled to whatever you possess, and in which you will give me full sanction to reveal all the particulars of this transaction to your family, and call upon them to make up to me for the sum which I shall now place at your disposal. Give me your promise that Alice shall never, as long as she lives, be made acquainted with the circumstances which have led to this compact, and neither before or after her marriage have any reason to suppose that such an arrangement was entered upon. Do this, Mr. Henry, and by to-morrow morning L10,000, paid into your hands, will enable you to discharge your debts, and to reassume your position in the world.'
"I need not tell you, Ellen, how much my pride, how much my feelings, revolted against the sale of myself which this bargain involved, and, above all, how hateful it was to me to place myself in the power of this woman and of her brother; but situated as I was, there was no choice between death or disgrace on the one hand, and a blind acceptance of her conditions on the other.
"'I strongly remonstrated, however, against the second of her stipulations, which seemed to have no other object but that of keeping me continually in her power; but she was determined to carry this point; and at last I consented to give up to her the letter I had already written to my father, which, together with the other papers, to be drawn up the next day, made out a case against me, such as would enable her at any moment to expose me to the world, and blast my reputation. These papers are no doubt to this day in her possession. I have never offended or displeased her without her recalling this fact to my recollection. Now it signifies comparatively little to me whether she has destroyed them or not. I told her she was in honour bound to do so on the day I married Alice; but whether she has or not, I have not been able clearly to ascertain. Now, she cannot use them against me without doing an injury to her; and on this subject I have ceased to trouble myself. Well, she left me that evening, having, a second time, saved my life; and grateful I should have been to her, had it not been for the spirit of distrust, and hard bargaining, which she had evinced throughout, and which modified my gratitude in a way which I regretted myself. The next morning she returned with her brother, and a lawyer, who drew up my will, and saw me sign it, as well as my promise of marriage. John Harding looked gloomy and dark; he evidently disapproved of the whole affair, and thought his niece had the worst of the bargain, as I heard him muttering to himself; but he was always completely governed by his sister; and though he has since attempted to annoy me in different ways, he has never yet ventured to act for himself, except in that foolish attempt to frighten you at Brandon, which his son forced him into, and which he thought, if successful, might be more profitable to himself than the arrangement as it then stood. Now, Ellen, can you understand, that, after all this, in spite of Alice's beauty and of her merits (for I do not attempt to deny them), the idea of marrying her was always connected in my mind with so much that was painful and disgraceful in my past life, that I shrunk from it with a morbid repugnance, which I vainly tried to conquer?
"Now, Ellen—now I am come to the time when every feature of my history is closely connected with yours. Dearest Ellen, listen to me calmly; and if I speak of feelings which must not now be proclaimed to the world; if, in going over the ground which we once trod together, words of love and of regret escape my lips; forgive me! bear with me! and forget everything but that I have loved and lost you—that I deserve to be pitied."
After a pause, he said, "I have not asked you for a promise of secrecy; I am not afraid of being in your power; but, dear Ellen, there are facts which I am now going to reveal to you, which concern you personally; and yet which you must give me a solemn promise never to reveal to any one."
"If they concern me personally," I hastily replied, "surely I can decide for myself on that point; I will bind myself by no promise. You are not afraid of being in my power, and you are right; but you wish—forgive me, Henry, I must speak the truth—you wish to keep me in yours; and this is ungenerous."
"When you know the truth," he answered coldly, "you will retract this unkind accusation. If you intend, which I suppose is the case, to marry Edward Middleton, you are no doubt anxious to keep no secret from him; but I protest unto you, Ellen, that if you do marry him, especially in ignorance of the real nature of your position, you will bring upon yourself,—I said it to you once before,—incalculable misery! You do not believe me,—I see you do not!" he exclaimed, with impatience; "but you must believe me if I swear!" and snatching up Alice's Bible from the table near us, he laid his hand upon it, and swore that he spoke nothing but the truth.
"I do not intend to marry Edward Middleton," I said; "I never will inflict upon him a wife, whose heart and whose life cannot be laid open before him. I would sooner die than reveal to him the dissimulation I have already practised, the threats I have heard from your lips, the words of love I have been compelled to endure from you,—from you, the husband of Alice, of whom you are as unworthy, as I am of him. No, I shall never be Edward's wife; I never will bring sorrow and disgrace upon him. I have stooped to deceit; I am entangled in falsehood; I must drink of the poisoned cup which you hold to my lips; but, with you at least, I will be true! Since there are to be no secrets between us, Henry Lovell, I will tell you what I have never told any human being; and that is, that I love Edward with all the powers of my soul; with all the passion, and all the tenderness, which outlives hope, and feeds upon despair!"
As this burst of wounded feeling escaped from me, I laid my hand on the sacred book before me, and, turning to Henry with flashing eyes and glowing cheeks, I said, "What are your conditions?—dictate them."
Again I saw in his face the fearful expression which recalled to me the scene on the sea-shore at—Bay.
"I make none," he replied, with a withering sneer; "I leave you to the tender mercies of those whom you love. When Edward learns, not from me, but from one who shares with me the secret of Julia's death, the details of that catastrophe; you may then seek for consolation and tenderness at his hands."
I saw, by a sudden change in Henry's countenance, how deadly pale, how dreadfully agitated mine must have been, for he looked almost as terrified as I felt; and, giving one rapid glance into the next room, he seized on some water that was on the table, and held it to my lips. I swallowed a few drops; and in a hoarse voice articulated—"Speak, speak!"
"Swear solemnly," he cried; "call God to witness, that you will never reveal to Edward the facts that I will now disclose to you, nor the history of Julia's death."
"I do; so help me God! and may He judge between you and me! Speak, while I have strength to hear you!"
"Your strength is not likely to fail you," he retorted, with a sneer; "for your courage and your eloquence seem always equal to the task of braving and insulting me: when you hear what I have now to tell, perhaps you will regret the harshness of your language."
He paused for a moment, and then, in a more natural tone of voice, he said, "A few months after the occurrences which I related to you just now, I went to Elmsley. You know as well as I do in what way we spent that summer. You were grown into a woman: but you were still a child, a child in spirits, and in careless gaiety; and I scarcely thought of you but as such. I hardly was conscious of my own feelings, till I was enlightened as to their nature by the increasing dislike and repugnance with which I turned from the idea of my engagement to Alice. One day, to my great surprise, my sister told me that Mrs. Tracy had been with her to consult her as to her future abode; and, to my inexpressible annoyance, she also informed me that she had offered her the cottage at Bridman, and that she had readily accepted it. From the moment that I heard this, I was in continual dread of a meeting, that might bring to light our relative positions; for I still had a vague hope that something or other might occur to prevent the accomplishment of this hateful marriage. I wrote to Mrs. Tracy, to urge her, in the strongest manner, not to come to Bridman, a step which, I assured her, would answer to none of the parties. She instantly conceived the idea that I had fallen in love with you; and she wrote me letters full of the most violent reproaches and upbraidings; and, a short time after, having come alone to Bridman, to inspect the arrangement of the cottage, she walked over to Elmsley, and made her way to my room, unobserved, as it turned out, by any one in or about the house, with the exception of my own servant. That day," continued Henry in a hurried and nervous manner, "was the 15th of July. You know my room at Elmsley—the window was open—we heard voices and footsteps on the verandah—we looked out—I need not tell you what we saw—dreadful words burst from Tracy's lips—"
"O God! O God!" I exclaimed, as Henry paused in the excess of his agitation, "O God of mercy, my punishment is greater than I can bear!"
Henry went on—"I know not what inspired me to act as I did. I locked the door of the room inside, and, springing from the window on to the verandah, and then down the bank, I was in a moment where at one glance I saw the hopeless result of what had occurred. I felt terrified for you—"
"Would to God!" I cried out in so loud a voice, that, with a look of terror, Henry laid his hand on my mouth; "would to God!" I repeated in a lower tone, "that you had then proclaimed to them all what I had done. Would to God! that you had dragged me into my uncle's presence, and denounced me as—"
"Hush, hush, be quiet and listen to me: I rushed back to my room; I found Tracy pale with horror; and when I told her that the child was dead, she wrung her hands, and again cried out that you had killed her—murdered her. My rage then grew so dreadful, that it overpowered hers. You know, alas! you know, how fearfully I can give way to anger; but it must have been horrible that day, for that iron-nerved and ungovernable woman trembled like a leaf before me. I forced her to promise, that if you did not accuse yourself, she would never reveal what she had seen, or let it be known that she had been at Elmsley that day. I made her leave the house in secret, and laid the strictest commands upon my servant not to tell any one that she had been with me, which, as he evidently suspected me of a love affair with Alice, seemed to him quite natural. Hitherto she has kept her word to me; but I cannot conceal from you that no efforts of mine have ever succeeded in rooting out of her mind the conviction that Julia's death was not accidental. In the stupid and malicious obstinacy of her nature, she persists in believing that you intentionally removed the obstacle that stood between you and the eventual possession of Mr. Middleton's fortune. She had been unfortunately told by some of the servants of the house, at her previous visit to Elmsley, that there were constant disputes between you and Julia; and her suspicious jealousy on Alice's account had worked her up into such animosity against you, that she even then carried home with her the idea that you hated and persecuted my sister's child. She has, however, as I have already told you, kept her word to me; but there is one circumstance under which I am perfectly certain that she would break it; and that is, if, by a marriage with Edward, she saw you on the point of obtaining those worldly advantages, which she supposes that you sought in so dreadful a manner. She is haunted by the idea that Mr. Middleton will leave his fortune to you; and, by a strange mixture of vengeance and conscientiousness, she is really tormented by the belief that she is committing a heinous sin in keeping the truth from him; and the only way which I could find of calming her scruples, was by informing her of the conditions under which I happen to know that your uncle has settled his property, and by solemnly assuring her that you will never submit to them."
"Thank you," I answered coldly, and got up to go. Everything in that moment seemed turned to stone. I owed Henry an immense debt of gratitude according to this account, but not an atom of it could I show or feel. On the contrary, ail the evil in my nature was stirred up, and I felt more than I had ever done before, as if I hated him. Perhaps it was that he had proved to me what I had hitherto never in reality believed, though I had often said it to myself, and that was, that a barrier indeed existed between me and Edward, which no effort of mine could remove.
"Do not go yet," he said; "there is more that I must say to you. You have a right to ask me—"
"I have nothing to ask you," I hastily replied; "from the fatal hour when, by an unpremeditated act, I put the seal to the misery of my whole life; when by the most unfortunate union of circumstances, you and your tyrant became the witnesses of that act, I have lost the power of free agency—I have lost the power, the right to resent, what every woman should and does resent."
"Ellen!" exclaimed Henry, "your coldness, your calmness, make me more miserable than your violence did just now. Do not you now understand, why with tears, with threats, with supplications, with the energy of despair, I implored you to become my wife—and in secret? I thought you loved me; had I not a right to believe it, too? Had not your words and your actions given me that right? Once married to you, your fortune—(I could not say this to many women, but to you I can)—your fortune transferred to Alice freed me at least from that part of my engagement to her; and, as your husband, would I not have toiled day and night to supply its place? Would we not have both scorned all that calumniators, or enemies, could do against us? If in her anger Tracy had spoken out—which was not likely, when she saw nothing to be gained by it—would I not have carried you away from all that could have marred your peace? Would I not have cherished you, and worshipped you through life, and to the hour of death, and warded away from you every harsh word or unkind look? Ay!" he exclaimed suddenly, as I turned coldly away from him, "hate me as much as you choose, but do not set me at defiance! It is not Edward, your excellent, your conscientious lover, who would take to his arms, and cherish in his bosom—"
"Do not talk of him, Henry," I exclaimed; "do not for God's sake talk of him. I have told you already that I shall never marry him; I have made all the promises that you required. I am here, where I should not be, if I wished to set you at defiance; but in mercy do not taunt me; do not torture me by alluding—"
A loud rap at the door startled us both, and awakened Alice.
"But there where I have garnered up my heart, Where cither I must live, or bear no life, The fountain from which my current runs Or else dries up—To be discarded thence!"
"I know his eye doth homage other where, Or else what lets it but he would he here? ........................... Since that my beauty cannot please his eye, I'll weep what's left away and weeping die."
The knock at the door, which had put an abrupt end to the long and painful conversation between Henry and myself, was soon followed up by a message from Mr. Middleton to say he was waiting for me at the door to take our afternoon drive. I kissed Alice hastily, rejoicing that the room was dark, and hurried down stairs. I found my uncle evidently much put out. Whether he immediately saw in my face traces of emotion which displeased him, or whether he had heard before something which had annoyed and irritated him, I could not at first discover; but I felt sure that he was working himself up to a scene, which, to say the truth, is a difficult business to a man of a naturally calm and even temper. We drove however for some time in silence, which was only broken by two or three attempts on my part to enter into conversation, he answered each of my remarks by a short yes or no; and as we turned back towards London, after having driven on for some time along the Paddington road, he suddenly said, "I really cannot understand how a girl, brought up as you have been, can conduct herself in the way you do. I am sorry to say so, Ellen; but you really are a thorough coquette—a regular actress."
"How so? What do you mean?" I stammered out. "What have I done?"
"I was not aware till to-day," he rejoined, "that you had refused Edward. It is strange enough that you should not have mentioned this circumstance, if not to me, at least to Mrs. Middleton, who, certainly, deserved your confidence; but I suppose you felt ashamed, and so you ought to be; for, after all the encouragement you gave Edward, after speaking, looking, and acting as you did during the month that he spent at Elmsley, none but a heartless flirt could have refused him." Weakened and agitated by the scenes I had gone through during the last twenty-four hours, I burst into tears at this harsh reproof. Mr. Middleton hated seeing a woman cry, and still more making her cry; but as he had made up his mind to treat me with great severity, my tears, by annoying him excessively, only added to his anger.
"I must also tell you, Ellen," he continued, "that I am shocked and disgusted at the manner in which you allow Henry Lovell to dance with you, and talk to you wherever you meet him. You sanction in this way his neglect of his wife; and, considering all the circumstances of the case, your conduct, in that respect, is unjustifiable. Pray, may I ask if he was at home during the four hours you have just passed in his house?" I coloured violently, and muttered that he was, but added, "Did not my aunt tell you that Alice had sent for me?"
"She told me," replied Mr. Middleton, "that Henry had requested one of you to go to her. She ought to have gone herself; but, considering how little in general you seek Mrs. Lovell's society, and that for days together you do not go near her, I should have thought that a shorter visit might have sufficed. But be that as it may, I positively declare to you, that unless there is an immediate change in your whole manner and way of going on, I shall forbid Henry my house, and lay my strictest orders upon you not to go to his. This may painfully enlighten Mrs. Lovell," he continued, "but it will be better for her to be thus enlightened, than for a coquette like you to be allowed to rob her of the affection of her husband."
"This is unjust, this is cruel," I exclaimed; "Alice herself is not more pure than I am from an indelicate thought, or an evil design. You wrong me; I do not deserve such language; and even from you I will not endure it. Forgive me, dearest uncle, forgive me; but indeed you do me a grievous injustice." I seized his hand and pressed it to my lips.
"Why did you refuse Edward?" asked my uncle, in a softened tone.
"Because I do not wish to marry; because I am certain that I could not make him happy."
"All humbug and nonsense," interrupted Mr. Middleton, angrily; "I only hope that he will soon make up his mind to give up all thoughts of you, and to marry..."
"Who?" I inquired, with breathless anxiety.
"A girl," answered my uncle, "who has good sense and good feeling sufficient to appreciate him as he deserves to be appreciated." As he said these words Mr. Middleton drew from his pocket a newspaper, and began reading it in that pertinacious manner which puts a full stop to any further conversation.
I would have given a great deal to have asked him if he had alluded to any particular person, or whether he was speaking in general; but I had not courage either to interrupt him or to begin upon the subject again. During the first part of our drive I had made a great many reflections and resolutions; amongst others, I had come to the determination that I would give up steadfastly and for ever, all thoughts of Edward as a husband, and content myself with the measure of kindness and regard, which, in spite of what had occurred between us he had not withdrawn from me. I hoped that this decision, consistently acted up to, would satisfy Henry, and induce him to treat me with consideration and respect. I had even formed a plan of prevailing on Mr. and Mrs. Middleton to leave London almost immediately; and in the idea of devoting myself to them, and to a life of domestic duties and charitable exertions, away from the two persons who, on different grounds and in different ways, I feared most in the world, a prospect, of tranquillity at least, offered itself to my mind. But unfortunately for me Mr. Middleton's last remark threw me into a state of agitation, which overturned in one instant all these visions of peace and self-denial. I could have made up my mind to give up Edward, but when it occurred to me that, at that very moment, he had, perhaps, given me up, and was on the point of attaching himself to another, the jealous pang that shot across my heart, proved to me that I would endure any suffering rather than passively resign my claim on his affections. This new anxiety superseded, for the time, all my other griefs and vexations, and the instant I got home I went to Mrs. Middleton's room, and tried to find out from her (what I had not ventured to ask my uncle) whether there was any particular person whom he wished Edward to marry. She assured me that she had not heard of anybody being in question for him; but added, that as Mr. Middleton was very anxious that he should marry, and as, to their great surprise and regret, they had heard that morning, that I had refused him, and so put an end to what she knew had been a favourite scheme of my uncle's, it was not improbable he might have formed some other project; and then, in a manner as kind as Mr. Middleton's had been harsh, she blamed and wondered over my apparent inconsistency and caprice. She did not, however, allude to Henry, or repulse my lame attempts at self-defence, with anything but a deep sigh and a melancholy shake of the head.
There was to be a ball the next night at a Mrs. Miltown's, a sister-in-law of Mrs. Brandon, And among my good resolutions bad been that of excusing myself, on some pretext or other, from going to it, for I did not know how to comply with Mr. Middleton's orders with respect to Henry, without irritating the latter in a way which I dreaded to encounter. What made me most uneasy was, that quite contrary to his usual habits, my uncle had announced his intention of going with us to this ball, and I could not help thinking that it was for the express purpose of watching me, and under his severe and observant eye, it would be next to impossible to convey to Henry the explanation which would account for my change of manner to him; but now that my whole soul was bent on finding out who the person was to whom my uncle hoped that Edward would devote himself, every other consideration gave way before that overwhelming interest. I could not have imagined beforehand to what a degree it would have harassed me. I felt as if the time that was to intervene between that evening and the next would be interminable; the images of Henry, of Alice, of Mrs. Tracy, faded away before the phantom which my imagination had conjured up, and it was with feverish impatience that I awaited the approach of that hour which I thought would confirm or dispel my fears. It came at last, as all hours do, whether they have been longed for with all the intensity of ardent expectation, or dreaded with all the anguish of terrified apprehension.