Upon Emily had fallen silence. The tongue which for three months had incessantly sounded in her ears, with its notes of wailing, of upbraiding, of physical pain, of meaningless misery, was at rest for ever. As she stood beside the grave -- the grave whose earth had not had time to harden since it received her father -- she seemed still to hear that feeble, querulous voice, with its perpetual iteration of her own name; the casting of clay upon the coffin made a sound not half so real. Returning home, she went up to the bedroom with the same hurried step with which she had been wont to enter after her brief absences. The bed was vacant; the blind made the air dim; she saw her breath rise before her.
There remained but a little servant-girl, who, coming to the sitting-room to ask about meals, stood crying with her apron held to her eyes. Emily spoke to her almost with tender kindness. Her own eyes had shed but few tears; she only wept on hearing those passages read which, by their promise of immortal life, were to her as mockery of her grief. She did not venture to look into the grave's mouth she dreaded lest there might be visible some portion of her father's coffin.
Mrs. Baxendale, the Cartwrights, and one or two other friends had attended the funeral. At Emily's request no one accompanied her home. Mrs. Baxendale drove her to the door, and went on to Dunfield.
The last link with the past was severed -- almost, it seemed, the last link with the world. A sense of loneliness grew about her heart; she lived in a vast solitude, whither came faintest echoes of lamentation, the dying resonance of things that had been. It could hardly be called grief, this drawing off of the affections, this desiccation of the familiar kindnesses which for the time seemed all her being. She forced herself to remember that the sap of life would flow again, that love would come back to her when the hand of death released her from its cruel grip; as yet she could only be sensible of her isolation, her forlorn oneness. It needs a long time before the heart can companion only with memories. About its own centre it wraps such warm folds of kindred life. Tear these away, how the poor heart shivers in its nakedness.
She was alone. It no longer mattered where she lived, for her alliances henceforth were only of the spirit. She must find some sphere in which she could create for herself a new activity, for to sit in idleness was to invite dread assaults. The task of her life was an inward one, but her nature was not adapted to quiescence, and something must replace the task which had come to an end by her mother's death. Already she had shaped plans, and she dared not allow needless time to intervene before practically pursuing them.
In the evening of that day Mrs. Baxendale again came to Banbrigg. She found Emily with writing materials before her. Her object in coming was to urge Emily to quit this lonely house.
'Come and stay with me,' she entreated. 'You shall be as unmolested as here; no one but myself shall ever come near you. Emily, I cannot go home and sleep with the thought of you here alone.'
'You forget,' Emily replied, 'that I have in reality lived alone for a long time; I do not feel it as you imagine. No, I must stay here, but not for long. I shall at once find a teacher's place again.'
'That is your intention?'
'Yes. I shall sell the furniture, and ask the landlord to find another tenant as soon as possible. But till I go away I wish to live in this house.'
Mrs. Baxendale knew that Emily's projects were not to be combated like a girl's idle fancies. She did not persevere, but let sad silence be her answer.
'Would you in no case stay in Dunfield?'
'No; I must leave Dunfield. I don't think I shall find it difficult to get employment.'
Mrs. Baxendale had never ventured to ask for the girl's confidence, nor even to show that she desired it. Emily was more perplexing to her now than even at the time of Wilfrid Athel's rejection. She consoled herself with the thought that a period of active occupation was no doubt the best means of restoring this complex nature to healthy views of life; that at all events it was likely to bring about an unravelling of the mysteries in which her existence seemed to have become involved. You could not deal with her as with other girls; the sources of her strength and her weakness lay too deep; counsel to her would be a useless, an impertinent, interference with her grave self-guiding. Mrs. Baxendale could but speak words of extreme tenderness, and return whence she had come. On going away, she felt that the darkest spot of night was over that house.
Emily lived at Banbrigg for more than three weeks. After the first few days she appeared to grow lighter in mind; she talked more freely with those who came to see her, and gladly accepted friendly aid in little practical matters which had to be seen to. Half-way between Banbrigg and Dunfield lay the cemetery; there she passed a part of every morning, sometimes in grief which opened all the old wounds, more often in concentration of thought such as made her unaware of the passage of time. The winter weather was not severe; not seldom a thin gleam of sunshine would pass from grave to grave, and give promise of spring in the said reign of the year's first month. Emily was almost the only visitor at the hour she chose. She had given directions for the raising of a stone at the grave-head; as yet there was only the newly-sodded hillock. Close at hand was a grave on which friends placed hot-house flowers, sheltering them beneath glass. Emily had no desire to express her mourning in that way; the flower of her love was planted where it would not die.
But she longed to bring her time of waiting to an end. The steps she had as yet taken had led to nothing. She had not requested Mrs. Baxendale to make inquiries for her, and her friend, thinking she understood the reason, did not volunteer assistance, nor did she hear any particulars of the correspondence that went on. Ultimately, Emily communicated with her acquaintances in Liverpool, who were at once anxious to serve her. She told them that she would by preference find a place in a school. And at length they drew her attention to an advertisement which seemed promising; it was for a teacher in a girls' school near Liverpool. A brief correspondence led to her being engaged.
She was in perfect readiness to depart. For a day or two she had not seen Mrs. Baxendale, and, on the afternoon before the day of her leaving Banbrigg, she went to take leave of her friends. It was her intention to visit Mrs. Baxendale first, then to go on to the Cartwrights'. As it rained, she walked to Pendal and took train for Dunfield.
At Dunfield station she was delayed for some moments in leaving the carriage by travellers who got out before her with complexities of baggage. To reach the exit of the station she had to cross the line by a bridge, and at the foot of this bridge stood the porter who collected tickets. As she drew near to him her eyes fell upon a figure moving before her, that of a young man, wearing thick travelling apparel and carrying a bag. She did not need to see his face, yet, as he stopped to give up his ticket, she caught a glimpse of it. The train by which she had travelled had also brought Wilfrid to Dunfield.
She turned and walked to a little distance away from the foot of the stairs. There was no room that she could enter on this platform. She dropped her black veil, and seated herself on a bench. In truth she had a difficulty in standing, her body trembled so.
For five minutes she remained seated, calming herself and determining what course to take. She held it for certain that Wilfrid had come at Mrs. Baxendale's bidding. But would he go to that house first, or straight to her own? With the latter purpose he would probably have left the train at Pendal. She would have time to get home before he could come. At this moment a train was entering the station on the other side. She hurried over the bridge, and, without stopping to obtain a ticket, entered a carriage.
It was not without dread lest Wilfrid might have already arrived, and be waiting within for her return that she approached the house door. Her fears were groundless. The servant told her that no one had called.
'If anyone should call this evening,' she said, 'I cannot see them. You will say that I shall not be able to see anyone -- anyone, whoever it is -- till to-morrow morning.' . . .
At this same hour, Mrs. Baxendale, entering a shop in Dunfield, found Dagworthy making purchases.
'I shall not see you again for a long time,' he said, as he was leaving. 'I start to-morrow on a long journey.'
'Out of England?'
He did not specify his route, merely said that he was going far from England. They shook hands, and Mrs. Baxendale was left with a musing expression on her face. She turned her eyes to the counter; the purchase for which Dagworthy had just paid was a box of ladies' gloves. The shopman put them aside, to be made into a parcel and sent away.
When, half an hour later, she reached home, she was at once informed that Mr. Athel was in the drawing-room. The intelligence caused her to bite her lower lip, a way she had of expressing the milder form of vexation. She went first to remove her walking apparel, and did not hasten the process. When she at length entered the drawing-room Wilfrid was pacing about in his accustomed fashion.
'You here?' she exclaimed, with a dubious shake of the head. 'Why so soon?'
'So soon! The time has gone more quickly with you than with me, Mrs. Baxendale.'
Clearly he had not spent the last three months in ease of mind. His appearance was too like that with which he had come from Oxford on the occasion of his break-down.
'I could bear it no longer,' he continued. 'I cannot let her go away without seeing her.'
'You will go this evening?'
'Yes, I must. You have nothing hopeful to say to me?'
Mrs. Baxendale dropped her eyes, and answered, 'Nothing.' Then she regarded him as if in preface to some utterance of moment, but after all kept silence.
'Has she heard of anything yet?'
'I believe not. I have not seen her since Tuesday, and then she told me of nothing. But I don't ask her.'
'I know -- you explained. I think you have done wisely. How is she?'
He let his feeling get the upper hand.
'I can't leave her again without an explanation. She must tell me everything. Have I not a right to ask it of her? I can't live on like this; I do nothing. The days pass in misery of idleness. If only in pity she will tell me all.'
'Don't you think it possible,' Mrs. Baxendale asked, 'that she has already done so?'
He gazed at her blankly, despairingly.
'You have come to believe that? Her words -- her manner -- seem to prove that?'
'I cannot say certainly. I only mean that you should be prepared to believe if she repeated it.'
'Yes, if she repeats it. I shall have no choice. Well, I wished to see you first; I will go to Banbrigg at once.'
Mrs. Baxendale seemed reluctant to let him go, yet at length she did. He was absent an hour and a half. At his return Mrs. Baxendale had friends with her in the drawing room. Wilfrid ascertained it from the servant, and said that he would go to the sitting-room he had formerly occupied, and wait there till the lady was alone.
She came to him before very long, and learnt that he had not been able to see Emily; the servant had told him that she could see no one till the next morning.
Mrs. Baxendale sighed.
'Then you must wait.'
'Yes, I must wait.'
He passed the night at the house. Mr. Baxendale was in London, parliamentarily occupied. At eleven next morning he went again to Banbrigg. Again he was but a short time absent, and in his face, as he entered the drawing-room, Mrs. Baxendale read catastrophe.
'She has gone!' he said. 'She left very early this morning. The girl has no idea where she has gone to, but says she won't return -- that she has left for good. What does this mean?'
'What does it mean?' the lady repeated musingly. 'I wonder, I wonder.'
'She knew I called yesterday; I left my name. She has gone to avoid me.'
'That may be. But all her preparations were evidently made.'
'But it may not be true. The girl of course would say whatever she was bidden to. I don't believe that she has really gone.'
'I do,' said Mrs. Baxendale, with quiet significance.
'On what grounds? You know more than you will tell me. Is there no one with common humanity? Why do you plot against me? Why won't you tell me what you know?'
'I will, if you sit down there and endeavour to command yourself. That is, I will tell you certain things that I have heard, and something that I have seen. Then we will reason about them.'
Wilfrid's brow darkened. He prepared to listen.
'About six weeks ago,' the lady began, 'I went to see a friend of mine, a lady who was recovering from an illness, someone who knows Emily, though not intimately. In her illness she was nursed by the same woman who helped poor Mrs. Hood when Emily was in her fever. This woman, it appears, was induced to talk about Emily, and gave it as a secret that Emily's illness had something to do with an attachment between her and Mr. Dagworthy, her father's employer. Her grounds for believing this were, first of all, the fact of Emily frequently uttering his name in her delirium, with words which seemed to refer to some mystery between them; then the circumstance of Mr. Dagworthy's having, shortly after, left a note at the house, with special injunctions to the servant that it should be given into Emily's own hands. This story, you may imagine, surprised me not a little. A few days later Mr. Dagworthy dined with us, and I took an opportunity of talking with him; it seemed to me certain that Emily had some special place in his thoughts. I know, too, that he was particularly anxious throughout the time of her illness, and that of her mother.'
The listener was paralysed.
'Why have you kept this from me?' he asked, indignation blending with his misery.
'Because it was no better than gossip and speculation. I had no right to report such things -- at all events, so it seemed to me. Now I am going to add something which may be the wildest error, but which cannot trouble you much if you imagine that the story is true. Yesterday, just before I came home to find you here, I met Mr. Dagworthy by chance in a draper's shop, and he told me that he was going away to-day, leaving England.'
'Yes. And I saw that he had been buying a box of ladies' gloves.'
'What do you mean?' Wilfrid stammered out.
'I know that he has no female relatives -- except his wife's, who live in another part of England, and are on bad terms with him.'
'His wife -- you said?'
'His late wife; he is a widower. Now we may be imagining in the silliest way, but----'
'But why----' Wilfrid checked himself. 'Do I understand you? You think Emily has gone with him -- has gone to be married to him?'
'It is almost impossible seriously to think it.'
'And you think she would shrink from being married here?'
'For one or two reasons -- at all events, so soon.'
'But is it possible to believe that she deliberately deceived you -- made a pretence of seeking employment?'
'I can't say. She never gave me any details of what she was doing. Another thing -- she would not come to stay with me after her mother's funeral. Mr. Dagworthy lives on the Heath, only just beyond Banbrigg. You see to what things we can be led, if we begin interpreting shadows; but Emily is a mystery to me, and, as I have begun, I must gossip to you all I know.'
Mrs. Baxendale was certainly doing more in the way of gossiping conjecture than perhaps she had ever done before; the occasion excited her, and that coincidence of Dagworthy's purchase, together with his departure this very day, struck her with a force which unsettled her usual balance of thought. Wilfrid was as ready to believe; to him there was a certain strange relief in feeling that he had at length reached the climax of his sufferings. He had only to give credence to Emily's own words. She had said that a change had come in her heart, in her life, and that she no longer loved him. Understand it he of course could not, nor ever would, unless he lost all faith in woman's honour.
'But this can be either confirmed or refuted speedily,' he exclaimed. 'Can you not make inquiries of this Mr. Dagworthy's friends? If they know nothing yet, they will soon hear from him.'
'Yes, I can make such inquiries. But he has a peculiar reputation in Dunfield; I think he scarcely has an intimate friend.'
'Well, there is, at all events, Emily herself. If this story is baseless, she will be writing to you.'
'I think so. Again we must wait. Poor Wilfrid! from my heart I feel for you!'
It was decided that Wilfrid should remain in Dunfield for a day or two, till news might be obtained. News came, however, sooner than was anticipated. In the afternoon a letter was delivered, posted by Emily at Pendal in the morning. She wrote to Mrs. Baxendale to say that she had left to take a place in a school; then continued:
'I have a reason for leaving suddenly. A reason you will understand. I should have come to say good-bye to you yesterday, but something happened to prevent me. The same reason has decided me to keep secret even from you, my dear and honoured friend, the place to which I am going; in time you shall hear from me, for I know I cannot have forfeited your love, though I fear I have given you pain. Think of me with forbearance. I do what I must do.'
That was all. No word for Wilfrid.
'This proves it,' Wilfrid said, with bitter coldness. 'All she says is false. She does what she is ashamed of, and lies to conceal it for a few days or weeks.'
'Do not let us even yet be sure,' said Mrs. Baxendale, who was recovering her calmer judgment.
'I am sure! Why should she keep the place secret? She fears that I should follow her? Could she not anywhere keep me off by her mere bidding? Have I been brutally importunate? What secret can exist that she might not disclose to me -- that she was not bound to disclose? I thought her incapable of a breath of falsehood, and she must have deceived me from the first, from the very first!'
Wilfrid, that is impossible. I cannot abandon my faith in Emily. New you speak in this way, it convinces me that we are wrong, utterly and foolishly mistaken. I believe what she says here; she has not gone with him
Wilfrid laughed scornfully.
'It is too late; I can't twist my belief so quickly. I do not need that kind of comfort; far easier to make up my mind that I have always been fooled -- as I have!'
He was beyond the stage at which reasoning is possible; reaction, in full flood, beat down the nobler features of his mind and swamped him with the raging waters of resentment.
So here was a myth well on its way to establishment. For no one could afford Mrs. Baxendale satisfactory news of Dagworthy. She would not take the only step which remained, that of openly avowing to his partner the information she desired to obtain, and getting him to make inquiries his partner appeared to be the only person in direct communication with Dagworthy. It had to be remembered that Emily's own statement might be true; she must not be spoken of lightly. It was said that Mr. Legge, the partner, pooh-poohed the idea that Dagworthy was secretly married. But Mr. Legge might know as little as other people.
There were circles in Dunfield in which another and quite a different myth grew up around the name of Emily Hood. The Cartwrights originated it. They too had received a mysterious note of farewell, and their interpretation was this Emily, they held, had gone to London, there to be happily married to a certain Mr. Athel, a gentleman of aristocratic appearance and enormously wealthy. Mrs. Baxendale heard this story now and again; she neither affirmed nor contradicted. Jessie Cartwright reflected much on Emily's slyness in keeping her affairs so secret. She was not as envious as she would have been but for a certain compact which she was determined should not -- if it lay in her power to prevent it -- be some day laughed away as a mere joke. And had she not received, on the very eve of Dagworthy's departure, a box of gloves, which could only come from one person?
The second myth holds its ground, I believe, to the present day. The more mischievous fable was refuted before very long, but only when it had borne results for Wilfrid practically the same as if it had been a truth.
Let time and change do their work for six years and six months, their building and their destroying, their ripening for love, their ripening for death. Then we take our way to the Capital, for, behold, it is mid-season; the sun of late June is warm upon the many-charioted streets, upon the parks where fashion's progress circles to the 'Io Triumphe' of regardant throngs, even upon the quarters where life knows but one perennial season, that of toil. The air is voiceful; every house which boasts a drawing-room gathers its five o'clock choir; every theatre, every concert-room resounds beneath the summer night; in the halls of Westminster is the culmination of sustained utterance. There, last night, the young member for a Surrey borough made his maiden speech; his name, Mr. Wilfrid Athel.
The speech was better reported than such are wont to be, for it contained clever things, and quite surprisingly resembled in its tone of easy confidence and its mastery of relevant facts the deliverances of men of weight in politics. It had elicited a compliment from a leader of the opposing party; it had occasioned raisings of the eyebrows in capable judges, and had led to remarks that a young man so singularly self-possessed, so agreeably oracular, so remarkably long-headed, might be expected, in the course of some five-and-twenty years, to go far. He was, to be sure, a child -- not yet thirty -- but there were older children in the House decidedly of less promise. Mr. Wilfrid Athel might go home, and, if he could, go to sleep, in the assurance that his career had opened.
The next day, a Saturday, this finished little piece of talk was the starting-point of a vast amount of less coherent speech in a drawing-room within sight of Kensington's verdure. Here Mrs. Ashley Birks did her friends the honour of receiving them; a lady well regarded in certain discriminating circles. A widow formerly, she had now been two years married to a barrister new in silk. We have the pleasure of knowing her; for she once bore the name of Mrs. Rossall.
At half-past five Mrs. Ashley Birks' drawing-room contained some two dozen people, mostly ladies. Two of the gentlemen present are not without interest for us. He whom you observe standing, so to speak, the focus of a concave mirror of three gracious dames, with his back somewhat difficultly bent, as if under ordinary circumstances he would be as upright as any Briton who owes not a penny, with very wholesome cheeks and lips which move in and out as he forms his well-rounded periods, is, of course, Mr. Athel the elder; he plays with his watch-guard, and is clearly in hearty mood, not at all disliking the things that are being said about a certain member of the legislature. The other is as emphatically an Englishman, but of a different type; his clothes are good, but he does not wear them with grace; he is tall and solidly built, but he walks awkwardly, and is not quite at home among these gracious ladies of the silvern tongue, having much difficulty in expressing himself on subjects which he perfectly understands, and absolutely without faculty for speech on subjects unfamiliar to him. When we saw him last he was in the heat of a contested election; there has been another election since then, but Mr. Baxendale still represents Dunfield.
You see his wife at a little distance, still the same smooth-skinned, well-preserved lady, with goodness declaring itself upon her large and homely features. For three years now she has been in the habit of spending her three months in town, finding it lonely in Dunfield, and even nourishing a late ambition, which has not been altogether futile; for there re people who have a peculiar liking for the little room in which she holds her modest gatherings. She is talking at present with a lady who, by her costume, is of the house, a lady of some seven-and-twenty years or a little more, and strikingly beautiful. Beatrice Redwing has not yet changed her name, though often enough solicited to do so; when her mother died, now rather more than a year ago, she willingly accepted the shelter of Mrs. Ashley Birks' roof, as she would else have had to live alone. In one respect she has not changed, her dress is exquisite; but to judge from her expression as she talks, she has become somewhat graver. Visitors have a special reason for regarding her with glances of curiosity and admiration. Though known to be extremely wealthy, it was rumoured that she was about to appear before the public as a vocalist, having prepared herself by a long course of the most rigid study. Her first appearance was looked forward to as an event of note in the musical world, for her native gifts were unusual, and the results of her training proportionately significant.
'It must be very gratifying to you,' Mrs. Baxendale had said, as she came to a chair by her niece and began to talk of Wilfrid's success.
'Yes, I am glad of it,' was the quiet reply.
'Will he be here this afternoon?'
'I'm not sure; I think so. Ah, there he is!'
For at that moment had come the announcement of the name they had on their lips. Beatrice's exclamation was made in a very subdued voice, but she moved slightly in her chair, and it was not within her resources to subdue the glister of her dark eyes and the warmth softly expanding upon her cheek. Mrs. Birks floated towards her nephew with airs of rightly-tuned welcome; she could not, of course, make much of him, but her very familiarity made graceful claim to a share in his glory. Wilfrid was sensibly changed during the years we have allowed to pass silently by. To begin with, he had grown a beard. His health seemed finally to have established itself on a sound basis; his cheeks were growing sunny, and he showed the proportions of a very complete man. At the present moment, his consciousness of regards fixed upon him heightened his colour; his fine eyes danced in light; he checked a smile, and spoke sparingly here and there. One part of his nature revelled in the joy of this foretaste of distinction; he had looked forward to it, had laboured for it, its sweetness was beyond all telling. Triumph had been his aim as a schoolboy; he held it fitting that as a man he should become prominent amongst his fellows. This of politics was the easiest way. To be sure, he told himself that it was a way he would once have sneered at, that it was to rub shoulders with men altogether his inferiors in culture, that, had he held to the ideals of his youth, a longer, a wearier course would have been his, and the chance of a simpler, nobler crown. But he had the gift of speech, and by an effort could absorb himself as completely in blue-books as in the pages of historian or poet. An hour such as this was the first of his rewards.
Two there were in this assembly who turned their eyes upon him with adoration which could scarcely have fallen short of Wilfrid's utmost demands. They were his cousins, Minnie and Patty Rossall. The twins were 'out,' very sweet girls, still too delicate in health, shadows of each other. Had they regarded Wilfrid as a mere mortal, both would have been dying for love of him; as it was they drooped before him the veiled eyes of worshippers; a word from him made their pulses tingle blissfully throughout the day. Such was their mutual love, that each schemed to win his kindness for the other, his brotherly kindness, for they never thought, had never dared to think, of anything else. Wilfrid was very gracious to them both.
He shook hands with Beatrice, but neither spoke. After a few words with Mrs. Baxendale, he passed on to other ladies. Wilfrid's manner was now all that could be desired in a young man who, destined to succeed in politics, would naturally make a figure in society. He was pliant, he struck the note of good-breeding, he was unsurpassed in phrasing; with ladies who chose to be 'superior,' he could find exactly the right tone, keeping clear of pedantry, yet paying her with whom he spoke the compliment of uttering serious opinions. With the more numerous class of ladies, who neither were nor affected to be anything but delightful chatterboxes, he could frolic on the lightest airs of society gossip. He was fast making of himself an artist in talk; woe to him, if he began to discover that exertion of his brain was waste of time, since his more obvious ends could be gained equally well without it. As yet, though hints of such a mood had come to him, he did not give way to the temptations of loquacious idleness; he still worked, and purposed to work still harder. Just of late he had spent a good deal of time in rooms not exactly arranged for purposes of study -- but for this there was a special reason.
An hour later, when most of the visitors were departed, he went to Beatrice's corner of the room.
'When shall, I call for you?' he asked, standing before her.
'Oh, but you will dine here?'
She leaned forward, looking up into his face. The gaze would have intoxicated most men; Wilfrid kept his calm smile.
'No, I am sorry to say I can't,' was his reply. 'I have things to see to at home. Will 8.15 do?'
'Quite well; I need not be at the hall before a quarter to nine.'
His father came up.
'Walking my way, Wilf?'
'Yes, and in a hurry. I think we must have a hansom.'
Father and son still lived together, in the same house as formerly. After a brief stretch of pavement, they hailed a conveyance.
'Going to St. James's Hall, I suppose?' Mr. Athel asked, as they drove on.
Wilfrid gave an affirmative.
'Is it the last time?'
The other laughed.
'I can't say. I fear it troubles you.'
Mr. Athel had, we know, long passed the time when the ardours of youth put him above the prejudices of the solid Englishman. When it was first announced to him that Beatrice was going to sing on a public platform, he screwed up his lips as if something acid had fallen upon them; he scarcely credited the story till his own eyes saw the girl's name in print. 'What the deuce!' was his exclamation. 'It would be all very well if she had to do it for her living, but she certainly owes it to her friends to preserve the decencies as long as there is no need to violate them.' The reasons advanced he utterly refused to weigh. Since then events had come to pass which gave him even a nearer interest in Miss Redwing, and his protests had grown serious.
'Why, yes,' he answered now, 'it does trouble me, and not a little. I very strongly advise you to put an end to it. Let her sing in her friends' houses; there's no objection to that. But to have her name on -- great heavens! -- on placards! No, no; it must stop, Wilf. Every day it becomes more imperative. Your position demands that she should become a private lady.'
Wilfrid knew well that the question could not be argued, and, in his secret mind, there was just a little tendency to take his father's view. He would never have allowed this shade of thought to appear in his speech; but was he not an Englishman and a member of Parliament?
This which had come about was inevitable. After his departure from Dunfield on that winter day, when his life seemed crushed, he had for a long time not even sought to hear of Emily. He did not write to Mrs. Baxendale, and from her had no letters. Correspondence between them only recommenced some ten months later, when Wilfrid had finally left Oxford, and then there was no mention on either side of the old troubles. Wilfrid began by writing that he had thoughts of taking up politics; his father advised him to the step, and other friends seconded the recommendation. 'I really believe I can talk,' he said, and Mrs. Baxendale smiled at the confession. Three months more went by; then Wilfrid at length asked plainly whether Emily had sent any news of herself, or whether the suspicions had proved grounded. The reply was this: --
'As I knew perfectly well, as soon as I came to my senses, Emily had told us the truth. I heard from her for the first time nearly half a year ago, but, as she appealed to my honour not to disclose the place of her abode, I thought it needless to speak to you on the subject before you yourself seemed desirous of hearing. She is teaching in a school, and I am convinced that the story we together concocted was based on some utter mistake; I don't think she was ever related to that man in the way we thought. But it is more than probable that there was some mystery about her father's death, in which Mr. D. was concerned. I cannot imagine what it could be. Something it was which, to Emily's mind, imposed upon her a necessity of breaking her engagement. I have spoken to her of you, have asked her directly if she still thinks her decision final; she assures me most solemnly that it is. I therefore advise you once for all to accept this; I am convinced she will never waver. Try to forget her; there is no choice. I don't think I am likely to see her again for a very long time, if ever, and our correspondence will be very slight, for I know she wishes it so. Let this, then, close a sad, sad story.'
There was indeed no choice, as far as outward relations went, but so profound a passion was not to be easily outgrown. The view which makes first love alone eternally valid derives from a conception of the nature of love which, out of the realm of poetry, we may not entertain; but it sometimes happens that the first love is that which would at any period of life have been the supreme one, and then it doubtless attains a special intensity of hold from the fact of its being allied with the earliest outburst of physical passion. Above all it is thus if the attachment has been brought about by other charms than those of mere personal beauty. Emily could not be called beautiful, in the ordinary acceptation of the word; for all that, her face grew to possess for Wilfrid a perfection of loveliness beyond anything that he would ever again see in the countenance of fairest woman. Had he been markedly susceptible to female beauty, it is certain that he would have fallen in love with Beatrice Redwing long before he ever saw Emily, for Beatrice was fair to look upon as few girls are. He had not done so; he had scarcely -- a strange thing -- been tempted to think of doing so. That is to say, it needed something more to fire his instincts. The first five minutes that he spent in Emily's presence made him more conscious of womanhood than years of constant association with Beatrice. This love, riveting itself among the intricacies of his being, could not be torn out, and threatened to resist all piecemeal extraction. Wilfrid regained the command of his mind, and outwardly seemed recovered beyond all danger of relapse; but he did not deceive himself into believing that Emily was henceforth indifferent to him. He knew that to stand again before her would be to declare again his utter bondage, body and soul. He loved her still, loved her as his life; he desired her as passionately as ever. She was not often in his thoughts no more is the consciousness of the processes whereby our being supports itself. But he had only to let his mind turn to her, and he scoffed at the hope that any other could ever be to him what Emily had been, and was, and would be.
He saw very little of Beatrice, but it came to his ears that her life had undergone a change in several respects, that she spent hours daily in strenuous study of music, and was less seen in the frivolous world. No hint of the purpose Beatrice secretly entertained ever reached him till, long after, the purpose became action. He felt that she shunned him, and by degrees he thought he understood her behaviour. Wilfrid had none of the vulgarest vanity; another man would long ago have suspected that this beautiful girl was in love with him; Wilfrid had remained absolutely without a suspicion of the kind. He had always taken in good faith her declared aversion for his views; he had believed that her nature and his own were definitely irreconcilable. This was attributable, first of all to his actual inexperience in life, then to the seriousness with which he held those views which Beatrice vowed detestable. He, too, was an idealist, and, in many respects, destined to remain so throughout his life; for he would never become, on the one hand, the coldly critical man who dissects motives -- his own and those of others -- to the last fibre, nor yet the superficial cynic who professes, and half-believes, that he can explain the universe by means of a few maxims of cheap pessimism. So he took, and continued to take, Beatrice's utterances without any grain of scepticism, and consequently held it for certain that she grew less friendly to him as she grew older.
Was it Mrs. Baxendale or Mrs. Birks who at length gave him the hint which set his mind at work in another direction? Possibly both about the same time, seeing that it was the occasion of Mrs. Baxendale's first making acquaintance with his aunt that dated the beginning of new reflections In Wilfrid. One or other of these ladies -- of course it was managed so delicately that he really could not have determined to which of them he owed the impulse -- succeeded in suggesting to him that he had missed certain obvious meanings in Beatrice's behaviour whilst he resided with her at Dunfield. Certainly, when he looked back at those days from his present standpoint, Beatrice did appear to have conducted herself singularly, the mode of her departure and leave-taking being above all curious. Was it possible that----? The question formed itself at last, and was the beginning of conviction. He sought Beatrice's society, at first merely for the sake of resolving his doubts, and behold, she no longer shrank from him as formerly. Of course he might take it for granted that she knew the details of his story, seeing that her closest intimates, Mrs. Baxendale and Mrs. Birks, were ignorant of none of them. Had she, then, waited for signs of his freedom? Did his revival of the old tone in their conversations strike her as something meant to be significant, meant to convey to her certain suggestions? It was so in point of fact, and Wilfrid could not be long, his eyes now open, without convincing himself that the girl loved him ardently, that it cost her struggles with herself to avoid a revelation of her feeling. How did it affect him?
Naturally, he was flattered. It afforded another instance of his lordship among men; a woman whom others longed for desperately and in vain was his when he chose to extend his hand to her. He saw, too, an appropriateness in the chance which offered him such a wife; Beatrice was in harmony with the future to which he aspired. Her property joined to his would make him so wealthy that he might aim almost at anything; political and social progress would aid each other, both rapid. Beatrice was in many respects brilliant; there was no station that she would not become; she had the tastes and habits of society. He compared her with his career; she represented worldly success, the things which glitter on the outside -- action, voice; even her magnificent powers of song he used as parallel -- the gods forgive him! -- to his own forensic abilities. Supposing he must marry early, and not rather expect the day when he might bid for a partner from a rank considerably above his own, Beatrice was clearly the one wife for him. She would devote herself with ardour to his worldly interests -- for he began to understand that the divergence of her expressed views meant little in comparison with her heart's worship -- and would enable him immediately to exchange the social inferiority of bachelor life for the standing of a man with his own very substantial roof-tree; she would have her drawing-room, which might be made a salon, where politics and art might rule alternately.
This was doing injustice to Beatrice, and Wilfrid felt it; but it was thus he regarded her as in distinction from the woman who should have been his wife. She typified his chosen career; that other path which had lain open to him, the path of intellectual endeavour, of idealism incompatible with loud talk, of a worship which knew no taint of time-serving, that for ever was represented by the image of the woman he had lost. Her memory was encompassed with holiness. He never heard the name she bore without a thrill of high emotion, the touch of exalted enthusiasm; 'Emily' was written in starlight. Those aspects of her face which had answered to the purest moments of his rapturous youth were as present as if she had been his daily companion. He needed no picture to recall her countenance; often he had longed for the skill of an artist, that he might portray that grave sweetness, that impassioned faith, to be his soul's altar-piece. Lost, lost! and, with her, lost the uncompromising zeal of his earliest manhood. Only too consciously he had descended to a lower level; politics tempted him because they offered a field in which he could exercise his most questionable faculty, and earn with it a speedy return of the praise to which he was so susceptible. It marks his position to state that, when politics began seriously to hold his thoughts, he was with difficulty able to decide to which party he should attach himself. To be sure, if names could be taken as sufficient, he was a Liberal, a Radical; but how different his interpretation of such titles from that they bore to men of affairs! Respect for the masses he had none; interest in their affairs he had none either. On the other hand, the tone of uninstructed Conservatism -- that is to say, of the party so stamped -- he altogether despised. The motive which ultimately decided him to declare himself a Liberal was purely of sentiment; he remembered what Mrs. Baxendale had said about the hardships of poor Hood, and consequently allied himself with those who profess to be the special friends of the toiling multitude.
From the first he talked freely with Beatrice of his projects; he even exaggerated to her the cynicism with which he framed and pursued them. He could never have talked in this way to Emily. With Beatrice the tone did not injure him in the least, partly because she did not take it altogether seriously, yet more owing to the habit of mind whereby women in general subordinate principle to the practical welfare of the individual. If Wilfrid found a sphere for the display of his talents, Beatrice eared nothing to dwell upon abstract points. Politics were a recognised profession for gentlemen, and offered brilliant prizes; that was enough. She was pleased, on the whole, that his line should be one of moderation; it was socially advantageous; it made things pleasant with friends of the most various opinions. That Wilfrid took her into his confidence was to her a great happiness. In secret she felt it would be the beginning of closer intimacy, of things which women -- heaven be praised! -- esteem of vastly more importance than intellectual convictions or the interest of party.
But it was long, very long, before Wilfrid could bring himself to pass the line which separates friendship from lovemaking. Of passion his nature had no lack, but it seemed to be absorbed in memory; he shrank from the thought of using to another those words he had spoken to Emily. One of the points of intense secret sympathy between Emily and himself was this chastity of temperament. Constitutionally incapable of vice, he held in repugnance even that degree of materialism in the view of sexual relations which is common to men who have grown their beards. Not only had a coarse word never passed his lips; he intensely disliked the frivolous way of discussing subjects which to him were more sacred than any other. When he had decided with himself that it was his destiny to wed Beatrice, he had a positive fear of taking this step from which there would be no return. Before he could do so, he must have utterly broken with the past, and how could that ever be I He had not even moments of coldness in his thought of Emily; it was beyond his power to foresee the day when she would have become to him a mere symbol of something that was. Suppose that some day, when married, he again met her? In spite of everything, he did not believe that she had ceased to love him; somewhere she still kept her faith, martyred by the incomprehensible fate which had torn her from his arms. To meet her again would be to forget every tie save that holiest which made one of his spirit and of hers.
One day -- it was during the second season which Mrs. Baxendale passed in London -- he went to his friend and asked her where Emily was. Mrs. Baxendale was too quick for him; Wilfrid thought he had put his question unexpectedly, but the lady was ready for such a question at any moment, and she replied, with appearance of absolute sincerity, that she had no knowledge of Emily's place of abode.
'Where was she last -- when you last heard from her?' Wilfrid asked, in surprise at an answer so unanticipated.
Mrs. Baxendale named a town in Yorkshire. She had begun with a calculated falsehood, and had no scruple in backing it up by others.
'What can it concern you, Wilfrid?' she continued. 'Shall I confess my weakness? I mentioned your name in a letter to her; the result was this complete ending of our correspondence. Now, will not even that satisfy you?'
He did not doubt what he was told; Mrs. Baxendale's character for veracity stood high. It was solely out of regard for Wilfrid that she allowed herself to mislead him, for by this time it seemed obvious that Beatrice was drawing near to her reward, and Mrs. Baxendale, with pardonable error, took this last inquiry about Emily for a piece of conscientiousness, which, once satisfied, Wilfrid would hold on his course to a happy haven. 'She has given him up,' was her self-justification. 'Beatrice now would suffer no less than she has done.'
'Then tell me one thing more,' Wilfrid pursued. 'What has become of that man Dagworthy?'
'That I can easily do. Long ago he married a young lady of Dunfield.'
'Then what did it mean? what did it mean?'
Mrs. Baxendale merely shook her head.
A few months later, Beatrice astonished everyone by her first appearance as a public singer. Wilfrid had as little anticipated such a step as any other of Beatrice's friends. What was about to happen only became known a day or two in advance. Mrs. Ashley Birks was paralysed with horror; she implored, she reasoned, she put on her face of cold anger. Mr. Athel cried 'What the deuce!' and forthwith held a serious colloquy with his son. Wilfrid experienced a certain joy, only tempered with anxiety as to the result of the experiment. If it proved a success, he felt that the effect upon himself would be to draw him nearer to Beatrice; but it must be a great success. He calculated on imaginative influences as other men do on practical issues. Beatrice, acknowledged as more than an amateur, perchance publicly recognised as really a great singer, would impress him in a new way; he might overcome his impartial way of regarding her. The result, outwardly, answered his fullest hopes. Beatrice had not idly risked what would have been a deplorable fiasco; she had the encouragement of those who did not speak in vain, and her ambition had fired itself as she perceived the results of her conscientious labour. Her nervousness throughout the day of the concert was terrible, but little less than her life depended on the result, and at the hour of trial she was strong to conquer. Very far behind her, as she stepped out to that large audience, were the dilettante successes of drawing-room and charitable concerts; she smiled at all that flow; since then she had unlearnt so much and wrought with such humility. But what she strove for was won; she knew it in the grasp of Wilfrid's hand when he led her to her carriage. Her veil was down; behind it she was sobbing.
'Am I nothing more than a frivolous woman now?' she said, leaning to him from the carriage.
Wilfrid could make no answer, and she was whirled away from him.
He went to her the next day, and asked her to be his wife. Beatrice looked him in the face long and steadily. Then she asked:
'Do you love me, Wilfrid?'
'I love you.'
Another word trembled on her tongue, but the temptation of her bliss was too great; the contained ardour of long years had its way, sweeping doubt and memory before it.
'For your sake I have done it all. What do I care for a whole world's praise, compared with one word of recognition from you! You remember the morning when you told me of my faults, when we all but seemed to quarrel? Ah! I have faults in abundance still, but have I not done one thing worth doing, done it thoroughly, as net everyone could? I am not only a woman of the world, of society and fashion? Do I not know how contemptible that is? But only you could raise me above it.'
He left her, in a bewildered state; she had excited, impassioned him; but how strange it all was after those other scenes of love! It seemed so of the earth; the words he had spoken rang over again in his ears, and stirred his blood to shame. He could not say whether in truth he loved her or not; was it enough to feel that he could cherish her with much tenderness, and intoxicate himself in gazing on her perfect face? Women are so different! Emily had scarcely spoken when he made known to her his love; could he ever forget that awe-struck face, dimly seen in the moonlight? Her words to the end had been few; it was her eyes that spoke. Beatrice was noble, and had a heart of gold; was there not heaven in that ardour of hers, if only it had been his soul's desire? Henceforth it must be; she loved him, and he must not wrong her. Alas! the old name, the old name alone, was still star-written. . . .
He passed with her the afternoon of each Sunday. Mrs. Birks' house was a large one, and Beatrice had abundance of room to herself. Thither Wilfrid took his way on the Sunday which we have reached, the day following his drawing-room triumph. Already he was a little ashamed of himself; he was experiencing again the feeling which had come over him after his first speech to a political meeting. As he went home that night, a demon in his head kept crying 'Clap-trap! clap-trap!' and there was no silencing the voice. He had talked to the intelligence of the mob. Now his talk had been addressed to -- the representatives of the mob; if the demon did not cry so loudly, it was only because he was weary of his thankless task.
Beatrice was a superb coquette -- but only for the man she loved. For these Sunday afternoons she attired herself divinely; Wilfrid had learnt to expect a new marvel at each of his comings. To-day she wore her favourite colour, a dark-blue. Her rising to meet him was that of a queen who bath an honoured guest. The jewels beneath her long dark lashes were as radiant as when first she heard him say, 'I love you.' All the impulses of her impetuous character had centred on this one end of her life. Her eccentricities had tamed themselves in the long discipline of frustrated desire. The breath of her body was love. About her stole a barely perceptible perfume, which invaded the senses, which wrapped the heart in luxury.
Wilfrid dropped on one knee before her and kissed her hand.
'You are in a happy mood,' Beatrice said. 'Who has been telling you the last flattery?'
'I have seen no one to-day. If I look happy -- should I not?'
She drew her finger along the line of his eyebrow.
'How does your picture get on?'
'I have to give two sittings next week. Thank goodness they are the last.'
'Oh! why wasn't it in time for the Academy! But it must go next year.'
Wilfrid laughed as he seated himself opposite to her.
'I am not sure, after all, that you are happy,' she said, leaning her head a little aside as she gazed at him. 'Now you are thoughtful. I suppose you will be more and more thoughtful.'
quoted Wilfrid, with a little wrying of the lips. 'This, you know, is one of the penalties of greatness.'
She seemed about to rise, but it was only to slip forward and sink upon her knees by his side, her arms embracing him. It was like the fall of fair waters, so gracefully impulsive, so self-abandoning.
'Not one kiss to-day?' she murmured, her voice like the dying of a flute.
And she raised to him a face lit from the inmost sanctuary of love.
'You are as beautiful,' he said, 'as any woman of whom fable ever told. Your beauty frightens me. It is sometimes more than human -- as though the loveliest Greek goddess suddenly found breath and colour and the light of eyes.'
Beatrice threw her head far back, laughing silently; he saw the laughter dance upon her throat.
'My love! my own!' she whispered. 'Say you love me!'
'Dearest, I love you!'
'Ah! the words make my heart flutter so! I am glad, glad that I have beauty; but for that you would never have loved me. Let me hide my face as I tell you. I used to ask myself whether I was not really fairer than other women -- I thought -- I hoped! But you were so indifferent. Wilfrid, how long, how long I have loved you! I was quite a young girl when I loved you first. That, I said, shall be my husband, or I will never have one. And I knew so little how to win your thought. How ashamed it makes me to think of things I said and did in those days!'
She was silent, leaning her head against his shoulder.
'Do you ever think of me as I was at Dunfield?' she asked presently, with timid utterance, hardly above her breath, risking what she had never yet dared.
'No,' he answered, 'I think of the present.'
His voice was a little hard, from the necessity of commanding it.
'You did not know that I loved you then? Think of me! Pity me!'
He made no answer. Beatrice spoke again, her face veiled against him, her arms pressing closer.
'You love me with perfect love? I have your whole heart?'
'I love you only, Beatrice.'
'And with love as great as you ever knew? Say that to me -- Wilfrid, say that!' She clung to him with passion which was almost terrible. 'Forgive me! Only remember that you are my life, my soul! I cannot have less than that.'
He would have been cased in triple brass if music such as this had not melted into his being. He gave her the assurance she yearned for, and, in giving it, all but persuaded himself that he spoke the very truth. The need of affirming his belief drew from him such words as he had the secret of; Beatrice sighed in an anguish of bliss.
'Oh, let me die now! It is only for this that I have lived.'
Wilfrid had foreseen and dreaded this questioning. From any woman it was sooner or later to be expected, and Beatrice was as exacting as she was passionate. She knew herself, and strove hard to subdue these characteristics which might be displeasing to Wilfrid; her years of hopelessness, of perpetual self-restraint, were of aid to her now; three months had passed without a word from her which directly revived the old sorrows. Her own fear of trenching on indiscretion found an ally in Wilfrid's habitual gravity; her remark, at their meeting, on his mood was in allusion to a standing pleasantry between them; she had complained that he seldom looked really happy in her presence. It was true; his bearing as a rule was more than sober. Beatrice tormented herself to explain this. He was not in ordinary intercourse so persistently serious, though far more so than he had been in earlier years, the change dating, as Beatrice too well had marked, from the time of his supreme misery. With the natural and becoming gravity of mature age there mingled a very perceptible strain of melancholy. You felt it in his laugh, which was seldom hearty; it made his sprightliness in social hours more self-conscious than it might have been. Beatrice had always felt towards him a very real humility, even when the goading of her unrequited love drove her into a show of scornful opposition. Herself conscious of but average intelligence, and without studious inclinations, she endowed him with acquisitions as vast as they were vague to her discernment; she knew that it would always lie beyond her power to be his intellectual companion. Therefore she desired to be before everything womanly in his eyes, to make the note of pure sentiment predominate in their private relations to each other. She had but won him by her artistic faculty; she could not depend upon that to retain and deepen his affection. Her constant apprehension was lest familiarity should diminish her charm in his eyes. Wilfrid was no less critical than he had ever been; she suspected that he required much of her. Did he seek more than she would eventually be able to give? Was she exhausting the resources of her personal charm? Such thoughts as these made curious alternations in her manner towards him; one day she would endeavour to support a reserve which should surpass his own, another she lost herself in bursts of emotion. The very care which she bestowed upon her personal appearance was a result of her anxiety on this point; in the last resort she knew herself to be beautiful, and to her beauty he was anything but insensible. Yet such an influence was wretchedly insufficient; she must have his uttermost love, and never yet had she attained full assurance of possessing it.
Little did Wilfrid suspect the extent to which her thoughts were occupied with that faint, far-off figure of Emily Hood. It was her despair that she had known Emily so slightly; she would have desired to study to the depths the woman who had possessed such a secret of power. In personal charm Emily could not compare with her; and yet -- the distinction struck her hard -- that was perhaps only true if personal charm merely meant charm of person, for she herself had experienced something of the strange impressiveness which men -- men of imagination -- submitted to in Emily's presence. Where did it lie, this magic? It was indefinite, indefinable; perhaps a tone of the voice represented it, perhaps a smile -- which meant, of course, that it was inseparable from her being, from her womanhood. Could one attribute to Emily, even after the briefest acquaintance, a thought, an instinct, which conflicted with the ideal of womanly purity? Was not her loveliness of the soul? Moreover, she was intellectual beyond ordinary women; for Wilfrid that must have been a rich source of attraction. Scarcely less than the image of Wilfrid himself was that of Emily a haunting presence in Beatrice's life. Recently she had spoken of her both with Mrs. Birks and Mrs. Baxendale; it cost her something to do so, but both of these had known Emily with intimacy, and might perhaps tell her more than she herself remembered or could divine. Mrs. Birks was disposed to treat Emily with little seriousness.
'You make the strangest mistake,' she said, 'if you think that was anything but a boy's folly. To be sure the folly got very near the point of madness -- that was because opposition came in its way. Wilfrid has for years thought as little of her as of the man in the moon's wife -- if he has one. You are surely not troubling yourself -- what?'
Beatrice had thereupon retired into herself.
'You misunderstand me,' she said, rather coldly. 'It was only a recollection of something that had seemed strange to me at the time.'
Mrs. Baxendale held another tone, but even she was not altogether sincere -- naturally it was impossible to be so. To begin with, she gave Beatrice to understand, even as she had Wilfrid, that she had now for some time lost sight of Emily, and, consequently, that the latter was less actually interesting to her than was in fact the case. With her aunt Beatrice could be more unreserved; she began by plainly asking whether Mrs. Baxendale thought Wilfrid's regret had been of long endurance -- a woman in Beatrice's position clearly could not, in talking to another, even suppose the case that the regret still endured. Her aunt honestly replied that she believed he had suffered long and severely.
'But,' she added, with characteristic tact, 'I did not need this instance, my dear, to prove to me that a first love may be only a preparation for that which is to last through life. I could tell you stories -- but I haven't my grandmother's cap on at present.'
(Mrs. Baxendale was, in truth, a grandmother by this time, and professed to appreciate the authority she derived from the circumstance.)
That had drawn Beatrice out.
'She was strong-minded?'
'Or very weak, I really don't know which.'
'Yes,' mused Beatrice, 'she was a problem to you. You never troubled yourself to puzzle over my character, aunt.'
'When a stream is of lovely clearness, Beatrice, we do not find it hard to determine the kind of ground it flows over.'
'I will owe you a kiss for that,' said the girl, blushing hot with very joy. 'But you are a flatterer, dear aunt, and just now I am very humble in spirit. I think great happiness should make us humble, don't you? I find it hard to make out my claim to it.'
'Be humble still, dear, and the happiness will not be withdrawn.'
'I do like to talk with you,' Beatrice replied. 'I never go away without something worth thinking of.'
Humility she strove to nourish. It was a prime virtue of woman, and 'would sweeten her being. Unlike Emily, she was not inspired with an ardent idealism independently of her affections; with love had begun her conscious self-study, and love alone exalted her. Her many frivolous tendencies she had only overcome by dint of long endeavour to approach Wilfrid's standard. If in one way this was an item of strength, in another it indicated a very real and always menacing weakness. Having gained that to which her every instinct had directed itself, she made the possession of her bliss an indispensable factor of life; to lose it would be to fall into nether darkness, into despair of good. So widowed, there would be no support in herself; she knew it, and the knowledge at moments terrified her. Even her religious convictions, once very real and strong, had become subordinate; her creed -- though she durst not confess it -- was that of earthly love. Formerly she had been thrown back on religious emotion as a solace, an anodyne; for that reason the tendencies inherited from her mother had at one time reached a climax of fanaticism. Of late years, music had been her resource, the more efficient in that it ministered to hope. By degrees even her charitable activity had diminished; since her mother's death she had abandoned the habit of 'district visiting.' As confidence of the one supreme attainment grew in her, the mere accessories of her moral life were allowed to fall away. She professed no change of opinion, indeed under. went none, but opinion became, as with most women, distinct from practice. She still pretended to rejoice as often as she persuaded Wilfrid to go to church, but it was noticeable that she willingly allowed his preference for the better choral services, and seemed to take it for granted that the service was only of full efficacy when performed together with her. . . .
'Let me die now! It is only for this that I have lived!'
The cry came from her very heart. For once Wilfrid had been overcome, had thrown off his rather sad-coloured wooing, had uttered such words as her soul yearned for. Yet she had scarcely time to savour her rapture before that jealousy of the past mingled itself with the sensation. Even such words as these he must have used to her, and had they not perchance come more readily to his lips? Was he by nature so reserved? Or, the more probable thing, was it that she failed at other times to inspire him? How had she been used to behave, to speak?
In her incessant brooding upon the details of Wilfrid's first affection, Beatrice had found one point which never lost its power to distract her; it was the thought of all the correspondence that must have passed between him and Emily. What had become of those letters? Had they been mutually returned? It was impossible to discover. Not even to her aunt could she put such a question as that; and it might very well be that Mrs. Baxendale knew nothing certainly. If the story as she, Beatrice, had heard it was quite accurate, it seemed natural to suppose that Emily had requested to have her letters returned to her when she declared that the engagement must be at an end; but Wilfrid had refused to accept that declaration, and would he not also have refused to let the writing which was so precious to him leave his hands? In that case he probably had the letters still; perhaps he still read them at times. Would it be possible, even after marriage, to speak of such a subject with Wilfrid? She had constantly tried to assure herself that, even if he had kept the pledges through all these years, a sense of honour would lead Wilfrid to destroy them when he gave and received a new love. In moments when it was her conscious effort to rise to noble heights, to be as pure a woman as that other -- for Beatrice never sought the base comfort of refusing to her rival that just homage -- she 'would half persuade herself that no doubt lingered in her mind; it was right to destroy the letters, and whatever was right Wilfrid must have done. But she could not live at all hours in that thin air; the defects of her blood were too enduring. Jealousy came back from its brief exile, and was more insinuating than ever, its suggestions more maddening. By a sort of reaction, these thoughts assailed her strongly in the moments which followed her outburst of passion and Wilfrid's response. Yet she could not -- durst not -- frame words to tell him of her suffering. It was to risk too much; it might strike a fatal blow at his respect for her. Even those last words she had breathed with dread, involuntarily; already, perhaps, she had failed in the delicacy he looked for, and had given him matter for disagreeable thought as soon as he left her. She rose at length from her kneeling attitude, and leaned back in her chair with a look of trouble scarcely veiled.
Wilfrid did not notice it; he had already begun to think of other matters.
'Beatrice,' he began, 'there's a subject I have avoided speaking of, thinking you might perhaps be the first to mention it. Do you wish to continue your singing?'
She smiled, and did not seem to attach great importance to the question.
'It is for you to decide,' she answered. 'You know why I began it; I am ready to say my farewell whenever you bid me.'
'But what is your own feeling? I suppose you would in any case cease at our marriage?'
'You are not ashamed of it?'
'It is true,' he replied humorously, 'that I am a member of the British House of Commons, but I beg you won't think too meanly of me. I protest that I have still something of my old self.'
'That means you are rather proud than ashamed. How' long,' she went on to ask, lowering her eyes, 'is the British House of Commons likely to sit?'
'Probably the talk will hold out for some seven or eight weeks longer.'
'May I sing the two remaining engagements, if I take no more after those?'
'To be sure, you must. Let it stand so, then.'
She fell back into her brooding.
'Now I, too, have something to ask,' she said, after a short silence.
'Whatever you ask is already granted.'
'Don't be too hasty. It's more than you think.'
'I want you to give me some work to do for you -- to let me come and sit with you in your study some mornings and 'write things for you.'
Wilfrid laughed cheerily.
'If I had a regard for my dignity,' he said, 'I certainly shouldn't let you. What will become of my pretence of work when you are let into the secrets? But come, by all means. You shall digest a blue-book for me.'
'When? To-morrow morning?'
'If you will.'
Beatrice was satisfied.
'Beatrice is coming to act as my secretary this morning,' Wilfrid said to his father, as they sat at breakfast on Monday.
'Is she?' remarked Mr. Athel, drily. 'It had struck me that you were not very busy just now,' he added, by way of natural comment.
The junior smiled.
'By the way, she has only two more engagements -- then it ceases.'
'I am glad to hear it,' said his father, with much satisfaction.
'After all,' observed Wilfrid, 'you must remember that everyone knows she doesn't sing for a living. Art, you know, is only contemptible when it supports the artist.'
'Well, well, file your epigrams by all means; but we live in the world, Wilf. Criticise as smartly as you like; the danger only begins when you act upon your convictions.'
At half-past ten Beatrice arrived. She came into the study with a morning colour on her cheeks, threw off her mantle and hat, and let Wilfrid draw off her gloves, which somehow took a long time in the doing. She was full of bright, happy talk, most of it tending to show that she had already given the attention to the morning's 'leaders' which was becoming in a politician's betrothed.
'Do you smoke whilst you are at work?' she asked, descending from those high themes.
'I allow myself a few cigarettes.'
'Cigarettes? Surely that is too frivolous an accompaniment!'
'O, it is only when I am musing upon the arguments of the Opposition.'
'I see.' Beatrice took the reply quite seriously. 'But where is the blue-book you want me to digest?'
Wilfrid shook his head, looking at her with a smile.
'You think me incompetent? But at least try me. I shan't spoil anything.'
'An illustration drawn from the art of millinery, I imagine.'
'Don't be unkind. I'm afraid you wouldn't let me write your letters?'
'By Jove! an excellent idea. Here's one of the free and independent electors of G---- writes to ask what my views are on the subject of compulsory vaccination. Do pen a reply and I'll sign it.'
'But what am I to say?'
'The ghost of Jenner alone knows I offer it as an opportunity to show your fitness for this post. You have applied to me for work, Miss -- Miss Redwing, I think your name is?' He assumed the air of one applied to.
'It is, sir.'
'Come, come; that's far too jaunty. You don't at all understand the position of the person applying for work. You must be profoundly depressed; there must be half a tear in your eye; you must look hungry.'
'0 dear -- I had such an excellent breakfast!'
'Which clearly disqualifies you for the post you seek. However, Miss -- Miss Redwing, I think you said?'
'I did, sir.'
'Vastly better. The applicant must always be a little ashamed of his name; they learn that, you know, from the way in which they are addressed by employers. Well, I'll give you a hint. Tell him he's an ass, or he wouldn't have needed to ask my opinion.'
'I am to put that into parliamentary language?'
'And say nothing more definite?'
'Really Miss -- Miss Redwing, I begin to doubt the genuineness of your testimonials. You surely have learnt that the first essential of the art of public letter-writing is to say nothing whatever in as convincing a manner as possible.'
'But if I tell him he's a -- a donkey?'
' You fear it will be deviating into truth. There's something in that. Say, then, that the matter is occupying my gravest attention, and that I hope to be able to reply definitely in the course of a few weeks.'
'Very well. Where may I sit? But I can't use a quill, dear boy.'
'Oh, I forgot myself. Have you a nice, fine point, not too hard?'
'Let me see.'
Wilfrid unlocked one of the drawers in his desk. As he drew it out, Beatrice stole to him, and peeped into the drawer.
'How neat, Wilfrid!' she exclaimed. 'What a pretty pocket-book that is lying there. Do let me look at it.'
It was a morocco case, with an elastic band round it. Beatrice stretched her hand towards it, but he arrested her movement.
'No, no,' he said, playfully, 'we can't have prying. Here are the pens.'
'But do let me look at the case, Wilfrid.'
He began to close the drawer. Beatrice laid her hand on it.
'My aunt gave it me, long ago,' Wilfrid said, as if to dismiss the subject. 'Mind! I shall trap your fingers.'
'I'm sure you won't do that. But I do want to see it. The smell of morocco is so delicious. Just one whiff of it.'
'Then you want to smell it, not to see it. If you're good, you shall before you go away.'
'No, but now! -- Wilfrid!'
He was pretending to squeeze her fingers in the shutting of the drawer. She would not undo her grasp.
'Why mayn't I, Wilfrid?'
She looked at him. His expression was graver than became the incident; he was trying to smile, but Beatrice saw that his eyes and lips were agitated.
'Why mayn't I?' she repeated.
'Oh, if you insist,' he exclaimed, moving back a step or two, 'of course you may.'
She took up the case, and looked at it on either side.
'There are letters in it?' she said, without raising her eyes.
'Yes, I believe there are letters in it.'
'Important, I suppose?'
'I daresay; I suppose I had some reason for putting them there.'
He spoke with apparent indifference, and turned to light a cigarette. Beatrice put back the case, and closed the drawer.
'Here is note-paper,' Wilfrid said, holding some to her.
She took it in silence, and seated herself. Wilfrid at tempted to pursue the jest, but she could not reply. She sat as if about to 'write; her eyes were drooped, and her mouth had set itself hard. Wilfrid affected to turn over papers in search for something, still standing before the table.
'You find it difficult to begin,' he said. 'Pray call him "dear sir." Society depends upon that "dear."'
'A word easily used,' remarked Beatrice, in a low' voice, as if she were thinking.
He cast a glance at her, then seated himself. He was at the side of the table, she at the end. After a moment of silence, she leaned forward to him.
'Wilfrid,' she said, trying to smile, 'what letters are those, dear?'
'Of what possible moment can that be to you, Beatrice?'
'It seems -- I can't help thinking they are -- letters which you value particularly. Might I not know?'
He looked away to the window.
'Of course, if you tell me I am rude,' Beatrice continued, pressing her pen's point upon the table, 'I have no answer.'
'Well, yes,' he replied at length, as if having taken a resolve, 'they are letters of -- that I have put apart for a special reason. And now, shall we forget them?'
His tone was not altogether suave; about his nostrils there was a suspicion of defiance. He forced himself to meet her gaze steadily; the effort killed a smile.
'We will cease to speak of them,' Beatrice answered, implying a distinction.
A minute later he saw' that she laid down her pen and rose. He looked up inquiringly.
'I don't feel able to do anything this morning,' she said.
Wilfrid made no reply. She went to the chair on which her hat and mantle lay.
'You are not going?' he asked, in a tone of surprise.
'I think so; I can't be of use to you,' she added, impulsively; 'I have not your confidence.'
He let her throw the mantle over her shoulders.
'Beatrice, surely this is not the result of such a trifle? Look!' He pulled open the drawer once more and threw the pocket-hook on to the table. 'Suppose that had lain there when you came into this room alone. Should you have opened it and examined the contents?'
'I should not -- you know it.'
'Very well. You would simply have taken it for granted that I was to be trusted to look after my own affairs, until I asked someone else's aid or advice. Is not that the case at present?'
A man more apt at dissimulation would have treated the matter from the first with joking irony, and might have carried his point, though with difficulty. Wilfrid had not the aptitude, to begin with, and he was gravely disturbed. His pulses were throbbing; scarcely could he steady his voice. He dreaded a disclosure of what might well be regarded as throwing doubt upon his sincerity, the more so that he understood in this moment how justifiable such a doubt would be. After the merriment of a few minutes ago, this sudden shaking of his nerves was the harder to endure. It revived with painful intensity the first great agitations of his life. His way of speaking could not but confirm Beatrice's suspicions.
'We are not exactly strangers to each other,' she said, coldly.
'No, we are not; yet I think I should have forborne to press you on any matter you thought it needless to speak of.'
She put on her hat. Wilfrid felt his anger rising -- our natural emotion when we are disagreeably in the wrong, yet cannot condemn the cause which has made us so. He sat to the table again, as if his part in the discussion were at an end.
Beatrice stood for some moments, then came quickly to his side.
'Wilfrid, have you secrets from me?' she asked, the tremor of her voice betraying the anguish that her suspicions cost her. 'Say I am ill-mannered. It was so, at first; I oughtn't to have said anything. But now it has become something different. However trifling the matter, I can't bear that you should refuse to treat me as yourself. There is nothing, nothing I could keep from you. I have not a secret in my life to hide from you. It is not because they are letters -- or not only that. You put a distance between us you say there are affairs of yours in which I have no concern. I cannot bear that! If I leave you, I shall suffer more than you dream. I thought we were one. Is not your love as complete as mine?'
He rose and moved away, saying --
'Open it! Look at the letters!'
'No, that I can't do. What can it be that troubles you so? Are they letters that I ought not to see?'
He could bear it no longer.
'Yes,' he answered, brusquely, 'I suppose they are.'
'You mean that you have preserved letters which, as often as you open that drawer, remind you of someone else? -- that you purposely keep them so near your hand?'
'Beatrice, I had no right to destroy them.'
'No right!' Her eyes flashed, and her tongue trembled with its scorn. 'You mean you had no wish.'
'If I had no right, I could scarcely have the wish.'
Wilfrid was amazed at his own contemptible quibbling, but in truth he was not equal to the occasion. He could not defend himself in choice phrases; in a sort of desperate carelessness he flung out the first retort that offered itself. He was on the point of throwing over everything, of declaring that all must be at an end between them; yet courage failed for that. Nor courage only; the woman before him was very grand in her indignation, her pale face was surpassingly beautiful. The past faded in comparison with her; in his heart he doubted of its power.
Beatrice was gazing at him in resentful wonder.
'Why have you done this?' she asked. 'Why did you come to me and speak those words? What necessity was there to pretend what you did not feel?'
He met her eyes.
'I have not spoken falsely to you,' he said, with calmness which did not strengthen the impression his words were meant to convey.
'When you said that you loved me? If it were true, you could not have borne to have those letters under your eyes. You say you had no right to destroy them. You knew that it was your duty to do so. Could you have kept them?'
Wilfrid had become almost absent-minded. His heart was torn in two ways. He wished to take the letters from their case and destroy them at once; probably it was masculine pride which now kept him from doing it.
'I think you must believe what I say, Beatrice,' was his answer. 'I am not capable of deliberately lying to you.'
'You are not. But you are capable of deceiving yourself; I accuse you of nothing more. You have deceived yourself, and I have been the cause of it; for I had so little of woman's pride that I let you see my love; it was as if I begged for your love in return. My own heart should have taught me better; there can be no second love. You pitied me!'
Wilfrid was in no state of mind to weigh phrases; at a later time, when he could look back with calmness, and with the advantage of extended knowledge, he recognised in these words the uttermost confession of love of 'which a woman is capable. In hearing them, he simply took them as a reproach.
'If such a thing had been possible,' he said, 'it would have been a horrible injustice to you. I asked you to be my wife because I loved you. The existence of these letters is no proof that I misunderstood my own feeling. There are many things we cannot explain to another on the moment. You must judge the facts as you will, but no hasty and obvious judgment will hit the truth.'
She was not listening to him. Her eyes were fixed upon the letters, and over her heart there crept a desire which all but expelled other feeling, a desire to know what was there written. She would have given her hand to be alone in the room with that pocket-book, now that she knew what it contained; no scruple would have withheld her. The impossibility that her longing could ever be satisfied frenzied her with jealousy.
'I will leave you with them,' she exclaimed, speaking her' thought. 'You do not want me; I come between you and her. Read, and forget me; read them once more, and see then if you do not understand yourself. I know now why you have often been so cold, why it cost you an effort to reply to me. You shall never have that trouble again.'
She moved to quit the room. Wilfrid called her.
'Beatrice! Stay and listen to me. These letters are nothing, and mean nothing; Stay, and see me burn them.'
Irrational as it was, she could not bear to see them destroyed. In her distracted mind there was a sort of crazy hope that he would at last give them to her to burn; she might even perhaps have brought herself to take them away.
'That is childish,' she said. 'You know them by heart; the burning of the paper would alter nothing.'
'Then I can say and do no more.'
It had been like a rending of his heartstrings to offer to destroy these memories of Emily, though he at the same time persuaded himself that, once done, he would be a stronger and a happier man. In truth, they had made the chief strength of the link between him and the past; every day they had reminded him how much of the old feeling lingered in his being; the sanctity with which these relics were invested testified to the holiness of the worship which had bequeathed them. He had not opened the case since his betrothal to Beatrice, and scarcely a day passed that he did not purpose hiding it somewhere away for ever -- not destroying. Beatrice's answer to his offer caused him half to repent that he had made it. He turned away from her.
She, after looking at the pocket-book still for some moments, seemed to force herself away. He heard her open the door, and did not try to stay her.
Half an hour later, Wilfrid restored the letters to their place in the drawer. If they were to be destroyed, it must now be in Beatrice's presence. With something like joy he turned the key upon them, feeling that they were preserved, that the last farewell was once again postponed. Wilfrid was not a very strong man where sacrifice 'was demanded of him.
He neither saw nor heard from Beatrice till the evening of the following day. Then it happened that they had to dine at the same house. On meeting her in the drawing-room, he gave her his hand as usual; hers returned no pressure. She seemed as cheerful as ever in her talk with others; him she kept apart from. He could not make up his mind to write. She had refused to accept such proof of his sincerity as it wag in his power to offer, and Wilfrid made this an excuse -- idle as he knew it to be -- for maintaining a dignified silence. Dignified, he allowed himself to name it; yet he knew perfectly well that his attitude had one very ignoble aspect, since he all but consciously counted upon Beatrice's love to bring her back to his feet. He said to himself: Let her interpret my silence as she will; if she regard it as evidence of inability to face her -- well, I make no objection. The conviction all the while grew in him that he did veritably love her, for he felt that, but for his knowledge of her utter devotedness, he would now be in fear lest he should lose her. Such fear need not occupy a thought; a word, and she flew to him. He enjoyed this sense of power; to draw out the misunderstanding a little would make reconciliation all the pleasanter. Then the letters should flame into ashes, and with them vanish even the regret for the blessedness they had promised.
Wednesday morning, and still no letter from Beatrice. Mr. Athel joked about her speedy resignation of the secretaryship. Wilfrid joined in the joke, and decided that he would wait one more day, knowing not what a day might bring forth.
Yielding to the urgency of Beatrice, who was supported in her entreaty by Mrs. Birks, Wilfrid had, a little ore this, consented to sit for his portrait to an artist, a friend of the family, who had already made a very successful picture of Beatrice herself. The artist resided at Teddington. Wilfrid was due for a sitting this Wednesday morning, and he went down into the country, intending to be back for lunch and the House of Commons. But the weather was magnificent, and, the sitting over, truant thoughts began to assail the young legislator. Bushey Park was at hand, with its chestnut avenue leading to Hampton Court. A ramble of indefinite duration was, in his present frame of mind, much more attractive than the eloquence of independent members. He determined to take a holiday.
A very leisurely stroll across the park brought him to the King's Arms, and the sight of the hostelry suggested pleasant thoughts of sundry refreshing viands and cooling liquors. He entered and lunched. It was a holiday, and a truant holiday; he allowed himself champagne. When he came forth again, his intention to stroll through the galleries of the Palace had given way before the remembered shadow of the chestnuts; he returned to the park, and, after idly watching the fish in the shallow water of the round lake, strayed away into cool retreats, where the grass irresistibly invited to recumbency. He threw himself down, and let his eyes dream upon the delicate blades and stalks and leafage which one so seldom regards. If he chose to gaze further, there were fair tracts of shadowed sward, with sunny gleamings scattered where the trees were thinner, and above him the heaven of clustering leaves, here of impenetrable dark-green, there translucent-golden. A rustling whisper, in the air and on the ground, was the only voice that came thither.
He had set himself to think of Beatrice. He purposed writing her a long letter to-night, wherein he would do his best to make her understand the light in which the past appeared to him, and how little those memories had to do with the present and its love and its duty. To be sure, he could not use the words of very truth. He would much have preferred to speak with unflinching honesty, to confess that he had, even of late, often dwelt on the thought of Emily with tenderness, with something of heart-ache; but that the new love had, for all that, triumphed over the old, and would henceforth grow to perfectness. But the character of Beatrice would not allow this; in her, feeling was too predominant over intellect; she could not recognise in this very frankness the assurance of an affection which would end by being no less than the utmost she demanded. He had to seek for subtleties of explanation, for ingenuities of argument, which, unsatisfactory as they seemed to himself, might yet, he thought, help her to the reconciliation he knew she desired. He was scarcely less anxious for it. For Beatrice he would never know that limitless passion, that infinite yearning alike of spirit and of sense, which had been his love for Emily; but she was very dear to him, and with all his heart he desired to make her happiness. He imaged her beauty and her talent with pride which made his veins warmer. Her husband, he would be loyal to his last breath. Community of life would establish that intimate alliance of heart and soul which every year makes more enduring. Were they not young flesh and blood, he and she? And could a bodiless ghost come between them, a mere voice of long-vanished time, insubstantial, unseizable, as the murmur in these chestnut-leaves?
He grew tired of the attitude which at first had been reposeful, and rose to wander further. Someone else, it seemed, had been tempted to this quiet corner, away from the road; a woman was walking at a little distance, and reading as she walked. The thought passed through his mind that a woman never looked more graceful than when walking with her head bent over a book. When he looked that way again, he found that she had come much nearer, still very intent upon her reading. She had, in truth, a comely figure, one which suggested a face of the nobler kind. She would look up presently.
Did not that form, that movement as she walked, stir memories? Yes, he had known someone who might well have paced thus beneath spreading trees, with her eyes upon a book of poetry; not unlike this stranger, outwardly. In what black, skyless, leafless town was she pursuing her lonely life? -- Lonely? why should it be so? Emily could not go on her way without meeting one whom her sweetness and her power would enthral, and the reasons, whatever they were, that had forbidden her marriage six or seven years ago, were not likely to resist time. He tried to hope that the happier lot had by this solaced her. Do we not change so? His own love -- see how it had faded!
Half purposely, he had turned so as to pass near the reader. At the distance of a few yards from her, he stayed his step. A little nearer she came, then something made her aware of his presence. She raised her eyes, the eyes of Emily Hood.
Her hands fell, one still holding the book open. He, who was prepared already, could watch her countenance change from placid, if grave, thought, to the awakening of surprise, to startled recognition; he could see the colour die upon her cheeks, flee from her lips; he could observe the great heartthrobs which shook her and left her bosom quivering. He did not uncover his head; conventional courtesies have their season. It seemed very long before they ceased to look into each other's eyes, but at length hers fell.
'Is it possible that you are living in London?' were Wilfrid's first words. He could affect no distance of manner. To him all at once it was as though they had parted a few days ago.
'Yes,' she answered simply. 'In a far part of London.'
'And we meet here, where I seemed to find myself by the merest chance. I saw a stranger in the distance, and thought of yourself; I knew you long before you looked up from your reading.'
Emily tried to smile.
'How little you are changed!' Wilfrid continued, his voice keeping still its awed quietness, with under-notes of feeling. 'Rather, you are not changed at all.'
It was not true, but in the few minutes that he had gazed at her, past and present had so blended that he could not see what another would have noticed. Emily was appreciably older, and ill-health had set marks upon her face. A stranger looking at her now would have found it hard to imagine her with the light of joy in her eyes; her features had set themselves in sorrow. Her cheeks were very thin; her eyes were dark and sunken. Wilfrid saw only the soul in her gaze at him, and that was as it had ever been.
She was unable to speak; Wilfrid found words.
'Do you often walk here? Is your home near?'
'Not very near. I came by the river,' she answered.
'I am very glad that I have met you.' The words sounded insufficient, but Wilfrid was by this time at battle with himself, and succeeded in saying less than he felt. 'You will let me walk on a little way with you? We can't shake hands at once and say good-bye, can we, after such a long time?'
He spoke in the tone one uses to jest over bygone sadness. Emily made no verbal answer, but walked along by his side.
'You still have your old habits,' he said, casting an eye at the book. 'Are your tastes still the same, I wonder?'
'It is Dante,' she replied.
The name brought another to Wilfrid's consciousness; he averted his eyes for a moment, but spoke again without much delay.
'Still faithful to the great names. This is a lovely place to make one's study. Were you here when the chestnuts flowered?'
'Yes, once or twice.'
'I did not see them this year. And you have been walking here so often,' he added, wondering again, half to himself. 'I have been to Teddington several times lately, but only today came into the park.'
'I have not been here for a month,' Emily said, speaking at length with more case. The shock had affected her physically more than she had allowed to be seen; it was only now that her voice was perfectly at her command. Her face remained grave, but she spoke in a tone free from suggestion of melancholy. 'I teach in a school, and to-day there is a holiday.'
'Do you live at the school?'
'No. I have my own lodgings.'
He was on the point of asking whether Mrs. Baxendale knew she was in London, but it seemed better to suppress the question.
'Have you been there long?' he asked instead.
'Half a year.'
As he kept silence, Emily continued with a question, the first she had put.
'What have you chosen for your life's work?'
Wilfrid could not overcome the tendency of blood to his cheeks. He was more than half ashamed to tell her the truth.
'You will laugh at me,' he said. 'I am in Parliament.'
'You are? I never see newspapers.'
She added it as if to excuse herself for not being aware of his public activity.
'Oh, I am still far from being a subject of leading-articles,' Wilfrid exclaimed. 'Indeed, I gave you no answer to your question. My life's work is non-existent. All my old plans have come to nothing, and I have formed no new ones, no serious plans. My life will be a failure, I suppose.'
'But you aim at success in politics?'
'I suppose so. I was thinking of the other things we used to speak of.'
Emily hazarded a glance at him, as if to examine him again in this new light.
'You used to say,' she continued, 'that you felt in many ways suited for a political life.'
'Did I? You mean at home, when I talked in a foolish way. It was not my serious thought. I never said it to you.'
She murmured a 'No.' They walked on in silence.
'You didn't read Italian then,' Wilfrid said. 'You, I feel sure, have not wasted your time. How much you must have read since we talked over our favourite authors.'
'I have tried to keep up the habit of study,' Emily replied, unaffectedly, 'but of course most of my time is occupied in teaching.'
Their walk had brought them from under the trees, and the lake was just before them.
'I will go on to the bridge,' Emily said. 'The boat I return by will leave shortly.'
She spoke as if expecting him to take leave of her. Wilfrid inwardly bade himself do so. He had seen her, had talked with her; what more for either? Yet it was beyond his power to stand here and see her walk away from him. Things were stirring in his heart and mind of which he refused to take cognisance; he would grant nothing more than a sense of pleasure in hearing once again a voice which had so long been buried, and there was no harm in that. Was not his strongest feeling merely surprise at having met her thus? Even yet he found a difficulty in realising that it was she with whom he spoke; had he closed his eyes and then looked round for her in vain it would only have appeared the natural waking from intense reverie. Why not dream on as long as he might?
'May I not walk as far as the bridge with you?' he asked. 'If I were not afraid of being tiresome I should even like to go by the boat; it would be the pleasantest way of getting back to town.'
'Yes, it is pleasant on the river,' Emily said rather absently.
They pursued their walk together, and conversed still much in the same way. Wilfrid learned that her school was in Hammersmith, a large day-school for girls; he led her to speak of the subjects she taught, and of her pupils.
'You prefer it,' he asked, 'to private teaching?'
'I think so.'
Once on the boat their talk grew less consecutive; the few words they exchanged now and then were suggested by objects or places passed. At length even these remarks ceased, and for the last half-hour they held silence. Other people close by were talking noisily. Emily sat with both hands holding the book upon her lap, her eyes seldom moving from a point directly before her. Wilfrid glanced at her frequently. He was more observant now of the traces of bodily weakness in her; he saw how meagre she had become, how slight her whole frame was. At moments it cost him a serious effort to refrain from leaning to her and whispering words -- he knew not what -- something kind, something that should change her fixed sadness. Why had he forced his company upon her? Certainly he brought her no joy, and presently he would take leave of her as any slight acquaintance might; how otherwise? It would have been better to part there by the lake where she offered the occasion
The steamer reached Hammersmith. Only at this last moment he seemed to understand where he was and with whom, that Emily was sitting by him, in very deed here by his side, and directly would be gone -- he knew not whither -- scarcely to be met again. The silence between them had come of the difficulty they both had in realising that they were together, of the dreaminess so strange an event had cast upon them. Were they to fall apart again without a word, a sign? A sign of what, forsooth?
Wilfrid moved with her to the spot at which she would step from the deck; seeing him follow, Emily threw back one startled glance. The next moment she again turned, holding out her hand. He took it, held it, pressed it; nothing could restrain that pressure; his muscles closed upon her slight fingers involuntarily. Then he watched her walk hurriedly from the landing-stage. . . .
Her we follow. She had a walk of nearly half an hour, which brought her at length to one of the streets of small lodging-houses which abound in this neighbourhood, and to a door which she opened with her latch-key. She went upstairs. Here two rooms were her home. That which looked upon the street was furnished in the poor bare style which the exterior of the dwelling would have led one to expect. A very hideous screen of coloured paper hid the fireplace, and in front of the small oblong mirror -- cracked across one corner -- which stood above the mantelpiece were divers ornaments such as one meets with in poor lodging-houses; certain pictures about the walls completed the effect of vulgarity.
Emily let herself sink upon the chintz-covered couch, and lay back, closing her eyes; she had thrown off her hat, but was too weary, too absent in thought, to remove her mantle. Her face was as colourless as if she had fainted; she kept one hand pressed against her heart. Unconsciously she had walked home with a very quick step, and quick movement caused her physical suffering. She sat thus for a quarter of an hour, when there came a tap at the door.
Her landlady entered.
'Oh, I thought, Miss Hood,' she began, 'you'd maybe rung the bell as usual, and I hadn't heard it. I do sometimes think I'm getting a little hard of hearing; my husband tell me of it. Will you have the tea made?'
'Thank you, Mrs. Willis,' Emily replied, rising.
She opened a low cupboard beside the fireplace, took out a tea-pot, and put some tea into it.
'You'd have a long walk, I suppose,' continued the woman, 'and delightful weather for it, too. But you must mind as you don't over-tire yourself. You don't look very strong, if I may say it.'
'Oh, I am very well,' was the mechanical reply.
After a few more remarks the landlady took away the teapot. Emily then drew out a cloth from the cupboard, and other things needful for her evening meal. Presently the tea-pot returned filled with hot water. Emily was glad to pour out a cup and drink it, but she ate nothing. In a short time she rang the bell to have the things removed. This time a little girl appeared.
'Eh, Miss,' was the exclamation of the child, on examining the state of the table, 'you haven't eaten nothing!'
'No, I don't want anything just now, Milly,' was the quiet reply.
'Shall I leave the bread and butter out?'
'No, thank you. I'll have some later.'
'Is there anything I could get you, Miss?'
'Nothing, Milly. Take the things away, there's a good girl.'
Emily had seated herself on the couch again; when the girl was gone she lay down, her hands beneath her head. Long, long since she had had so much to think of as to-night.
At first she had found Wilfrid a good deal altered. He looked so much older; his bearded face naturally caused that. But before he had spoken twenty words how well she knew that the change was only of appearance. His voice was a little deeper, but the tone and manner of his speaking carried her back to the days when they had first exchanged words when she was a governess at The Firs in Surrey, and Wilfrid was the interesting young fellow who had overworked himself at college. The circumstances of to-day's meeting had reproduced something of the timidity with which he had approached her when they were strangers. This afternoon she had scarcely looked into his eyes, but she felt their gaze upon her, and felt their power as of old -- ah, fifty-fold stronger!
Was he married? It was more than possible. Nothing had escaped him inconsistent with that, and he was not likely to speak of it directly. It would account for the nature of his embarrassment in talking with her; her keen insight distinguished something more than the hesitation which common memories would naturally cause. And that pressure of the hand at parting which had made her heart leap with such agony, might well be his way of intimating to her that this meeting would have no sequel. Was it to be expected that he should remain unmarried? Had she hoped it?
It could not be called hope, but for two or three years something had grown in her which made life a succession of alternating longings and despairs. For Emily was not so constituted that the phase of thought and feeling which had been brought about by the tragedy of her home could perpetuate itself and become her normal consciousness. When she fled from Dunfield she believed that the impulses then so strong would prevail with her to the end of her life, that the motives which were then predominant in her soul would maintain their ruling force for ever. And many months went by before she suspected that her imagination had deceived her; imagination, ever the most potent factor of her being, the source alike of her strength and her weakness. But there came a day when the poignancy of her grief was subdued, and she looked around her upon a world more desolate than that in which she found herself on the day of her mother's burial. She began to know once more that she was young, and that existence stretched before her a limitless tract of barren endurance.
The rare natures which are in truth ruled by the instinct of renunciation, which find in the mortification of sense a spring of unearthly joy brimming higher with each self-conquest, may experience temptation and relapse, but the former is a new occasion for the arming of the spirit, and the latter speedily leads to a remorse which is the strongest of all incentives to ascetic struggle. Emily had not upon her the seal of sainthood. It was certain that at some point of her life asceticism would make irresistible claim upon the strongholds of her imagination; none the less certain that it would be but for a time, that it would prove but a stage in her development. To her misfortune the occasion presented itself in connection with her strongest native affections, and under circumstances which led her to an irretrievable act. Had she been brought up in a Roman Catholic country she would doubtless have thrown herself into a convent, finding her stern joy in the thought that no future wavering was possible. Attempting to make a convent of her own mind, she soon knew too well that her efforts mocked her, that there was in her an instinct stronger than that of renunciation, and that she had condemned herself to a life of futile misery.
Her state of mind for the year following her father's death was morbid, little differing from madness; and she came at length to understand that. When time had tempered her anguish, she saw with clear eyes that her acts had been guided by hallucination. Never would sorrow for her parents cease to abide with her, but sorrow cannot be the sustenance of a life through those years when the mind is strongest and the sensations most vivid. Had she by her self-mortification done aught to pleasure those dear ones who slept their last sleep? It had been the predominant feature of her morbid passion to believe that piety demanded such a sacrifice. Grief may reach such a point that to share the uttermost fate of the beloved one seems blessedness; in Emily's mind that moment of supreme agony had been protracted till unreasoning desire took to itself the guise of duty. Duty so represented cannot maintain its sanction when the wounds of nature grow towards healing.
She strove with herself. The reaction she was experiencing seemed to her a shameful weakness. Must she cease to know the self-respect which comes of conscious perseverance in a noble effort? Must she stand self-condemned, an ignoble nature, incapable of anything good and great -- and that, after all her ambitions? Was she a mere waif, at the mercy of the currents of sense? Never before had she felt this condemnation of her own spirit. She had suffered beyond utterance, but ever with a support which kept her from the last despair; of her anguish had come inspiration. Now she felt herself abandoned of all spiritual good. She came to loathe her life as a polluted stream. The image of Wilfrid, the memory of her lost love, these grew to be symbols of her baseness. It was too much to face those with whom daily duty brought her in contact; surely they must read in her face the degradation of which she was conscious. As much as possible she kept apart from all, nursing her bitter self-reproach.
Then it was that she sought relief in the schemes which naturally occur to a woman thus miserable. She would relinquish her life as a teacher, and bury her wretchedness beneath physical hardship. There was anguish enough in the world, and she would go to live in the midst of it, would undertake the hardest and most revolting tasks in some infirmary: thus might she crush out of herself the weakness which was her disgrace. It remained only a vision. That which was terribly real, the waste and woe of her heart, grew ever.
She yielded. Was not the true sin this that she tried to accomplish -- the slaying of the love which cried so from her inmost being? Glimpses of the old faith began to be once more vouchsafed her; at moments she knew the joy of beautiful things. This was in spring-time. Living in the great seaport, she could easily come within sight of the blue line where heaven and ocean met, and that symbol of infinity stirred once more the yearnings for boundless joy which in bygone days she had taught herself to accept as her creed. Supposing that her father had still knowledge of the life she led, would it make him happy to know that she had deprived herself of every pleasure, had for his sake ruined a future which might have been so fair? Not thus do we show piety to the dead; rather in binding our brows with every flower our hands may cull, and in drinking sunlight as long as the west keeps for us one gleam.
She had destroyed herself. Joy could arise to her from but one source, and that was stopped for ever. For it never came to Emily as the faintest whisper that other love than Wilfrid's might bless her life. That was constancy which nothing could shake; in this she would never fall from the ideal she had set before herself. She no longer tried to banish thoughts of what she had lost; Wilfrid was a companion at all hours far more real than the people with whom she had to associate. She had, alas, destroyed his letters she had destroyed the book in which she wrote the secrets of her heart that he might some day read them. The lack of a single thing that had come to her from him made the more terribly real the severance of his life from hers. She anguished without hope.
Then there came to her the knowledge that her bodily strength was threatened by disease. She had fainting fits, and in the comfort administered by those about her she read plainly what was meant to be concealed. At times this was a relief; at least she might hope to be spared long years of weary desolation, and death, come when he might, would be a friend. In other hours the all but certainty of her doom was a thought so terrible that reason well-nigh failed before it. Was there no hope for her for ever, nothing but the grave to rest her tired heart? Why had fate dealt with her so cruelly? She looked round and saw none upon whom had fallen a curse so unrelieved.
At last the desire to go once more to the south of England grew overpowering. If she could live in London, she felt it might console her to feel that she was near Wilfrid; he would not seem, as now, in a world utterly remote. Perchance she might one day even see him. If she had knowledge of the approach of death, Wilfrid would not refuse to come and see her at the last, and with her hand in his how easy it would be to die. She sought for means of supporting herself in London; she still had money saved from that which the sale of her father's house had brought her, but she did not wish to use more of this than she could help, keeping it for a certain cherished purpose. After many months of fruitless endeavour, she found a place in a school in Hammersmith. . . .
And Wilfrid had sat by her, had looked at her with something of the old tenderness, had pressed her hand as no one else would. Far into the night she lay thinking over every word he had spoken. Sometimes she wept -- poor Emily! He had not asked her where she lived; for that doubtless there was good reason. But it was much to have seen him this once. Again she wept, saying to herself that she loved him, -- that he was lost to her, -- that she must die.
That Wilfrid did not at the last moment leap on shore and follow Emily seemed to him less the result of self-control than obedience to outward restraint; it was as though an actual hand lay on his shoulder and held him back. He went back to his seat, and again fell into dreaminess.
The arrival of the boat at Chelsea pier reminded him that he must land; thence he drove home. On reaching the house he found Mrs. Birks there; she had called to see his father, and was in the hall on the point of leaving as he entered. She stepped up to him, and spoke in a low voice.
'What is the matter with Beatrice?'
'The matter? How?'
'She seems out of sorts. Come round and see her, will you?'
'I really can't just now,' Wilfrid replied. 'Do you mean that she is not well?'
'Something seems to be upsetting her. Why can't you come and see her?'
'I can't this evening. I have an engagement.'
'Very well. But you had better come soon, I think.'
'I don't understand you,' said Wilfrid, with some show of impatience. 'Is she ill?'
'Not exactly ill, I suppose. Of course I mustn't interfere. No doubt you understand.'
'I will come as soon as I can,' Wilfrid said. And he added, 'Has she -- spoken to you about anything?'
'I wish she had. She will speak neither to me nor to anyone else. It is too bad, Wilf, if you let her fret herself into a fever. She is just the girl to do it, you know.'
She nodded, smiled, and went off. Wilfrid, having committed himself to an engagement, loitered about in his dressing-room for a while, then, without seeing his father, betook himself to his club and dined there. After passing the early part of the evening in an uncomfortable way, with the help of newspapers and casual conversation, he went home again and shut himself in his study.
He sat long, without attempting to do anything. About midnight he rose as if to leave the room, but, instead of doing so, paced the floor for a few minutes; then he opened a certain drawer in his writing-table, and took out the morocco case which contained Emily's letters. He slipped off the band. The letters were still in their envelopes, and lay in the order in which he had received them. He drew forth the first and began to read it. He read them all.
Till the early daybreak he remained in the room, sometimes walking about, sometimes seating himself to re-read this letter and that. Twenty-four hours ago these written words would have touched his heart indeed, but only as does the memory of an irrecoverable joy; he could have read them, and still have gone to meet Beatrice as usual, or with but a little more than his ordinary reserve in her presence. It was otherwise now. The very voice had spoken again, and its tones lingering with him made the written characters vocal; each word uttered itself as it met his eye; Emily spoke still. The paper was old, the ink faded, but the love was of this hour. He grew fevered, and it was the fever of years ago, which had only been in appearance subdued; it had lurked still in his blood, and now asserted itself with the old dire mastery.
He marvelled that he had suffered her to leave him without even learning where she lived. He could not understand what his mood had been, what motives had weighed with him. He had not been conscious of a severe struggle to resist a temptation; the temptation had not, in fact, yet formed itself. What was her own thought? She had answered his questions freely, perhaps would have told him without hesitation the address of her lodgings. Clearly she no longer sought to escape him. But that, he reminded himself, was only the natural response to his own perfectly calm way of speaking; she could not suggest embarrassments when it was his own cue to show that he felt none. She was still free, it seemed, but what was her feeling towards him? Did she still love him? Was the mysterious cause which had parted them still valid?
When already it was daylight, he went upstairs and lay down on the bed; he was weary, but not with the kind of weariness that brings sleep. His mind was occupied with plans for discovering where Emily lived. Mrs. Baxendale had professed to have lost sight of her; Wilfrid saw now that there was a reason for concealing the truth, and felt that in all probability his friend had misled him; in any case, he could not apply to her. Was there a chance of a second meeting in the same place? Emily was sure to be free on Saturday afternoon; but only in one case would she go to the park again -- if she desired to see him, and imagined a corresponding desire on his side. And that was an unlikely thing; granting she loved him, it was not in Emily's character to scheme thus, under the circumstances.
Yet why had she chosen to come and live in London?
Beatrice he had put out of his thoughts. He did not do it deliberately; he made no daring plans; simply he gave himself over to the rising flood of passion, without caring to ask whither it would bear him. Though it fevered him, there was a luxury in the sense of abandonment once more to desire which suffered no questioning. That he had ever really loved Beatrice he saw now to be more than doubtful; that he loved Emily was as certain as that he lived. To compare the images of the two women was to set side by side a life sad and wan with one which bloomed like a royal flower, a face whose lines were wasted by long desolation with one whose loveliness was the fit embodiment of supreme joy. But in the former he found a beauty of which the other offered no suggestion, a beauty which appealed to him with the most subtle allurements, which drew him as with siren song, which, if he still contemplated it, would inspire him with recklessness. He made no effort to expel it from his imagination; every hour it was sweeter to forget the facts of life and dream of what might be.
Through this day and that which followed he kept away from home, only returning late at night. No more news of Beatrice came. He saw that his father regarded him with looks of curiosity, but only conversation of the wonted kind passed between them. When Saturday arrived he was no longer in doubt whether to pursue the one faint hope of finding Emily again in Bushey Park; the difficulty was to pass the time till noon, before which it was useless to start. He was due for the last sitting in the studio at Teddington, but that was an ordeal impossible to go through in his present state of mind. He went to Hampton by train, lunched again at the King's Arms, though but hastily, and at length reached the spot in the park where his eyes had discovered Emily reading.
It was not such a day as Wednesday had been; the sun shone intermittently, but there was threatening of rain. A vehicle now and then drove along the avenue taking holiday-makers to the Palace, and, near the place where Wilfrid walked, a party was picnicking under the trees. But he in vain sought for one who wandered alone, one who, in the distance, could move him to uncertain hope.
Why had he come? Suppose he did again meet Emily, what had he to say to her? Long and useless waiting naturally suggested such thoughts, and the answer to them was a momentary failing at the heart, a touch of fear. Was he prepared to treat this temporary coldness between Beatrice and himself as a final rupture? Was his present behaviour exactly that of a man who recognises rules of honour? If he had no purpose in wishing to see Emily but the satisfaction of a desire about which he would not reason, was it not unqualified treachery in which he was involving himself, treachery to two women and to one of them utter cruelty? He turned to walk towards the lake, desperate that his hope had failed, and at the same time -- strange contradiction -- glad in the thought that, having once yielded, he might overcome his madness. He passed the lake, and reached the exit from the park. At the same moment Emily was entering.
Her face expressed an agony of shame; she could not raise her eyes, could not speak. She gave him her hand mechanically, and walked on with her looks averted. Her distress was so unconcealed that it pained him acutely. He could not find words till they had walked a distance of twenty or thirty yards. Then he said:
'I came purposely to-day, in the hope that you might by chance be here. Do I annoy you?'
She half turned her face to him, but the effort to speak was vain.
A still longer silence followed. Wilfrid knew at length what he had done. That utterance of his had but one meaning, Emily's mute reply admitted of but one interpretation. His eyes dazzled; his heart beat violently. A gulf sank before him, and there was no longer choice but to plunge into it. He looked at his companion, and -- farewell the solid ground.
'Emily, is it your wish that I should leave you?'
She faced him, moved her lips, motioned 'no' with her head. She was like one who is led to death.
'Then I will not leave you. Let us walk gently on; you shall speak to me when you feel able.'
He cared for no obstacle now. She was come back to him from the dead, and to him it was enough of life to hold her. Let the world go; let all speak of him as they would; this pale, weary-eyed woman should henceforth represent existence to him. He would know no law but the bidding of his sovereign love.
'Have I fallen in your eyes?'
'You have always been to me the highest, and will be whilst I live.'
They had passed into the shadow of the trees; he took her hand and held it. The touch seemed to strengthen her, for she looked at him again and spoke firmly.
'Neither was my coming without thought of you. I had no hope that you would be here, no least hope, but I came because it was here I had seen you.'
'Since Wednesday,' Wilfrid returned, 'I have read your letters many times. Could you still speak to me as you did then?'
'If you could believe me.'
'You said once that you did not love me.'
'It was untrue.'
'May you tell me now what it was that came between us?'
She fixed upon him a gaze of sad entreaty, and said, under her breath, 'Not now.'
'Then I will never ask. Let it be what it might; your simple word that you loved me is all I need.'
'I will tell you,' Emily replied, 'but I cannot now. It seemed to me at the time that that secret would have to die with me; I thought so till I met you here. Then I knew that, if you still loved me and had been faithful to me so long, I could say nothing to myself which I might not speak to you. My love for you has conquered every other love and everything that I believed my duty.'
'Is it so, Emily?' he asked, with deepest tenderness.
'When I tell you all, you will perhaps feel that I have proved my own weakness. I will conceal from you nothing I have ever thought; you will see that I tried to do what my purest instincts urged, and that I have been unable to per. severe to the end. Wilfrid----'
'My own soul!'
'When I tell you all that happened at that time, I shall indeed speak to you as if your soul and mine were one. It may be wrong to tell you -- you may despise me for not keeping such things a secret for ever. I cannot tell whether I am right or wrong to do this. Is your love like mine?'
'I would say it was greater, if you were not so above me in all things.'
'Wilfrid, I was dying in my loneliness. It would not have been hard to die, for, if I was weak in everything else, at least my love for you would have grown to my last breath. If I speak things which I should only prove in silence, it is that you may not afterwards judge me hardly.'
'You shall tell me,' Wilfrid replied, 'when you are my wife. Till then I will hear nothing but that you are and always have been mine.'
They came to a great tree about the trunk of which had been built a circular seat. The glades on every side showed no disturbing approach.
'Let us sit here,' said Wilfrid. 'We have always talked with each other in the open air, haven't we?'
He drew her to him and kissed her face passionately. It was the satisfying of a hunger of years. With Beatrice his caresses had seldom been other than playful; from the first moment of re-meeting with Emily, he had longed to hold her to his heart.
'Can I hope to keep you now? You won't leave me again, Emily?'
'If I leave you, Wilfrid, it will be to die.'
Again he folded her in his arms, and kissed her lips, her cheeks, her eyes. She was as weak as a trembling flower.
'Emily, I shall be in dread through every moment that parts us. Will you consent to whatever I ask of you? Once before I would have taken you and made you my wife, and if you had yielded we should have escaped all this long misery. Will you now do what I wish?'
She looked at him questioningly.
'Will you marry me as soon as it can possibly be? On Monday I will do what is necessary, and we can be married on Wednesday. This time you will not refuse?'
'Yes. One day only need intervene between the notice and the marriage; it shall be at the church nearest to you.'
'Wilfrid, why do you----'
Fear had taken hold upon her she could not face the thought. Wilfrid checked her faint words with his lips.
'I wish it,' he said, himself shaken with a tempest of passion which whelmed the last protest of his conscience. 'I shall scarcely tear myself from you even till then. Emily, Emily, what has my life been without your love? Oh, you will be the angel that raises me out of the ignoble world into which I have fallen! Hold me to you -- make me feel and believe that you have saved me! Emily, my beautiful, my goddess! let me worship you, pray to you! Mine now, mine, love, for ever and ever!
She burst into tears, unable to suffer this new denizen of her heart, the sure and certain hope of bliss. He kissed away the tears as they fell, whispering love that was near to frenzy. There came a Bob that shook her whole frame, then Wilfrid felt her cheek grow very cold against his; her eyes were half closed, from her lips escaped a faint moan. He drew back and, uncertain whether she had lost consciousness, called to her to speak. Her body could not fall, for it rested against a hollow part of the great trunk. The faintness lasted only for a few moments; she once more gazed at him with the eyes of infinite sadness.
'It is so hard to bear happiness,' were her first words.
'My dearest, you are weak and worn with trouble. Oh, we will soon leave that far behind us. Are you better, my lily? Only give me your hands to hold, and I will be very still. Your hands are so light; they weigh no more than leaves. Do you suffer, dear?'
'A little pain -- there;' she touched her heart.
Wilfrid looked into her face anxiously.
'Have you often that pain?'
'No, not often. I don't feel it now. Wilfrid! Every day I have spoken that name, have spoken it aloud.'
'So have I often spoken yours, dear.'
They gazed at each other in silence.
'And it is to be as I wish?' Wilfrid said gently.
'So very soon?'
'So very long! This is only Saturday. If I had known this morning, it could have been on Monday.'
'Your wife, Wilfrid? Really your wife?'
'How your voice has changed! Till now you spoke so sadly. Those words are like the happiest of our old happy time. Three long days to be passed, but not one day more. You promise me?'
'I do your bidding, now and always, always!'
For the moment she had forgotten everything but love and love's rapture. It was as though life spread before her in limitless glory; she thought nothing of the dark foe with whose ever-watchful, ever-threatening presence she had become so familiar.
They talked long; only the lengthening and deepening shadow of the trees reminded them at length that hours had passed whilst they sat here.
'The boat will have gone,' Emily said.
'Never mind. We will get a conveyance at the hotel. And you must have refreshment of some kind. Shall we see what they can give us to eat at the King's Arms? To be sure we will. It will be our first meal together.'
'I can trust you ? You will not fail me?'
'Not if I am living, Wilfrid.'
'Oh, but I shall of course see you before Wednesday. To-morrow is Sunday----'
He checked himself. Sunday was the day he always gave to Beatrice. But he durst not think of that now.
'On Sunday there are so many people about,' he continued. 'Will you come here again on Monday afternoon?'
Emily promised to do so.
'I will write to you to-morrow, and again a letter for Tuesday, giving you the last directions. But I may have to see you on Tuesday. May I call at your lodgings?'
'If you need to. Surely you may? My -- my husband?'
They walked to the hotel, and thence, when dusk was falling, started to drive homewards. They stopped at the end of Emily's street, and Wilfrid walked with her to the door.
'Till Monday afternoon,' he said, grasping her hand as if he clung to it in fear.
Then he found another vehicle. It was dark when he reached home.
Late in the evening Wilfrid received a visit from his father. Mr. Athel had dined with his sister, and subsequently accompanied his nieces to a concert. Beatrice should have sung, but had broken her engagement on the plea of ill-health.
'Been at home all the evening?' Mr. Athel began by asking.
'I got home late,' Wilfrid answered, rising from his chair.
His father had something to say which cost him hesitation. He walked about with his hands between the tails of his coat.
'Seen Beatrice lately?' he inquired at length.
'No; not since last Monday.'
'I'm afraid she isn't well. She didn't sing to-night. Didn't dine with us either.'
Wilfrid kept silence.
'Something wrong?' was his father's next question.
'Yes, there is.'
'I'm sorry to hear that.'
Wilfrid went to the fireplace and leaned his arm upon the mantelpiece. As he did not seem disposed to speak, his father continued --
'Nothing serious, I hope?'
'Yes; something serious.'
'You don't mean that? Anything you can talk about?'
'I'm afraid not. I shall go and see Beatrice as usual tomorrow. I may be at liberty to tell you after that, though probably not for a few days.'
Mr. Athel looked annoyed.
'I hope this is not of your doing,' he said. 'They tell me the girl is causing them a good deal of anxiety. For the last few days she has been sitting alone, scarcely touching food, and refusing to speak to anyone. If this goes on she will be ill.'
Wilfrid spoke hoarsely.
'I can't help it. I shall see her to-morrow.'
'All right,' observed his father, with the impatience which was his way of meeting disorders in this admirable universe. 'Your aunt asked me to tell you this; of course I can do no more.'
Wilfrid made no reply, and Mr. Athel left him.
It was an hour of terrible suffering that Wilfrid lived through before he left the study and went to lay his head on the pillow. He had not thought very much of Beatrice hitherto; the passion which had spurred him blindly on made him forgetful of everything but the end his heart desired. Now that the end was within reach, he could consider what it was that he had done. He was acting like a very madman. He could not hope that any soul would regard his frenzy even with compassion; on all sides he would meet with the sternest condemnation. Who would recognise his wife? This step which he was taking meant rupture with all his relatives, perchance with all his friends; for it would be universally declared that he had been guilty of utter baseness. His career was ruined. It might happen that he would have to leave England with Emily, abandoning for her sake everything else that he prized.
How would Beatrice bear the revelation? Mere suspense had made her ill; such a blow as this might kill her. Never before had he been consciously guilty of an act of cruelty or of wrong to any the least valued of those with whom he had dealt; to realise what his treachery meant to Beatrice was so terrible that he dared not fix his thought upon it. Her love for him was intense beyond anything he had imagined in woman; Emily had never seemed to him possessed with so vehement a passion. Indeed he had often doubted whether Emily's was a passionate nature; at times she was almost cold -- appeared so, in his thought of her -- and never had she given way to that self-forgetful ardour which was so common in Beatrice. Sweat broke out upon his forehead as he saw the tragic issues to which his life was tending. There was no retreat, save by a second act of apostasy so unspeakably shameful that the brand of it would drive him to self-destruction. He had made his choice, or had been driven upon it by the powers which ruled his destiny; it only remained to have the courage of his resolve and to defy consequences. At least it was in no less a cause than that of his life's one love. There was no stamp of turpitude on the end for which he would sacrifice so much and occasion so much misery.
He passed the time in his own rooms till the afternoon of the following day; then, at the customary hour, he set forth to visit Beatrice. Would she see him? In his heart he hoped that she would refuse to; yet he dreaded lest he should be told that she was too unwell. It was a new thing in Wilfrid's experience to approach any door with shame and dread; between his ringing the bell and the servant's answer he learnt 'well what those words mean.
He was admitted as usual, the servant making no remark. As usual, he was led to Beatrice's room.
She was sitting in the chair she always occupied, and was dressed with the accustomed perfection. But her face was an index to the sufferings she had endured this past week. As soon as the door had closed, she stood to receive him, but not with extended hand. Her eyes were fixed upon him steadily, and Wilfrid, with difficulty meeting them, experienced a shook of new fear, a kind of fear he could not account for. Outwardly she was quite calm; it was something in her look, an indefinable suggestion of secret anguish, that impressed him so. He did not try to take her hand, but, having laid down his hat, came near to her and spoke as quietly as he could.
'May I speak to you of what passed between us last Monday?'
'How can we avoid speaking of it?' she replied, in a low voice, her eyes still searching him.
'I ought to have come to see you before this,' Wilfrid continued, taking the seat to which she pointed, whilst she also sat down. 'I could not.'
'I have been expecting you,' Beatrice said, in an emotionless way.
The nervous tension with which he had come into her presence had yielded to a fit of trembling. Coldness ran along his veins; his tongue refused its office; his eyes sank before her gaze.
'I felt sure you would come to-day,' Beatrice continued, with the same absence of pronounced feeling. 'If not, I must have gone to your house. What do you wish to say to me?'
'That which I find it very difficult to say. I feel that after what happened on Monday we cannot be quite the same to each other. I fear I said some things that were not wholly true.'
Beatrice seemed to be holding her breath. Her face was marble. She sat unmoving.
'You mean,' she said at length, 'that those letters represented more than you were willing to confess?'
It was calmly asked. Evidently Wilfrid had no outbreak of resentment to fear. He would have preferred it to this dreadful self-command.
'More,' he answered, 'than I felt at the time. I spoke no word of conscious falsehood.'
'Has anything happened to prove to you what you then denied?'
He looked at her in doubt. Could she in any way have learnt what had come to pass? Whilst talking, he had made up his mind to disclose nothing definitely; he would explain his behaviour merely as arising from doubt of himself. It would make the rest easier for her to bear hereafter.
'I have read those letters again,' he answered.
'And you have learnt that you never loved me?'
He held his eyes down, unable to utter words. Beatrice also was silent for a long time. At length she said --
'I think you are keeping something from me?'
He raised his face.
'Has nothing else happened?' she asked, with measured tone, a little sad, nothing more.
The truth was forced from him, and its utterance gave him a relief which was in itself a source of new agitation.
'Yes, something else has happened.'
'I knew it.'
'How did you----?'
'I felt it. You have met her again.'
Again he was speechless. Beatrice asked --
'Does she live in London?'
'You have met her, and have -- have wished that you were free?'
'Beatrice, I have done worse. I have acted as though I were free.'
She shook, as if a blow had fallen upon her. Then a smile came to her lips.
'You have asked her again to be your wife?'
'And she has consented?'
'Because I deceived her at the same time that I behaved dishonourably to you.'
She fixed upon him eyes which had a strange inward look, eyes veiled with reverie, vaguely troubled, unimpassioned. It was as though she calmly readjusted in her own mind the relations between him and herself. The misery of Wilfrid's situation was mitigated in a degree by mere wonder at her mode of receiving his admissions. This interview was no logical sequence upon the scene of a week ago; and the issue then had been, one would have thought, less provocative of demonstration than to-day's.
Directness once more armed her gaze, and again he was powerless to meet it. Still no resentment, no condemnation. She asked --
'It is your intention to marry soon?'
He could not reply.
'Will you let me see you once more before your marriage?' she continued. 'That is, if I find I wish it. I am not sure. I may or may not.'
It was rather a debate with herself than an address to him.
'May I leave you now, Beatrice?' he said, suddenly. 'Every drop of blood in me is shame-heated. In telling you this, I have done something which I thought would be beyond my force.'
'Yes,' she murmured, 'it will be better if we part now.'
She rose and watched him as he stepped to the table and took his hat. There was a moment's hesitation on either side, but Beatrice did not offer her hand. She stood superbly, as a queen might dismiss one from whom her thoughts were already wandering. He bowed, with inward self-mockery, and left her.
Some hours later, when already the summer evening had cloaked itself, Wilfrid found himself wandering by the river, not far from Hammersmith. The influence of a great water flowing from darkness into darkness was strong upon him; he was seeking for a hope in the transitoriness of all things earthly. Would not the hour come when this present anguish, this blood-poisoning shame, would have passed far away and have left no mark? Was it not thinking too grandiosely to attribute to the actions of such a one as himself a tragic gravity? Was there not supernal laughter at the sight of him, Wilfrid Athel, an English gentleman, a member of the Lower House of the British Parliament, posing as the arbiter of destinies? What did it all come to? An imbroglio on the threshold of matrimony; a temporary doubt which of two women was to enjoy the honour of styling herself Mrs. Athel. The day's long shame led to this completeness of self-contempt. As if Beatrice would greatly care! Why, in his very behaviour he had offered the cure for her heartburn; and her calmness showed how effective the remedy would be. The very wife whom he held securely had only been won by keeping silence; tell her the story of the last few days, and behold him altogether wifeless. He laughed scornfully. To this had he come from those dreams which guided him when he was a youth. A commonplace man, why should he not have commonplace experiences?
He had walked in this direction with the thought of passing beneath Emily's window before he returned home, yet, now that he was not more than half an hour's walk from her, he felt weary and looked aside for a street which should lead him to the region of vehicles. As he did so, he noticed a woman's form leaning over the riverside parapet at a short distance. A thought drew him nearer to her. Yes, it was Emily herself.
'You were coming to see me?' she asked.
Love in a woman's voice -- what cynicism so perdurable that it will bear against that assailant? In the dusk, he put her gloved hand against his lips, and the touch made him once more noble.
'I had meant to, beautiful, but it seemed too late, and I was just on the point of turning back. You always appear to me when I most need you.'
'You wanted to speak to me, Wilfrid?'
'When do I not? My life seems so thin and poor; only your breath gives it colour. Emily, I shall ask so much of you. I have lost all faith in myself; you must restore it.'
They stood close to each other, hand in hand, looking down at the dark flow.
'If I had not met you, Wilfrid,' she said, or whispered, 'I think my end must have been there -- there, below us. I have often come here at night. It is always a lonely place, and at high tide the water is deep.'
His hand closed upon hers with rescuing force.
'I am carrying a letter,' Emily continued, 'that I was going to post before I went in. I will give it you now, and I am glad of the opportunity; it seems safer. I have written what I feel I could never say to you. Read it and destroy it, and never speak of what it contains.'
She gave him the letter, and then he walked with her homewards.
On the morrow, shortly after breakfast, he was sitting in his study, when a knock came at the door. He bade enter, and it was Beatrice. She came towards him, gave her hand mechanically, and said --
'Can you spare me a few minutes?'
He placed a chair for her. Her eyes had not closed since they last looked at him; he saw it, though the expression of her features was not weariness.
'There is one thing, Wilfrid, that I think I have a right to ask you. Will you tell me why she left you, years ago?'
Her tone was that of one continuing a conversation. There might have been no break between yesterday and to-day. We cannot always gather from the voice what struggle has preceded utterance.
Wilfrid turned away. On the table lay that letter of Emily's; he had read it many times, and was reading it when the knock disturbed him. With a sudden movement, he took up the sheet of paper and held it to Beatrice.
'It is there -- the reason. I myself have only known it a few hours. Read that. I have no right to show it you -- and no right to refuse.'
Beatrice held the letter for a brief space without turning her eyes upon it. Wilfrid walked to a distance, and at length she read. Emily had recounted every circumstance of her father's death, and told the history of her own feelings, all with complete simplicity, almost coldly. Only an uncertainty in the hand-writing here and there showed the suffering it had cost her to look once more into the very eyes of the past. Yet it was of another than herself that she wrote; she felt that even in her memory of woe.
They faced each other again. Beatrice's eyes were distended; their depths lightened.
'I am glad! I am glad you met her before it was too late!'
Her voice quivered upon a low, rich note. Such an utterance was the outcome of a nature strong to the last limit of self-conquest. Wilfrid heard and regarded her with a kind of fear; her intensity passed to him; he trembled.
'I have nothing to pardon,' she continued. 'You were hers long before my love had touched your heart. You have tried to love me; but this has come soon enough to save us both.'
And again --
'If I did not love you, I should act selfishly; but self is all gone from me. In this moment I could do greater things to help you to happiness. Tell me; have you yet spoken to -- to the others?'
'To no one.'
'Then do not. It shall all come from me. No one shall cast upon you a shadow of blame. You have done me no wrong; you were hers, and you wronged her when you tried to love me. I will help you -- at least I can be your friend. Listen; I shall see her. It shall be I who have brought you together again -- that is how the shall all think of it. I shall see her, and as your friend, as the only one to whom you have yet spoken. Do you understand me, Wilfrid? Do you see that I make the future smooth for her and you? She must never know what we know, And the others -- they shall do as I will; they shall not dare to speak one word against you. What right have they, if I am -- am glad?'
He stood in amaze. It was impossible to doubt her sincerity; her face, the music of her voice, the gestures by which her eagerness expressed herself, all were too truthful. What divine nature had lain hidden in this woman! He gazed at her as on a being more than mortal.
'How can I accept this from you?' he asked hoarsely.
'Accept? How can you refuse? It is my right, it is my will! Would you refuse me this one poor chance of proving that my love was unselfish? I would have killed myself to win a tender look from you at the last moment, and you shall not go away thinking less of me than I deserve. You know already that I am not the idle powerless woman you once thought me; you shall know that I can do yet more. If she is noble in your eyes, can I consent to be less so?'
Passion the most exalted possessed her. It infected Wilfrid. He felt that the common laws of intercourse between man and woman had here no application; the higher ground to which she summoned him knew no authority of the conventional. To hang his head was to proclaim his own littleness.
'You are not less noble, Beatrice,' his voice murmured.
'You have said it. So there is no longer a constraint between us. How simple it is to do for love's sake what those who do not know love think impossible. I will see her, then the last difficulty is removed. That letter has told me where she lives. If I go there to-day, I shall find her?'
'Not till the evening,' Wilfrid replied under his breath.
'When is your marriage?'
He looked at her without speaking.
'Very soon? Before the end of the session?'
'The day after to-morrow.'
She was white to the lips, but kept her eyes on him steadily.
'And you go away at once?'
'I had thought' -- he began; then added, 'Yes, at once; it is better.'
'Yes, better. Your friend stays and makes all ready for your return. Perhaps I shall not see you after to-day, for that time. Then we are to each ether what we used to be. You will bring her to hear me sing? I shall not give it up now.'
She smiled, moved a little away from him, then turned again and gave her hand for leave-taking.
'She would not grudge it me. Kiss me -- the last time -- on my lips!'
He kissed her. When the light came again to his eyes, Beatrice had gone.
In the evening Emily sat expectant. Either Wilfrid would come or there would be a letter from him; yes. he would come; for, after reading what she had written, the desire to speak with her must be strong in him. She sat at her window and looked along the dull street.
She had spent the day as usual -- that is to say, in the familiar school routine; but the heart she had brought to her work was far other than that which for long years had laboriously pulsed the flagging moments of her life. Her pupils were no longer featureless beings, the sole end of whose existence was to give trouble; girl-children and budding womanhood had circled about her; the lips which recited lessons made unconscious music; the eyes, dark or sunny, laughed with secret foresight of love to come. Kindly affection to one and all grew warm within her; what had been only languid preferences developed in an hour to little less than attachments, and dislikes softened to pity. The girls who gave promise of beauty and tenderness she looked upon with the eyes of a sister; their lot it would be to know the ecstasy of whispered vows, to give and to receive that happiness which is not to be named lest the gods become envious. Voices singing together in the class practice which had ever been a weariness, stirred her to a passion of delight; it was the choral symphony of love's handmaidens. Did they see a change in her? Emily fancied that the elder girls looked at each other and smiled and exchanged words in an undertone -- about her.
It was well to have told Wilfrid all her secrets, yet in the impatience of waiting she had tremors of misgiving; would he, perchance, think as she so long had thought, that to speak to anyone, however near, of that bygone woe and shame was a sin against the pieties of nature, least of all excusable when committed at the bidding of her own desires? He would never breathe to her a word which could reveal such a thought, but Wilfrid, with his susceptibility to the beautiful in character, his nature so intensely in sympathy with her own, might more or less consciously judge her to have fallen from fidelity to the high ideal. Could he have learnt the story of her life, she still persevering on her widowed way, would he not have deemed her nobler? Aid against this subtlety of conscience rose in the form of self-reproof administered by that joyous voice of nature which no longer timidly begged a hearing, but came as a mandate from an unveiled sovereign. With what right, pray, did she desire to show in Wilfrid's eyes as other than she was? That part in life alone becomes us which is the very expression of ourselves. What merit can there be in playing the votary of an ascetic conviction when the heart is bursting with its stifled cry for light and warmth, for human joy, for the golden fruit of the tree of life? She had been sincere in her renunciation; the way of worthiness was to cherish a sincerity as complete now that her soul flamed to the bliss which fate once more offered her.
The hours passed slowly; how long the night would be if Wilfrid neither wrote to her nor came. But he had written; at eight o'clock the glad signal of the postman drew her to the door of her room where she stood trembling whilst someone went to the letter-box, and -- oh, joy! ascended the stairs. It was her letter; because her hands were too unsteady to hold it for reading, she knelt by a chair, like a child with a new picture-book, and spread the sheet open. And, having read it twice, she let her face fall upon her palms, to repeat to herself the words which danced fire-like b re her darkened eyes. He wrote rather sadly, but she would not have had it otherwise, for the sadness was of love's innermost heart, which is the shrine of mortality.
As Emily knelt thus by the chair there came another knock at the house-door, the knock of a visitor. She did not hear it, nor yet the tap at her own door which followed. She was startled to consciousness by her landlady's voice.
'There's a lady wishes to see you, Miss Hood.'
'A lady?' Emily repeated in surprise. Then it occurred to her that it must be Mrs. Baxendale, who knew her address and was likely to be in London at this time of the year. 'Does she give any name?'
No name. Emily requested that the visitor should be introduced.
Not Mrs. Baxendale, but a face at first barely remembered, then growing with suggestiveness upon Emily's gaze until all was known save the name attached to it. A face which at present seemed to bear the pale signs of suffering, though it smiled; a beautiful visage of high meanings, impressive beneath its crown of dark hair. It smiled and still smiled; the eyes looked searchingly.
'You do not remember me, Miss Hood?'
'Indeed, I remember you -- your face, your voice. But your name----? You are Mrs. Baxendale's niece.'
'Yes; Miss Redwing.'
'0, how could I forget!'
Emily became silent. The eyes that searched her so were surely kind, but it was the time of fears. Impossible that so strange a visit should be unconnected with her fate. And the voice thrilled upon her strung nerves ominously; the lips she watched were so eloquent of repressed feeling. Why should this lady come to her? Their acquaintance had been so very slight.
She murmured an invitation to be seated.
'For a moment,' returned Beatrice, 'you must wonder to see me. But I think you remember that I was a friend of the Athels. I am come with Mr. Athel's leave -- Mr. Wilfrid.'
Emily was agitated and could not smooth her features.
'Oh, don't think I bring you bad news!' pursued the other quickly, leaning a little forward and again raising her eyes. She had dropped them on the mention of Wilfrid's name. 'I have come, in fact, to put Mr. Athel at ease in his mind.' She laughed nervously. 'He and I have been close friends for a very long time, indeed since we were all but children, and I -- he -- you won't misunderstand? He has told me -- me alone as yet -- of what has happened, of the great good fortune that has come to him so unexpectedly. If you knew the terms of our friendship you would understand how natural it was for him to take me into his confidence, Miss Hood. And I begged him to let me visit you, because' -- again she laughed in the same nervous way -- 'because he was in a foolish anxiety lest you might have vanished; I told him it was best that he should have the evidence of a very practical person's senses that you were really here and that he hadn't only dreamt it. And as we did know each other, you see---- You will construe my behaviour kindly, will you not?'
'Surely I will, Miss Redwing,' Emily responded warmly. 'How else could I meet your own great kindness?'
'I feared so many things; even at the door I almost turned away. There seemed so little excuse for my visit. It was like intruding upon you. But Mr. Athel assured me that I should not be unwelcome.'
Emily, overcome by the sense of relief after her apprehensions, gave free utterance to the warm words in which her joy voiced itself. She forgot all that was strange in Beatrice's manner or attributed it merely to timidity. Sympathy just now was like sunshine to her; she could not inquire whence or why it came, but was content to let it bathe her in its divine solace.
'If you knew how it has flattered me!' Beatrice continued, with a semblance of light-hearted goodness which her hearer had no thought of criticising. 'It is the final proof of Mr. Athel's good opinion. You know his poor opinion of conventional people and conventional behaviour. He is determined that no one shall be told till -- till after Wednesday -- making me the sole exception, you see. But seriously I am glad he did so, and that I have been able to meet you again just at this time. Now I can assure him that you are indeed a living being, and that there is no danger whatever of your disappearing.'
Emily did not join the musical laugh, but her heart was full, and she just laid her hand on that of Beatrice.
'It was only for a moment,' the latter said, rising as she felt the touch. 'This is no hour for paying visits, and, indeed, I have to hurry back again. I should like to -- only to say that you have my very kindest wishes. You forgive my coming; you forgive my hastening away so?'
'I feel I ought to thank you more,' broke from Emily's lips. 'To me, believe, it is all very like a dream. 0, it was kind of you to come! You can't think,' she added, with only apparent irrelevance, 'how often I have recalled your beautiful singing; I have always thought of you with gratitude for that deep pleasure you gave me.'
'0, you shall hear me sing again!' laughed Beatrice. 'Ask Mr. Athel to tell you something about that. Indeed, it must be good-bye.'
They took each other's hands, but for Emily it was not sufficient; she stepped nearer, offering her lips.
Beatrice kissed her.
At eleven o'clock on Wednesday morning Beatrice called at the Athels' house. Receiving the expected information that Wilfrid was not at home, she requested that Mr. Athel senior might not be disturbed and went to Wilfrid's study.
Alone in the room, she took from her hand-bag a little packet addressed to Wilfrid on which she had written the word 'private,' and laid it on the writing-table.
She appeared to have given special attention to her toilet this morning; her attire was that of a lady of fashion, rich, elaborate, devised with consummate art, its luxury draping well the superb form wherein blended with such strange ardour the flames of heroism and voluptuousness. Her moving made the air delicate with faint perfume; her attitude as she laid down the packet and kept her hand upon it for a moment was self-conscious, but nobly so; if an actress, she was cast by nature for the great parts and threw her soul into the playing of them.
She lingered by the table, touching objects with the tips of her gloved fingers, as if lovingly and sadly; at length she seated herself in Wilfrid's chair and gazed about the room with languid, wistful eyes. Her bosom heaved; once or twice a sigh trembled to all but a sob. She lost herself in reverie. Then the clock near her chimed silverly half-past eleven. Beatrice drew a deep breath, rose slowly, and slowly went from the room.
A cab took her to Mrs. Baxendale's. That lady was at home and alone, reading in fact; she closed her book as Beatrice entered, and a placid smile accompanied her observation of her niece's magnificence.
'I was coming to make inquiries,' she said. 'Mrs. Birks gave me a disturbing account of you yesterday. Has your headache gone?'
'Over, all over,' Beatrice replied quietly. 'They make too much of it.'
'I think it is you who make too little of it. You are wretchedly pale.'
'Am I? That will soon go. I think I must leave town before long. Advise me; where shall I go?'
'But you don't think of going before----?'
'Yes, quite soon.'
'You are mysterious,' remarked Mrs. Baxendale, raising her eyebrows a little as she smiled.
'Well, aunt, I will be so no longer. I want to cross-examine you, if you will let me. Do you promise to answer?'
'To the best of my poor ability.'
'Then the first question shall be this, -- when did you last hear of Emily Hood?'
'Of Emily Hood?'
Mrs. Baxendale had the habit of controlling the display of her emotions, it was part of her originality. But it was evident that the question occasioned her extreme surprise, and not a little trouble.
'Yes, will you tell me?' said Beatrice, in a tone of calm interest.
'It's a strange question. Still, if you really desire to know, I heard from her about six months ago.'
'She was in London then?'
Mrs. Baxendale had quite ceased to smile. When any puzzling matter occupied her thought she always frowned very low; at present her frown indicated anxiety.
'What reason have you to think she was in London, Beatrice?'
'Only her being here now.'
Beatrice said it with a show of pleasant artfulness, holding her head aside a little and smiling into her aunt's eyes. Mrs. Baxendale relaxed her frown and looked away.
'Have you seen her lately?' Beatrice continued.
'I have not soon her for years.'
'Ah! But you have corresponded with her?'
'At very long intervals.'
Before Beatrice spoke again, her aunt resumed.
'Don't lay traps for me, my dear. Suppose you explain at once your interest in Emily Hood's whereabouts.'
'Yes, I wish to do so. I have come to you to talk about it, aunt, because I know you take things quietly, and just now I want a little help of the kind you can give. You have guessed, of course, what I am going to tell you, -- part of it at least. Wilfrid and she have met.'
'They have met,' repeated the other, musingly, her face still rather anxious. 'In what way?'
'By chance, pure chance.'
'By chance? It was not, I suppose, by chance that you heard of the meeting?'
'No. Wilfrid told me of it. He told me on Sunday----'
Her voice was a little uncertain.
'Give me your hand, dear,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'There, now tell me the rest.'
Beatrice half sobbed.
'Yes, I can now more easily,' she continued, with hurried utterance. 'Your hand is just what I wanted; it is help, dear help. But you mustn't think I am weak; I could have stood alone. Yes, he told me on Sunday. And that of course was the end.'
'At his desire?'
'His and mine. He was honest with me. It was better than such discoveries when it would have been too late.'
'And he is going to marry her?'
'They were married an hour ago.'
Mrs. Baxendale looked with grave inquiry into Beatrice's face. Incredulity was checked by what she saw there. She averted her eyes again, and both were silent for awhile.
'So it is all well over, you see,' Beatrice said at length, trying at light-heartedness.
'Over, it seems. As to the well or ill, I can't say.'
'Surely well,' rejoined Beatrice. 'He loves her, and he would never have loved me. We can't help it. She has suffered dreadful things; you see it in her face.'
'I went to see her on Monday evening,' Beatrice explained, with simplicity, though her lips quivered. 'I asked leave of Wilfrid to do so; he had told me all her story, as be had just heard it from herself, and I -- indeed I was curious to see her again. Then there was another reason. If I saw her and brought her to believe that Wilfrid and I were merely intimate friends, as we used to be -- how much easier it would make everything. You understand me, aunt?'
Mrs. Baxendale was again looking at her with grave, searching eyes, eyes which began to glimmer a little when the light caught them. Beatrice's hand she held pressed more and more closely in both her own. She made no reply to the last question, and the speaker went on with a voice which lost its clearness, and seemed to come between parched lips.
'You see how easy that makes everything? I want your help, of course; I told Wilfrid that this was how I should act. It is very simple; let us say that I prefer to be thought an unselfish woman: anyone can be jealous and malicious. You are to think that I care as little as it would seem; I don't yet know how I am to live, but of course I shall, it will come in time. It was better they should be married in this way. Then he must come back after the holidays, and everything be smooth for him. That will be our work, yours and mine, dear aunt. You understand me? You will talk to Mrs. Birks; it will be better from you; and then Mr. Athel shall be told. Yes, it is hard for me, but perhaps not quite in the way you think. I don't hate her, indeed I don't. If you knew that story, which you never can I No, I don't hate her. I kissed her, aunt, with my lips -- indeed. She couldn't find me out; I acted too well for that. But I couldn't have done it if I had hated her. She is so altered from what she was. You know that I liked her years ago. She interested me in a strange, strange way; it seems to me now that I foresaw how her fate would be connected with mine. I knew that Wilfrid loved her before anyone else had dreamt of such a thing. Now promise your help.'
'Have they gone away?' her aunt asked.
'I don't know. It is likely.'
Her face went white to the lips; for a moment she quivered.
'Beatrice, stay with me,' said Mrs. Baxendale. 'Stay 'with me here for a day or two.'
'Willingly. I wished it. Mrs. Birks is all kindness, but I find it hard to talk, and she won't let me be by myself. Don't think I am ill -- no, indeed no! It's only rest that I want. It seems a long time since Sunday. But you haven't yet promised me, aunt. It will be much harder if I have to do everything myself. I promised him that everything should be made smooth. I want to show him that my -- that my love was worth having. It's more than all women would do, isn't it, aunt? Of course it isn't only that; there's the pleasure of doing something for him. And he cannot help being grateful to me as long as he lives. Suppose I had gone and told her She would never have married him. She was never beautiful, you know, and now her face is dreadfully worn, but I think I understand why he loves her. Of course you cannot know her as well as I do. And you will help me, aunt?'
'Are you perfectly sure that they have been married this morning?' Mrs. Baxendale asked, with quiet earnestness.
'Sure, quite sure.'
'In any other case I don't know whether I should have done as you wish.'
'You would have tried to prevent it? Oh no, you are too wise! After all this time, and he loves her as much as ever. Don't you see how foolish it would be to fret about it? It is fete, that's all. You know we all have our fate. Do you know what I used to think mine would he? I feared madness; my poor father---- But I shall not fear that now; I have gone through too much; my mind has borne it. But I must have rest, and I can only rest if I know that you are helping me. You promise?'
'I will do my best, dear.'
'And your best is best indeed, aunt. You will go to Mrs. Birks and tell her where I am? The sooner you speak to her the better. I will lie down. If you knew how worn-out I feel!'
She rose, but stood with difficulty. Mrs. Baxendale put her arm about her and kissed her cheek. Then she led her to another room.
Tension in Beatrice was nearing the point of fever. She had begun the conversation with every appearance of calmness; now she was only to be satisfied by immediate action towards the end she had in view, every successive minute of delay was an added torment. She pressed her aunt to go to Mrs. Birks forthwith; that alone could soothe her. Mrs. Baxendale yielded and set out.
But it was not to Mrs. Birks that she paid her first visit. Though it was clear that Beatrice firmly believed all she said, Mrs. Baxendale could not accept this as positive assurance; before taking upon herself to announce such a piece of news she felt the need of some further testimony. She had a difficulty in reconciling precipitate action of this kind with Wilfrid's character as it had of late years developed itself; political, even social, ambition had become so pronounced in him that it was difficult to imagine him turning with such sudden vehemence from the path in which every consideration of interest would tend to hold him. The best of women worship success, and though Mrs. Baxendale well knew that Wilfrid's aims had suffered a degradation, she could not, even apart from her feeling for Beatrice, welcome his return to the high allegiance of former days, when it would surely check or altogether terminate a brilliant career. The situation had too fantastic a look. Could it be that Beatrice was suffering from some delusion? Had a chance discovery of Emily Hood's proximity, together perhaps with some ambiguous behaviour on Wilfrid's part, affected her mind? It was an extreme supposition, but on the whole as easy of acceptance as the story Beatrice had poured forth.
In pursuit of evidence Mrs. Baxendale drove to the Athels'. It was about luncheon-time. She inquired for Wilfrid, and heard with mingled feelings that he was at home. She found him in his study; he had before him a little heap of letters, the contents of a packet he had found on his table on entering a quarter of an hour before.
Mrs. Baxendale regarded him observantly. The results of her examination led her to come to the point at once.
'I have just left Beatrice,' she said. 'She has been telling me an extraordinary story. Do you know what it was?'
'She has told you the truth,' Wilfrid replied, simply.
'And you were married this morning?'
Wilfrid bent his head in assent.
Mrs. Baxendale seated herself.
'My dear Wilfrid,' were her next words, 'you have been guilty of what is commonly called a dishonourable action.'
'I fear I have. I can only excuse myself by begging you to believe that no other course was open to me. I have simply cut a hard knot. It was better than wasting my own life and others' lives in despair at its hopelessness.'
Wilfrid was collected. The leap taken, he felt his foot once more on firm ground. He felt, too, that he had left behind him much of which he was heartily ashamed. He was in no mood to feign an aspect of contrition.
'You will admit,' observed the lady, 'that this Cutting of the knot makes a rather harsh severance.'
'It would be impertinent to say that I am sorry for Beatrice. Her behaviour to me has been incredibly magnanimous, and I feel sure that her happiness as well as my own has been consulted. I don't know in what sense she has spoken to you----'
'Very nobly, be sure of it.'
'I can only thank her and reverence her.'
Mrs. Baxendale remained for a moment in thought.
'Well,' she resumed, 'you know that it is not my part to make useless scenes. I began with my hardest words, and they must stand. Beatrice will not die of a broken heart, happily, and if your wife is one half as noble you are indeed a fortunate man. Perhaps we had better talk no more at present; it is possible you have acted rightly, and I must run no risk of saying unkind things. Is your father informed?'
'You are leaving town?'
'To go to a distance?'
'No. I shall be in town daily.'
'You doubtless inform your father before you leave?'
'I shall do so.'
'Then we will say good-bye.'
Mrs. Baxendale gave her hand. She did not smile, but just shook her head as she looked Wilfrid steadily in the face.
It was later in the afternoon when she called upon Mrs. Birks. She was conducted to that lady's boudoir, and there found Mr. Athel senior in colloquy with his sister. The subject of the conversation was unmistakable.
'You know?' asked Mrs. Birks, with resignation, as soon as the door was closed behind the visitor.
'I have come to talk it over with you.'
Mr. Athel was standing with his hands clasped behind him; he was rather redder in the face than usual, and had clearly been delivering himself of ample periods.
'Really, Mrs. Baxendale,' he began, 'I have a difficulty in expressing myself on the subject. The affair is simply monstrous. It indicates a form of insanity. I -- uh -- I -- uh -- in truth I don't know from what point to look at it.'
'Where is Beatrice?' Mrs. Birks asked.
'She will stay with me for a day or two,' replied Mrs. Baxendale.
'How -- how is she?' inquired Mr. Athel, sympathetically.
'Upset, of course, but not seriously, I hope.'
'Really,' Mrs. Birks exclaimed, 'Wilfrid might have had some consideration for other people. Hero are the friendships of a lifetime broken up on his account.'
'I don't know that that is exactly the point of view,' remarked her brother, judicially. 'One doesn't expect such things to seriously weigh -- I mean, of course, when there is reason on the man's side. What distresses me is the personal recklessness of the step.'
'Perhaps that is not so great as it appears,' put in Mrs. Baxendale, quietly.
'You defend him?' exclaimed Mrs. Birks.
'I'm not sure that I should do so, but I want to explain how Beatrice regards it.'
'She defends him?' cried Mr. Athel.
'Yes, she does. At present there is only one thing I fear for her, and that is a refusal on your part to carry out her wishes. Beatrice has made up her mind that as little trouble as possible shall result. I bring, in fact, the most urgent request from her that you, Mr. Athel, and you, Mrs. Birks, will join in a sort of conspiracy to make things smooth for Wilfrid. She desires -- it is no mere whim, I believe her health depends upon it -- that no obstacle whatever may be put in the way of Wilfrid's return to society with his wife. We are to act as though this old engagement had come to an end by mutual agreement, and as approving the marriage. This is my niece's serious desire.'
'My dear Mrs. Baxendale!' murmured the listening lady. 'How very extraordinary! Are you quite sure----'
'Oh, this surely is out of the question,' broke in her brother. 'That Beatrice should make such a request is very admirable, but I -- uh -- I really----'
Mr. Athel paused, as if expecting and hoping that someone would defeat his objections.
'I admit it sounds rather unreal,' pursued Mrs. Baxendale, 'but fortunately I can give you good evidence of her sincerity. She has visited the lady who is now Mrs. Athel, and that with the express purpose of representing herself as nothing more than a friend of Wilfrid's. You remember she had a slight acquaintance with Miss Hood. After this I don't see how we can refuse to aid her plan.'
'She visited Miss Hood?' asked Mrs. Birks, with the mild amazement of a lady who respects her emotions. 'Does Wilfrid know that?'
'Beatrice asked his permission to go.'
'This is altogether beyond me,' confessed Mr. Athel, drawing down his waistcoat and taking a turn across the room. Of course, if they have been amusing themselves with a kind of game, well, we have nothing to do but to regret that our invitation to join in it has come rather late. For my own part, I was disposed to take a somewhat more serious view. Of course it's no good throwing away one's indignation. I -- uh -- but what is your own attitude with regard to this proposal, Mrs. Baxendale?'
'I think I must be content to do my niece's bidding,' said the lady addressed.
'There's one thing, it seems to me, being lost sight of,' came from Mrs. Birks, in the disinterested tone of a person who wishes to deliver with all clearness an unpleasant suggestion. 'We are very much in the dark as to Miss Hood's -- I should say Mrs. Athel's -- antecedents. You yourself,' she regarded Mrs. Baxendale, 'confess that her story is very mysterious. If we are asked to receive her, really -- doesn't this occur to you?'
At this moment the door opened and amid general silence Beatrice came forward. Mrs. Birks rose quickly and met her. Mrs. Baxendale understood at a glance what had brought her niece here. Agitation had grown insupportable. It was not in Beatrice's character to lie still whilst others decided matters in which she had supreme interest. The more difficult her position the stronger she found herself to support it. The culmination of the drama could not be acted with her behind the scenes.
Mrs. Birks, with a whispered word or two, led her to a seat. Beatrice looked at her aunt, then at Mr. Athel. The proud beauty of her face was never more impressive. She smiled as if some pleasant trifle were under discussion.
'I heard your voice as I came in,' she said to Mrs. Birks, bending towards her gracefully. 'Were you on my side?'
'I'm afraid not, dear, just then,' was the reply, given in a corresponding tone of affectionateness.
'You will tell me what you were saying?'
Mr. Athel looked as uncomfortable as even an English gentleman can in such a situation. Mrs. Baxendale seemed to be finding amusement in observing him. The lady appealed to plucked for a moment at her sleeve.
'May I make a guess?' Beatrice pursued. 'It had something to do with the private circumstances of the lady Mr. Wilfrid Athel has married?'
'Yes, Beatrice, it had.'
'Then let me help you over that obstacle, dear Mrs. Birks. I have heard from herself a full explanation of what you are uneasy about, and if I were at liberty to repeat it you would know that she has been dreadfully unhappy and has endured things which would have killed most women, all because of her loyalty and purity of heart. I think I may ask you to give as much effect to my words as if you knew everything. Mrs. Athel is in every respect worthy to become a member of your family.'
Her voice began to express emotion,
'Mr. Athel, you are not against me? It is so hard to find no sympathy. I have set my heart on this. Perhaps I seem to ask a great deal, but I -- have I not some little----'
'My dear Miss Redwing,' broke in Mr. Athel then, correcting himself, 'My dear Beatrice, no words could convey the anxiety I feel to be of service to you. You see how difficult it is for me to speak decidedly, but I assure you that I could not possibly act in opposition to your expressed desire. Perhaps it would be better for me to withdraw. I am sure these ladies----'
His speech hung in mid-air, and he stood nervously tapping his fingers with his eyeglass.
'No, please remain,' exclaimed Beatrice. 'Aunt, you are not against me? Mrs. Birks, you won't refuse to believe what I have told you?'
The two ladies glanced at each other. In Mrs. Baxendale's look there was appeal.
'Indeed, I believe you implicitly, my dear Beatrice,' said Mrs. Birks. 'My brother is the one to decide. You are mistaken in thinking I oppose your wish. How could I?'
The last words were very sweetly said. With a smile which did not pass beyond her lips, Beatrice rose from her seat and held her hand to Mr. Athel.
'Then it is understood? When Wilfrid brings his wife to you, you receive her with all kindness. I have your promise?'
Mr. Athel drew himself up very straight, pressed the offered hand and said:
'It shall be as you wish.' . . .
Beatrice returned with Mrs. Baxendale. Her desire to be alone was respected during the rest of the day. Going to her the last thing at night, her aunt was reassured; weariness had followed upon nervous strain, and the beautiful eyes seemed longing for sleep.
But in the morning appearances were not so hopeful. The night had after all been a troubled one: Beatrice declined breakfast and, having dressed with effort, lay on a sofa, her eyes closed.
At noon Mrs. Baxendale came near and said gently:
'Dear, you are not going to be ill?'
The sufferer stirred a little, looked in her aunt's face, rose to a sitting position.
'Ill?' She laughed in a forced way. '0, that would never do! Ill after all? Why, that would spoil everything. Are you going out this morning?'
'Certainly not. I should only have done some idle shopping.'
'Then you shall do the shopping, and I will go with you. Yes, yes, I will go! It is the only way. Let us go where we shall see people; I wish to. I will be ready in five minutes.'
'0, don't fear my looks; you shall see if I betray myself! Quick, quick, -- to Regent Street, Bond Street, where we shall gee people! I shall be ready before you.'
They set forth, and Beatrice had no illness.
Once more at The Firs. Wilfrid had decided to make this his abode. It was near enough to London to allow of his going backwards and forwards as often as might be necessary; his father's town house offered the means of change for Emily, and supplied him with a pied-à-terre in time of session. By limiting his attendance at the House as far as decency would allow, he was able to enjoy with small interruption the quiet of his home in Surrey, and a growing certainty that the life of the present Parliament would be short encouraged him in looking forward to the day when politics would no longer exist for him.
He and Emily established themselves at The Firs towards the end of December, having spent a week with Mr. Athel on their return from the Continent. Emily's health had improved, but there was no likelihood that she would ever be other than a delicate flower, to be jealously guarded from the sky's ruder breath by him to whom she was a life within life. Ambition as he formerly understood it had no more meaning for Wilfrid; the fine ardour of his being rejected grosser nourishment and burned in altar-flame towards the passion-pale woman whom he after all called wife. Emily was an unfailing inspiration; by her side the nobler zeal of his youth renewed itself; in the light of her pure soul he saw the world as poetry and strove for that detachment of the intellect which in Emily was a gift of nature.
She, Emily -- Emily Athel, as she joyed to write herself -- moved in her new sphere like a spirit humbled by victory over fate. It was a mild winter; the Surrey hills were tender against the brief daylight, and gardens breathed the freshness of evergreens. When the sun trembled over the landscape for a short hour, Emily loved to stray as far as that hollow on the heath where she had sat with Wilfrid years ago, and heard him for the first time speak freely of his aims and his hopes. That spot was sacred; as she stood there beneath the faint blue of the winter sky, all the exquisite sadness of life, the memory of those whom death had led to his kindly haven, the sorrows of new-born love, the dear heartache for woe passed into eternity, touched the deepest fountains of her nature and made dim her eyes. She would not have had life other than it was given to her, for she had learned the secrets of infinite passion in the sunless valleys of despair.
She rested. In the last few months she had traversed a whole existence; repose was needful that she might assimilate all her new experiences and range in due order the gifts which joy had lavishly heaped upon her. The skies of the south, the murmur of blue seas on shores of glorious name, the shrines of Art, the hallowed scenes where earth's greatest have loved and wrought, these were no longer a dream with her bodily eyes she had looked upon Greece and Italy, and to have done so was a consecration, it cast a light upon her brows. 'Talk to me of Rome;' those were always her words when Wilfrid came to her side in the evening. 'Talk to me of Rome, as you alone can.' And as Wilfrid recalled their life in the world's holy of holies, she closed her eyes for the full rapture of the inner light, and her heart sang praise.
Wilfrid was awed by his blessedness. There were times when he scarcely dared to take in his own that fine-moulded hand which was the symbol of life made perfect; Emily uttered thoughts which made him fear to profane her purity by his touch. She realised to the uttermost his ideal of womanhood, none the less so that it seemed no child would be born of her to trouble the exclusiveness of their love. He clad her in queenly garments and did homage at her feet. Her beauty was all for him, for though Emily could grace any scene she found no pleasure in society, and the hours of absence from home were to Wilfrid full of anxiety to return. All their plans were for solitude; life was too short for more than the inevitable concessions to the outside world.
But one morning in February, Emily's eye fell upon an announcement in the newspaper which excited in her a wish to go up to town. Among the list of singers at a concert to he given that day she had caught the name of Miss Beatrice Redwing. It was Saturday; Wilfrid had no occasion for leaving home and already they had enjoyed in advance the two unbroken days.
'But I should indeed like to hear her,' Emily said, 'and she seems to sing so rarely.'
'She has only just returned to England,' Wilfrid remarked
They had heard of Beatrice having been in Florence a week or two prior to their own stay there. She was travelling with the Baxendales. Emily was anxious to meet her, and Wilfrid had held out a hope that this might come about in Italy, but circumstances had proved adverse.
'Have you seen her?' Emily inquired.
Her husband had not. He seemed at first a little disinclined to go up for the concert, but on Emily's becoming silent he hastened to give a cheerful acquiescence.
'Couldn't we see her to-morrow?' she went on to ask.
'No doubt we can. It's only the facing of my aunt's drawing-room on a Sunday afternoon.'
'O, surely that is needless, Wilfrid? Couldn't we go and see her quietly? She would be at home in the morning, I should think.'
'I should think so. We'll make inquiries to-night.'
They left home early in the afternoon and procured tickets on their way from the station to Mr. Athel's. Their arrival being quite unexpected, they found that Mr. Athel had loft town for a day or two. It was all that Emily needed for the completing of her pleasure; her father-in-law was scrupulously polite in his behaviour to her, but the politeness fell a little short as yet of entire ease, and conversation with him involved effort. She ran a risk of letting Wilfrid perceive the gladness with which she discovered an empty house; he did, in fact, attribute to its true cause the light-heartedness she showed as they sat together at dinner, and smiled to think that he himself shared in the feeling of relief. There were reasons why he could not look forward to the evening with unalloyed happiness, but the unwonted gaiety which shone on Emily's face, and gave a new melody to her voice, moved him to tenderness and gratitude. He felt that it would be well to listen again to the music of that strong heart whose pain had been his bliss. He overcame his ignoble anxieties and went to the concert as to a sacred office.
Their seats, owing to lateness in applying for them, were not in the best part of the hall; immediately behind them was the first row of a cheaper section, and two men of indifferent behaviour were seated there within ear-shot; they were discussing the various names upon the programme as if for the enlightenment of their neighbours. When Emily had been sitting for a few minutes, she found that it had been unwise to leave her mantle in the cloak-room; there was a bad draught. Wilfrid went to recover it. Whilst waiting, Emily became aware that the men behind her were talking of Miss Redwing; she listened.
'She's married, I think, eh?' said one.
'Was to have been, you mean. Why, wasn't it you told me the story? 0 no, it was Drummond. Drummond knows her people, I think.'
'What story, eh?'
'Why, she was to have married a Member of Parliament; what the deuce was his name? Something that reminded me of a race-horse, I remember. Was it Blair? No -- Athel! That's the name.'
'Why didn't it come off, then?'
'Oh, the honourable member found somebody he liked better.'
It was not the end of the conversation, but just then the conductor rose in his place and there was 'hushing.' Wilfrid returned at the same moment. He noticed that Emily shivered as he put the covering on her shoulders. When he was seated she looked at him so strangely that he asked her in a whisper what was the matter. Emily shook her head and seemed to fix her attention on the music.
Beatrice Redwing was the third singer to come forward. Whilst she sang Emily frequently looked at her husband. Wilfrid did not notice it, he was absorbed in listening. Towards the end Emily, too, lost thought of everything save the magic with which the air was charged. There was vociferous demand for an encore and Beatrice gave another song.
When the mid-way interval was reached Emily asked her husband if he would leave the hall. She gave no reason and Wilfrid did not question her. When they were in the carriage she said the draught had been too severe. Wilfrid kept silence; he was troubled by inexplicable misgivings.
Servants hastened to light the drawing-room on their arrival earlier than was expected. Emily threw off her wraps and seated herself near the fire.
'Do you suffer from the chill?' Wilfrid asked, approaching her as if with diffidence.
She turned her face to him, gazing with the sadness which was so much more natural to her than the joy of two hours ago.
'It was not the draught that made me come away,' she said with gentle directness. 'I must tell you what it was, Wilfrid. I cannot keep any of my thoughts from you.'
'Tell me,' he murmured, standing by her.
She related the substance of the conversation she had overheard, always keeping her eyes on him.
'Is it true?'
'It is true, Emily.'
Between him and her there could be no paltry embarrassments. A direct question touching both so deeply could be answered only in one way. If Emily had suffered from a brief distrust, his look and voice, sorrowful but frank as though he faced Omniscience, restored her courage at once. There might be grief henceforth, but it was shared between them.
He spoke on and made all plain. Then at the last:
'I felt it to be almost impossible that you should net some day know. I could not tell you, perhaps on her account as much as on my own. But now I may say what I had no words for before. She loved me, and I believed that I could return her love. When I met you, how could I marry her? A stranger sees my conduct -- you have heard how. It is you who alone can judge me.'
'And she came to me in that way,' Emily murmured. 'She could not only lose you, but give her hand to the woman who robbed her!'
'And take my part with everyone, force herself to show a bright face, do her best to have it understood that it was she herself who broke off the marriage -- all this.'
'Dare I go to her, Wilfrid? Would it be cruel to go to her? I wish to speak -- oh, not one word that would betray my knowledge, but to say that I love her. Do you think I may go?'
'I cannot advise you, Emily. Wait until the morning and do then what you think best.'
She decided to go. Beatrice still lived with Mrs. Birks, and it was probable that she would be alone on Sunday morning. It proved to be so.
Wilfrid waited more than an hour for Emily's return. When at length she entered to him, he saw that there was deep content on her countenance. Emily embraced her husband and laid her head upon his breast. He could hear her sigh gently.
'She wishes to see you, Wilfrid.'
'She received you kindly?'
'I will tell you all when I have had time to think of it. But she was sorry you did not come with me. Will you go? She will be alone this afternoon.'
They held each other in silence. Then Emily, raising an awed face, asked softly:
'Where does she find her strength? Is her nature so spotless that self-sacrifice is her highest joy? Wilfrid, I could have asked pardon at her feet; my heart bled for her.'
'Dearest, you least of all should wonder at the strength which comes of high motive.'
'Oh, but to surrender you to another and to witness that other's happiness! Was not my self-denial perhaps a form of selfishness? I only shrank from love because I dreaded the reproaches of my own heart; I did good to no one, was only anxious to save myself. She -- I dare not think of it! My nature is so weak. Take your love from me and you take my life.'
Wilfrid's heart leaped with the wild joy of a mountain torrent.
'She will not always be alone,' he said, perhaps with the readiness of the supremely happy to prophesy smooth things for all. There came the answer of gentle reproach:
'After loving you, Wilfrid?'
'Beautiful, that is how it seems to you. There is second love, often truer than the first.'
'Then the first was not love indeed! If I had never seen you again, what meaning would love have ever had for me apart from your name? I only dreamed of it till I knew you, then it was love first and last. Wilfrid, my own, my husband -- my love till I die!' . . . .