'I am heartily obliged to you,' I said, 'for not interfering with my uncle's wishes, for I am very glad indeed that I have been kept in ignorance of my rights until now. The knowledge would at one time have gone far to render me useless for personal effort in any direction worthy of it. It would have made me conceited, ambitious, boastful: I don't know how many bad adjectives would have been necessary to describe me.'
'It is all very well to be modest, but I venture to think differently.'
'I should like to ask you one question, Mr Coningham,' I said.
'As many as you please.'
'How is it that you have so long delayed giving me the information which on my uncle's death you no doubt felt at liberty to communicate?'
'I did not know how far you might partake of your uncle's disposition, and judged that the wider your knowledge of the world, and the juster your estimate of the value of money and position, the more willing you would be to listen to the proposals I had to make.'
'Do you remember,' I asked, after a canter, led off by my companion, 'one very stormy night on which you suddenly appeared at the Moat, and had a long talk with my uncle on the subject?'
'Perfectly,' he answered. 'But how did you come to know? He did not tell you of my visit!'
'Certainly not. But, listening in my night-gown on the stair, which is open to the kitchen, I heard enough of your talk to learn the object of your visit—namely, to carry off my skin to make bagpipes with.'
He laughed so heartily that I told him the whole story of the pendulum.
'On that occasion,' he said, 'I made the offer to your uncle, on condition of his sanctioning the commencement of legal proceedings, to pledge myself to meet every expense of those, and of your education as well, and to claim nothing whatever in return, except in case of success.'
This quite corresponded with my own childish recollections of the interview between them. Indeed there was such an air of simple straightforwardness about his whole communication, while at the same time it accounted so thoroughly for the warning my uncle had given me against him, that I felt I might trust him entirely, and so would have told him all that had taken place at the Hall, but for the share his daughter had borne in it, and the danger of discovery to Mary.
I have given, of course, only an epitome of our conversation, and by the time we had arrived at this point we had also reached the gate of the churchyard. Again we fastened up our horses; again he took the key from under the tombstone; and once more we entered the dreary little church, and drew aside the curtain of the vestry. I took down the volume of the register. The place was easy to find, seeing, as I have said, it was at the very end of the volume.
The copy I had taken was correct: the date of the marriage in the register was January 15, and it was the first under the 1748, written at the top of the page. I stood for a moment gazing at it; then my eye turned to the entry before it, the last on the preceding page. It bore the date December 13—under the general date at the top of the page, 1747. The next entry after it was dated March 29. At the bottom of the page, or cover rather, was the attestation of the clergyman to the number of marriages in that year; but there was no such attestation at the bottom of the preceding page. I turned to Mr Coningham, who had stood regarding me, and, pointing to the book, said:
'Look here, Mr Coningham. I cannot understand it. Here the date of the marriage is 1748; and that of all their letters, evidently written after the marriage, is 1747.'
He looked, and stood looking, but made me no reply. In my turn I looked at him. His face expressed something not far from consternation; but the moment he became aware that I was observing him, he pulled out his handkerchief, and wiping his forehead with an attempt at a laugh, said:
'How hot it is! Yes; there's something awkward there. I hadn't observed it before. I must inquire into that. I confess I cannot explain it all at once. It does certainly seem queer. I must look into those dates when I go home.'
He was evidently much more discomposed than he was willing I should perceive. He always spoke rather hurriedly, but I had never heard him stammer before. I was certain that he saw or at least dreaded something fatal in the discrepancy I had pointed out. As to looking into it when he got home, that sounded very like nonsense. He pulled out a note-book, however, and said:
'I may just as well make a note of the blunder—for blunder it must be—a very awkward one indeed, I am afraid. I should think so—I cannot—but then—'
He went on uttering disjointed and unfinished expressions, while he made several notes. His manner was of one who regards the action he is about as useless, yet would have it supposed the right thing to do.
'There!' he said, shutting up his note-book with a slam; and turning away he strode out of the place—much, it seemed to me, as if his business there was over for ever. I gave one more glance at the volume, and replaced it on the shelf. When I rejoined him, he was already mounted and turning to move off.
'Wait a moment, Mr Coningham,' I said. 'I don't exactly know where to put the key.'
'Fling it under the gravestone, and come along,' he said, muttering something more, in which, perhaps, I only fancied I heard certain well-known maledictions.
By this time my spirits had sunk as much below their natural level as, a little before, they had risen above it. But I felt that I must be myself, and that no evil any more than good fortune ought for a moment to perturb the tenor of my being. Therefore, having locked the door deliberately and carefully, I felt about along the underside of the gravestone until I found the ledge where the key had lain. I then made what haste I could to mount and follow Mr Coningham, but Lilith delayed the operation by her eagerness. I gave her the rein, and it was well no one happened to be coming in the opposite direction through that narrow and tortuous passage, for she flew round the corners—'turning close to the ground, like a cat when scratchingly she wheels about after a mouse,' as my old favourite, Sir Philip Sidney, says. Notwithstanding her speed, however, when I reached the mouth of the lane, there was Mr Coningham half across the first field, with his coat-tails flying out behind him. I would not allow myself to be left in such a discourteous fashion, and gave chase. Before he had measured the other half of the field, I was up with him.
'That mare of yours is a clever one,' he said, as I ranged alongside of him. 'I thought I would give her a breather. She hasn't enough to do.'
'She's not breathing so very fast,' I returned. 'Her wind is as good as her legs.'
'Let's get along then, for I've lost a great deal of time this morning. I ought to have been at Squire Strode's an hour ago. How hot the sun is, to be sure, for this time of the year!'
As he spoke, he urged his horse, but I took and kept the lead, feeling, I confess, a little angry, for I could not help suspecting he had really wanted to run away from me. I did what I could, however, to behave as if nothing had happened. But he was very silent, and his manner towards me was quite altered. Neither could I help thinking it scarcely worthy of a man of the world, not to say a lawyer, to show himself so much chagrined. For my part, having simply concluded that the new-blown bubble hope had burst, I found myself just where I was before-with a bend sinister on my scutcheon, it might be, but with a good conscience, a tolerably clear brain, and the dream of my Athanasia.
The moment we reached the road, Mr Coningham announced that his way was in the opposite direction to mine, said his good morning, shook hands with me, and jogged slowly away. I knew that was not the nearest way to Squire Strode's.
I could not help laughing—he had so much the look of a dog with his tail between his legs, or a beast of prey that had made his spring and missed his game. I watched him for some time, for Lilith being pulled both ways—towards home, and after her late companion—was tolerably quiescent, but he never cast a glance behind him. When at length a curve in the road hid him from my sight, I turned and went quietly home, thinking what the significance of the unwelcome discovery might be. If the entry of the marriage under that date could not be proved a mere blunder, of which I could see no hope, then certainly my grandfather must be regarded as born out of wedlock, a supposition which, if correct, would account for the dropping of the Daryll.
On the way home I jumped no hedges.
Having taken my farewell of Lilith, I packed my 'bag of needments,' locked the door of my uncle's room, which I would have no one enter in my absence, and set out to meet the night mail.
CHARLEY AND CLARA.
On my arrival in London, I found Charley waiting for me, as I had expected, and with his help soon succeeded in finding, in one of the streets leading from the Strand to the river, the accommodation I wanted. There I settled and resumed the labour so long and thanklessly interrupted.
When I recounted the circumstances of my last interview with Mr Coningham, Charley did not seem so much surprised at the prospect which had opened before me as disappointed at its sudden close, and would not admit that the matter could be allowed to rest where it was.
'Do you think the change of style could possibly have anything to do with it?' he asked, after a meditative silence.
'I don't know,' I replied. 'Which change of style do you mean?'
'I mean the change of the beginning of the year from March to January,' he answered.
'When did that take place?' I asked.
'Some time about the middle of the last century,' he replied; 'but I will find out exactly.'
The next night he brought me the information that the January which, according to the old style, would have been that of 1752 was promoted to be the first month of the year 1753.
My dates then were, by several years, antecedent to the change, and it was an indisputable anachronism that the January between the December of 1747 and the March of 1748, should be entered as belonging to the latter year. This seemed to throw a little dubious light upon the perplexity; the January thus entered belonging clearly to 1747, and, therefore, was the same January with that of my ancestor's letters. Plainly, however, the entry could not stand in evidence, its interpolation at least appeared indubitable, for how otherwise could it stand at the beginning of the new year instead of towards the end of the old, five, years before the change of style? Also, now I clearly remember that it did look a little crushed between the heading of the year and the next entry. It must be a forgery—and a stupid one as well, seeing the bottom of the preceding page, where there was a small blank, would have been the proper place to choose for it—that is, under the heading 1747. Could the 1748 have been inserted afterwards? That did not appear likely, seeing it belonged to all the rest of the entries on the page, there being none between the date in question and March 29, on the 25th of which month the new year began. The conclusion lying at the door was that some one had inserted the marriage so long after the change of style that he knew nothing of the trap there lying for his forgery. It seemed probable that, blindly following the letters, he had sought to place it in the beginning of the previous year, but, getting bewildered in the apparent eccentricities of the arrangement of month and year, had at last drawn his bow at a venture. Neither this nor any other theory I could fashion did I, however, find in the least satisfactory. All I could be sure of was that here was no evidence of the marriage—on the contrary, a strong presumption against it.
For my part, the dream in which I had indulged had been so short that I very soon recovered from the disappointment of the waking therefrom. Neither did the blot with which the birth of my grandfather was menaced affect me much. My chief annoyance in regard of that aspect of the affair was in being so related to Geoffrey Brotherton.
I cannot say how it came about, but I could not help observing that, by degrees, a manifest softening appeared in Charley's mode of speaking of his father, although I knew that there was not the least approach to a more cordial intercourse between them. I attributed the change to the letters of his sister, which he always gave me to read. From them I have since classed her with a few others I have since known, chiefly women, the best of their kind, so good and so large-minded that they seem ever on the point of casting aside the unworthy opinions they have been taught, and showing themselves the true followers of Him who cared only for the truth, and yet holding by the doctrines of men, and believing them to be the mind of God.
In one or two of Charley's letters to her I ventured to insert a question or two, and her reference to these in her replies to Charley gave me an opportunity of venturing to write to her more immediately, in part defending what I thought the truth, in part expressing all the sympathy I honestly could with her opinions. She replied very kindly, very earnestly, and with a dignity of expression as well as of thought which harmonized entirely with my vision of her deeper and grander nature.
The chief bent of my energies was now to vindicate for myself a worthy position in the world of letters; but my cherished hope lay in the growth of such an intimacy with Mary Osborne as might afford ground for the cultivation of far higher and more precious ambitions.
It was not, however, with the design of furthering these that I was now guilty of what will seem to most men a Quixotic action enough.
'Your sister is fond of riding—is she not?' I asked Charley one day, as we sauntered with our cigars on the terrace of the Adelphi.
'As fond as one can possibly be who has had so little opportunity,' he said.
'I was hoping to have a ride with her and Clara the very evening when that miserable affair occurred. The loss of that ride was at least as great a disappointment to me as the loss of the sword.'
'You seem to like my sister, Wilfrid,' he said.
'At least I care more for her good opinion than I do for any woman's—or man's either, Charley.'
'I am so glad!' he responded. 'You like her better than Clara, then?'
'Ever so much,' I said.
He looked more pleased than annoyed, I thought—certainly neither the one nor the other entirely. His eyes sparkled, but there was a flicker of darkness about his forehead.
'I am very glad,' he said again, after a moment's pause. 'I thought—I was afraid—I had fancied sometimes—you were still a little in love with Clara.'
'Not one atom,' I returned. 'She cured me of that quite. There is no danger of that any more,' I added—foolishly, seeing I intended no explanation.
'How do you mean?' he asked, a little uneasily.
I had no answer ready, and a brief silence followed. The subject was not resumed.
It may well seem strange to my reader that I had never yet informed him of the part Clara had had in the matter of the sword. But, as I have already said, when anything moved me very deeply I was never ready to talk about it. Somehow, perhaps from something of the cat-nature in me, I never liked to let go my hold of it without good reason. Especially I shrank from imparting what I only half comprehended; and besides, in the present case, the thought of Clara's behaviour was so painful to me still that I recoiled from any talk about it—the more that Charley had a kind and good opinion of her, and would, I knew, only start objections and explanations defensive, as he had done before on a similar occasion, and this I should have no patience with. I had, therefore, hitherto held my tongue. There was, of course, likewise the fear of betraying his sister, only the danger of that was small, now that the communication between the two girls seemed at an end for the time; and if it had not been that a certain amount of mutual reticence had arisen between us, first on Charley's part and afterwards on mine, I doubt much whether, after all, I should not by this time have told him the whole story. But the moment I had spoken as above, the strangeness of his look, which seemed to indicate that he would gladly request me to explain myself but for some hidden reason, flashed upon me the suspicion that he was himself in love with Clara. The moment the suspicion entered, a host of circumstances crystallized around it. Fact after fact flashed out of my memory, from the first meeting of the two in Switzerland down to this last time I had seen them together, and in the same moment I was convinced that the lady I saw him with in the Regent's Park was no other than Clara. But, if it were so, why had he shut me out from his confidence? Of the possible reasons which suggested themselves, the only one which approached the satisfactory was that he had dreaded hurting me by the confession of his love for her, and preferred leaving it to Clara to cure me of a passion to which my doubtful opinion of her gave a probability of weakness and ultimate evanescence.
A great conflict awoke in me. What ought I to do? How could I leave him in ignorance of the falsehood of the woman he loved? But I could not make the disclosure now. I must think about the how and the how much to tell him. I returned to the subject which had led up to the discovery.
'Does your father keep horses, Charley?'
'He has a horse for his parish work, and my mother has an old pony for her carriage.'
'Is the rectory a nice place?'
'I believe it is, but I have such painful associations with it that I hardly know.'
The Arab loves the desert sand where he was born; the thief loves the court where he used to play in the gutter. How miserable Charley's childhood must have been! How could I tell him of Clara's falsehood?
'Why doesn't he give Mary a pony to ride?' I asked. 'But I suppose he hasn't room for another?'
'Oh! yes, there's plenty of room. His predecessor was rather a big fellow. In fact, the stables are on much too large a scale for a clergyman. I dare say he never thought of it. I must do my father the justice to say there's nothing stingy about him, and I believe he loves my sister even more than my mother. It certainly would be the best thing he could do for her to give her a pony. But she will die of religion—young, and be sainted in a twopenny tract, and that is better than a pony. Her hair doesn't curl—that's the only objection. Some one has remarked that all the good children who die have curly hair.'
Poor Charley! Was his mind more healthy, then? Was he less likely to come to an early death? Was his want of faith more life-giving than what he considered her false faith?
'I see no reason to fear it,' I said, with a tremor at my heart as I thought of my dream.
That night I was sleepless—but about Charley—not about Mary. What could I do?—what ought I to do? Might there be some mistake in my judgment of Clara? I searched, and I believe searched honestly, for any possible mode of accounting for her conduct that might save her uprightness, or mitigate the severity of the condemnation I had passed upon her. I could find none. At the same time, what I was really seeking was an excuse for saying nothing to Charley. I suspect now that, had I searched after justification or excuse for her from love to herself, I might have succeeded in constructing a theory capable of sheltering her; but, as it was, I failed utterly, and, turning at last from the effort, I brooded instead upon the Quixotic idea already adverted to, grown the more attractive as offering a good excuse for leaving Charley for a little.
LILITH MEETS WITH A MISFORTUNE.
The next day, leaving a note to inform Charley that I had run home for a week, I set out for the Moat, carrying with me the best side-saddle I could find in London.
As I left the inn at Minstercombe in a gig, I saw Clara coming out of a shop. I could not stop and speak to her, for, not to mention the opinion I had of her, and the treachery of which I accused her, was I not at that very moment meditating how best to let her lover know that she was not to be depended upon? I touched the horse with the whip, and drove rapidly past. Involuntarily, however, I glanced behind, and saw a white face staring after me. Our looks encountering thus, I lifted my hat, but held on my course.
I could not help feeling very sorry for her. The more falsely she had behaved, she was the more to be pitied. She looked very beautiful with that white face. But how different was her beauty from that of my Athanasia!
Having tried the side-saddle upon Lilith, and found all it wanted was a little change in the stuffing about the withers, I told Styles to take it and the mare to Minstercombe the next morning, and have it properly fitted.
What trifles I am lingering upon! Lilith is gone to the worms—no, that I do not believe: amongst the things most people believe, and I cannot, that is one; but at all events she is dead, and the saddle gone to worms; and yet, for reasons which will want no explanation to my one reader, I care to linger even on the fringes of this part of the web of my story.
I wandered about the field and house, building and demolishing many an airy abode, until Styles came back. I had told him to get the job done at once, and not return without the saddle.
'Can I trust you, Styles?' I said abruptly.
'I hope so, sir. If I may make so bold, I don't think I was altogether to blame about that book—'
'Of course not. I told you so. Never think of it again. Can you keep a secret?'
'I can try, sir. You've been a good master to me, I'm sure, sir.'
'That I mean to be still, if I can. Do you know the parish of Spurdene?'
'I was born there, sir.'
'Ah! that's not so convenient. Do you know the rectory?'
'Every stone of it, I may say, sir.'
'And do they know you?'
'Well, it's some years since I left—a mere boy, sir.'
'I want you, then—if it be possible—you can tell best—to set out with Lilith to-morrow night—I hope it will be a warm night. You must groom her thoroughly, put on the side-saddle and her new bridle, and lead her—you're not to ride her, mind—I don't want her to get hot—lead her to the rectory of Spurdene—and-now here is the point—if it be possible, take her up to the stable, and fasten her by this silver chain to the ring at the door of it—as near morning as you safely can to avoid discovery, for she mustn't stand longer at this season of the year than can be helped. I will tell you all.—I mean her for a present to Miss Osborne; but I do not want any one to know where she comes from. None of them, I believe, have ever seen her. I will write something on a card, which you will fasten to one of the pommels, throwing over all this horsecloth.'
I gave him a fine bear-skin I had bought for the purpose. He smiled, and, with evident enjoyment of the spirit of the thing, promised to do his best.
Lilith looked lovely as he set out with her late the following night. When he returned the next morning, he reported that everything had succeeded admirably. He had carried out my instructions to the letter; and my white Lilith had by that time, I hoped, been caressed, possibly fed, by the hands of Mary Osborne herself.
I may just mention that on the card I had written, or rather printed, the words: 'To Mary Osborne, from a friend.'
In a day or two I went back to London, but said nothing to Charley of what I had done—waiting to hear from him first what they said about it.
'I say, Wilfrid!' he cried, as he came into my room with his usual hurried step, the next morning but one, carrying an open letter in his hand, 'what's this you've been doing—you sly old fellow? You ought to have been a prince, by Jove!'
'What do you accuse me of? I must know that first, else I might confess to more than necessary. One must be on one's guard with such as you.'
'Read that,' he said, putting the letter into my hand.
It was from his sister. One passage was as follows:
'A strange thing has happened. A few mornings ago the loveliest white horse was found tied to the stable door, with a side-saddle, and a card on it directed to me. I went to look at the creature. It was like the witch-lady in Christabel, 'beautiful exceedingly.' I ran to my father, and told him. He asked me who had sent it, but I knew no more than he did. He said I couldn't keep it unless we found out who had sent it, and probably not then, for the proceeding was as suspicious as absurd. To-day he has put an advertisement in the paper to the effect that, if the animal is not claimed before, it will be sold at the horse-fair next week, and the money given to the new school fund. I feel as if I couldn't bear parting with it, but of course I can't accept a present without knowing where it comes from. Have you any idea who sent it? I am sure papa is right about it, as indeed, dear Charley, he always is.'
I laid down the letter, and, full of mortification, went walking about the room.
'Why didn't you tell me, Wilfrid?'
'I thought it better, if you were questioned, that you should not know. But it was a foolish thing to do—very. I see it now. Of course your father is right. It doesn't matter though. I will go down and buy her.'
'You had better not appear in it. Go to the Moat, and send Styles.'
'Yes—that will be best. Of course it will. When is the fair, do you know?'
'I will find out for you. I hope some rascal mayn't in the mean time take my father in, and persuade him to give her up. Why shouldn't I run down and tell him, and get back poor Lilith without making you pay for your own?'
'Indeed you shan't. The mare is your sister's, and I shall lay no claim to her. I have money enough to redeem her.'
Charley got me information about the fair, and the day before it, I set out for the Moat.
When I reached Minstercombe, having more time on my hands than I knew what to do with, I resolved to walk round by Spurdene. It would not be more than ten or twelve miles, and so I should get a peep of the rectory. On the way I met a few farmer-looking men on horseback, and just before entering the village saw at a little distance a white creature—very like my Lilith—with a man on its back, coming towards me.
As they drew nearer, I was certain of the mare, and, thinking it possible the rider might be Mr Osborne, withdrew into a thicket on the road-side. But what was my dismay to discover that it was indeed my Lilith, but ridden by Geoffrey Brotherton! As soon as he was past, I rushed into the village, and found that the people I had met were going from the fair. Charley had been misinformed. I was too late: Brotherton had bought my Lilith. Half distracted with rage and vexation, I walked on and on, never halting till I reached the Moat. Was this man destined to swallow up everything I cared for? Had he suspected me as the foolish donor, and bought the mare to spite me? A thousand times rather would I have had her dead. Nothing on earth would have tempted me to sell my Lilith but inability to feed her, and then I would rather have shot her. I felt poorer than even when my precious folio was taken from me, for the lowest animal life is a greater thing than a rare edition. I did not go to bed at all that night, but sat by my fire or paced about the room till dawn, when I set out for Minstercombe, and reached it in time for the morning coach to London. The whole affair was a folly, and I said to-myself that I deserved to suffer. Before I left, I told Styles, and begged him to keep an eye on the mare, and, if ever he learned that her owner wanted to part with her, to come off at once and let me know. He was greatly concerned at my ill-luck, as he called it, and promised to watch her carefully. He knew one of the grooms, he said, a little, and would cultivate his acquaintance.
I could not help wishing now that Charley would let his sister know what I had tried to do for her, but of course I would not say so. I think he did tell her, but I never could be quite certain whether or not she knew it. I wonder if she ever suspected me. I think not. I have too good reason to fear that she attributed to another the would-be gift; I believe that, from Brotherton's buying her, they thought he had sent her—a present certainly far more befitting his means than mine. But I came to care very little about it, for my correspondence with her through Charley, went on. I wondered sometimes how she could keep from letting her father know: that he did not know I was certain, for he would have put a stop to it at once. I conjectured that she had told her mother, and that she, fearing to widen the breach between her husband and Charley, had advised her not to mention it to him; while believing it would do both Charley and me good, she did not counsel her to give up the correspondence. It must be considered, also, that it was long before I said a word implying any personal interest. Before I ventured that, I had some ground for thinking that my ideas had begun to tell upon hers, for, even in her letters to Charley, she had begun to drop the common religious phrases, while all she said seemed to indicate a widening and deepening and simplifying of her faith. I do not for a moment imply that she had consciously given up one of the dogmas of the party to which she belonged, but there was the perceptible softening of growth in her utterances, and after that was plain to me, I began to let out my heart to her a little more.
About this time also I began to read once more the history of Jesus, asking myself as if on a first acquaintance with it, 'Could it be—might it not be that, if there were a God, he would visit his children after some fashion? If so, is this a likely fashion? May it not even be the only right fashion?' In the story I found at least a perfection surpassing everything to be found elsewhere; and I was at least sure that whatever this man said must be true. If one could only be as sure of the record! But if ever a dawn was to rise upon me, here certainly the sky would break; here I thought I already saw the first tinge of the returning life-blood of the swooning world. The gathering of the waters of conviction at length one morning broke out in the following verses, which seemed more than half given to me, the only effort required being to fit them rightly together:—
Come to me, come to me, O my God; Come to me everywhere! Let the trees mean thee, and the grassy sod, And the water and the air.
For thou art so far that I often doubt, As on every side I stare, Searching within, and looking without, If thou art anywhere.
How did men find thee in days of old? How did they grow so sure? They fought in thy name, they were glad and bold, They suffered, and kept themselves pure.
But now they say—neither above the sphere, Nor down in the heart of man, But only in fancy, ambition, or fear, The thought of thee began.
If only that perfect tale were true Which, with touch of sunny gold, Of the ancient many makes one anew, And simplicity manifold.
But he said that they who did his word The truth of it should know: I will try to do it—if he be Lord, Perhaps the old spring will flow;
Perhaps the old spirit-wind will blow That he promised to their prayer; And doing thy will, I yet shall know Thee, Father, everywhere!
These lines found their way without my concurrence into a certain religious magazine, and I was considerably astonished, and yet more pleased, one evening when Charley handed me, with the kind regards of his sister, my own lines, copied by herself. I speedily let her know they were mine, explaining that they had found their way into print without my cognizance. She testified so much pleasure at the fact, and the little scraps I could claim as my peculiar share of the contents of Charley's envelopes grew so much more confiding that I soon ventured to write more warmly than hitherto. A period longer than usual passed before she wrote again, and when she did she took no express notice of my last letter. Foolishly or not, I regarded this as a favourable sign, and wrote several letters, in which I allowed the true state of my feelings towards her to appear. At length I wrote a long letter in which, without a word of direct love-making, I thought yet to reveal that I loved her with all my heart. It was chiefly occupied with my dream on that memorable night—of course without the slightest allusion to the waking, or anything that followed. I ended abruptly, telling her that the dream often recurred, but as often as it drew to its lovely close, the lifted veil of Athanasia revealed ever and only the countenance of Mary Osborne.
The answer to this came soon and in few words.
'I dare not take to myself what you write. That would be presumption indeed, not to say wilful self-deception. It will be honour enough for me if in any way I serve to remind you of the lady in your dream. Wilfrid, if you love me, take care of my Charley. I must not write more.—M.O.'
It was not much, but enough to make me happy. I write it from memory—every word as it lies where any moment I could read it—shut in a golden coffin whose lid I dare not open.
I must now go back a little. After my suspicions had been aroused as to the state of Charley's feelings, I hesitated for a long time before I finally made up my mind to tell him the part Clara had had in the loss of my sword. But while I was thus restrained by dread of the effect the disclosure would have upon him if my suspicions were correct, those very suspicions formed the strongest reason for acquainting him with her duplicity; and, although I was always too ready to put off the evil day so long as doubt supplied excuse for procrastination, I could not have let so much time slip by and nothing said but for my absorption in Mary.
At length, however, I had now resolved, and one evening, as we sat together, I took my pipe from my mouth, and, shivering bodily, thus began:
'Charley,' I said, 'I have had for a good while something on my mind, which I cannot keep from you longer.'
He looked alarmed instantly. I went on.
'I have not been quite open with you about that affair of the sword.'
He looked yet more dismayed; but I must go on, though it tore my very heart. When I came to the point of my overhearing Clara talking to Brotherton, he started up, and, without waiting to know the subject of their conversation, came close up to me, and, his face distorted with the effort to keep himself quiet, said, in a voice hollow and still and far-off, like what one fancies of the voice of the dead:
'Wilfrid, you said Brotherton, I think?'
'I did, Charley.'
'She never told me that!'
'How could she when she was betraying your friend?'
'No no!' he cried, with a strange mixture of command and entreaty; 'don't say that. There is some explanation. There must be.'
'She told me she hated him,' I said.
'I know she hates him. What was she saying to him?'
'I tell you she was betraying me, your friend, who had never done her any wrong, to the man she had told me she hated, and whom I had heard her ridicule.'
'What do you mean by betraying you?'
I recounted what I had overheard. He listened with clenched teeth and trembling white lips; then burst into a forced laugh. 'What a fool I am! Distrust her! I will not. There is some explanation! There must be!'
The dew of agony lay thick on his forehead. I was greatly alarmed at what I had done, but I could not blame myself.
'Do be calm, Charley,' I entreated.
'I am as calm as death,' he replied, striding up and down the room with long strides.
He stopped and came up to me again.
'Wilfrid,' he said, 'I am a damned fool. I am going now. Don't be frightened—I am perfectly calm. I will come and explain it all to you to-morrow—no—the next day—or the next at latest. She had some reason for hiding it from me, but I shall have it all the moment I ask her. She is not what you think her. I don't for a moment blame you—but—are you sure it was—Clara's—voice you heard?' he added with forced calmness and slow utterance.
'A man is not likely to mistake the voice of a woman he ever fancied himself in love with.'
'Don't talk like that, Wilfrid. You'll drive me mad. How should she know you had taken the sword?'
'She was always urging me to take it. There lies the main sting of the treachery. But I never told you where I found the sword.'
'What can that have to do with it?'
'I found it on my bed that same morning when I woke. It could not have been there when I lay down.'
'Charley, I believe she laid it there.'
He leaped at me like a tiger. Startled, I jumped to my feet. He laid hold of me by the throat, and griped me with a quivering grasp. Recovering my self-possession, I stood perfectly still, making no effort even to remove his hand, although it was all but choking me. In a moment or two he relaxed his hold, burst into tears, took up his hat, and walked to the door.
'Charley! Charley! you must not leave me so,' I cried, starting forwards.
'To-morrow, Wilfrid; to-morrow,' he said, and was gone.
He was back before I could think what to do next. Opening the door half way, he said—as if a griping hand had been on his throat—
'I—I—I—don't believe it, Wilfrid. You only said you believed it. I don't. Good night. I'm all right now. Mind, I don't believe it.'
He, shut the door. Why did I not follow him?
But if I had followed him, what could I have said or done? In every man's life come awful moments when he must meet his fate—dree his weird—alone. Alone, I say, if he have no God—for man or woman cannot aid him, cannot touch him, cannot come near him. Charley was now in one of those crises, and I could not help him. Death is counted an awful thing: it seems to me that life is an infinitely more awful thing.
In the morning I received the following letter:—
'Dear Mr Cumbermede,
'You will be surprised at receiving a note from me—still more at its contents. I am most anxious to see you—so much so that I venture to ask you to meet me where we can have a little quiet talk. I am in London, and for a day or two sufficiently my own mistress to leave the choice of time and place with you—only let it be when and where we shall not be interrupted. I presume on old friendship in making this extraordinary request, but I do not presume in my confidence that you will not misunderstand my motives. One thing only I beg—that you will not inform C.O. of the petition I make.
'Your old friend,
What was I to do? To go, of course. She might have something to reveal which would cast light on her mysterious conduct. I cannot say I expected a disclosure capable of removing Charley's misery, but I did vaguely hope to learn something that might alleviate it. Anyhow, I would meet her, for I dared not refuse to hear her. To her request of concealing it from Charley, I would grant nothing beyond giving it quarter until I should see whither the affair tended. I wrote at once—making an appointment for the same evening. But was it from a suggestion of Satan, from an evil impulse of human spite, or by the decree of fate, that I fixed on that part of the Regent's Park in which I had seen him and the lady I now believed to have been Clara walking together in the dusk? I cannot now tell. The events which followed have destroyed all certainty, but I fear it was a flutter of the wings of revenge, a shove at the spokes of the wheel of time to hasten the coming of its circle.
Anxious to keep out of Charley's way—for the secret would make me wretched in his presence—I went into the City, and, after an early dinner, sauntered out to the Zoological Gardens, to spend the time till the hour of meeting. But there, strange to say, whether from insight or fancy, in every animal face I saw such gleams of a troubled humanity that at last I could bear it no longer, and betook myself to Primrose Hill.
It was a bright afternoon, wonderfully clear, with a crisp frosty feel in the air. But the sun went down, and one by one, here and there, above and below, the lights came out and the stars appeared, until at length sky and earth were full of flaming spots, and it was time to seek our rendezvous.
I had hardly reached it when the graceful form of Clara glided towards me. She perceived in a moment that I did not mean to shake hands with her. It was not so dark but that I saw her bosom heave and a flush overspread her countenance.
'You wished to see me, Miss Coningham,' I said. 'I am at your service.'
'What is wrong, Mr Cumbermede? You never used to speak to me in such a tone.'
'There is nothing wrong if you are not more able than I to tell what it is.'
'Why did you come if you were going to treat me so?'
'Because you requested it.'
'Have I offended you, then, by asking you to meet me? I trusted you. I thought you would never misjudge me.'
'I should be but too happy to find I had been unjust to you, Miss Coningham. I would gladly go on my knees to you to confess that fault, if I could only be satisfied of its existence. Assure me of it, and I will bless you.'
'How strangely you talk! Some one has been maligning me.'
'No one. But I have come to the knowledge of what only one besides yourself could have told me.'
'He! He has been telling you—'
'No—thank heaven! I have not yet sunk to the slightest communication with him.'
She turned her face aside. Veiled as it was by the gathering gloom, she yet could not keep it towards me. But after a brief pause she looked at me and said,
'You know more than—I do not know what you mean.'
'I do know more than you think I know. I will tell you under what circumstances I came to such knowledge.'
She stood motionless.
'One evening,' I went on, 'after leaving Moldwarp Hall with Charles Osborne, I returned to the library to fetch a book. As I entered the room where it lay, I heard voices in the armoury. One was the voice of Geoffrey Brotherton—a man you told me you hated. The other was yours.'
She drew herself up, and stood stately before me.
'Is that your accusation?' she said. 'Is a woman never to speak to a man because she detests him?'
She laughed—I thought drearily.
'Apparently not—for then I presume you would not have asked me to meet you.'
'Why should you think I hate you?'
'Because you have been treacherous to me.'
'In talking to Geoffrey Brotherton? I do hate him. I hate him more than ever. I spoke the truth when I told you that.'
'Then you do not hate me?'
'And yet you delivered me over to my enemy bound hand and foot, as Delilah did Samson.—I heard what you said to Brotherton.'
She seemed to waver, but stood—speechless, as if waiting for more.
'I heard you tell him that I had taken that sword—the sword you had always been urging me to take—the sword you unsheathed and laid on my bed that I might be tempted to take it—why I cannot understand, for I never did you a wrong to my poor knowledge. I fell into your snare, and you made use of the fact you had achieved to ruin my character, and drive me from the house in which I was foolish enough to regard myself as conferring favours rather than receiving them. You have caused me to be branded as a thief for taking—at your suggestion—that which was and still is my own!'
'Does Charley know this?' she asked, in a strangely altered voice.
'He does. He learned it yesterday.'
'O my God!' she cried, and fell kneeling on the grass at my feet. 'Wilfrid! Wilfrid! I will tell you all. It was to tell you all about this very thing that I asked you to come. I could not bear it longer. Only your tone made me angry. I did not know you knew so much.'
The very fancy of such submission from such a creature would have thrilled me with a wild compassion once; but now I thought of Charley and felt cold to her sorrow as well as her loveliness. When she lifted her eyes to mine, however—it was not so dark but I could see their sadness—I began to hope a little for my friend. I took her hand and raised her. She was now weeping with down-bent head.
'Clara, you shall tell me all. God forbid I should be hard upon you! But you know I cannot understand it. I have no clue to it. How could you serve me so?'
'It is very hard for me—but there is no help now: I must confess disgrace, in order to escape infamy. Listen to me, then—as kindly as you can, Wilfrid. I beg your pardon; I have no right to use any old familiarity with you. Had my father's plans succeeded, I should still have had to make an apology to you, but under what different circumstances! I will be as brief as I can. My father believed you the rightful heir to Moldwarp Hall. Your own father believed it, and made my father believe it—that was in case your uncle should leave no heir behind him. But your uncle was a strange man, and would neither lay claim to the property himself, nor allow you to be told of your prospects. He did all he could to make you, like himself, indifferent to worldly things; and my father feared you would pride yourself on refusing to claim your rights, unless some counter-influence were used.'
'But why should your father have taken any trouble in the matter?' I asked.
'Well, you know—one in his profession likes to see justice done; and, besides, to conduct such a case must, of course, be of professional advantage to him. You must not think him under obligation to the present family: my grandfather held the position he still occupies before they came into the property.—I am too unhappy to mind what I say now. My father was pleased when you and I—indeed I fancy he had a hand in our first meeting. But while your uncle lived he had to be cautious. Chance, however, seemed to favour his wishes. We met more than once, and you liked me, and my father thought I might wake you up to care about your rights, and—and—but—'
'I see. And it might have been, Clara, but for—'
'Only, you see, Mr Cumbermede,' she interrupted with a half-smile, and a little return of her playful manner—'I didn't wish it.'
'No. You preferred the man who had the property.'
It was a speech both cruel and rude. She stepped a pace back, and looked me proudly in the face.
Prefer that man to you, Wilfrid! No. I could never have fallen so low as that. But I confess I didn't mind letting papa understand that Mr Brotherton was polite to me—just to keep him from urging me to—to—You will do me the justice that I did not try to make you—to make you—care for me, Wilfrid?'
'I admit it heartily. I will be as honest as you, and confess that you might have done so—easily enough at one time. Indeed I am only half honest after all: I loved you once—after a boyish fashion.'
She half smiled again. 'I am glad you are believing me now,' she said.
'Thoroughly,' I answered. 'When you speak the truth, I must believe you.'
'I was afraid to let papa know the real state of things. I was always afraid of him, though I love him dearly, and he is very good to me. I dared not disappoint him by telling him that I loved Charley Osborne. That time—you remember—when we met in Switzerland, his strange ways interested me so much! I was only a girl—but—'
'I understand well enough. I don't wonder at any woman falling in love with my Charley.'
'Thank you,' she said, with a sigh which seemed to come from the bottom of her heart. 'You were always generous. You will do what you can to right me with Charley—won't you? He is very strange sometimes.'
'I will indeed. But, Clara, why didn't Charley let me know that you and he loved each other?'
'Ah! there my shame comes in again! I wanted—for my father's sake, not for my own—I need not tell you that—I wanted to keep my influence over you a little while—that is, until I could gain my father's end. If I should succeed in rousing you to enter an action for the recovery of your rights, I thought my father might then be reconciled to my marrying Charley instead—'
'Instead of me, Clara. Yes—I see. I begin to understand the whole thing. It's not so bad as I thought—not by any means.'
'Oh, Wilfrid! how good of you! I shall love you next to Charley all my life.'
She caught hold of my hand, and for a moment seemed on the point of raising it to her lips.
'But I can't easily get over the disgrace you have done me, Clara. Neither, I confess, can I get over your degrading yourself to a private interview with such a beast as I know—and can't help suspecting you knew—Brotherton to be.'
She dropped my hand, and hid her face in both her own.
'I did know what he was; but the thought of Charley made me able to go through with it.'
'With the sacrifice of his friend to his enemy?'
'It was bad. It was horridly wicked. I hate myself for it. But you know I thought it would do you no harm in the end.'
'How much did Charley know of it all?' I asked.
'Nothing whatever. How could I trust his innocence? He's the simplest creature in the world, Wilfrid.'
'I know that well enough.'
'I could not confess one atom of it to him. He would have blown up the whole scheme at once. It was all I could do to keep him from telling you of our engagement; and that made him miserable.'
'Did you tell him I was in love with you? You knew I was, well enough.'
'I dared not do that,' she said, with a sad smile. 'He would have vanished—would have killed himself to make way for you.'
'I see you understand him, Clara.'
'That will give me some feeble merit in your eyes—won't it, Wilfrid?'
'Still I don't see quite why you betrayed me to Brotherton. I dare say I should if I had time to think it over.'
'I wanted to put you in such a position with regard to the Brothertons that you could have no scruples in respect of them such as my father feared from what he called the over-refinement of your ideas of honour. The treatment you must receive would, I thought, rouse every feeling against them. But it was not all for my father's sake, Wilfrid. It was, however mistaken, yet a good deal for the sake of Charley's friend that I thus disgraced myself. Can you believe me?'
'I do. But nothing can wipe out the disgrace to me.'
'The sword was your own. Of course I never for a moment doubted that.'
'But they believed I was lying.'
'I can't persuade myself it signifies greatly what such people think about you. I except Sir Giles. The rest are—'
'Yet you consented to visit them.'
'I was in reality Sir Giles's guest. Not one of the others would have asked me.'
'I owe him nothing but undying revenge for Charley.' Her eyes flashed through the darkness; and she looked as if she could have killed him.
'But you were plotting against Sir Giles all the time you were his guest?'
'Not unjustly, though. The property was not his, but yours—that is, as we then believed. As far as I knew, the result would have been a real service to him, in delivering him from unjust possession—a thing he would himself have scorned. It was all very wrong—very low, if you like—but somehow it then seemed simple enough—a lawful stratagem for the right.'
'Your heart was so full of Charley!'
'Then you do forgive me, Wilfrid?'
'With all my soul. I hardly feel now as if I had anything to forgive.'
I drew her towards me and kissed her on the forehead. She threw her arms round me, and clung to me, sobbing like a child.
'You will explain it all to Charley—won't you?' she said, as soon as she could speak, withdrawing herself from the arm which had involuntarily crept around her, seeking to comfort her.
'I will,' I said.
We were startled by a sound in the clump of trees behind us. Then over their tops passed a wailful gust of wind, through which we thought came the fall of receding footsteps.
'I hope we haven't been overheard,' I said. 'I shall go at once and tell Charley all about it. I will just see you home first.'
'There's no occasion for that, Wilfrid; and I'm sure I don't deserve it.'
'You deserve a thousand thanks. You have lifted a mountain off me. I see it all now. When your father found it was no use—'
'Then I saw I had wronged you, and I couldn't bear myself till I had confessed all.'
'Your father is satisfied, then, that the register would not stand in evidence?'
'Yes. He told me all about it.'
'He has never said a word to me on the matter; but just dropped me in the dirt, and let me lie there.'
'You must forgive him too, Wilfrid. It was a dreadful blow to him, and it was weeks before he told me. We couldn't think what was the matter with him. You see he had been cherishing the scheme ever since your father's death, and it was a great humiliation to find he had been sitting so many years on an addled egg,' she said, with a laugh in which her natural merriment once more peeped out.
I walked home with her, and we parted like old friends. On my way to the Temple I was anxiously occupied as to how Charley would receive the explanation I had to give him. That Clara's confession would be a relief I could not doubt; but it must cause him great pain notwithstanding. His sense of honour was so keen, and his ideal of womankind so lofty, that I could not but dread the consequences of the revelation. At the same time I saw how it might benefit him. I had begun to see that it is more divine to love the erring than to love the good, and to understand how there is more joy over the one than over the ninety and nine. If Charley, understanding that he is no divine lover, who loves only so long as he is able to flatter himself that the object of his love is immaculate, should find that he must love Clara in spite of her faults and wrong-doings, he might thus grow to be less despairful over his own failures; he might, through his love for Clara, learn to hope for himself, notwithstanding the awful distance at which perfection lay removed.
But as I went I was conscious of a strange oppression. It was not properly mental, for my interview with Clara had raised my spirits. It was a kind of physical oppression I felt, as if the air, which was in reality clear and cold, had been damp and close and heavy.
I went straight to Charley's chambers. The moment I opened the door, I knew that something was awfully wrong. The room was dark—but he would often sit in the dark. I called him, but received no answer. Trembling, I struck a light, for I feared to move lest I should touch something dreadful. But when I had succeeded in lighting the lamp, I found the room just as it always was. His hat was on the table. He must be in his bed-room. And yet I did not feel as if anything alive was near me. Why was everything so frightfully still? I opened the door as slowly and fearfully as if I had dreaded arousing a sufferer whose life depended on his repose. There he lay on his bed, in his clothes—fast asleep, as I thought, for he often slept so, and at any hour of the day—the natural relief of his much-perturbed mind. His eyes were closed, and his face was very white. As I looked, I heard a sound—a drop—another! There was a slow drip somewhere. God in heaven! Could it be? I rushed to him, calling him aloud. There was no response. It was too true! He was dead. The long snake-like Indian dagger was in his heart, and the blood was oozing slowly from around it.
I dare not linger over that horrible night, or the horrible days that followed. Such days! such nights! The letters to write!—The friends to tell!—Clara!—His father!—The police!—The inquest!
* * * * *
Mr Osborne took no notice of my letter, but came up at once. Entering where I sat with my head on my arms on the table, the first announcement I had of his presence was a hoarse deep broken voice ordering me out of the room. I obeyed mechanically, took up Charley's hat instead of my own, and walked away with it. But the neighbours were kind, and although I did not attempt to approach again all that was left of my friend, I watched from a neighbouring window, and following at a little distance, was present when they laid his form, late at night, in the unconsecrated ground of a cemetery.
I may just mention here what I had not the heart to dwell upon in the course of my narrative—that since the talk about suicide occasioned by the remarks of Sir Thomas Browne, he had often brought up the subject—chiefly, however, in a half-humorous tone, and from what may be called an aesthetic point of view as to the best mode of accomplishing it. For some of the usual modes he expressed abhorrence, as being so ugly; and on the whole considered—I well remember the phrase, for he used it more than once—that a dagger—and on one of those occasions he took up the Indian weapon already described and said—'such as this now,'—was 'the most gentleman-like usher into the presence of the Great Nothing.' As I had, however, often heard that those who contemplated suicide never spoke of it, and as his manner on the occasions to which I refer was always merry, such talk awoke little uneasiness; and I believe that he never had at the moment any conscious attraction to the subject stronger than a speculative one. At the same time, however, I believe that the speculative attraction itself had its roots in the misery with which in other and prevailing moods he was so familiar.
After writing to Mr Osborne to acquaint him with the terrible event, the first thing I did was to go to Clara. I will not attempt to describe what followed. The moment she saw me, her face revealed, as in a mirror, the fact legible on my own, and I had scarcely opened my mouth when she cried 'He is dead!' and fell fainting on the floor. Her aunt came, and we succeeded in recovering her a little. But she lay still as death on the couch where we had laid her, and the motion of her eyes hither and thither, as if following the movements of some one about the room, was the only sign of life in her. We spoke to her, but evidently she heard nothing; and at last, leaving her when the doctor arrived, I waited for her aunt in another room, and told her what had happened.
Some days after, Clara sent for me, and I had to tell her the whole story. Then, with agony in every word she uttered, she managed to inform me that, when she went in after I had left her at the door that night, she found waiting her a note from Charley; and this she now gave me to read. It contained a request to meet him that evening at the very place which I had appointed. It was their customary rendezvous when she was in town. In all probability he was there when we were, and heard and saw—heard too little and saw too much, and concluded that both Clara and I were false to him. The frightful perturbation which a conviction such as that must cause in a mind like his could be nothing short of madness. For, ever tortured by a sense of his own impotence, of the gulf to all appearance eternally fixed between his actions and his aspirations, and unable to lay hold of the Essential, the Causing Goodness, he had clung, with the despair of a perishing man, to the dim reflex of good he saw in her and me. If his faith in that was indeed destroyed, the last barrier must have given way, and the sea of madness ever breaking against it must have broken in and overwhelmed him. But oh, my friend! surely long ere now thou knowest that we were not false; surely the hour will yet dawn when I shall again hold thee to my heart; yea, surely, even if still thou countest me guilty, thou hast already found for me endless excuse and forgiveness.
I can hardly doubt, however, that he inherited a strain of madness from his father, a madness which that father had developed by forcing upon him the false forms of a true religion.
It is not then strange that I should have thought and speculated much about madness.—What does its frequent impulse to suicide indicate? May it not be its main instinct to destroy itself as an evil thing? May not the impulse arise from some unconscious conviction that there is for it no remedy but the shuffling off of this mortal coil—nature herself dimly urging through the fumes of the madness to the one blow which lets in the light and air? Doubtless, if in the mind so sadly unhinged, the sense of a holy presence could be developed—the sense of a love that loves through all vagaries—of a hiding-place from forms of evil the most fantastic—of a fatherly care that not merely holds its insane child in its arms, but enters into the chaos of his imagination, and sees every wildest horror with which it swarms; if, I say, the conviction of such a love dawned on the disordered mind, the man would live in spite of his imaginary foes, for he would pray against them as sure of being heard as St Paul when he prayed concerning the thorn from which he was not delivered, but against which he was sustained. And who can tell how often this may be the fact—how often the lunatic also lives by faith? Are not the forms of madness most frequently those of love and religion? Certainly, if there be a God, he does not forget his frenzied offspring; certainly he is more tender over them than any mother over her idiot darling; certainly he sees in them what the eye of brother or sister cannot see. But some of them, at least, have not enough of such support to be able to go on living; and, for my part, I confess I rejoice as often as I hear that one has succeeded in breaking his prison bars. When the crystal shrine has grown dim, and the fair forms of nature are in their entrance contorted hideously; when the sunlight itself is as blue lightning, and the wind in the summer trees is as 'a terrible sound of stones cast down, or a rebounding echo from the hollow mountains;' when the body is no longer a mediator between the soul and the world, but the prison-house of a lying gaoler and torturer—how can I but rejoice to hear that the tormented captive has at length forced his way out into freedom?
When I look behind me, I can see but little through the surging lurid smoke of that awful time. The first sense of relief came when I saw the body of Charley laid in the holy earth. For the earth is the Lord's—and none the less holy that the voice of the priest may have left it without his consecration. Surely if ever the Lord laughs in derision, as the Psalmist says, it must be when the voice of a man would in his name exclude his fellows from their birthright. O Lord, gather thou the outcasts of thy Israel, whom the priests and the rulers of thy people have cast out to perish.
I remember for the most part only a dull agony, interchanging with apathy. For days and days I could not rest, but walked hither and thither, careless whither. When at length I would lie down weary and fall asleep, suddenly I would start up, hearing the voice of Charley crying for help, and rush in the middle of the Winter night into the wretched streets there to wander till daybreak. But I was not utterly miserable. In my most wretched dreams I never dreamed of Mary, and through all my waking distress I never forgot her. I was sure in my very soul that she did me no injustice. I had laid open the deepest in me to her honest gaze, and she had read it, and could not but know me. Neither did what had occurred quench my growing faith. I had never been able to hope much for Charley in this world; for something was out of joint with him, and only in the region of the unknown was I able to look for the setting right of it. Nor had many weeks passed before I was fully aware of relief when I remembered that he was dead. And whenever the thought arose that God might have given him a fairer chance in this world, I was able to reflect that apparently God does not care for this world save as a part of the whole; and on that whole I had yet to discover that he could have given him a fairer chance.
ATTEMPTS AND COINCIDENCES.
It was months before I could resume my work. Not until Charley's absence was, as it were, so far established and accepted that hope had begun to assert itself against memory; that is, not until the form of Charley ceased to wander with despairful visage behind me and began to rise amongst the silvery mists before me, was I able to invent once more, or even to guide the pen with certainty over the paper. The moment, however, that I took the pen in my hand another necessity seized me.
Although Mary had hardly been out of my thoughts, I had heard no word of her since her brother's death. I dared not write to her father or mother after the way the former had behaved to me, and I shrunk from approaching Mary with a word that might suggest a desire to intrude the thoughts of myself upon the sacredness of her grief. Why should she think of me? Sorrow has ever something of a divine majesty, before which one must draw nigh with bowed head and bated breath:
Here I and sorrows sit; Here is my throne: bid kings come bow to it.
But the moment I took the pen in my hand to write, an almost agonizing desire to speak to her laid hold of me. I dared not yet write to her, but, after reflection, resolved to send her some verses which should make her think of both Charley and myself, through the pages of a magazine which I knew she read.
Oh, look not on the heart I bring— It is too low and poor; I would not have thee love a thing Which I can ill endure.
Nor love me for the sake of what I would be if I could; O'er peaks as o'er the marshy flat, Still soars the sky of good.
See, love, afar, the heavenly man The will of God would make; The thing I must be when I can, Love now, for faith's dear sake.
But when I had finished the lines, I found the expression had fallen so far short of what I had in my feeling, that I could not rest satisfied with such an attempt at communication. I walked up and down the room, thinking of the awful theories regarding the state of mind at death in which Mary had been trained. As to the mere suicide, love ever finds refuge in presumed madness; but all of her school believed that at the moment of dissolution the fate is eternally fixed either for bliss or woe, determined by the one or the other of two vaguely defined attitudes of the mental being towards certain propositions; concerning which attitudes they were at least right in asserting that no man could of himself assume the safe one. The thought became unendurable that Mary should believe that Charley was damned—and that for ever and ever. I must and would write to her, come of it what might. That my Charley, whose suicide came of misery that the painful flutterings of his half-born wings would not bear him aloft into the empyrean, should appear to my Athanasia lost in an abyss of irrecoverable woe; that she should think of God as sending forth his spirit to sustain endless wickedness for endless torture;—it was too frightful. As I wrote, the fire burned and burned, and I ended only from despair of utterance. Not a word can I now recall of what I wrote:—the strength of my feelings must have paralyzed the grasp of my memory. All I can recollect is that I closed with the expression of a passionate hope that the God who had made me and my Charley to love each other, would somewhere, some day, somehow, when each was grown stronger and purer, give us once more to each other. In that hope alone, I said, was it possible for me to live. By return of post I received the following:—
After having everlastingly ruined one of my children, body and soul, for your sophisms will hardly alter the decrees of divine justice, once more you lay your snares—now to drag my sole remaining child into the same abyss of perdition. Such wickedness—wickedness even to the pitch of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost—I have never in the course of a large experience of impenitence found paralleled. It almost drives me to the belief that the enemy of souls is still occasionally permitted to take up his personal abode in the heart of him who wilfully turns aside from revealed truth. I forgive you for the ruin you have brought upon our fondest hopes, and the agony with which you have torn the hearts of those who more than life loved him of whom you falsely called yourself the friend. But I fear you have already gone too far ever to feel your need of that forgiveness which alone can avail you. Yet I say—Repent, for the mercy of the Lord is infinite. Though my boy is lost to me for ever, I should yet rejoice to see the instrument of his ruin plucked as a brand from the burning.
Your obedient well-wisher,
'P.S.—I retain your letter for the sake of my less experienced brethren, that I may be able to afford an instance of how far the unregenerate mind can go in its antagonism to the God of Revelation.'
I breathed a deep breath, and laid the letter down, mainly concerned as to whether Mary had had the chance of reading mine. I could believe any amount of tyranny in her father—even to perusing and withholding her letters; but in this I may do him injustice, for there is no common ground known to me from which to start in speculating upon his probable actions. I wrote in answer something nearly as follows:—
That you should do me injustice can by this time be no matter of surprise to me. Had I the slightest hope of convincing you of the fact, I should strain every mental nerve to that end. But no one can labour without hope, and as in respect of your justice I have none, I will be silent. May the God in whom I trust convince you of the cruelty of which you have been guilty: the God in whom you profess to believe, must be too like yourself to give any ground of such hope from him.
Your obedient servant,
If Mary had read my letter, I felt assured her reading had been very different from her father's. Anyhow she could not judge me as he did, for she knew me better. She knew that for Charley's sake I had tried the harder to believe myself.
But the reproaches of one who had been so unjust to his own son could not weigh very heavily on me, and I now resumed my work with a tolerable degree of calmness. But I wrote badly. I should have done better to go down to the Moat, and be silent. If my reader has ever seen what I wrote at that time, I should like her to know that I now wish it all unwritten—not for any utterance contained in it, but simply for its general inferiority.
Certainly work is not always required of a man. There is such a thing as a sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected. Abraham, seated in his tent door in the heat of the day, would be to the philosophers of the nineteenth century an object for uplifted hands and pointed fingers. They would see in him only the indolent Arab, whom nothing but the foolish fancy that he saw his Maker in the distance, could rouse to run.
It was clearly better to attempt no further communication with Mary at present; and I could think but of one person from whom, without giving pain, I might hope for some information concerning her.
* * * * *
Here I had written a detailed account of how I contrived to meet Miss Pease, but it is not of consequence enough to my story to be allowed to remain. Suffice it to mention that one morning at length I caught sight of her in a street in Mayfair, where the family was then staying for the season, and overtaking addressed her.
She started, stared at me for a moment, and held out her hand.
'I didn't know you, Mr Cumbermede. How much older you look! I beg your pardon. Have you been ill?'
She spoke hurriedly, and kept looking over her shoulder now and then, as if afraid of being seen talking to me.
'I have had a good deal to make me older since we met last, Miss Pease,' I said. 'I have hardly a friend left in the world but you—that is, if you will allow me to call you one.'
'Certainly, certainly,' she answered, but hurriedly, and with one of those uneasy glances. 'Only you must allow, Mr Cumbermede, that—that—that—'
The poor lady was evidently unprepared to meet me on the old footing, and, at the same time, equally unwilling to hurt my feelings.
'I should be sorry to make you run a risk for my sake,' I said. 'Please just answer me one question. Do you know what it is to be misunderstood—to be despised without deserving it?'
She smiled sadly, and nodded her head gently two or three times.
'Then have pity on me, and let me have a little talk with you.'
Again she glanced apprehensively over her shoulder.
'You are afraid of being seen with me, and I don't wonder,' I said.
'Mr Geoffrey came up with us,' she answered. 'I left him at breakfast. He will be going across the park to his club directly.'
'Then come with me the other way—into Hyde Park,' I said.
With evident reluctance, she yielded and accompanied me.
As soon as we got within Stanhope Gate, I spoke.
'A certain sad event, of which you have no doubt heard, Miss Pease, has shut me out from all communication with the family of my friend Charley Osborne. I am very anxious for some news of his sister. She is all that is left of him to me now. Can you tell me anything about her?'
'She has been very ill,' she replied.
'I hope that means that she is better,' I said.
'She is better, and, I hear, going on the Continent, as soon as the season will permit. But, Mr Cumbermede, you must be aware that I am under considerable restraint in talking to you. The position I hold in Sir Giles's family, although neither a comfortable nor a dignified one—'
'I understand you perfectly, Miss Pease,' I returned, 'and fully appreciate the sense of propriety which causes your embarrassment. But the request I am about to make has nothing to do with them or their affairs whatever. I only want your promise to let me know if you hear anything of Miss Osborne.'
'I cannot tell—what—'
'What use I may be going to make of the information you give me. In a word, you do not trust me.'
'I neither trust nor distrust you, Mr Cumbermede. But I am afraid of being drawn into a correspondence with you.'
'Then I will ask no promise. I will hope in your generosity. Here is my address. I pray you, as you would have helped him who fell among thieves, to let me know anything you hear about Mary Osborne.'
She took my card, and turned at once, saying,
'Mind, I make no promise.'
'I imagine none,' I answered. 'I will trust in your kindness.'
And so we parted.
Unsatisfactory as the interview was, it yet gave me a little hope. I was glad to hear that Mary was going abroad, for it must do her good. For me, I would endure and labour and hope. I gave her to God, as Shakspere says somewhere, and set myself to my work. When her mind was quieter about Charley, somehow or other I might come near her again.—I could not see how.
I took my way across the Green Park.
I do not believe we notice the half of the coincidences that float past us on the stream of events. Things which would fill us with astonishment, and probably with foreboding, look us in the face and pass us by, and we know nothing of them.
As I walked along in the direction of the Mall, I became aware of a tall man coming towards me, stooping, as if with age, while the length of his stride indicated a more vigorous period. He passed without lifting his head, but, in the partial view of the wan and furrowed countenance, I could not fail to recognize Charley's father. Such a worn unhappiness was there depicted that the indignation which still lingered in my bosom went out in compassion. If his sufferings might but teach him that to brand the truth of the kingdom with the private mark of opinion must result in persecution and cruelty! He mounted the slope with strides at once eager and aimless, and I wondered whether any of the sure-coming compunctions had yet begun to overshadow the complacency of his faith; whether he had yet begun to doubt if it pleased the Son of Man that a youth should be driven from the gates of truth because he failed to recognize her image in the faces of the janitors.
Aimless also, I turned into the Mall, and again I started at the sight of a known figure. Was it possible?—could it be my Lilith betwixt the shafts of a public cabriolet? Fortunately it was empty. I hailed it, and jumped up, telling the driver to take me to my chambers.
My poor Lilith! She was working like one who had never been loved! So far as I knew she had never been in harness before. She was badly groomed and thin, but much of her old spirit remained. I soon entered into negotiations with the driver, whose property she was, and made her my own once more, with a delight I could ill express in plain prose—for my friends were indeed few. I wish I could draw a picture of the lovely creature, when at length, having concluded my bargain, I approached her, and called her by her name! She turned her head sideways towards me with a low whinny of pleasure, and when I walked a little away, walked wearily after me. I took her myself to livery stables near me, and wrote for Styles. His astonishment when he saw her was amusing.
'Good Lord! Miss Lilith!' was all he could say—for some moments.
In a few days she had begun to look like herself, and I sent her home with Styles. I should hardly like to say how much the recovery of her did to restore my spirits; I could not help regarding it as a good omen.
And now, the first bitterness of my misery having died a natural death, I sought again some of the friends I had made through Charley, and experienced from them great kindness. I began also to go into society a little, for I had found that invention is ever ready to lose the forms of life, if it be not kept under the ordinary pressure of its atmosphere. As it is, I doubt much if any of my books are more than partially true to those forms, for I have ever heeded them too little; but I believe I have been true to the heart of man. At the same time, I have ever regarded that heart more as the fountain of aspiration than the grave of fruition. The discomfiture of enemies and a happy marriage never seemed to me ends of sufficient value to close a history withal—I mean a fictitious history, wherein one may set forth joys and sorrows which in a real history must walk shadowed under the veil of modesty; for the soul, still less than the body, will consent to be revealed to all eyes. Hence, although most of my books have seemed true to some, they have all seemed visionary to most.
A year passed away, during which I never left London. I heard from Miss Pease—that Miss Osborne, although much better, was not going to return until after another Winter. I wrote and thanked her, and heard no more. It may seem I accepted such ignorance with strange indifference; but, even to the reader for whom alone I am writing, I cannot, as things are, attempt to lay open all my heart. I have not written and cannot write how I thought, projected, brooded, and dreamed—all about her; how I hoped when I wrote that she might read; how I questioned what I had written, to find whether it would look to her what I had intended it to appear.
THE LAST VISION.
I had engaged to accompany one of Charley's barrister-friends, in whose society I had found considerable satisfaction, to his father's house—to spend the evening with some friends of the family. The gathering was chiefly for talk, and was a kind of thing I disliked, finding its aimlessness and flicker depressing. Indeed, partly from the peculiar circumstances of my childhood, partly from what I had suffered, I always found my spirits highest when alone. Still, the study of humanity apart, I felt that I ought not to shut myself out from my kind, but endure some little irksomeness, if only for the sake of keeping alive that surface friendliness which has its value in the nourishment of the deeper affections. On this particular occasion, however, I yielded the more willingly that, in the revival of various memories of Charley, it had occurred to me that I once heard him say that his sister had a regard for one of the ladies of the family.
There were not many people in the drawing-room when we arrived, and my friend's mother alone was there to entertain them. With her I was chatting when one of her daughters entered, accompanied by a lady in mourning. For one moment I felt as if on the borders of insanity. My brain seemed to surge like the waves of a wind-tormented tide, so that I dared not make a single step forward lest my limbs should disobey me. It was indeed Mary Osborne; but oh, how changed! The rather full face had grown delicate and thin, and the fine pure complexion if possible finer and purer, but certainly more ethereal and evanescent. It was as if suffering had removed some substance unapt, [Footnote: Spenser's 'Hymne in Honour of Beautie.'] and rendered her body a better-fitting garment for her soul. Her face, which had before required the softening influences of sleep and dreams to give it the plasticity necessary for complete expression, was now full of a repressed expression, if I may be allowed the phrase—a latent something ever on the tremble, ever on the point of breaking forth. It was as if the nerves had grown finer, more tremulous, or, rather, more vibrative. Touched to finer issues they could never have been, but suffering had given them a more responsive thrill. In a word, she was the Athanasia of my dream, not the Mary Osborne of the Moldwarp library.
Conquering myself at last, and seeing a favourable opportunity, I approached her. I think the fear lest her father should enter gave me the final impulse; otherwise I could have been contented to gaze on her for hours in motionless silence.
'May I speak to you, Mary?' I said.
She lifted her eyes and her whole face towards mine, without a smile, without a word. Her features remained perfectly still, but, like the outbreak of a fountain, the tears rushed into her eyes and overflowed in silent weeping. Not a sob, not a convulsive movement, accompanied their flow.
'Is your father here?' I asked.
She shook her head.
'I thought you were abroad somewhere—I did not know where.'
Again she shook her head. She dared not speak, knowing that if she made the attempt she must break down.
'I will go away till you can bear the sight of me,' I said. She half-stretched out a thin white hand, but whether to detain me or bid me farewell I do not know, for it dropped again on her knee.
'I will come to you by-and-by,' I said, and moved away. The rooms rapidly filled, and in a few minutes I could not see the corner where I had left her. I endured everything for awhile, and then made my way back to it; but she was gone, and I could find her nowhere. A lady began to sing. When the applause which followed her performance was over, my friend, who happened to be near me, turned abruptly and said,