"I was among them," said Wentworth, meeting the Bishop's sombre eyes. "You never answered it, so I suppose you never received it, but at the time I wrote you a long letter assuring you that I for one had not joined in the cry against you, even though my uncle did. I frankly owned that, while I regarded the appointment as an ill-considered one, I took for granted that Mr. Rawlings was suited for the place. I said that I knew you far too well to suppose even for a moment that you would have given the post to a man, even if he were your son-in-law, unless he had been competent to fill it. You never answered the letter, so I suppose it failed to reach you."
"I received it," said the Bishop slowly. "I felt it to be an illuminating document, but it did not seem to call for an answer. It was in itself a response to a tacit appeal."
There was a pause, and then he continued cheerfully. "Rawlings has proved himself dreadfully competent as you prophesied, and Lucy is very happy in her new home. I came on from there this morning. My son-in-law, with the admirable promptitude and economy of time which endeared him to me as my chaplain, had arranged that every moment of my visit should be utilised; that I should christen their first child, dedicate a thank-offering in the shape of a lectern, consecrate the new portion of the churchyard, open a reading-room, and say a few cordial words at a drawing-room meeting before I left at mid-day. I told him if he went on like this he would certainly come to grief and be made a bishop some day. But he only remarked that he was not solicitous of high preferment. I think you would like Rawlings if you knew him better. You and he have a certain amount in common. I must own that I am glad that it is Lucy who has to put up with him and not I. I should think even God Almighty must find him rather difficult to live with at times. And now, Wentworth, if I am to be up and away at cock-crow, I must go to bed."
But the Bishop did not go to bed at once when Wentworth had escorted him to his room.
"It was no use," he said to himself. "It was worth trying, but it was no use. He never saw that he had misjudged me. He met my eye. He has a straight, clean eye. He is sincere as far as he goes, but how far does he go? He has never made that first step towards sincerity of doubting his own sincerity. He mistakes his moods for convictions. He has never suspected his own motives, or turned them inside out. He suspects those of others instead. He is like a crab. He moves sideways by nature, and he thinks that everyone else who moves otherwise is not straightforward, and that he must make allowances for them. According to his lights he has behaved generously by me. Has he! Damn him! God forgive me. Well, I must stick to him, for I believe I am almost the only friend he has left in the world."
Shall soul not somehow pay for soul?—D. G. ROSSETTI.
Fay did not sleep that night.
For a long time past, she seemed to have been gradually, inevitably approaching, dragging reluctant feet towards something horrible, unendurable. She could not look this veiled horror in the face. She never attempted to define it to herself. Her one object was to get away from it.
It had not sprung into life full grown. It had gradually taken form after Michael's imprisonment. At first it had been only an uneasy ghost that could be laid, a spectre across her path that could be avoided; but since she had come home it had slowly attained gigantic and terrifying proportions. It loomed before her now as a vague but insistent menace, from which she could no longer turn away.
A great change was coming over Fay, but she tacitly resisted it. She did not understand it, nor realise that the menace came from within her gates, was of the nature of an insurrection in the citadel of self. We do not always recognise the voice of the rebel soul when first it begins to speak hoarsely, unintelligibly, urgently from the dark cell to which we have relegated it.
Some of us are so constituted that we can look back at our past and see it as a gradation of steps, a sort of sequence, and can thus gain a kind of inkling of the nature of the next step against which we are even now striking our feet.
But poor Fay saw her life only as shattered, meaningless fragments, confused, mutilated masses without coherence. The masses and the gaps between them were of the same substance in her eyes. She wandered into her past as a child might wander among the rubbish heaps of its old home in ruins. She was vaguely conscious that there had been a design once in those unsightly mounds, that she had once lived in them. On that remnant of crazy wall clung a strip of wall-paper which she recognised as the paper in her own nursery; here a vestige of a staircase that had led to her mother's room. And as a child will gather up a little frockful of sticks and fallen remnants, and then drop them when they prove heavy, so Fay picked up out of her past tiny disjointed odds and ends of ideas and disquieting recollections, only to cast them aside again as burdensome and useless.
The point to which she wandered back most frequently—to stare blankly at it without comprehension—was her husband's appeal to her on his deathbed. To-night she had gone back to it again as to a tottering wall. She had worn a little pathway over heaps of miserable conjectures and twisted memories towards that particular place.
She saw again the duke's dying face, and the tender fixity of his eyes. She could almost hear his difficult waning voice saying:
"The sun shines. He does not see them, the spring and the sunshine. Since a year he does not see them. Francesca, how much longer will you keep your Cousin Michael in prison?"
Since a year he does not see them.
It was two years now.
The shock to Fay at the moment those words were spoken had been that her husband had known all the time. That revelation blotted out all other thoughts for the time being. It even blotted out all considerations of her own conduct towards Michael, which it might conceivably have rendered acute. It made her mind incapable of receiving the impression that the duke had perhaps hoped his deliberate last words might make on it; that surely she would not, after his death, still keep Michael in his cell. Throughout the early weeks of her widowhood Fay remained as one stunned. Even Magdalen, who hurried out to her, supposed at first that she was stunned by grief.
"Then Andrea knew all the time." That was the constant refrain of her bewildered, half-paralysed mind.
Gradually in the quiet monotonous life at Priesthope the question made itself felt. "How did he know?"
That question was never answered by Fay, deeply though she pondered over it. It remained a mystery to her all of her life. She recalled little scraps of his conversation, tiny incidents which might have shown her that he knew. But she had noticed nothing at the time. Her cheek burned when she recalled his tranquil, sarcastic voice.
"Not on the high road. You are in the right. How dusty, how dirty, is the high road! But I have known, not once, nor twice, women to murder men very quietly. Oh! so gently and cleanly—to let them die."
When first she remembered those words of her dead husband, a horrible revulsion of feeling against him seized her. She had been vaguely miserable and remorseful at his death until those words, so tranquilly spoken in a primrose dawn, came back to her.
Then she was suddenly glad he was dead, gone for ever. She almost hated him once more. It was dreadful to live with people whom she did not understand, who knew things they kept secret, whose minds and thoughts and motives were incomprehensible to her, who believed horrible untrue things of her. It had been a fixed idea with Fay during her husband's lifetime that he believed horrible untrue things about her. But what they were she would have found it difficult to say.
Fay's was not a suspicious nature in its normal state, but most persons of feeble judgment become suspicious when life becomes difficult. They cannot judge, and consequently cannot trust. Fay had never learnt even so much of her husband as that she might have trusted him entirely. Now that he was gone without betraying her, the knowledge that he had known her secret and had guarded it faithfully did not make her feel, with a flood of humble contrition, how deeply she had misjudged him, how loyal he had been from first to last; it only aroused in her a sense of fear and anger. How secretive Andrea had been, how underhand! Perhaps part of the doom of a petty, self-centred nature is that it does not know when it has been generously and humanely dealt with.
When Fay had somewhat recovered from the shock of her husband's dying speech she had turned with all her might to Magdalen, had cast herself upon her, clung to her in a sort of desperation. Magdalen at any rate believed in her.
For many months after she came to Priesthope, her mind remained in a kind of stupor, and it seemed at first as if she were regaining a sort of calm, caught as it were from Magdalen's presence.
But gradually miserable brooding memories returned, and it seemed at last as if something in Magdalen's gentle serenity irritated instead of soothing Fay as heretofore. Was Magdalen a sort of unconscious ally of that fainting soul within Fay's fortress? Were chance words of Magdalen's beginning to make the rebel stir in his cell? At any rate something stirred. Something was making trouble. Fay began to shrink from Magdalen, involuntarily at first, then purposely for long moody intervals. Then she would be sarcastic and bitter with her, jibe at the housekeeping, and criticise the household arrangements. A day later she would be humbly and hysterically affectionate once more, asking to be forgiven for her waywardness. She could not live without the comfort of Magdalen's tenderness. And at times she could not live with it. Magdalen preserved an unmoved front. She ignored her sister's petulance and spasmodic fault-finding. She knew they were symptoms of some secret ill, but what that ill was she did not know. She kept the way open for Fay's sudden remorseful return to affectionate relations, and waited.
Those who, like Magdalen, do not put any value on themselves, are slow to take offence. It was not that she did not perceive a slight, or a rebuff, or a sneer at her expense, but she never, so to speak, picked up the offence flung at her. She let it lie, by the same instinct that led her to step aside in a narrow path rather than that her skirt should touch a dead mole. No one could know Magdalen long without seeing that she lived by a kind of spiritual instinct, as real to her as the natural instincts of animals.
Fay became more and more haggard and irritable as the months at Priesthope drew into a year. A new element of misery was added to her life by the sight of Wentworth, and his visits were becoming frequent. His mere presence made acute once more that other memory, partially blurred, persistently pushed aside—the memory of Michael in prison. The figure of the duke had temporarily displaced that other figure in its cell.
But now the remembrance of Michael, continually stirred up by poor Wentworth, with his set, bereaved face, was never suffered to sleep. With every week of her life it seemed to Fay some new pain came.
Magdalen could not comfort her. Magdalen, who was so fond of Michael.
If Magdalen knew!
Magdalen must never, never know. She could not live without Magdalen. Magdalen was not like Andrea in that. She at any rate was concealing nothing, could know nothing. Now that Andrea was dead, only one living person beside herself knew—Michael. Fay was unconsciously growing to hate the thought of that one other person, to turn with horror from the remembrance of Michael: his sufferings, his patient life in death filled her with nausea, disgust. Her vehement selfish passion for him had been smothered by the hideous debris which had been cast upon it.
She had never loved him, as the duke well knew, and now the shivering remembrance of him, constantly renewed by Wentworth, had become like a poignard in a wound that would not heal. Wentworth had to-day yet again unconsciously turned the dagger in the wound, and her whole being sickened and shuddered. Oh! if she could only tear out that sharp-bladed remembrance and cast it from her, then in time the aching wound in her life might heal, and she might become happy and well and at peace once more;—at peace like Magdalen. An envious anger flared up in her mind against Magdalen's calm and happy face.
Oh, if poor Michael could only die! He wanted to die. If only he could die and release her. Release her from what?
From her duty to speak and set him free? Those were the words which she never permitted the rebel voice within to say. Still, they were there, silenced for the time, but always waiting to be said. Their gagged whisper reached her in spite of herself.
Oh! if only Michael were dead and out of his suffering, then she would never be tortured by them any more. Then, too, her husband's words would lose their poisoned point, and she could thrust them forth from her mind for ever.
"Francesca, how much longer will you keep your cousin Michael in prison?"
Oh! Cruel, cruel Andrea, vindictive to the very gates of death.
Down the empty, whispering gallery of ghostly fears in which her life crouched, Michael's voice spoke to her also. She could hear his grave, low tones. "Think of me as in fairy-land."
That tender, compassionate message had a barbed point which pierced deeper even than the duke's words.
Her lover and her husband seemed to have conspired together to revenge themselves upon her.
Fay leaned her pretty head against the window-sill and sobbed convulsively.
Poor little soul in prison, weeping behind the bars of her cell, that only her own hands could open!
Were not Fay and Michael both prisoners, fast bound: she in misery, he only in iron.
The door opened gently and Magdalen came in in a long white wrapper, with a candle in her hand.
She put down the candle and came towards Fay. She did not speak. Her face quivered a little. She bent over the huddled figure in the window seat, and with a great tenderness drew it into her arms. For a moment Fay yielded to the comfort of the close encircling arms, and leaned her head against Magdalen's breast.
Then she wrenched herself free, and pushed her sister violently from her.
"Why do you come creeping in like that?" she said fiercely. "You only come to spy upon me."
Magdalen did not speak. She had withdrawn a pace, and stood looking at her sister, her face as white as her night-gown.
Fay turned her tear-drenched face to the window and looked fixedly out. There was a faint movement in the room. When she looked round Magdalen was gone.
Fay, worn with two years of partially eluded suffering, restless with pain, often sick at heart, was at last nearing the last ditch:—but she had not reached it yet.
Many more useless tears, many more nights of anguish, many more days of sullen despair still lay between her and that last refuge.
Il n'y a point de passe vide ou pauvre, il n'y a point d'evenements miserables, il n'y a que des evenements miserablement accueillis.—MAETERLINCK.
Magdalen went back to her own room, and set down her candle on the dressing-table with a hand that trembled a little.
"I ought not to have gone," she said half aloud, "and yet—I knew she was awake and in trouble. And she nearly spoke to me to-day. I thought—perhaps at last—the time had come like it did with Mother. But I was wrong. I ought not to have gone."
The large room which had been her mother's, the elder Fay's, seemed to-night crowded with ghostly memories: awakened by the thought of the younger Fay sobbing in the room at the end of the passage.
In this room, in that bed, the elder Fay had died eighteen years ago.
How like the mother the child had become who had been named after her.
Magdalen saw again in memory the poor pretty apathetic mother who had taken so long to die; a grey-haired Fay, timid as the present Fay, unwise, inconsequent, blind as Fay, feebly unselfish, as alas! Fay was not.
There is in human nature a forlorn impulse, to which Mrs. Bellairs had yielded, to speak at last when the great silence draws near, of the things that have long cankered the heart, to lay upon others part of the unbearable burden of life just when death is about to remove move it. Mrs. Bellairs had always groped feebly in heavy manacles through life, in a sort of twilight, but her approaching freedom seemed towards the last to throw a light, faint and intermittent but still a light, on much that had lain confused and inexplicable in her mind. Many whispered confidences were poured into Magdalen's ears during those last weeks, faltered disjointed revelations, which cut deep into the sensitive stricken heart of the young girl, cutting possibly also new channels for all her after life to flow through.
Did the mother realise the needless anguish she inflicted on the spirit of the grave, silent girl of seventeen. Perhaps she was too near the great change to judge any longer—not that she had ever judged—what was wise or unwise, what was large or small. Trivial poisoned incidents and the deep wounds of life, petty unreasonable annoyances and acute memories were all jumbled together. She had never sorted them, and now she had ceased to know which was which. The feeble departing spirit wandered aimlessly among them.
"You must stand up to your father, Magdalen, when I'm gone. I never could. I was too much in love with him at first, and later on when I tried he had got the habit of my yielding to him, and it made a continual wretchedness if I opposed him. He always thought I did not love him if I did not consent to everything he wished, or if I did not think him right whatever he did. I did try to stand up about the children, but at last I gave up that too. I was not fit to have children, if I sacrificed their wellbeing to his caprice and his whim, but that was what I did. I have been a poor mother, and an unfaithful friend, and an unjust mistress. Women like me have no business to marry....
"You don't remember Annie, do you? She was second housemaid, the best servant I ever had. She was engaged to William, the footman with the curly hair. He is butler now at Barford. She cared for him dreadfully, poor soul. But your father could not bear her because she had a squint, and he never gave me any peace till I parted with her. I did part with her—and I got her a good place—but—I spoilt her marriage. It did not take much spoiling perhaps, for after she was gone he soon began to walk with the kitchen maid, but—she had been kind to me. So good once when I was ill, and my maid was ill. She did everything for me. I have often cried about that at night since."
* * * * *
"Mother always used to tell me and I never believed it, but it is true—men are children and it is no good thinking them different. They never grow up. I don't know if there are any grown up men anywhere. I suppose there must be—but I have never met one. I don't know any Prime Ministers or Archbishops, but I expect they are just the same as your father in home life."
* * * * *
"I daresay your father will be sorry when I'm gone. People like your father are always very fond of someone who is dead, who has no longer any claim upon them: a mother or a sister, whom they did not take much trouble about when they were alive.
"Of course I am going to die first, but I sometimes used to think if your father died before me and if he were allowed to come back after death—such things do happen—I had a friend who saw a ghost once—whether he would be as vexed then at any little change as he is now. You know, Magdalen, it has always been a cross to me that the writing-table in my sitting-room is away from the light. My eyes were never strong. I moved it near the window when I first came here, but your father was annoyed and had it put back where it is now, because his mother always had it there. But I really could not see to write there. And I have often thought if he came back after he was dead whether he would mind if he found I had moved it nearer the window."
* * * * *
"The Bishop of Elvaston married us. I daresay you don't remember him, my dear. He died a few years later. He had a wart on his chin and he once shook hands with baby's feet. But he was good. He told me I must sacrifice all to love. But what has been the use of all my sacrifices, first of myself and then of others? Your father has not been the happier or the better for it, but the worse. I have let him do so many cruel little things for which others have suffered. It was not exactly that he did not see what he was doing. He would not see. Some people are like that. They won't look, and they become dreadfully angry if they are asked to look. I gave it up at last. Oh, my poor husband! I knew I had failed everybody else, but at any rate not him. But I see now,"—the weak voice broke—"I see now that I have failed him, too. We ought never to have married. Love is not any guide to happiness. Remember that, Magdalen. We were both weak. He was weak and domineering. I was weak and yielding. I don't know which is the worst."
As the shadows deepened all the tacit unforgiveness of a weak, down-trodden nature which has been vanquished by life whispered from the brink of the grave.
"I have never been loved. I have given everything, and I have had nothing back. Nothing. Nothing. Don't marry, Magdalen. Men are all like that. Lots of women say the same. They take everything and they give nothing. It is our own fault. We rear them to it from their cradles. From their schooldays we teach them that everything is to give way to them, beginning with the sisters. With men it is Take, Take, Take, until we have nothing left to give. I went bankrupt years ago. There is nothing left in me. I have nothing and I am nothing. I'm not dying now. I have been dead for years."
* * * * *
"You say I am going to be at peace, Magdalen, but how do you know? I daresay I'm not. I daresay I am going to hell, but if I do I don't care. I don't care where I go so long as it is somewhere where there aren't any more husbands, and housekeeping, and home, weary, weary home, and complaints about food. I don't want ever to see anything again that I have known here. I am so tired of everything. I am tired to death."
* * * * *
Poor mother and poor daughter.
Who shall say what Magdalen's thoughts were as she supported her mother's feeble steps down to the grave. Perhaps she learned at seventeen what most of us only learn late, so late, when life is half over.
Bitterness, humiliation, the passionate despair of the heart which has given all and has received nothing,—these belong not to the armed band of Love's pilgrims, though they dog his caravan across the desert.
These are only the vultures and jackal prowlers in Love's wake, ready to pounce on the faint hearted pilgrim who through weakness falls into the rear, where fang and talon lie in wait to swoop down and rend him.
If we adventure to be one of Love's pilgrims we must needs be long suffering and meek, if we are to win safe with him across the desert, and see at last his holy city.
* * * * *
Tears welled up into Magdalen's eyes as one piteous scene after another came back to her, enacted in this very room.
Poor little mother, who had seemed to Magdalen then so old and forlorn, who, when she died, had only been a year or two older than Magdalen herself was now.
And poor little wavering life sobbing in the room at the end of the passage over some mysterious trouble.
The elder Fay lived on in the younger Fay. Was she also to be vanquished by life, to become gradually embittered and resentful? There seemed to be nothing in her lot to make her so. What was it, what could it be that was casting a blight over Fay's life?
How to help her, how to release her from the self-imposed fetters in which her mother had lived and—died.
Just as some persons have the power of making something new out of refuse—paper out of rags—so Magdalen seemed to have the power of cherishing and transforming the weaker, meaner elements of the characters with which she came in contact. Certain qualities in those we are inclined to love daunt us. Insincerity, callousness, selfishness, treachery in its more refined aspects, these are apt to arouse at first incredulity and at last scorn in us. But they aroused neither in Magdalen. She saw them with clearness, and dealt tenderly with them.
What others discarded as worthless, she valued. To push aside the feeble and intermittent affection of a closed and self-centred nature, believing it is giving its best, what is that but to push aside a poor man's little offering. Many years ago Magdalen had accepted not without tears, one such offering from a very poor man indeed.
Loving-kindness, tenderness, have their warped, stunted shoots as well as their free-growing, stately blossoms. It is the same marvellous, fragrant life struggling to come forth through generous or barren soil. There are some thin, dwarfed, almost scentless flowers of love and friendship, of which we can discern the faint fragrance only when we are on our knees. But some of us have conscientious scruples about kneeling down except at shrines. Magdalen had not.
She knew that Fay cared but little for her in reality. But she also knew that she did care a little. Fay had turned to her many times, and had repulsed and forgotten her not a few times.
Magdalen had a good memory.
"When she really wants me she will turn to me again," she said tranquilly to herself.
Toute passion a son chemin de croix.
What of him during these two endless years?
What did he think about during his first year in prison: what was the first waking in his cell like, the second, the third, the gradual discovery of what it means to be in prison? Was there a bird outside his window to wound him? The oncome of summer, the first thrill of autumn, how did he bear them?
His was not a mind that had ever dwelt for long upon itself. The egoist's torturing gift of introspection and self-analysis was not his. He had never pricked himself with that poisoned arrow. So far he had not thought it of great importance what befell him. Did he think so now? Did he brood over his adverse fate? Did he rebel against it, or did he accept it? Did angels of despair and anguish wrestle with him through the hot nights until the dawn? Did his famishing youth rise up against him? Or did that most blessed of all temperaments, the impersonal one, minister to him in his great need?
Perhaps at first he was supported by the thought that he was suffering voluntarily for Fay's sake. Perhaps during the first year he kept hold of the remembrance of her love for him. Perhaps in time he forgot what he had read in the depths of her terror-stricken eyes as he had emerged from behind the screen. There had been no thought of him at that moment in those violet eyes, no anxiety for him, no love.
Or perhaps he had not forgotten, and had realised that her love for him was very slenderly built. Perhaps it was the foreshadow of that realisation that had made him know in his first weeks in prison, before the trial, that she would not speak.
Michael had unconsciously readjusted several times already in pain his love for Fay. He did it again during that first year in prison. He saw that she was not capable of love as he understood it. He saw that she was not capable of a great sacrifice for his sake. The sacrifice which would have exonerated him had been altogether too great. Yes, he saw that. It had been cruel of him to think even for a moment that she might make it. What woman would! His opinions respecting the whole sex had to be gently lowered to meet the occasion. Nevertheless she did love him in her own flower-like way. She would certainly have made a small sacrifice for his sake. His love was tenderly moved and re-niched into a smaller demand on hers, one that she could have met without too much distress. His bruised mind comforted itself with the conviction that if a slight sacrifice on her part could have saved him she would indubitably have made it.
After a year in prison the news tardily reached Michael through his friend, the doctor, that the duke was dead.
The news, so long expected, gave him a pang when it did at last arrive. He had liked the duke. For a moment they had been very near to each other.
But now, now, Fay would release him. It would still be painful to her to do so, but in a much lesser degree than heretofore. She would have to endure certain obvious, though groundless, inferences from which her delicacy would shrink. But she was free to marry him now, and that made all the difference as to the explanation she would have to give. A little courage was all that was needed, just enough to make a small sacrifice for him. She would certainly have that amount. The other had been too much to expect. But this——
Michael leaned his forehead against the stone wall of his cell, and sobbed for joy.
Oh! God was good. God was merciful. He knew how much he could bear. He knew that he was but dust. He had not tried him beyond his strength.
Michael was suffused with momentary shame at the joy that the death of his friend had brought him.
Nevertheless, like a mountain spring that will not be denied, joy ever rose and rose afresh within him.
Fay and he could marry now. The thought of her, the hungered craving for her was no longer a sin.
It was Sunday evening. The myriad bells of Venice were borne in a floating gossamer tangle of sound across the water.
Joy, overwhelming, suffocating joy inundated him.
He stumbled to his feet, and clung convulsively to the bars of his narrow window.
How often he had heard the bells, but never with this voice!
He looked out across the wide water with its floating islands, each with its little campanile. His eyes followed the sails of the fishing boats from Chioggia, floating like scarlet and orange butterflies in the pearl haze of the lagoon.
How often he had watched them in pain. How often he had turned his eyes from them lest that mad rage for freedom which entered at times into the man in the next cell, when the boats passed, should enter also into him, and break him upon its wheel.
He looked at the boats now with tears in his eyes. They gleamed at him like a promise straight from God. How freely they moved. Free as air; free as the sea-mew with its harsh cry wheeling close at hand under a luminous sky.
He also should be free soon, should float away past the gleaming islands, over a sea of pearl in a boat with an orange sail.
For Fay would come to him. The one woman in the world of counterfeits would come to him, and set him free. She would take him in her arms at last, and lay her cool healing touch upon his aching life. And he would lean his forehead against her breast, and his long apprenticeship to love would be over. It seemed to Michael that she was here already, her soft cheek against his.
He pressed his face to the stone wall, and whispered as to her:
"Fay, have I served you?"
He almost heard her tremulous whisper, "Yes."
"Do you still love me?"
"We may love each other now."
Again Fay's voice very low. "Yes."
It had to be like that. This moment was only a faint foreshadowing of that unendurable joy, which inevitably had to come.
A great trembling laid hold on Michael. He could not stand. He fell on his knees, but he could not kneel. He stretched himself face downwards on his pallet. But it was not low enough. He flung himself on the floor of his cell, but it was not low enough. A grave would hardly have been low enough. The resisting stone floor had to do instead.
And through the waves of awe and rapture that swept over him came faintly down to him, as from some dim world left behind, the bells of Venice, and the thin cry of the sea-mew rejoicing with him.
Can we call a life sad which has had in it one such blessed hour?
Luminous day followed luminous day, and the nights also were full of light. His work was nothing to him. The increasing heat was nothing to him. His chains were nothing to him.
But at last when the weeks drew into a month, two months, a chill doubt took up its abode with him. It was resolutely cast out. But it returned. It was fought against with desperation. It was scorned as want of faith. Michael's strength waned with each conflict. But it always returned. At last it became to him like a mysterious figure, always present with him.
"Fay," he whispered over and over again through the endless burning nights of summer. "Dear one, come soon."
There was neither speech nor language, only the lying bells in the dawn.
The shadow deepened.
A frightful suspense laid its cold, creeping hold on Michael.
What could have happened?
Was she ill?
Was she dead?
He waited, and waited, and waited. Time stood still.
Let no one say that he has found life difficult till he has known what it is to wait; till he has waited through the endless days that turn into weeks more slowly than an acorn turns into a sapling; through the unmoving weeks that turn into months more slowly than a sapling turns into a forest tree,—for a word which does not come.
* * * * *
Late in the autumn, six months and five days after the death of the duke—Michael marked each day with a scratch on the wall—he received a letter from Wentworth. He was allowed to receive two letters a year.
He dreaded to open it. He should hear she was dead. He had known all the time that she was dead. That flowerlike face was dust.
With half blind eyes, that made the words flicker and run into each other, he sought through Wentworth's long letter for her name. Bess, the retriever, had had puppies. The Bishop of Lostford's daughter had married his chaplain—a dull marriage, and the Bishop had not been able to resist appointing his son-in-law to a large living. The partridges had done well. He had got more the second time over than last year. But he did not care to shoot without Michael.
He found her name at last on the third sheet, just a casual sentence.
"Your cousin, the Duchess of Colle Alto, has come to live at Priesthope for good. She has been there nearly six months. I see her occasionally. At first she appeared quite stunned by grief, but she is becoming rather more cheerful as time passes on."
The letter fell out of Michael's hand.
"Rather more cheerful as time passes on."
Someone close at hand laughed, a loud, fierce laugh.
Michael looked up startled. He was alone. He never knew that it was he who had laughed.
"Rather more cheerful as time passes on."
He looked back and saw the months of waiting that lay behind him,—during which the time had passed on. He saw them pieced together into a kind of map; an endless desert of stones and thorns, and in the midst a little figure in the far distance, coming toiling towards him, under a blinding sun.
That figure was himself. And this was what he had reached at last. He had touched the goal.
She had left Italy for good. She had gone back to her own people; not lately, but long ago, months ago. When he had first heard of the duke's death, even while he was counting daily, hourly, on her coming as the sick man counts on the dawn; even then she was arranging to leave Italy for good. Even then, when he was expecting her day by day, she must have made up her mind not to speak. She would not face anything for his sake. She had decided to leave him to his fate.
She who looked so gentle, was hard; she who wept at a bird's grief over its rifled nest, was callous of suffering. She, who had seemed to love him—he felt still her hands holding his hands against her breast—had never loved him. She did not know what love was.
She was inhuman, a monster. He saw it at last.
There is in love a spiritual repulsion to which physical repulsion at its worst is but a pale shadow. Those who give love to one who cannot love may not escape the stroke of that poisoned fang. Sooner or later that shudder has to come.
Only while we are young do we believe that the reverse of love is hate. We learn later, and that lesson we never forget, for love alone can teach it, that the reverse of love is egotism. The egoist cannot love. Can we endure that knowledge and go on loving? Can we be faithful, tender, selfless to one who exacts all and gives nothing, who forgets us and grieves us, even as day by day we forget and grieve our unforsaking and faithful God?
Can we endure for love of man what God endures for love of us?
The duke's words came back to Michael.
"Why do you deceive yourself, my friend? There is only one person for whom she has a permanent and deep affection—for her very charming self."
He had thought of her as his wife for six months and four days.
Michael beat his manacled hands against the wall till they bled. He broke his teeth against his chains.
If Fay had come in then he would have killed her, done her to death with the chains he had worn so patiently for her sake.
And that night the convict in the next cell, who had at times such wild outbursts of impotent rage when the boats went by, heard as he lay awake a low sound of strangled anguish, that ever stifled itself into silence, and ever broke forth anew, from dark to dawn.
Qui sait ce qui peut advenir de la fragilite des femmes? Qui sait jusq'ou peut aller l'inconstance de ce sable mouvant?—ALFRED DE MUSSET.
The Italian winter was closing in. The nights were bitter cold.
Had Michael reached at last the death of love? Was its strait gate too narrow for him?
After that one night he held his peace, even with himself, even with the walls of his cell. He did not sleep nor eat. He had no time to sleep or eat. He was absorbed in one idea.
Michael was not a thinker. He was a man of action, whose action, sharp, rapier-like, and instantaneous, was unsheathed only by instinctive feeling, by chivalry, honour, indignation, compassion, never by reflection, judgment, experience. He could not really think. What he learned had to reach him some other way. His mind only bungled up against ideas, hustled them, so to speak, till they turned savage.
He sat idly in his cell when his work was done. There was a kind of pressure on him, as if the walls were closing in on him. Sometimes he got up, and pushed them back with his hands.
The sun had shifted his setting as the winter drew in, and for a few minutes every afternoon laid a thong of red light upon his wall. He looked at it sternly while it burned. It looked back sternly at him.
He had no wish to be free now, no wish for anything.
The doctor came to see him, and looked closely at him, and spoke kindly to him. He was interested in the young Englishman, and, like several of the warders, was convinced of his innocence.
Michael took no notice of him, barely answered his questions. He was impatient of any interruption.
He was absorbed in one thought.
He had loved Fay for a long time. How long was it? Five years? Ten years? Owing to his peculiar fate love had usurped in Michael's life too large a place, the place which it holds in a woman's life, but which is unnatural in a man's. He did not know it, but he had travelled a long way on the road towards an entire oblivion of Fay when he came to Rome. But the one great precaution against her he had not taken. He had not replaced her, and "Only that which is replaced is destroyed." He had grown accustomed to loving her.
In these days he went over, slowly, minutely, every step of his long acquaintanceship with her, from the first day, when he was nineteen and she was seventeen, to the last evening six years later, when he had kissed the cold hand that could have saved him, and did not.
Old people, wise old learned people, smoke-dried Dons and genial bishops sitting in their dignified studies, had spoken with guarded frankness to him in his youth on the temptations of life. They had told him that love, save when it was sanctified by marriage, was only a physical passion, a temporary madness, a fever which all men who were men underwent, but to which a man of principle did not succumb, and which if vigorously suppressed soon passed away.
Why had it not been so with him? He had never had to contend with the coarse forms of temptation of which his elders had spoken, as if they were an integral part of his youth.
Why, then, had he loved this pretty, false, selfish woman so long? Why had he allowed himself to be drawn back into her toils after he had known she was false? Why was he more weak, more credulous, more infatuated than other men?
The duke had actually been her husband, had actually possessed that wonderful creature, and yet he, under the glamour of her personal presence, which it made Michael gasp to think of, he, the duke, had not been deceived.
Why had he, Michael, been deceived?
He remembered the exhortations of his tepid-minded, painlessly married tutor at Oxford, who read the vilest French novels as a duty, and took a walk with his wife on fine afternoons; and whose cryptic warnings on the empire of the passions would have made a baboon blush.
Michael laughed suddenly as he recalled the mild old-maidish face. What was the old prig talking about? What did he know, dried up and shrivelled like a bit of seaweed between the leaves of a folio.
Everyone had told him wrong.
Why had they decried this awful power, why had they so confused it with sensual indulgence that he had had to disentangle it for himself? Why had they not warned him, on the contrary, that the love of woman was a living death, a pitfall from which there was no escape, from the depths of which you might stare at the sky till you starved to death, as he was doing now.
With all their warnings they had not warned him, these grave men, these instructors of youth, who had never known any world except their little world of books, who ranged women into two camps, one in which they held a docile Tennysonian place, as chaste adorners of the sacred home, mothers of children, man's property, insipid angel housekeepers of his demure middle age; the other where they were depicted as cheap, vulgar temptresses, on a level with the wine cup and the gambling table.
Why had he allowed himself to be duped and hoodwinked by his elders and by his own shyness, into chastity? They had entreated him to believe it was the only happy life. It was not. To be faithful to his future wife. Ha! Ha! That was the beginning of the trap, the white sand neatly raked over the hidden gin.
If he had only lived like other men! If he had only listened to the worst among them, if he had only torn the veil early from every limb of that draped female figure, that iron maiden, if he had only seen it in its horror of nudity, with its sharp nails for eyes, and its jagged knives where the bosom should be, he should not be pressed to death in its embrace now.
He had been deceived, betrayed, fooled. That was why he was shut up. He had believed in a woman, had believed that the cobra's bite was only a wasp's sting. Good Lord, what an imbecile! He was insane of course, raving mad. And he had been here eighteen months and only saw the joke now.
Michael laughed again, shouted with laughter.
The sun was setting again. It was always setting now. It set in the mornings as well. The red thong of light was on the wall again. Blood red! He rocked to and fro shaking with laughter.
The doctor and a warder came in. It was just like them. They were always coming in when they were not wanted.
He pointed at the bar of light, stumbled to it, and tried to tear it from the wall. It had been there long enough. Too long. And as he tore at it with hands dyed crimson, something that was pressing upon him lightened suddenly, and the blood gushed forth from his mouth, flooding the sun-stained wall.
"I have put out that damned sunset at last," he said to himself as he fell.
So we must keep apart, You there, I here, With just the door ajar That oceans are, And prayer, And that pale sustenance Despair!
It was a little after Christmas when Michael first began to take notice of his surroundings once more. There was no love or tenderness that Wentworth could have shown him which the grave young Italian doctor did not lavish on him.
Little by little the mist in which Michael lay shifted and cleared, and closed in on him again. But the times when it cleared became nearer together. He felt that the great lethargy in which he lay would shift when the mist shifted. Dimly, as if through innumerable veils, he was aware that something indefinable but terrible crouched behind it. Days passed. Blank days and blank nights. He had forgotten everything.
* * * * *
He had been lying awake a long time, years and years. The doctor had been in to see him just before sunrise, had raised him, and made him drink, and laid him back upon his pillow. And now he felt full of rest. How clear everything was becoming. He raised his hand to his head. He had not taken the trouble to do that before. He looked long at his wasted hands laid on the coarse cotton sheeting. What were these marks on the wrists? They seemed like an answer to a riddle of which he had forgotten the question. If he only knew what those marks were he should know numbers of other things as well. He raised his long right hand, and held it close to his eyes.
These marks were bruises. A line of bruises went round the wrist. And here over the bone was a scar. It was healed now, but it had been a deep sore once.
If only he could remember!
The mist in his mind cleared a little.
Those bruises were made by chains.
A deadly faintness came over him.
* * * * *
Michael knew at last that he was in prison. The past filtered back into his feeble mind drop by drop. He knew why he was there. He knew what he had done to bring him there; he realised that he had been ill a long time, many weeks. But there was still something sinister, mysterious, crouching in the back of his mind.
The doctor sought to distract him, to rouse him. He was a botanist, and he shewed Michael his collection of grasses. Michael did not want to have the fatigue of looking at them, but he feigned an interest to please the doctor. He gazed languidly at a spray, now dry and old. The doctor explained to him that it was the sea lavender, which, in the early autumn, had flushed the shallows of the lagoon with a delicate grey lilac.
"I remember," said Michael, whitening.
It rushed back upon him, that time of waiting, marked by the flowering and the fading of the sea lavender. The colour was seared upon his brain.
"A hundred years it is lilac," he said, "and a hundred thousand years it is a purple brown."
The doctor, bending lovingly over a specimen of a rare water plant, looked up to see Michael's quivering face. He withdrew the book gently and took it away.
Michael trembled exceedingly. He was on the verge of some abyss which he should see clearly in another moment. The sea lavender grew on the very edge of it. It yawned suddenly at his feet. The abyss was Fay's last desertion. He looked down into it. It was quite dark.
* * * * *
A few days later the doctor brought another book. It was butterflies this time. He saw that an increasing pressure was upon Michael's mind, and he feared for his brain. He was too weak to read. He might perhaps like to look at pictures.
The doctor opened the book at an attractive illustration of an immense butterfly, with wings of iridescent blue and green. He could not stay, but he left the cherished volume open on Michael's knee.
Michael turned his maimed mind slowly from the abyss into which it had been looking ever since he had seen that sprig of sea lavender.
Yes. He knew that particular butterfly. He had seen them by thousands once in a field in Corfu, long ago on an Easter holiday, when he had been abroad with Wentworth. They had all glinted together in the sunshine, wheeling together, sinking together, rising together like an army of fairies.
How heavy the book was on his knee.
He had not the energy to turn another page. Yes, he must. The doctor would be disappointed if he found the book open at the same place when he came back. One leaf. Come! He owed it to his friend. Just one leaf.
Were there English butterflies here as well?
Yes. Here was a sheet of them.
He knew that little yellow one with red tips to its wings. It was common enough in the south of England.
He looked idly at it.
And somewhere out of the past, far, far back from behind the crystal screen of childhood, came a memory clear as a raindrop.
He remembered as a tiny child lying in the sun watching a butterfly like that; watching it walk up and down on a twig of whortleberry, opening and shutting its new-born wings. It was the first time he had noticed how beautiful a butterfly's wings were. His baby hand went out towards it. The baby creature did not fly, was not ready to fly. He grasped it, and laughed as he felt it flutter, tickling his hot little palms, closed over it. It gave him a new sense of power. Then he slowly pulled off its wings, one by one, because they were so pretty.
He remembered it as if it were yesterday, and the sudden disgust and almost fear with which he suddenly tossed away the little mutilated ugly thing with struggling legs.
The cruelty of it filled him even now with shamed pain.
"It was not I who did it," he said to himself "I did not understand."
And a bandage was removed from his eyes, and he looked down, as we look into still water, and he saw that Fay did not understand either. She had put out her hand to take him. She had pulled his wings off him. She had cast him aside. Perhaps she even felt horror of him now. But nevertheless she had not done it on purpose, any more than he had done it on purpose to that other poor creature of God. She did not understand.
Her fair, sweet face, which he had shuddered at as at a leper's, came back to him, smiling at him with a soft reproach. Ah! It was a child's face. That was the secret of it all. That was one of the reasons why he had so worshipped it, that dear face. She had not meant to hurt him with her pretty hand.
Later on, some day, not in this world perhaps, but some far-off day she would come to herself, and, looking back, she would feel as he felt now at the recollection of his infant cruelty, only a thousand times more deeply. He hoped to God he might be near her when that time of grief came, to comfort her, to assure her that the pain she had inflicted had been nothing, nothing, that it did not hurt.
An overwhelming, healing compassion, such as he had never known in all the years of his great tenderness for Fay, welled up within his arid heart.
Michael's racked soul was steeped in a great peace and light!
Time and time again his love for Fay had been wounded nearly to the death, and had been flung back bleeding upon himself. He had always enfolded it, and withdrawn it, and cherished it anew in a safer place.
A love that has been thus withdrawn and protected does not die. It shrinks home into the heart, that is all. Like a frightened child against its mother, it presses close and closer against the Divine Love that dwells within us, which gave it birth. At last the mother smiles, and takes her foolish weeping child, born from her body, which has had strength from her to wander away from her—back into her arms.
And no more turn aside and brood Upon Love's bitter mystery.
—W. B. YEATS.
It seems is if in the early childhood of all of us some tiny cell in the embryo brain remains dormant after the intelligence and other faculties have begun to quicken and waken. While that cell sleeps the child is callous to suffering, even ingenious in inflicting it. The little cell in the brain wakes and the cruelty disappears. And the same cell that was slow to quicken in the child is often the first to fall asleep in the old. The ruthless cruelty of old age is not more of a crime than the ruthless cruelty of young children. Childhood does not yet understand. Old age ceases to understand.
But some there are among us who have passed beyond childhood, beyond youth, into middle age, in whose brain that little cell still sleeps and gives no sign of waking, though all the other faculties are at their zenith; imagination, intellect, lofty sentiment, religious fervour. Where they go pain follows. They leave a little trail of pain behind them, to mark their path through life. They appear to have come into the world to be ministered to, not to minister. If love could reach them, call loudly to them from without, it seems as if the dormant cell might wake. But if they meet love, even on an Easter morning, and when they are looking for him, they mistake him for the gardener. They can only be loved and served. They cannot love—as yet. They exact love and miss it. They feel their urgent need of its warmth in their stiffening, frigid lives. Sometimes they gain it, lay their cold hand on it, analyse it, foresee that it may become an incubus, and decide that there is nothing to be got out of it after all.
They seem inhuman because they are not human—as yet. They seem variable, treacherous, because a child's moral sense guiding a man's body and brain must so seem. They are not sane—as yet.
And all the while the little cell in the brain sleeps, and their truth and beauty and tenderness may not come forth—as yet.
We who love them know that, and that our strained faithfulness to them now may seem almost want of faith, our pained tenderness now shew like half-heartedness on the day when that little cell in the brain wakes.
Michael knew this without knowing that he knew it. His mind arrived unconsciously at mental conclusions by physical means. But in the days that followed, while his mind remained weak and wandering, he was supported by the illusion—was it an illusion—that it was Fay really who was in prison, not himself, and that he was allowed to take her place in her cell because she would suffer too much, poor little thing, unless he helped her through.
He became tranquil, happy, serene. He felt no regret when he was well enough to resume the convict-life, and the chains were put on him once more. Did he half know that Fay's fetters were heavier than his, that they were eating into her soul, as his had never eaten into his flesh?
When he sent her a message the following spring that he was happy, it was because it was the truth. Desire had rent him and let him go—at last. Vague, inconsequent and restful thoughts were Michael's.
His body remained feeble and emaciated. But he was not conscious of its exhaustion. His mind was at peace with itself.
What she craved, and really felt herself entitled to, was a situation in which the noblest attitude should also be the easiest.—EDITH WHARTON.
On a stormy night, towards the end of March, Magdalen was lying awake listening to the wind. Her tranquil mind travelled to a great distance away from that active, monotonous, daily life which seemed to absorb her, which had monopolised her energies but never her thoughts for so many years past.
Suddenly she started slightly and sat up. A storm was coming. A tearing wind drowned all other sounds, but nevertheless she seemed to listen intently.
Then she slowly got out of bed, lit her candle, stole down the passage to Fay's door, and listened again. No sound within. At least none that could be distinguished through the trampling of the wind over the groaning old house.
She opened the door and went in. A little figure was crouching over the dim fire, swaying itself to and fro. It was Fay.
Magdalen put down her candle, and went softly to her, holding out her arms.
Fay raised a wild, wan face out of her hands and said harshly:
"Aren't you afraid I shall push you away again like I did last time?"
Then with a cry she threw herself into the outstretched arms.
Magdalen held the little creature closely to her, trembling almost as much as Fay.
Outside the storm broke, and beat in wild tears against the pane. Within, another storm had broken in a passion of tears.
Fay gasped a few words between the paroxysms of sobbing.
"I was coming to you, Magdalen,—I was trying to come—and I couldn't—I had pushed you away when you came before—and I thought perhaps you would push me away—no—no—I didn't, but I said to myself you would. I hardened myself against you. But I was just coming, all the same because—because,"—Fay's voice went thinner and thinner into a strangled whimper, "because I can't bear it alone any more."
"Tell me about it."
But Fay tore herself out of her sister's arms and threw herself face downwards on the bed.
"I can't," she gasped. "I must and I can't. I must and I can't."
Magdalen remained standing in the middle of the room. She knew that the breaking moment had come and she waited.
She waited a long time.
The storm without spent itself before the storm within had spent itself.
At last Fay sat up.
Then Magdalen moved quietly to the dying fire. She put on some coal, she blew the dim embers to a glow.
Fay watched her.
Magdalen did not look at her. She sat down by the fire, keeping her eyes fixed upon it.
"I have done something very wicked," said Fay in a hollow voice from the bed. "If I tell you all about it will you promise, will you swear to me that you will never tell anybody?"
"I promise," said Magdalen after a moment.
Fay made several false starts and then said:
"I was very unhappy with Andrea."
Magdalen became perceptibly paler and then very red.
"He never cared for me," continued Fay, slipping off the bed, and kneeling down before the fire. "It's a dreadful thing to marry a man who does not really care. I sometimes think men can't care. They are too selfish. They don't know what love is. I was very young. I did not know anything about life. He was kind, but he never understood me."
Magdalen's eyes filled with tears. In the room at the end of the passage she had listened to her mother's faint voice in nights of wakeful weakness speaking of her unhappy marriage. Did all women who failed to love deep enough say the same things? And as Magdalen had listened in silence then so she listened in silence now.
"He did not trust me. And then I had no children, and he was dreadfully disappointed. And he kept things to himself. There was no real confidence between us, as there ought to be between husband and wife, those whom God has joined together. Andrea never seemed to remember that. And gradually his conduct had its natural effect. I grew not to care for him, and—he brought it on himself—I'm not excusing myself, Magdalen—I see now that I was to blame too—I ended by caring for someone else—someone who did love me, who always had since we were boy and girl together."
"Yes. Michael. And when he came out to Rome it began all over again. It never would have done if Andrea had been a good husband. I did my best. I tried to stave it off, but I was too miserable and lonely and I cared at last. And he was madly in love with me. He worshipped me."
Fay paused. She was looking earnestly into her recollections. She was so far withholding nothing. As she knelt before the fire making her confession Magdalen saw that according to her lights she was speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"Of course he found it out at last and—and we agreed to part. We decided that he must leave Rome. He wished to see me once to say good-bye. Was it very wrong of me to let him come once,—just once?"
"It was perhaps natural. And after Michael had said good-bye why did not he leave Rome?"
"He was arrested the same night," faltered Fay. "I said good-bye to him in the garden, and then the garden was surrounded because they were looking for the murderer of the Marchese, and Michael could not get out. And he was afraid of being seen for fear of compromising me. So he hid behind the screen in my room. And then—you know the rest—the police came in and searched my rooms, and Michael came out and confessed to the murder, and said I had let him hide in my room. It was the only thing to do to save my reputation, and he did it."
"And what did you say?"
"Nothing. What could I say? Besides, I was too faint to speak."
"And later on when you were not too faint?"
"I never said anything later on either." Fay's voice had become almost inaudible. "I hoped the real murderer would confess."
"But when he did not confess?"
"I have always clung to the hope. I have prayed day and night that he might still confess. Sinners do repent sometimes, Magdalen."
There was a terrible silence, during which several fixtures in Magdalen's mind had to be painfully and swiftly moved, and carefully safeguarded into new positions. Magdalen became very white in the process.
At last she said, "Did Andrea know that Michael was innocent of the murder?"
"I never thought so at the time, but just before he died he said something cruel to me which shewed he knew Michael's innocence for certain, had known it from the first."
"Then if he knew Michael had not murdered the Marchese, how do you suppose he accounted for his being hidden in your rooms at midnight, after he had ostensibly left the house?"
Fay stared at her sister aghast.
"I never thought of that," she said.
"What can Andrea have thought of that?"
"Andrea was very secretive," faltered Fay. "You never could tell what he was thinking. And I was the last person he ever told things to. Roman Catholics are like that. The priest knows everything instead of the wife."
There was another silence.
Magdalen's question vaguely alarmed Fay. Natures such as hers if given time will unconsciously whittle away all the sinister little incidents that traverse and render untenable the position in which they have taken refuge. They do not purposely ignore these conflicting memories, but they don't know what has weight and what has not, and they refuse to weigh them because they cannot weigh anything. Their minds, quickly confused at the best of times, instinctively select and retain all they remember that upholds their own view of the situation and—discard the rest.
Fay could not answer Magdalen's trenchant question. She could only restate her own view of her husband's character.
Magdalen did not make large demands on the truthfulness of others if they had very little of it. She did not repeat her question. She waited a moment, and then said:
"You seem to think that Andrea never guessed the attachment between yourself and Michael. But he must have done so. And if he had not guessed it till Michael was found in your rooms, at any rate he knew it then—for certain. For certain, Fay. Remember that is settled. There was no other possible explanation of Michael's presence there, if you bar the murder explanation, which is barred as far as Andrea is concerned. Now from first to last Andrea retained his respect for Michael and his belief in your innocence in circumstances which would have ruined you in the eyes of most husbands. You say Andrea did not understand you or do you justice. On the contrary, it seems to me he acted towards you with great nobility and delicacy."
Fay was vaguely troubled. Her deep, long-fostered dislike of her husband must not be shaken in this way. She could not endure to have any fixtures in her mind displaced. So much depended on keeping the whole tightly wedged fabric in position.
"You don't know what cruel words he said to me on his deathbed," she said. "I don't call it nobility and delicacy never to give me the least hint till the day he died that he knew why Michael was in prison."
"Perhaps he hoped—hoped against hope—that——" Magdalen did not finish her sentence. She fixed her eyes on Fay's. A great love shone in them, and a great longing. Then, with a kind of withdrawal into herself, she went on. "Andrea was loyal to you to the last. He went away without a word to anyone except, it seems, to you. I always liked him, but I see now that I never did him justice. I did not know with his Italian hereditary distrust of woman's honour that he could have risen to such a height as that. Think of it, Fay. What grovelling and sordid suspicions he might have had of you, must inevitably have had of you and Michael if he had not followed a very noble instinct, that of entire trust in you both in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary. Dear Fay, the proof was overwhelming."
Fay was silent.
"Just as we all believed in Michael's innocence of the murder, so Andrea believed in your innocence of a crime even greater, never faltered in his belief, and went to his grave without a word of doubt. Oh! Fay, Fay, do you suppose there are many men like that?"
And Magdalen, who so seldom wept, suddenly burst into tears. Perhaps the thought forced itself through her mind, "If only once long ago I had met with one little shred of such tender faith!"
"Andrea was better than I thought," Fay faltered. The admission made her uneasy. She wished he had not been better, that her previous view of him had not been disturbed.
Magdalen's tears passed quickly. She glanced again at Fay through a veil of them, looking earnestly for something she did not find.
"And Michael," she went on gently. "Dear, dear Michael. He gave himself for you, spent in one moment, not counting the cost, his life, his future, his good name—for your sake. And he goes on day by day, month by month, year in year out, enduring a living death without a word—for your sake. How long has Michael been in prison?"
"Two years." Fay's voice was almost inaudible.
"Two years! Is it only two? To him it must seem like a hundred. But if his strength remains he will go on for thirteen more. Oh! Fay, was any man since the world began so loyal to any woman as your husband and your lover have been to you? You said just now that men were selfish and could not love. I have heard many women say the same. But you! How can you say such a thing! To have met one man who was ready to love and serve them is not the lot of many women. Very few of us ever find anything more than a craving to be loved in the stubborn material of men's hearts. And we are thankful enough when we find that. But to have stood between two such men who must have crushed you between them if either of them had had one dishonouring thought of you. A momentary selfishness, a momentary jealousy in either of them, and—where would you have been?"
"No one knows how good Michael is better than I do," said Fay, "but what you don't seem to realise is how awful these years have been for me. He has suffered, but sometimes I think I have suffered more than he has. No, I don't think it, I know it. He can't have suffered as much as I have."
Magdalen put out her hand, and touched Fay's rough head with a tenderness that seemed new even to Fay, to whom she had been always tender.
"You have suffered more than Michael," she said. "I have endured certain things in my life, but I could never have endured as you have done the loss of my peace of mind. How have you lived through these two years? What days and nights upon the rack it must have meant!"
Oh! the relief of those words. Fay leaned her head against her sister's knee, and poured forth the endless story of her agony. She had someone to confide in at last, and the person she loved best, at least whom she loved a little. She who had never borne a mosquito bite in silence, but had always shewn it to the first person she met, after rubbing it to a more prominent red, with a plaintive appeal for sympathy, was now able to tell her sister everything.
The recital took hours. A few minutes had been enough on the subject of the duke and Michael, but when Fay came to dilate on her own sufferings, when the autobiographical flood-gates were opened, it seemed as if the rush of confidences would never cease. Magdalen listened hour by hour. Is it given even to the wisest of us ever to speak a true word about ourselves? Do our whispered or published autobiographies ever deceive anyone except ourselves? We alone seem unable to read between the lines of our self-revelations. We alone seem unable to perceive that sinister ghost-like figure of ourselves which we have unconsciously conjured up from our pages for all to see; the cruelly faithful reflection of one whom we have never known. Those who love us and have kept so tenderly for years the secret of our egotism or our false humility or our meanness, how can they endure to hear us unconsciously proclaim to the world what only Love may safely know concerning us?
Magdalen heard, till her heart ached to hear them, all the endless bolstered-up reasons why Fay was not responsible for Michael's fate. She heard all about the real murderer not confessing. She heard much that Fay would have died rather than admit. Gradually she realised that it was misery that had driven Fay to a partial confession, not as yet repentance, not the desire to save Michael. Misery starves us out of our prisons sometimes, tortures us into opening the doors of our cells bolted from within, but as a rule we make a long weary business of leaving our cells when only misery urges us forth. I think that Magdalen's heart must have sunk many times, but whenever Fay looked up she met the same tender, benignant look bent down upon her.
"Oh! why didn't I tell you before?" she said at last. "I always wanted to, but I thought—at least I felt—I see I did you an injustice—I thought you might press me to—to——"
"To confess," said Magdalen, her low voice piercing to Fay's very soul.
"Y-yes, at least to say something to a policeman or someone, so that Michael might be let out. I was afraid if I told you you would never give me any peace till Michael was released."
"Have you had any peace since he was put into prison?"
Fay shook her head.
"Make your mind easy, Fay, I shall never urge you to"—Magdalen hesitated—"to go against your conscience."
"What would you have done in my place?" said Fay hastily.
"I should have had to speak."
"You are better than me, Magdalen, more religious. You always have been."
"I should have had to speak, not because I am better or worse than you, but simply because I could not have endured the misery of silence. It would have broken me in two. And if I had not had the courage to speak in Andrea's lifetime, I would have spoken directly he was dead, and have released Michael and married him. You have not told me why you did not do that."
"I never thought of it. I somehow regarded it as all finished. And I have never even thought of marrying Michael or anyone when I was left a widow. I was much too miserable. I had had enough of being married."
There was a difficult silence.
"I should never have a moment's peace if—if I did speak," said Fay at last.
"Yes, you would," said Magdalen with sudden intensity. "That is where peace lies."
Fay raised herself to her knees and looked into Magdalen's eyes. The dawn had come up long ago, and in its austere light Magdalen's face showed very sharp and white in a certain tender fixity and compassion. She had seen that look once before in her husband's dying eyes. Now that she was suddenly brought face to face with it again she understood it for the first time. Had not Andrea's last prayer been that she might be given peace!
There is no wild wind in his soul, No strength of flood or fire; He knows no force beyond control, He feels no deep desire.
He knows no altitudes above, No passions elevate; All is but mockery of love, And mimicry of hate.
—EDGAR VINE HALL.
The morning after the storm Wentworth was sitting in the library at Barford, looking out across the garden to the down. Behind the down lay Priesthope, where Fay was.
He was thinking of her. This shewed a frightful lapse in his regulated existence. So far he had allowed the remembrance of Fay to invade him only in the evenings over his cigarette, or when he was pacing amid his purpling beeches.
Was she now actually beginning to invade his mornings, those mornings sacred to the history of Sussex? No! No! Dismiss the extravagant surmise. Wentworth was far more interested in his attitude towards a thing or person—in what he called his point of view—than in the thing viewed.
He was distinctly attracted by Fay, but he was more occupied with his feelings about her than with herself. It was these which were now engrossing him.
For some time past he had been working underground—digging out the foundations—and as a rule invisible as a mole within them—of a tedious courtship undertaken under the sustaining conviction that marriage is much more important to a woman than to a man. This point of view was not to be wondered at, for Wentworth, like many other eligible, suspiciously diffident men, had so far come into contact mainly with that large battalion of women who forage for themselves, and who take upon themselves with assiduity the work of acquaintanceship and courtship. He had never quite liked their attentions or been deceived by their "chance meetings." But his conclusions respecting the whole sex had been formed by the conduct of the female skirmishers who had thrown themselves across his path; and he, in common with many other secluded masculine violets, innocently supposed that he was irresistible to the other sex; and that when he met the right woman she would set to work like the others, only with a little more tact, and the marriage would be conveniently arrived at.
But Fay showed no signs of setting to work, no alacrity, no apparent grasp of the situation: I mean of the possible but by no means certain turn which affairs might one day take.
At first Wentworth was incredulous, but he remembered in time that one of the tactics of women is to retreat in order to lure on a further masculine advance. Then he became offended, stiff with injured dignity, almost anxious. But he communed with himself, analysed his feelings under various headings, and discovered that he was not discouraged. He was aware—at least, he told himself that he was aware—that extraordinary efforts must be made in love affairs. I don't know how he reconciled that startling theory with his other tenets, but he did. The chance suggestions of his momentary moods he regarded as convictions, and adopted them one day and disowned them the next with much naif dignity, and offended astonishment, if the Bishop or some other old friend actually hinted at a discrepancy between diametrically opposed but earnestly expounded views. He imagined that he was now grappling with the difficulties inherent to love in their severest form. It was of estrangements like these that poets sang. He opened his Browning and found he was on the right road, passing the proper milestones at the correct moment. He was sustained in his idleness this morning by the comfortable realisation that he was falling desperately in love. He shook his head at himself and smiled. He was not ill pleased with himself. He would return to a perfectly regulated life later on. In the meanwhile he would give a free rein to these ecstatic moods, these wild emotions. When he had given a free rein to them they ambled round a little paddock, and brought him back to his own front door. It was delicious. He had thoughts of chronicling the expedition in verse.
I fear we cannot escape the conclusion that Wentworth was on the verge of being a prig. But he was held back as it were by the coat-tails from the abyss by a certain naivete and uprightness of character. The Bishop once said of him that he was so impressed with the fact that dolls were stuffed with sawdust that it was impossible not to be fond of him.
Wentworth in spite of his sweeping emotions was still unconsciously meditating a possible retreat as regards Fay, was still glancing furtively over his shoulder. Strange how that involuntary, self-protective attitude on a man's part is never lost on a woman, however dense she may otherwise be, almost always ends by ruining him with her. Others besides Lot's wife have become petrified by looking back.
Fay, he reflected, must make it perfectly clear to him that if he did propose he would be accepted—she in short must commit herself—and then—after all a bachelor's life had great charm. But still—at any rate he might come back from Lostford this afternoon by way of Pilgrim Road. That would tie him to nothing. She often walked there. It would be an entirely chance meeting. Wentworth had frequently used this "short cut" of late which did not add more than two miles to the length of his return journey from Lostford.
It was still early in the afternoon when he rode slowly down Pilgrim Road feeling like a Cavalier. There was no hurry. The earth was breathing again after the storm. Everything was resting, and waking in the vivid March sunshine. As he rode at a foot's pace along the mossy track dappled with anemones, as he noted the thin powder of green on the boles of the beech trees, and the intense blue through the rosy haze of myriad twigs, the slight hunger of his heart increased upon him. There was a whisper in the air which stirred him vaguely in spite of himself.
At that instant he caught sight of a slight black figure sitting on a fallen tree near the track.
For one moment the Old Adam in him actually suggested that he should ride past, just taking off his hat. But he had ridden past in life, just taking off his hat, so often that the action lacked novelty. He almost did it yet again from sheer force of habit. Then he dismounted and walked up to Fay, bridle in hand.
"What good fortune to meet you," he said. "I so seldom come this way."
This may have been the truth in some higher, rarer sense than its obvious meaning, for Wentworth was a perfectly veracious person. Yet anyone who had seen him during the last few weeks constantly riding at a foot's pace down this particular glade, looking carefully to right and left, would hardly have felt that his remark dovetailed in with the actual facts. The moral is—morals cluster like bees round certain individuals—that we must not ponder too deeply the meanings of men like Wentworth.
"I often used to come here," said Fay, "but not of late. I came to get some palm."
She had in her bare hand a little bunch of palm, the soft woolly buds on them covered with yellow dust. She held them towards Wentworth, and he looked at them with grave attention.
The cob, a privileged person, of urbane and distinguished manners, suddenly elongated towards them a mobile upper lip, his sleek head slightly on one side, his kind, sly eyes half shut.
"Conrad," said Wentworth, "we never ask. We only take what is given us."
Fay laughed, and gave them both a twig.
Wentworth drew his through his buttonhole. Conrad twisted his in his strong yellow teeth, turned it over, and then spat it out. The action, though of doubtful taste in itself, was ennobled by his perfect rendering of it. He brought it, so to speak, forever within the sphere of exquisite manners.
Wentworth led him back to the path, tied him to a tree, and then came back and sat down at a little distance from Fay on the same trunk. He had somehow nothing to say, but of course he should think of something striking directly. One of Fay's charms was that she did not talk much.
A young couple close at hand were not hampered by any doubts as to a choice of subject.
From among the roots of a clump of alder rose a sweet little noise of mouse talk, intermittent, affaire, accompanied by sudden rustlings and dartings under dead leaves, momentary glimpses of a tiny brown bride and bridegroom. Ah! wedded bliss! Ah! youth and sunshine, and the joy of life in a new soft silken coat!
Fay and Wentworth watched and listened, smiling at each other from time to time.
"I am forced to the conclusion," said Wentworth at last, "that even in these early days Mrs. Mouse does not listen to all Mr. Mouse says."
"How could she, poor thing, when he never leaves off talking?"
"Well, neither does she. They both talk at once. I suppose they have not our morbid craving for a listener."
"Do you think—I mean really and truly—that they are talking about themselves?" said Fay, looking at Wentworth as if any announcement of his on the subject would be considered final.
"No doubt," he said indulgently, willing to humour her, and feeling more like a cavalier than ever.
Then he actually noticed how pale she was.
"You look tired," he said. "I am afraid the storm last night kept you awake."
"Yes," she said, and hung her head.
Wentworth, momentarily released from his point of view, looked at her more closely, and perceived that her lowered eyelids were heavy with recent tears. And as he looked, he realised, by some other means than those of reasoning and deduction, by some mysterious intuitive feeling new to him, that all these weeks when he had imagined she was drawing him on by feminine arts of simulated indifference she had in reality been thinking but little of him because she was in trouble. The elaborate edifices which he had raised in solitude to account for this and that in her words one day, in her attitude towards him another day, toppled over, and he saw before him a simple creature, who for some unknown and probably foolish reason, had cried all night.
He perceived suddenly, without possibility of doubt, that she had never considered him in the light of a lover, had never thought seriously about him at all, and that what he had taken to be an experienced woman of the world was in reality an ignorant child at heart.
He felt vaguely relieved. There were evidently no ambushes, no surprises, no pitfalls in this exquisite nature. There was really nothing to withdraw from. He suddenly experienced a strong desire to go forward, a more imperative desire than he had ever known about anything before. Even as he was conscious of it Fay raised her eyes to his and it passed away again, leaving a great tranquillity behind, together with a mounting sense of personal power.
If Fay had spoken to him he had not heard what she had said. But he did not mind having missed it. The meaning of the spring was reaching him through her presence like music through a reed. He had never understood it till now. Poor empty little reed! Poor entranced listener mistaking the reed for music!
Can it be that when God made His pretty world He had certain things exceeding sharp and sweet to say to us, which it is His will only to whisper to us through human reeds: the frail human reeds on which we sometimes deafly lean until they break and pierce our cruel hands?
The mystery of the spring was becoming clear and clearer. What Wentworth had believed hitherto to be a deceptive voice was nothing but a reiterated faithful prophecy, a tender warning to him so that he might be ready when the time came.
"The primroses will soon be out," he said as if it were a secret.
"Very soon," she said, though they were out already. Fay always assented to what was said.
"I must be going," she said, getting up. "I have walked too far. If I sit here any longer I shall never get home at all."
"Let me take you home on Conrad."
"I am frightened of horses."
"But not of Conrad. He is only an armchair stuffed to look like a horse. And I will lead him."
Fay still hesitated.
He took an authoritative tone. He must insist on her riding home. She was tired already, and it was a long mile up hill to Priesthope.
Fay acquiesced. To-day of all days she was not in a condition for anything but a dazed acceptance of events as they came.
Wentworth lifted her gently onto the saddle, and put one small dangling foot into a stirrup shortened to meet it.
She was alarmed and clutched Conrad's mane, but gradually her timidity was reassured, and they set out slowly together, Wentworth walking beside her, with his hand on the rein.
The little bunch of palm was forgotten. It had done its part.
Wentworth talked and Fay listened, or seemed to listen. Her mind wandered if Conrad pricked his ears, but he did not prick them very often.