I read this letter in my dressing-room with my maid waiting in the passage, and in momentary expectation of Edward's coming up-stairs. Bewildered, I stood with it in my hand, unable to think or to decide. In five minutes there was a knock at the door; and my maid said—"Mr. Lovell is waiting for the answer, Ma'am."
The clock struck twelve; the door of the billiard-room opened, and I heard the voices of the men preparing to leave it. I snatched a bit of paper on the table and wrote hastily in pencil upon it—"Do not go, I implore you. I forgive, and will bear with you."
I sealed and gave it; and the instant afterwards would have given worlds to recall it—but it was gone; and when we all sat down at breakfast the next morning, and everything went on as usual; and when, for a few days at least, Henry seemed to take no advantage of my cowardly concession, I did not feel its folly, or its guilt, as I ought to have done.
I could not find out by Alice's manner how far her suspicions had been awakened, or her feelings wounded, by the discovery of my letter to her husband. She was certainly a different person from what she had been in the early days of her marriage. She had altogether lost the childish artlessness with which she used to communicate her thoughts, and relate the incidents of her daily life and innocent occupations; but on the other hand, she no longer avoided those subjects of conversation, or those books, which related to the actual state of society, or the history of the human mind. She read a great deal; book after book I saw her carry up to her own room, and the intense interest with which I watched, without daring to question her, made me closely observe her course of reading. Her mind seemed to feed upon it, and her intellect to expand; but at the same time her cheek grew pale, and in the expression of her countenance, what once was peace, had become composure; and in her character, what had been only simplicity, had grown into reserve. Her eyes were often rivetted upon Henry, with an expression not of love or of fear, but of deep and painful interest.
It was at the end of the third week in October that we moved to London, and that I took possession of my new house there.
Alice's confinement was near at hand, and so was the departure of my uncle and aunt. This was a pang which some time before would have been inexpressibly painful to me, but now I grieved over it—more from the recollection of what had once been my happiness with my aunt, and of the manner in which that happiness had passed away, than from the actual grief of separation itself. Since my marriage, her manner to me, without being cold, had grown constrained, and she had often been on the point of giving utterance to something that seemed to agitate and distress her, but which had, however, never passed her lips. I fancied it might have reference to Henry and Alice, and I dreaded so much her speaking to me on a subject on which, alas! I could give no explanation, nor in any way change my own conduct, that instead of seeking her society during those last days in London, I, on the contrary, avoided it, and shrunk with nervous dread from being alone with her. They went; and when she took leave of me, she folded me in her arms, and whispered in my ear, "God guide thee—God bless thee! my beloved child!"
I hid my face in her bosom; and the burning tears which I shed there, were my only answer to a blessing which seemed to heap coals of fire on my head. I turned from the window whence I had watched their departure, and a sense of desolation took possession of me. I had never opened my heart to her; I had never told her that I was wretched; but if at any moment the cup was too full, and my heart-strings stretched to bursting, I could turn to her and say, "My soul is heavy within me," and she never said, "Why is it thus with you?" She never told me that life was fair, and my share of its blessings great, and that I ought to be happy. She did not know that I was miserable—but she felt it; and to me, young, strong and blooming as I then was—to me the idol of the man I adored—the spoilt child of fortune—she had in those moments the heart's instinct to say—"Earth, my child, has a grave; and in Heaven there is rest."
We went for the few days which intervened between Mr. and Mrs. Middleton's departure and the meeting of parliament, to the Moores' at Hampstead; and I enjoyed more quiet there than I had done since we had left Hillscombe.
Rosa was absent; and the society might have been reckoned dull; but to me it was a time of comparative peace, and sometimes almost of happiness.
Edward was in good spirits; and the emotion which he evinced on seeing again the spot where our destinies had been sealed, was a proof how truly he loved me. And, oh, with what tenderness, with what affection, I regarded him; but how I feared him too, and with what moral weariness I strove to keep up before him, in very fear, the appearance of that character which he fondly supposed me to possess. He sternly reproved me for each act, for each word, that fell short of that standard of perfection which his imagination had drawn. He attributed to me merits and qualities which I did not possess; but, on the other hand, he looked upon me as a spoilt and fanciful child, who must be taught to see life as it is, and to fulfil its every-day duties. His praise and his blame depressed and discouraged me alike.
I was idle, for repose was a strange luxury to my weary spirit; and Edward gave me books to read, and plans to draw, and subjects to discuss, and called me severely to task when my eye was abstracted, and my manner listless. As long as he spoke to me of his affection,—as long as he listened, with fond delight, to the words of love which I addressed to him,— I forgot every painful thought, every fear, and every regret, in the happiness of the moment; but as soon as my attention was forced away from ourselves, and directed to abstract subjects, it wandered to the thousand objects of alarm and disquietude which compassed me about.
When Edward spoke to me of establishing family prayers in our house, I tremblingly objected. I went to church as often as he did; but always let him draw near to the altar alone; for, unforgiven, unabsolved, unreconciled, I dared not approach it.
On the Sunday which we spent at Hampstead, and on which this occurred, I wandered about the churchyard in solitary wretchedness, as if a spirit of evil had possession of me, and kept me away
"From Mercy's inmost shrine."
When Edward joined me again, he was low and depressed; there was a struggle in his countenance, and we walked home in silence.
In the evening, as I was sitting writing in my own room, he came in; there was a deep shade of gloom in his face; and when I knelt by his side, and threw my arms round his neck he disengaged himself from me, and, leaning his head on his hand, said, with a voice of emotion, "I little thought when we married, that on the most sacred of all subjects, we felt so differently."
I drew from my bosom a paper, on which I had been writing the following lines, and held it out to him:—
"Self-banished, self-condemned, I stand alone, And the closed doors between us seem to rise In judgment and in wrath: a dull hard stone Is in my breast; a cloud before my eyes. I kneel; but my clasped hands are raised in vain; They sink, weighed down by mem'ry's spell again. My soul is mute, no melodies arise; No sacred accents, from her shattered chords; And speechless prayers alone, in broken sighs, Struggle for utterance, and find no words. But is there not a strange mysterious cry, A mute appeal in each unconscious sigh— A silent prayer in every secret tear, Which man discerns not, but which God will hear?"
Edward gave me back the paper, and said coldly, "Poetry is not religion; and sentiment is not piety."
"But they may lead to them, Edward."
"They mislead you, I fear."
He turned away and took up a book; so did I: it was the Bible; and as I opened it, my eyes fell on the following passage:— "Hadst thou know, even thou, in this thy day the things which belong to thy peace, but now they are hid from thy sight." How long? my God, how long?
Upon our return to town, I found how much truth there had been in Henry's remark, that for the present London would suit me better than any other place. He had foreseen and calculated upon what, in fact, did happen.
I felt an involuntary relief in the way in which Edward's time was taken up, and his attention engrossed by a variety of affairs relative to his estates, as well as by a diligent attendance upon the House of Commons. When he came home to a late dinner, or took a short ride with me in the park, there was in those brief moments so much to talk about, so much to interest us both, such intense enjoyment in each other's society, that there was no opportunity for Edward to find fault with me, or for me to show him anything of that wayward and gloomy abstraction which irritated and displeased him. The echo of his step, the sound of his voice, was like music in my ears; and as I rushed to meet him, with a bright smile and an eager welcome, he received me with a tenderness which was too often changed to severity, when, in an hourly association, he had to observe the thousand faults which marked the course of my daily life.
There is no existence much more lonely than that of a woman just married, whose husband is constantly engaged in business, or in politics, and who happens to have no near relations or intimate friends about her. This was the case with me; I had formed none of those intimacies which fill up so large a portion in a woman's life; and the love of reading and of study; which had been strong in my girlish days, had latterly completely given way to the necessity for constant stimulus and excitement.
I found it, unfortunately, in Henry's society. As a matter of course, he was admitted to me whenever he called, and he assumed that the order, or the prayer, whichever it was, that had prevented his leaving us, gave him an indisputable right to maintain, in their fullest extent, those privileges of intimacy, which the nearness of our connection, as well as the ties that had bound us to each other, had established between us.
I had so often vainly struggled to assert my independence, that I felt afraid and ashamed of entering into further contests with him. There seemed to be more dignity in submitting, to a certain extent, to his demands, than in renewing those harassing scenes which we had so often gone through. I allowed him, day after day, to sit for hours alone with me; to read to me the most exciting books; to discuss with me subjects of the deepest interest; and to talk of his attachment to me in a way which I now never attempted to check.
Nothing could be more baneful to my character than such a state of things. The very struggle to appear better than I was in Edward's eyes, wearisome as I often found it, kept up a certain degree of straining after better things, and some remorse at the contrast which the reality presented to the outward appearance.
With Henry, on the contrary, there was no necessity to conceal the evil that was in me; and the more I gave way to the waywardness and impetuosity of my undisciplined character, the more he fed me with that most insidious of poisons, the constant homage of a blind and passionate admiration.
The beginning of that winter in London was one of those periods of false peace which sometimes occur in our lives. My hardened conscience, like the guilty prophet's of old, prophesied peace where there was no peace, and spoke smooth things while destruction was hovering around me. Now and then I made an attempt (not to repulse Henry, in very pride I dared not begin another contest with him, but) to see more of Alice, and to re-establish between us our former habitual intercourse; but there were dangers and difficulties in this which I could hardly surmount. As the time of her confinement drew near, she would seldom leave her own house; and her grandmother occasionally visited her there, which, during the preceding year, she had not done. I therefore never paid her a visit without previously ascertaining from Henry if there was any chance of meeting with this old woman, which I dreaded beyond expression; and while I was with her I could not command a restless nervousness which she evidently attributed to another cause. She was neither unkind nor repulsive in her manner to me, but a shade of coldness and reserve showed me that her eyes were, to a certain extent, opened. With regard to Edward, Henry practised a degree of caution which, though I did not dare counteract it, disgusted me at times with him and with myself. His self-command was complete; and in his presence, no word or look ever betrayed that devotion, which in his absence was so constantly displayed; and his visits were so skilfully conducted, that Edward never suspected their frequency or their length. To remain passive in such a system of deception, and when practised with regard to Edward, was sometimes more than I could do; and it occasionally happened that, in a moment of irritation, I exposed him in some artifice, or betrayed him in some scheme, in a way which required all his presence of mind to meet, and his consummate skill in dissimulation to carry off. After this had occurred, he generally left me in anger; and the nervous feeling which such an abrupt separation caused me—the means of revenge which were constantly in his hands—the helpless ignorance in which I remained—and, in truth, I must add, the way in which I missed the excitement of his society—made me eagerly welcome, and sometimes even seek, a renewal of intercourse.
One day that Henry called at the usual hour, and that Edward happened to be at home, I saw that he was put out and annoyed at the impossibility of speaking to me alone. He gave me various hints that he had something important to say; and at last, as he was standing behind Edward, he wrote on a bit of paper, which he contrived to give me, the following words: "Alice asks to have her grandmother with her during her confinement; what can I do?" It had often occurred to me that this would happen; and much as it complicated and aggravated all my difficulties, I was not heartless enough to urge him to refuse such a request, made at such a moment. I conveyed this to him by a few words; and soon after he took his leave.
I did not see him again till two days afterwards, when he joined us at the play. Mr. Escourt was in our box. Edward had met him in the lobby, and had asked him to come in and renew his acquaintance with me. I received him coldly but civilly. My heart beat quickly each time that the door of the box opened, at the idea of a meeting between him and Henry. I did not know if they were on speaking terms; and after the insolent manner in which he had alluded the year before to Henry's devotion to me, I felt my cheeks flush as I thought of what would pass through his mind, when he should see him take his place by my side. When he did arrive, to my great surprise, I saw them shake hands, and exchange a few words with perfect civility.
How strange it is to those who are in some sense new to the world, to see the way in which time can scar those wounds which we should have imagined that nothing could have healed; wounds which we should have expected to see bleed afresh at the sight of the inflictor, as it was said of old, that those of the murdered did at the approach of the murderer. Sometimes we almost feel as if nothing was real in that singular existence called the world. Like the performers, who laugh and talk behind the scenes after the close of some dreadful tragedy; we see around us men who have ruined the fortunes and destroyed the happiness of others, women who have betrayed and been betrayed, whose existence has been perhaps devoted to misery and to infamy by the first step they have taken in the path of guilt, and whose hearts, if they did not break, grew hard; we see the victims and the destroyers, those who have loved and those who have hated, those who have injured and those who have been injured, mix together in the common thoroughfares of life, meet even in social intimacy, with offered hands and ready smiles; not because "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy;" not because "To those who forgive, shall much be forgiven;" but because what is genuine and true, what is deep and what is strong, takes no root in that worn-out soil on which we tread, thrives not in that withering air which we breathe, in that fictitious region which we live in, and which we so emphatically and so presumptuously call the world.
I started when Edward turned to me and said, "How very grave you look, Ellen! One would imagine by your face that a tragedy and not a farce was going on."
I smiled and shook my head.
"Mrs. Middleton looks like the Muse of Tragedy herself," observed Mr. Escourt. "Have you ever acted, Mrs. Middleton?"
"Indeed, I should think you would excel in it. Such a countenance! Such a play of features! Your thoughts speak in your face! Mr. Lovell, would not Mrs. Middleton make an admirable actress?"
"Where the part suited her."
"That would be no test of talent. I would pledge my existence that she could act to the life the most contrary characters, and enchant us in each. Which of the passions, of love or of hatred, would seem to you most difficult to represent, Mrs. Middleton?"
"Scorn would be easier than either."
"To my mind a sudden transition is finer than anything: an instantaneous change of expression, for instance, from scorn to fear; it is one of the most striking pieces of acting that can occur, and most interesting to observe." He stopped, and fixed his eyes upon me; I riveted mine upon the stage.
In a moment, with a totally different manner, I heard him say, "Pray, Mr. Lovell, do you know anything of my new gamekeeper, Robert Harding?"
I did not start, I did not move an eyelash; I heard Henry answer in a husky, uncertain manner, "Very little."
I felt that he had lost his self-command; and by a strong effort I retained mine. I made two or three remarks in an indifferent tone, and then asked Edward to change places with me, alleging that the light was in my eyes. Mr. Escourt left the box and seated himself in one exactly opposite a moment afterwards. Some friends of Edward came in, and while he was speaking to them, I whispered to Henry, "Does he know? Is it all over with me? If he does, I destroy myself! I have lived through much; but to be in that man's power... Never! never!"
"Hush, take care; do not get excited. I am sure he does not know. Harding may have dropped some obscure hint and I see clearly by his manner what he suspects; he thinks Harding was a messenger, or something of that sort, between us. It is all the better that he should think that; but I must try to get Harding away from him. Ellen, my home is insufferable; the old woman is come, and watches me like a lynx; Alice looks miserable, and she sees it."
"But then, for Heaven's sake exert yourself! Make her happy; do not neglect her as you do. Oh, Henry, is she unhappy? that is worse than anything! Would to God I were dead! you would all be at peace!"
"Hush, do not talk so wildly. I will exert myself, if you promise never to be harsh or cold to me again. Do not turn away; I do not ask you to love me. Don't I know that you adore him? Don't I see it in your eyes? don't I hear it in your voice, twenty times in the day? Would you not have been mine long ago, but for that cursed attachment to Edward..."
"The curtain has dropped, Ellen; don't you intend to go?"
I hastily got up, put on my cloak, and taking Edward's arm, went down stairs with him. When we got into the carriage, I knew by the determined silence which he maintained, that he was displeased with me.
As we were waiting for some tea in the drawing-room, he said to me abruptly, "Pray, why did you treat Escourt in the way you did this evening?"
"I have a bad opinion of him, and I cannot endure him."
"On what is that bad opinion founded?"
"I have been told that he is thoroughly unprincipled."
"Who told you this?"
I did not feel courage to name Henry; and as I hesitated, Edward went on: "If you think that a sufficient reason for not treating a person with common civility, I own I cannot understand your strict and intimate friendship with Henry. I feel a regard for him, founded on early association, and his many captivating qualities; on the same grounds, and as Mrs. Middleton's brother, it is very natural that you should feel the same; but there is a wide difference between this kind of regard, and the confidential and intimate footing you are on with him; and it is, to say the least, in very bad taste, that, at home and in the world, you should neglect my friends and acquaintances, in order to sit for hours gossiping with Henry. It seems to me extraordinary that he should devote so much time to society when Alice is unwell, and so near her confinement. Have you seen her to-day?"
"No; not to-day; her grandmother is with her."
I said this supposing he would think it a sufficient reason for not going there, as none of the family had seen Mrs. Tracy since the marriage, or had had any communication with her.
"You do not mean that you intend not to see Alice while her grandmother is with her?"
"Neither my aunt nor any of the family have met that woman..."
"They may do as they please about it; but I shall suffer no such ridiculous pride to stand in the way of your being of as much use and comfort to Alice as you possibly can. She is only too good for Henry; and he ought to bless the day on which she married him. Go there to-morrow, Ellen, and behave civilly to Mrs. Tracy."
"I really wish, Edward, that you would let me judge for myself on this subject. I love Alice dearly, but I cannot go there now. Henry himself does not wish it."
"Is Henry's opinion to be followed rather than mine?"
"No, dearest Edward, do not take it in that way; but pray do not insist upon my doing this."
"I do insist upon it, and beg to hear nothing more said against it. I desire you to go there to-morrow morning; I am sorry you have not right feeling enough to do it of your own accord, but whether you agree with me or not you must obey me."
I was going to persist; but Edward's countenance was so stern that I dared not utter another word; and all night long I lay awake racking my brain to find out some expedient, some pretext, some excuse, for eluding this order, which it seemed to me equally dangerous to obey or to resist.
"I know not what I said; I've said too much unless I could speak all. * * * * * * * * * * * * ****** You've raised the storm Will sever us for ever ****** The rugged hand of fate has got between Our meeting hearts, and thrusts them from their joys."
"Farewell; God knows when we shall meet again; I have a faint cold fear thrill through my veins That almost freezes up the heat of life."
The following morning I got up with that jaded feeling which an anxious and sleepless night produces. As I went into my dressing-room I saw a note lying on the chimney, and recognised Henry's handwriting. I darted upon it and tore it open; the few words it contained gave me the sincerest pleasure, and put an end for the moment to the difficulty under which I laboured. This was his note:—"Alice was confined a few hours ago of a small and delicate, but I hope healthy boy. They are both, I am happy to say, doing as well as possible. Ask Edward if I can come and dine with you to-day?"
On a separate paper in the same cover were written these words:—"You need be under no fresh apprehensions from what occurred last night. It is as I thought, but you had better be civil to Escourt; he is a dangerous enemy."
I burnt this last note, and carried the other to Edward. He read it, and put it down without making any comment upon it. "Shall I send an answer directly, or wait to call there in the carriage after breakfast?"
"Just as you please."
"Is Henry to dine here?"
"Of course, as he proposes it."
I sat down to write a note in acknowledgment of Henry's, and to tell him that we should expect him to dinner. In the afternoon, when I drove out in the carriage at the usual hour, I went to his house to inquire after Alice. He came down to the door of the carriage and gave me a good account of her, but he looked gloomy and preoccupied. "How long does she stay?" I inquired, with a timid glance at the window.
"Ten days, I believe—ten mortal days. It is hell upon earth to play the hypocrite, from morning to night."
"If you have any good feeling you ought to be happy to-day."
"Are you come to preach to me too? Are you going to talk of the duty of being happy? But, come, I will be happy if I can; take me a drive, Ellen—I want air and change—my head aches horribly."
Before I could answer he had made a sign to the servant to let down the step, and had seated himself by my side. We had often driven alone together; and though after what Edward had said to me the night before, I should very much have wished to avoid this display of intimacy, I knew it would have the appearance of caprice if I refused so simple a request, and Henry did not seem in a humour to be trifled with. I said, however, in a whisper, and glancing at the windows, "Do you think this judicious?"
"She is out," he answered, in the same way; "and when we come back, you can put me down at the comer of the street."
I could not repress a sigh, but desired the coachman to drive towards the King'-road. "If I had known that she was out I should have gone up-stairs to see your child."
"Poor little thing," answered Henry; "I am more pleased with it than I should have thought possible. It is quite pretty, as white as wax, and has Alice's small regular features. It was pleasant to see her smile again as she used to do, when she kissed it this morning, and held it to her heart. Do you know, Ellen, that this child will be a great blessing to her and to me too. He will fill up her thoughts, occupy her time, and engross her affections."
"He will be a link between you," I said; "it is impossible that with such a wife as Alice, and a child to love and educate together, you should not end by finding happiness in your home. Do not deny it, Henry; do not tell me I am wrong."
"You only talk for effect, that is all. You know perfectly well that happiness, in the sense in which you mean it, can never be mine."
"Well, then, the less is said on that subject the better," I interrupted impatiently. "And now, may I know why there is nothing to fear from Mr. Escourt, except his general ill-nature?"
"I must tell you that I had an explanation with Mrs. Tracy this morning. She was in tolerable good humour with me; I suppose because she had not found me quite such a brute as she expected. I mean that I showed some natural anxiety about Alice, and some joy at her safety, which was indeed what I felt. When she is not angry, I have a great deal of power over her; and I got her to tell me everything about Harding. She confessed he knew a great deal of what concerns us, partly from his father, and partly from herself, for one day that he brought her home some account of my proceedings she was so exasperated that, in her anger, she betrayed to him the whole history of Julia's death. It seems that a short time ago Escourt met him accidentally in the street, and asked him if he was not James Harding's son, and Mrs. Lovell's cousin. He had known something of his father for many years; and after one or two more interviews with him, he offered to engage him as a gamekeeper. Harding, who had no situation, and had given up carpentering, jumped at the offer. Just before Mrs. Tracy left Bromley he came and told her this. She warned him not to let out what he knew; for, half from fear of me, half, I believe, from some vague hope that I am growing attached to Alice, she seems anxious to keep her promise in the spirit as well as in the letter of it. She seems at last to understand, that she cannot do you a mischief without injuring Alice at the same time; and she has taken pains to inculcate the same idea on Harding's dull brain. In the course of the same visit, he confessed to his aunt that Escourt had often questioned him about Alice; and on one of these occasions had made some coarse allusions to our intimacy, which drew from him (Harding) the boast that he could, any day, get you turned out of your husband's house. This, then, explains sufficiently Escourt's manner last night; but he will not get anything more out of Harding, or I am much mistaken."
"I own that I do not understand, or share that confidence."
"The fact is, that Harding has found out, or thinks he has found out, that Escourt has taken a wonderful fancy to Alice; he is just the sort of man to be taken by that innocent placid kind of beauty. Now, I am next to certain that his game is to get me out of the way by pushing on matters to an extremity between Edward, you, and myself, and to accomplish this by means of Harding's knowledge of what he calls our intrigue."
"Good God!" I exclaimed, with painful emotion, "if Edward was to hear the words you use, the things you say to me, and which are said of me, by such men as those! No woman has ever been so deeply degraded, so cruelly insulted, before." I threw up my veil and pushed back the hair from my checks, which felt burning with shame and indignation.
"It is useless to think what Edward would feel or say if he were to be acquainted with all these things; but he must and shall be kept in ignorance of them, if you will learn a little self-command, if you will only be reasonable—"
"Reasonable! Reasonable! Henry, do you know these lines?
'Go to the raging sea and say be still, Bid the wild lawless winds obey your will, Preach to the storm, and reason with despair, But tell not Misery's child—'"
I could not finish the line; an overpowering sob shook my whole frame, and I threw myself back in the carriage, weeping passionately.
"Ellen, what are you doing? put down your veil and sit up. Here is the very man we have been speaking of."
I gave a violent start, but did as he bid me, and looked up in time to see Mr. Escourt riding with two other men, and taking his hat off as he passed me with the lowest possible bow. I returned it haughtily, and then turning to Henry, I said, with the utmost bitterness, "This is the consequence of your selfish determination to force your society upon me at all times and in all places. Edward is on the point of suspecting me. I have no doubt that, before to-morrow, it will be all over London that I was met driving alone with you; and, drowned in tears! This is your doing, your work, and you expect me not to hate you, not to curse the day on which—No, I do not mean all I am saying; I do not hate you, Henry; but it is hard to suffer as I do, and not to grow wicked. Stop the carriage, I implore you, and walk home."
"My dearest Ellen, this will only make matters worse. It will seem as if you were ashamed of being seen alone with me. Now, considering the closeness of our connection and our old friendship, any appearance of that sort would have a much worse effect than anything else. Drive straight to your own house, and I will walk home from there. It is much better that Edward himself should see how little you dread observation."
I gave way in silence; but as we drew near home I looked anxiously at the windows, for I felt that after Edward's remarks on the preceding evening, to drive in that way with Henry, was very like braving him. I felt relieved at not seeing him, and as I walked through the hall I inquired if he was at home.
"No, Ma'am, Mr. Middleton called an hour ago to say that two gentlemen, beside Mr. Lovell, would dine here to-day; that I was to tell you so when you came home."
I went up to the drawing-room and sat down at the piano-forte, to try to get over the time till Edward's return as well as I could. I was bent upon mentioning to him the drive I had taken with Henry, as I quite agreed with the latter that any attempt at concealment would fatally endanger my future peace, and I had made the firmest resolution that nothing should ever lead me again into an unnecessary act of deceit. It was dressing-time, and still Edward was not come home. I walked impatiently up and down the room, and at last it grew so late that I was obliged to ring for my maid and to begin dressing.
While I was doing my hair, Edward rushed into the room in a great hurry, and said as he held the door open, "Ellen, love, dress as quick as you can, and go into the drawing-room. Sir Edmund Ardern and Escourt are arrived." Changing into French, he added, "I should not have asked Escourt, as I know you do not like him, if it had not been that when I pressed Ardern to come, he said before him that they were engaged to dine together at the club, which obliged me to invite them both."
I was inexpressibly annoyed, especially at having had no opportunity of informing Edward of my drive with Henry. As soon as I was dressed I went to his room; but he desired me so impatiently to go to the drawing-room, that it took away my courage to tell him all I had intended to say.
Pride enabled me to make a strong effort over myself and to meet Mr. Escourt without embarrassment; but turning immediately away from him, I entered into conversation with Sir Edmund. He took up a newspaper and read it assiduously, till first Henry, and then Edward came into the room.
We went down to dinner, and nothing passed for some time but conversation on general subjects. I could not conquer my uneasiness. Whenever I heard the sound of Mr. Escourt's voice, or felt his eyes fixed upon me, a kind of shudder ran through me, and the cold dry manner in which I answered his questions, though each time I repented of it, still re-occurred the next minute. I knew that this was bad policy, and that it made Edward angry; but much as I had deceived in my life, I had never been able to dissemble; and the effort to do so in this case was beyond my strength.
After one of those pauses during which everybody wonders who will speak next, and which had been brought on by some short answer I had given to a question of Mr. Escourt, he abruptly turned to me and said, "By the way, Mrs. Middleton, you could decide a bet we made this morning, Ardern and I. Did you happen to observe if it was Mrs. Ernsley that we passed a few minutes after we met you on the King's-road this morning?"
"I don't know, I did not observe."
"Did you, Mr. Lovell?"
"It struck me that it was Mrs. Ernsley."
"Then I am afraid I have lost my bet, unless Mrs. Middleton would try to remember the contrary. Come, Mrs. Middleton, make an effort in my behalf. Did Mr. Lovell turn to you and say, 'Is not that Mrs. Ernsley?' or did he positively say, 'There is Mrs. Ernsley.' A great deal would depend upon that."
My mouth quivered while I repeated, with what must have had the appearance of ill-humour, that I remembered nothing about it. In vain I tried to turn the conversation; he continued to appeal alternately to Henry and to me about the gay appearance of the nursery gardens we had passed, and the style of architecture of the new church at Chelsea, until he had succeeded in plainly establishing the fact that we had been that day taking a long drive together. While this was going on I had not ventured to look at Edward; but when at last another subject was started, and I had heard him make some indifferent remark in his natural tone of voice, I raised my eyes to his. He was pale, and his lips were firmly compressed, but he exerted himself and talked a great deal. I was so entirely occupied in watching him, that, when Henry bent forward and said to me, "Sir Edmund is asking you to drink wine with him," I gave a violent start, and my hand shook so, that I could hardly hold the glass.
I left the room soon after, and as I walked into the drawing-room, its very look of brightness and comfort made my heart ache. It would have been a relief to cry, but I dared not give way; it would not do (that phrase which Henry was eternally repeating to me); it would not do to be found in tears. I would not think. I tried to play; but whether the tune was sad or gay it seemed equally to affect me. I took up book after book from the table; but whether it was "Macaulay's Reviews," or "Southey's Poems," a volume of Shakespeare, or a book of sermons, there was in each page some passage or expression, which, by its eloquence or its simplicity, its gaiety or its grief, touched the spring of sorrow which was swelling up to the brink, and that was only kept down by a sort of passive resistance.
I took refuge in an Annual, and page after page of short tales and addresses to Finden's Beauties, I glanced over successfully, till the following lines, by Miss Landon, caught my eye, as I was rapidly turning over the leaves:—
"I see the clouds pass o'er the moon, and my spirit Grows dark with the terrors that round it are thrown; O Surrey, whatever my lot may inherit, I care not, so suffering but reach me alone."
I do not know that they are good lines—very likely not—but they burst from the heart and from the lips like a groan or a sob, and they gave words to what I had felt since I had looked upon Edward's face, and seen in it, for the first time since our marriage, not anger, not sternness, but suffering.
I shut the book hastily, and snatched up a newspaper, as I heard the door of the first drawing-room open.
Henry brought me some flowers which I had left in the dining-room, and said to me in a low voice, "For Heaven's sake don't look so miserable! Exert yourself; this will never do."
There are sometimes particular phrases which try one, and jar upon one's feelings; and this last was of that number. I darted upon Henry a look of angry reproach, and said in a hurried manner, "It will never do to be goaded in this way! I cannot answer for what I may say if you stay here. Your presence and your advice are insults which drive me mad, and if you do not go, I feel that I shall lose my head."
As I spoke, I tore the flowers in my hand into pieces, which I flung one by one into the fire.
"Have mercy upon your bouquet, Mrs. Middleton! You are beheading those beautiful camellias in the most cruel manner," exclaimed Sir Edmund.
"The organ of destructiveness must be strong in you, fair lady," observed Mr. Escourt, with one of his blandest smiles.
Again an icy chill ran through me; but I hated this man so intensely, that not even terror could subdue me: and when Sir Edmund asked me if I had courage to kill an insect, I answered—"There are insects so loathsome and contemptible, that to crush them is a pleasure."
I felt that I was making an odious speech; I saw in Edward's face an expression almost of disgust. I felt that I was sinking every moment in his opinion; perhaps, losing ground in his affections. I felt that this was the work of those men who, one under the cover of a devoted attachment, the other of playful gallantry, were ruining and exposing me.
A spirit of reckless defiance took possession of me, and I completely lost my head. A torrent of words burst from my lips, of which I hardly knew the meaning, as I uttered them. I said there were crimes worse than murder. I said that to torture was worse than to kill: to make life a curse worse than to take it away. I pointed to the insect that was crawling on the table, and asked if it would not be mercy to kill it, and cruelty, damnable cruelty, to tear off a wing one day, and a limb the next, and so on, till nothing remained of its tortured frame but the quivering pulse of life. I spoke of men who die on the scaffold, or who drag on existence in jails and hulks, and whose hearts are not so hard, whose spirits are not so brutal, as those of others who come into our houses, who sit at our tables, with smiles on their lips and poison in their tongues, whose language is refined, and whose thoughts are devilish.
Strange and terrible words they were which I spoke in that hour; there was eloquence and power in them, for what is so eloquent as the pent-up agony of years, when at last it finds a vent? What is so powerful as the outpouring of the soul, when it breaks down the barriers it has long respected?
They quailed before my glance, those two men whose victim I was. Mr. Escourt's pale cheek was flushed, and Henry's grew pale. He trembled for himself and for me. The fabric which he had raised by his cunning, and maintained by his arts, was tottering to its base. Like to Samson in the temple of the Philistines, strength had returned to me in the hour of abasement; and I was dragging down upon him, and upon myself, the ruin which had so long hung over my head.
"I would advise you to choose another theme for the display of your eloquence, than the apology of murder."
A convulsive shudder seized me as Edward addressed to me these terrible words. If he had charged me with the guilt of murder, I could not have trembled more violently.
"You are ill, Mrs. Middleton; I am sure you are ill!" exclaimed Sir Edmund, springing forward to support me.
I felt myself falling, and stretched out my hand to take hold of Edward's; when I grasped it, it was as cold as ice. He led me out of the room; and when he had placed me on the sofa in my dressing-room, he rang the bell. As soon as my maid came in, he left me without a look or a word.
I did not attempt to recall him; I was stunned and exhausted. I felt an inexpressible longing to forget the anguish I was enduring; and, while my maid was for a moment out of the room, I hastily took a large dose of laudanum, which first stupified, and then sent me to sleep.
When I woke again it was with that sense of complete bewilderment which that sort of sleep produces. The shutters and curtains were closed, the candles were lit on the dressing-room table, and my maid was sitting on a chair near the fire. I called her and asked in a drowsy voice what o'clock it was.
"It is near nine o'clock, Ma'am."
"Why is it so dark? Why are the shutters shut? Have I been ill?"
"You have been sleeping a long time. Ma'am. The doctor thinks you must have taken a little too much laudanum."
"Laudanum! How? When?"
Gradually the recollection of the scene of the preceding evening returned to me, and of the sedative I had so rashly taken. I held my head with my hands, and asked where Edward was?
"Mr. Middleton desired to be told when you should awake, Ma'am; and he wishes the doctor to see you too."
She went out of the room, and I felt as if some new form of misery was hanging over me. Why had Edward desired to be informed of my waking instead of watching over me himself? If my long sleep had been alarming, ought I not to have awoke in his arms? I now remembered all that had occurred during the last two days, and I felt as if a crisis was approaching. The door opened, but instead of Edward, Dr. Harris came in; and after hoping I felt pretty well, and feeling my pulse, he asked me some questions about the quantity of laudanum I had taken. I named a certain number of drops at a guess, for I had hardly measured the quantity. He left me, and a moment afterwards I heard him speaking with Edward in the dressing-room. I sprang out of bed, glided to the door, and listened.
"Indeed I can assure you," I heard him say, "that you need be under no alarm about Mrs. Middleton's health. The quantity of sedative she has taken can produce only temporary inconvenience if she keeps quiet. It cannot affect her materially. I would not tell you so if I did not feel convinced of it. Indeed, the very fact of being under its influence will make the intelligence you have to communicate less likely to affect her in an alarming manner than at any other time."
"Then I shall go to her at once."
I hurried back into bed; my teeth chattering with cold, and my heart throbbing to suffocation. An instant after I heard his step, and he walked up to the bed. His face was as pale as death, and he wore his travelling fur coat. I uttered a faint scream, and clasped my hands.
"Do not agitate yourself, Ellen."
I burst into tears; for although he had not said one word of kindness, he had called me Ellen, and that was something. He went on in a dry, broken, and hurried manner: "I have, indeed, bad news to tell you; but I hope and pray that the case may be one of more alarm than of actual danger. Your uncle has sent an express for me; he believes himself to be dying, and he charges me not to lose a minute in hurrying to him. The carriage is at the door, and I must take leave of you. Here is your aunt's letter, and one from the physician at Hyeres. This last affords considerable hope that Mr. Middleton may yet be spared to us..."
"Oh! may I not—should I not go to him too?"
"The state to which you have reduced yourself by your imprudence makes it impossible."
"For God's sake, let me go with you, Edward."
I took his hand, but he drew it abruptly away. I mentally cursed the day on which I was born.
"Calm yourself," said Edward, sternly; "I cannot speak to you now: I shall write to you. A new state of things must begin between us; but this is no time for an explanation."
"No, no! you cannot, you shall not leave me with so horrible a doubt, so dreadful a fear..."
"Have you forgotten that your uncle is dying? Is this a moment for theatrical display?—for the exhibition of a feigned tenderness?"
"Feigned! Good God! is it come to that?"
"Have you no message to send him?—no pardon to implore of him as well as of me?"
"Edward! what are you saying? Edward! Edward!—do you know? Have you heard?—Do you forgive? I am innocent!—on my knees I swear that I am innocent!"
"Innocent! Yes, I believe you are what you have learned to call innocent,—and may God keep you so. I dare not trust myself to say another word. I have struggled to be calm; I have prayed earnestly for strength against myself,—strength not to cast you off, and it has been given me. God bless you, and forgive you! I shall write to you soon and often, and, I hope, send better accounts of Mr. Middleton. Write to me and to your aunt."
He coldly held out his hand to me, and I felt as if I was dying. I opened my arms wildly, and cried, "Kill me, but do not leave me so!"
A convulsive emotion passed over his face; he bent over me and kissed me. I threw my arms round his neck and clung to him. Oh! did not all the love of my soul pass into his, in that one last embrace? As my throbbing heart was pressed to his, did not each pulsation tell all its passionate tenderness? For an instant he seemed to feel it, for he drew me closer and closer to him; but suddenly he started back, as if he recoiled from my touch, and almost flung me from him; and, disengaging his hand from mine, he left me abruptly.
I heard his steps down the stairs; I heard his voice in the hall; then there was a moment during which I heard nothing; and then there was the sound of the carriage-wheels; and then the hall-door was shut; and then all was over; and I wrung my hands, and thrust the bed-clothes into my mouth to stifle my groans. I felt as if my head would burst. Sob after sob rose in my chest and shook my frame; and all night the doctor was by my side, and he and my maid gave me draughts to drink, which I took eagerly, for my mouth was parched and my lips burning; and towards morning I fell asleep again.
"Oh there's a fatal story to be told, Be deaf to that as Heaven has been to me. * * * * * * * * * * * * How wilt thou curse thy fond believing heart, Tear me from the warm bosom of thy love, And throw me like a poisonous weed away. Can I bear that? hear to be curst and torn And thrown out of thy family and name— Like a disease? Can I bear this from thee? I never can, no, all things have their end, When I am dead, forgive and pity me."
"I must be patient till the Heavens look With an aspect more favourable * * * * * * I am not prone to weeping, as our sex Commonly are; the want of which vain dew Perchance, shall dry your pities, but I have That honourable grief lodged here, which bums Worse than tears drown."
The next day I did not attempt to get up; it seemed to me that Edward's absence, and his last words, had taken from me all energy—all power of thinking or acting. It was as a dream that I could not shake off, though at the same time I felt all its dreadful reality. I dared not stir in body or in spirit; the quiet of a sick-room—the silence around me—the exclusion of light and noise—harmonised with the extraordinary state in which I was. Strange delusions haunted me; I often saw figures pass and repass before my bed; and when it was Edward's form that I discerned, I held my breath, and prayed that the illusion might last. But sometimes they were dreadful; the visions I had—the voices I heard! I dare not think of them now; for the night is coming—my room is dark—my sight is weak—and my brain is on fire.
* * * *
On the third morning after Edward's departure a letter was brought to me. The direction was in his handwriting, and a mist obscured my sight. I pressed it to my heart, and closed my eyes for an instant. Now, I should know all. Now, I should know my sentence. Alice's rival—Henry's accomplice—I stood condemned by my own heart; and as I broke the seal of Edward's letter, I felt as if I should read my death-warrant.
"This is the first time I have written to you since our marriage. This is better for yourself and for me, and makes it easier to write now in the way in which henceforward we must act and feel towards each other. I will not upbraid you. God has visited upon me the sin of my heart, and I pray to Him that yours may never find you out. To save you from the last step in guilt, and all its misery, is now my only object.
"I shall return to you as soon as the sacred duty I am now engaged in is fulfilled; I shall return to you, for I wish your reputation to be preserved. The only request I make is, that you will never again attempt to act the part which you have hitherto so ably performed. I shall expect from you respect and submission, for without them, how can I save you? but one of those looks—one of those words which once made my happiness, would now drive me from you for ever. Attempt no defence; offer no explanations; if you repent, mourn over the past in silence, and silently resign yourself, as I do, to the life which lies before us. Write to me, but do not answer this letter. That you may not be tempted to do so, I will go through the painful task of explaining to you the manner in which my eyes have been opened to what I might have seen long ago, had it not been for the deep hypocrisy of your life, and of your character. I said I would not upbraid you; but the simple mention of facts must become the most cutting reproach. When I look back to the last two years, and remember the many proofs I have had of your secret and powerful interest in Henry's fate, and of the tenacity with which you have clung to his society, I ask myself how you could ever have deceived me as you have done? But when I recollect what you have professed, the way in which you have acted, all that you have said to me, I almost doubt the evidence of my senses.
"Vague but painful doubts had latterly shot across me; and had I believed it to be in human nature, or in woman's power, to feign such love as you seemed to feel for me, I should have feared what I now know. From the moment when, in accidental conversation, I heard that in defiance of my advice, you had spent the day alone with Henry, to that in which I received anonymously the notes I now send you, the truth was gradually disclosed to me. I saw you change colour; I saw your lip quiver, and heard your voice tremble. I saw you in ungovernable passion upbraid the man who you fancied had betrayed you, and then, in the excess of your agitation, you fainted at my feet. When I went to your bedside, and gazed on your pale face, with the faint hope that I had been mistaken, that I had not read right your uncontrollable agitation—even then your lips opened and uttered a passionate adjuration to Henry, not to leave or forsake you, which drove me from your side with thoughts and feelings that time and prayer alone can subdue. When, on the following day, in a cover, directed by an unknown hand, I received the confirmation of what was already too sure, in the first agony of grief and indignation, I resolved to part from you for ever; and it was not till I had gone through the severest struggles with myself, that I came to my present determination. The summons I received a few hours afterwards to your uncle's death-bed, confirmed it. I would not carry to his dying ears the intelligence of your guilt, and of its results; nor would I load my conscience with promises which, had I discarded you, could never have been fulfilled. You have not yet been criminal save in thought and in heart; you have sworn it, and I believe you. God have mercy upon you, if in this too you have deceived me; but if you are not perjured—if you have not called upon God Almighty to witness a lie—then kneel to Him each day of your life, and bless Him that he has saved you. And now listen to the commands I lay upon you, and obey them strictly, as you value—what shall I say? What have you ever valued? What have you ever respected? You have profaned the most sacred feelings—the holiest emotions of our nature; and I know not by what tie, by what hope, or by what fear to adjure you. If you would not become a mark for the finger of scorn to point at; if you would not die of a broken heart, or live with a hardened one; if you have any horror of the lowest depths of vice, or any lingering sense of duty, weigh the importance of this moment of your life, and throw not away this last hope of salvation. I have written to Mrs. Moore to propose to her that as soon as you are well enough to move, you should go to Hampstead, and remain there till my return. I forbid you, in the most positive manner, to receive a single visit from Henry, or to open a letter from him. I not only request, but command you, neither by letter or by word to make any answer to this letter, or to allude to the subject of it. By your strict compliance with these injunctions, I shall judge of your desire to enter upon a new course, and, save in the secret penitence of your heart, to discard the remembrance of the past.
Inclosed in this letter were the following notes:
"Do not go, I implore you; I forgive, and will bear with you,—Thursday."
"You left me in anger three days ago, and I feel a nervous dread of what will happen next. I cannot bear this suspense; write or come.—Sunday."
"I shall have no rest till I have seen you; since that woman is arrived, I feel as if all would be discovered.—Friday."
The chain of evidence against me was overpowering, and I clasped my hands in silent despair. I read Edward's letter upon my knees; and murmured blessings were choked in their utterance, by the convulsive emotion which mastered me. At that moment it seemed to me agony past endurance that he should accuse and judge me falsely; that he should call my love hypocrisy; I thought I would rather die, than meet him in the way he prescribed, as life could have no greater misery in store for me than this; but by degrees I grew conscious that there was not so heavy a load on my breast, so racking an anguish in my brain, as I had known in those hours when, tortured with anxiety, I had been commanded to smile; when, degraded in my own eyes, and condemned by my own heart, I had been placed by him on a pinnacle, from which I dreaded each moment to be hurled. His praises had often run like daggers into my heart; but now his reproaches, his upbraidings, were answered by the mute consciousness of a love, which in the midst of guilt and misery, and bitter humiliation, had remained pure, sacred, and entire. Then flashed for an instant through my mind, like a ray of light and hope, the thought of confession, full, ample, and complete confession! What depths of repose in that word! What pledge of peace! What renewal of confidence! What possibility of happiness! I rose suddenly and threw the window open; and as the cold air fanned my cheek, I felt that I might be happy still. Again I seized his letter, and as I opened it, my eyes fell on the passage where he said, "If you are not perjured, if you have not called upon Almighty God to witness a lie." It froze in its current the source of hope, which for an instant had sprung up in my breast, for it reminded me of the oath by which I had bound myself never to reveal the truth to Edward. It was as if a hand of ice had chilled the warm blood that had begun to circulate freely about my heart. I set my teeth together, and muttered to myself that I would break that fatal oath; but even while I said it, I felt I dared not do it. I needed all my strength, all my courage; I needed God's help, and God's mercy, even now to confess to Edward the dreadful secret of my life, the horrible trials, the bitter humiliations I had gone through; and in the face of a broken oath, with the guilt of perjury on my soul, how could I hope for mercy or for peace? I struggled with my conscience; I bade it be silent; but in vain. This new form of crime staggered and confounded me; I dared not add fuel to the flame, or a new kind of remorse to the dark visions that already haunted my days, and visited my dreams. I gazed upon those blotted scraps of paper before me, the records of weakness and misery, but not of guilt; and the veins of my temple swelled, and my hands were clenched with powerless rage as I thought of the part which Henry had throughout acted by me, and of which this was the close. He had either betrayed me himself; or by a cruel carelessness, a heartless negligence, he had failed to destroy the proofs of our fatal intimacy, and had left them in the power of my relentless enemy.
A servant came in, and putting down a letter on the table, he said, "Mr. Lovell has been very often to inquire after you, Ma'am, and he begs to know if he can see you now; or if he shall call again this afternoon."
I would have given worlds to have admitted Henry, to have poured forth in words the burning anger of my soul, or implored a release from my fatal oath; but Edward's command was before my eyes; his letter was in my hand; and I said, in as calm a voice as I could command, "Tell Mr. Lovell that I am engaged now, and that I shall not be at home this afternoon." I glanced at the letter on the table, and saw that it was not from Henry, but from Mrs. Moore, who, with a thousand regrets and apologies for having been suddenly obliged to leave home for the sea-side, put her villa at my disposal, and hoped I would stay there as long as might suit me. This opened a new source of embarrassment to me. I could not resolve with myself whether to accept this offer or to refuse it. If Henry was determined to force his visits upon me, I felt that I should be more unprotected at Hampstead, less able to exclude him there than in town, and yet I was afraid that Edward should suppose I was not prepared in everything to follow his directions. I determined at last to write to him that Mrs. Moore had left Hampstead, and that I should therefore remain in town till I heard from him again, or till the blessed moment of his return. As I looked over my letter I seized the pen and scratched oat that word blessed, which he would have branded with hypocrisy. Never did a letter of a few lines cost such painful labour or such anxious thought as that I sent to Edward in return for his. Many and many a foul copy I wrote, in which protestations and prayers, self-accusations and passionate justifications, succeeded each other with frantic vehemence; but as I read over these bursts of feeling, these impassioned appeals, I tore them up and gave them to the flames; for to disobey him now, was to endanger the frail tenure by which I clung to him, and, as he had said himself, to drive him from me; and yet to accept the conditions of pardon, to submit humbly to the terms held out to me, was a tacit admission of the truth of his accusations and of the justice of my condemnation.
At one moment I resolved to brave his anger; boldly and earnestly to declare to him my innocence, not from crime only, but from a feeling or a thought inconsistent with the truest and most ardent affection that ever woman felt, or man inspired; and, in defiance of his orders, but in the strictest integrity of heart, to seek Henry, and by prayers, by reproaches, by upbraidings, by all the power which a strong will, and the consciousness of his unconquerable passion for me, could give, to obtain from him a release from my oath, and liberty to kneel at Edward's feet, and to clasp his knees, with a confession of every sin, but that of not loving him.
But then, again, I shrank from the rash efforts, from the fatal risks, which this plan involved, and it seemed to me best to submit in humble resignation to his will; to accept his mistaken severity, his coldness, and his scorn, as a just expiation for a course of sin and deceit; and to trust that, in a life spent by his side, in compliance with his will, in submission to his dictates, in absolute devotion, and unremitting tenderness, which my lips would never express, but which my conduct would reveal, I should at last have my reward—his belief in that love which could bear, believe, endure, and hope all things.
Tossed by these conflicting thoughts, jaded by this incessant and racking anxiety, at last I sent a few lines which I had copied out several times—for sometimes a word had seemed to me too cold, or too abrupt, too like, or too unlike those which were struggling to escape from my heart and from my pen, or else my tears had stained the paper.
In conclusion, I said, "If, on his dying bed, my uncle names me, do not ask him to say 'God bless her!' but 'God forgive her.'"
I also wrote to Mrs. Middleton, and when these two letters were gone, I felt relieved.
The state in which I lived during the next few days was strange. In the midst of London I was in perfect solitude. Rather than forbid the servants to let Henry in, I gave a general order to deny me to every one, without exception.
Early in the morning, I drove into the country for some hours, and the rest of the day I spent in my back drawing-room buried in thought, and alternately giving way to the gloomiest anticipations, or the most vague and groundless visions of future happiness.
Every day I sent a servant to inquire after Alice; and the report of her continued to be favourable.
On the third day after Edward's departure, and after Henry had made several fruitless attempts to see me, a letter was brought to me, and I immediately felt it was from him. My first impulse was to seize a cover and enclose it back to him, without a word of explanation; but, on cooler reflection, I determined to write to him.
Edward had not forbidden me to do so; and to explain my present conduct, was the only chance of keeping up that power over him, on which so much depended. I therefore wrote as fellows:—
"The crisis of my fate is come. Henceforward, if I take one more step in the downward course in which I have been so cruelly entangled, I am lost for ever. If you feel any of that regard for me which you have so long professed, I need not make any comments upon the fact which I now disclose to you.
"The notes which at different times I have sent you, and which so fatally misrepresent our relative positions, have been sent to Edward; and this letter, of which I inclose you a copy, is the result. I will not attempt to make you understand what I have suffered—what I suffer. I dare not see you; I dare not receive a letter from you; and yet, before Edward's return, I must; for there is an oath which you once imposed upon me, which must be cancelled—you must absolve me from it, if you do not wish to drive me to despair—to perjury on the one hand, or to a life of hopeless misery on the other.
"Henry! you who have been my best friend, and my worst enemy, have pity upon me. Do not condemn me to fresh remorse—to further struggles—to eternal hypocrisy. Do not write to me any sophistry on this subject; do not try to blind my eyes again; to deceive me to my ruin. If you have the cruelty to steel yourself against my prayers, against my earnest supplications, then leave me to myself; and take with you the consciousness that you have filled up the measure of your iniquities, and heaped upon my head all the miseries which the most savage hatred could devise.
"Would to God that I could find words to touch you! Would to God that I could reach your heart! and carry to it the conviction, that you would be happier yourself by giving way to my entreaties, than by maintaining a tyranny which is as criminal as it is cruel.
"By all that you hold sacred, hear me, Henry! In the name of your sister—in the name of your child—hear me! As you would not bring misery upon them, hear me! My whole soul is in this prayer—the fate of my whole life is in its issue—have mercy upon me, as you ever hope for mercy yourself.
This was my letter, and day by day I watched and trembled each time that the sound of the bell or a knock at the door roused a hope that its answer might come. During that period I received two short and hurried letters from Edward, dated from the towns where he stopped for an hour or two on his way to Hyeres. The solitude of my life became at last intolerable; I began to feel an impetuous desire to change something in the course of my days; to see some one, to speak to some one, and yet I shrunk from the sight of a common acquaintance, or of a commonplace friend. At last, one morning, a note was brought to me, but the direction was written not by Henry but by Alice. It only contained these words:—
"My dear Ellen,
"I wish to see you, and I beg of you to come to me.
"Yours, Alice Lovell."
I knew not whether Mrs. Tracy was gone—I knew not whether I should see Henry—I was in total ignorance of what this visit might produce: but it was a relief to do something—to change something in the order of my day; and as Edward had not forbidden me to visit Alice, I felt justified in going to her, and prepared to do so. As I arrived at her door and walked up-stairs to her, for the first time I felt a sensation of bodily weakness, which gave me a sudden apprehension that my physical strength was giving way under such protracted mental suffering. The door was opened, and I found Alice alone. As I looked at her I felt one of the severest pangs I had ever yet experienced. Never in my life had I seen anybody so altered. There was not a single speck of colour in her cheek; her eyes looked unnaturally large, and the black under them was deeply marked She came to meet me, but did not offer to kiss me; she held out her thin pale hand; and, slightly pressing mine, made me sit down by her. She inquired about Mr. Middleton; and after I had answered her questions, there was a pause, which I broke by saying, in a trembling voice, "How is your child, Alice? May I not see him?"
She opened the door of the next room, and showed me the cradle. The child was asleep, and as I gazed upon it the tears which I struggled to repress almost choked me. "He is beautiful," I said.
"Yes, he is beautiful," she murmured, as she knelt down by the cradle. "He is beautiful, but he does not thrive; he is not strong." She took the tiny hand pressed it to her pale lips; and then she rose, and we returned to the drawing-room.
"How you must love him, Alice," I said, with a sigh.
"I do," she answered; and then she put her hand to her forehead, and a sudden flush overspread her face, her brow, her neck. Her breathing was quick; and she added, in a voice of intense emotion, "But if you think I do not love his father, you are mistaken."
"Alice, I never said—I never thought—"
"Oh yes you did, and you were right to think so; for when I married him I loved him as a child, not as a woman loves; but real love and real sorrow came in time, and strength and courage are come with them. Ellen, I love him; and I charge you not to stand between him and me. I suppose I am doing a strange thing now, but it seems to me right. I have none to help me, none to counsel me but my own heart, and the sorrow which has long been secretly buried within it. I married, and the world before me was a blank, but a blank in which the spirit of God seemed to me to move as it did in the beginning of time, on the face of the waters. All was outside then in my life, inside in my brain in my heart there was nothing but peace and joy—joy that the sky was bright, and the earth gay with flowers in the summer, and white with pure snow in the winter. I learnt what life and love are in the books Henry gave me. I felt what they were the first time I saw him with you. I shut the books—I shut my eyes—I was a coward—I was afraid of my own heart—afraid of the life I saw before me, till strength was given me to encounter it. I saw that mine was Leah's and not Rachael's portion, and I prayed for grace not to shrink from my cup of sorrow. I do not shrink from it now; but, for Henry's sake, for the sake of my child, I must struggle with you and with your strange power, and God will be with me, Ellen, for you seek to put asunder what He has joined together."
"Alice, Alice, spare me, for I am miserable. Spare me, for your sorrows are no more like my sorrows than the martyr's sufferings resemble the dying criminal's agony. Let me hide my face on your knees—cover me with the them of your garment, and let the tears that fall on my head plead for me to the God whom you adore, for they are like those which the angels in Heaven shed over a sinner who repents. Pray—pray that his heart may be softened; pray for him, for yourself, for me. Pray that I may prevail or die; God forgive me, I dare not die, but I cannot live as I have lived—"
"Ellen, do not talk so wildly. I dare not speak words of hope or of comfort if you do not cast this weakness from you—if you do not struggle with a passion begun in sin, and which can only end in destruction."
"Alice, I swear by all that is most sacred,—I swear it as I would on my dying bed,—that I do not love your husband; and that now—"
"Oh, then you have done wickedly! You have never loved him, and yet you have sought his love, and worked on his feelings, till his nature, which was kind, has grown fierce; and his pale cheek has grown paler still. You have never loved him? and yet you have made him forget every duty and every tie. You have taken his heart from me, from his child, from his home, and you value it not. In wantonness you have taken his love and my happiness away—you have played with it and destroyed it. Oh, Ellen, God have mercy upon you, for you are very wicked!"
"I have been guilty, I have been wicked, Alice, but not in the way you think. Believe me, there is a mystery in all this which I dare not explain."
"Oh, yes; there has been a mystery in the air we breathe, in the words we have all spoken to each other, in our lives, and in our hearts. My grandmother trembles and turns pale when you are named, or when your carriage drives by in the street; and even now the colour forsakes your cheek, and your lips quiver as I speak of her. Henry married me an ignorant child—as I have learnt since that men wed brides who are rich and noble, for their rank and for their riches, without loving me or trying to make me love him. He hates Robert Harding and curses him in a low voice when we meet him, and yet he speaks to him civilly, and offers him money which he spurns, and presents which he refuses. You say you do not love Henry, you swear it, and yet day after day you spend hours with him, and when he has been absent from you, you have called him back. You have written to him in secret, and turned pale when your letters have been discovered. Oh, there is a deep and terrible mystery in all this, and we have walked in darkness till we have almost forgotten what light is."
I hid my face in my hands, overcome by the force of Alice's words, and unable to meet the searching power of her glance. There was a long deep silence between us, and then I rose to go, and said to her as I did so, with my eyes fixed on the ground, "You pray for your enemies, pray for me. You pray for those who suffer in body and in mind—pray for me. You may never learn how right and how wrong you have been to-day; but you cannot be wrong in praying to God for me, for He has vexed me with all His storms, all His waves have gone over me, and I am well-nigh overwhelmed. My only hope is in the mercy of one who has never yet showed mercy either to you or to me."
I left her, and never again have I seen that angel face, that pale and blighted form, or heard the accents of her low and solemn voice; but if there is a saint who pleads for me on earth, or an angel who intercedes for me in Heaven, it is she whose life I have blighted, and whose heart I have broken.
"Some sadden flash of lightning strike me blind, Or cleave the centre of the earth, that I May living find a sepulchre to swallow Me and my shame together!"
"So the struck deer, the arrow at his heart, Lies down to die in some sequestered part; There stretched unseen, in coverts hid from day, Bleeds drop by drop, and pants his life away."
I went home, and as I walked into the house I saw a letter in Henry's handwriting lying on the table. I took it, and having locked myself in my dressing-room, I opened it with trembling fingers and read as follows:—
"You do not choose to answer my letters, and I am sent away from your door like a troublesome beggar. My sister is in the deepest affliction, and I vainly inquire of you what accounts you have of her. You are playing a desperate game, if you imagine, by such heartless insults, to rid yourself of my love. They change its nature I own. I get weary of suffering alone, and life is not long enough to waste it in the burning strife and heart-consuming agitations in which we live. There is an end to all things; and if for twenty-four hours longer you trifle with me you will repent it to the day of your death. Have I not told you that the time must come when, if you have not learnt to love me, I shall make you hate me?"
My last letter to Henry had been intercepted; I saw it clearly and with despair, for I had written it with that intensity of supplication, that strength of appeal which must have reached his heart. I had built all my hopes upon it, and now the apparent scorn and unfeelingness of my conduct had brought him to that hard and reckless mood which I most dreaded. I felt that at any cost I must pacify him; and in the explanation I sent him there was more of self-defence than accusation, more entreaty than reproach; I addressed him rather as an injured friend than as a cruel enemy. It was late in the day before I had satisfied myself that the tone of my letter was calculated to soothe and pacify him, and then I dared not trust to chance for its delivery. With an unsteady hand I gave it to the servant, and desired him to deliver it into Mr. Lovell's own hand: and then the night came with its long hours of darkness, of restless sleep and of waking misery.
How was it, that when I woke on the next morning, and felt that the air was heavy and the atmosphere dark, I did not see in it a sign of what that day would bring forth? How was it that when I went into Edward's room, and gazed on every familiar object which seemed to bring his image before me, I did not feel more wretched than usual,—I did not long for his return, or dread it with more intensity than the day before; and when I pressed his picture to my lips, the tears that dimmed my eyes did not flow more bitterly than usual? The post came in; and there were letters for me,—letters from abroad: a black seal was upon one of them; and as I saw it, at once I felt that my uncle was dead. A gush of purer and more sacred sorrow than had ever yet sprung from my eyes or wrung my heart, overcame for a while the selfish fears and sufferings of my soul. But even my grief for him,—the kindest though the sternest of friends,—was not unmixed with dark and bitter associations. It was a strange fear that seized me; I was weakened by suffering, and a superstitious dread took possession of me. He was gone, and he had been deceived to the end; he had mourned over his child long and deeply, and had died in ignorance of my share in her death; but now, his disembodied spirit seemed to haunt and accuse me; and that first link which connects us with the unknown world, by the loss of one we love, was to me a dreadful as well as a solemn thought. "His last words," thus wrote my aunt, "his last words were of you; he raised himself with difficulty in his bed, and with a strong effort pronounced your name, and then, after another struggle, added, 'Tell her to make Edward happy;' after this, he held my hand in his for a few minutes; once he pressed it, a change came over his face, and then he died in perfect peace. Oh, my Ellen, to die must be a dark and dreadful thing to those who have lived without God in the world! but to die as he did is not terrible; for his life had been void of offence, and irreproachable, as far as a human being's can be, and his death was indeed the death of the righteous." Edward, a voice from the grave calls upon me to make you happy. Where are you; that I may be at your feet and fulfil that dying charge? Where are you, that I too may die in peace, nor close my eyes for ever without a word of pity or of pardon from you?
Twice I read over my aunt's letter, and then I opened Edward's. He had not reached Hyeres before my uncle's death: and had met Mrs. Middleton on her way back to England: he was travelling home with her, and meant to precede her by a few days to London, which he intended to reach by the twenty-third of the month. He said she was powerfully and deeply affected by the loss she had sustained; but that she was calm and composed, and only intensely anxious to be with me again. He said he had received my letter, and concluded his with an earnest request that I would take care of my health. I might then expect him in two days;—I should see him again whom my soul worshipped,—him whom I loved with a strength of passion and a fervour of devotion which absorbed every feeling of my heart;—and yet no faithless wife, no guilty woman, ever looked to the return, or anticipated the presence, of the husband she had betrayed, with more nervous terror, or more deep depression, than I did Edward's.
His letter was in my hand, and I was gazing intently upon it, when the door opened, and Henry came in. The blood forsook my cheek, and I gasped for breath. Mr. Middleton's death—his sister's grief—his pale and haggard expression of countenance—a vague hope that he was come, at last, to set me free forever—kept me silent and subdued. He sat down opposite to me, and said, "I have forced my way in, and brought you this letter."
Glancing at the table, he added, "You have received the last account, I see. Has my sister written to you?"
I could not speak, but I took her fetter and put it into his hands. He read it, and then laid it down with a deep sigh.
"He used me hardly, and hated the sight of me; but I respected him, and would fain have seen his life prolonged for Mary's sake."
There was a long pause after this; we were afraid of each other, and of what each might say next. It was now three weeks since we had met; an eternal separation was at hand; it rested with Henry to decide how we should part. Would he break the chain with which he had bound me? or would he leave upon me for ever the mark of my abhorred slavery? I stood before him, and fixed my eyes upon him.
"Henry, the moment is come when we must part."
"Part!" he exclaimed. "Do you think I am come to part with you? Do you imagine that I will leave you and Edward—whom I now hate as much as I once loved him—to exult over my despair, and to banish me from your house after mine has been tamed into a hell—"
"What words do you dare to utter? Do not blaspheme. Your house is sanctified by the presence of an angel."
"It is haunted by a fiend, Ellen,—that woman who betrayed us,—that woman who, in one of her paroxysms of rage, broke open my desk, and drew from it those fatal letters which she sent to Edward in the vain hope of separating us for ever. She it was who intercepted and destroyed the letter you wrote to me a fortnight ago; and she had the audacity to admit this iniquity, when last night I charged her with it. She gloried in the act, and cast back in my teeth the reproaches I addressed to her. Then, in my fury, I spoke out. I tore aside the veil from Alice's eyes. I broke my promises. I told the mother of my child why, and how, I had married her. I saw her tremble with horror, and turn from me with shuddering aversion, when I proclaimed in her pure ears my guilty passion for you, and my resolution, strong as death, never to give you up. I have broken every tie; I have renounced every duty; and now you must be mine—you shall be mine. I have long been your slave, but I knew it must come to this at last. You have struggled in vain; you cannot escape me. My love must be the bane of your life or its joy—its ruin or its glory; and unrequited as it has been, it yet has stood, and will stand, between you and your husband to the day of your death, and turn your wedded joys into deadly poisons."
"Your power is gone—your threats are vain; I defy your vengeance; I scorn your hatred. Denounce me to the world and to Edward. Tell them all that it was not love, but terror that made me tremble before you. Tell them that you have tortured me, and that I have writhed in agonies under your secret power. Tell them that my soul has been wrung, that my heart has been bruised. Tell them that you have changed my nature and made me what I am; and then let Edward, and the world, and Heaven itself, judge between you and me."
"You defy my vengeance? You scorn my hatred? Am I not here, weak and imprudent woman? Have you not written to me letters of frantic entreaty? Have you not broken the commands of your despotic and jealous husband? You have not been wise in your anger, or prudent in your wrath."
"You have no power against me if I confess the whole truth to Edward,—if I kneel at his feet—"
"And perjure yourself!"
"Oh, talk not to me of perjury,—talk not to me of crime. You have steeped yourself in guilt and iniquity; and be my sin what it may, upon your head it shall rest if you drive me to this act,—if you refuse to release me—"
A dreadful smile curled Henry's lip; and he said, with a sneer, "What an admirably got-up story this will be for Edward! It is a pity you did not think of it sooner. It would have appeared more plausible than it will now do. An accidental homicide, carefully suppressed for four years, and confessed, at last, for the purpose of accounting for our intimacy! Your husband will admire the fertility of your powers of invention, which, by the way, he seems, from the tenor of his letter, to be pretty well acquainted with."
"Henry, your malice, your wickedness, cannot extend as far as this. You are not a demon; and it would be diabolical to refuse your testimony to my confession; besides, there are other witnesses—"
"In your interest, no doubt," retorted Henry with another sneer. "I shall certainly not admit that I allowed Edward to marry a woman whom I saw with my own eyes murder his cousin."
"Murder! murder my cousin! Is it you that speak? Is it I who hear you? Are there no limits—merciful Heaven!—are there no limits to this man's wickedness?"
"There are no limits to despair. I struggle for life and death. You think of nothing but the misery you suffer. You have no mercy for that which you inflict. If I give way to you now, I lose you for ever, and—"
He stopped and hid his face in his hands; his breast heaved with convulsive emotion. I felt he was softened, and I flung myself on my knees before him.
"You lose your victim, but you gain a friend, who, though she may never see you, will bless you every day of her life; and, as she kneels in penitence before God, will mix your name with hers in every prayer she breathes."
I clasped my hands in supplication, and sought to read into his soul.
"Never to see you?—never to hear your voice?—No, no—you must love me,—you shall love me; and even if you hate me you shall be mine. Your fierce beauty, your pride, your scorn, have not subdued me; nor shall your streaming eyes and trembling accents avail you now. I love you more passionately in your grief than in your pride; and, prostrate before me, I adore you as I never adored you before. I could kill you if at this moment you named Edward; and the curse of a broken oath, the mysterious guilt of perjury, be upon your soul if you play me false, and place the last barrier of separation between yourself and me."