"Oh, do not go with such words in your mouth;—do not leave such a curse behind you: it will fall upon your own head, and follow you to your death-bed. Henry! cling to your feet!—I implore your mercy—"
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Was it the angel of death?—was it the vision of judgment that passed before me? Was it Edward I saw?—and did I live over that hour? I must have seen him—for never since that day, in dreams or in thought, have I beheld him without that dreadful expression which haunts and pursues me. It deprived me of my senses then—it has been killing me ever since.
When I came to myself, I was in my own room, and all the women in the house were about me; they looked frightened and curious, and spoke to each other in a low voice.
"Who is in the house? Who is here?" I asked with a trembling voice.
"There's nobody here, Ma'am; Mr. Middleton is gone out; and the carriage, which had driven to the door, is gone to the Clarendon Hotel."
"Give me my bonnet and shawl. Make haste."
I attempted to get up, but my strength failed me.
"Bring me some wine directly."
I drank a large glassful and stood up. As I was tying on my bonnet with trembling hands, a servant knocked at the door, and put a letter into my maid's hand. I turned faint at the sight of it, but took it from her and bade her leave me.
There are moments which we live through, but which we cannot speak of. I read these words; I read them every day:—
"This is the last communication I shall ever make to you. I shall not return to my house till you have left it. I will never see you again, or hear your name pronounced, as long as I live. Your own fortune, and any allowance you may desire out of mine, will be remitted to you by my solicitors in the manner you will direct; should you address any letters to me, they will be returned to you unopened."
I did not faint again; I did not shed a single tear; a dreadful weight oppressed my limbs and checked my breathing; the source of tears was dried up within me; I groaned in spirit; I expected nothing; I hoped nothing. I did not dare to take a step forward; my eyes were fixed on those words, "Leave my house for ever. I never will see you again." If I stirred, it was to go for ever! and it could not be; it must not be. I had not seen him for the last time; life was not over with me; I was not condemned to that death of the soul, and endless separation; nor sentenced to a living grave, with a heart still throbbing with ardent and passionate affection.
Would no one help me? Would no one have mercy upon me? Was there no voice that he would listen to,—no appeal that would reach him? There was one whom I had wronged; but whose image rose before me in that hour of despair; there was one whom I would seek, and who would plead for me, with Edward on earth, and with God in Heaven. I would go to her, and if her cold, pale hands were laid upon my burning brow, if her voice, like a moist, refreshing wind, passed through the fiery furnace of my affliction, I should not die but live—I should weep at her feet, not writhe and agonise alone.
I rose from my knees; I smoothed my hair, and drew my shawl round me. I had lost my gloves, and opened a drawer to look for them; the only pair I could find was one which Edward had made me put aside because he disliked their colour. What his letter had not done,—what the horrible sufferings of the last hour had not done,—this trifling circumstance did. I cried bitterly; and the pressure on my brain subsided. I walked rapidly through the hall, and as the porter opened the door, he stopped me and said, "Shall not John go with you, Ma'am?" I shook my head and darted on; but before he had closed the door, I came back to say, "I shall be home again in an hour." Why did I do so? Oh, because in its anguish the heart is weak, and I needed to tell myself that I was not going for ever.
To walk through the crowded streets, with a horrible grief in one's heart, and a dizzy aching in one's head; to push by happy, careless, busy creatures, and have a dreadful question shoot across one's brain of eternity,—of infinity,—which is answered by nothing but a vague though acute sense of suffering;—to meet the vacant stare, or the bow of recognition, when the head is splitting and the heart breaking;—who is there that has known all this? I have; and dreams have not pictured anything worse; though mine have been dreadful enough!
I walked fast; but the flagstones seemed to extend under my feet, and each carriage that whirled along, might be bearing Edward away. Once a travelling chariot dashed past me; I uttered a faint cry, and rushed towards it; the bystanders looked round in astonishment, and, as it turned the corner, I saw Mr. Escourt's face; he smiled and bowed.
I reached the house at last, and rang the bell. I waited long, and the maid who opened the door stared at me in silence. I ran by her, and up the narrow stairs. She followed me and laid hold of my arm, "You cannot see her; the child is dead," I staggered, and leant against the wall; before me, pale as a sheet, but with eyes which flashed fire, like an apparition, stood Mrs. Tracy; her withered features were convulsed, and the sound of her voice was horrible.
"Darken not these doors with your presence; the curse of Cain is upon you; his mark in on your forehead; and the vengeance of Heaven shall overtake you! The voice of the murdered child calls it down upon you from her watery grave! The last convulsive struggle of the babe who died this morning cries out against you! Ay, tremble and turn pale, and fall upon your knees, for your turn shall come at last! You shall weep, who have made others weep! You shall be trampled upon, who have trampled upon others! Your husband shall discard you! your vile lover shall forsake you; and when my child—when my Alice is dead—"
"Dead! Alice! Good God! Is Alice in danger?"
"In danger! Did you think that—betrayed, insulted, forsaken, with a child at her breast, and a dagger in her heart—my flower, my treasure, my child, would live? You have murdered her! Go, go to Henry Lovell, tell him that his child is dead, that his wife is dying; and the curse of a bereaved mother, the agonies of long lingering years of remorse, the hatred of life, and the terror of death, be upon you both! And may the Almighty, to whom vengeance belongs, pour down upon your guilty heads the full vials of His wrath!"
I closed my eyes, and murmured "God forbid." When I opened them again, she was gone: the maid was holding the street-door open, and I walked out of the house. As I got into the street I grew dizzy, and caught hold of the railing. A hand was stretched out to me, and supported me for an instant. I recovered myself, and saw that it was Robert Harding on whom I was leaning. I started back, and looked into his face with wild affright. "Shall I call a coach for you?" he said, gently. I bowed my head in assent, and he went to fetch one. When it came, he let down the step and put me in. As he did so, I pointed to the window and said, "Will she die?"
"God only knows that," he answered in a gruff voice. "You seem like to die too; and well you may!"
I bade the coachman drive me home; and all the way I repeated to myself in a low voice—home, home; and when we reached it, I hardly dared to enter again that house from which Edward had banished me. The porter put into my hand some notes and letters. I took them, and, for the last time, went up to my own room. It was getting dark, and I rang for candles. I looked at the letters in my hand with a sort of vague groundless hope, that something in them might alter the dreadful certainty of my fate. The servant swept the hearth, and put on fresh coals, and then asked, "Do you expect Mr. Middleton home to dinner, Ma'am?"
I could not say no; I could not speak; I shook my head, and made a sign to him to go; and when the door was closed upon him, I flung myself with my face on the ground, and wept in anguish of spirit.
Then, for the first time, I asked myself what I should do, where I should go. To speak to any one I had ever known before, to justify myself to any one but to Edward, to leave his house for that of any friend or acquaintance, was impossible. Condemned and discarded by him, I had no other thought, but as a wounded animal to creep to some corner of the world, and die there in silence.
I glanced at the letters before me; one was an invitation for the Wednesday in the following week. My name and Edward's were joined together, as they never would be again. The details of that every-day happiness of life, which was for ever destroyed, rose before me; and my heart rebelled against its fate, and murmured against God. I opened the next; it was from Henry. The image of his dying and childless wife was before me; and I shuddered as I read these lines:
"Your character is gone, your reputation is lost, you are for ever parted from Edward. Nothing remains to you now but the proffered devotion of my whole life. I have not returned to my detested home since the last scene that drove me from it, and never shall again. As long as you live I shall be at your side; wherever you go I shall follow you. There is a wild joy in my heart, for our destiny is accomplished; and henceforward we must be all in all to each other. Ellen, idol of my soul, you shall be mine. The excess of my love must win back love at last. Write me one line; tell me where you go; what you do. Life has not strength, language has not words, for this tumultuous fever of agitation, for this hour of love and terror, of anguish and of joy."
I tore open the next letter, and read as follows:
"My blessed child, I shall see you to-morrow, and I can feel almost happy in that prospect. You and Edward occupied your uncle's last thoughts; and on you both he pronounced his last blessing. The sight of your mutual happiness, your devotion to each other, will seem to me a tribute to his memory, and a consolation to my own sorrows. Edward has been as a son to me in my affliction, and I like to think that in you he possesses the greatest blessing that my grateful tenderness could desire for him.
"I wish I could feel happy about Henry and Alice; I had hoped that the birth of their child would have made him more domestic, and drawn them more closely together; but, except a few hurried lines in which he announced the fact to me, and another short letter since, I have heard nothing from him; and I have received a strange one from her grandmother. She insists upon seeing me immediately on my return to England, and speaks of communicating some dreadful secret to me. If I did not think her mad, this would frighten me; but her language and conduct ever since the marriage have been so strange, that I suspect she must be out of her mind. I shall go to Henry's house at once on my arrival to-morrow; and by the middle of the day I hope to be once more with you, my beloved and precious child. The past is sad, the future is gloomy; I have many fears and disquietudes; but you are my light in darkness, my bird of peace amid the storms of life; and in your happiness I shall forget my own sorrows. Give my best love to dearest Edward.
"Ever your most affectionate,
The cup was full at last; I was drinking it to the dregs; what wonder if it turned my brain? Banished for ever by Edward—persecuted by Henry's fatal passion—denounced to Mrs. Middleton—accused of murder—what was I doing here? Could I not walk out, and, in the black cold depths of the river, still for ever the passionate beating of that heart which had throbbed so long? Could I not swallow poison; and, in the agonies of deaths send for Edward?
Death! No; I dared not die! I was afraid to die: but I would seek a living grave. I would fly from the face of those who loved, and of those who hated me.
Edward had forbidden my name to be uttered before him. Never again should it be uttered as the name of a living creature. I would take another, and bury myself in a seclusion where I might linger through the increasing symptoms of that illness which, during the last few days, I had detected and recognised by the hectic spots on my cheeks, by a racking cough, and nightly sweats. There I should live alone, suffer alone, and die alone; and when the record of my death, if recorded at all, should casually meet the eyes of those who once loved me, it would pass unnoticed; and my own name, my fatal name, if ever pronounced by them, would sound as the knell of blighted joys—of hopes gone by—as the memory of a mysterious shame, and of a nameless sorrow.
My eyes turned accidentally to a painting of the Cathedral at —, which hung over the chimney-piece in my room. A superstitious and nervous fancy took possession of me. I felt as if my fate directed me there. I turned my eyes away, and tried to think, but could not. A vague terror pursued me; and still, as I fixed my eyes on this picture, I felt as if there, among those solemn arches, in those dim aisles, I should be safe. I felt as if a mountain would be removed from my breast as soon as I had reached a place where my name and my fate were unknown. There, Henry would not pursue me; there, I should never be told that Alice was dead, and that I had destroyed her; there, I should never hear that Mrs. Middleton had learnt to hate me; there, she would never ask me what I had done with her child; and miles and miles would lie between me and him, whom I so hopelessly loved, and so wildly feared.
The hours went by, and each time the clock struck I startled with affright; but I grew calmer as the night advanced; I had something to do, for my strange vague fancy was changed into a settled resolve.
I fetched a small portmanteau, and put into it some linen and some money, Edward's miniature, and a small prayer-book, which he had once given to me. My cough was dreadful, and shook me to pieces; but I listened to its hollow sound with a terrible joy; and as I counted the bank-notes in my pocket-book, I wrote with a pencil on the back of the last—"For my burial."
The clock struck five, and I put on my bonnet and my cloak. The light was faintly dawning. I opened with a trembling hand the door of the adjoining room, and unclosed the shutters, to look once and for the last time on Edward's full-length picture. The light was so faint, and my swelled and burning eyes were so dim, that I could hardly discern its features, and I saw nothing before me but the vision of that dreadful moment when I last beheld him, I knelt before it, and breathed a prayer for him, which will be heard at the throne of Grace, if prayers can avail from the lips of those who cannot, and dare not, pray for themselves.
A noise in the room above my head startled and hurried me. I took up the portmanteau in my room, and carried it with difficulty down the stairs; I reached the hall door, and pushed it open—I closed it behind me; and, if ever there was a pang which baffles description—if ever there was an act which resembles suicide, in all but the apparent suspension of agony which death seems to yield, it was mine, when I closed that door; and, with a weakened frame, an aching head, and a broken heart, dragged myself with difficulty along the street, and stood shivering and burning at once, to wait till the first hackney-coach appeared on the stand.
I called one, and drove to the place from which I had seen that the stage-coaches set off. I saw the name of—on one of them, and secured a place. An hour afterwards we started; and, as I drove out of London, it was snowing hard.
After a few hours' travelling, the burning fever which had supported me, subsided: and the horrible solitude of the future appalled me. Nothing like a hope before me—nothing but the cold chill of despair in my heart—nothing but strange voices and faces about me. A dark, heavy, speechless grief weighed like lead on my soul, but wrought like fire in my brain.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Late that night I reached this place.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
From that moment to this, a night of horror has gathered around me. No tidings have reached, no enemy has pursued, no friend has discovered me. I am alone, and I am dying. I watch day by day the progress of the disease which is killing mc. In reckless despair I accelerate its progress; and then I tremble and shudder at the approach of death. I drag myself to the cathedral, and in its awful silence, or in the low chaunting of the choir, I find a soothing power, which acts at times as a spell over the dark visions and secret terrors of my soul.
But I cannot pray when others pray. My brain is confused, and my spirit weary. I cannot kneel in mockery before God, while my soul rebels against Him. The voices of the dead and of the dying mingle with the rise and fall of the organ. Sometimes a note vibrates on my ear like a death-cry—the sound of rushing waters besets me—the curse of Cain follows me, and his words of complaint are ever upon my lips—"My punishment is greater than I can bear!"
Is there no balm for such sorrows? No refuge for such despair? Tell me, ye who know; for verily, my soul is in great agony, and there is none to comfort me! I am passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and God is not with me!
"What angel shall Bless this unworthy husband? He cannot thrive Unless her prayers, whom Heaven delights to hear And loves to grant, reprieve him from the wrath Of greatest Justice."
"Love her, Angelo, I have confessed her, and I know her virtue."
"Une vie a bien faire uniquement passee D'innocence, d'amour, d'espoir, de purete, Tant d'aspirations vers son Dieu repetees, Tant de foi dans la mort, tant de vertus jetees En gage a l'Immortalite.
"Tant de nuits sans sommeil pour veiller la souffrance, Tant de pain retranche pour nourrir l'Indigence; Tant de pleurs toujours prets a s'unir a des pleurs, Tant de soupirs brulans vers une autre patrie, Et tant de patience, a porter une vie, Dont la Couronne etait ailleurs."
On a cold evening in February, Mrs. Middleton was sitting alone in the library of Elmsley Priory; the wind was howling round the old house in that mournful key which stirs up in the soul a vague emotion; the roaring of the swollen torrent was audible, and the low distant barking of the keeper's dogs chimed in with it. Mrs. Middleton was dressed in the deep mourning of a widow. She was not more than forty, and yet her hair was prematurely grey, and the heavy listlessness with which one of her hands hung by her side, and the other struck repeatedly and unconsciously the table on which she leant, told that the spring within was broken, and that suffering, and not time, had done its work upon her.
An embroidering-frame was near her, and after a while she drew it to herself and began to work. When she had made a few stitches she let the needle fall, and her head sank upon the support of the frame, and there she remained buried in thought till the door at the end of the library was softly opened. She looked up eagerly, and gazed in silence on the beautiful being who was approaching her, and who after kissing her on the forehead sat down near her, and employed herself with the work she had given up.
And that lovely vision, what was she like? What did that pale smooth brow, those earnest eyes, that bloodless cheek, and delicate form resemble? A lily shattered by the storm; a dove scared from her nest, but faithful in her fear. An expression wholly at variance with the features that wear it, is a startling thing. Tears in the eyes of an old and iron-featured man; laughter on a pale and dying face; care and deep-seated sorrow in the round lineaments of childhood, make us wonder and grieve; but more at variance than any of these was the expression of Alice Lovell's beautiful features with the character they seemed made to bear. Intense and anxious watchfulness marked it now, a tremulous quiver shook her hand as she drew the threads through the canvas; and though her large eyes were calm, and her attitude composed, the least sound made her start.
"How is he now?" inquired Mrs. Middleton in a voice scarcely above a whisper.
"Sleeping, thank God, and quietly too. Oh, Mrs. Middleton, hope is strong within me yet, and strength will be given us never to forsake him."
"Hope! strength! Alice, where are they to be found?"
Alice pointed to the sky and then to her own heart, and said, "There and here. In quietness and in confidence shall be our strength." After a pause she resumed, "You were with him some time to-day, did he speak to you?"
Mrs. Middleton grew paler still at this question, and bowed her head in assent.
"What did he say?" continued Alice. "Oh, do not spare me!—do not think of me! What did he say?"
Mrs. Middleton joined her hands together and exclaimed, "'Where is she? Where is she?' was what he said. Again and again he repeated these words in a tone of indescribable anguish, and I was almost thankful when his mind wandered again, and I could leave his dreadful question unanswered. Alice, my child, I am so weak, and you are so strong in your faith, in your hope, in your boundless charity, that I must give way before you, and for once ask you in mercy to let me speak of her. I could kneel on her grave and pray to be resigned; but now as it is I grow wild with terror—"
"Oh, let us speak of her, and let us pray for her; let us never have another secret fear, another unspoken terror. Let us pray that in this world she may still be blessed, or in a better she may have been mercifully received."
"You do not understand me yet, Alice. He does. The same horrible fear has darted through his mind, darkened and clouded as it is. Her own deed; her own hand,... Alice, you never guessed the extent of his misery or of mine."
"Never guessed it, Mrs. Middleton? I have been with him in his hours of fierce delirium; I have been with him when he has taken me for her, and addressed to me words which have made my blood run cold; words of guilty love and of horrible remorse. I have lived between you and him during these days of darkness and agony. I have seen your hope die, and your terror grow; and do I not know what your fear is?—Suicide! Yes, let me speak the word at once, let me dive into your inmost thoughts, and let me carry consolation even into that extremity of misery. Who can declare the point where despair becomes madness? Who shall judge? Who shall condemn? Who can tell the secret things of the soul save the God who made it? He has set no limits to our prayers; and shall we say to His mercy, so far shalt thou go and no further?"
They knelt together, those two women; they poured forth their souls in prayer, and when they rose from their knees, and the elder of them leant her forehead against the breast of the younger and wept in silence, she blessed her in her heart; and she was right to bless her, for nobly and tenderly had Alice Lovell borne her part through the heavy trials that had assailed her. We heard of her last on the bed of sickness, and death was drawing near to her; but youth, and strength of body and mind carried her through, and when she rose from her couch of weakness and of pain, it was to hurry to the bed-side of the husband who had forsaken her, and who, after some days of agonised search after the victim of his relentless passion, maddened by the conviction that he had destroyed her, and haunted by an indescribable remorse, had lost in a brain fever all consciousness save of some intolerable anguish, and of that endless remorse. For many days he hovered between life and death, while his pale wife stood by his side and held his burning hand in hers; even while he raved in dreadful delirium of his love and his despair, and with frantic cries called upon the grave to give up its dead. She was indeed a ministering angel in that house of mourning, for there was another fierce but now subdued spirit, who without daring to approach the bed of suffering, was undergoing all the anguish of the blow she had struck, and which had recoiled upon herself. It was a fearful sight to see that old woman crying like a child over the ruin she had made, wringing her hands in despair, and with straining eyes and blanched cheeks, listening at the door of the room where the being, whom she had nursed as a child, and idolised as a man, whose passions she had fostered, whose life she had saved and embittered, to whom she had confided her child, and whom she had at last ruined by her blind and furious revenge, was raving, cursing, and dying. Between them stood that child whom she had sacrificed, and he had betrayed. With words of peace and of holy confidence, passing from one to the other, Alice spoke of hope and pardon, and turned the agony of the aged sufferer into penitence. By degrees she learnt from her lips all the secrets of her soul. From her she gathered the knowledge of that dark cloud which had hung over Ellen's life, and while she trembled and wept, in her heart there rose (as Mrs. Middleton had said) an immense pity, a boundless charity. Day by day she watched and prayed by Henry's side, and at last discerned a ray of light through the gloom. The fever left him, and one day that she had supported his head for several weary hours, he opened his languid eyes and said, "Alice, is it you?"
She pressed upon his cheek a kiss, like a mother's to a rescued child; but when he whispered in her ear the terrible question on which his life and his reason depended, her face was as pale as his, and her tears fell like rain-drops on his brow. Gradually his strength returned, but still at times his mind wandered. For hours he would remain with his eyes fixed on vacancy, and his lips would move as if unconsciously, and form the fatal words of inquiry which never received an answer. Sometimes he took Alice for Ellen, and kneeling at her feet he, would implore her pardon, and curse and upbraid himself as her murderer and destroyer. With heroic patience, but with a sickening heart and a shuddering frame she listened to these ravings, and met his wild and involuntary confessions with a silent appeal to Heaven for mercy for him, and for strength for herself.
After a while she went with him to Elmsley, and there continued her work of love and endurance. Her strength seemed to increase with the demands upon it. Mrs. Middleton's broken spirit, and helpless despondency, needed her support almost as much as Henry's weakened mind. Her grandmother had returned to the cottage at Bridman, and nothing cheered the solitude of that melancholy abode, but the occasional visits of that angel who moved amidst all these various sufferings and dark associations like a messenger of peace. It was as a hard task, and many a martyr's palm has perchance been more easily won. She became identified with all their sorrows—almost with the remorse she witnessed; perhaps she suffered more than any of them, for she knew more than any one else of that terrible history which had driven Henry to madness, and Ellen (as she supposed) to self-destruction. Through her grandmother's tardy and unavailing misgivings, she learnt the details of that obstinate belief in the lost Ellen's guilt which had led her to hate and persecute her. She heard from her lips how that sentiment had grown into a passion when fostered by a bitter and burning resentment; how, under the influence of that feeling, she had one night made her way into the house at Elmsley at dusk, with the intention of upbraiding Henry, and denouncing Ellen. She had found her alone, and asleep before the organ on which she had been playing. A savage hatred filled her soul, and she bent over that sleeping form with a fierce impulse to revenge upon her at once the death of Julia, and Henry's desertion of her own child. Conscience and terror alike checked her uplifted arm; she withdrew in silence, but left behind her the first of that series of mysterious threats, by which she haunted the mind, and scared the peace of that wretched and deeply-tried being. She confessed to Alice how she had employed and excited Robert Harding to act the part of a spy, to dodge the steps and watch the actions of her faithless husband, and of the unhappy object of his fatal passion. A superstitious belief in a mysterious call to denounce and to visit the crime she had witnessed, constantly counteracted by the influence which Henry possessed over her, and an intense anxiety for the innocent girl she had committed to his reckless hands, had kept her in a state of mind bordering on distraction. Harding was one of those men, who, dogged and obstinate in one respect, was weak and manageable in all others. He blindly followed her dictates, as long as she persuaded him that her aim was to protect or to avenge Alice, whom he loved with an instinctive, faithful, and humble devotion. He shared her hatred of Ellen, and on the day of her marriage had mixed with the crowd at the church door, and thrust into her hand that warning which had been so awfully realised. At the time of the election at—, he had watched from the gallery where he stood, with a strange mixture of grief and rage, Alice's altered countenance, and her husband's open and shameless devotion to her rival. He had in his possession one of those letters which Mrs. Tracy had so often written and then recalled; he resolved to deliver it at once, and thus bring sudden disgrace and misery upon that guilty pair whose destiny was in his hands. When he had done the deed, and retired to his solitary abode at Bridman, he felt frightened at what he had hazarded, and trembled like a child at the idea of Mrs. Tracy's anger. It was, therefore, a relief to him when Henry sought him out, and humbled himself before him. He was released from an awful responsibility, and returned to his post, supported by his aunt's bounty, obedient to her orders, and with a dog-like, self-denying fidelity, ready to die at Alice's feet, to kill her husband, or to save his life at the expense of his own, according as he was told that she willed it—that she required it. During the time he was in Mr. Escourt's service he might have been betrayed into more active steps, had he not detected, with a keen and instinctive jealousy, the motive which dictated his patron's sharp investigations, and the object he had in view; which, with a singular mixture of cunning and honesty, he contrived to defeat.
Mrs. Tracy described to Alice, in tones and with looks that made her shudder, how her spirit was moved, even at the altar where Ellen's ill-omened marriage was solemnised, to denounce that pale, stern bride as a homicide, and to proclaim aloud that the trembling hand which one man bestowed, and another received, with such loving trust, was stained with blood. She had risen to speak; the words were upon her lips:
"Phrenzy to her heart was given, To speak the malison of Heaven,"
when she met the full and glaring force of Henry's flashing eyes. She could not withstand their dark and dreadful power; Alice, her helpless child, was by his side, and she sunk back in her seat, overcome and subdued. On the day of Alice's confinement her hopes had been raised, and her heart softened, by some indications of sensibility on Henry's part. The reaction was violent when he returned after an absence of several hours, which she knew had been devoted to Ellen. She reproached and upbraided him, and he answered her by a careless and brutal avowal of the nature of his feelings, and he left the house again at dinner-time without even visiting his wife. Then in her fury she resolved at all risks to separate him from Ellen; she broke open his desk, where she found notes which excited her hatred and anger to such a degree that she determined to send them at once to Edward Middleton, and thus place an eternal barrier between the guilty pair. The result of that fatal act she now deplored with a ceaseless and bitter sorrow, and day after day, with tears and groans, entreated the forgiveness of her thrice-injured child. Patiently and mercifully did Alice listen to that misguided and unhappy woman's confessions; she abstained by a reproachful look or a severe word from heaping fresh misery on that aged and humbled head, but she pondered over these things in silence; and when she returned to Henry's side and he held out his hand to greet her, hers was cold and nervous, and her heart sunk within her as she fished her eyes on his, and in their wild and restless expression read that fearful retribution which sometimes falls on those who have walked in their own ways, and defied the justice of an Almighty Judge, till the light that was in them has become darkness, and His awful vengeance has overtaken them. Great indeed was that darkness in Henry Lovell's case—greater still from the light that had once been in him. Sparks of genius, touches of feeling, relics of the high capabilities of mind that had once been his, flashed through the night of his soul, and made its present darkness more sadly visible.
Alas, for all that God gives and man destroys! Alas, for all that might be and is not! Genius and intellect, which should subdue and regenerate worlds, and with noble thoughts, and words of fire, carry the truth from one hemisphere to the other—where are ye? What do ye? Consumed upon the altar of a withering selfishness—cramped and debased by the bonds of a narrow scepticism—man has prostituted you to vile uses. Slaves of his passions, and ministers of evil, He has made you;—and where God had said, "Let there be light," has too often answered, "Let there be darkness."
Henry's gloomy and wayward depression increased every day, although his intellect was not wholly obscured; but at the times that it was clearest, he seemed to suffer more than during its hours of partial aberration. He gave way less than at first to fits of violent irritation; the terrible expressions he used to utter, and the murmurs and curses which rose to his lips with such frightful bitterness, were at an end. He even ceased to ask that fatal question with which he had been wont to torture his wife and sister; he listened in silence to what they said, and once made a faint attempt to smile when Alice spoke cheerfully to him. He often gazed on her in silence, and watched her intently as she moved about the room. Once, when she was sitting at her work opposite to him, she heard him say, in a low voice, "Notre Dame de bon secours." She looked up with tears in her eyes; he rose wildly, and cried, "Your tears shall not avail you;" and then he turned away, and did not speak for some hours.
One morning that the sun was shining brightly, and the mild air forestalled the spring, Alice had thrown open a window that looked upon the flower-garden. A bird was chirping a few shrill notes near it; and Henry listened to them with an appearance of pleasure. When the bird flew away, he went to the window, and gazed earnestly on some early spring flowers, which were just coming into blossom. Alice opened a book on the table, and read aloud the following lines:—
"Sweet nurslings of the vernal skies. Bathed in soft airs and fed with dew, What more of magic in you lies To fill the hearths fond view? In childhood's sports, companions gay In sorrow, on life's downward way, How soothing! In our last decay. Memorials prompt and true."
Henry held out his hand for the book, and read over these lines in silence; he then glanced at the title-page, shuddered, and flung it from him. Alice picked it up, and looked anxiously at him.
"Was not Dr. Dodd hung for forgery?" he exclaimed. She turned very pale. He saw it; and said, "You need not be frightened now. I am not mad. In that very book I forged the first link of that infernal chain with which I bound and destroyed her."
Alice knelt by him, and whispered—
"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."
He drew fiercely back, and cried—
"There may be mercy for others; there can be none for me. Look into your Bible, you will see in it what I have done. Turned her body and her soul into hell! God alone should do that. I have done it. Alice, if you believe, you must tremble. Ay, the devils do so too. Poor angel! God has turned thee into an earthly hell. Pure spirit! chained to a fiend, thy fiery trial draws to an end."
He sank back into his chair, and muttered—
"The worm that never dies. Ay, I understand it now."
One day that Alice had been walking before breakfast, and was returning home with that heaviness of step, and abstraction from outward things, which prolonged and acute mental suffering produces, the porter's wife stopped her as she passed the lodge, to tell her that half an hour before a gentleman had come to the gate in a post-chaise, and had expressed an anxious desire to see her; that on finding she was out, he had hesitated a moment as to what he should do, but that at last he had stepped into the lodge, and written a letter, which he had desired her to deliver to Mrs. Lovell as soon as she returned. Alice took it with a mixture of fear and curiosity. The only conjecture she could form was, that it came from Edward Middleton. The unbroken solitude in which he had lived—the obstinate silence which he had maintained when Mrs. Middleton once ventured to address a few lines to him, imploring him to aid her in the search of his guilty but unfortunate wife—made her break the seal of this letter with nervous anxiety.
She glanced at the signature, and, at once relieved and disappointed, she saw it was not from him, and then read as follows:—
"As one who, in his ministry, has received from dying lips a solemn confession—as a man who has witnessed a deep repentance, and a great affliction, I address you.
"There is one who has been for a while as if she had been dead to you and yours, but who is yet alive, although her life is passing away like a morning cloud. In His name, who never broke the bruised reed, I ask you to smooth her pillow, and to bring peace and pardon to that weary spirit. She has made the sacrifice of her life to God; and her only desire is to be forgiven by those whom she has trespassed against, and to forgive those who have trespassed against her. I dare not say more. Just, it is hardly possible that you can be; merciful, I am certain that you will be. Mrs. Edward Middleton is at —; she is in the last stage of a rapid consumption, and before many days are gone by, her spirit will have returned to the God who gave it. She has confessed to me the sins and the sorrows of her short and troubled life. One heavy trial she has been spared, in the knowledge that your life, Madam, has been saved; and if she could receive from you, from her aunt, and, above all, from the husband whom she has offended, a token of forgiveness, her life might still close (I use her own expression) 'with one untroubled hour.' I heard her murmur these last words to herself, as, out of a nosegay, which had been in kindness sent her, she selected a passionflower, the sight of which affected her strangely.
"I have undertaken this journey for the sole purpose of informing you of Mrs. Middleton's present residence. I shall await your answer at the inn at Elmsley. My reason for addressing this letter to you, Madam, was the fear of causing Mrs. William Middleton too sudden an emotion in her present state of health. To your hand I commit the task, and I pray that you may be guided and blessed in the performance of it.
Alice had begun to read this letter as she was walking towards the house; but as soon as she had read the few first lines, and that the sense of them burst upon her, she staggered to a bench, and a great faintness came over her. She read on, however; and, as the letter ended with that prayer for her which had been so fervently put up, she closed her eyes for an instant, and said Amen with her whole heart.
The letter had rolled at her feet, and as she stooped for it, her husband suddenly joined her. He picked it up, and asked whence it came. She trembled and turned pale. He saw it, and guessed it all. He seized her hands, and looked wildly into her face—
"Is she alive?"
"She is, Henry, she is."
He fell with his face to the ground, and for the first time in his life his soul spoke to God.
When he arose he was very pale, but he took the letter from Alice's hand, and read it through in silence. "Not dead, but dying!" He hid his face in his hands and wept convulsively.
"Alice," he cried at last, as his wife bent over him in speechless sympathy, "Alice, my guardian angel! never forsake me—never leave me! Teach me to live; teach me to die; teach me to see her die, and not to blaspheme and to curse. Put your hand on my forehead, and drive away the dreadful thoughts that come over me... She is dying; she is alone: what are we doing here? Alice, I must see this man, this priest; quick, quick—send him to me; there is no time to lose."
There was a wildness in Henry's countenance and manner which alarmed Alice. She walked fast with him to the house, and despatched a groom to the inn with an earnest entreaty to Mr. Lacy that he would come to them directly. She then went to Mrs. Middleton, and, with tenderness and caution, informed her of that glad, mournful news, which relieved her worst fears, only by summoning her to the death-bed of that Ellen whom she so passionately loved, and whose name vibrated in her ear, and thrilled through her heart, with a strange and undying power. She rose as from a deep sleep, and prepared to go to her; but there was no gladness in the revival of her fainting spirit, and no hope in the pilgrimage before her.
An hour afterwards Henry Lovell received Mr. Lacy in his room. He had spoken kindly and tenderly to Mrs. Middleton. When Alice met him, overcome by the sense of all that they two alone as yet knew and felt, and by an instinctive dread of the interview about to take place with Henry, she fell on her knees before him; he laid his hand upon her head, and said in a voice which trembled with emotion—
"The blessing of an old man be upon you, my daughter; and may the God whose servant I am never forsake you in life or in death."
Alice rose and fixed her earnest eyes on Mr. Lacy's venerable countenance, and said slowly and solemnly—
"You have brought us tidings of mournful joy, and you will carry back with you tidings of peace and of hope to poor Ellen's dying spirit. Oh, Mr. Lacy, have you not a blessing to leave behind you? Have you no words of peace to speak to him, even to him who is now waiting for you? I know not in what spirit he will receive you. Dark shades sweep over his soul, and his sufferings are terrible. He is recovering slowly from a brain fever—"
Henry opened the door of the adjoining room. The colour of his face was changed; he looked quite unlike himself; and Alice started at the strange sound of his voice, when he said, "Do not detain Mr. Lacy, Alice: my time is short, and I have much to say to him."
Mr. Lacy followed him into his study; he shut the door, and begged him to sit down. He looked at him steadily for a minute, and then said—
"You know all my history?"
"Some parts of it," Mr. Lacy replied.
"You know, then, that you speak to a man who has destroyed, by a series of iniquitous persecutions, a woman whom he so devotedly loved that even now—"
"Mr. Lovell, I am not come here to listen to the avowal of an unholy passion; I am come to bring you that forgiveness which you so much need, and to claim from you a confession—"
"Stop, Mr. Lacy; you must listen to me, or you will drive me mad," said Henry, with a terrible laugh, "and then what confession will you get? Listen to me. I love Ellen Middleton so passionately, that were I not dying myself, I could not even now do her justice. Though two hours ago I fancied I could have given my existence only to know her alive and in her husband's arms, even though I might never see her again, yet now—now that I have heard of her,—that I see you who have seen her face and heard her voice, the dreadful struggles I go through only leave me life and sense enough to prove to you that I was in my right mind when I wrote this."
He held out a letter to Mr. Lacy, who took it in silence.
"Take that letter to Edward Middleton, Mr. Lacy; you may read it first yourself. If, when he reads it, he forgives his wife and curses me, I shall be satisfied. Tell him, then, that I am mad or dead; I shall be so by that time. When you see her again, tell her not to look so pale, or stare so wildly when I dream of her; tell her not to hang over me, or stand by my bedside and moan so piteously. Did you say she was dead?"
"No; she is dying; and she is prepared to die; she prays, she hopes, she submits, and God will receive her, for His mercy is infinite."
"A ministering angel she will then be, while I lie howling! A gulf between us! What am I thinking of? Where have I read that? There is something very wrong here! I beg your pardon, Mr. Lacy, I will not detain you a moment more. Perhaps you will be so kind as to let me know the result of your interview with Edward Middleton? and give my love to Ellen; I shall call upon her to-morrow."
There was something so horrible in the familiar tone with which these last words were spoken, that Mr. Lacy shuddered, and breathed a mental prayer for the wretched man whose senses seemed to have failed him after the strong and persevering effort he had made to collect them for one important object. In a few brief words he warned Alice, as he left him, of the wild and sudden manner in which their conversation had been broken off, and strongly urged her to send for instant medical advice. She did so; and after taking leave of him, and murmuring in an almost inaudible voice the words, "Pray for us!" she returned to her post with that sinking of heart, and strength of spirit, which those only know who feel acutely, and never give way. She did not inform Mrs. Middleton of the alarming symptoms which indicated the return of what they most dreaded. She would not, by rousing her fears, detain her from the death-bed of Henry's victim; she sent her there, as to a mournful refuge from the terrors she herself anticipated. When she had seen her take her departure, she knelt alone for a few minutes in her room before a picture of the Crucifixion, which hung there; she offered to God, in a few brief words, the agony she was about to endure; and then, with a steady step and a calm countenance, she walked into the room where Henry was, and sat down quietly to her work at a small distance from him. She saw by his eye and his countenance that he was struggling with the delirious fever which was coming upon him; and while she kept her hand near the bell, which at an instant's notice was to be answered, and her eye upon the avenue through which she could see the doctor arrive, she spoke now and then in a quiet tone, and gently and firmly answered the wild questions he addressed to her. Once he called loudly and fiercely for music; he muttered something about David and his harp; he bade her drive the evil spirit from him; he began to speak rapidly and incoherently, and to chafe at her silence. She could not play; she had never sung to him before; for the first time, she did. Her voice was pure, and sweet, and loud; it rose in the silence of that twilight hour with a strange and awful harmony. She sang the airs of those sacred chaunts which fall on the ear like dreamings of eternity. Two old servants who were in the outward room fell on their knees and listened. For more than an hour that solemn, mournful song continued; it thrilled through their very souls, and affected them more deeply than the most passionate cries of grief or of terror could have done. It only ceased when the doctor arrived; and Henry was persuaded, in a moment of gloomy and indifferent abstraction, to retire to bed, and yield himself to his care. But no remedies, no treatment availed to check the progress of the fever, which increased every hour, and which was accompanied by the fiercest delirium, and the most frantic ravings. His struggles were fearful: his attempts at self-destruction frequent; three men could hardly hold him down. Towards morning, in one of those paroxysms of delirious fury, he broke a blood-vessel, and Alice, who had never left his bed-side, was covered with blood. She stirred not even then; she saw in the doctor's face that the danger was imminent; for the prostration of strength which followed the accident was sudden and awful; and one of those indescribable changes which announce the approach of dissolution was apparent. She whispered to one of the servants to send for the clergyman, and then she knelt by the bed-side and gazed with an agonising intensity on Henry's deathly pale face. His eyes were closed in the helplessness of utter exhaustion, and his breath hardly dimmed the mirror that was held to his lips. After a few minutes of that nameless anguish which thought dares not dwell upon, nor words describe, she saw his eyes open and turn to her with an expression of intense inquiry, full of the consciousness of death, of the sense of a coming eternity, and of that question, deferred too long, and asked too late, "What shall I do to be saved?"
She bent over him in speechless sorrow; his dying eyes caught sight of the cross which hung from her neck; she saw it; she held it to his lips, and whispered, "None ever perished at His feet."
He heard her; and his lips moved, and his hand grasped hers; he looked at her, raised his eyes to Heaven,—and he died.
On that murmured prayer, on that expiring glance, she built hopes which we may not scan,—which we dare not judge. We dare not break the bruised but not broken reed on which she leant, nor quench the uncertain light which its memory threw upon the remaining years of her earthly pilgrimage.
When the clergyman arrived, he found her still on her knees by the bed of death, still covered with the blood of her dead husband. He has often since said, that when she rose from her knees, and silently held out her hand to him, it was with a reverence mingled with awe that he took it. He felt (this was his expression) that she had drawn very near to God in the prayers which she had poured forth in that chamber of death, during its first and solemn hour of silence and of loneliness.
It was an irksome and trying task which Mr. Lacy, from a sense of duty, and of profound interest and pity, had undertaken; and the part of it which he most dreaded was now at hand. For those he had left behind, he felt the sincerest compassion, and for Alice, the highest admiration. When he had drawn near to Elmsley, he had formed beforehand a tolerably just idea of the situation and state of mind of its inmates. He had expected to find a woman bowed down with grief, worn out with sorrow, and by her side another, more like an angelic than a human being, and such were those he had seen. He had expected to find a man with a mind weakened, torn by a keen remorse, and still struggling with unconquered passions; he had heard with his own ears the confirmation of his anticipations, and he had left him, sinking under that delirious agony which he had struggled with long, and mastered for one moment, but which had subdued him at last. He had sent one of these sufferers to the bed-side of his dying penitent, and had left the others in God's hands, and had prayed earnestly for them, as he foresaw the dark and troubled scenes on which they were entering. But now, as he travelled from Elmsley to Hillscombe, he felt quite uncertain as to the character, and the state of mind, of the man whom he was seeking. Ellen's journal had given him a clear idea of every individual connected with her history save of that husband whom she had so loved, so feared, and so offended. Whether a strong principle of duty, or an implacable strength of resentment characterised him, he could not exactly discern; and he felt the difficulty of obtruding himself, a perfect stranger, into those sorrows which dignity, or pride, wounded affection, or stern implacability, had shrouded from every eye, and buried in that solitude which he was now on the point of disturbing.
With intense anxiety and curiosity he opened the letter which Henry Lovell had placed in his hands; and, according to his permission, proceeded to read it.
"This letter will be placed in your hands by a clergyman, who will at the same time inform you that I am dying, and that, as a dying man, I solemnly address you, and charge you to read the whole of this letter. Your wife is not dead; and on my death-bed I desire to do her that justice which I withheld from her so long, while she vainly sought for it at my hands. I have loved her passionately and for years; and if she had returned my affection, she would not be dying now of a broken heart, and I should not be on the brink of madness. Do not imagine that I am mad now. I am in the full possession of my senses; and if I could, or dared, thank God for anything, it would be for this interval of reason, which allows me to declare, with all the force of a death-bed assertion, that the woman, whom you have turned out of your house as my mistress, is as pure as she was on the fatal day when we both first saw her; and loves you with a passion which has made the misery of my life, which has baffled every effort I made to destroy her virtue, and which she dies of at last, blessing you, and hating me as a woman; but, perhaps, forgiving me as a Christian. Not quite three years ago, a dreadful accident, an extraordinary train of circumstances, threw her into my power. I saw her in a fit of almost childish passion strike her cousin Julia; the child was standing in a dangerous position, her foot slipped, and she fell down the cliff; you know the rest; had you known it sooner you might now be the happy husband of the woman whom I adore. You too will know the meaning of those horrible words too late, which I have repeated to her in malice, and to myself in despair, till I feel as if they would ring in my ears through an eternity of misery. She wanted courage, she wanted opportunity, to accuse herself of the involuntary act which resembled murder in its results, and which, in the secret cogitations of her restless soul, and excited imagination, assumed a form of guilt and of terror which nothing could efface. I kept her secret! I forced Mrs. Tracy, (Alice's grandmother,) who was in my room, on some matters of business at the time, to keep it too. I devoted myself to my victim; I watched her continually; I read each emotion of her soul; I soothed her terrors; I flattered her; I made her believe, by a series of artful contrivances, that you were the possessor of her secret, and thus sought, by fear, by distrust, by every pang which that belief occasioned, to crush that passion, the dawn of which I had detected with rage and despair. Under that impression, she saw you depart with a resigned and sullen indifference; and for some months I thought myself, if not loved, at least liked, to a degree which justified my hopes and my designs. They were cruelly disappointed;—a fatal engagement, an entanglement in which guilt and folly had involved me, prevented my offering myself to her in any way but that of urging her to a secret marriage, which I proposed on the score of her uncle's implacable opposition. She steadily refused to yield to my passionate entreaties, and we parted with threats and upbraidings on my part, and contempt and defiance on hers. I was, of course, banished from Elmsley, and soon afterwards, for the purpose of saving myself from a threatened and disgraceful exposure, of a nature needless now to detail, I made a victim of that gentle and perfect Alice, who has almost as much reason as Ellen herself to curse the day on which I crossed her path. When I met the latter again, in London, some time after my marriage, I began to use that power which accident had given me. She had then found out that you were not, as she had imagined, aware of the event which had so fearfully blighted her peace. I then avowed myself the possessor of her secret; and alternately as a friend and as a foe—by devotion one while, and by threats another—I forced her to endure my presence,—to tolerate the expression of a passion, against which her heart revolted, but which she dared not peremptorily repel. I employed every art which cunning can devise to entangle and to bind her. In Mrs. Tracy's knowledge of her secret, and violent enmity against her, I held an engine which I skilfully turned to my purpose. I bound her by an oath never to reveal to you the history of Julia's death. She pronounced it; but even while she protested that she would never marry you, she declared to me, with the accents of intense passion, that though she had refused, she adored you, and that she would rather die at your feet, than live by my side.
"After betraying her feelings in a moment of extraordinary agitation, she found herself almost involuntarily engaged to you; she wrote to me, and threw herself on my mercy. My feelings and my conduct, at that time, appear strange to myself. I was excluded from her uncle's house, and that intercourse with her, which was dearer to me than existence, was interrupted and thwarted in every way. By one effort, one great sacrifice, I regained her confidence, and re-established myself in that forfeited intimacy, at the same time that I bound her by fresh ties of fear and obligation. Perhaps I was also touched by her terrible situation: but be that as it may, I allowed her to marry you; and by some concessions on my own part to her inveterate enemy, that old woman,—whose vindictive malice has ruined and undone us all,—I bought her silence, and once more shielded Ellen from disgrace and exposure.
"I need not go into further details. You now can trace for yourself the whole course of my relentless persecution, and of her long and bitter struggles. From first to last,—from the hour she pledged her faith to you at the altar, to that in which you surprised her at my feet,—she has been true to you. I say it even now, with jealous rage; for the fierce love with which I have loved her is still smouldering in my breast, and will only die when I die; I say it with the agony of death in my soul,—with the vision of an approaching eternity before me,—she has been true to you: she has loved you as I loved her; and when she clung to my feet, and vainly sued for mercy at my hands, it was to implore that I would suffer her to reveal the truth to you, the acknowledgment of which might then have saved her. She is dying now, and I have not long to live. She has never loved me, and I have loved her,—and I am sometimes mad—not now. If you do not believe me, send for the woman who saw her strike the child. Speak to Robert Harding. Curse me, and forgive her. Alice has forgiven me. Shall you forgive Ellen, and go to her?
"I have nothing more to say, and I sit writing to you as if the end of all things was at hand.
With a deep-drawn sigh, and a steady gaze on the calm pure sky before him, Mr. Lacy folded and put up this letter. During the rest of his short journey he meditated in silence, on the sorrows he had left behind him, and those he was going in search of; and as he fixed his eyes on the blue and boundless arch over his head, his lips unconsciously repeated that sublime passage in the prophecies of Isaiah:—"My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord; for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
On his arrival at the lodge of the park at Hillscombe, his inquiries after Mr. Middleton were answered by a positive assurance that he was not at home; and it was only after stating that the business he was come upon was of the highest importance, that he could induce the porter to dispatch a note from himself to Mr. Middleton, requesting an immediate interview, and reminding him of some circumstances connected with his late uncle, which gave him an especial claim upon his regard and respect. After a while, the servant returned, and requested Mr. Lacy to proceed to the house. As he drove through those grounds,—as he entered that house, the scene of poor Ellen's brief dream of happiness—as he prepared to meet her husband, he felt nearly overcome by his anxiety for the result of this important interview.
He was shown into the library, and at the end of a few minutes Edward Middleton came in, and, requesting him to be seated, alluded briefly to the circumstances which Mr. Lacy had mentioned, and begged to be informed as to the object of his visit. As Mr. Lacy looked on the pale stern countenance before him, and in its inflexible expression, and deeply-marked lines, read all he feared, he murmured to himself, "Unrelenting;" and his heart sunk within him.
"I am come here, Mr. Middleton, to perform a great duty, and to clear up a great mystery. As a minister of God, I claim from you a patient hearing, and that you will read a letter which I bring to you from one death-bed, and hearken to a dying appeal from another."
"Sir, I respect your character, and I revere your office; but if what you have to say relates to me, and not to yourself, let us break off this conversation at once. There are subjects, there are names which I never suffer any human being to allude to before me; and the sacred character which you bear, gives you no right to force them upon me."
"It has given me the right to receive from your dying wife a confession—"
Mr. Lacy stopped and hesitated; a convulsive emotion had passed over Edward's face, and he turned frightfully pale; but in an instant his features resumed their iron rigidity, and he waved his hand impatiently. "And it gives me the right," continued Mr. Lacy, "to tell you that you are committing a fearful injustice; that you are under a fatal delusion."
"She will die, then, as she has lived!" exclaimed Edward with violence. "She has lied, then, to God, as well as to me."
"Beware! beware," returned Mr. Lacy, "how you speak of one whom God has absolved,—whom He will receive; for He shows great mercy where man has none."
"There are crimes," rejoined Edward, fiercely,—"there are crimes which God may forgive but which man cannot."
He glanced at the letter which Mr. Lacy held; and, as he recognised the handwriting, the blood rushed violently to his face, and then forsaking it, left it as pale as ashes.
"Is he dead?" he asked, faintly, as he pointed to it.
"Life and reason are both forsaking him; but by a last effort, he gathered strength to write what you must read. You must read it; for a voice from the grave calls upon you to do so. You must read it; for your wife is dying, and she must be justified in your eyes; she must be forgiven by you, before her spirit returns to Him who gave it. Listen to me, listen to me, Mr. Middleton: as you fear God, and hope for Heaven, it is not the cause of a faithless life I plead; it is that of a deeply-injured and much-belied woman; she has sinned, indeed, but not against you. God has, through my mouth, absolved her,—at His altar He has received her; and shall you, whom she has loved too much—too fondly—too tremblingly,—with a worship due to Him alone; shall you refuse her that hearing which, with dying accents, she craves,—that justice which, in her name, I demand from you?"
"God forgive me!" cried Edward, wildly; "God forgive me! for I cannot forgive her. She has made her peace with Heaven, you say. So be it, then,—let her die in peace. She has told you that she loved me? Did she tell you how I loved, how I worshipped her?—What is the punishment for those who betray, if those who are betrayed suffer as I have done! She has told you she is innocent; she has told you she is belied: has she told you that I found her prostrate at the feet of that man, who you say is now mad and dying?—that man, who it has almost maddened me not to kill,—whom it has almost killed me to spare—Go, go, Mr. Lacy!—pray for her—pray with her; but do not ask me to forgive her."
"Have you not heard me, Mr. Middleton? Have you not understood me? I repeat to you, solemnly and earnestly, with all the conviction that a minute acquaintance with the sad history of her life can give, that your wife is not guilty of the crime which you impute to her; and that she has only loved you too passionately; only feared you too much. The pride, the sternness of your character, acted fatally upon a nature like hers. Beware, that, even now, God does not look down upon you both, and judge you the betrayer, and her the betrayed. One hour's indulgence, one moment's confidence, might have brought her to your feet, to confess, not a crime, but a fact, 'which has been a covering to her eyes all the days of her life;' an accident which, in a fatal hour of weakness, she concealed; an accident which threw her into the power of those who, in hatred, or under the impulse of a guilty passion, sought to blight her peace, and ruin her virtue. That love which you doubt, in the place of a higher principle, saved her from guilt, and only left her a prey to the most protracted agony. Read this letter—it is from the man who vainly sought to gain her love, by wringing her heart—read this journal—read this confession of many sins, of many fears, of much sorrow; but own, as you read it, that her love to you was wonderful, and passing the common love of woman; and then come to forgive, and be forgiven, ere God takes to himself the being whom you once swore at the altar to keep, to comfort, and to cherish, until death parted you."
Edward Middleton made no answer to this solemn address. He appeared stunned and bewildered. He stretched out his hand in silence for the papers which Mr. Lacy held;—he wrung his hand, and took leave of him. He watched his carriage out of sight, and then locked the door, and remained alone for many hours.
A fearful communing with himself took place that night. He was a calm and a stern man; but bursts of passion shook his frame, and terrible words sprung from his lips, in the solitude of that night's watch; and tears, those dreadful tears which nothing but agony wrings from manhood's eye, fell on the pages before him. Who can tell what he suffered?—who can tell how he struggled? what curses rose to his lips?—what mental prayers recalled them?—what fierce anger burned within him?—what returning tenderness overcame him?
At seven o'clock the following morning, an express from Elmsley brought the intelligence of Henry Lovell's death. An hour afterwards Edward Middleton was on his way to the cathedral town of—.
It was on a mild day, as the sun was shining brightly on the leafless groves of Hillscombe, its slanting rays gilding the lawn on which the house stood, that a carriage drove slowly up the avenue. When it stopped at the door, and the step was let down, Edward Middleton sprang out, lifted his wife in his arms, and carried her into the library.
Once before, a few months ago, he had led her into that room his bride—his idol—his flower of beauty—the pride of his soul. Now, he had brought her back to it to die—for there was death in that marble forehead; death in those painfully bright eyes; death in those transparent hands which held his; in that hollow voice, which murmured, as he laid that weak frame and weary head on the pillowed couch—"Home, home once more!"
He had sought her—he had found her dying—he had taken her in his arms—he had pressed upon her fevered lips such kisses as their hours of hope and of joy had never known—he had hoped against hope. When she had clasped her thin weak arms round his neck, and whispered, "Take me home, Edward, to die;" he had answered in the words of Scripture, "Thou Shalt not die, but live!"
And, verily, in her deep love's excess, she found a short renewal of life. She gathered strength to rise from her bed of weakness and of pain, and, with her head on his bosom, and her hand in his, to breathe again the free air of Heaven, and gaze with a languid eye on those beauties of earth and sky, which have such a deep meaning, such a strange effect, on those who are about to die.
For she must die!—she feels it—she knows it—but not as once she thought to die; unreconciled to God, unforgiven by man. Her weary pilgrimage is drawing to a close; but the light of Heaven dawns upon it now.
She has a great duty to perform, and perform it she will; for she has learnt that the cross which saves us in eternity must be taken up on earth; and that without sacrifice there is no peace for the soul.
She has called Edward to her side; she has mentally prayed that strength may be given her for the trial at hand; she has said to herself, "The scene, his tears, his passion, his soul will too deeply move;" and she has charged him, with solemn earnestness, to leave her for some hours to herself, and then to return and bless the remaining days of that life he cannot save.
She remained alone; and deep and intense were the prayers she poured forth, as she waited for those she had sent for; those whom she had summoned around her in that solemn hour.
She had never looked so beautiful in her days of pride and health, as now, on her bed of sickness and sorrow, of penitence and peace. Yea, of peace; for, although the approaching hour was one of pain and trial; ay, and of shame too, yet her way was clear before her, and she turned not now her head aside from the cup of sorrow and of humiliation, but steadily prepared to drink it to the dregs.
When she saw Mrs. Middleton, the mother of her childhood, the friend of her youth; the friend who had lately sought her with a message of peace, when she had forsaken, and been forsaken by all the world, when she remembered what she had to tell her, her soul well-nigh fainted within her; but she held out her hand in silence, and prayed more earnestly.
When Alice, the widowed, the childless Alice, entered the room; when their eyes met, she opened her arms. Oh, what depths of mysterious feeling, of unutterable memories, of silent aspirations, were crowded in that embrace. O language, where is your strength? O words, your power, compared with the mute communion of such an hour?
But all are not assembled yet; and Ellen's eyes are fixed on the door with earnest expectation; and when it opened, and she saw Mr. Lacy, her guide, her friend; he who by his sacred ministry had prepared her for death, she turned paler than before, for he was not alone—an aged woman followed him, and gazed upon her with a strange and bewildered expression. There was a moment's deep silence, and then Ellen, turning successively to each of them, addressed them thus:—
"You who have been to me all tenderness—you who have been to me just and merciful, with a justice and a mercy more than human; you whom God made His instrument to bring me through much sorrow unto repentance; and you through whose means He brought me back to Himself, listen to me, and hearken to my dying words. Mrs. Middleton, you had a child, and you lost her; my hand, unwittingly, unknowingly (so help me God! as I speak the truth)—my hand was the instrument of her death; it was lifted up in anger but not in malice, and that anger has been visited upon me by a fearful punishment, which, like the mark which was set on Cain's brow, has followed me all my days since, and has brought me to an early grave. Can you forgive me? Oh yes, by that hand which I grasp—by these tears which fall on my brow, and which wash away that fiery mark which has branded it so long, you do forgive me—you say of me what our Saviour said of his murderers, 'God forgive her, she knew not what she did.' And now," she continued after a pause, during which there was no sound in that room but stifled sobs, "and now let me take a solemn leave of you all; let me ask for your prayers, for my end is at hand."
Mrs. Tracy knelt by Ellen's bed-side, and said, in hardly articulate tones, "Pray for us when you are in Heaven."
"God bless you," answered Ellen, faintly, and closed her eyes. After an instant she opened them again, and turning to Mr. Lacy, she said, in a voice of the deepest emotion, "Oh, Mr. Lacy, is it not merciful that death has been so sent to me as to allow me time to rise up on my knees, and to cry, 'Lord have mercy upon me?'" She was seized with a sudden faintness, and sunk back on the bed exhausted.
All withdrew in silence except Mrs. Middleton, who, with clasped hands and streaming eyes, kept watch by the pale sufferer as she slept. She hardly realised to herself the truth of what Ellen had said; she could form but one idea, feel but one conviction—this cherished, this idolised being, was to die. Death had done its work with all she loved; she had before borne up against grief; now, for the first time, she resigned herself; out of the deep she called upon God, and in the horror, in the pity, in the unconquerable tenderness which vaguely filled her bewildered soul, she learnt "to cease from man and turn to God." She dared not think, and so she only prayed.
When Edward returned that day, he found his wife weaker than ever, but calmer still than she had yet been. She received him with a smile which pierced through his soul. The fearful truth broke slowly upon him that he must lose her: that the days of trembling hope and fear, which he had gone through, since he had taken her back to his heart, must give way to that desolating certainty—to that inevitable anguish against which the feelings rebel while the understanding acquiesces. There was no secret between them now; they knew they must part; and her remaining days were spent in a long and deep farewell. She was more resigned than he was—she was nearer Heaven; she had suffered and struggled, and through much tribulation had reached the haven at last; life's last wave had carried her to the shores of eternity, and death for her bruised heart had a balm, for her weary spirit a rest, which life could never yield. She gazed upon him hour after hour, and her very soul seemed to speak out of her dying eyes;
"And it seemed as the harps of the skies had rung. And the airs of Heaven played round her tongue,"
as she spoke of that death which had lost its sting—of that grave which had lost its victory; for in the might of her earthly love—in the ardour of her living faith, she discerned the shortness of time, the fulness of eternity; life seemed to her now but a little span, and she could say in the spirit of David, "I may not stay with thee, but thou wilt come to me."
Edward, the strong, the stern, the self-relying Edward, suffered more. His faith was as firm, but his hopes were less vivid; a vague remorse agitated him; Mr. Lacy's words to him on the day of their first interview had sown a seed of self-reproach in his heart which had wrought painfully since. Had not her face been so divinely serene, and her spirit so full of hope and of peace that it tempered the agony of his, he would have been still more miserable. Life, which to her appeared short, seemed to him so long; the path he was to tread so lonely; the hope he was to cherish so distant; the world as it is, so dreary; the world to come, so mysterious. One day that she seemed a little better, a shade stronger, than usual, he passionately kissed her pale cheek, and whispered, "You will not leave me, Ellen,—you will not die?"
"I cannot live," she answered; "Edward, dearest, I ought not to live, I have suffered too much, too acutely, to raise my head again, and meet what all must meet with in this world of sin and of sorrow. Believe me, Edward, my lot has been wisely ordered. I bless God, who in his boundless mercy has gently laid me down to die here at your side, your hand in mine, your words of love in my ears; they will follow me to the last, and 'When my failing lips grow dumb—when thought and memory flee,' the consciousness that you are near me will remain, and I shall die as I have lived—no, no, not as I have lived—my life has been dreadful, and my death is not."
She hid her eyes with her thin transparent hands, and a slight contraction for an instant wrinkled her brow. The vision of past sufferings had risen up before her; she remembered what she had gone through and trembled. But as she turned towards Edward the expression of mute anguish in his face affected her suddenly and deeply. She threw her arms around his neck, and cried, "I would stay if I could, Edward, but it is too late; the spring is broken, the light is quenched: we must part for a while."
"O God! O God!" murmured Edward, as he clasped his hands in an agony of grief and supplication. "Thou didst give her to me, and I cast her away from me. I was blind and had no mercy; now I see, and my misery is complete. Thy ways are just, but Thy judgments are dreadful!"
"But in the midst of them, my own, He remembers mercy. He has tried us. He has proved us. He has marked out for each of us our way to Heaven. Mine is short, for He saw my weakness. Yours may be long and arduous, for He knows you strong; but both will meet in the end. With one Lord, one Faith, one Hope, I die. With the same Lord, with the same Faith, with the same Hope, you will live. There is a blessed communion, in which we both believe, between those who rest in Heaven, and those who struggle on earth. You will pray for me when I am gone; I will pray for you where I go. At the altar, think of me, as if kneeling mysteriously at your side. Give me a secret chamber in your soul, where my spirit may meet yours, when you retire from the world to commune with God and be still; and when death comes at last to you, as it is now coming to me, think of this hour, think of one so sinful and so weak, passing with a strength not her own, through its dark portal in peace, and God be with you then, my beloved, as He is now with me."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Her prayer was heard in the hour of trial; when he lost all earthly hope, and felt himself of all men the most miserable, God was with him. When, two days later, she murmured in his ear, as he was supporting her head against his breast,
"Read the prayers for dying," he read with a swelling heart and an unsteady voice, and at the end of each she faintly said, Amen. When he came to the last, no Amen was uttered on earth; the light was gone; the soul was fled; he was alone; and if God had not been with him then, he would indeed have been desolate and utterly forsaken, for he had few connections, few friends; he never opened his heart to any one, and in his grief he hid himself from the eyes of men, and communed with his own soul. God was with him during the first hours of agonising grief; during long days of gloom and silent loneliness; during years of calm sorrow, and quiet exertion, in which he did much good, and learnt that lesson which affliction teaches, "In all things to be more resigned than blest;" and when he dies He will be with him still, for He never forsakes in death those who have served Him in life. He travelled for a few years, and then returned to Hillscombe, where he lived much alone. Once, five years after Ellen's death, while he was calling on Mrs. Moore, at Hampstead, he accidentally met Mr. Escourt, who slightly bowed to him and left the room. Edward turned deadly pale; and that night he had to struggle long and deeply with himself, before he could utter the most solemn sentence in the Lord's Prayer. With Mr. Lacy he formed a strict intimacy, which lasted as long as the life of that venerable man.
Mrs. Middleton never returned to Elmsley; and spent her remaining days in one of those beautiful and quiet spots on the coast of Devonshire. The sight and sound of the sea soothed and quieted the restless nervousness from which she suffered. She would sit for hours on the shore and watch attentively the advancing and receding of the tide, or the fishermen's children playing on the sand at her feet.
"How much that woman must have suffered," was the remark often made by strangers as they passed by her, and observed the expression of her face.
Once a little scene occurred which excited some attention in the by-standers. A pretty little girl, whom Mrs. Middleton had often noticed and caressed, was playing near her with another child. They quarrelled, and in her anger the little girl struck her playmate, who fell on the ground.
A loud and wild cry burst from Mrs. Middleton's lips; she laid hold of the child, and in a hoarse and trembling voice exclaimed, "You know not what you do! you know not what you do!"
Abashed and terrified, the child looked at her and began to cry. She never forgot that scene, nor the words of the pale lady in black, who so loved the sea and its loud roar, and who had started so violently and shrieked so wildly, when she had struck her playfellow.
Of Alice! What shall I say of Alice? What did she once say of her favourite flower, her type and her emblem, for it bore in its bosom the Cross and the Crown of Thorns, and it was pure and spotless as those that
"Won Eve's matron smile in the world's opening glow."
She said it had done what God had sent it into the world to do. It had given her buds in the spring, and flowers in the summer; thoughts of joy in health, thoughts of peace in sickness, thoughts of God and of Christ always. Alice has gone and done likewise. She goes about doing good. She weeps with those who weep, she rejoices with those who rejoice, she feeds the hungry, she clothes the naked, she visits the sick and those in prison, she teaches the ignorant, she prays for the guilty. Into the haunts of misery, into the abodes of despair, she goes; and speaks of peace where peace has never been, and of hope to those in whose ears the words sound strangely. "When the ear hears her it blesses her; when the eye sees her it gives witness to her; and the blessings of those who are ready to perish come upon her. She is eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame, a mother to the fatherless, and to those who have none to help them."
Morning and evening she kneels in church, and, like Anna, serves the Lord with fastings and with prayers. There she takes up the cross in the morning, bears it through the day, and returns at night to give thanks, and press it to her bosom with all its thorns and all its sharpness.
Is she happy? I have studied her face; I have watched her life; I have seen her pray by a death-bed; I have heard her sing to herself as she sat at work in her room; I have seen her play with joyous children; I have seen her weave garlands of bright flowers, but then I saw her lay them on a grave—and I dare not say she is happy; but I know she is of those who, if they mourn, shall be comforted; who, if they sow in tears, shall reap in joy; and I remember that a sword pierced through the soul of her whom all generations call blessed.
There is a man who goes every day to the same church, who sometimes supports an aged woman, and leads her gently to the bench where Alice sits; who kneels himself at a distance, and listens to the sound of her voice, as she utters the responses. This is Robert Harding; he visits the poor she visits; he hears the blessings they pour upon her; he talks of her to Mrs. Tracy; and he hopes that the time will come, when he may conceal his love so well, that she will speak to him familiarly again, as in the days of their childhood.
As time went by, its soothing effect told upon these mourners; those sorrows which had at first driven them to solitude as a refuse, when their acuteness was past, drew them together again. That mute sympathy which the heart can scarcely value during the first bitterness of its grief, became to each of them a source of consolation. Mrs. Middleton was to Edward and to Alice an object of tender solicitude. How often he felt that when they spoke together of things indifferent, or listened to music, or looked upon the beauties of nature, the same thought was in their minds, the same image before their eyes. On these occasions she sometimes pressed his hand in silence, and both felt, without saying it, that their treasure was in Heaven.
In Mrs. Middleton's features, in the tone of her voice, in the expression of her face, Alice found a resemblance to the husband of her youth, which gave her an interest in her eyes which no other human being could have had; and in the tender and earnest affection which united them, both found their highest earthly comfort. They had learnt—one, after striving for it long and vainly,—the other, on the threshold of life,—that happiness is not the portion of earth; but they looked beyond it; and found, in the meantime, that each returning day, even to the deepest mourner, brings new blessings in the shape
"Of perils past, of sins forgiven, Of thoughts of God, and hopes of Heaven."
PRINTED BY BERNH. TAUCHNITZ JUN.
Typographical errors silently corrected:
Chapter 4: inlcined to replaced by inclined to
Chapter 5: Middleton, You must speak replaced by Midleton. You must speak
Chapter 5: up all may courage replaced by up all my courage
Chapter 8: I ventured to approch replaced by I ventured to approach
Chapter 8: This book was the "Christan Year;" replaced by This book was the "Christian Year;"
Chapter 8: hetwixt you and me replaced by betwixt you and me
Chapter 10: to say before Alice: that replaced by to say before Alice that
Chapter 10: escape a repetiton replaced by escape a repetition
Chapter 12: "Don 't lie to me, Henry replaced by "'Don 't lie to me, Henry
Chapter 12: and and had charged her to keep replaced by a=nd had charged her to keep=
Chapter 13: interupt replaced by interrupt
Chapter 13: we shoud have been here long replaced by we should have been here long
Chapter 13: now for a fews days replaced by now for a few days
Chapter 17: the orignal cause replaced by the original cause
Chapter 17: this is a glorius opportunity replaced by this is a glorious opportunity
Chapter 18: as I acquisced replaced by as I acquiesced
Chapter 18: a dilirious dream of joy replaced by a delirious dream of joy
Chapter 19: something in weaknes replaced by something in weakness
Chapter 20: bnt last month replaced by but last month
Chapter 22: exlaimed Sir Edmund replaced by exclaimed Sir Edmund
Chapter 24: what I should do. replaced by what I should do,
Chapter 24: Eward, dearest replaced by Edward, dearest