THE TWO DESTINIES
By Wilkie Collins
THE GUEST WRITES AND TELLS THE STORY OF THE DINNER PARTY.
MANY years have passed since my wife and I left the United States to pay our first visit to England.
We were provided with letters of introduction, as a matter of course. Among them there was a letter which had been written for us by my wife's brother. It presented us to an English gentleman who held a high rank on the list of his old and valued friends.
"You will become acquainted with Mr. George Germaine," my brother-in-law said, when we took leave of him, "at a very interesting period of his life. My last news of him tells me that he is just married. I know nothing of the lady, or of the circumstances under which my friend first met with her. But of this I am certain: married or single, George Germaine will give you and your wife a hearty welcome to England, for my sake."
The day after our arrival in London, we left our letter of introduction at the house of Mr. Germaine.
The next morning we went to see a favorite object of American interest, in the metropolis of England—the Tower of London. The citizens of the United States find this relic of the good old times of great use in raising their national estimate of the value of republican institutions. On getting back to the hotel, the cards of Mr. and Mrs. Germaine told us that they had already returned our visit. The same evening we received an invitation to dine with the newly married couple. It was inclosed in a little note from Mrs. Germaine to my wife, warning us that we were not to expect to meet a large party. "It is the first dinner we give, on our return from our wedding tour" (the lady wrote); "and you will only be introduced to a few of my husband's old friends."
In America, and (as I hear) on the continent of Europe also, when your host invites you to dine at a given hour, you pay him the compliment of arriving punctually at his house. In England alone, the incomprehensible and discourteous custom prevails of keeping the host and the dinner waiting for half an hour or more—without any assignable reason and without any better excuse than the purely formal apology that is implied in the words, "Sorry to be late."
Arriving at the appointed time at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Germaine, we had every reason to congratulate ourselves on the ignorant punctuality which had brought us into the drawing-room half an hour in advance of the other guests.
In the first place, there was so much heartiness, and so little ceremony, in the welcome accorded to us, that we almost fancied ourselves back in our own country. In the second place, both husband and wife interested us the moment we set eyes on them. The lady, especially, although she was not, strictly speaking, a beautiful woman, quite fascinated us. There was an artless charm in her face and manner, a simple grace in all her movements, a low, delicious melody in her voice, which we Americans felt to be simply irresistible. And then, it was so plain (and so pleasant) to see that here at least was a happy marriage! Here were two people who had all their dearest hopes, wishes, and sympathies in common—who looked, if I may risk the expression, born to be man and wife. By the time when the fashionable delay of the half hour had expired, we were talking together as familiarly and as confidentially as if we had been all four of us old friends.
Eight o'clock struck, and the first of the English guests appeared.
Having forgotten this gentleman's name, I must beg leave to distinguish him by means of a letter of the alphabet. Let me call him Mr. A. When he entered the room alone, our host and hostess both started, and both looked surprised. Apparently they expected him to be accompanied by some other person. Mr. Germaine put a curious question to his friend.
"Where is your wife?" he asked.
Mr. A answered for the absent lady by a neat little apology, expressed in these words:
"She has got a bad cold. She is very sorry. She begs me to make her excuses."
He had just time to deliver his message, before another unaccompanied gentleman appeared. Reverting to the letters of the alphabet, let me call him Mr. B. Once more, I noticed that our host and hostess started when they saw him enter the room alone. And, rather to my surprise, I heard Mr. Germaine put his curious question again to the new guest:
"Where is your wife?"
The answer—with slight variations—was Mr. A's neat little apology, repeated by Mr. B.
"I am very sorry. Mrs. B has got a bad headache. She is subject to bad headaches. She begs me to make her excuses."
Mr. and Mrs. Germaine glanced at one another. The husband's face plainly expressed the suspicion which this second apology had roused in his mind. The wife was steady and calm. An interval passed—a silent interval. Mr. A and Mr. B retired together guiltily into a corner. My wife and I looked at the pictures.
Mrs. Germaine was the first to relieve us from our own intolerable silence. Two more guests, it appeared, were still wanting to complete the party. "Shall we have dinner at once, George?" she said to her husband. "Or shall we wait for Mr. and Mrs. C?"
"We will wait five minutes," he answered, shortly—with his eye on Mr. A and Mr. B, guiltily secluded in their corner.
The drawing-room door opened. We all knew that a third married lady was expected; we all looked toward the door in unutterable anticipation. Our unexpressed hopes rested silently on the possible appearance of Mrs. C. Would that admirable, but unknown, woman, at once charm and relieve us by her presence? I shudder as I write it. Mr. C walked into the room—and walked in, alone.
Mr. Germaine suddenly varied his formal inquiry in receiving the new guest.
"Is your wife ill?" he asked.
Mr. C was an elderly man; Mr. C had lived (judging by appearances) in the days when the old-fashioned laws of politeness were still in force. He discovered his two married brethren in their corner, unaccompanied by their wives; and he delivered his apology for his wife with the air of a man who felt unaffectedly ashamed of it:
"Mrs. C is so sorry. She has got such a bad cold. She does so regret not being able to accompany me."
At this third apology, Mr. Germaine's indignation forced its way outward into expression in words.
"Two bad colds and one bad headache," he said, with ironical politeness. "I don't know how your wives agree, gentlemen, when they are well. But when they are ill, their unanimity is wonderful!"
The dinner was announced as that sharp saying passed his lips.
I had the honor of taking Mrs. Germaine to the dining-room. Her sense of the implied insult offered to her by the wives of her husband's friends only showed itself in a trembling, a very slight trembling, of the hand that rested on my arm. My interest in her increased tenfold. Only a woman who had been accustomed to suffer, who had been broken and disciplined to self-restraint, could have endured the moral martyrdom inflicted on her as this woman endured it, from the beginning of the evening to the end.
Am I using the language of exaggeration when I write of my hostess in these terms? Look at the circumstances as they struck two strangers like my wife and myself.
Here was the first dinner party which Mr. and Mrs. Germaine had given since their marriage. Three of Mr. Germaine's friends, all married men, had been invited with their wives to meet Mr. Germaine's wife, and had (evidently) accepted the invitation without reserve. What discoveries had taken place between the giving of the invitation and the giving of the dinner it was impossible to say. The one thing plainly discernible was, that in the interval the three wives had agreed in the resolution to leave their husbands to represent them at Mrs. Germaine's table; and, more amazing still, the husbands had so far approved of the grossly discourteous conduct of the wives as to consent to make the most insultingly trivial excuses for their absence. Could any crueler slur than this have been cast on a woman at the outs et of her married life, before the face of her husband, and in the presence of two strangers from another country? Is "martyrdom" too big a word to use in describing what a sensitive person must have suffered, subjected to such treatment as this? Well, I think not.
We took our places at the dinner-table. Don't ask me to describe that most miserable of mortal meetings, that weariest and dreariest of human festivals! It is quite bad enough to remember that evening—it is indeed.
My wife and I did our best to keep the conversation moving as easily and as harmlessly as might be. I may say that we really worked hard. Nevertheless, our success was not very encouraging. Try as we might to overlook them, there were the three empty places of the three absent women, speaking in their own dismal language for themselves. Try as we might to resist it, we all felt the one sad conclusion which those empty places persisted in forcing on our minds. It was surely too plain that some terrible report, affecting the character of the unhappy woman at the head of the table, had unexpectedly come to light, and had at one blow destroyed her position in the estimation of her husband's friends. In the face of the excuses in the drawing-room, in the face of the empty places at the dinner-table, what could the friendliest guests do, to any good purpose, to help the husband and wife in their sore and sudden need? They could say good-night at the earliest possible opportunity, and mercifully leave the married pair to themselves.
Let it at least be recorded to the credit of the three gentlemen, designated in these pages as A, B, and C, that they were sufficiently ashamed of themselves and their wives to be the first members of the dinner party who left the house. In a few minutes more we rose to follow their example. Mrs. Germaine earnestly requested that we would delay our departure.
"Wait a few minutes," she whispered, with a glance at her husband. "I have something to say to you before you go."
She left us, and, taking Mr. Germaine by the arm, led him away to the opposite side of the room. The two held a little colloquy together in low voices. The husband closed the consultation by lifting the wife's hand to his lips.
"Do as you please, my love," he said to her. "I leave it entirely to you."
He sat down sorrowfully, lost in his thoughts. Mrs. Germaine unlocked a cabinet at the further end of the room, and returned to us, alone, carrying a small portfolio in her hand.
"No words of mine can tell you how gratefully I feel your kindness," she said, with perfect simplicity, and with perfect dignity at the same time. "Under very trying circumstances, you have treated me with the tenderness and the sympathy which you might have shown to an old friend. The one return I can make for all that I owe to you is to admit you to my fullest confidence, and to leave you to judge for yourselves whether I deserve the treatment which I have received to-night."
Her eyes filled with tears. She paused to control herself. We both begged her to say no more. Her husband, joining us, added his entreaties to ours. She thanked us, but she persisted. Like most sensitively organized persons, she could be resolute when she believed that the occasion called for it.
"I have a few words more to say," she resumed, addressing my wife. "You are the only married woman who has come to our little dinner party. The marked absence of the other wives explains itself. It is not for me to say whether they are right or wrong in refusing to sit at our table. My dear husband—who knows my whole life as well as I know it myself—expressed the wish that we should invite these ladies. He wrongly supposed that his estimate of me would be the estimate accepted by his friends; and neither he nor I anticipated that the misfortunes of my past life would be revealed by some person acquainted with them, whose treachery we have yet to discover. The least I can do, by way of acknowledging your kindness, is to place you in the same position toward me which the other ladies now occupy. The circumstances under which I have become the wife of Mr. Germaine are, in some respects, very remarkable. They are related, without suppression or reserve, in a little narrative which my husband wrote, at the time of our marriage, for the satisfaction of one of his absent relatives, whose good opinion he was unwilling to forfeit. The manuscript is in this portfolio. After what has happened, I ask you both to read it, as a personal favor to me. It is for you to decide, when you know all, whether I am a fit person for an honest woman to associate with or not."
She held out her hand, with a sweet, sad smile, and bid us good night. My wife, in her impulsive way, forgot the formalities proper to the occasion, and kissed her at parting. At that one little act of sisterly sympathy, the fortitude which the poor creature had preserved all through the evening gave way in an instant. She burst into tears.
I felt as fond of her and as sorry for her as my wife. But (unfortunately) I could not take my wife's privilege of kissing her. On our way downstairs, I found the opportunity of saying a cheering word to her husband as he accompanied us to the door.
"Before I open this," I remarked, pointing to the portfolio under my arm, "my mind is made up, sir, about one thing. If I wasn't married already, I tell you this—I should envy you your wife."
He pointed to the portfolio in his turn.
"Read what I have written there," he said; "and you will understand what those false friends of mine have made me suffer to-night."
The next morning my wife and I opened the portfolio, and read the strange story of George Germaine's marriage.
GEORGE GERMAINE WRITES, AND TELLS HIS OWN LOVE STORY.
CHAPTER I. GREENWATER BROAD
LOOK back, my memory, through the dim labyrinth of the past, through the mingling joys and sorrows of twenty years. Rise again, my boyhood's days, by the winding green shores of the little lake. Come to me once more, my child-love, in the innocent beauty of your first ten years of life. Let us live again, my angel, as we lived in our first paradise, before sin and sorrow lifted their flaming swords and drove us out into the world.
The month was March. The last wild fowl of the season were floating on the waters of the lake which, in our Suffolk tongue, we called Greenwater Broad.
Wind where it might, the grassy banks and the overhanging trees tinged the lake with the soft green reflections from which it took its name. In a creek at the south end, the boats were kept—my own pretty sailing boat having a tiny natural harbor all to itself. In a creek at the north end stood the great trap (called a "decoy"), used for snaring the wild fowl which flocked every winter, by thousands and thousands, to Greenwater Broad.
My little Mary and I went out together, hand in hand, to see the last birds of the season lured into the decoy.
The outer part of the strange bird-trap rose from the waters of the lake in a series of circular arches, formed of elastic branches bent to the needed shape, and covered with folds of fine network, making the roof. Little by little diminishing in size, the arches and their net-work followed the secret windings of the creek inland to its end. Built back round the arches, on their landward side, ran a wooden paling, high enough to hide a man kneeling behind it from the view of the birds on the lake. At certain intervals a hole was broken in the paling just large enough to allow of the passage through it of a dog of the terrier or the spaniel breed. And there began and ended the simple yet sufficient mechanism of the decoy.
In those days I was thirteen, and Mary was ten years old. Walking on our way to the lake we had Mary's father with us for guide and companion. The good man served as bailiff on my father's estate. He was, besides, a skilled master in the art of decoying ducks. The dog that helped him (we used no tame ducks as decoys in Suffolk) was a little black terrier; a skilled master also, in his way; a creature who possessed, in equal proportions, the enviable advantages of perfect good-humor and perfect common sense.
The dog followed the bailiff, and we followed the dog.
Arrived at the paling which surrounded the decoy, the dog sat down to wait until he was wanted. The bailiff and the children crouched behind the paling, and peeped through the outermost dog-hole, which commanded a full view of the lake. It was a day without wind; not a ripple stirred the surface of the water; the soft gray clouds filled all the sky, and hid the sun from view.
We peeped through the hole in the paling. There were the wild ducks—collected within easy reach of the decoy—placidly dressing their feathers on the placid surface of the lake.
The bailiff looked at the dog, and made a sign. The dog looked at the bailiff; and, stepping forward quietly, passed through the hole, so as to show himself on the narrow strip of ground shelving down from the outer side of the paling to the lake.
First one duck, then another, then half a dozen together, discovered the dog.
A new object showing itself on the solitary scene instantly became an object of all-devouring curiosity to the ducks. The outermost of them began to swim slowly toward the strange four-footed creature, planted motionless on the bank. By twos and threes, the main body of the waterfowl gradually followed the advanced guard. Swimming nearer and nearer to the dog, the wary ducks suddenly came to a halt, and, poised on the water, viewed from a safe distance the phenomenon on the land.
The bailiff, kneeling behind the paling, whispered, "Trim!"
Hearing his name, the terrier turned about, and retiring through the hole, became lost to the view of the ducks. Motionless on the water, the wild fowl wondered and waited. In a minute more, the dog had trotted round, and had shown himself through the next hole in the paling, pierced further inward where the lake ran up into the outermost of the windings of the creek.
The second appearance of the terrier instantly produced a second fit of curiosity among the ducks. With one accord, they swam forward again, to get another and a nearer view of the dog; then, judging their safe distance once more, they stopped for the second time, under the outermost arch of the decoy. Again the dog vanished, and the puzzled ducks waited. An interval passed, and the third appearance of Trim took place, through a third hole in the paling, pierced further inland up the creek. For the third time irresistible curiosity urged the ducks to advance further and further inward, under the fatal arches of the decoy. A fourth and a fifth time the game went on, until the dog had lured the water-fowl from point to point into the inner recesses of the decoy. There a last appearance of Trim took place. A last advance, a last cautious pause, was made by the ducks. The bailiff touched the strings, the weighed net-work fell vertically into the water, and closed the decoy. There, by dozens and dozens, were the ducks, caught by means of their own curiosity—with nothing but a little dog for a bait! In a few hours afterward they were all dead ducks on their way to the London market.
As the last act in the curious comedy of the decoy came to its end, little Mary laid her hand on my shoulder, and, raising herself on tiptoe, whispered in my ear:
"George, come home with me. I have got something to show you that is better worth seeing than the ducks."
"What is it?"
"It's a surprise. I won't tell you."
"Will you give me a kiss?"
The charming little creature put her slim sun-burned arms round my neck, and answered:
"As many kisses as you like, George."
It was innocently said, on her side. It was innocently done, on mine. The good easy bailiff, looking aside at the moment from his ducks, discovered us pursuing our boy-and-girl courtship in each other's arms. He shook his big forefinger at us, with something of a sad and doubting smile.
"Ah, Master George, Master George!" he said. "When your father comes home, do you think he will approve of his son and heir kissing his bailiff's daughter?"
"When my father comes home," I answered, with great dignity, "I shall tell him the truth. I shall say I am going to marry your daughter."
The bailiff burst out laughing, and looked back again at his ducks.
"Well, well!" we heard him say to himself. "They're only children. There's no call, poor things, to part them yet awhile."
Mary and I had a great dislike to be called children. Properly understood, one of us was a lady aged ten, and the other was a gentleman aged thirteen. We left the good bailiff indignantly, and went away together, hand in hand, to the cottage.
CHAPTER II. TWO YOUNG HEARTS.
"HE is growing too fast," said the doctor to my mother; "and he is getting a great deal too clever for a boy at his age. Remove him from school, ma'am, for six months; let him run about in the open air at home; and if you find him with a book in his hand, take it away directly. There is my prescription."
Those words decided my fate in life.
In obedience to the doctor's advice, I was left an idle boy—without brothers, sisters, or companions of my own age—to roam about the grounds of our lonely country-house. The bailiff's daughter, like me, was an only child; and, like me, she had no playfellows. We met in our wanderings on the solitary shores of the lake. Beginning by being inseparable companions, we ripened and developed into true lovers. Our preliminary courtship concluded, we next proposed (before I returned to school) to burst into complete maturity by becoming man and wife.
I am not writing in jest. Absurd as it may appear to "sensible people," we two children were lovers, if ever there were lovers yet.
We had no pleasures apart from the one all-sufficient pleasure which we found in each other's society. We objected to the night, because it parted us. We entreated our parents, on either side, to let us sleep in the same room. I was angry with my mother, and Mary was disappointed in her father, when they laughed at us, and wondered what we should want next. Looking onward, from those days to the days of my manhood, I can vividly recall such hours of happiness as have fallen to my share. But I remember no delights of that later time comparable to the exquisite and enduring pleasure that filled my young being when I walked with Mary in the woods; when I sailed with Mary in my boat on the lake; when I met Mary, after the cruel separation of the night, and flew into her open arms as if we had been parted for months and months together.
What was the attraction that drew us so closely one to the other, at an age when the sexual sympathies lay dormant in her and in me?
We neither knew nor sought to know. We obeyed the impulse to love one another, as a bird obeys the impulse to fly.
Let it not be supposed that we possessed any natural gifts, or advantages which singled us out as differing in a marked way from other children at our time of life. We possessed nothing of the sort. I had been called a clever boy at school; but there were thousands of other boys, at thousands of other schools, who headed their classes and won their prizes, like me. Personally speaking, I was in no way remarkable—except for being, in the ordinary phrase, "tall for my age." On her side, Mary displayed no striking attractions. She was a fragile child, with mild gray eyes and a pale complexion; singularly undemonstrative, singularly shy and silent, except when she was alone with me. Such beauty as she had, in those early days, lay in a certain artless purity and tenderness of expression, and in the charming reddish-brown color of her hair, varying quaintly and prettily in different lights. To all outward appearance two perfectly commonplace children, we were mysteriously united by some kindred association of the spirit in her and the spirit in me, which not only defied discovery by our young selves, but which lay too deep for investigation by far older and far wiser heads than ours.
You will naturally wonder whether anything was done by our elders to check our precocious attachment, while it was still an innocent love union between a boy and a girl.
Nothing was done by my father, for the simple reason that he was away from home.
He was a man of a restless and speculative turn of mind. Inheriting his estate burdened with debt, his grand ambition was to increase his small available income by his own exertions; to set up an establishment in London; and to climb to political distinction by the ladder of Parliament. An old friend, who had emigrated to America, had proposed to him a speculation in agriculture, in one of the Western States, which was to make both their fortunes. My father's eccentric fancy was struck by the idea. For more than a year past he had been away from us in the United States; and all we knew of him (instructed by his letters) was, that he might be shortly expected to return to us in the enviable character of one of the richest men in England.
As for my poor mother—the sweetest and softest-hearted of women—to see me happy was all that she desired.
The quaint little love romance of the two children amused and interested her. She jested with Mary's father about the coming union between the two families, without one serious thought of the future—without even a foreboding of what might happen when my father returned. "Sufficient for the day is the evil (or the good) thereof," had been my mother's motto all her life. She agreed with the easy philosophy of the bailiff, already recorded in these pages: "They're only children. There's no call, poor things, to part them yet a while."
There was one member of the family, however, who took a sensible and serious view of the matter.
My father's brother paid us a visit in our solitude; discovered what was going on between Mary and me; and was, at first, naturally enough, inclined to laugh at us. Closer investigation altered his way of thinking. He became convinced that my mother was acting like a fool; that the bailiff (a faithful servant, if ever there was one yet) was cunningly advancing his own interests by means of his daughter; and that I was a young idiot, who had developed his native reserves of imbecility at an unusually early period of life. Speaking to my mother under the influence of these strong impressions, my uncle offered to take me back with him to London, and keep me there until I had been brought to my senses by association with his own children, and by careful superintendence under his own roof.
My mother hesitated about accepting this proposal; she had the advantage over my uncle of understanding my disposition. While she was still doubting, while my uncle was still impatiently waiting for her decision, I settled the question for my elders by running away.
I left a letter to represent me in my absence; declaring that no mortal power should part me from Mary, and promising to return and ask my mother's pardon as soon as my uncle had left the house. The strictest search was made for me without discovering a trace of my place of refuge. My uncle departed for London, predicting that I should live to be a disgrace to the family, and announcing that he should transmit his opinion of me to my father in America by the next mail.
The secret of the hiding-place in which I contrived to defy discovery is soon told. I was hidden (without the bailiff's knowledge) in the bedroom of the bailiff's mother. And did the bailiff's mother know it? you will ask. To which I answer: the bailiff's mother did it. And, what is more, gloried in doing it—not, observe, as an act of hostility to my relatives, but simply as a duty that lay on her conscience.
What sort of old woman, in the name of all that is wonderful, was this? Let her appear, and speak for herself—the wild and weird grandmother of gentle little Mary; the Sibyl of modern times, known, far and wide, in our part of Suffolk, as Dame Dermody.
I see her again, as I write, sitting in her son's pretty cottage parlor, hard by the window, so that the light fell over her shoulder while she knitted or read. A little, lean, wiry old woman was Dame Dermody—with fierce black eyes, surmounted by bushy white eyebrows, by a high wrinkled forehead, and by thick white hair gathered neatly under her old-fashioned "mob-cap." Report whispered (and whispered truly) that she had been a lady by birth and breeding, and that she had deliberately closed her prospects in life by marrying a man greatly her inferior in social rank. Whatever her family might think of her marriage, she herself never regretted it. In her estimation her husband's memory was a sacred memory; his spirit was a guardian spirit, watching over her, waking or sleeping, morning or night.
Holding this faith, she was in no respect influenced by those grossly material ideas of modern growth which associate the presence of spiritual beings with clumsy conjuring tricks and monkey antics performed on tables and chairs. Dame Dermody's nobler superstition formed an integral part of her religious convictions—convictions which had long since found their chosen resting-place in the mystic doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg. The only books which she read were the works of the Swedish Seer. She mixed up Swedenborg's teachings on angels and departed spirits, on love to one's neighbor and purity of life, with wild fancies, and kindred beliefs of her own; and preached the visionary religious doctrines thus derived, not only in the bailiff's household, but also on proselytizing expeditions to the households of her humble neighbors, far and near.
Under her son's roof—after the death of his wife—she reigned a supreme power; priding herself alike on her close attention to her domestic duties, and on her privileged communications with angels and spirits. She would hold long colloquys with the spirit of her dead husband before anybody who happened to be present—colloquys which struck the simple spectators mute with terror. To her mystic view, the love union between Mary and me was something too sacred and too beautiful to be tried by the mean and matter-of-fact tests set up by society. She wrote for us little formulas of prayer and praise, which we were to use when we met and when we parted, day by day. She solemnly warned her son to look upon us as two young consecrated creatures, walking unconsciously on a heavenly path of their own, whose beginning was on earth, but whose bright end was among the angels in a better state of being. Imagine my appearing before such a woman as this, and telling her with tears of despair that I was determined to die, rather than let my uncle part me from little Mary, and you will no longer be astonished at the hospitality which threw open to me the sanctuary of Dame Dermody's own room.
When the safe time came for leaving my hiding-place, I committed a serious mistake. In thanking the old woman at parting, I said to her (with a boy's sense of honor), "I won't tell upon you, Dame. My mother shan't know that you hid me in your bedroom."
The Sibyl laid her dry, fleshless hand on my shoulder, and forced me roughly back into the chair from which I had just risen.
"Boy!" she said, looking through and through me with her fierce black eyes. "Do you dare suppose that I ever did anything that I was ashamed of? Do you think I am ashamed of what I have done now? Wait there. Your mother may mistake me too. I shall write to your mother."
She put on her great round spectacles with tortoise-shell rims and sat down to her letter. Whenever her thoughts flagged, whenever she was at a loss for an expression, she looked over her shoulder, as if some visible creature were stationed behind her, watching what she wrote; consulted the spirit of her husband, exactly as she might have consulted a living man; smiled softly to herself, and went on with her writing.
"There!" she said, handing me the completed letter with an imperial gesture of indulgence. "His mind and my mind are written there. Go, boy. I pardon you. Give my letter to your mother."
So she always spoke, with the same formal and measured dignity of manner and language.
I gave the letter to my mother. We read it, and marveled over it together. Thus, counseled by the ever-present spirit of her husband, Dame Dermody wrote:
"MADAM—I have taken what you may be inclined to think a great liberty. I have assisted your son George in setting his uncle's authority at defiance. I have encouraged your son George in his resolution to be true, in time and in eternity, to my grandchild, Mary Dermody.
"It is due to you and to me that I should tell you with what motive I have acted in doing these things.
"I hold the belief that all love that is true is foreordained and consecrated in heaven. Spirits destined to be united in the better world are divinely commissioned to discover each other and to begin their union in this world. The only happy marriages are those in which the two destined spirits have succeeded in meeting one another in this sphere of life.
"When the kindred spirits have once met, no human power can really part them. Sooner or later, they must, by divine law, find each other again and become united spirits once more. Worldly wisdom may force them into widely different ways of life; worldly wisdom may delude them, or may make them delude themselves, into contracting an earthly and a fallible union. It matters nothing. The time will certainly come when that union will manifest itself as earthly and fallible; and the two disunited spirits, finding each other again, will become united here for the world beyond this—united, I tell you, in defiance of all human laws and of all human notions of right and wrong.
"This is my belief. I have proved it by my own life. Maid, wife, and widow, I have held to it, and I have found it good.
"I was born, madam, in the rank of society to which you belong. I received the mean, material teaching which fulfills the worldly notion of education. Thanks be to God, my kindred spirit met my spirit while I was still young. I knew true love and true union before I was twenty years of age. I married, madam, in the rank from which Christ chose his apostles—I married a laboring-man. No human language can tell my happiness while we lived united here. His death has not parted us. He helps me to write this letter. In my last hours I shall see him standing among the angels, waiting for me on the banks of the shining river.
"You will now understand the view I take of the tie which unites the young spirits of our children at the bright outset of their lives.
"Believe me, the thing which your husband's brother has proposed to you to do is a sacrilege and a profanation. I own to you freely that I look on what I have done toward thwarting your relative in this matter as an act of virtue. You cannot expect me to think it a serious obstacle to a union predestined in heaven, that your son is the squire's heir, and that my grandchild is only the bailiff's daughter. Dismiss from your mind, I implore you, the unworthy and unchristian prejudices of rank. Are we not all equal before God? Are we not all equal (even in this world) before disease and death? Not your son's happiness only, but your own peace of mind, is concerned in taking heed to my words. I warn you, madam, you cannot hinder the destined union of these two child-spirits, in after-years, as man and wife. Part them now—and YOU will be responsible for the sacrifices, degradations and distresses through which your George and my Mary may be condemned to pass on their way back to each other in later life.
"Now my mind is unburdened. Now I have said all.
"If I have spoken too freely, or have in any other way unwittingly offended, I ask your pardon, and remain, madam, your faithful servant and well-wisher, HELEN DERMODY."
So the letter ended.
To me it is something more than a mere curiosity of epistolary composition. I see in it the prophecy—strangely fulfilled in later years—of events in Mary's life, and in mine, which future pages are now to tell.
My mother decided on leaving the letter unanswered. Like many of her poorer neighbors, she was a little afraid of Dame Dermody; and she was, besides, habitually averse to all discussions which turned on the mysteries of spiritual life. I was reproved, admonished, and forgiven; and there was the end of it.
For some happy weeks Mary and I returned, without hinderance or interruption, to our old intimate companionship The end was coming, however, when we least expected it. My mother was startled, one morning, by a letter from my father, which informed her that he had been unexpectedly obliged to sail for England at a moment's notice; that he had arrived in London, and that he was detained there by business which would admit of no delay. We were to wait for him at home, in daily expectation of seeing him the moment he was free.
This news filled my mother's mind with foreboding doubts of the stability of her husband's grand speculation in America. The sudden departure from the United States, and the mysterious delay in London, were ominous, to her eyes, of misfortune to come. I am now writing of those dark days in the past, when the railway and the electric telegraph were still visions in the minds of inventors. Rapid communication with my father (even if he would have consented to take us into his confidence) was impossible. We had no choice but to wait and hope.
The weary days passed; and still my father's brief letters described him as detained by his business. The morning came when Mary and I went out with Dermody, the bailiff, to see the last wild fowl of the season lured into the decoy; and still the welcome home waited for the master, and waited in vain.
CHAPTER III. SWEDENBORG AND THE SIBYL.
MY narrative may move on again from the point at which it paused in the first chapter.
Mary and I (as you may remember) had left the bailiff alone at the decoy, and had set forth on our way together to Dermody's cottage.
As we approached the garden gate, I saw a servant from the house waiting there. He carried a message from my mother—a message for me.
"My mistress wishes you to go home, Master George, as soon as you can. A letter has come by the coach. My master means to take a post-chaise from London, and sends word that we may expect him in the course of the day."
Mary's attentive face saddened when she heard those words.
"Must you really go away, George," she whispered, "before you see what I have got waiting for you at home?"
I remembered Mary's promised "surprise," the secret of which was only to be revealed to me when we got to the cottage. How could I disappoint her? My poor little lady-love looked ready to cry at the bare prospect of it.
I dismissed the servant with a message of the temporizing sort. My love to my mother—and I would be back at the house in half an hour.
We entered the cottage.
Dame Dermody was sitting in the light of the window, as usual, with one of the mystic books of Emanuel Swedenborg open on her lap. She solemnly lifted her hand on our appearance, signing to us to occupy our customary corner without speaking to her. It was an act of domestic high treason to interrupt the Sibyl at her books. We crept quietly into our places. Mary waited until she saw her grandmother's gray head bend down, and her grandmother's bushy eyebrows contract attentively, over her reading. Then, and then only, the discreet child rose on tiptoe, disappeared noiselessly in the direction of her bedchamber, and came back to me carrying something carefully wrapped up in her best cambric handkerchief.
"Is that the surprise?" I whispered.
Mary whispered back: "Guess what it is?"
"Something for me?"
"Yes. Go on guessing. What is it?"
I guessed three times, and each guess was wrong. Mary decided on helping me by a hint.
"Say your letters," she suggested; "and go on till I stop you."
I began: "A, B, C, D, E, F—" There she stopped me.
"It's the name of a Thing," she said; "and it begins with F."
I guessed, "Fern," "Feather," "Fife." And here my resources failed me.
Mary sighed, and shook her head. "You don't take pains," she said. "You are three whole years older than I am. After all the trouble I have taken to please you, you may be too big to care for my present when you see it. Guess again."
"I can't guess."
"I give it up."
Mary refused to let me give it up. She helped me by another hint.
"What did you once say you wished you had in your boat?" she asked.
"Was it long ago?" I inquired, at a loss for an answer.
"Long, long ago! Before the winter. When the autumn leaves were falling, and you took me out one evening for a sail. Ah, George, you have forgotten!"
Too true, of me and of my brethren, old and young alike! It is always his love that forgets, and her love that remembers. We were only two children, and we were types of the man and the woman already.
Mary lost patience with me. Forgetting the terrible presence of her grandmother, she jumped up, and snatched the concealed object out of her handkerchief.
"There!" she cried, briskly, "now do you know what it is?"
I remembered at last. The thing I had wished for in my boat, all those months ago, was a new flag. And here was the flag, made for me in secret by Mary's own hand! The ground was green silk, with a dove embroidered on it in white, carrying in its beak the typical olive-branch, wrought in gold thread. The work was the tremulous, uncertain work of a child's fingers. But how faithfully my little darling had remembered my wish! how patiently she had plied the needle over the traced lines of the pattern! how industriously she had labored through the dreary winter days! and all for my sake! What words could tell my pride, my gratitude, my happiness?
I too forgot the presence of the Sibyl bending over her book. I took the little workwoman in my arms, and kissed her till I was fairly out of breath and could kiss no longer.
"Mary!" I burst out, in the first heat of my enthusiasm, "my father is coming home to-day. I will speak to him to-night. And I will marry you to-morrow!"
"Boy!" said the awful voice at the other end of the room. "Come here."
Dame Dermody's mystic book was closed; Dame Dermody's weird black eyes were watching us in our corner. I approached her; and Mary followed me timidly, by a footstep at a time.
The Sibyl took me by the hand, with a caressing gentleness which was new in my experience of her.
"Do you prize that toy?" she inquired, looking at the flag. "Hide it!" she cried, before I could answer. "Hide it—or it may be taken from you!"
"Why should I hide it?" I asked. "I want to fly it at the mast of my boat."
"You will never fly it at the mast of your boat!" With that answer she took the flag from me and thrust it impatiently into the breast-pocket of my jacket.
"Don't crumple it, grandmother!" said Mary, piteously.
I repeated my question:
"Why shall I never fly it at the mast of my boat?"
Dame Dermody laid her hand on the closed volume of Swedenborg lying in her lap.
"Three times I have opened this book since the morning," she said. "Three times the words of the prophet warn me that there is trouble coming. Children, it is trouble that is coming to You. I look there," she went on, pointing to the place where a ray of sunlight poured slanting into the room, "and I see my husband in the heavenly light. He bows his head in grief, and he points his unerring hand at You. George and Mary, you are consecrated to each other! Be always worthy of your consecration; be always worthy of yourselves." She paused. Her voice faltered. She looked at us with softening eyes, as those look who know sadly that there is a parting at hand. "Kneel!" she said, in low tones of awe and grief. "It may be the last time I bless you—it may be the last time I pray over you, in this house. Kneel!"
We knelt close together at her feet. I could feel Mary's heart throbbing, as she pressed nearer and nearer to my side. I could feel my own heart quickening its beat, with a fear that was a mystery to me.
"God bless and keep George and Mary, here and hereafter! God prosper, in future days, the union which God's wisdom has willed! Amen. So be it. Amen."
As the last words fell from her lips the cottage door was thrust open. My father—followed by the bailiff—entered the room.
Dame Dermody got slowly on her feet, and looked at him with a stern scrutiny.
"It has come," she said to herself. "It looks with the eyes—it will speak with the voice—of that man."
My father broke the silence that followed, addressing himself to the bailiff.
"You see, Dermody," he said, "here is my son in your cottage—when he ought to be in my house." He turned, and looked at me as I stood with my arm round little Mary, patiently waiting for my opportunity to speak. "George," he said, with the hard smile which was peculiar to him, when he was angry and was trying to hide it, "you are making a fool of yourself there. Leave that child, and come to me."
Now, or never, was my time to declare myself. Judging by appearances, I was still a boy. Judging by my own sensations, I had developed into a man at a moment's notice.
"Papa," I said, "I am glad to see you home again. This is Mary Dermody. I am in love with her, and she is in love with me. I wish to marry her as soon as it is convenient to my mother and you."
My father burst out laughing. Before I could speak again, his humor changed. He had observed that Dermody, too, presumed to be amused. He seemed to become mad with anger, all in a moment.
"I have been told of this infernal tomfoolery," he said, "but I didn't believe it till now. Who has turned the boy's weak head? Who has encouraged him to stand there hugging that girl? If it's you, Dermody, it shall be the worst day's work you ever did in your life." He turned to me again, before the bailiff could defend himself. "Do you hear what I say? I tell you to leave Dermody's girl, and come home with me."
"Yes, papa," I answered. "But I must go back to Mary, if you please, after I have been with you."
Angry as he was, my father was positively staggered by my audacity.
"You young idiot, your insolence exceeds belief!" he burst out. "I tell you this: you will never darken these doors again! You have been taught to disobey me here. You have had things put into your head, here, which no boy of your age ought to know—I'll say more, which no decent people would have let you know."
"I beg your pardon, sir," Dermody interposed, very respectfully and very firmly at the same time. "There are many things which a master in a hot temper is privileged to say to the man who serves him. But you have gone beyond your privilege. You have shamed me, sir, in the presence of my mother, in the hearing of my child—"
My father checked him there.
"You may spare the rest of it," he said. "We are master and servant no longer. When my son came hanging about your cottage, and playing at sweethearts with your girl there, your duty was to close the door on him. You have failed in your duty. I trust you no longer. Take a month's notice, Dermody. You leave my service."
The bailiff steadily met my father on his ground. He was no longer the easy, sweet-tempered, modest man who was the man of my remembrance.
"I beg to decline taking your month's notice, sir," he answered. "You shall have no opportunity of repeating what you have just said to me. I will send in my accounts to-night. And I will leave your service to-morrow."
"We agree for once," retorted my father. "The sooner you go, the better."
He stepped across the room and put his hand on my shoulder.
"Listen to me," he said, making a last effort to control himself. "I don't want to quarrel with you before a discarded servant. There must be an end to this nonsense. Leave these people to pack up and go, and come back to the house with me."
His heavy hand, pressing on my shoulder, seemed to press the spirit of resistance out of me. I so far gave way as to try to melt him by entreaties.
"Oh, papa! papa!" I cried. "Don't part me from Mary! See how pretty and good she is! She has made me a flag for my boat. Let me come here and see her sometimes. I can't live without her."
I could say no more. My poor little Mary burst out crying. Her tears and my entreaties were alike wasted on my father.
"Take your choice," he said, "between coming away of your own accord, or obliging me to take you away by force. I mean to part you and Dermody's girl."
"Neither you nor any man can part them," interposed a voice, speaking behind us. "Rid your mind of that notion, master, before it is too late."
My father looked round quickly, and discovered Dame Dermody facing him in the full light of the window. She had stepped back, at the outset of the dispute, into the corner behind the fireplace. There she had remained, biding her time to speak, until my father's last threat brought her out of her place of retirement.
They looked at each other for a moment. My father seemed to think it beneath his dignity to answer her. He went on with what he had to say to me.
"I shall count three slowly," he resumed. "Before I get to the last number, make up your mind to do what I tell you, or submit to the disgrace of being taken away by force."
"Take him where you may," said Dame Dermody, "he will still be on his way to his marriage with my grandchild."
"And where shall I be, if you please?" asked my father, stung into speaking to her this time.
The answer followed instantly in these startling words:
"You will be on your way to your ruin and your death."
My father turned his back on the prophetess with a smile of contempt.
"One!" he said, beginning to count.
I set my teeth, and clasped both arms round Mary as he spoke. I had inherited some of his temper, and he was now to know it.
"Two!" proceeded my father, after waiting a little.
Mary put her trembling lips to my ear, and whispered: "Let me go, George! I can't bear to see it. Oh, look how he frowns! I know he'll hurt you."
My father lifted his forefinger as a preliminary warning before he counted Three.
"Stop!" cried Dame Dermody.
My father looked round at her again with sardonic astonishment.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am—have you anything particular to say to me?" he asked.
"Man!" returned the Sibyl, "you speak lightly. Have I spoken lightly to You? I warn you to bow your wicked will before a Will that is mightier than yours. The spirits of these children are kindred spirits. For time and for eternity they are united one to the other. Put land and sea between them—they will still be together; they will communicate in visions, they will be revealed to each other in dreams. Bind them by worldly ties; wed your son, in the time to come, to another woman, and my grand-daughter to another man. In vain! I tell you, in vain! You may doom them to misery, you may drive them to sin—the day of their union on earth is still a day predestined in heaven. It will come! it will come! Submit, while the time for submission is yours. You are a doomed man. I see the shadow of disaster, I see the seal of death, on your face. Go; and leave these consecrated ones to walk the dark ways of the world together, in the strength of their innocence, in the light of their love. Go—and God forgive you!" In spite of himself, my father was struck by the irresistible strength of conviction which inspired those words. The bailiff's mother had impressed him as a tragic actress might have impressed him on the stage. She had checked the mocking answer on his lips, but she had not shaken his iron will. His face was as hard as ever when he turned my way once more.
"The last chance, George," he said, and counted the last number: "Three!"
I neither moved nor answered him.
"You will have it?" he said, as he fastened his hold on my arm.
I fastened my hold on Mary; I whispered to her, "I won't leave you!" She seemed not to hear me. She trembled from head to foot in my arms. A faint cry of terror fluttered from her lips. Dermody instantly stepped forward. Before my father could wrench me away from her, he had said in my ear, "You can give her to me, Master George," and had released his child from my embrace. She stretched her little frail hands out yearningly to me, as she lay in Dermody's arms. "Good-by, dear," she said, faintly. I saw her head sink on her father's bosom as I was dragged to the door. In my helpless rage and misery, I struggled against the cruel hands that had got me with all the strength I had left. I cried out to her, "I love you, Mary! I will come back to you, Mary! I will never marry any one but you!" Step by step, I was forced further and further away. The last I saw of her, my darling's head was still resting on Dermody's breast. Her grandmother stood near, and shook her withered hands at my father, and shrieked her terrible prophecy, in the hysteric frenzy that possessed her when she saw the separation accomplished. "Go!—you go to your ruin! you go to your death!" While her voice still rang in my ears, the cottage door was opened and closed again. It was all over. The modest world of my boyish love and my boyish joy disappeared like the vision of a dream. The empty outer wilderness, which was my father's world, opened before me void of love and void of joy. God forgive me—how I hated him at that moment!
CHAPTER IV. THE CURTAIN FALLS.
FOR the rest of the day, and through the night, I was kept a close prisoner in my room, watched by a man on whose fidelity my father could depend.
The next morning I made an effort to escape, and was discovered before I had got free of the house. Confined again to my room, I contrived to write to Mary, and to slip my note into the willing hand of the housemaid who attended on me. Useless! The vigilance of my guardian was not to be evaded. The woman was suspected and followed, and the letter was taken from her. My father tore it up with his own hands.
Later in the day, my mother was permitted to see me.
She was quite unfit, poor soul, to intercede for me, or to serve my interests in any way. My father had completely overwhelmed her by announcing that his wife and his son were to accompany him, when he returned to America.
"Every farthing he has in the world," said my mother, "is to be thrown into that hateful speculation. He has raised money in London; he has let the house to some rich tradesman for seven years; he has sold the plate, and the jewels that came to me from his mother. The land in America swallows it all up. We have no home, George, and no choice but to go with him."
An hour afterward the post-chaise was at the door.
My father himself took me to the carriage. I broke away from him, with a desperation which not even his resolution could resist. I ran, I flew, along the path that led to Dermody's cottage. The door stood open; the parlor was empty. I went into the kitchen; I went into the upper rooms. Solitude everywhere. The bailiff had left the place; and his mother and his daughter had gone with him. No friend or neighbor lingered near with a message; no letter lay waiting for me; no hint was left to tell me in what direction they had taken their departure. After the insulting words which his master had spoken to him, Dermody's pride was concerned in leaving no trace of his whereabouts; my father might consider it as a trace purposely left with the object of reuniting Mary and me. I had no keepsake to speak to me of my lost darling but the flag which she had embroidered with her own hand. The furniture still remained in the cottage. I sat down in our customary corner, by Mary's empty chair, and looked again at the pretty green flag, and burst out crying.
A light touch roused me. My father had so far yielded as to leave to my mother the responsibility of bringing me back to the traveling carriage.
"We shall not find Mary here, George," she said, gently. "And we may hear of her in London. Come with me."
I rose and silently gave her my hand. Something low down on the clean white door-post caught my eye as we passed it. I stooped, and discovered some writing in pencil. I looked closer—it was writing in Mary's hand! The unformed childish characters traced these last words of farewell:
"Good-by, dear. Don't forget Mary."
I knelt down and kissed the writing. It comforted me—it was like a farewell touch from Mary's hand. I followed my mother quietly to the carriage.
Late that night we were in London.
My good mother did all that the most compassionate kindness could do (in her position) to comfort me. She privately wrote to the solicitors employed by her family, inclosing a description of Dermody and his mother and daughter and directing inquiries to be made at the various coach-offices in London. She also referred the lawyers to two of Dermody's relatives, who lived in the city, and who might know something of his movements after he left my father's service. When she had done this, she had done all that lay in her power. We neither of us possessed money enough to advertise in the newspapers.
A week afterward we sailed for the United States. Twice in that interval I communicated with the lawyers; and twice I was informed that the inquiries had led to nothing.
With this the first epoch in my love story comes to an end.
For ten long years afterward I never again met with my little Mary; I never even heard whether she had lived to grow to womanhood or not. I still kept the green flag, with the dove worked on it. For the rest, the waters of oblivion had closed over the old golden days at Greenwater Broad.
CHAPTER V. MY STORY.
WHEN YOU last saw me, I was a boy of thirteen. You now see me a man of twenty-three.
The story of my life, in the interval between these two ages, is a story that can be soon told.
Speaking of my father first, I have to record that the end of his career did indeed come as Dame Dermody had foretold it. Before we had been a year in America, the total collapse of his land speculation was followed by his death. The catastrophe was complete. But for my mother's little income (settled on her at her marriage) we should both have been left helpless at the mercy of the world.
We made some kind friends among the hearty and hospitable people of the United States, whom we were unaffectedly sorry to leave. But there were reasons which inclined us to return to our own country after my father's death; and we did return accordingly.
Besides her brother-in-law (already mentioned in the earlier pages of my narrative), my mother had another relative—a cousin named Germaine—on whose assistance she mainly relied for starting me, when the time came, in a professional career. I remember it as a family rumor, that Mr. Germaine had been an unsuccessful suitor for my mother's hand in the days when they were young people together. He was still a bachelor at the later period when his eldest brother's death without issue placed him in possession of a handsome fortune. The accession of wealth made no difference in his habits of life: he was a lonely old man, estranged from his other relatives, when my mother and I returned to England. If I could only succeed in pleasing Mr. Germaine, I might consider my prospects (in some degree, at least) as being prospects assured.
This was one consideration that influenced us in leaving America. There was another—in which I was especially interested—that drew me back to the lonely shores of Greenwater Broad.
My only hope of recovering a trace of Mary was to make inquiries among the cottagers in the neighborhood of my old home. The good bailiff had been heartily liked and respected in his little sphere. It seemed at least possible that some among his many friends in Suffolk might have discovered traces of him, in the year that had passed since I had left England. In my dreams of Mary—and I dreamed of her constantly—the lake and its woody banks formed a frequent background in the visionary picture of my lost companion. To the lake shores I looked, with a natural superstition, as to my way back to the one life that had its promise of happiness for me—my life with Mary.
On our arrival in London, I started for Suffolk alone—at my mother's request. At her age she naturally shrank from revisiting the home scenes now occupied by the strangers to whom our house had been let.
Ah, how my heart ached (young as I was) when I saw the familiar green waters of the lake once more! It was evening. The first object that caught my eye was the gayly painted boat, once mine, in which Mary and I had so often sailed together. The people in possession of our house were sailing now. The sound of their laughter floated toward me merrily over the still water. Their flag flew at the little mast-head, from which Mary's flag had never fluttered in the pleasant breeze. I turned my eyes from the boat; it hurt me to look at it. A few steps onward brought me to a promontory on the shore, and revealed the brown archways of the decoy on the opposite bank. There was the paling behind which we had knelt to watch the snaring of the ducks; there was the hole through which "Trim," the terrier, had shown himself to rouse the stupid curiosity of the water-fowl; there, seen at intervals through the trees, was the winding woodland path along which Mary and I had traced our way to Dermody's cottage on the day when my father's cruel hand had torn us from each other. How wisely my good mother had shrunk from looking again at the dear old scenes! I turned my back on the lake, to think with calmer thoughts in the shadowy solitude of the woods.
An hour's walk along the winding banks brought me round to the cottage which had once been Mary's home.
The door was opened by a woman who was a stranger to me. She civilly asked me to enter the parlor. I had suffered enough already; I made my inquiries, standing on the doorstep. They were soon at an end. The woman was a stranger in our part of Suffolk; neither she nor her husband had ever heard of Dermody's name.
I pursued my investigations among the peasantry, passing from cottage to cottage. The twilight came; the moon rose; the lights began to vanish from the lattice-windows; and still I continued my weary pilgrimage; and still, go where I might, the answer to my questions was the same. Nobody knew anything of Dermody. Everybody asked if I had not brought news of him myself. It pains me even now to recall the cruelly complete defeat of every effort which I made on that disastrous evening. I passed the night in one of the cottages; and I returned to London the next day, broken by disappointment, careless what I did, or where I went next.
Still, we were not wholly parted. I saw Mary—as Dame Dermody said I should see her—in dreams.
Sometimes she came to me with the green flag in her hand, and repeated her farewell words—"Don't forget Mary!" Sometimes she led me to our well-remembered corner in the cottage parlor, and opened the paper on which her grandmother had written our prayers for us. We prayed together again, and sung hymns together again, as if the old times had come back. Once she appeared to me, with tears in her eyes, and said, "We must wait, dear: our time has not come yet." Twice I saw her looking at me, like one disturbed by anxious thoughts; and twice I heard her say, "Live patiently, live innocently, George, for my sake."
We settled in London, where my education was undertaken by a private tutor. Before we had been long in our new abode, an unexpected change in our prospects took place. To my mother's astonishment she received an offer of marriage (addressed to her in a letter) from Mr. Germaine.
"I entreat you not to be startled by my proposal!" (the old gentleman wrote). "You can hardly have forgotten that I was once fond of you, in the days when we were both young and both poor. No return to the feelings associated with that time is possible now. At my age, all I ask of you is to be the companion of the closing years of my life, and to give me something of a father's interest in promoting the future welfare of your son. Consider this, my dear, and tell me whether you will take the empty chair at an old man's lonely fireside."
My mother (looking almost as confused, poor soul! as if she had become a young girl again) left the whole responsibility of decision on the shoulders of her son! I was not long in making up my mind. If she said Yes, she would accept the hand of a man of worth and honor, who had been throughout his whole life devoted to her; and she would recover the comfort, the luxury, the social prosperity and position of which my father's reckless course of life had deprived her. Add to this, that I liked Mr. Germaine, and that Mr. Germaine liked me. Under these circumstances, why should my mother say No? She could produce no satisfactory answer to that question when I put it. As the necessary consequence, she became, in due course of time, Mrs. Germaine.
I have only to add that, to the end of her life, my good mother congratulated herself (in this case at least) on having taken her son's advice.
The years went on, and still Mary and I were parted, except in my dreams. The years went on, until the perilous time which comes in every man's life came in mine. I reached the age when the strongest of all the passions seizes on the senses, and asserts its mastery over mind and body alike.
I had hitherto passively endured the wreck of my earliest and dearest hopes: I had lived patiently, and lived innocently, for Mary's sake. Now my patience left me; my innocence was numbered among the lost things of the past. My days, it is true, were still devoted to the tasks set me by my tutor; but my nights were given, in secret, to a reckless profligacy, which (in my present frame of mind) I look back on with disgust and dismay. I profaned my remembrances of Mary in the company of women who had reached the lowest depths of degradation. I impiously said to myself: "I have hoped for her long enough; I have waited for her long enough. The one thing now to do is to enjoy my youth and to forget her."
From the moment when I dropped into this degradation, I might sometimes think regretfully of Mary—at the morning time, when penitent thoughts mostly come to us; but I ceased absolutely to see her in my dreams. We were now, in the completest sense of the word, parted. Mary's pure spirit could hold no communion with mine; Mary's pure spirit had left me.
It is needless to say that I failed to keep the secret of my depravity from the knowledge of my mother. The sight of her grief was the first influence that sobered me. In some degree at least I restrained myself: I made the effort to return to purer ways of life. Mr. Germaine, though I had disappointed him, was too just a man to give me up as lost. He advised me, as a means of self-reform, to make my choice of a profession, and to absorb myself in closer studies than any that I had yet pursued.
I made my peace with this good friend and second father, not only by following his advice, but by adopting the profession to which he had been himself attached before he inherited his fortune—the profession of medicine. Mr. Germaine had been a surgeon: I resolved on being a surgeon too.
Having entered, at rather an earlier age than usual, on my new way of life, I may at least say for myself that I worked hard. I won, and kept, the interest of the professors under whom I studied. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that my reformation was, morally speaking, far from being complete. I worked; but what I did was done selfishly, bitterly, with a hard heart. In religion and morals I adopted the views of a materialist companion of my studies—a worn-out man of more than double my age. I believed in nothing but what I could see, or taste, or feel. I lost all faith in humanity. With the one exception of my mother, I had no respect for women. My remembrances of Mary deteriorated until they became little more than a lost link of association with the past. I still preserved the green flag as a matter of habit; but it was no longer kept about me; it was left undisturbed in a drawer of my writing-desk. Now and then a wholesome doubt, whether my life was not utterly unworthy of me, would rise in my mind. But it held no long possession of my thoughts. Despising others, it was in the logical order of things that I should follow my conclusions to their bitter end, and consistently despise myself.
The term of my majority arrived. I was twenty-one years old; and of the illusions of my youth not a vestige remained.
Neither my mother nor Mr. Germaine could make any positive complaint of my conduct. But they were both thoroughly uneasy about me. After anxious consideration, my step-father arrived at a conclusion. He decided that the one chance of restoring me to my better and brighter self was to try the stimulant of a life among new people and new scenes.
At the period of which I am now writing, the home government had decided on sending a special diplomatic mission to one of the native princes ruling over a remote province of our Indian empire. In the disturbed state of the province at that time, the mission, on its arrival in India, was to be accompanied to the prince's court by an escort, including the military as well as the civil servants of the crown. The surgeon appointed to sail with the expedition from England was an old friend of Mr. Germaine's, and was in want of an assistant on whose capacity he could rely. Through my stepfather's interest, the post was offered to me. I accepted it without hesitation. My only pride left was the miserable pride of indifference. So long as I pursued my profession, the place in which I pursued it was a matter of no importance to my mind.
It was long before we could persuade my mother even to contemplate the new prospect now set before me. When she did at length give way, she yielded most unwillingly. I confess I left her with the tears in my eyes—the first I had shed for many a long year past.
The history of our expedition is part of the history of British India. It has no place in this narrative.
Speaking personally, I have to record that I was rendered incapable of performing my professional duties in less than a week from the time when the mission reached its destination. We were encamped outside the city; and an attack was made on us, under cover of darkness, by the fanatical natives. The attempt was defeated with little difficulty, and with only a trifling loss on our side. I was among the wounded, having been struck by a javelin, or spear, while I was passing from one tent to another.
Inflicted by a European weapon, my injury would have been of no serious consequence. But the tip of the Indian spear had been poisoned. I escaped the mortal danger of lockjaw; but, through some peculiarity in the action of the poison on my constitution (which I am quite unable to explain), the wound obstinately refused to heal.
I was invalided and sent to Calcutta, where the best surgical help was at my disposal. To all appearance, the wound healed there—then broke out again. Twice this happened; and the medical men agreed that the best course to take would be to send me home. They calculated on the invigorating effect of the sea voyage, and, failing this, on the salutary influence of my native air. In the Indian climate I was pronounced incurable.
Two days before the ship sailed a letter from my mother brought me startling news. My life to come—if I had a life to come—had been turned into a new channel. Mr. Germaine had died suddenly, of heart-disease. His will, bearing date at the time when I left England, bequeathed an income for life to my mother, and left the bulk of his property to me, on the one condition that I adopted his name. I accepted the condition, of course, and became George Germaine.
Three months later, my mother and I were restored to each other.
Except that I still had some trouble with my wound, behold me now to all appearance one of the most enviable of existing mortals; promoted to the position of a wealthy gentleman; possessor of a house in London and of a country-seat in Perthshire; and, nevertheless, at twenty-three years of age, one of the most miserable men living!
In the ten years that had now passed over, what had become of Mary?
You have heard my story. Read the few pages that follow, and you will hear hers.
CHAPTER VI. HER STORY.
WHAT I have now to tell you of Mary is derived from information obtained at a date in my life later by many years than any date of which I have written yet. Be pleased to remember this.
Dermody, the bailiff, possessed relatives in London, of whom he occasionally spoke, and relatives in Scotland, whom he never mentioned. My father had a strong prejudice against the Scotch nation. Dermody knew his master well enough to be aware that the prejudice might extend to him, if he spoke of his Scotch kindred. He was a discreet man, and he never mentioned them.
On leaving my father's service, he had made his way, partly by land and partly by sea, to Glasgow—in which city his friends resided. With his character and his experience, Dermody was a man in a thousand to any master who was lucky enough to discover him. His friends bestirred themselves. In six weeks' time he was placed in charge of a gentleman's estate on the eastern coast of Scotland, and was comfortably established with his mother and his daughter in a new home.
The insulting language which my father had addressed to him had sunk deep in Dermody's mind. He wrote privately to his relatives in London, telling them that he had found a new situation which suited him, and that he had his reasons for not at present mentioning his address. In this way he baffled the inquiries which my mother's lawyers (failing to discover a trace of him in other directions) addressed to his London friends. Stung by his old master's reproaches, he sacrificed his daughter and he sacrificed me—partly to his own sense of self-respect, partly to his conviction that the difference between us in rank made it his duty to check all further intercourse before it was too late.
Buried in their retirement in a remote part of Scotland, the little household lived, lost to me, and lost to the world.
In dreams, I had seen and heard Mary. In dreams, Mary saw and heard me. The innocent longings and wishes which filled my heart while I was still a boy were revealed to her in the mystery of sleep. Her grandmother, holding firmly to her faith in the predestined union between us, sustained the girl's courage and cheered her heart. She could hear her father say (as my father had said) that we were parted to meet no more, and could privately think of her happy dreams as the sufficient promise of another future than the future which Dermody contemplated. So she still lived with me in the spirit—and lived in hope.
The first affliction that befell the little household was the death of the grandmother, by the exhaustion of extreme old age. In her last conscious moments, she said to Mary, "Never forget that you and George are spirits consecrated to each other. Wait—in the certain knowledge that no human power can hinder your union in the time to come."
While those words were still vividly present to Mary's mind, our visionary union by dreams was abruptly broken on her side, as it had been abruptly broken on mine. In the first days of my self-degradation, I had ceased to see Mary. Exactly at the same period Mary ceased to see me.
The girl's sensitive nature sunk under the shock. She had now no elder woman to comfort and advise her; she lived alone with her father, who invariably changed the subject whenever she spoke of the old times. The secret sorrow that preys on body and mind alike preyed on her. A cold, caught at the inclement season, turned to fever. For weeks she was in danger of death. When she recovered, her head had been stripped of its beautiful hair by the doctor's order. The sacrifice had been necessary to save her life. It proved to be, in one respect, a cruel sacrifice—her hair never grew plentifully again. When it did reappear, it had completely lost its charming mingled hues of deep red and brown; it was now of one monotonous light-brown color throughout. At first sight, Mary's Scotch friends hardly knew her again.
But Nature made amends for what the head had lost by what the face and the figure gained.
In a year from the date of her illness, the frail little child of the old days at Greenwater Broad had ripened, in the bracing Scotch air and the healthy mode of life, into a comely young woman. Her features were still, as in her early years, not regularly beautiful; but the change in her was not the less marked on that account. The wan face had filled out, and the pale complexion had found its color. As to her figure, its remarkable development was perceived even by the rough people about her. Promising nothing when she was a child, it had now sprung into womanly fullness, symmetry, and grace. It was a strikingly beautiful figure, in the strictest sense of the word.
Morally as well as physically, there were moments, at this period of their lives, when even her own father hardly recognized his daughter of former days. She had lost her childish vivacity—her sweet, equable flow of good humor. Silent and self-absorbed, she went through the daily routine of her duties enduringly. The hope of meeting me again had sunk to a dead hope in her by this time. She made no complaint. The bodily strength that she had gained in these later days had its sympathetic influence in steadying her mind. When her father once or twice ventured to ask if she was still thinking of me, she answered quietly that she had brought herself to share his opinions. She could not doubt that I had long since ceased to think of her. Even if I had remained faithful to her, she was old enough now to know that the difference between us in rank made our union by marriage an impossibility. It would be best (she thought) not to refer any more to the past, best to forget me, as I had forgotten her. So she spoke now. So, tried by the test of appearances, Dame Dermody's confident forecast of our destinies had failed to justify itself, and had taken its place among the predictions that are never fulfilled.
The next notable event in the family annals which followed Mary's illness happened when she had attained the age of nineteen years. Even at this distance of time my heart sinks, my courage fails me, at the critical stage in my narrative which I have now reached.
A storm of unusual severity burst over the eastern coast of Scotland. Among the ships that were lost in the tempest was a vessel bound from Holland, which was wrecked on the rocky shore near Dermody's place of abode. Leading the way in all good actions, the bailiff led the way in rescuing the passengers and crew of the lost ship. He had brought one man alive to land, and was on his way back to the vessel, when two heavy seas, following in close succession, dashed him against the rocks. He was rescued, at the risk of their own lives, by his neighbors. The medical examination disclosed a broken bone and severe bruises and lacerations. So far, Dermody's sufferings were easy of relief. But, after a lapse of time, symptoms appeared in the patient which revealed to his medical attendant the presence of serious internal injury. In the doctor's opinion, he could never hope to resume the active habits of his life. He would be an invalid and a crippled man for the rest of his days.
Under these melancholy circumstances, the bailiff's employer did all that could be strictly expected of him, He hired an assistant to undertake the supervision of the farm work, and he permitted Dermody to occupy his cottage for the next three months. This concession gave the poor man time to recover such relics of strength as were still left to him, and to consult his friends in Glasgow on the doubtful question of his life to come.
The prospect was a serious one. Dermody was quite unfit for any sedentary employment; and the little money that he had saved was not enough to support his daughter and himself. The Scotch friends were willing and kind; but they had domestic claims on them, and they had no money to spare.
In this emergency, the passenger in the wrecked vessel (whose life Dermody had saved) came forward with a proposal which took father and daughter alike by surprise. He made Mary an offer of marriage; on the express understanding (if she accepted him) that her home was to be her father's home also to the end of his life.
The person who thus associated himself with the Dermodys in the time of their trouble was a Dutch gentleman, named Ernest Van Brandt. He possessed a share in a fishing establishment on the shores of the Zuyder Zee; and he was on his way to establish a correspondence with the fisheries in the North of Scotland when the vessel was wrecked. Mary had produced a strong impression on him when they first met. He had lingered in the neighborhood, in the hope of gaining her favorable regard, with time to help him. Personally he was a handsome man, in the prime of life; and he was possessed of a sufficient income to marry on. In making his proposal, he produced references to persons of high social position in Holland, who could answer for him, so far as the questions of character and position were concerned.
Mary was long in considering which course it would be best for her helpless father, and best for herself, to adopt.
The hope of a marriage with me had been a hope abandoned by her years since. No woman looks forward willingly to a life of cheerless celibacy. In thinking of her future, Mary naturally thought of herself in the character of a wife. Could she fairly expect in the time to come to receive any more attractive proposal than the proposal now addressed to her? Mr. Van Brandt had every personal advantage that a woman could desire; he was devotedly in love with her; and he felt a grateful affection for her father as the man to whom he owed his life. With no other hope in her heart—with no other prospect in view—what could she do better than marry Mr. Van Brandt?
Influenced by these considerations, she decided on speaking the fatal word. She said, "Yes."
At the same time, she spoke plainly to Mr. Van Brandt, unreservedly acknowledging that she had contemplated another future than the future now set before her. She did not conceal that there had once been an old love in her heart, and that a new love was more than she could command. Esteem, gratitude, and regard she could honestly offer; and, with time, love might come. For the rest, she had long since disassociated herself from the past, and had definitely given up all the hopes and wishes once connected with it. Repose for her father, and tranquil happiness for herself, were the only favors that she asked of fortune now. These she might find under the roof of an honorable man who loved and respected her. She could promise, on her side, to make him a good and faithful wife, if she could promise no more. It rested with Mr. Van Brandt to say whether he really believed that he would be consulting his own happiness in marrying her on these terms.
Mr. Van Brandt accepted the terms without a moment's hesitation.
They would have been married immediately but for an alarming change for the worse in the condition of Dermody's health. Symptoms showed themselves, which the doctor confessed that he had not anticipated when he had given his opinion on the case. He warned Mary that the end might be near. A physician was summoned from Edinburgh, at Mr. Van Brandt's expense. He confirmed the opinion entertained by the country doctor. For some days longer the good bailiff lingered. On the last morning, he put his daughter's hand in Van Brandt's hand. "Make her happy, sir," he said, in his simple way, "and you will be even with me for saving your life." The same day he died quietly in his daughter's arms.
Mary's future was now entirely in her lover's hands. The relatives in Glasgow had daughters of their own to provide for. The relatives in London resented Dermody's neglect of them. Van Brandt waited, delicately and considerately, until the first violence of the girl's grief had worn itself out, and then he pleaded irresistibly for a husband's claim to console her.
The time at which they were married in Scotland was also the time at which I was on my way home from India. Mary had then reached the age of twenty years.
The story of our ten years' separation is now told; the narrative leaves us at the outset of our new lives.
I am with my mother, beginning my career as a country gentleman on the estate in Perthshire which I have inherited from Mr. Germaine. Mary is with her husband, enjoying her new privileges, learning her new duties, as a wife. She, too, is living in Scotland—living, by a strange fatality, not very far distant from my country-house. I have no suspicion that she is so near to me: the name of Mrs. Van Brandt (even if I had heard it) appeals to no familiar association in my mind. Still the kindred spirits are parted. Still there is no idea on her side, and no idea on mine, that we shall ever meet again.
CHAPTER VII. THE WOMAN ON THE BRIDGE.
MY mother looked in at the library door, and disturbed me over my books.
"I have been hanging a little picture in my room," she said. "Come upstairs, my dear, and give me your opinion of it."
I rose and followed her. She pointed to a miniature portrait, hanging above the mantelpiece.
"Do you know whose likeness that is?" she asked, half sadly, half playfully. "George! Do you really not recognize yourself at thirteen years old?"
How should I recognize myself? Worn by sickness and sorrow; browned by the sun on my long homeward voyage; my hair already growing thin over my forehead; my eyes already habituated to their one sad and weary look; what had I in common with the fair, plump, curly-headed, bright-eyed boy who confronted me in the miniature? The mere sight of the portrait produced the most extraordinary effect on my mind. It struck me with an overwhelming melancholy; it filled me with a despair of myself too dreadful to be endured. Making the best excuse I could to my mother, I left the room. In another minute I was out of the house.
I crossed the park, and left my own possessions behind me. Following a by-road, I came to our well-known river; so beautiful in itself, so famous among trout-fishers throughout Scotland. It was not then the fishing season. No human being was in sight as I took my seat on the bank. The old stone bridge which spanned the stream was within a hundred yards of me; the setting sun still tinged the swift-flowing water under the arches with its red and dying light.
Still the boy's face in the miniature pursued me. Still the portrait seemed to reproach me in a merciless language of its own: "Look at what you were once; think of what you are now!"
I hid my face in the soft, fragrant grass. I thought of the wasted years of my life between thirteen and twenty-three.
How was it to end? If I lived to the ordinary life of man, what prospect had I before me?
Love? Marriage? I burst out laughing as the idea crossed my mind. Since the innocently happy days of my boyhood I had known no more of love than the insect that now crept over my hand as it lay on the grass. My money, to be sure, would buy me a wife; but would my money make her dear to me? dear as Mary had once been, in the golden time when my portrait was first painted?
Mary! Was she still living? Was she married? Should I know her again if I saw her? Absurd! I had not seen her since she was ten years old: she was now a woman, as I was a man. Would she know me if we met? The portrait, still pursuing me, answered the question: "Look at what you were once; think of what you are now!"
I rose and walked backward and forward, and tried to turn the current of my thoughts in some new direction.
It was not to be done. After a banishment of years, Mary had got back again into my mind. I sat down once more on the river bank. The sun was sinking fast. Black shadows hovered under the arches of the old stone bridge. The red light had faded from the swift-flowing water, and had left it overspread with one monotonous hue of steely gray. The first stars looked down peacefully from the cloudless sky. The first shiverings of the night breeze were audible among the trees, and visible here and there in the shallow places of the stream. And still, the darker it grew, the more persistently my portrait led me back to the past, the more vividly the long-lost image of the child Mary showed itself to me in my thoughts.
Was this the prelude of her coming back to me in dreams; in her perfected womanhood, in the young prime of her life?
It might be so.
I was no longer unworthy of her, as I had once been. The effect produced on me by the sight of my portrait was in itself due to moral and mental changes in me for the better, which had been steadily proceeding since the time when my wound had laid me helpless among strangers in a strange land. Sickness, which has made itself teacher and friend to many a man, had made itself teacher and friend to me. I looked back with horror at the vices of my youth; at the fruitless after-days when I had impiously doubted all that is most noble, all that is most consoling in human life. Consecrated by sorrow, purified by repentance, was it vain in me to hope that her spirit a nd my spirit might yet be united again? Who could tell?
I rose once more. It could serve no good purpose to linger until night by the banks of the river. I had left the house, feeling the impulse which drives us, in certain excited conditions of the mind, to take refuge in movement and change. The remedy had failed; my mind was as strangely disturbed as ever. My wisest course would be to go home, and keep my good mother company over her favorite game of piquet.
I turned to take the road back, and stopped, struck by the tranquil beauty of the last faint light in the western sky, shining behind the black line formed by the parapet of the bridge.
In the grand gathering of the night shadows, in the deep stillness of the dying day, I stood alone and watched the sinking light.
As I looked, there came a change over the scene. Suddenly and softly a living figure glided into view on the bridge. It passed behind the black line of the parapet, in the last long rays of the western light. It crossed the bridge. It paused, and crossed back again half-way. Then it stopped. The minutes passed, and there the figure stood, a motionless black object, behind the black parapet of the bridge.
I advanced a little, moving near enough to obtain a closer view of the dress in which the figure was attired. The dress showed me that the solitary stranger was a woman.
She did not notice me in the shadow which the trees cast on the bank. She stood with her arms folded in her cloak, looking down at the darkening river.
Why was she waiting there at the close of evening alone?
As the question occurred to me, I saw her head move. She looked along the bridge, first on one side of her, then on the other. Was she waiting for some person who was to meet her? Or was she suspicious of observation, and anxious to make sure that she was alone?
A sudden doubt of her purpose in seeking that solitary place, a sudden distrust of the lonely bridge and the swift-flowing river, set my heart beating quickly and roused me to instant action. I hurried up the rising ground which led from the river-bank to the bridge, determined on speaking to her while the opportunity was still mine.
She neither saw nor heard me until I was close to her. I approached with an irrepressible feeling of agitation; not knowing how she might receive me when I spoke to her. The moment she turned and faced me, my composure came back. It was as if, expecting to see a stranger, I had unexpectedly encountered a friend.
And yet she was a stranger. I had never before looked on that grave and noble face, on that grand figure whose exquisite grace and symmetry even her long cloak could not wholly hide. She was not, perhaps, a strictly beautiful woman. There were defects in her which were sufficiently marked to show themselves in the fading light. Her hair, for example, seen under the large garden hat that she wore, looked almost as short as the hair of a man; and the color of it was of that dull, lusterless brown hue which is so commonly seen in English women of the ordinary type. Still, in spite of these drawbacks, there was a latent charm in her expression, there was an inbred fascination in her manner, which instantly found its way to my sympathies and its hold on my admiration. She won me in the moment when I first looked at her.
"May I inquire if you have lost your way?" I asked.
Her eyes rested on my face with a strange look of inquiry in them. She did not appear to be surprised or confused at my venturing to address her.
"I know this part of the country well," I went on. "Can I be of any use to you?"
She still looked at me with steady, inquiring eyes. For a moment, stranger as I was, my face seemed to trouble her as if it had been a face that she had seen and forgotten again. If she really had this idea, she at once dismissed it with a little toss of her head, and looked away at the river as if she felt no further interest in me.
"Thank you. I have not lost my way. I am accustomed to walking alone. Good-evening."
She spoke coldly, but courteously. Her voice was delicious; her bow, as she left me, was the perfection of unaffected grace. She left the bridge on the side by which I had first seen her approach it, and walked slowly away along the darkening track of the highroad.
Still I was not quite satisfied. There was something underlying the charming expression and the fascinating manner which my instinct felt to be something wrong. As I walked away toward the opposite end of the bridge, the doubt began to grow on me whether she had spoken the truth. In leaving the neighborhood of the river, was she simply trying to get rid of me?
I at once resolved to put this suspicion of her to the test. Leaving the bridge, I had only to cross the road beyond, and to enter a plantation on the bank of the river. Here, concealed behind the first tree which was large enough to hide me, I could command a view of the bridge, and I could fairly count on detecting her, if she returned to the river, while there was a ray of light to see her by. It was not easy walking in the obscurity of the plantation: I had almost to grope my way to the nearest tree that suited my purpose.